Archive for March, 2011

Second Guessing – Extraordinaire

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Last week’s big excitement was an ATC supervisor/controller who fell asleep during the mid shift at Reagan National Tower (KDCA).Two airliners landed without incident as they were talking to Approach Control who noted no airborne conflicts – not to mention TCAS. Hmmm -  there’s gotta be a story here somewhere and aviation always excites the media’s imagination.

Andy Pasztor wrote in Monday’s Wall Street Journal about the divide splitting safety experts on whether the pilots should have landed at National while the tower snoozed. For more background here are some excerpts from the article along with my thoughts – you can weigh in too.

“Now, a number of safety experts inside and outside government contend the pilots also shoulder blame in the incident. These experts fault the cockpit crews for forgoing what they contend would have been a safer option to land elsewhere, or at least stay in a holding pattern to determine why the Reagan National tower went silent for more than half an hour.”

“It was clearly inappropriate to land without a clearance” from the tower and “it is preposterous to say there was no violation and it was a perfectly safe procedure,” said Loretta Alkalay, the former top lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eastern region.

“If a tower controller can’t be reached for any reason”, she said, “it is absolutely not up to the pilots to decide to land as though it was an uncontrolled airport.” Ms. Alkalay, you may recall, was the former FAA Eastern Region Attorney who decided icing conditions could occur anytime the temperature was below freezing – no clouds, no moisture – just below freezing. AOPA spent considerable effort unsnarling that little non-sequitur. Ms. Alkalay is not a pilot.

Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, noted “The biggest potential hazards stemmed from planes or vehicles crossing runways in the darkness, without anyone alerting the pilots of the landing jets. The safest approach would have been to divert,” according to Mr. Healing. “It might have inconvenienced some passengers, but it wouldn’t have compromised safety.”

“I think they should have diverted …and for the FAA to condone what happened is a big mistake,” according to Greg Feith, a former safety board investigator who now runs his own aviation consulting firm. “Neither the pilots nor the approach controllers would have known if there happened to be a truck or a disabled aircraft stuck on the runway,” according to Mr. Feith.

Mark Rosenker, the former chairman of the safety board, on Sunday said that based on preliminary information, the pilots apparently acted appropriately. “They would have had enough time to talk to company dispatchers to get some situational awareness,” he said.

I am privileged to have worked with these fine people in the past, except for the FAA attorney, and will respectfully disagree with three of them. There are two regulations that provide guidance: 91.3 allows the pilot-in-command to make decisions and allows for deviation from any rule or procedure in the case of an emergency – although it could be argued this wasn’t an emergency – so the pilot’s normal decision-making abilities are suspended? Think on that one for a moment.

Hitting perhaps a bit closer to the mark, – the IFR lost comm rule - (which may or may not have applied in this situation) says in VFR conditions or upon encountering VFR conditions  the “pilot shall continue and land as soon as practicable” (The metars bracketing the incident were 900 OVC and 10 miles and 4,000 OVC and 10 miles). The first pilot, as the story goes, executed a miss and with the TRACON’s help, came back around to land. Whether the lost comm here actually occurred during IMC, or not, is largely irrelevant. The reg provides guidance. FAR 121 operators also have DCA specific lost comm procedures for reasons of national security as well. Regarding ground hazards – anything that can move on the surface of DCA must have a certificated operator at the controls and they would likely be aware that the tower was off-line.  Really, how big was the risk?

I might feel more concern if there had been some incident, but there wasn’t. There is a procedure for managing such situations and it worked perfectly – not once but twice!  Pure luck was all that separated all those people from disaster? Sorry – I can’t quite buy that.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that we’re still debating the rights and wrongs of this incident days after it happened and the crews made their decision in less than ninety seconds!

GA operates at non-towered airports as do many airlines. In periods of light traffic I suspect that even an ATP could land a big aircraft in VMC without assistance from Marconi. What do you think?

Breezy this month

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

As we finish up March, the windy month, (and there will be more in April) let’s briefly discuss, again or still, the perennial topic of crosswind landings.

From the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook here are the usual suspects for getting an audience with your insurance adjuster, if not an FAA inspector. And guess what? About two hundred of us a year discover that the winds can be cross indeed.

• Attempting to land in crosswinds that exceed the airplane’s maximum demonstrated crosswind component. — Is this limiting? Not unless it is in the limitation section of the POH.  If it’s not a limitation it still might be challenging to explain why you thought you could do better than the factory test pilots.

• Inadequate compensation for wind drift on the turn from base leg to final approach, resulting in undershooting or overshooting. — This is what rectangular patterns are about and getting somewhat close to the runway centerline is more than a nice thing to do. If it starts getting messed up here things will get worse.

• Inadequate compensation for wind drift on final approach. — If crabbing or slipping won’t hold it, try to find another runway more aligned to the wind.  Things will get worse.

• Unstable approach. — This is a foreign concept to many pilots and I won’t elaborate here other than to say that in a light aircraft if you haven’t got it in the groove at 500′ agl, things will get worse.

• Failure to compensate for increased drag during sideslip resulting in excessive sink rate and/or too low an airspeed.
—- My bet is that this doesn’t happen too often. If it’s really windy we tend to be really fast. Things will get worse.

• Touchdown while drifting. — Leads to that jerking sensation.

• Excessive airspeed on touchdown. — Leads to that floating sensation.

• Failure to apply appropriate flight control inputs during rollout.
— Leads to all kinds of unintentional excursions as the wind hammers the aircraft.

• Failure to maintain direction control on rollout. — Tiptoe through the runway lights with me.

• Excessive braking. — Flat spots are really good for tire sales but not so good for pilot cash flows.

Claude, who flies a Cheetah and read the article Math Myths in the January 2011 AOPA Pilot,  had a nice rule of thumb about crosswinds: “The charts for crosswind components are somewhere in the kit bag but here’s a much easier way; All you have to remember are two numbers: 2 and .7.

“Wind at 30 degrees: Divide wind by 2.” So, if the total wind is 20 knots and it’s 30 degrees off the runway heading, the crosswind component is 10 knots.

“Wind  at 45 degrees: Multiply wind by .7″. In this case, if the total wind is  20 knots the crosswind will be 14 knots. 30 knots equals 21 knots crosswind.

Obviously,  at 90 degrees you get the full blast. This seems like a quick and fairly accurate way to assess how cross it will be. Take a tip from the pros who use the gust factor, not the steady state wind as the deciding factor.

One other brilliant bit of wisdom: If you practice on a day when the wind is significant enough to exercise those crosswind muscles and there is more than one runway – take the crosswind runway. Just mind the conflicting traffic.

Getting a Flying Job

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

How do new pilots get beyond the Catch 22 of the aviation industry? It  goes something like this “You’ve shown some interest and aptitude in learning to fly. We have a position and we’d love to hire you but you don’t have enough experience – come back when you do.” To which the pilot hopeful replies, ” But I can’t get the kind of experience you want without getting hired.” Such is the world of aviation.

Got a note from a helicopter pilot, Barry, who has been trying desperately to break into commercial helicopter operations for several years. This would be a career change for him so he hasn’t had the benefit of military training and paid his own way.  But to go beyond the basics he needs turbine chopper time, which on one’s own nickel is especially daunting, so he hit on a novel idea.

How about the companies offering an internship?  Perhaps it turns out to be more of an apprenticeship. Whether lightly paid or completely volunteer,  the idea is to allow the intern/apprentice to function as a non-required second pilot to gain experience.  If it’s an EMS job, they would learn about that highly specialized environment, could add a set of eyes and hands to a high workload environment. NTSB has called for more flight crew – possible safety benefit?

There are cost, logistics, liability and weight considerations but perhaps  some flight operations might experiment a bit.  It’s a great way to get to know if this is a person you’d like to spend hours in the cockpit with and you’ve had the benefit of training them in your way of doing things. At the Air Safety Institute we’ve had interns for years who have assisted in all manner of activities including flight. Granted, it’s not quite the same thing but the concept has validity. AOPA had hired several and others have gone on to professional aviation jobs.

In a broader sense,  shouldn’t the industry help people who would like to work in it provide at least an open window,  if not a doorway, to enter?

Conversely, there are many people who are looking for flying jobs and have the credentials. Some regional airlines and companies have done a spectacular job balancing their business plans on the hard working backs of folks who just wanted to be the best pilots they could and make a living wage. The more candidates, the greater the competition and potentially the lower the wages. Flying for free or low wages certainly doesn’t help that.

Where’s the balance point?