The Jones Act, Podcasts, and Expanding Your Knowledge of the World

A brief post about how you can learn things every day with podcasts.

Planet Money
Planet Money is just one of the podcasts I listen to regularly.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for more than 10 years now. In fact, I had my own podcast — which was mostly an audio version of some of my blog posts — from 2005 to 2007. I believe that podcasts are a great use of downtime to learn new things.

(If you’re not interested in learning new things, you may as well stop reading now and resume your perusal of cat videos and other entertaining but frivolous nonsense that clogs the Internet’s “pipes.” I’m not even sure why you came to this blog, since it exists primarily to share the things I’ve learned and encourage informed, educated conversation among readers.)

If you’re not sure why you should be interested in learning new things, consider this:

Learning new things helps make you a more rounded person, able to have a good conversation with just about anyone. It helps you make better decisions for yourself, your career, and your family. It keeps you informed about the things that affect the world around you so you can better understand them without relying on someone with an agenda to explain them to you.

Such as the Jones Act, which has been in the news all week.

I’d never heard of the Jones Act before I learned about it on a Planet Money podcast. Originally aired back in 2014, it explains what the Jones Act is and what it means to real people.

What I like about Planet Money is that it covers topics related to economics in plain English. It’s not just informative — its entertaining. When I heard the Jones Act mentioned in the news this morning, I immediately remembered the family that missed their cruise ship departure and how Jones Act penalties cost them money. It was easy to understand how this law from the 1920s, written to create a sort of monopoly for American shippers, could negatively impact Americans in Puerto Rico who lacked basics like drinking water right after Hurricane Maria. Knowing about the Jones Act gave me a sort of leg up on this week’s conversations about it.

That’s just an example, of course. I listen to a handful of podcasts, some for education and others for entertainment. They fill my head with sometimes trivial yet often fascinating information that makes me think. They challenge me with puzzles and word games and news quizzes. They make me laugh and cry. They’re a great use of my downtime, no matter where I am; I can carry them around with me on my phone, along with the music I find myself listening to less and less frequently.

Here’s what’s currently in my preferred podcast app, Downcast:

By “downtime,” I mean the time I spend doing something that requires some but not all of my concentration. Driving is a perfect example. I need to pay attention to the road and signs and other drivers while I’m driving, but that doesn’t prevent me from having a conversation with a companion or listening to music or audio books. Long solo drives — perhaps a daily commute — is a perfect time to listen to podcasts.

I don’t have much of a commute, although I do listen to short podcasts on my drive from home into town (20-30 minutes) to run errands once in a while. I mostly listen when I’m traveling — on a very long drive or stuck in an airplane. Or even flying my helicopter from point A to B. (These are the same times I sometimes listen to audio books, which are available from my library for free.) This is time when I really can’t do anything else. It’s nice to let my mind wander sometimes, but it’s also good to make use of this time to learn.

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites? Use the comments for this post to let readers — and me! — know.

Being an Inspired Pilot

An interview and more.

Inspired Pilot LogoA few weeks ago, I was contacted by Marvyn Robinson, a U.K. pilot and podcaster. He wanted to interview me for his podcast, Inspired Pilot.

I was flattered, of course. (I’m flattered any time someone contacts me with a request like this.) How could I not say yes?

About the Podcast

The About page on the Inspired Pilot website explains what the podcast is all about:

This will be a weekly show where I interview inspiring pilots, pilots with inspiring journeys from all around the world. Each week we will highlight the life of our featured pilot, follow their journey and how they got to where there are now.

We’ll examine how and why they got started, the decisions made along the way, experiences gained and lessons learned. All this with the view to INSPIRE seasoned pilots, mere mortal low hour pilots like myself, wannabe pilots and pilot enthusiasts alike, by guests sharing their inspiring journeys.

Just to give you an example of the spectrum of our guests, we are going to be talking to pilots from all areas of the aviation industry, from airline pilots, bush pilots, flight instructors, private pilots, bizjet, military and even retired pilots.

The whole idea behind the podcast is to inspire other pilots. The people chosen to be interviewed are supposed to be inspiring. So again, how can I not be flattered?

Who Needs Inspiration?

Every pilot knows at least one other pilot — or wannabe pilot — who just couldn’t seem to get it together to achieve his or her aviation goals. These people often have legitimate or imagined excuses for not moving forward. (I was married to one of these people for a while so I’ve seen it firsthand.)

For many people, the excuse is a life change. For example, a guy is taking flight lessons part time and gets married or his wife becomes pregnant. All of a sudden, his priorities change and he puts flying on the back burner. Many times, he never goes back to it.

For other people, the excuse is simpler: money. Learning to fly isn’t cheap and not everyone has disposable income to throw at what might only be a hobby. When the economy tanked, flight schools were hit hard because fewer people could afford lessons. Renting an aircraft once you become a pilot isn’t cheap either. It has to fit into your budget.

For a select group of people, there are medical issues that can stop a prospective pilot in his or her tracks. Uncorrectable vision, diabetes, untreatable high blood pressure, heart problems — there are a multitude of conditions that pilots simply are not allowed to have.

