Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

In the Dark of the Night

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

HNL SectionalHumans have been flying into mountains since the dawn of flight. It’s what some of us do. We know the mountains are there but perhaps it’s another version of “see and avoid.” It only works when the target is seen—not so well if it isn’t.

Then comes Risk Managementthe watchword in aviation for decades. No matter how we rationalize it, there is some risk in leaving the planet. The management part comes in determining how much you’re willing to take on—especially when carrying passengers and should that make any difference?

A preliminary report from the NTSB’s August 2015 files serves as a case study on what might be a reasonable risk or what might be a bridge too far. You be the judge. All the usual caveats about preliminary reports apply. However the general circumstances, if not probable cause, seem to be well established.

HNL EarthAccording to the NTSB, a Cessna 172 collided with mountainous terrain (a vertical rock face) at an elevation of 5,046 feet. The VFR flight departed Helena, Montana, at about 2215 Mountain Daylight Time and crashed about 15 minutes later. The destination was White Sulfur Springs, which was about 20 minutes beyond the crash site if a direct course were flown.

A few items for your consideration:

  • As noted on the chart, there are some 8- to 9,000-foot mountains on the 45 mile route with smaller ridges in between. The approximate accident location was 18 miles east of Helena, so apparently the crash occurred before getting to the higher mountains.
  • The 59 year old private pilot had obtained his certificate less than a year before the accident but had logged an impressive 280 hours, almost all of which were in the accident aircraft. He had 3.8 hours of night flight, but only .8 in the prior eight months. No indication if he was current to carry passengers at night although really not relevant here since this would be hard to describe as a landing – the flight never got that far.
  • The engine appeared to be producing power and the flaps were set at 10 degrees – an unusual configuration for cruise.
  • The weather at Helena included winds from 250 degrees at 5 knots, visibility 5 statute miles, haze, an overcast cloud layer at 4,800 feet, temperature 22 degrees C, and dew point 4 degrees C. Density altitude was calculated to be about 7,200 feet.
  • Aircraft instrumentation and portable device information was not reported in the preliminary investigation, so there is no data regarding synthetic vision or other terrain avoidance equipment.
  • Dark night conditions prevailed.
  • A family member was on board.

The late great comedian George Carlin in the weatherman sketch noted that tonight’s forecast is for dark—a profound observation.

If you’ve flown a dark night VFR flight, it’s best done mostly on instruments regardless of weather reports. There is a distinction between a dark night, which some would call redundancy, and a not-so-dark night. VFR with a full moon, especially with many ground lights near a large city, can be done with a reasonable degree of safety. Over water and in unpopulated terrain it’s an instrument game. A complete engine stoppage in any kind of dark would be problematic but we rationalize that those are rare.

Mountains compound things tremendously even if the pilot doesn’t suffer spatial disorientation. You can be cruising along minding your own business when the earth suddenly rises up to inflict a fatal sudden stop. Many old timers will not fly in the mountains at night regardless of how good the weather is and some avoid night flight completely.

In the flatlands it’s the dark departures and arrivals that cause problems assuming a reasonable enroute altitude. That can be managed by not flying into short fields unless good local knowledge keeps you out of the rough. Electronic navigation to supplement poor human night vision is invaluable while enroute and at the destination.

So based on what is known at this point, was this a prudent flight, in your view? Should a passenger be factored into the equation in determining risk?

Learn more

Read, Safety Pilot: Landmark Accidents “Comfortable and complacent: A dark night, high terrain, and a climbing skyline” and take the Air Safety Institute’s “Mountain Flying” online course.

The not-so-easy takeoff

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Takeoff croppedOh to slip the surly bounds and soar skyward. Takeoffs are easy compared to landings—right? Just add power, a little right rudder, and wait for the magic to happen. What could possibly go wrong?

