“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.