Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

A Signpost Up Ahead

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

A380 JetwhineWhat a blast I’ve had the past year here on the Opinion Leaders blog. But if we’re opinion leaders, you our audience, deserve a pat on the back for being Reader Leaders. I’ve been truly encouraged and inspired by how many of you took the time to offer words of support to some of my stories, as well as comments when you thought I was off my rocker. OK, maybe I didn’t like those quite as much, but it all comes with the territory.

This year I managed to share a few tricks of the trade to improve your stick-and-rudder skills in any aircraft, as well as a few ideas to encourage the next generation of aviation geeks to follow in our footsteps and even had a few questions for you about how I should deal with a few ruffled feathers between ATC and me. Of course there was that sad story last summer about the loss of my friend Jeremy Monnett at Oshkosh just weeks before AirVenture.

But that was 2015.

With 2016 waiting just around the corner, I think it’s time for me to bow out and offer another writer an opportunity to share their perspectives on aviation while I get back to my own blog at Jetwhine.com and The Airplane Geeks Show.

Before I leave, I’d like to ask you to take a look at our new venture, the On the Mark video series we’ve created with the folks at AviationPros.com. If you enjoy these short pieces, I hope you’ll share the link with your friends and even consider subscribing.OTM Logo 1

Come on now, there’s no eye rolling in aviation for you Reader Leaders … you can handle great content from both the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog AND On the Mark.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all the other holiday greetings of the season.

See you around the blogosphere in 2016. Don’t forget, your questions about all things aviation are always welcome at [email protected].

Warm regards,

Rob Mark

 

 

Buying the right plane

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

TAP CoverFinding the right airplane to buy is hard work. Who among us hasn’t spent hours looking through Controller or Aircraft Shopper Online or Trade-A-Plane or Barnstormers looking for that perfect candidate—one with low time, a fresh overhaul, new paint and interior, great avionics, and a bargain price?

Dream on!

Common sense says you’re unlikely to find an airplane like that—and if you do, there’s probably a good reason that it’s underpriced … like maybe lost logbooks, major damage history, wing spar corrosion, an expensive AD that hasn’t been complied with, or some other big-time skeleton in the closet.

Nothing’s perfect

Many of the aircraft you see advertised are in reasonable shape, decently maintained, and worthy of consideration. But if you expect them to be in pristine condition—or even in as good condition as represented in the ads—you’ll probably be disappointed. If you have your heart set on buying a perfect airplane, you’d better buy a new one and be prepared for sticker shock. A well-equipped new Cessna 182T costs about $500,000 these days, and a Cirrus SR22 or Cessna T206H goes for about $750,000, and a Beechcraft Baron G58 now sells for $1.35 million.

If these prices are beyond your pay grade (and they sure as heck are beyond mine), you need to accept the fact that any “pre-owned” airplane you buy will be somewhat less than perfect and will require some fixing up after the purchase.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a “fixer-upper” so long as you go into the deal with your eyes open, have a good understanding of what it will cost to correct the airplane’s deficiencies, and are confident that this cost is adequately reflected in the negotiated purchase price.

High-time engine

Lycoming EngineOf course, some kinds of deficiencies are easier to deal with in this fashion than others. The easiest of all is an airplane with a high-time engine that’s close to (or beyond) TBO.

I say it’s easiest because engine time is almost always fully reflected in the selling price. In other words, an aircraft with a run-out engine is almost always priced sufficiently below the price of a similar aircraft with a zero-time engine to account for the cost of a major engine overhaul or factory-rebuilt exchange engine. I bought my own airplane with nearly run-out engines, and I’m convinced that buying an airplane with run-out engines has a lot of advantages.

One advantage is that the new owner gets to choose whether to overhaul or exchange for a factory rebuilt. If he opts to overhaul, he gets to choose the overhaul shop, the kind of cylinders he wants on his new engine, and any special items that may be desired when reinstalling the new engine (such as Teflon hoses, new Lord mounts, exhaust system repair, etc.) And that’s as it should be, since it’s the new owner who will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for years to come.

A second advantage of buying an airplane with a run-out engine (or engines) is that the seller is probably motivated to sell (rather than shell out big bucks for a major overhaul or factory rebuilt), and so may be a bit more flexible during price negotiations. In fact, I’m always a bit suspicious when I see an aircraft listed for sale with a “fresh overhaul” or unusually low engine time. I can’t help but think that the seller most likely knew he was about to get rid of the airplane when he had the engine overhauled, and it seems to me it would be mighty tempting to cut corners and minimize cost in that situation. Maybe I’m just cynical.

A third advantage of buying an airplane with an engine at or near TBO is that you might just wind up getting a pleasant surprise. After buying my T310R with engines just 100 hours shy of published TBO, I wound up flying the airplane for 600 more hours of trouble-free operation before deciding to overhaul the engines at TBO+500. With reserve for overhaul of $30/hour/engine, that wound up being a $36,000 windfall for me.

Most aircraft listed for sale have engines somewhere in between “fresh overhaul” and “run-out.” The problem here is that it’s often impossible for the buyer to know how much time he can expect to get out of the engine before overhaul. A good friend of mine—let’s call him “Frank”—bought a gorgeous 1978 Cessna T310R some years ago with mid-time RAM engines. Now RAM is arguably the country’s premier overhaul shop for TSIO-520 engines, and the engines got a clean bill of health during the pre-purchase inspection, so Frank fully expected it to be years before he’d have to think about major overhaul. At the first oil change after Frank bought the airplane, however, some ferrous metal showed up in one of the oil filters. Frank sent the filter contents to RAM, and they determined that one or more cam lobes were coming apart. Frank wound up having RAM tear down and overhaul the engine. Ouch!

Bottom line is that I think the best way to buy a used aircraft—all other things being equal—is to buy one with a high-time engine, plan to overhaul it or swap it for a factory engine shortly after the purchase, and make sure the cost of doing so is priced into the selling price.

High-time airframe

Jacked AirframeIn contrast, an airframe with beaucoup hours is much more difficult to analyze. Unlike engine time, airframe time cannot be “rolled back” by doing an overhaul. It is what it is.

High time on an airframe isn’t necessarily a bad thing. An airframe with high time has probably been flown regularly and often throughout its life. That’s good. Also, a high-time airframe usually belongs to a “working airplane” (flight school, charter, cargo, etc.), and such aircraft tend to receive better and more regular maintenance than owner-flown “hangar queens.”

In contrast, an airframe with unusually low hours is often one that has experienced lengthy periods of disuse, and unless the aircraft was based in a dry climate or stored in a heated hangar, it’s a likely candidate for having hidden corrosion damage.

Low-time airframes tend to command premium prices. Some years ago, a study of light twins listed for sale indicated nearly a linear inverse correlation between selling price and airframe hours (after adjustment for engine time and equipment), with depreciation of almost exactly $10 per airframe hour. (In other words, all other things being equal, a 6,000-hour twin sold for $30,000 less than a 3,000-hour twin.)

I’m not sure that’s rational—but market forces are often not rational. Personally, I’d be more comfortable buying a 25-year-old airplane with 4,000 hours on the airframe (average 160 hours/year) than a 25-year-old airplane with 1,000 hours on the airframe (average 40 hours/year). Of course, I’d really want more information about how those hours were distributed over the aircraft’s life, whether there were extended periods of disuse, whether the aircraft was hangared or tied down outdoors, where it was based (Tucson or Tampa), and so forth.

Very high-time airframes are another matter, however. We used to think that airframes would pretty much last forever if adequately protected from corrosion. That may still turn out to be true for some airframes (like strut-braced high-wing singles), but in recent years there has been increasing concern over the useful fatigue life of cantilever-wing airframes, particularly single- and twin-Cessnas and Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons. There’s already a very costly spar-strap AD for high-time Cessna 400-series twins, and a good possibility of more such ADs in the future that could have a big impact on owners of high-time airframes.

As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t pay a big premium for an ultra-low-time airframe, and might even do well to be a bit suspicious of one. A mid-time airframe—with hours commensurate to its chronological age, indicating that it has been flown regularly and often—may be a more worthy candidate, not to mention a better bargain.

I warned you it wasn’t easy.

Older aircraft

1960 Cessna 210AFiguring out what model year to buy is another toughie. Market valuation of airplanes tends to drop precipitously with calendar age, and you occasionally see older aircraft for sale that have been well maintained, are corrosion-free, and are offered at what seem to be screaming bargain prices.

My advice to all but the most experienced aircraft buyers is to be wary of older airplanes, particularly older complex airplanes. There’s a good reason for their enticingly low asking prices: An older airplane can easily turn into a money pit. In fact, that may be precisely why it’s for sale.

You may figure that if the selling price is cheap enough, you can afford to spend the money to refurbish that older airplane into something really nice. Take an old, clapped-out 1960-model Cessna 210, for example, that you see in Trade-A-Plane for only $30,000. Add $30,000 for a zero-time engine, $20,000 for new paint and interior, and maybe another $15,000 to replace those old tube radios with a modern comm and GPS. So for $95,000 you’ll wind up with a first-class speed merchant, right?

Unfortunately, your “better than new” refurbished airplane won’t be worth anything close to the $95,000 you have invested in it. It might appraise at $60,000 at best, so you’ll be $35,000 underwater and in a world of hurt if you have to sell it. Unless you’re sure that you’ll be keeping the airplane for a many years, it’s generally wise to avoid purchases that involve spending substantially more than fair market value for the aircraft.

What’s worse, 1960 was the first year that Cessna produced the 210, and not surprisingly the earliest models are saddled with expensive Airworthiness Directives and maintenance problems. Cessna learned a lot from building that aircraft for 26 years, and later models of the Cessna 210 are truly outstanding airplanes. But the earliest models are… well… somewhat less outstanding.

I don’t mean to be picking on the Cessna 210 either. The same holds true for early model Bonanzas, Cherokees, Mooneys, etc. You can often buy one for a song, only to discover your new acquisition is eating you out of house and home. Unless you’re an A&P with lots of free time and looking for a “project airplane,” my advice is generally to buy the latest model year you can reasonably afford, and to avoid aircraft requiring high-ticket refurbishment.

Outdated avionics

Old Narco AvionicsThe conventional wisdom used to be that it was better to search for an airplane with suitable avionics than to buy one with older radios and refurbish the radio stack. That’s because a new radio stack increases the resale value of the aircraft only a small fraction of what it costs to buy and install. So it’s a lot more economical to let the other guy upgrade the panel than for you to do it.

These days, however, you may have little choice in the matter. We’re in the midst of a major avionics revolution, with terrestrial navaids getting phased out and GPS WAAS and ADS-B and real-time weather fast becoming a must-have for serious cross-country flight. Unless you luck out and stumble across an airplane for sale with a G-1000 or Aspen Evolution already in the panel—and that’s not terribly likely—you may have to bite the bullet and spring for the gear yourself.

Still, it’s best to find an aircraft with reasonably up-to-date avionics and minimizing the amount you’ll have to invest in electronics refurbishment. Installing a new autopilot is especially expensive, and it’s a big plus if you can find an aircraft that already has a decent autopilot installed.

Worn paint or interior

Worn SeatDon’t hesitate to buy an aircraft just because the paint or interior are getting long in the tooth. Inexperienced buyers tend to get way too hung up on cosmetics. What really counts is what’s under the paint and beneath the carpets. I’d buy a mechanically sound, corrosion-free airplane with shabby paint and interior in a heartbeat.

Think of paint and interior like you think of engines: Something that wears out and has to be redone every ten years or so. It really makes more sense for the buyer to do this after the sale than for the seller to do it before. After all, shouldn’t the new owner get to pick the paint colors and upholstery materials?

Much like engine time, the cost of paint and interior tends to be well reflected in the aircraft selling price. If you buy an aircraft with fully depreciated cosmetics, you can reasonably expect the selling price to be discounted enough to compensate for a substantial portion of the cost of refurbishment.

Mechanical discrepancies

Inspection

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You’ve found a plane you really like a lot, and arranged to have a prebuy examination by a mechanic you trust. The inspection turns up some significant mechanical discrepancies. Now what do you do?

That’s easy: First, talk to your mechanic and determine what it will cost to correct the problems. Next, present the inspection findings and repair estimates to the seller, and see if he’s willing to reduce his selling price enough to cover all, or at least most, of the repair cost. If so, you’ve got a deal; if not, you may want to pass and find another aircraft.

Some discrepancies—corrosion damage to a wing spar, for example—may be so costly to repair that they’re instant deal-breakers. But most discrepancies—say, a soft cylinder or an inoperative autopilot servo—should be readily resolvable.

I’ve seen the prospective buyer of a half-million-dollar Cessna 421C walk away from the deal because the prebuy revealed two cylinders with poor compression. In my view, that’s nuts. The cost of replacing those two jugs is less than one percent of the purchase price. The purpose of a prebuy on a 421C should be to uncover the $50,000 discrepancies, not the $5,000 ones. (If you’re buying a Bonanza or Arrow or Skylane, scale these figures down appropriately.)

Good, clean, mechanically sound, corrosion-free airplanes are getting harder and harder to find, so don’t let a good one get away because of a problem that’s easy to fix.

