Archive for June, 2012

“An Airline of One” or who’s Pilot-in-Command?

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Last week, the NTSB held a forum as the general aviation safety record continues to be under scrutiny by the FAA, the NTSB, and the industry itself. As the co-chair of the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), an FAA-industry group that has been in existence for over a decade, I am well-acquainted with the issue. The GAJSC was formed to look at data and to make realistic recommendations on how to improve GA’s safety record. Our desire to prevent all accidents will always overshadow the available resources, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. However, we do need to make rational choices.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman cited two VFR-into-IMC accidents in her opening remarks and noted: “… along with our lessons learned, (we) have to reach all pilots—not just the safety-conscious ones watching the forum in the audience or online. If the general aviation community is to learn from past experiences, everyone should be at the table. Because the reality is, we see the same bad things happening over and over.”

After detailed analysis last year, the GAJSC chose loss of control as the priority with focuses on two significant fatal accident factors: buzzing and VFR into instrument conditions—both of which were mentioned by the NTSB during and prior to the forum. So, we’re thinking alike; however, there are different thoughts on how to address this challenge.

The real question that should be asked is: Did the system fail, or is the failure because of a lack of individual responsibility and judgment? In 2009, the latest year with complete data, there were 27 fatal VFR-into-IMC accidents for the year. Two accidents a month, albeit regrettable and preventable, doesn’t seem to indicate a systemic problem when spread across tens of thousands of flights per month and over 200,000 private pilots. (There will be annual fluctuations up and down; continual analysis of root causes continues under the GAJSC.)

If there’s a systemic problem, what can be done? Put more directly, do pilots truly not know the risk of buzzing or VFR-into-IMC? Both industry and government have provided significant resources and attacked the problem in various ways. The examples of those efforts are too numerous to quote here.

“Accident” is defined as an unforeseen event. But the outcome in way too many fatal crashes is completely predictable—the result of bad judgment on the part of the pilot. “Reaching the unreachable” was a phrase used during the forum. Unfortunately, the truly unreachable are just that, and just how far should we go to teach those who may also be unteachable?

Shifting gears, two areas with increased risk identified by the GAJSC were in experimental aircraft and in personal flight. It’s no surprise that flying experimental aircraft will entail some level of increased risk—that’s why they’re designated “Experimental,” and there are special rules to reduce, but not eliminate, some of the differences.

Personal flight is another area where safety is always the responsibility of the pilot—it can be no other way. Chairman Hersman’s reference to personal aviation as “an airline of one” is a great idea, but remember that the airline system is built upon no single-point human failure and a massive infrastructure that GA cannot support—so manage your expectations accordingly.

What about increased stringency on private pilot test standards? The existing standards and regulations will ensure safe operations if pilots will but adhere to them! Two buzzing accidents were cited in promoting the forum (a Baron and a Cessna 337). I have a hard time seeing that as a fault of the system, or that there is not adequate regulation—these were not skill-related accidents.

No amount of additional regulation will eliminate all judgmental errors. The ability to assess a pilot’s judgment on a practical test or during a flight review administered every two years or annually, as some have suggested, will also not be particularly effective because humans modify their behaviors when being watched. (Think cop at the roadside with a radar gun.) The same applies to “tweaking” the practical test—a pilot will always behave conservatively on a checkride.

There are things that can be done that don’t involve still more government intervention, and the hard reality is that all our interventions will have limited effect on the unteachable. The Air Safety Institute has invested more than $30 million in the past decade in live seminars, online programs, Pilot Safety Announcements, quizzes, and accident case studies to help those who choose to be helped at The messages are direct and sobering.

Let’s clarify one point that is repeatedly used as a justification for additional GA safety oversight: Comparing GA’s safety record to the airlines is meaningless. The only valid comparison to the airlines is for the GA segment that operates like the airlines: crewed turbine equipment flown by professional pilots. In that arena, GA matches or exceeds the airlines on a regular basis. Because we allow people the freedom to fly without the massive oversight system that is essential to protect the airline passenger, there will inevitably be a significantly higher accident rate. This is true in all other activities involving personal transportation and recreation, so it comes down to Chairman Hersman’s “airline of one.” The safety of your flight and the lives of your passengers ultimately rest with you. Be prepared and choose wisely.



Pilot or System Manager?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

My friend, Rod Machado, in his July column in AOPA Pilot, thinks stick and rudder training is essential. Makes sense to me. In the past, I’ve greatly over-simplified my thoughts on the three parts to being a good pilot: the physical, the mental, and the judgment decision-making aspect. A sufficient deficiency in any one of these will eventually complicate your flying life and possibly end it. Seems like a lot of attention is being paid to the latter two, and the first one is so intuitively obvious that many schools and pilots in their rush to get to glass, instrument flying, or airline cockpits, overlook the most fundamental of skills. Conversations with several of my airline friends lament the fact that many of today’s first officers are not especially skilled at the physical aspect and hurry to the supposed safety of the autopilot. Don’t misunderstand–autopilots are essential in certain applications, but that’s another conversation.

