AVweb AVFlash - Volume 20, Number 13b

October 2, 2013

Continuing Federal Shutdown Raises Aviation Concerns

In day two of the federal government shutdown, airlines continue to run on schedule with fully staffed control towers, and general aviation pilots have seen few impacts -- but the longer it goes on, the more effects will be felt, according to GA advocacy groups. Although air traffic controllers remain on the job, 3,000 support workers in the ATC system have been furloughed, says Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The furloughs will delay the opening of a new runway at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and will delay the approval of safety-related equipment modifications to aircraft. "It is unacceptable that thousands of our aviation safety professionals have been forced to stay home due to partisan posturing in Congress," Rinaldi said. The NTSB also was immediately affected, as the go-team assigned to investigate the fatal Citation crash in Santa Monica was sent home on Tuesday.

The wreckage of the CJ2 will be stored in a hangar until investigators can return to continue their work, officials said. The safety board's usually-busy Twitter feed has been silent since Monday, and no updates have been posted to the agency's website. If the shutdown continues, it also may delay certification of Boeing's newest version of the Dreamliner, the stretched 787-9. Boeing spokesman John Dern told Bloomberg News that normal deliveries of the current fleet won't be affected, since Boeing workers have the delegated authority to approve each jet off the production line. The Transportation Department says in its planning document (PDF) that 2,490 workers in the Office of Aviation Safety who have been furloughed will be "recalled to work incrementally over a two-week period."

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Each week, we poll the savviest aviators on the World Wide Web (that's you) on a topic of interest to the flying community.

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Safety Researchers Suggest Autopilot Redesign

Before control of an aircraft shifts from the autopilot to the pilot, the system should require the receiving pilot to acknowledge that he or she has assumed control, according to a recent study of ergonomics and flight safety. Eric Geiselman, lead author of a two-part study published in Ergonomics in Design, emphasized that the warning should occur before the autopilot is disengaged, not after, as is currently required. "The sudden disengagement of autopilot is analogous to a pilot suddenly throwing up his or her hands and blurting to the co-pilot, 'Your plane!'" said Geiselman. The study, which focused on two high-profile 2009 crashes -- Colgan Air in Buffalo and Air France off the coast of Brazil -- concluded that current autopilot design is flawed, and "creates unnecessary emergencies by surprising pilots during critical, high-workload episodes."

Geiselman and co-authors Christopher Johnson, David Buck, and Timothy Patrick examine many other design-level safety issues in the two-article series and offer solutions they say could be affordably implemented with available technology. The authors conclude that better design of automation technology on aircraft can prevent future accidents, and more pilot training shouldn't be the only solution pursued by the industry. The authors have combined expertise as pilots, flight instructors, crew resource management instructors, and human factors researchers. Their reports appeared in the July and October research annals published by The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

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American Airlines Is Hiring

American Airlines said this week it will begin hiring again for the first time in over a decade, seeking to acquire 1,500 pilots over the next five years. The carrier is not yet out of bankruptcy, and has been involved in restructuring for nearly two years now, but began recalling pilots late last year. It now says it is hiring to address attrition rates (it currently employs almost 500 pilots who are over the age of 60 who must retire within the next five years) and new federal regulations that may require more pilots on the line at any given time. American expects the pace of its hiring to run at close to 50 pilots per month for the next year. Many may come from one source.

American Airlines was required by a 2010 arbitration ruling to hire a number of pilots from American Eagle into each hiring class. The company has been in bankruptcy court reorganization since November 2011 and reported to the court a profit of more than $70 million for the month of August. Year over year, from 2012 to 2013, total revenues have increased by more than 5 percent for August. But the company is still seeking approval for a merger with US Airways that was held up by an antitrust suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. And, according to a spokesman for American's pilots union who spoke with the Star-Telegram.com, that the merger is "the best way to secure a long-term future at American Airlines."

