Archive for 2014

Ice Week

Monday, October 27th, 2014

ICE WEEK_FINAL_TRANSPARENTOnly 365 more shopping days til Christmas in 2015 (NOT counting those left for 2014), so here’s your annual reminder that icing season is upon us. It’s not a big accident producer—on average about one per month during the icing season—but I prefer not to participate and suspect you agree.

With an aircraft equipped for FIKI (flight into known icing) it’s not quite so critical, but you’ll still want to escape early, and often. For those of us not so equipped, avoidance is the only strategy. The legality discussion and why the FAA wants to prosecute FAR Part 91 pilots who get into ice is a curiosity to me. We don’t prohibit people from flying into thunderstorms, and with both phenomena the outcome is often self-correcting to trespassers. (Don’t take this as a suggestion that there should be new anti-thunderstorm regs for Part 91!)

The state of the art in ice forecasting is OK but not great. Datalink services do not provide the level of accuracy that’s available with convective weather.

Planning and flexibility are key. Tops, bases, temperatures, moisture content, terrain, MEAs, timing, and pireps are the decision points on figuring out if a trip is viable. NWS’s CIP/FIP on its Aviation Digital Data Services website is helpful, but a suspicious mindset is perhaps the best survival tool. What makes this complicated is that the critical question isn’t just whether it’s below freezing but if there’s moisture content as well. Mountains complicate everything with lifting airflows, high en route altitudes, and few airports to escape to.

There’s not near as much ice in the Dakotas as close to the great lakes or the Pacific Northwest. A big surprise is the prodigious icing that occurs in the Southland during midwinter. Northern Texas and Oklahoma make national TV pretty much every winter with ice storms. Had to cancel a trip last year in a fully deiced turboprop with a friend, not because the aircraft couldn’t deal with it, but the runways were impossible with braking action poor to nil. It’s nothing to mess with.

ASI’s “Accident Case Study: Delayed Reaction” and my “Safety Pilot Landmark Accident: Unpredicted-Unadvised-Unaware” story of the TBM 700 that crashed in New Jersey, just penetrating a seemingly benign layer, serve as warning enough.

Pireps (broken record here): Please get and give them. The more we put into the system the better the forecasts become and the safer the flights are. VFR pilots have little to worry about because there’s no ice outside of clouds unless there’s freezing rain/drizzle. I’ve only been there once with only the briefest encounter…ugly! Was with a student in a Cessna 150 in good VMC when the windshield started to ice up. We were well below the clouds and only a few minutes from our home airport. Glad that’s all it was, and landing was accomplished looking out the side window.

For IFR pilots, ask ATC for flight conditions and give reports—the Air Safety Institute has been working with ATC to make sure these are getting into the system. No need to leave the frequency to speak with FSS unless you’re planning on doing that anyway.

This week is ASI’s Ice Week featuring many of ASI’s icing-related safety programs, such as this case study and analysis of an accident that occurred when the pilot of a Cirrus SR22 encountered unforecast icing over the Sierra Nevada mountains. We also have a live webinar, “Known Icing, Known Risk,” to be held on October 30, 2014, at 7:00 pm. Visit the Ice Week page to register.

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!