Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

TSOs, STCs, and PMAs—Time for a change!

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016
172 panel

Six-pack C172 panel

Dynon Skyview PDF

Dynon Skyview PFD

A fatal V-35 Bonanza crash in New York earlier this month highlights some desperately needed changes to our aging aircraft. Comments about the crash are speculative as the investigation is in the preliminary stage. Early information said the pilot mentioned a loss of the vacuum pump and flight instruments while on an IFR flight in weather. Without solid backup equipment or expert pilot response that usually leads to a spiral dive and an unhappy outcome. And, when the autopilot is needed the most, the brains (the attitude indicator) are rendered inoperable. This is, unfortunately, a timely reminder of something that both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the AOPA Air Safety Institute (ASI) have been focusing on over the last several years—loss of control (LOC). See ASI’s Aerodynamics Safety Spotlight for an arrangement of LOC-prevention education, such as the benefits of angle of attack indicators, how to prevent power-on stalls, as well as understanding the pros and cons of maneuvering flight, and preventing and recognizing spatial disorientation.

While earning the instrument rating, we all demonstrated our partial-panel prowess a few times under controlled circumstances—it can be done, as you’ll see below, but it’s challenging. In my view, it’s better to have solid instrumentation (redundancy and an autopilot) that’s easy to use, reliable, and affordable rather than depend on one’s obviously superior piloting skills!

Years ago, a 25-hour vacuum pump failed me in solid IMC near Peoria, Illinois. The Piper Turbo Arrow had no alternate vacuum, just the good old turn coordinator to keep things upright. Called Peoria approach for vectors to the ILS with weather reported at about 400 overcast and two miles visibility. Perhaps I was luckier than being good, and a backup system was installed before the next IFR flight.

That 1977 aircraft was built long before we learned that vacuum pumps are about as reliable as campaign promises. In the early 80’s, the industry standard became two pumps for any new IFR-certificated aircraft and accidents due to pump failure declined. We’ll have to wait for the final report on the Bonanza to learn more and perhaps why the pilot didn’t have another instrument power supply if that’s the case. With the arrival of electronic flight bags (EFB) and synthetic vision, there’s yet another alternative so everyone’s encouraged to have an out when flying in any serious IMC.

There’s some hope on the artificial horizon but it can’t come fast enough for the victims of the New York accident and the others that will die in IMC loss-of-control accidents before the rules change. The FAA, AOPA, General Aviation Manufacturers Association ( GAMA), and EAA have been working on this for years. Finally, Congress got involved, directing the agency to have a new rule in place by the end of 2015. You may have noticed we’re a little behind.

It’s hard to believe, but in this 21st century experimental aircraft are flying every day in IMC with non-technical standard order (TSO) approved avionics. I don’t recall hearing of many loss-of-control accidents due to failed electronic primary flight displays (PFD) because they have the needed redundancy built in.

The FAA and EAA recently announced a supplemental type certificate project for a Dynon non-TSO’d attitude indicator that has been used on many experimental aircraft to be allowed in certificated aircraft. The FAA defines, “A supplemental type certificate (STC) is a type certificate (TC) issued when an applicant has received FAA approval to modify an aeronautical product from its original design.” That’s good but still only a half step forward since it only applies to a very small subset of aircraft, many of which don’t spend much time in IMC.

More than 30 years ago the FAA made a change when FAR Part 23 was developed that mandated any required equipment must meet an FAA TSO. “A TSO is a minimum performance standard for specified materials, parts, and appliances used on civil aircraft. When authorized to manufacture a material, part, or appliances to a TSO standard, this is referred to as TSO authorization…” Wait, there’s more, “Receiving a TSO authorization is not an approval to install and use the article in the aircraft.” Only in Federal regulation can there be such an Alice-in-Wonderland rule.

This was a major change because non-TSO’d equipment was perfectly acceptable under the FAA’s predecessor manufacturing rule, CAR 3. There was absolutely no data showing that it was unsafe and this also was about the time prices started a rapid upward spiral. Coincidence? It also set a bad precedent by lumping all Part 23 aircraft into one bucket—anything from a Cessna 172 to a Citation was treated the same! That will presumably change under the revised rule.

AOPA and GAMA have been pushing the FAA to go well beyond the recent STC discussion to allow proven non-TSO’d equipment in certificated aircraft. There are some other paths through the woods, as well, such as a parts manufacturing approval (PMA.) It opens the door for some desperately needed upgrades. The equipment could be signed off as a minor modification, as appropriate, by a mechanic or avionics technician.

Might there be some miscues in the transition? Possibly, but rest assured that the marketplace will self-correct much faster than the regulatory system through the courts and social media. Remember that a TSO, STC, or PMA doesn’t shield a manufacturer from liability—an interesting interpretation of federal preemption in all matters aviation—but that’s another discussion.

It’s well past time to recognize that while a fully TSO’d avionics upgrade may be the perfect solution it is unaffordable and thus unobtainable for much of the aging fleet that needs it the most. The “perfect” is the enemy of the “much better.” Non-TSO’d PFD systems (that have been tested tens of thousands of times without failures resulting in a fatal accident) from major avionics manufacturers, with every redundancy included, cost about half of the currently approved systems.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants lousy, poorly engineered, possibly dangerous equipment installed, but the pendulum has swung too far. I’m certain there will be a provision to keep Bruce’s New-Age Avionics & Storm Door Company products from being approved until there is a solid track record or other means acceptable to the administrator. Perhaps the industry will rapidly embrace the idea of consensus standards.

The overhaul to FAR Part 23 is just completing the public comment stage. It will likely be at least another year or more before any real change is seen in the field to start installing equipment. Please prove me wrong! To my FAA friends—please, there needs to be a sense of urgency. Perhaps the NTSB will join in the quest.

The New York accident and others like it result in massively expensive litigation with lives lost, general aviation gets another black eye, and this industry continues in its own LOC spiral. Bottom line: The new equipment works very well, costs considerably less, and requires much less partial-panel training to save lives. Sign me up.

Riding the wave

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016
Cumulus Fractus—a rough ride!

Cumulus Fractus—a rough ride!

March was in like a Lion and out like a Rhinoceros this year. The winds were fierce and contributed to several accidents, as they always do. The airlines had several incidents with passengers and flight attendants injured, and tractor trailers were blown off the road.

Had a flight from the southland up to the Washington, D. C. area at the end of March. The day before departure a stationary front dumped a lot of rain in the Carolinas leaving behind low visibilities, but it looked reasonable to fly through the IMC remnants of the front albeit into a tight wind gradient on the north end.

There were some airmets for turbulence, standard fare in March, but I missed two subtle clues. First, the top for moderate turbulence extended up to 15,000 feet—more than the usual 10,000 feet. Second, the winds aloft at 7,000 were booming out of the west at 45 to 50 knots as opposed to the standard 30 knots or so. There were no pireps of anyone complaining about anything at low altitude, so I expected nothing more than a few jolts on descent.

Airborne at the crack of 0930—for the first two hours there wasn’t a bump, but a 15-degree crab angle confirmed a ripping 90-degree crosswind. The Appalachian mountains inconveniently interfere with the northern part of the route rising to about 4,000 feet—paltry by western standards but enough to be a potent weather maker. Clouds are the signposts and the fair weather cumulus had that shredded look, which telegraphs turbulence.

The autopilot gave the first indication that it might get lively. While it perfectly maintained 7,000 feet, indicated airspeed dropped from 145 knots to 115 knots. Mountain wave. While still 100 miles from the hills, ATC granted my request for 9,000. Should’ve asked sooner. Despite a light load and full power, the best the Bonanza could manage was about 200 feet per minute, when it was climbing at all. After several minutes of trying to go up the down escalator and watching engine temperatures climb I advised ATC that 9,000 might not be in the cards today. A block of 8,000 to 9,000 was granted.

Now the bumps started in earnest and could conservatively be described as “enthusiastic.” I filed a pirep. ATC acknowledged there was a lot of that going around and handed us off to the next sector to start the descent.

The perversity of weather never fails to disappoint, because now we were in the up part of the wave. Powered back gradually to the bottom of the green arc on manifold pressure and deployed speed brakes—the landing gear. Maneuvering speed should be considered the upper limit of how fast to go in moderate turbulence, and slower is better. We settled at about 110 knots—comfortably into the white arc on airspeed—and were coming down at a leisurely 200 feet per minute, mostly, with periodic sucker punches to liven things up. Once more, I advised ATC that it would be awhile before we could get to the assigned altitude, and I filed my second pirep about 50 miles from where the saga had begun.

The controller again acknowledged there was a lot of that going around and in a true act of charity cleared us direct to destination, which shifted the route away from the terrain. That was closer to arrival and departures at Washington Dulles International Airport, but we’d gotten low enough to not be a major disruption. Many thanks!

A nice story, but I’ll gratuitously use this as more than just a hangar tale. Pireps are a potential lifeline and the ATC guidance for controllers recognizes that as well. Their manual (FAA Air Traffic Control Handbook Order 7110-65requires that controllers solicit pireps whenever an airmet is in effect. Some do, and some don’t. The system for getting these critical reports to the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City—which issues and modifies pireps—is cumbersome, at best.

In this scenario had there been pireps of strong wave action with up and downdrafts, I either would have delayed the flight until the following day or, more likely, shifted my route a hundred miles east to avoid the worst of the wave and rotor action. ATC, within the sectors, knew the flight conditions but that info was not widely known elsewhere.

We don’t lose many aircraft to turbulence, but about 1.5 fatal accidents per month occur due to VFR into IMC and roughly 6 accidents per year each from ice and convective encounters. Airmets are, by necessity, a crude method to warn pilots—and they often over warn of conditions because the forecast models just aren’t that accurate. Many pilots come to ignore them and go out to “take a look.” With timely airborne observations (pireps), forecasts, flight experiences, and flight completions can be improved significantly. In a dozen or so cases a year, it’s my belief that lives can be saved as well. Here are two AOPA Air Safety Institute accident case studies on icing alone where timely pireps could have made all the difference: Accident Case Study: Delayed Reaction and Accident Case Study: Airframe Icing.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is concluding a special investigation on the role of pireps and will be holding a public forum in Washington, D.C., (June 21st and 22nd) to make recommendations on how to improve our weather forecasting and reporting system. I’ll plan to be there and perhaps you will, too. In any case—please—if you see something, say something. It may or may not get into the system but it may save someone from a rough ride or a really bad day.

Please comment below on your experiences where a pirep made or would have made a difference. We’ll submit comments to the NTSB for the forum.

This isn’t about complaining—it’s about fixing the system, improving utility so that more trips can be safely completed, and helping pilots to make good decisions about when or when not to fly. Ultimately, the best solution will be a Waze-type application where we can submit a quick pirep using our electronic flight bags via UAT ADS-B datalink. That may take some technology but in the interim—speak up, pro or con, and we’ll submit comments to the NTSB.

Fix it!

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016
20160307_134354 Plug gapping device

                    Plug gapping device

If the hardware doesn’t work it’s inconvenient and sometimes a crash is a distinct possibility. Early pilots got very good at forced landings and at fixing their aircraft. Often it was in a farmer’s field after an unplanned stop.

Modern aircraft are paragons of reliability but they don’t come close to matching that most ubiquitous transportation device, the automobile. It’s both naive and risky to equate the two. At present writing the third leading probable cause of fatalities in GA is an engine stoppage after takeoff. Sometimes it’s something the pilot did—usually relating to fuel—but in many cases something broke.

