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Category: Trends and analysis (page 1 of 6)

The Chicken or the Egg?

It seems to me we’re at a bit of a tipping point with the GA ecosystem. There simply aren’t enough instructors around to solve the pilot shortage. And without enough pilots, we certainly won’t have a sufficient supply of instructors.

I know of a half dozen people just at my local FBO—mainly line service, flight attendants, and office personnel—who already work in the aviation sector, see the shortage, and want to be part of the solution.

But they can’t, because they go through instructors like a mouse through cheese. Every time I talk to one of them, my queries about how their training is progressing are met with the same reply: I just lost my instructor, and I’m not sure where the next one is going to come from. Then there’s a multi-week or -month delay while they’re hooked up with a fresh instructor, who flies with them briefly before leaving for a regional airline.

It begs the question: What happens when you run out of commercial pilot certificate holders to turn into CFIs? It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the problem is a serious one, because eventually, it will encourage airlines to find their own solutions, one of which will likely be ab intio. I foresaw this four years ago and wrote about it. Will it solve the airline’s labor needs? Yes. And it will damage general aviation in the process.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: Fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, seaplanes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those “crap” jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting the continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

My writing here on the AOPA blog is centered on business aviation, but I’m touching on this issue because it’s a problem that will affect everyone who flies. In fact, I recently mentioned it in AOPA Pilot Turbine Edition. It’s getting hard not to, actually.

I was having a Twitter discussion with a fellow instructor about how to improve the situation. We were ticking off reasons that there aren’t more CFIs:

1) Many flight schools have closed, victims of the financial crisis of the last decade.
2) The airlines are vacuuming up all the relatively high-time CFIs
3) It takes longer and costs more to become a CFI than ever before
4) Compensation for CFIs is, on the average, quite low
5) High-time, retired, second-career, experienced instructors tend to be older, have higher net worth, and are concerned about insurance and liability issues
6) A lack of respect for CFIs, who are viewed as fungible, entry-level workers

The long-term solution will require investment in the grade school kids, getting them out to the airport when they’re young. Bringing aviation-centric STEM curriculum into the schools. Starting to equalize the 95-to-5 ratio of men to women in the cockpit. But there are also short-term solutions:

1. Reduce the cost of learning to fly, but do so in a way that doesn’t cut into the CFI’s meager compensation. The best, fastest, and easiest way to do this? Change planes. Ditch the SR22 and replace it with a Champ, Citabria, Cub, or other dirt-simple tailwheel design. It will turn out pilots with better stick-and-rudder skills, and reduce the hourly cost of the airplane by $100 or more. Now take that money and put it in the CFI’s pocket. Or split the savings between the student and his or her instructor.

2. Targeted tort reform to assuage the concerns of the retired professional pilots, post-retirement instructors, and others who have the experience we want in our CFIs.

3. Create an industrywide CFI insurance pool to ensure strong liability insurance is available at reasonable cost.

4. Start seeing instructors for what they truly are: the steel girders which hold the aviation world aloft. The base of the pyramid. The very foundation. The ones who determine just how good an aviator that airline, charter, corporate, military, or private pilot will be when you and your loved ones are aboard.

5. The problem of lack of flight schools will solve itself when the demand is there.

6. In many, perhaps most, places, the CFI training process is appallingly long. I know instructors are important from a safety standpoint, but what they do is neither rocket science or brain surgery, so it shouldn’t take as long to earn an instructor certificate as it does to get a PhD.

Has the workforce imbalance reached the point where it can’t be turned around? That’s a question I can’t answer. But I look at my 3-year-old son and think how incredibly sad it would be to know our generation used the world’s finest general aviation system to it’s fullest… and then watched as the ladder came up behind us.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

History of the Aviation Infrastructure in Alaska

Most Alaskan’s know that the first powered aircraft flight in Alaska took place in 1913, as a demonstration at that year’s Fourth of July celebration in Fairbanks.  And that commercial aviation started a decade later when pioneer aviator Ben Eielson talked several Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D “Jenny.”  Eielson proceeded to fly from the local ball field, sometimes cutting weeks off the travel time to remote mining claims. But when did we start to develop the airfields, communication and weather stations to support this new mode of transportation?  Who did the work? I recently spent a few hours at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Rasumson Library looking for answers to these and other questions.

From air fields to airport system
As “the aviation” first started to develop, airplanes literally operated from fields.  A ball-field in Fairbanks.  Hay fields in other places.  Since Alaska did not achieve statehood until 1959, the initial efforts at dealing with aviation as a system fell to Alaska Territorial government.  Aviation is included in the 1929 Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior, mentioning that “At the present time there are 44 landing fields in the Territory and three transportation companies operating a total of eight commercial airplanes.” At the time individual communities raised funds to develop an airfield, expecting to receive matching funds from Alaska’s Territorial government.  In Valdez, the city not only raised money, they put sweat equity into the project by clearing the land, even before there was an aircraft to base there!

A series of reports of the Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission helped document aspects of this history.  In 1929, the Territorial Legislature appropriated funds administered by the Highway Engineer to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.”  The report went on to say, “In a short time the problem of communications became too complicated for the Highway Engineer, and subsequently in 1937 the Legislature established the Territorial Department known as the Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission.”

Definition of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communications Commission, established in 1937. Source: Report of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communications Commission, 1941-42.

1937 Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission
The Commission, comprised of the Territorial Governor and one commission member from each of Alaska’s four judicial districts, initially oversaw the installation of weather stations, and collected statistics on aviation activity, which were detailed in a series of annual reports.  A supervisor was hired to coordinate this activity. The commission’s initial role was “supervision and promotion of aeronautical and communications within the Territory…” even then, not to duplicate or conflict with federal regulations.

The first report covering 1937-38, filed by Supervisor G.E. Goudie, describes coordinating with both the federal CAA and the FCC.  In that period, the commission managed to stand-up weather stations in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Observers at these locations recorded weather reports, issued eight hourly weather broadcasts daily and wired reports to the Weather Bureau.  Work was underway for a station in Ketchikan.  In addition, “radio ranges” for navigation were in planning stages for these locations.

Territorial operation of these stations was to be a temporary measure, until the CAA could obtain funds to take over the “Alaska Program.” Alaska was already behind the rest of the country in the development of infrastructure.  In addition to weather and aviation communications, the use of this communication network included emergency messages, often involving need for medical assistance or transport.  These were credited with saving numerous lives across the territory.

New aviation regulations for Alaska
As the United States geared up for war, the military temporarily took over operation of some of the territorial radio stations, and aviation operations in general. Even at that time, people were looking ahead to the need to expand, as manufactures announced planned production of aircraft to support “private flying.” From the 1942 report, “Numerous manufactures have recently announced planes, suitable for use by the average citizen and within the reach of his finances, to be manufactured after the war.” In anticipation of that surge of air travel, the commission worked on safety rules, “…requiring certain safety provisions be carried out thereby reducing the possibility of increased costs to the territory in the conducting of searches…” This generated a territorial requirement for Alaskan aircraft to carry emergency rations, in a regulation adopted March 22, 1943.  That report also contains territory-wide maps shows the commercial air routes, areas authorized for “irregular routes” and radio stations in use at the time.

Toward a full Department of Aviation
From the inception of the Commission in 1937 into the early 1940’s, the focus had largely been on establishing weather stations, radio networks, and the collection of aviation statistics.  In a later article, I plan to outline the next steps in development, which include an increased focus on airports, eventually leading to the establishment of a full-fledged Department of Aviation in the late 1940’s.  A big thank you to the staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library for their assistance locating the reports that document this history!

Alaska air transportation routes map from the Report of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission, 1942-43

Think like an upside down wedding cake: three-tiered airport advocacy works

Unique airplanes on display at AOPA,Norman

Having just returned from Norman Oklahoma and the AOPA Regional Fly-In I was impressed to see the record attendance numbers at the two-day event. Over 7500 people and 500 airplanes came to enjoy the Friday educational seminars and the Saturday events. This year, AOPA broke the mold of the wildly successful regional fly-in by adding Friday seminars, which educate both the pilot, and non-pilot (as with Pilot Plus One/Right Seat Ready). In observing the event at Norman, I was reminded of the three-tiered model of airport advocacy. In action were local pilot groups, the eleventh annual Aviation Festival, the University of Oklahoma, state-level aviation associations, and of course nationally AOPA.

Jan Maxwell, co-founder Right Seat Ready! companion seminar.

As pilots, we are all used to looking at Class B airspace as an upside-down wedding cake. We understand that the first level extends from the ground upward; a larger ring sits on top of that, and a still larger ring above that. I have long believed that in terms of airport advocacy we need to subscribe to a three-tiered model. Much like Class B, we have the central core being the boots on the ground, local level. Above that are the state level and finally the national level. Let’s take a closer look:

Tier 1 – Local Advocacy: Local wisdom is the best source of information at an airport. Who better understands current issues, history, and future needs better the pilots who are based there? What can you do locally?

  • Join your local airport organization.
  • Find out who your AOPA ASN volunteer is.
  • Attend Airport Land Use Meetings.
  • Host community events at your airport.
  • Form a business relationship with your City or County Planners.
  • Attend all City or County sponsored airport meetings.
  • Attend Airport meetings.
  • Look for chapters of state aviation organizations in your town/area/region.
  • Use media to the airport’s best interest [newspaper, radio, social media, TV].
  • Create a good working relationship with your airport manager.

 Tier 2 – Statewide Organizations: Not every state has its own general aviation organization. But a quick Google search will tell you if your state does. Statewide airport advocacy organizations are important because they maintain statewide contacts, information, and strategies. Further, our statewide groups can also advise and assist the local airport groups when issues arise.

Tier 3 – National Organizations: Our national aviation organizations are a critical piece of the three-tiered airport defense strategy. Membership insures that each maintains its ability to support statewide or local airport/pilot organizations. If you do not belong to AOPA, EAA, NBAA, you should. Critical to interfacing with our congressional representatives, lobbying that national pilot organizations provide a large presence in Washington, DC. This voice serves to remind DC of the importance of general aviation to the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

As a resident of California, I get the pleasure of seeing the three-tiered model in full effect coming up October 13th and 14th at historic San Carlos Airport [KSQL]. The California Pilots Association  in conjunction with the San Carlos Airport Association is presenting AirFest 2017. The two-day event sponsored by ACI Jet,  features a Friday night wine and food reception with AOPA President, Mark Baker. Saturday’s workshops range from safety seminars and airport advocacy to disaster preparedness. All three levels of local state and national are working together to provide educational, social and advocacy.  I would encourage everyone to think like an upside down wedding cake when it comes to advocating for GA and airports. Think globally and act locally. The more we promote general aviation the more we protect our airports.

CalPilots Airfest 2017

 

 

 

Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

The Big Lie: ATC Stuck in the 1960s

The debate on so-called “ATC privatization” is not a new one. A Google search of the phrase yields 171,000 results, many of them news articles going back more than a quarter century.

AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and most other alphabet groups are pushing back against the most recent iteration of this idea, probably because of the current administration’s support for the concept and the feeling that unsteady funding from Congress is causing some people to take another look at it.

I’m highly opposed to privatization for a number of reasons. In general, I prefer a competitive marketplace where possible, as this provides the best product at the lowest price for the consumer. But there are some areas where multiple vendors just aren’t an option. Air traffic control, it seems to me, is one of those. But I’ll leave the argument against ATC privatization to the pros. The folks at AOPA, EAA, etc. have articulated that far better than I ever could.

What I’m concerned about right now is the patently false idea that air traffic control in this country is somehow mired in the 1960s. I’ve read recent articles from the Reason Foundation, Steve Forbes (who, as a major user of general aviation, ought to know better), the Orange County Register, and a number of other publications proffering this claim. It’s fake news – demonstrably false. Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.

I spent the early part of the 1980s living in Alaska, frequently hanging out at the Anchorage ARTCC because my cousin worked there. I used to take flight data progress strips off the huge dot matrix printers and put them in those little plastic holders and run them to the various sectors. I saw the vacuum tube powered computer equipment they were using. I flew with my cousin in those round gauge equipped airplanes, and marveled at the sophistication of Silver Crown avionics.

Today? Visit any Center and you’ll find modern computers have replaced all that old stuff. From trainers to airliners, we’re flying almost exclusively based on satellite navigation. That didn’t even exist in the early 80s, let alone the 1960s! Our airways were defined solely by ground-based navaids. VOR navigation was a luxury, and NDB usage was ubiquitous. People were still flying around using four course ranges!

Today, T and Q routes are rapidly supplanting the old stuff. When I’m up high enough to get over traffic, I will often be cleared direct from coast to coast. That would’ve been impossible in the 1960s.

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Our arrival and departure procedures are optimized for routing and traffic. We’ve got radius-to-fix segments on approaches, satellite overlays for many of the remaining ground-based procedures, and even GPS-based precision approaches which require almost no equipment beyond that which exists in orbit.

As I understand it, air traffic control weather radar, to the extend they had it 50 years ago, was a marginal mish-mash of green shades providing information which was difficult to interpret and limited in scope. Today they’re using ASR and NEXRAD-derived WARP systems which provide infinitely better weather data to controllers and, by extension, aviators. Heck, over the past 20 years I’ve noticed the marked improvement in the way controllers are able to route traffic around weather. They aren’t doing that with divining rods.

Back then, ATC’s radar network was limited and ground based. That system is being replaced by satellite-based ADS-B technology which provides better coverage, faster updates, and many other benefits – including traffic and weather data beamed directly into the cockpit.

The list goes on and on. How about the ATC towers? We’re starting to utilize “remote” towers which don’t even require the physical presence of a controller at the airport. Would that have been possible in the 1960s? Of course not.

Let’s talk about filing flight plans. In the 1960s, you had to physically go to an airport to visit a weather specialist to find out what Mother Nature was doing. Then you’d write out a flight plan by hand on a piece of paper and give it to the FSS specialist, who would do… well, something with it. Within a half hour, you might be able to obtain your clearance. That was pretty speedy for 1960!

Today, you get all that information on a smartphone and can file a flight plan with that same app. I’ve seen a clearance show up within 30 seconds after filing. Part of that is due to the advance of computer technology, but a big piece of it is also the way our ATC system is able to interact with the modern internet. From NOTAM and weather dissemination to airspace design, virtually nothing of the old system is still in use. VHF voice communication represents one of the few exceptions, but even that is being supplanted, especially on oceanic routes.

The bottom line here is that our air traffic control system is NOT stuck in the 1960s. Those who believe it is should talk to a few pilots and controllers. Sure, we have plenty of traffic delays in aviation. Much of that is due to weather – something no ATC “reform” is going to fix. The rest of the congestion is due to a lack of runway and airport capacity. Remember all those airports which were closed? They were called “relievers” for a reason. All those runway and airport expansion ideas which were quashed? You see the result every time you’re #10 in line for departure at a major airport.

Equating delays with ATC is as illogical as claiming the freeways are congested because of faded highway signage. If people want to support ATC “privatization,” I can respect that viewpoint. But letting hyperbole, sensationalism, and misinformation into the conversation serves us all poorly.

If you want to look at facts — and I hope you do — then the answer is clear: America’s air traffic control system is the largest, safest, most efficient, and modern one on Earth.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Misfueled!

Decals

Jet fuel contamination of avgas remains a killer.

On March 2, 2008, a turbonormalized Cirrus SR22 was destroyed when it crashed shortly after takeoff in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, killing all four people aboard. Shortly after the aircraft departed from runway 20, the airplane’s engine lost power, and the aircraft hit a building and exploded. Further investigation revealed that the aircraft had been refueled with Jet A instead of 100LL.

This report reminded me of an incident 16 years earlier during which my own 1979 Cessna T310R was misfueled with Jet A at San Carlos (Calif.) Airport, a busy GA airport just south of SFO. Fortunately, I caught the (mis)fueler in the act, red handed. Had I not been lucky enough to do that, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column.

Normally, I either fuel my aircraft myself (at a self-serve pump) or watch it being fueled (when avgas is supplied by truck). On this occasion, I’d radioed for the fuel truck and waited patiently for it to arrive. After 10 minutes of waiting, Mother Nature intervened and compelled me to walk into the terminal building in rather urgent search of a loo. By the time I took care of my pressing business and returned to the ramp, there was a fuel truck parked by my airplane and a lineperson pumping fuel into my right main tank.  As I approached the aircraft, I observed to my horror that the truck was labeled “JET A.”

Theoretically impossible

At first, I was not too worried, because I believed that misfueling my airplane with Jet A was physically impossible. That’s because in 1987 (the year I purchased by T310R), all turbocharged twin Cessnas became subject to Airworthiness Directive AD 87-21-02 which mandated installation of restrictor ports on all fuel filler openings. The restrictor ports were designed to make it impossible to insert an industry standard Jet A nozzle, while accommodating the smaller diameter avgas nozzle.

The AD was issued because the FAA became aware that a large number of misfueling indicents and accidents were occuring in turbocharged aircraft. These aircraft typically were prominentaly decorated by the factory with the word “Turbo” and apparently linepeople were confusing it with “Turbine” and pumping Jet A into the tanks.

So the FAA mandated that jet fuel trucks install a wide spade-shaped fuel nozzle, and that vulnerable airplanes (like turbocharged twin Cessna) have restrictor ports installed into which the wide jet fuel nozzle would not fit. This made misfueling of piston aircraft with jet fuel theoretically impossible. (They also said that it’s theoretically impossible for bumblebees to fly.)

But as I arrived at my airplane, I discovered that indeed my left main tank had been topped with Jet A. How was this possible? A subsequent investigation by the local FSDO revealed that the Jet A fuel truck at San Carlos Airport had not been fitted with the correct spade-type nozzle. (I suspect they got in trouble for that.)

Jet-A nozzle vs. avgas nozzle

Jet fuel nozzles have a wide spade top that is theoretically incapable of being inserted in an avgas fuel filler equipped with a restrictor ring—but don’t count on it!

Undoing the damage

I spent literally hours trying to find an A&P on the field that would assist me in purging the fuel system of its witches’ brew of 100LL and Jet A. That turned out to be surprisingly difficult. The fueling company was falling all overitself to be helpful (because I’m sure they feared a big lawsuit) but they had no mechanics or maintenance capabilities. There were several maintenance shops on the field, but none wanted to go near my contaminated airplane, clearly afraid of the potential liability exposure. Finally, I persuaded one maintenance manger to help me out after writing and signing an omnibus waiver absolving the shop and its mechanics of any liability in connection with their work on my aircraft.

The purging process itself was quite an eye opener. We drained the tanks as completely as possible, putting the noxious effluent into a 55-gallon drum provided by the fueling company (who had agreed to deal with the costly disposal of the nasty stuff). We disconnected the fuel line going to the engine-driven fuel pump and drained all the fuel from that as well.

Next, 5 gallons of 100LL (donated gratis by the fueling company) was poured into the main tank, and then pumped through the system using the electric boost pump and drained from the disconnected fuel line into a 5-gallon bucket.  The fuel in the bucket was tested for Jet A contamination using the paper-towel test: A few drops are placed on a paper towel and allowed to evaporate completely. Pure 100LL will not leave an oily ring on the towel, but even small amounts of Jet A contamination will leave an obvious ring. The stuff in the bucket flunked the test.

Another 5 gallons of 100LL were poured into the tank, and the process repeated. Once again, it flunked the paper-towel test. We had to repeat the procedure three more times before we were satisfied that the system was essentially kerosine-free. We reconnected the fuel line, cowled up the engine, the fueling company then topped off the airplane (again gratis), and I was finally good to go…fully six hours after the misfueling incident.

Restrictor filler & GATS jar

Be sure all your fuel filler ports have restrictor rings. The big GATS jar (available at Sportys, Aircraft Spruce, and elsewhere) does a far better job than the slim screwdriver-type testers.

Lessons learned

I learned some important lessons that day. Perhaps the most important is that it’s impossible to distinguish pure avgas and a mixture of avgas and Jet A by color alone. My main tanks had been about half-full of avgas, so after the misfueling they contained roughly a 50-50 mix. If you take a jar full of pure 100LL and another jar full of a 50-50 mix of 100LL and avgas, I guarantee you will not be able to see any difference in color or clarity between the two.

I hadn’t realized that before. I has always been taught that you sump the tanks and observe the color—100LL is blue and Jet A is straw color. What I was not taught is that a mixture of 100LL and Jet A is also blue and that you simply can’t tell the difference visually. In retrospect, I shudder to think what would have happened had I not caught that Jet A truck in front of my airplane.

I was also taught that since Jet A is significantly heavier than avgas (6.7 lbs/gal versus 5.85 lbs/gal), the Jet A and 100LL will separate just like oil and water, with the Jet A at the bottom (where the sump drain is) and the 100LL at the top. That’s true, but only if the contaminated fuel is allowed to sit for hours and hours. It turns out that 100LL and Jet A mix quite well, and the mixture takes a surprisingly long time to separate.

There are at least two good ways to distinguish pure 100LL from kerosine-contaminated 100LL. One is by odor: Jet A has a very distinctive odor that is detectable even in small concentrations. The other (and probably best) is by using the paper-towel test: Pour a sample on a paper towel (or even a sheet of white copy paper), let it evaporate, and see if it leaves an oily ring.

Nasty stuff

What effect does Jet A contamination have on a piston engine? Enough to ruin your day.

You can think of Jet A as being fuel with a zero octane rating. Any piston engine that tries to run on pure Jet A will go into instant destructive detonation. However, in real life, we almost never encounter that situation because the tanks (at least the main tank used for takeoff) is almost never completely dry when the aircraft is misfueled.

Therefore, the real-world problem is not running on pure Jet A, but on running on a mixture of 100LL and Jet A.  Depending on the mixture ratio of the two fuels, the effective octane rating can be anything between 0 and 100. A mixture with a lot of Jet A and just a little 100LL might be detectable during runup.  A 50-50 mix might not start to detonate until full power is applied, and the engine might fail 30 seconds or 3 minutes after takeoff. Just a little Jet A contamination might produce only moderate detonation that might not be noticed for hours or even weeks. Like so many other things in aviation, “it all depends.”

The Cirrus SR22 accident in Rio reminds us that the problem of misfueling is still with us, despite all the efforts of the FAA to eradicate it. We need to be vigilant. Always watch your airplane being fueled if you possibly can. Make sure its fuel filler ports are equipped with restrictor rings. Don’t just look at the fuel you drain from your sumps—sniff it, and when in doubt, pour it on a paper towel.

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

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 9,000+ 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 Day After the Holiday: Flying Home Safely

The day before a holiday, given there are blue skies, is a silly, noisy day in the airpark. People are on the move. My pilot neighbors who have decided to fly to family are loading up and heading out, sometimes en masse, wisely using their aircraft to avoid what can be dangerously packed highways of travelers, and miserably packed commercial airline flights.

Funny, I don’t worry so much about them on the day they leave out of here. The day after the holiday, though, I admit to fretting a little. Why? Statistics.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

It is much easier to decide to stay home for the holidays when you are still in your driveway, contemplating the weather, than it

is to imagine staying on at Aunt Fran’s or Grandma’s, where you may be packed into an expensive hotel room, or maybe the basement spare bedroom (probably no wifi down there, either). The NTSB annals are full of accidents and incidents that happen on the backside of the holiday curve, when people are saturated with food, family, good times, and sometimes rushing to get back for work, school or other ordinary pressures. Suddenly pilots everywhere feel that pinch at the base of the neck and catch themselves almost universally thinking, “Well, maybe the weather isn’t really that bad. Maybe the ice won’t be there, maybe the thunderstorms will drift off the route… and maybe the winds aren’t as strong as they are forecasting.”

That is the essence of get-home-itis, and there is not a one of us immune to it. Pilots can, however, allow common sense to sit on the other shoulder and balance such musings. For every “maybe the forecast is off,” one has to imagine “yeah, it could be turn out worse than what they are saying.” After all, a forecast is only a guess of how the weather gods will play out the day. A sophisticated guess based on lots of data, but a guess, nevertheless.

For every “I have got to get home and be at work tomorrow,” there has to be, “this is what personal days and telecommuting are made for.” Building a weather day or two into holiday vacations can alleviate all of these ruminations. I do it as a matter of course. The plus is that if I get home the day I expected to get home I have a day to decompress before ordinary life reaches out and grabs me again. And if I need the extra day because home or en route weather is bad? Well, I’ve got it.

Another good hedge is a back up plan, such as refundable airline tickets (yep, pricey, but only if you need to use them), or a car rental that you can cancel last minute. I’ve used them both to get where I needed to be when the weather prevented me from flying myself.

And what about the “look-see” approach to flying on marginal or worse weather days? 14 CFR Part 91 leaves pilots a lot of leeway on planning flights when the weather might not be at minimums upon reaching the destination. I’m pragmatic on this one. If you are a current pilot in a well-equipped aircraft who has lots of experience with the type of weather you’d like to “look-see” well, run it through your common sense rubric. If it passes, plan the flight with several “outs,” places you’ll divert to if needed. The go ahead and give the flight a try. Weather is a dynamic beast, and conditions may be better than forecast, or worse. You’ll know when you are up there, hopefully deviating around it or diverting to avoid it. Good luck.

Ultimately the key to short circuiting the day-after get-home-itis syndrome in aviation is proper planning, preparation, and of course, a realistic understanding of your aircraft and your own capabilities. Pilots, know thyself. Fly safe out there!

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Why I fly high

I take a lot of long trips in my Cessna T310R, and more than half of them involve cruising up in the high teens and low Flight Levels, simply because those are the altitudes at which my airplane is happiest, fastest, and most efficient. But from what I’ve been able to tell, the great majority of piston pilots shy away from using the high-altitude capabilities of their airplanes. Most pilots of normally aspirated airplanes seem to confine most of their flying to altitudes of 10,000’ and below, and even many pilots of unpressurized turbocharged airplanes like mine have never flown in the Flight Levels. It’s even surprising how many pilots of pressurized birds seem averse to flying much above the low teens.

That’s a shame, because it’s at the high end of the altitude spectrum that most of our airplanes achieve their best efficiency—and in many cases, their best speed as well. I’m not just talking about turbocharged airplanes. Most normally-aspirated birds are perfectly capable of cruise altitudes well into the teens.

Look at a plain-vanilla, fixed-gear, normally-aspirated Cessna Skylane:

Cessna 182Q Range Profile

Cessna 182Q Skylane range profile page from POH.

At a low altitude like 4,000’, maximum cruise speed is 139 KTAS at 75% power. Continue climbing until the airplane “runs out of throttle” at 8,000’ and max cruise climbs to 144 KTAS. That extra 5 knots will save you 9 minutes on an 800 NM trip when you take the extra climb into account. (5:38 instead of 5:47, no big deal).

Continue climbing to 12,000’ and max cruise drops back to 139 KTAS (same as at 4,000’), but at a much more fuel-efficient 64% power (which is all you can get at that altitude with wide-open throttle). The same 800 NM trip will take 6 more minutes at 12,000’ than at 4,000’ (5:53 to be exact) because of the longer climb, but burn a whopping 12 gallons less fuel in the process—if avgas costs $5/gallon, that’s $60—and increase IFR range by a full hour and 130 NM!

How far can we take this? Don a cannula and climb to 16,000’—high enough to fly right over the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains IFR—and max cruise drops to a still-respectable 130 KTAS at a miserly 53% power. Because it takes a Skylane nearly 40 minutes to climb from sea level to 16,000’ at max gross, the 800 NM trip will take a half-hour longer than at 12,000’ (6:23), but will save 20 gallons ($100?) and increase IFR range by a full two hours compared to our 4,000’ benchmark.


Cruise
Altitude
Max
Cruise
IFR
Range

To fly an
800 NM Trip

4,000 139 K 820 NM 5:47 78 gal
8,000 144 K 840 NM 5:38 79 gal
12,000 139 K 950 NM 5:53 67 gal
16,000 130 K 1,040 NM 6:23 59 gal

Normally-aspirated, fixed-gear 182Q
(maximum gross weight, standard day, no wind,
88 gallons, 45 min reserve)


Unless you just happen to like low-and-slow, there’s no logical reason to cruise a Skylane lower than 8,000’ because doing so makes all the numbers worse: cruise speed, trip time, and range.  On the other hand, climbing to 10,000’ or 12,000’ will cost you a negligible amount of time, and reward you with substantially lower fuel burn and increased range.

These calculations are all based on zero-wind, but in real life the winds aloft are often a decisive factor in determining the best altitude to choose. If you’re headed eastbound, odds are you’ll have a tailwind—and the higher you fly, the better it’ll be.

In wintertime, climbing up high to catch favorable winds can pay off spectacularly. In the low-to-mid teens, 50 knot tailwinds are commonplace and a 70 or 80 knot tailwind is possible. Even in summer, when winds tend to be relatively light, going high can pay off. Here are some typical summer winds I pulled off of DUATS:


      6000    9000   12000   18000
 STL 2410+18 2809+12 3110+07 2917-04
 SPI 2510+18 3010+12 3211+07 2919-05
 JOT 2511+17 3012+12 3116+06 2926-07
 EVV 2509+17 3012+11 3216+07 3018-05
 IND 2411+16 3011+11 3114+07 2922-06
 FWA 2312+15 2812+10 2916+06 2926-07
 CVG 2210+15 2809+11 3012+07 3021-05
 CMH 2210+14 2710+10 2914+06 3026-07
 CRW 2108+15 2509+10 2908+06 3225-05
 AGC 2010+12 2510+09 2813+05 2930-09
 EKN 1907+13 2608+09 2810+06 3028-07
 PSB 1911+11 2509+08 2813+04 2930-11
 EMI 9900+11 2905+09 2811+05 2927-10

Even in these docile summertime conditions, we can expect 10 to 15 knots more tailwind component at 16,000’ than at 8,000’, which almost exactly offsets the TAS advantage of the lower altitude (144K vs. 130K). By climbing up high on an eastbound trip, we’ll go just as fast, burn considerably less fuel, and increase our IFR range nearly 400 NM! Not to mention that it’s almost always smoother and cooler up high. What’s not to like?

During the winter, when the winds tend to be stronger, going high on eastbound trips tends to be an even better deal, saving both time and fuel.

For turbos, it’s even better

If you’ve got a turbocharger, the argument for flying high becomes compelling, because the higher you fly in a turbo, the higher your speed, range and efficiency—at least up to the low Flight Levels in most turbocharged airplanes. These birds really shine up in the high teens and low twenties, and pilots who don’t take advantage of this capability don’t know what they’re missing.

For example, take a look at the “Range Profile” page for my Cessna T310R:

Cessna T310R Range Profile

Cessna T310R range profile page from POH.

Starting at 180 KTAS at sea level, max cruise speed at 73.6% power steadily increases with altitude to a relatively blistering 221 KTAS at FL200. (Above that altitude, available power starts dropping off fairly rapidly.)


Cruise Altitude Max
Cruise
IFR
Range
To fly an
800 NM Trip
5,000 190 K 860 NM 4:14 143 gal
10,000 199 K 890 NM 4:04 137 gal
15,000 209 K 930 NM 3:55 131 gal
20,000 221 K 970 NM 3:45 125 gal

Turbocharged, twin-engine Cessna T310R
(73.6% cruise, maximum gross weight  standard day, no wind,
163 gallons, 45 min reserve)


At the same time, range with IFR reserves climbs from 820 NM to 970 NM. Naturally, trip time and fuel burn for the proverbial 800 NM trip both drop accordingly—from 4:14 and 143 gallons at 5,000 to 3:45 and 125 gallons at FL200.

Personally, I don’t push my engines this hard. I almost always throttle back to between 60% and 65% power and settle for around 205 KTAS at FL200 at a miserly fuel burn of 26 gallons/hour, giving me a range of well over 1,000 NM with IFR reserves (or 1,200 NM if I fill my 20-gallon wing locker tank).

Once again, these figures assume no-wind conditions. Add in the wind on an eastbound trip and the results can get downright exciting. In the winter, I’ve seen my groundspeed edge above 300 knots from time to time. That’s fun! During the summer, on the other hand, I’m happy with 230 or 240 on the GPS readout.

Needless to say, you pay the piper going westbound. But if the winds aren’t too strong, it may still pay to go high rather than low. In my airplane, I gain 22 knots of true airspeed by climbing from 10,000’ to FL200. So if the headwind at FL200 is only 10 or 15 knots stronger than at 10,000’ (which is usually the case in summertime), higher is still better.

In wintertime, of course, westbound aircraft are all in the same boat, turbo or non-turbo. We bounce along at the MEA, try not to look at the groundspeed readout, hope the fillings in our teeth don’t fall out, and think about how much fun the eastbound part of the trip was (or will be).

Enjoy the high life!

If you’re one of those pilots who comes from the “I won’t climb higher than I’m willing to fall” school, you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. Believe me you’ve got plenty of company. But you’re also missing something really good.

Do yourself a favor: give high a try. It’s cooler and smoother up there. Your airplane flies faster and more efficiently up high. ATC will usually give you direct to just about anywhere. You’re above terrain, obstructions, and often the weather and the ice. The visibility is usually terrific. So are the tailwinds, if you’re lucky enough to be going in the right direction. Try it…you just might like it!

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

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 9,000+ 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.

When Good Enough Just Isn’t

kern

Tony Kern, CEO of Convergent Performance

I spent much of last week in Wichita, the nation’s air capitol, to attend an annual safety trek known as the Safety Standdown, jointly hosted by Bombardier and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).

This 19th edition of the event drew about 450 attendees and another 1,100 online to listen to a host of smart, savvy aviators speak passionately about the need to head off accidents before they happen.

Before we prang an airplane applies to all of us and certainly doesn’t sound like rocket science anyway, does it? Read through the latest NTSB statistics and you’ll realize this simple philosophy apparently was rocket science to the pilots of the 566 GA accidents in the first eight months of 2014. The question of course is why?

Now if I start talking about professionalism in the midst of these accidents statistics most readers will think I’m referring to big-iron pilots paid to fly.

On the surface, professionalism’s a tag that on the surface doesn’t seem to fit with an Archer or a Cirrus driver, but it should, because thinking professionally, according to Dr. Tony Kern of Convergent Performance, can shape how we fly. At the Safety Standdown, Kern was an engaging, take no prisoners, kind of speaker and his logic is tough to refute once you’ve listened and let the philosophy sink in (watch his opening session talk).

Consider the Practical Test Standards, a booklet anyone who’s earned a pilot certificate knows well. It’s all about the limits the flight test examiner expects us to work with … how many feet + or – an applicant can stray in altitude, heading and airspeed for example. Meet the minimum standards for the pilot certificate and you’re probably home free. Airline and biz jet pilots fly to their certificate standards during their annual recurrent training too. They’re just checked once or twice a year. Continue reading

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