Archive for May, 2012

Backwards Hierarchy

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

In the May Issue of AOPA Pilot, my column was about the “reverse structure” of career aviation and how the most inexperienced pilots often had the most demanding jobs. Flight instructors are either revered or vilified depending on one’s station in life.

To briefly recap, in order to get a flying job in aviation, the traditional route has been to become a CFI, suffer poor wages and few, if any, benefits, and hope to acquire enough hours to get a “real flying job” with a regional airline or perhaps something else that may be less than remunerative such as Part 135, freight, cargo etc. I have great respect for people at that tier because they often fly multiple short legs in high density and sometimes at very low pay in hopes of getting to a major air carrier or corporate jet job. In some cases the equipment can be charitably called “well used.” While there are rules in place to address fatigue, and they are getting better, it can be a very tough environment.

My premise was what would happen if we reversed the hierarchy putting CFIs at the top, regional and 135s in the middle, and international long hauls at the bottom (i.e., recognize that teaching flight to the next generation of pilots—regardless of what they might fly—was as important as the business of air commerce in a widebody)?

There were some predictably interesting responses:

A couple of senior CFIs agreed that they should be far better compensated and should be the most experienced pilots of all since they were teaching the next generation. One felt that “newbies” shouldn’t be CFIs because they couldn’t impart much wisdom – my response is that under proper guidance and mentorship, that is how most professions bring new people up. Doctors, lawyers, public safety officers, etc., all have a farm team system to develop talent. In aviation this is often lacking.

One regional airline pilot missed the point completely and thought I was “ragging” on the regionals. He mentioned that they often flew advanced jet equipment and had taken over much of the trunk carrier business. I agree and also think that as a group they work harder for the money in a more difficult flying environment.

A senior airline captain acknowledged that it was easier on the long hauls despite the physiologically and psychologically numbing aspects (my terms) of being aloft for 8- 14 hours and then having to rouse yourself for a non-destructive landing. Typically one might get to do five or so landings a month. He also noted that the jobs lower in hierarchy, especially instructing in trainers, were “physically brutal.” The older bodies just couldn’t take it: the heat, the cold, the unusual attitudes, and the constantly incompetent maneuverings where a slow response could ruin an afternoon and a career in an instant.

What do you think?

GA Accident Rates Down – and Yogi Wisdom

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Yogi Berra is the malapropism king of the world and purveyor of some primary truths. For the younger readers, Yogi was a star baseball player and manager for the hated (or beloved) New York Yankees. It seems appropriate to misquote Yogi in looking at the latest GA accident numbers. There’s the sense of “Déjà vu all over again.” According to the NTSB preliminary 2011 numbers:

  • There was an increase in GA accidents from 1,439 in 2010 to 1,466 in 2011
  • Fatal accidents decreased from 268 in 2010 to 262 in 2011, but fatalities were up slightly
  • The overall GA accident rate declined to 6.53 per 100,000 hours—the lowest since 2005
  • The fatal rate was down to 1.17, declining from 1.23 in 2010—that almost matches the record set in 1999.

Take these numbers in context—measuring the number of hours flown is an imprecise science—hence the denominator is always a little suspect. Assuming that sampling errors are always the same, the relative change may be correct.

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” Profound thought for pilots—we really should be learning a lot more from other people’s mistakes, yet accident pilots consistently believe that Newton’s laws of gravity is just a passing fad. The mistakes are the same—every year.

This next line is priceless when applied to aviation: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” Too many of our departed friends compared themselves to Bob Hoover, or merely a competent IFR pilot when, in fact, they weren’t especially good at aerobatics or instrument flight. Maneuvering flight continues to be a leading killer, as is weather—how many times have we said this?

“Baseball is 90% mental—the other half is physical.” So what about flying? My estimation is that it’s about 60% mental, 30% physical, and 75% judgment. The math may not quite add up but the idea is simple. You can overcome any skill level with enough bad judgment. There were accidents in 2011 that will cause some head shaking as we try to ascertain what the pilot was thinking. Sadly, there will be some others where someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time—this applies especially to passengers.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Decision making is an area we should spend some additional time on, both in training and in what the airlines call IOE or initial operating experience. This means that when we get a certificate or rating that confers new capability, take time to listen and learn even though you’ve passed the test…Ditto for checking out in a new model of aircraft. A logbook endorsement just means that you satisfied the paperwork requirement and there is still some real learning ahead.

“It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.” Some pilots could stand a bit more humility because too many of our accidents occur to experienced folk who got complacent and/or distracted.

There are many more Yogisms, but his most famous is “It ain’t over, til it’s over.” For pilots, too many times after an accident—it’s over. Safety happens on every flight, so we have to out-think Murphy (Murphy’s Law) every time. Murphy only needs to win once, but we have hundreds of thousands of pilot who do it every year. You can be one of them!

We’ll have a much deeper look into the GA accident picture in the next edition of the Joseph T. Nall Report, which will be published later this year. The latest issue is available online.

The causal factors won’t change much. As Yogi said,“Déjà vu all over again.” And again…and  again.

GA can do better and this year’s numbers show very modest gain. Perhaps we could try to best this record all over again next year.