In the early 1970s, my flight school had a guaranteed private pilot certificate program for $550. Relative to today’s cost, this seems laughable, but then so does the price of my first car. Students learned basics in a basic aircraft—the venerable Piper J-3 Cub. I soloed in 10 hours and then ventured into the world of cross-country with only a whiskey compass, sectional chart, and E6B computer. (How quaint all that stuff seems today, but it was cheap and it worked—what a concept!) After 24 hours and several cross-countries, I checked out in the “big” airplane—a Cessna 150—and went on to learn about gyro instruments, flaps, radios, and all the other items needed to become a private pilot.

It’s not essential for someone to learn in tailwheel aircraft—they are harder and more vulnerable to accidents—but physical aircraft handling skills and looking outside because we are teaching VFR seems like a great way to start. Let’s not overwhelm the student or ourselves with PFD and MFD complexity. It would be great if the manufacturers would start building some basic trainers again at a basic price. Very few people learn to drive in a fully equipped Lexus (my sons started in a low-end Pontiac and Honda Civic with the most basic equipment).

We’ve seen several very high profile airline accidents where all the latest technology did not save the day, but old fashioned piloting skill might well have. Rod notes that everybody seems to accept 20-plus hours to solo and 60-plus hours to private. Frankly, unless you’ve got huge delays getting off the runway and maintain a reasonable continuity in training, it shouldn’t take that long.  Aircraft still fly the same way and while everyone laments the complexity of airspace, it’s not appreciably worse than it was with the exception of security TFRs (and that’s still another topic).

One of my other passions besides flying is sailing, and 98% of all new sailors start off learning the ropes in a very basic boat. It’s cheap and quick—something that GA could use a lot more of. The U.S. Coast Guard insists that all its academy cadets and officers go on a three week training cruise on a square-rigged tall ship. They learn the essence of seamanship before learning “radarship.” Rod has it right—let’s teach airmanship first! The AOPA Flight Training Excellence Awards are where you can vote for a flight school that is doing an exceptional job.

Storm Week : Lightweights vs. a heavyweight

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

This week is proclaimed Storm Week by AOPA, and we’ll look at all things convective in order to encourage, educate, and eventually eliminate encounters with thunderstorms. That’s a tall order because on any given day there are hundreds of these storms on the prowl. When aircraft are matched up directly with CB, the overwhelming winner is Mother Nature. Pilots have been warned about thunderstorms since the earliest days of flight, and with the exception of a few research aircraft that have deliberately gone looking for trouble, you are advised to stay well clear.

The photo is of a special T-28 Trojan built in 1949 and modified to withstand hail up to three inches in diameter, severe turbulence, icing, and lightning. It was armor-plated on the wing’s leading edges and tail. The canopy was reinforced with bulletproof Lexan and extra metal. Research was funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. Our aircraft are not equipped, nor are we trained, for such penetrations –the pilots were wearing helmets and 5-point harnesses.

A Bonanza A36 pilot at the end of last month tangled with a severe thunderstorm over Macon, Miss. According to the NTSB preliminary report,” …The center controller advised the pilot of extreme precipitation at the airplane’s 12 o’clock position and 85 miles away, extending north and south. The pilot acknowledged the information and added that he was looking at it, and evaluating if there was any way to get through it. At 1626, the controller advised the pilot that there was a break in the extreme precipitation, but still moderate to heavy precipitation, on a heading of 330 degrees at 115 miles. The pilot stated that he saw that as well, and thought it would be the best location to fly through the line of precipitation (emphasis added). The pilot subsequently received permission to deviate to that location. At 1633, the controller asked the pilot if he had weather radar onboard, and the pilot replied that he had ‘Nexrad Composite.’ At 1636, the pilot requested a lower altitude to remain below the freezing level, and he ultimately descended to 12,000 feet. At 1653, the pilot advised the controller that a cell had ‘filled in,’ but there was still a gap about 10 miles north, which he planned to fly through. The controller acknowledged the pilot’s intentions. No further communication was received from the accident airplane and radar contact was lost at 1656:27.”

Whenever operating near severe thunderstorms, all precip should be avoided. Remember that datalink/Nexrad does not show turbulence.

This accident bears some similarity to the A36 accident written up in the June AOPA Pilot.

We’ll be doing a special thunderstorm webcast on Thursday, June 14th at 3pm and 8pm EDT. I will be joined by Dr. David Strahle, one of the fathers of datalink, and by Matt Sullivan, a controller at the Potomac Tracon to discuss what we see in the cockpit and how to get the best advice from ATC.

Lightweights should avoid heavyweights at all costs, and don’t be there when the punch comes! Hope you can join us. If you miss the live broadcast, it will be archived on AOPA Live.