Archive for 2014

Not a happy ending to summer

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

We’ve had bad weeks before, but late August and early September were as bad as any in recent memory. There were 10 fatal GA accidents in seven days. We were on track to make an FAA not-to-exceed goal for accident reduction, but as we approach the end of the fiscal year it looks like we’re going off the end of the metaphorical runway. Damn!

There was no particular pattern as summer wound down except for two accidents that appear to have been caused by pilot incapacitation due to hypoxia. Both aircraft fell into the ocean and may never be recovered, so the probable cause is likely to be undetermined. My usual speculative disclaimer applies to this entire discussion.

This “spike” is unusual since GA averages about one hypoxia accident annually where oxygen deprivation is suspected. My suspicion is that many more mishaps occur because the pilot is semi-oxygen starved. The obvious cause may be a gear-up landing, a stall, or anything else, but the root cause is a semi-functional brain (of course we could say that about many that have nothing to do with oxygen). Generally, flying an unpressurized aircraft at altitude carries higher risk. In pressurized aircraft we might see one or two crashes per decade—maybe.

OxygenThere are some sobering reminders: Both pilots were highly experienced but new to the model of aircraft involved. Both aircraft were nearly new. In the case of the pressurized aircraft, a TBM 900, the pilot noted a problem at FL280 and asked for a lower altitude. ATC provided a descent to FL250 and was working on lower with no further contact. The only drill at high altitude is put on the mask immediately, advise ATC that an emergency descent is needed, and then start down—fast. It’s not the time to troubleshoot or consider options—it may be only be a false indication, but incapacitation can take you out with stunning quickness.

ASI put out a rare safety alert last weekend with some recommendations.

With the other crashes—unfortunately it’s many of the usual suspects and we have few details at this point:

  • Stall in a Lancair IVP after a catastrophic engine failure
  • A near head-on collision in the traffic pattern in a Malibu that appears to have gone against prevailing traffic flow and resulted in a stall
  • A heavily loaded homebuilt that may have suffered a power failure after takeoff and stalled
  • Another homebuilt that crashed under unknown circumstances
  • A Cessna 421 that was fueled with Jet A and suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
  • A banner tower that may have suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
  • A heavily loaded Cessna 172 that may have suffered an engine failure and stalled during an impossible turn maneuver
  • A Cessna 180 that crashed in Canada

There are a lot of purported engine failures during takeoff, so that will bear some extra scrutiny. In the meantime, anticipate that the engine may fail during takeoff and plan your actions accordingly: Good maintenance, a plan to reject the takeoff, a place off airport (only 30 degrees or so from runway heading) for an off field emergency landing, and finally, a maneuvering altitude where a reasonable, not perfect, execution of a turn back to the airport will not result in a stall/spin.

Moving to the Jump Seat

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

08-652_TaxiingReports of my retirement have been somewhat exaggerated, with apologies to Mark Twain. As you may have read, I’m leaving the left seat of the AOPA Foundation for a jump seat position as a “Senior Safety Advisor” to AOPA and the Air Safety Institute. That means the Safety Pilot Column in AOPA Pilot still continues as does the blog, which is a great place for anyone to voice opinions with, or without, the thought process.

Still get to do speeches and help some of our sister organizations, such as the FAA, NTSB, National Weather Service et al, be reasonable—at least as we define it. As implausible as that might seem, there are some really good people there who understand and want GA to thrive. They need help from the outside to fight internal battles with those who really don’t care about GA or are totally hidebound in bureaucracy.

Best part is the opportunity to do some more flying. Less management and more opportunity to interact with fellow pilots sure seem like a good way to spend some of the limited time we all have. The obligatory retrospective column will appear in AOPA Pilot in November, and after that it’s on to tackle safety and proficiency.

After 44 years of flying other people’s aircraft—some spectacular and others not so much—I am now the proud owner of a well-loved 1987 A36 Bonanza. Why the Bo and that model?

Aircraft ownership is personal, and you can start rousing good arguments anywhere on this passionately held topic. Trying to keep emotion out of it I’ll attempt to explain, recognizing that there will be equally unreasonable and strongly held opinions to the contrary.

  • It’s reasonably fast but not as much as some
  • It carries a good load but not as much as some
  • Parts and service are readily available at somewhat reasonable prices in some cases and absurdly astronomic in others
  • This particular one was air conditioned, and since we will be living in the Southeast…much as perspiration gives the impression of honesty it can make you less socially acceptable than you might naturally be
  • I’ve had a lot of experience with this model, which makes insurance a non-issue, AND I will be taking a transition course later this fall despite that. More on that in a later blog.
  • And the number one reason? It has double doors for loading copious quantities of luggage for my favorite flying companion

Feel free to argue your points openly, but the last one is at your peril from aforementioned companion. You understand!

Flaps and Lapses

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

plane22Multiple blogs ago, we discussed the wisdom of preflighting flaps by running them full down on the walk-around. That subject was about a fatal accident in Detroit involving a heavily loaded C-172. Witnesses saw the aircraft takeoff with full flaps, struggle into the air, and crash—four fatalities. If inclined, you can reread the commentary and opinions, which slightly favored following the manufacturer’s checklist. That means if it’s on the list do it—if not, it’s optional.

There was another flap accident (also fatal) last week involving a C-150 that resulted in the loss of a 20-year old student and his 33-year old CFI. My usual disclaimer about preliminary speculation applies, and you may chime in with similar protection. The sea-level runway had a density altitude of perhaps 2,000 feet in summer temperatures. The runway was 3,700 feet with an estimated 500 yards of overrun before encountering more than 50-foot trees. Witnesses saw the 150 take off with full flaps and barely get airborne in ground effect.

After getting airborne, the flaps were retracted; the aircraft climbed slightly, appeared to be out of ground effect, and wobbled before nosing straight in. The CFI had mentioned to one of the witnesses that he had been up much of the night with a sick child, raising the issue of potential fatigue.

What happened here, in my view, was not a long chain of judgment errors but rather a lapse. A lapse is where one omits or commits just one action that triggers the event. Other examples would be an altitude bust or forgetting to raise or lower the gear. There are actions to guard against them, but sometimes—despite long rants here and elsewhere—the path to catastrophe can be brutally short and swift.

A couple of quick thoughts for your consideration since we’ve hashed this out before:

1) Leave the flaps up on preflight. You’ll find out soon enough if they work—either on takeoff or landing—before getting to a critical situation. This is my personal favorite—the preflight flap craze appears to have come into vogue in the 1990s, perhaps after somebody got sued.

2) If you insist on checking flaps during the preflight, set them no lower than to the max lift setting. In most Cessnas, for example, that will be 20 degrees. That way, if they’re forgotten before takeoff it won’t be a disaster.

3) Another technique, if your aircraft system allows, might be to lower the flaps, turn off the master switch, and then position the flap switch to up so they will automatically retract when the master is turned on for engine start.

4) Fatigue, illness, or medication increases our ability to lapse. That leads to the judgment issue preceding the lapse of whether today’s flight is a good idea. You can see where that is going and something we’ll discuss in the future.

My office overlooks the ramp, and I’ve seen more than a few aircraft taxi out with flaps still down: One lapse away from a major problem? So far this year, there have been six fatalities due to a procedure that was designed to prevent them. The law of unintended consequences applies here. I know pilots shouldn’t be making basic mistakes, but good luck with that line of thinking. Better to avoid putting yourself into a bad situation than to always avoid the small but deadly lapse. That’s called risk management.

Your thoughts?