Archive for May, 2011

When the “impossible” happens

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Looks as if we’re about to learn the probable cause on the loss of Air France 447, the Airbus 330 that disappeared over the South Atlantic in convective weather about two years ago. The amazing discovery and recovery of the flight data recorders is a tribute to the skills and perseverance of the search teams. It is miraculous. The preliminary data from the FDRs shows that the aircraft was probably flyable but automated systems may have been dropping off line in steady succession as the computers were fed conflicting data due to icing . Please note there is more to be learned here and it’s not the final word.

The aircraft was up high and flying in a narrow portion of the flight envelope between over speed and stall. At some point the automation may have handed the aircraft back to the pilots and here’s where we’ll find out what the crew did or didn’t do. Was it out of trim? What were the thrust settings? What was the pitch attitude and bank?

Without being overly speculative, it may be that the “impossible” happened with compound system failures and a combination so improbable that there wasn’t a procedure or even a simulator scenario to cover it. The crew was overwhelmed and unprepared. Picture this – you’ve been airborne for 4 hours and everything is proceeding smoothly. You’ve flown thousands of hours and crossed the inter-tropical convergence zone dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Thunderstorms are a way of life here and one just works around them – there’s always been a way through – before.

Jet upset – something that used to be talked about much more in the dawn of the jet age – has never completely gone away. With better aerodynamics, more powerful engines and sophisticated autopilots it has become a rarity but stuff still happens. Did that happen? If the aircraft stalled it could be a long ride down and unlike light aircraft, big jets don’t recover easily.

Consider another area where we’ve seen the impossible. Dual engine failure is considered extremely unlikely and yet due to bird indigestion, extremely heavy rain or fuel interruption jet airplanes have become gliders. Happens often enough that crews should train for it. The Sioux City DC-10 accident decades ago where an improbable uncontained engine failure wiped out all three hydraulic systems was considered impossible. Stuff happens.

Retain just a bit of skepticism when someone says that something is “impossible.” Basic pilot skills never go out of style and perhaps even with the most sophisticated aircraft, it’s good to sometimes just fly the aircraft. Are your skills up to par? When was the last time you flew without a moving map? What about flying an approach on backup instrumentation? It’s easy to criticize other pilots who are no longer with us – a bit harder to know how we would measure up in a similar complex and confusing situation.

That the French are looking at criminal charges is not helpful and topic for another blog.

The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Let’s Fly on Saturday!

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

This Saturday, May 21st,  is Learn-to-Fly day. It should come as no surprise by now that GA is in need of more pilots if our activity is to survive as we know it. There may be a better reason to go flying than to introduce a prospective pilot to our world but I’m not sure what it might be. Ditto for educating people who will never become pilots. The more “air-minded” we can make people, the fewer hassles there will be regarding airports.

The sad part is that a week won’t pass without someone somewhere trying to bash or close an airport. Many of the NIMBYs moved in well after the airport was built but that doesn’t silence them and they outnumber us by a huge margin. “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument.”  said William G. McAdoo a former US Treasury secretary. So it is with airport opponents and far better to begin enlightening them about the value of airports before things get unpleasant.

This past weekend the AOPA chapter of Women in Aviation hosted a girl scout troop and introduced them to our airport. Many of the girls will return this weekend to go flying with their parents here at Frederick. Wanna bet on how some negative perceptions will change?  Not all the girls will become pilots or go on to careers in aviation but most will come away with a new appreciation, as will their parents. The LTF event is open to everyone and several of my neighbors are slated to come.
If you have the time and inclination – take someone up:
  • Pick your weather carefully. Obviously, a bumpy intro flight is not a good idea.
  • No stalls, steep turns or any kind of “hot dogging.” If you want to be a bone head do it solo!
  • If someone asks how safe it is – tell them the truth. It is not as safe as driving a car – on average. But it is as safe as the PIC chooses to make it. We can have a long discussion on that.
  • If someone shows  a more serious interest -  send them to this website for more details http://www.aopa.org/letsgoflying/
  • If there is real interest, help them with picking out a flight school and CFI.
Your AOPA Foundation has a complete initiative devoted to growing the pilot population – it started about three years ago and realistically, we and the industry should have started about 20 years ago. That said, the joy of flight and the freedom is still there – not so easy or as cheap as it once was but that applies to most activities.
Be safe, be smart and have fun this weekend. Perhaps we should have LTF day once every weekend. What do you think?

How much certification do we really need?

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

The financial turkeys are coming home to roost as the country deals with budget deficits as far as the eye can see. So government is scaling back in non-essential areas. But what’s “non-essential.” Where do some of the FAA’s certification costs come into play?

The FAA certifies pretty much everything that goes on or into aircraft. Most of it works pretty well and we have very few accidents that occur because of a design or manufacturing deficiency. Most of us would probably agree that airframes and engines should be as close to bullet proof as possible. But there is a significant cost -some would say huge – for some of the benefits. Safety at any cost is transportation and utility denied. The cost in factory-built Light Sport Aircraft  is much lower (but not low enough for some) due to the industry consensus standard.

But what about non-flight-critical avionics or those that have redundancy?  The Air Safety Institute, in the past has asked the FAA to not inject themselves into weather detection for Part 91 operations. The industry has done a marvelous job with satellite datalink weather. The systems have evolved very quickly over the 15 years or so and at very low cost. Airline pilots have often lusted after some of the gear we have but for Part 121 it has to be certified – that’s as it should be. My sense is that if the FAA had insisted on nexrad datalink certification, the equipment would not be in nearly as many cockpits today, many fewer flights would have been completed and arguably, there would have been more accidents.

Could the case be made that for Part 91 ops perhaps perfect is getting in the way of the good? Most legacy aircraft were certificated under CAR-3 and that regulation that has performed exceptionally well. Is Part 23 that much better and at what additional cost? There are standards that are appropriate for some really high performance aircraft that are also being applied to trainers. Maybe there should be a Part 23 Lite?

The Garmin 496 and 696  show much of the same things and perform equally or nearly so to panel mounted equipment, but with a big price differential. FAA Administrator Babbitt has noted that there are 2,200 certification projects that might be delayed because of impending budget cuts. Perhaps not all of them are worthy of such deep scrutiny.

What do you think?