Archive for April, 2012

FOQA

Monday, April 30th, 2012

In a previous post, I discussed the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) that is used at some airlines to create a new kind of safety environment. In addition to ASAP, there is a program called the Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA, pronounced “Foe-KWA”). Whereas ASAP relies on self-disclosure for its success, it is limited to those reports that are turned in, as well as by the information that is actually provided in the narratives, thus limiting its scope and effectiveness.

FOQA, like ASAP, requires a joint approach among the airline, the FAA, and the pilot unions. Where FOQA differs is in the fact that the information is gleaned from the flight data recorders (FDRs) on board the airplanes. The data from the FDR is downloaded by the designated personnel, and the information that identifies flight numbers, crews, et cetera, is immediately separated.

Using some pretty sophisticated and slick computer software, it is possible to choose which parameters to study. Say, for instance, you want to check out all flights that exceeded a certain rate of descent in the terminal area, and did so for more than 10 seconds. You can find that.

Or, if you want to flnd flights that landed more than so many pounds over the max landing weight, you can. There are hundreds of parameters that can be searched individually, or thousands of combinations can be created. There are usually certain trends that the airline wants to track at a given time, so they will search those, as well as any other trigger points that have their interest.

The information can be viewed numerically or graphically, and it can also be viewed as a video playback, which allows it to be seen in real time and in context. It’s all very slick, but it’s also very time consuming to produce the videos, so only a select few are made.

Even if the folks in the FOQA office find that certain performance parameters are being exceeded by a certain amount, they can’t just call the crew or ground them—remember, they don’t know who the crew is, and nor does the FAA. Further, cockpit voice recorder (CVR) downloads are not used. However, they can reach out to the designated representative(s) from the union, who can then “open the envelope” to see who the crew is. Only the designated contact persons can actually contact the crew, and the crew does not have to share any information at all—or they can share whatever information they want to, without fear of retribution or discipline.

The reason that the program works this way is that it is against the law to use FDRs for discipline; CVRs are not used because voices are too easy to identify. In fact, the FDR and CVR can only be used when there is an accident. For some pilots, the very thought that the FDR information can be viewed outside of an accident is unsettling. FOQA works because the respect for the privacy of the crew is not only paramount, but also it is the fundamental basis on which the program is designed.

In fact, no crew will ever know that one of its flights or actions is being scrutinized unless the designated contact person calls. More importantly, the company and the FAA will never know. The tradeoff is that the airline—and the FAA—are able to extract extremely useful information that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. As an example, a major airline was able to find out from FOQA that crews on one of its fleet types was unable to meet certain visual approach criteria at a particular airport. Thanks to the FOQA data, changes were made.

The U.S. airline industry is in the midst of an incredible run with regards to safety and accident prevention–which is proof that, done correctly, ASAP and FOQA, along with other safety and training programs, work. Industry and government have both embraced each program, and we have all embraced the results…even if we didn’t know it.—Chip Wright

How short is short?

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

What’s the shortest runway you’ve ever landed on?

The runway at Sugar Valley Airport in Mocksville, N.C., shown here, is 2,424 feet long and 36 feet wide. That’s 36 feet–widened from 25 feet. There are trees at the approach end of Runway 20. No obstructions on the other end…but if you should run into the weeds, you might end up in in a little lake.

Seventeen-year-old Zahra Khan, who learned to fly at Sugar Valley, doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. To her, 2,424 feet long and 36 feet wide is perfectly natural. It’s what she trained on and what she’s comfortable with.  Many of you most likely are, too. We should all be so well-trained and comfortable.

What’s the shortest runway you’ve ever landed on? And when was the last time you practiced a short-field landing? Share in the Comments section. —Jill W. Tallman

It looked easy on paper

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Why is the day that should be easy the one that gets difficult, and vice versa? As I write this, I’m on a trip that started off as a fairly long, potentially hard day. It was scheduled for five legs, with an airport check-in time of 6:09 in the a.m. The nine minutes is the company’s idea of being generous with extra sleep.

As a result, I woke up at four-something at the hotel in DTW to catch the 5:35 van. Our duty period was scheduled for 13 hours. Any number of things could have gone wrong. The consolation for me was twofold: The overnight was scheduled for my home city, so I could spend the night in my own bed; secondarily, the trip got easier with each day. The second day only had three legs, and it was scheduled to end at 1:30 in the afternoon. Very gentlemanly.

The first day went off without a hitch. All five legs went as planned, even with a flight attendant change in the middle and an FAA operational observation in Raleigh-Durham. We even had light loads, which always helps.

The second day did not start so promisingly. All of our flights would be full or close to it. The first one was full with a company dispatcher trying to get on our jumpseat. (Dispatchers are required to get five hours a year of observation time in the cockpit.) It was raining steadily when we got to the airport, and the weather in Memphis was lousy, which required an alternate. The closest one was Nashville, which is not close—it was 40 minutes away, so we had much more fuel than we usually do for a flight to Memphis. We spent at least 10 minutes trying to make the math work to get the dispatcher on board, and every time we thought we had it, something would change (like more luggage). It got so that not only did the dispatcher not make it, but neither did one of the passengers (who actually appeared to be quite pleased with the development).

In the middle of all of this, I had to review the MEL to make myself familiar with the procedures to use when a fuel pump is not working. The pumps are so reliable that this was only the second or third one I’d seen deferred in more than 9,000 hours in the airplane.

The end result was a late push followed by a headwind of well more than 80 knots. To add insult to injury, our gate was occupied upon arrival in Memphis, and we lost precious connection time waiting for another one. The poor visibility in the morning had slowed the operation considerably.

We made it to Cincinnati with the only aggravation being a different runway assignment than we had expected, which led to a longer-than-planned taxi, but we were still late. None of us could fly any farther without some food, so we ran to get something to take with us. And finally, fate smiled upon us: The weather system had pushed through, and the jet stream finally gave us the push we needed. We left 10 minutes late for Richmond, flew fast, and landed on time. The crew that took over the airplane had no idea how grateful we were to see them.

I handed the captain the keys, packed my bags, and bid him fare thee well. Oh, and by the way, there’s this fuel pump issue you should be aware of…—Chip Wright

ASAP

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Aviation, if you haven’t noticed, is loaded with abbreviations and acronyms. There are FARs, the AIM, MAPs (not to be confused with maps), ILSs, and DHs, METARS, TAFs, and NOTAMS. Airspace used to have TRSAs, ARSAS, and TCAs…and I haven’t even mentioned NASA, which speaks acronym-ese. Speaking of NASA, all pilots are able to participate in the ASRS program, which brings me to ASAP.

ASAP stands for Aviation Action Safety Program, and it is commonly in use at Part 121 air carriers. At first glance, it appears to be just like the ASRS program, and it is…sort of. Like the ASRS, pilots and other participating employees can self-disclose when they make a mistake. For example, if a pilot taxis two feet over the hold-short line for a runway, he is guilty of a committing a runway incursion. Now, it is possible that the controller never saw it because of the vantage point of the tower. It’s also possible that no other aircraft was affected.

But the pilot still made a mistake and inadvertently violated a federal aviation regulation. Worse, it’s an area in which the FAA has been aggressive in the last few years to change pilot behavior because the safety ramifications and some accidents.

With ASAP, the pilot is able to fill out a form (usually online) and explain what happened, and if possible, why. In this case, it might be something simple (“I just screwed up.”) or it might be a previously unknown safety issue (“The paint was difficult to see, especially at night,” or “The flashing lights were not working”). The report then goes to a central data base where it is reviewed by a committee.

The committee can be called any number of things, but what’s important is who is on it. At unionized carriers (which is almost all of them), the committee consists of a representative from the FAA, the airline’s safety department, and the safety committee of the union. You typically won’t see chief pilots or anybody who can impose discipline on the pilots. The reason is that the program is built on trust and confidentiality.

Once the report is opened by the committee, they discuss it in detail, and decide how to act on it. If, in the above case, they agree that the incursion was simply inadvertent, they may close the report. Or, if they suspect something else may have been involved, such as fatigue or poor judgment, they may call one or both pilots in for questioning to see what might be done to prevent similar problems in the future. If the problem is poor paint or broken lights or a bad airport diagram, then the information is forwarded to the appropriate people as quickly as possible.

The only time a pilot can face discipline is if the committee agrees that the pilot deliberately violated a FAR or exercised poor judgment, or if the infraction was reported from someone other than the pilot (the assumption then is that the pilot may have gotten caught anyway, even without participation in the ASAP program). Acknowledging that you crossed a hold-short line because you were discussing impact of artificial turf on the lifetime batting stats of career designated hitters is bound to get you not only called in, but also may lead to a Letter of Warning from the FAA.

The overwhelming number of reports in ASAP files fall under “Oops!” banner, but many go deeper than that. Pilots can also report on any aspect of their company or FAA operation that they feel needs to be addressed. Examples run the gamut: Poorly designed approach and arrival procedures have been flushed out; better operational practices have been developed; charting errors have been corrected more quickly; and most importantly, better training has occurred because of the ASAP umbrella. ASAP is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s a tool that is used by the airline, the FAA, and the pilot community to maintain the highest level of safety.

There is much more to the program than what I have described, and it goes beyond pilots. Mechanics, dispatchers, and flight attendants can also craft ASAP programs, and the air traffic controllers also have their own. There have been a few instances when ASAP programs have been shut down by a participating group, and when that happens it almost always comes down to the suspicion that the necessary level of trust has been breached. Airlines and labor don’t always get along, but with ASAP, the level of trust is high, and the real beneficiary is not the participants, but the traveling public.—By Chip Wright

How we get the shots: May 2012 cover

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Call us wimps, but your Flight Training editors weren’t willing to put a perfectly good airplane down in a field so as to provide that extra level of realism needed to illustrate “You Were Ready for This,” which appears on p. 24 of the May 2012 issue.

But we–that is, I was willing to allow my 1964 Piper Cherokee to be towed into the grass beside Taxiway H at Frederick Municipal Airport. Then, photographer Chris Rose took to the skies in a helicopter (supplied by Advanced Helicopter Concepts) to get shots of my airplane from overhead.

Chris Anderberg, who works in our accounting and finance department, portrayed a pilot who has successfully executed an off-airport landing and is checking out the possible “damages.” (We often grab unsuspecting colleagues out of their cubicles and offices to play bemused, scared, excited, or frustrated pilots. They usually deliver the goods.)

With base shots in place, Rose used Photoshop to remove the surrounding airport environment (which includes a row of hangars, runways, taxiways, and a brand-new air traffic control tower) and put in some furrows.

Now that you know, how do you think he did? –Jill W. Tallman

Truly rare events

Friday, April 6th, 2012

For more than 20 years I’ve been flying airplanes, 15 of them for an airline. As a student and a flight instructor, one skill I practiced repeatedly was the missed approach (or go-around for VFR flying). It’s a critical task to be able to do in any possible landing configuration in any airplane. If you want proof, try doing one in a heavy Cessna 150 with 40 degrees of flaps on a hot day. It’s a challenge, to say the least, and it requires a fair amount of finesse to do well. As an instructor, I probably did no fewer than five go-arounds or missed approaches on a given day. Any that were done for real were almost always done because the preceding traffic was still on the runway.

In airline flying, however, they are exceedingly rare. Controllers handle the spacing, and even when there is a snafu, the missed approach is almost always done in visual meteorological conditions, and it almost always starts from an altitude of 500 feet or above.

What is even more rare, though, is to do one because of weather. I can recall doing fewer than 10 for wind shear or a microburst that beat me to the airport. And I have only done two—two—because we could not see the runway. The first one was an ILS in low ceilings but with good visibility beneath in Charleston, West Virginia. In fact, we saw the runway on the go-around. We came back around and landed on the second try.

The most recently was in January 2012. I was flying the right seat with a simulator instructor in the left. Both of us were slightly out of our element. The weather everywhere that day had been lousy, and we’d already done three ILS approaches to minimums, including our previous leg into Cincinnati that morning. The weather was down to a ceiling of 100 feet and a reported visibility on Runway 18L of a half-mile with the runway visual range hovering at 2,400 feet. The previous aircraft got in, but the crew reported that it was awfully close. We quickly reviewed the missed approach procedure again and went over the calls.

