Better Than Best Maximum

Good Better Perfect

It’s strange what the brain gets up to sometimes.

I was reading about the well-known Vx, Vy speeds (Vx = best angle of climb; Vy = best rate of climb) in a British textbook, only they didn’t call it best rate of climb or best angle of climb. The writer used the adjective maximum, as in maximum angle of climb and … well, you get the idea.

For some reason, this switch made things snap into focus a bit better. Practically, it doesn’t make that much difference of course, but when I think of a best rate of climb and compare that with maximum rate of climb, the latter phrase makes more of an impact. Maximum, it seems to me, is “fuller” somehow than best. Bear with me here: while there may be a better than best rate, there’s nothing better than maximum.

Yes I know, silly semantics. But think about it for a second and let me know what you think; sometimes when trying to grasp a difficult topic, a word change here or there can make all the difference between instant comprehension and drudgery.



By now, you surely must have heard the wry admonition that,

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t they aren’t after you.

Researching, I found out that it’s a quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 which I haven’t read, shame on me. It resounds because it rings of a certain ironic truth, does it not?

Every so often, I am rocked by the realization of just how dangerous general aviation can be and none more so than when I read NTSB reports of how some or other highly-experienced pilot augered in their perfectly good light aircraft. For God’s sake! I’m still a student pilot, what chance do I have?!

Enter paranoia. It seems to be the one thing that separates those who still live from those who still do not. The dead, it seems, may not have been suspicious enough, of their own skills, of their plane, of ATC, of the weather.

Ron Rapp writes about a terrible accident in Florida where the pilot’s inability to say “unable” and lack of what Rapp calls a skosh of paranoia cost him—and his passengers—their very lives. Costly.


My wife says she doesn’t like small (ie. general aviation, GA) aircraft. “They aren’t safe,” she says. That got me thinking, is it really true that GA aircraft aren’t safe, or is it more the case that GA pilots are the problem.

The NTSB and the FAA both think the weakest part in most any aviation accident is the pilot and the statistics seem to support this stance. The wetware—as opposed to the hardware, the aircraft itself—it seems, is the weakest link. And in General Aviation, the wet in wetware is colored blood red. GA suffers more than its share of fatal accidents it’s true and chances are better than good that if you hear about an aviation accident it’ll be a GA aircraft. The oft-quoted meme about it being more dangerous driving to the airport is most assuredly not true about GA. Continue reading “Boneheads”

Getting Your Own Figures


From Lewis Bjork:

A self-assessment test. Before every flight, evaluate yourself your readiness to fly by grading yourself against each of the following statements. Award yourself a 10 if you’re in complete harmony with the statement, 0 if you’re completely opposed.

  1. My skills are entirely adequate to complete the flight as planned.
  2. My ability to cope with emergencies during the flight is finely honed.
  3. I have recently practiced and safely demonstrated the skills needed for the flight and any foreseeable emergency.
  4. I am familiar with and respectful of the airplane’s limitations.
  5. I have eliminated my ego while in the cockpit.
  6. I am aware and respectful of my own limitations.
  7. There are no problems on  my mind except those with direct bearing on flying the plane.
  8. The safety of the flight takes priority over having to get there.
  9. I understand the consequences of a serious mistake.
  10. I am healthy and in perfect control of my emotions.

A total score of 100 could indicate that you are 100-percent ready to fly.

At what percentage would you not fly?

Words Carrying Ideas

I’m not happy to hear that the FAA will be phasing (no pun intended!) out VORs. I’m no Luddite, but VORs have been a most reliable navigation aid for quite a long time. I believe, just as with NDBs, they provide a solid backup that shouldn’t be so easily relegated to the trash heap. GPS is great, really great. I just think throwing our lots in with what’s admittedly an outstanding piece of technology to the exclusion of all the other navigational systems is shortsighted.

I think it comes down to pilots’ aversion to math. Yes, math. The modern aviator doesn’t like angles and “figurin’” preferring the cozy comfort of a magenta line stretching out into the electric distance whispering “follow me.” And so we forget how we got here and how “here” can be passing and perishable. If you think that isn’t true, ask those who have gotten lost because the power to the electrics on the aircraft died or because the batteries ran out. What saddens me is reading stories of pilots declaring emergencies because their GPS receivers had decided to take a well-earned digital holiday.

And so we abandon the tried and true simply because “math is hard.” When figuring out where you are in relation to a beacon becomes too difficult, what hope? However, in the middle of my admittedly hyperbolic, “get off my lawn, you young rascals” rant, I have to recognize something which has bothered me for a long time.

The problem, and it is a very common one, is that the authors of the explanatory texts are unclear. Using sixty words when four will do; tortured sentences; convoluted, flamboyant, overdecorated verbiage (yes, I know …); atrocious grammar. The list of grievances is endless and it makes it so that your average student trying to understand the ideas ends up confused by the words. He cannot see the idea forest for the literary words, if you will bear with the shaky metaphor.

