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Why Choose Business Aviation?

I’m often asked: Why pursue a career in business aviation? Most professional pilots measure their career with two metrics: compensation and quality-of-life. If scheduled airlines provide more of one or both of these, why would any right-thinking pilot consider private, charter, or corporate flying as anything other than a stepping stone to a Part 121 gig?

It’s a good question. I suppose those of us who work in this corner of general aviation have our own reasons. From where I sit, business flying offers aviators a much richer arena of jobs, destinations, lifestyles, insights, technologies, and so on. For example, we tend to be more intimately involved in maintenance, outfitting and refurbishment, and management. We see firsthand the benefits our work provides to those who employ us. And there’s something to be said for job satisfaction as a result.

A typical crew meal

We have access to some of the latest and greatest equipment in the skies, aircraft that fly higher, faster, and further than anything else in the civilian world. The next non-military supersonic aircraft isn’t going to be an airliner. It’ll be a business jet. Get in one and you’re likely to have a more comfortable seat, better in-flight service, faster airborne internet, better food, larger windows, and lower cabin altitudes than an airliner. Those things aren’t just for the passengers. I’ve often said, “Nobody ever goes hungry on a Gulfstream,” and so far I’ve been right.

I also love business aviation for the behind-the-scenes look it offers at the how and why of aircraft operation. The general public wonders who these people are that fly privately, where they’re going, and why they’re using such an expensive mode of transportation. I know the answers to those questions because I’m right in the thick of it all.

I’d be the last one to suggest that flying is boring, but some pilots do start to feel that way after a while. In business aviation, there are myriad opportunities to expand one’s horizons. For example, as the lead pilot on my aircraft, I have access to management statements and review them for accuracy each month. It’s enlightening, to say the least. After doing this for a number of years, you’d think I’d get used to the size of the figures contained therein… but I never do. The cost of operating a business aircraft is astronomical, yet so many companies own them anyway. I know these people; most of them are not splurging. The value they extract from operating the jet simply makes the expense economically worthwhile.

Business aviation careers build valuable relationships and sometimes lead to “bigger, better things” (as if there’s anything bigger or better than flying!). I know numerous pilots that have gone on to start their own charter or aircraft management firms, brokerages, training operations, consulting gigs, or assisting in purchase/sale transactions. Others have moved into management positions. Each of these can be far more financially lucrative than flying for a living. Me, I have some sweet writing jobs that I probably wouldn’t have been approached for were it not for my work in this business.

One of the best parts about a business aviation career is the opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for your own job performance rather than simply exist as a seniority number and miniscule cog in an enormous machine. Even the largest publicly-owned companies have relatively small flight departments, and that means people know your name. They can offer opportunities that cater to your desires and talents because they are aware of what your wants and capabilities are. And if they don’t? You can move horizontally within the industry. A new job doesn’t have to mean starting all over at the bottom of the heap.

Though they’re improving steadily, I don’t know if bizav will, on average, ever rival the total career compensation or quality-of-life you might be able to get with a major scheduled airline. That’s one of the major impediments the industry is dealing with in its effort to recruit and retain talented individuals. But I do know this: Business aviation offers many things that can tilt the value proposition in that direction, if you’re willing to do a little digging.

As Scully and Mulder said, the truth is out there.

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.

Paranoia Pays Off

Normally, paranoia is considered unhealthy. As it pertains to flying, however, in my experience a moderate dose can keep the doctor away much like the proverbial apple. It’ll keep the FAA, NTSB, and unemployment line at arm’s length as well.

There are so many things to be concerned with when aviating that I find great benefit in prioritizing them all by asking: Can this kill me? The answer will vary with the kind of airplane I’m flying, of course. This is where a regular reading of safety and accident reports can pay dividends.

In an aerobatic airplane, the No. 1 killer is the pilot himself. So no showboating, low flying, or things that being with “watch this.” From a preflight standpoint (and the preflight always takes longer than the actual flight where aerobatics is concerned), the canopy latches, fuel selector, and flight controls are high on the list, as is a thorough inspection of the cockpit and tail cone area for any foreign object debris. Those are the things which, historically, have led pilots to grief in those airplanes. I once had a flight control system failure in the middle of an aerobatic sequence. It gets your attention rather quickly.

In the Gulfstream, the top spot goes to the pressurization system. This is a component that keeps the crew alive just as surely as the wings. We cruise at altitudes much higher than the average airlines, where there’s precious few seconds of useful consciousness if a sudden loss of pressure is experienced. But even more insidious is the slow depressurization as it often goes unnoticed until physiological impairment is already at work.

There have been so many accidents related to pressurization, and quite often they’re fatal. Recently an Air China 737 dropped the masks because the first officer decided to vape in the cockpit and, not understanding how the pressurization system worked, shut it off inadvertently. Instead of diverting, they completed the flight without any oxygen for the passengers after reactivating the packs. Unsafe? Yes, and illegal, too. As many politicians have learned the hard way, the coverup is always worse than the initial crime.

I’m also paranoid about the galley oven and microwave on my Gulfstream. Fire in an airplane is really bad. Just the other day on the way to Hawaii, our flight attendant forgot to remove labels from a catering order and almost caught the containers on fire. Rookie mistake? Hardly. This flight attendant is highly experienced, and I’m sure she’s not alone in having made this particular error. We’re all aware that a moment’s carelessness can lead to serious consequences, but it’s vital to remember that this is as true for flight attendants, passengers, and ground crew as it is for pilots.

I try to think of other ways things can catch on fire, too. We have Firebane and a FireSock for containment of lithium battery fires from portable devices. I’ve also often rehearsed what I’d do if a fire or burning smell was detected from an unknown source, practiced the emergency descents every recurrent, and so on. My record is FL450 to 15,000 feet msl in a minute and 43 seconds. The particular Gulfstream model I fly is at somewhat of a disadvantage over newer large cabin iterations in that there’s no “automatic descent mode.” That’s an additional risk factor. We have to get the masks on in time, every time, because the airplane has no backup technology to save us.

I’m also paranoid about things like access panels, chocks, gear pins, and the like. Those won’t necessarily cause an accident, but in my experience they’re by far the most commonly missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fuelers leave the single point refueling door open. We see safety reports about that stuff constantly at my company.

I’m paranoid about what’s behind the airplane. I always perform a final walk around prior to closing the door, and note what’s in the path of the airplane’s jet blast. I fly tailwheel airplanes and have seen them damaged by jets, especially at small congested fields like my home airport (John Wayne-Orange County Airport) where it’s not uncommon to have a Global or Gulfstream starting up with a Citabria less than a hundred feet behind it. I love those small airplanes!

I’m paranoid about landing on the wrong runway. I’ve intervened to save three pilots from that on various occasions. “Cleared for the visual” always gets the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I personally witnessed a Boeing 757 land at the wrong airport in Arizona once at an aerobatic contest. It happens to the pros and non-professionals in equal measure.

I’m paranoid about hitting things during taxi. The G-IV/G-450 wings are not nearly as long as the V/550/650, but relying on a wing walker or marshaller still gives me pause, especially if any of the “big three” risk factors are present: night conditions, obstacles, and/or an unfamiliar ramp. I’ve told everyone on my crew “if you’re in doubt in any way about clearance from objects, stop and shut down the plane. They can tow it the rest of the way.” And if it hits something then? Well, that’s on them.

I’m paranoid about instrument clearances. I always try to have both pilots present when the clearance is received via voice, and we verify what we’ve heard and the routing prior to departure. We see a lot of lateral navigation deviances in our Event Review Committee meetings, and from what I understand that’s true for every Aviation Safety Action Program in the industry. I say “try” because despite my best efforts, I’ve been given IFR clearances when I didn’t want them. Sometimes just calling the delivery frequency to see if the clearance is even available via PDC will prompt them to start reading it to you via voice.

