Archive for February, 2014

In support of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Only days after the final AOPA Summit in 2013, Cessna dropped the news that the Skycatcher was history. No longer would the GA giant put their significant corporate muscle into developing a following for their C-162, the only aircraft the company produced that was aimed at the light sport market. In keeping with the international flair of the airplane which was designed by an American company and built in China, when Cessna CEO Scott Ernest said the airplane had no future he might as well have used the German expression, “Es ist tot.”

The Skycatcher is dead. At least it’s dead as far as Cessna is concerned.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Not by a long shot. This is Cessna we’re talking about after all. The big dog of the general aviation industry. The company by which virtually all other general aircraft manufacturers are measured. There’s hardly an airport in North America that doesn’t sport a wide a assortment of Cessna aircraft on the ramp, in the hangars, and in the sky above. When the news broke that Cessna was pulling out of the light sport market, tongues started wagging.

Contributing to the overall sense of curiosity in the industry was that the announcement came only weeks prior to the US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida. That event has been growing and finding new converts for more than a decade now. Unique among aviation events, it’s not an airshow and it’s not a fly-in. It’s a product exposition that puts potential customers in close proximity to the machines they’re thinking of buying. Demo flights are undertaken, questions and asked and answered, tires are kicked and aircraft are sold. Yes, aircraft are sold. That’s the whole point of the show, really.

So what’s a general aviation pilot to think of the light sport market these days? The mixed messages I’ve just given you are really all the majority of the pilot population has to go on. Cessna’s out, and a whole bunch of little known names are in.

Feel free to scratch your head in wonder. You won’t be alone, I assure you.

The reality is, Light Sport is alive and well. The aircraft are increasingly finding their way on to flight lines across the continent and the world at large. Those who fly them find the meager fuel burn and the lighter touch of reduced regulatory intrusion to be a beneficial factor in their decision making. Yet still, Light Sport Aircraft and the light sport pilot certificate remain largely misunderstood by the majority of the pilot population. So let’s dispel some rumors and get on with the business of growing the industry, shall we?

Light Sport Aircraft are not flimsy, poorly designed, poorly built tin cans. In fact, the ASTM (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) standard for the design and construction of light sports is in many ways superior to the old CAR 3 standard that so many of our legacy aircraft were designed and built under. For the purposes of comparison, it’s worth noting that both the Piper Cub and the Cessna 172 were originally CAR 3 certified aircraft.

The sport pilot certificate is not a dumbed down version of the private pilot certificate. For those who wish to verify this claim you need look no farther than an FAA Sport Pilot PTS and compare it to an FAA Private Pilot PTS. Because the sport pilot is prohibited from flying at night or in instrument conditions, there are fewer tasks for the sport pilot to perform during their practical test – but the completion standards for every task that is common to both certificates is identical. Yes, identical. A short field landing for a sport pilot applicant is evaluated using the exact same criteria and tolerances required of a private pilot applicant.

Light Sport Aircraft do not all employ unreliable 2-stroke engines. In fact the most popular engine on the market today is the Rotax 912 family of powerplants. They’ve proven to be tough, reliable, fuel efficient, and capable of running just fine on unleaded auto fuel. Mogas. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, that means the Rotax burns fewer gallons per hour while using less expensive fuel than the more traditional aircraft engines in the 80 – 100 horsepower range. Unleaded fuel. We can assume the EPA is pleased with this development.

Certificated flight instructors with an airplane rating are perfectly legal to instruct sport pilot students, and perform flight reviews for sport pilots. In fact a review of sport pilot privileges and limitations are a requirement of the FIRC (Flight Instructor Refresher Course) designed to bring CFIs up to speed on regulatory changes and instructional insights every two years.

Don’t let misconceptions, misunderstandings, and erroneous assumptions color your perception of what Light Sport is, and what it isn’t. Yes, Cessna got out of the Light Sport Aircraft business. That is no more relevant than it would be to assume that small, fuel efficient cares would disappear from the roads because Volkswagen stopped building or importing air-cooled Beetles into the United States in the mid-1970s. The Beetle still exists of course, in an alternate form. And there’s no guarantee Cessna won’t see a new opportunity to enter the LSA market somewhere down the road. In the meantime there are numerous manufacturers, both American and foreign, that are producing some excellent aircraft that fit well into the Light Sport Aircraft market. And pilots are transitioning into sport pilot at an encouraging rate, whether they’re new to aviation and logging their first PIC time, or they come from the cockpit of a transport category aircraft and are facing the reality of paying their own fuel bill for the first time in their lives.

Don’t count Light Sport Aircraft out. Don’t even consider the category to have the sniffles. LSAs were sold at the Expo in Sebring this year, as they do every year. The industry might in fact be considerably healthier and more viable than you ever dreamed. Truly!

How to Request to Start an Approach at the Intermediate Fix (IF)

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
Requesting to be cleared "Direct to" the IF can result in a hairpin turn that's not permitted by the AIM.

Requesting to be cleared “Direct to” the IF can result in a hairpin turn that’s not permitted by the AIM.

Instrument pilots know that there are two ways to start an instrument approach: they can get vectors or fly direct to an initial approach fix (IAF). Last month, I wrote about the “new” third way to start an approach, by flying to the intermediate fix (IF). This month I planned to write about the challenges in requesting to start an approach at an IF. Coincidentally, the day this article was due, the problem I planned to describe occurred…again.

I added quotes to “new” because, while this third method has been described in section 5-4-7(i) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) since 2006, I expect it will take many years before this information fully permeates the pilot and controller populations. Why so long? Partly because old habits in aviation die slowly and because standard IFR phraseology is confusing when applied to starting at an IF.

The confusion is not unlike the language issues that led to “Position and hold” being changed to “Line up and wait,” a change I enthusiastically supported. Countless times I’ve been in the cockpit with a pilot who confused “Position and hold” with “Hold short,” presumably because they both contained the word “hold.” In this case, potential confusion exists with the words “vectors” and “direct to,” when used to request to start an approach at an IF.

In September 2012, I exchanged several emails about this problem with a friend who is a supervisor at the Northern California TRACON. In my first email, I wrote in part,

“In my books, I tell pilots that there are three ways to fly an instrument approach:
1. vectors,
2. own navigation (or pilot navigation) to an IAF, and
3. a third method, which appeared in the Aeronautical Information Manual beginning in 2006 that allows pilots to start at an IF under certain circumstances (see extract from my G1000 Book below).

“We have short, well understood names that pilots use to ask controllers for the first two methods. But I’m not aware of a convenient name for pilots to use when requesting this third method. Are there quick, easy names that controllers use to describe this third method? Or should we be inventing a new name for it and promoting it among the aviation community?”

Why the need for a “quick, easy name?” Because for years, I’d sometimes had to clarify my request to start at an IF by adding that I’d like “to be vectored to a point from which you can clear me direct to DOCAL with a turn of less than 90 degrees.” That’s a mouthful and an inefficient use of radio time at a busy TRACON.

The reply from my supervisor friend was that the consensus at the facility was that a pilot should name the approach and ask to start at the name of the IF. In the case of the GPS 31 approach at Palo Alto, a pilot would ask to “start the approach at DOCAL,” Alternatively, you might consider requesting “to start the approach at the Intermediate Fix,” which should trigger the controller to remember the 90 degree turn rule.

Potential Confusion in Phraseology
Using the words “vectors” or “direct to,” works great when a pilot is requesting to start an approach with vectors or at an IAF. But they can be confusing when used to start an approach at an IF.

“Vectors” means you’ll be guided to join an approach at least several miles outside of the final approach fix (FAF). Requesting “vectors to DOCAL” could make sense, except that the JO 7110.65U tells controllers that when giving vectors, they are to turn pilots to within 30 degrees of the final approach course, not the 90 degrees permitted at an IF. So you don’t really want “vectors” to the IF.

If instead of asking to “start the approach at DOCAL” a pilot asks to be cleared “Direct to DOCAL,” controllers will sometimes take that literally and clear a pilot from their present position to the IF. But this can result in nearly a 180 degree turn at the IF, which isn’t permitted under 5-4-7. And that’s exactly what happened to me today. I had just crossed over Moffett Field and was essentially on a downwind leg to the approach. The controller asked whether we wanted vectors or to start the approach at DOCAL. I chose the latter and was immediately cleared “Direct to DOCAL.”

I’m not sure why the controller did that, though I’m guessing he was familiar with the 90 degree rule in 5-4-7. Shortly afterwards, I said “we’d like to continue on this heading until we can make a turn of less than 90 degrees at DOCAL,” to which he said “That will be fine.”

Why so casual? We weren’t IFR, but were doing a VFR practice approach, where separation standards are relaxed. Under those circumstances, I’ve seen controllers not require a turn of less than 90 degrees at an IF, a practice that may confuse pilots and controllers alike about the proper way to start an approach at an IF.

Get on the Same Page as the Controller
Regardless of how you request an approach, or how you are cleared to an approach, it’s important to be on the same page as the controller. If you have any doubt as to whether the controller and you have the same game plan in mind, request clarification. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to ask to “start the approach at the IF” if that’s how you would like to fly the approach.

Welcome to the Pilot Shortage

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Can you see it? We’re going to talk about it.
Image via http://www.disruptiveleadership.com

For once in the airline world, something has arrived early. This time, however, it’s not-so-good: a long forecasted, sometimes delayed pilot shortage. From the Wall Street Journal to Brett Snyder’s CrankyFlier to BusinessWeek,the news of a significant shortage of qualified applicants to our nation’s regional airlines has captured the attention of the media and business world alike. Great Lakes Airlines has taken the extraordinary step of closing their Minneapolis Essential Air Service base and Republic Airways is parking airplanes. This is an area with which I have spent the past several years immersing myself in heaps of demographic data from the FAA in the form of reports and spreadsheets. With this post, I hope to elaborate on some of the key areas in this conversation all members of the aviation community need to know.

 

 

The Pilot Shortage is not a Myth, Despite What ALPA Leadership Says

Yogi Berra once said that half of the game of baseball was 90% mental. While an offhand mistake, there is a comparison to be made to airline unions: more than half of the game of airline unions is 90% politics and messaging. The Air Line Pilots Association has decided  to stake their political message in press releases and a video message from ALPA President Lee Moak. Within the talking points put forth by the pilot union, there are several key insinuations that represent misinterpretations of the market or outright falsehoods:

  • Regional airline pilots are not leaving the United States en masse to go work for companies like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, or Korean Air. A prospective pilot or even a somewhat-established regional pilot does not meet the very high published minimum hour requirements set forth by these companies which include thousands of hours of flight time and/or time in aircraft of 737/A320 size or larger (Korean Air’s mins; Emirates’ mins). Cathay Pacific isn’t even hiring American pilots at this point in time.
  • By the time a pilot meets the minimum hour requirements to fly for these global carriers, they are likely unwilling to uproot their families and daily life to move to Dubai or deal with a 7-14 day on-off commuting schedule. Is $20,000 enough to make you move you and a family halfway around the world?
  • The number of pilots on furlough by ALPA member carriers is greatly eclipsed by the projected hiring amongst legacy carriers. American alone has publicly announced they will be hiring more than the number of pilots ALPA says are on furlough in the next five years. Pilots on furlough face a difficult decision: start at the bottom of another airline, with a reduction of salary and seniority or wait out a callback from their employer.

These mixed messages by ALPA’s national office fall flat compared to the pointed comments of American Eagle’s ALPA leadership, which stated last week after rejecting a concessionary contract offer from American: “[American Eagle's ALPA organization] will be working with the American Eagle pilots to help them find placement with other airlines. ALPA representatives will ask management for their timetable regarding the liquidation of American Eagle.”

The Demographic Picture Looks Like One of My Paintings: Not Pretty

The 2012 US Civil Airmen Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration contain several statistics that show things are going to get tougher for pilot supply and the aviation industry as a whole.

  • The average age of an Air Transport Pilot is 49.9 years old, an increase of .1 years from 2011. This is important, as many of the regional airlines began to transition their younger first officers to ATP holders during this time as it became clear that the certificate in some form would be required for FAR Part 121 operations. It is entirely likely the average age would be higher if it weren’t for these preparations.
  • Slightly more than 62,000 of the 149,100 active Air Transport Pilots in the United States fall between the ages of 50 and 64, which places them within 15 years of the FAA mandated retirement age. Some of these pilots will continue flying in other places, but they won’t be flying for the airlines.
  • There are 81,805 Student Pilots between the ages 0f 16-30 in the United States. While an okay number on the surface, there are several problems when reading between the lines. Analysis shows that somewhere in the area of 30-50% of student pilots won’t finish their Private Pilot certificates. The FAA doesn’t currently have a system in place that designates the number of these pilot certificates that are issued to foreign students who come to the country for flight training alone. Using written exam address data, colleagues at the University of North Dakota estimated that up to 40% of new Commercial Pilot certificates issued in the country were going to these pilots who will take their ratings home when training is done.

The Elephants in the Room (Pilot Pay, the New ATP Rules and Training Costs) Need to Be Addressed

Since the dawn of airline outsourcing after deregulation in 1978, the major airlines have pitted contractors and subcontractors against one another in an effort to reduce costs. Parlance calls this a “whipsaw,” where companies that provide some service, be it regional flying, aircraft cleaning or even aircraft maintenance, try to unsustainably underbid one another for an airline contract. The major airlines like this process because it keeps their costs lower. The employees of these contractors and subcontractors face downward pressure on their wages and benefits to the point where the starting salary for a regional airline first officer becomes $20,000 in their first year (less attention has been placed on ground crew as of late, but workers at Delta’s hub in Detroit were recently whipsawed for the fourth time since the airline merged with Northwest. Those workers that have stuck around between the four handling companies have seen their pay drop 50%). This race to the bottom is unsustainable for line employees and the air travel system as a whole. There’s near consensus that $21,000 a year is not acceptable for new airline pilots. At the same time, regional airline boards and CEOs need to be cognizant of the fact that offering their leadership raises in the area of 200% while asking pilots to take a pay cut is a slap in the face and highly unethical.

A student graduating from a university aviation program will do so with approximately 300 hours in their logbook. Thanks to the new ATP qualification rules, they are not able to begin flying for a regional airline until they earn 1000, 1250 or 1500 hours (depending on the program). This means they will spend an extra 1-3 years flight instructing or doing other forms of flying that don’t necessarily prepare them for professional piloting, thereby losing their honed study and professional skills from their degrees. This leads to increased training times once they do get hired at the airlines, and increased costs. Congressional and regulatory relief from the so called “1500 hour rule” is imperative. My proposal: a reduction of the restricted ATP certificate eligibility to college graduates to 500 hours.

Finally, aviation universities need to take a hard look at their training programs for ways to reduce costs for their students. This needs to be done on the micro (internal) and macro levels of aviation education. I cannot speak for individual programs and ways to save costs internally. On the macro level: Why is a new primary trainer from Cessna, Piper or Cirrus $200,000+? What can we do to reduce the cost of fuel & insurance?

Silo No More, Aviation Industry!

The most important takeaway from this situation is the need for the aviation industry as a whole to enter into a collective conversation about pilot and other aviation professional workforce supply. We can no longer afford to silo ourselves as labor, education, management, GA, and manufacturing. If we do not, the fundamental shift that will come won’t be pretty.

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you are good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a minuscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all its splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.

Analysis

What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after several years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.

Roots of Reliability-Centered Maintenance

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Last month, I discussed the pioneering WWII-era work of the eminent British scientist C.H. Waddington, who discovered that the scheduled preventive maintenance (PM) being performed on RAF B-24 bombers was actually doing more harm than good, and that drastically cutting back on such PM resulted in spectacular improvement in dispatch reliability of those aircraft. Two decades later, a pair of brilliant American engineers at United Airlines—Stan Nowlan and Howard Heap—independently rediscovered the utter wrongheadedness of traditional scheduled PM, and took things to the next level by formulating a rigorous engineering methodology for creating an optimal maintenance program to maximize safety and dispatch reliability while minimizing cost and downtime. Their approach became known as “Reliability-Centered Maintenance” (RCM), and revolutionized the way maintenance is done in the airline industry, military aviation, high-end bizjets, space flight, and numerous non-aviation applications from nuclear power plants to auto factories.

RCM wear-out curve

The traditional approach to PM assumes that most components start out reliable, and then at some point start becoming unreliable as they age

The “useful life” fallacy

Nowlan and Heap showed the fallacy of two fundamental principles underlying traditional scheduled PM:

  • Components start off being reliable, but their reliability deteriorates with age.
  • The useful life of components can be established statistically, so components can be retired or overhauled before they fail.

It turns out that both of these principles are wrong. To quote Nowlan and Heap:

“One of the underlying assumptions of maintenance theory has always been that there is a fundamental cause-and-effect relationship between scheduled maintenance and operating reliability. This assumption was based on the intuitive belief that because mechanical parts wear out, the reliability of any equipment is directly related to operating age. It therefore followed that the more frequently equipment was overhauled, the better protected it was against the likelihood of failure. The only problem was in determining what age limit was necessary to assure reliable operation. “In the case of aircraft it was also commonly assumed that all reliability problems were directly related to operating safety. Over the years, however, it was found that many types of failures could not be prevented no matter how intensive the maintenance activities. [Aircraft] designers were able to cope with this problem, not by preventing failures, but by preventing such failures from affecting safety. In most aircraft essential functions are protected by redundancy features which ensure that, in the event of a failure, the necessary function will still be available from some other source.

RCM six curves

RCM researchers found that only 2% of aircraft components have failures that are predominantly age-related (curve B), and that 68% have failures that are primarily infant mortality (curve F).

“Despite the time-honored belief that reliability was directly related to the intervals between scheduled overhauls, searching studies based on actuarial analysis of failure data suggested that the traditional hard-time policies were, apart from their expense, ineffective in controlling failure rates. This was not because the intervals were not short enough, and surely not because the tear down inspections were not sufficiently thorough. Rather, it was because, contrary to expectations, for many items the likelihood of failure did not in fact increase with increasing age. Consequently a maintenance policy based exclusively on some maximum operating age would, no matter what the age limit, have little or no effect on the failure rate.”

[F. Stanley Nowlan and Howard F. Heap, “Reliability-Centered Maintenance” 1978, DoD Report Number AD-A066579.]

Winning the war by picking our battles

FMEAAnother traditional maintenance fallacy was the intuitive notion that aircraft component failures are dangerous and need to be prevented through PM. A major focus of RCM was to identify the ways that various components fail, and then evaluate the frequency and consequences of those failures. This is known as “Failure Modes and Effects Analysis” (FMEA). Researchers found that while certain failure modes have serious consequences that can compromise safety (e.g., a cracked wing spar), the overwhelming majority of component failures have no safety impact and have consequences that are quite acceptable (e.g., a failed #2 comm radio or #3 hydraulic pump). Under the RCM philosophy, it makes no sense whatsoever to perform PM on components whose failure has acceptable consequences; the optimal maintenance approach for such components is simply to leave them alone, wait until they fail, and then replace or repair them when they do. This strategy is known as “run to failure” and is a major tenet of RCM.

A maintenance revolution…

Jet airliner

The 747, DC-10 and L-1011 were the first airliners that had RCM-based maintenance programs.

As a direct result of this research, airline maintenance practices changed radically. RCM-inspired maintenance programs were developed for the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011, and for all subsequent airliners. The contrast with the traditional (pre-RCM) maintenance programs for the Boeing 707 and 727 and Douglas DC-8 was astonishing. The vast majority of component TBOs and life-limits were abandoned in favor of an on-condition approach based on monitoring the actual condition of engines and other components and keeping them in service until their condition demonstrably deteriorated to an unacceptable degree. For example, DC-8 had 339 components with TBOs or life limits, whereas the DC-10 had only seven—and none of them were engines. (Research showed clearly that overhauling engines at a specific TBO didn’t make them safer, and actually did the opposite.) In addition, the amount of scheduled maintenance was drastically reduced. For example, the DC-8 maintenance program required 4,000,000 labor hours of major structural inspections during the aircraft’s first 20,000 hours in service, while the 747 maintenance program called for only 66,000 labor hours, a reduction of nearly two orders of magnitude.

Greybeard AMTs.

Owner-flown GA, particularly piston GA, is the only remaining segment of aviation that does things the bad old-fashioned way.

Of course, these changes saved the airlines a king’s ransom in reduced maintenance costs and scheduled downtime. At the same time, the airplanes had far fewer maintenance squawks and much better dispatch reliability. (This was the same phenomenon that the RAF experienced during WWII when they followed Waddington’s advice to slash scheduled PM.)

…that hasnt yet reached piston GA

Today, there’s only one segment of aviation that has NOT adopted the enlightened RCM approach to maintenance, and still does scheduled PM the bad old-fashioned way. Sadly, that segment is owner-flown GA—particularly piston GA—at the bottom of the aviation food chain where a lot of us hang out. I’ll offer some thoughts about that next month.

Aviators All

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Juliet said to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps those who embrace the vast arena of aviation should follow the advice that William Shakespeare ascribed to the heroine of his tragic tale of two lovers from warring clans. What things are matters, not what we call them.

The aviation community spends far too much effort labeling the various segments of flight: Business Aviation, Military Aviation, Airline Aviation, Private Aviation, Recreational Aviation, Whatever Aviation. All such words relate to the pursuit of flight, regardless of what name we give to the endeavor.

Richard L. Collins, possibly the world’s the most prolific aviation journalist, questioned whether the community focused too heavily on Business Aviation. He encouraged his multitude of readers to grasp the many dimensions of flight and embrace aviation’s benefits. Being an aviator opened a new world of inspiring sights and significant personal accomplishment. Aviation provided unique emotional pleasure as well as effective transportation. He seemed to be saying that flying was worthwhile simply because it was flying.

I believe that Collin’s perception that love of flight is the basis for being a pilot is valid. Very few, if any, individuals become professional pilots because their parents forced them into some form of Business or Airline Aviation. Becoming a military aviator requires more than a decade of training and typically results in the individual remaining in the service for 20 or more years. Who would embark on such a path other than those who found flying fulfilling? A career as an airline pilot requires a similar long-term commitment, often marked by many years of relatively low pay and challenging working conditions as the cost of obtaining seniority. Experienced aviators who fly for a living say that an early passion for flight motivated them to build time and strive for stature within aviation.

Obviously the high cost of aviation drives the focus on Business Aviation. Gaining experience without being engaged in some form of commercial aviation is far too expensive for even the affluent to purchase. Thus the would-be professional aviator often turns to flight instruction or possibly utility aviation, perhaps followed by charter flying—all aspects of flight that fall within the general category of business. If truly fortunate, the aspiring professional might find employment with a corporate flight department with a mentoring program, although most corporations demand considerable experience before adding personnel to their flight staff.

For many aviators, however, Business Aviation is a means to an end, not the sole reason for engaging in flight. Consider the pilots you know. In our area, at least three highly successful physicians fly aircraft typically identified with Business Aviation—two each operate Beechcraft King Air C90s and one flies a Cessna CJ 1. The Citation operator covers his responsibilities at a network of clinics, flying single-pilot. One of the King Air operators retired from his medical practice and captains his Beechcraft in charter services. The other King Air pilot flies for personal business and holds an ATP certificate. Each of these highly accomplished professionals embraced what we think of a Business Aviation while engaged in non-aviation careers.

The challenge and joy of aviation link all aviators, regardless of what we name their activities. Also, gravity does not differentiate among those who venture aloft. All who fly are aviators. Let all who fly join each other in advocating the benefits of aviation as an enabling technology for economic development and enhanced quality of life.

Freedoms of the Air

Friday, February 7th, 2014
Bonnie, Laura, Camille ready for lift off

Bonnie, Laura, Camille ready for lift off

Recently I got the chance to talk with a good friend and Ambassador for General Aviation, Mike Jesch.  Mike is an American Airlines Captain, pilot for Angel Flight, LightHawk, and Cessnas to OSH, FAAST speaker, CFII, board member of Fullerton Pilots Association, you get the drift.

He and his family are hosting some foreign exchange students from the Agricultural University of Beijing, China, for a two week US holiday. Mike secretly hoped that it would work out to take the kids for a short ride in his Cessna 182, and indeed was a question he asked of the exchange program coordinator: Would it be okay to take the kids for an airplane ride? He was very relieved to receive an affirmative answer. The three girls, Bonnie, Camille, and Laura, were all very enthusiastic about this idea.

The day dawned clear and bright, and as they approached the airport and the airplanes came into view, he could see the excitement level increase on each of the girls’ faces.  He recalls, “When I opened the hangar door revealing my 1977 Cessna 182Q, the excitement reached a fever pitch. I walked them around the airplane, explaining my preflight inspection procedure, sampled the fuel, checked the oil, then showed them the cabin interior and gave them my passenger briefing. I reassured them that, at any point, if any of them were nervous, or scared, just let me know, and I’d land the airplane as soon as possible. They were still eager and willing, so we saddled up and started off.” As he lifted off the runway at Fullerton, CA [KFUL] and announced “…And, we’re flying!”, the pitch of their voices went up further still, and the smiles stretched from ear to ear! “  The plan was to fly around the LA area, showing them the downtown area, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Park, the Hollywood sign, Malibu, Santa Monica, through the Mini Route down to Redondo Beach, around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Queen Mary, and back to Fullerton. From shortly after takeoff, their noses were pressed to the windows, and excited chatter passed back and forth, each pointing out one sight or another, and cameras clicking away.

The next day, Mike got a call from one of the other host parents of two freshman boys. Apparently, the girls had been communicating with their friends! The boys had expressed an interest in also going for an airplane ride.  So, on that night, after dinner, he drove all the kids back over to the airport.  He said, “The boys  were amazed when they saw the airplane for the first time.”  The usual pre-flight inspection and briefing ensued, and they were off.  Kelvin and Owen (joined by Mike’s daughter, Karen) were audibly excited, too, as they defied gravity and launched into the night sky. Astounded by the beauty of all the lights of the LA area, they were instantly transfixed. Mike negotiated a transition through the Los Alamitos Army Air Base to the shoreline, then turned right to fly over the port of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Spectacularly lit up at night, the boys appreciated the sight of the world’s largest port complex, where most of the goods imported from China arrive and are unloaded and shipped all over the country.

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Owen ,Camille, Karen, Bonnie, Mike, Laura and Kelvin

Mike reflected on the differences between general aviation in the United States versus China.  “All the kids were absolutely amazed that a private citizen such as myself could own an airplane, go and visit it at any time, take it up in the air whenever I want, even flying directly over the top of a local military base and weapons depot and the largest port complex in the world, at night, all without a mountain of paperwork and permission from the authorities. In all of China, there are not more than a couple hundred airplanes in private hands, yet here at my home base Fullerton Airport alone, we have over 200 airplanes. And we have hundreds of airports across this country that have even more.” He pondered this difference between our countries, and says he gained a new appreciation for the freedoms of the air that we enjoy in this country. Certainly we have issues to deal with, perhaps chief among them cost and regulation, but in spite of all the issues, the system of aviation we have here is still pretty darned good, and worth protecting. Worth celebrating. Worth using. And perhaps most importantly, worth sharing it, especially with those who live in a place where this is not possible. “I harbor no illusions that these young Chinese students will themselves have the opportunity to become pilots, or to own airplanes. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a conversation with some friends, perhaps even future leaders in China, and tell them about the time – you won’t believe this! – when they got to fly in a small private airplane in California, on a clear and beautiful winter evening” he says.

The Future of Aviation

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Most of us have a hard time thinking effectively about the future of something like aviation. The problem is one of both context and chronology. First of all, if we’re personally involved with aviation we almost always think about its future possibilities in terms that are presently understood. We extrapolate from the past and what we now understand, always relating our sense of the future to a narrow perspective of how the present system works.

For example, it’s unlikely that if asked about the aviation industry a decade from now you would factor in the potential effect of a radical global shift in climate . . . or a forecast collapse of the global financial system . . . or picture the beginning of an age of electric airliners. That’s a problem, because aviation – and every other aspect of our lives – exists as a component of a system . . . a very complicated system that includes a host of things like the state of the global climate that can fundamentally change the context, and future, of aviation.

