Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

A Self-Evident Solution

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Times are tough for general aviation, and we need a solid partner and advocate in Washington now more than ever. Unfortunately, the FAA is proving to be the exact opposite—a lead weight—and it’s becoming a big problem.

Complaining about the FAA has been a popular spectator sport for decades. I feel for those who work at the agency because most of the individuals I’ve interacted with there have been pleasant and professional. They often seem as hamstrung and frustrated with the status quo as those of us on the outside. In fact, I took my commercial glider checkride with an FAA examiner from the Riverside FSDO in 2004 and consider it a model of how practical tests should be run. So I’m not suggesting we toss the baby out with the bathwater.

But somewhere, somehow, as an organization, the inexplicable policy decisions, poor execution, and awful delays in performing even the most basic functions lead one to the conclusion that the agency is beset by a bureaucratic sclerosis which is grinding the gears of progress to a rusty halt on many fronts.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

If you’re not instrument-rated, the concept of flying an approach in the “wrong direction” probably seems… well, wrong. But it’s not. For decades, pilots have flown practice approaches in VFR conditions for training purposes without regard for the wind direction. There are many logical reason for doing so: variety, the availability of a specific approach type, to practice circling to a different runway for landing, and so on. John Ewing, a professional instructor based on California’s central coast, described this as “going up the down staircase”.

For reasons no one has been able to explain (and I’ve inquired with two separate FSDOs in my area), this practice is no longer allowed at towered fields. Here’s what John wrote about the change:

…the FAA has decided that opposite direction approaches into towered airports are no longer allowed. To the uninitiated, practice approaches to a runway when there’s opposite direction traffic may seem inherently dangerous, but it is something that’s been done safely at many airports for as long as anyone can remember. One example in Northern California is Sacramento Executive where all the instrument approaches are to Runway 2 and 90% of the time Runway 20 is in use.

At KSAC, the procedure for handling opposite direction approaches is simple and has worked well (and without incident, to my knowledge): The tower instructs the aircraft inbound on the approach to start their missed approach (usually a climbing left turn) prior to the runway threshold and any traffic departing the opposite direct turns in the other direction.

For areas like the California Central Coast, the restriction on opposite direction instrument approaches has been in place since I arrived in June and it has serious implications for instrument flight training since the ILS approaches for San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara are likely to be opposite direction 90% of the time. For a student to train to fly an ILS in a real aircraft, you need to fly quite a distance. Same goes for instrument rating practical tests that require an ILS because the aircraft is not equipped with WAAS GPS and/or there’s no RNAV approach available with LPV minima to a DA of 250 feet or lower.

The loss of opposite-direction approaches hurts efficiency and is going to increase the time and money required for initial and recurrent instrument training. As good as simulators are, there’s no substitute for the real world, especially when it comes to things like circling to land. Between the low altitude, slow airspeed, and division of attention between instruments and exterior references required for properly executing the maneuver, circling in low weather can be one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous aspects of instrument flying. If anything, we need more opportunities to practice this. Banning opposite-direction approaches only ensures we’ll do it less.

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

Eliminating the third class medical just makes sense. I’ve covered this before, but it certainly bears repeating: Glider and LSA pilots have been operating without formal medical certification for decades and there is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest they are any more prone to medical incapacitation than those of us who fly around with that coveted slip of paper in our pocket.

AOPA and EAA petitioned the government on this issue two years and nine months ago. The delay has been so egregious that the FAA Administrator had to issue a formal apology. Obviously pilots are clamoring for this, but we’re not the only ones:

Congress is getting impatient as well. In late August, 32 members of the House General Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to expedite the review process and permit the FAA to proceed with its next step of issuing the proposal for public comment. Early in September 11 Senators, who were all co-sponsors of a bill to reform the medical process, also asked the Department of Transportation to speed up the process.

So where does the proposed rule change now? It is someplace in the maze of government. Officially it is at the Department of Transportation. Questions to DOT officials are met with no response, telling us to contact the FAA. FAA officials comment that “it is now under executive review at the DOT.”

