Hi, I’m Bruce Landsberg and welcome to the Leading Edge. We’ll discuss safety-of-flight issues, procedures, techniques, and judgment. With the convective nature of Internet misinformation, and so much content that is over weight and out of balance, you need an experienced and trusted source. So, strap in and let’s go fly!

Pilotless Planes? Perhaps we’re nearly there!

January 16, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s tantalizing (perhaps) to think that pilotless aircraft may soon be plying the skies. We’re not talking about UAS or drones but those with passengers on board. Of course, some will argue that we’ve had that for years with someone occupying the pilot’s seat but with the autopilot doing most of the work. Most of the time it works flawlessly.

I’m not aware of any incidents involving Category III landings with airliners or corporate jets but perhaps some of our jet readers can weigh in. There’s also been a test with a Bonanza that did a selfie landing at Beech field in Wichita a number of years ago.

The Asiana accident at SFO where two very experienced pilots managed to get sideways with the automation got me to thinking about the ways one could get into a bad spot with the electrons. Mode confusion is a problem when the box is doing exactly what we unwittingly programmed it to do. Frequently the designers know exactly what they intended but the users often are not so lucid.

Personally, I prefer simple automation so as to be at least partially involved, especially during the approach phase. In my aircraft, which has a basic two axis autopilot, the horizontal legs are preprogrammed by selecting an approach and the equipment will follow. It’s up to me to manage and direct the vertical automation for each leg.

That sounds so old school and it is! But being mentally engaged, if not physically, and needing to know exactly what’s going on now and what happens next is a pretty good survival strategy.

When everything is done for us, complacency often sets in. The hardware is so good that “the touch” is lost. One of the best examples predicted the future well before it arrived. See the Landmark Accident story on the American Airlines Boeing 757 accident in Cali, Colombia, in 1995.

According to the accident report, “Human factors researchers have written extensively on the potential risks that have been introduced by the automation capabilities of glass-cockpit aircraft. Among those identified are: overreliance on automation; shifting workload by increasing it during periods of already high workload and decreasing it during periods of already low workload; being ‘clumsy’ or difficult to use; being opaque or difficult to understand, and requiring excessive experience to gain proficiency in its use. One researcher has observed pilots on numerous occasions, even ones experienced in the systems, asking, ‘What’s it doing now?’ in reference to an action of the FMS that they could neither explain nor understand.”

Profound observation—well documented, observed repeatedly in the decades since Cali, and yet we still fall into the trap. Why?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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A jet goes down

December 10, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

KGAI Accident map 2This week a Phenom 100 business jet crashed about a mile from the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) runway.

The jet plunged into a house with a young mother and two children inside who perished along with the pilot and two passengers. Annually, there are very few off-airport ground fatalities, which make these accidents dramatic and newsworthy. No matter how clinically we dissect the accident report, the human loss is tremendous. Dozens of lives, if not hundreds, have been painfully impacted—some disastrously. Our sincere condolences go out to all the families, friends, and co-workers.

The Phenom was on an IFR final approach although the weather was VMC. Scattered clouds were reported around 2,100 feet with 10 miles visibility and light winds: Easy day—right up until something happened. In such circumstances we try to make sense and understand for several reasons. We don’t know the details yet, but it’s looking like a rather basic failure of airmanship—our old nemesis—the stall. The aircraft was equipped with a flight data recorder (FDR), which the NTSB recovered and the answers will be forthcoming. These comments are speculative until the final report is released, but early information released by the NTSB points to a stall—no mechanical failures.

Getting well below ref speed invariably leads to bad things: The FDR preliminary data showed that about 20 seconds prior to the crash the stall warning annunciator and voice alert was triggered. There is also a stick pusher but it’s unknown at this point whether it activated. Vref speed for the Phenom was somewhere around 105 knots—the speed at which it should have been approaching with gear and flaps down. The FDR showed a speed of about 88 knots and witnesses saw the wings rocking followed by a reported pitch down.

So why does a pilot with approximately 4,500 hours and most likely considerable training in the aircraft and simulator wind up in this circumstance? Hard to answer. There is irony here because in March of 2010, the pilot had an accident at KGAI in his previous aircraft, a TBM 700. In that mishap the pilot lost directional control and initiated a go-around—the TBM stalled and crashed with no injuries.

Was the jet following another slower aircraft? Don’t know for sure about that yet but indulge me for a moment. (The following comments do not necessarily apply to this accident.) There is a natural tendency to slow the rate of closure on the lead aircraft in hopes that a second trip around the pattern might be avoided. It’s not unusual for larger, faster aircraft to make straight-in approaches. Things get complicated when smaller VFR aircraft are flying their normal patterns. While one might technically have the right-of-way in the slower aircraft, I’ve always felt it both prudent and courteous to let faster airplanes play through.

Some will bristle at the high and mighty getting priority but consider this: Stabilized approaches are all-important in any airplane. Because of inertia and maneuverability bigger airplanes need more room to get stabilized. It doesn’t take much for a C-172, Cherokee, or even a high performance single piston to establish itself. Twins, jets, and turboprops need time, space, and airspeed to get settled.

Tower and approach controllers will almost always vector or have a slower aircraft extend downwind to avoid the impossible aerodynamics that may have occurred here. Fast movers generally, but not always, appreciate it and should say, “Thank you,” when someone yields. At a non-towered airport like KGAI, straight-in approaches are not an entitlement in VMC, and pilots should be prepared for the go-around. CFIs, teach your students well to understand that the worst place to be is in front of a much faster aircraft on final. They’re distracted, you’re distracted, and they may not see you. You could be dead right and that’s small consolation. (Same thought process works well on the highways.)

When following another aircraft on final, set a minimum speed that is safely above the stall. Don’t let ATC instructions, snow, rain, or dark of night deter you from the lifesaving go-around when the deadly stall starts to steal your lift.

Local media has presented a balanced view up to this point, although interviews with neighbors concerned about flight operations are beginning to surface. The airport was built in 1959, and like so many it was encroached upon as incompatible land planning and usage lead to building residential areas in flight safety zones. This is not to sanction carelessness or complacency in any way on the part of pilots, but zoning boards should understand that they have responsibilities as well.

Stay tuned, fly professionally, and know that life is fragile in so many facets. We will be watching developments closely.

If it’s been awhile since you brushed up on practical aerodynamics, spend a few minutes with the Air Safety Institute’s “Essential Aerodynamics: Stall, Spins, and Safety” online course.

Helping pilots improve 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 ASI continues to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Visit the AOPA Foundation’s online auction to bid on an item or make a donation today.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz


December 4, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

g1000-svt-MGLast time we talked about a VFR training flight that tangled with mountainous terrain in the dark, and there was some discussion regarding synthetic vision or syn-vis. I had recommended the old-fashioned way of looking at the chart, VFR or IFR, to determine the Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) or the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) and Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA).

A few of you wrote to suggest how helpful it was having the world electronically presented. We agree. A few old-timers will remember TWA 514, a Boeing 727 that slammed into a ridge just west of Washington, D.C.’s, Dulles Airport on a stormy VOR approach. The crew debated what “cleared for the approach” meant and what was a safe altitude for descent. That changed the whole system and lead to the formation of NASA’s Aviation Reporting System (ASRS). That landmark accident is required reading for anyone not familiar.

In the aftermath, all airliners were mandated to be equipped with ground proximity warning systems or GPWS. It sort of worked but didn’t look sufficiently forward. Airplanes continued to have terrain encounters and an improved system called enhanced GPWS was mandated. This has worked really well but not quite perfectly. (Airline readers may wish to weigh in on this.) With GPS, flat screen displays, and terrain mapping, GA moved into a new era about 15 years ago. If you’ve got the good stuff on board there really is no excuse to hit the ground or an obstacle. But it’s moderately to extremely expensive and updates are recommended.

A short hangar story: On a recent daytime VFR flight into the D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) I was cleared into that sacrosanct airspace and told to remain clear of Class Bravo airspace. The floor of that airspace is 1,500 feet, and the small, but immovable ridges were coming up below me.

It was windy and bouncy down low. I asked ATC if they might grant another 500 feet as the last generation terrain map (not syn-vis) on my GPS unit was showing lots of yellow and a “terrain advisory.” That means less than 1,000 to go to touchdown. The box was insistent, as it should be. The terrain database was original to the unit—circa 2007. To be sure, while we’ve had an earthquake in the D.C. area (not political) the hills just haven’t moved all that much since then.

The tower topography, however, has changed and is changing drastically, and so tiptoeing through the tulips is not recommended even with a current database. A data point for your consideration: It’s too soon to know about any ground proximity systems aboard a VFR Piper Lance that collided with a wind turbine a few hundred feet agl at night in MVMC to IMC conditions, resulting in four fatalities. (South Dakota in April 2014.)

On my return flight out of the SFRA, it was well after dark but great VFR weather. Slide out at low altitude VFR and remain clear of Bravo, refuse that clearance and work out a VFR clearance into Bravo, or file IFR? What would you have done?

Syn-vis is excellent and my uneducated guess is that we will see fewer controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents going forward, especially if the FAA relaxes the requirements for lower cost panel-mounted gear. It should be considered supplemental and installed with fewer restrictions than what currently exist. Pilots also need to understand that the good is not perfect so a terrain avoidance plan is still an excellent idea.

Belt and suspenders may not be stylish, but I guarantee your posterior will not be exposed. Would like to hear from you—both good and not-so-good experiences—regarding syn-vis and other electro-vision devices.

Helping pilots improve 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 ASI continues to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Visit the AOPA Foundation’s online auction to bid on an item or make a donation today.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz