Archive for the ‘Ron Rapp’ Category

Leasebacks: Doing It Right

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Before I started flying swept-wing turbojets, it seemed that they were much different than the smaller, mostly light GA, airplanes I had been operating. While they were beautiful, they also seemed foreign. I knew little about the hazard of Mach tuck, the purpose of a zero fuel weight or leading edge slat, the complexities of high altitude aerodynamics, extended operation, or international procedures.

Much to my surprise, after actually making the transition into a jet, it turns out that the similarities far outweighed the differences. Oh, they fly higher and faster, sure. There are additional systems to master. But the truly critical areas like aerodynamics and laws of physics didn’t change, nor did the rules of IFR flying or the basic airmanship requirements. On the contrary, I’d trust a Pitts pilot to fly a Gulfstream long before I’d think about turning a typical jet driver loose in the Pitts. When you look at accident reports, you’ll see the same thing whether the airplane is fast or slow, large or small: human error first and foremost. Poor IFR procedures, inadvertent stalls, failure to fly the airplane. Sound familiar?

Incidentally, I follow the blog of an Oregon-based student pilot who has been struggling with the pilotage and dead reckoning demands of her training. It occurred to me that the purely visual cross-country navigation she’s working on is far more challenging than zipping around with 3 FMS computers, 3 IRS units, 2 GPS boxes, 2 autopilots, 2 human pilots, and a million dollars worth of other avionics guiding the way. She plots courses by hand on a map, measuring distance and accounting for wind on a circular slide rule. Me? I tell ARINC where I wanna go and they do the rest. I don’t even need a computer; one phone call and a professional flight planner will take care of preparing and filing the flight plan. Our weight and balance requirements consist of tapping the occupied seats on a graphical map of the aircraft interior, telling the app how much fuel we have on board, and pressing a virtual button to have the data sent to the company. She’s doing it all by hand.

My point is, despite what the sleek airframe and six-figure salary might suggest, jets aren’t always harder to fly. They don’t necessarily require — or build — a more highly skilled aviator. Sometimes they do the exact opposite.

Another surprising similarity between the largest and smallest airplanes? The long and often painful road many first-time owners seem to tread. It might surprise you to learn that in the charter business, many if not most of the airplanes — even the really large ones — are leasebacks to the Part 135 certificate holder, just as a Skyhawk or Cherokee on the rental line at a local FBO is probably leased from a pilot/owner.

If I had a dime for every aircraft owner who ended up dissatisfied with the end result of leasing, I’d be a rich man indeed. Conventional wisdom tells us that aircraft leasebacks are often a bad deal for owners, especially those who have more than a purely business-minded attitude toward their pride and joy.

As AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli once said:

Nothing is quite as effective at turning a like-new airplane into a flying outhouse, as life on the line at a flight school. AOPA et al can refurbish all of the planes they want to. Unless/until flight schools can figure out how to keep them looking that way, it won’t matter very much.

Leasing to a flight school or charter company typically means high usage, above average wear-and-tear, and less pride-of-ownership than you’d typically find in a privately operated airplane. So why do so many owners venture down this path? Usually because it means the difference between realizing the dream of ownership and standing on the sidelines. Owning an airplane is a powerful draw, and the decision is not always made on the most logical of terms. Such is our romance with the skies!

Fortunately the truth is that leasing needn’t mean your airplane will be reduced to a ratty piece of junk. A personal example: a friend of mine purchased a new Skyhawk in the mid-1980s and put it on the rental line at my home airport. It’s been sitting outside in the salt air environment of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport for three decades… and it still looks fantastic. I’ve flown 30 year old Gulfstreams that still look new after 15,000 hours of charter flying. On the other hand, I’ve also had the misfortunate of operating Gulfstreams with half that time on them that were just about ready to be parted out.

So what gives? How do you do it? As with most things in life that are worthwhile: through a lot of attention and hard work.

After nearly two decades in the industry, the biggest and most consistent mistake owners make is to sign over the aircraft and then walk away, allowing the lessee to fully handle management of the aircraft. Yes, there are issues of operational control and other legalities. But that doesn’t mean owners should relinquish involvement, because the lessee usually in the business of operating airplanes, not owning them. There’s a big difference. Oh, they’ll ensure the airplane is airworthy, but nothing more. If the fading paint, failing interior and cosmetics hurt the aircraft’s value, that’s not their concern. It sounds callous, but rarely is that the intent. Keep in mind how difficult operating an aviation business is these days. Charter companies and flight schools have a lot on their plate and are just trying to survive.

My friend’s cherry Skyhawk doesn’t break any less than other C172s. There’s nothing magical about it. But he flies the airplane at least once a week, using an IFR currency flight as an excuse to check out the airplane and assess its condition. If anything’s broken, it gets fixed rather than deferred. The aircraft goes to the paint shop annually to be touched up and have any corrosion properly treated. As a result, his airplane remains airworthy and is one of the most requested aircraft in the fleet by renters.

On charter airplanes, the owners are typically high net worth individuals who are too busy running their business to get directly involved with the nuances of aircraft maintenance. But they can delegate that task to someone — typically a pilot who will “manage” the aircraft as well as fly it — for a fee. After every trip, deficiencies ranging from inoperative equipment to smudges on the upholstery will be directly handled by that person, because they are specifically authorized to approve those expenditures on the owner’s behalf. They have the “power of the purse”, and it makes all the difference in the world. They get to know that airframe, its pros and cons, and develop a direct relationship with the individuals who work on it. Most of all, they function as the owners eyes and ears and are responsible to that person for the airplane’s condition.

An airplane on leaseback is going to fly more than one operated privately. The average privately-owned Part 91 airplane is flying something like 50 hours per years. On leaseback, it could easily be 500 hours. That translates into more frequent maintenance, repair, refurbishment, and overhaul of everything from engines to avionics. It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t necessarily even make ownership any less expensive than private operation. That’s one of the dirty little secrets of leasebacks. If you’re doing it to make ownership less expensive, you might be disappointed.

Even if it doesn’t save money, it can still provide benefits. For example, one of the most deleterious things you can do to an airplane is to simply let it sit. Big or small, these machines were made to fly. Long periods of disuse may provide relief from the wear-and-tear of frequent operation, but they lead to corrosion and dramatically raise the hourly cost of flying because maintenance events are amortized over fewer flight hours. As one friend sagely put it, the first hour he flies his RV-7 each year sets him back $10,000. Every hour after that can be flown for just the price of fuel.

So if you’re not flying much but don’t want to sell the aircraft, leasing can make sense. But don’t be fooled, leasing requires a solid commitment of money by the owner to keep the airplane in tip-top shape. Otherwise you’re simply prolonging the plane’s inevitable slide into tatters. The situation can become surprisingly acute when the owner has also bought more airplane than he or she can afford to operate.

As with all things, the key is education, and there is absolutely none whatsoever required prior to taking the expensive plunge. I’ve long felt that the aviation world would profit by having potential aircraft buyers take an ownership class before purchasing an airplane. Instead of learning through costly and unnecessary expenditures which blow up their budget, they could learn from the painful experience of folks who’ve already made those mistakes.

A better ownership experience translates into an improved life for the airplane. General aviation as a whole would benefit, and that’s something we can’t get enough of these days.

Blurred Lines

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The advent of smartphones and apps has led to a variety of creative new businesses which are reinventing how we shop, work, and communicate. They’re also changing how we travel by bringing private aviation to the masses.

Some of these concepts, like SurfAir, seem to be doing well, while for some reason east coast equivalent Beacon never really got off the ground. Others — Flytenow and AirPooler — were quashed by FAA determinations about their legality.

It was probably inevitable that this phenomenon would make it’s way into my own flying life. The company I work for has entered into a partnership with JetSmarter, a mobile marketplace for private jet charter that the Wall Street Journal described as the “Uber of the air”. We’re flying scheduled service between the coasts and other major cities as part of their “JetShuttle” program. Instead of chartering an entire airplane, you can now book a single seat of your choosing.

A typical Gulfstream interior.  This layout isn't just more comfortable -- it's also designed to facilitate discussion and interaction among the occupants.

A typical Gulfstream interior. This layout isn’t just more comfortable — it’s also designed to facilitate discussion and interaction among the occupants.

I’ve done a few of these trips so far and the passengers seem delighted with the ability to avoid most of the hassles typically associated with air travel and large hub airports. A business jet’s interior looks more like a living room than a typical airliner, so it tends to facilitate discussion and interaction between the passengers. Flight attendants have told me that by the end of the flight, strangers have become friends. And some business connections are probably being made as well.

The JetSmarter membership isn’t cheap. It costs $9,000 annually and requires a $3,000 initiation fee. On the other hand, when you compare it with the cost of chartering a large cabin business jet for even a single cross country flight, the price seems downright thrifty. It’s even competitive with first class airline travel, especially for those who travel frequently.

At first I wondered how this sort of thing would be legal. Wouldn’t scheduled service require a Part 121 certificate? Apparently not. JetSmarter’s model has been validated under 14 CFR Part 380, which requires those who wish to arrange public charters to have their prospectus approved by the Department of Transportation. JetSmarter doesn’t operate the aircraft or have “operational control” over the flights; they simply help facilitate the placement of individuals onto an approved Part 135 certificate holder’s airplane. In that regard they function more like a broker than a charter company. Incidentally, brokers are not regulated by the FAA, DOT, or anyone else that I’m aware of.

I never would have expected to be flying scheduled service while working in the charter industry, but that’s the sort of thing you get when disruptive technologies begin to work their magic. It blurs the lines between what we traditionally think of as airlines and charter companies. For most folks, the primary distinction has been the fixed schedule of the former versus the non-scheduled, or “on-demand”, nature of the latter. But times are changing, and the aviation industry with it.

