Archive for March, 2011

JJ’s Excellent Adventure

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Does anyone, besides me, think the Notam system is a mess?  One of our senior staff members planned short VFR hop from Frederick to Ocean City, NJ. It’s about 130 nm as the buzzard flies but there were, get this, 73 pages of Notams.  I didn’t think our aviation system was that decrepit but so it was. There was all the usual foolishness about towers 7 miles from the airport, 150 feet agl, that had been unlit for months.

The ever-popular 26N RWY 6/24 PAEW ADJ [translated – Ocean City, NJ, runways 6 -24 personnel and equipment working adjacent]. Almost every airport has that Notam. It is very popular with airport managers who can put virtually anything into the system and leave it there for as long as their lawyers tell them. Something insignificant might change and the airport could get sued for something. News flash – Any society that needs disclaimers has too many lawyers.” ~Erik Pepke.

But there was one sleeper buried in all the meaningless drivel that WAS important. 26N AD CLSD- translated means the aerodrome (AD) is closed (i.e you can’t land here – Jack !)  Seems like we could have put that into plain English at the top of the heap but the Notam trolls prefer to pounce when you least expect it!

It would seem that the system really isn’t there for safety and to notify pilots of operational issues. Perhaps I’m a bit cynical but it sure appears that it’s there more to protect the authorities from any conceivable threat for failure to warn. This keeps officialdom off the hook because of FAR 91.103 that states “Each Pilot-in-Command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” Everything – no matter how obscure.

On a recent VFR flight I called FSS to check TFRs and Notams and was advised, after considerable non-pertinent ones, that operations on Runway 26 were dangerous. “Dangerous? ”

I asked, “How so?” The briefer responded ” Doesn’t Say.”

Hmmmmm.  “Is the runway closed?” ” No”

“I’m confused,” I opined. ” Well, I think there’s work being done on the airport and the tower doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

FAA has been promising to fix this over-warning, under-informing system for years but never quite gets the jobs done. There is always some constituency that just has to have a particular Notam. Apparently there is no common sense left on how to manage it.

Alas, that shortcoming may not be unique to aviation!

Research Discovery!

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Are you sitting down? There’s breaking news in the world of aviation research. The FAA has discovered that poorly trained pilots are a problem and that if they don’t hand fly enough, their hand flying skills deteriorate! FAA will publish a report later this year that purportedly sees a connection between accidents and inadequate training of pilots.

The head of FAA’s human factors group and a team of HF scientists have studied  “Operational use of flight path management systems”. Acknowledging the capability of today’s sophisticated flight management systems, the study examines how successful pilots are at using them and the effect they have on pilot performance. The initial findings were presented at a Flight Safety Foundation safety symposium last fall in Milan, Italy. Boeing, Airbus and one of the pilot unions also apparently noticed that when pilots don’t hand fly enough, the basic motor skills decline. Pretty amazing correlation!

Kidding aside, having flown aircraft with very sophisticated automation and those with none, I have a few observations. The automation is wonderful in easing workload most of the time. Sometimes, however, when the programming outstrips the workload just manually put the aircraft where it’s needed instead of playing with the box. The other critical thought process is the demand-response mentality. Think of the automation as a crew member. When you program the automation to perform a task, verify that what you asked for is what it’s actually doing. For example, don’t give up altitude awareness, just because the box is programmed to level at 2,000 feet. Actually watch that it does level and the altitude hold actually is holding – What a concept!

On long trips the A/P is a wonderful friend and greatly reduces fatigue. But “Gear up, autopilot on” to “Runway in sight, autopilot off”  takes the human so much out of the loop that those hard acquired flying muscles naturally atrophy. Why FAA needs to have a full-blown study on such a topic is perplexing. It sounds as if industry had already figured this out and not on the taxpayer’s nickel.

My regimen for staying somewhat aeronautically in shape is to periodically hand fly the departure to altitude and likewise, the descent and full approach. There’s not much useful practice in the enroute phase. Should we periodically practice missed approaches, stalls and VFR go-arounds ? Rhetorical question.

Perhaps the next study should review if pilots make more mistakes flying approaches when fatigued. I’ll be bold in predicting the outcome of that one.