Archive for 2013

A Sensible Man?

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

1107_shiplandingWho are we to judge our fellow humans as to what makes sense and what’s dangerous? If you’ve seen the AOPA Online article by Sarah Deener and YouTube video of Dutch pilot, Jaap Rademaker, landing on a cargo ship at sea in a microlight aircraft, you might wonder.

It is a remarkable piece of flying, and I give him credit for his skill and perhaps just a touch of luck. But it got me wondering about how we categorize risk. Everyone has a certain tolerance. Pilots have perhaps just a bit more than the average bear—and some pilots have a lot more. Good for Homo sapiens that there are risk takers—otherwise airplanes and big cargo ships might never have been invented. We need people to experiment, to move things forward.

Does it change your thoughts that this was a planned publicity stunt? “Rademaker, a 600-hour pilot who flies a microlight, had no military flying experience that might prepare him for a carrier-type landing. He did have experience on short fields and an incentive to promote the ship building and operating company in which he invests. What better way to spotlight a new ship designed for high-volume, low-weight cargo than to land on the aircraft-carrier-style deck?”

Quite properly, some limited precautions were taken for an inherently risky project. Was the risk worth the reward? Will it sell any more ships?

Is our perception situationally based? Here are some common GA scenarios:

  • Land in a greater-than-demonstrated crosswind
  • Tackle an area of widespread thunderstorms
  • Land with minimum fuel
  • Fly in to an area of icing with a non-approved aircraft
  • Land out of an instrument approach “right at” minimums
  • Take off or land at a really short strip

If everything works out you’re the ace of the base, but foul it up and we think of you as a dummy! How many times have you done something in past flight experience that you reflect on afterward and think, “That just may not have been my finest aeronautical moment.”

“Weeks after the landing, Rademaker marveled at how the stars had aligned: a willing and capable crew on the boat, camera crews in the air, and weather that made it all possible. ‘It was quite an operation in the end,’ he said. Still, it was harder than he expected. ‘I won’t do it again,’ he said. ‘I will be a sensible man in the future.’ But, he added, he’s glad he did it.”

There’s an old European saying, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” Life is like that, especially if you’re a pilot.

Safe pilots are always learning, and the goal of the Air Safety Institute is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep them flying safely. Our education programs are funded through donations from pilots dedicated to forwarding that mission. Show your support by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.


Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

IMG_3445The icing season is upon us, and every so often we are reminded that it can and does bring down not only the small, but larger aircraft as well. Cases in point: Air Florida Boeing 737—Washington, District of Columbia; American Eagle ATR 42—Roselawn, Indiana; Air France Airbus 330 (pitot system icing)—South Atlantic Ocean; Cirrus SR22—Norden, California (near Reno, Nevada); TBM 700—Morristown, New Jersey.

Out of the five listed, all but one, the SR22, were Flight-into-Known-Icing (FIKI) approved. The exact causal factors are different in each case, but the point is that super-cooled liquid droplets can be disastrous no matter what size aircraft. Unlike thunderstorms where life gets ugly immediately, icing problems come on gradually over the course of minutes. This usually gives the pilot warning that he or she is in an unfriendly part of the sky and it’s time to do something. Unlike severe turbulence, which dramatically shreds aircraft or flips the pilot over and lets him finish the deed, ice just chokes the lift out of the wings, the tail, and sometimes the engine. All those parts and pieces are needed to fly.

In the case of the TBM 700 over New Jersey, it was literally only a matter of a few minutes before the aircraft was ground bound. It’s the subject of the December AOPA Pilot “Landmark Accident” feature. So as you fly and train think about escape plans before getting into the clouds or freezing precipitation. Minutes matter. The Air Safety Institute has considerable educational resources available on the topic, including a recorded webinar on cold weather operations and this week’s webinar (recorded after Thursday) on Airframe Ice: Avoidance and Escape.

Our ability to predict ice is gradually getting better, but still isn’t nearly as precise as seeing convective weather via the derivative of heavy precipitation. I’ve made a career out of fussing at the FAA and NWS about greatly expanding the need for pireps so that airmets can be a little less broadly constructed. There are some systemic issues that include what to do with the pirep once the pilot provides it. Often, it cannot get into the system, or at least deeply enough, to change an airmet.

This is not easy stuff to resolve because just using cloud and cold temperatures to predict ice is a pretty blunt tool. Moisture content is key, and that can sometimes be hard to get at. Additionally, as we see with convection, the atmosphere is not universally cooperative or uniform in composition. For those of us in non-FIKI aircraft, AND for those of us flying the FIKI birds, give and get pireps. Treat ice with the same respect you reserve for sparking clouds.

Carrier Landing

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

2nc0 airportSome airports are just tougher than others. Short, narrow, and high are descriptive terms for Mountain Air (2NC0) in Burnsville, North Carolina. The specs, as currently reported, are a 2,900-foot long by 50-foot wide runway at a 4,432-foot elevation. The private strip is nestled in the mountains with a country club and restaurant overlooking the runway—a ground-based “Vultures Row.” Navy carrier pilots will feel right at home as the watchers grade and comment on every landing. The only thing missing is the closed-circuit TV that records everything for the entire ship to see.
Flying into Mountain Air is definitely an A-game activity, much like a carrier landing. Over the last 19 years, nine accidents were reported—and perhaps a few that didn’t hit the record books (true of all airports). Two were fatal, including one that I wrote about involving a Columbia 350.

All the crashes involved high performance aircraft either going long or over-compensating and winding up short. Included were a Baron, a Comanche, a PC-12, a Mooney, a Saratoga, a Cirrus, the aforementioned Columbia, and a Citation (still scratching my head on that one). The latest is an A36 Bonanza that just crashed this month. No details from official sources yet. You can review the other accidents on the ASI website. By the way, when reviewing airport data from AOPA’s flight planning page on the website, there’s a link to ASI’s airport accident page (look for the ASI logo) that’s an opportunity to not go where others have gone before at any particular airport.

The information for the airport as quoted in one of the NTSB reports: “Mountain Air Country Club Airport, Burnsville, North Carolina, was a private, mountaintop airport with an elevation of 4,436 feet. The paved surface for Runways 32 and 14 was 2,875 feet long and 50 feet wide. Runway 14 began atop a steeply sloping terrace with an abrupt drop-off at the approach end, departure end, and left side of the threshold. The published Airport Information Summary card stated, ‘Runway 32 has an uphill incline of 46 feet. Runway 14, thus, downhill 46 feet. Recommended approach unless there is significant tailwind is runway 32.’ The card also stated, ‘High banks on right hand side of approach ends of both Runways 14 and 32, within 20 feet of edge of pavement… Mountainous terrain in area. Caution: Mountain turbulence, approach downdrafts, density altitude.’”

Several thoughts: One is that the performance data for most Part 23/CAR3 aircraft is a “wee bit optimistic” for most of us as stated in the Truth-in-Performance article. We recommend starting with a 50 percent pad for whatever the manufacturer says to clear the 50-foot obstacle, and then as you get really good maybe scale back a little. Note that approach downdrafts and mountain turbulence are not part of the computations—nor can they be. Do you feel lucky?

Please understand this is not a slam against Mountain Air airport, merely a reminder that sometimes either we or our aircraft may not be up to the task on a given day due to weather, proficiency, or the interaction between the hardware and the available real estate. Sometimes driving up the hill to enjoy the view after landing at the valley airport is a really good idea.