Archive for April, 2009

A Very Sick Canary

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

It was my first visit Friedrichshafen, Germany home of the largest GA exhibition in Europe. My role was to speak on two panels; The first, regarding the use of safety statistics and the second on technologically advanced aircraft. It was also an opportunity to meet with officials of Eurocontrol and other regulating authorities to begin to understand their challenges and motivations regarding the airspace and certification rules that are being put in place in much of Europe.

First, the show exceeded all of my expectations. The exhibition halls were located right on the airport and were actually first class hangars, heated and cooled with natural light and most of the aircraft were located under roof. This was in addition to all the normal booths and displays. It was more like a car show – all very civilized and very well attended. There was nary a porta-potty in view, the loos were spotlessly clean and the food vendors served excellent food. What a concept! The Europeans get a gold star on managing human factors!!

However, I was not so impressed with their approach to managing GA safety. This topic deserves much more than a blog to do it justice but here are a few impressions. The airspace and training requirements are incredibly complicated. They like to charge for services pretty much anytime an aircraft touches ATC, Pay as You Go, Euro-Style.

The Zurich Traffic Management Area (TMA) for example has over 20 sectors (this is not a current chart and a few may have been added so don’t use it for navigation.) The airspace just doesn’t need to be that segregated to keep GA and air carrier aircraft apart.

Seeking to understand the many rules and airspace restrictions, I asked about GA accident data. Didn’t seem to exist or no one was quite sure who was keeping score. I know it’s more complicated when multiple countries are involved but on topics like this it sure makes sense to deal with facts and then make an informed decision. Perhaps there are other objectives besides safety.

I don’t want to be the ugly American and need to learn more on this but in our increasingly global world there are many ideas being studied by our government for applicability in the States. GA in the rest of the world has been greatly weakened by complexity and government “assistance.” If European GA serves as the canary in the coal mine, an early detection of dangerous trends for U.S. pilots, I’d say the canary is in dire straits. The international AOPA’s are doing all they can and ALL pilots ought to be members – just as it should be in the U.S.

Many of us just want to fly our aircraft and remain oblivious to all this, but if there were ever a time to understand the powerful forces at work and to get involved, this is it. Getting back to my area of expertise, it has also never been more critical for pilots to fly safely so as not to give governments any more excuses to “help.”

Flieger interview with Bruce Landsberg

Single Point Failure

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I was recently reminded of the vulnerabilities of our hardware. After a flight my passenger apparently twisted the mic jack when removing his headset such that it shorted out on something to totally foul up the system. On the next flight both transceivers were in transmit mode only i.e. hot mic. The avionics tech troubleshot the problem in 10 minutes, repositioned the jack and we were on our way. His parting comment, ” We see this a lot.”

That got me to thinking about other single point system failures beyond the engine itself. In IMC and at night the hardware becomes increasingly important. Dual radios incapacitated by a single jack, a transmit relay, or a sticky mic button are all examples just within the comm system. This is not a benign failure either. Not only does it booger up your aircraft (that’s a technical safety term) – a single stuck mic can mess up an entire ATC sector frequency.

As we go about improving the hardware, seems like a simple insulator around jacks would be an effective and cheap solution. Perhaps there are some avionics types reading who could shed some light on this. I wonder what other single point system failures are lurking. Long ago, I gave up on a single power source for primary flight instruments in IMC. A single dry vacuum pump to power some of the most critical equipment is not a recipe for success.

What single point failures have you had? Did you add redundancy or change your flight operation to avoid the problem in the future?