Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

P-56 is prohibited for UAS too!

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

aircraft-drone02 noaa govP-56 is the prohibited area around the White House and the Capitol. It long predates the Washington D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) but it had to happen—a UAS/drone crashed onto the White House grounds this week. Fortunately it was a benign event. An insomniac (or perhaps a somewhat inebriated) government employee, who was up at 0300 EST, lost control of the machine and ‘fessed up about six hours later. Probably should’ve taken Ambien instead of alcohol.

Aside from the entertainment value for some and the great concern it caused for others, how does this impact our flying activity? Finally, it may just be the wake-up call needed to get the UAS industry and the FAA to move more realistically on the challenges that the devices pose. They have potential to do serious aeronautical harm as well as great things. Where is the balance?

The FAA and various partners have been discussing this since 2007 and the AOPA staff has been discussing this with FAA working groups since 1992. Let’s just say that the rule-making process has been “deliberate.” There have been a number of close calls reported by airliners (and a few anecdotally with GA) where only luck avoided a collision. Now is the time to address it.

The UAS is a force for good or evil perhaps rivaling the Biblical Apple or nuclear power. A drone can be a huge help after a natural disaster or it can cause a man-made one by mistake or on purpose. Deliver beer and pizza to the grandstand and packages to your front door, find missing persons, take pictures of real estate or your sunbathing neighbor versus delivering disaster from above—it’s all in how it’s being operated and by whom.

The technological rabbit has way outstripped the regulatory turtle and despite how the fable turned out, it’s time for the turtle to strap on a JATO bottle and get ahead of the problem.

Those of us who fly aircraft understand the need for balance between industry-choking regulations and complete chaos. So what’s reasonable? The work group certainly has ideas and those of us unencumbered by facts or political pressure will certainly have others. Having a proven talent for stating the obvious let me offer a few thoughts that will surely irritate both sides:

Manufacturers of such devices must take at least some responsibility on how they are to be used as they pursue phenomenal potential profits. Since technology got us into this perhaps it can get us out.

How about a robust command and control system that “helps” UAS pilots remain clear of prohibited airspace? Equip the devices with GPS databases that allow them to go no higher than 400 feet agl and not closer than five miles to designated airports. The District of Columbia is off limits to UAS and other restricted airspaces can be added. The codes for greater access may be unlocked with proper vetting and qualifications. Depending on operators “to behave” hasn’t worked with lasers and it’s not working here. Sadly, this will raise the cost of the hardware significantly but the first big accident or nefarious event will do likewise. Prevention is much cheaper than attorneys!!!!

FLASH — this just in — The drone manufacturers apparently DO have the technology as noted in the this release from DJI, the producer of the device in discussion. 

All unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators should abide by all regulations from such organizations as the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and their own national airspace regulations. In order to increase flight safety and prevent accidental flights in restricted areas, the Phantom 2 series includes a No Fly Zones feature to help users use this product safely and legally.These zones include airports worldwide and have been divided into two types, A and B……  

Sophisticated evil state players and our defensive team will fight this out indefinitely, but the development of the perfect system shouldn’t delay some progress to managing the majority of users. As for the terror aspect (seems like the world has come to this), depending on the nature of the hardware, there may need to be some security vetting of the operator. The upside is that if you’re a certificated UAS operator, you should automatically qualify for the TSA prescreening lanes when flying commercial. The same privilege should be extended to GA pilots. Believe it: The government already knows who we are.

I’m not convinced that one needs to hold full FAA pilot credentials to operate small UAS, but one needs to demonstrate solid control skills, understand airspace/good neighbor concerns, and carry some level of financial responsibility to protect against mishaps.

The White House incident is a much bigger deal than deflate-gate and it may be just the impetus the regulators and the industry need to prevent what is currently heading toward an inevitable aeronautical catastrophe.

Pilotless Planes? Perhaps we’re nearly there!

Friday, January 16th, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s tantalizing (perhaps) to think that pilotless aircraft may soon be plying the skies. We’re not talking about UAS or drones but those with passengers on board. Of course, some will argue that we’ve had that for years with someone occupying the pilot’s seat but with the autopilot doing most of the work. Most of the time it works flawlessly.

I’m not aware of any incidents involving Category III landings with airliners or corporate jets but perhaps some of our jet readers can weigh in. There’s also been a test with a Bonanza that did a selfie landing at Beech field in Wichita a number of years ago.

The Asiana accident at SFO where two very experienced pilots managed to get sideways with the automation got me to thinking about the ways one could get into a bad spot with the electrons. Mode confusion is a problem when the box is doing exactly what we unwittingly programmed it to do. Frequently the designers know exactly what they intended but the users often are not so lucid.

Personally, I prefer simple automation so as to be at least partially involved, especially during the approach phase. In my aircraft, which has a basic two axis autopilot, the horizontal legs are preprogrammed by selecting an approach and the equipment will follow. It’s up to me to manage and direct the vertical automation for each leg.

That sounds so old school and it is! But being mentally engaged, if not physically, and needing to know exactly what’s going on now and what happens next is a pretty good survival strategy.

When everything is done for us, complacency often sets in. The hardware is so good that “the touch” is lost. One of the best examples predicted the future well before it arrived. See the Landmark Accident story on the American Airlines Boeing 757 accident in Cali, Colombia, in 1995.

According to the accident report, “Human factors researchers have written extensively on the potential risks that have been introduced by the automation capabilities of glass-cockpit aircraft. Among those identified are: overreliance on automation; shifting workload by increasing it during periods of already high workload and decreasing it during periods of already low workload; being ‘clumsy’ or difficult to use; being opaque or difficult to understand, and requiring excessive experience to gain proficiency in its use. One researcher has observed pilots on numerous occasions, even ones experienced in the systems, asking, ‘What’s it doing now?’ in reference to an action of the FMS that they could neither explain nor understand.”

Profound observation—well documented, observed repeatedly in the decades since Cali, and yet we still fall into the trap. Why?

A jet goes down

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

KGAI Accident map 2This week a Phenom 100 business jet crashed about a mile from the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) runway.

The jet plunged into a house with a young mother and two children inside who perished along with the pilot and two passengers. Annually, there are very few off-airport ground fatalities, which make these accidents dramatic and newsworthy. No matter how clinically we dissect the accident report, the human loss is tremendous. Dozens of lives, if not hundreds, have been painfully impacted—some disastrously. Our sincere condolences go out to all the families, friends, and co-workers.

The Phenom was on an IFR final approach although the weather was VMC. Scattered clouds were reported around 2,100 feet with 10 miles visibility and light winds: Easy day—right up until something happened. In such circumstances we try to make sense and understand for several reasons. We don’t know the details yet, but it’s looking like a rather basic failure of airmanship—our old nemesis—the stall. The aircraft was equipped with a flight data recorder (FDR), which the NTSB recovered and the answers will be forthcoming. These comments are speculative until the final report is released, but early information released by the NTSB points to a stall—no mechanical failures.

Getting well below ref speed invariably leads to bad things: The FDR preliminary data showed that about 20 seconds prior to the crash the stall warning annunciator and voice alert was triggered. There is also a stick pusher but it’s unknown at this point whether it activated. Vref speed for the Phenom was somewhere around 105 knots—the speed at which it should have been approaching with gear and flaps down. The FDR showed a speed of about 88 knots and witnesses saw the wings rocking followed by a reported pitch down.

So why does a pilot with approximately 4,500 hours and most likely considerable training in the aircraft and simulator wind up in this circumstance? Hard to answer. There is irony here because in March of 2010, the pilot had an accident at KGAI in his previous aircraft, a TBM 700. In that mishap the pilot lost directional control and initiated a go-around—the TBM stalled and crashed with no injuries.

Was the jet following another slower aircraft? Don’t know for sure about that yet but indulge me for a moment. (The following comments do not necessarily apply to this accident.) There is a natural tendency to slow the rate of closure on the lead aircraft in hopes that a second trip around the pattern might be avoided. It’s not unusual for larger, faster aircraft to make straight-in approaches. Things get complicated when smaller VFR aircraft are flying their normal patterns. While one might technically have the right-of-way in the slower aircraft, I’ve always felt it both prudent and courteous to let faster airplanes play through.

Some will bristle at the high and mighty getting priority but consider this: Stabilized approaches are all-important in any airplane. Because of inertia and maneuverability bigger airplanes need more room to get stabilized. It doesn’t take much for a C-172, Cherokee, or even a high performance single piston to establish itself. Twins, jets, and turboprops need time, space, and airspeed to get settled.

Tower and approach controllers will almost always vector or have a slower aircraft extend downwind to avoid the impossible aerodynamics that may have occurred here. Fast movers generally, but not always, appreciate it and should say, “Thank you,” when someone yields. At a non-towered airport like KGAI, straight-in approaches are not an entitlement in VMC, and pilots should be prepared for the go-around. CFIs, teach your students well to understand that the worst place to be is in front of a much faster aircraft on final. They’re distracted, you’re distracted, and they may not see you. You could be dead right and that’s small consolation. (Same thought process works well on the highways.)

When following another aircraft on final, set a minimum speed that is safely above the stall. Don’t let ATC instructions, snow, rain, or dark of night deter you from the lifesaving go-around when the deadly stall starts to steal your lift.

Local media has presented a balanced view up to this point, although interviews with neighbors concerned about flight operations are beginning to surface. The airport was built in 1959, and like so many it was encroached upon as incompatible land planning and usage lead to building residential areas in flight safety zones. This is not to sanction carelessness or complacency in any way on the part of pilots, but zoning boards should understand that they have responsibilities as well.

Stay tuned, fly professionally, and know that life is fragile in so many facets. We will be watching developments closely.

If it’s been awhile since you brushed up on practical aerodynamics, spend a few minutes with the Air Safety Institute’s “Essential Aerodynamics: Stall, Spins, and Safety” online course.

Helping pilots improve their skills and enhancing GA safety is a core tenet of the AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute and its educational programs. Your contribution funds these activities and ensures ASI continues to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Visit the AOPA Foundation’s online auction to bid on an item or make a donation today.