Not Bullish on AoA Indicators (Yet)
If the world is full of oppositesóand I think it isóthe opposite of critical thought is group think or herd mentality. Group think is the tendency to go along with whatever new idea or trend comes along because, well, everyone else thinks itís a good thing. Itís just laziness by another name and weíre all susceptible to some degree. When a journalist succumbsóand we all doóthe righteous indignation that follows takes the form of an acidic letter to the editor or, in this venue, point-and-shoot in the comments section. (Feel free.)
The latest wave of group think in aviation is washing over angle of attack indicators. Several companies are producing them and Bendix/King introduced their own at AirVenture. OK, so theyíre† a great thing. They work. Iíve long thought that delinking our understanding of stalls from airspeed and tying it directly to angle of attack might reduce the pathetic stall/spin accident record that plagues general aviation. In 20 years of writing about these things, Iíve published gushing reviews about their efficacy and maybe even suggested that they ought to be required equipment. But I am herewith stepping off that bandwagon, at least conditionally.
Hereís why: When a sensible safety product is introduced, itís quite natural to laud its benefits and, for journalists, to cheerfully recommend it. Whatís not to like about a thing that could save your life? But we often offer these endorsements without any meaningful data about how such a thing will be integrated into the way pilots actual fly and use gadgets and airplanes. What Iím getting at here is training or lack thereof. The industry is big on introducing gadgets of all kinds, but fairly awful at developing the training pilots need to make them effective. And they do need training.
The best example I can cite is the Cirrus BRS. When the airplane was being developed, I visited the factory early in the program and distinctly remember agreeing with the notion that here was a safety device so simple even a passenger could use it. What training could possibly be required? What followed, of course, was a dope slap from reality. With the BRS and other features, the Cirrus line is, arguably, one of the safest GA airplanes ever conceived. But its safety record is just average and its fatal rate a little worse than average. The Cirrus accident record is replete with fatal accidents in which BRS could have saved lives but was, inexplicably, left unused. To its credit, Cirrus has developed much improved training in BRS use but it may be a number of years before its effect drives the fatal accident rate where it should be: better than average. The obvious unanswerable question is this: would the Cirrus rate be better or worse if it didnít have BRS at all? Maybe some statistical sharpie can prove or disprove this. Iím sure I canít.
It may be quite natural to look at an AoA indicator as being as simple as a fork or a hammer. What training could you possibly need? I suspect after the first AoA-indicator-equipped airplane spins in, weíll have our answer. When I was researching Cirrus accidents, Rick Beach, who has done his own exhaustive investigation into Cirrus crashes, reminded me that GA aviation is built on a freedom that allows any pilot with minimal training and perhaps less proficiency to go flying anytime he likes. Thatís the way we want it. Thatís probably why we have an unmovable accident rate. And letís not forget that the Asiana accident showed us that homo the sap is more than capable of defeating the most sophisticated safety interlocks supported by the disciplined training of the airline industry.
So while Iíll join the herd in cheering the emergence of affordable angle of attack indicators, Iíll also point out that it isnít enough to just float another gadget out there. These things need to be widely integrated into training aggressively from day one, even to the extent that pilots who may never see one for years (or at all) know all about them. That means questions on the FAA written, line items in basic syllabi, PTS references and more than just a lukewarm nod to training from the manufacturers. Knowing what we know, we have a rare opportunity to do this right and to make a new product category really make a difference.
Then, maybe, just maybe weíll be able to measurably reduce the stall accident rate. Otherwise, we risk just introducing another thing for pilots to look at, another set of distracting flashing lights and blaring horns to serve as grim accompaniment for a pilot headed to the bottom of a smoking hole.