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!

Anti-gravity and upward spirals

January 19, 2016 by Bruce Landsberg

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.12.28 PM“I was under complete control and landing was assured. Everything was perfect when the ground just sucked us down and smashed up the aircraft”—go figure. Or, “The clouds just sort of enveloped us and before we knew it the earth was spiraling upward”—go figure. It couldn’t possibly be because the aircraft stalled or you flew VFR into instrument conditions, could it? Nahhh—the real problem was the anti-gravity supply was too low and we’ll need to get that checked.

Loss of Control (LOC) makes up about 30 to 40 percent of fatal general aviation (GA) accidents—an average of two per week! The NTSB has listed it (again) on their 2016 Most Wanted List. The rationalizations are endless but humans, especially pilots, are really good at fabricating them. It might be possible to crash while under control, but we could muse on that a bit. So why do more pilots and their passengers leave life prematurely from LOC accidents? My two favorite dangerous attributes are complacency and distraction. We might also throw lack of skill into the mix.

Complacency is all too common—and since everybody is above average (not really, since this isn’t Lake Wobegon) we think it won’t happen to us! Have you ever spoken to an “average” pilot at the airport or a cocktail party? I’ve never met one, so it’s easy to see why a few of us might be a bit too comfortable with our abilities. It’s a statistic impossibility but then facts have a way with interfering with fantasy. The old bromide of recurrent training is actually a pretty good elixir.

Distraction/Multi-tasking—no problem either: “I’m really good at that!” The facts say otherwise: Stalls cannot happen if we’re minding the store. That’s why there are so few accidents (two percent) when actually performing stall training. Keeping the wing happy is the most important thing—especially at low altitude, as in the traffic pattern.

Fly a decent pattern—take into account what the wind is doing and be especially cognizant of tailwinds on base leg. That often leads to an overshoot on final and a cross-control stall. Fly a wider pattern (but no more than needed), limit bank angle to 30 degrees, keep the ball where it’s supposed to be, and let the aircraft lose altitude in the turns—it’s so simple. Perhaps, there is another aircraft in front of you or there’s radio chatter, but job one is maintaining good airflow. Alignment and energy management are important. But airflow is number one, because without that nothing else matters.

If, despite your best efforts, something just isn’t working, give it up. Persistence is a virtue in many of life’s pursuits but flying isn’t one of them—go around! Don’t like to admit defeat? Let’s just call it a “low pass.” (Politicians never lose a race—they just come in second for the silver medal.) Clouds becoming a problem? Call it a weather diversion or delay. The airlines do it all the time! If anyone ever makes a negative remark about your going-around or delaying a flight due to weather send them to me—we’ll talk!

If you’re as tired of reading about it as we are of writing about it, let’s do something about it. Pay attention to the feeding of the wing during traffic pattern ops—that means both on takeoffs and landings—and stay out of clouds if you’re not trained and proficient to be in them. Those two simple fixes would reduce the fatal GA accident count by 30 to 40 percent. If you’re a little foggy (sorry) about either of these areas the AOPA Air Safety Institute has safety spotlights on both—Takeoffs and Landings and VFR into IMC.

Forget about multi-tasking and don’t believe all your own press releases on how good you might be. And please, if you find a good place to stock up on anti-gravity let me know— we all could use a bit more of it.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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The ‘aircraft’ has decided we’re NOT flying today!

December 21, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

A350XWB_cockpit_Apr09_hrIn a scene eerily reminiscent of the movie, 2001—A Space Odyssey, a brand new Airbus 350 apparently decided, on its own, to reject a takeoff about 30 seconds into the roll. You may recall in the movie that an “omnipotent” computer went whacko, yet claimed infallibility. (Of course, some of our fellow humans have been known to behave similarly.) But—is there any applicability to light aircraft?

Qatar Airways had planned a special flight from JFK airport in New York, to Doha in the State of Qatar, with about 35 journalists and VIPs aboard. The new Bus—equipped with a tail-mounted, forward-facing camera—allowed everyone to watch the takeoff and the subsequent abort.

The aircraft may have been equipped with a Honeywell Runway Advisory and Awareness System (RAAS) or something similar, not something you’d find on light GA aircraft but gracing many top-of-the-line bizjets and newer airliners.

From the product description sheet: “The SmartRunway® function includes the following: The Runway Awareness & Advisory System (RAAS), including Taxiway Landing and optional caution level alerts for Taxiway Takeoff and Short Runway on takeoff and landing. These provide alerts and advisories to increase crew situational awareness during operations on and around airports. It also includes the Incorrect Takeoff Flap Configuration Monitor. The SmartLanding® function includes the following: The airborne and landing rollout calls of the Runway Awareness & Advisory System (RAAS), the Stabilized Approach Monitor, the Long Landing Monitor, and the Altimeter Monitor.”

Neat stuff! It seems that Airbus took this to the next level by automating the aircraft’s response to the system as opposed to just informing the pilot that the intended takeoff was ill-advised.

According to the ranking Airbus executive on board, “For some reason the A350 decided that our 11,000-foot runway was too short to support the takeoff, and the plane applied the brakes at full force—all on its own.” (An honest admission of what actually happened—a rarity these days.) Shades of the Hal 9000 computer? Two hours of head-scratching and multiple keystrokes solved the problem and they were Doha-bound.

Simple technology is good because humans are often architects of their own disasters. But too many systems are over-designed in response to the human shortcoming of not thinking enough and because today’s micro-processors are capable of almost anything. We solve some problems and create others.

HALGot to contemplating some of the other decision-aiding tools that could be added to the fabulous EFBs (aka iPad/tablets) gracing many of our cockpits. Deliberately chose the word “aiding” because my view is that the PIC gets to be the final authority, not the aircraft (HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”) Even the FAA agrees that the pilot gets the last say—most of the time.

A light aircraft application? In a flight planning application: Knowing the departure and destination airports, and having preloaded the maximum performance engineering data from the POH, it would be simple to compute density altitude (or manually load it if the flight were taking place at a later time) to determine reasonable takeoff and landing distances. Adding an appropriate margin beyond the best the flight test team could do, should help resolve the omnipresent liability issue.

Perhaps similar technology could remind the pilot when the aircraft is within a mile or less of the destination waypoint, and that lowering the landing gear was more than just a good idea. Since all this information is supplemental it shouldn’t require FAA approval. EFB manufacturers—are you listening? (If this has any merit, help support the AOPA Foundation!)

Big airplanes do much of this already but would it help some of our judgmentally challenged pilots who attempt to take off or land overloaded, out-of-balance, too short, etc. for ambient conditions?

Like GPS and the flight planning software that we couldn’t even imagine a generation ago, technology can simplify things. Or, it can mess things up—all by itself. As Jimmy Buffett famously put it, “I don’t need that much organization in my life.” What do you think?

A year end thought

We are truly privileged in these United States to have the best and most open aviation system on the planet. I am reminded of this every time I fly. At a recent neighborhood gathering, almost everyone was amazed that GA pilots could pretty much fly where and when we wanted, without giving 24 hours prior notice to some authority. I’ve taken a number of them flying with a universally positive reaction and the beginning of comprehension.

Remember to not take our activity, or its safety, for granted and be the best you can be. If you have the capability and inclination, consider a tax-deductible donation to the AOPA Foundation. This marks my 23rd year as an AOPA Foundation Hat in the Ring Society member—a way to help preserve our freedom to fly. Hope you’ll join me, the Foundation, AOPA, and the Air Safety Institute in making 2016 our safest and most enjoyable year ever.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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What you hear may NOT be what you get

December 9, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg
RNAV 21 HXD Mins

RNAV Runway 21 HXD Mins

I’ve learned the hard way that weather forecasts sometimes bear about as much resemblance to reality as political promises before an election. (Conversely, forecast are sometimes true—you can be the judge on the political winds of fortune.) But pilots, like voters, want to believe what we’re told even when indicators are clearly pointed toward a less favorable outcome. Then it’s time for some of that decision-making stuff.

