Archive for March, 2012

“Black Swan” Events

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

There are days when it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. This short video clip from the web shows a light sport aircraft that is chocked but not tied down. The surface winds are unknown but probably about 40 knots, which is when the pilotless craft becomes airborne and exits stage left. We don’t see the outcome but I suspect it’s discouraging. It would only have taken a few minutes more to tie down the machine.

Sometimes, however, even with tie-downs the wind is just too much. Here are some reminders of what high winds, or perhaps an F1 tornado, can do at an airshow. Remember Sun ’n Fun last year? I’ve been going for over 20 years and even with the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm it was nothing like this. These are known by some as “black swan” events and they are extremely difficult to manage and prepare for. A black swan is a very low probability, high consequence event that is almost the perfect definition of an aviation mishap.

Sun ’n Fun management is a bit more prepared this year, but I’ve often wondered how Oshkosh would manage with such a situation–there is not much in the way of tornado shelters to be able to house the throngs of enthusiasts, and it’s a much bigger venue. I’m quite certain they have a plan but it’s a huge logistical challenge. Remember when the stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair last August? How do we balance the impreciseness of weather forecasting with the certainty of serious injury or death if something materializes? Also remember hindsight bias–attorneys and safety analysts specialize in this!

A couple of thoughts come to mind. It’s a shared responsibility. Everyone can listen to weather and most pilots have smart phones or tablets to monitor the progress of weather systems in real time. In most cases (not always), there will be about half an hour where it’s starting to look really bad and it actually becomes so. Do you have a plan? Another point: tie downs and ropes should be the real deal, not glorified dog tie-down stakes. If your dog is capable of a thousand plus pound lifting force, then disregard the preceding.

The reality is that there is some risk to life and limb when attending any big event. Flying into Sun ’n Fun or Oshkosh entails exposure to a large number of other pilots, some of whom may actually have read and understood the notam. There are always a few clueless souls whose airmanship or knowledge may not be something you’d want to bet your life on. The weather is semi-predictable and we have to manage accordingly. May all the swans at fly-ins this year be white!

Piloting, Sex, and Sports

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

My apologies for stooping to a media trick for attracting readership by using a tantalizing headline. Last week the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to comment on Micron CEO’s Steve Appleton’s death in an experimental aircraft. Executive No-Fly Zone attempted to point out that pilot CEOs were in mortal danger and so were the public company shareholders who depend upon them for management magic.

The quotes and statistics are entertaining, but rather than enlighten they seem to reflect an editorial bias against anybody who flies except in the back of a Boeing or Airbus.

“The desire to fly an airplane has been shown to represent one aspect of a sensation-seeking personality, a genetic trait associated with risky behavior involving driving, sex, sports and vocation, according to psychology studies. Such traits, along with substantial wealth, may explain ‘why you see so many [CEOs] are pilots,’ says Stephen B. McKeon, an assistant finance professor at University of Oregon’s business school.”

I always thought driving, sports, and vocation (whatever that means) were fairly common pursuits and billions of people participate in them. As for sex – my guess is more than just thrill-seeking CEOs and perhaps even newspaper reporters indulge in sex of some sort – although that isn’t specifically stated. My friends who are airline pilots will be thrilled to know that only company procedures and the FARs are saving them from such self-destructive tendencies.

Professor McKeon notes that substantial wealth is part of the equation that seems to go with the territory of being a CEO and being responsible for the entire enterprise. Perhaps I’ve missed something.

“Piloting small aircraft represents the riskiest type of transportation, according to fatality data analyzed for the study. Nor was Micron’s Mr. Appleton the first corporate leader killed in the cockpit” writes WSJ’s Joann Lublin. I’m curious about the statistic and how it was validated.  We also don’t know how many CEOs were lost to illness, surgery, slips and falls in bathtubs, ladders, stairs, or while driving expensive automobiles that they ostensibly can afford. As for the sexual fatality rate, I’ll leave you to do your own research.

But enough snarkiness! Let’s acknowledge that flying light aircraft does have a higher degree of risk than sitting in the back of a ‘Bus or a Boeing or driving a car. The story made no mention that many CEOs participate in regular recurrent training to improve and maintain their flying skills. It also cited instances of experimental or ex-military aircraft that do not fall into the category of routine transportation. In fact, business flying, which is not a hobby but a practical solution to moving quickly around the country, has a very good safety record. But it’s not perfect, and as pilots we are well-served to remember that anything that moves five to 10 times faster than the average car will entail some increased risk.

Several of my CEO associates have repeatedly noted that they look for business-pilots to hire as executives. Top CEOs are good decision-makers, able to integrate large amounts of information quickly, are good students, inquisitive, and have a bit more risk tolerance than average. They also understand that nothing ventured means nothing gained. Guess what? Those are also the traits of most pilots.

The premise of the article was that companies might be irreparably harmed if a pilot CEO was lost in an aircraft – never mind all the other hazards mentioned above that are likely to be statistically much greater. Any board that bets the entire enterprise on just one person clearly doesn’t understand risk management or that no one is irreplaceable. Every company should have a succession plan – period.

Pigs in Space and Noise

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

It’s a shock to some pilots to discover that a lot of people find aircraft noise distasteful – especially those who live near airports. Our response is usually that since the airport was invariably there first, they should have thought of that before buying a house. While this attitude is understandable and righteous, it doesn’t endear us to our neighbors and it isn’t always effective in saving an airport. Is there a better way and what’s that got to do with the title since space is a vacuum and noise is never an issue?

I recently came across a story that was touting NASA’s efforts in helping the game-maker Rovio develop a sequel to the phenomenally successful Angry Birds. The premise behind the game for the 15 people on the planet who haven’t played it yet, is to obliterate pigs who have stolen eggs from the birds. To topple Pigdom, angry birds are catapulted into a pig infrastructure, and to wipe out the beasties one must understand ballistic trajectory. NASA thought this would be a cool way to introduce those concepts and the physics of space into the classroom. I agree – very clever.

Perhaps we could also ask NASA to use some of that formidable brain power to help the light aircraft industry develop some cost effective quiet propellers. Roughly 60-70% of aircraft noise comes from the prop and as the tips speed up, the worse it gets. On some models of aircraft a very noticeable high pitched whine will spread over the landscape. It won’t wake the dead but pretty much everyone else, and as a result GA airports are under siege all over the country by angry neighbors and cash-strapped municipalities. Safety is frequently trotted out as the issue but it’s really about noise and money.

NASA has done much to quiet jet engines in last several decades, so I wonder if, in addition to helping the game makers whack pigs in space, we could get a little help in solving a core issue for light aircraft. This also applies to helicopters. Stealth technology is developing into a high art form and perhaps without giving away all the secrets, a dozen decibels could be shaved off our aircraft.

AOPA is working hard to educate zoning boards and town councils on land use and the value of airports. Maybe we should create a game that illustrates the point.