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Volume 25, Number 12b
March 21, 2018
 
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NTSB: No Commercial Flights Without Quick Release Harnesses
 
Paul Bertorelli
 
 

The NTSB Monday called on the FAA to prohibit commercial flights of all kinds that secure passengers without quick-release mechanisms. The agency’s urgent safety recommendation followed the FAA’s announcement on Friday to prohibit so-called doors-off helicopter tour flights unless quick-release harnesses are available for passenger restraint.

Both recommendations come in the wake of fatal crash of a Airbus AS350B2 helicopter into the East River on March 11. Five passengers died in that accident because they were reportedly equipped with safety tethers that couldn’t be self-released quickly. The passengers were flying on a so-called doors-off tour, which allows them to shoot photographs and videos through the open doors of a helicopter. The AS350’s engine failed for unknown reasons and although the aircraft autorotated into the East River and had skid floats, it rolled inverted after touchdown.

“While we applaud the FAA’s intention to move forward on banning these types of doors-off flights, the FAA has not outlined how or when they plan to take action,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.

As AVweb explained in previous coverage of this accident, the passengers were equipped with a parachute-type harness secured to a tether in the aircraft via a single carabiner which could only be released by the helicopter crew or tour personnel.

“Despite being given a briefing on how to remove these additional harnesses using a provided cutting tool, none of the passengers were able to escape after the helicopter rolled over into the water,” the NTSB’s statement said. FAR 27, the NTSB noted, requires that “each occupant’s seat must have a combined safety belt and shoulder harness with a single-point release.” The harness system the tour operator used was not reviewed by the FAA.

The NTSB says it has had a long-standing concern with safe egress for passengers involved in helicopter accidents. The agency mentioned a 2008 accident in which three surviving passenger reported difficulty in releasing restraints, significantly delaying their post-crash evacuation.

Alaska Pilot Sentenced For Floatplane Assault
 
Paul Bertorelli
 
 

An Alaska pilot was fined $25,000 last week and given probation and restitution after being charged with felony assault for striking a man in a boat while buzzing him in a De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver floatplane. The incident happened on the Mulchatna River near Dillingham in June 2014. The victim survived but suffered permanent brain damage.

In sentencing the pilot, 38-year-old Benjamin Hancock, Superior Court Judge Christina Reigh said she considered the kind of reckless flying Hancock engaged in to be a serious problem in rural Alaska. According to a report by KTVA-TV, Reigh said the fine would send a message to pilots that there could be serious consequences for reckless conduct.

Hancock, and the victim, Travis Finkenbinder, knew each other and were friends. Finkenbinder and another man were moving boats down the river when Hancock buzzed them in the DHC-2. The pilot, whose certificate has been revoked, initially said a downdraft caused him to fly lower than he intended. But the NTSB said in its final report on the accident that investigators found the accident was caused by Hancock’s “improper decision … to fly in deliberately in close proximity to the boat operators."

Regulation vs. Common Sense
 
Paul Bertorelli
 

Aviation regulation theory couldn’t be simpler. The freckle-necked masses aren’t expert enough to assess the relative risks in boarding a flying machine so we, as a society, allow the government to establish certain standards and rules designed to eliminate the most egregious practices that people trying to make money in the flying game will, quite naturally, engage in. Then, as predictably as the sun rising tomorrow, we bitch and moan about government interference.

Yet regulation is why, in part, modern aviation—even the relatively wild west of general aviation—is as safe as it is. The worst practices are kept at bay by the long arm of the FAA. Except, sometimes not. That’s why the NTSB issued an urgent safety recommendation Monday urging the FAA to prohibit commercial flights in aircraft where passengers aren’t equipped with quick-release restraints. This seems intuitively obvious, but it apparently wasn’t to FlyNYON, the operator of doors-off helicopter tours around New York city. Five people drowned last week when the helicopter they were riding autorotated into the East River after an engine failure and non-quick release harnesses kept them from egressing after the helo inverted.

The NTSB’s investigation soon revealed that the aircraft was equipped with harnesses of the tour operator’s own design that had not been inspected by the FAA. This raises some sticky regulatory issues. Did that constitute an unauthorized modification of the aircraft or will the attorney for the IA who signed off the annual argue that it was some kind of supplemental restraint not subject to FAR 27.785, which requires restraints with a single-point release? Technically, the harnesses had a single-point release, it just happened to be inoperable by the passenger without a knife. I won't wade into the swamp of TSOs.

How could this slip through the regulatory cracks? One reason is that tour companies operate under Part 91, in a netherworld somewhere south of Part 135. For-hire tour operators are required to have pilot drug testing programs, but they don’t need defined op specs like other for-hire businesses. They operate under specific Letters of Agreement, the FAA’s all-purpose catchall strategy when both the industry and agency agree that more forceful regulation isn’t needed.

So far, so good. But this means the tour operators are on their own to exercise good judgment and common sense in a relatively unfettered commercial air business. One unavoidable question is this: Would an FAA inspector examining that harness rig put the kibosh on it? I’m gonna go with yes.

And thus the regulatory gap and the basis of the NTSB’s urgent safety recommendation. Here we reach a philosophical divide. On Monday, we put up a Question of the Week asking if more regulation is needed, specifically banning doors-off flights. Neither the FAA nor the NTSB have gone quite that far. Yet. More than a third of readers said such flights shouldn’t be banned and that passengers are on their own to assess risk based on informed consent.

I agree they shouldn’t be banned, but given what I view as a serious safety breach, either the LOAs should be hardened to require inspections or tour operators need to be held to a higher basic regulatory standard. There’s always a danger in knee-jerking toward new regulation on the basis of a single occurrence and regulation has to balance the public interest against chilling commercial vitality. But as I mentioned in last week’s blog, it’s unrealistic to think those passengers could have reasonably assessed the risk they were about to take. So how Darwinian do you want to be?

Every Saturday morning in the U.S., thousands of unsuspecting passengers sign up for tandem skydives. The perceived risk is so high that they sign multi-page waivers and the FAA allows the industry to exist in its own laissez-faire bubble. The demonstrated risk is rather lower. Still, inspectors do show up to have a look at these operations, examine the airplanes and look over the maintenance logs. Even though minimal, these inspections are sometimes capricious and intrusive because FAA inspectors can do that if they want. It appears to me that air tour operators don’t even get that much attention. If they did, maybe someone would have squawked those harnesses. 

First Flight For Boeing Max 7
 
Mary Grady
 
 

Boeing has flown its latest version of the 737, the Max 7, for the first time, the company announced last week. The airplane flew for just over three hours, taking off from Renton, Washington, and landing at Boeing Field in Seattle. The flight crew tested the flight controls, systems and handling qualities. "Everything we saw during today's flight shows that the Max 7 is performing exactly as designed," said Keith Leverkuhn, general manager of the 737 Max program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The airplane is the third one in the 737 Max family. It’s equipped with CFM International Leap-1B engines and Advanced Technology winglets.

The fan blades for the Leap-1B are manufactured from 3D woven carbon-fiber composite, an industry first, according to CFM. This technology creates fan blades that are lightweight but also so durable that each individual blade is strong enough to support the weight of a widebody airplane, such as the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787, the company says. The engine’s fuel nozzles are 25 percent lighter than previous models and five times more durable than parts manufactured conventionally. CFM is a 50/50 joint company created by GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.

Pipistrel Surges Electric Airplane Production
 
Paul Bertorelli
 
 

Although electric airplanes still inhabit a regulatory backwater, Slovenian-based Pipistrel Aircraft is boosting its production of battery-powered trainers and reports a 50-50 split between gasoline and electric aircraft. In this exclusive podcast, the company told AVweb this week that a new production line is building five to six Alpha Electro trainers per month. 

“We reorganized our production floor space. We have three assembly lines and one of them, since late last year, is dedicated only to producing electric airplanes,” says Pipistrel’s Tine Tomazic. “Predominantly, this is the Alpha Electro, five to six a month, flanked by a smaller number of the Tauras Electro motorglider.” Moreover, the company has brought production of motors, battery arrays and controllers entirely in house.

Pipistrel has been a leading developer of electric aircraft and three years ago developed what became the battery-powered Alpha Electro from a similar Rotax-powered variant. The Electro has about one hour of endurance with reserve and can be equipped with quick-change batteries or, more popular, a fast-charge option to replenish the batteries in the airplane.

Tomazic says fast charging is the overall trend for all battery systems, especially vehicles, and he foresees the day when charging may require as little as 15 minutes. While battery energy density has improved at 5 to 7 percent per year, Pipistrel says it can’t use state-of-the-art batteries because of cycle and charging limits. The aircraft is designed to be flown for about an hour and then placed on the charger, with no resting time. 

“To do that, we cannot use the highest energy density batteries. The internal resistance cannot support this kind of an operation,” Tomazic says. Pipistrel and other electric aircraft manufacturers still face what Tomazic calls a “bureaucratic mountain” to fit electric aircraft into the training ecosystem. In Canada, for example, the airplanes can be flown under the advanced ultralight category, but in the U.S., the regulatory definition of a light sport aircraft specifically calls for a reciprocating engine. A revised regulation is in the works, with an unknown timeline.  

Both Switzerland and France have approved pilot programs for electric trainers while Australia has in place a more formal program. Tomazic concedes the difficulty of blanket approvals. “Not all countries are acceptable to the idea of flying electrically, let alone training with electric airplanes,” he says.

He adds that certification efforts currently focus on collecting real-world data to see how the airplanes work, how people react to them and how the charging infrastructure functions. “It’s a continuous development, not of the product, but how the product may be used and what specifics need to be taken care of so that safety is not compromised,” Tomazic says.

You can see a video of AVweb’s flight trial of the prototype Alpha Electro here.

Cirrus vs. Cirrus In Florida Collision
 
Joy Finnegan
 
 

Two Cirrus aircraft collided at Florida’s Palatka Airport last week and although both airplanes were substantially damaged, no one was injured. Initial reports indicate that neither aircraft deployed the CAPS parachute system and the collision appeared to have occurred close to or over the runway on short final. A news photo showed that the aircraft came to rest near the runway, with one on top of the other. One of the accident airplanes was an SR22, the second an SR20. The accident occurred on March 16, around 11 a.m., according to authorities.

The SR22 is owned by two former Jacksonville Jaguars team members, defensive lineman Robert Meier and tight end Kyle Brady, along with a third partner. Meier was flying the SR22, according to Jacksonville’s WJXT-TV.

The SR20, the bottom aircraft in the photo, is registered to Sanford, Florida-based Aerosim Academy. The pilot of that aircraft was a 29-year-old Deland man and the passenger was a 28-year-old Sanford man. The FAA is investigating the accident.

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TSA Gives Up On GA Security Plan
 
Mary Grady
 
 

The Transportation Security Administration has withdrawn its proposal to establish a security program that would have affected private and corporate aircraft operators, the agency said on Friday. The agency had proposed the “Large Aircraft Security Program” in 2008, suggesting operators of GA aircraft that weigh more than 12,500 pounds should be required to implement security programs, vet their crews and check passengers against federal watch lists. The TSA held a series of public meetings and reviewed more than 7,000 comments from the public that were submitted in response to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. On Friday, the TSA said that based on all of the information they received, and “a re-evaluation of the proposal in light of risk-based principles,” they have decided to abandon the effort.

Nobuyo Sakata, AOPA’s director of aviation security, said the GA community’s active opposition to the plan was key to the TSA’s decision to withdraw the proposal. AOPA said in a statement they will continue to actively participate in the Aviation Security Advisory Committee and work cooperatively with the TSA to address security concerns and improve other security programs such as the DCA Access Standard Security Program for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Alien Flight Student Program. NBAA, GAMA and EAA also lobbied against the proposal.

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Qantas To Launch First Nonstop Flight To UK
 
Mary Grady
 
 

This weekend, a Qantas 787-9 will fly the first-ever nonstop airline route from Australia to Europe, traveling from Perth to London. The jet will carry 236 passengers on the trip, covering 7,775 NM in about 17 hours. “It’s great news for travelers because it will make it easier to get to London,” said Qantas CEO Alan Joyce. “It’s great news for Western Australia because it will bring jobs and tourism. And it’s great news for the nation, because it will bring us closer to one of our biggest trade partners and sources of visitors.” When Qantas first established a route to London, in 1947, it took four days and nine stops.

The flight will be the third-longest passenger route in the world, and the longest flight for Qantas or a Boeing Dreamliner. For Australians in Sydney and Melbourne, however, the flight doesn’t offer a big change. Flights from those cities now reach London with a stop in Singapore, taking about 22 hours. With a connecting flight to Perth, those travelers can now get to London in about 21.5 hours. Qantas is reportedly working on offering nonstops from Sydney and Melbourne soon. The choice of the 787 for the route also marks the retirement of the airline’s 747 fleet. Qantas has said it will retire the last of its 747s by 2020.

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Video: Top Flightbag Picks
 
Larry Anglisano
 
 

The pilot's flight bag has gotten smaller over the years and in a market flooded with compact flight totes, four bags—all with different styling—survived our long-term evaluation and earned our critical praise. In this video, Aviation Consumer Editor Larry Anglisano offers a close look at four favorites on the Aviation Consumer evaluation bench.

Picture of the Week
 
 
Deon Mitton sent us this beautiful shot of a Kodiak and a Beaver in formation taking a fun flight. This amazing photo happened at the 2017 Sun 'n Fun Seaplane fly-in in Tavares, near Orlando FL.

See all submissions

AVweb Reader Mail: March 12, 2018
 
AVweb Staff
 

ADS-B and Privacy

We are not properly addressing the privacy (in personal transportation) issues that are created by this system. Part of that discussion has to be the growing network of at-home computer users that are tracking private aircraft with FlightAware devices that are being pushed on the techie community by the flight tracking websites that benefit.  

I am not ready to give up the privacy that virtually everyone has with their private automobile.  There are multiple risks involved here, including corporate and personal security from criminal and terrorist activity.  It’s just weird that we are not having this discussion.

Dean R. Brock

Cirrus Parachute

I recall talking with a Cirrus salesman. He said that if the non-flying spouse is involved with the purchase, then the ”big red handle” definitely sways things. The pilot may be torn between a Cirrus, Mooney, or Bonanza, but as soon as the salesman points out the handle to the significant other and describes what it does, then that's what they choose.

Kirk Wennerstrom

The Cirrus airframe and overall concept would appeal to pilots with or without the parachute. The parachute reportedly is a major selling point/comfort factor for their spouses. Ergo, helps sales.

Rollin Olson

ATC Privitzation

As long as there is money to be made and politicians to be bought, the effort to "Privatize" will continue.

Ric Smith

Meet the AVweb Team
 

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