Mike Busch

Do Piston Engine TBOs Make Sense?

March 13th, 2014 by Mike Busch

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…

Jolie Lucas

Community Events Make Airport Good Neighbor Pt.1

March 9th, 2014 by Jolie Lucas

On Valentine’s Day I was happy to read that a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit brought about by the city of Santa Monica to take control of the airport with a goal of closing it and developing the land for other purposes. While this is happy news, it is also a temporary reprieve from the vocal minority of residents who oppose Santa Monica airport and who must be completely uneducated about its value in our national network of General Aviation airports.   As a psychotherapist for 25 years, I believe I have come to understand the psychology of life.  In my experience there are three kinds of people:
• Those who watch their life happen;
• Those who make their life happen;
• And those who wonder, “How does life happen?”

When it comes to General Aviation and the promotion of G.A. airports, we need to be firmly in the “make it happen” camp. Hopefully this blog will help inspire you to bring the fun back to your airport and illuminate to your community that airports indeed make good neighbors.

Positive aspect of promotion, inspiring the love of flight
Let’s bring the fun back to the airport. What are your earliest memories of aviation? Perhaps your Dad took you to the airport so you could watch airplanes take off and land. Remember your first flight? How can you make those memories for someone else?  Aviation is magical, yet we know the science behind the magic.  Inspiring the love of flight means going back to the magic and sharing it with others. You don’t have to focus solely on children. At our Mooney Ambassador events we meet adults who have always wanted to fly, and with encouragement, might take the first step.  Your enthusiasm is contagious.

Friends of Oceano Airport Toys for Tots

Friends of Oceano Airport, Toys for Tots

Community outreach a.k.a. fun ways we can get folks out to your airport:

•    Airport Day:  Does your local airport have a Celebration Day, Airport Day or Open House?  Have you thought about helping to volunteer versus just attending?  If there is no event, why not look into having a “Good Neighbor Day” or Airport Day?  Perhaps your airport used to have an event, but not now?  Have a small event to start with. AOPA publishes a wonderful guide to hosting an open house. In the photo below, we brought an inflatable kiddie swimming to a hot summer event, and our airplane display was the most popular by far!

•    Toys for Tots:  A lovely way to bring the community to your airport is to have a Toys for Tots event.  Contact your local T4T/Marine Corps representative and talk with them about the idea.  Folks can drive in, walk in or fly in bringing new unwrapped toys. Due to increased need for programs like Toys for Tots, toys and dollars donated helps local kids directly.
•    Fly-In Movie Night
Fly-in, walk-in, drive in, it doesn’t matter!  If you have a hangar, campground or open area you can host a Fly-In movie night, you can make a theater!  I suggest the event be free of charge.  Offer hot dogs, beverages, popcorn, and s’mores on a donation basis.  Show a family-friendly movie that has an aviation theme.

Make airport events fun

Make airport events fun!

Check back next month for the final installment.  Until then, be on the look out for an excuse to have an event at your airport. Remember everyone loves a good party.

Jack Olcott

You and User Fees

March 7th, 2014 by Jack Olcott

President Obama’s recently released budget for the federal government’s 2015 fiscal year, which proposes a $100 per flight fee for turbine-powered aircraft using air traffic services, prompts reminiscence of President Reagan’s frequent phase: “There they go again”. This is the fourth year that the Obama Administration has called for such user fees, and Congress has turned down that request in each previous attempt.

Regardless of the party that occupies the White House, user fees seem to be included in early discussions of revenue sources for the government. During my tenure as President of the National Business Aviation Association, 1992-2003, we joined with AOPA and other associations to counter the threat of user fees three times. During the next 10 years, the issue surfaced frequently. So far, thanks to coordinated and skillful lobbying by the aviation community, Congress has refused to follow the Siren’s call. The associations have successfully argued that a fuel tax is the most efficient and fair way to participate in compensating the taxpayer for Business Aviation’s use of the Air Traffic Control system. The point has been made, and rightfully so, that all of General Aviation is carrying its fair share.

Beware! Another phase we often hear is “Past performance is no guarantee of future results”. Just because our community has been successful in countering past arguments in favor of additional fees for using the nation’s airspace, we cannot ignore this latest attempt to tax GA’s turbine fleet. Each of us needs to be mindful that user fees could become a reality, particularly if we take for granted that dealing with this issue is someone else’s responsibility.

While the Obama budget proposal exempts (that’s the wording in the Administration’s document) piston aircraft and aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, the imposition for fees on turbine aircraft opens the door to taxing other users of the National Airspace System. That which is exempted today may be included tomorrow.

Nor should we overlook the negative impact on safety that fees for accessing ATC services might have. Aircraft operators are not anxious to open their wallets without just cause. There will be those aviators who may attempt to avoid ATC services by operating outside of controlled airspace. While such actions are highly unlikely in the congested regions along our coasts and near major cities, in remote areas we might see turbine aircraft dashing from place to place at altitudes just below FL180. We should be careful not to invite unsafe practices, no matter how remote the possibility.

All who participate in General Aviation—from operators of business jets and turboprops to recreational pilots, as well as all aviators between those bounds—should counter the frequent attempts of the federal administration to impose additional user fees. Consider several steps:

• Educate others about our community. Recognize that the average voter knows little about General Aviation, which we usually define by what it isn’t: It’s not Military Aviation or the Airlines—it’s everything else. Air transportation is the backbone of domestic and international business today, and GA is an integral part of that air transportation system.
• Inform the uninformed that all aviation contributes to funding the ATC system. Airline passengers pay a ticket tax; GA pays a fuel tax, with turbine aircraft paying a higher user fee than pistons. Emphasize that the fuel tax is a very efficient way to put GA money into the federal system.
• Communicate the advantages of using business aircraft to advance the ebb and flow of commerce throughout our country. The Schedules Airlines do not provide the degree of air transportation needed to serve many businesses. They do not want to provide service to locations with low levels of passenger traffic. Many locations depend upon Business Aviation for their lifeline to economic opportunity. In fact, the Scheduled Airlines and General Aviation are virtual partners in providing our nation with a safe and efficient means of air transportation. Additional user fees on GA will inhibit the use of a valuable resource.

Our community’s associations, including AOPA, NBAA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), do an excellent job lobbying our elected officials. But there is a difference between lobbying and advocating. Lobbying is directed at elected officials. Advocacy is directed at the voters who elect the Members of Congress. Congressmen and women listen to voters. By communicating knowledgably with friends and associates, you can be a significant force for advocating the benefits of all General Aviation and fighting user fees.

John Petersen

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

March 6th, 2014 by John Petersen

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)

Amy Laboda

‘Tis Almost The Season!

March 3rd, 2014 by Amy Laboda

Here’s the deal: who wouldn’t want to explore a region known as the “Mad River Valley” and its environs? Yes, I know there’s still enough snow on the ground to keep the region’s ski resort, Sugarbush Mountain’s 110 trails open for business, but already its warming up here, so I’m starting to plan my spring / summer flying adventures, and Sugarbush Soaring, set between tiny Waitsfield and Warren, Vermont, is on my list of destinations.

Why? Well, the mountains of Vermont are beautiful in late Spring. And sugarbushbecause the Sugarbush Soaring club at the Warren Sugarbush Airport (0B7), just 45 miles from the state capital, Montpelier, has posted May 17th as its opening day. Spring soaring in the valley can be marvelous, with excellent potential for wave soaring, augmented by ridge soaring and, on a warm, still day, thermals. Yep, you can get it all right there when the weather is right. In summer the soaring school operates everyday with an instruction staff,  two Schweizer 2-33s, a PW-6, an ASK-21, Grob 102 and the Schweizer 1-26, plus two Pawnee tow planes to get everyone aloft. There is even a flight examiner on staff for those powerplane pilots looking to add some fun to their certificate.

The runway is paved, 2500 X 30 feet, and gently sloped at both ends, just to make things more interesting. Glider pilots land in the grass at the approach end of the runway most of the time, making it easier to set up for aerotow takeoffs on the paved runway.

Powerplane pilots ought to also remind themselves that gliders have the right-of-way in the sky, and expect that they might need to hold or go around if a glider turns up in the pattern first, or can’t clear the runway after landing quickly enough.

The reward for your pattern etiquette and short-field landing prowess after landing is finding yourself in one of the most bucolic little airfields in all of the northeastern U.S. Warren-Sugarbush Airport feels like it hasn’t seen change in 50 years. The FBO is a farmhouse, where the Sugarbush Soaring club holds its cookouts on the deck. The wide grass fields surrounding the runway are where campers pitch their tents for the Soaring Camps held each summer by the club.

Just down the road are roiling brooks with huge boulders ripe for sliding, and of course, the Mad River, for kayaks. Up the mountain the ski resort turns mountain biker and hiker heaven once the snow is gone.

If you need a “big” city Burlington is just a 20 minute flight over Sugarbush mountain, with excellent FBOs and topnotch maintenance. The town is home to the University of Vermont and has a vibrant downtown pedestrian area chock with shops and restaurants. What’s not to love?

There is something about the “free” ride soaring in a glider offers, and the way it hones all of my other flying skills that makes the sport (and it is a sport—actually, a team sport, since you need a wing runner and a tow pilot) so good for you. Power pilots will come away from a soaring lesson with sharpened precision landing skills and confidence in their ability to judge Lift to Drag ratio, ridge-running skills, wave cloud and rotor identification and overall mountain flying competency.

Besides all that, soaring is fun!

 

 

Jamie Beckett

In support of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)

February 27th, 2014 by Jamie Beckett

Only days after the final AOPA Summit in 2013, Cessna dropped the news that the Skycatcher was history. No longer would the GA giant put their significant corporate muscle into developing a following for their C-162, the only aircraft the company produced that was aimed at the light sport market. In keeping with the international flair of the airplane which was designed by an American company and built in China, when Cessna CEO Scott Ernest said the airplane had no future he might as well have used the German expression, “Es ist tot.”

The Skycatcher is dead. At least it’s dead as far as Cessna is concerned.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Not by a long shot. This is Cessna we’re talking about after all. The big dog of the general aviation industry. The company by which virtually all other general aircraft manufacturers are measured. There’s hardly an airport in North America that doesn’t sport a wide a assortment of Cessna aircraft on the ramp, in the hangars, and in the sky above. When the news broke that Cessna was pulling out of the light sport market, tongues started wagging.

Contributing to the overall sense of curiosity in the industry was that the announcement came only weeks prior to the US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida. That event has been growing and finding new converts for more than a decade now. Unique among aviation events, it’s not an airshow and it’s not a fly-in. It’s a product exposition that puts potential customers in close proximity to the machines they’re thinking of buying. Demo flights are undertaken, questions and asked and answered, tires are kicked and aircraft are sold. Yes, aircraft are sold. That’s the whole point of the show, really.

So what’s a general aviation pilot to think of the light sport market these days? The mixed messages I’ve just given you are really all the majority of the pilot population has to go on. Cessna’s out, and a whole bunch of little known names are in.

Feel free to scratch your head in wonder. You won’t be alone, I assure you.

The reality is, Light Sport is alive and well. The aircraft are increasingly finding their way on to flight lines across the continent and the world at large. Those who fly them find the meager fuel burn and the lighter touch of reduced regulatory intrusion to be a beneficial factor in their decision making. Yet still, Light Sport Aircraft and the light sport pilot certificate remain largely misunderstood by the majority of the pilot population. So let’s dispel some rumors and get on with the business of growing the industry, shall we?

Light Sport Aircraft are not flimsy, poorly designed, poorly built tin cans. In fact, the ASTM (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) standard for the design and construction of light sports is in many ways superior to the old CAR 3 standard that so many of our legacy aircraft were designed and built under. For the purposes of comparison, it’s worth noting that both the Piper Cub and the Cessna 172 were originally CAR 3 certified aircraft.

The sport pilot certificate is not a dumbed down version of the private pilot certificate. For those who wish to verify this claim you need look no farther than an FAA Sport Pilot PTS and compare it to an FAA Private Pilot PTS. Because the sport pilot is prohibited from flying at night or in instrument conditions, there are fewer tasks for the sport pilot to perform during their practical test – but the completion standards for every task that is common to both certificates is identical. Yes, identical. A short field landing for a sport pilot applicant is evaluated using the exact same criteria and tolerances required of a private pilot applicant.

Light Sport Aircraft do not all employ unreliable 2-stroke engines. In fact the most popular engine on the market today is the Rotax 912 family of powerplants. They’ve proven to be tough, reliable, fuel efficient, and capable of running just fine on unleaded auto fuel. Mogas. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, that means the Rotax burns fewer gallons per hour while using less expensive fuel than the more traditional aircraft engines in the 80 – 100 horsepower range. Unleaded fuel. We can assume the EPA is pleased with this development.

Certificated flight instructors with an airplane rating are perfectly legal to instruct sport pilot students, and perform flight reviews for sport pilots. In fact a review of sport pilot privileges and limitations are a requirement of the FIRC (Flight Instructor Refresher Course) designed to bring CFIs up to speed on regulatory changes and instructional insights every two years.

Don’t let misconceptions, misunderstandings, and erroneous assumptions color your perception of what Light Sport is, and what it isn’t. Yes, Cessna got out of the Light Sport Aircraft business. That is no more relevant than it would be to assume that small, fuel efficient cares would disappear from the roads because Volkswagen stopped building or importing air-cooled Beetles into the United States in the mid-1970s. The Beetle still exists of course, in an alternate form. And there’s no guarantee Cessna won’t see a new opportunity to enter the LSA market somewhere down the road. In the meantime there are numerous manufacturers, both American and foreign, that are producing some excellent aircraft that fit well into the Light Sport Aircraft market. And pilots are transitioning into sport pilot at an encouraging rate, whether they’re new to aviation and logging their first PIC time, or they come from the cockpit of a transport category aircraft and are facing the reality of paying their own fuel bill for the first time in their lives.

Don’t count Light Sport Aircraft out. Don’t even consider the category to have the sniffles. LSAs were sold at the Expo in Sebring this year, as they do every year. The industry might in fact be considerably healthier and more viable than you ever dreamed. Truly!

Max Trescott

How to Request to Start an Approach at the Intermediate Fix (IF)

February 25th, 2014 by Max Trescott
Requesting to be cleared "Direct to" the IF can result in a hairpin turn that's not permitted by the AIM.

Requesting to be cleared “Direct to” the IF can result in a hairpin turn that’s not permitted by the AIM.

Instrument pilots know that there are two ways to start an instrument approach: they can get vectors or fly direct to an initial approach fix (IAF). Last month, I wrote about the “new” third way to start an approach, by flying to the intermediate fix (IF). This month I planned to write about the challenges in requesting to start an approach at an IF. Coincidentally, the day this article was due, the problem I planned to describe occurred…again.

I added quotes to “new” because, while this third method has been described in section 5-4-7(i) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) since 2006, I expect it will take many years before this information fully permeates the pilot and controller populations. Why so long? Partly because old habits in aviation die slowly and because standard IFR phraseology is confusing when applied to starting at an IF.

The confusion is not unlike the language issues that led to “Position and hold” being changed to “Line up and wait,” a change I enthusiastically supported. Countless times I’ve been in the cockpit with a pilot who confused “Position and hold” with “Hold short,” presumably because they both contained the word “hold.” In this case, potential confusion exists with the words “vectors” and “direct to,” when used to request to start an approach at an IF.

In September 2012, I exchanged several emails about this problem with a friend who is a supervisor at the Northern California TRACON. In my first email, I wrote in part,

“In my books, I tell pilots that there are three ways to fly an instrument approach:
1. vectors,
2. own navigation (or pilot navigation) to an IAF, and
3. a third method, which appeared in the Aeronautical Information Manual beginning in 2006 that allows pilots to start at an IF under certain circumstances (see extract from my G1000 Book below).

“We have short, well understood names that pilots use to ask controllers for the first two methods. But I’m not aware of a convenient name for pilots to use when requesting this third method. Are there quick, easy names that controllers use to describe this third method? Or should we be inventing a new name for it and promoting it among the aviation community?”

Why the need for a “quick, easy name?” Because for years, I’d sometimes had to clarify my request to start at an IF by adding that I’d like “to be vectored to a point from which you can clear me direct to DOCAL with a turn of less than 90 degrees.” That’s a mouthful and an inefficient use of radio time at a busy TRACON.

The reply from my supervisor friend was that the consensus at the facility was that a pilot should name the approach and ask to start at the name of the IF. In the case of the GPS 31 approach at Palo Alto, a pilot would ask to “start the approach at DOCAL,” Alternatively, you might consider requesting “to start the approach at the Intermediate Fix,” which should trigger the controller to remember the 90 degree turn rule.

Potential Confusion in Phraseology
Using the words “vectors” or “direct to,” works great when a pilot is requesting to start an approach with vectors or at an IAF. But they can be confusing when used to start an approach at an IF.

“Vectors” means you’ll be guided to join an approach at least several miles outside of the final approach fix (FAF). Requesting “vectors to DOCAL” could make sense, except that the JO 7110.65U tells controllers that when giving vectors, they are to turn pilots to within 30 degrees of the final approach course, not the 90 degrees permitted at an IF. So you don’t really want “vectors” to the IF.

If instead of asking to “start the approach at DOCAL” a pilot asks to be cleared “Direct to DOCAL,” controllers will sometimes take that literally and clear a pilot from their present position to the IF. But this can result in nearly a 180 degree turn at the IF, which isn’t permitted under 5-4-7. And that’s exactly what happened to me today. I had just crossed over Moffett Field and was essentially on a downwind leg to the approach. The controller asked whether we wanted vectors or to start the approach at DOCAL. I chose the latter and was immediately cleared “Direct to DOCAL.”

I’m not sure why the controller did that, though I’m guessing he was familiar with the 90 degree rule in 5-4-7. Shortly afterwards, I said “we’d like to continue on this heading until we can make a turn of less than 90 degrees at DOCAL,” to which he said “That will be fine.”

Why so casual? We weren’t IFR, but were doing a VFR practice approach, where separation standards are relaxed. Under those circumstances, I’ve seen controllers not require a turn of less than 90 degrees at an IF, a practice that may confuse pilots and controllers alike about the proper way to start an approach at an IF.

Get on the Same Page as the Controller
Regardless of how you request an approach, or how you are cleared to an approach, it’s important to be on the same page as the controller. If you have any doubt as to whether the controller and you have the same game plan in mind, request clarification. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to ask to “start the approach at the IF” if that’s how you would like to fly the approach.

Martin Rottler

Welcome to the Pilot Shortage

February 20th, 2014 by Martin Rottler

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.

Ron Rapp

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

February 18th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

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.

Mike Busch

Roots of Reliability-Centered Maintenance

February 11th, 2014 by Mike Busch

Last month, I discussed the pioneering WWII-era work of the eminent British scientist C.H. Waddington, who discovered that the scheduled preventive maintenance (PM) being performed on RAF B-24 bombers was actually doing more harm than good, and that drastically cutting back on such PM resulted in spectacular improvement in dispatch reliability of those aircraft. Two decades later, a pair of brilliant American engineers at United Airlines—Stan Nowlan and Howard Heap—independently rediscovered the utter wrongheadedness of traditional scheduled PM, and took things to the next level by formulating a rigorous engineering methodology for creating an optimal maintenance program to maximize safety and dispatch reliability while minimizing cost and downtime. Their approach became known as “Reliability-Centered Maintenance” (RCM), and revolutionized the way maintenance is done in the airline industry, military aviation, high-end bizjets, space flight, and numerous non-aviation applications from nuclear power plants to auto factories.

RCM wear-out curve

The traditional approach to PM assumes that most components start out reliable, and then at some point start becoming unreliable as they age

The “useful life” fallacy

Nowlan and Heap showed the fallacy of two fundamental principles underlying traditional scheduled PM:

  • Components start off being reliable, but their reliability deteriorates with age.
  • The useful life of components can be established statistically, so components can be retired or overhauled before they fail.

It turns out that both of these principles are wrong. To quote Nowlan and Heap:

“One of the underlying assumptions of maintenance theory has always been that there is a fundamental cause-and-effect relationship between scheduled maintenance and operating reliability. This assumption was based on the intuitive belief that because mechanical parts wear out, the reliability of any equipment is directly related to operating age. It therefore followed that the more frequently equipment was overhauled, the better protected it was against the likelihood of failure. The only problem was in determining what age limit was necessary to assure reliable operation. “In the case of aircraft it was also commonly assumed that all reliability problems were directly related to operating safety. Over the years, however, it was found that many types of failures could not be prevented no matter how intensive the maintenance activities. [Aircraft] designers were able to cope with this problem, not by preventing failures, but by preventing such failures from affecting safety. In most aircraft essential functions are protected by redundancy features which ensure that, in the event of a failure, the necessary function will still be available from some other source.

RCM six curves

RCM researchers found that only 2% of aircraft components have failures that are predominantly age-related (curve B), and that 68% have failures that are primarily infant mortality (curve F).

“Despite the time-honored belief that reliability was directly related to the intervals between scheduled overhauls, searching studies based on actuarial analysis of failure data suggested that the traditional hard-time policies were, apart from their expense, ineffective in controlling failure rates. This was not because the intervals were not short enough, and surely not because the tear down inspections were not sufficiently thorough. Rather, it was because, contrary to expectations, for many items the likelihood of failure did not in fact increase with increasing age. Consequently a maintenance policy based exclusively on some maximum operating age would, no matter what the age limit, have little or no effect on the failure rate.”

[F. Stanley Nowlan and Howard F. Heap, “Reliability-Centered Maintenance” 1978, DoD Report Number AD-A066579.]

Winning the war by picking our battles

FMEAAnother traditional maintenance fallacy was the intuitive notion that aircraft component failures are dangerous and need to be prevented through PM. A major focus of RCM was to identify the ways that various components fail, and then evaluate the frequency and consequences of those failures. This is known as “Failure Modes and Effects Analysis” (FMEA). Researchers found that while certain failure modes have serious consequences that can compromise safety (e.g., a cracked wing spar), the overwhelming majority of component failures have no safety impact and have consequences that are quite acceptable (e.g., a failed #2 comm radio or #3 hydraulic pump). Under the RCM philosophy, it makes no sense whatsoever to perform PM on components whose failure has acceptable consequences; the optimal maintenance approach for such components is simply to leave them alone, wait until they fail, and then replace or repair them when they do. This strategy is known as “run to failure” and is a major tenet of RCM.

A maintenance revolution…

Jet airliner

The 747, DC-10 and L-1011 were the first airliners that had RCM-based maintenance programs.

As a direct result of this research, airline maintenance practices changed radically. RCM-inspired maintenance programs were developed for the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011, and for all subsequent airliners. The contrast with the traditional (pre-RCM) maintenance programs for the Boeing 707 and 727 and Douglas DC-8 was astonishing. The vast majority of component TBOs and life-limits were abandoned in favor of an on-condition approach based on monitoring the actual condition of engines and other components and keeping them in service until their condition demonstrably deteriorated to an unacceptable degree. For example, DC-8 had 339 components with TBOs or life limits, whereas the DC-10 had only seven—and none of them were engines. (Research showed clearly that overhauling engines at a specific TBO didn’t make them safer, and actually did the opposite.) In addition, the amount of scheduled maintenance was drastically reduced. For example, the DC-8 maintenance program required 4,000,000 labor hours of major structural inspections during the aircraft’s first 20,000 hours in service, while the 747 maintenance program called for only 66,000 labor hours, a reduction of nearly two orders of magnitude.

Greybeard AMTs.

Owner-flown GA, particularly piston GA, is the only remaining segment of aviation that does things the bad old-fashioned way.

Of course, these changes saved the airlines a king’s ransom in reduced maintenance costs and scheduled downtime. At the same time, the airplanes had far fewer maintenance squawks and much better dispatch reliability. (This was the same phenomenon that the RAF experienced during WWII when they followed Waddington’s advice to slash scheduled PM.)

…that hasnt yet reached piston GA

Today, there’s only one segment of aviation that has NOT adopted the enlightened RCM approach to maintenance, and still does scheduled PM the bad old-fashioned way. Sadly, that segment is owner-flown GA—particularly piston GA—at the bottom of the aviation food chain where a lot of us hang out. I’ll offer some thoughts about that next month.