Category Archives: Aviation

How I Passed a Long Overdue Instrument Proficiency Check

Two pilots in 1940s cockpit

1940s pilots navigated by listening to A-N Beacon signals

When I first got my instrument rating I reveled, awash in a sea of modern technology. Waving needles, flashing lights, and pulsing sounds enabled me to fly anywhere, anytime. Once I spoke the language and mastered the steps, it became a precision junkie’s dream. Maintaining proficiency was a joy.

In contrast, my father’s stories of 1940s flying in the clouds held almost horrid fascination. Clunky, hard to read instruments scattered haphazardly around the panel dared the pilot to keep wings level and nose on the horizon. To navigate he clamped hard plastic headphones to his ears. Then straining to discern man-made signals amidst nature’s static crashes, he steered the airplane along an A-N Beam until he found a course that merged scratchy dot-dash “As” with dash-dot “Ns” with into a constant tone. Once attained, he held that course—for hours.

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How Absolutes Beat Bad Air

Cessna 172 instrument panel enables holding absolute headings and altitudes

Heading north, morning sun streaming in from the right, smooth air at 8,500 feet—what’s not to like?

Last Friday I flew to Sandpoint, Idaho in the panhandle north of Coeur d’Alene. MAF asked me to retrieve two pilots who ferried a Kodiak 100 to the Quest factory for adding a new option. My craft, a more modest Cessna 172, performed well in the smooth, cool morning air. Fitted with a 180 horsepower engine mod, it lifted me and full fuel tanks quickly to 8,500 feet. I had an easy schedule, so I anticipated a great day wandering north.

Fifty minutes out of Nampa, I crossed the Hell’s Canyon west of Monument Peak and He-Devil Mountain. Billed as North America’s deepest, its gorge plummets 7,993 feet down to the Snake river. Most of the area remains inaccessible by road, but I got a prime seat.

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How Oshkosh Showed Me a Climb Attitude

Christen Eagle biplane taking off

After 17 years flying the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains, I came to my first AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Before first day opening, I flashed my Exhibitor badge at the dutiful guards and walked through the AirVenture gate. Thirty years of professional aviation experience provided no preparation for what I beheld. Without turning my head I saw three times more aircraft than occupied the entire civil registry of the country where I served.

As a pilot and air ops manager, who knew I needed an aviation fix? Like a starving man no longer feeling hunger pangs, I didn’t know what I needed until I immersed myself into the world of cold 2024 aluminum skin, taut cotton wings, red hydraulic fluid, flashing glass panels, spinning propellors, and clouds of 100 octane exhaust fumes—ambrosia and incense.

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How to Hold It All Together

James Rush Manley views airframe with most of the skin removed

A Cessna 206 fuselage barely stands with most of the skin and stiff forms removed.

My friend Ron decided to build his own airplane—a Vans RV-7A. A few days ago he invited me to help him put a wing together. Seeing it reminded me that we make airplanes out of really flimsy stuff.

The outer skin of your average airliner is only about ⅛” thick. Ron’s bird—lighter, slower, carries only two people—sports a hide just over 1/64” thick. How will that metallic tissue keep him safe three miles above the ground when he flies 200 miles per hour for 900 miles?

Turns out it depends on how we stick it together. We could, for example, scrunch up aluminum foil, adding wad to wad, until we fabricated a substantial, solid mass. It might be robust but would weigh too much to fly and leave no room for motors, fuel, cargo, passengers or even, oh yeah, the pilot. Fortunately, the Germans developed a method a hundred years ago to make the skin a structural member rather than just streamlining. The technique, not widely used until the 1940’s, later acquired a French name: monocoque that literally means “single shell.”  

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