Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

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?


Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Bird Strike edited without bannerIt’s always good to review basics and one we hear ALL the time is fly the aircraft first—no matter what! This month’s blog is inspired by a New Zealand pilot who further reminds us that the little bird—little aircraft—big sky theory doesn’t always work. (You may recall a minor incident over the Hudson River involving an Airbus a few years back that illustrates how birds can ruin your day.)

This is from pilot Mike Greenwood, edited for length but much worth the read. I’ll have some closing commentary.

“Bird strike smashes through plane’s windshield @ 5,000′
The Eagle and the Sportsman

Bobby, my dog, and I took off in a Glassair Sportsman from the Gold Coast destined for home base Moruya [on the] south coast of NSW [North South Wales] for Christmas.

We were cruising on autopilot at about 140 knots at about 5,500’…when BANG!!what seemed like an explosion which continued with loud noise of air and engine screaming.

I saw an instant of a large bird spread-eagled across the windscreen as it smashed straight through hitting my face. This left me unable to see or hear because my face and eyes were covered in blood, and my headsets were ripped off in pieces. There was horrendous noise of high speed air rushing in the cockpit with no windscreen…as the plane plummeted downwards.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 4.37.49 PMIn the first minutes…I couldn’t see or hear anything. But then my first glimpse…was about to hit the mountains. After dodging…I was fighting to climb. Pushed everything forwardpower, pitch, and mixture, and kept pulling on stick. I was unable to see airspeedslower was better for air rushing but didn’t want to stall…tachometer at over 2700 rpm.

… despite having to wrestle controls I was not spinning or banking so perhaps wing or tail damage not too bad. I was concentrating on mental picture of mountains to fly through the gaps from memory.

Once I stabilized…and beginning to climb I worked on clearing right eye with shirt. My decision that I had lost my left eye saved my life because then I thought, “…stop wasting time on it and try to clear the right eye.” [Comment: Got to focus on the main thingsurvival! ]

Bobby, my canine co-pilot strapped behind me, was so calm. It helped me focus.

Now being able to see more out of that right eye the cockpit and screens were covered in blood…struggled to get position on bloodied maps. Thought two birds were jammed beside me (which later proved to be one large eagle) with feathers and blood everywhere.

Tried to locate the headsets that were blasted off my head by following the cable, but there were just some wires with the boom mic still hanging on and a broken ear cup. So I shouted a Mayday call into it while pushing transmitter button on joystick, but could not see through blood on maps to give much position. I didn’t expect it worked anyway.

The flying…was like trying to push an open bucket through the air instead of a streamlined nose cone. [Comment: After such an event, we become test pilots so changes must be done carefully and analyticallyvery easy to say sitting here, not at all easy in-situ!] But also some of the battle was interference from the auto pilot servos.

With no headsets to communicate with I sent texts to friend in USA knowing he could contact airport control and emergency. I tried to steer further right toward Canberra and away from mountains while texting my friend.

Looking for the iPad fixed to roof, it was covered in blood. I could see some yellow (indicating an urban area)…maybe Bathurst, Orange, or even Goulburn. I texted new plan to friend in U.S. and tried another Mayday call.

I had fought the auto pilot continuously because it could not hold the plane up against force of air into cockpit. I had to disconnect it to turn around and find airport…was holding a high nose attitude with low airspeed and full power, pitch, and mixture. I used half flaps and didn’t let speed fall below 70…

By good luck I spotted runway in distance…flew high over airport and tried one last emergency call while checking best runway. No chance of seeing windsock, but I assumed wind would be roughly easterlyI tried to make wide circuit and set up final approach for runway. I texted my friend in U.S. to make sure they looked after Bobby if I landed.

Once on short final I could see very little…used lots of runway but managed to get down OK. Yahoooo!!!

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 4.43.17 PMBobby was as calm as everstill with his headset on!!

I refused to leave my dog if the ambulance wouldn’t take him, but we went to a kennel for Bobby first before going to the hospital!! I never panicked through all of it because of Bobby. He calms me and I just focused on the job…”


Birds are a threat, but as impolitic as it may be, so are “drones” or UAS. A windshield strike will result in the same outcome except the blood, if any, will not belong to the drone. We ultimately may be smart to wear face shields below 2,000′ agl!ugh.)

Maintain control at all costs—’nuff said. Autopilot may help or hinder. That will require some experimentation. No sudden movesslow and easy does it while maneuvering. Long runway and plenty of time to line up. Angle of attack (AOA) or airspeed is essential.

CRM (cockpit or crew resource management)—use cell phone, a handheld transceiver, iPadanything. Contact ATC if you can reach them BUT flying takes all priority. I have a second headset (for front seat passengers) close at hand. Kudos to Bobby for helping the PIC stay calm. Panic on anyone’s part is not helpful.

Maintain control at all costs—If a crash is inevitable, try to spread out the enjoyment of it for as long as possibleit will be a great story so don’t rush the experience since you’ll likely only get to do it once. Sudden stops are extremely bad for survival, so every G that can be spread out means that more chance of telling a great story! Bob Hoover put it more elegantly: Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.

Birds can be more than just messy, an inconvenience, or result in a bad day like this. A bad strike can be fatal. The University of North Dakota lost a Seminole and two pilots due to a bird strike.

The odds are a bird strike (or drone) won’t happen to youuntil it does! It’s good (but not pleasant) to think about these things ahead of time. Anyone have a Bird-Bash story to share?

Recommend you take a look at AOPA’s Bird and Wildlife Strikes Subject Report and ASI’s Real Pilot Story: Bird Strike.