The rule change must also be examined by the Office of Management and Budget.

When the DOT and OMB both approve the proposal—if they do—it will be returned to the FAA, which will then put it out for public comment. The length of time for comments will probably be several months.

After these comments are considered, the FAA may or may not issue a rule change.

It occurs to me that by the time this process is done, it may have taken nearly as long as our involvement in either world war. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll have an acceptable outcome.

Example 3: Hangar Policy

The commonsense approach would dictate that as long as you’ve got an airplane in your hangar, you should be able to keep toolboxes, workbenches, American flags, a refrigerator, a golf cart or bicycle, or anything else you like in there. But the FAA once again takes something so simple a cave man could do it and mucks it up. The fact that the FAA actually considers any stage of building an airplane to be a non-aeronautical activity defies both logic and the English language. Building is the very essence of the definition. People who’ve never even been inside an airplane could tell you that. In my mind, this hangar policy is the ultimate example of how out of touch with reality the agency has become.

Example 4: Field Approvals

These have effectively been gone from aviation for the better part of a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to add a new WhizBang 3000 radio to your airplane, a mechanic could get it approved via a relatively simple, low-cost method called a field approval. For reasons nobody has even been able to explain (probably because there is no valid explanation), it became FAA policy to stop issuing these. If you want that new radio in your airplane, you’ll have to wait until there’s an STC for it which covers your aircraft. Of course, that takes a lot longer and costs a boatload of money, if it happens at all. But the FAA doesn’t care.

Homebuilts put whatever they want into their panels and you don’t see them falling out of the sky. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

Just to show you that it’s not only the light GA segment that’s suffering, here’s a corporate aviation example. The ability to fly in RVSM airspace—the area between FL290 and FL410—is very important. Being kept below FL290 is not only inefficient and bad for the environment, it also forces turbine aircraft into weather they would otherwise be able to avoid. The alternative is to fly at FL430 and above, which can mean leaving fuel and/or payload behind, or flying in a paperwork-induced coffin corner.

Unfortunately, RVSM approval requires a Letter of Authorization from the FAA. If the airplane is sold, the LOA is invalidated and the new owner has to go through the paperwork process with the FAA from step one. Even if the aircraft stays at the same airport, maintained by the same people, and flown by the same crew. If you so much as change the name of your company, the LOA is invalidated. If you sneeze or get a hangnail, they’re invalidated.

From AIN Online:

Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA.

Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”

When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.

It’s bad for safety and the FAA knows it. If they were able to process paperwork quickly, it might not be such an issue, but many operators find that it takes many months—sometimes even a year or more—to get a scrap of paper which should take a few minutes at most.

Show Me the Money

So what’s behind the all this? Americans love to throw money at a problem, so is this a budget cut issue? Perhaps the FAA is a terribly cash-starved agency that simply isn’t given the resources to do the jobs we’re asking of it.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, that’s not the case. He testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week that the FAA’s budget has been growing even as traffic declines:

The growth of the agency’s budget has been unchecked, despite the managerial failings and the changes in the marketplace. Between 1996 and 2012, the FAA’s total budget grew 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion. During that same period, the agency’s air traffic operations dropped by a fifth. As a result, taxpayers are now paying the FAA nearly twice as much to do only 80 percent of the work they were doing in the 1990s.

Over that same 16-year span, the FAA’s personnel costs, including salary and benefits, skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion—a 98 percent increase—even though the agency’s total number of full-time workers actually fell 4 percent during that time.

Self-Evident Solutions

Okay, we’ve all heard the litany of issues. From the inability to schedule a simple checkride to big problems with NextGen development or the ADS-B mandate, you’ve probably got your own list. The question is, how do we fix the problem?

I think the answer is already out there: less FAA oversight and more self-regulation. Look closely at GA and you’ll see that the segments which are furthest from FAA interference are the most successful. The Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) sector and the industry consensus standards of the Light Sport segment are two such examples. The certified world? Well many of them are still building the same airframes and engines they did 70 years ago, albeit at several times the cost.

Just as non-commercial aviation should be free of the requirement for onerous medical certification, so too should it be free of the crushing regulatory weight of the FAA. The agency would make a far better and more effective partner by limiting its focus to commercial aviation safety, promoting general aviation, and the protection and improvement of our infrastructure.

Dreams Deferred?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

If your heart is tied to aviation then you probably felt a little bit crushed, deflated, last month, when the aerospace world took one step forward, then two big steps back, all in one week.

Google executive Alan Eustace rose to, then fell from 135,000 feet on October 25, breaking a fairly recent record of just under 128,000 feet set by Felix Baumgartner in a much publicized Red Bull-sponsored stunt just a couple years ago. Eustace, unlike Baumgartner, performed his feat in relative obscurity. He told the press afterward that he wanted to make sure the gamble worked before publicizing it. What was unusual about the skydive was that Eustace used only a pressure suit and an 11 million cubic foot balloon to ascend—no fancy pressure capsule needed.

Eustace had clearly studied the Baumgartner jump, because he chose a different freefall position, and wore in his pressure suit a forced-heated-air system to keep his faceplate from fogging. The result was a much more stable five minute freefall to earth—one he could actually watch from inside his pressure suit. The gambit was a risk, and it worked out. One step forward.

On the other hand, just five days later Orbital Sciences had to destroy an Antares rocket and payload seconds after liftoff when one of the rocket’s venerable engines failed. The company had been purchasing the engines from Russian sources. Company CEO David Thompson told press that the company will find different engines for its rockets from now on.

Hot on the heels of this news came the inflight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, killing the co-pilot, Michael Tyner Alsbury, and injuring its pilot, Peter Siebold. The aircraft was in its final flight testing regime, and was expected to begin taking passengers into near-earth orbit sometime in 2015.

There is no question of that happening now. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, is clearly heartbroken and deeply concerned as the crash investigation progresses. The NTSB hints at possible causes, but I won’t be an armchair investigator and go into any details about an ongoing NTSB investigation here. The lay press are bad enough at that.

One step forward, two big steps back. The result is that the budding commercial space industry had a very bad month in October; and we are left with questions about the wisdom of how NASA contract monies are being spent; and even whether the dream of space tourism is a reasonable possibility, given today’s technology.

Personally? I want to see Branson shake it off and get back to the task of innovating, for the sake of humanity. Sure, those first flights are going to be little more than joyrides, but think of the possibilities that kind of technology may have for our future. Aerospace is about speed and altitude and moving people and materials as quickly and efficiently as possible. It always has been about that, at the core. Branson’s dream could jump us forward—something that hasn’t happened since the days of Concorde.

Or it could be a false path, as Concorde turned out to be. The thing is, we won’t know until we try. I hope he keeps trying until the universe finally grants him success.

Flying Cars

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

I’m a professional futurist and perhaps the most common question that I’ve received on radio interviews and after speeches is, “So where’s the flying cars? You futurists have been predicting that forever.”

First of all, that’s not true. There have been some science fiction folks, of course, that always had some variation of a car that flies, but I don’t know of any real futurist that “predicted” that we’d have flying cars at any particular time.

That said . . . they’re coming!

You can’t look across the breakthroughs that are happening in a variety of technological areas and at the same time notice the new crop of flying/driving machines that are soon to be sold and on the drawing boards, and not believe that something’s going on.  Change is in the wind and, like drones, there will be far more flying cars in the not very distant future.

I’ve covered a rather sexy planned flying car here in the past but thought you might like to see a couple that could be closer in.

TERRAFUGIA

Terrafugia, of course, is the biggest kid on the block, sporting a bunch of MIT graduates who have had a flying model of their initial Transition car/plane for about two years.  You can make a down payment, with delivery anticipated to be sometime soon.

Their ultimate objective is the TF-X, shown below. They had a mockup of this car/plane at Oshkosh this summer.  It’s a vertical takeoff and landing machine that is really quite extraordinary.

