Archive for 2014

Automation and Potties

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

glass_asiThis was NBAA week in Orlando where some of the most exotic aircraft on the planet are displayed along with all of the hardware and software that make them nearly goof proof. Nearly. Chris Hart, acting NTSB Board Chair, noted at the opening session his concern about some air carrier accidents that we’ve all read too much about:

  • Asiana, in San Francisco where two highly experienced captains were unable to make a visual approach on a perfect day.
  • Air France 447, which involved the mere loss of air speed due to icing (which shouldn’t have happened) that confused the flight data computer so auto-throttles and autopilot disconnected. The crew, bewildered by myriad warnings of symptoms, not cause, pulled the Airbus 330 into a deep stall and settled into the ocean from well over 30,000 feet.

Chris then went on to note that most subway trains these days are so automated that, under normal operation, the only thing the operator is allowed to do besides monitor is to close the doors—the train does everything else. It’s a thankless job because what little skill is involved in dealing with nearly non-existent emergencies is rapidly eroded by mindless boredom. Every so often there is an accident that requires the driver to get involved, and sometimes they don’t do very well. So it is becoming with many cross-country aircraft and some trainers.

I thought about what avionics might be upgraded in my own 27 year-old machine and what I could afford. It involved a long look back. Transitioning from the most basic instruments in 1970′s era trainers to the state-of-the-art instrumentation at the time was like magic: Two axis autopilots, a horizontal situation indicator, DME, and a flight director revealed that the high and mighty of the corporate world needed far less ability than the junior CFI and his students, who were manually doing everything and having to look about four places at once. The corporate world just went a lot faster and higher with a potty on board!

With the exception of potties, we’ve progressed far beyond that. Even in the basic training machines, if desired, you can program both horizontal and vertical guidance so that shortly after takeoff the magic is engaged, only to be shut down on short final. In research, aircraft have already demonstrated autoland capability and a new term, OPV (optionally piloted vehicles), doesn’t just apply to the local airport bozo.

Now, before getting too disdainful of all this, it must be acknowledged that the corporate safety record is second to none—including the airlines—and in some cases it is better. The automation doesn’t fail often, synthetic vision certainly helps to reduce CFIT, the fishfinders (aka traffic awareness systems) spot way more traffic than we ever will, and moving maps/GPS make finding airports a non-issue. On-board weather helps us decide—somewhat—how far we’d like to poke into phenomena that before we’d never have even approached.

But, like the subway train operator, is something being lost? What are the trade-offs and where is the optimal blend of skill versus automation? The light GA safety record is very gradually improving, but in way too many cases we’re still cracking up aircraft for all the old reasons.

It’s your turn to weigh in. How do you fly? How should we maintain skills and satisfaction while, in most cases, the automation will fly more precisely than us? Is there an optimal level of engagement for pilots that is below what the microprocessors can do? How should pilots stay mentally engaged and ready to take command rather than being a bewildered system monitor all the way to impact? As for “Human Factors,” any ideas? Kindly do NOT get too graphic!

In addition to the poll, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please submit your comments.

A basic and complex maneuver

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

2-6 Cessna 182 option 1A few weeks back in this blog, I commented about “Going with the Flow” and that unless there was a compelling reason to do things differently, a head-on confrontation with established traffic in a non-towered pattern perhaps wasn’t the best idea. The accident occurred in Erie, Colorado, when a Piper Malibu crashed going opposite to other traffic and attempted to land downwind. Those thoughts still apply—mostly.

A friend called to provide some more information since he actually witnessed the set-up and the crash. First, a mea-culpa because in the previous blog I made a statement that the pilot lost control while maneuvering to avoid a departing aircraft. That is NOT what happened and, while my standard disclaimer always applies in preliminary discussions, it is always appreciated when anyone has additional information.

The facts will continue to evolve but from an eye witness account:

–The Piper did go opposite the flow despite a six-knot tailwind. The pilot slowed and started making S-turns to allow a departure to clear his inbound final approach. This may have left the aircraft a bit high and possibly a bit fast (speculative). What is not speculation: A six-knot tailwind was pushing the Malibu down the runway, and the pilot elected to go around.

–There was a rapid application of power, and the aircraft pitched up noticeably and then made a nearly 90-degree left turn before stalling.

The aerodynamics of go-arounds are well known, and GA pilots—as a group—do not always perform them well:

1. Start early—it’s much easier when there’s some altitude left to work with. The middle of the flare when not much energy is left is not optimal.

2. Power must be applied smoothly lest all the left turning tendencies become overwhelming. As a rule of thumb, three to four seconds work well to go from idle to full power. It’s easier on the engine and allows the pilot time to adjust to changing forces, both in pitch and yaw. This is especially important on big engines where the forces can get strong in a hurry.

