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Author: Ron Rapp (page 1 of 4)

The Engine That Could

“Don’t make ’em like they used to…”

I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement, but the docent who sidled up to my son and I recently at the Museum of Flight was right as rain. We stood silently for a few moments, gazing at the long lines of the warbird fuselage in front of us.

I’d already read Airscape Magazine’s two-part series on the developmental history of the Supermarine Spitfire (nerd alert!), so perhaps it was a father-like-son moment which prompted my two year old to make a bee-line for the Spitfire Mk.IX when we entered the museum’s Personal Courage Wing.

The plane itself received a once-over. But what really caught my kid’s attention was the Rolls Royce Merlin engine parked nearby. It was accompanied by an informational display and panel with a single button. I dunno if the kid is going to be a pilot when he grows up, but if one of the signs is a love of pressing buttons, the odds are looking good. This one played a throaty recording of a Merlin starting up, followed by the sound of a high-speed fly-by of a Merlin-powered Spitfire.

He must have pressed that button a hundred times. There’s something universally captivating about the sound of a large-displacement inline engine and propeller going by at hundreds of miles per hour. Even a two year old gets it.

Although some Spitfire variants were propelled by Griffon engines, the majority of the 20,000+ fleet rolled off the production line with the slightly smaller Merlin powerplant.

Now, I’m a big Rolls-Royce fan. Not because of their automobiles, which is what most Americans probably associate them with — to be honest, I probably wouldn’t know one of their cars if it parked in my driveway and I was handed the keys. No, it’s because the planes I fly at work are powered by Rolls-Royce engines.

In fact, every true Gulfstream aircraft thus far has been paired with a Rolls-Royce engine. The original Gulfstream turboprop utilized a Dart 529. The G-II and G-III were paired with Spey turbofans. My G-IV has Tay 611s. The G-V/550 is powered by the BR-700 series. The flagship G650 travels with one of the latest Rolls-Royce engines, the BR-725.

This line of turbofans is famous for a long history of power and reliability. I think of it as the jet equivalent of Pratt & Whitney’s PT6A turboprop engine. It just goes and goes. Interestingly, Gulfstream recently broke with tradition and selected Pratt’s PurePower PW800 series for the upcoming fly-by-wire G500 and G600 aircraft, so the long romance between Savannah and Britain may be coming to an end. If so, the pairing will still go down in history as one of the most successful in aviation history.

Anyway, those Merlin/Griffon reciprocating engines were a huge success for Rolls, and even today they remain among the most iconic elements of classic warbird aviation. Of course, the war only lasted a few years, and it seems piston technology was barely mature before everyone was racing to cast it all aside in favor of turbojets.

Rolls-Royce started working on a replacement for their aviation recips even before World War II ended, and this jet engine aspiration became the known as the Avon. This moniker might bring to mind the billion-dollar direct sale cosmetics company; thankfully, there’s no relation whatsoever. Like many of Roll’s engines, the Avon was named after a river in England. Although I’m not sure which one. “Avon” is derived from Celtic word for “river”, and at least five rivers in England share the name.

The Avon turbojet engine was first run in 1946, and and the last one was produced… well, that’s the kicker: they never stopped making them. You can still get a new one today.

Conventional wisdom would suggest avoiding the first product of any new technology. Lord knows the first “laptop” computer, automatic transmission, or cellular phone was no prize. Yet here’s one which has been powering aircraft, ships, factories, drilling rigs, and just about anything else for nearly two-thirds of a century. To be sure, Rolls has made improvements and upgrades to the line, but still, what an impressive record.

And speaking of records, according to a Wikipedia page on the Avon, in 1982 one of these engines ran for 53,000 hours before requiring a major overhaul; in ’94 one operated continuously for 476 days. To put that into perspective, the Tay 611 engine on my Gulfstream IV-SP — which is about four decades newer than the Avon — is opened up for a hot section inspection every 4,000 hours and is totally disassembled for a major overhaul every 8,000 hours.

That’s not to say a Tay couldn’t do everything an Avon does. I’m sure it could. Industrial uses are nowhere near as critical as aviation applications — that’s why the overhaul and inspection intervals for aircraft engines are so much shorter than the astronomical numbers posted by the older design. Still, it’s a unique testament to British aviation in general, and Rolls-Royce in particular, that an engine can remain in profitable production for so long.

Will any of the designs on today’s drawing boards still be in production 70 years from now? Probably not. A fellow pilot recently mentioned that his employer is in the process of trading their existing G450 for one of upcoming fly-by-wire G600s. Their question to the CEO of Gulfstream was aircraft longevity and how long they plan on supporting their aircraft. The answer was surprising. While they do support everything out there, all the way back to the original turboprop-powered Gulfstream I, they plan a ten year cycle on their current aircraft.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Aircraft Security: Serious Business in a Dangerous World

It’s counterintuitive, but statistics clearly show that you’re more likely to have an accident or incident on the ground than in the air. Think about the hangar rash, ground loops, runway overruns, gear up landings, blown tires, and other maladies you’ve probably seen.

As I often remind students when we’re talking about flight safety, the worst aviation accident in history occurred on the ground when two Boeing 747s collided in the fog at Tenerife Island in 1977. (You might say 9/11 was worse — and you’re definitely correct — but nothing that happened that day was an accident.)

The propensity for problems on the ground applies to security, too. Since 2001, general aviation has become necessarily familiar with key controls, door/canopy/prop/hangar locks, airport access restrictions, gate codes, SIDA badges, and more. It’s a major part of our flying lives on the ground, like it or not. And for the record, I definitely do NOT like it. Every time I walk up to a Cub, TravelAir, or Stinson, the very way the airplane was designed speaks to the innocence of its era. It’s as if those who built these elegant flying machines couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want to harm them.

Anyway, the same security concerns exist for corporate and charter operators, which are far more closely related to the rest of general aviation than to the airlines. Instead of a couple hundred airports, we fly to thousands of different ones around the country — indeed, around the world. Airliners often fly 18 or more hours per day, plying a limited route system and stopping only for maintenance or at well-lit terminals and jetways.

Business jets? Not so much. We’re as likely to end up on a dark, quiet ramp of a small reliever airport as anyplace else, and the aircraft will often sit there for days while we lay over at our destination.

That’s why security is so important to us. And unlike the airlines, biz jet pilots take care of most security precautions personally. Even at my company’s home base — one of the largest and most prominent business aviation airports on the planet — in the past couple of years, aircraft have been attacked by taggers, iPads have been stolen from inside the cockpits, and mentally unstable people have snuck onto the airport in an attempt to access our airplanes. The stories I could tell…

If that’s what happens in the nice areas, imagine what a prominent target that shiny multi-million dollar jet makes when alighting in some of the world’s most blighted places abroad. The threats are real, and on a side note, they extend to the people as much as the aircraft. Two months ago, a business jet crew was enroute to a Marriott Courtyard hotel near Mexico City when a van cut out in front of their taxi. The kidnappers then exited the van and proceeded to pull the crew from their vehicle. The crew was held for approximately six hours before their release only after the kidnappers received some form of ransom either from the crew or the company/entity they fly for.

Anyway, to counter these threats, we take extra precautions to secure the aircraft. We’re helped by the fact that the manufacturers of these jets usually include security mechanisms which are typically lacking in the older reciprocating GA fleet, like internal window locks to prevent the emergency exits from being opened from the outside, beefy locks on the many access panels, ports, and doors, etc. Many of these airplanes came with an electronic security system built into the airframe as well, though it’s not always utilized by operators.

We’ll also apply tamper-proof security tape over larger entrances like the main door, baggage door, and aft equipment bay door. At some locations, private security is hired to provide another layer of protection. Our destinations are rated for their level of safety as part of the dispatch process, too. Local handlers are mined for their expertise and knowledge. And as pilots, we do our own homework about each airport and city.

When we return to the airplane to get it ready for the next departure, the interior and exterior are swept to check for any sign of tampering. Even if nothing intentionally nefarious has occurred, a curious kid who hops the airport fence at 3 a.m. and starts poking around in a landing gear well can do plenty of damage to exposed tires, hydraulic lines, or electrical wiring. As any pilot can attest, airplanes are amazingly strong and yet surprisingly fragile. Too much torque or pressure applied at the wrong place can break an air data probe, pitot tube, or other component as easily as a trained martial arts expert snapping an adversary’s limb.

As the proverb goes, forewarned is forearmed. On the ground as much as in the air, smart pilots and operators will utilize every tactical advantage to keep their aircraft and passengers safe.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

The ‘Differences Training’ Difference

Most pilots have experienced “differences training” in one way or another. Perhaps it was making the jump from a normally-aspirated airplane like the Cessna Centurion to its turbocharged cousin. Or switching from the proverbial “Hershey wing” Cherokee to the tapered-wing Archer.

In larger aircraft, it might come in the form of an FAA-sanctioned day of training on the differences between a Gulfstream G450 and G550 – two airplanes covered by a single type rating.

These miniature training courses are present throughout the flying world. And for the most part, they aren’t seen as a big deal. Sometimes they aren’t even referred as “differences training.” For example, many companies integrate new pilots through a process called Initial Operating Experience, or IOE. This is something I do at my own company. As an IOE captain, I help new pilots who’ve completed their ground and simulator training make their first operational flights.

It’s kind of a bespoke process, but still recognizable as “differences training.” Some of the aviators are far more experienced on the Gulfstream IV than me, but are new to the company. With them, I’ll focus more on company procedures, especially the myriad iPhone and iPad apps we use for flight risk analysis, aeronautical charting, flight planning, weight & balance, dispatching, company manuals, and filing flight logs.

Other IOE candidates might be long-time pilots with the company, but are new to this particular aircraft type. So while they’re up to speed on our SOPs, a bit of mentoring on the peculiarities of the G-IV might be required.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that differences training is well named, because it can make the difference between safe and unsafe operation. It can even be the root cause of an accident. As I look back at the Gulfstream IV’s 30+ year operational history, I can see at least a couple of accidents which are directly attributable to a lack of differences training. One was a 1996 event in Chicago where differences in how pilots at two separate companies handled a nosewheel steering switch became a factor in the airplane’s loss of control.

Airline vs. Charter Captain: Big Differences

More recently, in 2012 a Gulfstream IV was lost in southern France during a short re-positioning leg. The aircraft, operated by Universal Jet Aviation, was flying from Nice-Cote d’Azur Airport (LFMN) to Le Castellet (LFMQ) with just the two pilots and a flight attendant aboard. The SIC was flying from the right seat.

After performing a visual approach to runway 13, the main landing gear touched down just about where it should have. There were almost 4,000 feet of runway remaining. The nose gear, however, did not touch the ground for another 1,500 feet, and when it did, it then came up off the ground again. The airplane began drifting to the right, the nose was forced down, and a swerve to the left caused the jet to exit the left side of the runway about 1,250 feet from the end of the pavement. It hit a metal fence and a stand of trees, catching fire and consuming the airframe. The three occupants perished in the crash.

The accident investigation was conducted by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses — the French equivalent of our NTSB. If you’re interested in reading it, an English version of the full report is available online. In addition, I highly recommend James Albright’s analysis.

There were a number of factors in this crash, but the ones of most interest to me are those surrounding the pilot-in-command, a retired American Airlines 777 captain who was hired by Universal as a captain on the G-IV. As I’ve said many times, human error is responsible for nearly 90% of accidents, so that’s where it makes most sense to focus our energy and attention.

As a former long-haul airline pilot, he had been advanced quickly to PIC status on the Gulfstream IV. The problem is that on-demand charter flying is a world apart from flying a 777 from major airport to major airport. And there are indications the transition was proving to be a challenge:

Several UJT pilots who flew with the Captain said he was not accustomed to short flights. They also agreed in stating that he was not comfortable with handling the FMS, carrying out checklists and in his role as Pilot Monitoring in general. He had a strong personality and sometimes imposed his decisions. Two co-pilots who flew with him reported that he had already forgotten to arm the ground spoilers.

This seems pertinent considering the following:

  • The runway at Le Castellet is just over 5,000 feet long — on the short side, but well within the G-IV’s capability. While he had been to Le Castellet previously, it may have been shorter than he was comfortable with, especially given that he was not physically flying.
  • The leg from Nice to Le Castellet is about 85 nautical miles. An average 777 leg is thousands of miles long, but the Gulfstream often makes extremely short flights. Van Nuys to Burbank. Santa Monica to Los Angeles International. Teterboro to Newark. The workload is very high on these legs because everything has to be compressed into a few short minutes. It’s easy to fall behind, especially for the non-flying pilot. As a result, short flights are more risky if not handled properly.
  • The PIC had an established history of forgetting to arm the ground spoilers on the Gulfstream IV. This is a major oversight, as without the spoilers the weight of the aircraft is not fully on the wheels after touchdown.
  • The accident report highlighted training inadequacies, specifically the lack of no-ground-spoiler landings in the sim. The handling characteristics of the Gulfstream IV are markedly different when the ground spoilers fail to deploy.
  • Airline indoc and training takes several months, whereas in charter/corporate it’s done within weeks.
  • Part 135 flying involves going anywhere at any time rather than flying a smaller, pre-specified route network on a schedule.
  • Often, charter pilots swap seats as well as legs. At the airlines, the FO never sits in
    the left seat.

If I had to distill this mishap down to a single bullet point, I’d say it was the fact that the captain wasn’t capable of accomplishing everything that needed to be done. He wasn’t flying this leg, but he was mentoring a less experienced pilot who was. That’s a whole other boatload of work in and of itself. And it had to be done while doing all the non-flying tasks in the cockpit: handling radios, checklists, programming the FMS, configuring the airplane, and so on. That’s why the non-flying pilot has a much higher workload than the one physically manipulating the controls.

Universal is a highly experienced operator; you’d think they would understand that 30,000 hours in a long-haul 777 doesn’t prepare a pilot for the 135 shtick. But this sort of thing happens all the time — and not just in bizjets.

I remember checking out a successful and decorated former F-4 carrier pilot in a Pitts S-2B and thinking it would be relatively easy because he was quite good with the Super Decathlon and had plenty of aerobatic competition experience. The reality? He’s the only guy I was never able to sign off to solo the Pitts. He just wasn’t fast enough on the rudder to maintain control, no matter what I tried. It always struck me as odd, because he performed plenty of carrier night landings in a large, heavy fighter onto a short, pitching deck.

Anyway, perhaps differences training aimed at transitioning a widebody airline captain into a charter PIC would have avoided the Le Castellet accident. If I was designing such a course, it would highlight short runways, uncontrolled fields, circling approaches, and short legs – all the things an experienced 777 captain never does.

The takeaway is this: every flying job requires a different skillset. The final stages of training should be carefully and thoughtfully tailored to each candidate’s individual needs. We make assumptions based on a pilot’s previous experience or total flight time at our peril.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Exceedances

I think Dirty Harry said it best: a man’s got to know his limitations. Loathe as we may be to admit it, we all have them. Our bodies can only go so long without food, water, and sleep. The mind can only process so quickly, the memory retain so much, the senses absorb so much input before they cease to function properly.

Likewise, the equipment we fly has limits, too. Airspeed, temperature, pressure, altitude, RPM, weight, center of gravity, and other limitations must be understood and respected if we want our aircraft to respond in a predictable manner. This is something every pilot learns from the very first day of training, and those limitations look him or her square in the face on every flight. From color coded markings on the gauges to those annoying placards liberally distributed throughout the cockpit, you don’t have to look far to find an advisory or warning in the aviation world.

But let’s be honest, some of these limitations might get exceeded on occasion without major catastrophe. Perhaps it’s a slight overspeed on a fixed pitch prop during aerobatics. Flying a bit over gross weight. Exceeding a duty day limit. Extending the flaps a few knots above Vfe. Flying under VFR when the visibility hasn’t quite reached the requisite level.

Normally, these minor variances don’t result in disaster. The problem is, once you’ve ventured beyond that red radial line, you’re essentially a test pilot and the margin of safety built into the aircraft by the designer is now gone. How far can you push it before something bad happens? Nobody knows until it actually happens. I hope you’re as uncomfortable thinking about that as I am writing it.

Now if you actually are a test pilot — say, one flying an experimental aircraft during phase one — that’s one thing. You know what you’re getting into, and you have prepared for it with engineering data, specific training, contingency plans, and so on.

But if you’re a professional aviator flying passengers in a transport category airplane, your whole raison d’etre is to ensure the ship remains well within the documented limitations. I once got to see first-hand what happens when you ignore them. It was about a decade ago, and I was sitting in the lobby of an FBO at John Wayne Airport when a loud “boom” emanated from the general direction of the runway. Within a few seconds, thick black smoke wafted up into the air.

Once the smoke had cleared, I got a look at what happens when a jet’s brake system limitations are exceeded:

110907-hawker_jet_fire1 110907-hawker_jet_fire2

From the NTSB report:

On October 29, 2007, about 1400 Pacific daylight time, a Raytheon Corporate Jets Hawker 800XP, N800CC, was substantially damaged by a fire originating from the left main landing gear after the takeoff was aborted at the John Wayne-Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, California. The aircraft is owned and operated by CIT Leasing Corp. and was originating at the time for the 14 CFR Part 91 business flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed. The two airline transport pilots and six passengers were not injured. The flight was destined for Denver, Colorado.

The pilot reported to the responding Federal Aviation Administration Inspector from the Long Beach, California, Flight Standards District Office that the takeoff was aborted twice before the third attempt due to an engine warning light. All three takeoff attempts were made within about a 20 minute period.

Inspection of the landing gear found that the left main landing gear tires overheated and blew during the third takeoff attempt. The hydraulic line on the left main landing gear was severed and hydraulic fluid leaked out onto the hot surface and ignited.

Jet aircraft, with their 150+ mph takeoff speeds and higher weights, can place tremendous strain on the brakes in the event of an aborted takeoff. That’s why most aircraft in that class have a time limitation after an abort. The brakes must be allowed to cool for a specified period (or, if the aircraft has brake temperature sensors, until a specific temperature is reached) so that if the second takeoff attempt also ends with an abort, the brakes don’t overheat and fail.

I don’t know what the limitation is for the Hawker, but I would be surprised if three attempts were allowed within 20 minutes. The scary part is that the Hawker has a fuselage fuel tank aft of the trailing edge of the wing, right where the skin has been burned through.

I don’t know what happened to the flight crew, but if brake limitations exist and the PIC intentionally exceeded them, FAA sanctions might’ve been difficult if not impossible to avoid. Aviation is like that. You can fly safely for 20 years and with one moment of carelessness ruin a whole career.

Tough business, eh?

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

A Pioneer Goes West

There are many big names in the general aviation world: King, Collins, Klapmeier, Poberezny, and so on. But Arnold Palmer was something unique, even among the giants in our industry. I think his achievements in the air may have matched anything he accomplished on the golf course.
Think that’s crazy? Let’s look at the evidence.

Everyone knows the highlights of Palmer’s sports career, but how many aviators do you know who soloed in six hours? That’s not a typo. I’m fairly certain I was still trying to figure out how to start the engine properly at the six hour mark (some might argue that I’m still working on it, 8000 hours later… but that’s a topic for another time). If my CFI had tried to cut me loose at that point – not that there was any danger of this actually happening, mind you — I would have been the one pulling on HIS shirt tail as I hauled him back into the cockpit. What’s the old saying? “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

Palmer was a quick study in many aspects of life beyond sports and business. But it’s clear he also had a major passion for flying airplanes. How many aviators have set world speed records circumnavigating the Earth? Or flew actively for more than 56 continuous years?

I believe the average non-professional pilot logs about 30-40 hours annually. But Arnie? Well, I’m wracking my brain to think of another aviator – one who never worked professionally in the aviation field – who could lay claim to nearly 20,000 hours of flight time. That kind of figure is normally reserved for airline pilots. It’s an average of more than 350 hours a year. How many of us fly that much – AND manage to sustain it for over half a century?

What I love most about this statistic is that it tells a love story. Arnold Palmer didn’t need to fly the airplane in order to reap the benefits – at least, not after the business aviation field got established. If he’d simply wanted to get from place to place, he could’ve easily occupied a seat in the back of the plane and had someone else do the flying. As most of you know, flying – even if you love it – can be a tiring activity. When he got to wherever it was he was going, Arnie didn’t go to the hotel room and call it a day. He got to work playing golf, designing courses, making deals, and doing whatever business was before him. The depth of experience in his logbook indicates someone who had a passion for flight which went far beyond the financial and business benefits it engendered. How can you not love a guy like that?

But Palmer earned my highest respect after the 2008 financial crisis. He loudly defended GA in general, and business aviation in particular, with his voice and bank account in its darkest hour. From where I sit, business aviation has always been easy to support. The facts are simply on our side: companies which operate aircraft in furtherance of their business do better. But that wasn’t a popular position for a public figure to take in 2008.

Remember what an odd time that was? Some folks, primarily those in elected positions, were excoriating users of business aircraft at the very same time that they themselves were using them! Among those who could’ve spoken up, most people kept their mouths shut, or – as executives from the Big Three automakers did – groveled an apology for using business aviation as though it was a crime against humanity.

Arnold Palmer was proof of that business aviation pays dividends. While this may be self-evident to anyone who takes an honest look at it today, he was using aviation to further his business in the mid-late 1950s. It was almost unheard of back then. The business aviation industry didn’t really exist yet. The first Learjet flew in 1963. Even Grumman’s famous Gulfstream turboprop, one of the first serious purpose-built business aircraft, didn’t begin deliveries until about 1960.

Palmer was on the leading edge of aviation every bit as much as with his golf career. It’s almost as if he saw the future. You’ll see that same look in his eye in the many famous photos of him on the golf course, that easy smile which says he knows the answer and is fully confident in the direction he’s heading.

He’ll be missed by people who’ve never even played golf and wouldn’t know how to use a nine iron if their life depended on it. I know because I’m one of ‘em.

Thanks for everything, Arnie…

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

We’re all instructors

I don’t know if this meets the definition of an official “pilot shortage,” but if anecdotal evidence is worth anything, my company is adding pilots and airplanes at a rapid rate. We’re already one of the biggest large-cabin charter companies in the business — and still growing.

You can see the same thing happening all over the country. A friend who flies for a competing charter company recently attended an industry job fair and said business at his booth was “very slow”. He indicated that it was hard to find pilot candidates if you were a corporate, charter, or regional entity. The major airlines seem to be beating the bushes for people as well. JetBlue has an ab initio program, and airlines have partnered with flight schools large and small (including one I used to work for) in order to find a pipeline for new aviators. Another friend of mine, recently hired by Southwest Airlines, said there were a number of no-shows in his class.

Plenty of people saw this coming. The financing options for pilot training rapidly dried up when the 2008 economic crisis hit, and for a number of years, relatively few people had the wherewithal to pursue flying. As a result, there weren’t many new pilots created in the 2008-2012 time frame. Meanwhile, professional aviators continued to age out, retire, pass away, lose medicals, change careers, and so on.

So if you’re an aspiring pilot seeking an experienced instructor, you might find the pickings are rather scarce. Ironically, the odds of finding a highly qualified CFI are probably better if you’re looking for some kind of specialty training, since teachers in those nooks often make a career out of it.

I’d imagine this problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets better – if it ever does. A former student of mine who’s been trying to earn his instructor certificate has been run through the wringer by a number of unprofessional operations and individuals. The list of drops, no-shows, and abusive behavior by those charged (and being well paid) to mold him into a first-class CFI is long and varied. His story is so compelling that I’ve encouraged him to write about the experience once he’s done. I suspect my friend is not the only one in that particular boat and that his tale will ring true with many pilots in the training pipeline.

What surprises me most is not where you’ll find the bad instruction but rather where you’ll find the good stuff. It might not be where you think. Take the corporate/charter world, for example. The PIC on a jet aircraft is pretty much required to have an Airline Transport Certificate these days. The FAA thinks highly enough of an ATP that they are allowed to provide formal dual instruction to other pilots in the course of charter and/or airline service, even without a flight instructor certificate or any other teaching experience (see 14 CFR 61.167).

I don’t know how often this kind of instruction takes place on an official level, but the reality is that every co-pilot is a captain-in-training, so most PICs will find themselves doing a fair bit of mentoring and teaching in the cockpit.

As I look back on my flying career, I think I’ve seen as much competent and effective instruction from non-CFI ATPs as I have from those who’ve been through FAA-sanctioned instructor training. It pains me to say that, because I’m a CFI myself. Teaching is not only a passion but one of the things I’m most proud of as a pilot. I wish I could say otherwise, but there are many sub-par CFIs out there. Oh, they probably have the knowledge and even the experience, but without consistent professionalism toward and dedication to their student, none of that matters.

To put it plainly, the fact that a person has a flight instructor certificate in their wallet doesn’t make them a good teacher. Likewise, the lack of formal CFI training shouldn’t infer an inability to instruct effectively.

One of my favorite teachers, James Albright, is a guy who has undoubtedly forgotten more about flying than I’ll ever know. I’ve never taken a course from him. In fact, I’ve never even met the guy. But I’ve read his books, articles and posts. He’s been kind enough to reply to email inquiries, too. As a result, I’ve learned many things that were not a part of my formal aviation education.

And that’s what this post is really about: the fact that we are all teachers. We’re all instructors, whether we know it or not. Oh, we may not be signing logbooks or endorsements, but every time we fly, there are people watching us. Every time we open our mouths, they’re listening. Coworkers, passengers, fellow pilots – present and future. They’re observing us and learning something – even if it’s simply what not to do, how not to fly. As incident and accident reports show us, that can be a powerful lesson, too.

So the question is, what kind of instructor are you?

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Two Airplanes in One

Every pilot learns about and is tested on weight & balance. By the time a checkride is scheduled, a student can not only compute the numbers but also expound on the pros and cons of forward and aft center-of-gravity locations, as well as the effect of exceeding the limits in either direction.

But while they “know” weight & balance, do they really know it? Since training flights typically occur with the same payload located at the same stations, few pilots experience anything beyond a single profile: a student and instructor seated next to each other, empty rear seats (assuming the aircraft has them, of course), and a fairly consistent fuel load.

Tailwheel pilots might be an exception, as many of these airplanes feature tandem seating, and removing the instructor from the ship can result in a noticeable shift in C.G. — especially if the airplane is soloed from the front. In addition, two-seaters tend to be lighter, and the lower gross weight means a larger percentage change in the airplane’s gross weight when the CFI is not on board. For example, a J-3 Cub at max gross weighs about 1,200 pounds. When it comes time for the student to solo, the airplane is suddenly 17% lighter. If you’re flying a C-172R, that same instructor represents only 8% of the airplane’s maximum gross weight.

Even when I flew turboprops, we always operated with the same weight and C.G. profile. We were dropping sterilized fruit flies from ancient U-21As over southern California, and the payload and fuel were operationally identical every day.

So it can come as a bit of a surprise when you move up to a larger, more powerful airplane and realize that it’s actually two airplanes in one. The Gulfstream IV is like that. Not because there’s anything special about it, mind you — it’s just a consequence of how the airplane is used. Unlike airliners, which rarely fly without a full load, business jets fly a wider variety of operations. Extremely short legs (I regularly flew one that was about 4 nautical miles) to very long ones (~4,000 nm). Sometimes the plane was jam-packed with people and “stuff”, while on other days it was literally empty aft of the cockpit. We’ll fly into a 4,500 foot strip (Watsonville, CA) or a 16,000 foot one in Denver. You just never know where you’ll be going next.

I distinctly recall being surprised by the performance differential between light and heavy weights, because everyone had crowed about how the jet has such a forgiving C.G. range. It’s darn near impossible to load the G-IV outside of it’s allowable center-of-gravity range, no matter where you place passengers or cargo. As a result, I had interpolated that ease of operation onto the whole subject of weight-and-balance.

Some aircraft are easily thrown out of limits. The Pitts S-2B comes to mind. Pretty much any two adults will put you neatly outside of the approved CG envelope. The first time I ran a weight-and-balance for the Pitts, I drove myself batty analyzing the numbers, convinced there must be something wrong with my computations. Was it possible that the world’s most historic and beloved two seat aerobatic airplane couldn’t legally fly aerobatics with two people on board? Yep.

Anyway, back to the Gulfstream. The difference in performance between hot/heavy and light/cool conditions is dramatic. A 74,600 lb max gross takeoff from Toluca, Mexico (elevation: 8,500 feet) on a 90 degree day might yield an initial cruise climb rate of 2,000 fpm. That doesn’t sound bad, but Toluca sits in a valley and is surrounded by an impressive array of tall mountains.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a 48,000 lb takeoff from San Francisco on a 50 degree morning could produce 6,000 fpm. I’ve launched out of there on re-positioning flights to Los Angeles and been well into the flight levels by the time I crossed the coastline on a downwind leg off runway 28R.

Aside from the visceral differences, the high/hot performance issue tends to get a pilot’s attention because we are always planning for the worst case scenario: an engine failure close to or right after takeoff. High-altitude airports tend to be located near high terrain, and unfortunately that’s when single-engine climb performance suffers most. Using the Toluca example, the rate-of-climb on a single engine might be well under 1,000 feet per minute.

For those of you who fly single engine airplanes, you’re probably thinking “yeah, cry me a river”. That’s understandable. But keep in mind you can land a small, light airplane just about anywhere. Oh, you might bend some metal, but you’ll probably also walk away. The significantly higher weight and speed of larger aircraft means they don’t have that luxury. You either clear the obstacles along your flight path or end up memorialized in at NTSB report.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

I go to extremes

Well, the mercury reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit on the California coast last week.  I’ve lived here since the late 80s and can’t remember ever seeing the temperature hit that level.  In fact, I looked it up and the previous record high for that day was a comparatively frigid 90.  It was so hot that my iPhone shut down when I had the temerity to use it outdoors.

Yes, summer is here.

It gets this hot in California, but not usually so close to the coast!

It gets this hot in California, but not usually so close to the coast!

While waiting for my smartphone to chill out, I began wondering about the aircraft I fly at work and whether it needed any weather-proofing.  It doesn’t matter if you’re trusty steed is a Light Sport aircraft, helicopter, jet, or something else – like any piece of equipment, it’s probably going to suffer in extreme environmental conditions.  We’re all aware of the powerplant limitations, as they’re usually placarded on a gauge sitting directly in your line-of-sight.  But there are a variety of lesser-known ones which can bite in very hot or cold weather.

When I started flight instructing, one of the most surprising things was the number of airframe temperature limitations found in our fleet.  The Diamond DA-20 airframe had a limit of 55°C.  A structural temperature indicator was installed on the spar bridge behind the aircraft seats to alert the pilot when it was too hot to fly.  The Extra 300’s has a 72°C limit and a similar indicator on the main spar carry-through.

Sometimes the limits are on the other side of the dial.  The DA-40 DiamondStar airframe has a minimum temperature of -40°C.  One might wonder why you’d want to fly when it was that cold, but in my experience once you’re underway (read: warm), winter flying can be a heavenly thing.  And seeing as how the airplanes are built in Canada, I’d be willing to guess that a least a few DiamondStars have actually encountered that limit.

I can hear the gleeful refrain from pilots of metal aircraft, as they appear to be immune from such concerns.  But I would counter with a story about the time I flew out to Death Valley to rescue a fellow Skylane pilot whose tires had literally melted into the pavement at Furnace Creek.  Whether the limits are published or not, they’re there.

This chart shows the approved operating temperatures for the Gulfstream IV

This chart shows the approved operating temperatures for the Gulfstream IV

The -40°C figure seems to pop up frequently on the Gulfstream.  That’s the minimum oil temperature for starting the engines.  It’s also the minimum fuel temp.  There’s a minimum for turning on the cockpit displays and systems (18°C), a temperature below which the the life rafts must be removed (-28°C), and even one for removal of the main aircraft batteries (-20°C).  That’s something you don’t see in glossy promotional photos of $50 million long-range business jets: a frostbitten guy struggling to remove the aircraft batteries because the ambient temperatures are just. too. cold.  Even the airframe has limits, as this charts shows.

Business jets have potable water lines, storage tanks, and lavatories which must be protected from freezing.  The galley contains a mind-boggling variety of other items ranging from carbonated beverages to chocolate snacks which will melt, freeze, crack, or snap under environmental extremes.  Foodstuff may sound like a minor consideration, and I suppose it is.  But few dozen exploded soda cans could cause thousands of dollars in damage to a bizjet’s interior, not to mention the injury to a pilot’s career.

Speaking of the pilot, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that there are practical limits for humans as well. If the hardware is suffering, odds are the aviator is as well. Our biological temperature limitations are more insidious because they can’t always be measured on a gauge.  But they’re every bit as important as those for our equipment – perhaps even moreso, since nearly 90% of accidents are caused by failures of the pilot rather than the machine.

So during this sweltering summer, remember to take good care of your aircraft – and even better care of yourself.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

The Normalization of Deviance

Like many pilots, I read accident reports all the time. This may seem morbid to people outside “the biz”, but those of us on the inside know that learning what went wrong is an important step in avoiding the fate suffered by those aviators. And after fifteen years in the flying business, the NTSB’s recently-released report on the 2014 Gulfstream IV crash in Bedford, Massachusetts is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever laid eyes on.

If you’re not familiar with the accident, it’s quite simple to explain: the highly experienced crew of a Gulfstream IV-SP attempted to takeoff with the gust lock (often referred to as a “control lock”) engaged. The aircraft exited the end of the runway and broke apart when it encountered a steep culvert. The ensuing fire killed all aboard.

Sounds pretty open-and shut, doesn’t it? There have been dozens of accidents caused by the flight crew’s failure to remove the gust/control lock prior to flight. Professional test pilots have done it on multiple occasions, ranging from the prototype B-17 bomber in 1935 to the DHC-4 Caribou in 1992. But in this case, the NTSB report details a long series of actions and habitual behaviors which are so far beyond the pale that they defy the standard description of “pilot error”.

Just the Facts

Let me summarize the ten most pertinent errors and omissions of this incident for you:

  1. There are five checklists which must be run prior to flying. The pilots ran none of them. CVR data and pilot interviews revealed that checklists simply were not used. This was not an anomaly, it was standard operating procedure for them.
  2. Obviously the gust lock was not removed prior to flying. This is a very big, very visible, bright red handle which sticks up vertically right between the throttles and the flap handle. As the Simon & Chabris selective attention test demonstrates, it’s not necessarily hard to miss the gust lock handle protruding six inches above the rest of the center pedestal. But it’s also the precise reason we have checklists and procedures in the first place.
  3. Flight control checks were not performed on this flight, nor were they ever performed. Hundreds of flights worth of data from the FDR and pilot interviews confirm it.
  4. The crew received a Rudder Limit message indicating that the rudder’s load limiter had activated. This is abnormal. The crew saw the alert. We know this because it was verbalized. Action taken? None.
  5. The pilot flying (PF) was unable to push the power levers far enough forward to achieve takeoff thrust. Worse, he actually verbalized that he wasn’t able to get full power, yet continued the takeoff anyway.
  6. The pilot not flying (PNF) was supposed to monitor the engines and verbally call out when takeoff power was set. He failed to perform this task.
  7. Aerodynamics naturally move the elevator up (and therefore the control column aft) aft as the airplane accelerates. Gulfstream pilots are trained to look for this. It didn’t happen, and it wasn’t caught by either pilot.
  8. The pilot flying realized the gust lock was engaged, and said so verbally several times. At this point, the aircraft was traveling 128 knots had used 3,100 feet of runway; about 5,000 feet remained. In other words, they had plenty of time to abort the takeoff. They chose to continue anyway.
  9. One of the pilots pulled the flight power shutoff handle to remove hydraulic pressure from the flight controls in an attempt to release the gust lock while accelerating down the runway. The FPSOV was not designed for this purpose, and you won’t find any G-IV manual advocating this procedure. Because it doesn’t work.
  10. By the time they realized it wouldn’t work and began the abort attempt, it was too late. The aircraft was traveling at 162 knots (186 mph!) and only about 2,700 feet of pavement remained. The hydraulically-actuated ground spoilers — which greatly aid in stopping the aircraft by placing most of its weight back on the wheels to increase rolling resistance and braking efficiency — were no longer available because the crew had removed hydraulic power to the flight controls.

Industry Responses

Gulfstream has been sued by the victim’s families. Attorneys claim that the gust lock was defective, and that this is the primary reason for the crash. False. The gust lock is designed to prevent damage to the flight controls from wind gusts. It does that job admirably. It also prevents application of full takeoff power, but the fact that the pilot was able to physically push the power levers so far forward simply illustrates that anything can be broken if you put enough muscle into it.

The throttle portion of the gust lock may have failed to meet a technical certification requirement, but it was not the cause of the accident. The responsibility for ensuring the gust lock is disengaged prior to takeoff lies with the pilots, not the manufacturer of the airplane.

Gulfstream pilot and Code7700 author James Albright calls the crash involuntary manslaughter. I agree. This wasn’t a normal accident chain. The pilots knew what was wrong while there was still plenty of time to stop it. They had all the facts you and I have today. They chose to continue anyway. It’s the most inexplicable thing I’ve yet seen a professional pilot do, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things. If locked flight controls don’t prompt a takeoff abort, nothing will.

Albright’s analysis is outstanding: direct and factual. I predict there will be no shortage of articles and opinions on this accident. It will be pointed to and discussed for years as a bright, shining example of how not to operate an aircraft.

In response to the crash, former NTSB member John Goglia has called for video cameras in the cockpit, with footage to be regularly reviewed to ensure pilots are completing checklists. Despite the good intentions, this proposal would not achieve the desired end. Pilots are already work in the presence of cockpit voice recorders, flight data recorders, ATC communication recording, radar data recording, and more. If a pilot needs to be videotaped too, I’d respectfully suggest that this person should be relieved of duty. No, the problem here is not going to be solved by hauling Big Brother further into the cockpit.

A better model would be that of the FOQA program, where information from flight data recorders is downloaded and analyzed periodically in a no-hazard environment. The pilots, the company, and the FAA each get something valuable. It’s less stick, more carrot. I would also add that this sort of program is in keeping with the Fed’s recent emphasis on compliance over enforcement action.

The Normalization of Deviance

What I, and probably you, are most interested in is determining how well-respected, experienced, and accomplished pilots who’ve been through the best training the industry has to offer reached the point where their performance is so bad that a CFI wouldn’t accept it from a primary student on their very first flight.

After reading through the litany of errors and malfeasance present in this accident report, it’s tempting to brush the whole thing off and say “this could never happen to me.” I sincerely believe doing so would be a grave mistake. It absolutely can happen to any of us, just as it has to plenty of well-trained, experienced, intelligent pilots. Test pilots. People who are much better than you or I will ever be.

But how? Clearly the Bedford pilots were capable of following proper procedures, and did so at carefully selected times: at recurrent training events, during IS-BAO audits, on checkrides, and various other occasions.

Goglia, Albright, the NTSB, and others are focusing on “complacency” as a root cause, but I believe there’s a better explanation. The true accident chain on this crash formed over a long, long period of time — decades, most likely — through a process known as the normalization of deviance.

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. People grow more accustomed to the deviant behavior the more it occurs. To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seen as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.

This concept was developed by sociologist and Columbia University professor Diane Vaughan after the Challenger explosion. NASA fell victim to it in 1986, and then got hit again when the Columbia disaster occurred in 2003. If they couldn’t escape its clutches, you might wonder what hope we have. Well, for one thing, spaceflight in general and the shuttle program in particular are specialized, experimental types of flying. They demand acceptance of a far higher risk profile than corporate, charter, and private aviation.

I believe the first step in avoiding “normalization of deviance” is awareness, just as admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery from substance addiction. After all, if you can’t detect the presence of a problem, how can you possibly fix it?

There are several factors which tend to sprout normalization of deviance:

  • First and foremost is the attitude that rules are stupid and/or inefficient. Pilots, who tend to be independent Type A personalities anyway, often develop shortcuts or workarounds when the checklist, regulation, training, or professional standard seems inefficient. Example: the boss in on board and we can’t sit here for several minutes running checklists; I did a cockpit flow, so let’s just get going!
  • Sometimes pilots learn a deviation without realizing it. Formalized training only covers part of what an aviator needs to know to fly in the real world. The rest comes from senior pilots, training captains, and tribal knowledge. What’s taught is not always correct.
  • Often, the internal justification for cognizant rule breaking includes the “good” of the company or customer, often where the rule or standard is perceived as counterproductive. In the case of corporate or charter flying, it’s the argument that the passenger shouldn’t have to (or doesn’t want to) wait. I’ve seen examples of pilots starting engines while the passengers are still boarding, or while the copilot is still loading luggage. Are we at war? Under threat of physical attack? Is there some reason a 2 minute delay is going to cause the world to stop turning?
  • The last step in the process is silence. Co-workers are afraid to speak up, and understandably so. The cockpit is already a small place. It gets a lot smaller when disagreements start to brew between crew members. In the case of contract pilots, it may result in the loss of a regular customer. Unfortunately, the likelihood that rule violations will become normalized increases if those who see them refuse to intervene.

The normalization of deviance can be stopped, but doing so is neither easy or comfortable. It requires a willingness to confront such deviance when it is seen, lest it metastasize to the point we read about in the Bedford NTSB report. It also requires buy-in from pilots on the procedures and training they receive. When those things are viewed as “checking a box” rather than bona fide safety elements, it becomes natural to downplay their importance.

Many of you know I am not exactly a fan of the Part 121 airline scene, but it’s hard to argue with the success airlines have had in this area. When I flew for Dynamic Aviation’s California Medfly operation here in Southern California, procedures and checklists were followed with that level of precision and dedication. As a result, the CMF program has logged several decades of safe operation despite the high-risk nature of the job.

Whether you’re flying friends & family, pallets of cargo, or the general public, we all have the same basic goal: to aviate without ending up in an embarrassing NTSB report whose facts leave no doubt about how badly we screwed up. The normalization of deviance is like corrosion: an insidious, ever-present, naturally occurring enemy which will weaken and eventually destroy us. If we let it.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

See & Avoid Doesn’t Work

Contemplate the worst scenario that might confront a pilot during a flight. What comes to mind? Fire? Flight control failure? Engine failure? Perhaps it’s flight crew incapacitation, explosive decompression or severe structural damage.

No doubt about it, those all fall into the Very Bad Day category. But there’s one that can be even worse: a mid-air collision. That’s because it can involve all the problems listed above — at the same time. And since the parties involved aren’t aware of the impending crunch until it’s too late, the mid-air is usually accompanied by a violent element of surprise, confusion, and initial denial.

You might think fatal mid-airs are rare events, and from a purely statistical standpoint I’d have to agree. According to the 2010 Nall Report, a fatal mid-air occurs about once every 8 million flight hours. Think of it as the roughly the same odds as winning the lottery or being struck by lighting. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A typical GA pilot might accumulate but thousand or so hours over a full lifetime of flying.

So what’s there to worry about? Plenty. The “big sky” theory may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up very well under close scrutiny. It’s true that the navigable atmosphere over the United States alone is massive — about 20 million cubic miles — and there are relatively few airplanes in the sky. Even on those occasions where a collision is possible, modern tools such as radar, TCAS, VHF communication, and anywhere between two and four sets of eyeballs almost always succeed in averting the disaster. If aircraft were equally distributed throughout the atmosphere, the “big sky” idea would be pretty comforting.

But airplanes cluster near airports, large cities, and on thin slices of the sky known as “airways”. For the VFR types, airspace and terrain often crowd planes into small swaths of the air in places like the Santa Ana Canyon or Banning Pass. The sky is much like the ground: vehicles stick to relatively confined spaces and that makes collisions a serious hazard.

Since we’re on the topic of statistics, let me give you a few of my own: I personally know two people who have been struck by lightning, and a winning lottery ticket was recently sold not 300 feet from my front door. Hey, crazy stuff happens. But unlike lighting strikes and golden tickets, we’re not all facing the same odds. The risk profile varies widely depending on the type of flying you’re doing.

For example, flight instruction is frequently a factor; thirty-seven percent of mid-airs occur with a CFI on board. Many instructional flights happen near airports, and as previously mentioned, that’s where other airplanes tend to congregate. On the other hand, if you fly airliners, your risk of a mid-air is rather low because the aircraft itself is large and easy to see, you’re always flying IFR, and the most sophisticated traffic avoidance hardware available is always installed. Airliners also spend most of their time in cruise and are in constant radar contact with ATC.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself.  This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself. This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Some very talented, capable, and well-respected pilots have been involved in mid-air collisions. I know a guy who was involved in one while flying a large-cabin, TCAS-equipped business jet under Instrument Flight Rules. Alan Klapmeier, the founder of Cirrus Aircraft, was in one too. Richard Collins, famed Flying columnist, was in a mid-air. Speaking of Flying, the recent Editor-in-Chief owns a very nice Cirrus SR-22 which was in a mid-air. And lastly, a decade ago I was in a mid-air collision myself.

I’ll save the blow-by-blow (no pun intended) on that for another day. The point I’m trying to make is that the odds of a mid-air are probably greater than you think, especially if you live in a populated metropolitan area and fly VFR. If you’ve ever had a close encounter with another airplane in flight, you were only separated from “those who have” by nothing more than a miniscule sliver of plain old luck.

Think about that for a moment.

This may be hard to believe, but there is some good news. For one thing, mid-airs are not always fatal. It seems intuitive that most collisions would involve fatalities, but all the people I cited above survived, including (obviously) myself. Also, technology is rapidly advancing, from cheap TCAD boxes to airframe parachutes to super-bright LED exterior lighting.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we avoid ending up in a mid-air, fatal or otherwise. If you refer to official guidance from the FAA, the answer is to simply look out the window and spot the other airplane before it hits you. This technique, referred to as “see and avoid”, is still considered adequate for preventing collisions. Here are a couple of passages from Chapter 1 of the Airplane Flying Handbook:

The “See and Avoid” concept relies on knowledge of the limitations of the human eye, and the use of proper visual scanning techniques to help compensate for these limitations. The importance of, and the proper techniques for, visual scanning should be taught to a student pilot at the very beginning of flight training.

Proper clearing procedures, combined with proper visual scanning techniques, are the most
effective strategy for collision avoidance.

Other FAA publications, ranging from the Aeronautical Information Manual, to Advisory Circulars like AC-90-48 (“Pilot’s Role in Collision Avoidance”) will give you the same spiel: “see and avoid will keep you safe”. And it will! Until it doesn’t.

From my perspective as someone who’s been in a mid-air and who was using proper clearing and scanning techniques at the time, I take it as gospel that “see & avoid” won’t always do the trick. I’m just one guy, of course. But many others — some institutional in nature — just happen to agree with me.

For example, a couple of years ago Canada’s Transportation Safety Board issued an accident report on a mid-air collision between a Beech V-35B Bonanza and a PA-28 Cherokee over northern Virginia. Canada was tasked with performing the investigation because the pilots of the Bonanza were employees of the NTSB while the Cherokee was piloted by an employee of the FAA.

I won’t keep you in suspense. The conclusion from the TSB was that the “see and avoid” concept was inadequate. They even quoted a 1991 report produced by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which provides an overview of the major factors that limit the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle in preventing mid-air collisions, as well as a 2005 scientific study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine which came to the same conclusions.

The main points:

  • Cockpit workload and other factors reduce the time that pilots spend in traffic scans, and even when pilots are looking out, there is no guarantee that other aircraft will be sighted.
  • Visual scanning involves moving the eyes in order to bring successive areas of the visual field onto the small area of sharp vision in the center of the eye. The process is frequently unsystematic and may leave large areas of the field of view unsearched.
  • A thorough, systematic search is not a solution as in most cases it would take an impractical amount of time.
  • The physical limitations of the human eye are such that even the most careful search does not guarantee that traffic will be sighted.
  • The pilot’s functional visual field contracts under conditions of stress or increased workload. The resulting ‘tunnel vision’ reduces the chance that an approaching aircraft will be seen in peripheral vision.
  • The human visual system is better at detecting moving targets than stationary targets, yet in most cases, an aircraft on a collision course appears as a stationary target in the pilot’s visual field.
  • An approaching aircraft, in many cases, presents a very small visual angle until a short time before impact.
  • Complex backgrounds such as ground features or clouds hamper the identification of aircraft via a visual effect known as ‘contour interaction’. This occurs when background contours interact with the form of the aircraft, producing a less distinct image.
  • Even when an approaching aircraft has been sighted, there is no guarantee that evasive action will be successful.
  • Because of its many limitations, the see-and-avoid concept should not be expected to fulfill a significant role in future air traffic systems.
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada aviation investigation report A06O0206 identified that there is a high risk of mid-air collisions in congested airspace when aircraft are not alerted to the presence of other aircraft and rely solely on the see‑and-avoid principle.

There’s one more area of the TSB report which is worth of quotation. In it, they reference a British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions. If you’re keeping score, that’s the third sovereign agency to reach the conclusion that “see and avoid” is inadequate. Yet our own FAA, which oversees about 80% of the world’s aircraft and almost all of the high traffic density airspace, still officially proclaims that one can look out the window and see everything that needs to be seen.

This accident has demonstrated yet again that relying solely on the see-and-avoid principle to avoid collisions between aircraft operating under visual flight rules (VFR) in congested airspace is inadequate.

A number of international studies have addressed the overall issue of the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle, as well as the risks of collision associated with this principle. All acknowledged the underlying physiological limitations at play and that, when mid-air collisions occur, “failure to see-and-avoid is due almost entirely to the failure to see.”

One study stated that “our data suggest that the relatively low (though unacceptable) rate of mid-air collisions in general aviation aircraft not equipped with TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] is as much a function of the ‘big sky’ as it is of effective visual scanning.”

A British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions, which were deemed to be random, found that the probability of conflict is proportional to the square of the traffic density, and recommended avoiding altitude restrictions that concentrate traffic.

Measures such as improving aircraft conspicuity, pilot scanning techniques, and pilot traffic awareness can reduce risks, but they do not overcome the underlying physiological limitations that create the residual risk associated with a see-and-avoid method.

It’s obvious that “see and avoid” cannot, by itself, ensure our safety. If it could, there’d be no need for TCAS or most of our controlled airspace (both of which came about because of high-profile mid-air collisions, I might add!). I’m not necessarily in favor of mandating any additional equipment, airspace, or restrictions, especially on general aviation. But it’s clear that serious changes are needed in how collision avoidance is taught, especially as it concerns “see and avoid”. The concept has serious limitations which must be understood so the pilot-in-command can make educated decisions about how — or even if — they want to mitigate those risks.

I sincerely hope our nation’s regulatory and safety organizations will eventually acknowledge what we all know to be true: “see and avoid”, while a good start and certainly a vital part of collision avoidance, is simply not sufficient to ensure traffic separation.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.
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