Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's that time of year again

I am not talking about the Christmas season, although we all had a lot of fun choosing presents for Twelve Days of Christmas: An Aviation Gift Guide, but about the start of the cyclone season over the tropical part of Australia. The cyclone season Down Under usually runs from December to April.

To kick off the season we have TC Laurence, currently in the Broome area in the north-western corner of Australia, about 15 degrees latitude south. Broome, which is as far from Sydney as Vancouver is from the Gulf of Mexico or Paris is from Greenland, is the region in Australia most prone to cyclones.

Although tropical cyclones very rarely move as far south as Sydney, the influence of tropical cyclones in the north-east can be felt in the south in the form of heavy rain falls. There's a great map here with the track of all cyclones around Australia for the last hundred years or so.

The aviation weather forecast for the Broome area (Area 69) spells out what tropical cyclone means in graphic details:

3000 5000 7000 10000 14000 18500
VRB/20 VRB/20 VRB/20 VRB/20 PS10 VRB/20 PS04 VRB/20 MS03

You will notice of course that winds blow clockwise around a low in the Southern Hemisphere, in opposition to how things are done north of the Equator. Blame my illustrious fellow Frenchman for that.

Interestingly, this is why this weather phenomenon is called a cyclone: a cyclonic air flow is an air flow that rotates in the same direction as the Earth. As the Earth rotates from East to West, the rotation is clockwise when seen from a point above the South Pole, and anti-clockwise when seen from a point above the North Pole. To add to the confusion, cyclones are known as hurricanes in the US and typhoons in Asia.

Depending which of the club aircraft I would choose to fly close enough to the center of TC Laurence, with a headwind of 110kt, I could either hover in the Archer (cruise speed 115kt), or even fly backwards in the Warrior (cruise speed 95kt). Not for long obviously, but a sure way to add my name to the shortlist for the Darwin Awards.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the eleventh day of Christmas...

Pick your top ten favourite aircraft of all times. Now, tell me, how many of these are tailwheel aircraft? Hmmm? My point. For Christmas, I would like a tailwheel endorsement. Because it's fun. Because it's different. Because it opens the door to a whole new world of flying adventures.

This post is the eleventh in The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Aviation Gift Guide, a series of posts on Christmas wishes by a number of aviation bloggers. Make sure you check out all the other posts for a range of very diverse aviation wishes, dreams, and talented bloggers!

From what I've heard and read, flying a taildragger is not in itself harder than flying a tricycle-gear aircraft, it is just different. In cruise the aircraft behaves the same as a tricycle-gear aircraft, it is the taxi, take-off and landing phases of flight that are more challenging. There is reduced forward visibility while taxiing to contend with, increased P-torque effects on take-off and higher sensitivity to crosswind in the landing phase. Tailwheel aircraft do not tolerate sloppy landings the same way other aircraft do, which is a good thing training-wise.

I always enjoy watching the flying videos that French private pilot Jean-Claude Garnavaud regularly puts up on his blog Carnet de Vol. Jean-Claude flies a Piper J-3 with the AĆ©ro-Club Hispano-Suiza at Cergy-Pontoise aerodrome near Paris. The Cub is so much fun to fly he says that he does not see the point of cross-country flying, circuits and local flights are all he needs!

I had a look at taildragger schools at Camden airport near Sydney. Most of them instruct in the Citabria. The time they quoted for a tailwheel endorsement ranges from five to ten hours and the price per hour is comparable to that of hiring an Archer. The whole endorsement won't cost me much more than a Bose-X headset, and I already have a headset.

The fact that many taildraggers are also certified for aerobatics adds to the attraction. I wouldn't mind trying my hand at a few wingovers, spins, loops or rolls during the endorsement training.

The range of new airplanes available for hire by a private pilot with a tailwheel endorsement reads like an airshow line-up: Tiger Moth, Chipmunk, T-6 Texan, Cessna 180, Pitts Special and even a Beechcraft Staggerwing. And that's only for the two flying schools I visited at Camden airport.

A whole new world of flying indeed. So make yourself happy, or make your favourite pilot happy, and put a tailwheel endorsement on your aviation wish list for 2010!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On the fifth day of Christmas...

A few fellow aviation bloggers and I have decided to hang our Christmas stockings to the same virtual fireplace and take turns at blogging about what we wish for Christmas. This ranges so far from a Cirrus SR-22 to Monika Petrillo's FlyAbout DVD, aviation coasters and one very impressive pilot watch.

For Christmas, I would like a Portable Collision Avoidance System, such as Zaon's PCAS MRX. This system is just as portable as a hand-held GPS unit and provides alerts on nearby traffic as long as other traffic is transponder-equipped and there is an interrogating system nearby, such as a secondary radar or an airliner overhead.

Priced at USD 449 on, this is a very good investment for anyone who has come too close for comfort with another aircraft and wish he had identified the threat before it turned into a real danger. I'm thinking for example of entry points to busy GA airports such as the only two compulsory entry points for Sydney's Bankstown airport. Max Trescott also identified a number of similar local hotspots such as navaids and prominent geographic features.

Blogger pilotbrad ordered the Zaon MRX, unpacked it, started using it and already reported one instance of the system picking up an aircraft Brad and his instructor would have missed otherwise.

A portable system is ideal for pilots who do not always fly the same aircraft such as private pilots who hire aircraft from flying clubs and flight instructors who may instruct in a dozen different aircraft in the course of one week. A large flying school in the US just decided to buy the Zaon product for all their flight instructors rather than equip the airplanes.

For the price of two or three hours of aircraft hire, a PCAS system may well represent the best investment for improving in-flight safety. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Santa always takes his PCAS with him whichever sledge he's flying, even though NORAD is tracking him.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A380: The Quiet Whale of the Skies

I flew in an Airbus A380 for the first time last week on a Singapore Airlines flight from Sydney to Singapore before continuing on to Frankfurt in a Boeing 747-400 and finally arriving in Stockholm in a 737-500. On the way back the aviation history timeline was retraced in chronologial order with an MD-80, a 777-300ER and again the A380. A comparison of the three long-haul airliners from the point of view of an economy class passenger is therefore in order.

The A380 has become a familiar sight in the Sydney sky since Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the A380, started flying the aircraft on the Singapore-Sydney route in October 2007. Qantas and Emirates also operate the A380 out of Sydney.

Because it is a lot stubbier than the 747, the A380 does not look big when seen in flight. But it does look big at the gate. Think about it this way: the diameter of the fuselage of a 737 is 4 meters. The diameter of the fan of one of the Trent-900 engines on the A380 is 3 meters. This is not the largest jet engine in use though: the 777 I flew in on the way back holds the record for the largest turbofan with the GE90-115B: 3.25 meters. And it only needs two of them.

Three airbridges are used for loading the A380: one for each deck, and an additional one for the exclusive suites on the main (i.e. bottom) deck. Even though the airplane was full, boarding and un-boarding was surprisingly quick.

The cabin is bright and spacious. The nicely curved windows looks great. Windows in doors have a built-in lens so that the crew can see in the dead angle against the fuselage. Smart. Everything looks new of course, I couldn't see a single streak of oil or grease on the wing flaps from my seat.

Watching the ailerons operate at low speed is amazing: the computer moves each of the three ailerons independently for minimising load on the wing, a function known as Load Alleviation Function apparently. Plenty more technical details on

The A380 is a very quiet airplane. In cruise it is definitely quieter than the 777, and a lot quieter than the 747-400. Put on your noise-cancelling earphones and you won't hear a thing. But the most surprising thing is how quiet it is on take-off: none of the usual shaking and rattling, just an increased hum and we're airborne. The level of vibration in cruise is very low. One cannot quite forget being inside an airliner, but little by little we're getting close.

The interior and in-flight entertainment system are the same as on the refurbished 777. Actually, the new interior was initially designed for the A380, but ended up in 777s when the A380 was delayed. The seat pitch is far from generous though, and as my next-seat neighbour remarked the seats could do with an extra inch of padding.

All in all the A380 wins hands-down against the 747-400 for comfort on long-haul flights. And if Boeing manages to make the 747-800 even quieter than the A380 when it enters commercial service with Lufthansa in 2011, I may even reconsider my decision to never fly Lufthansa again on long-haul flights again.