Archive for 2014

Push happens!

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

07_airliner_stock_09In this day of “direct everything” navigation sometimes a more deviant path is better. As Yogi Berra put it so well, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

On two recent trips up from the south there were some ripping good Northwest winds bellowing across the ridges near the home airport. The eastern hills give westerners a good laugh but they can create a momentous ride.

Because of the airlines and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), IFR clearances always take us well west over—and to the lee of—the mountain ridges. Vertically, plan a descent about 60 miles out to get below arrivals and departures coming off IAD. On a calm day that’s fine, but on windy or icy days it’s not especially comfortable. On icy days, it can be a bad deal indeed.

The fork in the road comes well south around Richmond. Tom Haines and I were both flying separately back from the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual convention in Florida. Tom went west while I chose east. We compared notes afterward and methinks I got the better deal. It added about 15 minutes flying time to my trip, but 75 miles or so farther east of the ridges yielded a higher altitude from ATC and a much better ride.

Two weeks later, much the same wind scenario. I’d filed “sort of east” out of Richmond but the ATC clearance dictated west. Upon joining departure control, I asked if east might be available. Maybe.  A few minutes later I got an up-the-middle routing between Dulles and the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone. Upon thanking the controller he said that the next sector was the one that had done the work.

Ground speed was not good this day (45-knot headwind component) and as I got close to IAD, the controller apologized. He’d have to take me west but would keep me high. That worked but why the change?

It was the mid-afternoon “push” for the airlines. Ever wonder about the HUB in hub and spoke? All the inbound flights pretty much get to the same place at the same time making for a jam. At busy terminals push happens about six or seven times a day, lasting for about an hour: 0700, 0900, 1130, 1330, 1530, 1900, and maybe 2100. As explained to me, don’t try flying up the middle at those times, or as they say in Jersey, “Fuggettaboutit.”

Really good flight planning involves both traffic and weather. Traffic is predictable, weather is not as much. Knowing airspace or anticipating airline push times cuts down on delays and reroutes.

Now if I could just get the soft ride function on my autopilot to work…

Success Expectation

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

quiz photoWe’ve had this conversation before so the blog will be mercifully short this week. Within the space of just a few days three accidents hit the national consciousness, if there is such a thing. First was the midair collision right here in Frederick, Maryland, followed by a Beechcraft King Air managing to find its way into a FlightSafety International’s simulator bay at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport in Kansas, and finally, Spaceship II suffering a catastrophic in-flight failure.

Is there a thread here—something in the water—a bad moon a rising?

No. The only commonality is that all these tragedies involved loss of life and aeronautical machinery. Each situation is different, and yet each will be shown to have a chain of events that, in retrospect, could have been prevented. That’s the armchair quarterbacking of safety people and attorneys—the usual suspects.

But what can we take away from these horrible crashes even early in the investigations? Reminder for me is to take nothing for granted. That’s really hard to do, especially when everything pretty much always works. In each case there were prior successes to buoy confidence.

How many times have you had traffic called and never seen it, but it missed you? How many times have you taken off successfully? We do these things all the time and get away with it probably out to four places to the right of the decimal point.

Spaceship II is a different deal. They really are on the cutting edge and sometimes stuff doesn’t work. Our aeronautical history is full of such events when very brave people attempt to move us forward.

As you go about your flying activities be mindful of distraction. Multi-tasking can be a big problem in aircraft. Complacency is another really bad actor. No need to re-whip these horses, but rather redouble the efforts to enjoy one of the greatest privileges known—the ability to fly.

We never defy gravity or cheat death despite the popular sayings to the contrary…when we’re safely back on the ground. Coexisting with powerful forces that never take a day off means we get no time off either when flying.

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.