Archive for August, 2009

Critical thinking

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Last month we discussed the FAA Practical Test Standards and whether they were stringent enough and current for today’s environment. My view was that if all pilots flew to Private Pilot PTS the number of accidents would plummet. Most of the commenters seemed to agree. Contrarian opinions are still accepted.

A few of you mentioned judgment or “critical” thinking. In my view, most judgments involving aircraft become “critical” if one waits long enough but to oversimplify flight training into the three parts:

1. Physical skill – handling the aircraft

2. System/ Aircraft knowledge – Performance numbers, operating the avionics, knowing the regs etc.

3. Judgment, decision-making, critical thinking

Pilots can often be very good with the first two and make a fatally bad decision despite years of success, or luck, which results in VFR into IMC, descent below IFR minimums, or buzzing, etc.

The hard part is how to infuse the right mindset into those prone to misuse the hardware. The airline and military flight systems have two ways of managing this: They generally weed out the inept and the trouble makers although the Continental Q-400 accident in Buffalo where the Captain’s training record was not exactly stellar shows an occasional flaw. There’s also a fairly robust system of oversight that makes it tough to stray too far without some one else knowing about it and blowing the whistle, either internally or externally. This is one of the fundamental differences between GA and the more structured environment.

GA could give up much freedom, improve the safety record and likely decrease in size fairly quickly. Or, continue to accept gradual improvement and tolerate individual lapses as a cost of doing business. This approach is used in other personal transport activities: cars, motorcycles, boats, etc. despite the fact that these modes kill many more innocent bystanders and participants then GA. That’s a good philosophical question!

Do the Right ThingTeaching critical thinking such that it results in a consistent change in behavior without a lot of external oversight and expense, is very difficult. In spite of this, ASF has produced a number of programs on decision-making. We offer a free DVD or online course to every new private pilot and instrument pilot to help them learn the process. We have anecdotal evidence it helps but nothing in this business is 100%.

“Wild Wild West?”

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

john-wayneThe title for this week’s blog is the contrived sound bite by one of NY’s Borough types describing corridor operations. Their constituents deplore the air tour industry and have added a one-off accident to their list of grievances.

I had the privilege, or misfortune, to be interviewed by one of the TV stations and actually take the reporter and cameraman flying in ASF’s Piper Archer. I am, as usual, confused by what the media’s role is. Inform and engage or inflame and enrage?

Those of you who saw Rick Leventhal’s report on Fox network will immediately spot some clever editing. Rick opened with a statement that the skies ” Are more friendly than people might think.” It slid downhill after that, even though statistics clearly do not support the corridor as being unsafe. In my interview with Rick, I made it clear that there were few collisions and that avoidance equipment was already required. I also noted that most new aircraft being built today typically have either visual traffic display or audible warning or both. But both clarifications got cut. Rick, by the way, is a decent guy who is very interested in learning how to fly and that would be a plus for the future.

It’s always entertaining and infuriating to see that paragon of aviation safety knowledge, Mary Schiavo, former DOT Inspector General making unsupportable statements. One of them was that “A lot the aircraft flying do not have to have some of the most basic safety equipment there is.” Sorry Mary, but the vast majority of all aircraft are equipped with transponders – which happens to be a key part of collision avoidance equipment. And, FAR 91.215 makes it clear that all aircraft with an electrical system, which is more than 90% must be equipped with transponders when flying in this type of airspace. The transponder percentage operating near high density airspace is likely much higher.

She also conveniently failed to point out that both aircraft involved were so equipped.

The truth is that some things that can be done to improve corridor safety that will not be tremendously restrictive. AOPA and ASF are heavily engaged with FAA, NTSB, ATC and some of the local area pilots to come up with common sense suggestions.

Horror on the Hudson

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Lower ManhattanUnfortunately, when bad news happens in GA, it can happen in a big way. The collision between a Piper Saratoga and a sight-seeing helicopter is tragic in all respects: Loss of life, destruction of aircraft, negative public perception and grandstanding by various entities with various motives.

Getting past the chatter and “news” is challenging but it reinforces how GA pilots operate on a national stage, whether that is our intent or not. Aviation is always under a microscope. The wreckage had not even been plucked from river before there were calls to close the corridor or to require procedural changes and equipage but let’s be sure we understand the cause, the fix and all of the ramifications

AOPA and ASF became engaged about :30 minutes after the accident providing factual information to the media and coordinating with FAA. That’s good because it allows us to clear up misconceptions of which there are many.

There have not been any other midair collisions between two aircraft in the Hudson corridor in the past 10 years. In fact, we haven’t been able to find any midair collisions in the Hudson corridor ever but we’re still looking. Nationally, there have been 49 midair collisions in the past 5 years that involved at least one fixed wing aircraft (excluding this accident – ASF doesn’t track helicopter-only accidents). Twenty-three were fatal with fifty-two people lost, with one fatality on the ground.

Can the record be improved? I think so, even though we’re dealing with very small numbers of random events. In high density traffic the use of eyes, CTAF, collision avoidance gear, where available, and following procedures explicitly will help.

We don’t shut down major roads despite an occasional accident but that’s not to justify ANY shortcomings that the investigation uncovers. The discussion will be robust and that there will be a healthy serving of politics wrapped as safety. Let’s stay focused on safety.