Archive for June, 2009

Freedom to Fly – Safely.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

As we approach the Independence Day holiday, remember that one of our most cherished freedoms is flight. In most countries GA has effectively been legislated out of their airspace under the mantras of safety and security. Of course we know that the airspace belongs to the people – not the airlines and not the government.

You’ll see on several other blogs and on the AOPA home page that will be posted this week or next, there is the encouragement to fly and to take a non-pilot companion along. In most cases it will be a dynamite experience. You’ll have had a great time sharing our passion with someone and quite possibly infected them with the flying bug. In a few cases, the experience will be bad due to pilot immaturity or skill deficiency.

Here are a few examples from the ASF Safety Database.

In the first accident, SEA02FA005, a student pilot took a passenger out on a “pleasure flight” that ended with an attempt to land in a forest clearing in low IMC. The passenger, at least, lived to tell the tale.

In this second example, LAX99FA162 is an instructive low-altitude maneuvering accident that killed two people and destroyed a Globe Swift. The pilot obliged a “female camper” who wanted a ride by making repeated low passes over a campground on a dry lake bed after sunset.

Our third example, CHI03FA149, involves a low-time private pilot trying to pick up a friend at a 2,000-foot grass strip, undeterred by the ten years that had passed since his last soft-field landing practice. The fact that he’d never actually landed on grass didn’t figure into his flight planning, either.

Finally, MIA08CA145 proves that complacency is always a risk, even for a 7,000-hour ATP. Good intentions won’t prevent inattention.

Here’s the point – it doesn’t need to be that way. Go fly on the fourth and take a friend. Be smart and safe. Enjoy what is a truly unique American freedom.

Engine Overhauls – Arbitrary or Necessary?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

When should engines be overhauled? Some believe that the engine manufacturer’s recommendation are loose guidelines and that your mileage may vary greatly. Others adhere to them as gospel and treat them as mandatory. Times typically run between 1,500 and 2,500 hours and there’s usually a calendar factor of about 12 years so the guidance is for whatever comes first. Piston aircraft engines are extremely reliable when properly maintained, when flown regularly and correctly. You can see some important qualifiers creeping into the discussion. Some of the most outspoken advocates on both sides of the argument are extremely knowledgeable which means we best look deeper.

Several charity medical transport groups are beginning to require volunteer pilots to certify that their engines are below the manufacturer’s Time Between Overhaul (TBO) recommendations. There’s been some predictably negative reaction but the groups may have a point and here’s why. Under the FARs, flights for hire must have engines below TBO and while the charity flights are certainly not in that category, the groups are concerned that they kind of look like it to the FAA and NTSB. The groups are acting as a facilitator or broker between pilot and a trusting passengers, who likely know nothing about aviation safety. It’s quite a different relationship than when we just take a friend flying. Despite liability disclaimers and efforts to put a firewall between the group and the pilot, there’s a perception and an expectation of a higher level of care.

Reliable statistics are a great starting point for any safety discussion and in turbine aircraft, which are renowned for reliability, the manufacturer’s overhaul guidance is typically followed to the letter but there’s great emphasis on tracking. With piston engine aircraft, there just isn’t much to go on. For example, in the 2008 Nall Report there were 87 accidents attributed to powerplant malfunctions. What’s confounding is that we often don’t get the total time on the engine and prop.

We also don’t know how many parts and pieces are caught on the verge of failure and at what point in their life span. I know from personal experience that brand new engines are some of the quirkiest. It’s also true that organizations have no desire to be publicly called out, no matter how remote the risk, if there’s an appearance that they didn’t take every reasonable precaution to prevent a mishap.

We’d like to hear your thoughts pro and con.

Get me to the hockey game on time

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

If you’ve been keeping up with the legal trials of Cirrus Aircraft, you’ll know that they just had a major verdict go against them by a Minnesota jury regarding a fatal accident in an SR22. The crash occurred in January 2003 and according to the NTSB, the probable cause was “Spatial disorientation experienced by the pilot, due to a lack of visual references, and a failure to maintain altitude. Contributing factors were the pilot’s improper decision to attempt flight into marginal VFR conditions, his inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions, the low lighting condition (night) and the trees.” Trees are always a problem for aircraft.

Witnesses saw the Cirrus at altitudes as low as 100 feet AGL flying very fast and in controlled flight on a predawn flight to get to a hockey game. You can read the details at ASF’s Accident Database – Search NTSB number CHI03FA057, tail number N9523P.

The 248-hour VFR pilot had about 57 hours of instrument instruction and had attended the factory school conducted by the University of North Dakota (UND). One of the training sessions discussed to VFR into IMC procedures. Despite not being rated and obviously marginal weather, the desire to see hockey apparently was overpowering that morning.

Cirrus and UND were cited as negligent by the jury for not adequately training the pilot to fly in IFR conditions. The plaintiff’s attorney claimed that Cirrus and UND did not provide risk management training in-type and that lead directly to the crash. The pilot was held to be 25% responsible. The award was for about $14 million dollars – Cirrus is considering an appeal.

Consistency in the legal system seems to missing, in my view. Does anyone know of another participant activity where the manufacturer is so seldom at fault, yet attorneys seem to have good success at persuading juries that the pilot was largely innocent? A comparable activity, at least for fatality purposes would be motorcycles. A neophyte can go to rider’s school, get a certificate from the state that is a license to learn, and be warned not to take the bike into high speed situations. When the new rider is late to a hockey game, for example, and wipes out going 100 mph, do Harley or Kawasaki get nailed? Probably a rhetorical question – perhaps, more importantly, how can we light the candle of enlightenment under the pilot’s backside to not get into these situations? Alternate solutions are tort reform or only allowing hockey games to take place in good VFR conditions.