Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

Notes from Paris: F-WILE Beguiles and Intrigues

Monday, June 29th, 2015

There are a lot of interesting aircraft displayed during the Paris Air Show every two years, but only one LSA caught my eye in 2015: the Airbus E-Fan technology demonstrator, designated experimental F-WILE. You can see it fly at the link here. Take the time to listen to the entire 7.5 minute audio (it’s okay if you don’t speak French, the British announcer repeats the narration in English halfway through). And turn up the sound. Listen. Air

What do you hear? Almost nothing behind the narration, not because they have manipulated the soundtrack. The E-Fan is practically silent. Its two 43 hp ducted fan motors barely hum as they push its all-composite airframe through its high speed and low speed passes at Le Bourget just a couple weeks ago.

The two-seat technology demonstrator proves that electric flight can solve some of Europe’s pressing issues with flight training, and perhaps one day, with commercial flight. The aircraft noise is non-existent, as is its emissions. It is phenomenally efficient, and once equipped with swappable power-pack solutions, it will meet its mission: becoming a viable alternative to expensive-to-run, aging training aircraft.

Beyond the obvious innovations lies the beguiling inner workings of the E-Fan, specifically its cockpit instrumentation. The E-Fan Connected Cockpit brings together advances in glass cockpit instrument technology with new iconology that makes it easier for pilots to interpret the information displayed. The power management, for example, pre-calculates the effect of flight conditions such as altitude, airspeed and terrain profile. The status of available electrical energy is displayed on a removable computer tablet, along with the e-aircraft’s planned flight path, as well as for alternates in the event of in-flight re-routing.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

That removable tablet is another key innovation. It serves as the navigation and training display, providing information that supplements the aircraft’s fixed left-hand Primary Flight Display. Pilots can pre-plan the flight away from the aircraft and simply insert the tablet into its place on the panel to upload and interface the flight plan. And after the flight? The computer tablet serves as a highly interactive training device in the classroom, enabling review of the flight in detail. Energy management, flight times and maintenance details can also be reviewed, allowing for easy digital logging of all relevant aircraft conditions. Conceivably, with wifi, the tablet can simply upload all data to the company server as soon as it regains connectivity, on the ramp or in the hangar. Nice.

GA benefits from the E-Fan in more ways than you can imagine. For one, the conglomerate Airbus, one of the three largest aircraft manufacturers in the world, is behind the research and development. The E-Fan did not appear on a napkin at a bar one night out of the slightly soggy brain of some nameless visionary engineer. It is a key component of the E-Thrust concept study, Airbus Group’s on-going hybrid and electrical propulsion system research, which has seen the hybrid concept study for a full-scale helicopter, the successful development of a Cri-Cri ultralight modified as the world’s first four-engine all-electric aerobatic aircraft, the demonstration flights of a hybrid electric motor glider, the flight testing of a short-range mini-unmanned aerial vehicle with an advanced fuel cell as well as the concept study of a hybrid-electric propulsion system for this rotorcraft. That is why the technology took only three years to go from vapor-ware announcement to flying demonstrator. And now that Airbus declared at the Paris Air Show that it will manufacture the aircraft for the training and LSA market, we can expect to see E-Fans ready for purchase before the decade is out.

Who can afford this kind of advanced LSA? Hey, when you are considering a fleet of them, more entities than you’d think. Also, I’d imagine the terms will be generous in the beginning, as Airbus uses these small two-seaters to refine its concepts for upscaling to its commercial aircraft fleet.

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

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAA Reauthorization from a Global Perspective

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

This year’s Regional Airline Association (RAA) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, was a fascinating place to be if you are at all interested in how the various interested parties in the U.S. and abroad are thinking about the up and coming FAA Reauthorization. (And if you aren’t interested you should be. GA pilots have a stake in how the FAA’s limited resources are parceled out.)

FAA mission shift, delays caused by ATC inefficiencies and TSA inefficiencies, noise, environmental concerns: they talked about it all. RAA interim President Faye Malarkey Black sat stage center surrounded on both sides by association leaders that included European Regional Airlines Association Director General Simon McNamara; Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio; Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke, and Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman. Each brought a different angle on the issue, all of it fascinating to me, a user of regional airlines, and a general aviation pilot who wants to keep using my fair share of the system that my taxes pay for.

Leading the concerns was the fear that there will be no pilots to fly regional airliners in the U.S. if an effective career pathway is not both clearly established and marketed to high school students on a national level.

Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman is deeply worried. “Our carriers guarantee overnight service in cargo. We depend on our regional cargo partners to get the packages to those outlying communities, and from them to our gateway hubs for transit to destination. If we don’t have the pilots we can’t guarantee service to those small communities. That changes our whole business model. We’ve got to be more creative. I think it is in all of our interests to form a partnership between the academic community, military, regionals and mainline carriers to work together to create a track for pilot training.”

On the subject of air service frequency, Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke said, “We’ve seen loss of air service at smaller fields. We don’t want to hand over the business to buses and trains. These small air fields are gold for their communities.” He probably wasn’t thinking about the opportunities for Part 135 charter aircraft services that open up when the airlines pull out of a small community airport. But then, Part 135 operators don’t offer the volume of people buying tickets that airports are becoming dependent on for revenue.

Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio thinks big change is necessary. “ATC is key,” he implored. “In every other regulatory government body, they don’t have ATC and FAA under one roof. We think we should have a nonprofit commercial entity for ATC that is funded not by taxes but some other format, and has an independent body that manages it and has industry representation and a pure safety focus to its objective,” he said.

ERA Director General Simon McNamara chuckled and said, “In Europe we’ve got 28 regulatory bodies, different languages, different cultures and one safety body that sits on top of air traffic control. Yet the FAA delivers a service with a 34% less per unit cost than Europe. We’re quite jealous of how simple you have it, so consider yourself lucky.”

When he put it like that, I certainly did!

A Tale of Two Air Shows: Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Springtime after the longest winters are often times the most special, and spring 2015 is no different. Both the flowers and the dormant fliers, particularly of light aircraft, bloom anew. Two April-based air show / fly-ins fire up what may prove to be a most interesting season: Aero Friedrichshafen, in Germany, and Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, Florida. And the two shows could not be more different.

Aero’s highlights this year were electric—literally! The show focused on electric propulsion and capturing power from the sun to fly. Why? In Europe pilots have suffered through decades of unnaturally high fuel costs that have effectively tamped down their enthusiasm for general aviation. Green fuel initiatives, from bio-diesel to electric are offering thousands of pilots and would-be pilots hope that general aviation can thrive again by bypassing fossil fuels completely.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. we are celebrating a winter of lower fuel pricing, and a springtime that has those prices holding steady. New legislation eliminating the need for a Third Class medical for some GA pilots is in committee and could help keep older pilots flying while encouraging more recreational fliers to join the flock. On the professional side of the aviation industry labor shortages are beginning to sting. A dearth of both airline-ready pilots and mechanics are putting the stops on growth at regional airlines around the U.S.

As I write this Sun ‘n Fun’s Fly-in is in full swing and vendors at the event are excited that real buyers are on the Lakeland Linder Airport with money in their pockets ready to spend. To spur them on Piper Aircraft and Mooney Aircraft are both offering new airframes, at the top for Piper (the M600 single-engine turboprop) and at the bottom for Mooney (a diesel-powered trainer). Superior Aviation set forth a three-cylinder, 100 hp diesel engine replacement for the Rotax 912 piston-engine, and revealed plans to scale up to larger diesel powerplants.

Interestingly, several airlines, both regional and national, and a dozen aviation training centers (universities to FBOs) were recruiting onsite, too. Where to find more commercial pilots, A&P mechanics, and certified dispatch professionals was a big topic of conversation there. The good news is that the Sun ‘n Fun charitable arm and its funding partners are working hard on the problem, reaching out to youth through educational projects and scholarships in high school and colleges around Central Florida (and beyond) to teach them the wonders of aviation, and all of its potential.

The best news, though, is that even with their differences, both Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun are revealing the upbeat, optimistic sentiment prevailing among general aviation pilots this spring. Hey, it’s getting warmer, the sun is shining a little longer every day, and the skies are showing their blue. There is no time like the present to start working on the future. Get up and get flying!

The Weakest Link

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

If one particular component of an aircraft was determined to be the root cause of 90% of all accidents, wouldn’t we have an Airworthiness Directive out on it? Wouldn’t it be replaced completely? Well we do have such a component: the pilot.

We’re at the point where this isn’t just an academic exercise. A pilot-free airliner or business aircraft is well within the realm of today’s technology. NASA has been researching single-pilot airline cockpits; that gets us halfway there. Corporate aircraft ranging from King Airs to Citations have been certified and operated by a single pilot for decades.

On the other hand, after the Germanwings disaster virtually every airline now has a policy ensuring there are never less than two people on the flight deck — the exact opposite. So which way should we be heading?

Your average pilot probably doesn’t think of him or herself as the weakest link. I certainly don’t. But those pesky statistics…

It brings to mind the illusory superiority bias, that statistically improbably belief of being above average. The most famous example concerns drivers:

According to a study published in a Swedish Psychology journal (Acta Psychologica) a whopping 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. The sample consisted of students, and while the study was conducted in multiple countries, it because obvious that Americans saw themselves as even better drivers than their Swedish counterparts. The Swedish came in at a much lower 69%.

In another similar study by McCormick, Walkey and Green (1986) drivers rated them 80% above average.

Despite extensive training on hazardous attitudes and ADM, pilots aren’t immune to this phenomenon. We’re still human. In fact, the successful, driven type of personality our avocation attracts probably make it more common than in the automotive world. If 93% of drivers feel they’re above average, one wonders how high the needle swings on the pilot population. Who among us wants to admit that despite the massive investment of time, effort, and money we are still subpar?

Are we the weakest link?

Are we the weakest link?

That sort of acknowledgement can be pretty hard on a person’s self-image, but aviators should care about this phenomenon because nine out of 10 accidents are attributed to pilot error. In other words, we literally are the weakest link.

I certainly include myself in that statement. If I had a dime for every mistake I’ve made over the years! Sometimes I think I’ve made them all. In fact a friend of mine — a professional pilot who is known as an excellent aviator — once said that in reviewing the NASA-style safety reports made by line pilots at his company, “I find I’ve made every one of those mistakes myself. Every single one.”

To err may be human, but it’s grating to find myself making the same mistake multiple times; doing so runs a little too close to Einstein’s definition of insanity. For example, I’ve flown while suffering from active food poisoning on two occasions. The circumstances were not identical, but you’d think I’d have learned enough from one episode to have avoided the other.

The first case hit me during a picnic at the Santa Ynez Airport. I had two choices: stay in town or fly home. I chose the latter, and while I made it back without incident, it was a lousy decision to takeoff when feeling so bad.

The second incident occurred at an aerobatic contest in Delano, California. These contests take place in areas where it’s hot and windy. Pilots assist with contest operation when they’re not flying, meaning we’re busy and spend most of the day out in the sun. It’s common to end up dehydrated even while drinking plenty of water. I ate something which didn’t agree with me, and by the time I realized how bad the poisoning was, I’d already flown a hard aerobatic sequence.

This is why I’ve come to be a big believer in the IMSAFE checklist. Amy Laboda just wrote about the importance of this checklist a few days ago. If we can ensure the biological component of our flying is in airworthy shape, the odds of a safe flight rise considerably. IMSAFE isn’t even a complete checklist. It doesn’t mention nutrituion, for example — something my wife will tell you I sometimes ignore.

Pilots may be the cause of most accidents, but in my experience they’re also the cause of many “saves”. Quantas 32, Apollo 13, United 232, Air Canada 143, and USAir 1549 are just a few famous examples of human ingenuity keeping what should have been an unrecoverable mechanical failure at bay. I know of several general aviation incidents which turned out well due to the creative efforts of the pilots. These typically don’t make the evening news, and I imagine there are countless more we’ll never hear about, because when a flight lands without incident it doesn’t generate much attention or publicity. Accident statistics do us a disservice in that regard.

This is why I feel removing humans from the cockpit is not the answer. Commercial flying already holds claim as the safest form of transportation. Light general aviation is a different story, but that’s the price we pay for the incredible freedom and diversity offered by Part 91. No, we would be better served by focusing on improved aeronautical decision making, self-assessment, and training. As I’ve found through bitter experience, it’s a constant battle. Just because you’ve made a thousand flights without incident doesn’t mean your next one will be safe. It’s up to each of us to maintain vigilance throughout every single one of our airborne days.

Statistically speaking, we are the weakest link. But we don’t have to be.

How Far is Far Enough?

Monday, March 9th, 2015

There’s an old saying about fuel: unless you’re on fire, you can never have enough. I wonder, is the same thing true of an aircraft’s range?

With a 7,000 nautical mile reach, Gulfstream’s G650 was already an ultra-long range business jet before the ‘ER’ edition tacked on an additional 500 nm of capability. The G-series flagship recently set two records while flying around the world with a single fuel stop.

To be fair, Steve Wynn’s G650 flew eastbound from New York to Beijing and continued east to Savannah, Georgia for a total distance of 13,511 nautical miles. While that may satisfy the practical definition of the phrase, it doesn’t come close to the actual 21,600 nm equatorial circumference of the planet. Lest you think I’m picking nits, consider that you could fly “around the world” near the north pole with a Cessna 172 and do it on a single tank of gas. Get close enough to the pole and you could walk around the world in a few seconds. Doing so wouldn’t necessarily make you Superman.

Clearly, some kind of definition would be helpful. For the purposes of aeronautical records, a circumnavigation is considered by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to be a flight which a) covers a distance no less than the length of the Tropic of Cancer, b) crosses all meridians, and c) begins and ends at the same airport. In other words, the FAI’s criteria requires a minimum flight of 19,853 nautical miles, or 6,342 further than Wynn’s G650 traveled.

This is not to denigrate the G650’s achievement. They flew a long way, and did it at a high rate of speed — Mach 0.87. The city pair records it set on this trip will probably stand for a long time. But I can’t help but wonder, how much further could a person want to go? How much range is “far enough”? Since the globe is 21,600 nautical miles in circumference, one might be tempted to assume the answer is 10,800 nm. If airplanes were used to travel between random geographic points, that might make sense, but they’re using to travel between airports. Usually the ones near major cities.

One of the longest city pairs is Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, about 10,000 nautical miles. Auckland to London is about the same. If that was the typical mission, the G650ER’s 7,500 nm range could still be improved upon by a longer-range airplane. But for the vast majority of pairings on our little blue marble, the ER can already do it on a single tank.

It seems to me that eking out those final miles may come at a steep price. Beyond the monetary cost, it would involve heavier weights, longer wings, the requirement for additional crewmembers, and so on. Even if the only thing needed was greater efficiency via winglets, incremental engine improvements, aerodynamic cleanup, and so on, it would still require vital resources like time and money — limitations every bit as real as the ones we face with smaller aircraft.

So should we expect to see longer range airplanes being developed, or will future emphasis be placed on speed and comfort? As always, the market will dictate the answer. Nobody develops a $60 million conveyance without extensive consultation with their client base. It’s worth noting that the G650 is such an exceptional product because it made significant strides in speed, range, and comfort simultaneously. That’s rare. By contrast, the upcoming G500 and G600 don’t break new ground in terms of speed or range, but do provide improved technology and most of the 650’s hallmark capabilities at a lower price point.

I’ve gone on record as predicting that the next big jump will be an increase in cruise speed — namely, a supersonic business jet. At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal: compressing time. Eliminating fuel stops is certainly one way to do it, but that only takes you so far. What comes next when the need to refuel is gone? Once the sound barrier is broken, the race will really be on. You’ll see officially recognized circumnavigations occurring on a much faster and more frequent basis, and business aviation’s value will rise exponentially.

Flying Backward

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

Aviation insurance pioneer A. G. Lamplugh uttered that oft-quoted phrase more than eighty years ago, and it’s as valid today as it was back then. Like Newton’s Laws of Physics, it’s one of the basic, unchanging truths about flying: certain things simply must be done properly if we’re to avoid disaster in the air. One of the best examples would be dealing with a low-altitude engine failure.

Last week’s TransAsia ATR-72 accident is a potent reminder of this aphorism. While we don’t know the cause yet and probably won’t know the whole story for a year or more, it got me thinking about how oddly things are done in aviation sometimes. For example, airline pilots move “up” the food chain from turboprops to jets. If safety is the paramount concern, that’s backwards. Shouldn’t the most experienced pilots should be exercising their skills on the most challenging aircraft rather than the least?

While jets certainly have their pitfalls and perils, a low-altitude engine failure is generally more challenging in a turboprop. The dead engine’s propeller creates tremendous drag until it’s properly secured. Many multi-engine turboprops are equipped with mechanisms to automatically feather the offending prop, but if that system doesn’t function properly, has been deferred, or simply doesn’t exist, the pilot is faced with six levers in close proximity, only one of which will do the trick. It’s easy to pull the wrong one.

Worse yet, if the craft has an autofeather system, the pilot would logically expect it to function as advertised. He or she would have to first detect the lack of feathering, then run the identify-verify-feather drill. Unlike training scenarios, there’s a major surprise factor at play as well. In a simulator, is anyone really surprised when the engine quits? Of course not. In the real world, pilots make thousands of flights where a powerplant doesn’t fail. As much as you tell yourself with each takeoff that “this could be the one”, empirical evidence in the form of a pilot’s own experience suggests against it. That makes preparation for a low-altitude emergency a constant battle with oneself. Are we always honest about how we’re doing in that fight? Probably not.

When I flew ex-military U-21A turboprops for a government contractor, we did all our training in the actual aircraft. I’ll never forget how marginal the aircraft’s performance was, even when engine failures were handled properly and expediently. We would fly a single-engine approach into Catalina Airport, where the missed approach procedure takes you toward the center of the island and some fairly high terrain. On one training flight the autofeather system initially worked as advertised, but then started to slowly unfeather.

Turboprop flying also comes with increased risk exposure due to the flight profile. A jet pilot might fly one or two legs a day versus five, six, or seven flown by the guy in the turboprop. With more legs comes an increased statistical opportunity for that engine to quit on takeoff. Turboprops also fly at lower altitudes where they tend to be in weather rather than above it.

The reciprocating twin pilot has it even worse when it comes to performance. Most of them have no guarantee of any climb performance at all on one engine, especially with the gear down, and few are equipped with automatic feathering systems. Yet that’s where we all start out.

Contrast this with engine failure in the modern jet, where the pilot need do nothing but raise the landing gear and keep the nose straight. In my aircraft, at least, we don’t even add power on the remaining engine. Unless the plane is literally on fire, we just climb straight out for a minute or two, gaining altitude and doing… nothing. No checklist to run, and only two levers in the throttle quadrant rather than six.

John Deakin described the contrast between prop and jet quite colorfully when he transitioned into the G-IV:

“If you hear a Gulfstream pilot whine about poor performance when high, hot, and heavy, please understand, he’s whining about less than 1,000 feet per minute on one engine. I sometimes feel like slapping a chokehold on, and dragging one of these guys out to the old C-46, loaded, on a hot day, and make him do an engine failure on takeoff, where he’d be lucky to get 50 feet per minute.”

There are other places where you can see this same phenomenon at work in aviation. Consider the world of flight instruction. The least experienced CFIs typically start off by teaching primary students. Again, that’s backwards. It would seem more logical to start instructors off with checkouts and endorsements for experienced pilots or commercial certificate training. Putting the best, most experienced CFIs with the neophytes might help accelerate their progress and alleviate the high student pilot drop-out rate.

The Law of Primacy — something every CFI candidate learns about — tells us that “the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” Primary flight training literally sets the foundation of an aviator’s flying life, to say nothing of the fact that teaching primary students is one of the most difficult jobs a CFI can undertake. So why is this critical task mainly entrusted to the newest, least experienced instructors?

The answer to these questions usually comes down to money. The almighty dollar frequently plays a powerful role in explaining the unexplainable in aviation. While it would be unrealistic to deny the importance of financial concerns in defying gravity, whole sections of the aviation ecosystem run backwards and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps safety suffers because of it.

Data, Data … Who Has the Data … and What Will They Do With It?

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Whether an airplane slides off the side of the runway during takeoff or disappears behind some tall trees on final approach, the reaction is pretty universal. People want to know, “what happened?” In the heavy metal airplanes like Boeings, Airbus’ or Gulfstreams, the investigation of what went wrong begins by retrieving the flight data and cockpit voice recorders that typically survive almost every kind of mishap. The data on those recorders help investigators re-create the moments before the chaos began … what control was moved in which direction, where the power was set or what one pilot said to the other. The data becomes the basis for the Board’s final report that offers valuable insights to the industry, many that quickly make their way to the pilot training providers.

But on the GA side of flying, that kind data and analysis is almost non-existent. We need to fill that GA vacuum for the same reason large aircraft carry data recorders … to prevent the same accident from reoccurring.

Stratus 2Thanks to the glass avionics now standard on just about every production airplane in the U.S., the job of capturing operational data is becoming easier. Unknown to may pilots, both the Garmin and Avidyne avionics offer downloads of operational data by simply inserting an “SD” memory card in a front panel. ForeFlight users can also capture their flights on their iPad. Add a Stratus 2 from Sporty’s and pilots can download enough data to create a simulation in X-Plane. Imagine watching your performance as if you’d been flying alongside as your own wingman. Hook up an Iridium Go! to a Stratus 2 and you can download the data via satellite while the aircraft is still airborne. The University of North Dakota is already deep into testing data capture systems on its flight training fleet to better gauge both aircraft and pilot performance.

And not a moment too soon since the NTSB reminded us a few weeks ago that loss of control inflight (LOCI) is enough of a GA to land LOCI on the Board’s Top 10 List of Transportation worries for 2015.

Of course the real value in trend analysis evolves by analyzing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of flights. But will the GA industry take the steps needed to capture more data and, after scrubbing it clean of any identifying tags, share it with the world for analysis? The airlines and business aviation are beginning to learn the value of identifying these kinds of trends before an accident occurs.

A few stumbling blocks to using the data from today’s airplanes include worries about cost, privacy and enforcement. The cost issue is actually an easy one though, despite the huge requirement for ADS-B Out looming in 2020, because data capture isn’t required by the FAA. It’s just valuable information. The equipment is either already on board, or can be added pretty inexpensively. A Stratus 2 that sells for $899 and an Iridium Go! listing out at $799 represent the top of the line for data capture options. The Stratus also gives an aircraft ADS-B In capabilities at no extra charge. Many data capture options cost much less. The MITRE Corp. worked closely with the FAA to produce a handy app — called GAARD — you’ll find at iTunes store that is a pretty slick tool for basic data capturing just using your iPhone. Don’t be surprised when insurance companies begin offering discounts to pilots who monitor their data like auto insurers are trying right now.Iridium Go!

Certainly privacy and enforcement go hand in hand with everyone worrying about who might view their last flight and what action they might take. For the commercial and business carriers, service providers already exist that scrub the data of identifying information while they focus on the issues the data identifies pretty much the way we’ve grown accustomed to using the ASRS forms through NASA.

With the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 2012-2013 Accident Scorecard chronicling 948 fixed-wing accidents in 2013 that cut short the lives of 165 people, I’d say we have our work cut out for us. The question is whether enough pilots will gather together to take advantage of a system that might help GA vanish from the NTSB’s list in the near future.

Who’s the Best Pilot?

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

One of the many iconic scenes (so much so that it recurs several times in the film) from The Right Stuff has astronaut Gordon Cooper asking his wife, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” before answering his own question: “You’re lookin’ at him!” Gordo was telling a joke, of course, but it got me thinking about what constitutes a great pilot in the real world.

Accident statistics show that when light GA pilots try to operate on a firmly fixed schedule — for example, around the holidays — the risk level increases. AOPA recently published an Air Safety Alert to that effect, noting “a cluster of GA accidents occurring in close succession.”

Some of this probably has to do with the fact that the holiday season occurs in the winter for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. While the hot months have their own set of challenges, they tend to consist of things which present equal hazard to all aircraft: thunderstorms, high density altitude, etc. But whereas large multi-engine turbojets are well-equipped for cold weather flying, single-engine recips typically operate with minimal anti- and de-icing equipment, if any.

Anyway, it occurs to me that this kind of flying is exactly what we do in the Part 135 world. We operate on someone else’s timetable, and rarely is that schedule created with weather, circadian rhythm, airport staffing hours, or other such operational concerns in mind. As you might expect, the 135 safety record — while far better than Part 91 — does not reach the rarefied heights of the scheduled airlines. Some people feel it should. There are plenty of folks who feel Part 91 should reach that strata as well.

I tend to disagree.

Part 135 has the flexibility to operate at random times and into a far wider variety of places than scheduled airlines. While we do everything possible to make the flights as safe as humanly possible, flexibility cannot help but exact a price. Flying worldwide charter, I don’t know if my next trip will take me to Liberia or Las Vegas. I have to be prepared to go anywhere.

If that sounds incredible, then light general aviation flying should really blow your mind! The non-commercial Part 91 aviating so many of us do for personal reasons takes that freedom and ramps it up a hundred fold. Not only can you go anywhere you want at any time it suits you, you can do it at night, in IMC, in formation, and fly some aerobatics or sight-see along the way. You can fly a weird experimental airplane that you built in your garage. You can tow banners. Drop things from your airplane, then cut them up as they fall to earth? Yes, that’s fine. Fly high… or low. You can change your destination in mid-flight without asking anyone’s permission.

Heck, you can even take off with no destination whatsoever; those are some of my most cherished flights. When I call the VFR clearance delivery frequency at John Wayne Airport and they ask where I’m headed, nothing says freedom quite like using William Shatner’s response from the first Star Trek film: “Out there. That-a-way!”

Wrapping your mind around having the liberty to do those things while not being able to install a radio in your panel without approval from a certification office somewhere in Oklahoma City could cause a migraine… but let’s leave that for another day.

The point is, with added freedom comes added risk. And responsibility. It’s ironic that we think of airline pilots as having the greatest weight on their shoulders when rules, procedures, and operational specifications dictate almost everything they do. I’m not saying their job is easy. It ain’t. But if you’re not in awe of the authority and self-determination placed on your own shoulders every time you launch, think about this: we could have the safety record of the major airlines. All we’d need are the same rules and requirements for flight that they use. Seems to me that would be an awful lot like asking Santa for a big, dirty lump of coal in your stocking.

If there’s a way to have the freedom to land on five hundred foot long strips on the side of a mountain, tackle water runways, engage in flight training, and — most of all — fly to that family Christmas in an airplane with just one reciprocating engine without significantly higher risk than you’ll find on a typical airliner, I’d be quite surprised. But one thing every pilot has in common is that risk management is a major part of the job.

So as you contemplate that cross-country flight to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, remember that the best pilot isn’t the one who finds the cheapest fuel, stuffs the most presents into the baggage compartment, or makes the softest landing. It’s the one who best manages the risk inherent in that flight.

Right, Gordo?

Rulemaking Adjusts Training Device Credit for Pilot Certification

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

On Wednesday, December 3, 2014, the FAA issued a direct to final rule that will increase the allowed use of aviation training devices (ATDs) for instrument training. The rule will double the allowances under 14 CFR section 61.65(i) to 20 hours for credit in an ATD and allows flight schools operating under part 141 Appendix C to have a 40 percent training credit in an ATD for the instrument (IFR) rating. Previous allowances for ATD use were capped at 10 hours under part 61 and 10 percent under 141. The rule also removes the requirement to use a view-limiting device in the ATD. The comment period for the direct final rule will close Friday, January 2, 2015. The rule will become effective Tuesday, January 20, 2015, if no adverse comments are received.

In concert with this rule change is an update to Advisory Circular 61–136A, FAA Approval of Aviation Training Devices and Their Use for Training and Experience, which has been revised to improve guidance for the application and approval of these training devices. The AC also provides additional guidance on ATD use for training and how to properly log the time.

Finally, it looks like the FAA is coming around to agreeing with what we CFIIs have known for years. The airborne cockpit environment is a horrible classroom in which to teach. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.

Ground school evolved from these realizations. Most flight instructors will acknowledge the learning benefits of imparting knowledge in quiet, well-lit, calming environments.  On the ground, in an ATD, CFIs can control how any flight lesson is going to play out.

Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. That is, unless the CFII programs any of those anomalies into the ATD. Total control. Every teacher I know, no matter what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.

Students may not know it (they are often aching so badly for flight time that the thought of being in an ATD turns their stomachs) but flight simulation by computer is truly an extension of all the good things that ground school imparts to students. Doubling up on the ATD time, especially for IFR students, can easily shorten training time, sometimes cutting it in half, because it is easy for the instructor to program the ATD to quickly set up for repetition. Want to fly seven ILS approaches in an hour? No problem? Need to practice four different holding pattern entries? We can slew you instantly to any location, altitude, attitude—and you can take it from there. Over, and over, until you fly it right.

Cutting training time, however, is just one benefit of the ATD. The other is its cost. Most FBO-owned ATDs cost less to operate than an aircraft. That cost savings is passed to the student, who can save from one third to one half what it would cost to perform the same lesson in an aircraft.

Yes, this time the FAA knows what it is doing and has the stats to back up the decision. So make sure you get on the Federal Register site and let the FAA know we like the new ATD regulation. Do it before January 2!

Here is the link: