Archive for the ‘Business aviation’ 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.

Flying Through Life… pursue your impossibly big dreams

Sunday, March 6th, 2016
Meeting Zen Pilot

Meeting Zen Pilot, Robert DeLaurentis

On a windy day at Whiteman Airport in the LA basin I had the pleasure of spending some time with Robert DeLaurentis, the “Zen Pilot” and met the Spirit of San Diego [Piper Malibu Mirage] in person.   Often in the air more than on the ground, Robert  lives and breathes the adventure of flying while spreading the message of abundance, connection, and safety.

He is a noted speaker and author with a successful real estate business and over 1250 flight hours as a private pilot. Robert has his private, instrument and multi-engine ratings and holds a commercial pilot certificate and an advanced graduate degree in Spiritual Psychology.

His recently completed circumnavigation of the globe in his Piper Malibu was part spiritual journey, part fundraiser for programs at Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA] Spirit of San Diego scholarship fund. He attributes the ability to pursue this lifelong dream of flying around the world to his use of applied spirituality principles.

His first book, Flying Thru Life focuses on helping businesses and individuals go far beyond what they ever believed was possible financially and personally. Robert believes applying the principles outlined in Flying Thru Life allows the manifestation of time and money for people to pursue their sometimes impossibly big dreams.

Spirit of San Diego Students

Students get to meet the Spirit of San Diego

Robert puts forth that we should honor our desires from childhood and our passion. Allowing those desires to unfold helps to manifest them.  “If you ask Spirit to become a painter, you are given a canvas and paint. This is about manifesting. The first step is to ask” Robert says.  He suggests that we be open to what we receive and that it perhaps is a different path than we imagined.  We could be following a path that our parents want us to follow instead of what we are passionate about. “When I honored passion, purpose and Spirit, my life accelerated” he says.

 

When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

The book outlines 19 strategies to avoid negative self-talk and to re-frame fear and doubt into passion and purpose in life.  He believes that when we are in alignment with our deepest dreams, desires and hopes, that we will  receive gifts of time, money, and peace of mind. The gift of time manifests into more hours to fly and train. Financial gifts might be the source of money for an airplane, equipment or new rating.

Fear is oftentimes what holds us back from living our authentic life in a peaceful way.  Robert also believes that what shows up in your plane is also reflected in your life, as the cockpit is a schoolroom. Fear manifests itself in so many ways. These fears hold us back in the life and in flying.  Technology makes flying safer and less expensive. Preparation is the key to reduce fear. Practice makes practice, competency comes with practice.

Flying Thru Life

Flying Thru Life

Flying through Life has some great examples for “Type A” personalities.  One example was when an expensive and critical piece of management software not working for his company. The initial discussion with the president of the software company was met with “You didn’t follow the instructions!”  Robert then paused and communicated with the president in a thoughtful way where he told her his fears and then asked for help. The president then became very helpful and together they co-created a solution.

 

Last weekend I flew into San Carlos Airport in the San Francisco Bay area. My arrival was easy enough even though there was a TFR over San Jose Airport for the democratic convention, and San Carlos lies under San Francisco’s airspace and is very near Oakland and San Jose. I told ATC that I was unfamiliar with San Carlos and they were very helpful. The tower guys were super nice when I landed. On the way home I thought I would just fly reverse my steps for arrival. As I was taxing out the tower asked me if I wanted the Bay Meadows departure or the Belmont Slough departure quickly giving me details of each. The Bay Meadows departure sounded closest to what I wanted so I said I would choose it. As I got to the run-up area, I felt a little insecure about the instructions. I didn’t have a copy of the noise abatement procedure in my stack of paperwork I had for the trip. So I did what a lot of pilots maybe don’t do, I asked for clarification and help. “San Carlos Ground, 6619U would like to get clarification on the departure as I am unfamiliar and want to get it right.” “N6619U, San Carlos Ground, we love it when pilots ask questions. Thank you. Fly runway heading to 1200 feet, we will call your left turn to the 101 freeway.” I was so proud of myself for not faking it and asking for needed help.

What’s next for Robert? In addition to being a featured speaker for AOPA at Sun n Fun and their regional fly-ins, Robert is releasing his second book, Zen Pilot in the Summer of 2016.  Robert muses on he latest book which details his trip around the world, “I think to some people it might sound strange, but I believe that flying can be the most spiritual thing that you do. Passion and purpose in alignment with Spirit. For me the spiritual component is enormous. The plane takes you from point A to point B, that is a destination, but flying through life is a journey. When people  asked what I learned about flying around the world, I talk about the dream state. When I was flying there was a point in which I didn’t know if I was flying or dreaming [over North Africa]. It is the place I feel most connected. Planes are magical places.”  A true ambassador of general aviation, Robert’s enthusiasm and goodwill is contagious.  I believe what he wants most is for us all to know that if we can dream it, we also possess the ability to make those dreams come true.

 

To watch the video for Flying Thru Life click here

To purchase the book  click here

earth meets heaven

 

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.

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.

Choosing the Express Lane…using your private aircraft for business

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Recently I was set to travel from the Central Coast of California to Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and on into Kalispell, Mont. for a business meeting and a business consultation.

Ready for business

Ready for business

Had I opted to fly commercially the following scenario seems likely: Looking at commercial flights from San Luis Obispo Airport I would have needed to get to the airport an hour early for security, and then fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco for a connection.  From there, I would probably lay over for an hour or so, and connect into Portland.  Since Hood River is 45 miles east of Portland, I would have to rent a car and drive to the business meeting, which would add another two hours to the process.