To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Toys for Tots 2015Toys for Tots BackThis past weekend was our eighth annual Toys for Tots event at Oceano Airport.  I was honored by the US Marine Corps with a Warrior Coin for organizing the Friends of Oceano Airport‘s effort.  As I accepted the award on behalf of our volunteers,  I thought about the quote from Steve Prefontaine, the runner from University of Oregon, “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.” I was raised with this ideal.

Putting on an airport event of this magnitude is a lot of work to be certain. From publicity, to preparation, to staging, setup, to day-of -the-event, there are always roadblocks and hurdles to any sort of activity the involves hundreds of people or numbers of airplanes. I am usually exhausted after the last guest leaves our airport.  The medallion is lovely, and I will cherish it,  but I believe to give one’s best is a reward unto itself.

Aeronca Santa

Aeronca Santa

Our event is always the first Saturday in December.  For us, it signals the beginning of the holiday season.  It is so fun to see people with their arms loaded with gifts to put under the tree, wearing antlers and Santa hats.To see the aviation community flock to our beach side airport with airplanes full of toys was thrilling.  We had about a hundred people and forty airplanes join us at our airport for the activities that included an elf catapult, holiday music featuring the Jingle Bells, BBQ lunch, and the all important toy collection.

It was during the toy collection that I met a charming six year old girl named Naya Pearson.  Naya came to hear her Aunt Terri sing and bring a big bag of toys to donate.  But the story of this remarkable child doesn’t stop there.  Because if we stick with the premise of this article we can’t possibly end here.

When Naya found out about the event, she wanted to be able to bring toys to put under the tree.  She didn’t ask her parents to buy toys that she picked out.  Instead Naya brought toys that she bought with her very own money that she earned at her homemade lemonade and vegetable stand.  She raised even more money by singing at her  lemonade stand for tips.

Naya and her bear

Naya and her bear

 

With her money she purchased six beautiful toys and a lovely stuffed bear.  SIX YEARS OLD.  To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. Naya’s best was to give of herself, her talent and her light.  Those gifts will help children she doesn’t even know.

Our weekend at Oceano Airport was much the same. We all did our best.   We had airplanes from Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Diego, Stockton, Apple Valley and our local airports. Those pilots donated their fuel, time and effort to come and make someone’s Christmas brighter.  Thirty brothers from Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity donated two days of service again this year to help our local families.  Empirical Systems Aerospace sponsored our music which put us all in the Christmas spirit. Our volunteers made sure there was wood in our fire pits [though it was 75 degrees and sunny] and visitors were greeted.  Kids who always wanted to get a look at at airplane or a gyro-plane got to talk to the owner or get inside.  Look at Naya, the toothless smile, the zeal. Admit it, you get the same look when you nail a landing, or take off and see the mist over the Smoky Mountains, or see the Pismo Dunes at sunset. Your best, or we sacrifice the gift.

The Normalization of Deviance

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Like many pilots, I read accident reports all the time. This may seem morbid to people outside “the biz”, but those of us on the inside know that learning what went wrong is an important step in avoiding the fate suffered by those aviators. And after fifteen years in the flying business, the NTSB’s recently-released report on the 2014 Gulfstream IV crash in Bedford, Massachusetts is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever laid eyes on.

If you’re not familiar with the accident, it’s quite simple to explain: the highly experienced crew of a Gulfstream IV-SP attempted to takeoff with the gust lock (often referred to as a “control lock”) engaged. The aircraft exited the end of the runway and broke apart when it encountered a steep culvert. The ensuing fire killed all aboard.

Sounds pretty open-and shut, doesn’t it? There have been dozens of accidents caused by the flight crew’s failure to remove the gust/control lock prior to flight. Professional test pilots have done it on multiple occasions, ranging from the prototype B-17 bomber in 1935 to the DHC-4 Caribou in 1992. But in this case, the NTSB report details a long series of actions and habitual behaviors which are so far beyond the pale that they defy the standard description of “pilot error”.

Just the Facts

Let me summarize the ten most pertinent errors and omissions of this incident for you:

  1. There are five checklists which must be run prior to flying. The pilots ran none of them. CVR data and pilot interviews revealed that checklists simply were not used. This was not an anomaly, it was standard operating procedure for them.
  2. Obviously the gust lock was not removed prior to flying. This is a very big, very visible, bright red handle which sticks up vertically right between the throttles and the flap handle. As the Simon & Chabris selective attention test demonstrates, it’s not necessarily hard to miss the gust lock handle protruding six inches above the rest of the center pedestal. But it’s also the precise reason we have checklists and procedures in the first place.
  3. Flight control checks were not performed on this flight, nor were they ever performed. Hundreds of flights worth of data from the FDR and pilot interviews confirm it.
  4. The crew received a Rudder Limit message indicating that the rudder’s load limiter had activated. This is abnormal. The crew saw the alert. We know this because it was verbalized. Action taken? None.
  5. The pilot flying (PF) was unable to push the power levers far enough forward to achieve takeoff thrust. Worse, he actually verbalized that he wasn’t able to get full power, yet continued the takeoff anyway.
  6. The pilot not flying (PNF) was supposed to monitor the engines and verbally call out when takeoff power was set. He failed to perform this task.
  7. Aerodynamics naturally move the elevator up (and therefore the control column aft) aft as the airplane accelerates. Gulfstream pilots are trained to look for this. It didn’t happen, and it wasn’t caught by either pilot.
  8. The pilot flying realized the gust lock was engaged, and said so verbally several times. At this point, the aircraft was traveling 128 knots had used 3,100 feet of runway; about 5,000 feet remained. In other words, they had plenty of time to abort the takeoff. They chose to continue anyway.
  9. One of the pilots pulled the flight power shutoff handle to remove hydraulic pressure from the flight controls in an attempt to release the gust lock while accelerating down the runway. The FPSOV was not designed for this purpose, and you won’t find any G-IV manual advocating this procedure. Because it doesn’t work.
  10. By the time they realized it wouldn’t work and began the abort attempt, it was too late. The aircraft was traveling at 162 knots (186 mph!) and only about 2,700 feet of pavement remained. The hydraulically-actuated ground spoilers — which greatly aid in stopping the aircraft by placing most of its weight back on the wheels to increase rolling resistance and braking efficiency — were no longer available because the crew had removed hydraulic power to the flight controls.

Industry Responses

Gulfstream has been sued by the victim’s families. Attorneys claim that the gust lock was defective, and that this is the primary reason for the crash. False. The gust lock is designed to prevent damage to the flight controls from wind gusts. It does that job admirably. It also prevents application of full takeoff power, but the fact that the pilot was able to physically push the power levers so far forward simply illustrates that anything can be broken if you put enough muscle into it.

The throttle portion of the gust lock may have failed to meet a technical certification requirement, but it was not the cause of the accident. The responsibility for ensuring the gust lock is disengaged prior to takeoff lies with the pilots, not the manufacturer of the airplane.

Gulfstream pilot and Code7700 author James Albright calls the crash involuntary manslaughter. I agree. This wasn’t a normal accident chain. The pilots knew what was wrong while there was still plenty of time to stop it. They had all the facts you and I have today. They chose to continue anyway. It’s the most inexplicable thing I’ve yet seen a professional pilot do, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things. If locked flight controls don’t prompt a takeoff abort, nothing will.

Albright’s analysis is outstanding: direct and factual. I predict there will be no shortage of articles and opinions on this accident. It will be pointed to and discussed for years as a bright, shining example of how not to operate an aircraft.

In response to the crash, former NTSB member John Goglia has called for video cameras in the cockpit, with footage to be regularly reviewed to ensure pilots are completing checklists. Despite the good intentions, this proposal would not achieve the desired end. Pilots are already work in the presence of cockpit voice recorders, flight data recorders, ATC communication recording, radar data recording, and more. If a pilot needs to be videotaped too, I’d respectfully suggest that this person should be relieved of duty. No, the problem here is not going to be solved by hauling Big Brother further into the cockpit.

A better model would be that of the FOQA program, where information from flight data recorders is downloaded and analyzed periodically in a no-hazard environment. The pilots, the company, and the FAA each get something valuable. It’s less stick, more carrot. I would also add that this sort of program is in keeping with the Fed’s recent emphasis on compliance over enforcement action.

The Normalization of Deviance

What I, and probably you, are most interested in is determining how well-respected, experienced, and accomplished pilots who’ve been through the best training the industry has to offer reached the point where their performance is so bad that a CFI wouldn’t accept it from a primary student on their very first flight.

After reading through the litany of errors and malfeasance present in this accident report, it’s tempting to brush the whole thing off and say “this could never happen to me.” I sincerely believe doing so would be a grave mistake. It absolutely can happen to any of us, just as it has to plenty of well-trained, experienced, intelligent pilots. Test pilots. People who are much better than you or I will ever be.

But how? Clearly the Bedford pilots were capable of following proper procedures, and did so at carefully selected times: at recurrent training events, during IS-BAO audits, on checkrides, and various other occasions.

Goglia, Albright, the NTSB, and others are focusing on “complacency” as a root cause, but I believe there’s a better explanation. The true accident chain on this crash formed over a long, long period of time — decades, most likely — through a process known as the normalization of deviance.

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. People grow more accustomed to the deviant behavior the more it occurs. To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seen as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.

This concept was developed by sociologist and Columbia University professor Diane Vaughan after the Challenger explosion. NASA fell victim to it in 1986, and then got hit again when the Columbia disaster occurred in 2003. If they couldn’t escape its clutches, you might wonder what hope we have. Well, for one thing, spaceflight in general and the shuttle program in particular are specialized, experimental types of flying. They demand acceptance of a far higher risk profile than corporate, charter, and private aviation.

I believe the first step in avoiding “normalization of deviance” is awareness, just as admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery from substance addiction. After all, if you can’t detect the presence of a problem, how can you possibly fix it?

There are several factors which tend to sprout normalization of deviance:

  • First and foremost is the attitude that rules are stupid and/or inefficient. Pilots, who tend to be independent Type A personalities anyway, often develop shortcuts or workarounds when the checklist, regulation, training, or professional standard seems inefficient. Example: the boss in on board and we can’t sit here for several minutes running checklists; I did a cockpit flow, so let’s just get going!
  • Sometimes pilots learn a deviation without realizing it. Formalized training only covers part of what an aviator needs to know to fly in the real world. The rest comes from senior pilots, training captains, and tribal knowledge. What’s taught is not always correct.
  • Often, the internal justification for cognizant rule breaking includes the “good” of the company or customer, often where the rule or standard is perceived as counterproductive. In the case of corporate or charter flying, it’s the argument that the passenger shouldn’t have to (or doesn’t want to) wait. I’ve seen examples of pilots starting engines while the passengers are still boarding, or while the copilot is still loading luggage. Are we at war? Under threat of physical attack? Is there some reason a 2 minute delay is going to cause the world to stop turning?
  • The last step in the process is silence. Co-workers are afraid to speak up, and understandably so. The cockpit is already a small place. It gets a lot smaller when disagreements start to brew between crew members. In the case of contract pilots, it may result in the loss of a regular customer. Unfortunately, the likelihood that rule violations will become normalized increases if those who see them refuse to intervene.

The normalization of deviance can be stopped, but doing so is neither easy or comfortable. It requires a willingness to confront such deviance when it is seen, lest it metastasize to the point we read about in the Bedford NTSB report. It also requires buy-in from pilots on the procedures and training they receive. When those things are viewed as “checking a box” rather than bona fide safety elements, it becomes natural to downplay their importance.

Many of you know I am not exactly a fan of the Part 121 airline scene, but it’s hard to argue with the success airlines have had in this area. When I flew for Dynamic Aviation’s California Medfly operation here in Southern California, procedures and checklists were followed with that level of precision and dedication. As a result, the CMF program has logged several decades of safe operation despite the high-risk nature of the job.

Whether you’re flying friends & family, pallets of cargo, or the general public, we all have the same basic goal: to aviate without ending up in an embarrassing NTSB report whose facts leave no doubt about how badly we screwed up. The normalization of deviance is like corrosion: an insidious, ever-present, naturally occurring enemy which will weaken and eventually destroy us. If we let it.

The Day After the Holiday: Flying Home Safely

Monday, November 30th, 2015

The day before a holiday, given there are blue skies, is a silly, noisy day in the airpark. People are on the move. My pilot neighbors who have decided to fly to family are loading up and heading out, sometimes en masse, wisely using their aircraft to avoid what can be dangerously packed highways of travelers, and miserably packed commercial airline flights.

Funny, I don’t worry so much about them on the day they leave out of here. The day after the holiday, though, I admit to fretting a little. Why? Statistics.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

It is much easier to decide to stay home for the holidays when you are still in your driveway, contemplating the weather, than it

is to imagine staying on at Aunt Fran’s or Grandma’s, where you may be packed into an expensive hotel room, or maybe the basement spare bedroom (probably no wifi down there, either). The NTSB annals are full of accidents and incidents that happen on the backside of the holiday curve, when people are saturated with food, family, good times, and sometimes rushing to get back for work, school or other ordinary pressures. Suddenly pilots everywhere feel that pinch at the base of the neck and catch themselves almost universally thinking, “Well, maybe the weather isn’t really that bad. Maybe the ice won’t be there, maybe the thunderstorms will drift off the route… and maybe the winds aren’t as strong as they are forecasting.”

