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!

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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Success Expectation

November 5, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

quiz photoWe’ve had this conversation before so the blog will be mercifully short this week. Within the space of just a few days three accidents hit the national consciousness, if there is such a thing. First was the midair collision right here in Frederick, Maryland, followed by a Beechcraft King Air managing to find its way into a FlightSafety International’s simulator bay at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport in Kansas, and finally, Spaceship II suffering a catastrophic in-flight failure.

Is there a thread here—something in the water—a bad moon a rising?

No. The only commonality is that all these tragedies involved loss of life and aeronautical machinery. Each situation is different, and yet each will be shown to have a chain of events that, in retrospect, could have been prevented. That’s the armchair quarterbacking of safety people and attorneys—the usual suspects.

But what can we take away from these horrible crashes even early in the investigations? Reminder for me is to take nothing for granted. That’s really hard to do, especially when everything pretty much always works. In each case there were prior successes to buoy confidence.

How many times have you had traffic called and never seen it, but it missed you? How many times have you taken off successfully? We do these things all the time and get away with it probably out to four places to the right of the decimal point.

Spaceship II is a different deal. They really are on the cutting edge and sometimes stuff doesn’t work. Our aeronautical history is full of such events when very brave people attempt to move us forward.

As you go about your flying activities be mindful of distraction. Multi-tasking can be a big problem in aircraft. Complacency is another really bad actor. No need to re-whip these horses, but rather redouble the efforts to enjoy one of the greatest privileges known—the ability to fly.

We never defy gravity or cheat death despite the popular sayings to the contrary…when we’re safely back on the ground. Coexisting with powerful forces that never take a day off means we get no time off either when flying.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz