Posts Tagged ‘safety’

Expectation Bias

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

I don’t know who first described flying as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”, but it wouldn’t be shocking to discover the genesis was related to flying a long-haul jet. I was cogitating on that during a recent overnight flight to Brazil. While it was enjoyable, this red-eye brought to mind the complacency which can accompany endless hours of straight-and-level flying – especially when an autopilot is involved.

This post was halfway written when my inbox lit up with stories of a Boeing Dreamlifter – that’s a 747 modified to carry 787 fuselages — landing at the wrong airport in Wichita, Kansas. The filed destination was McConnell AFB, but the crew mistakenly landed at the smaller Jabara Airport about nine miles north. The radio exchanges between the Dreamlifter crew and the tower controller at McConnell show how disoriented the pilots were. Even five minutes after they had landed, the crew still thought they were at Cessna Aircraft Field (CEA) instead of Jabara.

McConnell AFB, the flight's destination, is the Class D airport at the bottom of the chart, about nine miles south of the non-towered Jabara Airport.

McConnell AFB, the flight’s destination, is the Class D airport at the bottom of the chart, about nine miles south of the non-towered Jabara Airport.

As a pilot, by definition I live in a glass house and will therefore refrain from throwing stones. But the incident provides a good opportunity to review the perils of what’s known as “expectation bias”, the idea that we often see and hear what we expect to rather than what is actually happening.

Obviously this can be bad for any number of reasons. Expecting the gear to come down, a landing clearance to be issued, or that controller to clear you across a runway because that’s the way you’ve experience it a thousand times before can lead to aircraft damage, landing without a clearance, a runway incursion, or worse.

I’d imagine this is particularly challenging for airline pilots, as they fly to a more limited number of airports than those of us who work for charter companies whose OpSpecs allow for worldwide operation. Flying the Gulfstream means my next destination could be literally anywhere: a tiny Midwestern airfield, an island in the middle of the Pacific, an ice runway in the Antarctic, or even someplace you’d really never expect to go. Pyongyang, anyone?

But that’s atypical for most general aviation, airline, and corporate pilots. Usually there are a familiar set of destinations for a company airplane and an established route network for Part 121 operators. Though private GA pilots can go pretty much anywhere, we tend to have our “regular” destinations, too: a favored spot for golfing, the proverbial $100 hamburger, a vacation, or that holiday visit with the family. It can take on a comfortable, been-there-done-that quality which sets us up for expectation bias. Familiarity may lead to contempt for ordinary mortals, but the consequences can be far worse for aviators.

One could make the case that the worse accident in aviation history – the Tenerife disaster – was caused, at least in part, by expectation bias. The captain of a KLM 747 expected a Pan Am jumbo jet would be clear of the runway even though he couldn’t see it due to fog. Unfortunately, the Clipper 747 had missed their turnoff. Result? Nearly six hundred dead.

"Put an airliner inside an airliner?  Yeah, we can do that."  Boeing built four of these Dreamlifters to bring 787 fuselages to Seattle for final assembly.  As you can imagine, this thing landing at a small airplane would turn some heads.

“Put an airliner inside an airliner? Yeah, we can do that.” Boeing built four of these Dreamlifters to bring 787 fuselages to Seattle for final assembly. As you can imagine, this thing landing at a small airplane would turn some heads.

The Dreamlifter incident brought to mind an eerily similar trip I made to Wichita a couple of years ago. It was a diminutive thirty-five mile hop from Hutchinson Municipal (HUT) to Jabara Airport (AAO) in the Gulfstream IV. We were unhurried, well-rested, and flying on a calm, cloudless day with just a bit of haze. The expectation was that we were in for a quick, easy flight.

We were cleared for the visual approach and told to change to the advisory frequency. Winds favored a left-hand pattern for runway 36. Looking out the left-hand window of the airplane revealed multiple airports, each with a single north-south runway. I knew they were there, but reviewing a chart didn’t prepare me for how easily Cessna, Beech, and Jabara airports could be mistaken for one another.

We did not land at the wrong airport, but the hair on the back of my neck went up. It was instantly clear that, like Indiana Jones, we were being presented a golden opportunity to “choose poorly”. We reverted back to basic VFR pilotage skills and carefully verified via multiple landmarks and the aircraft’s navigation display that this was, indeed, the correct airfield.

That sounds easy to do, but there’s pressure inducted by the fact that this left downwind puts the airplane on a direct collision course with McConnell Air Force Base’s class Delta airspace and also crosses the patterns of several other fields. In addition, Mid-Continent’s Class C airspace is nearby and vigilance is required in that direction as well. Wichita might not sound like the kind of place where a lovely VMC day would require you to bring your “A” game, but it is.

Pilots in the Southern California area have been known to mistake the former home of Top Gun, MCAS Miramar, for the smaller Montgomery Airport at the bottom of the map.

Pilots in the Southern California area have been known to mistake the former home of Top Gun, MCAS Miramar, for the smaller Montgomery Airport at the bottom of the map.

Expectation bias can be found almost anywhere. I’d bet a fair number of readers have experienced this phenomenon first-hand. In my neck of the woods, MCAS Miramar (NKX) is often mistaken for the nearby Montgomery Field (MYF). Both airports have two parallel runways and a single diagonal runway. Miramar is larger and therefore often visually acquired before Montgomery, and since it’s in the general vicinity of where an airfield of very similar configuration is expected, the pilot who trusts, but – in the words of President Reagan – does not verify, can find themselves on the receiving end of a free military escort upon arrival.

Landing safely at the wrong airport presents greater hazard to one’s certificate than to life-and-limb, but don’t let that fool you; expectation bias is always lurking and can bite hard if you let it. Stay alert, assume nothing, expect the unexpected. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you!

A Future with More Government Shutdowns?

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Government Shutdown FAAAs of this writing, the 2013 government shutdown, the first in 17 years, has been in effect for a week with no signs of ending. If it only continues for another week or two and doesn’t reoccur in the near future, the many people and organizations affected by it will give a collective sigh of relief and it will soon be forgotten. But what if government shutdowns become the new normal?

It wasn’t that long ago that filibusters in the Senate were rare, but since 2009 they’ve become routine, requiring 60 votes whereas in the past a simple majority vote was sufficient.  If government shutdowns become routine, we may be in uncharted territory.

From the important to the mundane, here’s what’s not happening at the FAA during the government shutdown:

  • The Aircraft Registry Branch is closed, so new aircraft sales have halted since the planes can’t be registered. A GAMA survey indicates that 12 deliveries were missed in the first two days and a total of 135 deliveries totaling $1.38 billion if the shutdown lasts a couple of weeks. Interestingly, the Aircraft Registry Branch was deemed essential and left open during the shutdowns in the 1990s. Why not this time?
  • The Flight Standards Service is down from 5,000 people to fewer than 200 essential people, mostly managers. So the inspectors who provide safety oversight of maintenance and operations are mostly sidelined. Expect virtually no ramp checks, ferry permits, CFI renewals, or approval of applications, such as a new Part 135 certificate for a new charter operator. “Limited” certification work, such as on new aircraft under development, will continue according to the DOT.
  • Written exams for knowledge tests have halted, an inconvenience for anyone who put off taking their written exam until just before a now delayed checkride.
  • Major new initiatives are delayed. Remember Part 23 reform that according to AOPA will “overhaul small-aircraft certification rules to double safety and cut costs in half.” Not happening right now. Development and testing of NextGen technologies is also halted. And if you’ve taken a written exam and wondered why you saw lots of questions about ADF receivers, but few on GPS, be aware that the current overhaul of knowledge tests has stopped.

Some things that are essential to protect life and property continue to be in place. That includes air traffic control facilities, the FSS services provided by Lockheed Martin and the aviationweather.gov web site (which is actually part of NOAA, not the FAA). And DOT reports that 2,490 employees from the Office of Aviation Safety will be incrementally recalled over a two-week period. FAA practical tests (checkrides)  continue for now, except for those that require a ride with an FAA inspector, such as CFI checkrides in some FSDOs.

The 2013 FAA budget involved reductions of $486 million and the Fiscal Year 2014 target includes a reduction of $697 million. A future FAA with a shrinking budget is likely to take longer to implement new rules, to reduce the services it currently provides, and to outsource more of its functions. I expect it to also attempt to charge for previously free services (e.g. the $447,000 bill for ATC service at AirVenture).

So what are the near-term implications for General Aviation? For starters, people working in GA will need to start planning further ahead to minimize the impact of future government shutdowns. Some things will be easy, like encouraging flight students to take their written exams when they first start flight training. Others, like getting a new Part 135 charter certificate approved when the FAA is open will be difficult because of backlogs.

Looking further down the road, GA should be involved in the dialog on how to restructure a changing FAA. If you have a good idea on how they can cut waste and improve efficiency, send it to the Administrator. Do you have an idea on how they could outsource a service, like the Flight Service Stations (FSS) that were outsourced through Lockheed Martin? Send them a note or a proposal.

The worst possible outcome would be if other, better-funded agencies step in to help the FAA with their mission. I can only imagine how awful GA flying would become if, for example, the TSA took primary responsibility for ramp checks. If government shutdowns ever become the new normal, many things will change. And it will be up to all of us to make sure that GA as we know it doesn’t get swept under the carpet in the process.