These are the people Inspired Pilot was created for. To get them excited about flying. To get them thinking of ways to work around the hurdles that face them. To inspire them to achieve their flying goals.

These are the people I want to inspire.

It’s More than a Piece of Paper

I’m one of the people who want to fly. I’m not interested in collecting pilot ratings just because I can.

For example, I learned to fly an open cockpit gyro last spring. It was a ton of fun. I got to fly that gyro again last week. George, who owns it and taught me to fly it, told me what I need to do to get my rating in it. I’m very close — all I need is a check ride.

But why get a rating for something I seldom have an opportunity to fly? That piece of paper is meaningless to me. I’m perfectly satisfied to fly the gyro occasionally with George. In the unlikely event that I buy a gyro or have access to one on a regular basis, I might reconsider getting that piece of paper. Until then, why bother?

And then there are just the folks who claim they want to fly and even move toward the goal of becoming a pilot and perhaps even become pilots — but then don’t do what it takes to stay current and safe. These are the nervous pilots, the pilots who are afraid to push the limits of their experience, the pilots who use the slightest possibility of inclement weather as an excuse not to fly. They’re pilots only because they have a piece of paper saying that they are. (This was the situation with my wasband.)

But are you really a pilot if you seldom fly? If you can come up with more excuses not to fly than reasons to fly? If you never seem to want to fly?

In my experience, a real pilot wants to fly.

If you’re not driven to fly, if you don’t feel a need to get up in an aircraft and explore your world from above, if the responsiveness of an aircraft under your control doesn’t excite you or fill you with joy — well, then you really shouldn’t waste your time and money becoming a pilot. There might be other activities that do for you what flying does for real pilots — bicycling, skiing, painting, writing, golfing, skydiving, whatever. Pursue the activity that means the most to you — because you will never be an inspired pilot.

The Podcast

All that said, if you want to get inspired — or even if you just want to hear what I said on the podcast — you can find it here: 12: Maria Langer – Commercial R44 Helicopter Pilot & Blogger – Inspired Pilot.

Transponders for Dummies

Get the facts straight.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my morning walk is called Stuff You Should Know. Produced by the folks responsible for the How Stuff Works website, Stuff You Should Know is a pretty thorough discussion of a specific topic by two hosts, Josh and Chuck, who base their discussion on a website article and some of their own research. It’s a great way to learn new things when you’re stuck doing something mindless — like walking, driving, flying, etc. So far, I’ve learned about revenge, diamonds, Atlantis, social security numbers, air traffic control (ATC), and bullfighting. You can find its RSS feed here.

The April 24, 2012 episode of the podcast was titled “How Air Traffic Control Works.” It was based on a How Stuff Works article of the same name by Dr. Craig Freudenrich. The article was very detailed; the podcast was based on that article and several other articles on How Stuff Works.

As a pilot, I know quite a bit about air traffic control — but not everything. The article (and podcast) was mostly concerned with ATC as it relates to airliners. After all, that’s how most people interact with aviation. But I’m involved with general aviation (as opposed to airline aviation or military aviation). And, as a helicopter pilot, I don’t interact with ATC nearly as much as, say, an instrument rated pilot flying a King Air from Phoenix to Seattle.

So I was hoping that I could learn something new. And I did.

But I also heard the podcasters misinforming listeners about transponders (among a few other things). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when an informational article or podcast or video — or anything else — includes errors. So I thought I’d set things straight.

What Is a Transponder?

Garmin Transponder
This is the Garmin 330 Transponder I have in my helicopter.

A transponder is a part of an aircraft’s avionics. It assists air traffic control by making it easier for ATC radar to “see” an aircraft. It basically sends out a signal that says “Here I am!” ATC radar can pick up this signal, along with any additional information encoded within it, to plot the aircraft as a “blip” on the radar display and differentiate it from other aircraft.

Transponders include a feature that enables the pilot to send a specific “squawk” code. Normally, in VFR (visual flight rules) flight, an aircraft’s transponder is set to send the code 1200 — in fact, this code is used so often that many transponder models — including mine — have a VFR button the pilot can press to quickly enter that code.

IFR (instrument flight rules) flights are assigned a discreet discrete squawk code. This code is used by ATC to identify that particular aircraft. Sometimes, when operating within tower-controlled airspace, ATC will assign a discreet discrete code to a VFR flight. Or perhaps a specific code is used by signatories to a letter of agreement between ATC and pilots — for example, 0400 is used by Sharp Alpha signatories in the Phoenix class bravo airspace.

Most transponders are equipped with automatic altitude reporting features, which is known as Mode C. Indeed, Mode C transponders are required within 30 miles of a class Bravo airport — think major airports like the kinds most airlines serve — and in a bunch of other places detailed in Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation.” (This, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning more about transponders in general.) Mode C transponders interface with an aircraft’s altimeter to get the altitude of the aircraft and send that information to ATC.

Garmin 420 GPS
My Mode S transponder interfaces with my Garmin 420 GPS to show traffic when information is available. I blogged about this here.

A Mode S transponder, which is what I have on my helicopter, is also capable of two-way communication with ATC radar. In certain radar coverage areas — primarily near Class Bravo and Class Charlie airspaces — a Mode S transponder receives traffic information from ATC. This information can then be plotted on compatible GPS equipment to create a simple traffic information system (TIS).

There are some other things about transponders that are interesting, including the fact that there are special squawk codes a pilot can use in certain emergency situations. And although the transponders were turned off on the 9/11 airliners, that didn’t make them invisible; it just made it impossible for ATC to definitively identify what they were.

What the Stuff You Should Know Guys Said

There’s no transcript available for the podcast, so I had to create one for the part that irked me. It was related to when the transponder is turned on and what the transponder is/does.

At 22:55, Josh has just described how the tower controller hands off the airplane to a departure controller.

Chuck: All right, so now we’re in the air, we are enroute. And you have to, if you’re a pilot, activate your transponder, which will basically make you the little blip on the radar. Very important thing to do.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: That’s how they can follow you as you move across the country. Or around the world.

Josh: [laughter]

Chuck: Right?

Josh: You are covering all bases on this episode.

Chuck: Well, the little blip is going to obviously represent your plane and it’s going to have your flight number, your altitude, your airspeed, and your destination.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And, uh, so where are we now?

Josh: It’s also how they find you if you go plummeting into the ocean or the earth.

Chuck: Sure. Is that the black box?

Josh: Uh, I think that’s probably a part of the transponder.

Chuck: Okay. Yeah.

Then they continue talking about what TRACON does.

What’s Wrong

There are a few things wrong with this.

First, a pilot usually turns on the aircraft’s transponder when he (or she, of course) powers up the rest of the avionics, including the radio. On my helicopter, in fact, the transponder turns itself on automatically when I turn on the “Master Battery” switch, which provides electrical power to the helicopter before I even start it.

Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation,” states:


(The FAA used those caps; I didn’t. I guess they wanted to shout about it.)

So the FAA says to turn on the transponder before you move the aircraft and keep it turned on during flight. The pilot does not wait until the flight is turned over to departure control to turn it on. It’s already on. In fact, it’s one of the ways ground control can track the airliner as it taxis between the runway and the gate.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Phoenix TRACON and tower back March 2012. I got to see the radar screens and their blips firsthand. It’s interesting to note that there are no windows in the TRACON facility. It’s a dark room filled with computer screens. If you’ve seen the movie Pushing Tin, which was mentioned in the podcast, you’ll get the idea.

So although the podcast guys made a big deal over the fact that ground controllers are only one of two kinds of controllers that can use binoculars, the reality is that only ground controllers and tower controllers have windows to look out of. They’re the only ones close enough to the airplanes they guide to actually see them.

To say that activating the transponder “makes you the little blip on the radar” is misleading. Radar does not need a transponder to see aircraft traffic. After all, do you think fighter planes use transponders when they’re out on patrol or attack? If a transponder was required to put an aircraft on radar, there would be no need for stealth technology. Instead, radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects. It doesn’t need a transponder signal. The transponder simply makes it easier for ATC radar equipment to find targets and provides additional information to ATC.

While it’s true that a radar blip might include an airliner’s flight number, this information is not sent by the transponder. The transponder sends the discrete squawk code assigned to the airplane from its flight plan. The ATC computer equipment looks up the code in the flight plan database and provides the information from the flight plan on the blip.

Josh is partially right when he says that the blip is how they find you if you crash. The transponder helps keep the aircraft on radar. Radar tracks where you are. But there comes a point — especially in remote or mountainous terrain — when radar coverage is limited. If you are flying too low, you can literally fly “below the radar” and not be tracked. Helicopter pilots commonly fly this low — that’s why its so difficult to get flight following in certain areas. An airliner should never be that low, but if it’s having trouble, it may disappear off radar before an actual crash. So although a transponder and the resulting radar blip can help locate a downed aircraft, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be found. Think about Steve Fossett. His plane likely had a transponder, yet he wasn’t found for well over a year after his crash.

Chuck and Josh are completely wrong when they suggest that the black box is part of the transponder. It’s not. They’re two completely separate devices. The transponder sends live information to ATC as an aircraft moves around on the ground and in the sky. Most aircraft have them. The black box is a virtually indestructible device that records data during an aircraft’s operation and stores it in the event of a mishap. Only aircraft providing certain air transportation services have them. For example, although I have a transponder on my helicopter, I don’t have a black box.

It’s interesting to me that the guys got this so wrong when the How Stuff Works website actually has an article called “How Black Boxes Work.” Maybe they should have read it?

Other Things

In listening again to parts of the podcast — mostly to find the passage quoted above — I heard other things that weren’t quite right. That bugs me. It calls into question the rest of the podcast — the stuff I don’t already know for sure. It also calls into question other podcasts that these guys do. How factual are they?

When I’m listening to a podcast titled “Stuff You Should Know,” I expect it to be factual, not conjectural. If these guys are guessing about something, they should make it clearer that it’s a guess. To state that a pilot activates a transponder after the aircraft is enroute and handed off to departure control is an incorrect statement of fact. To say “I think” a transponder is part of the black box helps identify it as conjecture or a guess, but is there really any place for guesses in a podcast like this?

Or am I expecting too much?