Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Paperwork

I'm not anti-regulation. I am anti-onerous regulation, but I admit it's a bit hard to codify a test for that. I do, however, think that aviation is a risky enough activity for pilots, passengers and innocent bystanders that regulation is probably a very good idea. Heck, look at the mess we make on roads, where there are only two measly dimensions to deal with, and stopping just means getting out of the car.

As a result, getting a pilot's license is much harder than getting a driver's license in the United States. This is a good thing. Someone once told me that it's the equivalent of around two college courses, and that feels about right. When you're a working adult, finding the time and brainspace and energy for those two college courses can be a challenge. Finding the money for them, well, that's a whole other level of difficulty.

Sorry, back to the thread. The point is that in no way should you expect to be able to waltz into another sovereign state, proudly flash your U.S. Private Pilot's License (PPL), and hop in a plane and go. Ah, I've had people tell me, but what about airline pilots? Don't they do exactly that? Well...yes and no. Bear with me, because I'm not an expert here - I have learned a few things to avoid getting in trouble and hopefully to allow me to fly overseas this one time. The U.S. and Australia are members of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization). This is a special arm of the United Nations, if I remember correctly. This body coordinates aviation, since by its very nature aviation can easily involve more than one country in the course of a flight.

If you are a U.S. pilot, and you fly a U.S. registered aircraft into another country (say, Australia) - you may operate that aircraft on the basis of your ICAO member nation pilot's license. Thus, United Airlines pilots can land jetliners there, for example. Qantas pilots can operate their airplanes in the United States.

The real problem starts if you want to operate an aircraft registered in the foreign country. Then everything changes - you must be licensed and operate under the regime of the host country's aviation regulatory body. In the U.S., it's the FAA. In Australia, it's called CASA, or the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Sub-organizations of CASA license Australian aviators, register Australian aircraft (tail number prefix VH- Victor Hotel) and regulate Australian airspace and airports. So in order for Outback Overflight to happen, I needed (still need, sort of) to convince CASA to authorize it.

The United States does not, as far as I'm aware, have a provision to allow foreign pilots to operate here and act as Pilot in Command (fly solo, or fly with no other PIC-qualifed pilot in the crew). You can get a permanent U.S. FAA license, but I'm not sure how long that takes or whether you have to turn in your foreign license (although I doubt it). Australia, however, has a process which will allow a foreign pilot to be certified to fly in Australia temporarily (up to 3 months, I believe) without exchanging their license. You must acquire what is called a 'Certificate of Validation of Foreign Credentials' or just 'Certificate of Validation.' That document, along with your U.S. pilot's license, will allow you to operate.

So. How do you get one? There's the first part of the saga.

As with the US FAA, the first thing you need is to get registered in the computer system at CASA. So you apply for an ARN - an Aviation Reference Number, just like the U.S. IACRA FTN number. Once you have been assigned an ARN, you can apply for your other documents. First, the CoV.

To acquire a CoV, you must have and submit:

  • Either an ARN or a completed application for an ARN (CASA Form 1162) submitted along with the CoV application (CASA form 523)
  • A valid U.S. Pilot's License (Private Pilot or higher, not student pilot license) valid at time of application and for the time you are applying to have your CoV be valid for
  • A valid U.S. Airman's Medical Certificate (Class 1, 2 or 3), valid for the period you will be flying in Australia
  • Proof of an ICAO Level 4, 5 or 6 English Language Proficiency (ELP).
That last was my bugbear.

The ICAO has decreed that English is the international language of aviation. That isn't a style choice or sponsorship deal, it literally means that to fly an aircraft in a country other than your own, you must be a proficient English speaker. To act as an Air Traffic Controller, you must be proficient in English. This way, no matter where you go, you'll be able to communicate with people on the ground and in other aircraft. So it makes perfect sense that Australia requires this ELP level.

