Common Sense Hardware

May 22, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

dialsThere’s a management mantra that has served me well over the years that says, “If something is a good idea, and it deserves to succeed, the sixth time you present it, there’s a 75% chance of getting it approved.” Your exact mileage may vary but the concept is sound.

There are two good ideas that I’ve been a strong proponent of for years and have fussed about in various meetings: putting angle of attack (AOA) indicators in light GA aircraft and adding front seat airbags. Both ideas are so completely obvious that you have to wonder why it’s taken this long to begin implementation. (Cue the mantra.)

As the industry co-chair of the obtusely-named GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC to our friends), an FAA-industry initiative to study and implement GA safety efforts, it’s been on my agenda for some time. In Washington, D.C., in addition to committees, there are also subcommittees who actually do the work. Our subcommittee focused on loss of control which is one of the leading fatality producers. Not many fatal accidents occur when the pilot is in control, but I digress.

What’s good about this breakthrough is that both pieces of equipment are relatively simple and they work; one makes the pilot aware that he’s asking the wing to do something impossible, and the second helps to save the bacon if the first one is ignored. Here’s another big breakthrough: none of this is a perfect solution that too often leads to bureaucratic gridlock when a good solution will get us far better results than the status quo. But we’re moving on it anyway!

blogAnother bit of good news is that the FAA Small Airplane Directorate has said they will make it much easier to retrofit both of these devices to old aircraft. Many new airplanes have had airbags for years, and older ones can be equipped, in some cases, more easily than with shoulder harnesses. Good for them—let’s see safety equipment become integrated into old airframes quickly to encourage owners to make a good choice. An aside: shoulder harnesses are very cheap if there is an attach point. Rather expensive if one has to be fabricated.

The AOA indicator can be used to good effect with more precise takeoffs and landings. Some of us are, shall we say, somewhat lacking in those areas. The turns which seem so benign can occasionally bite very quickly. The airbags are pure insurance and worth more than any earthly object when needed—otherwise they’re worthless, but then that’s how it is with insurance. Do you feel lucky?

A double-pronged approach to stall prevention and survivability in many accidents—what a concept! And it’s not mandated but should stand on its own merits.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Bruce Ziegler

    I would love to have AOA info available. Seems like a perfect fit for EFIS systems, for certifed and experimental use. Not so sure about the airbags. Seem complicated and expensive to retro-fit. Are they really much better than a good four point harness?

  • Michael Baraz

    I am sold, I had one installed (Alpha Systems). I keep my eye on it whenever maneuvering. Get one with heated pitot tube/sensors, if you start picking up ice you can’t have its capabilities diminished, that may be when you need it most. Mount it in your instrument scan.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks much for your note. I’m a big fan of harnesses and why we don’t use four points in stead of three has to do with marketing – not safety.

    The bags are not especially complex to refit. The sensor goes under the seat and the brilliance of the design is that they blow out rather than in. Therefore, there is little, if any, customization for each aircraft.

    I am told that they cushion and protect against internal head injuries even when properly harnessed. That bears further investigation.

    Appreciate your thoughts……Bruce

  • David Forster

    The AOA indicator is a good example of something which pilots should be able to add to their panel without any certification requirements. The experimental community already enjoys reliable AOA at low cost. We need to find ways of bringing the cost effective safety benefits that the experimental community enjoys into certified aircraft. For incremental equipment such as this, there is a good argument that the established products in the experimental marketplace should be de facto sufficient for non-airline certified aircraft as well. Is this something that the proposed changes to part 23 certification might accomplish?

  • Eric Schlanser

    How about some weblinks to the products discussed?

  • Greg W

    David, the AOA indicator is allowed to be installed in certified aircraft, the AOA does not have to be “approved” (TSO/STC etc.). The caveat is that existing stall warning devices must remain. The new AOA indicator may be added it Can Not replace existing equipment.

  • David Forster

    Greg: Thanks – that is news to me. Can you tell me where I could find some guidance to that effect? i.e. is AOA specifically exempted from certification requirements applied to other equipment, or is there some generic allowance for items in addition to existing equipment?

    Eric: An example of some AOA options can be found here:

  • Craig Maiman

    I’m planning to start building an experimental within the next year and the must have list of safety features I plan to have are:

    – AOA indicator
    – Airbags (I’ve seen it with 3-point, but I’d like to have it with 4-point)
    – VG’s (Big fan of low stall speeds!)
    – Super bright external lights
    – All-airplane parachute

    I want to fly, but I want to do it with as much risk mitigation as humanly and technically possible.

  • Cary Alburn

    I have 4 point BAS harnesses already in my P172D, so it would be hard to justify installing airbags at this point. I had them installed before airbag harnesses became readily available as an after-market item from Amsafe, or I might have considered those instead–until I checked the price. Retrofit airbags cost about $1500/seat against shoulder harnesses at $1300/pair of seats, plus installation in both cases. Installation of harnesses for 2 seats takes about half the time that installation of airbags takes for one seat, so the bottom line is that retrofit airbags would cost more than twice the cost to buy and 4 times the cost to install, vs. harnesses. In real money, that’s about a $3000 difference.

    I also have an Alpha Systems AOA indicator, on the top of my panel so that it’s in my peripheral vision in almost every circumstance. It is a great addition, one that I would recommend for any aircraft. Mine is the simplest, mechanical analog version, which saved me several hundred dollars. Its only downsides are that it is not internally lit and that it takes a few flights to calibrate it, because the probe’s angle needs to be adjusted manually; the electronic versions compensate for the probe’s angle. The overhead panel light of my airplane sufficiently lights it to be seen in the dark.

    On the Alpha Systems website ( there is a letter from the FAA approving its installation in certificated aircraft, so long as the other required equipment remains ( The only FAA approval that remains necessary is if the optional heated probe is installed, a 337 is necessary because of tying into the aircraft’s electrical system, and that’s now easier because of the FAA’s approval letter..

    I need to add that I have nothing to do with Alpha Systems. I’ve met its president, Mark Korin, but that’s it. But I’ve become as much a believer as he is, in spite of some pretty vitriolic anti-AOA comments on various forums, largely from pilots who have either never tried one or from a very few whose AOA systems were improperly installed and not calibrated.

  • daniel spitzer

    I installed an Alpha System AOA indicator in my panel several years ago, and consider it the single most important instrument for VFR flight – its right up there with looking out the windscreen. I chose the simple pneumatic style, which is plumbed independent of every other system – so even if electrical and pitot static systems fail, I will still be able to fly, and land, the plane.

    An added benefit is that my landings improved about ten fold, and I feel far more comfortable in maneuvering flight.

    Just do it!

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