I can think of several other examples of this phenomenon. I learned to fly about 20 years ago, and back in “the day”, a training airplane was almost invariably a 152/172 or Cherokee of some kind. Oh, you’d find the occasional Tomahawk or Citabria in use for that purpose, but for the most part it was a Skyhawk/Cherokee game. Today’s trainers come from an impressive fleet of Diamonds, Cirruses (yes, people do learn to fly in them), prototypical Cessnas and Pipers, and more LSAs than you can shake a stick at. If my experience is any indication, tailwheels are seeing a resurgence in training roles—something regular readers of mine will know I’m happy about. And there are probably ten thousand more homebuilts are out there than when I took my first flight.

Do I even need to mention about how the general aviation cockpit has changed over the same period? In the corporate aviation world, we’re seeing the first hints of supersonic aircraft on the horizon with the Aerion AS2, Spike S-512, and whatever Gulfstream has got up it’s sleeve after partnering with NASA, Sukhoi, and parent General Dynamics.

JetSmarter also made a deal to purchase my company’s empty charter legs for the next few years. Traditional charter flights are priced round-trip, because even if the passengers only want to fly one way, the company has to get the plane back to its home base. The ability to offload those empty flights to a third-party for resale helps the bottom line and connects passengers with flights that meet their needs.

Any way you slice it, this is an exciting time to be part of the aviation world. I can’t help but wonder what they’ll think of next.

Manual Flying Skills: Keep ‘Em Sharp

Monday, February 29th, 2016

I’ve taught aerobatic and upset recovery courses to many aviators over the years, and almost without exception am told at the conclusion of training that it represented the best investment of time and money they’d ever spent on improving their skills and confidence as a pilot.

In recent years, the corporate, charter, and airline pilots have begun seeking out this kind of skill set as well. It’s a good thing, because as the Department of Transportation recently reported, some of today’s pilots may not have The Right Stuff.

Where the cockpit is concerned, modern light GA aircraft have a lot in common with the latest crop of business jets and airliners. Under normal circumstances these advanced cockpits add to safety. But when things go awry? Well, as our airplanes become more advanced, they also become more complicated, and that can lead to situations which are not covered by handbooks, manuals, and type-specific training.

We’ve all seen the result of unexpected system failures which were not handled properly by the crew. In recent years, Air France 447 suffered from pitot icing which overcame the tube’s heating element and caused air data errors. During the resulting confusion, the crew entered a stall at 38,000 feet which did not end until the Airbus impacted the ocean. Last December, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501’s crew responded to a malfunction of the aircraft’s rudder limiter by pulling a Flight Augmentation Computer circuit breaker, which had the unintended consequence of disabling the autopilot. The pilots stalled the aircraft and it ultimately crashed into the Java Sea.

Just to show you that this isn’t something that only happens to “other people,” let me give you two examples of my own. I was flying a Gulfstream IV one afternoon when a wide variety of seemingly unrelated components began to fail. Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we lost air data computers, autothrottles, both autopilots, mach trim compensation, yaw dampening, pitch trim, the flight guidance panel, one altitude encoder, cockpit displays, a display controller, symbol generator, TCAS, an inertial reference unit, and many other elements.

Some of these items dropped offline completely. Others froze or began to malfunction. Some were annunciated on the Crew Alerting System, others were not. Now I knew these components were not on the same bus, nor did they have much in common except that they were electrically powered. Yet the electrical system appeared to be operating normally. We were in visual conditions and not far from landing, which added to the pressure. There’s no checklist for this situation, nor was it ever discussed or simulated during training. Do we land? The aircraft’s braking system is electrical. Should we hold?

Without getting into too much detail, this flight ended uneventfully, but by the time we did touch down, I was basically flying the world’s largest Piper Cub: nothing but a stick, throttle, a couple of analog gauges, and a window to look outside. And that was all I needed. As I recall, the failure was traced to a series of malfunctioning relays under the cockpit floor. Our success was a result of focusing on the basic task of flying the airplane. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do when you’re busy and unsure of what’s really going on with your (normally) trusty aircraft. Failures of this kind cause a rapid loss of confidence in the overall airplane. You’re constantly wondering what will fail next.

The second example was related by a friend of mine. After departure, she lost the #1 comm radio. Not a big deal — the jet has two of them. A little while later, that radio also failed. Over the next few minutes, the flight data recorder failed, followed by the slats, flaps, an AHRS, and other associated componentry. The crew was in instrument weather and flew according to lost communication rules, finally making a high speed, no flap/no slat landing at their destination. Their troubles were caused by a cracked potable water tank, which flooded an electrical equipment bay under the rear floor of the aircraft. Gravity being what it is, one might wonder why important circuit boards are located underneath a water tank… but that’s an issue for another day.

So what does this have to do with upset recovery training? Plenty. The odds of coming out of these scenarios in one piece is directly related to the pilot’s ability to retain control of a malfunctioning aircraft, and that’s when the workload falls heavily on his or her manual flying skills. Truth be told, today’s highly automated airplanes don’t help prepare us for situations of this kind. They do the opposite, physically flying the airplane for us most of the time.