The FAA, however, never bothered (for a long time) documenting the English Language Proficiency on the U.S. Airman's Certificate (pilot's license), much less setting formal examinations using ICAO specifications. You have to be able to communicate in English to get a license in the US, but your CFI (flight instructor) and pilot examiner (check ride test giver) certify that you are such before you can receive your license.

As of 2008 or 2009, I think, the FAA finally got around to putting the words 'ENGLISH PROFICIENT' on U.S. airman's certificates.

According to CASA, however, the FAA 'ENGLISH PROFICIENT' notation does not repeat not satisfy the ELP documentation requirements for Australian certification. In other words, CASA told me I had to prove that I could speak English in order to process my CoV application. That would be no problem - except that the only allowable way to prove that is to take a standardized Australian listening comprehension test - and you can (according to CASA) only take that test in Australia, with a certified Australian examiner, usually a CFI.

They won't process your application for a CoV until you have done this.

The problem is that there's no guarantee how long it will take to process after you have taken it, or how long it will take to mail to you (even in Australia) and so forth. This means that unless you intend to visit Australia prior to your flight trip, your application won't process until you arrive. In my case, while I allowed for several days of jet lag recovery and checkout/training prior to leaving on the tour, I had a week. Five business days, with a weekend in the middle.

I've never heard of a licensing bureaucracy completing an application and mailing a credential in anywhere near that timeframe.

I spoke to folks at CASA. I spoke to a sympathetic person at the FAA, who said "Well, we've heard this before. I'm sorry to tell you, according to us it's an ELP level 4, but if they won't accept that, there's really nothing we can do." Which, let's be fair, makes sense - they're not responsible for the policies of entirely different governments.

This looked like it would sink the trip, if anything, or at least cause dramatic changes and scaling back - if I wasn't able to get this document without first going to Australia, it would mean a very good chance I would miss the tour departure date. The tour moves rapidly enough that catching up really isn't a viable option, not without having to do a whole bunch of our own (duplicate) arrangements for lodging, fuel, etc.

Oh, I forgot. That's not, actually, all you need. The CoV is a make or break, but it's not the end.

The tour we chose involves stops at a couple of larger airfields (aerodromes). One of them is actually a RAAF airbase. This means that in order to get on or off of these airfields, I need to have something called an ASIC - an Aviation Security Identification Card. U.S. airports use these as well, they are (I believe?) TSA-issued. In Australia, the CASA issues them. But (naturally) you can't get an ASIC card as aircrew until you have a valid license - or a valid CoV. So they won't finish processing that application either until the CoV has been issued - and until they have verified from Australian Immigration that I have legally entered the country. So no matter what I do, there will be critical documentation that requires CASA work following my arrival.

I will write up a less histrionic and more informative page later, and link it here, which serves to simply list out and describe the requirements as well as contain links to the appropriate forms.

At present, it's June 29th. I'm in Los Angeles. I'm flying to Sydney on Tuesday July 1st. The Certificate of Validation, I have been told, has actually been issued - the agency I'm renting the airplane from, which I used as my Australian mailing address, has confirmed that they have received it. Whew, one huge hurdle down. The ASIC is on hold - CASA has told me that they've set up a computer check to inform them when I pass through Australian immigration so that they can continue to process it, and that they will mail it to the rental firm when ready. I'm hoping like crazy it gets there in time. If not, we'll have to adapt - I'll have to find out if I can get on and off the airbases with the tour company pilots, who do have ASIC cards. Or we may have to find a way for us to skip the controlled airfields (unlikely). Or possibly we can have the rental firm express the ASIC to the first controlled stop, which is (I think) four or five days in to the trip - maybe that's enough time for it to catch up.

We'll have to see!

There are other bits of paperwork as well, of course. I needed an entry visa. Fortunately, United Airlines offered to handle that electronically. I had to send the rental company copies of my logbook and PPL. And naturally, I had to put down a significant deposit on the airplane and prepay for the tour tagalong fee.

All that is done, though. Things are looking quite good.

How did I handle the English Language Test? Ah, well. Maybe we'll write that up later. :-)

Can't wait.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Airplane

When we last left our intrepid and foolish protagonist, he was searching for someone willing to loan him a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar vehicle and to set up these arrangements from half the world away.

Internet searching paid off again. I found a place that I'd looked at earlier, when considering setting up the trip solo. A flight school and rental firm, they had aircraft to rent! They had 172s. I got in touch. They said sure, they were used to renting out aircraft for tours! On the other hand, they too strongly recommended that given my weight, I not rent a 172. But - hurrah - they had a Cessna 182T available! The 182 is a slightly larger airplane - a utility airplane to the 172's trainer. It has a more powerful, six-cylinder engine rather than a 4-cylinder. Most important, it has a higher gross weight, which allows it to not only carry more cargo and pax weight but to carry nearly twice the amount of fuel of a 172. Since it only burns around 40% more, its range is commensurately longer.

Emails flew. I called both Stawell Aviation Services and the rental firm - Airborne Aviation in Camden NSW (YSCN), a bit west of Sydney - several times. Although the rental was going to be expensive, what the hell - this was my once-in-a-lifetime trip. Plus, I hadn't been on a serious vacation in - gulp - over 5 years.

The 182, while similar, is a higher-performance airplane. It has a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit - an excellent feature to have when navigating over unfamiliar trackless wastes, but I'd never flown with one before. I had never flown a glass cockpit airplane, in fact - my training was done on a 'steam gauge' six-pack panel, nary an LCD or VFD in sight, not even a G430 or similar small GPS unit. It differs in two more important ways as well. For one, it has a constant-speed propeller, which is another setting to manage and juggle depending on flight conditions. And finally, it has over 200 HP - 230 I believe - which, in the US, makes it a 'High Performance' airplane and requires an endorsement from a CFI to operate solo.

This led to more frantic research, but much closer to home. To my joy and relief, I discovered that a local airport - Long Island Macarthur (KISP) housed a flight school which had a 182 for instruction rental. Heritage Flight Academy, in addition to the standard fleet of 172s, has a 182T. In fact, it's the same model as the one in Camden! I quickly made arrangements to troop out to KISP and take some lessons with their chief instructor pilot, Rick Malik.

By this point, it was mid 2013. It was clear that the Outback Overflight would be happening in Summer 2014. I had a whole year to finish prep! I can hear you wincing - yep, that's right, I got distracted. Notably, I left the job I'd been having issues with and found a new one - one where they actually had useful things that needed doing, and one where they turned out to be willing to dump as much responsibility on my habitually-solo shoulders that I ended up going heads down in the gig. I went out to KISP and flew with Rick in October; rather than fly the 182 right off, we took a 172 up for a tour of New York City - the Skyline Tour in the Class B. Rick handled the radio work that first run, since I was unfamiliar with handling New York area ATC.

Rick and I got on well together - so I reserved some time in the 182. What with weather, and the job, and so forth, I didn't actually get to fly it until spring 2014. While I was handling all these various obstacles, I got stuck in to the other big problem - that of the paperwork. But I finally managed to get a few hours in in the 182, and I was relieved to find that while it is a heavier airplane, making landing it a bit more finicky, it's more stable than the 172, has way more power, climbs faster, and (best of all) has more room in the cabin. Although the rental hourly rate was signficantly higher, I paid it without a qualm.

I began working on getting competent with the Garmin G1000 system, as well. Learning to fly without gauge needles wasn't too hard - I've been a flight simulator user for long enough that the visuals weren't distracting or unexpected, but I found that I had internalized 'gauge pictures' of the 172 I normally flew to the point where I found myself studying the displays because I couldn't interpret the current status of the airplane from a quick static glance. Rick agreed that the biggest thing to learn about using glass cockpits is the ability to not spend too much time looking at things inside the airplane. The G1000 is like crack-flavored candy to a computer gamer and flight/space sim enthusiast - it looks a lot like the games we grew up on, but it's even cooler because it's real! However, after a few hours flight, I learned to just treat it as another version of the six-pack and to let the cool factor go - at least while piloting. My landings continued to improve. We did stalls, unusual attitude recoveries, emergency procedures. Along the way I slowly got more comfortable talking to the very 'Noo Yawk' air traffic controllers I had to work with to fly in the NY area. I also got used to sharing an airport with Southwest 737 traffic. Overflying KISP at 3000 feet while one of them goes around due to student traffic in the pattern, as well as taking turns with them for taxiways and runway slots, I began to feel like a Real Pilot(tm) - one who breathes the same air as the big boys.

Satisfied that I'd be able to be current in a 182, I got back in touch with Airborne Aviation and made arrangements to reserve one of their two 182s - VH-SDN.

After a couple of months, the plan was settled. We would fly to Sydney, rent VH-SDN, and join up with the Stawell tour. We would have a few days after the tour ended to self-fly around southern Australia before having to bring the airplane home.

Naturally, things got complicated. N1929Y (the 182 I was flying at Heritage) had to go in for its annual inspection when I had around 5 hours in it. I waited eagerly for it to emerge so I could reserve it again - and it didn't. For over a month. I have no idea why. At the end, an accident at Republic (KFRG) caused the shop working its way to 1929Y to get inundated with damaged Pipers and Cessnas from the ground mishaps.

So fast forward to today. I'm leaving for the west coast, and thence Australia a few days later, in two days. I have managed to fly 29Y - although just to confuse me they changed the tail number while it was in for inspection, and now it's N182HF - once more, and do some more 172 work in the area. Fortunately, I'll be training with Airborne when I arrive - but after being off the airplane for a month, I was relieved and ecstatic at how natural it felt. I did six landings (low clouds forced us to stay near the airport) as well as demonstrated that I knew how to use the G1000 for non-instrument flight - basic flight and engine instrumentation, engine leaning, flight plan management, traffic alerts via ADS-B. Of those six landings, one was a complete greaser - ten out of ten, according to Rick - and the others were at least sevens, mostly eights. I'm ready to fly VH-SDN - or rather, to demonstrate to her owners that I can be trusted with her.

While all this was going on, I worked on paperwork and cursed Kafka, governments, and bureaucracies in general.

Next: The Paperwork

The Plan

First thing was to determine where, in fact, we were going to go. I've never been to Australia, and my knowledge of Australian geography was limited to knowing that most of the cities are on the coast. I could point to Sydney, Adelaide and Perth on a map, but that was about it.

The obvious solution was to find an airplane for rent and figure out an itinerary. This was a bit of a challenge for a couple of reasons. First, I still didn't know much about the Outback and how to fly there, nor did I know much about what's interesting to see. That made flight and trip planning sort of hit or miss. While trip planning can miss, flight planning (in my opinion) really cannot. I knew a few other facts about Australia - namely that it's incredibly inhospitable in the interior, on top of which most things that live there are lethal to humans. I wasn't enamored with the idea of blindly striking out into the unknown.

Fortunately, my travel partner - the original friend who had promised to follow through with me if I did this - is an Australian native. Unfortunately, he too agreed that a homebody USian doing this planning was a Bad Idea(tm).

We shook our family and friends' trees, to see if we could connect with anyone who might be willing to loan us an airplane. This wasn't successful (not that I really expected it to be). We found a family friend who runs a flight school a bit west of Sydney - hooray! - but they only fly Light Sport Aircraft (awww.) This wasn't tenable - as can be seen in the prior post, I'm not a lightweight. Light Sport aircraft have a maximum takeoff weight of 1,300 pounds. I weighed (at the time) around 345 lbs. He weighs around 180. Avgas is approximately 6 lbs/gallon. There was no way we were going to get into a LSA. ON top of that, LSAs tend to be lightly equipped and cramped for someone my size - not what you want to take on a long distance trip.

While I was idly searching the web for 'air safari' in Australia, I hit upon a possible solution. A company called Stawell Aviation Services advertised a tour of Australia by light aircraft! They had several options for their tours - but one in particular looked just the ticket, the Kimberly-Broome tour. That left Stawell (near Melbourne) and followed a big loop north and west before returning via Alice Springs. It was a two week trip. And (best of all) they flew Cessna 172s - the same airplane I trained in! Even better, they advertised that if you were a licensed Pilot with sufficient hours, you could rent one of their aircraft for a fly-yourself, following along in convoy!

Elated, I got in touch. It turned out there were several problems with this plan. First and foremost, even in a C172, my pax and I and enough baggage and gear for two or three weeks really pushed the edge of the airplane's capacity. In fact, it was a toss-up if we'd be able to fill the tanks - and the 172 only has a range of around 350 nautical miles, leaving little room for error. The Outback, on the other hand, has ample room, which can lead to error - and airports aren't nearly as common as here in the States.

Furthermore, it turned out that their insurance policy limited any single seat occupant in one of their airplanes to 250 lbs. That was a dealbreaker. Although I had trained in a C172, and with an instructor could (and did) fit within the weight-and-balance limitations of the airplane, it was just too far outside their limits. Losing 100 lbs didn't really seem to be an option. Stawell Aviation was apologetic, and reminded me that if I could find an appropriate airplane to rent, I was welcome to 'tag along' with the tour.

Although unhappy that the easy option wasn't available, I thought about it. That, in fact, sounded like the best idea so far. Rather than having to worry about planning the logistics for a two-week Outback trip from the other side of the planet, I could let Stawell - who did this regularly - do it for us. They would make all lodging, meals, transportation and sightseeing reservations, as well as arrange for fuel for the aircraft. That's not a small thing, given how far into the wasteland most of the stops would be! In addition, instead of soloing on a wing and a prayer in an unfamiliar country, I could fly in the company of professional pilots who had made the trip several times.

I redoubled my efforts to find an airplane. Most of the general aviation aircraft for hire in Australia seem to belong to flying clubs, which didn't help. Not only would I be unable to join one, most clubs aren't okay with one person absconding with an airplane for two weeks. And again, very few places had aircraft larger than light sports for hire (at least, piston singles, which I'm licensed to fly).

There were still at least two serious gotchas. First, as I'd realized, the Cessna 172 - while larger and more capable than Light Sport airplanes - is still probably too light for the mission.

And, second, there loomed a bigger problem. I have a U.S. Private Pilot's License. But I wanted to fly in Australia.

On first glance, it seems like this wouldn't be a problem. After all, airline pilots fly in other countries all the time. And Australia and the U.S. are both members of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), which coordinates things like this sort of reciprocity. But as always, there's a catch. While an ICAO member nation pilot can fly an aircraft into and around another country with their home license, this is only true if the aircraft they're flying is registered in their home nation. So unless I wanted to find a way to fly a single-engine Cessna almost literally halfway around the world, that wasn't an option - even if I could find someone fool enough to rent it to me. And given that the cruise speed of a C182 is around 130 kts, it'd take a heck of a time to get there!

So. I dove into (more internet) research.

And finally, something broke my way. If a foreign pilot wants to vacation in the US and fly, as far as I can tell they're pretty much stuck having to hire a U.S. flight instructor to fly with them at all times (they can't act as Pilot in Command, so can't fly solo) *or* they have to exchange their foreign ICAO license for a U.S. license. This can only be done if they move here. But Australia is much friendlier to foreign pilots! It turns out that there is an Australian Government process for doing exactly this.

That doesn't, however, mean that it's easy.

Next: The Plane

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Outback Overflight becomes a Reality

I learned to fly airplanes a long time ago. More than 20 years ago, in fact. But because I was not too bright, I stopped flying maybe 3 flights before my Private Pilot check ride because I had to move away to attend graduate school. I figured I'd continue once I got settled in to student life.

Yeah, not too bright.

Although I wasn't earning a lot of money prior to grad school (this is back in 1993) I still hadn't grokked the delta between "earning (anything)" and "attending graduate school." If you live in an urban area in the U.S. - in other words, if you don't have easy access to a nearby airplane at a friends and/or family rate - getting your pilot's license is expensive. If you're workin' for a living, at least. So long story short, I never finished the license.

This continued to irk me.

I never got my degree, either. Another long and pointless story. But two decades later, gainfully employed and looking for a project to yank myself out of a near-terminal depression, I found myself complaining to a friend of mine that I'd never finished my license. I was complaining about a lot of things, in fact, but that was the subject du jour.

"What would you do with your license if you had it?" he asked me seriously. "You live in New York City."

"Well, that isn't the point," I waffled. "I'd have it."

"But what would you want to do with it? Why do you want to get it, other than to have it?"

I thought about that for a bit, stumped. Ten seconds later, though, an answer came to me and I blurted it out. "I'd fly myself across the Australian Outback."


I looked at him in confusion. "Because it's there. I've never been to Australia, and I want to go. I really want to see more of it than I'll see hanging around on the coast. I'm not a hiker, and I'm afraid of poisonous things - so I'm not going to go adventure camping there. Probably never happen, though, doubt I could afford it. But man, it'd be cool."

My friend thought about this for maybe ten seconds. "So get your license. When you get it, I'll fly across the outback with you."

"Wait, seriously?"


And thus the idea was born. I declared that within five years, this trip would happen. We shook on it.

Fast forward two years. I had sunk further into depression. I was bunkered down in New York City, in a job that wasn't rewarding, doing nothing I felt proud of. I had hired and fired a pair of shrinks. I had tried antidepressants. And then I went to visit my oldest friend (let's call him B), who lives in Massachusetts. I would see him periodically, because his house was exactly halfway between home and my Dad's place in Vermont. He started poking me too, because he could see I wasn't in good shape. He asked what the hell I could do to get my fat chunk out of New York City. I idly mentioned Outback Overflight. "That's perfect," he said. "Why don't you do it?"

Because. Reasons. Lots of reasons. Couldn't. Wouldn't. Too hard. Not practical.

For this among many many things I owe him - he called bullshit on all of it. "You're being an idiot," was his refrain. Finally the last logistical objection came up. "I live in New York City and I don't have a car within range. The nearest flight school is an hour and a half away, and it's stupid expensive because it's in the New York Area."

"Um, there's an airport three miles from this house. They have a flight school."

"...there is?"


"Okay, but it's two hours and fifteen minutes from here to home, so even if that's cheaper, it's still a nightmare."

"So stay here. The basement's empty."

"I have a job."

"Work remotely, you idiot. You're an Op in a cloud-centric company."


So. That was early 2012. A couple of months later, I had arranged to work mostly remotely, and deliberately without planning much else I'd packed a suitcase and a laptop bag and driven to his place. There was a sofabed in the en suite basement. He had wifi. Perfect.

I spent six months mostly in Northampton. I reconnected with him, his wife and their daughter, all of whom reminded me why in fact I needed to spend more time with humans - especially awesome ones. I started flying twice a week at Northampton Aeronautics, at 7B2. They had several Pipers and one Cessna 172 (an older, slightly beat-up one). Since my prior training had been in Cessnas, I stuck with that plane. I chronicled my training on Everything2, a website I've written a whole ton of stuff on.

In December (on December 12th to be specific - 12/12/12), on a cold clear day, I climbed into N12732 with Mr. Royal Griffin, a cheerful, thorough and intimidatingly expert pilot examiner. An hour later I landed back at 7B2, and after I'd pulled the mixture to idle cut-off and was securing the airplane, he turned to me and said "Congratulations. You're a Private Pilot."

Holy. Cow.

(I'm the fat one.)

I excitedly told all my friends. And sure enough, the friend who had started the whole thing said "That's nice, idiot. When are we going to Australia?"

So I began to plan in earnest.

Next: The Plan