Saturday, December 31, 2011

As it is the last day of the year, I thought I might review some of the accidents that occurred, which I believe could have been avoided. Some seem almost too silly to have happened, but I’ll mention them anyway.

Starting with the almost trivial, would be the accidents occurring during the taxiing phase of flight. I find it hard to understand how one taxies into a fence in broad daylight. Or, manage to flip a plane over on its back unless there is a hurricane blowing. Well, these were reported. If I did it, I must confess that I would try and hush it up, rather than report it. Too embarrassing!

The next, and more serious accidents happened in the flight phase. Almost all seem to be the result of poor decision making. Unfortunately, as occurred in the following two there were no survivors. A recent single engine turboprop, equipped with full deicing capability, bought the farm presumably because of a fatal ice encounter. Just because one has a capability does not guarantee that it will prevent what it is designed for 100% of the time. Icing in particular can be very tricky. It can be relatively slow in accumulating and benign. Or, as what that pilot probably experienced, was ice coating the wings and tail so rapidly that it could not be gotten off, even if one followed instructions to the letter. The moral of flying in icing is: avoid the encounter if at all possible.

The other fatal accident involved a seasoned, rated commercial pilot flying in IFR conditions without filing any flight plan. The destination airfield was VFR only. Yes, scratch your head on that one.

Finally, a single engine plane is number two for approach in VFR weather. He is advised that there is a small business type jet ahead just turning onto base. He apparently never sees the jet. There is poor communication between the pilot and the controller. The trusting small plane pilot keeps on, turns base and then final. Never identifying the jet ahead. Suddenly the jet overflies the small single by 200 ft but the pilot does nothing. The result is that the single apparently gets into jet wash orwake turbulence, and stalls out, falling to the ground. Ouch. That was preventable. Both the pilot and the controller should have called for an immediate go around, turning away from the final approach course. You had better know what’s in the airspace immediately around you at all times.

The moral of all this. You must be engaged and be thinking proactively. And always try to leave yourself a way out.

Have a Happy and Safe 2012. Please don’t end up on the NTSB page.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tracing Back My Love Affair With Flying Goes Back Some

Tracing my love affair with aviation goes back some. As a little boy, any time I heard the sound of a plane, I would look up and desperately try to see it. It was almost as if I was getting a reward for the number of sightings I could claim. I have to admit I still suffer the same compulsion to seek the cause of the overhead noise. Now, however armed with more knowledge, I am able to identify the type of plane.

As I grew older and had achieved mobility on my bicycle, I discovered the way to nearby Laguardia airport. After only twenty minutes or so, I could be standing at the end of one of the runways. The planes: DC4’s, 6’s or 3’s, with an occasional Connie, would land or take-off over my head. The roar, smell and sights were just great. No security to keep me away, not even a fence at the end of the runway. Just a short row of bushes with large defects in them caused by planes coming in a bit too low. Those were the days.

My first ride in a real plane was as a passenger in a two seater, tandem seaplane on Fourth lake in the Adirondacks. It was a fun ride, setting the tone for my future flying, although not for quite some time after that. No more sea planes, but rather many different types of singles and twins.

When a 2nd Lt in the army, I signed up for flying lessons at Felker Army Airfield at Ft. Eustis, Va. The plane was a Pa-18, a somewhat souped up Piper Cub used by the military, similar to the Bird Dog. It was a very peppy, spirited plane. The problem I had at that time is that I wasn’t ready to fly it. The instructor was a bit overbearing. So, after a few flights I quit. After that I went up occasionally as an “observer” with some pilot friends at the base. One ride I do remember well was in a Huey chopper. Sitting on the left of the pilot, an active duty Captain with a wry sense of humor, meant that I was hanging a bit out of the narrow cockpit. At one point there was loud bang and the pilot yelled into his mike: “lean out and see if we are on fire”. Scared to death, I tried to lean out and look back as he banked the chopper steeply towards my side. He seeing my great discomfort thoroughly enjoyed himself, uproariously laughing. I didn’t appreciate the humor. That was my last chopper ride for a long time.

It wasn’t until I had finished my tour with Uncle Sam and had moved up to the Boston area that I started my real flying career. I joined the flying club at Avco RAD, where I worked as an engineer. They owned two planes: a Piper Cub J-3 and a Cessna 172. Those were two wonderful planes to fly. The Cub is what I soloed in and flew for many happy hours. The cost was $3.50 an hour wet. The larger C-172 cost $7.50 an hour. Prices that are almost unimaginable now. The cub was a super plane to learn the basics of flying. Almost no instrumentation to befuddle the beginner. Just needle, ball, airspeed and altimeter, the simplest and most basic of instruments. But without the modern day clutter, it allowed one to learn what is so important. That any incorrect control input will produce an unwanted force or result. That means the plane will either have an unwanted roll, yaw or pitch. Which means one won’t be flying straight and level. In the newer more sophisticated planes, some of these undesirable results are almost designed out. Meaning that you won’t encounter them under “normal” conditions. (The recent Airbus disaster over the South Atlantic is such an example). Almost all flying is done via the autopilot, completely bypassing any needed pilot inputs. It seems that the pilots had forgotten what was needed when the nose went sky high, and the airspeed approached stall. Yes, the nose of the plane must be made to go down to get above stall speed, so push on the stick! When I read about pilots getting all their training in an advanced type aircraft rather than a basic trainer, I doubt that they even know what they are missing.

For example, landing the J-3 Cub required one to know how to side slip, an essential maneuver to allow one to lose altitude quickly on short final as there were no flaps on the J-3. To side slip agressively one has to apply full aileron in one direction while "standing" on the opposite rudder, to keep the nose straight ahead. It is a fun thing to learn, leaving one glad that their seat belt is strong and tightly secured. But, if you have never practiced it in your advanced type plane, you won’t have the knowledge and experience to do a slip if needed. (For example a failure of the flap system).

After getting my private license in 1963, it was a steady but slow process of adding more capabilities. First came the instrument rating, which I consider paramount to being a good, safe pilot. Then, on to the commercial and finally the multi-engine ratings. I have owned several planes over the years. My favorites were the B-55 Baron and the Cessna 340. The 340 was a very slick, pressurized, turbocharged plane. Both of these planes were super to fly. Responsive to the controls and stable IFR platforms.

Perhaps the culmination of all my training and experience came together when I flew charters in Beech Barons and Piper Navajos in northern Vermont. I mainly flew freight runs with occasional passenger trips and a few air ambulance flights. The latter seemed to always have occurred late at night which added to the challenge. I remember one in particular, the transport of a premi in an incubator from Burlinton, Vt to Boston. The patient was going to be cared for at Boston Childrens Hospital. Frequently it was snowing, as described in an earlier blog (Snow another cause of low IFR-Jan 31, 2010). Other times, it might be all clear, with a wonderful panorama of stars overhead and the glowing moon acting as a navigation beacon.

After that period, it was back to private flying in mix of twin and single engine planes. Trips up and down the coast and elsewhere. My wife Suzanne joined me for most of them. The only exception was when I flew to work, commuting by plane. It made my work commute something to look forward to. Here, I have to offer up a secret. Some years after I sold my last plane, the A-36 Bonanza, my wife admitted that she really had hated flying the whole time. Wow, what a good sport for someone with a basic fear of flying!

Well that’s it in a proverbial nutshell. Forty plus years in retrospect, with no regrets.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Radio Communications Are Important So Be Brief And Precise

Pilot radio communication techniques aren’t usually discussed or commented upon, but here goes a bit of chatter on this topic. So fasten your seatbelts and listen up on your David Clarks for my thoughts about protocols and what not to calls.

This discussion was prompted by my conversation with a US Air captain who graciously shared a few moments and thoughts with me recently at the Charlotte airport. I began the conversation with a brief introduction, and then asked him what bothered him most about private type pilots and their antics. He thought for a moment or two and said: communications. Meaning how the non-professional pilots communicated with ATC. The exact phraseology is key here. Choice of words and speed of talking and the length of time to respond are all important. The reasons are: in the busier areas the pace of communication is sometimes non-stop. Specific words or phrases have definite meanings. For example: after receiving an instruction from ATC the simple reply: roger* means that you have understood the command and are able and will comply. If one cannot comply with the command the reply should be: unable turn to 360 for what ever reason (traffic for example). Don’t say: can’t do it because….Keep it cryptic. Time is of the essence.

When learning about flying early in my flying career I listened by the hour to ATC-pilot chatter on a small hand held aircraft radio while on the roof of my apartment building in Boston. Frequently the pace of talk was non-stop. If you missed your call and the instructions, it was a long time before one could break in and say: United 375 say again. A delay like that could cause some havoc or disruption to the flow of traffic in the terminal high density areas. The point being, that if you are going to fly into busy terminal places be prepared mentally for what is coming. Listen to what the controllers are saying to flights ahead of you and be ready for your call. Also take advantage of the time there and listen to what is said by the responding pilots. Brevity and specificity are key. No one is saying: ahhh Bonanza 32V would like a VOR approach to runway 32. Rather say: Bonanza 32V requests VOR 32 approach. Short and accurate, no hyperbole.

Another example of keeping it simple, accurate and brief is at start up when requesting initial taxi or IFR clearance. Rather than: Piper 472Whiskey with Uniform is looking for clearance to Peoria. Try this: Piper 372 Whiskey with Uniform for clearance Peoria. Just a bit shorter with no excess verbiage. Maybe it sounds trivial but if it is busy you may not get a second chance to call in for a long while. Another example of an initial call-up to clearance delivery: Baron123FG IFR Boston for clearance. As I remember you don’t have to read back everything verbatim. You can just say: roger cleared as filed Peoria.

This attention to detail may seem petty, but doing things professionally is both satisfying and efficient. The next time up there listen to how the pro’s do it.

* According to the FAA, either the word Roger or Wilco may be used to acknowledge the order.

Also: See an earlier blog "Learn to communicate like the pros-June 3 2009

For a complete and interesting discussion on radio techniques by the FAA go to:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Taxiing May Be Taxing And More

Recently, one of the daily accident reports listed on the FAA site dealt with quite a few accidents involving taxiing. Yes, the phase of a flight that should be the easiest and least likely to cause a wreck. But not this particular week. Here are some of the types of mishaps: ..went off the side of the runway (into the weeds or worse), ..hit runway lights,
…wing or tail struck another aircraft,..ground looped (common in tailwheel types), ..completely flipped over (hard to imagine). Here I must interject my own mishap. While still a young pilot (a bit wet between the ears), as I was taxiing a Cessna 172, my right wing tip struck a parked plane’s left wing tip, causing minor damage. Easy to do if you are not paying attention or wandering off the yellow line, if one is present.

Reading the accident reports, minor collisions between taxiing airliners are more often between airliners and service vehicles and are quite common. Airliners are a different beast from the smaller prop types I write about. Accidents happen merely due to the force of the blast from the engines, usually as they taxi from the gate areas. Things such as vehicles blown over, people injured and other types of property damage.

Before changing course, how about this? A pilot last week took off in his single engine plane with the tow bar still attached to the nose wheel. It was a noisy, sparky landing. Anyone believe in doing a preflight check? Not a taxiing accident strictly, but close.

I will close by relating a synopsis of a horrific accident due apparently at least in part, to the pilot’s inability or unwillingness to abort a flight after successive take-off attempts. The plane was a twin Beechcraft. The pilot was older with a spotty flight history. The flight began by landing at the wrong airport and asking whether he was at airport A (real names are not being used) The airport A was in fact on a nearby island, something hard to miss. I’ve been there. Any way he proceeded there only to have to return to airport B for fuel, as airport A had none. Remember the 6 P’s-Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Then back to A to pick up his passengers. Now the awful part, almost unbelievable. The pilot made three attempts at take-off. On the first two he aborted about midfield. According to witnesses after each of the aborted take-offs no engine run-up or apparently other type of diagnostic was done to explain an apparent loss of power. On the third attempt, again according to a witness the left engine appeared to be running slower. Nevertheless, the pilot determined to take-off kept on going, the engine sputtering and spewing black smoke. The plane barely got airborne, impacting the center structures of a nearby interstate with disastrous results. The plane ended up inverted and in flames. One of the four on board survived, the rest including the pilot perished.

The lesson here is that if it isn’t right the first time, rather than just try again, find out what the problem is and fix it if you can. If you can’t find out what’s wrong, cancel the flight and make other arrangements. I’ve been there and done just that. I rented a car and lived to fly another day. Be wise and safe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Two Kinds Of Fatal Errors And How To Avoid Them

So, now it’s official, or at least formally proposed that some pilots are unable to fly when the autopilot quits. What are they talking about? Something that I have alluded to in previous articles. Pilots get more dependent on their digital devices and are then slow or unable to respond to basic flight data such as air speed, attitude etc. Face it with all those big screens showing you the way, who wants to bother checking primary data sources? But still, signs of a stall are not easy to miss. When the flight gets slow and mushy, you push the control column, not pull it back. We all learned that in the infancy of our flight training. And, when the needle of the airspeed indicator is in the yellow or red arc, watch out. You are already or soon will be stalling.

Now to be fair, I never flew the heavy stuff and had the opportunity to fly sexy simulators as the pros do, but even simulators can mimic a stall. In addition to improving flight training, the answer may lie in modifying training and installing yet another type of warning system for those unable to respond to unexpected situations.

Another different type of error may have been at least partly responsible in the recent crash of an airliner in Russia. According to news reports, the plane was slow to gain sufficient airspeed for liftoff, crashing near the end of the runway. There are multiple reasons for slow acceleration including: engine failure, slush or mud on the runway, low tire pressures etc. The failure to accelerate too slowly may be difficult for some pilots to perceive. There are techniques for recognizing and/or dealing with this. For example, I have heard of some aircrews that use a stopwatch to determine whether a critical speed is reached fast enough. This would apply when one has a co-pilot aboard. The technique I used was more basic. To have a point on the runway picked, for example, a building, that when the plane is abreast of it, the plane must be at a certain airspeed. Usually this would be lift-off speed. If too slow at this point, then the take off would be aborted, generally for most smaller airports, this would be about midfield.

In a past blog, I wrote about just such an event. My wife and I were at the Hendersonville airport several years ago. We were in the A-36. The day was warm in late autumn. The take off end, slightly uphill, was covered with loose stones. Since then the runway has been redone. This meant not shoving the throttle to full rpm too quickly to prevent stone damage to the prop. It also meant that the acceleration would be slower than usual. Before starting the take-off roll, I had decided that if we weren’t at takeoff speed by a certain set of buildings we would abort the takeoff. Well, sure enough, after a slow start, when reaching the decision point, airspeed was barely 60 knots. So we aborted. My wife at this point, never a happy flyer anyway, decided that I would make a test takeoff minus her. Oh, yes there were trees opposite the departure end of the runway. Well, the short of it was this. I taxied back for another try. This time however I used a short field technique. This meant one notch of flaps and about a 60-65 knot lift off speed. Then maintaining a slow airspeed just above stall until clear of all obstacles, then retracting the flaps and a return to normal airspeed. It worked perfectly, so I landed, picked up my wife and away we went, using the short field technique.

Again, the message is plan ahead. With regards to short fields, if not fast enough at a designated point, abort and go to plan B. When flying with the autopilot engaged, monitor what’s happening, and have a plan in case the autopilot quits.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Landing Seems To Separate The Men From The Boys

I was speaking to a loyal fan of this blog, wondering aloud as to what I should write about next. He said: …just don’t write about another landing crash. Smiling, I told him I would see what I could do.

Since I write about flying mishaps, and their avoidance, I decided to review the latest FAA accidents to see what else to consider. Interestingly, about 70% of the accidents involved the landing phase of flight. (This was obtained from two consecutive days reporting. Forced landings due to engine problems were not counted here). These particular landing accidents all seemed to be in VFR (good weather) conditions. Landing in low IFR type conditions is an entirely different consideration.

What were the type accidents? The causes listed on the FAA site were varied. For example: ground looping ( a problem in tailwheel types), running off the end or the side of the runway, landing gear up, nosing over, striking the prop. Almost all of these occurred in good VFR type weather conditions.

So, what are some of the postulated causes of these mishaps? Basically, they could be summed up by stating that the pilot never developed good flying skills. This coupled with infrequent flights and little or no recurrent training is a recipe for being a poor pilot. I used to believe that I had to fly at least once a week to keep my skill level up to an acceptable standard. This included both VFR and IFR type flights. This was a practice I maintained for many years with good success.

To try to tell someone in writing how to land a plane is almost impossible. It involves all ones sensory and a good many mental skills. But once learned, like riding a bike it isn’t easily forgotten. But, I have to add that all flight procedures, whether pre-flight, taxi, take-off or landing require some type of check list. It needn’t be written in all cases, but should be adhered to. For example, as I have written in another article, the use of a reminder word such as GUMP, which stands for gas, undercarriage, mixture, props, can help one not to forget key operations, such as lowering the gear. For those planes with a variable pitch prop, just add another P, or GUMPP. So when entering the traffic pattern, say the word to yourself and check the 4 or 5 things that go with it. Try it. It works!

So, my advice to recent pilots: learn well and practice often.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Good Judgment Is Something That Some Have And Others Don't

Good judgment is something that some have and others don’t. I’m thinking about good judgment, the kind that, when absent, causes accidents. I still have trouble understanding how a pilot who crashed and killed three passengers, his wife and two children, eight years ago managed to do it again. Yes, he piloted a plane carrying his new wife and his only remaining child and once again crashed in bad weather. But, this time he died along with his second wife. Just horrible.

The particulars of this well publicized crash are worth reviewing. There are some teaching points here that best not be forgotten. They involve the decision making process that a competent pilot must go through before committing to a specific plan of action. In this case, where to land when the weather is bad to awful.

Now, before we get into some specifics, lets back up to the preflight. When a pilot files a flight plan, whether IFR or VFR, he or she must consider the weather. Weather is the thing that will get you. Particularly at the destination airport, but also can bite you enroute. Just fly into a thunderstorm once, and if you survive you’ll not do it again given a choice. Ok. So you check the weather and find out that conditions at the destination have a good chance of being or are IFR. You don’t just take off and assume you’ll be able to land at your destination without considering alternatives. The what ifs.

This poor chap’s destination was Charlevoix, MI (KCVX). An airport with only RNAV(GPS) approaches. That means you can land in weather with a ceiling of about 600 feet and 1 mile visibility. Now KCVX is surrounded by water so watch out, the weather could be much worse, which it turned out to be in this accidents scenario ( as it was apparently, in his first fatal crash).

OK. What happened is, this pilot got all the way to KCVX, found the weather to be bad. The field has an AWOS (automated weather reporting by radio or telephone). That means one can find out the weather by radio well before reaching the airport, allowing for a change to another field if the weather is bad. So assuming that the pilot tuned in to the AWOS, he elected to try to land, even though the weather was below minimums for the available approaches. Apparently doing a combination of an instrument approach and a very chancy visual one, the plane crashed. He ended up stalling out of a turn at a presumed low airspeed and crashed into a nearby garage. The only survivor, his son, who survived the first crash also.

The really sad thing is that only 26 miles to the northeast of Charlevoix was a larger airport, Pellston Regional. This airport was not only larger but had better instrument landing approaches, that probably would have allowed the pilot, if he had done it properly, to land in the bad weather. That alternative would have been a combination of good planning and good judgment. (I wrote an article about a trip from Burlington,Vt to Wheeling,WVa, that necessitated a diversion to a landing in Pittsburgh because of the risk of running out of fuel. Some of the above considerations are discussed there.)

When I was a young buck 2nd Lt in the army, a wise sergeant told us about the six P’s.
Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Fly wisely and be safe.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Air Traffic Controllers Usually Do An Outstanding Job

Just recently the quick thinking of an air traffic controller in the Midwest saved the life of an older couple in a high flying Cirrus. You probably have heard or read about it. As the controller was communicating with the pilot, he noticed that the pilots speech became slurred. To the controller that meant one thing, probable hypoxia. The plane was at 17000 feet, and was unpressurized. So, if the pilot and passenger were on oxygen, maybe something wasn’t working right.

The controller immediately shifted his focus to this pilot, in spite of working numerous other aircraft. He was able to talk with the pilot's wife, in the right seat, a non pilot. She had to take over the controls, which in this case meant learning to work the autopilot. She accomplished that with with the help of a nearby commuter turboprop pilot who followed along, assisting in this dramatic rescue. The goal of the controller was to have the plane descend to a lower altitude so the increased oxygen in the air would revive the pilot. This plan worked and finally the pilot was able to resume control of the plane and safely land as the hypoxia cleared.

In my opinion, this is juxtaposed to the mishandling of an A36 pilot in the mountains of the southeast by ATC. In that case a somewhat rusty, questionably skilled instrument pilot was placed on a vector into high terrain, below a safe altitude, and wasn’t alerted before he augured in. The official NTSB report doesn’t clearly define who was responsible, only that the pilot did not request specific flight following to warn of low terrain. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances, but I believe them to be poor excuses. The bottom line is that a pilot crashed and burned on ATC’s watch.

OK, now compare this to the first example. Rather than consider who was responsible for the condition of the pilot ie. pilot or controller, the controller intervened immediately. Thus began a successful scenario that ultimately saved all aboard. ( By the way this dramatic event is available on the FAA website under Accident and Incident Data: Air Traffic Control Tapes-Cirrus, May 11, 2011)

My personal experiences with ATC have almost always been positive. I had some rather scary scenarios early in my career. For example, a flight between Syracuse and Boston in a Cherokee 140 almost ended in disaster. It was a long flight with deteriorating weather along the route. ATC helped out by suggesting a course of action that got us on the ground before the fuel ran out. Other times, a helpful vector or a shortened approach in bad weather, or a heads up warning of low terrain were greatly appreciated by me. That is why I felt so bad when I read about the crash of the plane in the mountains, an area I have flown in many times.

ATC does an outstanding job everyday, handling thousands of flights safely. Their fine work mostly goes unnoticed. So, when there is a goof, why not step up to the plate, accept some blame and then FIX the problem?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Wonder Now More Than Ever, How Prepared Some Pilots Are....

I wonder now, more than ever, how prepared some pilots are for what they are about to encounter, whatever that may be. A difficult instrument approach, landing in a crosswind or just starting up and taxiing are some examples. If you check the FAA accident sites as often as I do you, you will understand my concern. Another stimulus to these thoughts occurred to me when observing the irrational and totally dangerous things that pedestrians and drivers can do at times. I wonder whether that impatience or inconsideration has worked its way into the cockpit.

For example, while waiting to cross a street on foot in Charleston, SC, the blaring sounds of a fire truck horn and siren stopped us dead in our tracks. Watching anxiously for the truck, here came a stretch limo turning directly unto the road in front of the oncoming fire engine. Luckily the engine could get by the unfazed limo. Not only that, a pedestrian stepped off the curb without looking, almost getting hit by an ambulance racing close behind the fire truck. So what gives?

Are people too engrossed in their lives to pay attention to what’s out there? Is it that they just don’t want to follow or play by the rules? Or, more cynically do they just not give a damn? Now for the common man that’s one thing, but for a pilot to think like that, it becomes personal for me. OK, look at some of the reported accidents. Here are some examples seen on a daily basis. Planes land long ending up in the water, or land short and suffer major damage. How hard is it to remember to lower the gear and to check for three green (or maybe just one) light? Flying into weather conditions that one is not able to handle is another often fatal error. Starting the engine before having done a good pre-flight and forgetting to pull the chocks or check the gas caps are more examples.

In my last article I reviewed some flights into heavy IFR resulting in fatal crashes. These were flown by very experienced pilots. Maybe experience isn’t always the best teacher after all. Just maybe it leads to complacency and the attitude “it can’t happen to me”. Oh yes it can and will if you don’t play by the rules. It requires discipline among other things such as knowledge, to safely fly an airplane. Not only to follow certain rules, but to understand basic aeronautical physics, as well as to have an understanding of the correct parameters such as airspeeds for all the flight configurations one might encounter. Such as: stall speeds at different bank angles, proper climb speeds and approach speeds under various flap/gear configurations. Wow, there is just a lot to know isn’t there?

I think back to my earliest flying days and realize just how much I didn’t know. But then I wasn’t flying complex airplanes in complex environments in rotten weather. Flying the J-3 Cub out of a small airport was a way for me to learn basic flying skills without the encumbrance of radios, sophisticated navigation or even an electrical system. I just had to FLY the airplane. If it was uncoordinated flight a little string would dangle off kilter below the compass. The needle and ball wouldn’t be centered. If instead I had taken my training in a complex airplane, maybe I would have let the autopilot do most of the work. If more pilots had more basic flight training, then perhaps they would know how to crab into a cross wind when needed on landing. Or, they might just pay more attention to correct approach speeds, as for example for a short field landing over an obstacle such as trees. Several landing accidents in high performance Cirrus type aircraft would attest to that.

So, as more distractions present to those in the cockpit, it will take more effort to just fly the airplane. The gadgets are great at times, but really do nothing for the thrill of flying. Also, try to leave some of the anxieties of modern life behind on the runway, you might just enjoy the flight that much more.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

One Of The Things That Stays Emblazened In My Mind:Never Bust Minimums

One of the things that stays emblazoned in my mind is: never bust minimums. No not never! Minimums are there because the powers to be have decided that is as low as you can safely descend without ground reference.*

Oh, sorry. I am of course writing about instrument approaches. Particularly about following the prescribed approach procedures to the letter. Why am I writing about this? Because I just reviewed some recent fatal accidents on the NTSB web site. This website is recommended for any serious pilot by the way. A good place to learn from the mistakes of others.

Two recent accidents stand out. Both resulted in pilot and passenger deaths and destroyed airplanes. Both were flown by airline transport rated pilots (ATP’s). So maybe experience isn’t always the best teacher.

In the first accident, a Beech twin tried unsuccessfully to land at weather below minimums. Specifically: ¼ mile viz in light drizzle and a ceiling of 100 ft. The lowest minimums allowed on an ILS are ½ mile viz and a ceiling of 200 ft. Yes, there are lower minimums at some facilities, but these above are standard. To go below these requires special equipment and training (not generally available to the general aviation pilot).

In the second accident, again an ATP rated pilot makes a fatally bad decision in a light twin. Flying an RNAV GPS approach with a minimum descent altitude (MDA) of about 500 ft above ground the pilot continues decent to almost 250 ft above ground and crashes killing all, and destroying the plane. You have to wonder what were those guys thinking? They did not declare an emergency in either case, so conceivably could have continued to a safe alternate. Anyone filing an IFR flight plan must list an alternate airport. To list an alternate, the weather at the ETA must be at or better than 600/2 for a precision approach (ILS), or 800/2 for a non precision approach (GPS or VOR). Sometimes that means cancelling the trip if it becomes unlikely that an alternate can meet these weather conditions and/or if the amount of fuel aboard is less than required to get there.

As an example: If one were going from NYC to BOS, about a 2 hour flight in a small plane, and the weather in BOS is iffy there would have to be enough fuel in the plane available to reach an alternate airport and still have 45 minutes of fuel aboard. If everything along the pilot’s route from NYC to BOS is socked in and there is nothing better within reach of BOS then the pilot might have to go all the way back to where they started, NYC in this case. If they encounter a headwind on the way back they probably won’t have enough fuel to do it. So what to do? CANCEL and rent a car. Been there done that! Read some of my earliest blogs where I recount just such a scenario.

*The minimum descent altitude (MDA) depends on the particular airport, which runway and type procedure. The lowest standard ILS MDA is usually 200 ft. The one caveat about “busting” the MDA is this: if at the MDA and/or decision point as a marker beacon, the high intensity or other lights extending from the runway are visible, the pilot may continue the approach to the runway even though the runway is not yet in sight. That means the pilot may go lower than the published MDA under those conditions.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

You Gotta Sleep Sometime

Reading about the problems that fatigue and boredom are causing in the cockpit and radar rooms, made me think back some. Sleep, we must remember is something we can’t do without. At some point it will come, regardless. The problem of course is that if you are alone at the controls, it could be a disaster unless corrected right away.

When I was flying occasional charter up in Vermont, I frequently would get a call late in the evening or even the wee hours to take a flight. It always was some type of emergency, some more vital than others. The powers to be knew that I didn’t drink much and could be counted on to be sober, hence the late calls.

One evening, about 2300 hrs or so, I got a call from the dispatcher. There was a Saab 340,a small airliner, at the Hartford Airport with a bad starter on one engine. They needed me to fly a mechanic and spare parts to fix things ASAP. Off I went down interstate 89 at METO speed and was ready to go in a little over 30 minutes. Oh how I did love to fly those birds.

The mechanic and I took off in one of the Pa-31’s and we were in Hartford (KHFD) in about 40 minutes. It was after midnight when we arrived, and I had been up since 0700 that morning, working at my “real” job as a radiologist. Yes, it was already a long day, and I was starting to yawn a bit. As the mechanic was doing his thing, I stayed in the cockpit and tried, successfully for a few z’s. An hour or so passed and in bounded the mechanic. Repair done and ready to go. I shook myself awake and cranked up the engines. Not much clearance needed, good VFR, and away we went.

I used the autopilot as was customary, fortunately. As the flight progressed, I caught myself nodding off for just a few seconds every few minutes. Somehow I was able not to get into deeper sleep. The passenger was sound asleep in the right seat. What confidence.
Staying awake while at cruise with little to do, monitor or communicate about, was the worst. Once nearing home (KBTV), things were required of me and no time for a snooze.

I feel now, even in retrospect, that if an emergency had occurred I would have been able to respond. The question is, what if something like a near miss that required me to be looking out had happened? Might not have been a good outcome. Well, there is a gamble in so much we do. Most of the time we do get away with it. This can be a dangerous way of thinking however, especially if other lives depend on us.

So, when doing your thing. Whatever it may be, flying, driving or just playing, do get your sleep, or who knows?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hans Look Up In The Air

The last day of the year seems like a good time for reflection. I think back many years when as a boy of eight or nine, I would hop on my bicycle and head for Laguardia airport (KLGA), some two or three miles away. My intent, to stand at the end of one of the runways, and wait for a landing plane to pass closely over my head. Close enough in fact, that if I could jump up ten feet in the air I would hit one of the planes wheels. DC-3’s. DC-6s and Constellations would scream by. This continued until one day a policeman happened by and pointed to cuts in the bushes at the end of the runway. He explained in a sarcastic manner that those were due to the wheels slamming through when the plane was a bit low. After that I moved off to the side and watched from there, avoiding getting squished by a landing plane. It was only fitting that one day I would end up landing at KLGA myself. There were two of us flying down from the Boston region in an old Cessna 172 headed for Flushing airport, a small field across the bay from Laguardia. Well, when we got there it was IFR and I was only a VFR pilot at the time. Fortunately, LGA approach control was in a good mood and helped us line up on the localizer and we landed safely. Finally back at Laguardia. Was anyone watching us land?

Yes, I was hooked on aviation from the get-go. While going for a walk, regardless whom with, if I heard a plane go by, I would have to look up and see it. I still do. My wife still chides me by saying “what did your father call you when you did that?.” Hans guck inn der luft, German for Hans look up in the air. Hans being generic for any gawker I guess.

Well my love for watching planes continued. As I grew older, I would beg my mother to drive us out to the Grumman factory, farther out on Long Island, to watch the production fighter jets getting test flown. My first flight was on a Pa-18 on floats on Fourth Lake in the Adirondacks. A thrill for a little kid and one I still remember.

It wasn’t till many years later that I finally started flying myself. At the age of twenty something, in the army, I began my flying lessons in a tail wheeler, the L-19 (O-1).
From there on it was a slow progression. Getting the ratings and flying at every opportunity.

After 40+ years of flying, I decided it was time to hang up my wings. I remember my flights and continue my love affair with aviation, albeit by looking up in the air.