A casual peruse of this July’s preliminary accident reports shows that bad things happen on takeoff, although percentage-wise it’s a small number. A partial listing: A Comanche lost power shortly after takeoff—two fatalities; a PT-17, ditto but no injury—suspicion of carburetor ice; and a Piper Archer in high density altitude with four people on board climbed to about 100 feet, stopped there, and stalled—serious injury to all on board.

The Air Safety Institute’s 24th Joseph T. Nall Report identifies that, in the pilot-related category, takeoffs rank as a high risk area and are far more likely to produce fatalities than landings. It’s a perfect set up for complacency to settle in because very few of us have ever suffered a mishap or failure on takeoff. Continental, Lycoming, Rotax, Pratt & Whitney, et al. perform remarkably well when properly maintained and fed.

It’s hard to get into the mindset that this is a high risk area of flight and one with few options. To use a financial metaphor: The airspeed/altitude bank is low on deposits and we may be called upon to make a large withdrawal with little warning. Sadly, there is no overdraft protection. Overspending needs to stop before it gets started. (Wonder if we could get our elected representatives to start thinking that way?)

If you’ll recall, Harrison Ford went off airport this spring after an engine failure in an antique aircraft that had been restored.

In multiengine flying a lot of energy is devoted to single-engine operations perhaps because the odds double of having an engine failure in a twin. Or perhaps it’s because piston twins don’t fly especially well on one engine. This isn’t to resurrect the old twin vs. single debate, but just to get us thinking about the takeoff no matter how many engines are on the aircraft.

Sometimes the powerplant telegraphs that it’s got indigestion, but wishful thinking prevails and the attempt to take off is made anyway. Hesitation, a poor mag check, backfires, fuel surging, low oil pressure, weird temperature indications, and sluggish acceleration are all reasons to rethink whether you really want to challenge gravity when the primary means to do so isn’t up to the task.

Having just completed a simulator session earlier this month, I was reminded that in training we are primed for everything to go wrong and generally on our best spring-loaded behavior to respond instantly. But in the real world that often isn’t how it happens. In practice, if the first effort is botched there’s always a do-over. Not so in most real-life takeoffs.

Once in a great while something just flat breaks with no premonition—but that’s rare. In my simulator scenario, the engine-driven fuel pump was rendered inop and the auxiliary fuel pump needed to be put in service immediately. Got it…on the do-over, and I’m thinking about it now!

Sudden vibrations and grinding/banging noises indicate bad mechanical things that a boost pump isn’t likely to fix. Good preventive maintenance will usually preclude such, but sometimes it’s just going to be a bad day. Work with it.

Pitch attitude needs to change from climb to glide quickly. Takeoff climb angle of attack (AOA) is just about perfect for a stall with the power off. Always, always: Landing under some semblance of control is better than lawn-darting into Mother Earth. That’s a mantra for every takeoff. Bob Hoover’s immutable wisdom comes to mind, “Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”

Overloading, density altitude, and improper configuration (flaps, fuel selector, etc.), and the occasional control lock foolishness are all opportunities for a very short flight. Leaving the planet is a big deal despite the fact we’re privileged to do it much more so than many other residents. Let’s give it the respect and preparation, mental and physical, that it deserves!

Any good takeoff stories to share? I’ll go first: One evening, while instructing, I had a Cessna 150 develop carb ice at full power in the summer time—a high dew point was present. Never had a slight power loss on takeoff before, so I tried carb heat. It worked!

Safe pilots are always learning, and the Air Safety Institute’s goal is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely—like this Takeoffs and Landings Safety Spotlight. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.

The NOTAM System made me do it!

Monday, August 10th, 2015

stack of papers  b&wAn amazing bit of radio chatter played out on national news recently when an airline pilot headed to Fargo, North Dakota, implied he had only five minutes of fuel left. As bad luck would have it, the Blue Angels were practicing at the airport at that very moment.

