“Doing the Right Things” for aviation safety

On November 23rd, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation (AASF) held a special aviation seminar, “Doing the Right Things to Stay Alive.” This day-long session was held at UAA’s Aviation Technology facility at Merrill Field. In spite of a storm the day before that closed schools and canceled many events, well over a hundred people turned out to participate.  While it has been a bad summer for aviation accidents in Alaska, Harry Kieling and the AASF team decided to emphasize the positive.  We typically study accidents looking at what went wrong, however the Safety Foundation decided to look at the other side of that coin: When faced with bad circumstances, what did people do that worked?

To set the stage for the session, a panel with representatives from industry and government agencies discussed “what went wrong” over the past year.  NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver gave us the numbers:  in 2012, we had 109 aircraft accidents in Alaska, nine of which involved fatalities.  A total of 11 people died as a result of those accidents.  We aren’t quite out of 2013 yet, but so far, we have had 86 accidents, of which 14 involved fatalities.  And the worst part, over 30 people died.  Many ideas were discussed in the session that followed.  The need for ongoing training was a recurring theme–whether on your own, with a CFI, on a simulator, etc.  As one presenter reminded us, “you don’t have to be a professional pilot to fly professionally.”

What if the Takeoff goes Bad?

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Tyler Renner, whose day job is to fly corporate aircraft, was on a weekend mission in a Supercub on floats with a friend.  After landing on a Kenai Peninsula lake on a nice July day, and spending a couple hours doing some maintenance at a remote cabin, he taxied across the lake and started a leisurely takeoff run.  Shortly after lifting off the lake, the engine began to vibrate violently, causing Tyler to shut down the engine.  Nine seconds later they impacted the lake, with the wings collapsing alongside the fuselage, leaving the windshield as the only exit.  Both of them made it out of the aircraft uninjured, and were picked up shortly thereafter by boat.  How do we know it was nine seconds from the engine problem to impact?  Tyler’s passenger was recording the takeoff on an iPhone, which provided the precise timing of events as they unfolded.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

But what had caused this mishap?  In the examination after the aircraft was recovered, it became clear that a section of the prop had departed, causing the extreme vibration.  A curious, round semi-circle was visible along the fracture line, where the blade broke.  Further investigation revealed that: (a) the hole was made by a 30 caliber bullet and (b) the bullet hole had been chamfered, filled with automotive body putty, and painted over!  It dates back to work done prior to the current owner of the aircraft.  The lessons here: things happen fast, and one has to be prepared to act—in this case shutting down the engine and continuing to fly the airplane.  Tyler considers himself lucky this happened when and where it did.  And that the engine didn’t completely depart from the aircraft.

Loss of Control at Low Altitude
Loss of control at low altitudes was another topic of discussion, presented by NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver.  So far this year, there have been 9 fatal accidents attributed to loss of control at low altitude, resulting in 21 fatalities.  He shared results of several studies that showed the connection between fatal accidents and loss of control.  This is not a problem confined to Alaska, but often labeled here as the “moose hunter’s stall” or the “moose turn” where the pilot is distracted trying to estimate the size of the moose antlers, and stalls close to the ground.  As Shaver noted, in cases where pilots stall at low altitude, there normally isn’t enough room to recover.  He also reviewed a recent accident where the pilot lost power on take-off and attempted to turn back to the runway, instead of aiming for open areas closer to the initial direction of flight. While NTSB couldn’t determine the cause of the loss of power, attempting to turn back to the runway was a fatal decision.

While the accidents from this year are still being investigated, Shaver cited loss of control accidents as an increased percentage of this year’s fatalities.  In 2012, twelve of loss-of-control accidents resulted in only two fatalities.  So far in 2013, fifteen accidents were attributed to loss-of-control, nine of those accidents involved fatalities.  The numbers and causes for the year may yet change as several are still under investigation.  This session lead to a lively discussion with the participants.  What can we do?  Train, practice emergency procedures (at a safe altitude or in a simulator), do accurate weight and balance calculations, consider an angle of attack indicator, were among the actions discussed.  When it comes to the moose hunter’s stall—the pros in the audience described using a race track or tear-drop pattern that has you passing the moose (or other object of interest) in stable, wings level flight.  Make your turns away from the “target” where your sole concentration is on flying the plane, in a coordinated fashion.

When NOT to take off
Sometimes NOT taking off is the right answer.  This fall helicopter pilot Sam Egli took two members of a geophysical research crew to the edge of volcano. The plan was to land long enough to retrieve seismic monitoring equipment that was installed previously.  While the weather was good when they landed, some clouds started to spill over the mountain from the south. As a precaution, Egli stayed in the aircraft to monitor the weather while the crew retrieved their equipment.  As the clouds became thicker, Egli advised his passengers they needed to evacuate, rather than finish their original task.  He cranked up the helicopter and waited for a gap in the clouds to depart—but it didn’t materialize. And sitting in this very exposed location at the 8,500 ft level, the helicopter began to ice up from the freezing fog, now pouring over the edge of the caldera.  Seeing that too much ice had accumulated to fly, Egli shut the engine down, and notified his crew that they were going to stay put.  After spending over an hour removing ice from the rotor blades, they waited for conditions to improve to try again–but no break in the weather arrived.  By now, the buildup of ice on the helicopter was too great to fly, thus commencing a two day ordeal, which received national media coverage.  The Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron was finally able to reach them by helicopter, and fly them off the mountain.  There is much more to this event than can be told here, but the story, with photos, kept the audience on the edge of their seats.  Egli credited both the 210’s Rescue Squadron, and the team work of his passengers, who had the appropriate gear, supplies and attitude to spend the night, with the successful outcome of the incident. He later retrieved his helicopter.  As a nice complement to Egli’s story, Dave Obey, a seasoned pilot with a local air carrier gave a presentation, “Being Prepared to Spend the Night.” He discussed items that should be carried on one’s person and in a survival bag, using items from his vest and pack as a show and tell demonstration.

Near the end of the day, members of the 210th Rescue Center made an appearance at the seminar. They were presented with commemorative coins that Sam Egli had made for them, and received a standing ovation from the audience.  These are some of the folks who WILL come to your aid when stranded in the remote parts of Alaska.

“What If” Scenarios

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Many safety seminars involve a presenter talking to an audience with, at best, time for a few questions at the end.  AASF decided that it was important to try and engage the audience in a more interactive way.  Teaming up with Roger Motzko, who works for FAA’s Air Traffic Organization in event forensics, they created a number of questions and scenarios for discussion–with a twist. During this session, participants were handed an “interactive response device” that allowed them to respond.  After Motzko presented each scenario, a multiple choice question was posed–and the audience voted, using interactive devices provided by the Chariot Group.  The responses were tabulated and appeared onscreen. In almost all cases, a lively discussion ensued.  Topics ranged from the kinds of equipment people carry, to their response to a given flight scenario.  This technique was thought provoking, and illustrated that there is often not a single right answer…

Right Stuff Award

Sam Egli receiving the  "Right Stuff" award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O'Conner. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

Photographer Rob Stapleton captures Sam Egli receiving the “Right Stuff” award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O’Conn0r. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

In keeping with the “emphasize the positive” tone of the day, the Safety Foundation felt it is important to recognize people that had made good decisions in a challenging environment or situation.  Consequently at this seminar AASF launched the “Right Stuff” Award, which is presented to someone (pilot, mechanic, dispatcher, etc.) that used good judgment in a difficult situation.  Presenting awards to people with the knowledge, skills, and courage that are needed to prevent accidents is a way to highlight the right things that can happen, and to positively change the culture of safety within general aviation.  This year’s recipient of the award was Sam Egli, for his superior decision making skills and moral courage in his decision to stay put on the edge of a volcano in a very exposed location rather than attempt to fly out in icing conditions. It was fitting that he received the award in the company of the 210th Rescue Squadron.  If you know of someone you think is a candidate for this award, please let AASF know.  The contact for the Right Stuff Award is AASF Board Member Mary O’Connor (email or call 907-229-6885).

My compliments to the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, and the many sponsors and supporters that organized this session. Also thanks to Alpha Eta Rho, the student aviation fraternity at UAA that organized food service for the seminar.  Aviation safety is important to us all. We owe it to ourselves, our passengers and the public to take the time to participate in events like this, and learn from the experience of others.  NTSB Investigator Chis Shaver shared this quote:

“Learn all you can from the mistakes of others.  You won’t have time to make them all yourself.”

The author of this quote was Alfred Scheinwold—not a pilot but a world class bridge player.  But his words are even more important to pilots, as the mistakes we may make often come at a very high cost. Seminars like this one provide an opportunity to benefit from the experience of others, who knew how to do the right things to stay alive.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar.  Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar. Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.