Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

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.

Why I Don’t Talk About “General Aviation” Anymore

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Back in the 1950′s, Cessna Aircraft produced this gem… “Wings for Doubting Thomas

This little documentary clearly spelled out the value proposition for Private Aviation 2 generations ago.

I rarely talk about “General Aviation.”

Like most people who read this blog, I’m much more interested in, “Private Aviation.”

You might think quickly that it’s the same, thing, but it’s not. General aviation is broadly defined as as all aviation except for military and airlines. That’s great, but I’m not a, “General Aviation enthusiast.” Frankly I don’t care much about, “General Aviation.” I don’t fly biz jets, cargo, fly much for hire, (Though I have the certificate for, it’s just not a big part of my life these days.) spray crops, perform in air shows, whatever…

While I may aspire to sit in the back of a something with turbines, drinking Cristal… It does not inspire me. I’d rather be up front flying the jet.

Private aviation is the part of civil aviation that does not include flying for hire.”

“In most countries, private flights are always general aviation flights, but the opposite is not true: many general aviation flights (such as banner towing, charter, crop dusting, and others) are commercial in that the pilot is hired and paid. Many private pilots fly for their own enjoyment, or to share the joys and convenience of general aviation with friends and family.”

– Wikipedia

You see “General Aviation,” is doing just fine. Ask anyone running a jet charter business these days. Business is up, folks who choose to afford it are buying jet cards and getting to where they want to go in style, and plenty of people are making a good living helping them get there. I’m fine with all that. “General Aviation,” is not dying. It’s growing.

But “Private Aviation” is the community that inspires me. It’s Private Aviation that’s what we’re really talking about when we fry bacon at Camp Scholler, or eat pancakes at the fly in. The ability to climb into a plane and fly myself and my friends or family someplace is like a magic power.

It’s Private Aviation that we built OpenAirplane to serve.

So you see, I don’t talk much about General Aviation. When I speak to the press about OpenAirplane. I explain that it is a marketplace for Private Aviation. I get asked all the time if OpenAirplane will let them hail a jet like they can hail a cab, or if we can help them charter a flight. My answer is always, “Not yet.” It’s just not the business we’re in right now. There are plenty of smart people working to offer charter for businesses and pleasure. That part of General Aviation is well served. I explain that we are focused on Private Aviation, because that’s where the opportunity lies today to unlock more value than anywhere else right now. General Aviation is a competitive, well served market with a healthy ecosystem. But Private Aviation hasn’t seen much innovation since Cessna commissioned that film. This is strange to me, because GPS, iPads, and composites sure have made it a lot easier. Private Aviation can create entirely new use cases for the over 5,000 airports, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of thousands of certificates in the wallets of  pilots across the country.

Private Aviation has been in decline since the airlines we’re deregulated in 1978. The value proposition of Private Aviation has been evolving ever since. The industry and the community need to both step up to communicate the value proposition for Private Aviation to a new generation of “doubting Thomases,” updating what you see in the old documentary film above to speak to the value proposition we can offer today.

For most of us, the conversation isn’t about General Aviation, it’s about Private Aviation. Let’s call it what it is. I have no time sit back and complain. I believe we can make it better than ever.

The Waddington Effect

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington

C.H. Waddington (1905-1975)

In 1943, a British scientist named Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington made a remarkable discovery about aircraft maintenance.  He was a most unlikely person to make this discovery, because he wasn’t an aeronautical engineer or an aircraft mechanic or even a pilot.  Actually, he was a gifted developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist, philosopher, poet and painter who wasn’t particularly interested in aviation.  But like many other British scientists at that time, his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and he found himself pressed into service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Waddington wound up reporting to the RAF Coastal Command, heading up a group of fellow scientists in the Coastal Command Operational Research Section.  Its job was to advise the British military on how it could more effectively combat the threat from German submarines.  In that capacity, Waddington and his colleagues developed a series of astonishing recommendations that defied military conventional wisdom of the time.

For example, the bombers used to hunt and kill U-boats were mostly painted black in order to make them difficult to see.  But Waddington’s group ran a series of experiments that proved that bombers painted white were not spotted by the U-boats until they were 20% closer, resulting in a 30% increase in successful sinkings. Waddington’s group also recommended that the depth charges dropped by the bombers be set to explode at a depth of 25 feet instead of 100 feet.  This recommendation—initially resisted strongly by RAF commanders—ultimately resulted in a sevenfold increase in the number of U-boats destroyed.

Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" bomber

Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber

Waddington subsequently turned his attention to the problem of “force readiness” of the bombers.  The Coastal Command’s B-24 “Liberator” bombers were spending an inordinate amount of time in the maintenance shop instead of hunting U-boats.  In July 1943, the two British Liberator squadrons located at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, consisted of 40 aircraft, but at any given time only about 20 were flight-ready.  The other aircraft were down for any number of reasons, but mostly undergoing or awaiting maintenance—either scheduled or unscheduled—or waiting for replacement parts.

At that time, conventional wisdom held that if more preventive maintenance were performed on each aircraft, fewer problems would arise and more incipient problems would be caught and fixed—and thus fleet readiness would surely improve. It turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong. It would take C.H. Waddington and his Operational Research team to prove just how wrong.

Waddington and his team started gathering data about the scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of these aircraft, and began crunching and analyzing the numbers.  When he plotted the number of unscheduled aircraft repairs as a function of flight time, Waddington discovered something both unexpected and significant: The number of unscheduled repairs spiked sharply right after each aircraft underwent its regular 50-hour scheduled maintenance, and then declined steadily over time until the next scheduled 50-hour maintenance, at which time they spiked up once again.

Waddington Effect graph

When Waddington examined the plot of this repair data, he concluded that the scheduled maintenance (in Waddington’s own words) “tends to INCREASE breakdowns, and this can only be because it is doing positive harm by disturbing a relatively satisfactory state of affairs. There is no sign that the rate of breakdowns is starting to increase again after 40-50 flying hours when the aircraft is coming due for its next scheduled maintenance.” In other words, the observed pattern of unscheduled repairs demonstrated that the scheduled preventive maintenance was actually doing more harm than good, and that the 50-hour preventive maintenance interval was inappropriately short.

The solution proposed by Waddington’s team—and ultimately accepted by the RAF commanders over the howls of the maintenance personnel—was to increase the time interval between scheduled maintenance cycles, and to eliminate all preventive maintenance tasks that couldn’t be demonstrably proven to be beneficial. Once these recommendations were implemented, the number of effective flying hours of the RAF Coastal Command bomber fleet increased by 60 percent!

Fast forward two decades to the 1960s, when a pair of gifted scientists who worked for United Airlines—aeronautical engineer Stanley Nowlan and mathematician Howard Heap—independently rediscovered these principles in their pioneering research on optimizing maintenance that revolutionized the way maintenance is done in air transport, military aviation, high-end bizjets and many non-aviation industrial applications.  They were almost certainly unaware of the work of C.H. Waddington and his colleagues in Britain in the 1940s because that work remained classified until 1973, when Waddington’s meticulously-kept diary of his wartime research activities was declassified and published.

Next time, I’ll discuss the fascinating work of Nowlan and Heap on what came to be known as “Reliability Centered Maintenance.” But for now, I will leave you with the major takeaway from Waddington’s research during World War II: Maintenance isn’t an inherently good thing (like exercise); it’s a necessary evil (like surgery). We have to do it from time to time, but we sure don’t want to do more than absolutely necessary to keep our aircraft safe and reliable. Doing more maintenance than necessary actually degrades safety and reliability.

GA Needs a New Story

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

If you’ve ever worked in the White House and near national politics, as I have, you know immediately and intuitively why political leaders pick on GA in general and business jets in particular – because it works. Senators and presidents don’t single out jets as examples of “tax loopholes”, etc., without knowing, with great certainty, that there is nothing that is iconic of fat cats and the 1% as corporate jets. The research and surveys are unambiguous: it’s the big hot button that generates popular negative reaction.

Even young people, competing for jobs with aircraft manufacturers in Wichita, admit that the product that they want to be a part of producing is antithetical to their basic sense of general equity and benefit a very small number of people – but they need a job, please.

There’s more to the story than that, but as long as we let others define who we are, they will continue to magnify the differences between those who own and fly aircraft . . . and the rest of the world.

Few automobile owners, for example, realize that there is no way (unless you own a taxi cab company), that you can directly justify the economics of owning a car. Easily the second most expensive purchase after a home, we continue to buy these vehicles (how many dozen have you owned?), not because they generate more income, but because they allow us to do other things that are economically and socially beneficial.

The same can be said about aircraft. Just as your Chevy gets you to more places (like your job) much faster than walking or taking the bus, airplanes provide the same benefits for individuals and companies that effectively utilize them to increase the efficient use of the available time and leverage their ability (like cars do) to access locations that otherwise would be hard to get to. They increase productivity. They are tools. They allow us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. And the benefits are much broader than for just the individuals riding in the front or back.

Try thinking about what kind of world this would be without aircraft in general and GA in particular. What kind of things wouldn’t work? How many injured people would die? How would the whole system slow down?

That’s a story that needs to be the framework for a great movie . . . and needs to show up on the news (juxtaposed to the story about the airplane crash that producers rush to air) . . . and needs to be explained to young people so that they have a context for assessing the value of private aircraft.

We need an industry-wide campaign that speaks about the benefits of aircraft, in very sophisticated and effective terms, to multiple segments of the larger population, rather than talk inwardly to the aviation community about the gains (primarily economic) that aircraft enable.
This is not necessarily an easy sell, particularly in light of the well-established fact that income disparity is growing larger in this country. But like many other activities that are embedded within much larger trends, the benefits of general aviation are a story waiting to be told. We need to enable the storytellers.

John Petersen is a former naval aviator, a professional futurist and the chairman of The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.