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In the wake of the NTSB report on the deadly hot air balloon crash at Lockhart, Texas, a bipartisan group of three Texas congressmen and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have introduced bills in both chambers to require medical certificates for operators of hot air balloons. Pilots of hot air balloons are not currently required to have a medical certificate, even at the commercial level. Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, the owner of Heart of Texas Balloons and the pilot on the day of the Lockhart accident that killed 16 people, had Valium, oxycodone and the antihistamine Benadryl in his system on the day of the crash, said the NTSB. The combined effect was enough to mimic "the impairing effect of a blood-alcohol level" of a drunk driver, said Dr. Nicholas Webster, a medical officer with the NTSB. Requiring medical certification for lighter-than-air pilots was one of the NTSB’s post-crash recommendations.

Although entitled the “Commercial Balloon Pilot Safety Act of 2017,” the Senate bill would apply to all levels of balloon certificate holders. The body of the brief act reads, “Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall revise part 61.3(c) of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (relating to medical certificates), to apply to operators of air balloons to the same extent such regulations apply to operators of other aircraft.”

AVweb reported on the Board's findings when they were released earlier this month.

Air Canada file photo

Air Canada got a lot of publicity last summer after an A320 nearly landed on a taxiway full of airplanes, instead of the runway, at San Francisco International Airport, and this week the airline is back in the news for another event at the same field. On tower audio from about 9:30 Sunday night, provided by ATCLive.net, a controller can be heard repeatedly telling an Air Canada A320 crew to go around, and getting only silence. A tower supervisor used a flashing red light gun to try to alert the crew to abort the landing. After about two minutes, the crew responded, saying they had radio trouble. “That’s pretty evident,” the controller says. The six go-around requests were prompted by concerns that another jet might not have cleared the runway yet, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

“Upon landing, the crew was informed the tower had attempted unsuccessfully to contact the aircraft, however the message was not received by the crew,” said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick. “Air Canada is investigating the circumstances.” Radar records showed the runway was clear when the jet touched down safely on Runway 28R at 9:26 p.m. The crew was completing a six-hour flight from Montreal. The FAA is also investigating the incident.

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One Aviation, the company that includes both Eclipse Aviation and Kestrel, announced layoffs late last week. The job cuts reflect the phaseout of production for the EA550 twinjet, which is being replaced by the new EA700 “Project Canada” aircraft, the company said in a statement. “As we transition through the development stages of the highly anticipated EA700 series we made the very difficult, yet necessary, decision to reduce our workforce,” said CEO Alan Klapmeier. The workforce reduction affects employees in Albuquerque, Chicago, Wisconsin and Maine, media spokesperson Linda McDonough told AVweb in an email on Tuesday. Kestrel's efforts in Wisconsin and Maine have stalled, according to recent reports.

It’s the second round of layoffs this year, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The company wouldn’t say how many workers were affected, or how many staffers remain. “The company continues to explore strategic partnerships and investment in the future growth of the EA700 series,” according to the news release. One Aviation also said they continue to provide engineering, maintenance, service and support for the Eclipse 500 and Eclipse 550 fleet.

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After an initial Pentagon announcement on Friday that the Air Force would recall about 1,000 retired pilots, followed rapidly by a disavowal of any recalls by the Air Force over the weekend, the service now says the purpose of the amended executive order was to increase the number of pilots who may be voluntarily returned to service. AVweb spoke with two members of the Air Force press office who said “the Air Force has no plans to recall any officers involuntarily and is totally committed to being a voluntary force.” According to the USAF press office, the Air Force had been limited to allowing no more than 25 former officers to return to active duty at any one time, and for no more than a year. The amended executive order, they say, while phrased in terms of mandatory recall, gives the service the authority needed for voluntary reactivation for up to three years at a time, at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense.

Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski told a press gaggle at the Pentagon Monday that he expects fewer than 200 officers will volunteer and be accepted under the program. The reactivated retirees will mostly staff positions requiring prior service as an Air Force pilot, though some recently separated pilots may receive the training necessary to get current as instructor pilots. “We want to focus on our instructor pilot pipeline, so your undergraduate pilot training bases like Vance, Laughlin, Columbus and Sheppard—that’s going to be a target of opportunity. We’re standing up F-16 graduate pilot training at Holloman, so if we have some F-16 retirees that are relatively recent and current, then we would look at that option,” says Koscheski.

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In May of this year, two Icon company employees flying an A5 made the error that has been the final mistake for too many seaplane, bush, backcountry and mountain pilots. They entered a canyon from the downhill end, starting below the surrounding ridges. By the time they discovered they were in the wrong canyon they didn’t have room to either climb over the ridges or make a 180-degree turn. They tried to reverse course, hit a canyon wall and were killed.

Icon’s response to the accident was a breath of fresh air. In an open letter from company CEO Kirk Hawkins last week, Icon reiterated that its A5 is built for fun flying and pilots like the thrill of flying low. The letter provided a link to Icon’s new Low Altitude Flying Guidelines. Those guidelines speak frankly about the risks of low-altitude flight, give guidance for flights in the “low-altitude” environment—which it defines as below 300 feet AGL—and recommends a “soft deck” of 300 feet AGL as the minimum altitude at which Icon pilots should operate their amphibians. Icon ground and flight training will include instruction in operations down to that altitude. For those pilots who wish to whistle around below 300 feet AGL, Icon is now requiring completion of its advanced “lowalt” training and a check ride. Because the purchase agreement for an Icon A5 requires that each owner and pilot who flies one agree, in writing, to comply with Icon’s operational guidelines for the A5 and each airplane has a flight data recorder installed, Icon is in a position to enforce its low-altitude operational guidelines and requirements.

When it comes to low flying, pilot flight training has almost exclusively consisted of telling pilots not to do it. Historically, that approach has been about as effective as telling teenagers not to have sex. Each month I research and write up the accident history of a specific model airplane for the Used Aircraft Guide in our sister publication, Aviation Consumer. Each month I average reading between four and 10 accident reports involving pilots who tied the record for low flying—few survive. I think that yanking the subject out into the open for discussion and formally teaching pilots how to fly low without killing themselves should have been done long ago.

As a side note, I think Icon’s low-altitude guidelines need more information on avoiding power lines because they are only visible to a pilot if the light is just right—most of the time it’s not—and they are often routed where least expected. They can be just above the trees right along lakeshores (in the glide path for landing on the lake) and over the water between the shore and an island. As a seaplane instructor, I teach my students to be suspicious of the airspace between an island and the shore of a lake. Often, the only way to spot power lines is to find the supporting poles, but even with that aid, the lines themselves may be invisible until you’re within 100 feet of them.

Power lines get strung across river valleys—with no supporting poles in the valleys themselves. When I was in Civil Air Patrol in high school our Wing Commander decided to take the Wing’s T-34 out to do vertical banks along the cliffs of the local river. He hit power lines and removed one wing.

Every summer in high school I worked ground crew for a crop duster. More than once I watched those professional pilots hit power lines they didn’t see when going into or coming out of a pass across a field. I kept track of the aerial application pilots I worked with. Every single one crashed. Most of the accidents were due to hitting an obstruction.

When I look at seaplane or amphibian accidents, there are always some due to hitting the water unexpectedly—usually in conditions of flat light (overcast skies and lack of color contrast over the ground or water) or glassy water. Often those accidents involve a pilot who was intentionally flying low over a lake and hit the water in level flight (usually just a lot of damage to the aircraft, but sometimes fatal) or stuck a wing into the water (almost always resulting in a fatal cartwheel). In my experience, until a pilot actually experiences flat light and glassy water conditions she or he simply cannot believe that it is absolutely impossible to tell how high the airplane is above the water within several feet. The first glassy water landing for a seaplane student is almost always a revelation—the airplane never touches the water when the pilot expects it. In my opinion, a pilot who has been trained in low flying and the nature of glassy water and flat light conditions is going to tack on some extra altitude because he or she is aware of the powerful visual illusions involved.

Bush and backcountry pilots know never to enter a canyon or fjord from the bottom because the differences between the entrances of the safe one and a box canyon are often too subtle to distinguish. They know that if they desire to fly between the walls of a canyon to first fly to the uphill end, staying above the ridges, and only descend into the canyon going downhill.

I’m also glad to see that Icon is addressing the FARs applicable to low flying as they have a serious gotcha for pilots. The FAA does not publish its definition of a “congested area” in the FARs. You have to read the cases where the FAA has gone after pilots for illegal low flying over a congested area to get a feel for its definition. For example, it’s been defined as four houses within a quarter of a mile, a small group of people standing on the ramp in front of an FBO and a busy interstate highway—much smaller assemblages of people than most pilots would expect. The rule of thumb for seaplane pilots is that if you see four or five boats in proximity to each other, consider them to constitute a “congested area” and stay 1000 feet above them and/or 2000 feet away horizontally. Icon encourages pilots to be courteous to people they are flying near. That’s wise. After all, not everyone on the ground or in a boat likes little airplanes and those folks have cellphone cameras that can be used to take photos for evidence against low-flying pilots. Plus, the FAA can subpoena the flight data recorder from the A5 to help make its case against a low-flying pilot.

I suspect Icon is going to be tweaking its low-altitude guidelines and training. It appears a bit weak on power lines and tower guy wires. However, I think it’s great that Icon has stepped up to squarely face the issue of protecting pilots who want to have fun flying low. I think the other manufacturers should consider doing the same thing because pilots are using their airplanes for that purpose. Flying low is a blast. The way to stay alive doing it is to receive formal training in how to do it right; not rely on information whispered in the back alleys.

Rick Durden is the Features editor of AVweb. He is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is 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. 

Fly SAM STC Approved

You don't expect to see Stinsons and WACOs at an NBAA-BACE, but they were there last week in Las Vegas. In this AVweb video, Ben Redman of RARE tells us why the bizjet crowd is a target-rich environment for selling restored vintage aircraft.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Full disclosure: The editor has a Cessna 140 and is a sucker for images of this family but this really was the best of the bunch this week. Thanks to Andy Zink for a nice shot.

Heard anything funny, unusual, or downright shocking on the radio lately? If you've been flying any length of time, you're sure to have eavesdropped on a few memorable exchanges. The ones that gave you a chuckle may do the same for your fellow AVweb readers. Share your radio funny with us, and, if we use it in a future "Short Final," we'll send you a sharp-looking AVweb hat to sport around your local airport. No joke.

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