Archive for April, 2011

We have it pretty good but…

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

We’ve all (well, most of us) have heard the horror stories of the high prices and constraining bureaucracy in many places outside the U.S.. I’ve had the privilege to work with the International AOPA over the years and more recently to attend AERO Friedrichafen. It’s the biggest GA show in Europe, held every spring, attracting both pilots and manufacturers from both the States and the Continent. We can learn a lot from how the other 20% live.

Briefly reciting some of the negatives, avgas, when you can get it, goes for $10 -15 a gallon. Many cities do everything in their power to discourage GA (even Friedrichafen reportedly charges about $116 to land) with usurious landing and “handling fees.” Flying IFR in Europe makes the U.S. Northeast corridor looks like a walk in the park, even though U.S. traffic density is generally much higher. In Europe you’re charged handsomely for the aggravation. There are 22 enroute centers in the entire U.S. (including AK and HI) which covers much more airspace and traffic but Eurocontrol presides over about three times that many enroute centers. Apparently, harmonization is elusive and overhead is pervasive.

On the safety side, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is charged with standardizing flight training and procedures. A private pilot instrument rating requires over 600 hours of logged academic study with a knowledge test that has seven major sections. Many questions are irrelevant for GA – such as how many crash axes are required on board a 200 seat passenger airliner. This type of testing is worse than irrelevant – it distracts pilots learning the things they need to know. Safety statistics for light aircraft and the justification for what we would consider absurdly complex rules are lacking.

On the positive side, the dream of flight is as alive as ever and there is a burgeoning light sport market. I looked over a number of the machines and they are improving every year. Engines are a point of focus because of the fuel price/availability issue mentioned earlier. Diesels have both advocates and detractors.

One thing is crystal clear – effective advocacy is essential. On an admittedly self-congratulatory note, AOPA US and the Air Safety Institute are held in high regard for both advocacy and education. Desk-pounding must be balanced with trusted relationships and solid alternatives. It’s not a place for amateurs. If pilots ever needed incentive to get involved with their U.S. organizations, a European visit will be motivating indeed.

Justice Prevails in SR22 Mishap

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

“This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Depending on which side of a case you reside – it’s a descriptive statement. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a lower court verdict that went against Cirrus Design and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation (UNDAF) after a 2003 fatal accident involving an SR22. The loss of life is tragic and was unnecessary but pilots need to understand the realities of physics.

The testimony in the case points to a common theme of a low time VFR pilot flying a high performance aircraft into IMC. We’ll explore this in much more detail in an upcoming Landmark Accident profile in AOPA Pilot later this summer. What’s of interest here is that the pilot’s family and the other accident victim’s survivors sued, not because the aircraft was defective in any way, but that Cirrus and it’s contractor purportedly failed to provide training on the autopilot to escape IMC. The accident, the plaintiffs contended, was caused by the pilot not being thoroughly trained in the use of the autopilot to recover from an unexpected encounter with IMC.

The trial jury found Cirrus and UNDAF at fault as follows:  Cirrus 37.5%, UNDAF 37.5%, and the pilot 25%. The jury awarded combined damages of $19,400,000 to the families. The appeals court reversed the lower court judgment, finding that under Minnesota law::

  • An airplane manufacturer’s common-law duty to warn of dangers associated with the use of its aircraft does not include a duty to provide pilot training.
  • A negligence claim against an aviation-training provider is barred under the educational-malpractice doctrine where the essence of the claim is that the provider failed to provide an effective education.

AOPA joined in the appeal as a “Friend of the court”, a neutral third party to provide an objective view of the proceedings.   If this decision were allowed to stand it probably would have created a massive disincentive for manufacturers, FBOs, CFIs and flight schools to provide training. I also believe that VFR pilots need to understand the risks of IMC -something that the Air Safety Institute spends considerable effort to educate risks of such behavior. View ASI’s 178 Seconds to Live Pilot Safety Announcement.

The plaintiff’s attorney has promised to take it to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Rating Flight Schools and CFIs

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Rating products and services is all the rage these days. It’s big business. Consumer Reports can impact the sales of cars with their ratings and who hasn’t heard of Angie’s List? Plumbers, doctors, contractors, maybe even attorneys are all held up for scrutiny. Amazon and many other online stores allow people to rate the products they purchased.

Some years ago, as AOPA was discussing the coming challenge regarding flight instruction and what appeared to be at least some dissatisfaction with the flight training process, the conversation turned to rating flight schools and CFIs. The opinions split between “Good idea – accountability should improve things.” to ” How will  someone who has little experience in aviation be able to rate a business as complex as this?” As we have all learned, if it’s on the Web, it must be true — or perhaps not!

It is harder to rate a service especially where the outcome is a process that is delivered over months, in the case of sport, recreational or private pilot. Look at public education. Some professionals blame the teachers, others the administration, still others the families and the economic background of the students. Could it be that the student has a motivation problem or as simple as if the student didn’t learn, the teacher didn’t teach?

We often talk about the chemistry between CFI and student. There were some people I connected with immediately who were diligent and committed. They tended to progress well and if I had been rated by them, would have gotten 4 or 5 stars. Others might have rated my efforts at 1 or 2 stars. From my perspective, I couldn’t deliver what they were paying me to do since many  flew only once every 3 weeks and showed up for lessons ill-prepared even though we had discussed what they should review.  In their view, I might have been a crummy instructor.

So here’s a question for you? Should we, the industry,  set up a rating system for flight schools and CFIs? If yes, what factors would you put into it? Should there be some sort of vetting and arbitration so that competing schools couldn’t just flame the other operation? How should we deal with the occasional or disgruntled customer who has two left feet and a bad attitude? Obviously, you want to look to coordinated, smart, committed and well-gruntled flight students. (Before I take you on, please fill out this 50 question assessment…)

I believe Will Rogers, our great American humorist, noted that if you wanted to learn about someone, to find somebody that worked with them. It’s much easier today — the question is ” Will the commentary be accurate?”