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Transport Canada has issued a Civil Aviation Safety Alert recommending owners and maintainers of virtually all older Piper Cherokees perform magnetic particle inspection of the welds on the control columns of their aircraft at the next annual. As we reported last May, a Canadian flight instructor reported the column broke off in his hands as he and a student flared for a landing at a Manitoba airport. Instructor Tom Larkin said the aircraft was only five feet above the runway and landed safely despite the physical loss of control. He and the student taxied to a maintenance shop where staff discovered the upright portion of the control column had broken off where it joined the horizontal arms. He said they checked the weld on another Cherokee and found cracking.

The problem was discovered on a PA-28-140 but Transport Canada said similar control columns were installed on 150, 160,180 and 235 models and all should be checked magnetically. “Cracks that were found on the replacement control column were undetectable to the naked eye, even after it was removed from the aeroplane,” the safety alert said. “It is likely that high time PA-28 series aeroplanes may be at risk for undetected control column cracking and or potential failures.” The age and history of the aircraft that suffered the failure was likely a factor, the agency said. It had 18,000 mostly training hours on it but the Cherokee was a popular trainer and there are likely others like it in the fleet. Transport Canada has shared its information with the FAA and some action by the agency is likely.

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A Russian military aircraft carrying 92 people, including the Red Army Choir heading to entertain troops in Syria, crashed Christmas Day into the Black Sea. The Tu-154 took off from Sochi just after 5 a.m. Moscow time and disappeared from radar a short time later. It was carrying 84 passengers, including 64 members of the Alexandrov military band, which was to play a concert at the Russian air base in Syria.

Interfax was reporting the crash site had been located but the Russian government had not yet confirmed that. There were also nine journalists on the plane. The crash sent Russia into a state of mourning and most television stations switched from entertainment programming to nonstop coverage of the recovery effort. President Vladimir Putin promised a thorough investigation but terrorism is not thought to be a factor. The Tu-154 is a three-engine airliner that’s been in service since the 1960s. It's been a workhorse of both airlines and military and is in widespread service in Russia. The crash airplane was 33 years old but had been recently serviced and the crew was experienced.

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The Afghan air force’s only female pilot has asked for asylum in the U.S., saying it’s too dangerous for her to return to her own country. Capt. Niloofar Rahmani finished a type course on C-130s with the U.S. Air Force last Thursday and promptly requested to stay in the U.S. She had been training in the U.S. for more than a year. “I would love to fly for my country—that is what I always wanted to do,” Rahmani told The Wall Street Journal in an interview from Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, where she did the Hercules course. “But I’m scared for my life.” She said she’d like to continue flying for the Air Force or become an airline pilot.

Although she was celebrated in the media, there were many in Afghanistan who didn’t like what she represented and there were threats made against her, even from within her own family. Rahmani defied specific orders from the Afghan air force against trying to leave the country after overseas training but her U.S. lawyer Kimberly Motley said she had no choice. “There are great concerns for her safety if she returns. The threats she has received have been well documented,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of her superiors within the Afghan military have failed in their duty to protect her.” As a Muslim, she faces additional hurdles in fleeing to the U.S. in light of President-elect Donald Trump’s repeated promises to freeze Muslim immigration to the U.S.

Hijackers of a Libyan airliner with 118 people aboard have surrendered to authorities following a standoff Friday morning on a tarmac in Malta. The Airbus A320 had departed Sabha in southwestern Libya late Thursday, and instead of flying its route to Tripoli at the northwestern border of the country, flew to Malta in the Mediterranean Sea and landed at the island’s main airport, according to news reports. Two men on board the Afriqiyah Airlines flight had threatened to blow up the jet with a hand grenade, according to the Times of Malta. They released everyone on board and surrendered nearly four hours after a standoff at the airport, the report said.

The pilot of the A320 had alerted controllers to the hijacking, then dropped off the radio, Reuters is reporting, quoting an unnamed official who said, “The pilot tried very hard to have them land at the correct destination but they refused." It’s unclear what the men demanded, but they appeared to be loyal to a political party promoting the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, according to Reuters, referencing a Libyan television station that quoted one of the hijackers saying, "We took this measure to declare and promote our new party." 

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A couple of years ago, flying into ZRH (Zurich, Switzerland), just the day after the landing fees increased once more, we heard the following conversation while on hold between a Cessna 172 on final and the controller. It was a busy day with lots of commercial traffic.

Controller: Cleared to land runway 28; winds calm, please expedite and can you make it a short landing to the first exit?

Cessna: Negative, we pay for the whole runway, we use the whole runway!


Paulo de Moura

 

 

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Last month Icon Aircraft announced it had opened its second Flight Center to support its A5, a light sport amphibian (S-LSA). Based on Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport, the Center will provide flight training, sales, demos and service for the aircraft. At first glance, the announcement was generic good news that a general aviation manufacturer was expanding beyond its Vacaville, California home base to provide support to buyers in the eastern U.S.

Big deal, right?

Actually, yes—Icon is trying to go where no aircraft manufacturer has successfully gone before by turning flying purely for fun into a big business.

We’ve been following Icon Aircraft ever since it made its first, splashy announcements that it was developing the A5 to “democratize personal flight,” and are fully aware that the company and its founder Kirk Hawkins have consistently demonstrated a willingness to break from conventional thinking in general aviation. Not surprisingly, when we gave the announcement another look there was much more to the story: Icon’s Flight Centers were not only going to give flight training but they will do something that just isn’t done—allow those who check out to rent A5s and go have fun. For land planes; that’s no big deal, for seaplanes; it’s astonishing. To start with, there are not many places in the U.S. where a pilot can get seaplane training; of those, almost none allow the pilot to then rent the seaplane without an instructor.

We like flying seaplanes. A lot. It’s some of the most fun flying we’ve ever done. We do it as often as we can afford to and we have to travel 1000 miles to a facility where we can rent a seaplane without an instructor. Not surprisingly, Icon’s announcement got our undivided attention. It soon lead to a long conversation with Icon’s Kirk Hawkins about what we think is a gutsy move that has significant risk. The accident rate for seaplanes isn't particularly good. 

The Airplane

Before going into the flight training and rental that Icon is offering through its Flight Centers, it’s necessary to look at the airplane itself. Most two-place production airplanes were designed as trainers and/or to fly from point A to B and carry enough luggage for a weekend. There are a few that were built primarily for recreation—and most of those are for competition aerobatics.

The Icon A5 was specifically designed as a recreational vehicle to be marketed to non-pilots who want to learn to fly purely for fun—the folks who think of flying as a helmet-and-goggles world of adventure and excitement.

Kirk Hawkins and his team looked at the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation market and the people who put that money into it—SCUBA divers, skydivers, off-roaders, dirt bikers—and decided to build an airplane that would appeal to those who wanted to fly for the adventure it can offer and have the money to do it.

Hawkins asked us to think about seaplanes generally. He noted, rightly, that they are lousy transportation machines—they are drag incarnate, with slow, inefficient cruise speeds. They are only used for transportation in areas of the world where the only alternative form of transportation is worse. The reality is that most of the time seaplanes are flown for fun, because they are. When you’re flying for fun, who cares if the cruise speed is modest? Fun is why the A5 is an amphibian—it can use land airports and instantly be ready for the fun stuff, water flying. As for the scope of the market for seaplane operations, our research indicated that it’s legal to operate a seaplane on most public waterways and lakes in every state except Colorado, and an activist group is making progress on getting Colorado into the fold.

In our conversation, Hawkins noted that the overwhelming majority of boats owned in this country are purely for recreation, so when you look at aviation as recreation, seaplanes are not a niche market, they are the market.

With the adoption of the Sport Pilot rating, someone wishing to learn to fly for the fun of it can become certified in as little as 20 hours. That rating opened the door for the formation of Icon Aircraft and the design of the A5. Targeting 20-hour pilots meant the airplane had to be easy to fly and safe because the those pilots are going to make mistakes—lots of them, many of which will be serious. It also had to provide information to the pilot about airspace where an LSA is not particularly welcome so the user isn’t constantly getting into trouble with the FAA. Current avionics technology made the airspace portion of the equation easy. Applying recent developments in aerodynamics to create a spin-resistant airplane was a little more difficult.

Human factors studies have long shown that when a pilot gets into a jam and/or is frightened, the most common reaction is to pull back on the yoke or stick—it’s a big reason why stall/spin accidents happen and why they are killers. 20-hour pilots make errors, so the A5 is designed that if the pilot responds to his or her error and yanks the stick all the way back, the airplane will not spin. It will stall, however, it will remain fully controllable. If the pilot then applies full power—even with the stick full aft—the airplane will climb (or hold altitude at high density altitudes) even though it is stalled.

It’s true. We checked. The A5 climbs with full power and full aft stick. We covered the airplane in some detail in the August 2016 issue of our sister publication, Aviation Consumer. We went into the flight evaluation more than a little skeptical after all the hype we’d heard and wondering if the A5 was just a modernized Ercoupe. It’s not. It’s an aerodynamically-sophisticated airplane that is so spin resistant that we suspect it cannot be induced to spin—we tried, repeatedly. With an angle of attack indicator as the centerpiece of the instrument panel, a pilot who has messed up and responded with full power and full aft stick and is slowly climbing away from the ground can easily transition into a much better rate of climb by moving the stick forward until the gauge shows that the wing is at the optimal angle of attack for climb.

The A5 has a tricycle gear because the runway loss of control accident rate for tricycle gear airplanes is lower than that of tailwheel airplanes by orders of magnitude—so the 20-hour Sport Pilot is less likely to have a takeoff or landing accident. As a seaplane, it is remarkably easy to operate on the water.

While we don’t think it’s possible to create a foolproof airplane because we’ve noticed that fools are incredibly creative, we think the Icon A5 is about as close to it as any airplane marketed to date.

Vertical Integration

Icon’s operating philosophy is to do all it can to minimize the risk that one of the airplanes it builds is going to be crashed by a pilot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. To that end the company drafted a purchase agreement that requires a number of actions by the purchaser to guarantee that the airplane will only be flown by a pilot who has gone through Icon-approved training and recurrent training. To the extent possible, Icon wants to control everything it can from the design of the A5 through the skill and judgment of each pilot flying one.

Hawkins told us that his team looked at the very real issue of turning adventurous outdoor sports risk takers into safe pilots without draining the adventure from flying and/or boring them so much that they drop out. He and his team went to the schools that specialize in teaching risk takers how to engage in risky activity without erasing themselves. They attended skydiving school, superbike motorcycle racing school and supercar, Formula and sports car racing schools. According to Hawkins, the team then created training materials designed to be interesting while transmitting knowledge, much as the outdoor sport adventure schools have been doing for years. He said that he wanted Icon’s training materials to “attack every pain point that keeps people out of aviation.”

We have not seen the current training materials, but the hard copy and online materials we were shown six months ago were well done. They had a definite military feel to them—a number of the team members, including Hawkins, were former military pilots—and contained what we considered more than adequate information for a Sport Pilot rating. We also noted that they were designed in layers—if a student wanted more in depth information on a particular topic beyond the normal coverage, it was easy to access.

Icon has tailored its training program to the level of experience of the student. Prices are not cheap, but it has to be noted that the airplane involved is as modern as it gets rather than a 60-year-old Cub on floats. We were given the following information about the courses and current pricing by Icon’s Brian Manning, head of PR and communications:

TX-S (Transitional Seaplane)—Transition training course for certified pilots who hold rating privileges for seaplanes. Pilots will be qualified for aircraft check-out and sign-off. Price is approximately $2,400

TX-L (Transitional Landplane)—Transition training course for certified landplane pilots who do not hold rating privileges for seaplanes. Pilots will be endorsed for LSA-ASES.  Price is approximately $4,000

SPL (Sport Pilot License)—A complete training course for beginner pilots. The end qualification will be the Sport Pilot Certificate with endorsement for LSA-ASES. Price is approximately $13,000.

Manning told us that all pricing includes ground school, books/materials, aircraft time and instructors and are noted as “approximate” because it varies per participant based on a number of factors.

Once checked out, Icon’s website shows that an A5 can be rented for $300 per hour through what amounts to a flying club-type arrangement. There is a $500 initiation fee and $50 per month dues, which pay for insurance. Those who have made a deposit on an A5 have the initiation fee waived and get $50 per hour off of the rental rate. In order to make the rental arrangement work at the rates involved, in our opinion, each Flight Center will need to provide the concierge service one expects when going SCUBA diving or supercar racing—everything should be in great shape and ready to go when the customer arrives for his or her flight.

Icon has more stringent requirements for recurrent training as a renter than just meeting the FAA’s flight review regulation. Hawkins said that one of the ways Icon is planning to encourage recurrent training is by making it fun—and offering training building on recreational flying such as backcountry operations, open water operations and formation training. We noted that skydiving has levels of accomplishment for skydivers that are not regulated by the FAA, and it encourages skydivers to keep getting better at their sport.

Hawkins pointed out that a lot of outdoor adventure sports are “try before you buy” activities, notably SCUBA diving and skydiving. One of the aspects of Icon’s flight training and rental program is to provide more ways for nonpilots to get into flying and, potentially buy an A5. It’s also a way to provide adventure vacations or weekends, much as skydivers spend weekends at a particular drop zone or people travel to destinations to spend several days SCUBA diving or driving race cars—Icon wants to make having fun flying an A5 an adventure destination.

Currently there are four A5s operating at the Tampa Flight Center with one more scheduled to arrive soon, according to Hawkins. Icon’s training program in Vacaville and Tampa has six full-time instructors and nine part-time. Hawkins said that they are looking for more instructors and will be opening a third Flight Center, probably in Texas.

As professional skeptics, we admit to being impressed by the way the A5 flies. We know how tough it is to get a return on investment in the business of general aviation manufacturing and we’ve watched a lot of creative, well-financed ideas fail. Nevertheless, we have great affection for purely recreational aviation and we’re wishing Icon success.

Rick Durden is the Features Editor of AVweb, is a seaplane instructor and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.

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The other evening I was returning from a flight to the east coast of Florida in an aircraft Sarasota Avionics kindly loaned me for the day. I landed just past dusk when, rare for Florida, the temperature and dewpoint came together and as I was tying down, the fog was forming. We occasionally get marine layers off the Gulf, too, but if that happens four times a year, I’d be surprised.

The best the approaches into Venice can do is 360-foot MDAs and a mile of required visibility. It’s unlikely they’d be of much help in dense fog. For the past three days by early evening, the ASOS had been reporting 200 feet and a ¼ mile, if not indefinite. I’m glad I made it in before it got worse. “Well,” my friend Dan mentioned half seriously, “you’ve always got the synthetic vision.”

True enough. The airplane has a pair of Aspen EFD1000s, with synthetic vision. My initial reaction was that I’d never use syn vision to land or carry on below MDA, but after I thought about that, I asked myself why. The kneejerk answer is that FAR 91.175 is so baked into to me and as an instrument instructor I’ve taught its thou-shalt-not religion for so long that I don’t know anything else. In case you’re rusty on your FARs, 91.175 requires the runway or its environment to be in sight before descending below MDA or DH.

There are technical reasons the regulation is worded the way it is and it isn’t based on some bureaucratic capriciousness. Instrument approaches are designed to be and are 100 percent guaranteed safe if you fly them exactly the way they’re charted and if the equipment you’re flying is functioning correctly. The obstacle clearance is carefully considered with margins for system and human error. The FAA routinely flight checks procedures looking for anomalies. But once you depart the black lines, you’re on your own.

To find a runway out of the clag, however, you necessarily have to fly down a funnel to the minimum obstacle clearance at which point you’re supposed to be able to see the runway visually and land safely. For a standard CAT I ILS, that’s only 200 feet and some GPS approaches offer MDAs nearly as low as that. Two hundred feet isn’t much, which is why instrument pilots who hope to survive to a long and rewarding career best not make a habit of busting DA/DHs and MDAs.

On conventional instrument approaches, the actual statistical risk of busting descents is one of those ineffables. Where and how you do it and in what conditions drives how risky it really is. It’s one thing to burn 50 feet on a needles-centered CAT I ILS, but another to dive out the clouds from a GPS MDA with nothing showing but faith and hope. Yet pilots do it, although I suspect not routinely.

I was once at a Connecticut airport standing outside the FBO shack in dense fog with an instrument student. We were waiting to get at least a half mile to depart on a training flight. We heard one of the local jet operators check in, inbound on the ILS. I told my student he’d get to at least hear a genuine missed approach. As we stood outside on the sodden gray ramp, waiting to hear the roar of spooling engines, we heard instead the unmistakable double squeak of tires on pavement. The lineman shrugged. No way they had the required minimum vis of a mile. It was RVR weather. At least it was an empty leg.

When staring at the digital glory of synthetic vision on a PFD, the temptation to do this routinely must be overwhelming. In really low weather, the runway may not be visible out the windshield, but it’s bigger than hell right there on the PFD. What’s the risk of just going for it if you don’t see anything at DA/MDA? Probably not that much, although I doubt if there’s any meaningful data to put a number on it. Synthetic vision doesn’t depict close-in obstacles off the end of runways, but a runway with an instrument approach isn’t likely to have meaningful close-in obstacles, at least from the missed approach forward to the threshold of the runway. But this varies by approach.

I’ve flown dozens of visual approaches in airplanes with synthetic vision and never noticed one in which the runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be or was misaligned enough to detect, but I also wasn’t looking for apparent misalignment. Even the synthetic centerline matches the real world view, which is impressive when you consider that synthetic vision is doing that with WAAS GPS matched to a terrain database. We’ve come to take this level of performance for granted without thinking about how well it works. 

I haven’t tried landing under the hood with just synthetic vision because it doesn’t provide the necessary depth perception clues. But in low vis, you could certainly use it to get close enough to acquire the runway visually then land normally. I’d guess that would work in quarter-mile visibility or a little less. Are people actually doing it, despite the lack of legal framework, to bend FAR 91.175? No one I know has confessed, but human nature being human nature, I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t done it and if some aren’t doing it routinely—homegrown CAT II.

I’d like to see some system reliability and accuracy data on synthetic vision, but I think it’s time to allow its use for descent and visibility credit for not-for-hire operations. Sure, there’s risk in doing so, but let pilots assume it if they want. The fact that we’re not doing it already probably has more to do with legal inertia than technical considerations. I asked Garmin if they had synthetic vision in mind for this kind of upgrade and they declined to comment. I take that as a yes.

For years, the transport industry has used head-up displays to qualify crews for lower landing minimums or at least to smooth the transition from the gauges to the visual. I flew on in an Alaska Airlines simulator 20 years ago. I’ve poked around to find some data on how widespread HUDs are in airline use, but I can’t get an accurate sense of market penetration, but it’s probably the majority of the fleet. On a recent Southwest flight, the captain told me the entire fleet is HUD equipped and he liked it and used it on every approach, including visuals.

Periodically, we see attempts to offer HUDs for light GA aircraft but they never seem to gain traction. We reported on the latest offering in this video. MyGoFlight says it can integrate synthetic vision, but I’m not sure what that would look like.

HUDs have proven expensive and cumbersome, requiring a combiner-type display to be positioned in front of the pilot’s eyes only when needed. The military is way ahead on this technology and now projects it in a helmet display or, before that, on a mounted combiner that’s permanently in view in the pilot’s sightline out the canopy.

And for GA, how often would a HUD matter? How many pilots fly weather that requires bitter-end transition from the gauges to the visual and how much good would a HUD really do?

Not much, I ‘d guess. Or maybe not enough to justify spending $10,000 to add it. This is a rarified risk area in which there are too few accidents to make much sense of the probabilities. In the aviation press, we write evergreens with tips about how to transition from the gauges to the visual as though it’s fraught with hazards and tricks. It isn’t. Just look out the window.

The Southwest skipper told me he saw benefits in using it for visuals because it gave good windshear cures and made staying on speed easier. Fair enough. But little airplanes are still hand-eye machines and that’s why a lot of us still fly them. Do we really need or even benefit from so much technology just to land a Bonanza? Would it help?

If the FAA ever approves synthetic vision for approach mins credit, I think it would be festooned with so many system and certification requirements that it would be impossible to certify. But then at one time, I thought that about GPS approaches and non-TSO’d gyros too. Maybe the very act of my thinking this will cause it to become true. We can only wish.

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