Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

Success Expectation

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

quiz photoWe’ve had this conversation before so the blog will be mercifully short this week. Within the space of just a few days three accidents hit the national consciousness, if there is such a thing. First was the midair collision right here in Frederick, Maryland, followed by a Beechcraft King Air managing to find its way into a FlightSafety International’s simulator bay at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport in Kansas, and finally, Spaceship II suffering a catastrophic in-flight failure.

Is there a thread here—something in the water—a bad moon a rising?

No. The only commonality is that all these tragedies involved loss of life and aeronautical machinery. Each situation is different, and yet each will be shown to have a chain of events that, in retrospect, could have been prevented. That’s the armchair quarterbacking of safety people and attorneys—the usual suspects.

But what can we take away from these horrible crashes even early in the investigations? Reminder for me is to take nothing for granted. That’s really hard to do, especially when everything pretty much always works. In each case there were prior successes to buoy confidence.

How many times have you had traffic called and never seen it, but it missed you? How many times have you taken off successfully? We do these things all the time and get away with it probably out to four places to the right of the decimal point.

Spaceship II is a different deal. They really are on the cutting edge and sometimes stuff doesn’t work. Our aeronautical history is full of such events when very brave people attempt to move us forward.

As you go about your flying activities be mindful of distraction. Multi-tasking can be a big problem in aircraft. Complacency is another really bad actor. No need to re-whip these horses, but rather redouble the efforts to enjoy one of the greatest privileges known—the ability to fly.

We never defy gravity or cheat death despite the popular sayings to the contrary…when we’re safely back on the ground. Coexisting with powerful forces that never take a day off means we get no time off either when flying.

Ice Week

Monday, October 27th, 2014

ICE WEEK_FINAL_TRANSPARENTOnly 365 more shopping days til Christmas in 2015 (NOT counting those left for 2014), so here’s your annual reminder that icing season is upon us. It’s not a big accident producer—on average about one per month during the icing season—but I prefer not to participate and suspect you agree.

With an aircraft equipped for FIKI (flight into known icing) it’s not quite so critical, but you’ll still want to escape early, and often. For those of us not so equipped, avoidance is the only strategy. The legality discussion and why the FAA wants to prosecute FAR Part 91 pilots who get into ice is a curiosity to me. We don’t prohibit people from flying into thunderstorms, and with both phenomena the outcome is often self-correcting to trespassers. (Don’t take this as a suggestion that there should be new anti-thunderstorm regs for Part 91!)

The state of the art in ice forecasting is OK but not great. Datalink services do not provide the level of accuracy that’s available with convective weather.

Planning and flexibility are key. Tops, bases, temperatures, moisture content, terrain, MEAs, timing, and pireps are the decision points on figuring out if a trip is viable. NWS’s CIP/FIP on its Aviation Digital Data Services website is helpful, but a suspicious mindset is perhaps the best survival tool. What makes this complicated is that the critical question isn’t just whether it’s below freezing but if there’s moisture content as well. Mountains complicate everything with lifting airflows, high en route altitudes, and few airports to escape to.

There’s not near as much ice in the Dakotas as close to the great lakes or the Pacific Northwest. A big surprise is the prodigious icing that occurs in the Southland during midwinter. Northern Texas and Oklahoma make national TV pretty much every winter with ice storms. Had to cancel a trip last year in a fully deiced turboprop with a friend, not because the aircraft couldn’t deal with it, but the runways were impossible with braking action poor to nil. It’s nothing to mess with.

ASI’s “Accident Case Study: Delayed Reaction” and my “Safety Pilot Landmark Accident: Unpredicted-Unadvised-Unaware” story of the TBM 700 that crashed in New Jersey, just penetrating a seemingly benign layer, serve as warning enough.

