Archive for 2011

Never too early to speculate?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

This  accident attracted national attention in mid-November. It involved an 82 year old pilot who was flying the Oklahoma State Girls basketball coach and assistant coach on a recruiting mission. The 1964 Cherokee went down in Arkansas with four fatalities. Good VFR weather prevailed and was not a factor but witnesses said the “engine was spluttering” and the aircraft ” nosedived into the ground.”  The professional media was a bit more restrained on their speculation than GA pilots, at least in the reports I read.

The pilots’ discourse was spirited, ranging from old aircraft, old engines that must be overhauled (not correct), old pilots, possible fuel “starvation” and so on.  A few vented their frustrations about the cost of flying and avgas – not sure what that had to do with this accident but hey, it’s the Internet where any inanity is allowed and in some quarters, welcomed.  In the immortal words of writer John Lawton, “The irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.”

The Air Safety Institute and AOPA fielded a question from a reporter musing about aging pilots, their safety record and whether there ought to be a mandatory age limit for GA pilots. The reporter mentioned the age 65 retirement requirement for airline pilots. Our response was that aging is a highly personal variable and as recently shown by the Part 121 rule change in the U.S. from age 60 to 65, it also tends to be arbitrary. The airline-flying public can and should have quite a different expectation regarding safety than those of us who fly Part 91 GA. In commercial operations there is some rationale to limiting pilot ages although with two crew members it becomes a little less imperative.

The reality with aging pilots is that we have no denominator by which to judge exposure. Older pilots often have more time and are perhaps wealthier than their younger counterparts and thus may fly more hours. Obvious incidents of incapacitation remain rare but subtle deterioration and subsequent accidents involvement is not easily ferreted out. The Air Safety Institute has a course for aging pilots that will debut in the next few weeks so, if you have “a friend” who fits the category be sure and tell them about it. We’ll provide appropriate links here.

This accident was a hard reminder for OSU which lost members of its men’s basketball team in January 2001 during a charter flight in a King Air 200. The school changed it’s travel policy for team members but not for coaches. A reevaluation is now likely.

Perhaps it’s human nature to guess about accident causes before there is evidence and for what purpose? To show off our expertise, get a job, keep a job, help the media, create conversation—the list is endless. Having been wrong too many times myself, I now mostly follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice, ” It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Tighten up & Thanks

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Traffic patterns should be tight. I was reminded this afternoon when a Mooney flew over the neighborhood, which is a few miles from the airport. That’s one of the reasons I moved here and it’s great for seeing good and not-so-good airmanship. The bad news was this pilot was way beyond the bounds of  a normal pattern for this size aircraft. However, he was being quiet and with reduced power the Mooney was making much less racket than a neighbor’s lawnmower a block away.

But it got me to thinking about how often we critique ourselves on how crisply a particular maneuver was performed. The mantra in the old aircraft I fly is to stay within gliding distance of the field in case the engine quit. It never has and probably won’t but it still seems like good advice. It also lowers the sound footprint considerably because a lot of power is not needed to drag the machine in the last few miles in from the impromptu cross-country.

Wide tracking also creates a collision hazard when someone flying a tight pattern is overtaken by a faster aircraft on base or final – that usually results in a lose-lose proposition.

Thanks !

This is also the weekend to give thanks, as our forefathers did some centuries ago for a bountiful harvest in the new colonies. We should give thanks for having the freedom to fly in this country,  unlike almost any other place. You’ve heard before that GA is threatened in many areas which I won’t elaborate here,  but merely say that despite our challenges the U.S. has more GA flight activity then the rest of the world combined. Give thanks for that freedom and resolve to do what it takes to protect it.

Take a non-pilot flying to introduce them to our world – maybe to become a pilot or just to understand. Think about what you can do to help your airport and educate the community on what it does – truly it is a field of dreams. Finally – always – resolve to go about the business of flying with safety at top of mind. It’s not that hard and won’t inconvenience you nearly as much as a mishap. It keeps our insurance rates down, improves our images and helps airports.

Go fly this weekend and remember to keep the pattern tight.

In Preparation for the Spin Cycle

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Every few years I go through an unusual attitude refresher just to remember that airplanes are controllable even outside of normal flight parameters.  International Aerobatic Club instructor and director Bill Finagin did the honors.  He runs Dent-air Ltd., an aerobatic school in Annapolis, MD. (He’s also a dentist, which explains the name, not the condition of the aircraft.)

To do this with the requisite degree of safety, in my opinion, a special aircraft, instructor and adequate airspace are needed.

The Pitts S-2C is an excellent platform in which to explore those areas that we really should be avoiding in transportation or basic training aircraft.  It’s stressed to manage the loads and while a normal upright spin is a one G maneuver, the recovery is somewhere around 3-3.5 Gs.  Utility category aircraft are stressed to 4.4 positive Gs which is sufficient but not as good as the 6 Gs required for acrobatic machines. By the way, 4.4 Gs assumes that they haven’t been abused-some of the old warhorses in our training fleet have really high mileage.

We spent considerable time briefing each maneuver-demonstrated with a Pitts model and a laptop video of exactly what I would see. Brilliant and very effective! It is my observation that one of the weakest areas in today’s flight education system is the pre and post flight briefing. Rushing the brief shortchanges the student terribly and fails to provide the necessary knowledge to take full advantage of the flight.

Around the DC – Baltimore area the airspace is highly congested so Bill made arrangements for an aerobatic area over the Frederick Airport from 7,500-1,500. We called the Potomac TRACON before launching, who provided an assigned squawk and a time window. They would keep IFR traffic clear of the spin zone and a notam was published for VFR pilots. Additionally, a ground spotter with a hand held radio could call us in the event an itinerant pilot happened to overlook the notam. In low density airspace all this probably wouldn’t be needed but let’s just say it the training proposition would be devalued if a midair collision became part of he scenario.

The cabin announcement for airliners that were arriving into Dulles and BWI may have been something like: “Tray tables and seat backs should be in their upright and locked position.  On the right side of the aircraft you may notice a small red, white and blue biplane that is spinning earthward at something like 8,000 feet per minute-not to worry, while they appear to be momentarily out of control and with luck, they should recover.” Despite the extreme attitudes, we were never out of control and that’s the point . The beauty of the Pitts, in the hands of a competent pilot, is that it does exactly what you tell it to do-right now.

A full Safety Pilot column on the ride is upcoming and I’ll answer an all-important question.