3. We don’t practice go-arounds nearly enough and as a result are often rusty. They should be standard on every flight review, and nothing precludes your solo practice of go-arounds occasionally. If you’re uneasy the first time or two, set it up at altitude.

4. My mantra, in order, is:

  • Power—first and smoothly applied (don’t forget the right rudder).
  • Pitch—significant forward pressure is needed because we were trimmed for landing. Initially, level may be the best you can safely do. I am not a big fan of running pitch trim all the way back to allow just a little pull for the flare. Depending on the aircraft, it may take a really strong push to get the nose down to prevent a stall in the event of a go-around. Re-trim as needed—use manual trim if the electric isn’t quick enough, but get the aircraft doing the work as soon as possible.
  • Flaps—retract to approach configuration. If landing flaps are down, the aircraft just isn’t going to climb well. In ground effect though, we can start putting energy back in to the equation and getting stable. Retracting all the flaps increases stall speed so that isn’t a great idea either.
  • Gear—after everything is pointed comfortably up and the obstacles are well cleared, then and only then, raise the gear. Gear retraction will often reduce climb somewhat while in transit. If you’re coming back for another landing, make damn sure to put the gear down again. Re-accomplish the entire before-landing checklist lest a belly slide be in your future.

There is a lot happening in a short time frame, in sequence and close to the ground. It has to be done right and timely—this can be a problem if not practiced.

Notice we haven’t spoken to anyone. The tower or other pilots are not going to help whatsoever. This maneuver demands undivided attention. After everything is under control, then some communication is appropriate.

A final thought, which my friend and I agree on. There are times when going with the flow is a bad idea. If the herd insists on landing downwind, that is a great time to exercise your PIC authority and declare your intentions. I’ve done this a number of times—especially with students, when a slight tailwind made landings difficult, I’ve announced on the CTAF that we were going to change directions. Let the hardheads play through, if they insist, and let’s hope they don’t foul the runway in the process. Going against the flow should always be for operational reasons—not convenience!

Rapping with the Wolfman

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Center_Controller_natcaThe AOPA Homecoming was well-attended and, although a bit of a cold front kept some Northeast pilots on the ground, a good time was had by all. I had the privilege of presenting a communication seminar with a Potomac TRACON controller, Brandon Miller, to help me review some basic comm practices for both VFR and IFR pilots.

Got to thinking about one of our talking points while on a trip back from the South land after the fly-in. Both pilots and controllers sometimes forget not only do the words have to come out in the correct order, but the person on the other side actually has to understand them. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright,  famously noted,” The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” That happens every day on the frequencies.

Try being slow and chunky—that’s not a slam on some of our fellow humans but rather on how communication should be structured. Make sense of this: “Fayerrrvileapprhcesfrsevnsishbecango, twelvesqeeshaaahsvnpntfiVFRflifollwingto fxblqbrg.” (!!!!????)

The controller patiently asked, “Aircraft calling Fayetteville approach, try it again slower please.” (Hadn’t heard that much before from the ATC side.) Cessna 476 QT (not the real call sign) managed to un-garble slightly and mumbled something about being 12 south at 7.5 (7,500 msl) and wanting flight following to someplace. There were three opportunities to improve the communication in this wonderfully great bad example.

1. Speak clearly—e-nun-ciate. Slurring words is really bad form—makes people think you’ve cheated  on the eight-hour rule. Make it a point to form the words carefully. Your life may depend on it.

2. Slow down—Even on busy frequencies, the best controllers and pilots rise above the fray to not scurry along like some scared rodent avoiding the light. It’s the mark of a pro. Don’t dawdle but there’s a clear cadence that works every time. If the message has to be repeated no time was saved and it was wasted.

3. Chunk it—Most humans can comfortably handle about three pieces of information at a time. After that, comprehension deteriorates rapidly. Controllers are taught to chunk but sometimes forget in the heat of battle. Then the whole thing needs to be repeated—and again, no time was saved. When asking for Flight Following, before joining the party, just call the facility, give them your call sign, and say something like “VFR Request.” That gives the controller time to finish whatever she was doing because she probably had something else going on besides just waiting for your request. It also gives them  time to get a squawk from the system. Then information exchange can take place.

Wolfman Jack (of “American Graffiti” fame) is my nickname for a New York Tracon controller who had a gravel-like voice. It’s distinctive and I’ve only had the pleasure of being under his care once, a few years back. The Big Apple always hums with traffic but on his frequency something was different. The Wolfman, despite being very busy, was in control. No hurry, no complex instructions, just a steady flow. If somebody missed something, he never got impatient but just had the reassuring growl to let your know he was there to help and you were in his sector. Rock ON!!!

Safe pilots are always learning, and the goal of the Air Safety Institute is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely and proficiently. If you want to become a better communicator, consider taking ASI’s “Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication” course. Programs such as these are funded through donations from pilots dedicated to forwarding that safety mission. Show your support by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.