Archive for August, 2012

Onboard Saviors!

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

I admit to being a little less enthusiastic when it comes to too much technology in light GA cockpits. We’ve discussed that new pilots get mesmerized learning glass when they need to learn basic airmanship. Those comments stand, but there are areas where technology is a significant improvement over humans, and we got a big reminder of it recently. New York air traffic controllers had a “deal” of monstrous proportions in January 2011 when an American Airlines Boeing 777 came within 10 wingtip lengths (2,000′) of colliding with an Air Force C-17 cargo jet at Flight Level 220.

The near midair collision (NMAC) occurred 88 miles east of New York City in some of the most highly congested airspace on the planet. Two controllers failed to communicate, and one did not stop the climb of the American jet despite being told to do so by the other controller. As in many aircraft accidents, distraction played a key role as one controller was dealing with another aircraft. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), that is required equipment on airline aircraft, sounded off, and the American jet made several evasive maneuvers over the course of a few seconds to avoid catastrophe. The NTSB investigated the incident.

What does this have to do with many of us flying light GA beneath Class A airspace? Last week, while approaching our home base from the west on an IFR flight plan, evasive action was needed to avoid VFR traffic maneuvering in the practice area that is about 15 miles west of the airport. The aircraft I was flying was G1000 -equipped, with a collision avoidance system. The target popped up literally two miles ahead, 12 o’clock, and at our altitude. The controller suddenly advised an immediate left turn—I had already disengaged the autopilot and was rapidly rolling left when the call came! Weather was hazy VFR, and we had just descended out of a 3,500′ broken deck, leveling at 3,000′.

This is not to bash ATC, because the traffic may not have immediately appeared on her scope either, but to support the fact that our avoidance systems, although they don’t necessarily meet airline standards, will spot more traffic more consistently than the so-called Mark-VIII eyeball. Heads-up and eyes-out is essential when near airports because that’s where the collisions occur, but I’ve had several instances where the technology prevented a close encounter or worse.

In my view, training aircraft could do without some of the Flight Management System gingerbread, but they sure could benefit from collision avoidance gear. CFIs and students spend much of their time in practice areas and in the traffic pattern, usually not with ATC assistance. A significant number of MACs involved training flights. Here is an area where the technology is not a distraction, and it is passive—i.e., it doesn’t require the pilot to do anything until an action is needed—that’s the best kind of equipment.

My hope is that the accuracy will increase and prices will continue to come down. Portable/ iPad-type devices need a healthy dose of this type of application—soon! It will save lives.


It’s the economy – Stupid !

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

This was a core campaign slogan developed by one of former President Bill Clinton’s advisers, James Carville. The same could apply to general aviation. As many of us have noted, the manufacturers haven’t been selling very many aircraft lately, particularly at the low end. I have a hard time with the so-called "value equation" of many of today’s newly manufactured machines. They’re nice—wish I could afford one—but they are beyond the reach of middle class and upper middle class folk unless they are prepared to make major lifestyle concessions.

This price issue isn’t a new problem. It’s been evolving over the last 30 years as the cost of aircraft has significantly outstripped inflation. Some of the dazzling new products that we saw last week at Oshkosh have equally dazzling price tags. As a result the number sold and production quantity goes down year to year. Economists call it "elastic demand." But the fixed costs remain, and so the price has to go up to cover the expense across fewer units. That doesn’t sound exactly like a robust business model to me! So where is the pony in this room full of manure?

Well, the industry and the FAA have also recognized that this is unsustainable. The first step in a 12-step process is to admit that there’s a problem. AOPA, FAA, and industry partners are actually in discussion. It’s too soon to tell how all this will shake out, but easier modifications and streamlining the process for newly certificated aircraft could lower costs substantially. Part of the problem is what’s called "proportionality." The same certification standards apply to light business jets and to the most basic of aircraft, such as the Piper Archer or Cessna 172, and yet they operate in vastly different flight environments.

As U.S. manufacturing capability starts to move offshore, there is real incentive to get this right and do it quickly! We could all probably agree that building affordable aircraft is as essential to the salvation of GA as growing the pilot population. Most people still aren’t able to fly without aircraft, and the average age of the fleet is approaching 40 years—well beyond the expected airframe lifespan. The old aircraft are not unsafe—the accident stats prove it—but, at some point, the economics of maintaining old aircraft become burdensome.

It’s time for a new paradigm. But the cost equation isn’t just dependent on certification expense; our legal system, creeping featurism, corporate structure, and perhaps manufacturing methods all play a part. It’s complex, and solutions are both needed and never easy.

I’ve had my eye on some really neat airplanes over the years but it’s unaffordable for me now—my wife says we are NOT going to live in a cardboard box. (Hey, that’s only a problem when it rains!)