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Ramped?

single-engine cessna airplane on the tarmac in St. George, Utah. Toned in Photoshop, taken with Canon 40D

A U.S. senator recently held a news conference to announce that he wanted the FAA to start conducting more ramp checks at GA airports. There had been eight accidents since the beginning of the year in his state. He was concerned that the number of ramp inspections in the last decade had fallen from 2,000 to 748, a 73 percent decrease. FAA personnel funding increased significantly during this period according to the DOT inspector general. Parenthetically, the senator noted that there might be no correlation but the FAA should ramp up ramp inspections to check for compliance, ostensibly, to stop the “surge.” 

A casual pass through this year’s NTSB preliminary reports for the state-in-question revealed the following:

1) A student pilot lost control on a touch and go, drifted off the left side of the runway despite reportedly applying right rudder, whacked nearby signage with each wing, breached both fuel tanks, and managed a successful off-airport landing after dodging two sets of power lines. No injury. That would have made an interesting social media post for sure.

2) A V35 Bonanza suffered an in-flight breakup from a reported vacuum system loss in IMC (discussed in one of my previous blogs).

3) A Stinson 108  ground-looped during a precautionary landing after the engine began to miss. The aircraft had an approved STC to use autogas—but not with ethanol—according to the preliminary report. The pilot reported that the engine had missed on several prior occasions. No injury.

4) A Cessna 172 stalled shortly after takeoff from a private grass strip that was just over 1,100 feet long. Two fatalities and one minor injury.

5) A Piper Cherokee lost power shortly after takeoff and crashed. Both occupants sustained serious injuries—the engine is being inspected.

6) A Cirrus SR-22 suffered a power loss in cruise flight and although the pilot switched tanks (both of which contained fuel), there was no restart. The parachute was pulled and no injuries resulted. A preliminary engine teardown showed valve strikes on the tops of all cylinders.

7) A Piper Cherokee suffered an engine stoppage at night during an instructional flight and ditched just off the shoreline.  The aircraft had flown 5.1 hours since the last refueling. There were three minor injuries and one presumed fatality.

8) A Cessna 152’s nosewheel impacted a snowbank just off the end of a runway. The aircraft nosed over and crashed on the runway, caught fire, and was destroyed. The pilot was uninjured.

It’s a typical potpourri of GA mishaps and tragedies. The usual disclaimer applies to these preliminary reports as no probable cause has been determined, although it seems at least somewhat self-evident in several cases.

Regarding the efficacy of ramp checks, in the skill-based accidents, they might have been prevented—but only if the inspector happened to observe poor airmanship just prior to the mishap and was able to flag the aircraft down.

In the maintenance arena, there might have been an opportunity to ground an aircraft if it had not had the proper inspections. But it’s a bit of a stretch for an inspector to determine if an aircraft has ethanol in the fuel or an internal cylinder condition. We are not required to carry maintenance logbooks onboard but the aircraft should be airworthy and safe to fly. Sadly, a few of our compatriots pay scant attention to maintenance and fly with bad tires, poorly rigged flight controls, inoperative instruments, etc.

So, there’s an effort to do something, anything by government and the regulatory hammer is often the tool of choice. In my view, the real opportunity is ongoing and proper education since it’s the pilot and passengers who arrive none-too-gently at the scene of the accident first. It’s also the rest of us who pay increased insurance, and there is litigation and bad PR.  Perhaps a ramp “check” isn’t the best tool but merely a courtesy “discussion” by inspectors since the FAA is moving into compliance, as opposed to enforcement these days. If someone is a consistently bad actor, then enforcement is completely appropriate.

On training: Touch and goes by solo students should be carefully considered. There’s a lot going on during both takeoff and landing, and to string them together occasionally overwhelms the new aviator. Directional control should always be stressed. Adequate fuel and runways are essential for all flight—seems we have to remind pilots of that. 

On maintenance: Unless you’re flying a sailplane or a balloon, a fully functioning engine is essential to repel gravity—there ain’t no shortcuts here. Unfortunately, a few of us don’t just believe in luck, we rely on it, usually to save a buck. It’s a false economy.

Looking back at this group of accidents, do you think GA pilots could do better?

Would additional enforcement make a difference? If not that, what? Let’s hear your thoughts.

30 Comments

  1. In 2015, there were 387 general aviation fatalities, the lowest since World War Two. On the automotive side there were 38,300 fatalities, the highest percentage rise in the past fifty years. Where should our safety efforts be going?

  2. Before another effort to violate us, the FAA should try to help. Be cooperative!

    • I agree, Ramps checks should be federal in control and state politicians that know little should not be allowed to get involved. Having the Feds is bad enough

  3. Bruce, Who was the senator? I searched around a bit, but was unable to find any reporting on the news conference. Obviously ramp checks won’t have the desired effect and I was wondering if the senator is a pilot. Thanks.

    • Bruce Landsberg

      July 8, 2016 at 12:40 pm

      Lynn….

      The Senator was from one of the New England states. If you click on the link to the Bonanza accident to last month’s blog, you’ll see the state. The senator is not a pilot and was the architect of the required First Officer ATP law after the Colgan Q 400 accident in Buffalo. Air Safety Institute did a 10 year look back on regional airline accidents after the proposal and could find none where the FO was the cause. Another non-solution in my view, but then I’m not a senator. Thanks for your note.

      …..Bruce

      • Please don’t defame New England by claiming that NY is in New England,

        • Bruce Landsberg

          July 8, 2016 at 7:14 pm

          pgs…. I stand corrected. My mother was from new England ( MA) and she likely would have taken me to task, as well.

          ….Bruce

        • Don’t worry, NY doesn’t want that designation either:)

    • I doubt if the Senator could even fly a kite!!!

  4. Kevin Fleming

    July 8, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Here is a link – you can see who the Senator is and draw your own conclusions about the motives and potential effectiveness. http://libn.com/2016/06/27/schumer-to-faa-increase-small-plane-inspections/

  5. Martin Towsley

    July 8, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Bruce, just curious, why are you reluctant to name the Senator who was pushing this? That almost appears to be an agenda in itself. Public information is just that, public. Thanks.

    • Bruce Landsberg

      July 8, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      Martin…. No agenda, at least that I was consciously aware of. It is public information but as I’ve said before there should be no politics in safety and there certainly is no safety in politics. That is a long adult beverage conversation – especially this election year !

      …..Bruce

      • I for one would like to be in on this long adult beverage conversation, especially this election year. When are we doing this?

  6. I offer that seven of the eight incidents could have been mitigated in part or eliminated entirely by providing additional information to the pilot through cheap and proven equipment available on experimental and ultralight aircraft. The costs of these technologies fall not in the equipment — but the paperwork. Senator Schumer and others could begin addressing the root causes vice the messy after-effects (much like mandatory seat-belt installation is far more effective than after-the-fact police checkpoints for seat-belt violators). A ramp check of the first incident pilot *before* the event in question would have resulted in no action taken, nor likely any of these others; the first incident was possibly solely due to training.

    #2 – a cheap AHRS with a redundant AHRS vice an old vacuum system

    #3 – engine monitor with audible warning

    #4 – angle of attack indicator with audible warning

    #5 – engine monitor with audible warning

    #6 – unknown, but possible engine monitor

    #7 – fuel monitor with audible warning

    #8 – app to calculate W&B and required runway and performance characteristics

    Dramatic Part 21 reform or legislation (such as removing STC requirements for light GA aircraft that have entered the SARA period of repose and allowing them the same flexibility as today’s experimental aircraft) will save lives. Every aircraft should have access to five essential technologies — AHRS with synthetic vision, AOA, engine/fuel monitor, two-axis autopilot, and shoulder harnesses — and Congress should help by easing regulations so that each of those items are available for less than $1,000 each. Furthermore, we all owe EAA a round of thanks for taking on and funding the Dynon STC. That’s the first step in a very good direction down a very long road. I look forward to installing a SkyView in my certified aircraft someday.
    AOPA, if we want to save lives and make GA last into the next 50 years, let’s discuss THIS! 🙂
    Respectfully submitted,

    c

    • As we all know, the FAA has made it so difficult to upgrade an older aircraft, those safety features are rarely installed. Due in part to cost and fear “unauthorized” installations and FAA retaliation via airman certificate revocation. Yes, I understand there are some changes here. However, they are too little, too late, too restrictive.

      • Rarely, but not entirely. My airplane is a 1963 P172D. It has had an AOA indicator for the last 6 3/4 years, and an electric (with back-up battery) AI was installed inJanuary, I tried Foreflight’s synthetic vision but found it not all that useful. An autopilot is out of the question–even if the TruTrak is available, the cost of installation will be too much.

        So it is definitely a cost issue with an older airplane. It’s very hard to justify spending $10,000 here and $15,000 there, when the whole airplane’s worth maybe twice that at most. My only justification is that it’s my airplane, and I intend to keep it as long as my CFII and AME say I can fly safely.

  7. The only thing ramp checks will do is insure that the pilots and aircraft have the proper paperwork onboard. How does the brilliant senator think this would help?!

    • As I mentioned above, part of a ramp check is to ensure the ELT battery is fresh. This helps ensure the wreckage is located within a few days.

  8. That idiot Schumer should shut up about things he knows nothing about. All he does is grandstand in front of cameras to make it look like he’s doing something. He’s whats wrong with congress, not what is right.

    • Schumer is an idiot, refused to help at all when the CBP was stopping everyone for no reason, illegally, I guess on this same logic, that maybe if we stopped everyone we’d somehow convince someone to just quit flying, and thereby potentially avoid an accident. Wait until he realizes how much bigger the automobile statistics are, he’ll advocate for no cars.

  9. Your observations, comments, are very appropriate. Those ramp checks would have done next to nothing to interrupt the “accident chain” in these reported in the article. A good pilot is a conscientious pilot, whether the FAA is there or not. It is just more federal bureaucracy(sp?) in operation, and to increase the cost of general aviation. The FAA is having problems just keeping up with mandates already in place by congress, without adding to those existing problems by adding one very time consuming, and expensive, mandate.

  10. Charles Edwards

    July 10, 2016 at 4:33 am

    I believe it is obvious that the absence or presence of the ARROW documentation, has no effect on safety. Are you unsafe if you forgot that little card in your wallet; your pilot’s certificate. Doubtful. My thoughts on improving safety are along the lines of peer pressure. When we see an unsafe act in an airplane, take the time to seek out the pilot and start by asking if they would do the same thing again. If the answer is no, ask what they learned from it, and what they will do different next time. By listening to the answers to these questions, and making tactful suggestions, maybe we can prevent some of the accident summaries we read above. Same process when you hear a pilot talking about something that happened to them. I’ve been amazed at some of the things low-time pilots will say about their own past performances – in a vein like it was normal. Of course this suggestion demands that all pilots be willing to accept constructive criticism. But the secret is to be your own worst critic.

    I’m a bit perplexed by the suggestion that touch and go practice might be inappropriate for solo students. If a student can’t handle touch and go landings with the required proficiency, then I would not turn them loose for solo. I’d never solo a pilot until I, and more importantly the student, were completely confident in the student’s abilities.

    Finally, back in the 70s, when my father/instructor taught me, he would insist that I plan my traffic pattern so I could make the runway if the engine quit. Other than a short application of power on base to ensure the engine was still producing power, the pattern was flown at idle from abeam the numbers – earlier if significant headwinds on final. I’m not seeing anything like this when I fly in the pattern with today’s dual and solo training flights. I’m seeing drug-in power-on finals that, in the event of an engine failure, would end up far short of even the airport boundary, let alone the runway. In many cases finals are over commercial buildings, schools or even homes. Let’s return to teaching how to fly a power-off pattern. Stabilized power-on approaches are easy enough to learn when we start flying instrument approaches or transition to twins.

    • I’ve seen some incredibly wide patterns when flying, my rule of thumb is to keep the runway slightly inward from the wing tip on downwind (as I look down past the wing to the runway) at pattern altitude. If the fan quits I can make the runway no problem. Dragging in a long final is just scary.

      • To that I’d add that 3 mile upwind over the swamp, followed by a 1000 ft agl downwind at least a mile away from the airport, taught at F45? I received criticism for promoting a reasonable pattern size, as some feel it increases the chance for stall/spin accidents. Ugh. Clearly, there is a pattern size that is reasonable.

    • Bruce Landsberg

      July 13, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Charles….
      Appreciate your thoughts and like the idea of a future blog to discuss the “old” ways of training – that should pull in some differing viewpoints. You’re right that one size does not fit all just as all pilots are not the same in skill level. That’s why I was uncharacteristically careful in saying that use of touch and goes by students “….might be considered.”

      Factors include length or runway, wind conditions, student experience, aptitude, instructor experience, the aircraft in question and probably some other things I haven’t yet thought of. The T & G is purely to facilitate training and not part of the practical test – at least not yet.

      In any case, I like your observations.

      As an open invitation, Air Safety Institute will be presenting at EAA Air Venture and have a display which is an open invitation to come chat. Hope to see some of you there!

      …..Bruce

  11. How to reduce accidents in GA? The FAA report at the following link gives some compelling data that currency in the WINGS program is a good practice to reduce accidents. Unfortunately, this subject has not been revisited by the FAA.

    https://www.faasafety.gov/files/gslac/library/documents/2012/May/64417/WINGS%20vs%20Accident%20Report-Final.pdf

    Does the ASI have access to the required data bases and are they able to do a similar analysis?

    • Bruce Landsberg

      July 13, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      John…..

      My sense on WINGS is that those pilot who attend DO have a better record but as is often said in statistics, correlation does not imply causality. The people likely to attend recurrent training and attend seminars are also more likely to have a more refined sense of risk tolerance.

      How to get those who don’t regularly practice and attend is the holy grail of safety. It has always been so. The term of art is “preaching to the choir.” Would love to hear some views other than regulatory on how to encourage part 91 pilots to particpate just a bit more.

      Thanks for your thoughts…..Bruce

      • Bruce,
        The Saturday morning seminars (and other sessions) with WINGS credit provide a larger “choir”. In my opinion, without WINGS there would not be the number of pilots in attendance. Speaking for myself, I am not sure how much self-training I would do without WINGS; I could easily fall into the “don’t regularly practice” group.
        One non-regulatory approach is to verfiy the current effectiveness of WINGS and promote that information to the insurance industry with the goal of achieving a premium reduction. AOPA has spent a lot of effort to get third class medical reform to save those pilots about $50 per year. How about a little effort to save maybe $100 per year (if the data from 2011 is anywhere accurate today)?
        One potential result is a permium increase for those that do not stay current. If the above AOPA model for medical savings increases pilot numbers, how many pilots would stop flying if their premiums go up? And since they aren’t the WINGS current pilots, would accidents go down? Couild we achieve both lower costs and fewer accidents?
        Maybe I wax (not so eloquently) a little too much!
        John

  12. Ramp checks are a great way to determine if the exhaust valve is ready to break off and cause an engine failure over the swamp. Ramp checks can also prevent a VFR pilot from flying right into a thunderstorm. I also have first hand knowledge that ramp checks prevent fuel starvation and CFIT. But most importantly, ramp checks will absolutely prevent base to final stall/spin accidents. And finally, the FAA’s chop-busting ramp check will ensure the ELT battery is fresh for the crash.

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