Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

What was I Thinking?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

LostMyJobToday1“I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking” should be the mantra of any of us who’ve done something aeronautically that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but perhaps not so much in retrospect. Country music fans will immediately recognize a Dierks Bentley signature song. Had the privilege of meeting Dierks last week while visiting Cirrus Design, located in Duluth, Minnesota, where a friend describes upper Midwest weather as “Nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment.” However, on this one day the weather was spectacular and so was the mood.

Cirrus delivered several aircraft this week and Dierks delivered two concerts: one for the folks in downtown D and a gratis hangar mini-concert for Cirrus employees and customers. He is the embodiment of what we need in GA—a hardworking, unassuming guy who’s very good at what he does. Anyone who thinks a musician’s gig is easy should try it. (I played in college and decided that the world would be far better off if I took up flying—that choice might be debated, as well.)

Dierks’ schedule has him on the road every weekend until sometime in December. With children and a wife, this creates problems unless there’s access to one of our time machines. He’s a most enthusiastic proponent of GA and uses the aircraft to commute home every week. Unless traveling from the 30 biggest airports, schedule will be at the airlines’ convenience. If the dominoes start to fall due to weather or the usual hub-and-spoke issues, you’d better factor in a lot of flex/delay. This is not to imply that GA is delay free, but my absolute worst scheduling snafus have been on common carriers—sometimes extending into days. That hasn’t happened flying myself—yet. The Cirrus transports Dierks with a high degree of reliability, and he’s even infected a couple of band members with aviation fever.

Dierks played two songs that resonate GA safety. We often ask after an accident, “What was the pilot thinking?” The lyrics of the first song, “What was I Thinkin’,” aren’t slanted toward aviation but rather a sweet young lady’s shotgun-toting daddy. Bad outcomes abound whether it’s VFR into IMC or the business end of a shotgun.

The second song, “Drunk on a Plane,” also has obvious nasty implications if you’re PIC. But, if seated in Row 7 A and getting over a personal problem—maybe that’s different.

Here’s to Cirrus and Dierks for bringing some extra spirit to GA. Spread the word!

Clueless in Barcelona?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Last week we discussed the effects of culture and automation confusion in the cockpit. This week an Airbus 340 crossed a runway in Barcelona, Spain while a B-767 was on short final. This kicked off a new media round on runway incursions and serves as a great reminder that while it doesn’t happen often, it’s one of those low probability, high consequence incidents that can go really bad, really quickly.

As usual, we speculate on cause, but the effect is clear. According to unofficial reports, the Boeing balked the landing at about 200 feet agl and was about 3000 feet down the runway. Based on the camera angle and the effect of foreshortening, it appeared perhaps a bit closer to the ‘Bus than it was in actuality. That said, this is a graphic depiction of what was almost a major accident and serves as a good example of how NOT to do things.

  • At this writing, we don’t know what role ATC played—did they direct the Airbus to cross?
  • Did the controller forget that the Boeing had been cleared to land?
  • What was going on in the Airbus cockpit?
  • We know that the Boeing crew reacted exactly as they should have.

The FAA has grouped incursions based on how close the collision nearly was. It’s worth perusing the definitions. My estimation is that this was either a category A (a serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided) or B (an incident in which separation decreases, and there is a significant potential for collision which may result in a time critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision).

On the ground there are several inviolate rules—especially for those of us that fly single pilot:

  • No programming while taxiing—either load the beast before leaving the ramp or after reaching the run-up block. No in-between unless one is devoted 100 percent to driving while the other is loading—split personalities are not allowed! I really like ground power switches which allow getting a clearance and loading it into the FMS without powering up the entire stack or starting the engine.
  • Always know where you are on the airport—duh. Airport charts are now universally accessible either in instrument approach chart booklets or electronically. Lost? Ask for progressive, especially after dark or in IMC.
  • Sterile cockpit while on the ground, especially with passengers until there are no more runways to cross. Operations take priority over friendly discussion.
  • Coming to the familiar runway entrance red and white sign? Default is to stop unless you’ve been cleared. Are you SURE? Verify if in any doubt. But—wait for it—if cleared, is the runway clear? ATC doesn’t make mistakes often, but it only takes once so Mom was right—always look both ways before crossing.

The cockpit voice recorder and ATC tapes will make clear what is or is not so obvious now. Distractions can be deadly—but you knew that.

GA pilots continue to account for almost 80% of runway incursions, so we’ve got some work to do…especially as single-pilot operators where the proliferation of cockpit automation fights for our attention. That’s why ASI offers a free online course about runway safety to anyone with Internet access.

Clueless Crews?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow much automation is enough? When is the line crossed between having something that’s really useful and doing so much that, like the Wizard of Oz with his hot air balloon, we have no idea how it works? What role does training play?

In the wake of the Asiana accident where the crew flew what appeared to be a perfectly functioning B777 into a seawall, inquiring minds are now wondering if the auto-throttle system was perhaps a bit overdesigned. My only experience with auto-throttles have been in simulators—Gulfstream IV and the Airbus 330. It was pretty easy. Push a mode button here, select a speed there, and then monitor the system for anomalies. “Monitor” is a key word.

The ease of flying a fully automated approach makes you wonder just how hard this could be? In primary instrument training there are roughly five or six instruments to be scanned to keep the localizer and glideslope (or was it glideslop?) somewhere near center scale. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning simultaneously. When first introduced to the horizontal situation indicator (HSI) and the single-cue flight director, they significantly lowered my estimation of how hard it was to fly bigger aircraft.

One of the NTSB’s Asiana findings was that auto-throttle modes were confusing. Former NTSB Chair Debbie Hersman noted, “This crew was extremely experienced. They had a lot of hours, but they just didn’t have the ability to understand what was happening in the critical few seconds before the crash. It wasn’t just one person in the cockpit that didn’t understand. There were three experienced people in the cockpit that didn’t understand what was going on.” Really? Didn’t have the ability to see that the aircraft was not stabilized early in the approach and failed to take action when slowing below Vref? Hmmm.

I know nothing about the B777 systems which may be complex, but with several hundred thousand (or more) successful automated landings completed over the aircraft’s 20 plus year history, ya gotta wonder just how bad the system design was. Ms. Hersman and I both agree that engineers often overthink and overdesign systems. We diverge somewhat on the statement regarding this crew’s capability. Experience and competence are two different attributes.

The other two airline accidents that bear at least some similarity with somewhat clueless crews are the Colgan Q400 accident in Buffalo and Air France 447, the Airbus 330 that stalled over the South Atlantic. In all cases, a highly automated aircraft wrested control away from the crew. (Shades of Space Odyssey and the HAL 9000 computer… “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” )

Lest you think I’m just picking on air carrier pilots, many more GA pilots demonstrate a lack of clue far more frequently. Automation doesn’t seem to trap us often although it’s becoming more prevalent.  It’s more often judgment. Lack of fuel, too much weather, too much wind, too little altitude, not enough runway—you know the list.