Earlier this fall, I had planned to visit a friend in Hilton Head (KHXD) for lunch. The non-stop flight normally takes about 25 minutes. A lingering stationary front had sort of, kind of, moved off the coast and the forecast was for decreasing clouds and improving visibility. At the departure point (KLRO) near Charleston, South Carolina, the ceiling was 800 broken with unlimited visibility and plenty of sunshine above a thin cloud deck. Good VFR was expected by noon, essentially the same for KHXD.

I launched IFR and had a delightful trip down the coast toward Hilton Head at 4,000 feet. Broken to overcast tops were running about 1,500 feet. The automated weather at KHXD was also reporting 800 broken and 8 miles visibility. That all-important temperature­-dew point spread was within two degrees, but this looked like an easy RNAV approach. With Sol doing the heavy lifting, the deck might even burn off to the point that the approach wouldn’t be loggable for currency purposes.

Switched over to KHXD tower where the controller updated the weather to 1,200 scattered and better than 10 miles. EZ day! Yet the clouds seemed rather solid over the final approach fix, but I fully expected to break out. Just any time now— even though it appeared to be a bit lower than what was just advertised. You can see where this is headed. Somewhere, between the final fix and MDA, the controller mentioned that the clouds looked somewhat thicker over the approach end of the runway, but the airport was wide open. Hmmm…no time to think about what might have, should have been, etc. as the aircraft was now well below 800 feet and only a few hundred feet above minimums.

A slightly delayed breakout

A slightly delayed breakout

In daylight conditions one of the precursors to an impending breakout is that it gets darker beneath the aircraft since ground doesn’t reflect sunlight nearly as well as cloud. None of that was happening today. Solid. Minimums. Drat—time to miss, and no cheating. Written about that too many times. Power, pitch, flaps, gear, and start climbing. Advise ATC that we’re going missed.

Just as the controller gave the missed instructions, the aircraft flew into brilliant sunshine with a perfect view of the airport. Still in alignment with the runway, but a little high. Decide quickly.

Put the gear down again—kind of important—full flaps, and reduced power to settle back into the slot. Advised the tower of my intention to land but apparently he didn’t hear and asked if I’d heard the miss instructions just as we touched down. “We’re rolling out now.” He chuckled, “Welcome to Hilton Head— guess that fog bank up to the north end is pretty low.”

A few take-aways:

  • In retrospect, it’s logical: The ASOS was located midfield on the sunny part of the airport; and because it reports only what is happening right there, weather in the landing zone—a mile or two away—could be much different. Caveat Emptor!
  • Had the minimums on the approach been lower (462 feet, agl) there might not have been time to reconfigure.
  • In a faster and less maneuverable aircraft than a Bonanza, this would have been ill-considered.
  • There was more than adequate runway, and it’s really good form to touch down in the first third of the runway—on short fields it’s essential! This was an easy first third touchdown.
  • It’s so easy to rationalize our behavior when the outcome is what we hoped for.

I am constantly reminded—as one who sits on high writing about this wonderful activity of ours and having lots of time to second-guess many who made headlines—that sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re lucky, and sometimes it’s both. This was a perfect judgment-training scenario, and the “book” answer would have been to complete the miss. This is a plausible scenario for a gear-up or possible overshoot in a fast aircraft. The book recommendation would have been to go to the alternate unless it was a transient condition or you didn’t get to minimums. (In the latter case, that’s a mandate for more training and practice.) The approach end fog burned off about 10 to 20 minutes later.

Reality, however, is that judgment training and evaluation is much more complex than we, in the sanctity of hindsight bias, will often admit. Regulators, instructors, attorneys, accident investigators, and safety writers just might fall into that mindset occasionally, and the hypothetical arguments are endless. Would love to hear some of your real-world judgment moments where it wasn’t quite as cut and dried as some of our political candidates would have us believe.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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