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!

Media madness and dangers of flight

April 8, 2015 by Bruce Landsberg

ox cartJust when the fear-of-flying hysteria couldn’t get worse it did. How does this affect GA? The Germanwings tragedy is high on everyone’s mind right now and Talk TV is trying to assess the mental health of pilots while messing up everyone else’s with their inane commentary. In my prior life overseeing nuclear weapons (which my friends acknowledge is a scary thought itself) there was a simple solution: The no-lone-zone, two-officer policy made it somewhat difficult to start WWIII on a whim. An adoption of that concept and perhaps a one-time user code that allows pilots leaving the cockpit reentry privileges might resolve all this without subjecting us all to Rorschach tests.

But maybe you could use a laugh about now.

There’s a travel site (that shall remain unidentified so their ad count won’t get any higher) that compiled a “Fear of Flying” list of things the flight crew will never tell you. This is a travel site that depends on people to fly to places, most of which aren’t accessible by oxcart, llama, or whatever other means they think we should be using to cover long distances!!! So let the stupidity begin. (I promise to get back to serious safety in the next blog.)

This does make GA travel look much more inviting—but perhaps I’m a bit prejudiced:

  • Germs—did you know there are germs from the prior occupants on airliners? Fact: The armrests, tray tables, and seat pockets don’t get wiped down except in the evenings and perhaps not to surgical standards. Think of movie theaters, restaurants, and hotel rooms. It’s shocking that the world is not a sterile environment, but most people do reasonably well with some basic precautions.
  • Pilots are unnecessary and the aircraft can do everything themselves. The only reason for a crew (according to the authors) is that, “Airlines continue to allow the pilots the control just to make them feel important.” I never thought of airline management as being that benevolent! There may ultimately be a shred of truth to this someday, but we’re not close to that yet.
  • Rapid decompression—where one of the “tiny doors” (over-the-wing exits) blows out and you know what happens next: “The aircraft slowly disintegrates.” Not aware that it’s ever happened. It’s a good idea to keep the seatbelt fastened for a variety of reasons, but getting sucked out of the aircraft is really low on the list. They go on to say that the oxygen supply only last 15 minutes, which is more than enough to get to breathable altitudes, but the crew doesn’t tell you that either. We’re also not informed that fuel supply is finite or that the biffy holding tanks have limited capacity well beyond their planned usage! Ramp holds are not included.
  • Pilots don’t eat airline food because it might make them sick. More likely to be psychological discomfort as opposed to gastrointestinal, but not many airlines serve meals these days. There are more likely food-borne illnesses from airport fare that could affect a crew but that doesn’t fit the editorial premise. Crews may flip a coin to see who gets steak and who eats tofu on long distance flights so they aren’t exposed to the same entrée, but it’s all airline food to my knowledge.
  • The “little black boxes,” which are actually orange, are not “totally indestructible.” Who knew? Why not build the entire aircraft like a black box, the inquisitive journalists wanted to know? But they sensibly acknowledge it would be too heavy to fly!
  • Climate change is causing additional turbulence and subsequent risk to aircraft—an interesting observation but no evidence cited. (Note, this is not a climate change discussion.)
  • Being on the ground is not perfectly safe because of possible collision. I’ll take my chances any day on our runways and taxiways versus the highways.
  • Any finally—the prepackaged recycled headset that was cleaned by “bored airline employees” may expose your ears to all sorts of nasty things. Wondered if that was sponsored by Bose, Sony, or Dr. Dre?

GA, despite the fact we are more weather dependent has some real positives:

  • There’s always a window seat with a fabulous view! The tiny door will not blow out on non-pressurized aircraft, although it may open if not closed properly.
  • You’ll never be late for a flight and can depart early or late, depending on your schedule.
  • Chances are you’ll have much more legroom.
  • Luggage generally gets to the planned destination and, although there may be a limit, there’s never a charge for bags.
  • The flight will be direct to your destination except for ATC-induced perturbations, but the connecting flight—if any—will always wait.
  • There’s no question who’s on the aircraft and what they are carrying, and no invasive search or long wait prior to boarding.
  • The food is of our choosing, as is the entertainment—and best of all, NO prepackaged headsets!
  • The company may be better but that’s a judgment call.

Obviously there are some downsides and our passengers should be properly informed. The risk is higher than the airlines but it can be well managed, if we are inclined to do so.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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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

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz