Hi, I’m Bruce Landsberg and welcome to the Leading Edge. We’ll discuss safety-of-flight issues, procedures, techniques, and judgment. With the convective nature of Internet misinformation, and so much content that is over weight and out of balance, you need an experienced and trusted source. So, strap in and let’s go fly!

Pissing genies and the aircraft electric

May 6, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

genie-blogWith apologies for the headline, writer Earnest K. Gann eloquently stated that, “Somewhere in the heavens there is a great invisible genie who every so often lets down his pants and pisses all over the pillars of science.” Despite advanced and redundant systems we remain as vulnerable as ever.

Engines and certain mechanical systems were often the reason of a cancelled flight but perhaps not so much anymore. It’s software and the millions of lines of code that lie embedded in the magic that run the show and periodically cancel it as well. For GA, this is instructive.

The Boeing 787 has an AD against it now with the unusual warning that the beast needs to be totally powered down at least once every 284 days. Never knew it needed to stay plugged in for that long, and the electric bill must be impressive. Apparently there’s a troll hiding in the code, which if not appeased will simultaneously take down all four of the aircraft’s generators. Quadruple simultaneous failures are so irritating.

For your consideration: Some years ago I had to scrub a trip because, immediately after engine start, the tower couldn’t hear my transmissions. I could hear them just fine. This was a new aircraft with a full glass panel and lots of redundancy. Taxied down to the local avionics shop where they proceeded to run various tests. After several hours of troubleshooting they still hadn’t found the problem. Next day, pulling various boards, swapping things around and reseating cards, the fault mysteriously cleared. The genie had wandered off to rain on someone else’s parade.

On a day VFR flight in an old technology aircraft, I was unable to transmit while approaching class Delta airspace. Neither comm radio worked. Tried swapping headsets, using different push-to-talk switches, even the hand-held mike. Nothing. For the first time in two decades of carrying a handheld radio—and not storing dead batteries in it, as my friend Rod Machado likes to remind us—that seemed like it might be the salvation. Didn’t work.

The dreaded light gun signals were a distinct possibility. You remember—the alternating red and green that says the airport restaurant is closed on Monday, the green that advises avgas is less than $5 per gallon and the flashing red that reminds us not to forget Mother’s Day—or something like that.

But then, inspiration. Perhaps the rubber duck antenna just didn’t have the punch. This aircraft was equipped with a coax connector to one of the aircraft antennas. Plugged that hummer in and voila… the tower could hear us, confirmed the airport restaurant was open, and provided landing clearance.

Despite having perfectly good radios there was a single point failure in the system and the genie found it. The transmit relay failed, and the ship’s radios were struck mute. I recently installed a separate comm antenna and coax on my aircraft as a hedge against such an occurrence because genies are a persistent bunch.

The latest genie sighting was a doozy! American Airlines’ iPad app crashed, and despite dual pads in every cockpit, the crews couldn’t access their charts. Dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed. What a mess! Address one problem and then the genie finds another way to get you. The more things change… Ask Boeing or Airbus.

One more thought: Remember never to drop the aircraft to deal with troublesome genies. Distraction is almost always a key link in the accident chain.

What’s your genie story and how did you resolve it?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Placards needed or are we idiots?

April 22, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

Placard blurred A36 Seat Back

Most of the placards plastered on my aircraft are just there, like wall paper, and I usually look right through them. But while communing with the aircraft one rainy afternoon in the hangar, I got to thinking about why they existed—did the FAA require them or did the manufacturer get sued for not telling someone to do or not do something? Some seemed legitimate and others were laughable.

Several remind us of FARs or good operating practice. Perhaps they do no harm but it goes to familiarity with the machine and actually thinking about what we’re doing. Aircraft are like chainsaws—they do what they do very well but must be treated with much respect.

This collection is from my Bonanza: Check local listings for aircraft you fly.

Verify door is properly latched before Takeoff

Duh, seems self-evident. Many aircraft have a double latch, and they both must be engaged or the door will come open. In my Bonanza door experience, the top latch popped open about an hour into the flight. Fortunately it was in Florida on a nice day with only 20 minutes to our destination. The bottom latch held, but it was breezy and noisy. Passenger had closed the door—now I always close it unless it’s a Bonanza passenger who knows what will happen, but I still verify.

The second instance was shortly after door maintenance: It closed properly but popped after two hours as we entered the traffic pattern (won’t go back to that shop!). No problem: Just fly and do not drop the aircraft to attempt closing the door, because closing is not an option. They open doors in flight test knowing that it’s bound to happen. While inconvenient and sometimes somewhat expensive, production aircraft will be completely controllable.

The A36 aft utility doors are a different matter. There is an annunciator light directly in front of the pilot to remind us that a door(s) may be departing the aircraft if not latched. Again, the aircraft will fly just fine, and A36s without aft doors are regularly used as photo platforms. But located on the aft cabin wall, where you probably wouldn’t notice it:

When utility doors are removed–No smoking, all loose objects must be secured. Personnel not secured in seat by safety belts must wear parachutes

“Excuse me Captain, I seem to have set the back of the airplane on fire…was just having a little smoke…” or “My prized anvil collection just went overboard—can we go back and get it?” or “Has anybody seen your mother-in-law lately? She was here just a minute ago.” Kidding aside, there must be some sad history to this placard. Seems like this would be obvious but…

Fuel selectors fall into the “basket of snakes” category for me. Handle them very carefully because engines get fussy when not fed.

