Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

Fly By Mind

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

In previous posts here I’ve suggested that one of the big problems with the future of flying is that it is too hard to learn how to fly an airplane.  Pilots today are manually controlling the same elevator-aileron-rudder combination like Lindbergh did when he was flying in the early 1920s, and mastering the control of three dimensions is not intuitive. Getting the mind and body to work in the right way to keep from crashing takes a lot of work and money and presents a significant barrier to entry to aspiring aviators.

FlyByMind1The solution to this problem is obvious.  Make all new airplanes fly-by-wire and drive the controls with a computer . . . which can be programmed to convert any new and easier pilot input scheme into appropriate control surface outputs.  The inputs could be almost anything – including, it is now clear, your mind.

In late May researchers from Technische Universität München in Germany described the emergence of a new paradigm. In part they said:

The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway. The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.

FlyByMind2This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM). Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”.

I’ve tried to make it clear that we are on the verge of an unprecedented revolution in aviation, driven and supported by information technology.  We’re talking things much more than glass panels and things like that that, which although new, would look familiar.  This revolution is being described by the convergence of a number of breakthroughs, some of which (like mind control of the aircraft), seem very foreign how we think of flying and airplanes.

Many big breakthroughs in display and computer interface technologies get their start in the gaming and entertainment sectors.  Here demands for lifelike, high resolution presentations (think of the 3D film Avatar), compete with compellingly immersive virtual reality goggles and new, more intuitive input-output device.  Early computer thought control approaches showed up first in the gaming space. Now it is spreading to aviation.

FlyByMind3The gaming (and now Facebook) world has also produced another breakthrough product that is certain to change how we fly . . . and everything else.  The cover of the present issue of WIRED characterizes it thus:

This kid (21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey), is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education – and reality.  The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind.

Oculus is talking about a set of virtual reality goggles that: “. . . creates a stereoscopic 3D view with excellent depth, scale, and parallax. Unlike 3D on a television or in a movie, this is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. This is the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.”

The WIRED article explains why Facebook paid $2 billion for this little start-up with two dozen employees a couple of months ago and why it represents a paradigm shift that will obviously change the whole idea of IFR flying.  Just think of putting on your Oculus Rift and making all of the weather disappear.  Drop it over your eyes and there’s a new augmented reality world that has every bit of information available from every database you select superimposed in front of your field of view.

Couple that with only needing to “think” about what you want to do and where you want to go and you’ve clearly got a new world out there.

Happy Birthday Garmin G1000 – 10 Years

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

G1000 Birthday Cake 10th AnniversaryCongratulations to Garmin on introducing the G1000 ten years ago. I bet most readers are surprised that this wildly successful glass cockpit has been around so long. If you still haven’t flown one of these fun systems yet, don’t let another ten years slip by before you do!

A Brief History
Rarely in the last fifty years has General Aviation experienced such a tidal wave of change. In only two years, the industry converted nearly 100% of piston aircraft shipments from round gauges to glass cockpits. And for the first time, it meant that a student pilot could learn behind the same glass panel that he or she might later use in a jet!

Cirrus and Avidyne led the revolution in 2003 by adding a PFD (Primary Flight Display) to the MFD (Multifunction Display) that already shipped in the SR20 and SR22. That glass cockpit system, the Avidyne Entegra had its greatest success at Cirrus until the Cirrus Perspective, a G1000 derivative, debuted in the SR22 in May 2008.

The Garmin G1000 was first shipped in a Diamond DA40 in June 2004. Meanwhile, in Independence, Kansas, nearly completed Cessna 182’s were filling the ramp as the factory awaited their G1000 deliveries. The first Cessna 182/G1000s were delivered in July 2004 and 172s began shipping with the G1000 in early 2005.

By mid-2005, five aircraft OEMs including Cessna, Diamond, Beechcraft, Mooney, and Tiger announced shipment of the Garmin G1000 in most of their piston aircraft. Columbia, which previously offered the Avidyne Entegra in their 350 and 400 aircraft, converted to the G1000 in early 2006, though not without a major problem from Mother Nature. Nearly 50 new Columbias were parked outside the factory, all awaiting delivery of G1000 systems, when a freak hailstorm pelted the planes. Months were spent quantifying the damage and determining how and if to repair the composite wings, which had hundreds of micro dents from the hail.

The Revolution
Reading or hearing about a glass cockpit for the first time is akin to reading or hearing about EAA’s AirVenture at Oshkosh. Until you actually experience it, it’s hard to imagine just how great it is and how much it will exceed your expectations.

