Archive for July, 2010

Down in Lake Michigan

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Blog-7-26-10This appears to be one of those exceedingly rare, one-in-a-million, wrong place, wrong time mishaps. A Cessna 206 flying a cancer patient from Michigan to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota went down in Lake Michigan. The volunteer pilot who had flown numerous medical assistance flights did not appear to be affiliated with any of the organized volunteer medical flight groups such as Angel Flight Central or Wings of Mercy that carry patients in the upper Midwest.

As usual, it is very early in the investigation process so these comments are subject to change. There were 5 people on board and the flight was westbound over the lake at 10,000 feet, nearly to the midpoint, when the pilot reported engine trouble. He turned back east to take advantage of the tailwind and glided to within several miles of shore where they went into the water. The waves at the time were reportedly 4 – 8 feet which makes ditching difficult. The pilot was the only survivor and was picked up within an hour of the crash.

Why pick the direct route over the lake?  It’s shorter by about 100 miles and avoids all the Chicago area air traffic which might extend the meandering. There was a large cluster of thunderstorms on the southwestern side of the lake that could be completely avoided by the direct route and at 10,000 feet, the the aircraft would have been out of gliding distance of land for only a short period of time. What were the odds that there would be an engine problem right there?

This week, hundreds of aircraft will make the lake crossing uneventfully enroute to Oshkosh. I’ve done it myself reasoning that a well maintained engine would carry the day and it always has. At this point we don’t know the maintenance history of the aircraft or engine. Fuel load should be easy to determine and the pilot is available to provide his insights. It reinforces the multi-engine mentality but we have many accidents, as the old saying goes, where the second engine takes the aircraft right to the scene of the accident. The second engine on a piston twin will not always be sufficient to prevent a crash and must be managed properly by the pilot, which it frequently isn’t. There is also double the odds of an engine failure.

This mishap perfectly illustrates the heartbreak of very low probability, high consequence events that are the bane of aviation. Perhaps the investigation will uncover something that might have been done differently or perhaps this one of those random events that plague human existence – the trash truck that crosses the center line of a two lane highway into your lane, the tree that falls in the woods when someone was out walking, why some people get cancer and others don’t, the bullet in a war zone or during a robbery that has your name  on it. Our condolences go out to the families and friends but especially to the pilot.

Life is precious and uncertain – live it well and work hard at managing risk when flying.  You can’t eliminate it.

A Very Tough & Diverse Week

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Blog-PicJuly 2010 started very badly, domestically,  for GA pilots.

July 1st

On Thursday,  there were three accidents and all involved fatalities. That’s highly unusual. The normal ratio is about one in five.

  • In Perry,  Kansas a Beech F33A on an IFR flight reported losing an engine at 7,000 feet and radar contact was lost at 1,000. Two lost.
  • On Catalina Island in California, a Cessna 182 pilot reported numbness on his right side and a possible heart attack. The aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain . One lost.
  • A Commercial pilot flying a Cessna 152 made what appears to be a very hard landing in Venice, California. He then apparently decided to try again and after rolling 1,000′ took off in a shallow climb before losing control and landing on a golf course. Stall, airframe or control damage are unknown at this time. One lost.

July 2nd

  • A T-6 over the Gulf of Mexico apparently spun out of a low altitude loop impacting the water. One lost.

July 4th

  • An experimental exhibition/air racing Schleicher ASW-20 glider, crashed near Pocahontas, IL  – no details. One lost.

July 5th

  • A Cessna 172P with just over 1,655 hours total time went down near Chesapeake, VA. The ATP pilot reported  a flight control failure to ATC.  The NTSB investigation showed  the aileron control column interconnect cable had fractured chain links near the left control column sprocket . One lost.
  • A Cirrus SR22 crashed at Caldwell, NJ after what appeared to be an unstabilized approach followed by several prop strikes and an attempted go- around. Three lost.
  • A Robinson R44 helicopter crashed in Marion ,Ky during agricultural spray operations after colliding with a guy wire. One lost.

July 6th

  • In Keller, WA a Cessna 150 collided with wires on takeoff. The student pilot was fatally injured and the passenger was seriously injured. One lost.

Thirteen fatalities in 6 days. Please bear in mind that all these reports are preliminary so details may change – that’s my disclaimer.  Now we can speculate! Look at the diversity of possible causal factors: Control failure, engine failure,  a medical incapacitation, a couple of bad landings and possible botched go-arounds, two wire strikes, and aerobatic mishap, and a  wild card where we have no idea -yet.

This reflects the broad categories of flight operations that is GA and all  the different things that we do with aircraft. The aircraft are different, the environments are quite different, the pilots are certainly different in skill levels. Now, after reading this, tell me again why we should be comparing light GA flight operations with the airlines and corporate flight operations that are strikingly similar in almost every aspect? Apples to kumquats – any way you choose to jumble the fruit basket the differences are massive.

This is not to make excuses because on final reports it will become clearer that humans made mistakes. We do that.  The value is in learning what happened and add it to our safety tool kit. Will we make it perfectly safe – no! Can we do better? I think so.

What do you think?

How High?

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

SKY0372001The passing of generations is always an interesting time. We are seeing it in the ATC system as Reagan-era controllers look to slower lifestyles.  The golden years probably don’t involve expensive human-occupied vehicles hurtling at each other at hundreds of knots.

With the changing of the guard also comes a lack of experience and the wisdom of years.  I’ve seen this several times in the last few months in listening to some unusual clearances.  Non-standard phraseology or a non-sequiteur is a tip off that the person on the other side of the mic is in a learning curve.

Don’t take this as a rant against new controllers (or pilots for that matter). None of us is born with thousands of hours or an immediate grasp of all the nuances that they don’t teach at “the Academy in Oke City”. Even with the best training there is a huge amount of OJT that goes on in almost every profession. In aviation, though, checks and balances are often the difference between a lapse and a real aw shucks!

The most recent reminder came on a hot soggy afternoon as I was clawing my way up to 8,000 feet in search of cool smooth air. I’d asked for a more direct routing which the controller was coordinating. Passing 7,000 he cleared me direct and advised that we’d need to go back to 6,000 in 15 miles. It seemed reasonable to level at 7,000 or go to 6,000 now  – no point in crawling the last thousand only to have to give it right back. So I asked.

The controller repeated my direct-to clearance with nothing about altitude. Great ! — I’d introduced ambiguity into the equation and the controller had not dispelled it. Was I to continue to 8,000 (perhaps in his mind that was correct -since he’d said nothing or did he think I would just level at 7,000?).

I’ve learned over the years NEVER to be shy about such things so I pushed the issue – 7,000 or 6,000 – being hopeful I wouldn’t get sent to 8. There was a long silence and then “Descend and maintain 6,000.”  No question now.

Think you’re the ace of the base when it comes to comm? Try our free online Say It Right – we’ve had some airline captains acknowledge that they learned something – those are the ones I want to fly with!

I offer this as a reminder to all of us to really LISTEN. It’s hard in the routine of hundreds of transmissions but that’s what makes the difference between the pro and the know-it-all.   The adage that it’s better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, most certainly does NOT apply in aviation communications.