Archive for 2010

The Alpha Measurement

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Sometimes an accident hits so close to home it causes us to question the fundamentals. A friend lost some business acquaintances landing a Bonanza at his private strip when the 5,000 hour pilot inexplicably stalled and they spun in. He began to wonder if an angle of attack (AOA or Alpha) indicator would have helped and why they weren’t installed on many more aircraft. I’ve wondered myself.

Most of us were taught to use airspeed as a proxy for AOA. But it’s a derivative that measures indirectly and not always accurately. Instructors the world over have reminded pilots to watch airspeed but perhaps the warning should be to “Mind the Alpha.”  The FAA, through knowledge and practical tests, has attempted to ensure that we know that airplanes can be stalled at any airspeed or attitude. Yet every year about two dozen pilots, rookie and veteran alike, fatally misjudge that critical angle. Why?

My guess: distraction. The old bromide is to “Aviate, navigate, communicate.” But we get distracted by any number of shiny things or operational procedures that clamor for attention at the worst possible time during approach and landing. Typically, the aircraft is bleeding energy as the pilot reduces power, sets flaps, negotiates with ATC, follows traffic, etc. Alpha increases.  Turning and/or poor coordination often close out the scenario.

So why hasn’t the industry adopted Alpha and routinely given us a gauge to measure it? Good question. Are the current stall warning devices adequate on light aircraft? In today’s glass cockpits it would be relatively simple to add Alpha and appropriate warnings. The nice lady whose voice advises of 500 feet and IFR minimums might also let us know when Alpha was about to become critical:  “Alpha”, “Don’t stall”, “Lower the nose Dummy” could be spoken with increasing volume and stridency.  Some new light aircraft are developing a measure of automatic envelope protection through the autopilot system.  Is this what’s needed? Perhaps still more training is the ticket –  Air Safety Institute produced an award-winning online course, Essential Aerodynamics: Stalls, Spins, and Safety.

What about retrofit to the existing hardware? We did it to Air Safety Institute’s Piper Archer for about $4,000 installed. It allows for impressive short field performance but not many of the pilots have embraced it despite the fact that one can fly with precision and make impressive short field landings. I’m perplexed.

What do you think?

A passion for Flight

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

It was a privilege to attend the Wright Memorial Trophy Dinner last Friday evening to honor Harrison Ford as the 63rd recipient of one of aviation’s highest honors. It’s a prestigious black tie affair with DC and aviation’s glitterati  – always well executed by the National Aeronautic Association and the Washington Aero Club. The prior honoree list is impressive with the likes of Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, several astronauts, senators, airline, industry and engineering greats.

No actors have been previously honored and you might ask why. With the possible exception of Jimmy Stewart, even though many in the entertainment business fly, few have been as passionate, or outspoken about general aviation as Mr. Ford. Harrison is the past chair of the EAA’s Young Eagle program and over the last 18 months has been one of the leading spokespersons for GA Serves America with the tag line “Let’s keep it that way.” His Wright Trophy acceptance speech was simple and eloquent in describing what GA meant to him and it went way beyond the use of aircraft as a business tool.

You don’t have to go far to find many who do not care for or see value in GA. No need to go into the negatives – we’ve all heard them. It’s time, along with Harrison, to stop behaving like victims and start educating the citizenry on what we do and why we do it.

You certainly have some ideas and we’d like to hear them. Here are a few for your consideration:

  • Take a non-pilot flying, especially a community leader,  on a nice day. No need to show off – just fly conservatively and precisely. You don’t have to prove anything because as a certificated pilot, you already have.
  • Be smart about what risks are worth taking. It does not help the cause when we fly in conditions greater than what we, or the aircraft can handle. Most of the problems facing aviation today stem from accidents: High cost, litigation, regulation and poor public perception.
  • Be respectful of other people’s view, even if you disagree. Take the high road in the education discussion.
  • Show how GA really helps and serves America – Meaningful jobs, greatly enhanced freedom, ability to get to under-served locations, all the charity  and public service work that light aircraft do — you know the drill.
  • Explain the benefits that come with being a pilot – the personal growth, the discipline , the responsibility. (An aside – if  more of our citizens had these attributes the country would be much better off.)

We’re all a little bit different after having been touched by the magic of flight. Share it and help preserve the future of GA. I’ll unabashedly ask that if you are able to make a tax-deductible donation to the AOPA Foundation this year,  we’ll begin putting it to work in 2011. If your finances don’t allow, then look for other ways to help:

Allow some pad for the iPad

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

The iPad is taking not only the consumer world by storm but has found its way into cockpits big time.  I blogged last spring as the devices began to show up “Glass Cockpits – Easy to be Hard?“, and there was a recent segment on AOPA Live during the Long Beach Summit “Cockpit Revolution: Apple iPad”, and in the most recent issue of AOPA Pilot, Avionics Overkill?.  Predictably, there’s massive enthusiasm on the device with a super slick interface that  some of the mainstream avionics manufacturers may be lusting over.

But remember, this is aviation and many of us are conservative. (Not a political commentary so cool your jets).  We like to be sure something really works and supplemental applications are one thing – core navigation is something else.

There have been several reports recently through NASA’s Aviation Reporting System (ASRS) that indicate that the GPS navigation and geo-referencing function on the iPad may not be quite up to aviation standards. Environmental factors  may also be a problem. There are multiple apps and hardware is being added constantly so it’s possible that with an external antenna and the right application the “pad” would work just fine for VFR flight. Not quite sure how we adjust cockpit temperatures to keep the hardware comfy, let alone the occupants.

Report 1 – ASRS Analysis : A VFR pilot reported using an iPad to navigate in the LAX area’s complex airspace and possibly entered Class C and Class D airspace.

Pilot Analysis “I simply placed too much trust in the iPad’s moving map information and didn’t use pilotage often enough to verify its accuracy. While it appeared that I had a reasonable displacement from Class C and D airspace boundaries using the map’s medium range scale, this might not have been the case.”

Report 2 – ASRS Analysis : An iPad personal electronic device, not inflight certified, was used for VFR navigation and about two hours into the flight at 10,500 FT overheated and shutdown.

Pilot’s comment: “During cruise approximately two hours into the flight, the iPad displayed a notice indicating that it had overheated, and shut down within about five seconds. I had paper charts available and used them to continue the flight, though it took a couple of minutes to find the correct position on the chart and fold it appropriately. Had this happened during a complicated instrument approach, especially without paper charts both available, safety could have been impacted.”

Report 3: ASRS Analysis  – A pilot reported entering the DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) as he was attempting to avoid a warning area but did not have either his GPS or area charts to track his location and stay clear of the SFRA.

Pilot’s comments: “I just started using the iPad for my charts (iCharts, flight prep), I had the updated version of the Baltimore/Washington Terminal Chart up. As I made the turn from 2W6 waypoint I realized I did not have a waypoint in to go around the restricted 6611A and 6613A zone. I had the iPad terminal map zoomed in to look at the 6611A zone and saw the SFRA ring but with it zoomed in; I thought I was looking at the speed restriction zone. At that point I deviated to the north to avoid the R-6611A zone not realizing that I was flying into the SFRA. I went just north of that zone and once clear I navigated direct to my destination. I did not realize that I had flown into the SFRA until I landed. The FBO told me to contact Potomac TRACON.”

This is not intended as a “bash” but rather a caveat that the limitations of the tools we use must be considered. New tools are both inviting and offer the greatest potential for mishap since not many of us have learned the hard way.

This is offered for our collective consideration and thanks to these pilots who reported their difficulties. Y’all be careful and let us know what you’re learning.