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!


December 4, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

g1000-svt-MGLast time we talked about a VFR training flight that tangled with mountainous terrain in the dark, and there was some discussion regarding synthetic vision or syn-vis. I had recommended the old-fashioned way of looking at the chart, VFR or IFR, to determine the Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) or the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) and Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA).

A few of you wrote to suggest how helpful it was having the world electronically presented. We agree. A few old-timers will remember TWA 514, a Boeing 727 that slammed into a ridge just west of Washington, D.C.’s, Dulles Airport on a stormy VOR approach. The crew debated what “cleared for the approach” meant and what was a safe altitude for descent. That changed the whole system and lead to the formation of NASA’s Aviation Reporting System (ASRS). That landmark accident is required reading for anyone not familiar.

In the aftermath, all airliners were mandated to be equipped with ground proximity warning systems or GPWS. It sort of worked but didn’t look sufficiently forward. Airplanes continued to have terrain encounters and an improved system called enhanced GPWS was mandated. This has worked really well but not quite perfectly. (Airline readers may wish to weigh in on this.) With GPS, flat screen displays, and terrain mapping, GA moved into a new era about 15 years ago. If you’ve got the good stuff on board there really is no excuse to hit the ground or an obstacle. But it’s moderately to extremely expensive and updates are recommended.

A short hangar story: On a recent daytime VFR flight into the D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) I was cleared into that sacrosanct airspace and told to remain clear of Class Bravo airspace. The floor of that airspace is 1,500 feet, and the small, but immovable ridges were coming up below me.

It was windy and bouncy down low. I asked ATC if they might grant another 500 feet as the last generation terrain map (not syn-vis) on my GPS unit was showing lots of yellow and a “terrain advisory.” That means less than 1,000 to go to touchdown. The box was insistent, as it should be. The terrain database was original to the unit—circa 2007. To be sure, while we’ve had an earthquake in the D.C. area (not political) the hills just haven’t moved all that much since then.

The tower topography, however, has changed and is changing drastically, and so tiptoeing through the tulips is not recommended even with a current database. A data point for your consideration: It’s too soon to know about any ground proximity systems aboard a VFR Piper Lance that collided with a wind turbine a few hundred feet agl at night in MVMC to IMC conditions, resulting in four fatalities. (South Dakota in April 2014.)

On my return flight out of the SFRA, it was well after dark but great VFR weather. Slide out at low altitude VFR and remain clear of Bravo, refuse that clearance and work out a VFR clearance into Bravo, or file IFR? What would you have done?

Syn-vis is excellent and my uneducated guess is that we will see fewer controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents going forward, especially if the FAA relaxes the requirements for lower cost panel-mounted gear. It should be considered supplemental and installed with fewer restrictions than what currently exist. Pilots also need to understand that the good is not perfect so a terrain avoidance plan is still an excellent idea.

Belt and suspenders may not be stylish, but I guarantee your posterior will not be exposed. Would like to hear from you—both good and not-so-good experiences—regarding syn-vis and other electro-vision devices.

Helping pilots improve their skills and enhancing GA safety is a core tenet of the AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute and its educational programs. Your contribution funds these activities and ensures ASI continues to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Visit the AOPA Foundation’s online auction to bid on an item or make a donation today.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Mountains 1—Aircraft 0 (Again)

November 20, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

KHSP google mapsDespite the flippant headline, there is always tragedy with controlled flight into terrain or CFIT accidents. It remains a steady fatality producer with highly lethal results. The accident in question occurred last week in southwestern Virginia and is in the preliminary stage of investigation. My usual caveats and disclaimers apply concerning conclusions.

The night VFR training flight had a student and an experienced CFI on board. Good VFR conditions prevailed, but over the mountains one is often on the gauges with few ground lights to guide the way. The Cessna 172S had departed Frederick, Maryland, on a routine training mission to Winchester, Virginia (KOKV), which is on the edge of higher terrain.

For reasons yet unknown, the decision was made to go on to Hot Springs, Virginia (KHSP), which is definitely in the mountains. There was no contact with ATC, and according to radar the Cessna impacted the mountain at about 3,100 feet, roughly 300 feet below the ridge line at a steady ground speed of 87 knots. It’s too soon to tell if there were any mechanical malfunctions. The student survived but the instructor did not. We don’t often get an insight into the thought process of CFIT pilots so this accident may provide some learning possibilities.

When flying at night, which is a great time for IFR training, we recommend IFR procedures. This works well for VFR pilots too. The magic of IFR, or just using those procedures to keep aircraft from whacking the ground, is in the numbers. Specifically it’s the numbers on the chart—whether it’s paper or electronic. The altimeter is your friend and the ultimate arbiter between an uneventful landing and a tragedy.

The Air Safety Institute produced the Terrain Avoidance Plan (TAP), which suggests just a quick look at a sectional or low altitude en route chart to determine what the minimum altitude should be until it’s time to come down. The VFR Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) on sectionals provides no separation, unlike the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) and Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA) minimums on IFR charts. Add at least 1,000 feet to the MEFs. The quadrant MEFs bordering the accident site were 5,100, 3,600, 4,800, and 4,000. A VFR westbound altitude of 6,500 feet would be just the ticket!

KHSP’s field elevation is nearly 3,800 feet msl and is surrounded by mountains. The instrument approach procedures chart shows a minimum safe altitude—except when on a published route—of 6,000 feet. How could it happen that the CFI chose only 3,000? We don’t know.

When flying in unfamiliar areas pay a lot of attention to the vertical. Horizontal is important too, but altitude is everything. Superb navigational accuracy with GPS and moving maps can generate considerable confidence. Direct to anywhere is easy in the dark, but we still don’t see well. Even in good VFR, a hillside with only a few lights disappears into the darkness.

On-board terrain databases will help as they light up the obstacles that humans can’t see, but they are intended as a supplement, not primary, to see and avoid the planet. Years ago, an early Cirrus model attempted a night scud run up the Columbia River gorge apparently seduced by glowing electrons in the panel despite warnings that it was illegal and illogical to do. The aircraft hit the same rock outcropping as too many of his less-equipped predecessors did.

Without belaboring the point, which I already have, if pilots don’t have a terrain avoidance plan my bet is on the mountain. How about you?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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Push happens!

November 12, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

07_airliner_stock_09In this day of “direct everything” navigation sometimes a more deviant path is better. As Yogi Berra put it so well, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

On two recent trips up from the south there were some ripping good Northwest winds bellowing across the ridges near the home airport. The eastern hills give westerners a good laugh but they can create a momentous ride.

Because of the airlines and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), IFR clearances always take us well west over—and to the lee of—the mountain ridges. Vertically, plan a descent about 60 miles out to get below arrivals and departures coming off IAD. On a calm day that’s fine, but on windy or icy days it’s not especially comfortable. On icy days, it can be a bad deal indeed.

The fork in the road comes well south around Richmond. Tom Haines and I were both flying separately back from the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual convention in Florida. Tom went west while I chose east. We compared notes afterward and methinks I got the better deal. It added about 15 minutes flying time to my trip, but 75 miles or so farther east of the ridges yielded a higher altitude from ATC and a much better ride.

Two weeks later, much the same wind scenario. I’d filed “sort of east” out of Richmond but the ATC clearance dictated west. Upon joining departure control, I asked if east might be available. Maybe.  A few minutes later I got an up-the-middle routing between Dulles and the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone. Upon thanking the controller he said that the next sector was the one that had done the work.

Ground speed was not good this day (45-knot headwind component) and as I got close to IAD, the controller apologized. He’d have to take me west but would keep me high. That worked but why the change?

It was the mid-afternoon “push” for the airlines. Ever wonder about the HUB in hub and spoke? All the inbound flights pretty much get to the same place at the same time making for a jam. At busy terminals push happens about six or seven times a day, lasting for about an hour: 0700, 0900, 1130, 1330, 1530, 1900, and maybe 2100. As explained to me, don’t try flying up the middle at those times, or as they say in Jersey, “Fuggettaboutit.”

Really good flight planning involves both traffic and weather. Traffic is predictable, weather is not as much. Knowing airspace or anticipating airline push times cuts down on delays and reroutes.

Now if I could just get the soft ride function on my autopilot to work…

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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