Archive for February, 2014

Checklists and Lawsuits

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Precision LandingAn accident that involved a new pilot and an old Cessna 172 is in the news. The Cessna was seen to takeoff with 40 degrees of flaps, get to about 100 feet agl, stall, crash, and burn. The NTSB investigation shows the aircraft right at gross weight despite having four adults aboard. That means the fuel load was light. The runway was more than enough to get airborne—more than 5,000 feet—so even if they were a bit overweight (which we don’t recommend) that wouldn’t necessarily have caused the crash.

What will guarantee no climb, and almost certainly a stall, is a takeoff with full flaps. My bet is that the pilot, used to flying newer and different aircraft, extended the flaps on preflight and never verified that they were up prior to takeoff. It was a simple but critical lapse.

The old C172s did not require a preflight flap check. That’s a newer checklist item that I’ve never quite been able to understand. Some say it’s to “check the flaps.” Flaps are, by design, robust and I’ve never had a mechanical problem with them. Lucky perhaps, but for most aircraft full flaps forgotten is takeoff denied. I’ve observed, on a few occasions, a full flap takeoff about to be attempted. A gentle reminder on the CTAF has always saved the day, but that’s a long way into the accident chain. Checklists are important but fragile barriers. If you’ve never missed an item you’re better than most!

So what happens by not checking the flaps on the preflight? Several possibilities:

1) On Run-up pad: They won’t come down—if needed for takeoff, taxi back, and get it fixed.

2) On Landing: They won’t come down—not a problem unless it’s a short field in which case, find a longer runway.

3) Numerous other what-ifs can be conjured up, but flaps are not a primary flight control and non-essential for light aircraft.

4) Forgetting to raise them is an impossibility and accidents like this are avoided.

Just to be sure I wasn’t too far off into Wonderland, I asked around and got some interesting answers. A student admitted forgetfulness on a go-around and the aircraft didn’t climb well at all—that’s not directly applicable but proves the point—it was also a newer Cessna with only 30 degrees of flaps. Two old timers agreed with me that this creates more problems than it solves. A new CFI thought it was a really good idea and the codgers ganged up on her. She suddenly became reasonable (that’s a great political technique as well, but it doesn’t mean you’re right!)

The lawsuit that was just filed is complex since it involves family members suing other family members. According to the Detroit News: “….The son of one of four people killed in a June 21 airplane crash is suing the estate of the dead pilot—also his stepbrother—and the plane’s owner (flight school), for negligence….The lawsuit alleges both (the pilot and the flight school) never conducted a pre-flight checklist inspection of the aircraft, which would have included operation of wing flaps that should have been up or retracted prior to takeoff. The apparent oversight, subsequently taking off with the plane’s flaps still fully extended, caused a ‘lack of thrust or attaining altitude on takeoff,’ according to the complaint.”

No question that this is a tragedy, but I have trouble seeing how the flight school is responsible for the pilot failing to follow the before-takeoff checklist. The legal system will sort that out for us, at considerable expense for all concerned.

The other question is whether the new checklists are setting people up to forget. Yes, there are two places to check the flaps—right after engine start and before takeoff—but frankly more steps in a checklist, especially if they are superfluous, are more opportunities for mischief. Do you believe that checklists are always sacred—especially if poorly written? It is presumptuous of me to claim to know more than the aircraft manufacturer but too often, the legal tail wags the operational dog.

Educating pilots on improving their skills and enhancing GA safety is a core tenet of the AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute and its educational programs. Your contribution funds these activities and ensures we continue to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Show your support with a donation today.

Media and “Spending Your Tax Dollars”

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Town_of_Palmyra_Wisconsin_Airport_2Never let the facts get in the way of a good story! And as is often the case, there is some truth, however small, buried therein. But instead of getting a balanced view, too often we get what the TV producer wants the slant to be…especially during sweeps week when stations do their best to tantalize potential viewers with the most dramatic and outrageous stuff. Could there be some financial incentive here? Nah!

In this case there’s an unusual twist: a local pilot complained that the small grass-strip airport where he operates is getting too much money from the state. And perhaps it’s true. Here’s the link—you be the judge.

Back story: AOPA Media Relations attempted to explain how the system works, that GA pays fuel taxes, and that they are a part of the national transportation system. There is a system, albeit imperfect at times, that distributes the money. The local pilot might be exactly right, but it seems like going to the local TV station might not be the best way to manage this.

The reporter made a big deal about the Wisconsin Department of Aeronautics failing to respond to questions posed by the “news” station. Guess what? The station did not respond to AOPA’s timely offer to explain things in more detail before the newscast. Hypocrisy in the media?  I am shocked!

The TV report drew an instant response from AOPA members. In fact some objected to the piece both on the AOPA’s Facebook page and the WTMJ’s website. They also emailed the station’s general manager. It is impressive how forceful our collective membership can be.

An opinion: There is too much “pork” in the system driven by local politics, airport managers, and engineering consultants who all feed at the trough. This applies to big and small airports, highways, various legislative bills— pretty much all things financial where there’s an opportunity for someone to make a buck.

Fact: Some small GA airports are over-improved. Some have control towers despite low traffic count. Ditto TRACONS. But when fiscal responsibility begins to creep into the conversation, someone plays the safety card even though in most cases the risk is minimal. Balance and common sense invariably get left in the financial orgy that often follows. Big airports often get the lion’s share of funding, as they should, although they get overfed as well.

Palmyra airport looks like a perfect place to introduce people to aviation, but this may have the opposite effect. What do you think and how might this have been handled differently?

“When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”  Mark Twain.


Landing Attitude, Dude (or Dudette)

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

nyc-nose-gear-collapseWords often get in the way of explanations. This is especially true between students and CFIs. The video and picture here demonstrate that the problem sometimes migrates a bit farther up the pilot certificate food chain. It’s quite good, actually, to learn the basics of landing before moving on to larger aircraft.

Learning to land is one of those complex things where no two landings are exactly alike, and sometimes instructors toss off explanations like, “Just assume the landing attitude, dude (or dudette), and touch down on the mains.”

Like many things (but especially landings), stuff happens fast.

CFI: “Did you see that?  That’s exactly what I’m talking about!”

Student: “Whah, huh?”

CFI: “Pay attention this time,” etc.

So let’s slow things down a bit, and here’s one technique that might help. Try a high speed taxi down a long runway. CFI controls throttle so the aircraft doesn’t lift off, student manages pitch attitude (after CFI demonstrates) such that nose wheel is properly clear of the runway. (Note: not recommended in an Airbus or Boeing—they have simulators to help with that.)

There’s also the issue of where to look because peering over the nose, even if you could, isn’t going to yield that all-important depth perception between a kiss-down and a butt-buster. You’ve got to look slightly off to the left or right, depending on which seat you’re sitting in.

To learn more about our attitude towards takeoffs and landings, click here to download the Air Safety Institute’s Mastering Takeoffs and Landings Safety Advisor.

Landings are consistently the leading cause of mishaps. Usually they don’t result in fatalities, but we could save a lot of time, money, and aggravation by having the right attitude. I’m still working on mine—every touchdown!

Perhaps you have some observations…