Most of all, I’m paranoid about scheduling pressure, especially in the Part 135 “on demand” environment. This never comes from my company; it’s always self-induced. So: Don’t rush. If the passengers show up early, there’s a mechanical issue, the lead passenger is demanding, etc., well, that’s when things can go sideways easily. I try to slow down, take a deep breath, and be extra methodical. Never skip any checklist. If the passengers are late, they’re late. I’ve been screamed at by an aircraft owner over this. I was nice about it, but basically said, “Too bad.” It’s easy to say, but much harder to stick to in a real-world operating environment. It seems to be baked into human DNA and has to be fought constantly, consistently, and methodically.

It takes a lifetime to build up a decent reputation as a pilot, and just a few careless moments to destroy it. As Joseph Heller famously wrote in his seminal novel Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

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.

Health risks for business jet crews

It’s long been known that flight at high altitudes exposes flight crew and passengers alike to greater levels of radiation than they normally experience on the surface, but a recent Harvard study on the prevalence of cancers among flight attendants has brought the subject into the spotlight once more. It’s been picked up by a wide variety of publications from outside the aviation world. To be honest, I’m a little surprised at their interest in the health of flight crew members.

If you’re flying a real (aka light GA) airplane rather than a modern, automated turbojet, you might not have given the subject much thought. But turbojets operate near or above the tropopause (which varies in altitude from 23,000 to 65,000 depending on location and time of year). This places them well above most of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, and therefore at greater exposure to direct sunlight, cosmic ionizing radiation, and so on. Unfortunately, the preventative measures we use on the ground – sunscreen, long shirts, hats, sunglasses, etc. – don’t provide protection from all of these perils.

For an occasional passenger, the risk is fairly negligible. But for those of us who make their living working on an aircraft, the conclusions offered by this paper are quite concerning. The Harvard study, which has been ongoing since 2007, found the following:

“Despite low smoking and obesity levels indicative of positive health behaviors, we report that flight attendants have elevated rates of several cancers, especially breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancers. These results are consistent with previous findings regarding flight crew health. Ours is the first study to report an elevated rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in a U.S. flight attendant cohort (consistent with European studies). Some of these cancers were also related to tenure as a flight attendant, overall or within subgroups of parity in the case of breast cancer.”

They also note that “…cabin crew have the largest annual ionizing radiation dose of all U.S. workers (e.g. 3.07 mSv vs. 0.59 mSv for U.S. Department of Energy workers). These exposures can easily exceed guidelines released by the NCRP or the International Commission on Radiological Protection.”

The authors of the study don’t claim to fully understand the impact of each risk factor, but I was impressed by their inclusion of other carcinogens flight attendants may be exposed to: pesticides, jet fuel, various chemicals found in uniforms, fire-proofed soft goods, and so on. They also noted the constant disruption to normal circadian rhythms as a risk factor for cancer.

As anyone who’s worked in the industry can probably tell you, the circadian issue is a major one when it comes to the adverse effect on fatigue, quality of life, and long-term health. Other studies have documented how an abnormal circadian rhythm disrupts the body’s ability to fight of illness and disease at a cellular level. The body simply cannot work as designed when work schedules alternate randomly from night to day and back again.

Even when the schedule is steady, if it’s a constant diet of night flying, the body suffers. I once asked a former long-haul cargo pilot if he ever got used to working at night all the time. His response: “Not really. You can always feel it sucking the life out of you.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by scientific studies which have led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify shift work which disrupts normal circadian rhythms to be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Anyway, I’ve been asked about the Harvard study by several coworkers, who wonder about the correlation between flight attendants and the pilots up front. While the study did not address aviators directly, there’s no reason to suspect the folks in the cockpit are any better off when it comes to radiation exposure.

However, it seems logical to assume there may be significant differences in pilot risk depending on the kind of flying being done. A typical domestic Part 121 airline pilot might log 900 hours per year, whereas a charter pilot will only fly half that amount. There are plenty of Part 91 operators who fly 200 hours a year. Or less. Fewer hours at high altitude translate into reduced exposure to radiation.

On the other hand, some business aircraft fly much higher than a typical airliner. A Boeing or Airbus will ply the mid 30s, while many bizjets will climb directly into the low 40s, and can eventually reach as high as 51,000 feet if the weather requires it.

The trend with new business aircraft seems to be toward higher altitudes and longer ranges. While this capability is a boon for safety, it also means even greater exposure to radiation aloft. And as supersonic aircraft enter the inventory, it wouldn’t surprise me to see these airplanes cruising around 60,000 feet.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the aviation industry, but the incessant march toward higher/longer/faster flying comes with risks, some of which may not yet be fully appreciated by those of us who will fly them.

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 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.

The Bottom Line: We all started in the same place

I have always said about myself that I am a jeans and T-shirt girl. I can get dressed up and go to some pretty fancy events, but in the end, I just want to put my jeans on and go fly something. I have found that no matter the venue aviation lovers have more in common than not. It is through shared passion that we can inspire flight, protect airports and airspace.

Jolie Lucas with George Kounis, Editor & Publisher Pilot Getaways Magazine

On Friday night, I had the honor of attending the Living Legends of Aviation awards, which is a fundraiser for the Kiddie Hawk Air Academy. The gala, attended by 700 plus, was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel. To say that the evening was star studded would be an understatement. Both John Travolta and Harrison Ford played a part in recognizing this year’s inductees, among them pilots, astronauts, entrepreneurs, and visionaries.

Harrison Ford addressed the crowd about H.R. 2997, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, which, in a six-year process, would in part privatize ATC. He described the bill as a “solution in search of a problem.” If passed the control of our air traffic system would be turned over to a 13 member private board, with the majority representing the airlines. The fear in privatization is resources being diverted away from smaller general aviation airports, and smaller commercial air carriers. Harrison stated, “less than 20 percent of airlines fleet has been upgraded to take advantage of ADS-B efficiencies. 1 percent of airlines are capable of using it, versus 80 percent of the general aviation fleet.” Our national air traffic system is the safest and most capable in the world. No matter what we are flying, we need to be on guard for dangerous legislation or power grabs.It might be easy to make an assumption that folks dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos are far removed from jeans and T-shirt grass-roots general aviation. But that assumption would be quickly debunked. A video package was created for each inductee; soon it became apparent that we all started in the same place, general aviation.

Time after time, each “Legend” stated that as a young child, while gazing skyward, they were mesmerized by aviation. How many of us can say the same? Almost all of us started in a piston single. Some of us made that type airplane our life-long love affair. Others moved to aviation in the military, commercial, law enforcement, performance, or space travel. The most important thing to remember is that we all started in the same GA place. One of the reasons I love attending the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, Sun ‘n Fun or EAA AirVenture is the camaraderie. Whether talking to Mark Baker or someone who flew in a Cub, it doesn’t take long for a conversation to turn to “where is your home airport?” or “what do you fly?”

Some of you may know that in mid-November I earned my instrument rating [https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2017/11/20/gotta-get-that-rating/]. Part of my commitment to my safety was the purchase of an IFR certified GPS and ADS-B compliant transponder. Then I had the daunting task of finding an avionics shop I could depend on for the install. A dear friend recommended Chris Tharp who owns Barber Aviation in Madera, CA. He said, “They are going to do everything in their power to do a great install and fix any ailments the airplane has.” On tap for my Mooney M20E was the installation of the GTX335 and 530W. I had never arranged an avionics install and was nervous. Chris was thorough and understanding in explaining the process to me.

Chris Tharp, owner, Barber Aviation

While owned by Lawson Barber, the shop was well-known in California as Beechcraft West. In 2008, Chris purchased Barber Aviation and in 2014 purchased the avionics arm of the business. The shop has 5 employees and is bustling with maintenance and repair as well as avionics. The atmosphere is quintessentially GA: hearty welcome, friendly and accommodating. I was given a detailed quote and an estimate of 5-7 business days for the installation. The avionics installer was Brandon Petersen. I am a communicator, especially when it comes to my airplane. I was thrilled that Brandon was able to send me photos and answered my questions during the process.

The work was done on time, and my next hurdle was getting from the event in Beverly Hills to the Central Valley of California. Again, GA to the rescue, I was able to hop a ride in a cool solid black Pilatus [PC12] from Fullerton. I jumped at the chance to fly that bad boy back to Fresno. The day was beautiful and it was fun to be flying over all the traffic in LA as well as the backup on I-5 from the 101 being closed in Santa Barbara due to the mudslides.Arriving in Madera I was met by Brandon and Chris. We went over the ins and outs of the install [pun intended]. While waiting for a finishing touch, Chris and I were able to talk about the state of general aviation. In his opinion GA in the United States is on an upswing. His business is seeing a 200% increase with the ADS-B work. He talked about business life on a GA airport, the challenges and the benefits. As a business owner myself I could relate to funding improvements to the business versus pulling a larger salary. Chris brought up ATC privatization and his opposition to it. He is concerned that GA will be left out by a committee stacked with commercial interests as well as the potential for small airports like Madera being overlooked. Even with those concerns, I was struck by his unwavering optimism for aviation, his employees and his shop.

Departing Madera IFR I had a thought; no matter whether dressed in sequins or 501’s we are all alike sharing a common passion for flying. The most important thing is that each of us contributes to making aviation safer, more efficient, and increasing our big, diverse, and passionate family.

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. She is the Founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups: Mooney Ambassadors and the Friends of Oceano Airport. Presently Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. She is the Director and Executive Producer of the documentary: Boots on the Ground: the Men & Women who made Mooney©. She co-created Mooney Girls Mooney Girls and Right Seat Ready!© She is the creator of Pilot Plus One© She is an aviation educator and writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Mooney4Me

A Pilot’s Best Friend

If I had to put together a “top 10” list of work-related questions fired at me by friends and family, many of the queries would be unsurprising:

  • “Flown anywhere exciting lately?” (Does home count?)
  • “Do you need a second pilot, or can you fly the airplane by yourself?” (The G-IV requires two pilots)
  • “Can you take your wife or kid along?” (Not unless it’s an empty leg.)
  • “How many people can it seat?” (It’s certified for up to 19, but most interiors are setup for 13-15 passengers)
  • “How far can it fly?” (About 4,300 nautical miles, assuming no wind)
    “How high can it go?” (45,000 feet)
  • “Can you fly outside the United States?” (The aircraft is capable of operating worldwide, and our OpSpecs allow for that as well)

One of the most interesting questions, at least from my perspective, is whether we have a flight attendant aboard. The answer isn’t as easy as a simple “yes” or “no.”

When the airplane is being chartered, a FA is always aboard – primarily for the safety and comfort of the passengers. The safety part is fairly obvious: If a passenger falls ill, a cabin fire breaks out, a ditching occurs, etc., they can focus on the pax while the pilots worry about the flying.

Of course, emergencies of that ilk are as rare as hen’s teeth. The primary role they play in day-to-day operation is ensuring the passengers have a pleasant experience. From serving food and drink to putting on a movie, setting up beds, locating games, card decks, pillows, blankets, and the thousand other items we carry, they’re helping the customers enjoy a first-class travel experience.

If it’s a Part 91 trip being flown by the owner of the aircraft, a flight attendant is not typically needed or requested. On complicated international trips or when the passenger manifest is long, a flight attendant will sometimes be requested even by the owner in order to make the trip run more smoothly.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of corporate/charter flight attendants as the forgotten soldiers of the business aviation industry, which is ironic because they’re the hardest working and lowest paid members of the flight crew.

They often show up long before the pilots do. Charter trips are often beset with complicated and specific meal requests, which sometimes even our best caterers cannot accommodate, so they’ll shop for and prep those things themselves. They take the time to research the passengers, determine their preferences, dislikes, allergies, and even decorate the cabin for special events. They deal with brokers, which can be a challenge all its own.

Flowers seem to follow flight attendants like cigarette smoke in a Mad Men episode. You can hardly find one without the other. I’ve flown to the most ill-equipped and destitute third world countries, places were even clean water was a luxury, and somehow the FA will still find a perfect collection of flowers.

The best flight attendants are preppers. They’re the ones you’d want to be with during a zombie apocalypse. They’ll have contingency plans, backups to the backups, special gifts for little kids, and a dozen other things I never would have considered.

But flight attendants get my respect not only because so many of them go above and beyond even the high levels of service expected by passengers – not an easy thing to do – but because they’re dealing with human beings.

That sounds obvious, but think about it: People are unpredictable. Sometimes the folks coming up the air stair are as pleasant as can be. At other times, the passengers have had a rough day and they’re a lot harder to please. As a pilot, when I press a button, flip a switch, or turn a knob, the equipment will respond in a very predictable way. There are no variances. I can bank on specific behavior from the hardware. People are quite the opposite, and as anyone who’s traveled extensively can tell you, living out of a suitcase and changing time zones takes a toll on the body. That fact is as true for the passengers as for the crew.

Flight attendants also take care of the guys up front, usually taking the time to prepare something for the pilots to eat, and frequently checking in with the cockpit to see if we would like a snack or something to drink. I always tell my copilots that I’ve never gone hungry on a Gulfstream, and we probably won’t start today. That’s due to the thoughtfulness and hard work of corporate flight attendants.

On layovers, the FAs have often researched the area and know where to eat, what to do, and so on. I recall a last minute trip to the World Cup in Brazil where our FA was so determined to get us tickets to one of the matches that she stayed up all night just to keep searching for a decent trio of passes to a sold out game between Switzerland and France. Sure enough, she hit pay dirt.

I’d like to think a good pilot will recognize and take care of the flight attendant, ensuring they are not abused by the passengers and receive support in dealing with the FBO, stocking the aircraft, or even little things like walking them to their car at night.

We’re a team, and I always feel better when I know a good FA is part of the crew.

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.

Fuelish decisions

Nonpilots are usually surprised to learn that the most involved and challenging part of flying sometimes takes place on the ground: preflighting the aircraft, making weather decisions, filing flight plans, programming avionics, navigating the taxiways at a complex airfield, ensuring regulatory compliance, and so on. This is probably as true for the airline pilot as it is for the light GA aircraft owner.

In the world of corporate and charter flying, things are a little different. Based on my experience, the time suck award goes to the fuel-purchasing process. Surprised? I don’t blame you. It’s counter-intuitive to think that buying gas would involve any challenge whatsoever, especially when you’ve got a large team of dispatchers at your disposal. How hard could it be? Just see where the fuel is cheapest and buy there, right?

I wish.

For better or worse, the FBO’s advertised cost of fuel is rarely the price we pay. If we’re at a large chain like Signature or Atlantic, the sheer volume of jet fuel we buy in a year gives us the power to negotiate for lower costs. A Gulfstream IV burns about 500 gph, and our fleet has more than 50 aircraft flying an average of perhaps 500 hours annually. Do the math and you’ll see why the major chains are willing to discount significantly to earn a piece of that business.

Our flight releases provide the negotiated rate, so that part of the process is simple. But sometimes—typically at the smaller chains and independent FBOs—we’ll be using contract fuel through Colt, UVair, World Fuel, or another such entity.

The irony of fuel contracts is that the people who are pumping the gas can’t tell you what it costs. Ask the employee at the front desk how much a gallon of fuel will cost with that Avfuel release and they’ll just shrug. The price varies depending on the specifics of each operator’s agreement with Avfuel. It reminds me of our medical system, where the physician who’s performing a procedure or checkup would be unable to tell you how much it’ll set you back—even after the treatment is over. Could be $100, could be $1,000. Maybe it’s $10,000.

Again, I can determine our contract fuel price by inquiring with my company’s dispatch staff. The next question is whether to buy fuel or tanker it. This computation is a bit more complex. Carrying extra fuel makes the aircraft heavier, so while it might save you from having to purchase more expensive gas at your destination, you’ll also burn more fuel en route in order to do it. Some pilots rely on smartphone apps or spreadsheets; others have rules of thumb for their specific aircraft that dictate the conditions under which it makes sense to tanker. A heavier airplane can’t cruise as high, either, so if thunderstorms, turbulence, and/or adverse winds are part of the mix, the decision-making process goes even deeper. Beyond the safety and comfort aspects, is saving the money worth potentially having to circumnavigate weather at FL390 instead of going over it at FL450?

Another part of the fuel-purchasing decision process involves the seemingly arbitrary costs imposed by FBOs. There are landing fees, ramp fees, handling charges, infrastructure costs, and more. Some of them are dictated by the airport; others are left to the discretion of the FBO. Certain costs can be waived; others cannot. At my home airport, the instant our G-IV hits the ramp, a $700 handling cost is assessed. This is pretty typical.

Some FBOs charge less—but then, I’ve also paid more than twice that at places such as San Francisco International. Oh, they’ll be happy to waive it, but you have to purchase hundreds of gallons of fuel (SFO is currently charging $7.60 per gallon for Jet-A; if you’re using avgas it’s $8). Internationally, the highest handling fee I’ve seen was well over $3,000.

The type of trip will help dictate whether I try to offset the handling fees. If it’s a non-revenue (Part 91) flight for the owner, I’ll include the handling fees in my math since they come out of his pocket. If it’s a charter trip, the cost is paid by the customer, so I’ll usually ignore the handling charge and make the decision based solely on obtaining the lowest possible fuel price.

Every now and then I’ll run into a fee I’ve not seen before. I was at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport recently and noticed that the fuel price was something like $1.90. I later discovered that they added a $0.40/gallon “fuel surcharge” to the base cost. This fee is fairly common abroad, but I’d not seen it before in the United States. At least, not that I recall. This surcharge boosted the price by 21 percent and shifted the cost/benefit analysis considerably.

Speaking of which, sometimes despite our best efforts, we end up buying the most expensive fuel through no fault of our own. There are several ways in which this can happen. For example, my home airport recently got a new FBO, and despite being based there, they charged us the non-tenant rate for fuel because of a technicality regarding a lease agreement. Lesson learned.

Sometimes a fuel release won’t be honored. That happened in Africa, where a discrepancy between the company name on the fuel release (we use a DBA) and the one on our other paperwork caused the fueler to refuse it. Try explaining the intricacies of a corporate DBA to an African fuel truck driver who speaks no English at 3 a.m. during a tech stop. It’s quite comical.

The most common way we get hosed on fuel pricing is when we purchase or tanker gas in anticipation of a specific itinerary only to have the airports and FBOs change after the fact. Changes are part of the nature of charter flying—there’s not much we can do about that—but it still stings to know we could have saved a ton of money if only we’d known an hour earlier that we’d be going to Airport “B” instead of Airport “A”.

Fuelish decision making is a critical part of corporate and charter aviation. Next to safety-related considerations, it might even be the most important, especially for the large-cabin/long-range airplanes. It’s certainly one of the most variable. Fueling up in the wrong place can turn a profitable trip into a four-figure loss, and that’s something nobody wants.

There’s another motivation at play, too—a personal one: I want to reward the FBOs that provide low prices and encourage the less competitive ones to consider why they aren’t getting my business.

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.

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 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.

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 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 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.
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