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Volume 25, Number 46c
November 16, 2018
 
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NTSB Holds Hearing On Southwest 1380 Accident
 
Kate O'Connor
 
 

An FAA certification official said on Wednesday that Boeing 737 engine inlets might require design changes in the wake of a Southwest Airlines accident last April in which an uncontained engine failure breached the cabin and caused the death of a passenger. Testifying at an NTSB fact-finding hearing on the accident, another FAA official said it’s “not impossible” to set a life limit on engine fan blades.

So far, investigation into the Southwest Flight 1380 accident has determined that one of the left engine fan blades separated at the root due to a fatigue crack. The blade then broke into several pieces, causing damage to the engine inlet and fan cowl that the NTSB qualified as “unexpected” for a fan blade out (FBO) event. A portion of fan cowl separated from the engine, striking the fuselage near the window within three seconds of the FBO, according to the NTSB’s accident summary. The impact knocked out a window and passenger Jennifer Riordan was partially pulled through the opening by the sudden decompression. Although the cabin crew and fellow passengers were eventually able to pull her back into the aircraft, she sustained fatal injuries.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the NTSB questioned witnesses from CFM International, Southwest Airlines, the FAA, Boeing and United Technologies Aerospace Systems on the CFM56-7B engine fan blades, inlet and fan cowl. Questions focused on several issues, including a similar FBO event that occurred on Southwest Flight 3472 on Aug. 27, 2016. Prior to the 2016 event, which witnesses said was the first instance of a fan blade separation in a CFM56-7B engine, the engine type had been in service for over 20 years for a total of nearly 300 million flight hours.

New fan blade testing procedures were put into place after the 2016 failure and, according to CFM International Engineering Leader for the CFM56 Mark Habedank, eight engine blades have been found and pulled from service with new ultrasonic and eddy current inspection procedures. However, at the time of the accident Southwest Flight 1380 was not affected by the service bulletins issued.

When asked at the hearing, FAA Transport Standards Branch representative Victor Wicklund stated that, although production inlets are not required to be included in certification testing, if an inlet was included and test damage mirrored that found in the Southwest 1380 accident, it would most likely qualify as a certification failure that would require corrective action and design changes. After the 2016 blade failure, no airplane safety issues were found with the engine inlet.

The hearing is just one part of the ongoing investigation. “Investigators also have been working on, and will continue to work on, other issues that will not be covered in this hearing, issues such as cabin safety, operational factors, window separation and others,” said Chairman of the Board of Inquiry T. Bella Dinh-Zarr. The final report is not expected to be released for several months.

Runaway Terror
 
Paul Bertorelli
 

If you ride around Seattle, where Boeing lives, you’ll occasionally see a blue-and-white bumper sticker that’s been around for decades, with variations of this wording: Unless it’s a Boeing, I’m not going. Following this week’s revelation that Boeing kept pilots in the dark about an autotrim system on the new 737 MAX, it took the internet 10 seconds to come up with a derisive corollary: If it’s a Boeing, I’m not knowing.

As the aerospace giant wipes industrial-grade egg off its corporate face, the company will be hard pressed to explain why it doesn’t deserve the drubbing. Meanwhile, the accident investigation that unleashed the opprobrium—the crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX8 off Jakarta last month—continues to focus on what role the airplane’s automation may have played in the crash. Press reports revealed that Boeing fitted the MAX with an always-on background pitch trim system designed to improve pitch characteristics at high alpha and high load factors while providing some downside stall protection.

Unfortunately, Boeing apparently didn’t document the system, called MCAS, in any of the manuals provided to customers who bought the MAX. Nor was it covered in the airplane’s training syllabus, which has been described as minimal because Boeing made that a sales point against its competitor, the Airbus A320neo.   

You hardly need George R.R. Martin’s rich imagination to conjure the ultimate nightmare out of this: an airplane rendered uncontrollable by runaway pitch trim. Making lemonade from lemons here, that may be the immediate useful takeaway from the Lion Air accident for those of us driving little airplanes. Or, put another way, have you looked at your AFM recently to review how the autopilot and trim system works and how to disable it in a hurry?

For light aircraft, this is a low probability, moderate consequence risk. It’s worse for the imagining than the reality, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it entirely. In my flying career, I have had exactly one runaway trim event. It was in a Piper Navajo in VMC 6000 feet over the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I had flown the airplane quite a bit and others flying it noticed that the autopilot had an unnerving habit of hunting vigorously when in altitude-hold mode. It had been to the shop several times, but was intermittent and seemed to defy solution.

The day it went full-up bonkers, it did the little pitch bobble and then twirled toward full nose-down trim aggressively enough to brush my noggin on the overhead. I stabbed the red autopilot release and popped the trim circuit breaker, but not before the airplane dumped 200 feet. I knew exactly where that breaker was because I was a beneficiary of old-school avionics design that had the tech placing the breaker right in view of the pilot, there being no room for it down on the regular breaker panel next to the pilot’s left knee.

Some pilots who are nervous about such things or who have seen servos go berserk, have been known to mark them with colored tape so as to be easily visible in a panic. I’ve seen worse ideas. Part 23 requires a demo that the airplane can remain controllable “following any probable trim system runaway that might reasonably be expected in service.” All well and good, but landing one with full-up or down trim would be no picnic.

Of course, if you had a manual trim wheel, you could just retrim and go back to your cookies and coffee. But in an effort to simplify and lighten airframes, lots of new airplanes have only electric trim; no manual backup. Cirrus is one and I can’t recall the last light sport I flew that had manual trim. I’m sure there must be a few. Personally, I don’t like electric-only trim because no matter how slow the trim rate, for lack of feedback, you just can’t tweak it the way you can manual trim. When I flew the Vulcanair V1.0 for this video, I noted approvingly that it has only manual trim and it’s surgically accurate.

For saving weight and structure, I have no quarrel with electric-only trim. It’s reliable enough not to worry unduly about failures. I did a casual sweep through the service difficulty and NTSB accident reports and there are a few hits, but hardly enough to get lathered up about. With envelope protection now a thing and servos being given ever more responsibility, maybe we’ll see more anomalies. But as a potential accident cause, it appears to be a tiny sliver of the midair risk, which is itself quite small. Nonetheless, it’s just creepy not to have absolute control of something so basic as trim or to rely on a couple of wires and a cheap hat switch.

I’m not going to make this blog a treatise on the various autopilot and trim system designs and how to disable them. But I will suggest this: Why not haul out the AFM and review all this stuff for the airplane you fly? Can’t hurt and could help.

GAMA Promotes eVTOL Development
 
Mary Grady
 
 

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association will accelerate its efforts to work with European regulators to promote the development of electric VTOL aircraft, the association said this week. Thirty eVTOL experts from eight countries met with EASA, the European Commission and industry representatives over two days in Cologne and Brussels to discuss the future of the technology. “I think there is tremendous potential for Europe and beyond,” said Dorothee Bär, the German Federal State Minister for Digitisation. “Urban air mobility will become part of our daily life.”

Discussions focused on the regulatory framework needed for safe and sustainable integration of eVTOLs into Europe’s airspace, including topics such as certification, maintenance, operations, licensing and airspace management. “It’s great that the industry is getting together proactively to liaise with EASA on common standards,” Bär said. GAMA said it’s focused on “prioritizing the safe introduction of these new systems and technologies whilst making flying more accessible to the general public.”

Dornier Secures $170 Million In Funding
 
Jason Baker
 
 

Dornier Seawings reports having received approximately $170 million in funding from its Chinese shareholders to further develop the amphibious CD2 Seastar Flying Boat. The money will be used to prepare one of two existing prototypes for flight, which Dornier plans to accomplish by the middle of 2019. The company hopes to begin full line production in 2021.

In addition, Dornier says the investment will fund the construction of a new manufacturing facility at its headquarters in Wuxi, near Shanghai, China, and an expansion of its final assembly line, which is currently located in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. The German base is also home to Dornier’s flight testing center, research and development effort, and composite manufacturing facility.

Dornier has been working on the Seastar for more than 30 years. The aircraft first flew in 1984 and obtained U.S. and European certifications as far back as 1991. To date, no aircraft have been delivered. In 2013, Wuxi Communication & Industrial Development acquired the struggling project with the Dornier family retaining a minority stake.

With a planned 900-NM range, the CD2 seeks to compete with other manufacturers offering VIP transportation, charter, special mission and border patrol, and search and rescue services. Main interest in the aircraft stems from Asia, Europe and North America.

Aurora Introduces Solar-Powered Autonomous Aircraft
 
Kate O'Connor
 
 

Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences revealed a new solar-powered, autonomous high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) concept on Wednesday. As seen in the video below, the Odysseus is designed to be an ultra-long-endurance platform capable of performing research, communication, connectivity and intelligence missions. The company says the aircraft will have a payload capacity of 55 pounds and be capable of staying aloft “almost indefinitely.” Its first flight is scheduled for next spring.

“Aurora was founded by the idea that technology and innovation can provide powerful solutions to tough problems that affect all of humankind,” said Aurora CEO John Langford. “Odysseus offers persistence like no other solar aircraft of its kind, which is why it is such a capable and necessary platform for researchers.”

Some key features of Odysseus include the ability to persistently and autonomously remain on station, provide a greater year-round global operating zone than other vehicles in its class, and receive payload and hardware options and be quickly customized, re-tasked and relocated. According to Aurora, Odysseus was inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Daedalus project, which was led by Langford and other founding members of Aurora. Daedalus set distance and endurance records for human-powered aircraft in 1988.

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Picture of the Week, November 15, 2018
 
 
Flying over Lower Otay Lake in Chula Vista, CA, headed for home at John Nichols Field (0CL3) in my Avenger UL. Photo by Peter Sigrist.

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Chinese Flight Academy Orders 30 Tecnams
 
Jason Baker
 
 

Italian aircraft manufacturer Tecnam announced confirmed orders for 30 aircraft from Chinese Anhui Lantian International Flight Academy (ALIFA) at the biannual Zhuhai International Air Show last week. The ab-initio academy will acquire Tecnam P2006T twin-engine trainers, as well as P2010 models to replace its fleet of legacy training aircraft.

“We are so proud to partner with the Anhui Lantian International Flight Academy,” said Tecnam Global Sales and Marketing Director Walter Da Costa. “ALIFA have a well-earned reputation for delivering flight training to an exceptional standard and we are honored to be key partner in the future development of China’s next-generation of commercial airline pilots.”

With the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicting that China will displace the U.S. as the world's largest aviation market by 2022—two years sooner than previously expected—many Chinese aviation academies are working to keep ab-initio students in China to complete their airline pilot training. A large number of the new recruits are still moving to the United States, Europe and Australia to finish training. With pilot demand expected to continue growing in China, many seats are currently still filled by pilots from outside the country.

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