Archive for September, 2010

The Passenger Conundrum

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Synonyms for conundrum: ” Deception , drawback, Catch 22″ and ” Puzzle, complication, dilemma.” That sums up the challenge of encouraging people to fly with us but giving them a reasonable chance of surviving. How do they know if we’re any good? This conundrum plagues general aviation’s image. Last week we looked at the horrendous crash involving an overloaded Piper Seneca on a “mission” to buy an aircraft.  Five passengers  accepted a ride to disaster reasoning that a 2,000-hour-plus pilot must be OK. NTSB will publish probable cause on this fairly soon. I’m betting that decision making will be seriously lacking.

A retired professional pilot, Captain John, who visits our site periodically, sent me a very thoughtful letter regarding how to address this.  I’ve excerpted some key parts: “One problem is Part 91 passengers are unprotected by the regulations… The authorities recognize that commercial passengers have little knowledge by which they could evaluate risks of flight ….Unfortunately GA passengers are, in general, no more able to evaluate the risks they take…”

For Part 121 and 135 the system is largely mandated and nearly all corporate flight departments follow system safety concepts voluntarily, often exceeding what commercial entities embrace. The major challenge for GA, though, isn’t on the professional side – it’s personal. Years ago a newly certificated pilot invited one of the old timer’s kids for a ride. It was an innocent and enthusiastic request but the pilot’s father spoke up immediately saying that the new pilot needed some seasoning before any rides would be permitted with his family members. Many of us would react similarly unless we knew the pilot and his or her reputation.

A year after becoming a Private Pilot three friends joined me in a C172 to observe my ATC comm skills at one of the local big airports. That hazy east coast summer evening turned into murky night as we flew back to the short field that was home base. It was shades of JFK Jr except there were ground lights. The little airport  was tough to find since this long predated GPS and one actually had to use pilotage in those days. Lots of opportunity for mishap. Could this have turned out badly? Yup.

Captain John cites several accidents that we’ve discussed in the past and sums up,”We can continue to try and make pilots behave in a more rational way. If we fail, we have a tremendous obligation….to prevent them from subjecting uninformed passengers to completely unknown and unmeasured risks. Part 91 doesn’t do it; we must.” Now the conundrum: How to do that without infringing on the privileges of those who have properly earned them while giving the passengers a better system to judge for themselves when it might be wise to either not accept or terminate a flight early?

Should we publish a checklist to Part 91 passengers?

Your thoughts?

Bad day at Huntington

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

It’s a familiar refrain – continued VFR into IMC. This particular case was worse than most as it involved 6 fatalities. A Piper Seneca – more than fully loaded – went down in West Virginia. The VFR owner-pilot was flying a group of flying club members to check out an aircraft that was for sale. You can review the whole sad saga in the Air Safety Institute’s latest Accident Case Study: Cross-Country Crisis. It will also be a landmark accident feature in the December AOPA Pilot.

It’s really hard – impossible actually – to defend the indefensible. The sheer magnitude of this pilot’s ignorance, or willingness to take risk with both his own as well as other people’s lives, is staggering. No trip, no mission, no reward is worth the outcome you’ll see here. And as usual, we know what happened but do not understand why. I suspect there is no good answer other than “I thought I could make this work and didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.” Ego likely plays a part.

Please take a look at this case study and let us know what you think – good or bad. The decision was made not to let this accident slide quietly into oblivion but rather to hold this up as a really bad example of decision-making. Share it with your risk taking friends. There will be more to say on this topic in the near future – received a very thoughtful letter from a reader who poses a good question.

Hudson River Recap

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

The NTSB had a public hearing yesterday to report on one of last year’s most horrific accidents, the collision between a Piper Saratoga transiting the Hudson river corridor and a sight seeing helicopter. Summarized are the findings:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was (1) the inherent limitations of the see-and-avoid concept, which made it difficult for the airplane pilot to see the helicopter until the final seconds before the collision, and (2) the Teterboro Airport local controller’s nonpertinent telephone conversation, which distracted him from his air traffic control duties, including correcting the airplane pilot’s read back of the Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) tower frequency and the timely transfer of communications for the accident airplane to the EWR tower. Contributing to this accident were (1) both pilots’ ineffective use of available information from their aircraft’s electronic traffic advisory system to maintain awareness of nearby aircraft, (2) inadequate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) procedures for transfer of communication among air traffic control facilities near the Hudson River class B exclusion area; and (3) FAA regulations that did not provide adequate vertical separation for aircraft operating in the Hudson River class B exclusion area.”

