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!

The music died but it won’t fade away

March 25, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

Crash_Site_Globe_Gazette Chamber of Commerce IAGeneral aviation has always labored under the shadow of the Buddy Holly accident.

You can read the Landmark Accident review based on the official accident report here. It ranks higher in my view than some other more recent celebrity landmark crashes such as JFK Jr., Ricky Nelson, or the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band.

Holly, one of the most promising musicians of that long-ago era—along with two others stars, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and Ritchie Valens—died in a small plane crash on a cold Iowa night in 1959. The Civil Aeronautics Board (the NTSB’s predecessor), after what was an exhaustive investigation for the time, determined that VFR commercial pilot Roger Peterson had succumbed to spatial disorientation on the short flight that literally lasted only minutes.

A gentleman with more than casual interest has petitioned the NTSB to reopen the case in the belief that he has found some additional evidence that will exonerate the pilot. It may be a bit of a stretch but to the NTSB’s credit they’ve agreed to take a look. If there’s any substance to the allegations then the case will be reopened.

Specifically, R.L. Coon believes that the 1947 V35 Bonanza may have been overweight and out of balance due to a last minute change in the passenger manifest. The Big Bopper was a big guy weighing in at 240 pounds and he was seated in the back of the Bonanza, which may not have been optimal. There was an estimated 60 pounds of luggage although its location is the subject of speculation.

The owner of the charter service and the aircraft, Jerry Dwyer, stored the wreckage hoping that someday the tragedy might be revisited. With more than a half century of improved forensics, who knows?

Every year, classic rock radio stations memorialize the crash on February 3, 1959, to pay tribute. Even if there are some new revelations many of the lessons remain. Despite Holly’s celebrity there was no place anyone had to be. But too many pilots and their passengers have been lost and will continue to be until we understand that trying to save a few hours is not worth the gamble of a lifetime. It’s determining the actual risk versus the perceived risk that’s so difficult to assess.

For all the armchair pundits, yours truly included, it’s way too easy to second guess. The flaw in our self-righteous Monday morning quarterbacking is that if the flight is successful, most of the time, nobody thinks anything of it. It’s only after a wreck that we come out of the woodwork to proclaim that it was obvious that the flight should never have taken place.

Good pilots recheck their assumptions and figure weather, fuel, and loading a bit more conservatively. They pay close attention to forecasts, the hardware, and their state of mind. It’s not just go versus no-go. On many flights it’s assessing every half hour or so whether the assumptions are still valid and if a dynamic situation may be edging toward a bad outcome.

The lessons of more than a half-century ago are just as valid today—even if a new investigation reveals anything different. Sadly, the bottom line on every fatal accident is irreversible, but there may be a small shred of comfort if the chain of events turns out to be less damning.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Harrison goes off-airport – and does it well!

March 10, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

blog bigHarrison Ford’s off-airport landing was predictably a media event, and while it was tough on him and the Ryan ST he was flying, perhaps there is a silver lining in all this. The good news—nobody on the ground was hurt and Harrison, while banged up, is as sold on flying as ever and will be able to go back up again. It shows that most crashes are survivable and by just the kind of guy many of us wish we were—Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Harrison has lots of experience in back country airports and short fields which certainly was beneficial.

Off-airport landings can be made safely, especially when flown by a competent pilot and with a reasonable option for touchdown even at a place like the embattled Santa Monica. The golf course located to the left of the departure runway was a near perfect place to park an aircraft with an ailing engine. The groundskeepers will have some healthy divots to replace but that’s job security. I’m a big fan of runway safety zones and compatible development. ‘Nuff said.

This is the year of avoiding the Loss-of-Control accident (LOC) according to the NTSB, and that includes crashes that occur during takeoff. We are told that, generally, in the event of an engine failure in a single-engine airplane to land more or less straight ahead. This avoids the “impossible” turn back to the airport that carries a high risk of stalling. There are several factors that go into a successful engine-out landing:

  • Don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall…ever!!!!
  • Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible—Bob Hoover’s priceless advice—because it dissipates the G forces.
  • A shoulder harness is worth more than gold. If your old aircraft doesn’t have them, get them before buying anything else!!!!
  • Minimum speed—above stall—is the best.
  • IF you attempt to turn back after takeoff, don’t do it below maneuvering altitude, whatever that might be for your aircraft, and it will likely be significantly higher than you might think.
    • Allow time for reaction, confusion, and wishing that you were someplace else.
    • Immediately change pitch attitude from climb to glide.
    • Feather a controllable pitch prop.
    • Make the turn back into the wind which will lessen the ground speed and keep you closer to the airport.
    • Optimal bank is about 45 degrees according to author and my friend, Barry Schiff, who has tested this. More bank than that and the stall speed goes up. Shallower means an off-airport touchdown.
    • Practice the maneuver at altitude. I speculate that we lose as many or more aircraft practicing for the event than due to actual failures.
    • Other options are another runway, a taxiway, or just an open area—any port in a storm!

A few more caveats to avoid the whole adventure in the first place:

  • Be sure the aircraft is properly configured for takeoff. If you lowered flaps on preflight, be sure that they are set properly. We’ve suffered six fatalities in the last 12 months due to what I think may be a questionable preflight check.
  • Fuel. Verify adequate quality and quantity in a tank connected to the engine.
  • Proper maintenance. Obvious, but if the engine isn’t happy, you won’t be either!

Finally, it’s a good idea to think through, on the run-up pad, what you’ll do and where you’ll go if the unthinkable happens. That cuts down on the “swimming-in-glue” that burns up precious unavailable time.

Harrison is a national icon and he’ll say that flight is worth the risk, just as his movie characters always seem to be living life to the fullest. I don’t presume to speak for Harrison, but take this opportunity to start the discussion with some of your non-flying friends. Life is never risk free, but it can be managed. Would love to hear some of your engine-failure-on-takeoff stories that resulted in a successful outcome and why.

A speedy recovery Mr. Ford, and many thanks for all you’ve done for GA!!!!

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Of iPads, Certificated Avionics, and Arguments

February 25, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

ipad in cockpit usePerhaps you heard a few weeks ago that a couple in a Piper Comanche suffered a total electrical system failure. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does all of an aircraft’s installed certificated radios and electrical components become inoperative, including the landing gear. Unless, of course, there’s a backup supply—which many of us do not have.

This happened at night, which compounds things significantly, but a trusty iPad got them to an airport. The mostly happy ending was that they landed safely. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the pilot was unable to extend the landing gear manually but no injury resulted. Good!

The relatively inexpensive (as much as anything Apple is inexpensive) uncertified technology really helped. Anyone who has flown with an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) app (which I believe are mostly “uncertified”) will have a hard time going back to paper. They have become so good that the FAA has approved EFB-use in airline operations (as long as there is more than one unit). Maybe that should help guide the FAR Part 23 rewrite where we look for lower cost alternatives to the low volume, high price certificated items. With internal or supplemental GPS, the EFB’s ability to navigate is more accurate and far more versatile than VORs—but it’s not perfect.

I had an earlier model iPad where the system locked up several times and refused to do anything until going through the dreaded iTunes reboot. This takes an internet connection, the patience of a saint, and about 20 minutes to accomplish—not so good for cockpit apps. Replaced the unit six months ago and so far, so good—but I still carry paper charts. So, as in all things in life, there is a balance point.

There was an ATC save last year involving an EFB pilot who ran out of juice on his pad and thus was chartless in IMC. ATC gave him progressive instructions to get to a runway. That’s putting too much blind faith in batteries—especially when the length of flight exceeds the available power.

Having redundancy in uncertified units might be better than putting all the eggs into just one super electronic basket—no matter how good. There have been some well-publicized meltdowns with ultra-sophisticated airline equipment proving that the disastrously infallible HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey was eerily prescient.

Back to reality: After the above iPad rescue story was published, one of the CNET pundits—who has likely never been in a light aircraft—made some ignorant and disparaging remarks. Some of our pilot audience chimed in to attempt some education. Two of them proceeded to get into a public squabble about what happened and which of them was better qualified to hold forth on the topic!

Reminds me of the guidance never to get into an argument with a skunk as it’s hard to tell who smells worse after the fight. Without discussing any of the merits—far better to be respectful to each other and not give the media anything more to shoot at. As Mark Twain eloquently said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz