Archive for July, 2013

One more time—It’s the Wing!!

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

AoA indicatorThe big news last week was that Icon is finally giving the angle of attack indicator its due by positioning it smack dab in front of the pilot. This is on its new light sport aircraft (LSA), which appears to be a very interesting aircraft. Regular sufferers of this blog and the Safety Pilot columns know that I’ve been a fan of angle of attack (AOA) for years and have wondered frequently why the industry has persisted in relying on that tired old derivative, airspeed, to measure wing performance.

In the speculative mode, briefly, it would appear that the recent Asiana B777 crash in SFO will be attributed to trying to make the wing do something that it wasn’t designed to do. If that is the determination, then that will make this the third fatal air carrier accident in less than five years that was caused by the crews’ aeronautical equivalent to walking on water. It’s been proven too many times that AOA is perhaps the essence of aeronautical life. So back to my tired old refrain:  if it’s so danged important, why don’t we measure it?

Icon, with a well done video, is making the same point and it becomes so obvious you wonder why the rest of the business hasn’t gotten in line sooner.  Here is what I like—you’ll have your own opinion:

  • The AOA is located directly in the pilot’s view. On takeoff, landing, and maneuvering when one should be looking mostly out the window the wing lift indicator is visible. No need to fumble in depth of the panel or buried somewhere on the PFD.
  • It’s analog! Some things are best described pictorially not numerically. Icon displays, of all things, a wing that points to green, yellow, and red pie shaped wedges—exactly as CFIs attempt to explain AOA to new students. This will irritate some of my left-brained engineering and accountant friends who have a strong preference for numbers and believe all things digital to be inherently better than analog. You won’t find many digital speedometers on cars these days and mostly the aforementioned are the only ones still wearing digital watches.

As written before, some of the best human factor types in the business, NASCAR, put the most important instrument right in front of the driver, and the tachometer is analog not digital so that critical information can be seen without shifting away from the primary task of not smacking the wall or the driver in front of you. (They do a lot of tailgating but the polite term is drafting.) While we like to blame the FAA for all kinds of things, and in many cases they richly deserve it, I suspect that there is nothing prohibiting aircraft manufacturers of all stripes from doing exactly what Icon did although it might take some reconfiguring. We hope to find out shortly.

It’s the wing that sustains us, and all pilots—from the newest student to the most seasoned air carrier type—should know exactly how that wonderful device is performing!



Rabbit Rules and the FAA

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

mini-rex rabbitAn area we’ve discussed before is the creeping, some would say crushing, regulatory environment that GA faces today.  Most regulations started off as a common sense approach to address areas that were known to cause accidents. But as too many cooks have learned, if a little spice is good there are rapidly diminishing returns when the oregano overpowers the oatmeal!

I came across an article the other day in the Washington Post by David Fahrenthold that clearly illustrates the point. Marty Hahne, a professional magician, was busted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not having a license for his one-bunny show. Casey, his trusty three-pound assistant, is the highlight of the gig when extricated from a hat, picnic basket, or other enclosure. Hahne could saw the rabbit in half in front of the USDA inspector—hard on Casey—but apparently not illegal if the beasty is for human consumption (don’t try this at home, kids.)

But it doesn’t stop there. The original reg was just four pages, but now there are 14 pages of just rabbit rules. Sound familiar? When Casey goes on a road trip there must be an itinerary. Not only that, but a disaster plan is needed in case of a fire, flood, heat wave, chemical leak, or tornado. This grew out of some terrible animal abandonment abuses during hurricane Katrina. One magician has a plan: Take the rabbit with you. But Hahne has a 28-pager to illustrate the absurdity of creeping regulation. He notes that “Our country is broke and yet they have the time and money to harass somebody about a rabbit.”

This whole deal was in response to the outrage of a family Dalmatian that was kidnapped and used for experimental purposes by an unscrupulous medical laboratory. If interested, you can read how these 1965 animal protection rules were originally designed to regulate laboratories, zoos, circuses, carnivals and pet dealers at But somewhere along the way over-zealousness overshadowed a reasonable idea. It would be amusing if there wasn’t such a total lack of common sense on the part of the regulators! Don’t get me wrong—I love animals and currently have five rescued furry friends, but…

The operative word here is “proportionality.” Regulate appropriately for the activity and no more. GA suffers badly from being constantly compared to the airlines, and much of our activity is stifled by it. The medical exemption petition is one area, Part 23 rewrite to rein in aircraft certification costs is another, and some archaic flight training rules—all are being pursued by AOPA and the industry. But rule-making takes a long time, and in the interim the application of existing rules could stand some standardization. Some regs are ambiguously written and subject to “creative interpretation.”

The letter of the law, but not the intent, can lead to some very unproductive places. Conversely, we have a few pilots who through an abject lack of common sense (there’s that concept again) bring GA into a bad light, and the regulators respond with a heavy hand as opposed to using just enough oregano.  FAA management and staff need to exercise as much common sense as they ask of pilots—because the oatmeal is in really bad shape.

An expensive reminder of the basics

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

airplaneThe Asiana Boeing 777 accident at San Francisco is the news happening of the week. Pundits, bloggers, and all manner of experts/pseudo experts—present company included—are holding forth on what happened or might have happened. This accident serves as an expensive and tragic reminder about the importance of basics and why things are done in certain ways regarding aviation safety. My sense is that there will be very little new that comes out of this that we didn’t already know years before!

I’ll confine my observations to the more salient points. Feel free to comment, as I know you will. The usual disclaimer: Until the accident is completely investigated my comments must be regarded as speculative and subject to error.

At this writing the facts appear to be that the aircraft stalled/mushed into the sea wall just short of the runway at a high angle of attack and low airspeed. Why?

  • Transitioning pilots are often not “one” with the aircraft until they have acquired significantly more time to learn its nuances. Even though the captain was highly experienced in heavy jet aircraft, he was a newbie to the B777.
  • The instructor pilot was also new to his role and, unless some significant mechanical problem is discovered, will likely have a contributing role for failing to properly supervise the new captain.
  • One of the biggest possible factors is complacency: “I’ve done this a thousand times. How hard could it be?”
  • The pilots reported to the NTSB that the auto-throttle failed to respond. Automation (auto-throttles in this case) must always be treated with caution. It’s typically more reliable than we are but must be programmed correctly and the programming should always be verified and monitored. “Set it and forget it” is a recipe for surprise and occasional disaster.
  • The culture in many countries defers to authority and experience. Even when the senior person is wrong it’s tough and may be career-limiting to say that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Some senior pilots and organizations are unenlightened that they just might be subject to the occasional human failing.
  • The pilot monitoring needs to monitor the main thing. In this case that would be airspeed, configuration, and alignment. If it’s not working, speak up, and if it’s not corrected, take appropriate corrective action. A bruised ego is far better than a busted aircraft!
  • Stabilized approaches are always a good idea, and the bigger the aircraft, the more important it becomes. For light aircraft we recommend that everything be stable at no later than 500 feet agl.
  • Finally, if something looks funny or weird it probably is, and that might be a great time to do something different rather than waiting to see how it plays out.

I welcome your comments!