Archive for September, 2013

Air Safety Investigator’s conference

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

report unforecast weather smallThis week, I spoke at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s General Aviation Air Safety Investigators’ annual meeting in Wichita, Kansas, about one of my favorite topics—safety.

This is the group that goes out on accidents with the NTSB to help ascertain what happened. It’s not their job to get into the “why”—that belongs to the NTSB—and in too many cases the answer is, “What was the pilot thinking!” Often, we don’t have a lot of detail on the pilot, but it’s pretty clear that they were light on either skill or judgment. In the judgment accidents, which tend to be the bad ones, the question is whether the pilot was ignorant of the risk or just decided to take off based on past successes. My sense is it’s the latter—in too many cases.

Some thoughts and opinions:

  1. Standard four point harnesses in the front seats—protects against head injuries and deformities. Airbags are a really nice addition. Some crashes are inevitable and so reasonable occupant protection makes sense. Much of the safety improvement in cars is a result of such technology.
  2. Simpler avionics in simpler aircraft—easier and less expensive. The group largely agreed that a basic autopilot is essential for anything other than very basic IFR. The smart use of automation is sometimes elusive when too much capability is built in. It means more things to break, more expense to buy, and harder to certify and program—did I miss anything?
  3. Realistic expectations regarding the light GA safety record compared to the airlines—they’re not comparable. We have an ongoing responsibility to educate, but recognize that the unreachables are just that: They lurk in automobiles, boats, motorcycles, and politics—did I miss anything?
  4. In more private discussions that could have been public—the need for recommended performance tables (not multipath graphs that test both one’s eyesight and patience). The POH shows max performance that you and I will seldom see, while the FAA has insisted that we be tested to show that we can interpolate. In both cases, a bad idea. Consider the ASI 50/50 solution—to take off or land over the famous 50′ obstacle, add 50% to whatever the test pilots were able to coax out of the machine. That’s margin and survival!

There was much discussion about human factors—pilots not understanding how things worked—and the ever-popular wish for more and better training. Some people get it and some don’t. Sometimes it’s overly complex designs, and in some cases it’s just pilots trying to get too much utility out of the aircraft or themselves. That is and probably will continue to be human nature.

We apparently cannot stop all people from texting and talking while driving despite this being proven as a big distractor. Until smartphones get really smart to know when the car is moving and disable those features, these accidents will continue—they may become less as many people will understand, but some will not. We like to think aviation people are different, but the Air Safety Investigators have almost daily reminders that we’re not.


The Great Plateau and Polarization

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

08r-198_052Every pilot has experienced a flat spot on the climb to perfection, or at least to solo. The learning process takes the weekend off, maybe a week, and sometimes longer. It’s frustrating to all concerned, and it’s a fact of learning to fly. Just can’t get that last 10 feet to work out.

We put a lot of stock in soloing. There’s a subtle and real pressure to get it done, but this is a performance activity and not one to be rushed. One of our staff members has been struggling with landings and stopped by for some “counseling.” The last 10 feet turned out to be as elusive as ever. Her instructor, a very seasoned professional, was patiently working her through the plateau and coaching as well.

The student and I talked through the final approach and how things were supposed to look. She knew exactly what to do but couldn’t time it quite right. Offhandedly, I asked about her depth perception. She said it was fine, but an appointment with her optometrist for an unrelated issue a week later turned up an interesting twist. When she related the discussion to him, the doctor asked if she wore polarized sunglasses. She did. The doctor explained that polarization messes with depth perception and not to wear them. (They also create interesting patterns on the windshield.) Voila! Two lessons later, the shirttail was cut and the solo mountain was climbed. Now begins the equally long journey of becoming a pilot. Too often people quit because they’ve achieved one goal.

A few thoughts come out of this:

1) We probably put a bit too much emphasis on solo, and students might do better with the idea that solo happens when it does and should concentrate more on the total flight skills package rather than just one part of it. That is a complete upending of the “normal” training methodology, and there will be conflicting thoughts on the tried and true versus a new approach.

2) As instructors and pilots, we should be sharing our difficulties and solutions. It’s good to talk through, get a second opinion, and problem solve together.

3)  It would save countless hours and hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel if someone developed a cost-effective light-aircraft landing simulator. When I think back on the thousands of landings I’ve coached people through, with marginal effectiveness, to let them ultimately reach the “aha” moment—there’s GOT to be a better system.

What do you think?

ATC Generation Gap?

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

IMG_0121PSsmLast week we discussed whether a new generation of pilots should learn basic stick-and-rudder skills before being entwined by glass and seductions of automation (83 percent of you agree—proving only that unscientific web polls are just that).

The DOT’s Office of Inspector General just released a report saying that the FAA is going to have a hard time filling the more than 11,700 ATC slots needed in the next eight years. In the interest of streamlining to get the new controllers fully certified that old staple—the ASR (or airport surveillance radar) approach—is starting to slip away.  Is that a “stick-and-rudder skill” for controllers? Fewer and fewer facilities have controllers capable of providing guidance to the ground. It’s not something that is needed very often, thankfully, but it seems like a good thing to have in the ATC tool kit for pilots who may have a short circuit in the avionics or in the headset.

I’ve had one occasion to use an ASR approach, when a newly-replaced vacuum pump fried itself. Seems the technician didn’t clean out the vacuum lines of the previously failed pump debris leading to an early failure (25 hours) at a most inopportune time. The METAR was “1 sm OVC 04”—or translated, lousy. A widespread tropical system moving up from the Gulf had blanketed the Midwest with the nearest VFR more than an hour away. Better to take a shot at a nearby approach. It was uneventful and I backed it up with an ILS although my tracking without the ASR would have likely included more “bracketing” than usual.

I’ve been honored over the last several years to be a judge for the National Air Traffic Controllers Archie League Medal of Safety Award, which provides recognition for the best in-flight saves during the year. Not surprisingly, many of those recipients were pilots and in several cases it involved providing an ASR approach to a VFR pilot who was way over his head or to an IFR flight with an equipment malfunction. Because of that skill, lives were certainly saved—but we’ve got this expense problem. Does it make sense to have one controller on shift who’s ASR qualified, even if the others aren’t?

So, should we take the extra time to train ASR-qualified controllers, or at least some, or just let it go and y’all be careful out there?