Position selector in detents only–No fuel flow between detents

This placard is placed directly on the selector, so if you went to the trouble of reading it presumably you’d know to put the pointer in a detent. Just reaching down and moving the handle is not a good idea, but then you wouldn’t see the placard. Hmmmm.

Left–Right & Off not in same positions on all Bonanzas

Those fun-loving Beech engineers are always changing things up. Again, this goes to knowing your aircraft. “Your honor, my client crashed because—well—he put the fuel selector where he always positioned it. It was a different airplane but the blinking engine just stopped—how was he to know that ‘OFF’ wasn’t the right tank?”

Fuel selectors should command your undivided attention. That means LOOK even though you’ve moved them a thousand times.

We could go on for much longer but here’s a final reminder:

Shoulder harness must be worn at pilot positions for Takeoff and Landing. Seat back must not be in full back position

The first part of this is a reminder of what’s in the regulation. If the aircraft is so equipped, you’re smart and legal to wear the harness. As for the second part—any flight operation would be by braille as the pilot would be staring at the ceiling of the aircraft. There either was an idiot who tried it or the attorneys just think we’re idiots. Either way, it’s not a vote of confidence.

Any good placards on your aircraft you’d like to share?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Media madness and dangers of flight

April 8, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

ox cartJust when the fear-of-flying hysteria couldn’t get worse it did. How does this affect GA? The Germanwings tragedy is high on everyone’s mind right now and Talk TV is trying to assess the mental health of pilots while messing up everyone else’s with their inane commentary. In my prior life overseeing nuclear weapons (which my friends acknowledge is a scary thought itself) there was a simple solution: The no-lone-zone, two-officer policy made it somewhat difficult to start WWIII on a whim. An adoption of that concept and perhaps a one-time user code that allows pilots leaving the cockpit reentry privileges might resolve all this without subjecting us all to Rorschach tests.

But maybe you could use a laugh about now.

There’s a travel site (that shall remain unidentified so their ad count won’t get any higher) that compiled a “Fear of Flying” list of things the flight crew will never tell you. This is a travel site that depends on people to fly to places, most of which aren’t accessible by oxcart, llama, or whatever other means they think we should be using to cover long distances!!! So let the stupidity begin. (I promise to get back to serious safety in the next blog.)

This does make GA travel look much more inviting—but perhaps I’m a bit prejudiced:

  • Germs—did you know there are germs from the prior occupants on airliners? Fact: The armrests, tray tables, and seat pockets don’t get wiped down except in the evenings and perhaps not to surgical standards. Think of movie theaters, restaurants, and hotel rooms. It’s shocking that the world is not a sterile environment, but most people do reasonably well with some basic precautions.
  • Pilots are unnecessary and the aircraft can do everything themselves. The only reason for a crew (according to the authors) is that, “Airlines continue to allow the pilots the control just to make them feel important.” I never thought of airline management as being that benevolent! There may ultimately be a shred of truth to this someday, but we’re not close to that yet.
  • Rapid decompression—where one of the “tiny doors” (over-the-wing exits) blows out and you know what happens next: “The aircraft slowly disintegrates.” Not aware that it’s ever happened. It’s a good idea to keep the seatbelt fastened for a variety of reasons, but getting sucked out of the aircraft is really low on the list. They go on to say that the oxygen supply only last 15 minutes, which is more than enough to get to breathable altitudes, but the crew doesn’t tell you that either. We’re also not informed that fuel supply is finite or that the biffy holding tanks have limited capacity well beyond their planned usage! Ramp holds are not included.
  • Pilots don’t eat airline food because it might make them sick. More likely to be psychological discomfort as opposed to gastrointestinal, but not many airlines serve meals these days. There are more likely food-borne illnesses from airport fare that could affect a crew but that doesn’t fit the editorial premise. Crews may flip a coin to see who gets steak and who eats tofu on long distance flights so they aren’t exposed to the same entrée, but it’s all airline food to my knowledge.
  • The “little black boxes,” which are actually orange, are not “totally indestructible.” Who knew? Why not build the entire aircraft like a black box, the inquisitive journalists wanted to know? But they sensibly acknowledge it would be too heavy to fly!
  • Climate change is causing additional turbulence and subsequent risk to aircraft—an interesting observation but no evidence cited. (Note, this is not a climate change discussion.)
  • Being on the ground is not perfectly safe because of possible collision. I’ll take my chances any day on our runways and taxiways versus the highways.
  • Any finally—the prepackaged recycled headset that was cleaned by “bored airline employees” may expose your ears to all sorts of nasty things. Wondered if that was sponsored by Bose, Sony, or Dr. Dre?

GA, despite the fact we are more weather dependent has some real positives:

  • There’s always a window seat with a fabulous view! The tiny door will not blow out on non-pressurized aircraft, although it may open if not closed properly.
  • You’ll never be late for a flight and can depart early or late, depending on your schedule.
  • Chances are you’ll have much more legroom.
  • Luggage generally gets to the planned destination and, although there may be a limit, there’s never a charge for bags.
  • The flight will be direct to your destination except for ATC-induced perturbations, but the connecting flight—if any—will always wait.
  • There’s no question who’s on the aircraft and what they are carrying, and no invasive search or long wait prior to boarding.
  • The food is of our choosing, as is the entertainment—and best of all, NO prepackaged headsets!
  • The company may be better but that’s a judgment call.

Obviously there are some downsides and our passengers should be properly informed. The risk is higher than the airlines but it can be well managed, if we are inclined to do so.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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