Colgan Fallout: What's With The Secrecy?

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While I was busy weaving my theory of evolving information technology and its impact on how we think about air crashes, the cause and effect was actually happening yesterday. In an unusual move—no doubt driven by the politics of smoking holes—the transportation department convened an urgent hearing to improve the oversight of pilot hiring.

Said Transpo Secretary Ray LaHood: "Some of the issues are far too important for us to sit around and to wait on the NTSB report." Translated: So, what the hell, let's just charge off and make decisions before the investigation is done. Newly installed FAA chief Randy Babbitt played along by saying some of the practices in the regional airline industry aren't acceptable. Hey, no kidding. To be fair, Babbitt's statement is spot on and a review of the industry independent of the Colgan crash is long overdue.

Following all this, the hearing was promptly closed to the press and public. Excuse me? What we have here is a page from the Dick Cheney manual of governance. Do everything behind closed doors and if you don't like it, sue me. As I recall, this administration promised better, but it looks like thus far at the agency level, some things haven't changed. My view is that the government ought to work entirely in the sunshine, with the exception of highly sensitive military and national security issues. But this isn't one of those.

What did emerge and relevant to what Babbitt may have been talking about when he cited unacceptable practices, was fatigue as a possible related cause. The mother of the deceased co-pilot left the hearing claiming that the two crew persons were being made scapegoats. But any pilot who has read the transcript and reviewed the FDR summary would be hard pressed to call the crew's performance even up to basic standards of airmanship. Whether that was brought on by fatigue or just lack of skill will be addressed, I suppose, in that NTSB report that Ray LaHood doesn't want to wait for.

What I'll be most interested in finding out is whether the Captain's numerous checkride failures are significant or just noise in the bandwidth. When I was flying Part 135 in the late 1980s, I flew with a number of professional airline pilots who were moonlighting in the charter biz. My impression then was that a checkride bust was a big deal and two busts got you a ticket out the door. Have things changed? Are they the same in the majors? Or do the regionals work to different standards on busts? That's probably what Babbitt was getting at.

We shall see. Now, if Mr. LaHood would kindly emerge from his undisclosed secure location, we might find out.

Comments (19)

Thanks for the comment. Just a reminder please. We don't allow anonymous responses. Please sign all posts with your real name. Thanks.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 16, 2009 2:00 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I don't know what that guy's agenda is, but he's been linkspamming pretty much every Colgan discussion here with that same crap, and as a regional airline pilot who flies with a lot of highly competent, highly skilled colleagues, I resent it.

Posted by: Chris Lawson | June 16, 2009 11:01 PM    Report this comment

"... What we have here is a page from the Dick Cheney manual of governance. Do everything behind closed doors and if you don't like it, sue me."

You know, with canards like that, you completely delegitimize any comment you may have. That's a political comment having no place in this forum. It's completely off-topic, and you know it.

Stop trying to be 'smarter than the average bear'. Stick to aviation commentary. If you want to comment on Dick Cheney, or any other politician, then post it elsewhere.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | June 17, 2009 4:44 AM    Report this comment

I agree that it is in principle desirable to have disinfecting sunlight on all possible aspects of government. But I wonder if the hearing is being held behind closed doors as a way of trying to get honest & forthright contributions from bodies that would otherwise deliver bullshit soundbites for the consumption of the press and public (you know: airlines, unions, etc.).
If I were running the FAA - and personally, I think I was pretty close to having been chosen - I'd be dragging the various parties into a windowless room and beating them with the Manhattan telephone directory until they agreed to fix the most obviously broken aspects of the industry.

The comparison with Cheney's aproach seems reasonable, especially as it is balanced by similar criticism of the current administration.

...of course, AvWeb's reflexively Republican readers may not see it that way...

Posted by: Ceri Reid | June 17, 2009 7:35 AM    Report this comment

As one who struggled a little in airline training, I can attest, at least, to the fact that check ride failures do not necessarily mean much. Multiples, maybe, but still not a guarantee. Once I finally got a good (read compatible) instructor on the MD-80, I quickly finished and passed my check ride. Fortunately, my "non-compatible" instructors knew enough not to send me for the ride, so I never got a failure. My point is that certain instructors, and probably more to blame students, just don't work well together. I say this as a Gold Seal, 4,000+ hour instructor! A check ride failure, more often than not, is the fault of the instructor for sending the applicant in the first place! Granted, after a point, and more than just one instructor, you let them go and fail to document your beliefs that they aren't trainable.

continued below!

Posted by: Thomas Hill | June 17, 2009 7:36 AM    Report this comment

I have long believed that the standards for the private pilot certificate and above can and should be held partly responsible. Currently, for all check rides one need only show approach to a stall. I teach my students not only to stall the airplane, but not recover! Feel the stall, control the stall, keep wings level with AGGRESSIVE control inputs. I've had students "ride it down" for almost 1,000 feet. You can't do this in certain airplanes, but in the normal beginner, docile airplanes this is an excellent confidence building maneuver that drives home the idea that a stall is just another condition of airmanship and can be controlled. As a glider instructor also, I believe that almost nothing teaches stall control and technique like thermaling on the very edge of a stall with a satisfying +1,000 IVSI! I propose that the FAA start to require full stall recovery demonstrations, at least in the beginning of training, and to the stick pusher activation in those airplanes so equipped!

Posted by: Thomas Hill | June 17, 2009 7:36 AM    Report this comment

As a very experienced military fighter pilot I have been bothered by the whole affair. It would appear to be a combination of factors. One of the biggest is letting the autopilot fly on final approach. It becomes a flying computer and there is no attention to detail, situation awareness. There is some reason for closed door meetings. Frank discussion is needed in an accident investigation team as well as engineering. It allows the team to get to the root cause and contributibng factors without outside media or public input. The investigation needs to be professional as well as scientific. The victims deserve it after all. Media and the public only interfere as well as lawyers will sue everyone.

Posted by: Jim Bruchas | June 17, 2009 8:01 AM    Report this comment

"One of the biggest is letting the autopilot fly on final approach. It becomes a flying computer and there is no attention to detail, situation awareness. "

Jim, I would respectfully disagree with your statement. Using the automation is a discipline in and of itself: a very useful tool to the successful outcome of the flight. It allows more scrutiny to be placed on important parameters of the approach while relieving the actual manipulations of the controls. At least for me, this allows an even greater situational awareness. So much so, that I hand fly over 75% of my approaches so as not to lose that skill! However, whenever I am letting "George" fly the approach, I always have my thumb on the disconnect button for immediate action should it be needed.

Posted by: Thomas Hill | June 17, 2009 8:14 AM    Report this comment

... yeah, that's right Ceri Reid ... but reflexively *conservative* -- not necesarily 'Republican'.

Not being 'reflexively' liberal, or scatter-thought, or having a 'bone to pick', has kept me safely flying for over 35 years.

Leave your 'politics' at the airfield entrance. Try a 'reflexively' conservative approach to aviation ... you and your loved ones will like it.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | June 17, 2009 8:59 AM    Report this comment

As I have commented before concerning the complaints of politization of these discussions, the past three decades have politicized just about every aspect of our lives. Do I approve? No, but until the citizens of this country begin attacking problems on their face value instead of dragging politics, religion, or any other unrelated discipline into the discussion we will continue to have poor outcomes withe the core problems.

My apologies for going off-subject, but I have to agree with some of the writers that the comments should be confined to the subject at hand, and that is I believe is sviation.

Posted by: Dennis McNish | June 17, 2009 10:16 AM    Report this comment

As someone who passed their Private Pilot check ride this year, I had to demonstrate full stall and recovery. No "approach to stall" -- full, hall blaring, controls mushed, elevator way back, nose dropping off stall. And then recovery (ultimately) back to cruise configuration. This was for both approach/power-off and departure/power-on.

I am the local "aviation expert" (at work, family, circle of friends) so I'm called on to disect accidents. I put "expert" in quotes because I am far from an expert -- but the closest to one available to these people. I end up presenting possibilities rather than "facts" (and of course, results from NTSB briefings).

Posted by: leave blank | June 17, 2009 12:32 PM    Report this comment

I partially concurr with the previous anonymous comment. Power on stalls, Power off stalls, turning stalls too. Landing configuration (flaps and Gear down)stalls are very instructive. Also, tickle pre-stall slow flight. If one does not pay attention to airspeed one would be surprised by a stall. It still comes down to SA. Try a Simulated Instrument stall, we had to instruct that as well. It is all about being in control. SA!

Posted by: Jim Bruchas | June 17, 2009 2:06 PM    Report this comment

As a pilot for a major airline I could not agree more with the closed door nature of these hearings. The piss-ant press has no vaulted right to know everything and the sanctity of the individuals testifying needs to be preserved.

I hope that the result of these hearings is an overall raising of the bar in commercial aviation. Perhaps we need to go to an ATPL type licensing standard as is the case in Europe and other ICAO countries. Their standards are far greater than memorizing a bank of questions from a dvd of a bug-eyed John and Martha King. The biggest single item I would like to see is the lowering of the max duty day time (not flight time) from sixteen hours to fourteen. That way you would have at least a whisper of a chance at getting some rest, unlike the way it is now.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | June 18, 2009 4:53 AM    Report this comment

Government can never fix the problems. In fact, most of the problems are creations of government regulation. The NTSB and FAA created the monster and are now finger pointing to get the blame off their shoulders. Let the airlines(both major and regional) hire, train, schedule and fly to their own standards without the feds involvement. If they crash, they the people will vote with their dollars for the safer alternatives. As it is, the public has the safety comparisons mostly hidden from them.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | June 18, 2009 9:02 AM    Report this comment

I'm a bit confused by some of the posts that focus on stall training. Many months ago there was speculation that the tail may have iced and stalled, and the proper response is what the Colgan pilot did. Has that been disproved? Google 'tail plane stall' for details.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | June 18, 2009 4:23 PM    Report this comment

Nothing has been proved or disproved in the Colgan crash, since the investigation is still underway. The NTSB IIC was quoted as saying the ice protection gear in the airplane was active and that icing conditions were encountered. But nothing was said about ice as a definitive factor. Ditto the tail stall. Lots of discussion, theories and speculation. Nothing definite.

If you read the NTSB FDR summary against the CVR transcript, you could theorize that the Captain thought he had a tail stall rather than a garden variety wing stall. Or you could conclude that he just mishandled a wing stall. Personally, I think the latter is more likely. You're free to advance your own theory, of course.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 18, 2009 4:46 PM    Report this comment

Soon after the crash, the general media was reporting that the pilot had only flown about 400 hours with Colgan, and most of his ATP hours prior was with Gulfstream (the airline, not the plane) in a type that was more suceptible to tail plane stalls. This, again, is from the media so you have to take that into consideration and discount it accordingly. Speculation, therefore, was that most of his recurrent training had emphisized tail plane stall recovery, and the muscle memory from that training resulted in his possible mistaking the wing stall as a tail plane stall and thus his pull rather than push on the stick.

Personally, I don't buy that theory. I favor that he was not "flying the airplane." The autopilot was engaged; they were talking about inexperience with icing and thus distracted; did not notice the airspeed bleeding off; as the stall progressed, in the soup, he got disoriented and screwed in.

Posted by: Roger Dugan | June 18, 2009 7:09 PM    Report this comment

I must have missed something. Am I to accept that "deep" stalls in a C-152/172 makes one qualified to drive a high powered complex multi with paying seat covers? I think learning to properly control a Pitts would be more compelling. That said, the pressure of commercial aviation and passenger safety is not for the faint of heart. KUDOS for those who fight for a career with such dedication and high costs! Please, let's wait for the NTSB's report.

Posted by: Larry Fries | June 22, 2009 7:46 PM    Report this comment

your piece is fine right up to the stupid remark about Dick Cheney, one of the most competent and effective public servants this country has ever seen. I'll be glad to argue this point with you in a more appropriate forum. It chaps my hide to come across ignorant political opinions from uninformed intellectual lemmings with every weather report or game score. If you have to deliver gratuitous political commentary, at least do me the favor of educating yourself instead of parroting the likes of Maureen Dowd or Katie Couric, and save it for the Huffington Post. You should be embarrassed.

Posted by: JONATHAN FULLER | July 1, 2009 3:53 AM    Report this comment

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