Archive for July, 2008

Nothing can go wrong… go wrong….

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

The old joke about the fully automated airliner with no flight crew - just an automated cabin announcement that misfires - seems prophetic with last week’s NTSB announcement about massive display failure on Airbus aircraft. There were 49 failures on Airbus 319 and 320 aircraft including seven incidents where all six screens failed simultaneously. Didn’t think that was possible? Neither did the manufacturer, the FAA or the NTSB.

As light GA manufacturers rush into glass cockpits, is it unseemly to ask what assurance we have that there will not be a catastrophic failure or at least a significant failure in our less robust systems? Several years ago I had the privilege of getting a demo in one of the early all-glass light aircraft which suffered a total flight display meltdown. It wasn’t an issue since we were in good VFR and there were backup instruments. Still, this isn’t what’s supposed to happen.

After one flies enough and sees enough equipment break – some of it harmlessly and some of it at the least opportune time - a sense of caution or perhaps cynicism sets in. Duplication of hardware on critical things like comm, nav and flight displays means less fancy footwork on the pilot’s part when something goes south.

I suspect the record keeping on Part 91 flights flown in light aircraft when a flight display dies is not very accurate, even though NTSB Part 830 requires, somewhat vaguely, pilots to report the in-flight failure of electrical systems that require “sustained use of ….backup power to …retain flight control or essential instruments.”

Has anybody had, or know of someone who had, a major glass malfunction and did it get reported and to whom? The purpose is not to rat out the manufacturers but to insure that weak points get fixed before someone is hurt.

Watch List

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Many accidents, while not boring to the participants, have a predictable regularity – Crosswind landings or gear-ups, for example. There’s not much we don’t know about the cause and cure for either. They get cataloged in Air Safety Foundation’s database where they form the basis for topic and initiative areas for future education or awareness. But others pique our curiosity.

What brought this to mind was a fatal Cessna 441 accident in Oregon last week. Obviously, it’s way too soon to know why things went sour but a normal landing in light winds turned into a disaster. Witnesses saw the Conquest porpoise a few times and then saw what looked like an attempted go-around. What’s unusual about this? Two things: First, pilots flying turboprops usually know how to land especially without confounding factors, such as night, IMC, short runways or adverse winds. Secondly, how did what is usually just an embarrassing, if somewhat expensive, incident become a fatality.

The coding on this accident for our database will be challenging because the initial event occurred on landing, from what we now know. The fatality occurred on go-around which is five times more likely to result in a fatality than landing where there are seldom any serious injuries. The NTSB also has difficulty with this and we sometimes code something differently if we think there is compelling logic

We don’t yet know the pilot’s background or training but this accident is now on the ASF Watch List. When more information comes in we’ll revisit to see what may be learned and passed along.

As communications becomes more encompassing – web for example – I ‘d invite your thoughts on the watch list. Is there a better way to communicate the lessons learned than what we’re currently doing?

Eclipse Transition

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

A friend and ASF donor took me to lunch in his brand new Eclipse yesterday. As you’ll read in the August issue of AOPA Pilot, Editor-in-chief Tom Haines also earned his EA-500S type rating. I have three observations after the ride.

1. The FAA and Eclipse do not give away the ratings – it is a thorough and rigorous process involving simulation, lots of ground training and mentoring on actual trips until the experienced mentor jet pilot in the right seat thinks you’re ready. My friend is multi-thousand hour Baron pilot and has a Citation type rating but no real jet time. He is a meticulous and cautious engineer – a perfect mind set for this and he agreed with Haines that his plate was full.

2. Higher Power Aviation, who does the training for Eclipse, follows a well-defined process to prepare customers for the check ride. In flying fast airplanes the profile is everything. Plug in power settings, and configuration and shazzam, the aircraft falls into predictable performance on the descent, on the ILS, in holding etc. However, to make the speed differential less daunting and to get people through the type ride, the training profile bears little resemblance to what real world ATC needs.

As it is currently being taught, fly the approach at Vref plus 10 knots from the final approach fix inbound. Try that any busy airport with appreciable jet traffic and you’ll hear words you never heard in the bible as controllers and the pilots behind you try to resolve the ensuing traffic tie-up. In the real world, it’s often 150-170 knots to the marker. To be fair, this how the airlines teach their new hires and then when everyone gets on the line, the realities take over. The mentor pilot for my friend gently explained how things were and proceeded with his reprogramming. Seems to me, even if it takes a little longer, we should teach real world profiles right from the beginning. One set of numbers to remember and more practice in getting right.

3. Despite the marketing claims to the contrary, at least with early versions of the VLJ, it looks much like jet flying to me in terms of single pilot workload. Not too bad in low density airspace or at altitude and really intense on short legs or in high density. It’s good they don’t give the type ratings away.