Archive for February, 2011

Boggs & Stevens – A Historical Revisit?

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Representative Hale Boggs’ aircraft disappeared in October 1972 while visiting Alaska – never to be found. In the aftermath, Congress mandated that aircraft be equipped with the notoriously under-performing Emergency Location Transmitter or ELT.  The technology – particularly the crash sensing activation devices  – was not ready for prime time. Thousands of pseudo mishaps were reported over the years with some bone jarring landings that may have felt like crashes but weren’t. In crashes, the antenna’s frequently broke off or the G-sensor didn’t sense the crash.

Tons of equipment was purchased but the number of actual saves, where someone was found alive, when the ELT functioned as it was supposed to, and they could not have been found by other means is depressingly small. It’s hard to track down the actual number – government accountability sometimes falls a bit short. The 121.5 ELT was supplanted by theoretically better equipment, the 406 epirb.  AOPA’s position is that they should be voluntary for Part 91 operations.

Senator Ted Stevens and several others were lost in another Alaska crash last summer and unfortunately, the new 406 system that was installed on that aircraft didn’t work either. In this case, the aircraft was found much sooner but it was too late to save some of the victims. According to NTSB’s preliminary report , the ELT’s mounting tray detached and the antenna disconnected in the crash. We don’t yet know whether the antenna was also damaged in the crash making the disconnection a moot point.

Now, here’s where the sense of deja vu sets in all over again: Congress felt moved to ensure that aircraft emergency locator transmitters are properly mounted and maintained. So the Senate, on February 17th, approved an amendment to that effect from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill. The amendment would require that they be inspected annually. This sounds vaguely redundant – considering that most non-experimental aircraft already require an annual inspection and that the original installation is supposed to be done by a qualified technician and so documented.Why this technical issue needs to get into the FAA’s re-authorization, which is quite convoluted enough,  is a mystery to me but apparently not to the Senate.

Some better technical solutions for the quick location of a crash site appear to be in portable 406 epirbs, SPOT or Spidertracks and perhaps the best solution of all would be the ADS-B that would follow an aircraft right to the ground – completely independent of radar and pretty much anywhere.  We still don’t know all the costs  yet and there seems to be some engineering types who think the expense could be much lower than what is currently being mentioned – especially in quantity. There are numerous other benefits to ADS-B besides crash detection while the epirb remains a one trick pony.  Rather than spend the money on a 406 device that may not work so well, seems like ADS-B would be far better investment. While those standards are still being sorted out – how about no mandates for a little while?

What was he thinking? – Part II

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Given the size and diversity of the GA pilot population, I guess we should expect to see some really dumb decisions periodically. An incident that occurred a few months ago near Las Vegas got me thinking about how little some people think.

A Piper Cherokee buzzed a car on a country road, but the pilot misjudged the altitude and hit the roof of the car. The left main gear broke out the car’s front and rear windows before separating from the aircraft. The driver, who suffered non-life threatening injuries and was known to the pilot, had to be cut out of the vehicle.

The aircraft subsequently landed in a field where the pilot likely had some “‘splaining” to do with local law enforcement and ultimately to the FAA. Everyone knows that FAR 91.119 requires aircraft to be at least 500 feet away from a person, place, or thing in uncongested area, but apparently his depth perception was a mite off.

The Air Safety Institute produced a couple of Pilot Safety Announcements (PSAs) to address just such a situation but I guess this pilot didn’t get to see them. These antics are expensive, dangerous, and don’t exactly endear us to the public, many of whom would be quite happy to see GA grounded.

If you know a fellow pilot who’s a few bricks short of a full load on making these types of decisions, PLEASE send him the links. A few more sobering thoughts: Aside from the obvious one of death and dismemberment, aircraft insurance will either be exceedingly expensive or impossible to get after this. Anyone with professional flight aspirations can fuggedaboutit. There are too many qualified candidates with good judgment available.

As for the Cherokee pilot, what excuse do you think might work to get him off the hook, other than “It seemed like a good idea at the time?”

We’re being watched

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Big Brother is watching. Red light cameras are gaining credence in the traffic safety world.   A study just released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that traffic fatalities dropped by 26% over a five year period in DC. The average decline in other cities with cameras was 13%.  The article in the Washington Post didn’t note that fatalities were down overall but the point was that camera enforcement was making a positive impact.

DC issued over 85,000 citations and netted about $7.2 million in a one year period while redeploying about 100 officers to crime fighting rather than traffic detail. Was it just about the money? Rear end collisions went up slightly as suddenly law-abiding drivers decided that running the well-marked enforcement areas perhaps wasn’t such a good idea.  The study noted that these caused fewer serious injuries and deaths than T-bone crashes or flattened pedestrians/cyclists.

So what does this have to do with aviation?  Many new glass cockpit aircraft, which are the vast majority of deliveries these days, are equipped with flight data monitoring (FDM).  Speed, altitude, heading, power setting and configuration can often be examined after an accident. We can often see that the pilot was high on an approach but made up for it by being fast. No big surprise when an aircraft slides off the end.

The  FDM often helps pinpoint the causes of an accident. Usually it will be something the pilot did or did not do and the FDM provides a unbiased view of the facts.  That makes it at least a little harder for creative interpretations by plaintiff attorneys to shift blame to a manufacturer.  It can also make it much easier when the hardware actually does fail.  Like the unblinking eye of the camera, the FDM just quietly gathers data which is a good starting point for discussions of who’s responsible and how to fix something.

It seems like a good direction for getting to the root cause of accidents. You may have some other views.