I was initially skeptical when I read magazine reports about the then new G1000. I’d spent 25 years working in the high technology industry, where occasionally I saw technology thrown at problems that could have been solved in simpler ways. So when I first read about the G1000, I recall thinking “What a waste of a computer,” to install one in the instrument panel of a GA aircraft. How wrong I was.

By early 2005, curiosity led me to get an hour of dual instruction in a G1000-equipped Cessna 182. Immediately I knew it was different, but I didn’t want to rush to judgment until I’d had time to reflect on the experience.

I wrote about my conclusion in Max Trescott’s Garmin G1000 and Perspective Glass Cockpit Handbook

“The single biggest benefit of the G1000 and Perspective, compared to competitive products, is that it allows you to aviate, navigate and communicate from a single 10-inch or 12-inch display. In contrast, competitive products have pilots looking in multiple places to see data and reaching in multiple places to operate controls.”

Having your eyes near the primary flight instruments all the time reduces the odds of entering an unusual attitude while tuning a radio or entering a GPS flight plan. Plus, the 10-inch wide artificial horizon is far superior to the 2-inch airplane symbol found in most round gauge attitude indicators. But that’s just the beginning. Glass cockpit aircraft contain many safety features, like traffic, terrain, and weather information that have the potential to reduce accidents when pilots are trained in their use and use them properly.

Glass cockpits have also changed the paradigm for avionics. Historically, avionics stayed on the market for many years with few changes until entirely new models replaced them. Quoting again from my G1000 Book, “The G1000 system clearly breaks this paradigm. First, with two large software-driven displays, new features can be continually be added to the G1000 in far less time than it took to design, manufacture, and release traditional avionics…The Ethernet bus architecture also makes it easy for new devices to be designed and connected to the G1000.”

But if engineering school taught me anything, it was that there are tradeoffs in every design decision. Today’s new computer and software-based avionics, as good as they are, occasionally suffer from the same woes seen in the computer world. For example, one time a Columbia 400 equipped with TAS, an active traffic system, came back from maintenance with TIS, a less capable traffic system. It turned out the maintenance personnel forgot to reload the software for the TAS system, so it effectively disappeared!

The Future
So where are we headed? Undoubtedly, Garmin will pack a few more new features into the G1000 and Perspective through software upgrades and possibly more hardware additions. So existing owners can expect some new features. Eventually the speeds of the now ten-year old processors will limit upgradability. But it is a modular architecture, so Garmin might in the future offer new hardware modules to provide G1000 and Perspective owners with an upgrade path that adds robust new features.

The G1000 and Perspective may appear in a few more aircraft types, possibly as retrofits to older turbine and jet aircraft and perhaps in a few new aircraft types. But Garmin now offers the G2000, G3000, and G5000 on the high end and the G300 on the low end, so that keeps the Garmin G1000 from moving up or down into these markets. I don’t expect to see the G1000 being retrofitted into many older single engine piston aircraft. With the average age of the GA fleet approaching 40 years, the cost of the upgrade would exceed the value of most of these planes, so the market opportunity is too small for Garmin to pursue. However these older aircraft are an excellent target market for partial glass cockpit upgrades using solution like Aspen Avionics and portable iPad solutions.

Of course someday the G1000 will be replaced with something new. The workhorse Garmin 430 shipped for about 14 years. But the G1000 is more upgradeable, so it could conceivably have a longer product life cycle. And there’s always the possibility that Bendix/King, or another competitor, could introduce a new product that replaces the G1000 in a future refresh of new aircraft cockpits.

The impact of the G1000 and other glass cockpits cannot be overstated. For years, airline pilots told me the G1000 “was better than what I have in the airliner I fly.” But sadly, glass cockpit-equipped aircraft are still a small fraction of the overall GA fleet, partially because of the slowdown in new aircraft sales since the 2008 recession. Most pilots still aren’t flying in them and thus aren’t benefiting from their safety advantages.

So on the tenth birthday of the G1000, we should thank Avidyne and Cirrus for starting the glass cockpit revolution in GA aircraft, and thank Garmin and Cessna for making it such a widespread phenomena. Kudos to all of these companies for their great work! Now let’s get started on the next revolution in General Aviation…What do you think it will be?

Ghosts, GA and Other Oddities Affected by an Airline Pilot Shortage

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Last week I was privileged to attend an aviation conference I’d never been to before: the Regional Airline Association (RAA) Convention, held in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I learned that I am a ghost pilot. My ghostly status, and what I plan to do about it, has direct bearing on several phenomena currently effecting smaller airports around the U.S. and the general aviation pilots flying from them. Read on. You may discover you are a ghost, too!

The strange revelation was unveiled during an open discussion between Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, one of the largest regional conglomerates in the U.S.;

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages during the 2014 RAA Convention

Andrew Von Ah, of the Government Accountability Office; and Dan Akins, a transportation economist with more than 20 years of industry experience.

Let me add some context to the conversation to help set the scene. Eleven of 12 regional airlines can’t find qualified pilots. New rules require airline pilots to have an ATP before they can carry passengers. An ATP requires 1,500 hours total time and special training (there are few exceptions). That has raised the cost and the duration of training for would-be regional pilots by as much as $100,000 over what it used to cost to go through a four-year university program, flight instruct, acquire about 500 hours experience, and finally qualify for an interview at a regional.

Data from the University of North Dakota show that airline track students are dropping out at the rate of 50% by senior year. Interviews by Dr. Kent Lovelace are telling: these kids have done the math and realize that they won’t be on earnings par with their peers (graduating as nurses, software engineers, accountants) for years. And how, exactly, does one service upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt when only bringing home $25,000 each year? Cape Air starting pay, for example, is a cool $15 per duty hour. I made $15 per hour as a flight instructor and charter pilot in 1986.

To cap the immediacy of the problem for the regionals the feds have issued new pilot duty and rest rules that have forced airlines to pad their pilot ranks by about five percent. Bedford can’t find qualified pilots to make that happen, and has, to date, parked 27 airplanes, he stated.

Von Ah cited the recently released study by the GAO that said there was no airline pilot shortage developing (much contested study, I might add). He acknowledged that regionals might be challenged filling pilot slots, but pointed to government calculations that used FAA pilot statistics to determine that there were adequate “pools” of U.S. commercial and airline transport (ATP) rated pilots ready to be tapped by regional airlines for hiring. He suggested these pilots weren’t adequately incentivized.

Bedford scoffed, positing back, “Last year we looked at 2000 and offered jobs to 450 pilots. This year we vetted 1000 and only got 90 we could offer jobs to. It is a quickly diminishing pool.” He went on to point out that he was trying to negotiate a new contract with his airlines’ pilots; one that includes pay raises.

That’s where Akins chimed in, “The idea that we will have a big rush of ghost pilots wanting to be hired by regional carriers? These pilots are doctors and congressmen. They are not getting in line for those jobs!” he sighed, exasperated.

So true! I’m an ATP-rated pilot with thousands of hours in my logbook, including the requisite turbine experience and I’m not the least bit interested in flying right seat for Silver Airways, our new United feeder. My days of flying for $15 per hour are long past.

The discussion, however, was a fascinating window into why airlines have been pulling out of our area this past year, leaving routes under 500 miles for general aviation, including Part 135 charter, to cover. The phenomenon even caused some local companies to ramp up their Part 91 flight departments again. Now I understood the issues that caused American Eagle and Cape Air to bail on my town, and quite a few others.

And my local flight schools? The ones that can handle foreign students are thriving. But they aren’t teaching a lot of younger locals, the guys who used to work their way up to airline flying by flight instructing and flying charters or night freight. The new ATP rule has been like a shot to the ribs for those guys, and they are rethinking career aspirations, just at the moment when airlines are about to need them the most. How ironic.

At the crux of the problem is who will pay for this new, expensive training. It is clear that the young pilots aren’t interested in carrying the student loan debt forward into the first or second decade of their working lives. Who would be?

The idea of paying pilots more for the experience was broached once more, but ultimately the panel concluded that adversity and much lobbying will force Congress to pressure FAA to create more exceptions to the new ATP rules.  I’m skeptical—how about you?

The end of ice?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

I don’t know about you, but for me, the rapid buildup of ice on an airplane in flight (next to an engine failure, I suppose), is one of the most attention-getting events in aviation. Like the upcoming ground seen from behind a very slowly turning (and silent) prop blade, the more the ice builds up, the more the mind congers up an invisible brick wall, rapidly getting closer and closer.

A lot of effort over the years has gone into trying to get rid of ice sticking on airplane parts. Early approaches were mechanical, with pneumatically activated leading edge boots, then came weeping wings, heated surfaces and electrostatic systems—all designed to break the bond between the ice and the structural material.

One of the things I mention in the talks that I give around the country about the future of aviation is the extraordinary science and technology breakthroughs that are piling on top of each other to produce the accelerating, exponential change that will reconfigure all aspects of our lives. Out of the innumerable examples of gobsmacking (as the Brits put it) inventions that contribute to this unprecedented shift are a couple new products that point to the possible elimination of the issue of ice in aviation.

LiquiGlideThe first is LiquiGlide, designed by a MIT PhD candidate (he quit school to run the company), which makes surfaces so slick that liquids don’t stick to them. Check out the video on the right. The company suggests that ice on aircraft wings behave the same way as liquid water and therefore will not stick. The presumption is, as I understand it, that the rain is liquid until it hits the surface and then freezes. LiquiGlide advertises aviation anti-icing as one of their industrial applications so it’s likely that commercial applications will be out in the not too distant future.

You can’t get samples of LiquiGlide to try on your airplane, but there’s NeverWet, another hydrophobic coating that advertises anti-icing characteristics that you can try. The video on the left shows a test of coated and uncoated electrical insulators in a freezing rain situation. NeverWet has teamed up with Rust-Oleum to produce a two-part spray product that can be bought at major home improvement stores.

I mention this because AOPA Pilot’s Dave Hirschman told me back in January that he had sprayed this stuff on one wing of his airplane, drove it into an icing environment and watched with pleasure when the uncoated wing acquired ice and the coated one didn’t. Not a scientific study, but it showed that the basic claims appear to be true. Both companies say that their coatings are very durable and only if it is scratched is the underlying surface vulnerable to ice. Interesting stuff.

If you happen to be in the Phoenix area and would like to hear a very wide-ranging review of new things that will revolutionize flying, I’m giving a keynote presentation in the near future in Phoenix opening the Aviation Insurance Association annual meeting on May 5. If you’re there, come by and say hi.

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Within the context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA. In addition to technological changes, which we covered last month here, the following weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.

Economics
The economics of GA are rapidly shifting – toward China. Many well-known brands (Cirrus, Glastar, Continental et. al.) are already owned by Chinese companies and almost every jet manufacturer is doing some kind of joint venture with Chinese manufacturers and sales organizations. Many of these companies are owned by the government of China and as they gather the knowledge and intellectual property associated with building and selling GA aircraft the manufacturing will move away from the more expensive U.S. base and the ability of American companies to compete will rapidly decrease. The present industry is moving offshore.

Government
The unprecedented initiatives by the U.S. government to counter “terrorism” in the last decade are cutting off the natural ways in which young people historically became interested in and familiar with aviation. The fences around almost all airports guarantee that no youngsters can sit on the grass watching touch-and-goes or wander or into a hangar and strike up a relationship with an airplane owner. This is effectively cutting off one of the largest historical sources of pilots and eliminating the possible budding interest in aviation that the present community has been based upon.

Social
At the same time, social culture is changing and flying an airplane is not as interesting and exciting as it was to earlier generations. Time magazine, for example, has claimed that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have replaced the car culture of the past, allowing teens to connect with each other without needing a car. The same could be said for the perceived value of an aircraft.

There are a number of other contributing forces, but you get the idea. Big change is in the works that is going to reconfigure how airplanes work and the relationship of pilots to them. It is inevitable.

What to do
We’re essentially behind the power curve. Increased efforts to revive the familiar past will necessarily fail as the embedded driving forces inexorably reconfigure both the rules and playing field. What we must do is innovate our way into a new era that allows American companies to invent the next variant of personal air transportation. We must redefine what airplanes and pilots are. This is the only solution – invent a new future.

As it happens, the pieces are available to begin to do that. Predictably the solution revolves around some of the key aspects of the present system: image of flying, cost of entry (expense and effort associated with training), cost of aircraft, interface with the government, etc.

If GA is not to become a bunch of old guys flying old airplanes then we must reposition general aviation in such a way that it appeals to younger generations. Here is a plan.

  • Begin by building a coherent vision for the next era. Take a systematic look at the trends in place, both positive and negative, and then build an integrated and plausible picture of what we would prefer a new future to look like. The vision would particularly include a considered notion of how general aviation could augment the lives of young people in a new way that was consistent with the current trends that inform their lives. This will take time and concerted effort.
  • Identify what needs to happen to enable the new vision to emerge. Include issues related to: appeal and perceived value, barriers to entry, cost of operation, new technologies, interface with the US government, ability to change, etc.
  • Develop a new positioning for U.S. general aviation. Work with appropriate professionals to discover the best, next image for GA – something that particularly appeals to the market of prospective pilots/owners.
  • Generate buy-in by the present U.S. aviation community. Sell the new approach to the major stakeholders within the GA community. Develop high level buy-in.
  • Cluster resources around required key capabilities or issues that must be addressed. Constitute interest groups around necessary areas of effort. Work with funding sources like NASA to funnel development resources to high impact and leverage areas.
  • Find and encourage incentives. Work with government agencies to develop incentives focused on solutions for key capabilities or issues.
  • Generate early successes. Emphasize areas of effort that will produce rapid, positive results.
  • Undertake a campaign to reposition GA in the minds of new prospects. Develop a major communications campaign aimed at changing the minds of target Americans about the value, accessibility and benefit of GA.

Make no mistake about it, this is a big deal. It is nothing less than an industry/ community-wide effort to remake general aviation, both internally and in the minds of Americans. It would cost a lot of time and money but it would be worth it.

This is about redirecting the future into a direction that is different from where it is now headed. It’s possible to do, in fact, many large corporations and industries have reinvented themselves in the past. So, now is the time for GA to invent its next life. The longer we wait, the harder, more expensive and less likely it will become.

Do Piston Engine TBOs Make Sense?

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Last month, I discussed the pioneering work on Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM) done by United Airlines scientists Stan Nowlan and Howard Heap in the 1960s, and I bemoaned the fact that RCM has not trickled down the aviation food chain to piston GA. Even in the 21st century, maintenance of piston aircraft remains largely time-based rather than condition-based.

mfr_logo_montageMost owners of piston GA aircraft dutifully overhaul their engines at TBO, overhaul their propellers every 5 to 7 years, and replace their alternators and vacuum pumps every 500 hours just as Continental, Lycoming, Hartzell, McCauley, HET and Parker Aerospace call for. Many Bonanza and Baron owners have their wing bolts pulled every five years, and most Cirrus owners have their batteries replaced every two years for no good reason (other than that it’s in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual).

Despite an overwhelming body of scientific research demonstrating that this sort of 1950s-vintage time-based preventive maintenance is counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary, wasteful and incredibly costly, we’re still doing it. Why?

Mostly, I think, because of fear of litigation. The manufacturers are afraid to change anything for fear of being sued (because if they change anything, that could be construed to mean that what they were doing before was wrong). Our shops and mechanics are afraid to deviate from what the manufacturers recommend for fear of being sued (because they deviated from manufacturers’ guidance).

Let’s face it: Neither the manufacturers nor the maintainers have any real incentive to change. The cost of doing all this counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary and wasteful preventive maintenance (that actually doesn’t prevent anything) is not coming out of their pockets. Actually, it’s going into their pockets.

If we’re going to drag piston GA maintenance kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or at least out of the 1950s and into the 1960s), it’s going to have to be aircraft owners who force the change. Owners are the ones with the incentive to change the way things are being done. Owners are the ones who can exert power over the manufacturers and maintainers by voting with their feet and their credit cards.

For this to happen, owners of piston GA aircraft need to understand the right way to do maintenance—the RCM way. Then they need to direct their shops and mechanics to maintain their aircraft that way, or take their maintenance business to someone who will. This means that owners need both knowledge and courage. Providing aircraft owners both of these things is precisely why I’m contributing to this AOPA Opinion Leaders Blog.

When are piston aircraft engines most likely to hurt you?

Fifty years ago, RCM researches proved conclusively that overhauling turbine engines at a fixed TBO is counterproductive, and that engine overhauls should be done strictly on-condition. But how can we be sure that his also applies to piston aircraft engines?

In a perfect world, Continental and Lycoming would study this issue and publish their findings. But for reasons mentioned earlier, this ain’t gonna happen. Continental and Lycoming have consistently refused to release any data on engine failure history of their engines, and likewise have consistently refused to explain how they arrive at the TBOs that they publish. For years, one aggressive plaintiff lawyer after another have tried to compel Continental and Lycoming to answer these questions in court. All have failed miserably.

So if we’re going to get answers to these critical questions, we’re going to have to rely on engine failure data that we can get our hands on. The most obvious source of such data is the NTSB accident database. That’s precisely what brilliant mechanical engineer Nathan T. Ulrich Ph.D. of Lee NH did in 2007. (Dr. Ulrich also was a US Coast Guard Auxiliary pilot who was unhappy that USCGA policy forbade him from flying volunteer search-and-rescue missions if his Bonanza’s engine was past TBO.)

Dr. Ulrich analyzed five years’ worth of NTSB accident data for the period 2001-2005 inclusive, examining all accidents involving small piston-powered airplanes (under 12,500 lbs. gross weight) for which the NTSB identified “engine failure” as either the probable cause or a contributing factor. From this population of accidents, Dr. Ulrich eliminated those involving air-race and agricultural-application aircraft. Then he analyzed the relationship between the frequency of engine-failure accidents and the number of hours on the engine since it was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. He did a similar analysis based on the calendar age of the engine since it  was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. The following histograms show the results of his study:

Ulrich study (hours)

Ulrich study (years)

If these histograms have a vaguely familiar look, it might be because they look an awful lot like the histograms generated by British scientist C.H. Waddington in 1943.

Now,  we have to be careful about how we interpret Dr. Ulrich’s findings. Ulrich would be the first to agree that NTSB accident data can’t tell us much about the risk of engine failures beyond TBO, simply because most piston aircraft engines are voluntarily euthanized at or near TBO. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t see very many engine failure accidents involving engines significantly past TBO, since there are so few of them flying. (The engines on my Cessna 310 are at more than 205% of TBO, but there just aren’t a lot of RCM true believers like me in the piston GA community…yet.)

What Dr. Ulrich’s research demonstrates unequivocally is striking and disturbing frequency of “infant-mortality” engine-failure accidents during the first few years and first few hundred hours after an engine is built, rebuilt or overhauled. Ulrich’s findings makes it indisputably clear that by far the most likely time for you to fall out of the sky due to a catastrophic engine failure is when the engine is young, not when it’s old.

(The next most likely time for you to fall out of the sky is shortly after invasive engine maintenance in the field, particularly cylinder replacement, but that’s a subject for a future blog post…stay tuned!)

 So…Is there a good reason to overhaul your engine at TBO?

Engine overhaulIt doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering) to figure out what all this means. If your engine reaches TBO and still gives every indication of being healthy (good performance, not making metal, healthy-looking oil analysis and borescope results, etc.), overhauling it will clearly degrade safety, not improve it. That’s simply because it will convert your low-risk old engine into a high-risk young engine. I don’t know about you, but that certainly strikes me as a remarkably dumb thing to do.

So why is overhauling on-condition such a tough sell to our mechanics and the engine manufacturers? The counter-argument goes something like this: “Since we have so little data about the reliability of past-TBO engines (because most engines are arbitrarily euthanized at TBO), how can we be sure that it’s safe to operate them beyond TBO?” RCM researchers refer to this as “the Resnikoff Conundrum” (after mathematician H.L. Resnikoff).

To me, it looks an awful lot like the same circular argument that was used for decades to justify arbitrarily euthanizing airline pilots at age 60, despite the fact that aeromedical experts were unanimous that this policy made no sense whatsoever. Think about it…

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

It is not at all farfetched to believe that the pilots and planes that we all know and love are, well, on their way out – that we are at the end of an historical era.  The indicators are all there, both in terms of what we know about the past and by observing the current trends that surround us.

History tells us that everything changes.  So it is inevitable that the present paradigm will give way to something new.  The only question is when and how.  To understand this, we must begin by describing the larger environment in which we find ourselves – providing a context for understanding the other forces that are in play.  As it happens, the context is unprecedented and extraordinary.

We are living in within the highest rate of change in the history of humanity.  Never before has our species (or any species, for that matter) experienced the converging exponential forces that are presently catapulting us toward the horizon. No matter which dimension you choose – technology, social values, agriculture, science, energy, climate, government, et.al. – we are confronted with situations that would largely have been considered implausible as late as five years ago.

Enabled by the global neural system we call the Internet, the increasing interaction within support systems (and our values and perspectives) are rather amazing. Changes in one area ricochet across many others, generating cascading shifts that follow each other with shorter and shorter intervals.   The metabolism of the whole human experience is amplified by the feeding of trends and events on each other, producing larger and larger impacts.

It’s within this context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) that a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA.  These weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.

Technology

The combination of ubiquitous connectivity, increasing bandwidth, advanced sensors and decreasing cost is assuring that Autonomous Systems (aka drones and unmanned aerial vehicles) will become an increasing larger segment of the global aircraft fleet. The Navy has flown its first drone from an aircraft carrier, the Air Force is having a hard time hiring the number of drone pilots that it needs, and the Marine Corps is already using a drone cargo helicopter in Afghanistan.  Large drone cargo aircraft are already being designed and UAVs are very rapidly proliferating throughout the law enforcement, news gathering and research communities.  The FAA has certified the first commercial drone and forecasts that 10,000 of them will be in the air over the US by 2020.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Artificial Intelligence is on the horizon. Strong AI agents will act like humans – they will research, collect information (from sensors and other sources), interact with other agents and humans and make decisions.  Think of them as a pilot that knows what the weather is, is constantly aware of the state of the airframe, powerplants, communicates with ATC, filed the flight plan, and flies the aircraft. Advanced Voice Recognition will allow the AI to interact directly with humans. Augmented Reality already has the capability to superimpose information from databases located anywhere on the planet onto the synthetic image generated by the AI controller/pilot.  Advanced Materials are also being developed that will have thousands or millions of miniscule computers embedded within them that will signal the state of any aircraft component (temperature, pressure, etc.) on a real time basis to the AI pilot.   It’s not certain when this capability will become commercially available but I’d guess we’ll begin to see applications within a decade. In any case, they are certainly coming.

The integration of these capabilities (and others) present the rather real possibility of getting into an aircraft in the not too distant future, telling the techno cab driver-controller where you want to go and sitting back while it determines the ideal route and then takes you there.  If this seems farfetched, keep in mind that technological advances are more than doubling every 18 months so application in 2020 won’t be just five or ten times better than today but will be over 500 times more capable. Ponder that for a minute.

This kind of explosive development also raises the distinct possibility of the emergence of things like levitation into the civil fleet in the not too distant future.  There are a number of private efforts underway to develop this capability and an application of the technology has been reported in the major aviation press to already be an integral part of the wing design of the B-2 bomber.  In any case, levitation would obviously produce an aircraft that didn’t look like or operate like those we see at our local airport.

(To be continued next month)

Welcome to the Pilot Shortage

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Can you see it? We’re going to talk about it.
Image via http://www.disruptiveleadership.com

For once in the airline world, something has arrived early. This time, however, it’s not-so-good: a long forecasted, sometimes delayed pilot shortage. From the Wall Street Journal to Brett Snyder’s CrankyFlier to BusinessWeek,the news of a significant shortage of qualified applicants to our nation’s regional airlines has captured the attention of the media and business world alike. Great Lakes Airlines has taken the extraordinary step of closing their Minneapolis Essential Air Service base and Republic Airways is parking airplanes. This is an area with which I have spent the past several years immersing myself in heaps of demographic data from the FAA in the form of reports and spreadsheets. With this post, I hope to elaborate on some of the key areas in this conversation all members of the aviation community need to know.

 

 

The Pilot Shortage is not a Myth, Despite What ALPA Leadership Says

Yogi Berra once said that half of the game of baseball was 90% mental. While an offhand mistake, there is a comparison to be made to airline unions: more than half of the game of airline unions is 90% politics and messaging. The Air Line Pilots Association has decided  to stake their political message in press releases and a video message from ALPA President Lee Moak. Within the talking points put forth by the pilot union, there are several key insinuations that represent misinterpretations of the market or outright falsehoods:

  • Regional airline pilots are not leaving the United States en masse to go work for companies like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, or Korean Air. A prospective pilot or even a somewhat-established regional pilot does not meet the very high published minimum hour requirements set forth by these companies which include thousands of hours of flight time and/or time in aircraft of 737/A320 size or larger (Korean Air’s mins; Emirates’ mins). Cathay Pacific isn’t even hiring American pilots at this point in time.
  • By the time a pilot meets the minimum hour requirements to fly for these global carriers, they are likely unwilling to uproot their families and daily life to move to Dubai or deal with a 7-14 day on-off commuting schedule. Is $20,000 enough to make you move you and a family halfway around the world?
  • The number of pilots on furlough by ALPA member carriers is greatly eclipsed by the projected hiring amongst legacy carriers. American alone has publicly announced they will be hiring more than the number of pilots ALPA says are on furlough in the next five years. Pilots on furlough face a difficult decision: start at the bottom of another airline, with a reduction of salary and seniority or wait out a callback from their employer.

These mixed messages by ALPA’s national office fall flat compared to the pointed comments of American Eagle’s ALPA leadership, which stated last week after rejecting a concessionary contract offer from American: “[American Eagle's ALPA organization] will be working with the American Eagle pilots to help them find placement with other airlines. ALPA representatives will ask management for their timetable regarding the liquidation of American Eagle.”

The Demographic Picture Looks Like One of My Paintings: Not Pretty

The 2012 US Civil Airmen Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration contain several statistics that show things are going to get tougher for pilot supply and the aviation industry as a whole.

  • The average age of an Air Transport Pilot is 49.9 years old, an increase of .1 years from 2011. This is important, as many of the regional airlines began to transition their younger first officers to ATP holders during this time as it became clear that the certificate in some form would be required for FAR Part 121 operations. It is entirely likely the average age would be higher if it weren’t for these preparations.
  • Slightly more than 62,000 of the 149,100 active Air Transport Pilots in the United States fall between the ages of 50 and 64, which places them within 15 years of the FAA mandated retirement age. Some of these pilots will continue flying in other places, but they won’t be flying for the airlines.
  • There are 81,805 Student Pilots between the ages 0f 16-30 in the United States. While an okay number on the surface, there are several problems when reading between the lines. Analysis shows that somewhere in the area of 30-50% of student pilots won’t finish their Private Pilot certificates. The FAA doesn’t currently have a system in place that designates the number of these pilot certificates that are issued to foreign students who come to the country for flight training alone. Using written exam address data, colleagues at the University of North Dakota estimated that up to 40% of new Commercial Pilot certificates issued in the country were going to these pilots who will take their ratings home when training is done.

The Elephants in the Room (Pilot Pay, the New ATP Rules and Training Costs) Need to Be Addressed

Since the dawn of airline outsourcing after deregulation in 1978, the major airlines have pitted contractors and subcontractors against one another in an effort to reduce costs. Parlance calls this a “whipsaw,” where companies that provide some service, be it regional flying, aircraft cleaning or even aircraft maintenance, try to unsustainably underbid one another for an airline contract. The major airlines like this process because it keeps their costs lower. The employees of these contractors and subcontractors face downward pressure on their wages and benefits to the point where the starting salary for a regional airline first officer becomes $20,000 in their first year (less attention has been placed on ground crew as of late, but workers at Delta’s hub in Detroit were recently whipsawed for the fourth time since the airline merged with Northwest. Those workers that have stuck around between the four handling companies have seen their pay drop 50%). This race to the bottom is unsustainable for line employees and the air travel system as a whole. There’s near consensus that $21,000 a year is not acceptable for new airline pilots. At the same time, regional airline boards and CEOs need to be cognizant of the fact that offering their leadership raises in the area of 200% while asking pilots to take a pay cut is a slap in the face and highly unethical.

A student graduating from a university aviation program will do so with approximately 300 hours in their logbook. Thanks to the new ATP qualification rules, they are not able to begin flying for a regional airline until they earn 1000, 1250 or 1500 hours (depending on the program). This means they will spend an extra 1-3 years flight instructing or doing other forms of flying that don’t necessarily prepare them for professional piloting, thereby losing their honed study and professional skills from their degrees. This leads to increased training times once they do get hired at the airlines, and increased costs. Congressional and regulatory relief from the so called “1500 hour rule” is imperative. My proposal: a reduction of the restricted ATP certificate eligibility to college graduates to 500 hours.

Finally, aviation universities need to take a hard look at their training programs for ways to reduce costs for their students. This needs to be done on the micro (internal) and macro levels of aviation education. I cannot speak for individual programs and ways to save costs internally. On the macro level: Why is a new primary trainer from Cessna, Piper or Cirrus $200,000+? What can we do to reduce the cost of fuel & insurance?

Silo No More, Aviation Industry!

The most important takeaway from this situation is the need for the aviation industry as a whole to enter into a collective conversation about pilot and other aviation professional workforce supply. We can no longer afford to silo ourselves as labor, education, management, GA, and manufacturing. If we do not, the fundamental shift that will come won’t be pretty.

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you are good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a minuscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all its splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.

Analysis

What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after several years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.

The Future of Aviation

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Most of us have a hard time thinking effectively about the future of something like aviation. The problem is one of both context and chronology. First of all, if we’re personally involved with aviation we almost always think about its future possibilities in terms that are presently understood. We extrapolate from the past and what we now understand, always relating our sense of the future to a narrow perspective of how the present system works.

For example, it’s unlikely that if asked about the aviation industry a decade from now you would factor in the potential effect of a radical global shift in climate . . . or a forecast collapse of the global financial system . . . or picture the beginning of an age of electric airliners. That’s a problem, because aviation – and every other aspect of our lives – exists as a component of a system . . . a very complicated system that includes a host of things like the state of the global climate that can fundamentally change the context, and future, of aviation.

The problem of perspicacity is also related to our larger understanding of where we are in the giant sweep of history. As it happens, we are all living in a period of exponential change unprecedented in human history. Throughout science and technology – and most other sectors – amazing new capabilities are manifesting themselves daily. Furthermore, the time for these new inventions to become commercialized is also decreasing at an exponential rate. They are inserting themselves into our lives at a faster and faster pace.

This means, among other things, that in order to support the exponential increase in invention and discovery there must necessarily be major breakthroughs in our understanding and the technologies that are available for building and operating air transport systems. The exponential curve is not smooth; it is a series of rather dramatic breakthroughs, one following another at an increasingly rapid pace that result in seemingly vertical change.

Just recently, for example, it was announced that a new version of the material graphene has been developed that is 300 times stronger than steel and lighter than current carbon fiber materials. The potential implications of this material clearly could revolutionize the way we build current aircraft. But add that to advances being made in battery technology, superconductivity in polymers, and electric power trains developed for automobiles, among many other things, and suddenly you have the converging of the components for a large electric aircraft – something that is generally discounted by most people in the business today.

So, not only are there many more disruptive factors coming into the aviation space, but the rate of change is accelerating.