Archive for August, 2010

Clueless & Harmless?

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Know Before You GoAs the political silly season for the fall elections gets cranked up, expect TFRs to blossom like mushrooms. Today’s world, unfortunately, requires an additional step for even the most basic VFR flight. You’ve gotta get a security briefing either from FSS or the web even though there may not be a cloud within 500 miles and you’re just out for a local flight near the home drome.

The security situation could be much better executed in places but I’m beginning to see why dot-connecting is a bit challenging for more than just the government. Last week significantly more than a few VFR pilots blundered into the presidential TFR over Martha’s Vineyard as the first family was taking vacation. This was even after significant effort was made to lessen the inconvenience to the flying public to accommodate vacation high season.  A couple of these pilots were reportedly repeat offenders. One person described a pilot who recently violated a TFR as  “Clueless and harmless.” The first part of his comment is correct and it’s not something to be proud of. I don’t want to be operating in the same airspace with clueless aviators because if they are a bit foggy on TFR airspace, there are likely other significant gaps in their knowledge as well.

The second part is incorrect and does significant damage to GA to our relationship with the government, the political establishment and to the public’s image of GA .  AOPA, on the advocacy side, is working hard to bring some sanity into this equation but don’t hold your breath. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation provides free and easy access education to all pilots to guide them through.  Armed with some basic knowledge it’s quite possible to negotiate around TFR airspace without a huge amount of hassle. If that’s too much to ask, then you’d better fly IFR everywhere but that’s certainly no place to be clueless either.

Remember the infamous Cessna 150 from Smoketown, PA that “cluelessly” busted Class B and the DC ADIZ? Several non-harmless things happened as a result of that. It was a huge media mess, a significant relaxing of the ADIZ rules that were about to be put in place were indefinitely put on hold  and the pilot’s certificate was revoked. Not suspended – revoked. I’m having a hard time finding winners in that scenario. GA pilots were the big loser on that deal – well beyond one clueless and not-so-harmless pilot.

Until the world becomes a friendlier place, which may be awhile, it’s incumbent upon us to play the game. It’s a part of the PIC thing. We all long for the simpler aeronautical life of the past but regardless of how balled up this may be, it’s the system we have – not the system we want (seems I’ve heard that somewhere before).  The U.S. is absolutely the best place in the world to fly despite some of the hassles. To quote the spokesperson for GA Serves America, Harrison Ford, ” Let’s keep it that way.”

Heresy on 406 ELTs

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Untitled-1The news cycle continues regarding the crash involving former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and several others. There have been numerous newspaper remembrances of the other big Alaska crash in 1972 that resulted in the loss of Congressman Hale Boggs and Rep. Nick Begich. That aircraft was never found and Congress mandated that all aircraft henceforth should be equipped with Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs).

The concept of having someone search for a crash immediately after an automatically-activated device signaled the impact’s location was seductive. However, the technology was certainly not ready for prime time as the devices often did not go off when needed but were pretty good at notifying the authorities of numerous hard landings that did not require rescue teams. The number of actual saves – where someone was still alive and found purely as a result of the ELT is reputed to be very small. You’ll remember the Steve Fossett search where the aircraft was equipped with a required ELT (not sure which model) that failed to activate.  The high number of failed and false activations is evidence that perhaps a totally different approach is needed.

Ironically, in this accident the ELT (reported to be a new 406 mhz model but that is speculative) failed to activate! Had there been personal locator beacons (PLB) aboard (and the passengers briefed on their use) it is quite plausible that the rescue would have come much sooner.

ADS-B is in the offing and would have given an immediate location of the crash site and yet, the public law as written, will not be allowed as a substitute for the 406 devices. The FAA is really pushing ADS-B since the entire ATC system will depend on it in a few years. Hmmm- seems like we’d want to provide incentive to equip yet Congress appears unwilling to allow pilots to use a far superior technology that has much broader application and is more cost effective. I’m obviously missing something.

Personally, I’d rather see pilots invest in airbags that really do work (disclosure – AmSafe, the airbag manufacturer, is a corporate sponsor of ASF safety seminars but this endorsement was unsolicited) and carry PLBs than depend the uncertainty of a hard-mounted 406 unit working as it was supposed to. The engineering is not so easy, as the record has proven – snap off the antenna as is known to happen occasionally in accidents and you’re toast. Additionally, a distinction should be made between Part 91 and Part 135/121 operations such that if I choose to fly without search and rescue (SAR) approved gear, that is my choice.

My friends in the search and rescue community will consider these views worthy of tar and feathers but Congressional mandates, often well intentioned, sometimes lead down the road to tar and feathers anyway.

The Glass is Half Full

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

6-1 IntroIt’s been a tough week again for GA safety. Last week, as you may have read, we lost one of our own in a competition soaring accident. Chris O’Callaghan, AOPA’s VP of eMedia was involved in a rare midair collision in Uvalde, TX. Details are here at “AOPA mourns colleague killed in midair.”

Then comes word of the accident in Alaska claiming the life of former senator and pilot Ted Stevens, along with several others. At this point it looks very much like VFR into IMC with a 29,000-hour pilot at the controls of the Otter that was flying the senator and his party to a fishing lodge (You can assume my usual disclaimer on speculation here)

The point of this blog is to provide a point of reference or perhaps just to rationalize why we continue to fly. In Chris’s case it was clearly his passion as it is with most pilots. Most of us understand that our activity has some risk.

Travel in Alaska would be  impossible without aircraft and it can’t all be in Boeing 737s going to 6,000-foot paved runways. Just isn’t possible. So, we use light aircraft and operate in one of the toughest environments on the planet: Grubby weather, mountains, not much infrastructure, relatively few airports and, for those in the tourism business, a 4-month season where every trip canceled means significant lost revenue.

Five-year Alaska accident rates are based on 2004 – 2008 since 2009 activity survey hasn’t been released:

  • Alaska :13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours
  • U.S. national: 5.85 per 100,000
  • Alaska: 1.35 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours
  • U.S. national: 1.12 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours

Humans have a tendency to use something psychologists call “hindsight bias.”  It means that after all the pieces of the puzzle are laid out in front of us we’re sure that many of us would have seen this problem coming. You can see this regularly in autopsies, lawsuits, and congressional and accident investigations.

Sometimes it’s true. We discuss and educate pilots and each other on bonehead stunts that really are stupid. In other cases – perhaps these two – we have to accept that all the signals pointed to a reasonable risk and a safe outcome.

Weather that looks the same as something you’ve flown dozens or perhaps hundreds of time before is not. See and avoid doesn’t always work if one or both aircraft are in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. The physical limitations of the human eye and distraction factors are part of the human condition.  Let those without sin cast the first stone.

This is NOT to say that there is nothing to be learned or that mistakes weren’t made but to reaffirm the belief (Supreme court in 1980 held that “Safe is not the equivalent of risk-free: Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute) that there will always be some risk in flight.

It’s up to us to manage it, learn what we can, and live our lives doing the things that make them worth living . I suspect that both Chris and Senator Stevens would have agreed.