Here’s where you can see an animation of this rather cool vehicle.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.

AEROMOBIL

From Slovakia comes the AeroMobil 3.0, one of the most futuristic looking entries in the flying car field.  It flies at 125 mph or more for 430 miles and can max out at over 100 mph on the ground and cover distances exceeding 500 miles.  The AeroMobil 3.0 is undergoing flight testing now (you can see a great video here).

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

Upset Recovery Training vs. Aerobatics

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years.”

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980′s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.

Nearly Empty Skies

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

This morning I heard an airplane take off. It was a throaty roar of a single engine piston airplane, and though I didn’t see it, I’d swear it was a Cessna 182. It was a wonderful noise. It was a noise I associate with home.

You see, I’ve been traveling on the Iberian Peninsula for a month, and in that time I saw or heard general aviation aircraft less than a half a dozen times. It was the oddest sensation, asking locals if there was an airport in the area for small aircraft, and seeing faces draw a complete blank. The question wasn’t being lost in translation. The small airports are so quiet these days that the people had no real experience with light aircraft.

I’d researched general aviation in Portugal and Spain before I left the U.S., and had high hopes of encountering at least some aeroclub flying, similar to what I had found traveling in South Africa, but it was not to be. Even the flight training going on in the countries seemed anemic in comparison to the activity here in the U.S. Sad, too, because in both countries the GA airports were there. They were just seriously under utilized.

In Spain the complaint is that handling fees, a combination of security restrictions and onerous, unnecessary services (bus rides on the ramp to and from the general aviation terminal) are strangling general aviation pilots. Even though mandated tariffs are relatively inexpensive, the companies providing the services are padding these fees so much that, according to AOPA Spain, they approach the cost of operating the airplane for the cross country flight.

The most aviation I saw over the course of a month traveling the peninsula north to south, was in the little town of Evora, where Skydive Portugal had a Cessna 206 running all day one Saturday, taking neophytes up for tandem jumps. It was great to watch the airplane head off, climbing to 13,00o MSL, and then disgorging its load. There is nothing quite like the snap and swoosh of a chute opening above you, followed by the hoots and laughter of the tandem riders, who seemed unanimoScreen shot 2014-10-10 at 4.48.04 PMusly thrilled both by the freefall and by the fact that the chute opened on command. They’d live to jump another day!

But other than the Cessna 206 hauling skydivers there was just one or two general aviation movements on the field over the four days I was there. This, even though Embraer has a large, modern metal and composite factory just off the north end of the runway, where it is making parts for its Legacy 450/500 aircraft, along with parts for military aircraft.

I have to admit that it made me sad to see so few aircraft flying in two countries where the weather and the terrain is perfect for general aviation. It seems that onerous fees, combined with struggling economic trials have put serious challenges to pilots in Portugal and Spain.

My hope is that they can overcome the trials and re-emerge as great countries for general aviation flying in Europe. That way, the next time I visit, I can see the Iberian Peninsula the way I most enjoy, from the air.

 

Liability: The Price We Pay

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

The $100 screw. The $9.00 gallon of fuel. The $5,000 part that costs $50 at a local hardware store. We’ve all seen it. I recall the day a friend told me the seat back for my Pitts S-2B, which is literally a small flat piece of ordinary plywood, cost something like $600. I’m not averse to parts manufacturers turning a profit, but that left my mouth hanging open. My friend? He just shrugged and walked away, as though this was ordinary and normal. The saddest part is that I realized he was right. It is.

Liability concerns are a major expense and motivator for many industries. That’s why Superman costumes come with warnings that “the cape does not enable the wearer to fly”, Zippo cautions the user not to ignite the lighter in your face, and irons are sold with tags advising against ironing clothes while they’re being worn. But for general aviation, this sort of thing is dragging the lot of us down as surely as a cement block tossed into the murky waters of the East River.

The classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the high cost for new products like airplanes. Look at the sharp rise in the price of a new Skyhawk over the past thirty years. The first one was built in 1955, so the research and development costs for this model must have been recouped decades ago. A new Bonanza is a cool million. Low production volumes and high liability costs — a chicken and egg pair if there ever was one — are prime culprits for that inflation.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry essentially stopped producing new piston airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that nearly every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 helped somewhat. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. But the liability problem never went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound, grinding away at our diminished world like a wood chipper consuming a sturdy log. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

I often wonder, what would an aircraft like the RV-6 cost if it was certified? You can buy one for as little as $45,000 today. Speaking of Amateur-Built aircraft, liability is one of the primary reasons advancements such as electronic ignition proliferate in the E-AB world when they’re almost unheard of in aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate.

Mike Busch has penned many articles about the ways liability concerns drive decisions in the maintenance business. The result? Lower efficiency, higher cost, and at times even a decrease in the level of safety that is supposedly paramount. But it goes beyond that. Many products which would otherwise be brought to market are not because liability issues tilt the scale away from taking that risk in the first place.

Even proven, well-established products are sometimes lost to this phenomenon. Seven years ago, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Even if you don’t own an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that aircraft rental is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Companies like OpenAirplane are trying to make a dent in this formidable problem, but many aircraft types simply cannot be rented at all for solo flight anymore. Seaplanes, aerobatic aircraft, twins, turbines, and many other types might as well not exist unless you have the cash to buy them outright. And those that are still rented require extensive checkouts, form filling, and a large expenditure of time, money and energy. Why? To check every possible box off when it comes to liability. The manager of one FBO here in Southern California told me in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t matter if Bob Hoover himself walked through the door, he wouldn’t get one iota of consideration in that regard. Does that sound right to you?

There’s an obvious answer here. If you’re thinking tort reform, you’re only half-right. Suing manufacturers for accidents that are clearly not their fault simply because the plaintiff knows they’ll settle is only ensuring the next generation won’t be able to fly. The real solution is to — in the words of a pilot I know — put on our big-boy britches and come to terms with the fact that life in general, and aviation in particular, involves risk. From the Doolittle Raiders to the folks at Cirrus Aircraft, history shows over and over again that risk is a part of every successful venture. We’d all love to live in a world where there is no risk, where following the dictates of Title 14 would ensure nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever gets hurt. It’s a fallacy.

Crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with Experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate. This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Liability concerns hurt everyone in aviation, not just those with reciprocating single-engines. I’ll give you one example from the corporate and charter business that I work in: time and time again, thousands of dollars of catering from one of our charter flights will go untouched by the passengers. We’ll land at our destination with a eighty pounds of beautifully packaged and prepared food. Five-star presentation of the highest-quality and healthiest food you’ll see anywhere.

At the same time, just beyond the airport fence are people who go to bed hungry. Logic dictates that we might want to put two and two together. But because the operators and customers of these aircraft are high net worth individuals who would certainly find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit at the first indication of food poisoning or other malady, load after load of this food goes into the trash every single day all across the country. Over the past three years I’d imagine the total weight of the food from flights I’ve flown that went into the trash would total a couple of tons.

While lawsuits and courtrooms certainly have their place, I personally think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. That’s the cost of the society we’ve built. Is it worth it?

It’s all on your head

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
0917daqri_smart_helmet2

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

I read about a new product recently that clearly could dramatically change the pilot experience in the future. DAQRI LLC, with offices in Los Angles and the Bay Area, has developed an augmented reality helmet for industrial applications that could also revolutionize the communication and display of information in the cockpit.

Billed as the world’s first wearable human machine interface, it has been designed initially for machinery-rich environments where a great deal of information is needed (and potentially available) about the surroundings . . . wherever one is.

This helmet is loaded with electronics – GPS, inertial system, Wi-Fi, displays – and is able to download everything that is available (from databases anywhere), that is applicable to the current situation. It is probably the most advanced commercial, augmented reality product around.

DAQRI says that the “Smart Helmet bridges the gap between potential and experience, enhancing human abilities in industry by seamlessly connecting the human being to the work environment and providing relevant information instantaneously.”

They suggest, that “For the first time, a world class sensor package has been fused with an intuitive user experience, driven by native augmented reality software and DAQRI’s Intellitrack™ system for the most precise display and tracking possible, and providing users with unprecedented levels of information about the world around them.”

Does that sound like it could be adapted to piloting an aircraft one of these days? It certainly does to me.

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

The military, of course, has had very high tech headgear for advanced fighters for some time now . . . at a cost of about $3 million a copy (or something like that). But now that kind of technology is working its way down into the commercial marketplace, and is going to end up being a whole lot cheaper (Moore’s Law, you know).

The DAQRI helmet is a modified hard hat for use in industrial conditions, but try to think of it – with its two different pull-down screens connected to a high-resolution 3-D depth camera, and 360° navigation cameras, which support HD video recording, photography, 3-D mapping, and alphanumeric capture, and allow the Smart Helmet to read and understand signage and instrument data – in a light weight version modified for the cockpit.

Here, watch this video that explains its design and operation . . . and then tell me whether you think it has aviation written all over it. I do.

The future is coming fast!

Combat confusion in the cockpit

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Flight instructors know this: the cockpit of an aircraft in flight is a horrible classroom. Conditions are changing by the milisecond, and through it all you are moving, most of the time in three dimensions. With so much to pay attention to, student pilots are easily befuddled, leaving them paralyzed, and unable to decide what to do next. It takes a lot of training to prevent that kind of paralysis in human pilots. Why?

Confusion is easy to create. Lion tamer Clyde Beatty lived to a ripe old age by simply bringing a perfectly symetrical four legged chair into the ring with him when he met his big cats. When he held a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tried to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With its focus divided, the lion became confused and was unsure about what to do next. When faced with so many options, the lion’s basal instinct was to freeze and wait, instead of attacking.

confusionHumans, being mammals, have brains that work the same way when innundated with conflicting information. Imagine how that plays out in the clouds when your panel lights up with a caution light, or a series of cascading failures. How about when that beautiful Garmin 1000 multifunction screen goes blank? Ach! Can you cope quickly to save the flight?

You can if you’ve got a mind practiced in focusing. The key word here is practice.

Researchers have pinned down four different types of concentration: Broad-external attention is good for assessing the total environment. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to miss things because you’re being distracted or paying attention to something that’s irrelevant. Broad-internal attention is good for developing a game plan or strategy. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to think too much, causing “paralysis by analysis.” Narrow-external attention is good for focusing on a single, primary target and blocking out distractions. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to be so focused on one thing that you miss something else that’s important. Finally, there is narrow-internal attention, which is good for focusing your thoughts on several mental skills, such as body awareness, energy management, or imagery. When used inappropriately it can, however, cause you to “choke.”

Harnessing these four types of concentration, and tapping into the one you want in the moment is an art both studied and practiced extensively by elite atheletes, and we can learn from them. To practice concentration it is best to start in a quiet place, then work your way into practicing where there are lots of distractions (best for learning how to tune them out, and discovering when to tune them in, too).

Start by working in a flight simulator (a pc sim is fine). Fly an approach to land as slowly as you can, all the while paying attention to all the details in the movements you make handling the controls, setting the instruments and running the checklist. Do it again closing your eyes at points during the approach and note how your body feels. Pay attention to all the physical sensations throughout your body.

Next, step away from the sim and go for the Grid exercise. Take a 10” X 10” block grid on a piece of paper and randomly placed the numbers 00 through 99 in each block. While timing one minute, find and put a slash through as many numbers as possible, in sequence, starting with 00. Start at different numbers, do only odd or even numbers, or go backwards from 99 to 00 to mix things up. After you get better at this, go back to practicing in the sim with distractions such as loud noises or distracting spouse in the room.

Finally, learn to shift your attention. This is a little bit like taking the camera lense and focusing in the foreground or the background. You want to do this with both your eyes and your ears. It can be practiced in the flight sim, or at your local coffee shop on a busy morning. Concentrate on what you hear. Identify each sound in the room separately and label it. Next, broaden your focus and simultaneously listen to all the sounds together without labeling them. Then concentrate on your body. Pay attention to your bodily sensations, such as the way you feel against the chair. Label each sensation as you notice it. Next, try to experience all the physical sensations together without labeling any particular one. Lastly, concentrate on your mind. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Let each thought and feeling appear by itself. Next try to empty your mind, let go of your thoughts and feelings, and relax.

Now, take the attention-shift exercise into the flight sim with you and alternate your focus between each instrument in the virtual panel in front of you. Then shift your attention to whole systems (radios, EFIS, engine, hydraulic, pressurization or oxygen). Finally pull back and absorb the complete picture, including your situational awareness of where the aircraft is in its virtual space.

It works. You’ll notice subtle differences that could be the beginning of a big problem much more rapidly, and, if you’ve studied up, you can correct a myriad of problems in-flight, or get your machine safely on the ground before a little fault becomes a game-ender.

AirVenture: Ominous Clouds Ahead

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Like many thousands of other aviation geeks around the world, a small Wisconsin town holds a special place in my heart. Once a year my friends, former & current colleagues, former classmates, former professors, and favorite airplanes gather in Oshkosh to celebrate all things aviation. Hosted under the wing of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the annual celebration of all things airplane was this year another great time to meet up with fellow aviation fans.

For my inaugural Opinion Leaders post last year, I wrote about the demographic challenges faced by AirVenture in the future. These challenges haven’t gotten any easier in the past year. As a matter of fact, they’ve only gotten worse. While attendance was up, aviation enthusiasts were greeted with this sight in several of the display hangars:

If AirVenture is supposed to be the pinnacle event for aviation enthusiasts around the world, empty booths and non-aviation related vendors are a foreboding indication of where the future lies for our passion. This past year, the Experimental Aviation Association significantly raised prices for booth space, which priced out several aviation nonprofits from having space this year. In addition, the number of booths that one attendee I spoke with described perfectly as “carnie-type” significantly increased: those selling personal massagers, saunas, a number of pain relief/skincare creams, and most confusing, a booth selling pots and pans in the FlyMarket area of the show.

While the increase in the number of booths dedicated to pain relief and other associated problems of aging might be a better indication of the changing demographics of AirVenture, the sheer number and placement of these non-aviation booths was surprising and disconcerting. AirVenture is an understandably expensive proposition for EAA, but allowing prime real estate to go to non-aviation vendors defeats the purpose of having an event from an organization that touts itself as being the “Spirit of Aviation.”

There were apparently more attendees at Oshkosh this year than in past years, but I found it very easy to get around the display areas of the show during the second half of the week, quite unlike the  crowded throngs of years past. Something about the equation of AirVenture is off…and aviation suffers for it. That said, some basic changes could do well to reinvigorate the show and open it up to a broader audience, particularly those that will carry the show well into the future. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Devote an area of a display hangar to local/regional/national aviation nonprofits (with an emphasis on the future generation of aviation enthusaists  at a discounted display rate. If we are truly interested in fostering the future of aviation at a grassroots level, these organizations are the ones that work in tandem with Young Eagles to foster interest in our communities. A display area dedicated to these organizations could work well at promoting to attendees and sharing of best practices among other groups. This area should be either subsidized or discounted, as the current display booth rates have priced the vast majority of these organizations out of the market.
  • Better promotion of opportunities at AirVenture for middle school, high school and university students. The College Park/Education & Interactive Zone is a fantastic idea, but does not receive nearly the attention or promotion it should. While universities do their best to promote their presence at the space, EAA needs to be the one driving families looking at employment/college/other opportunities. KidVenture is prominent in materials, announcements and other promotions. Trams stopping at the College Park area rarely announced the area’s goals, mentioning the forum buildings and nothing else.
  • Innovative approaches to “weaker” days at the show and other special events. EAA said that attendance was up 20% on the Saturday and Sunday of AirVenture. Sunday’s attendance was likely reduced throughout the day by a series of thunderstorms that put a damper (literally) on activities. The last day of AirVenture continues to be a “lost” day for attendees, booth staff, volunteers and the like. The Thunderbirds were a likely draw, but they won’t be coming back to AirVenture every final Sunday. Why not get creative with a final day special? Alternatively, it might just be better to scale back the show entirely on Sunday and leave time for vendors to pack up and leave in the morning. This year’s AirVenture included a career fair and College Mixer. Neither were well promoted to attendees and the public. Instead, offer free or 1/2 price admission on the day of to those attending these events. What better way to get the younger generations and their families involved?

While AirVenture continues to be the pinnacle celebration of aviation, EAA and other partner organizations need to be aware that these warning signs for the future of Oshkosh have drastic implications for where we will be in the next 10-20 years.

Flying Trains on Tracks

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

You can’t look at the emerging future of aviation without being interested in drones.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are going to explode in the coming years.  No matter what your area of focus – agriculture, power generation and exploration, wildlife management and protection, news gathering, law enforcement, military, personal entertainment,  etc., the list goes on and on – there’s a drone in your future.

I’ve been specifically looking at drones lately for a specific project (that I’ll mention in a later post), and I’m impressed with the options and versatility of what is available for things like fighting poachers in Africa, just as a starter.

There are a host of small, model-aircraft-like platforms with very sophisticated sensor packages and GPS-based capabilities – most a byproduct of military development – that start around US$ 10,000 and go up from there.  The sky is literally the limit.

In this case, the limit may well be the concept that the folks at Biosphere, LLC and their Dorsal drone air freighter project.  This is really quite intriguing.  They have a number of models on the drawing boards, starting with their Quad aircraft (shown below) that is designed to establish a new commerce transportation bridge across oceans. Quad

This is an all-cargo, unpressurized aircraft with standardized containers that become an integral part of the structure of the aircraft.  It will have a 362,000 pound useful load capacity and a range of 8,400 nm.

With people removed from the aircraft, it can now fly in the most fuel efficient method, which usually means slower and lower altitudes resulting lower fuel costs.· In addition, weird looking heavy load configurations are possible as there would be no people on board requiring aesthetic design and noise reduction considerations.· McDonnell Douglas once had a program testing an unducted prop fan.· Even though it showed potential of having fuel savings of 30% or more, it was never pursued because the cabin noise would have been higher and it needed to fly slower than other jet aircraft.

Smart ‘load sensing’ containers are equipped with interlocks which connect together to become a structural load carrying component of the airframe. In commercial transport this could result in twice the payload delivered for the same amount of fuel.pic2

World trade today is standardized on Intermodal containers that can be shipped via cargo ships, trains, and trucks.  However, aircraft systems have developed their own LD containers and pallet systems, primarily because if they carried containers, the container weight would reduce the overall payload the aircraft is able to carry.  With today’s fuel costs, the drive to go to extremes to eliminate weight can be seen with the costs of developing new lighter systems such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 aircraft.

Re-purposing unmanned military aircraft is as simple as changing the Dorsal Pods (containers).  Logistics supply, mid-air fuel tanker, attack platform and more -  all with the same single drone airframe.

An interesting aspect of the concept is that it will only fly over the oceans from new, dedicated intermodal airfields near the coasts that connect the fleet with trains and trucks. In flight these giant drones will operate like trains on tracks – flying standard oceanic tracks on given schedules, just like flying trains.

Watch this short video on their commercial trans-oceanic drone concept.  Rather interesting.

Why mention this big commercial aircraft in a GA blog? Well, it is a clear indication of the present direction to the future of GA.

Tell me, in five years if these folks have got this kind of platform functioning, that the success, technology and principles of operation won’t very quickly percolate down to GA design . . . and even operation.  It would be very hard to develop a new aircraft in this environment that didn’t begin to integrate some of these innovations.

This is just the high end of a very rapidly moving trend that will obviously change the role and operation of GA aircraft in the not too distant future.