Do the FARs Still Matter?

I was looking out the window of the diner on the main street in our little Lake Michigan beach town and saw a big white SUV drive out the wrong way from the one-way entrance for the parking lot across the street. There are signs forbidding this, and arrows and words painted on the pavement. There’s no way the driver could have been unaware he was breaking a rule.

There was no conflict with other cars so the rule defiance caused no threat. I can only assume the driver simply believed the rules didn’t apply to him, at least not at that moment.

The incident made me think about an increase in fundamental FAR breaking that I have been seeing in NTSB accident reports over the past few years. I read every fatal accident report when it becomes final. I haven’t tried to tally how many reports find FAR violations, but I am certain the number is growing.

Of course, most serious accidents involve some sort of rule breaking because, in general, it’s against the law to crash. Operational rules infractions have been an accident cause forever. For example, the VFR pilot who flies into weather below VFR minimums obviously chose to break an FAR. So did the pilot who knowingly–or at least should have known–about conditions that were beyond his capability or that of his airplane. That violates rule 91.13, the careless and reckless clause. And so does buzzing and many other inordinately risky things some pilots do in airplanes.

But what I have been noticing is an increase in violation of fundamental FARs, rule breaking that requires not just one wrong decision in the cockpit, but many, even hundreds of decisions to ignore the rule while safely on the ground.

For example, it’s not uncommon now to read in accident reports that the airplane has not had an annual, or in the case of experimentals a condition inspection, for years before the accident. ADs are frequently ignored and increasingly airplane owners have not properly re-registered their airplanes as required.

NTSB reports show that pilots frequently blow off currency requirements for the basics such as making the three landings and takeoffs in the past 90 days before carrying passengers. Often the biennial flight review is years in arrears. It’s not rare to read about pilots who lacked a category or class rating to fly an airplane, or even to have any valid certificate of any level at all.

The most common rules infractions reported by the NTSB involve medical certification. Autopsies of pilots killed in accidents commonly show the pilot had known medical conditions not reported to the AME. And the NTSB finds that a huge number of pilots, maybe even a majority, involved in fatal accidents are taking medications not reported or approved by their AME.

But just like the driver I watched break the one-way traffic rule, pilots breaking non-operational rules are seldom the cause of an accident. For example, the NTSB goes to great length to examine the maintenance records of a crashed airplane, often finds huge rule violations, and then notes that everything in the airplane appears to have been working normally before impact. And that makes sense. Is an airplane going to break just because it’s been 14 months, or two years, or five years since its last annual inspection?

The same goes for rules like pilot currency. Do you forget how to land if you haven’t done it in 100 days instead of 90? Has the biennial flight review prevented an accident? Does even having a pilot certificate prove that you know how to fly?

And the situation is really murky in the medical area. The NTSB will often list several drugs found in a pilot’s system, including alcohol and illicit drugs, and then note that there isn’t direct evidence the drugs contributed to the accident. A total pilot incapacitation in flight is quite rare, and more often than not, the pilot who becomes incapacitated was not breaking any rules.

Private flying is very much a self-regulated activity. In more than 45 years of flying nobody has ever asked to see any paperwork on me or my airplane except when I voluntarily go for training, a new rating, or take my airplane to the shop for maintenance. Unless you are involved in an accident or serious incident you can almost certainly fly on ignoring nearly all of the FARs without much fear of being caught.

But historically we haven’t done that. The pilots I know and grew up with wouldn’t think of flying their airplane to the shop for an annual without a ferry permit even if it was only one day beyond the limit. And we all pay attention to the 90 day currency rule, even though it, like nearly all rules, is totally arbitrary. And on and on.

Is that attitude changing? The findings in NTSB accident reports appear to say yes. Maybe, like that SUV driver, we in aviation are becoming libertarians. Rules are for somebody else, and if we don’t cause conflict or add risk to others why should arbitrary rules apply to us?

I hope I’m wrong because aviation safety comes from creating and following procedures and norms, arbitrary though they may be.

What do you think?

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 18 Comments

Stick Force Is a Safety Issue

The most common cause of loss of control, particularly in amateur-built airplanes, is an unintentional stall. When that happens at low altitude the results are usually fatal. I think one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of those accidents would be to improve control stick force.

Until the end of World War II there wasn’t much investigation into what made an airplane easy and predictable to fly. Airplanes tended to be individuals each with often very different feel on the controls, and response to control inputs.