It wasn’t until I branched out and started reading some older navigational material from WWII (check out Google’s library of digitized books) and also some British authors that I started to understand this idea. The older boys used direct sentences that explained in a way sure to provide information while getting out of the idea’s way.

I’ll give an example of this using the explanation of the VOR. I’ll start with the FAA’s description of what a VOR is and how it works, from the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK):


Very High Frequency (VHF) Omnidirectional  Range (VOR)

The VOR system is present in three slightly different navigation aids (NAVAIDs): VOR, VOR/DME, and VORTAC. By itself it is known as a VOR, and it provides magnetic bearing information to and from the station. When DME is also installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is referred  to as a VOR/DME. When military tactical air navigation (TACAN) equipment is installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is known as a VORTAC. DME is always an integral part of a VORTAC. Regardless of the type of NAVAID utilized (VOR,
VOR/DME or VORTAC), the VOR indicator behaves the same. Unless otherwise noted, in this section, VOR, VOR/DME and VORTAC NAVAIDs are all referred to hereafter
as VORs.

The prefix “omni-” means all, and an omnidirectional range is a VHF radio transmitting ground station that projects straight line courses (radials) from the station in all directions. From a top view, it can be visualized as being similar to the spokes from the hub of a wheel. The distance VOR radials are projected depends upon the power output of the transmitter.

The course or radials projected from the station are referenced to magnetic north. Therefore, a radial is defined as a line of magnetic bearing extending outward from the VOR station.  Radials are identified by numbers beginning with 001, which is 1° east of magnetic north, and progress in sequence through all the degrees of a circle until reaching 360. To aid in orientation, a compass rose reference to magnetic north is
superimposed on aeronautical charts at the station location.

H’m. This doesn’t really tell me much about how the VOR works per se and I don’t know how much of that information will be of help to a new student who’s never heard of a VOR before!

The information you get from the FAA’s Flight Navigation Handbook and the Instrument Flying Handbook have close to the same information, a radio transmitting courses from the station in all directions, like the spokes from the hub of a wheel.

But what are its principles of operations without resorting to simplistic explanations like hubs from a wheel? Here’s how brits Bramson and Birch describe it in their 1984 book, Radio Navigation for Pilots:


To facilitate en-route navigation along selected radials and to provide references for holding and let-down procedures.


VOR is a relatively short range radio navigational aid operating between 108 and 118MHz in the VHF band. It is a pilot interpreted aid comprising an airborne Navigation Receiver capable of being tuned to 100 or more frequencies and a Converter/Indicator which accepts signals from the navigation receiver translating them into simple indications on an instrument face. The airborne equipment is used in conjunction with a system of VOR beacons, most of them situated within the airways network.

To understand the principles of VOR it is necessary to have a superficial knowledge of the radio wave itself.

In the section on electro-magnetic energy the basic wave cycle was described (page 50). In essence the state of the electric current within a cycle (i.e. positive or negative strength) is constantly varying with time. Indeed at any particular time the development of the wave may be identified e.g. half maximum positive rising: maximum negative: zero raising to positive etc. As already explained such a state of development is known as a Phase.

Imagine a radio beacon designed to radiate two beams, one running north and the other running south. And suppose each beam consists of two waves, the north beam emitting its phases in unison and the south beam with its waves at opposite phases (Fig. 41). An electronic device capable of measuring the difference in phase between two radio waves would, in this case be able to tell the operator when he was within the north beam or south beam. In other words the equipment is able to compare the differences between the phases of two simultaneously transmitted waves and since it uses this principle VOR is known as a Phase Comparison aid.


Fig. 41.


Using the principle of phase comparison the VOR radiates a Reference Signal in all directions, its phase remaining constant throughout the reception area. A second signal, transmitted as a narrow beam, is arranged to sweep like a lighthouse through 360°. As it sweeps, the phase of the beacon is constantly altering so that its phase comparison with the fixed reference signal will change according to its position relative to the beacon (Fig. 42). In effect a VOR beacon emits an infinite number of beams or Radials through 360°, each possessed of unique differences in phase between the two signals. It therefore follows that with the air of equipment designed to measure or compare the two phases and translate these into headings from the beacons (radials), a pilot would be able to locate his aircraft in relation to the known position of that beacon. The VOR Beacon is adjusted to transmit radials related to Magnetic North.


Fig. 42.

Please tell me which one of the two explanations of the VOR’s principles of operation you found easier to understand?

Now I don’t know if this is a good example in particular of what I’m talking about in general, but if you’re not convinced I’ve got more examples*¹.

*¹ Even though for example is not proof.