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!

USA TODAY—Unfit to Write?

June 18, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Get your facts first, then distort them as much as you like.” So said Mark Twain. But sometimes a reporter distorts a crusade in search of something nefarious that just isn’t there or is a small part of the whole truth.

USA Today reporter Thomas Frank in a recent article interviewed families of general aviation aircraft accident victims and took carefully edited video clips to create a “compelling must-view” narrative on how unsafe GA flight is. The premise is that GA poses a huge threat that hasn’t improved over the years because manufacturers and the FAA have blocked safety improvements.

The aircraft or improper maintenance represents a small part of the accident picture, accounting for 10 to 25 percent depending on the year. Generally, it’s pilots who cause a crash. It’s the same, by the way, for all other forms of human-machine interaction. Mechanical faults—in cars, boats, motorcycles, and bathtubs—represent a very small proportion of accidents.

When Mr. Frank interviewed AOPA he asked about the accident rate and number of fatalities: They have dropped by 55% and 75%, respectively, over the last 40 years. It seems odd to exclude those salient facts from a balanced piece.

The Cessna seat slip problem, which might cause a pilot to lose control, was mentioned extensively. There was a design issue, but it was also very much a maintenance issue. In 30-year-old aircraft, or anything mechanical, parts (including seat tracks) wear out and they have to be maintained. If owners fail to heed guidance from the manufacturer on product changes and fixes even when warned in the direst of terms that it’s important, I fail to see how that is the company’s fault. In some cases an Airworthiness Directive is issued but there has to be solid statistical evidence, not isolated incidents.

Frank notes the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) as being inappropriately rammed through an unsuspecting Congress to protect manufacturers from product liability. The act says that plaintiffs cannot sue manufacturers for airframes or any installed parts once they are more than 18 years old. If an aircraft has been flying safely for nearly two decades it’s highly unlikely that a systemic design problem would remain undiscovered. I’m not aware of any personal transportation product that is held to a comparable standard or judged retroactively by new standards. GARA also does not protect manufacturers from withheld, concealed, or misrepresented information—that wasn’t noted.

Frank cites several anecdotes in his article. But somehow he misses one of the most egregious product liability cases of all time: In 1983, a 1970 Piper Super Cub, with a sailplane in tow, collided with a van driven onto the runway to block the takeoff. A crude (and illegal) camera mount replaced the Cub’s front seat and there were no installed rear-seat shoulder harnesses where the pilot sat. They were not required, although the pilot could have chosen to add them. The pilot suffered massive head injuries from the camera mount and Piper was sued for lack of non-required shoulder harnesses—you can read more in this case study.

Comparing a new 2012 Cessna Skyhawk to an early 1970’s vintage would see substantial improvements: Fuel injected engines to eliminate carb icing, re-engineered seat tracks, better door latches, a full annunciator panel, dual vacuum pumps, airbags, shoulder harnesses, etc. Somehow none of that made the cut either.

Using an automotive metaphor, if you drove a 1957 Chevy (a great year) there would be no seatbelts, no airbags, no crush zones, a solid metal dash instead of padded, etc. The public, the NTSB, the NHTSA, and presumably Mr. Frank would have no expectation of similar safety to a late model Chevy.

Likewise, comparing airline operations to GA is absurd. No one would think to compare the safety record of intercity busses to personal vehicles. Frank used NTSB former chair Debbie Hersman’s non-sequitur comparing GA operations to the airlines—I’m disappointed. She knows that’s jumbling the fruit basket.

NTSB investigations do sometimes leave something to be desired, and in some cases they don’t even send an investigator to the scene. But in many cases the investigation is spot on, but the probable cause findings are not allowed in court—merely a quirk in our justice system to let an unbiased third party present its findings?

The general aviation community takes safety very seriously, which is proven almost daily in print and online. The Air Safety Institute conducts 200 free safety seminars annually and has the largest GA safety website in the world. None of that was mentioned.

So, with apologies to the many responsible video journalists, writers, and editors who strive for accuracy, this particular writer and editorial team deserve three Pinocchio’s for deliberately distorting the facts. They don’t get four because there are a few truths contained in the story, but to finish with another Twain quote,“When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” I am neither confounded nor astounded. Perhaps we’re expecting too much from USA Today.

Bruce Landsberg,
President of the AOPA Foundation

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It’s Storm Week

June 11, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

Storm WeekEvery year GA loses a few aircraft and their precious human cargo to nature’s equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb.

Looking back 20 years, on average, there were about five GA thunderstorm accidents per year. Surprisingly, that hasn’t changed much in two decades! That corresponds roughly to one accident per month during T-storm season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot. But unlike landing accidents where almost everybody walks away (not my definition of a good landing), a thunderstorm tangle has a 75 percent fatality rate. Also, every flight has a landing, but not that many flights encounter CBs. Confounding factors make comparable assessments difficult!

