Archive for May, 2012

Freedom, Responsibility, Lift and Thrust.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Last week’s blog on the NTSB’s recommendations to improve experimental or amateur built (E-AB) aircraft safety  brought out a lot of pithy comments as did the blog a week earlier on Santa Monica.

Regarding the NTSB recommendations on E-AB, while it’s tough to argue against safety, it appears that if the rules and guidance that are already published are followed, there probably isn’t a need to promulgate more. There is a lot of guidance, and by this time next year there will be still more from EAA, FAA, and the Air Safety Institute relative to flight testing, transition training, and loss of control. At some point, however, we pilots have to take responsibility for our actions and for the consequences. Let me be clear that we welcome the insight that NTSB provides—it’s up to pilots to use it intelligently!

The corrective action that physics and gravity mete out is consistent and swift. The only unfair aspect is that occasionally passengers fall victim to misjudgment—just as they do in cars, motorcycles, and at baseball games. (If you read the ticket, the owners let the buyer beware that they may get beaned by a foul or fly ball.) As PICs, we should be ever mindful of that! FAR 91.319 (d) is clear that, “Each person operating an aircraft that has an experimental certificate shall…Advise each person carried of the experimental nature of the aircraft.” That’s not something to be glossed over, and the aeronautically-unqualified passenger should understand what it means.

The fairness surrounding land use and politicians keeping commitments is much less self-correcting. The U.S. has traditionally prided itself on freedom and the ability to accomplish things that may entail risk, personal growth, learning, and sacrifice. But for every black there is a white, a yin for a yang, or a down for an up. In too many cases these days, facts become irrelevant and emotion—which is a bad way to govern—holds sway. (That’s not unique to the aviation discourse these days and is a much bigger conversation.)

As pilots and defenders of the ability to move freely, the challenge of even well-intentioned regulatory creep or land grabs should not be accepted lightly, as previously noted. It’s now time to get involved regularly in communicating the value of GA and the freedom it brings. Acknowledge that without risk there can be no reward, and that some rewards are most definitely not worth the risk (that yin-yang thing).

As a new pilot many years ago, I understood the safety responsibility intuitively, but did not understand the need for AOPA and the AOPA Foundation in defending the freedom to fly until some years later. That mental sunrise has been gradually continuing with the recognition that the human impediments to flight are every bit as real as drag and weight. It is up to each of us to provide thrust and lift. I hope you will join with us in keeping GA aloft!

Experimental Amateur Built Aircraft & the NTSB

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Vans RV-3

The NTSB has just published its report on experimental amateur-built aircraft (E-AB). The genesis of this is the unfortunate fact that E-AB have a higher accident and fatality rate than manufactured aircraft built under CAR 3 or FAR Part 23. That should come as no surprise to anyone, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved by reasonable steps. According to the NTSB, “Experimental amateur-built (E-AB) aircraft represent nearly 10% of the U.S. general aviation fleet, but these aircraft accounted for approximately 15% of the total and 21% of the fatal U.S. general aviation (GA) accidents in 2011. Experimental amateur-built aircraft represent a growing segment of the United States’ general aviation fleet—a segment that now numbers nearly 33,000 aircraft.”

Both EAA and AOPA prefer education to more regulation, but more analysis is needed. There are a few areas where the FAA is called upon to expand regulation—specifically:

  • “Revise 14 Code of Federal Regulations 21.193, Federal Aviation Administration Order 8130.2G, and related guidance or regulations, as necessary, to define aircraft fuel system functional test procedures, and require applicants for an airworthiness certificate for a powered experimental, operating amateur-built aircraft to conduct that test and submit a report of the results for Federal Aviation Administration acceptance.” 

Fuel system problems which lead to engine stoppage stand out as an area where builders could exercise additional caution. I spoke with a builder friend, who is also an A&P. He noted that there is an art to getting the fuel system right. How hard could it be to run a tube from the fuel tank to the engine? Not nearly as easy as you might think—the line has to be the right size and thickness, bends have to be smooth with no kinks, absolutely no chafing allowed anywhere, obviously all fittings must be not only leak-free, but seep-proof, and there must be no way that vapor can form as temperature and altitude change. Here’s what makes a regulation a bit challenging: there are as many different fuel systems as there are homebuilts, and practically implementing this would be extremely difficult.

  • NTSB has also called for requiring the FAA to review and accept a completed test plan and aircraft flight manual (or its equivalent) that documents the aircraft’s performance data and operating envelope, and that establishes emergency procedures prior to the issuance of Phase II operating limitations. This is something that the professionals always do and apparently the NTSB thinks it’s more than just good practice—it’s essential. This not only helps the original builder, but the accident data suggest there have been significant problems as E-AB aircraft move from the builder-owner to subsequent owners. The Forrest Gump-ism about life being like a box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get) isn’t a recipe for success in the aviation world. I can only imagine what it’s like to step into a new aircraft with only a vague idea of its performance characteristics. My builder friend also noted that he had built two identical aircraft that weren’t identical—they both had their own personalities. This is also true of factory built machines, but the variance is far less. Let’s be fair to say that many builders already do exactly this, but NTSB wants the FAA to mandate that good practice. Question is: does the FAA have the staffing and expertise to do this effectively? There is guidance from EAA on how to do this.
  • Transition training is always a good idea. The NTSB noted that data from “…2011 accidents suggests that pilots who did not seek training were overrepresented in the accidents, and that E-AB aircraft accidents involving loss of aircraft control could be reduced if more pilots received transition training.” This is not intended to be a regulatory change.

We agree, and that applies to all aircraft, not just E-AB. The Air Safety Institute will be publishing a Transition Training syllabus that will be applicable to most aircraft later this summer and can be customized to meet the needs of any pilot while helping to improve GA’s safety record.

There much to learn from this report and it will take some time to study the recommendations to fully understand the implications. Requiring a bit more testing and documentation seems reasonable, but the question is in how it’s implemented, and do the proposed new rules impose significant burdens while only marginally improving safety. That’s always the trade-off, isn’t it?

You can read the executive Summary here: The full report will be published in June.


Fire at SMO and what just what is a contract anyway?

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

If you’ve been following the continuing saga of the Santa Monica airport (SMO), it’s easy to see how things have become so contentious, and yet this is precisely why we have laws. It keeps things relatively civilized—mostly. In summary: SMO Airport began as a grass strip in the 1920s, and shortly afterward Douglas aircraft moved in and began building the first and subsequent generation of airliners (DC3-DC7).

During WWII, Douglas was running 24 hours a day, and L.A. and Santa Monica rezoned the area to allow housing right up to the perimeter of the airport so the workers could be right there! The government took over the airport during the war and in 1948 offered the airport back to the city with the stipulation that it must remain an airport in perpetuity. The city agreed and signed the contract.

Douglas started building jets in the 1950s, and these aircraft were, according to some, 10 times louder than they are today, but the production moved to Long Beach. GA jets arrived in the ‘60s, and they were loud, too. A high-roller operation to move people out to Las Vegas in the early evening and have them back before dawn, presumably broke but happy, did not please the neighbors. The first class-action lawsuit cropped up in 1967 and the airport won. In ’69, a second lawsuit prevailed to establish a curfew from 2300 to 0700. Other restrictions regarding pattern work and flight paths were also introduced.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, GA operations were at an all-time high, running nearly 360,000 per year. It has since dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s due to decline in GA activity, and many aircraft are much quieter.

But history has a way of being repetitious—some of the neighbors would like to shut down the airport and develop it into something else, but there’s this nasty business of contract law (some would say “dealing with the devil”).

Here’s an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a Santa Monica blog:

“According to the article, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association claims a survey it conducted shows that two-thirds of Santa Monica residents believe the airport should remain open. I would be interested to know where the pilots association got their “facts” and where these pilots actually “live?

The airport serves the few not the many, and we living near it can no longer tolerate the constant barrage of noise, pollution and toxic cancerous particles raining down on our homes and gardens. If the city will not fight the FAA to take back the land when the lease expires in 2015 it is time to vote all of them out of office.”

The lease that is referred to does not override, according to those who know such things, the contract of 1948.

AOPA and other groups have put considerable effort into attempting to bring some reason and legality to an emotional argument. The contract between the city and the FAA is binding, as several audits have shown. Would some of the homeowners be defensive of their own property deeds, some going back to 1948? If one decided that they just didn’t care for what the homeowner was doing—even though they were doing less of it and had been doing it since long before the newer neighbors moved in—made no secret of that fact, and in fact had a contract that allowed them to do it, how would that play? (You might accuse me of being a bit rhetorical—not to mention long-winded!)

Here’s where the educational outreach by AOPA and the Foundation come into play. Instead of attempting to move the goal posts after the rules of the game are established, it’s much better to help people understand how the game is played before they put a team on the field. In SMO’s case, it’s tough to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but how much better would it have been to have been: 1) Educating the community about the benefits of the airport before things became completely polarized; 2) Requiring that an avigational easement be a part of every property sale within the noise impact area of SMO so no one could claim they didn’t know; 3) Offering rides, airport tours, and school and civic club presentations to affect number 1; 4) Looking for ways to be a good neighbor consistent with safety.

How does your community feel about the airport? It’s far better to be a fire marshal and prevent the fire from starting than to call out the fire department after it gets going—there will inevitably be damage.