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Podcast: A Boost for Backwoods Flying

Flying for fun isn't restricted to Alaskan mountain valleys or Idaho rivers.  The Recreational Aviation Foundation is working to preserve pilot access to unique backcountry runways all around the country.  RAF President John McKenna spoke with AVweb's Mary Grady about the group's mission, their achievements, and their plans for the future.  If you want to learn more, they'll have an exhibit at AOPA Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, coming up in just a few weeks, October 10-12.

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Jet Crash Fuels SMO Debate

Opponents of the Santa Monica airport are calling again for its closure following Sunday evening's fatal jet crash. "It is time to shut this airport down," Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin said in a Twitter post. "There have been more than 80 crashes related to this airport since 1982. Meanwhile, nearby residents are suffering from harmful jet fuel emissions." Residential neighborhoods have grown around the airport since it was built in 1917, and surround the runway on all sides. On Tuesday morning, the local coroner said four bodies had been found in the wreckage of the Cessna Citation CJ2, which crashed into a hangar while attempting to land at the airport. The airport remained closed on Tuesday as investigators examined the site.

Although no official announcement has been made regarding the victims' identities, a construction company based in Santa Monica said on Monday it believed that its chief executive, Mark Benjamin, 63, the owner of the CJ2, and his son Luke, 28, were on board the airplane. Some reports said Luke Benjamin's girlfriend might also have been on board. At least one aircraft and several other vehicles were destroyed in the hangar fire. NTSB investigators had to wait for two cranes to arrive at the airport to remove parts of the hangar before it was possible to gain access to the jet's cabin and the cockpit recorders on Tuesday. Despite frequent protests from neighbors and local officials, the FAA has supported keeping the Santa Monica airport open, citing a 1948 agreement that says the city will operate it "in perpetuity."

Piper, ATP Introduce iPad POH

First there were charts and then moving maps and a plethora of other weather and navigation-related items for the iPad and now pilot operating handbook apps have been developed for some of Piper's products. The company said it will unveil electronic POHs for its M-Class and twin-engine aircraft at AOPA Summit. The apps are part of the HubConnect app developed by Aircraft Technical Publishers  and mean the days of updating paper publications can be over for operators of those aircraft. "Our collaboration with ATP gives the owners and operators of Piper airplanes the most up-to-date, convenient and proven access to data necessary for the safe and efficient operation of their aircraft," Piper VP of Sales and Marketing Drew McEwaen said in a news release.

The basic POH database will be updated daily to include ADs, service bulletins, and special airworthiness information bulletins along with providing advisory circular maintenance alerts and the AIM. "The HubConnect App for iPad from ATP is the first of its kind app for general aviation that provides access to both the pilot operating handbook as well as all supplemental documentation necessary to support the safety and compliance efforts of owners and operators," ATP President Rich Marino said in the release. A library of all maintenance publications and regulatory documents relating to the aircraft types is also included.

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Futility Defined: Teaching Judgment

Did you know there’s a multi-billion dollar industry devoted entirely to sleep disorders? If only they knew that the rock-solid way to bring on the deepest of sleeps is to enroll in a Flight Instructor Refresher Course. Let the serious snoring begin.

I know this because I’m now in the midst of my tenth or so FIRC, this time using AOPA’s newly revised online e-FIRC. Actually, it’s not bad and may be the best of its kind I’ve ever taken. So we’re making progress, one embedded video at a time.

One of the FIRC’s modules deals with teaching weather judgment and/or judgment in general. This is always tricky territory and the more I see it attempted, the more convinced I am that it can’t be done, or at least done effectively enough to make a difference. I’m convinced that you’re more or less equipped with your risk assessment switches at birth and no amount of persuasion, lecturing or admonishing from flight instructors and pious aviation magazines will change that. If you’re a hanky twisting Aunt Jane when you start, you’ll finish that way. At the opposite end of the continuum, the wild-eyed lunatics may live or die on luck alone, but they’re not often dissuaded by the voice of reason. And who gets to claim to be the voice of reason, anyway?

But it’s entertaining to see attempts at this. The weather judgment series in this course is set up with several scenarios, one of which involves a flight from the east coast to the Midwest in a known-ice Cirrus during the winter, when ice is in the forecast. The course confronts the viewer with various decision points during the flight and data available includes a look at datalink weather, the OAT and access to the radio for PIREPS. Based on the information you gather by clicking on these sources, you’re asked to pick a decision from a list of three or four options.

The flaw in this approach is that someone has to decide what the best or right decision is for the given circumstances, as though there’s an agreed upon standard of some sort. The underlying assumption, although unstated, is that you’d never make such a trip in a non-de-iced airplane. This springs from the Boy Scout end of the risk spectrum and doesn’t reflect the way pilots actually use GA airplanes. Experienced IFR pilots depart into cold clouds all the time without benefit of de-icing. They mitigate the risks by assessing how likely ice is to actually occur and by having plausible outs. Right or wrong, this is just the way the real world operates. Some people are just more risk tolerant than others, but that doesn't make them crazy.

Scenario-based training like this introduces a level of mind gaming to the process that I think is counter to the intent of the training. For example, one of the questions had the Cirrus in flight at 10,000 feet with the OAT a couple of degrees above freezing. One of the choices was to continue the flight or descend to 6000 feet. Confronted with this question, I found myself conflicted between picking what I’d actually do and trying to figure out what the program thinks is the right decision. Predictably, the program tilts toward the more conservative decision, subtly suggesting that this is always the better course when we all know it isn’t always.

In this case, the best decision was to descend to 6000 feet, the idea being that you must avoid even a trace of icing onset in a de-iced airplane. But that wouldn’t have been my decision. I’ve seen enough ice not to freak out when the first trace of it appears and I have to decide what’s next. All things considered, I’d rather be higher than lower in IMC, measured against a few whiskers of rime popping up.

To be fair, the quizzes associated with this training—which you have to pass—have factual, not judgment-based questions, so the judgment section is obviously intended as a thought provoker. Given the limitations of judgment training, I thought the modules, which were done by ASI, were better than any I’ve seen, but still fall short because they’re trying to teach the unteachable. I think anyone trying to construct such training would reach the same conclusion, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

Risk assessment evolves from a complex admixture of personal experience, training, information gathering habits, analytical capability, creativity and raw nerve—or lack thereof—that are different for everyone. That blows a hole in the assumption that everyone looks at the same data, the same situation and reaches the same conclusion. Since not everyone is comfortable with higher risk decisions, that necessarily argues for more conservative ones as the make-happy common denominator. Is that the way to a lower accident rate? I’m not so sure. Accident avoidance isn’t just about the most conservative decisions, but also about learning to think and recognize those decisions which will inevitably lead to bent metal. You can’t learn about risk without occasionally taking it.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: Continental's Zulu Flight Center

For more than a year, Continental Motors has been experimenting with a new flight training center based in an upscale mall in Spanish Fort, Alabama.  AVweb recently visited the center and interviewed Gloria Liu for a briefing on the training works.

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Podcast: SAFE Takes Its Show on the Road

The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) is hosting a new weekend event next month at the Redbird Skyport in Texas, with a roster of seminars and simulator time, plus, as an added incentive to boost your proficiency, a chance to fill up your airplane with 100LL for $1 a gallon.  Doug Stewart, executive director of SAFE, talks with AVweb's Mary Grady about what the Pilot Proficiency Program has to offer, why you should go, and how to sign up.

Podcast: AOPA's Mark Baker on the Association's Future

In this exclusive AVweb podcast, AOPA's newly installed president, Mark Baker, says the association will adopt an airport-centric means of promoting aviation and will concentrate on a regional strategy to reach the membership.  Baker also told AVweb that all of the association's activities — from fund raising to member support to starting new business lines — will be under review during the coming months.