So the numbers are flat, but my statistically unproven hunch is that we are doing much more flying in thundery weather thanks largely to datalink. In-cockpit weather—displayed on portable or panel-mounted devices—has revolutionized the ability to see and avoid boomers. Use the tool intelligently lest optimistic interpretations lead us where angels fear to tread. On board radar is also a tremendous help in-close, but it also has to be used smartly.

One of my favorite mentors, Captain Bob Buck who wrote the book on weather flying, gave the big storms anthropomorphic characteristics. He described them as “treacherous.” Why? Because while having similar characteristics, no two storms are exactly alike. To misquote Forrest Gump’s mother, “You never know what you’re going to get.” What looks like something you’ve seen before may be quite different. Bad can go to worse to impossible literally within a mile.

True skill lies in avoidance. We’re kidding ourselves upon escape from an encounter that it was due to airmanship. Lady luck merely smiled.

Enough philosophy! Cruise over to the Air Safety Institute Storm Week page for an all-inclusive look at a multitude of courses, case studies, and quizzes. There’s also a webinar registration for Wednesday, June 11 at 7 p.m. EDT to join Dr. David Strahle and me for a look at in-cockpit weather with an emphasis on datalink. It will be recorded if the timing doesn’t work for you. AOPA President Mark Baker and I took a looong trip in a Cessna Caravan from St. Louis to Frederick and we discuss the tools used in this “Flying the Weather: T-storm Toolbox” video.

There were a lot of storms! This year—let’s try to reduce the CB encounters and accidents to an all-time low. We want and need you flying with us next year.

Bruce Landsberg,
President of the AOPA Foundation

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Turn On, Drop Out, and Tune In

June 4, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

With apologies to Dr. Timothy Leary, an early adherent to the “mind expanding” capabilities of LSD, I had a slightly different experience at AOPA’s Indy Fly-In. It has nothing to do with mind-altering substances, so if that’s your interest—this ain’t it!

Had flown out to Indy in a C182, enamored with the mind-bending capabilities of the iPad, and was preparing to head home Sunday morning. The trusty iPad is now a core part of my flight planning and on-board supplemental information package. On power-up in the morning to check weather, a blue iTunes button and a white cord to connect to another computer was all that appeared on the screen. No manner of button pushing, secret incantations, or threats would make the beastie come alive.

A quick smart-phone consult revealed the dreaded “iTunes reset” was in order. The Pad had gone down hard and needed a transfusion from iTunes to unscramble its brain. I had no computer capable of said fix (which ultimately took about 25 minutes, not including complete chart downloads—you’re probably looking at about an hour for a full re-lobotomizing with charts).

Here’s the point: Without real old fashioned paper charts and approach books on board, the flight would have been significantly delayed while procuring the suitable data. It was a beautiful VFR day and one isn’t required to carry charts, but FAR 91.103 notes: Preflight action. Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight…

So as long as I was able to stay out of complex airspace or any number of myriad hypothetical issues that only a Murphy’s Law addict could conjure up there was no need to use paper guidance—it could have worked. But let me see…ah…AOPA’s Pilot Protection Plan with legal services and a spare NASA ASRS form in the flight bag…just in case.

Here’s an excerpt from AC91-78, which may be more than you wanted to know—emphasis added:

a. EFBs/ECDs can be used during all phases of flight operations in lieu of paper reference material when the information displayed meets the following criteria:
(1) The components or systems onboard the aircraft which display precomposed or interactive information are the functional equivalent of the paper reference material.
(2) The interactive or precomposed information being used for navigation or performance planning is current, up-to-date, and valid.
NOTE: Supporting reference material such as legends, glossaries,
abbreviations, and other information is available to the pilot but is not
required in the cockpit during operation.
b. The in-flight use of an EFB/ECD in lieu of paper reference material is the decision of the aircraft operator and the pilot in command. Any Type A or Type B EFB application, as defined in AC 120-76A may be substituted for the paper equivalent. It requires no formal operational approval as long as the guidelines of this AC are followed.
c. It is suggested that a secondary or back up source of aeronautical information necessary for the flight be available to the pilot in the aircraft. The secondary or backup information may be either traditional paper-based material or displayed electronically.”

Most airlines and large jet operators still carry charts by my understanding, but some are migrating to Electronic Flight Bags—but no single Pad operations! The logic in that suddenly becomes crystal clear! Being a Luddite has its benefits!

You might enjoy this Pilot Safety Announcement we put together awhile back. Don’t misunderstand—we love the Pad and most of the time it works beautifully, but when it doesn’t, a backup is more than just a good idea.

Has anybody had any iPad problems? We’d love to hear!

Bruce Landsberg,
President of the AOPA Foundation

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz