Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm thankful for many things this year - my ability to fly, my family, great times with friends, my engagement to Gina and us having finally set a wedding date. Even when times get tough there are bright spots in our lives and around the world. I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your families and friends.

To all my readers - I'm thankful for each and every one of you taking a few minutes out of your day whenever you read the blog and for the friendships I have made with many of you. I sincerely hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pilot Toys: Serengeti Velocity Aviator Sunglasses

Everyone knows that you're not a cool pilot without awesome pilot sunglasses, right? Ok so that might be a bit of a stretch but it is important to have a good pair when flying high in the sky. My eyes have always been sensitive to sunlight and I consider a good pair of sunglasses absolutely essential both on the road and in the air.

I have a knack for losing two things - sunglasses and winter gloves. Seriously, I've been through more black leather gloves in my life than the suspects in the OJ Simpson murder investigation. Accordingly, I was quite apprehensive about buying an expensive pair of sunglasses even though I knew it was a very worthwhile investment as a pilot. Logic won out and I bought myself a pair of Serengeti Velocity Titanium aviator sunglasses with Drivers Gradient lenses for about $100 in August 2009.

Compared to the sunglasses most folks are used to, which come with polycarbonate lenses, these sit a bit heavier as the lenses are all-glass. It's not a problem for me personally but it is something worth noting; I'd recommend you try them on for at least 10-15 minutes before deciding if they are for you. I think the glass lenses provide more clarity than any other pair of sunglasses I've ever owned.

The Drivers Gradient lenses provide an astoundingly clear picture. They are a brown/amber tint that gets darker as you move from bottom to top. This is great both in the car and in an airplane because it allows you to see the dashboard or instrument panel on cloudy days or other times when it's not as bright out. I think the lenses cut through haze incredibly well and I'll often leave mine on until the sun has gone below the horizon. This is a great example of when the gradient tint allows me to see everything on the instrument panel while still providing that haze-cutting view outside.

The one knock I have against them is durability. I have been extremely careful with my pair (note my initial comment about losing sunglasses - this is quite an achievement!) and the left lens still managed to pop out last week. I went to push it back into place and realized one of the screws holding the frame together had fallen out. Whether it simply came loose or the threads became stripped I do not know. I contacted Serengeti (through their parent company, Bushnell) to ask for a replacement screw and the told me I would have to mail in my sunglasses. That seems a bit silly and expensive to me - just sending me a tiny screw (I'd happily pay postage!) has to be easier. Thankfully, the guy working at our local Sunglass Hut this evening understood great customer service and repaired my aviators for free!

I am quite pleased with these sunglasses after over a year of ownership. Without question, they increase my ability to spot landmarks on the ground and other airplanes in the sky. I love the color of the lenses and their ability to cut through haze and improve visibility. The durability issue is the reason I'm not going to give these a perfect rating but I still recommend them - just be sure to handle and store yours carefully!

Rating: 4/5 Cubs

If you decide to purchase these sunglasses based upon my review, I would appreciate if you do so by clicking on an Amazon link in this post. It really helps support the blog. Thanks! -Steve

Saturday, November 13, 2010

VFR Communications from Sporty's

Last week I received a free review copy of Sporty's newest instructional DVD in their "What You Should Know™ Series, VFR Communications. The DVD was completely updated in September 2010. It is available from Sporty's and costs $34.95. The program is also available as a video download, also priced at $34.95.

I'm glad to have the opportunity to review this DVD, as I purchased the previous version of their VFR Communications program last year. That older version was not something I would have highly recommended. Content was somewhat limited in my opinion; it consisted mainly of short in-flight video segments of a pilot in various airspace classes without very detailed explanations. Consequently, I loaded the new DVD into my player with tempered expectations but hoping for a much-improved product.

Menu navigation is well thought-out. The main menu presents eight sections - Introduction, Non-Tower Field, En Route, Non-Standard Communications, Class D, Class C, Class B, and Communication Failures. When you click on a section, a sub-menu opens up with a short description of what content is inside and a button to play the video. As with most Sporty's instructional videos, narration is done by popular airshow announcer and pilot Rob Reider.

The video begins with an introductory chapter that does a great job of covering the basics needed for content in later chapters. Both the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and Pilot/Controller Glossary are referenced as important places to find proper phraseology. The phonetic alphabet is explained and that leads into numerous examples of pronunciation - altitudes, call signs, magnetic headings, speeds, etc. I think this is critical information that reduces confusion for someone new to the language of aviation and am glad Sporty's chose to dedicate the introduction to it.

Screenshot from Chapter 1 - Introduction / General Information

Following the introduction, the video moves right into non-towered fields. I particularly liked how they have a recorded AWOS broadcast and supplemented the audio with a text transcription on screen. It seems like it would be very useful for a new student to hear both the sound and pace of an automated weather station before climbing into an airplane. The video also makes use of many helpful graphics and visualizations of the aircraft's location during various radio calls - especially in the pattern.

Communications with Flight Service (regarding VFR flight plans) and Flight Watch (regarding in-flight weather) are each given a couple minutes of good explanation in the En Route portion of the program. The simulated radar animations of an airplane's track superimposed on a VFR Sectional chart do a very nice job illustrating the usefulness of VFR Advisories, also known as Flight Following. I also thought the short segment pointing out locations where a pilot can find the proper radio frequency to call ATC for Flight Following was very well done.

The sections on airspace (Class B, C, and D) are all structured similarly. The airspace itself is first given a brief explanation and then a flight into and out of the airspace is simulated along with all requisite communication. All the radio calls appear to be simulated and the rate of speech is noticeably slowed compared to what you'll usually hear when talking with ATC. This is good for student pilots trying to learn proper communication but I do feel that it lends a slightly unrealistic tone the video.

Graphics overlaid on top of VFR Sectional charts are again used heavily and to good effect. However, I do take issue with the lack of in-flight video. The previous version of VFR Communications was chock full of in-flight video at the expense of graphics and explanations. This version tilts heavily the other direction - too far in my opinion. I think Sporty's needs to strike a better balance between in-flight video with actual radio calls and animations and graphics used to illustrate the process.

Screenshot from Chapter 7 - Class B Airspace

Even though the video covers proper radio phraseology, I really appreciate the fact they it also spend a few minutes covering non-standard communications. Lord knows every pilot has heard all sorts of gibberish over the radio before; I think it's important to expose new pilots to both the good and the bad! Similarly, a bit of explanation of Instrument procedures helps clarify what the folks out practicing approaches are talking about. While on this topic I should mention that I found it somewhat peculiar that every example in which ATC calls out traffic and the airplane does not have it in sight has the pilot saying "looking for the traffic" whereas the proper response is "negative contact" according to the Pilot/Controller Glossary.

On a small personal note I have to mention that it's kind of nice to have Sporty's in your backyard. My home drome is only about 25 miles from Clermont County Airport in Batavia where Sporty's is located. So it's neat and useful to see all the example radio calls in the video to Dayton and Cincinnati Approach plus flights to LUK and DAY - all facilities I talk to frequently! I also have to commend Sporty's for admonishing the often-heard but thoroughly unprofessional and annoying "any traffic in the area, please advise" radio call in this video.

An additional benefit of this video is the fact it qualifies for credit in the FAA Safety Team's WINGS program. For those of you who are unfamiliar, it is a safety program that encourages pilots to attain additional training beyond the basic requirements spelled out in the FARs. All you have to do is go to the Activities search section on the WINGS page and search for 'VFR Communications' and you'll see the link for the Sporty's video. Click the button to Enroll in Course and you can then take a short exam to receive WINGS knowledge credit. You may also qualify for a discount from your aviation insurance provider by watching this video.

Overall, I was satisfied with this video and have to say that Sporty's had definitely improved over the prior version. They have posted a short video clip from VFR Communications online that you may view by clicking here. I think the program does a good job explaining the variety of radio communications a VFR pilot will experience and is easy enough for a new student to understand. As mentioned above, I do take issue with the total lack of in-flight video in some segments. While the animations and illustrations are excellent, I believe actual footage of operations at Class B, C, and D airports with real radio communications would be even more beneficial. with this release. In the end, I recommend VFR Communications and consider it a fair value at the list price of $34.95 when you factor in the WINGS credit and possible insurance savings.

Rating: 4/5 Cubs

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Streamers and a J-3

Plane: Cub, 85 hp
Route: 40I, Local
Weather: Clear, 65 degrees, wind 200 degrees at 3 knots

The weather this week has been decidedly un-fall-like with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 60s. Perfect flying weather except for the fact that the end of Daylight Savings Time means it's dark when I leave work. Fortunately I was able to use one of my banked "you've worked a ton of extra hours this week, so take off early and go flying some day" days and I headed out about 3:30.

Gina met me at Stewart and I made sure the Cub was fit to fly. After our experience doing so last week, the two of us were hooked on a new way to have far too much fun in a J-3... streamer cutting! I departed the pattern and climbed to about 4,500 feet over the lake and dropped out a roll of toilet paper. Carb heat on and the throttle back, we descended with some moderately banked turns and managed to hit the descending streamer two times before hitting my hard stop of 2,500 feet - which is 1,500 feet AGL. I climbed back up again and tossed out a second roll and this time managed to hit it once on the way down.

Here's the cockpit view from this evening's fun

Words don't do the activity justice but trust me when I say it's far too much fun. Gina had a blast as evidenced by the giant grin on her face most of the time. Please note my earlier comments about the legality of such activities if you're concerned, by the way.

The sun was setting and it was surprisingly hazy out below about 4,000 feet so I flew a slightly zig-zag course back towards Stewart so I could spot traffic better. We crossed midfield from the North side and entered a left downwind for Runway 26. It's always a treat to land that direction with the setting sun scorching your retinas but I brought us down for a very good, smooth three-point landing.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 0.6 hours
Total Time: 180.9 hours

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pilot Toys: BrightLine Bag, two years later

In what I have to consider a testament to the BrightLine Bag's quality, my two year update is going to be quite short. My bag is still going strong and regularly carries my ever-increasing gear collection. I've used it on long trips and short trips - from a quick jaunt to Lunken for dinner to an overnight trip with a stop in Put-In-Bay to our giant, eight day circumnavigation of Lake Michigan this past summer.

The bag still carries everything I listed in the original review along with some new gear:
Needless to say, this bag holds a ridiculous amount of stuff yet still manages to keep it organized and easily accessible. The zippers and fabric have held up very well against what I would consider average use. I definitely toss the bag in my car and in the luggage area of the 150 and 172 without any concern about damaging either the bag or its contents.

The only issue I have had with my bag is that the business card holder disintegrated. I actually spoke with Ross Bishop, the owner and creator of the BrightLine Bag, at the AOPA Summit in Tampa, Florida in 2009 about this very issue. He told me that they had a manufacturing problem with some of the earlier bags; the plastic used to secure the business card holder to the fabric was too brittle. Indeed, the black plastic around the protective clear cover on my bag slowly flaked off beginning about six to nine months after purchase. Today there is no black plastic remaining (only some thread that used to secure the plastic remains) and the business card holder has completely fallen off.

Note the missing business card holder in the middle of the bag

Even with the aforementioned problem, I can't knock the bag's quality. Ross actually offered to send me a new holder without the brittle plastic that I could sew on to the bag; I just never took him up on the offer. More importantly, the bag has held up perfectly in every area that counts - the zippers and fabric look as good as new and it has kept all my stuff safe and secure for nearly two years now. I can't recommend the BrightLine Bag enough for any pilot that's looking for a well-organized bag to carry their flight gear.

If you're interested in purchasing a bag of your own, click here!

Updated Rating: 5/5 Cubs

When I received my BrightLine Bag for Christmas in 2008, I was a newly minted Private Pilot. Nearly all my cross-country flying had been during my training and I didn't have much to carry with me most of the time. I have since acquired more gadgets (in other words, I'm your average pilot) and tend to keep a few more things with me whenever I go flying.

What I never expected was for my original review of my BrightLine Bag to become so popular. If you search for 'BrightLine Bag' on Google, that blog post is in the Top 5 results listed. In fact, since that post went live nearly two years ago, I have written 108 posts on here but over 6% of the blog's entire traffic count comes directly from my review.

So it should come as no major surprise that I was contacted by the guys at BrightLine Bags a few months ago. It's pretty easy to track statistics on the web (as I just did in the previous paragraph) and they've noticed that a significant amount of traffic comes from my blog. I'll cut right to the chase - I am now an affiliate with them and will receive a small commission if you purchase a bag through a link on this site.

It is clear that my review has had - and is still having - an influence on people who are considering purchasing a BrightLine Bag. I'm glad to help out fellow pilots and am actively working on increasing the number of reviews on this blog. While I do try to keep advertisements on here to a minimum, I realize there is a great opportunity here to work with BrightLine. Neither the original review nor this updated version have been in any way influenced by my affiliation. All the thoughts and opinions on this blog are strictly mine.

All I'm asking of you is this - if you decide to purchase a BrightLine Bag based upon my reviews, I would greatly appreciate it if you do so through one of the links in the posts or on the navigation bar on the right-hand side of the blog. Thanks!