Since I was the nonflying pilot on this leg, it was up to me to make the altitude calls, and it would be up to me to call for the missed approach if the captain did not see the approach lights or the runway. One thing that experience teaches you is that the color of the clouds changes fairly dramatically when you near the base and will break out. These clouds stayed battleship gray. Further, we were flying into the sun, which did not help. The radar altimeter told us when we were crossing the Ohio River. The river and its deep valley have a stark impact on the local weather, and today was no exception. There was no sign of the runway at 500 feet above the minimum descent altitude. No sign of it either at 200 feet or at 100 feet. At the MDA/decision height, I called missed approach. We never once saw the ground.

Normally, an airline crew going missed is all thumbs because of the lack of practice. This one, though, was right out of the book. We had to deal with a flurry of activity in the ensuing minutes as we planned our next course of action. The flight behind us also went missed, and the controllers immediately turned the airport around, which opened the Category II approach to Runway 36R; the RVR was down to 1,600 feet, and the ceiling was holding steady. Our immediate concern was whether or not we had the fuel to do another approach and still safely divert. A call to our dispatcher confirmed that several airports within close range had VFR weather. His fuel computations matched ours, so we decided to try it again.

They only procedure that is on par for me as an unseen runway is a Category II ILS. This was only my fourth one, and it was my first from the right seat (we fly the CAT II as a captain’s-only maneuver). Being two miles from the top of the river valley made all the difference. We got the lights in sight just before reaching our DH, and in the blink of an eye, we had the runway in sight.

There is a lot of satisfaction in executing a difficult maneuver correctly, and a go-around can certainly qualify, especially with tail-mounted engines and wings with no slats. But the training and practice pay off, and that is critical when you are starting the maneuver so close to the ground that you might actually bounce. I haven’t done that yet, so I can’t help but wonder what it’s like…—Chip Wright

Training showcased at Sun ‘n Fun

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Usually airshows such as Sun ‘n Fun and EAA Airventure in Oshkosh are dominated by news from aircraft manufacturers, GPS makers, and headset companies. Rarely is flight training ever discussed or featured. This year’s Sun ‘n Fun was different. There were a number of exciting announcements, including some from AOPA. Here’s a wrap-up:

Redbird

When a simulator company announces the biggest nonairplane order of any company at Sun ‘n Fun, you take notice. Redbird is growing at a breakneck pace, and the company’s $1 million sale to a Brazilian customer was some of the top news of the show. With the simulated ATC program Parrot now shipping, look for more to come.

King Schools

You probably know King Schools from the company’s video training. Now they are getting into the business of requalifying flight instructors. A new Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic will be aimed not at traditional content, such as FARs and aerodynamics, but rather on soft subjects, such as how to make sure your students pass the checkride, and how to get better at teaching risk management. I couldn’t be more excited about this. Flight instructors treat FIRCs much like students treat the written test. It’s a hurdle with little applicability to the real world. I’m hoping the King Schools course is a good step toward changing that.

AOPA

Of course I had to throw in AOPA’s news. The association is doubling down on its efforts to grow the pilot population. We’re creating a center within the organization dedicated to the flight training initiative, and strengthening the pilot community. It’s a sign of the association’s commitment to fixing the problems we face.

As another part of the press conference, we announced the latest winners to the flight training scholarship program. There are some great stories here, so make sure you take a look and apply again later this year if you didn’t win this time.

Piper

Every pilot in the world, and many people who aren’t pilots, recognize the Piper J-3 Cub. Finally, someone who leads Piper Aircraft recognizes them as well. For far too long the company has ignored its flight training heritage and has not embraced its roots. People have a deep love and affection for the Cub, and while Piper has known enough to sell a few hats and T-shirts around the iconic  brand, it’s done nothing to further capitalize on the good feelings the Cub brings about. For the first time in some years, Piper displayed a Cub at the show. No, don’t get too excited because it will be a cold day in product liability litigation before the company will manufacturer them again, but at least they are telling us they get it. And to top it off, new President Simon Caldecott said, “I want to get Piper heavy back into the training business.”

Sennheiser

Didn’t win a flight training scholarship from AOPA? Try again with Sennheiser. The headset company is launching its Live Your Dream campaign, which provides eight $1,500 scholarships. Applications will open in May.

Did you go to Sun ‘n Fun this year? What did you think about the show? What was your impression for those who went for the first time?—Ian J. Twombly