Pireps (broken record here): Please get and give them. The more we put into the system the better the forecasts become and the safer the flights are. VFR pilots have little to worry about because there’s no ice outside of clouds unless there’s freezing rain/drizzle. I’ve only been there once with only the briefest encounter…ugly! Was with a student in a Cessna 150 in good VMC when the windshield started to ice up. We were well below the clouds and only a few minutes from our home airport. Glad that’s all it was, and landing was accomplished looking out the side window.

For IFR pilots, ask ATC for flight conditions and give reports—the Air Safety Institute has been working with ATC to make sure these are getting into the system. No need to leave the frequency to speak with FSS unless you’re planning on doing that anyway.

This week is ASI’s Ice Week featuring many of ASI’s icing-related safety programs, such as this case study and analysis of an accident that occurred when the pilot of a Cirrus SR22 encountered unforecast icing over the Sierra Nevada mountains. We also have a live webinar, “Known Icing, Known Risk,” to be held on October 30, 2014, at 7:00 pm. Visit the Ice Week page to register.

Automation and Potties

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

glass_asiThis was NBAA week in Orlando where some of the most exotic aircraft on the planet are displayed along with all of the hardware and software that make them nearly goof proof. Nearly. Chris Hart, acting NTSB Board Chair, noted at the opening session his concern about some air carrier accidents that we’ve all read too much about:

  • Asiana, in San Francisco where two highly experienced captains were unable to make a visual approach on a perfect day.
  • Air France 447, which involved the mere loss of air speed due to icing (which shouldn’t have happened) that confused the flight data computer so auto-throttles and autopilot disconnected. The crew, bewildered by myriad warnings of symptoms, not cause, pulled the Airbus 330 into a deep stall and settled into the ocean from well over 30,000 feet.

Chris then went on to note that most subway trains these days are so automated that, under normal operation, the only thing the operator is allowed to do besides monitor is to close the doors—the train does everything else. It’s a thankless job because what little skill is involved in dealing with nearly non-existent emergencies is rapidly eroded by mindless boredom. Every so often there is an accident that requires the driver to get involved, and sometimes they don’t do very well. So it is becoming with many cross-country aircraft and some trainers.

I thought about what avionics might be upgraded in my own 27 year-old machine and what I could afford. It involved a long look back. Transitioning from the most basic instruments in 1970’s era trainers to the state-of-the-art instrumentation at the time was like magic: Two axis autopilots, a horizontal situation indicator, DME, and a flight director revealed that the high and mighty of the corporate world needed far less ability than the junior CFI and his students, who were manually doing everything and having to look about four places at once. The corporate world just went a lot faster and higher with a potty on board!

With the exception of potties, we’ve progressed far beyond that. Even in the basic training machines, if desired, you can program both horizontal and vertical guidance so that shortly after takeoff the magic is engaged, only to be shut down on short final. In research, aircraft have already demonstrated autoland capability and a new term, OPV (optionally piloted vehicles), doesn’t just apply to the local airport bozo.

Now, before getting too disdainful of all this, it must be acknowledged that the corporate safety record is second to none—including the airlines—and in some cases it is better. The automation doesn’t fail often, synthetic vision certainly helps to reduce CFIT, the fishfinders (aka traffic awareness systems) spot way more traffic than we ever will, and moving maps/GPS make finding airports a non-issue. On-board weather helps us decide—somewhat—how far we’d like to poke into phenomena that before we’d never have even approached.

But, like the subway train operator, is something being lost? What are the trade-offs and where is the optimal blend of skill versus automation? The light GA safety record is very gradually improving, but in way too many cases we’re still cracking up aircraft for all the old reasons.

It’s your turn to weigh in. How do you fly? How should we maintain skills and satisfaction while, in most cases, the automation will fly more precisely than us? Is there an optimal level of engagement for pilots that is below what the microprocessors can do? How should pilots stay mentally engaged and ready to take command rather than being a bewildered system monitor all the way to impact? As for “Human Factors,” any ideas? Kindly do NOT get too graphic!

In addition to the poll, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please submit your comments.