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!

Magic and messes

July 8, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

Perhaps you have a friend like this, a certifiable professional geek who helps to manage the technical (read: computer) complexity that’s become a way of life. My “smart” phone reverted back a few generations and wasn’t behaving as intelligently as usual. Google wisdom offered, “It does that and if you reboot, the problem usually goes away.”

My friend had a simpler strategic explanation:

“Welcome to my world of buggy software. This stuff is so complex any more it is almost beyond human comprehension. They modularize the system as much as possible with the published system calls  ‘supported between modules’ and hope it all works together correctly. And testing only confirms the presence of defects, never the absence of defects…

You can always find people who understand how a particular system module works, or even a sub-system (a collection of a few modules, e.g., memory management) but the WHOLE system…not really.”

We are seeing increasing levels of software in our aviation hardware, and most of the time it works beautifully, but sometimes it’s a bridge too far in my opinion. A few points for your consideration as we look to the future:

In May, an Airbus A400M 4-engine turboprop (similar to a C-130) crashed on takeoff when 3 of the 4 engines suffered what Airbus called “power frozen” after lift-off, and failed to respond to the crew’s efforts to regain control.

A British newsletter, The Register, noted:

People familiar with the investigation said the torque calibration parameters for the engines were wiped during the installation. This data is needed to measure and interpret information coming back from the A400M’s engines, and is crucial for the Electronic Control Units (ECU) that control the aircraft’s power systems.

Without that sensor data, the ECU automatically shut down the engines, or at least put them into the lowest power settings. According to safety documentation, the pilots would only get a warning from the ECUs when the aircraft is 400 feet (120 meters) off the ground.”  

Not exactly inspiring confidence, and they don’t fly well on one engine apparently.

From Fortune magazine:

United Airlines unveiled a program designed to award free frequent flier miles to potential hackers who could break into the company’s mobile applications and websites. The company said that the program would not be open to hackers wanting to crack into an airplane’s Wi-Fi or on-board entertainment, or control systems…

According to the Wall Street Journal report, Boeing has also turned to outside security experts to uncover security bugs. As part of a security program, the airline maker is paying friendly hackers to break into the onboard software of its 787 Dreamliner.” 

So the theory is that if a hacker has enough confidence in the onboard aircraft systems to cash in his frequent flyer miles, it’s good enough for the friendly sky folks. But don’t mess with the entertainment stuff—that’s where the real money is!

From the NY Times a few months back:

“Federal regulators will order operators of Boeing 787 Dreamliners to shut down the plane’s electrical power periodically after Boeing discovered a software error that could result in a total loss of power.” 

Sort of similar to my cell phone – reboot and your problems will go away.

Just this morning, CNN reported that United Airlines was handwriting tickets as they grounded all flights. CNN said, “United spokesmen were not available for comment, but the airline’s Twitter account responded to customer complaints, saying, ‘We are working on getting you to your destination as quickly as possible.’”

Hmmm…this happened over the winter as well. Must be a bad module—again.

I don’t mind an occasional blank avionics screen, especially if there is redundancy, but the engine(s) and flight control systems need to be 100%, or at least 99.9999%. For GA aircraft there are unconfirmed rumors that the brightest minds are thinking about fly-by-wire. If you’ll pardon the pun, we’ve had it for a century—good old stainless steel wires (or occasionally pushrods) that work beautifully well, is stone simple, and relatively cheap.  Don’t need to hire hackers to try to break the system. Don’t need to reboot it or wonder what it’s going to do next. It just works. It does need some adjustment occasionally but if reasonably maintained, will not fail catastrophically due to a module mix-up or a packet going POOF. Any A & P can fix/maintain it.

As noted by United’s latest SNAFU, the problem is becoming more pervasive—can you say, U.S. Government hacks?

But, back to our corner of the aviation world, I like simplicity—especially when it works. More isn’t better! I’d rather the best government, academic, and industry minds come up with an economic/engineering model to build quality light aircraft in affordable quantities so the companies can make some money and pilots can afford to buy and operate new ones. Maybe that makes software complexity look like child’s play, but it’s something the industry could certainly use.

What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Reflecting on Life, Loss, and Risk

June 24, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

tucano-mk1The entertainment world lost one of its greats this week when Titanic composer James Horner died in his S312 Tucano turboprop. He was by himself when the aircraft crashed about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. While reading the news accounts, I thought about why we fly and the perception of risk.

Horner’s website and colleagues noted that he was a passionate pilot who rated flying as one of his greatest personal accomplishments. Coming from one of the world’s leading contemporary composers, it way more than offsets the few snarky comments that accompanied some of the articles: “Small airplanes are the rich man’s motorcycle,” sniffed one small mind. Others were more derogatory.

Initially, my reaction was one of anger but later it morphed into pity. Henry Van Dyke said “Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.” For me and every pilot I know, we become forever changed. We look at life and ourselves differently. Each of us comes to aviation in different ways and with different motivations. There are different risk tolerances and different anxiety levels: Aviation allows the calibration of intensity, but we are all pilots.

For some, flight comes easily—others have to work at it. In teaching people the science and art of aviation, the instructor often guides someone grappling with something far different than normal life challenges. Much as we like to think, it’s impossible to bluff gravity, aerodynamics, or weather. The hardware has limits, and sometimes it breaks. Pilots have limits, and sometimes they are exceeded. Ignorance and arrogance are dangerous individually, and when co-mingled they become lethal. Most learn to avoid those areas—and as in any human endeavor—a few do not.

In modern protected life few get to live in a total reality environment. It is antithetical to “Reality” TV and the virtual world that most of our fellow humans inhabit. Perhaps our nation is becoming too risk-averse. The country could not have come this far—flight, railroads, and yes, the Titanic would have been impossible. We might well have been under the subjugation of a monarch or some other dictator.

Pilots understand there is risk in aviation, as should the general public. There is also risk in climbing ladders, taking a bath, riding a bicycle, or driving a car. Naysayers will opine that those activities are essential. For me—flying is essential. The United States has labored long and spilled much blood to allow freedom in speech, religion, political expression, and in how we live life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Thank you Mr. Jefferson!)

Most of us have lost friends and family before their time—in aviation and in other situations. For pilots, be mindful of increased risk and do not expose others without their informed consent. Sometimes one does everything right but circumstances or truly bad luck conspire. Stuff happens, but most of the time (mostly) it can be managed.

“Ideally, the music shouldn’t be noticed at all,” Mr. Horner told Time magazine in 1995. “It should just manipulate the hell out of an audience. Music shoves the emotions around, and it has to be done skillfully and elegantly.” Much the same could be said about flight—it has to be done skillfully and elegantly. I believe James Horner would agree.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz

A Quiet Evening (on the ground)

June 10, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

Screenshot HGR to MtA stationary front had settled over New England with low ceilings, fog, and rain. I had just finished a safety presentation to the Flying Physician Association’s Annual meeting in Hanover, New Hampshire. We discussed some of the safety aspects of medical reform (most of the docs are in favor) and loss of control (most of the docs are against it).

My summertime strategy is always to be airborne early to beat the inevitable summertime convection. Got to the aircraft well ahead of schedule (about 10:00 a.m.—that’s not early but business got in the way) and, glory be, received a cleared-as-filed clearance. But just as soon as it was loaded into the GPS, the amendment clarified what Boston Center really wanted had more waypoints and fixes than ants on a Tennessee anthill. Fine—another few minutes of button pushing and I taxied out.

Non-radar environments mean one airplane in and one out, or more often, three or four in and outbound traffic can just relax. It got so “relaxed” the tower apologetically suggested I shut down and call back in a bit. Finally, airborne 40 minutes later with 30 knots on the nose—but just clouds and rain—made for a good ride.

Down the line in Pennsylvania, however, datalink weather was showing that I was late to the party as the atmosphere was beginning to go vertical. Two hours earlier this would have been a non-issue. The showers and a few cells were well-scattered, but once Mother Nature starts to boil the ride can be uncomfortable (or worse) even when there is no precipitation nearby.

The other data point is that the stuff can build from nothing to nasty in a short time (minutes), and the latency of datalink pictures doesn’t always serve us well. Just about the time you’re fairly sure what’s going on, it’s changed significantly (see the Air Safety Institute’s Accident Case Study: Time Lapse video).

At 8,000 feet there were short glimpses of towering cumulus clouds followed by bouncy periods of blinding white inside. Above 14,000 the view would have been a lot better, but that’s a stretch for my normally-exasperated aircraft and there was no O2 on board. Ten degrees left, then 15 degrees right, coordinate with ATC, and avoid the big ugly ones.

Altitude hold on autopilots can put significant stress on the airframe where hand flying provides a softer touch in these circumstances. Get a block altitude from ATC if unable to maintain plus or minus 150 feet. In retractables, the landing gear will stabilize the machine and act as a speed brake in descents. No flaps allowed—they lower the G tolerance of the airframe. The goal is to stay well below maneuvering speed by at least 20 to 30 knots as adjusted for the actual weight. Much easier on the airframe and the passengers although the natural inclination is to get out of there!!! Slow and easy does it.

The fuel stop at Hagerstown, Maryland, was a pleasant respite, and a long look at the FBO’s radar (see image at top) showed there was no realistic strategic avoidance through Virginia or North Carolina to my destination in South Carolina. Secure the beast and get a hotel. Widely scattered aluminum will not be in tonight’s forecast.

On the bright side, it’s an adventure. Met some local color in the bar—Ernest Hemingway spent much time in such establishments, and look at the literature he produced (but there’s no danger of that here!!).

Well before bedtime, moderate to heavy rain cascaded over the parking lot with periodic peals of thunder. It was a good call to stay put. Glad I put a plastic bag over the copilot seat: door seal leaks! What we tolerate from our pricey machines is a lot more in some respects than from the cheapest automobile.

Next morning it was Déjà Vu all over again: rain, fog, low ceilings—but no ATC delays. The early morning strategy made all the difference as the convection started to build in from the west over Raleigh. This time, however, a 20-degree heading change to go down the east side missed the whole mess. That’s where datalink really shines. Landed at 11:00 a.m. and by early afternoon it’s Groundhog Day (the movie) in the Southeast—no easy diversions.

This also illustrates a reality in flying light aircraft. We operate in weather windows, and life has to accommodate that or you may not be happy with the results. Anyone with a good convection story and timing of the flight?

As we get into thunderstorm season proper, remember that whatever it’s doing now, in ten minutes it will be different (often worse). We know that thunderstorms and airplanes don’t mix, so avoid these violent storms by checking out the tools at your disposal in the Air Safety Institute’s Thunderstorm Avoidance Safety Spotlight.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz