Archive for August, 2011

Quit stalling – please!

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

As the Air France 447 accident investigation continues forward, a few themes apply to all aircraft regardless of size. Unexpected stalls are bad, the indication of the stall should be unambiguous, and perhaps most importantly, the wing needs to be unloaded to resume flight. It seems so basic and yet every week, at least in GA, somebody exhibits poor airmanship that results in at least damage to the aircraft and sometimes worse.

There have been calls for improved airmanship since the Colgan Q400 accident in Buffalo where the captain allowed the aircraft, on autopilot to level off and, under reduced power, settle into a stall. The stick shaker and then the stick pusher activated but the captain may have believed that they were in a tail stall. He pulled hard and used considerable aileron to attempt recovery with discouraging results.

Two high tech glass cockpit airplanes with professional crews somehow fell victim to basic aerodynamics. In the case of the Airbus 330 in the AF 447 accident, three airspeed probes apparently froze up, the computer got confused and handed the aircraft back to the pilots. There were some conflicting indications but in the calm of hindsight it could be said that had they merely gone with pitch and power indications everything would have remained manageable. That will come out in the final report. A totally separate question is why three separate probes took a powder at the same time.

Now step back into the low tech world where the Air Safety Institute’s Piper Archer has been equipped with a state of the art Angle of Attack (AOA) system by Alpha Systems. In last week’s blog we discussed my flight review with stalls, slow flight and multiple landings. To be sure,there is a huge difference between the Archer at low altitude and the “Bus” at high altitude but  the concept is essentially the same.

The Archer’s AOA which is mounted next to the windshield post, was a confidence builder in helping to fly the Archer more precisely and slowly. It was calibrated at stall or alpha floor as the jet types like to call it. Too fast and there is an upward pointing yellow arrow, exactly in the groove and just above stall, there’s a green doughnut and too slow will yield a red downward pointing arrow and a voice reminder that you’re too slow. There’s also a warning warble when alpha moves into the yellow arrow range.

Airspeed is an approximation of alpha and the numbers change depending on aircraft weight and wing loading in turns. Wouldn’t it be better to teach from the beginning with alpha awareness? I think so, but it’s never caught on with the light aircraft crowd. Apparently, it’s beginning to be an issue with the big iron folks. Navy pilots are taught AOA right from the beginning and they operate from some really short floating airstrips.

Using Alpha, I consistently flew the Archer 5 knots slower on short final—which translated into better landings, less float, less tire wear and one of the best spot landings in memory. I should have bet some adult beverage on that but it just garnered a “nicely done.”

Flying to Standard

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Earlier this summer I wrote in AOPA Pilot that if all pilots consistently flew to the practical test standards the accident rate would plummet faster than a piano in a Laurel and Hardy movie. The problem, as I see it, is not the standard on the practical test, but more with maintenance of pilot skills and abilities. Decades ago the Biennial Flight Review was put into the regs to address this issue. Nobody could spell “Biennial” so it has since become just the Flight Review (FR) even though still required every two years.

Over the last several decades of flying, I’ve fallen into the habit of an Instrument Proficiency Check every 6 months and a flight review about every 18 months depending on how much flying I’ve been doing. This week, it was time to take the Foundation’s well-loved Piper Archer aloft to see whether I was able to walk the walk.  It also got me to thinking, in light of the article, what should be on a typical FR.

A situational approach seems to work best in the reviews that I’ve given.  Knowing the pilot in advance often helped the decision on whether to double down on the life insurance or breathe a little easier knowing that this aviator was a good stick. Most importantly, the review could be more effectively tailored to the needs of the individual.

My review, given by the Air Safety Institute’s Chief Flight Instructor, JJ Greenway was appropriately thorough. We did stalls, slow flight, some basic VFR navigation, two simulated forced landings (one of which was a spot landing). There was a light crosswind that necessitated a little bit of footwork and some towered airport procedures. If the pilot is really used to the airport where the review starts – go someplace else. There should be no home court advantage! It was sufficient to demonstrate that, had this been an FAA VFR practical test, I would have passed.

But what should be included? Here are my thoughts and we’d welcome yours.

  • Stall series and slow flight
  • At least one or two forced landing scenarios
  • A cross wind landing or two – if you can arrange it
  • A go-around
  • Plan and start a cross country flight – or actually take one if the pilot doesn’t do much of that
  • For VFR only pilots, a reasonable review of extracting yourself from IMC by reference to instruments.
  • Some ATC procedures, if that’s convenient.

For ground discussion, a review of airspace and runway  signage and markings is a good starting point. Pilots can take the programs in advance and bring the completion certificates to the CFI to show they’ve completed the program and are prepped. A sampling of accident case studies will help to facilitate the discussion on things not to do. Check out ASI’s Cross-Country Crisis, VFR into IMC and Airframe Icing courses.