The problem of perspicacity is also related to our larger understanding of where we are in the giant sweep of history. As it happens, we are all living in a period of exponential change unprecedented in human history. Throughout science and technology – and most other sectors – amazing new capabilities are manifesting themselves daily. Furthermore, the time for these new inventions to become commercialized is also decreasing at an exponential rate. They are inserting themselves into our lives at a faster and faster pace.

This means, among other things, that in order to support the exponential increase in invention and discovery there must necessarily be major breakthroughs in our understanding and the technologies that are available for building and operating air transport systems. The exponential curve is not smooth; it is a series of rather dramatic breakthroughs, one following another at an increasingly rapid pace that result in seemingly vertical change.

Just recently, for example, it was announced that a new version of the material graphene has been developed that is 300 times stronger than steel and lighter than current carbon fiber materials. The potential implications of this material clearly could revolutionize the way we build current aircraft. But add that to advances being made in battery technology, superconductivity in polymers, and electric power trains developed for automobiles, among many other things, and suddenly you have the converging of the components for a large electric aircraft – something that is generally discounted by most people in the business today.

So, not only are there many more disruptive factors coming into the aviation space, but the rate of change is accelerating.

Preflight Your Passenger, Too!

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

I know you preflight your airplane before you fly. I know you even preflight your flight, by creating a flight plan of some sort (even if it is sketched on a Post-it or punched into your iPad app for a run around the neighborhood). You think over the length of the runways you intend to use, and, at the very least, ballpark the amount of fuel you have, versus what you need, and weight and balance on your intended aircraft. That’s in the good book, the FAR/AIM, and we all have to do it.

But did you know that preflighting your passengers is also in that book? And why not? According to NTSB data, the best thing that ever happened to passengers who survive aviation accidents worldwide was that passenger safety briefing they heard at the very beginning of the flight. They say, to a man, that in the midst of the chaos of the event they remembered something from that safety briefing, complied, and lived. Simple as that.

Airlines know it. In fact, airlines these days are so sure that the passenger safety briefing is an effective tool that they have handed the task of keeping the briefings interesting enough to grab passenger attention over to marketing. The results are some pretty funny passenger safety briefings—some kitschy enough to garner mention in the New York Times and go viral as YouTube videos.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to hire an ad agency to create a passenger safety briefing that will have your precious cargo chuckling as the buckle up, but, hey, most of us do fly with friends and family, and we do want them to survive any incident or accident that might happen. And if you are one of those pilots who is absolutely positive that an accident could never happen to you? Well, then, consider the passenger safety briefing as a means for getting your passengers to become a helpful part of your crew.

A typical GA aircraft briefing card.

A typical GA aircraft briefing card.

Sure, you could create a pre-fab card, as some companies have done, and just tell them to read it, but extensive data shows that the best safety briefing is a demo. So, show them how to buckle and unbuckle their seatbelt, how to adjust the seats (upright for takeoff and landing for a better egress). Make sure passengers sitting by a door or emergency exit are capable of opening the door (and in the case of a light airplane where doors sometimes pop open in flight, how to close it!). Point out the location of the fire extinguisher and first aid kit, and talk about how to use them, too. Got oxygen onboard? Go over it with your passenger, and mention what hypoxia looks like and feels like. Tell your passenger that you don’t want idle conversation during taxi, takeoff, approach and landing, but that you do want to be notified if they see conflicting air traffic. And make sure they understand and can demonstrate to you how to operate any passenger entertainment system you might carry onboard, so that you won’t be called on to operate it, distracting you from your real mission of flying the airplane.

Finally, vary your script according to the mission. If you are flying overwater, be sure t0 demonstrate the use of personal flotation devices (you’ve got them, right?). Got a raft? Designate a capable passenger to make sure it comes out of the airplane with them, as you’ll be pretty busy. Flying over mountainous terrain? Carry a survival kit, and again, designate a passenger to make sure it gets out of the airplane with you.

As much as we like to think we fly for our own pleasure, many of us, I’d say most of us love sharing the experience with others. You might think that a thorough passenger briefing will frighten a newbie to private flying, but my experience has been just the opposite. My passengers tell me that the briefing is empowering, and that having the information it imparts makes them feel safer, because they know, if there’s a problem, they can contribute to the solution.