Archive for March, 2014

Weight “watchers”

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Small-scaleGot a note from a long time member/pilot who flies for Angel Flight. He noted that his passengers tend to consistently underestimate their weights. He either has to fly overweight or inform them that 150 pounds of luggage or Aunt Tilly has to stay behind. Not so good.

The standard 170-pound human that the airlines used to estimate tonnage has been increased to about 190 pounds—with lower or higher bracketing based on season and Kentucky windage. With big aircraft it’s less of an issue, and with a large number of people the bell-shaped curve drives weights to the statistical average.

Southwest Airlines delicately addresses the issue on their website in the Customers of Size section: “…who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.”

For light aircraft, weight and its distribution go beyond decorum/comfort to safety of flight. Generally, the aircraft is already fueled by the time the passengers show up, and the pilot has planned on a certain amount, so we don’t have that flexibility. De-fueling is expensive and messy. If the runway is short or the density altitude high, rate of climb becomes essential to survival.

One technique that has served me well is to consciously add weight to whatever a potential passenger tells me. The percentage varies based on the suspected veracity and gender of the traveler. For luggage, I have a small digital scale that helps to ensure that neither weight nor balance limits are exceeded.

Our member suggested perhaps having the AOPA Foundation buy digital scales for FBOs to actually weigh passengers. “Perhaps,” he suggests, “use it as a fundraising campaign as well as a safety reminder.” It’s a novel idea but potentially explosive. What do you think?

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Lost B777—reward offered, but some questions asked

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

SPAC_Satellite_GPS_IIF_lgThe Malaysian Airline mystery, which has now extended into weeks, reopens a discussion from last October (Get Lost and Get Found) regarding ELTs, PLBs, and tracking. Without re-thrashing all the pros and cons there seem to be a couple of logical solutions to this. Here are my thoughts—subject to change:

1. Commercial aircraft (FAR parts 121 and 135) should have a tracking device that cannot be disabled from the cockpit. We discussed Spot and Spidertracks, and there are very likely others. The key difference between these and “emergency devices”—including the approved ones—are that they leave a “breadcrumb” trail. Depending on the service, it is accurate to within a few miles and in some cases less. The ability to be found does not depend on fragile antennas that can shear off or be submerged on impact. If we can find a smart phone with an inexpensive app, why not an aircraft? The SAR community will perhaps disagree, but the present circumstance is not a strong endorsement for the existing system.

2. Personal Aircraft—those of us who fly under FAR Part 91 should have the option of what safety gear we wish to carry, in my opinion. Passengers should be informed that they cannot expect the same level of service or safety as they get from the airlines. The Coast Guard uses this approach with yachts, and if you choose to wander offshore beyond VHF range without an EPIRB or other tracking device—y’all be careful.

3. ADS-B is a reasonable alternative provided the FAA can deliver reasonable benefit at reasonable cost. Currently, I’m not convinced that we’re there. Within the Continental U.S., ground stations will largely do the monitoring—perhaps supplemented by some satellite. But land covers roughly 30 percent of the Earth’s surface. The rest is water world and there is not much radar as we’ve recently reaffirmed. Satellite tracking would save the airlines a lot of money—according to some who know, about $80 per flight hour on fuel per aircraft. Add that up over the course of a year, and you’re talking serious money. Iridium has such a system ready to be put into service, but there seems to be some bureaucratic difficulty in making the decision.

How much do you think has been spent on this current search? How much was spent searching for Air France 447, the Airbus 330 that was lost over the South Atlantic? There has to be a better way of dealing with this. Give GA the option of equipage and provide a cost effective path. For the commercial folks—perhaps there should be a cost effective mandate. Vaporliners shouldn’t be allowed to traverse the skies in the 21st century.

Meat Missiles

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

airplane and skydiver collisionThis is a pejorative term used by some pilots to describe skydivers. In free fall they are impossible to see and at terminal velocity, a descriptive term, may reach speeds of about 120 miles per hour. We have ample evidence of what a nine pound bird can do to an aircraft, so it takes little imagination to envision what devastation a much larger human can wreak. Years ago, a free fall jumper suffered a broken foot while removing the stabilator of a passing Cherokee resulting in four fatalities in the aircraft.

Under canopy, after the chute has opened, theoretically the target should be much easier to spot, and the impact will be less. However, you will not like the results! An accident in Florida earlier this week illustrates the point spectacularly as captured by photographer, Tim Telford.

The few details we know are this—subject to change: The skydiver was about to land on the runway when the aircraft arrived at the same time. Pilot and parachutist saw each other seconds before the collision, but inertia has a way of carrying things to a logical and frightening conclusion. The pilot pulled up to evade and hooked the shrouds of the chute pulling the diver behind the aircraft and whipping the aircraft nose first into the ground.

skydiver-plane collisionLady Luck smiled on both veteran participants whose instinctive reactions probably saved their lives. There were minor injuries for both in what sure looked like a fatal accident.

The NTSB and FAA will investigate, but a few thoughts for your consideration. I am wary of skydivers, not personally you understand, although many of us wonder about the wisdom of leaving a perfectly good airplane. In flight however, their trajectories will largely be forward and down with some constrained ability to maneuver. You won’t see them easily if at all. At airports where jumps are in progress monitor the CTAF and stay clear until sure that gravity has reclaimed everyone. In a recent drop zone arrival, I heard the call of “jumpers away” and decided that a little VFR holding practice might be just the thing. We landed a few minutes after the last jumper was down, and everybody got to fly again the same day.

En route, monitor CTAFs or get VFR flight following where available. Also, refresh your knowledge about parachute ops with ASI’s  “Know Before You Go: Navigating Today’s Airspace,” which includes a chapter on Parachute Jumping Areas. This is an encounter to avoid and it’s easy to do so! Sharing the airspace carefully, aloft and at the airport is not only neighborly, it’s life-prolonging.

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