Archive for August, 2014

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?

Pushing the Envelope

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

st18_01How far should we go to modify an aircraft and—when the inevitable compromises are made—what should be considered acceptable? Should we get transition training with unfamiliar aircraft? Do you feel lucky? Never met an aircraft where one change or two didn’t result in about 15 other things going in perhaps less savory directions.

The NTSB just released the factual report on Steve Appleton’s accident that occurred in Boise in 2012. In brief, Mr. Appleton, CEO of tech company Micron, had recently purchased a Lancair IV-TP. After an aborted takeoff attempt where the aircraft got airborne to about 10 feet, Steve elected to land and taxied back to the end of the 9,680-foot runway to do some additional checks.

On the second takeoff the aircraft climbed to about 320 feet according to onboard flash memory cards in the avionics. There was a power reduction and the aircraft rolled to the left approximately 49 degrees and impacted the ground. It doesn’t appear to have been a mechanical fault but the NTSB will decide.

The Lancair IV-TP does not have a particularly good safety record according to the NTSB, “…at the time of this report, of the 57 Lancair IV-TPs that were registered (and presumably flying), there is an accident rate of 26-percent…” and 73 percent of those accidents were fatal. So, fully one quarter of the fleet has been involved with some nasty outcomes.

Lancairs are designed to do one thing really well and that’s to go fast. But to go slower on takeoff and landing (sort of necessary) is when the trouble seems to happen. Laminar flow wings tend to let go suddenly and may have a strong rolling tendency. At pattern altitude recovery is unlikely.

The NTSB noted that the FAA had issued a warning letter to operators in 2009: “The notice indicated that while Lancairs represented a little over 3 percent of the amateur-built experimental aircraft fleet, they contributed to 16 percent of all amateur-built fatal aircraft accidents in the prior 11 months…” Let me point out Lancair is not the only high performance experimental aircraft with aggressive stall characteristics. The FAA had also proposed a special training requirement as has been done on several other aircraft that had relatively high accident involvements. That has yet to be enacted.

The turbine mod to the piston aircraft enhanced performance but a former Lancair engineer noted that it destabilized an already sensitive balance. It further increased a high wing loading and changed the CG. This is not an indictment of Lancairs: They can be flown safely but require knowledge and respect because that tiger can bite—quickly if allowed.

The psychology of pilots is always interesting, and the more we can understand the thought process the more likely we are to make some sense of any mishap. People who knew Steve noted that he was a risk taker with active hobbies such as scuba diving, surfing, motorcycling, and off-road car racing. These are not inherently dangerous per se, but it’s not a Bingo game or bird watching. He seriously injured himself and totaled an Extra 300 when the ground intervened at the bottom of a loop. That brush with mortality might have encouraged a more conservative approach—but apparently it did not.

Steve was a highly experienced pilot with an estimated 3,600 hours total time, including a fair amount in turbine aircraft but only about 13 hours in the turbine IV-TP. He resisted getting transition training in the IV-TP.

There’s a strong case to be made for transition training. Pilots involved in accidents generally have less experience in make and model, often despite high total time. Airplanes have similarities, but some can be very different. Amateur-built and experimental aircraft may have widely divergent characteristics that depend on both design and construction. It’s the proverbial box of chocolates—you just never know what you’re going to get.

Calling all Fools

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

A friend who flies aerobatic aircraft and posts videos occasionally received this spam email, which has been lightly edited to preserve the innocence (or not) of the author.

My name is XXXX and I am a senior at college working on a start-up called ‘Hold My Beer and Watch This’ (not the real name), which seeks to become the ‘Kick Starter for Challenges.’ We are trying to solve a huge problem that you know first-hand: YouTube daredevils aren’t getting paid enough by the platform to produce quality, viral content. 

Through HMB&WT you can crowdfund money from your fans to complete a task or stunt. The money can go wherever you like: into your own pocket, toward charity, covering the cost of the challenge, or even a combination of all three. However, backers don’t get charged until you post a video of a successfully completed challenge—creating an exciting viewing experience for your fans.

Given your reputation for extreme videos and your strong fanbase, we thought you’d be a perfect fit to join as one of our “Pilot Catastrophes”—a select group of celebrities, athletes, and YouTube stars who HMB&WT will feature during launch…”

Living under my rock, I didn’t realize the gene pool had gotten quite so shallow and that we were all so starved for watching idiots do dumb things.

In a recent media interview the reporter asked if GA flying needed additional regulation to prevent accidents. My predictable response was that the regulations are in place for a legal response if someone is caught before a fatal outcome, where gravity always wins. We expend great energy to help people assess risk and avoid becoming a “Pilot Catastrophe” for the viewing enjoyment of the masses. Just take a look at the free aviation safety education programs available from the Air Safety Institute, including ASI’s “Do The Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots” online course. 

Controlling the two percent that insist on thrills or utility at the cost of their lives or that of others has never been accomplished in any form of personal transportation—DoofTube proves it.

Pilots don’t try this at home or any place else…