Archive for February, 2012

Glass isn’t the Issue

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

When electronic flight instruments were introduced to GA cockpits there was widespread belief that it could make a difference in safety. There were also fears that poorly trained pilots would be slamming into hillsides on IFR approaches. Neither projection happened exactly the way some expected. The AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute has just completed its third review of technologically advanced aircraft (TAA) and here are a few thoughts for your consideration.

  • Glass cockpit aircraft are not falling out of the sky with great regularity in Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)
  • Legacy glass aircraft (Mooney, Piper, Beech, etc.) have a significantly lower fatality rate* than new technology glass aircraft (Cirrus and Cessna Corvalis/Columbia)
  • Cross-country new technology glass aircraft do not fare so well in takeoffs, landings, and go-around scenarios.

You noted the asterisk next to the fatality rate. That is our best estimate relative to exposure. The FAA estimates the GA flight activity but doesn’t do it by make and model. To normalize and be able to compare the data we used the number of aircraft delivered and when they were delivered to estimate usage. The study population only includes aircraft built from 1996 and newer, so many of the immobile old warhorses that grace hangars and tie downs are not part of the study. It’s new airplanes compared to new airplanes.

Diamond is conspicuous by its absence. The DA40, as a new technology aircraft, isn’t comparable in usage patterns to the Cirrus or Corvalis. A much smaller engine and cruise speed/altitude envelope put it into a separate category. That said, it had very few accidents but there was so little exposure data that we felt that the statistics would be badly skewed. So, regrettably, it is not included in this sample.

A couple of things stand out: The vast majority of accidents occurred in day VMC conditions where the advantages of full glass instrumentation over analog may not be so great. The new technology aircraft pilots (Cirrus and Cessna Corvalis) apparently are having difficulty with basic airmanship relative to takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds. A couple of possible explanations come to mind.

These aircraft are relatively short, coupled with high wing loading and high power, which means the need for gentle application of power and solid application of rudder. Cirrus accident investigators noted that in almost every case, the wreck was off the left side of the runway (no political comments please). I’ve flown both aircraft and they are not hard to handle but they are different from legacy aircraft in some respects and pilots need to respect that. So, in summary, we come to the conclusion that it is not the aircraft or the instrumentation that seems to be impacting the safety record but how the equipment is used and by whom. It has always been so. However, there are some areas where the new equipment can make a difference and that will not show up so quickly in statistics. I’ll discuss one of them next week.

It must be remembered, however, this looks at the negative side only – accidents. We haven’t come up with a good way to measure increased utility – i.e., are more trips successfully completed by glass aircraft versus non-glass. We’re looking at ways to try to measure that now.


Managing Risk – The Steve Appleton Equation

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

The loss of Micron CEO, Steve Appleton, last week drew considerable media scrutiny and perhaps in the minds of some, reinforced the idea that general aviation is unacceptably dangerous. The early information is that shortly after takeoff  Appleton advised the tower he needed to return. It was reported that this was his second unsuccessful takeoff that morning. It was also reported that this was a turboprop version which is the latest kit from Lancair.

Two thoughts for your consideration:

1) The Lancair IV-P is one of the most beautiful and fastest piston aircraft ever conceived. The piston version cruises at 286 knots and has a wing  loading of somewhere between 36 and 32 lbs/ sq. ft depending on equipment. The Turbine Lancair claims 300 knots – no wing loading information is provided. By comparison the Piper Mirage, the only certificated pressurized piston single in production, has a cruise speed  of 213 knots and a wing loading of about 23 lbs/ sq. ft. The Mirage is a six seater compared to IV-Ps 4 seats. Stall speeds are listed at 59  knots for the Piper and about 65 knots for the IV-P. They operate in similar environments on similar missions but the safety record is quite different.

According to the FAA, the IV and IV-P have significantly higher fatal accident involvement due to loss of control than other comparable amateur-built aircraft. That is to be expected given the numbers cited above and should come as no surprise. Does this make Lancairs bad aircraft? Not in my view. But before flying one pilots must understand the nature of the animal they’re dealing with. The MU-2 Turboprop comes to mind. It had a pretty dismal safety record until the FAA, after some serious review, decided that pilots needed special training to fly it. The safety record improved significantly. In fairness, there are very few turbine Lancairs flying so it may be premature to lump them in with other models.

Is it time to think about something like this for the Lancair? The Lancair Owners and Builders Organization or LOBO  has long offered a special transition course for new owners. They claim that pilots who have taken their courses have a significantly better record than those who just try to wing it.  This seems to make more sense than some of the other solutions that may be proposed after this accident. However, remember that this is an EXPERIMENTAL aircraft with different rules and higher risks.

2) Steve Appleton was not your run-of-the-mill pilot. He had considerable experience in flying high performance aircraft.  He was involved in other high risk sports and had survived an aircraft accident several years ago. Risk taker? Yes. Unaware of those risks? Probably not. There are already calls for boards to look at whether CEOs and other executives should be allowed to fly GA.  Where does that line get drawn? There is a fine line between reckless and managed risk. The nuances are endless. It would be most unfortunate if this accident turned into a widespread mandate from company risk managers to limit executive and staff flying.

Appleton himself acknowledged that high risk was part of who he was and that it contributed to the success of Micron, his company.  How much risk one takes on should be a matter of individual choice so long as other people understand and have the option to get off. As we all know, pilots are unique people and many of them are significantly more successful in business and in life than those who choose to hunker down.

I never met Steve Appleton but suspect we’d have gotten along very well.

The Blog is traveling extensively for the next two weeks and will resume after that.

The image of the Lancair previously on this post has been deleted.

User Fees – The Safety Angle

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

There is enough heated rhetoric regarding the topic to warm up an NFL stadium but what sends cold chills down my back is the very real possibility that some pilots will try to save a buck. We won’t discuss class warfare, party affiliation, collection efficiencies, big government, the fuel tax or inherent fairness. The politics of this can and should be handled by AOPA but the potential safety ramifications are real and should not be left out of the calculus. The stated plan by the government is that a $100 per flight segment would only apply to turbine powered aircraft. Before we get into how this concept could mutate let’s just look at it at face value.

On short flights – say to reposition, some jet operators could easily decide that they should fly lower and under VFR to avoid the fee. Today almost every turbine  fixed wing aircraft operates with the protection of IFR. The jets typically fly higher because of fuel burn and there is guaranteed separation from all other IFR aircraft. Good idea! But under the new rules it’s easy to see the rationalization that could take place.

The unintended consequences are myriad: Low altitude unpressurized turbine aircraft such as the Caravan or the Kodiak routinely ply the skies below 10,000 – guess who will now go VFR whenever possible? It may not necessarily be safe in marginal VFR but why pay when you can go for free? Much of the helicopter fleet is turbine and they routinely fly low altitude. Does this make sense?

As new variants of very light jets come into the mix they too may eschew the systemic protection because they are not in the same economic strata of Gulfstreams or Challengers. Is the rule to be based on turbine fuel? I predict that we’ll start to see diesels coming into the light aircraft fleet and they use turbine fuel or jet A. Where is the line drawn?

The fee proposal mentions controlled airspace. In most areas east of the Mississippi it starts at 1,200 feet agl, lower in transition areas around airports. Let’s suppose that isn’t what the government meant but rather mandatory communication airspace such as Class D, C, B, or A. Do we really want some of the turbine fleet routinely trying to avoid the system that was put in place to keep us all from colliding? Given the choice between paying the fee every single time the turbine  flies out of a towered airport, it seems economically  rational that there would be a migration to non-towered airports where much of the non-turbine fleet lives. That is not the safest mix in the world.

Now take all this and extrapolate it to other parts of the fleet. No – that couldn’t possibly happen, could it? And the per segment fee couldn’t possibly increase during times of economic downturn or because the fee itself reduces demand? Look at the history of user fees in other parts of the world. I’ve spent some time talking with non-aviation friends about this and when it’s explained in this way, almost all of them agree that our present system, funded by fuel taxes and some contribution from the general fund makes far better sense. We’d like to hear your safety thoughts.