That is the essence of get-home-itis, and there is not a one of us immune to it. Pilots can, however, allow common sense to sit on the other shoulder and balance such musings. For every “maybe the forecast is off,” one has to imagine “yeah, it could be turn out worse than what they are saying.” After all, a forecast is only a guess of how the weather gods will play out the day. A sophisticated guess based on lots of data, but a guess, nevertheless.

For every “I have got to get home and be at work tomorrow,” there has to be, “this is what personal days and telecommuting are made for.” Building a weather day or two into holiday vacations can alleviate all of these ruminations. I do it as a matter of course. The plus is that if I get home the day I expected to get home I have a day to decompress before ordinary life reaches out and grabs me again. And if I need the extra day because home or en route weather is bad? Well, I’ve got it.

Another good hedge is a back up plan, such as refundable airline tickets (yep, pricey, but only if you need to use them), or a car rental that you can cancel last minute. I’ve used them both to get where I needed to be when the weather prevented me from flying myself.

And what about the “look-see” approach to flying on marginal or worse weather days? 14 CFR Part 91 leaves pilots a lot of leeway on planning flights when the weather might not be at minimums upon reaching the destination. I’m pragmatic on this one. If you are a current pilot in a well-equipped aircraft who has lots of experience with the type of weather you’d like to “look-see” well, run it through your common sense rubric. If it passes, plan the flight with several “outs,” places you’ll divert to if needed. The go ahead and give the flight a try. Weather is a dynamic beast, and conditions may be better than forecast, or worse. You’ll know when you are up there, hopefully deviating around it or diverting to avoid it. Good luck.

Ultimately the key to short circuiting the day-after get-home-itis syndrome in aviation is proper planning, preparation, and of course, a realistic understanding of your aircraft and your own capabilities. Pilots, know thyself. Fly safe out there!

Encouraging People to Replace Us

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Finding young people to grab the reins from us old guys in aviation is a bit like the weather … everyone talks about why we need to do something, but not everyone is clear about how to actually make that happen. Certainly doing nothing is the wrong answer. So what can we do to increase our odds of connecting all the right people together?

NBAA 2015 yoproAt the recent NBAA convention, the association offered a number of us an opportunity to mingle with a hundred or so officially named Young Professionals who’d volunteered to listen to us more-experienced (secret code for older) industry folks detail how we started while also delivering a bit of unsolicited advice for job seekers.

The NBAA team was spearheaded by the association’s Sierra Grimes with Brett Ryden from Southcomm’s Aviation Pros.com leading a group of his editors who together created an hour’s worth of practical education at the show’s Innovation Zone. The panel was evenly split between ladies and gents … myself, Jo Damato from NBAA, Sarah Barnes from Paragon Aviation and Textron Aviation’s senior VP of Customer Service Brad Thress. Our moderator was writer Lowen Baumgarten.

Stage members spent a few minutes detailing their experiences, but since we were there to answer questions, I was antsy to interact with the audience. Over the course of the hour there were perhaps seven or eight good ones, but I wanted more. I probably shouldn’t have.

Reality kicked in for me about 20 minutes after we began as I realized that some of what a number of young people had told me the night before was really true … networking is not an innate skill, not even close. I’d seen this kind of thing before too. Universities apparently assume graduates automatically absorb networking skills out of thin air I guess. (more…)

Why I fly high

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I take a lot of long trips in my Cessna T310R, and more than half of them involve cruising up in the high teens and low Flight Levels, simply because those are the altitudes at which my airplane is happiest, fastest, and most efficient. But from what I’ve been able to tell, the great majority of piston pilots shy away from using the high-altitude capabilities of their airplanes. Most pilots of normally aspirated airplanes seem to confine most of their flying to altitudes of 10,000’ and below, and even many pilots of unpressurized turbocharged airplanes like mine have never flown in the Flight Levels. It’s even surprising how many pilots of pressurized birds seem averse to flying much above the low teens.

That’s a shame, because it’s at the high end of the altitude spectrum that most of our airplanes achieve their best efficiency—and in many cases, their best speed as well. I’m not just talking about turbocharged airplanes. Most normally-aspirated birds are perfectly capable of cruise altitudes well into the teens.

Look at a plain-vanilla, fixed-gear, normally-aspirated Cessna Skylane:

Cessna 182Q Range Profile

Cessna 182Q Skylane range profile page from POH.

At a low altitude like 4,000’, maximum cruise speed is 139 KTAS at 75% power. Continue climbing until the airplane “runs out of throttle” at 8,000’ and max cruise climbs to 144 KTAS. That extra 5 knots will save you 9 minutes on an 800 NM trip when you take the extra climb into account. (5:38 instead of 5:47, no big deal).

Continue climbing to 12,000’ and max cruise drops back to 139 KTAS (same as at 4,000’), but at a much more fuel-efficient 64% power (which is all you can get at that altitude with wide-open throttle). The same 800 NM trip will take 6 more minutes at 12,000’ than at 4,000’ (5:53 to be exact) because of the longer climb, but burn a whopping 12 gallons less fuel in the process—if avgas costs $5/gallon, that’s $60—and increase IFR range by a full hour and 130 NM!

How far can we take this? Don a cannula and climb to 16,000’—high enough to fly right over the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains IFR—and max cruise drops to a still-respectable 130 KTAS at a miserly 53% power. Because it takes a Skylane nearly 40 minutes to climb from sea level to 16,000’ at max gross, the 800 NM trip will take a half-hour longer than at 12,000’ (6:23), but will save 20 gallons ($100?) and increase IFR range by a full two hours compared to our 4,000’ benchmark.


Cruise
Altitude
Max
Cruise
IFR
Range

To fly an
800 NM Trip

4,000 139 K 820 NM 5:47 78 gal
8,000 144 K 840 NM 5:38 79 gal
12,000 139 K 950 NM 5:53 67 gal
16,000 130 K 1,040 NM 6:23 59 gal

Normally-aspirated, fixed-gear 182Q
(maximum gross weight, standard day, no wind,
88 gallons, 45 min reserve)


Unless you just happen to like low-and-slow, there’s no logical reason to cruise a Skylane lower than 8,000’ because doing so makes all the numbers worse: cruise speed, trip time, and range.  On the other hand, climbing to 10,000’ or 12,000’ will cost you a negligible amount of time, and reward you with substantially lower fuel burn and increased range.

These calculations are all based on zero-wind, but in real life the winds aloft are often a decisive factor in determining the best altitude to choose. If you’re headed eastbound, odds are you’ll have a tailwind—and the higher you fly, the better it’ll be.

In wintertime, climbing up high to catch favorable winds can pay off spectacularly. In the low-to-mid teens, 50 knot tailwinds are commonplace and a 70 or 80 knot tailwind is possible. Even in summer, when winds tend to be relatively light, going high can pay off. Here are some typical summer winds I pulled off of DUATS:


      6000    9000   12000   18000
 STL 2410+18 2809+12 3110+07 2917-04
 SPI 2510+18 3010+12 3211+07 2919-05
 JOT 2511+17 3012+12 3116+06 2926-07
 EVV 2509+17 3012+11 3216+07 3018-05
 IND 2411+16 3011+11 3114+07 2922-06
 FWA 2312+15 2812+10 2916+06 2926-07
 CVG 2210+15 2809+11 3012+07 3021-05
 CMH 2210+14 2710+10 2914+06 3026-07
 CRW 2108+15 2509+10 2908+06 3225-05
 AGC 2010+12 2510+09 2813+05 2930-09
 EKN 1907+13 2608+09 2810+06 3028-07
 PSB 1911+11 2509+08 2813+04 2930-11
 EMI 9900+11 2905+09 2811+05 2927-10

Even in these docile summertime conditions, we can expect 10 to 15 knots more tailwind component at 16,000’ than at 8,000’, which almost exactly offsets the TAS advantage of the lower altitude (144K vs. 130K). By climbing up high on an eastbound trip, we’ll go just as fast, burn considerably less fuel, and increase our IFR range nearly 400 NM! Not to mention that it’s almost always smoother and cooler up high. What’s not to like?

During the winter, when the winds tend to be stronger, going high on eastbound trips tends to be an even better deal, saving both time and fuel.

For turbos, it’s even better

If you’ve got a turbocharger, the argument for flying high becomes compelling, because the higher you fly in a turbo, the higher your speed, range and efficiency—at least up to the low Flight Levels in most turbocharged airplanes. These birds really shine up in the high teens and low twenties, and pilots who don’t take advantage of this capability don’t know what they’re missing.

For example, take a look at the “Range Profile” page for my Cessna T310R:

Cessna T310R Range Profile

Cessna T310R range profile page from POH.

Starting at 180 KTAS at sea level, max cruise speed at 73.6% power steadily increases with altitude to a relatively blistering 221 KTAS at FL200. (Above that altitude, available power starts dropping off fairly rapidly.)


Cruise Altitude Max
Cruise
IFR
Range
To fly an
800 NM Trip
5,000 190 K 860 NM 4:14 143 gal
10,000 199 K 890 NM 4:04 137 gal
15,000 209 K 930 NM 3:55 131 gal
20,000 221 K 970 NM 3:45 125 gal

Turbocharged, twin-engine Cessna T310R
(73.6% cruise, maximum gross weight  standard day, no wind,
163 gallons, 45 min reserve)


At the same time, range with IFR reserves climbs from 820 NM to 970 NM. Naturally, trip time and fuel burn for the proverbial 800 NM trip both drop accordingly—from 4:14 and 143 gallons at 5,000 to 3:45 and 125 gallons at FL200.

Personally, I don’t push my engines this hard. I almost always throttle back to between 60% and 65% power and settle for around 205 KTAS at FL200 at a miserly fuel burn of 26 gallons/hour, giving me a range of well over 1,000 NM with IFR reserves (or 1,200 NM if I fill my 20-gallon wing locker tank).

Once again, these figures assume no-wind conditions. Add in the wind on an eastbound trip and the results can get downright exciting. In the winter, I’ve seen my groundspeed edge above 300 knots from time to time. That’s fun! During the summer, on the other hand, I’m happy with 230 or 240 on the GPS readout.

Needless to say, you pay the piper going westbound. But if the winds aren’t too strong, it may still pay to go high rather than low. In my airplane, I gain 22 knots of true airspeed by climbing from 10,000’ to FL200. So if the headwind at FL200 is only 10 or 15 knots stronger than at 10,000’ (which is usually the case in summertime), higher is still better.

In wintertime, of course, westbound aircraft are all in the same boat, turbo or non-turbo. We bounce along at the MEA, try not to look at the groundspeed readout, hope the fillings in our teeth don’t fall out, and think about how much fun the eastbound part of the trip was (or will be).

Enjoy the high life!

If you’re one of those pilots who comes from the “I won’t climb higher than I’m willing to fall” school, you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. Believe me you’ve got plenty of company. But you’re also missing something really good.

Do yourself a favor: give high a try. It’s cooler and smoother up there. Your airplane flies faster and more efficiently up high. ATC will usually give you direct to just about anywhere. You’re above terrain, obstructions, and often the weather and the ice. The visibility is usually terrific. So are the tailwinds, if you’re lucky enough to be going in the right direction. Try it…you just might like it!

See & Avoid Doesn’t Work

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Contemplate the worst scenario that might confront a pilot during a flight. What comes to mind? Fire? Flight control failure? Engine failure? Perhaps it’s flight crew incapacitation, explosive decompression or severe structural damage.

No doubt about it, those all fall into the Very Bad Day category. But there’s one that can be even worse: a mid-air collision. That’s because it can involve all the problems listed above — at the same time. And since the parties involved aren’t aware of the impending crunch until it’s too late, the mid-air is usually accompanied by a violent element of surprise, confusion, and initial denial.

You might think fatal mid-airs are rare events, and from a purely statistical standpoint I’d have to agree. According to the 2010 Nall Report, a fatal mid-air occurs about once every 8 million flight hours. Think of it as the roughly the same odds as winning the lottery or being struck by lighting. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A typical GA pilot might accumulate but thousand or so hours over a full lifetime of flying.

So what’s there to worry about? Plenty. The “big sky” theory may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up very well under close scrutiny. It’s true that the navigable atmosphere over the United States alone is massive — about 20 million cubic miles — and there are relatively few airplanes in the sky. Even on those occasions where a collision is possible, modern tools such as radar, TCAS, VHF communication, and anywhere between two and four sets of eyeballs almost always succeed in averting the disaster. If aircraft were equally distributed throughout the atmosphere, the “big sky” idea would be pretty comforting.

But airplanes cluster near airports, large cities, and on thin slices of the sky known as “airways”. For the VFR types, airspace and terrain often crowd planes into small swaths of the air in places like the Santa Ana Canyon or Banning Pass. The sky is much like the ground: vehicles stick to relatively confined spaces and that makes collisions a serious hazard.

Since we’re on the topic of statistics, let me give you a few of my own: I personally know two people who have been struck by lightning, and a winning lottery ticket was recently sold not 300 feet from my front door. Hey, crazy stuff happens. But unlike lighting strikes and golden tickets, we’re not all facing the same odds. The risk profile varies widely depending on the type of flying you’re doing.

For example, flight instruction is frequently a factor; thirty-seven percent of mid-airs occur with a CFI on board. Many instructional flights happen near airports, and as previously mentioned, that’s where other airplanes tend to congregate. On the other hand, if you fly airliners, your risk of a mid-air is rather low because the aircraft itself is large and easy to see, you’re always flying IFR, and the most sophisticated traffic avoidance hardware available is always installed. Airliners also spend most of their time in cruise and are in constant radar contact with ATC.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself.  This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself. This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Some very talented, capable, and well-respected pilots have been involved in mid-air collisions. I know a guy who was involved in one while flying a large-cabin, TCAS-equipped business jet under Instrument Flight Rules. Alan Klapmeier, the founder of Cirrus Aircraft, was in one too. Richard Collins, famed Flying columnist, was in a mid-air. Speaking of Flying, the recent Editor-in-Chief owns a very nice Cirrus SR-22 which was in a mid-air. And lastly, a decade ago I was in a mid-air collision myself.

I’ll save the blow-by-blow (no pun intended) on that for another day. The point I’m trying to make is that the odds of a mid-air are probably greater than you think, especially if you live in a populated metropolitan area and fly VFR. If you’ve ever had a close encounter with another airplane in flight, you were only separated from “those who have” by nothing more than a miniscule sliver of plain old luck.

Think about that for a moment.

This may be hard to believe, but there is some good news. For one thing, mid-airs are not always fatal. It seems intuitive that most collisions would involve fatalities, but all the people I cited above survived, including (obviously) myself. Also, technology is rapidly advancing, from cheap TCAD boxes to airframe parachutes to super-bright LED exterior lighting.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we avoid ending up in a mid-air, fatal or otherwise. If you refer to official guidance from the FAA, the answer is to simply look out the window and spot the other airplane before it hits you. This technique, referred to as “see and avoid”, is still considered adequate for preventing collisions. Here are a couple of passages from Chapter 1 of the Airplane Flying Handbook:

The “See and Avoid” concept relies on knowledge of the limitations of the human eye, and the use of proper visual scanning techniques to help compensate for these limitations. The importance of, and the proper techniques for, visual scanning should be taught to a student pilot at the very beginning of flight training.

Proper clearing procedures, combined with proper visual scanning techniques, are the most
effective strategy for collision avoidance.

Other FAA publications, ranging from the Aeronautical Information Manual, to Advisory Circulars like AC-90-48 (“Pilot’s Role in Collision Avoidance”) will give you the same spiel: “see and avoid will keep you safe”. And it will! Until it doesn’t.

From my perspective as someone who’s been in a mid-air and who was using proper clearing and scanning techniques at the time, I take it as gospel that “see & avoid” won’t always do the trick. I’m just one guy, of course. But many others — some institutional in nature — just happen to agree with me.

For example, a couple of years ago Canada’s Transportation Safety Board issued an accident report on a mid-air collision between a Beech V-35B Bonanza and a PA-28 Cherokee over northern Virginia. Canada was tasked with performing the investigation because the pilots of the Bonanza were employees of the NTSB while the Cherokee was piloted by an employee of the FAA.

I won’t keep you in suspense. The conclusion from the TSB was that the “see and avoid” concept was inadequate. They even quoted a 1991 report produced by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which provides an overview of the major factors that limit the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle in preventing mid-air collisions, as well as a 2005 scientific study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine which came to the same conclusions.

The main points:

  • Cockpit workload and other factors reduce the time that pilots spend in traffic scans, and even when pilots are looking out, there is no guarantee that other aircraft will be sighted.
  • Visual scanning involves moving the eyes in order to bring successive areas of the visual field onto the small area of sharp vision in the center of the eye. The process is frequently unsystematic and may leave large areas of the field of view unsearched.
  • A thorough, systematic search is not a solution as in most cases it would take an impractical amount of time.
  • The physical limitations of the human eye are such that even the most careful search does not guarantee that traffic will be sighted.
  • The pilot’s functional visual field contracts under conditions of stress or increased workload. The resulting ‘tunnel vision’ reduces the chance that an approaching aircraft will be seen in peripheral vision.
  • The human visual system is better at detecting moving targets than stationary targets, yet in most cases, an aircraft on a collision course appears as a stationary target in the pilot’s visual field.
  • An approaching aircraft, in many cases, presents a very small visual angle until a short time before impact.
  • Complex backgrounds such as ground features or clouds hamper the identification of aircraft via a visual effect known as ‘contour interaction’. This occurs when background contours interact with the form of the aircraft, producing a less distinct image.
  • Even when an approaching aircraft has been sighted, there is no guarantee that evasive action will be successful.
  • Because of its many limitations, the see-and-avoid concept should not be expected to fulfill a significant role in future air traffic systems.
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada aviation investigation report A06O0206 identified that there is a high risk of mid-air collisions in congested airspace when aircraft are not alerted to the presence of other aircraft and rely solely on the see‑and-avoid principle.

There’s one more area of the TSB report which is worth of quotation. In it, they reference a British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions. If you’re keeping score, that’s the third sovereign agency to reach the conclusion that “see and avoid” is inadequate. Yet our own FAA, which oversees about 80% of the world’s aircraft and almost all of the high traffic density airspace, still officially proclaims that one can look out the window and see everything that needs to be seen.

This accident has demonstrated yet again that relying solely on the see-and-avoid principle to avoid collisions between aircraft operating under visual flight rules (VFR) in congested airspace is inadequate.

A number of international studies have addressed the overall issue of the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle, as well as the risks of collision associated with this principle. All acknowledged the underlying physiological limitations at play and that, when mid-air collisions occur, “failure to see-and-avoid is due almost entirely to the failure to see.”

One study stated that “our data suggest that the relatively low (though unacceptable) rate of mid-air collisions in general aviation aircraft not equipped with TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] is as much a function of the ‘big sky’ as it is of effective visual scanning.”

A British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions, which were deemed to be random, found that the probability of conflict is proportional to the square of the traffic density, and recommended avoiding altitude restrictions that concentrate traffic.

Measures such as improving aircraft conspicuity, pilot scanning techniques, and pilot traffic awareness can reduce risks, but they do not overcome the underlying physiological limitations that create the residual risk associated with a see-and-avoid method.

It’s obvious that “see and avoid” cannot, by itself, ensure our safety. If it could, there’d be no need for TCAS or most of our controlled airspace (both of which came about because of high-profile mid-air collisions, I might add!). I’m not necessarily in favor of mandating any additional equipment, airspace, or restrictions, especially on general aviation. But it’s clear that serious changes are needed in how collision avoidance is taught, especially as it concerns “see and avoid”. The concept has serious limitations which must be understood so the pilot-in-command can make educated decisions about how — or even if — they want to mitigate those risks.

I sincerely hope our nation’s regulatory and safety organizations will eventually acknowledge what we all know to be true: “see and avoid”, while a good start and certainly a vital part of collision avoidance, is simply not sufficient to ensure traffic separation.

Use it, or lose it: protecting our smaller airports through increased activity and community involvement.

Monday, November 9th, 2015

 

Aircraft Crashes into Buildings

 

Sometimes this headline is the only press we receive at General Aviation airports. While this is comical and lighthearted, the lack of education about the value of our airports in the non-flying public, as well as perhaps a bit of apathy on the part of the flying public, can be very dangerous indeed. As you will see below, our GA airports are a goodwill generator, and an economic engine for a community.

This past Saturday was a perfect day at Oceano Airport [L52]. The temperature at the coastal airport was 75 degrees with a light breeze. With our December 5th Toys for Tots event coming up, it was a day for decorating. I suppose I was at the airport for about two hours. What struck me was the amount of activity at this small G.A. airport.

  • SkyDive Pismo Beach was busy dropping divers who must have had an awesome view of the Pacific Ocean. The jump plane was at the pumps of Oceano Fuel at least three times.
  • Banner Airways was giving aerobatic flights in the 1943 Super Stearman. They had just filmed a wing-walking segment for the local newscast.
  • I spoke with visitors who flew in from Palo Alto because they had always wanted to camp here.
  • Another couple from Long Beach borrowed the Fly N Ride bikes we have available for loan to ride to the Monarch Grove and the Pismo Pier.
  • Two Pilots N Paws planes came in, coordinating the transfer of several doggies to their forever homes.
  • I also spoke with a family with younger children. They were thrilled that the beach was within walking distance, as was a county park with play area.
  • A student and instructor from Pacific Aerocademy were working the circuit.
  • And Friends of Oceano Airport volunteers were fixing tubes on our loaner bikes and getting ready for Toys for Tots.

Do I think that there is something special about Oceano Airport? Or was this a typical day at most any GA airport? Well, I do believe that our area on the Central Coast of California is very special. To have a 75-degree day in early November, well it makes the high price at the gas station almost worth it. However, I think that our smaller GA airports all have something special to offer our visitors and communities.

In 2010 I formed the Friends of Oceano Airport to mobilize the pilot population and community to protect our airport from a developer who decided he had a better idea of how to use the land Oceano sits on. Over the objections of county officials, he pressed ahead with highly controlled “public” meetings to try to win community support to close the airport and let him build on it. Fortunately we were able to revitalize the airport through some general upkeep, but more importantly entice visitors and our local community to come to the airport by having fun events.

I made the following graphic for a presentation series a few years back. Hopefully we can all keep in mind that we need to be protective of our community airports.

Protect Our Airports.

 

 

 

Say again?

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Cockpit noise is far more than just a nuisance. 

I live and work at a small airport. That makes me an expert on noise. I’ve heard it all, from the thop-thop of helicopter blades beating against thick morning air to the supersonic roar of propeller blades on a Cessna pulling it skyward; from the hum of GE turbofans on takeoff to the gentle chirps of rubber on asphalt, followed by a deep roar as the pilot hits the thrust reversers.

And that’s just what I hear standing outside my office. External airport noise, real as it is, generally pales in comparison to the hearing-damaging decibels most of us encounter when our ears are unprotected in the cockpit of a small piston- or turbine-powered propeller airplane or helicopter. I’ve been subjecting myself to these kinds of noises, both on the ramp and in the air for neigh on 45 years, first as a passenger, then as a professional pilot and I can tell you, hearing loss in our profession is real. And the fatigue that comes from being subjected to such loud and constant sound all day or night long is real, too.

Let me quantify this for you. How loud is too loud? Permanent hearing damage can occur from sounds louder than 85 dB, and physical pain occurs at around 125 dB. You decibel_exposure_chartcan burst an eardrum at 140 dB—a level reached by a jet engine revving up on the ramp as its pilot throttles up to taxi out for takeoff. The graphic at right shows how much a human ear can stand before damage. OSHA requires workers exposed to noise levels higher than 85 dB to use hearing protection equipment.

OSHA is not being overprotective. I fly one of the noiser airplanes out there, an RV-10 with a two-blade propeller. Two-blade propellers are longer than three blade varieties, and have been documented as making more noise. I’ve also got fixed gear, and no sound insulation (we never even got around to putting in a headliner). Measured decibels on takeoff from inside the cabin are—yeah I’m not going to tell you. It’s bad.

Our solution to the noise problem is pretty modern and probably as lightweight as you can get: we opted for high quality active noise canceling headsets. To cancel the lower-frequency portions of the in-flight noise, noise-cancelling headphones incorporate a microphone that measures ambient sound, then generate a waveform that is the exact negative of the ambient sound, and finally, they mix it with any audio signal. Most noise-cancelling headsets in the consumer market generate the noise-cancelling waveform with analogue technology.

Digital processing is the next frontier, and the realm of the high-end headsets. The most sophisticated ANR headsets use digital sound mapping to customize their noise cancellation. Bose A20, Lightspeed Zulu PFX, Sennheiser S1, AKG—these headsets demand a premium, but put them on and fly with them in a noisy cockpit such as mine, and you’ll understand why.

aloftTo prevent higher-frequency noise from reaching the ear, most noise-cancelling headphones depend on soundproofing and an excellent fit around the ear. Higher-frequency sound has a shorter wavelength, and is tougher to cancel out. In-the-ear headsets such as Clarity Aloft can claim to efficiently dull the higher-frequency sounds of wind over the fuselage (its louder than you’d think), and generally can do so without the need for active noise cancellation. On long trips it is nice not to have an over-the-ear headset squeezing the stuffing out of my brain. That said, a lot of people don’t like the feel of earplug-type headsets in the ear canal. And if the fit isn’t perfect the noise seeps in. For a price some of these headsets can be fitted with custom shaped ear plugs, but that requires an audiologist to fit them, and a lab to make them.

There are some people who insist that headsets are not the only answer. They spend a lot of time and money insulating their light aircraft cockpits from sound. Today’s lighter weight materials can, if properly applied beneath the floor panels, side panels, bulkheads and headliner, soften external low and high frequency sounds to bring the level at cruise down below 80 dB, but not much lower.

I’m not a fan of the extra weight and complexity that such sound deadening material can add to an aircraft (complexity comes in if you have a certified aircraft: think field approvals and STCs here). I’d rather spend that money on lightweight, high-end digital ANR headsets to connect everyone in my cockpit. I put that money into a decent audio selector panel and intercom, with the ability to isolate the pilot from the conversation in the cabin, when necessary. While I’m isolated and able to communicate clearly with ATC, my companions can talk amongst themselves or even listen to music during the flight. Everyone is happy, and their hearing stays intact.