Archive for August, 2013

Asteroids & Monkey Poop

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

nasa asteroid 2You’ve probably heard about NASA’s latest plan to generate interest, and perhaps some funding, by catching an asteroid that is going to destroy the planet and bag it (paper or plastic?). They’ll double park in Earth orbit—perhaps where we can mine it for whatever might be useful. No contingency was mentioned if it gets hauled to the impound lot—the storage fees are bound to be staggering. Listening to the NASA administrator and other people in the space business, this rock snagging activity makes perfect sense. After all, the theory is that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite that kicked up more than a little dust resulting in catastrophic climate changes. Of course, that happened a few years back…but still…..

So what is the probability of a meteor strike? When asked on the video clip I saw, the spokesperson was deliberately vague. There was a big one that sailed low over Russia this year and did some damage—the Chelyabinsk meteor—and injured some 1,500 people from breaking glass. The last big one before that, but no injuries, was the Tunguska event in 1908—also in Russia. Coincidence?

nasa asteroid 1

From NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Lab website: “No human in the past 1,000 years is known to have been killed by a meteorite or by the effects of one impacting. (There are ancient Chinese records of such deaths.) An individual’s chance of being killed by a meteorite is small, but the risk increases with the size of the impacting comet or asteroid, with the greatest risk associated with global catastrophes resulting from impacts of objects larger than 1 kilometer. NASA knows of no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth, so the probability of a major collision is quite small.”

Yet someone is thinking we should spend billions?

Forgive me for wondering if this really is the best use of NASA funds. Now the extinction of life as we know it certainly does give one pause, and when compared to all the other things the government spends money on perhaps this should move up in the priority list. A few areas that have been reported are nearly $600,000 for research on why monkeys throw feces at each other or $198,000 spent to research whether social media programs such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn make people happy.

But moving out of government fantasy, general aviation has gotten very little, if any, attention in the last few decades from the aeronautics side of the space administration. The light aircraft technology, outside of avionics, has stagnated badly for a variety of reasons. Light aircraft remain too complicated and too expensive. We need some of that really good engineering and brainpower that NASA has. Areas to be addressed: noise, ease of construction, efficiency, engine technology (autogas—not 100LL—and Jet A). What about ease of operation? The car business will soon have autonomous vehicles running around the streets. Seriously—it will be viable in the next five to eight years. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the polite term for drones, are making rapid strides. But light GA personal air transport? Not so much. It’s being outsourced to other countries because we don’t seem to be able to factory-build an affordable aircraft in the U.S. Why not?

Clearly, I’ve missed something—but between bagging asteroids, excrement-flinging monkeys, and happy tweeters, maybe it’s time for NASA to spend $100 million on improving real airplanes. I’m not a big fan of government handouts but a small hand up would sure help. GA pays lots of taxes and generates economic activity, and if we get healthy it can do some very good things for the country.

V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

The oldsters will remember it as the title of a song by Connie Francis but it’s also the latest Pilot Safety Announcement (PSA) by the Air Safety Institute. These are sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal, two-minute clips on aviation safety. It’s one way to snag people who might otherwise not take time to participate in an online course or attend a safety seminar.

There has been much discussion in the past year about reaching the unreachables. The term oxymoron comes to mind but hope springs eternal. As long as I’ve been flying there have been some pilots, fortunately small in numbers, who are oblivious to good operating practice and often common sense. In the immortal words of comedian Ron White, “You can’t fix stupid.” Some of the accidents are in the “Hold my beer and watch this” category such as attempting aerobatics in non-approved aircraft (a Cirrus SR22, for example).

Others fall more into the “I think I can” reach for the stars approach when other pilots are hearing Clint Eastwood’s admonition “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Now, it’s hard to know limitations without exceeding them, but one has to approach the edge cautiously lest we slip over. VFR into IMC is a perennial over-reach and we’ve devoted A LOT of ink and electrons to that topic.

The Air Safety Institute has used the PSA concept for years now with hundreds of thousands of views and we think it’s gotten to some of the more casual pilots out there. I’d welcome some thoughts from the blogosphere on what else might be effective. As for the unreachables—we probably have to accept their occasional crashes as the price of freedom of flight, just as we do on the highways and in all other modes of personal activity. It also means being the best you can be so that you’re not in ASI’s next rhyme.

What’s off the end makes a difference

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Tweed New Haven KHVNThere was great tragedy at the Tweed-New Haven airport last week when the pilot of a Turbocommander 690 apparently lost control on a missed approach and crashed into two houses that were less than a mile off the end of the runway. The pilot and his college-bound son were killed. On the ground, a mother lost her two children while a father and son died in the other house. This accident is still under active investigation so standard blog rules apply—we don’t know much and the commentary reflects that lack of verifiable data.

What does appear to be factual is that the weather for the ILS or GPS approach to the north runway (Runway 2) was well above straight-in minimums and also above circling minimums. Visibility at the time of the accident was reported as nine miles in light rain. This was complicated by a 9 to 14 knot tailwind; even with a 5,600 foot runway, that’s a mandate to circle in my view. The missed approach procedure, depending on which one the pilot was using, is fairly straightforward. Climb to 600′ or 2,000′, as the case may be, and then turn to the missed approach holding fix. Was there a mechanical failure? Perhaps. Was the pilot distracted? Probably. Eye witness reports said the aircraft was spiraling down—that sounds like a stall/spin scenario.

I gave an interview to one of the local radio stations, and the reporter asked a perfectly logical question: “Should there be more regulation for GA?” My response was, of course, “No!” The FAR/AIM currently exceeds 1,000 pages and more regulation would not have prevented this, but something didn’t work. The community is hurting and a local church took up a collection for the mother who lost all her belongings and something far more precious. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, UPS just lost an Airbus 300 in an open field on approach. Some similarities except for aircraft, crew, possibly weather, and type of operation, BUT no ground fatalities. How different it would have been if there had been a residential area improperly located.

The radio interviewer was most interested when I mentioned how weak zoning allowing residential construction under the departure and arrival paths created problems—mostly related to noise, but occasionally with accidents. Over the last 20 years KHVN has had nine accidents with only one fatality. Most of the mishaps involved botched landings, but no injury. A single accident of this magnitude, though, can change the dynamic. The Air Safety Institute is planning a local seminar to discuss what is known and to re-emphasize safety of flight in urban environments. That reactive response, though, is prefaced by the pro-active outreach we do every month with dozens of live seminars and all the online learning that’s available. Still, there will be many more questions to answer and a better understanding of what happened, why, and a renewed commitment on the part of pilots to learn from this tragedy. Perhaps we could also look at zoning requirements.

Improving the safety record of GA is one of the tenets the AOPA Foundation focuses on. Donations to the Foundation fuel the Air Safety Institute online programs that are geared toward that goal. Support our continued work to keep the skies safe by donating today.