Imagine that the initial flight leaves San Luis Obispo at 6:00 a.m.  My day would have started around 4:00 a.m. to get to the airport by 5:00 a.m.  The short, 45 minute flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco would be followed by a layover and change of planes.   Let us say I arrived in Portland at 10:30 a.m. and got to the rental car counter about 11:00.  The one-hour drive to Hood River puts me at my meeting at noonish.

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

Contrast that scenario, which has not even gotten me to Kalispell, to what I actually did in my private aircraft.  I drove twenty minutes to Santa Maria Airport and pre-flighted the Mooney.   I was in the air by 7:30 a.m. and made the 3.5 hour flight right to Hood River Airport, arriving at 11:00 a.m.  Instead of starting the day at 4:00 in the morning and arriving at noon, I had a wonderful flight up through California and by Mount Shasta.  The route took me over Klamath Falls, Sunriver, Bend, and Redmond, Oregon and then I flew down the Columbia River Gorge to the destination airport.  I was also able to take a full tube of toothpaste, water bottles, and even my hair cutting scissors!

After business was complete in Hood River, I departed the following morning for Kalispell, Mont.  Again I chose to land at Kalispell City Airport [S27] versus the larger international airport.  In under two hours my Mooney and I were in Montana ready for the next business consultation.

Besides saving time, are there other reasons to fly your private aircraft versus commercial travel for business?  You bet there are!  Not only do we avoid long waits, security screening that robs us of even a water bottle, and inflexible scheduling, but also we exercise our privilege to fly and help others to see the value of General Aviation. The view from the Mooney was spectacular and I arrived refreshed and ready for business. I also was able to fly. As pilots we get to live in the world 3-D, a view that most don’t get routinely.

General Aviation and General Aviation airports serve America and our business community.  If your business takes you to smaller communities not served by commercial flights, private air travel might just be the ticket for you.

The End

The End

GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

I’ve been on the hunt since AirVenture for evidence that ADS-B is really the future of air traffic separation and services. And, having flown from south Florida to Lake Superior, to Kalispell, Montana, and back, I’ve got news.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

Aviators are adopting ADS-B. Not in droves, mind you, but being ADS-B equipped myself, I can see the other ADS-B aircraft on my display screen, and there are more of them than ever before. Along the entire trip there was only an hour in Wyoming, at low altitude, where I did not have ADS-B coverage.

No, we aviators are not keen on dropping money for avionics we aren’t certain we’ll be required to use. I mean, we resisted Mode C until the veils were dropped over Class B airspace and spun down to the ground (I actually know a couple of anarchists out there still flying Mode A transponders).

ADS-B is particularly problematic because the specs kept changing. They are, according to the FAA, set in stone now, though. For aircraft operating above 18,000 ft and/or outside the U.S. a Mode-S ADS-B transmitter (1090ES) is needed. If you stay in the U.S. and below Class A airspace you can stick with a UAT transceiver. Of course, we’ve seen stone change, too. And ADS-B is not without its weaknesses. That said, the most recent interaction I had with the FAA was on point–adapt, or you’ll be left out of controlled airspace above 10,000 ft and Class B and C airspace, they told me. On January 1, 2020. The date’s not moving. That’s the FAA’s story and all manner of individuals I spoke with are sticking to it.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

These kinds of rock-solid statements by the FAA have begun to bring consternation to the people who run the avionics companies. Why? Because with less than five years left to meet the mandate, they know it will be a struggle to equip all of the aircraft in the U.S. that might need this technology with this technology.

There are only so many avionics shops. And when it comes to the higher end equipment, business jets and helicopters sporting integrated digital avionics, for instance, there are even fewer designated service centers that can handle the job. Really, though, that isn’t the crux of the problem.

At the core of the problem are older high-end integrated panels. A TSO authorization, issued in accordance with 14 CFR 21 subpart O, is not required to upgrade them. Yet, ADS-B Out systems and equipment installed or used in type-certificated aircraft must have a design approval issued under 14 CFR 21 (or must be installed by field approval, if appropriate). To upgrade these legacy avionics is proving to take far too long. That’s a lot of lost revenue and inefficiency for the companies, mostly small-to-medium businesses, that own them. And that is before the cost of equipping is considered in the mix.

Some OEMs are actually trying to persuade these aircraft owners to trade up to ADS-B and ADS-C equipped aircraft–new aircraft. Great idea on the surface, if it wasn’t for the economy. Companies are cautious after 2008. They are not easily coaxed into new acquisitions. They might be more easily convinced by their own finance departments to shed the flight department altogether instead of buying new equipment–something they did in droves in 2008-9.

Back in my light airplane world the news is not quite as bad, until you get to older light aircraft, that is. No one wants to put 10 percent or more of the value of the airplane back into the avionics, particularly for one key piece of equipment.

And experimentals? They had the advantage of being able to use less expensive, non-Compliant ADS-B boxes, until recently. The FAA is now telling us that as of January 2016 those early transceivers will no longer receive accurate traffic information. Yes, the FAA is going to make flying LESS safe for those users, at a time when there are still hardly any users on the new system. All without proving that the non-Compliant boxes are a hazard.

I think it is time to get the pens out and start complaining, to your congressman, to your local FSDO, to the FAA at 800 Independence Avenue. There are a lot of good things about the way ADS-B can change our National Airspace System, but recent declarations from the FAA have me feeling squeamish about the execution of the transition to this new system. What do you think?

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.