Archive for January, 2012

Maritime Buzz Job

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

As the details of the Italian cruise ship accident, the Costa Concordia, came out this mishap began to bear an uncanny resemblance to the aeronautical pastime of buzzing. The ship was on a pre-programmed course, one that it and other vessels took hundreds of times before. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino apparently deviated from the official computerized route. The small island of Giglio was the source of attraction and, according to the ship’s data recorder, the Concordia came within 150 meters (488 feet) of the Giglio coast, much closer than the approved route. The captain had never done this before (he said) but he did have charts on board and electronic equipment showed the rock formation that ripped a 162 foot gash in the left side of the vessel. Schettino admitted to making a “navigational error” when he “ordered a turn too late.”

So why’d he do it? Showboating, if you’ll pardon the pun, comes to mind. According to ABC News, “Italian media have reported that Schettino was close to the shore in order to wave to a friend who was on land. ” The Cruise Critic blog notes that “Giglio’s news outlet says a similar maneuver in August 2011 earned Schettino a letter of thanks from the island’s mayor. Costa’s CEO, Pier Luigi Foschi said that the August sail-by, which was timed in conjunction with Giglio’s patron saint day, was pre-authorized by Costa and local maritime authorities. The ship stayed at least 500 meters (1,625 feet) from the coast for the entirety of the sail-by, added Foschi. …But, citing Automatic Identification System tracking data, which cruise ships with gross tonnage of 300 or more are required to divulge, shipping publication Lloyd’s List reported that the August sail-by “took the vessel far closer to Giglio than the 500 meters claimed by [Foschi]“—and within 200 meters (650 feet) of the “point of collision” on Friday.”

In the aviation world, you won’t often see a buzz job by an airliner on a regularly scheduled run although accident records show that on deadheading legs for Part 135 and 121 operations, the temptation to do something interesting happens often enough that it’s become an educational point for flight operations. Rest assured that the cruise industry will spend a long time studying this mess. For Part 91 pilots could this serve as a really BIG object lesson?

A perfectly functioning ship is driven into the ground by the captain to show off for a friend and innocents are lost. It is highly likely that the captain will be charged with manslaughter and may serve a long jail sentence. In aviation, we’ve seen foreign authorities prosecute pilots for what truly are accidents, such as the collision between a business jet and an airliner over Brazil a few years back. Honest mistakes are one thing. Deliberate deviations are something else. You’ll recall the case of a pilot giving biplane rides a few years back who decided to engage in some “river-running” and tangled with some wires which resulted in the loss of his passenger.

When one gets away with it they’re a hero in the eyes of some (usually uninformed). But the downside risk is so incredibly high that thinking people will think better of the impulse that may infect a few of us. Without being too sanctimonious, we should share the Concordia disaster with the so-called unreachable among us who are prone to put others or themselves at risk. You want thrills? Try bungee jumping with a long tether—that will cure you—Splat!

The Campaign Time Machine

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

On a Sunday talk show Newt Gingrich announced he was reviving one of Abraham Lincoln’s campaign strategies – (this is not an endorsement of either Newt or Lincoln – merely a report). He noted that  Lincoln wanted to debate Stephen Douglas back in 1858 but Douglas would have nothing to do with it.   Lincoln promised that wherever Douglas spoke, he would show up a week later. Naturally the news media of the day carried Lincoln’s rebuttal and Douglas saw he wasn’t getting the last word. Thus the famous Lincoln – Douglas debates ensued.

Newt wants to debate Obama, assuming he becomes the nominee, and he brought a modern twist to the discussion. Wherever the President speaks, Newt said he would be there four hours later to deliver his response. There’s only one way to do that – General Aviation! All the candidates and the President use GA. (Air Force One is the world’s largest GA aircraft – owned by the taxpayers and operated by the military – in my opinion only). Late breaking news – Rick Santorum chartered a jet to make 5 cities in one day in SC – you sure won’t do that by bus! It’s the only way the candidates can do business or take time off for a needed quick vacation. Isn’t it just a mite hypocritical to blast the use of personal aircraft when they are so essential to running a business or enjoying your personal life? Rhetorical question, of course.

GA continues to be under attack from various directions. We’ll stay out of the politics since it isn’t appropriate for the Foundation to engage but you might be enlightened by Craig Fuller’s blog this week regarding user fees.

While AOPA fights the political battle, your AOPA Foundation will push into 2012 on the education front: safety education for all pilots, preservation of GA airports, growing the pilot population and finally promoting the perception of GA. We’re wrapping up the numbers for 2011 and you’ll see them here first. We’ll leave the politics to AOPA but you can help in the aforementioned areas by making a donation or by volunteering to get someone interested in flying or helping to protect your airport.

Just remind your non-aviation friends how all GA makes everyone more efficient – not just politicians. Our aircraft are truly time machines.

Of forecasts and facts

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

On two local flights over the holidays the weather dissemination system didn’t exactly work as one might hope.  Day 1 – Cessna 172 flight to a small airport about 40 miles to the northwest. Forecast was for great weather: ceiling above 10,000 visibility greater than 6 miles – no mention of snow flurries.

Shortly after takeoff, the ridges to the west took on the distinctly gauzy appearance of snow showers and the higher we climbed, the more the visibility declined.  I called Flight Watch to ask what they were showing. “Well the forecast is looking good and although there was some virga reported, no widespread snow. ”

Yes, but looking out my windshield there’s quite a bit of snow and so here’s a pirep of marginal VFR and it could be going IMC over the mountains.  “Yes sir but the forecast ….. ”  We returned to home base about 15 minutes later. For a good part of the afternoon,  there were snow showers that came and went. Not so good for VFR and nice to be inside with a cup of coffee – wishing I were aloft but not in a C172.

Day 2 – Got a full weather briefing for another VFR trip in a DA-40 to another airport – this one about 65 miles north. It was kind of hazy but the sun was up there – shining through . Forecast was for good VMC and even though temperature dewpoint spread was close, the briefer warned of marginal VFR to IMC up north. Aside from the early morning haze that would burn off as the temperature dewpoint separated, what other indications were there? Was there a ceiling that might preclude the sun from heating up the air the way it was forecast? Had there been any pireps? What other information did he have that might invalidate the forecast that good VFR was in the offing in about an hour?

The briefer responded that he had none of those but was still concerned about the conditions. I volunteered to give a pirep once aloft. By the time we got to where the MVFR or IMC had been, it was beautiful day with temperatures in the 50s, no ceiling and visibility 10 miles or better.

Why tell the story? It points out, to me, a weakness in our weather information system. It is not intended to slam the forecasters. In the first case, the weather moved in and reality was much worse than expected. In the second case, VFR not recommended continues to dissuade pilots to fly until they decide to see for themselves and find a perfectly flyable day.  Unfortunately, too many become emboldened by the occasionally inaccurate forecast and the understandably conservative approach taken by the briefers.  Ignore what happen on flight one and then things can get very ugly indeed. Believe what you’re told on what happened in flight two and you may begin to start ignoring forecasts when the wolf really is out there.

As a famous president once said, ” Trust but verify.” Seems we should be doing that with aviation forecasts.

For more information on this topic check out ASI’s SkySpotter interactive course.