Archive for December, 2013

“New” Management Advice

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Test PrepOne of my favorite sources for management wisdom is Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. This week’s strip has the president of the company telling the pointy-haired boss that the experts and consultants keep saying that, “We should be willing to kill off our best businesses.” The pointy-haired boss replies that he’s been working at killing off the best businesses for years!

Sounds a lot like general aviation except we’ve been working at it for decades and have been way too successful. Some of the decisions were made with presumably good intentions. Remember when Very Light Jets would fill the skies with low-cost, easy-to-fly machines costing not much more than today’s high performance single? Many got into the business but the reality of FAA certification and building something that would operate safely at the flight levels intervened. They also had to be operated by a transitioning GA pilot community which has some difficulty at times separating what they need from what they want and are capable of flying.

The bottom end of the business struggled with cost and complexity as more equipment was added to basic airframes. Fewer choices, not much innovation, and some high costs relative to inflation make this a challenge. The new Small Airplane Revitalization Act may help—more on that later this year. I remember too long ago when one could buy a basic aircraft and then add to it as time and finances permitted. Cessna used to sell light twins with the deice plumbing installed but nothing else relative to the deicing package. That made it very simple to add on boots, pumps, and heavy duty alternators later without having to rip the airframe apart. It was perhaps 20-30 percent of the cost of the whole system. Brilliant! You may also remember when one could buy avionics incrementally as opposed to a fully integrated system or autopilot systems one axis at a time.

Even in the best of times aircraft have been expensive, and in tough economies the value equation is essential. Which brings up another bit of management wisdom, this time by the late Peter Levitt of Harvard who asked the perfect question: What is the primary purpose of a business? Many will answer that it’s “to make money.”  That motive drives much of the GA business today—go for the big bucks and hence the focus on jets. Levitt’s far better answer for business success is “to get and keep customers.” Do that and the money takes care of itself. Try the question on some friends and see what the responses are. If there isn’t a broad product line, the big oak trees won’t grow without acorns. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

Having spoken to many owner friends about the buying and maintenance experience on both high- and low-end aircraft, let’s just say that in too many cases it was about short-term dollars rather than long-term value. Most pilots don’t mind paying a fair price if they get what they thought they were paying for. Where things come apart is where the focus is on money as opposed to the customer. To be sure, there are companies who stand behind their products—even some in GA, but for 2014 it would be wonderful if we had more of them!

Very Stressed and Rightly So

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

757  cockpit (9)The two most-often heard statements in highly automated cockpits are said to be, “What’s it doing now?” and “Look, it’s doing it again!”

The Korean pilot in command of the Asiana Boeing 777 flight that crashed at San Francisco made a profound admission at the NTSB hearing last week. The captain, who was in training, found the visual approach “very stressful” and “difficult to perform.” The ILS was down for maintenance and the weather was perfect. He stalled the aircraft on short final, erroneously thinking that the autothrottles would save him in a bad case of mode confusion. Go figure.

Automation dependence, as it is now being called, is the growing realization that automatic everything in our cockpits is probably not the panacea that many thought it would be. This landmark accident may just help the industry and the regulators get their collective heads out of the automated sand. Seems like there is good reason for many of us to feel “very stressful.”

Come with me back to the days of yesteryear—December 1995. Recall when a perfectly functioning American Airlines Boeing 757 on a night approach into Cali, Colombia, was programmed to fly nearly 90 degrees off course? That’s not a good thing to do in the Andes, and a mountain intervened. The crew was confused about programming a complex flight management system even though they had a lot of experience.

American, which has flown into South America successfully for decades, decided it was time to reprogram their crews to: 1) remain proficient in basic flying skills, and 2) when confused by the automation—turn the blooming thing off and fly the aircraft. The technical term was to go down in levels of automation. Good idea!

Basic automation is very good and allows us to fly more precisely and with less fatigue. But when it takes more effort to learn and remember how to make the aircraft fly on its own than to just do it yourself, then we’ve outsmarted ourselves—or perhaps we’ve been outsmarted by those who somehow think that more automation is better.

All that glitters is not glass and servos. For the training academies and schools preparing the next generation of pilots, this is a modest suggestion to start with basics no matter how seductive the push for glass is. Not being able to fly a visual approach is a stunning indictment! For the manufacturers of airframes and avionics, look back at the spate of air carrier accidents where automation and complexity was at least a contributing factor. As I wrote more than a decade ago, “Simpler is safer, and if a massive amount of training and button pushing is required to operate the magic, then maybe we need a smarter magician. The lessons of Cali for pilots, avionics designers, ATC, and regulators alike are written in blood.”

Two other thoughts: Angle of attack is a critically important and basic flight function, and when a trainee is getting outside the parameters—even if he or she is a senior pilot—the instructor has the absolute obligation to go around! We could go on for days on this topic!!!

Looking Ahead: Let me wish you and your family a safe and healthy aviation new year and thank you for joining us. Special thanks to the donors who support the AOPA Foundation and help preserve our freedom to fly. The blog will stay in the hangar next week but will be airborne again after the first of the year. Until then—safe flights everyone!

If at first you don’t succeed…

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

imagesCASSBZY6Persistence is always touted as a virtue. In marketing, business, and even politics, not taking “no” for an answer is often the key to success. To become a pilot one must persist against too many odds our system puts in our way. Unfortunately, that mindset does not always serve us well in more advanced phases of flight.

At the Russian airport of Kazan, a B737 crashed in what appears to be a bad case of pilot persistence. Descend below minimums or perform a late go-around and well, it could be bad. The President of Poland and a planeload of high ranking officials were lost several years ago as they attempted a really low approach.

A personal acquaintance was lost on an attempted Cat III approach in his Cat I Columbia—his second attempt. The ongoing drumbeat of VFR-into-IMC accidents shows the triumph of wishful thinking and persistence against reality.

Finally, in what may be the closed-course record for persistence against any reasonable odds: A Cessna 425 pilot who attempted to blow the fog out of a mountain airport with six unsuccessful attempts at landing. Seven, which is often reputed to be a lucky number, proved to be very unlucky indeed. Besides that, as powerful as PT-6 engines are, they are no match for several million cubic yards of saturated air.

None of this is new and you can bet that before this year is out there will be some additional tragic tallies added to the list. So, how best to avoid the persistent mindset that serves us so well in other of life’s endeavors? Simple! Approach it as the pros do and take the decision making out of the cockpit! The Air Safety Institute has an online Flight Risk Evaluator tool and its mobile version to help make the right call before each flight.


In every critical situation the pros stack the odds in their favor by being sure the odds really do favor continuing versus bailing out. For the air carriers and most corporate departments the reported weather must be above minimums before the final approach fix is reached. Otherwise it’s on to the alternate. Ditto with fuel. As soon as Bingo fuel is reached there’s no agonizing—time for Plan B. Apply this line of thinking to crosswind limits, runway lengths, loading, etc. and understand that it so simply removes the pressure of the present—the temptation to “just take a look.” Those are too often the famous last words.

In performance-critical situations, such as we often face in flying, having an alternative that’s been thoroughly thought through is a really successful strategy. Inconvenient perhaps, but it beats the heck out of the all-too-frequent alternative.