AVmail: December 10, 2012

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Each week, we run a sampling of the letters received to our editorial inbox here in AVmail. One letter that's particularly relevant, informative, or otherwise compelling will headline this section as our "Letter of the Week," and we'll send the author an official AVweb baseball cap as a "thank you" for interacting with us (and the rest of our readership). Send us your comments and questions using this form. Please include your mailing address in your e-mail (just in case your letter is our "Letter of the Week"); by the same token, please let us know if your message is not intended for publication.

Letter of the Week: Fly-By-Wire Concerns

Regarding the story about the fly-by-wire Diamond DA42: Although the developers of fly-by-wire systems have admirable goals, I am very concerned about the unintended consequences of such control systems. As a pilot, I would never relinquish control to a computer programmer. (I worked as computer programmer for seven years!)

It is simply not possible to think of every situation in order to program a computer control system to act appropriately all the time. Just think of the subtle nuances of glide control when aiming for a specific spot on a field when doing a forced landing. Then there are the effects of sensor failures as we have seen on some recent crashes.

With twin-engine aircraft, there is a place for some intelligence in the control system, such as control limitation to avoid loss of control when one engine is out, for example. However, within the allowed range of control movement, the pilot's inputs should be directly relayed to the control surfaces and not interpreted by a computer!

In any event, controlling the aircraft is one of the least demanding aspects of flying. It is getting increasingly challenging to maintain traffic separation in busy, uncontrolled air space.

Taken to its ultimate maturity, the goals of these fly-by-wire and auto take-off and land systems are basically the same as that of unpiloted vehicle developers: Build aircraft that can carry passengers with no pilot! I cringe at the thought of flying in a sky full of aircraft being controlled by computers and pilots with limited ability at the controls! If a person cannot be trained to fly the aircraft, they would also not have the ability to maintain situational awareness and navigate properly, or for that matter program a flight plan correctly.

The biggest challenge the developers of these systems need to solve first is how to do collision avoidance in a completely robust and safe way between UAVs and GA while not everybody in the sky has the same technology on board. Once they [have] solved that problem, I may be able to relax a little more about their efforts to automate the control of their aircraft.

Best Regards,

Dan Retief


Getting Simulators in the Game

Regarding the story about the NTSB's comments on GA safety: They don't address fuel costs, which are driving these numbers. Rising fuel costs mean a higher cost to fly either owned or rented aircraft, which results in less flying, and less flying means less proficiency. There is a very low-cost way to practice many of the skills needed to help pilots stay sharp.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is a very low-cost simulator that adds a wealth of value in educating pilots, including actual navaid and terrain realism, random system failures, and practice with instrument scans for flight in IMC. I encourage all my VFR and IFR student pilots to purchase a copy of MS Flight Sim 2004 off eBay for as low as $15 to practice approaches. Throw on a yoke for $120, and it is the cost of one hour in a rented plane. There are many other flight simulator programs available.

The FAA, however, calls these types of programs games and not simulators. The FAA needs to loosen up and endorse a lower-cost means of staying proficient and offer hourly credit for the time spent practicing with "training tools." The FAA basically classifies simulators by the instrumentation, controls, and motions offered. You don't need a full set of actual controls for pilots to build good aeronautical decision making (ADM).

Doug Hansen, CFII


Fuel Cost Breaking Point

$6.75 was the magic number for me. Someone recently surveyed me and asked me what was my personal breaking point for fuel prices, and I said around $10.

I knew life was getting more expensive every day, but when I filled up with $200 worth of fuel for one trip on top of the $530 fixed cost per month for my Archer (and I owned everything already!), I realized I can't do this anymore. My family can't afford it.

After much soul-searching, I sold the airplane yesterday and may have to leave aviation after 30 years. It wasn't just fuel; it was the whole proverbial iceberg that is sinking my dreams. The tip merely pointed it out.

Jim Schroeder


Flying Charitably All Year

Surely you know many of us fly charitably all year. (Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic for me.)

Your focus seems to be those motivated by holidays. I take holiday missions. Still, no survey statement fits us. Also, questions speak to groups who may sponsor flights, but individuals fly them. I suggest an answer like "I fly charitably all year long, especially around Christmas" for the survey next year. Think you'll get a larger response.

Dan DeDona


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