Posts Tagged ‘Ron Rapp’

What a country!

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” –Lin Yutang

Even before I started flying for a living, traveling internationally always made me appreciate what we have here at home. Most people are aware of the hassles involved with long-distance international journeys: you’ve gotta consider passports, visas, different electrical outlets and voltages, language barriers, currency exchange, jet lag, and more. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons traveling the world can be so rewarding: much like flying, it’s not easy. You’ve got to earn it.

When you’re the one doing the flying, things are even more complicated. If you’ve followed the travails of any of the Earthrounders – people who fly light GA aircraft around the world, often to raise money or set some kind of record – you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: an inordinate number of delays, problems, and hassles in transiting from one country to another. Given the fact that those of us who do it for a living are not only more experienced with international operations, but also have professional dispatchers, handlers, and staff behind us, you’d think we’d eventually surmount these obstacles.

You’d be wrong.

My trusty steed is fueled and ready for  departure on another intercontinental trip.

My trusty steed is fueled and ready for departure on another intercontinental trip.

I recently participated in a series of trips which took our airplane to China and back – twice – and then eastbound across the world to explore Africa before coming home. It once again reminded me of what incredible barriers humans can erect to keep would-be travelers tied up in bureaucratic knots.

Here are just a few examples:

Visas. Sometimes we need them, sometimes not. Other times crew members have their own specific visa requirements. If you get it wrong, you’ll find yourself missing that flight you were supposed to be on. It’s an especially big problem if you were the one who was supposed to be piloting the plane! There are some countries where even with the right paperwork, you’ll be denied entry if they see you’ve been to a country with which they’re on unfriendly terms.

Customs. It’s bad everywhere, but this might be one place where returning to the U.S. is the worst. I once had a passenger manifest consisting of a half-dozen U.S. Customs agents. I figured we’d breeze through the clearance process upon returning to the United States – after all, these guys had diplomatic passports and active Immigration & Customs Enforcement credentials. The reality? We had to shut down the aircraft, offload all luggage, and traipse across a large airport to clear Customs. One of our passengers was detained briefly because he had a “common name”. I was baffled. If Customs doesn’t trust Customs agents from their own department, there’s something wrong.

Handlers. When flying internationally, we hire professionals who specialize in dealing with the local procedures, folks who know the ropes and speak the language. They arrange our fueling, interface with ramp personnel, airport employees, drivers, and so on. They handle the paperwork and speed us on our way. Or not. Some handlers do a great job, others are awful. On one trip I handed off the aircraft to a subsequent crew who were literally held up – detained — for a cash “fee” by the handler who was supposed to be keeping just that sort of thing from happening. It’s like being robbed at gunpoint by your own bank.

Flight planning. In the United States, we take many things for granted. Altitudes are given in feet. Speeds are expressed in knots or miles per hour. Fuel is dispensed in gallons. Once you venture abroad, you’ll find countries which utilize things like meters, hectopascals, and liters. I haven’t seen cubits or fathoms used yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are places where altitudes are sometimes in meters, other times in feet. In certain countries, usually those with plenty of mountainous terrain, altitudes are referenced to the airport elevation rather than sea level. It’s easy to confuse terms like QNH, QFE, and QNE. Get it wrong in those places and you can find yourself flying into the side of a mountain!

This will soon replace the domestic IFR flight plan form as the U.S. conforms to ICAO standards.

This will soon replace the domestic IFR flight plan form as the U.S. conforms to ICAO standards.

Paperwork. In the U.S., we can get weather information from a wide variety of sources, from telephone briefings to iPhone apps. Abroad, you’ll find yourself forced to purchase, if not use, their weather products. You’ll be required to obtain various stamps and approvals. This can involve long waits and unexpected delays. Indians seem to love their paperwork more than just about anyone I’ve seen. Overflight or landing permits can take days, sometimes weeks to obtain. In countries like China or Russia, there are no short-notice trips for private or business aircraft because they’re impossible. Change your plans? Running late? You’re just out of luck.
Even in Europe, flights can require slot reservations, much the way special events like the Super Bowl do here in the U.S. If you miss your slot time, you go to the bottom of the list. Have you ever seen an ICAO international flight plan form? I’ve seen one wrong mark on this form ground a flight for hours.

Costs. Landing, ramp, and other fees can be dramatically higher in foreign countries than in the United States. This extends to things like catering, water & lav services, and even plain old ice. In Geneva, an Italian pilot with whom I used to fly reported paying more than $1,000 to have a bag of ice delivered to the aircraft.

Ramp checks. You think having an FAA inspector ask for your pilot certificate and medical is bad? Try the European equivalent, a SAFA (Safety Assessment of Foreign Aircraft) check. A team of inspectors will crawl all over the interior and exterior of the aircraft, checking emergency exits, altimeters, flight recorders, navigation charts, emergency equipment, pilot training records, placards, and everything else you can possibly think of.

Accessibility. We take it for granted that you can fly VFR anywhere you want in the U.S., even at night. We can go to the busiest airports, and they are prohibited from discriminating against general aviation or any class of operator. Many countries do not allow VFR at night, single engine IFR, experimental aircraft, aerobatics, or GA flight over populated areas.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to love about international travel, but the process of flying abroad is usually far more expensive, slow, and cumbersome than it needs to be. If you’re the guy in the left seat, it’s best to take to heart the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who prophetically stated that “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Though for very different reasons, whether I’m landing at home or abroad, I always end up thinking to myself, “What a country!”

Perspectives on GA safety

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again: as summertime recedes in the rear-view mirror, I’m packing my computer bag, a few snacks to eat on the (Air)bus, and heading back to school.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did graduate from high school. And college, believe it or not — I’ve got the diploma to prove it! No, this late summer tradition is my annual trip to Dallas for recurrent training on the G-IV: five days of classroom learning and simulator sessions, ending with a formal checkride.

One of the questions typically asked by the instructor on our first day of class is if anyone has experienced anything in the previous year which was particularly noteworthy or unusual. A system failure, something of that nature. I’ve been pretty fortunate; the company I fly for does a bang-up job maintaining the fleet.

But while mentally reviewing the past year’s trips, my mind drifted off to the place where my heart truly belongs: light general aviation flying. Maybe it’s because the latest Joseph T. Nall Report was recently released by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute. Anyway, I don’t mind admitting a bit of wistfulness that GA can’t claim the same safety record that air carriers — even non-scheduled ones like mine that fly all over the world at a moment’s notice — enjoy.

Nevertheless, in an odd way I take comfort in the fact that the Part 91 safety record isn’t as good. That probably sounds awful, but look at it from a logical standpoint: Part 121/135 represent very specific kinds of highly structured and limited flying, whereas “GA” represents everything from airshow acts and experimental aviation to medevac and ultralights. It covers a wide and vibrant variety of aviation activity.

GA has a higher accident rate than the airlines for many reasons, but the primary one is that GA pilots have the freedom to do many things that the airline guys do not. And I hope that never changes. To paraphrase Dick Rutan, where would we be without those who were willing to risk life and limb using their freedom to do these things? We’d be safe and sound, on the ground, still headed west as we look out over the rump of oxen from our covered wagons.

Whether it’s cruising down the coast at 500′ enjoying the view, taking an aerobatic flight, flying formation, flight testing an experimental airplane, or landing on a sandbar, beach, grass strip, or back-country field, it’s important that private individuals not find themselves restricted to the ways and means of Part 121 operations. We do the stuff that makes flying fun! Doing it “like the airlines” can only drive up the price and suck out the fun of aviation. For better or worse, part of that cost is in increased risk.

Richard Collins stated this quite elegantly when he said, “Lumping general aviation safety together is an accepted practice but it is not realistic. The activities are too diverse and need to be considered separately. There is instructional flying, recreational flying, agricultural flying, private air transportation flying and professional flying. The airplanes range from ultralights to intercontinental jets. Even in the same area, different airplanes have varying accident rates. The only safety concern that spans everything is crashing but the frequency of and reasons for the crashing vary widely according to the type flying and even the type aircraft flown. In each area, the safety record we get is a product of the rules, the pilots involved, the airplanes, and the environment in which the pilots fly those airplanes. To make any change in the record, one or all those elements would have to be modified.”

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Collins, but this is a case where we are in violent agreement. One of the beauties of our Part 91 is that the pilot gets the freedom to choose how far he wants to go in that regard. If you want to file IFR everywhere and only fly with multiple turbine engines in day VMC, fine. That’s your choice. For others, flying in the mountain canyons in a single-engine piston and landing on a short one-way strip on the side of a steep hill is well within their risk tolerance. There are some (I’m looking at you, Team Aerodynamix) for whom a large group of owner-built airplanes flying low-altitude formation aerobatics at night is perfectly acceptable. Whether we are personally engaged in that activity or not, how can one argue that these activities don’t benefit the entire GA community? What excitement and passion they engender for aviation! And how they set us apart from the rest of the world, who for the most part look on with envy at something they will never be “allowed” to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not opposed to better equipment, more training, or higher standards for general aviation. Those things are all important, and I advocate for them constantly. But if experience has taught us anything, it’s that these measures will only be effective when they come from within rather than being imposed from a bureaucracy which already demands so much.

Special Mission Aircraft

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

My last flight assignment consisted of four days in Hawaii. It was one of those trips which make me (almost) feel guilty for associating it with the word “work.” Of course, there are plenty of journeys which are the polar opposite: long overnight flights, challenging weather, and minimum rest. But when you’re relaxing on a warm tropical island, those thoughts are easily banished to the back of one’s mind. For the moment, at least, the life of a charter pilot is a charmed one indeed!

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory's W-band cloud radar.

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory’s W-band cloud radar.

As we taxied onto the ramp at Kona International Airport (PHKO) after a beautiful flight out from the mainland, one particular aircraft caught my eye. It wasn’t the brand new G650 perched majestically at the front of a line of business jets but rather the aircraft next to it, a colorfully painted Gulfstream V equipped with pointy, silver-tipped under-wing-mounted pods. If it wasn’t for the words “National Center for Atmospheric Research” painted above the cabin windows, one might have wondered if this wasn’t some sort of weapons system.

I suddenly remembered that Hurricane Guillermo was slowly churning toward Hawaii from the southeast. The storm was still nearly a thousand miles from the archipelago and hadn’t impacted our flight that day in the slightest. As they say, “out of sight, out of mind.” I assume the G-V was there to conduct research on the storm systems (there were several large ones) brewing in the Pacific Ocean. And if the crew was able to spend a bit of time laying out by the pool… well, that’s just a cross they’d have to bear.

That uniquely outfitted airplane got me thinking about “special mission” aircraft and how business jets serve millions of people who never get to ride in them and are probably not even aware of their existence. Even among the general aviation community, I’d imagine plenty of folks would be surprised how many of these highly modified airplanes are out there and what they do for us on a daily basis.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

I first became aware of Special Mission aircraft when I was in initial Gulfstream IV training. There were five pilots in my class. Most of us were employed by typical charter or Part 91 operators, but the youngest member of our cadre worked for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He had been flying the agency’s DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter for a couple of years and was offered a slot flying either the Lockheed P-3 Orion or the Gulfstream IV-SP. He really loved the idea of flying the big turboprop, but the only training available for the Orion was through the military. As I recall, it was a two year long process, whereas training on the G-IV was available through civilian providers and wouldn’t take nearly as much time.

NOAA’s Gulfstream is one of those Special Mission airplanes which benefit everyone. The jet has twice the altitude capability of the P-3 Orion, which allow it to drop instruments known as Omega dropwindsondes into the storm from higher up. The data collected has improved landfall prediction accuracy by more than 20 percent, saving lives and property in the bargain.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

I’m most familiar with the Gulfstream special mission aircraft because that’s the type I fly. At my home base, I’ve come across a Lockheed-Martin DRAGON, a highly modified Gulfstream III which serves as an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform for military, homeland defense, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance needs. The Israeli air force’s airborne early warning aircraft is a modified G550. It’s so radically altered, in fact, that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Savannah product.

The U.S. government operates a large fleet of Gulfstreams to provide airlift for senior U.S. government officials, members of Congress and military leaders. The current fleet includes the G-IV (military designation C-20) and G-V/550 (C-37) models, which are operated by every branch of the military as well as the U.S. Coast Guard.

One of the most famous Special Mission business jets served our nation’s space program for more than three decades. NASA operated four Gulfstream II jets which were heavily modified to simulate the space shuttle’s descent profile. Officially known as the Shuttle Training Aircraft, the right half of the cockpit was standard bizjet; the left side replicated the orbiter’s flight deck.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

Shuttle approaches were so steep — 20 degrees! — that the jets had to be operated with the main landing gear down and both Spey engines running in reverse at 92% N2. This YouTube clip shows the STA in action. Aside from a downline or spin in an aerobatic aircraft, I’ve rarely seen an altimeter unwind that quickly.

You’ll find Gulfstreams, Citations, Lears, Hawkers, and many other business jets used for signals intelligence, moving cargo, towing targets, medevac, oceanic patrol, search and rescue, and just about anything else you can think of.

Oh, and that airplane we saw on the ramp in Kona? A bit of internet research reveals that it’s called HIAPER (High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research) and is owned by the National Science Foundation. It took more than $81 million and nearly twenty years from conception to delivery. After Gulfstream finished building the airplane, it spent two years undergoing heavy modification and testing at Lockheed before entering service. That’s pretty typical, because adding sensors and pods often requires cutting holes in the pressure vessel, and that means the basic structure has to be re-engineered to ensure adequate safety. You’re taking an aircraft that was designed to do one thing and rebuilding it to accomplish a completely different mission.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

I recently flew with a guy who was the test pilot for the SOFIA airborne observatory. It’s essentially a Boeing 747 retrofitted with a massive telescope in the tail. There’s a lot more to it than just clearing out the passenger seats and sticking some equipment into the fuselage. The cabin has to remain pressurized, but the telescope must be exposed to the open air. A new rear bulkhead had to be fabricated and installed for the pressure vessel, along with an 18-by-13 foot door for the telescope itself which was strong enough to open and close while flying at 41,000 feet and 500 knots. I don’t know much about the telescope, but the work that went into retrofitting the airframe is awfully impressive.

In a world of bespoke aircraft, the Special Mission variants take customization to a whole new level. Next time you see a business jet on the ramp with odd or exotic modifications, take a moment to appreciate the time, effort, money, and engineering that went into what is surely a one-of-a-kind machine.

Those Lousy Checklists

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Ah, the checklist. If Shakespeare was a pilot, he’d have written an ode to it.

Once confined to the world of aviation, formal checklist discipline is now common in hospitals, assembly lines, product design, maintenance, and just about any other instance where loss of essential time, money, or bodily function can result from improper procedures or forgotten items.

Some pilots can’t imagine flying without one. Like a child wandering the yard without their favorite blanket, they’d quite literally be lost without that laminated piece of paper guiding them through each phase of flight. I’ve seen pilots who seemed to enjoy using the checklist more than the actual flying.

Others have a difficult time understanding why a written list is needed at all, especially in simple or familiar aircraft. “Use a flow or mnemonic and let’s get going!”, they’d say. While I disagree with that attitude, I understand where it comes from: too many badly-designed checklists.

As anyone who’s operated a wide variety of aircraft types (I’ve flown over 60) can tell you, poor checklists are more often the rule than the exception, and the worst of them will leave a long-lasting bad taste in your mouth. They disrupt the flow of a flight much the way an actor with poor timing can disrupt a scene.

One of the great aviation mysteries is why so many lousy checklists continue to exist. They’re not limited to small aircraft, either. The manufacturer-provided checklist for the Gulfstream IV, for example, is comically long. I don’t know who designs these things, but I highly doubt it’s the line pilot who’s going to be using it day in and day out.

The answer to such cosmic riddles is far above my pay grade. What I can say for sure is that it’s vital for aviators to understand both the purpose for a checklist and the proper way to use one.

The purpose should be self-evident: to ensure that nothing important gets missed. Lowering the landing gear, setting the pressurization controller, those sorts of items. The key word is important, and I think that’s where many checklists fall apart because once the document gets too long, human nature dictates that pilots will either skip items inadvertently or leave the entire thing stowed.

Proper checklist usage? Now that’s something a bit more complex. When an aviator is new to an aircraft, the checklist serves as a “do” list. In other words, each item is read and then the action is performed. Even if a cockpit flow exists and is being taught, the list will have to be read and performed one step at a time because the pilot is simply unfamiliar with the location of switches and controls.

As time goes by, the flow and/or checklist is slowly memorized. Eventually the pilot reaches the point where they’re actually faster and more comfortable performing the items from memory. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing, because it allows the checklist to serve as a CHECK list. Once everything is done, you quickly read through the items on the page to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.

In my experience, it’s not the neophyte who is at greatest risk for missing something, it’s the grizzled veteran who whips through the flows at lightning speed and then neglects to use the checklist at all. It’s overconfidence. They’re so sure they haven’t forgotten anything of life-altering consequence. And to be honest, they’re usually right — but that’s not the point.

I see this kind of failure quite frequently when flying glass panel aircraft with pilots who are computer-centric Type-A personalities. They’re literally too fast with the flows and need to slow down a bit.

Caution is also warranted when circumstances force a pilot to perform tasks out of their normal order. Often this happens due to interruption from ATC, line personnel, passengers, weather, or even another pilot.

Speaking of weather, here’s a case in point: I was in New Jersey getting a jet ready for departure during a strong rainstorm. We had started up the airplane to taxi to a place on the ramp where it was somewhat protected from the weather so our passengers wouldn’t get quite as soaked when they arrived. That simple action broke up the usual preflight exterior flow and as a result I neglected to remove the three landing gear pins. Thankfully the other pilot caught it during his walk-around, but it shows how easily that sort of thing can happen.

The best checklists, the ones that are truly effective, share some common traits. For one thing, they’re short and sweet. They hit the critical items in a logical order and leave the rest out.

In an aerobatic aircraft, a pre-takeoff check would cover the fuel selector, canopy, fuel mixture, flight controls, etc. In a swept-wing business jet, on the other hand, the critical items are different. Flaps become a vital item, because unlike other aircraft, if those aren’t set right the airplane can use far more runway than you’ve got available. It may not even fly at all.

Checklist design and usage is an under-appreciated skill. As with many things in aviation, when it’s done right it’s a thing of elegance. Art, almost. So next time you’re flying, take a critical look at your checklist and the way you use it. How do you — and it — measure up?

Flying Backward

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s the Best Pilot?

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

I tend to disagree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, Gordo?

A Self-Evident Solution

Monday, November 24th, 2014

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

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

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

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 3: Hangar Policy

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

Example 4: Field Approvals

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

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

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

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

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

From AIN Online:

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

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

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

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

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

Show Me the Money

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

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

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

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

Self-Evident Solutions

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

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

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

Liability: The Price We Pay

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time is Money

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

One of the first things people discover about flying is that it requires an abundance of two resources: time and money. The money part is pretty obvious. Anyone who inquires about flight instruction at a local school will figure that one out before they even take their first lesson. The importance of time is a bit more nebulous.

When I began working as an instructor, I noticed that even in affluent coastal Orange County, at least one of those two assets always seemed to be in short supply. Those who had plenty of money rarely had much free time; they were financially successful because they worked such long hours. Younger pilots typically had fewer demands on their schedule, but funds were limited at best. It reminds me of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2. But instead of matter and energy being interchangeable, it’s time and money. Benjamin Franklin took it a step further in a 1748 letter, concluding that “time is money”.


I learned to fly during a period when both of those elements were readily available. It was a luxury I didn’t appreciate — or even recognize — at the time. It’s probably for the best, since I would have been sorely tempted to spend even more on my addiction.

After flying Part 135 for the past three years, it’s interesting to note how those same limits apply to charter customers despite being much higher up on the proverbial food chain. These restrictions are the very reason Part 91/135 business aviation exists at all.

Case in point: I recently flew a dozen employees of a large retailer around the U.S. to finalize locations for new stores. They were able to visit ten cities in four days, spending several hours working at each destination. Out of curiosity, I ran our itinerary through booking sites like Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity to see how a group of twelve might fare on the airlines. Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is “not well”?

Our first leg, three hours in length, would have taken twelve hours and two extra stops on the airlines and actually cost more, assuming business class seats. Some of the subsequent legs wouldn’t have been possible at all on the airlines because they simply don’t serve those destinations. Overall, chartering the Gulfstream IV-SP cost less than trying to do the same trip on an airline. As far as time saved, on an airline, each of those ten legs would have required passengers to be at the airport 90 minutes in advance of their scheduled departure time. That alone would have wasted fifteen hours — the equivalent of two business days.

A chartered aircraft waits for passengers if they’re running late. If they need to change a destination, we can accommodate them. Travelers spend more time working and less time idle, literally turning back the clock and making everything they do more productive. And once we’re airborne, they can continue to do business, preparing for their next meeting and using the cabin as a mobile office. They can conference, spread out papers, and speak freely without worrying about strangers overhearing sensitive information.

This time/money exchange is present on every trip. Since I’m based in Los Angeles, our passengers are often in the entertainment industry. Imagine an artist or band who had a concert in Chicago on Monday, Miami on Tuesday, Denver on Wednesday, and Seattle on Thursday. They need to be in town early for rehearsals, interviews, and appearances. These tours sometimes last weeks or even months. Keeping a schedule like that would be nearly impossible without chartering. Imagine the cast of big budget film needing to be at film festivals, premieres, media interviews, awards shows, and such. Or the leaders of a private company about to go public or meeting with investors around the country prior to a product launch. Franklin was right: time is money.

When I fly on an scheduled airline, the inefficiency and discomfort remind me of why charter, fractional, and corporate aviation will only continue to grow. The price point of private flying doesn’t make sense for everyone, but for those who need it, it’s more than a convenience. It’s what makes doing business possible at all.

The Ab Initio Flaw

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.


Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.