Dassault's Falcon 7X

Dassault’s Falcon 7X

You never know when sharp manual flying skills will pay off. In May of 2011, a Falcon 7X on approach into Kuala Lumpur experienced a rapid nose-up runaway trim condition which could not be stopped. The Falcon 7X was the first fly-by-wire business jet and had been in service for only four years, so this incident caught the attention of many people. It was serious enough that the entire 7X fleet was subsequently grounded. The final accident report was not issued until February of 2016, almost five years later, which should provide an indication of how complex the accident chain was on this event.

Oh, and the crew? They did it right, using a manual flying technique which, while it’s not taught in any type rating course I’m aware of, is taught by myself and others with an aerobatic background. In this case, the pilot learned it while flying Dassault’s other line of airplanes for the military:

While descending through 13000 feet, towards Kuala Lumpur, the elevator pitch trim began to move from neutral to the full nose-up position in 15 seconds time. This resulted in a sudden pitch up of the aircraft to 40° and the aircraft entering a climb. Initially both the captain (Pilot Monitoring) and the copilot (Pilot Flying) were both using the side stick in an attempt to regain control. The copilot then used the priority button to override the captain’s side stick inputs and asked him to stop. The copilot, a former military pilot with experience on Mirage IV and Mirage 2000 jets, then put the aircraft in a right hand bank to a maximum of 98 degrees.

Sudden, uncommanded full nose-up trim is about as bad as it gets when you’re talking about loss-of-control scenarios, yet the pilot was astute enough to remember that he could offset the unwanted lift by banking the jet. Have you been trained on this technique? The pilot had to deal with a beyond-knife-edge flight attitude, load factors as high as 4.6 G, and altitude which ballooned from 13,000 feet to 22,500 feet. What a ride that must have been!

I wasn’t able to locate an English version of the final BEA report, but the French original notes that “the Pilot Flying had performed this maneuver many times during his military career.” After 2 minutes and 35 seconds, the trim motor overheated and was finally cut off, allowing the crew to regain pitch control.

The investigation determined that a small soldering defect on one pin of a computer chip in the Horizontal Stabilizer Electronic Control Unit (HSECU) caused the nose-up instruction to be sent to the Tail Horizontal Stabilizer trim module. Think about the sheer volume of pins, solders, computer chips, and wiring in a modern airplane and you’ll start to realize that these aren’t far-fetched stories borne out of a science fiction novel.

As I said at the top, our aircraft are becoming more complex, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. This increases the likelihood of failures and scenarios for which we have not trained. If you’ll pardon the pun, when the chips are down, it’s usually the person behind the controls who determines whether the situation ends with a classic there-I-was hangar story or a fatal accident report.

Time and time again, we see that manual flying skills are as critical to safe flight as any powerplant or airfoil. Let’s keep ’em sharp.

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.

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.

What a country!

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” –Lin Yutang

Even before I started flying for a living, traveling internationally always made me appreciate what we have here at home. Most people are aware of the hassles involved with long-distance international journeys: you’ve gotta consider passports, visas, different electrical outlets and voltages, language barriers, currency exchange, jet lag, and more. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons traveling the world can be so rewarding: much like flying, it’s not easy. You’ve got to earn it.

When you’re the one doing the flying, things are even more complicated. If you’ve followed the travails of any of the Earthrounders – people who fly light GA aircraft around the world, often to raise money or set some kind of record – you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: an inordinate number of delays, problems, and hassles in transiting from one country to another. Given the fact that those of us who do it for a living are not only more experienced with international operations, but also have professional dispatchers, handlers, and staff behind us, you’d think we’d eventually surmount these obstacles.

You’d be wrong.

My trusty steed is fueled and ready for  departure on another intercontinental trip.

My trusty steed is fueled and ready for departure on another intercontinental trip.

I recently participated in a series of trips which took our airplane to China and back – twice – and then eastbound across the world to explore Africa before coming home. It once again reminded me of what incredible barriers humans can erect to keep would-be travelers tied up in bureaucratic knots.

Here are just a few examples:

Visas. Sometimes we need them, sometimes not. Other times crew members have their own specific visa requirements. If you get it wrong, you’ll find yourself missing that flight you were supposed to be on. It’s an especially big problem if you were the one who was supposed to be piloting the plane! There are some countries where even with the right paperwork, you’ll be denied entry if they see you’ve been to a country with which they’re on unfriendly terms.

Customs. It’s bad everywhere, but this might be one place where returning to the U.S. is the worst. I once had a passenger manifest consisting of a half-dozen U.S. Customs agents. I figured we’d breeze through the clearance process upon returning to the United States – after all, these guys had diplomatic passports and active Immigration & Customs Enforcement credentials. The reality? We had to shut down the aircraft, offload all luggage, and traipse across a large airport to clear Customs. One of our passengers was detained briefly because he had a “common name”. I was baffled. If Customs doesn’t trust Customs agents from their own department, there’s something wrong.

Handlers. When flying internationally, we hire professionals who specialize in dealing with the local procedures, folks who know the ropes and speak the language. They arrange our fueling, interface with ramp personnel, airport employees, drivers, and so on. They handle the paperwork and speed us on our way. Or not. Some handlers do a great job, others are awful. On one trip I handed off the aircraft to a subsequent crew who were literally held up – detained — for a cash “fee” by the handler who was supposed to be keeping just that sort of thing from happening. It’s like being robbed at gunpoint by your own bank.

Flight planning. In the United States, we take many things for granted. Altitudes are given in feet. Speeds are expressed in knots or miles per hour. Fuel is dispensed in gallons. Once you venture abroad, you’ll find countries which utilize things like meters, hectopascals, and liters. I haven’t seen cubits or fathoms used yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are places where altitudes are sometimes in meters, other times in feet. In certain countries, usually those with plenty of mountainous terrain, altitudes are referenced to the airport elevation rather than sea level. It’s easy to confuse terms like QNH, QFE, and QNE. Get it wrong in those places and you can find yourself flying into the side of a mountain!

This will soon replace the domestic IFR flight plan form as the U.S. conforms to ICAO standards.

This will soon replace the domestic IFR flight plan form as the U.S. conforms to ICAO standards.

Paperwork. In the U.S., we can get weather information from a wide variety of sources, from telephone briefings to iPhone apps. Abroad, you’ll find yourself forced to purchase, if not use, their weather products. You’ll be required to obtain various stamps and approvals. This can involve long waits and unexpected delays. Indians seem to love their paperwork more than just about anyone I’ve seen. Overflight or landing permits can take days, sometimes weeks to obtain. In countries like China or Russia, there are no short-notice trips for private or business aircraft because they’re impossible. Change your plans? Running late? You’re just out of luck.
Even in Europe, flights can require slot reservations, much the way special events like the Super Bowl do here in the U.S. If you miss your slot time, you go to the bottom of the list. Have you ever seen an ICAO international flight plan form? I’ve seen one wrong mark on this form ground a flight for hours.

Costs. Landing, ramp, and other fees can be dramatically higher in foreign countries than in the United States. This extends to things like catering, water & lav services, and even plain old ice. In Geneva, an Italian pilot with whom I used to fly reported paying more than $1,000 to have a bag of ice delivered to the aircraft.

Ramp checks. You think having an FAA inspector ask for your pilot certificate and medical is bad? Try the European equivalent, a SAFA (Safety Assessment of Foreign Aircraft) check. A team of inspectors will crawl all over the interior and exterior of the aircraft, checking emergency exits, altimeters, flight recorders, navigation charts, emergency equipment, pilot training records, placards, and everything else you can possibly think of.

Accessibility. We take it for granted that you can fly VFR anywhere you want in the U.S., even at night. We can go to the busiest airports, and they are prohibited from discriminating against general aviation or any class of operator. Many countries do not allow VFR at night, single engine IFR, experimental aircraft, aerobatics, or GA flight over populated areas.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to love about international travel, but the process of flying abroad is usually far more expensive, slow, and cumbersome than it needs to be. If you’re the guy in the left seat, it’s best to take to heart the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who prophetically stated that “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Though for very different reasons, whether I’m landing at home or abroad, I always end up thinking to myself, “What a country!”

Perspectives on GA safety

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again: as summertime recedes in the rear-view mirror, I’m packing my computer bag, a few snacks to eat on the (Air)bus, and heading back to school.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did graduate from high school. And college, believe it or not — I’ve got the diploma to prove it! No, this late summer tradition is my annual trip to Dallas for recurrent training on the G-IV: five days of classroom learning and simulator sessions, ending with a formal checkride.

One of the questions typically asked by the instructor on our first day of class is if anyone has experienced anything in the previous year which was particularly noteworthy or unusual. A system failure, something of that nature. I’ve been pretty fortunate; the company I fly for does a bang-up job maintaining the fleet.

But while mentally reviewing the past year’s trips, my mind drifted off to the place where my heart truly belongs: light general aviation flying. Maybe it’s because the latest Joseph T. Nall Report was recently released by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute. Anyway, I don’t mind admitting a bit of wistfulness that GA can’t claim the same safety record that air carriers — even non-scheduled ones like mine that fly all over the world at a moment’s notice — enjoy.

Nevertheless, in an odd way I take comfort in the fact that the Part 91 safety record isn’t as good. That probably sounds awful, but look at it from a logical standpoint: Part 121/135 represent very specific kinds of highly structured and limited flying, whereas “GA” represents everything from airshow acts and experimental aviation to medevac and ultralights. It covers a wide and vibrant variety of aviation activity.

GA has a higher accident rate than the airlines for many reasons, but the primary one is that GA pilots have the freedom to do many things that the airline guys do not. And I hope that never changes. To paraphrase Dick Rutan, where would we be without those who were willing to risk life and limb using their freedom to do these things? We’d be safe and sound, on the ground, still headed west as we look out over the rump of oxen from our covered wagons.

Whether it’s cruising down the coast at 500′ enjoying the view, taking an aerobatic flight, flying formation, flight testing an experimental airplane, or landing on a sandbar, beach, grass strip, or back-country field, it’s important that private individuals not find themselves restricted to the ways and means of Part 121 operations. We do the stuff that makes flying fun! Doing it “like the airlines” can only drive up the price and suck out the fun of aviation. For better or worse, part of that cost is in increased risk.

Richard Collins stated this quite elegantly when he said, “Lumping general aviation safety together is an accepted practice but it is not realistic. The activities are too diverse and need to be considered separately. There is instructional flying, recreational flying, agricultural flying, private air transportation flying and professional flying. The airplanes range from ultralights to intercontinental jets. Even in the same area, different airplanes have varying accident rates. The only safety concern that spans everything is crashing but the frequency of and reasons for the crashing vary widely according to the type flying and even the type aircraft flown. In each area, the safety record we get is a product of the rules, the pilots involved, the airplanes, and the environment in which the pilots fly those airplanes. To make any change in the record, one or all those elements would have to be modified.”

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Collins, but this is a case where we are in violent agreement. One of the beauties of our Part 91 is that the pilot gets the freedom to choose how far he wants to go in that regard. If you want to file IFR everywhere and only fly with multiple turbine engines in day VMC, fine. That’s your choice. For others, flying in the mountain canyons in a single-engine piston and landing on a short one-way strip on the side of a steep hill is well within their risk tolerance. There are some (I’m looking at you, Team Aerodynamix) for whom a large group of owner-built airplanes flying low-altitude formation aerobatics at night is perfectly acceptable. Whether we are personally engaged in that activity or not, how can one argue that these activities don’t benefit the entire GA community? What excitement and passion they engender for aviation! And how they set us apart from the rest of the world, who for the most part look on with envy at something they will never be “allowed” to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not opposed to better equipment, more training, or higher standards for general aviation. Those things are all important, and I advocate for them constantly. But if experience has taught us anything, it’s that these measures will only be effective when they come from within rather than being imposed from a bureaucracy which already demands so much.

Special Mission Aircraft

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

My last flight assignment consisted of four days in Hawaii. It was one of those trips which make me (almost) feel guilty for associating it with the word “work.” Of course, there are plenty of journeys which are the polar opposite: long overnight flights, challenging weather, and minimum rest. But when you’re relaxing on a warm tropical island, those thoughts are easily banished to the back of one’s mind. For the moment, at least, the life of a charter pilot is a charmed one indeed!

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory's W-band cloud radar.

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory’s W-band cloud radar.

As we taxied onto the ramp at Kona International Airport (PHKO) after a beautiful flight out from the mainland, one particular aircraft caught my eye. It wasn’t the brand new G650 perched majestically at the front of a line of business jets but rather the aircraft next to it, a colorfully painted Gulfstream V equipped with pointy, silver-tipped under-wing-mounted pods. If it wasn’t for the words “National Center for Atmospheric Research” painted above the cabin windows, one might have wondered if this wasn’t some sort of weapons system.

I suddenly remembered that Hurricane Guillermo was slowly churning toward Hawaii from the southeast. The storm was still nearly a thousand miles from the archipelago and hadn’t impacted our flight that day in the slightest. As they say, “out of sight, out of mind.” I assume the G-V was there to conduct research on the storm systems (there were several large ones) brewing in the Pacific Ocean. And if the crew was able to spend a bit of time laying out by the pool… well, that’s just a cross they’d have to bear.

That uniquely outfitted airplane got me thinking about “special mission” aircraft and how business jets serve millions of people who never get to ride in them and are probably not even aware of their existence. Even among the general aviation community, I’d imagine plenty of folks would be surprised how many of these highly modified airplanes are out there and what they do for us on a daily basis.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

I first became aware of Special Mission aircraft when I was in initial Gulfstream IV training. There were five pilots in my class. Most of us were employed by typical charter or Part 91 operators, but the youngest member of our cadre worked for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He had been flying the agency’s DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter for a couple of years and was offered a slot flying either the Lockheed P-3 Orion or the Gulfstream IV-SP. He really loved the idea of flying the big turboprop, but the only training available for the Orion was through the military. As I recall, it was a two year long process, whereas training on the G-IV was available through civilian providers and wouldn’t take nearly as much time.

NOAA’s Gulfstream is one of those Special Mission airplanes which benefit everyone. The jet has twice the altitude capability of the P-3 Orion, which allow it to drop instruments known as Omega dropwindsondes into the storm from higher up. The data collected has improved landfall prediction accuracy by more than 20 percent, saving lives and property in the bargain.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

I’m most familiar with the Gulfstream special mission aircraft because that’s the type I fly. At my home base, I’ve come across a Lockheed-Martin DRAGON, a highly modified Gulfstream III which serves as an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform for military, homeland defense, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance needs. The Israeli air force’s airborne early warning aircraft is a modified G550. It’s so radically altered, in fact, that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Savannah product.

The U.S. government operates a large fleet of Gulfstreams to provide airlift for senior U.S. government officials, members of Congress and military leaders. The current fleet includes the G-IV (military designation C-20) and G-V/550 (C-37) models, which are operated by every branch of the military as well as the U.S. Coast Guard.

One of the most famous Special Mission business jets served our nation’s space program for more than three decades. NASA operated four Gulfstream II jets which were heavily modified to simulate the space shuttle’s descent profile. Officially known as the Shuttle Training Aircraft, the right half of the cockpit was standard bizjet; the left side replicated the orbiter’s flight deck.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

Shuttle approaches were so steep — 20 degrees! — that the jets had to be operated with the main landing gear down and both Spey engines running in reverse at 92% N2. This YouTube clip shows the STA in action. Aside from a downline or spin in an aerobatic aircraft, I’ve rarely seen an altimeter unwind that quickly.

You’ll find Gulfstreams, Citations, Lears, Hawkers, and many other business jets used for signals intelligence, moving cargo, towing targets, medevac, oceanic patrol, search and rescue, and just about anything else you can think of.

Oh, and that airplane we saw on the ramp in Kona? A bit of internet research reveals that it’s called HIAPER (High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research) and is owned by the National Science Foundation. It took more than $81 million and nearly twenty years from conception to delivery. After Gulfstream finished building the airplane, it spent two years undergoing heavy modification and testing at Lockheed before entering service. That’s pretty typical, because adding sensors and pods often requires cutting holes in the pressure vessel, and that means the basic structure has to be re-engineered to ensure adequate safety. You’re taking an aircraft that was designed to do one thing and rebuilding it to accomplish a completely different mission.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

I recently flew with a guy who was the test pilot for the SOFIA airborne observatory. It’s essentially a Boeing 747 retrofitted with a massive telescope in the tail. There’s a lot more to it than just clearing out the passenger seats and sticking some equipment into the fuselage. The cabin has to remain pressurized, but the telescope must be exposed to the open air. A new rear bulkhead had to be fabricated and installed for the pressure vessel, along with an 18-by-13 foot door for the telescope itself which was strong enough to open and close while flying at 41,000 feet and 500 knots. I don’t know much about the telescope, but the work that went into retrofitting the airframe is awfully impressive.

In a world of bespoke aircraft, the Special Mission variants take customization to a whole new level. Next time you see a business jet on the ramp with odd or exotic modifications, take a moment to appreciate the time, effort, money, and engineering that went into what is surely a one-of-a-kind machine.

NOTAMs: A Lousy System

Monday, July 6th, 2015

One of the dirty little secrets about general aviation is that you can spend as much time preparing for a flight as you do actually flying. It’s not something we’re keen to talk about when discussing the amazing efficiency of traveling by GA, but sooner or later every pilot discovers that flying isn’t always faster than driving. Sometimes it’s a lot slower.

What got me thinking about this was a series of short-range trips I’ve made recently in the Gulfstream: Los Angeles to Phoenix, San Jose, Las Vegas, Fresno, and so on. You’d think it logical that a shorter flight would mean a more effortless work day – but it ain’t necessarily so. The tasks required for a short flight are exactly the same as those needed for a longer one. Filing a flight plan, generating weight & balance data, checking weather, and pre-flighting the aircraft aren’t appreciably faster for a 500 mile leg than a 5,000 mile one.

In fact, once we takeoff, the “hard” work is mostly done and the more congenial, relaxing portions of the trip begin. This is often true for small very airplanes. One might even say “especially” for small aircraft. A flight in the Pitts, for example, averages about 30 minutes, but I can’t imagine completing pre-flight tasks and getting off the ground in less time, especially when there’s a passenger involved. Just getting someone properly briefed and fitted into their seat and parachute can take a considerable amount of time.

The point is, preflight activities are vital to safety in the skies and we can’t shortcut them. Or can we?

The law — 14 CFR 91.103, specifically — requires pilots to obtain “all available information” about a flight before departure. That’s a pretty broad mandate, especially in the Information Age. But it makes sense, because while aviation may be a relatively safe activity, it’s not terribly forgiving of carelessness.

For a typical flight, “all available information” includes NOTAMs, something I’ve found to be a major time suck. While the Feds have made minor changes to the NOTAM setup in recent years, from my perspective it’s still a truly lousy system. It pains me to say that, because the FAA gets some things very, very right. This isn’t one of them.

As Sen. James Inhofe found out a few years ago, the price of missing a NOTAM can be steep. Bringing these notices into the 21st century would greatly improve flight safety and do so at a relatively low cost. If nothing else, it would encourage more pilots to actually read them! It’s difficult to fault pilots for glossing over data when it looks like this:

!JFK 06/204 JFK RWY 13R/31L SE 3263FT CLSD. RWY 13R TORA 10672FT TODA 10672FT ASDA 10672FT LDA 8629FT. RWY 31L TORA 10924FT TODA 10924FT ASDA 10924FT LDA 11248FT. 1506251331-1509211600

Should flight information look like something off a 1950’s teletype or a badly formatted excerpt of assembly language? I’m tempted to say “if we can put a man on the moon…” – you know how the rest of that goes. But perhaps it would be better to simply ask that, in the midst of spending untold billions on NextGen, a few paltry dollars be allocated to overhauling our ghastly NOTAM system.

I know that building a better mousetrap is possible because I’ve been using one for more than a decade. Dan Checkoway, a longtime friend and fellow pilot, saw the same deficiencies in preflight information delivery. But he did something about it, developing a site called Weathermeister. Among other things, it translates NOTAMs into plain English, adjusts the valid times to a more readable format, and best of all, color codes critical items like runway and airport closures so they stand out.


The difference is dramatic. Not only can I scan NOTAMs far more quickly, but I’m also less likely to overlook something important. On several occasions I’ve been the one to unearth important NOTAMs that a fellow crewmember missed. Does that make me superior aviator? No… just a guy with a better sledgehammer.

Dan once told me that despite the fact that Weathermeister provides full weather briefings, 90% of the site’s coding is dedicated to translating the arcane NOTAM texts into readable English. He once tried to sell the FAA on using his format, but for whatever reason (bureaucratic inertia, perhaps?), nothing has changed in the intervening years.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. I keep wishing something or someone would prod the FAA to improve the way NOTAMs are disseminated. Not only would flying be safer, but if time really is money, we’d be a whole lot richer, too.

Man vs. Machine: The Challenge of Staying Sharp in the 21st Century

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

So there I was, sitting in the cockpit of a 2015 Super Decathlon the other day, twisting my sunburned noggin into a pretzel trying to decide whether the ship was a throwback to the 1940s or a glimpse of general aviation’s high-tech future. You’d think that would be an easy call. The Decathlon is a derivative of the Aeronca Champ, after all.

But tube-and-fabric airframe aside, the Garmin GTN750 touchscreen, Aspen Evolution 1000, ADS-B data link, and other gadgetry made me realize that the greatest advances in avionics and aircraft automation are not found in airliners. They’re found in general aviation aircraft, many of them with the same reciprocating engines (and, on occasion, steel tube fuselages) they had seventy years ago.

We now live in a world where you can ask your iPhone to whip up a flight plan and wirelessly transmit it to the avionics in your airplane so you don’t have to input a thing. For the IFR pilot, did ATC give you a re-route? No problem — and no buttons to press (except perhaps the Staples “easy” button). Just touch the screen of your Garmin navigator and drag the course line to wherever you want it to go. Flying: “so easy a caveman can do it”.

Or is it?

I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. I’m a computer nerd and can’t get enough of the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that a high-tech cockpit even makes life easier. Especially when equipment fails or doesn’t respond as expected, the work load can ratchet up very quickly. But the truth is that once you’ve got the boxes figured out, automation can and does rob us of basic flying skill unless we take a proactive stance to prevent the erosion of those skills.

How could it not? Automated aircraft make us flight managers, not pilots who physically control the aircraft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something pilots far and wide need to acknowledge and be aware of.

The insidiously perishable nature of flying skill is ironic, because as most manufacturers will tell you, from a statistical viewpoint aviation is considerably safer due to the march of technology. What remains unsaid, however, is that much like beefing up a weak point on an aerobatic aircraft, we’re just shifting the hazard to another area. The wing might be able to withstand 16 Gs, but that doesn’t mean the engine mount can. If you strengthen the engine mount, then the empennage or longerons become the weakest link. Each component has its own failure point and mode.
Likewise for automation. Sure, it relieves fatigue from hand flying. It brings amazing weather, terrain, and traffic information into the cockpit. Situational awareness is a snap. Fuel burn can now be accurately estimated to within a few pounds on a multi-hour flight.

But it also means we’re more disconnected from the airplane since we aren’t physically flying it. Up and down drafts are masked because the autopilot handles them for us — until it trims all the way to the critical angle of attack. I’ve seen that happen multiple times without the pilot even being aware of it. Our hand flying skills and instrument scan decay due to lack of use.

This sort of thing is especially unnerving to me because I’m aware of it and yet have also fallen victim to it myself on occasion.

I think of automation the same way I think of air traffic control. It’s a safety asset, but one I must constantly monitor because it has failed before and it will fail again some day. I’ve been vectored into traffic, sent across a localizer toward a mountain (ie. forgotten about), and given instructions meant for another aircraft. I’ve even had a controller attempt to cancel my active IFR flight plan in mid-flight without my assent.

Automation is no different. The challenge is to keep our skills sharp and expect the unexpected. If hand-flying skill was well established in the beginning of a pilot’s flying career, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. The modern aviator, though, sees this automation from a very early point, and for some of them, the basic flying skills are not well established. The automation serves to mask the inadequacies. As long as everything keeps running properly, no harm/no foul.

When it doesn’t? Well, that’s where the rock meets the not-so-proverbial hard place, as we’re starting to discover.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity.

The rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.