The FAA, AOPA, Air Safety Foundation, the NY helicopter community and a number of other players wasted no time in convening a special working group immediately after the accident to assess and address highlighted shortcomings in the crash. This was complete only months after the crash which serves as a model of responsiveness!

They came up with some reasonable procedures which included tightening up ATC’s responsibility, creating ground rules for operations in an SFRA for anyone who would operate in this high density airspace and improving the charting.

It was both a privilege and pleasure to conduct a live seminar and one of our first webinars in Newark, NJ and White Plains, NY after the working group had come up with their recommendations. The Jersey meeting was entertaining and educational! Living up to its reputation for attitude, the participants waxed “energetic” and challenged some of the working group’s assertions.  I love Jersey!

I have to question the NTSB’s first finding on probable cause. There are limitations to see and avoid but the primary cause here was procedural involving ATC performance and practice (largely addressed now) by putting a “non-participating” aircraft into the high density of  the corridor – as it existed at that time. The other questionable finding is the contributing factor regarding the pilots’ ” Ineffective use of available information from the electronic traffic advisory systems” that both aircraft had aboard.

The systems were NOT intended nor designed to function effectively in that level of traffic density and anyone who has flown them should understand their limitations in this regard.  The wonderful TCAS system on board airliners disables  itself below 1000 agl to eliminate nuisance alerts. This technology is evolving but the board’s insistence on this point, overruling NTSB staff recommendation,  is unfortunate.

The new recommendations are generally reasonable. However, the idea that ALL revenue helicopter operations need collision avoidance gear is not appropriate. There are low density locations where the cost-benefit just won’t compute well.

I’m certain there will be some discussion. Two big things I take away from this accident -

1) Multi-tasking degrades our ability to really focus on critical priorities and as a mindset, it’s now more prevalent than ever! This applies to both controllers and pilots.

2) On a more global sense just because we haven’t had an accident in a certain area or activity doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it right – it just means we’ve been lucky. There were no accidents in the corridor for nearly 40 years and yet, after looking at the details, the new procedures make a lot of sense. The devilish difficulty is that the safety-at-all-costs crowd  can legislate any activity out of business in no time. It is often the case that excellent safety procedures have been in place but there was a lapse. The mere fact that an accident occurred doesn’t always mean the system failed. Finding the balance point is exceedingly difficult.

NTSB’s New Recommendations

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends the following to the Federal Aviation Administration:

  1. Redefine the boundaries of the East River common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) so that the Downtown Manhattan Heliport will be located in the area that uses the Hudson River CTAF.
  2. Revise 14 Code of Federal Regulations 93.352 to specify altitudes of use for aircraft conducting local operations in the Hudson River special flight rules area so that the regulation includes required operating altitudes for both local and transiting aircraft, and incorporate the altitude information for local operations onto published visual flight rules aeronautical charts for the area.
  3. Update Advisory Circular 90-48C to reflect current-day operations, including (1) a description of the current National Airspace System and airspace classifications, (2) references to air tour operational areas as high-volume traffic environments, and (3) guidance on the use of electronic traffic advisory systems for pilots operating under the see-and-avoid concept.
  4. Develop standards for helicopter cockpit electronic traffic advisory systems that (1) address, among other flight characteristics, the capability of helicopters to hover and to fly near other aircraft at lower altitudes, slower airspeeds, and different attitudes than fixed-wing airplanes; (2) reduce nuisance alerts when nearby aircraft enter the systems’ alerting envelope; and (3) consider the different types of operations conducted by helicopters, including those in congested airspace. (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A-09-04 and is classified “Open—Unacceptable Response”)
  5. Once standards for helicopter electronic traffic advisory systems are developed, as requested in Safety Recommendation [4], require electronic news gathering operators, air tour operators, and other operators of helicopters used for passenger revenue flight to install this equipment on their aircraft. (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A‑09‑05)

What do you think?