Annual inspections for certificated aircraft were established decades ago. In some cases, depending on use and complexity of aircraft, that may be too much and in others it might not be quite enough. Your mileage and opinion will vary.

I’m in the midst of my second owner-assisted annual, and my respect for mechanics and shops grows with each encounter—at least for the ones I’m working with. There are plenty of bad examples and I’ve dealt with a few.

There’s nothing unusual about my aircraft, which is approaching its 29th birthday. By automotive standards it would likely be a meticulously maintained classic, driven only on sunny days, or a clunker. It’s neither. So a few stories and pictures from the toolbox.

Techs can usually tell in the first 15 to 20 minutes how an aircraft has been treated and something about the owner. The first thing on the checklist (as essential for maintenance techs as it is for pilots) is to start the engine to get a general assessment. Fire that puppy up, let her idle, and then full throttle (engine was warm since I’d just landed) to see how it behaves. This is also a good test of the brakes. It’s not recommended that the aircraft be facing away from the hangar, although the shop team has examples and epithets for pilots leaving the premises who’ve forgotten about prop blast. That, or they were just in a hurry to leave town.

After a couple of oil changes I’ve learned about the sharpness of safety wire in safetying oil filters, so nothing to report there. Spark plugs and injectors are the lifeblood of our engines and must be periodically checked. In some aircraft getting to the lower plugs is child’s play—in others you need the left-handed, double articulated, maniacal ratchet set with optional S-curved breaker bar. Even though this is basic maintenance that the FAA allows us to do, to do it well there are some specialized tools.

First stop was the cleaning and spark testing station followed by a resistance check. Ideally plugs should have relatively low resistance, but as they age—somewhat like pilots—the resistance to almost everything builds. This puts a real strain on the magnetos. Last year the plugs were so recalcitrant the entire crew was voted out of office, but the new team is doing much better.

20160307_143446 Plugs and torque

                    Plugs and torque wrench

There’s a lead fouling vibrator that cleans way down in the electrodes, similar to a dental hygienist digging out plaque, and finally a re-gapping device to set that all-critical space to get the spark just right. Putting it all back together requires all the attachments mentioned above, except that inbound it must be appropriately tightened with the L-278B super-platinum triple helical torque ratchet drive. No wonder the Snap-on guys drive such fancy trucks!

The fuel injectors were removed, bathed in solvent, followed by a rinse and a blow dry. Never got that kind of attention at a barber shop, even when I had hair. A smaller version of the plug torque wrench is used here.

Next came a compression and borescope test. The first is similar to blood pressure, the second is more gastrointestinal and we’ll leave it at that. Exhaust valves take a tremendous beating and whenever the plugs are out it’s really smart to look inside. The AOPA Air Safety Institute has a great poster to help pilots and mechanics evaluate valves, and if this is done regularly chances are excellent you’ll catch something before it becomes unpleasant. Green is a nasty color for valves. It’s much better for them to look like a pizza, and all mine needed were some cheese and pepperoni. Whew!

20160308_080705 Landing gear assembly

                    Landing gear assembly

The airframe is a bit easier, but with retractable landing gear it needs to fold appropriately and not when it shouldn’t. It’s a great investment to have a tech who knows your model of machine intimately so both of you aren’t looking at the gear together for the first time.

The sad truth is that some owners are not diligent on maintenance, and a gear failure often results in the insurance company parting the aircraft out for salvage. When the total bill is added up—including airframe repair, new prop, and very likely an engine overhaul—their logic is clear. But it’s one less aircraft in our fleet and unlikely to be replaced any time soon. Invest wisely.

Admittedly, I like the shop environment. In a quality operation there’s a no-nonsense feeling of pride: quiet professionals understanding the responsibility they have for our well-being. The world in general could use more of that spirit.

What are some of your maintenance experiences—both good and bad? Was there anything that you learned that would help others?