The controller advised that there would be a 20 minute delay! Huh? Doing the math, the 15 minute deficit implied the MD80 would plunk down in the prairie but with no fire and the Angels would complete their practice on schedule. The pilot finally made it clear that he was coming in to land and they’d sort it out on the ground. Good call. The captain properly exercised PIC authority to get the aircraft on the ground safely. In too many cases GA pilots abdicate responsibility when they get into difficulty, being more afraid of legalities than gravity. As shown in comments, what the Captain meant to say,  was that in five minutes he would  start burning into his reserve fuel – The proper terminology would have been  a “minimum fuel advisory” as opposed to the military term of “Bingo” fuel which is not in the lexicon of civilian aviation.

A pertinent regulation, if I have it correctly, is FAR 121.639—Fuel supply: All domestic operations. No person may dispatch or take off an airplane unless it has enough fuel—(a) To fly to the airport to which it is dispatched; (b) Thereafter, to fly to and land at the most distant alternate airport (where required) for the airport to which dispatched; and (c) Thereafter, to fly for 45 minutes at normal cruising fuel consumption.

FAR 121.647 Factors for computing fuel required. Each person computing fuel required for the purposes of this subpart shall consider the following: (a) Wind and other weather conditions forecast. (b) Anticipated traffic delays. (c) One instrument approach and possible missed approach at destination. (d) Any other conditions that may delay landing of the aircraft.

So what did the crew and the dispatcher know, and when did they know it? Let’s acknowledge that mistakes were made in checking notams—which would have noted the closure times—and that perhaps just enough fuel was on board to be legal, or not. And let’s also acknowledge that the current notam system is a mess, and has been for years. It is a convenient place to dump everything—much of it not operationally pertinent…and some of it critical! Apparently, a lot of pilots and even a few controllers are getting caught in the notam swamp, as the NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System just noted.

Over a decade ago, the FAA promised that the system would be made more relevant and one could filter the data to what was important to your flight operation. No results! After passage of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR) in 2012 in Congress, another committee was formed to address the unworkable. From the bill, “...The goals of the NOTAM Improvement Program are—

(1) to decrease the overwhelming volume of NOTAMs an airman receives when retrieving airman information prior to a flight in the national airspace system;

(2) make the NOTAMs more specific and relevant to the airman’s route and in a format that is more useable to the airman;

(3) to provide a full set of NOTAM results in addition to specific information requested by airmen;

(4) to provide a document that is easily searchable; and (

5) to provide a filtering mechanism similar to that provided by the Department of Defense Notices to Airmen.”

This was supposed to be completed in a year but things slipped a bit. If Google can manage an infinite number of possibilities, it would seem the FAA could at least do better than the current system with a much more limited data set. Some of the aftermarket providers do a better job of filtering but why not the official source?

Flying a fixed wing aircraft in daylight hours, why would I care that a tower light was out on an obstacle five miles away from the airport and only 198′ agl? I wouldn’t, but an EMS helicopter crew on a night mission might. The system is also often geographically confused. A flight from Maryland to South Carolina will list items like turbine wind farms in New York, runway restrictions in Georgia, obstacle unlightings more than 75 miles off to one side, or laser light shows in faraway places. On a recent DUAT Briefing, I lost count with more than 400 notams listed for a 500 mile trip: Must be a rule of one notam per mile flown.

Airport/runway closures and TFRs along with non-availability of certain IFR approaches ought to be bold printed in red. And is it really necessary to use arcane abbreviations and acronyms in today’s deep bandwidth environment? Fargo’s closure somehow slipped through the cracks.

The FAA could use this as an opportunity to 1) rise above the punitive mentality that periodically pervades the agency, and 2) look at the root cause of this incident. My bet is that this crew and dispatcher will be very careful to check airport status going forward. Since the FAA is more than two years behind addressing the notam system as specified in the PBOR, how about suspending penalties—except in cases of willful disobedience—until the new system is operational? It should also recognize that a poorly executed notam system is more than an embarrassment—it is a critical safety issue.

The FAA’s new system is planned for roll out at year’s end—that should make things much easier and safer, we’ll see.

Has anyone else missed something in the notam system and how did it affect your flight?