After the war the NACA–forerunner of NASA–and the military conducted testing to determine what flying qualities made an airplane easy and predictable for pilots to fly. A more predictable airplane lowers pilot workload which is a good thing for the military who wants its pilots to concentrate on the enemy, and for civilians who want to carry passengers as safely as possible.

One of the major discoveries of the research was that stick force–how much force a pilot must apply to the controls to maneuver the airplane–is critical. Stick force is a subliminal cue from the airplane to the pilot to communicate what the pilot is asking the airplane to do, and how the airplane will respond.

Control force and feel is not unique to the airplane-pilot interface. Control input “feel” is important for just about any man-machine operation. For example, remember the power steering systems in cars of the 1950s and early 60s? In most you could spin the wheel with one finger when stopped, or cruising at 80 mph. The controls were totally numb. A driver got no feedback to let him know how the car was responding to his control inputs. Car steering systems have come a long way since those days, but not all airplanes have.

Testing in airplanes showed that the best flying qualities come when force on the ailerons is lightest, pitch force is greater and finally rudder displacement requires the most force. The rule of thumb is that if aileron force is 2, pitch stick force should be 4 and rudder force 6. This ratio is difficult to achieve, but it is a goal and the best flying airplanes come close.

When it comes to controllability, particularly at lower airspeeds, stick force in pitch, and particularly the stick force gradient, are most important for safety, and the hardest to achieve. The pitch force gradient is the increase in force needed to pull or push the airplane further away from its trimmed airspeed. In the best airplane the stick force gradient is linear, meaning the force builds in a steady predictable manner as the pilot deviates from trimmed airspeed.

The reason stick force and a positive force gradient is important to safety is that the force, the feedback if you will, from the controls instantly reminds the pilot he is changing airspeed and wing loading. With a strong positive stick force you know instantly that you are changing the flight profile. You inherently know that when pulling harder while flying at slower airspeed, such as in the traffic pattern, you are treading on thin ice and are loading the wing. When it takes a lot of pull to stall the wing you are more aware of what you’re doing then if you can stall with only light forces on the stick.

Ideally stick force is created by air loads on the control surfaces. But that can be tricky. For many reasons from the design of the control surface to the actual control mechanism stick force gradient is seldom linear, and maybe not even positive. And in small light airplanes the force may be so light that even if it is positive it doesn’t give the pilot the feedback he should have.

In certified airplanes the FAA became ever more demanding of good positive stick force in pitch as the years went by. In an airplane with much of a CG range it is almost impossible to meet the stick force rules without springs to pull against the controls, or a bob weight to resist your effort as the wing loads up.

Early in fly-by-wire control development designers tried sticks that sensed only force, but not displacement. Early F-16s are an example. Most pilots hated that and found it hard to fly. So sticks were designed with spring systems so that as the stick is displaced the springs provide the force gradient even though only an electronic command, not control cable movement, is being created.

Springs, bob weights and other devices to add stick force are missing from most, if not all, homebuilt designs. In fact I almost always hear descriptions of how feather light the control force of a design is and how that makes it fly like a fighter. When I hear that I think yes, like a fighter on the losing side.

Even in extreme aerobatic flying or other precision maneuvering many pilots intentionally fly with the airplane significantly out of trim so they are always holding stick force in pitch. Without the force it would be like driving that 1958 Chrysler.

Angle of attack display systems can help increase awareness of stall margin in light airplanes, but stick force can be even more effective because it is always there and you don’t need to look at a display to comprehend what the airplane is telling you. There is no way to decree how a homebuilt should handle and what its stick force gradients should be, but based on the experience of the standard certified airplanes more positive stick force could help. Finger tip flying is not better  and more controllable than finger tip driving was in those cars years ago. Positive stick force makes for precise and predictable flying.


Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 18 Comments

It Makes No Sense to Raise Sport Pilot Weight Limit

I still get a pretty steady stream of requests, demands even, that somebody should do something to force the FAA to increase the maximum takeoff weight of airplanes that can be flown by sport pilots or any other certified pilot using a driver’s license as medical certification.

There is a long list of standard category airplanes that are not very far above the 1,320 pound maximum weight allowable for LSA and can be flown to Sport Pilot standards. For example, the Cessna 150 has a max takeoff weight of 1,500 pounds and the 152 is at 1,600 pounds. And the 150/152 is one of the most popular airplanes ever with more than 23,000 manufactured. In 1966 alone more than 3,000 were built.

There are many other basic two-seaters that would meet the light sport rules if the maximum takeoff weight were increased just a couple hundred pounds. Some, like the Ercoupe series, are so close that a few models fall into the category, while others miss by just a few pounds.

What difference can these small increases in weight above the 1,320 maximum for sport pilot flying in landplanes make?

Well, a weight limit, along with maximum cruise speed and stalling speed, were always part of the discussion when the light sport category and sport pilot were created. The operative word is “light.” The 1,320 pound limit is a general consensus of what other nations had done in creating basic light airplane certification categories. The odd number of pounds was selected because it is very close to the 600 kilo limit that is used elsewhere. Because a stock J3 Cub, the iconic light airplane, fits under the weight it’s hard to argue that the max weight limit is too low for a basic light airplane.

A truism in flying is that the cloud tops will always be at least 100 feet higher than you can climb, and no matter how much range an airplane has there is at least one trip you want to fly that is just a little longer. Same goes for the LSA weight limit. No matter where, within reason, the limit is set, there are airplanes that will weigh just a little more.

I am not calling for the FAA to increase the weight of standard category airplanes that can be flown to the Sport Pilot rule because there is a better solution, and that is third class medical reform. Though progress is much slower than we like, change is coming. There is a rule proposal in the pipeline and we should see it soon. Nobody outside of government yet knows exactly what the proposed new rule will say, but everyone believes that when it is adopted flying a wide range of piston airplanes under VFR in the daylight will be allowed using a driver’s license as medical certificate.

And the driver’s license as medical is the only meaningful change that a weight increase for LSA would allow. A standard category airplane flown by a sport pilot must still meet all the other maintenance and registration rules that apply to heavier airplanes. An airplane that weighs 1,320 pounds or less isn’t re-certified into a new category when a sport pilot flies it. It’s only the pilot privileges that change.

So it makes no sense to badger the FAA about increasing the standard category sport pilot weight limit because a much better solution that we all want is in the works. I can only guess what the third class medical changes will be, but I’m ready to bet a few bucks that you will be able to fly a much more capable airplane than a Cessna 152 with driver’s license medical certification before too long.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 44 Comments

Will Avgas Prices Follow Crude Oil Plunge?

Crude oil prices have plummeted more than 30 percent over the past week or two. Auto gas has already dropped to a national average pump price below $3 a gallon, something not seen in years. Will 100ll avgas prices also drop?

The answer is that eventually avgas price into the wing will come down. But it won’t drop as much as the price of crude, and avgas retail prices won’t mimic every swing in crude prices.

Crude oil costs are a big component of the retail price of avgas, but in most cases crude isn’t even a majority of cost we pilots pay. Avgas has become a boutique product because it is made and sold in such tiny quantities, and it has so many unique and specific requirements. Avgas volume has slipped so far and the complications of making it and delivering it are so great price simply doesn’t respond very much to market forces, or even to the cost of components such as crude oil.

A useful way to think about avgas and crude oil prices is to compare it to charcoal lighter fluid. Both are petroleum based products, but nobody expects the price of a jug of lighter fluid to drop more than 30 percent just because crude oil prices have.

The final price of lighter fluid involves packaging, shipment, storage and retail costs in addition to making the fluid itself. And the sum of those costs are certainly higher than the value of the crude oil used to make the basic fluid. It’s the same for avgas.

Avgas sales volume is so low that many FBOs receive shipments only once every several months. So no matter what happens to prices between shipments that FBO has to recover what he paid for the avgas in his tanks. And credit terms from fuel companies are very short so the FBO has already paid for the load of fuel long before he recovers his cost through sales.

Because of the absolute need to prevent contamination of both the fuel and the shipping containers it is very difficult to transport avgas. Often dedicated barges or tankers are used so the lead doesn’t contaminate other products that could be loaded later. In some cases many months worth of avgas are shipped to a region in a single delivery. For example, barges carry the entire winter months supply of avgas to many of the northern tier of states. If avgas production prices change it won’t matter because the fuel was made and delivered long ago.

On the other hand car gas is a commodity that responds to all cost forces almost by the minute, and certainly by the hour or by the day. Jet fuel is the same. Because of delivery and storage expenses jet fuel at an FBO will always be higher than what major airlines can buy from pipelines linked directly to the airport, but still, jet will come down soon in response to crude price declines.

Another wrinkle in the crude price plunge surprise is what will happen with the lead-free avgas replacements the FAA is now beginning to test? The companies that have submitted the potential avgas replacements have all said the price of their formula would be “competitive” with 100ll. But they were saying that when crude was above $100 per barrel and had been there for years. Will low crude prices leave a replacement fuel priced far above the cost of 100ll? Since the proposed fuel formulas, how they would be made and by what refineries, and everything else is all secret, there is no way to know.

When I talk to people who actually provide aviation fuel they say if you want to worry about something worry about supply disruption, not price. And they say that even about jet fuel. The national infrastructure to deliver aviation fuel is so decrepit and inadequate that a steady supply of fuel even to major airports like JFK can be threatened as we saw this past summer.

So, we all welcome the new prices at the gas station but can’t expect an equivalent drop in avgas prices, or charcoal lighter fluid for that matter. We avgas users are just too small in number to have the clout that free markets respond to.


Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 18 Comments

Pushing Nature’s Airspeed Limits

The Aerion Super Sonic Business Jet

For decades we’ve made no significant gains in useful airspeed. The reason is nature’s speed limit, the speed of sound, Mach 1. But now there is some progress.

Exhibit A is the Gulfstream G650 which cruises efficiently at Mach .90, about 516 knots true airspeed. That’s more than 50 knots faster than the high speed cruise of other jets. Even the G650 long range cruise at Mach .85 is an advance of almost 30 knots over the high speed cruise of other jets.

Gulfstream has been able to push the speed limit forward through a better understanding of how air flowing at transonic speeds behaves, and how to design an entire airframe to minimize the drag of the inevitable shock waves.

Now we are seeing increased interest and investment in the dream of a supersonic private airplane. Aerion has been working on a supersonic airplane for more than a dozen years but has new capital, and new credibility, now that aerospace giant Airbus has made a significant investment. If Airbus believes an SSBJ is possible and is willing to invest should we believe?

Aerion’s chief aerodynamicist Richard Tracy holds patents on a natural laminar flow supersonic airfoil. That seems like a non sequitur. Supersonic flow is the opposite of laminar flow which is smooth and non-turbulent. As airflow reaches transonic speed a powerful shock wave builds which retards all airflow like a dam.

How could anything like smooth laminar flow be maintained at supersonic or even transonic speeds? That’s the Aerion secret, and it has worked in wind tunnel and actual airfoil testing in flight. And it’s what Airbus wants. Even if Airbus has no interest in building a supersonic airplane of its own it has huge stakes in reducing drag as airflow over its conventional airframes reaches transonic speeds even when the airplane itself is flying at Mach .80 or .85.

The speed of sound is also a very real speed barrier for propeller airplanes but we are seeing some progress there, too. Mach 1 places its speed limit on prop airplanes mainly by robbing the propeller of efficiency beyond a certain airspeed. The airspeed a propeller blade encounters is a combination of the rotational speed and the airspeed of the air entering the propeller disk. Once that airspeed goes transonic the same shock waves the hold back a jet airplane rob the prop of efficiency. No matter how much more power is applied to the propeller Mach effects restrict how much thrust it can deliver at higher airspeeds.

Unlimited Reno racers prove that a prop airplane can fly very fast, in excess of 500 mph. But they achieve those speeds at very low altitudes. Mach value increases as air temperature warms so a Reno racer flying at 500 mph in the warm low altitude air over the race course is flying at only about Mach .65. That’s fast, but still modest by jet speeds. And if the Reno racer climbed to an altitude where cruise can be efficient the speed would plummet because the airspeed value of Mach goes down and the propeller is laboring at a higher percentage of Mach.

But, again, we are seeing progress, namely in the very thin and swept prop blades Hartzell is making. It’s been known for decades that a thin airfoil and swept leading edge delay shock wave formation to a higher speed but until very strong composite fiber material was developed there was no way to make a propeller blade of the optimum shape. Now Hartzell can do it, and propeller airplanes like the TBM 900 are flying faster on the same amount of engine torque.

While we can see progress in pushing back nature’s speed limit there is an artificial limit that remains–laws against supersonic flight over land. The U.S. and many countries around the world forbid supersonic flight because of the unavoidable sonic boom. To be useful and worth the $80 to $100 million a supersonic private airplane would cost you need to fly supersonic over land, not just oceans.

At this point it’s difficult to know if nature or manmade laws are holding back development of a supersonic airplane. Gulfstream has invested in technology to suppress a boom but says it won’t go all-out until laws change and allow supersonic flight over land. Aerion believes it can quiet the boom and thus fly around the laws. Either way, legal as well as aerodynamic hurdles remain.

For those of us who marveled at the sleek models of supersonic jets built by Douglas, Boeing and others, and the exotic Concord built by the British and French, it’s sad to see those dreams of our youth still stuck on the shelf. Maybe nature has simply thrown up too big of a road block to fly efficiently with useful range at supersonic speeds. But maybe not. I didn’t believe I would be around to see an airplane cruise for more than 5,000 nm at Mach .90, but Gulfstream did it. Maybe our best minds can find ways to push nature back and resume our long delayed march toward ever faster and useful airplanes. I hope so.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 6 Comments

Flying Fun With Your Tie On

When I started at Flying Magazine nearly 40 years ago we always wore neckties to go flying. And usually suit jackets or blazers.

And we weren’t the only ones. The pilots from Cessna, Beech, Piper and the others all knotted up the tie to go flying. It didn’t matter if we were in a Cessna 152, a Piper Aztec, a Beech King Air or a Cessna Citation the tie was standard equipment.

I thought about that here at the National Business Aviation Association convention and show in Orlando this week. Most people walking around the vast exhibit hall and even out at the airplane display at Orlando Executive airport have ties and jackets on.

I think the reason we all dressed up to fly a Skyhawk or Cherokee all of those years ago was to elevate the image of private flying. The industry we were all part of very much wanted to be taken seriously. Private airplanes were gaining capability and could deliver all sorts of transportation value. And professionalism, no matter what you flew, was everyone’s goal.

At the time I remember chaffing about the neckties on a 100 degree day in Wichita wondering why we couldn’t dress more comfortably. But we were all in it together so while we may have questioned the value of the ties I don’t know any pilot who would trade the tie for the chance to fly.

And I remember the flying was lots of fun. We were turned loose with brand new airplanes, sometimes airplanes that had not yet been fully tested and certified. New models were being developed regularly and personal aviation was booming. It was a peak of development and sales activity we haven’t seen since.

So walking around here at NBAA with my coat and tie  I’m reminded that fun flying comes in all forms. It’s hard to beat a Cub on a sunny day with the door open and the slipstream flapping everything but a necktie. But then the guys who get to fly the new Gulfstream G650 at Mach .90 for more than 5,000 miles are having one heck of an experience with the tie firmly in place.

Oshkosh and NBAA couldn’t look more different. And though many pilots attend both shows they couldn’t look and dress more differently for the two. But in all cases flying is still fun no matter what the airplane is and how you dress to fly it.

Business casual has become the norm for most private flying. Even at Gulfstream and other business jet makers many wear business casual, especially during the hot months.

Maybe all those years ago the neckties demonstrated we were serious about flying, professionalism and safety. Perhaps we needed those ties then. And no matter what the ties didn’t sap any of the fun out of flying.

Now we dress to suit the occasion, the mission, and even the expectation of our passengers. That makes more sense. But I’m glad I got to fly through the mandatory necktie phase and hope that our dress helped the cause in some small way. And to get a chance to fly an interesting airplane I’m happy to wear whatever is required.

P.S. I was just reminded by an astute reader that Orville and Wilbur wore ties, too. Looks like it’s neckties two, silk scarves one.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 17 Comments

Total Airplane Rebuild vs. Repair

Cessna assembly line from

Over the decades that I have been flying in and writing about private aviation the concept of remanufacturing airplanes has waxed and waned. Now the idea of remanufacturing existing airplanes is waxing again. From Cessna 152s to business jets there are now many projects to make old airplanes as good as new.

At first I bought into the remanufacturing concept. Disassembling an airplane to its barest of stud walls and then replacing just about everything seems to make sense. The components that wear or crack or corrode are gone so the rebuilt airplane should be as good as new, right?

Well, first of all, a brand new airplane is far from the most reliable. When everything, or almost everything, in an airplane has been touched, moved, installed, adjusted and tinkered with by humans the number of things that can go wrong is almost infinite. After all, that’s why prudent airplane owners insist on test flights after even pretty basic maintenance procedures, much less a total remanufacturing.

But once the totally rebuilt airplane is debugged won’t it be more reliable? I once believed that, but not anymore.

I’ve either been lucky, smart in selecting shops, or perhaps a careful observer, but I don’t need the fingers of both hands to count the number of trips in more than 5,000 hours of flying my Baron that have been delayed or scrubbed because of a maintenance failure. Yes, I have flown a few trips without some non-essential equipment functioning, but even those have been pretty rare.

The few what I would call “major” maintenance or mechanical failure issues include an engine throttle body that cracked leaving a big hole on the wrong side of the throttle plate so the engine quit at idle on taxi in, and the other was a jammed oil pressure controller that wouldn’t regulate pressure properly on takeoff after the engine oil warmed up. Both of those events happened to fairly low-time engines so an airplane rebuild wouldn’t have prevented them.

The other events that caused the rare delay or scrub all involved accessories. Once a starter failed without warning causing a delay of a few hours. The same for a magneto. I had a propeller spinner bulkhead crack but the spinner was much newer than the airplane. I’ve had an electric standby fuel pump fail. And I’ve lost count of the number of alternators and vacuum pumps replaced. Those things are like light bulbs. It’s impossible to know for sure how long they will last.

On the other hand, the significant airframe issues I’ve encountered didn’t delay flights because they were found at annual. For example, the far aft bulkhead, the one that supports the vertical and horizontal tail spar loads, was found, at annual, to have a small crack. The crack was so small it’s presence could only be confirmed by having one mechanic wiggle the horizontal while the other used his finger to feel for the crack. The crack would have eventually been serious if not found and the bulkhead replaced. And a total airframe rebuild would have found that crack. But so did the annual.

I also had a crack in the magnesium elevator, a not rare event in Barons. The crack wasn’t there, and then it was. Could a total airframe remanufacture predict the crack would form? I don’t see how.

This is a sermon that Mike Busch has been preaching to airplane owners and aviation maintainers for years. We don’t get any credit, any benefit, or more safety and dispatch reliability by replacing stuff that is still airworthy. And airworthy isn’t the same as new. It’s something that is within the tolerances of the type design.

Old airplanes are great values. New avionics add enormous capability and convenience. Often there are STCs to update the propulsion with a better engine and propeller. And new paint and interior can make an airplane look like new.

But as for stripping an airplane to the bare bones and then rebuilding it to make it more reliable, I don’t think so. Inspect carefully, fix what wears and breaks, and spend what you can afford on avionics and cosmetic upgrades and you can enjoy enormous value from older airplanes.

What do you think?

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 24 Comments

What’s Missing in PIREPs–Good News

When the weather forecasts contain the chance of some iffy conditions I bet you’re like me and study the pireps. Forecasts are helpful, and more often accurate than not, but what I really want to know is what’s it like up there. And only a pilot in the air can tell us.

But often when the weather is questionable there just aren’t many, or even any, pireps. Especially at the lower altitudes where we pilots of unpressurized airplanes do battle with the weather.

When there is no pirep it probably indicates a couple things. If the weather is really awful the absence of pireps can mean nobody is out there flying, particularly in the lower levels. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of times I’ve asked controllers about the ride ahead only to be told that nobody went through there at my altitude for hours. Being a pioneer can be adventurous, but too much adventure is a bad thing.

The other likely explanation for an absence of pireps is that the weather is just fine, much better than forecast.

I don’t know why we pilots behave this way, but when things are going great we just don’t want to talk about it. Have you ever heard a hangar flying story about hundreds of miles of blue sky and perfectly smooth air? Me either.

So when we launch into an area forecast to have turbulence, or rain, or low clouds, or ice or thunderstorms and don’t find that bad stuff we heave a sigh of relief and thank the weather gods. And we don’t mention it to anybody outside the cockpit. Meanwhile, the pilot on the ground trying to decide to takeoff into the poor forecast has no idea that the forecast is wrong and he can have a good trip.

Airline and business jet pilots are better at passing along the good, as well as the bad news about flight conditions. For example, when turbulence has been forecast, or reported earlier, it’s common for a jet pilot to check in with the controller after a frequency handoff and announce “smooth ride” or words to that effect without being asked. Other pilots on the frequency hear that it’s smooth at that altitude, and controllers pass the information along to other control sectors.

A few years ago the FAA made a concerted effort to remind controllers to collect icing reports when ice was in the forecast. Icing is notoriously difficult to forecast and is usually very localized. Until and if progress can be made in icing forecasting passing on pilot reports promptly is the best way to keep pilots either still on the ground or already in the air out of the icing.

I live and fly in ice country here in the lee of Lake Michigan and any day that it’s cloudy and cold–which is many days–controllers always ask if I found ice. They also ask about the air temp, cloud tops or layers and type of ice. That information turns into a pirep that goes into the system quickly, and controllers in that sector or nearby sectors pass it along to others. Ground and tower controllers also relay the ice information to pilots still on the ground.

The FAA emphasis on icing information is helping, at least I find it very helpful. And perhaps the most important aspect of the icing reports is when there is no ice, which is more often than not the case. It’s absolutely as important to know that ice isn’t there as it is to know where the ice did appear.

If you fly IFR or with radar flight following it’s extremely easy, almost automatic, to make a pilot report. All you need to do when there is a little lull on the frequency is tell the controller your flight conditions. Controllers key the info into the system so it shows up on the FAA weather network, and also verbally relay the report to other pilots and other controllers. You don’t need to wait for the bumps or ice to tell the controller. Let them know–so they can tell the rest of us–when things are going great, too.

It’s a little more complicated for the VFR pilot to make a pirep because he has to find a usable frequency to raise FSS and then make a more formalized report. I don’t know why this is true, but the radar controllers can gather the important information quickly and without any rigmarole but the same pirep is something of a production with FSS on the radio.

But, the bottom line is that if there were any questions in the forecast only pilots in the air can answer them. Good news, the forecast is wrong, is every bit as important and useful as bad news. Please share.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 6 Comments

Cirrus Fully Embraces the Chute

When the Cirrus SR20 entered service as the first production airplane to have a whole airframe recovery parachute as standard equipment about 15 years ago aviation insurance underwriters didn’t know what to do.

The underwriters–and actually most of us in general aviation–expected Cirrus airplanes to be raining down under the chute but nobody knew how much damage the event would cause or how much it would cost of fix the airplane. Because of the chute underwriters just didn’t know how to price Cirrus hull coverage.

As it turned out the underwriters didn’t need to worry. Cirrus pilots did have accidents but for all of the conventional reasons but they just weren’t using the chute. Early on there was an engine failure in a Cirrus but the pilot shoehorned the airplane into a small clearing instead of pulling the chute. That surprised most of us. The chute just wasn’t much of a factor even in accidents where it seemed it could have saved the people onboard from death or serious injury, or at least greatly increased their odds of a successful outcome.

But finally that situation is changing. More than 95 people are alive because Cirrus pilots deployed the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) and the number of deployments  is increasing. I give Cirrus and its new training system all of the credit for the changing attitude among pilots toward the chute.

CAPS was and still is a foreign concept for traditional GA flying and the pilot training system. The mantra in GA remains “Fly the airplane, Fly the airplane.” That is the opposite attitude needed to make full and effective use of CAPS. With a CAPS the mindset must be when in doubt deploy the chute now. No waiting allowed, or trying to continue to fly the airplane.

The military learned this decades ago when ejection seats were invented. For the seat to do any good a pilot needs to have ejection way up near the top of the memory items for most emergencies. If something goes wrong, or you’re hit, wasting time trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it can rob a pilot of any chance of a successful ejection.

In GA we have tried to instill a similar type of thinking in pilots who fly piston twins. For example, if an engine fails close to the ground on takeoff your chances are so much better if you pull back the other engine and land straight ahead instead of trying to continue the takeoff on one engine. It’s a mindset a piston twin pilot should have and needs before he starts the takeoff roll.

It’s the same with CAPS. In fact, the CAPS can do essentially what the second engine does for a piston twin pilot. CAPS can’t save you from crashing fatally in every emergency situation. But, as with the piston twin, the periods of exposure on each flight where the other engine or CAPS can’t save the occupants are brief.

For example, CAPS can deploy successfully as low as 400 agl in level flight. On takeoff a Cirrus pilot needs to constantly be thinking that when he climbs through 400 feet the chute is there and ready to go in case anything goes wrong. That’s about the altitude where a piston twin pilot is likely to have success continuing if one quits on takeoff. CAPS will not continue the takeoff, but is very, very likely to save the occupants from serious injury. The current Cirrus training program is hammering this CAPS planning home before every takeoff.

Engine failure or some other serious structural or system problem are obvious reasons to deploy the CAPS, but there is still work to do in convincing Cirrus pilots to pull the chute anytime control is in doubt. That is especially true when flying in the clouds.

If a pilot ever becomes disoriented in the clouds it is virtually impossible to regain control. The reason you have vertigo and lose control is because you can’t comprehend what you’re seeing on the instruments. Or some instruments have failed and you can’t figure out which. As the airplane deviates further from controlled flight the instrument display will become increasingly incomprehensible. The “level” button on the newest autopilots can help, but CAPS can save the confused pilot in IMC when nothing else will.

Cirrus is pounding away on these issues in its new training program in much the same way every jet pilot is trained and tested to be ready to handle an engine failure at the worst possible moment on every takeoff. It’s a big job to turn around nearly a century of instructors telling pilots “Fly the airplane, Fly the airplane” and make the decision to stop flying, pull the chute, and live to fly another day.

It’s impossible to know specific accident rates because we still don’t know how many hours are flown and under what conditions, but the Cirrus accident record is definitely improving, especially the fatal accident record. I give the company credit for fully embracing the CAPS and moving it to the top of mind for Cirrus pilots. “Fly the airplane” is still the best advice for the rest of us, but for Cirrus pilots CAPS is the best answer for most emergencies.

As for insurance costs I think underwriters have figured out a CAPS deployment is a lot better than a fatal accident. And now more pilots understand that, too.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 33 Comments

Early Fall, The Best Time to Fly

Astronomical fall season has just begun, and for most parts of the country this is the best flying weather of the year.

Variability and changeability is what makes weather weather, but on average the first five or six weeks or so of fall are the most benign and bring the best flying weather.

Weather–at least the components of weather we care about when flying–is caused by contrasts in parcels of air. For example, air in an area of high pressure rushes into a low pressure causing wind. The greater the difference in pressures the stronger the wind.

Contrasts in temperatures also cause air to move rapidly causing wind and turbulence. Add moisture to the mix and you have the fuel for cloud formation and precipitation. The colder the air moving in behind warm moist air the worse the flying weather will be.

Late fall and spring usually bring the worst flying weather. In both late fall and spring the overall weather patterns are making their seasonal shifts and contrasts between systems are great. In the northern latitudes November is often the worst month for unsettled weather with deep lows and strong highs clashing to create powerful winds, layers of clouds and all manner of precipitation. In the southern climes early spring can be most violent as the warm air and spring moisture arrive and destabilize the cooler air of winter causing huge thunderstorms and tornadoes.

But for now, early fall, there is generally stability in the atmosphere. Night and day are of equal length so the cool evenings and warm afternoons tend to offset the destabilizing effects of extreme temperatures. Unlike a sunny spring or summer day you can often find smooth air even when the sun is warming the ground. In the evenings breeze generated by the warmth of day often dies down to nothing but there is still enough daylight left to at least shoot some landings in the stillness.

And the best thing about fall flying is the view for most of us. While ground pounders are left to ooh and awe from their car windows we can look down at a riot of fall colors. On the ground people see a few trees and golden leaves but from our perch we can see hundreds, even thousands of trees changing colors. We can also see how different species of trees respond to fall with an array of hues and at a different rate. It’s also possible to see how even small changes in elevation cause the trees to turn differently leaving stripes and patches of color those on the roadside can never see or marvel at.

Fall also brings something we all need in life–a deadline. When fall arrives we know the time left for good flying before winter blows in is short. Of course there is no need to lock the hangar door when winter arrives, but for most of us winter flying can be more chore than pleasure. We can seize each beautiful early fall day and spend it in our airplanes knowing we have made a wise investment against the dark days of winter just ahead.

Even though fall flying can be best, it’s still playing the odds. A gale blew through here over the weekend building waves 10 feet and higher on Lake Michigan and bringing layers of rainy clouds. Gordon Lightfoot got it right. When the gales of November come early no craft on the water or in the air is safe.

But the gale blew itself out and just as fall began on the astronomical calendar the forecast became perfect. Highs around 70, winds of 10 knots or less, a few scattered clouds as far as the 10 day forecast can see.

It’s time to go flying.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 3 Comments