Archive for March, 2013

The Tower is Now Really Closed!

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

towerSeveral weeks ago as the sequestration was looming, we discussed the wholesale closing of contract control towers at GA airports. Last week the ax fell, indiscriminately in many pilots’ opinion. This is an emotional issue, but as stated in that blog post, now is the time for a clear-eyed view of what is needed—not what is nice to have. Operational needs should always take a back seat to political expediency— or should they? I’m always confused by such things.

The hit list was pared down to about 139 facilities. As Katie Pribyl, AOPA’s Vice President for Communications, noted, the money invested in building the towers was committed only after careful review of the need. In a few cases the towers had only been open a year or so!

In addressing hundreds of pilots over the last several weeks in speaking engagements, many of you agreed that aircraft fly just fine without ground guidance, and there were towers we did not need. But the end justifying the means isn’t always the best way of accomplishing an objective.

My concern is three-fold:

1) The FAA’s “process” appears to have had little operational consideration, or at least not that the FAA was willing to discuss. Transparency in how the decisions were being made other than the “trust us” approach would have been appreciated. A better way to accomplish this might have been to set up a non-political advisory group with the FAA, users, ATC, and affected communities to look at the facts.

Yes, I’m insane, but this worked very well about 15 years ago when the National Weather Service needed to close about 400 weather offices around the country. You can imagine the uproar, but such a group was commissioned to do it based on fact—I was the aviation representative, along with NWS management, the employees union, heavy scientific representation, etc. It worked against the goal of no degradation of service. It took much longer than a few months, but airport operations are a much less arcane science than weather prognosticating.

2) The second concern is re-establishing non-towered habit patterns in the transition. Notams, that wonderfully dysfunctional system of burying critical information within the irrelevant, will become vitally important. Airports that had ATC flexibility may now revert to preferred right-hand traffic patterns in some cases. This can all be handled, but it’s going to take a lot of eyes outside the cockpit, good radio procedure, and solid preflight planning. To refresh everyone’s memory, the Air Safety Institute’s Operations at Non-Towered Airports Safety Advisor is strongly recommended as a review, as is the Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication online course.

3) Logic would also have suggested that this change become effective with the new sectional chart cycle which is staggered to keep things manageable. Don’t forget that hundreds of instrument approach procedure charts will soon be incorrect and will need to be updated as well. There were some cost savings in here somewhere.

May the FAA focus the rest of its budget cutting on non-critical areas that do not disproportionately target GA.

Can we do this better? What do you think?

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GA – Media’s Whipping Post?

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

flyingDoes it seem that GA has been a target lately? There have been some high profile accidents including a Beech Premier that crashed into a house in South Bend, Ind., and a Piper Cheyenne in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that apparently was attempting to return to the airport after a power failure and fell short.

Then ABC decided it was time to air a piece regarding spins that curiously had nothing to do with the accidents in question. The NTSB was also quoted, talking about GA being on the top 10 list when the number of GA fatalities is near an all-time low, and after it had dropped motorcycles from the list despite having 10 times the fatalities annually. Odd isn’t it?

With the two accidents noted above, it appears mechanical first cause is likely, but it’s a bit early for that. The pilots were doing everything they knew how to do—maybe it wasn’t perfectly executed. Perhaps it was. The ABC tie to dramatic spin footage is a stretch in relation to this story, or even to the total accident picture. Trying to tie this to a stall-spin outcome while the investigation is still in the early stages is not journalistically sound.

To reinforce a non-existent point, ABC stated that, “There are more private pilots in the air now.”  It badly overstates reality. Would that it were so.

Let’s address stalls for a moment because it is an area of concern. The Private Pilot Practical Test Standards are clear on what every private pilot should be capable of demonstrating, including maneuvering in slow flight, power-off stalls, power-on stalls, and spin awareness. In 2011 there were 11 fatal stall-spin accidents—less than one per month; a safe year. Somehow that doesn’t seem like a systemic problem to me but more of an individual failing. But one can prove almost anything with selective choice of numbers. A truer picture is that on average, there are less than two fatal stall-spin accidents per month. When spread across millions of flights annually, it just isn’t the purported epidemic.

That said, can we do better? Of course! CFIs are required to teach high angle of attack operations to assure that the pilot has the appropriate level of awareness. This is checked by designated examiners. Spin and unusual attitude training is available for anyone who wants it from a professional instructor.

The Air Safety Institute has an excellent online course which should be required viewing for all pilots to be sure they understand AOA. (It’s currently in Flash format and slated to be updated at some point, so iPad users, take heart—but not quite yet.) There is plenty of water out there for the horses to drink!!!

To the aviation community: maintain the aircraft and flying skills well.

To the media and NTSB: could we be a bit more constructive in putting GA safety into perspective? GA accidents are big news because they happen relatively rarely. We’re working very hard to see that the numbers stay small, but please keep the “piling on” to a minimum.

The hard work put in by the AOPA Foundation and the Air Safety Institute to deliver these educational resources are funded by donations from pilots. Help us help others with a donation to the Foundation today.

Choir Preaching & Who’s Responsible?

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

windsockIt’s always an honor for me to present to the Aero Club of New England’s somewhat provocatively named “Crash Course.” Every year more than 350 pilots turn out for an evening of safety and information. Some of it’s pretty sobering and other parts are more entertaining.

FAA Regional Administrator, Amy Corbett, discussed NextGen and sequestration, which would be informative if not so maddening. We preached to the choir for about two hours, and upon return to my room I read some of the responses to last week’s blog, Beware the Windy Ides of March.

Your thoughts on what appears to be a nearly suicidal flight by a low time Mooney pilot in to a 33G47 knot crosswind at high density altitude were remarkably uniform:

  • 8% thought the airport should have been closed
  • 78% thought the PIC had the responsibility to make the call
  • 10% thought the passengers should have been advised of the risk
  • 3% thought that there would always be risk in GA

I made a bet with Amy that it would be tough—maybe impossible—to crash without having broken at least one rule and possibly more. So here goes; the most obvious is operating an aircraft outside its limitations but sometimes it’s not that simple. Demonstrated crosswind velocity is NOT a limitation but it’s a starting point. On the M20E Mooney it is somewhere around 12-14 knots if my memory serves correctly, and in the hands of a competent pilot more can be handled safely. How much? Depends on the pilot, but at some point one usually runs out of rudder and that’s your answer. Y’all be careful because mistakes are really expensive.

We don’t know the specifics yet but presumably the Mooney at Angel Fire got airborne with only limited climb capability in an area with significant downdrafts. The aircraft was outside the performance envelope, and since one usually doesn’t crash on takeoff it follows that the pilot was outside the operating limitations (unless a mechanical malfunction is found—these comments are still speculative).

Lawyers refer to that as Prima Facie or on first blush—something that is obvious. I’m sure there is legal maneuvering to work around that, but Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography is brilliant in its common sense: “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it.”

Maybe that’s what’s needed—a rule to exercise good judgment and common sense. Oh wait, we’ve got that already: FAR 91.13 (a); Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

What do you think, should I call Amy and ask her to pay up?