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.