Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Debunking the 'scary landings' video

(Cross-posted from the day job)

Among the "viraliest" of the viral videos being picked up by "news" sites in the last few weeks is this video showing "scary" and "dangerous" landings in jetliners. Commenter Jim Shapiro forwards the latest victim of the supposition, the Huffington Post.

Said the Huffington Post:

The planes, from Emirates to Thomas Cook, approach the runway at odd angles to compensate for the high winds, which were gusting up to 55 knots on the day, Bogdan says.

Landing (and takeoff) is statistically riskier than other parts of the flight, 'Miracle on the Hudson' pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger' told us over the summer, due to cloud height, wind and visibility, among other things. Now we see why.

"Look at these impossible landings," a TV anchor on WCCO declared the other morning while showing the video.

Let's analyze what's really happening here. While it's flying, a plane doesn't move against the wind, it's in the wind. If the winds are blowing 55 mph across a runway (it's not here although the suggestion is that it is, but that's another discussion), the plane is also moving at 55 mph across a runway . That's not a good thing.

What the pilots of these planes are actually doing is making very professional and safe approaches. They're turning the nose into the wind -- against the wind, really -- in order to align with the the centerline of the runway...drifting neither left nor right. Where you do see the plane drifting, is the pilot calculating how much of an angle is necessary to align the jetliner's track with the centerline of the runway.

But, of course, you can't actually land that way, so shortly before touchdown, the pilot uses the plane's rudder to align the nose with the runway, so as not to put any "side load" on the landing gear. Every plane has a maximum "crosswind component" to help pilots calculate whether a landing can be made safety given a certain amount of wind and the angle at which it intersects the runway. So what you see above, while an example of pilot skill, is not luck at work.

If a pilot needs more time to get the angle right, he/she simply "goes around" and tries the approach again. Look up on any day with a light breeze the next time a small plane flies over your house, and the chances are the nose of the plane is not aligned with the path (heading) of the plane. Same thing.

Think of it this way: You're crossing a river with a canoe. If you point the canoe to the spot on the opposite shore where you intend to disembark, the current will carry you downstream. So, you point the canoe upstream of where you want to land and between your heading and the current, the result is usually a straight line to your intended "touchdown." With any luck when you get to the other side, there's nobody there with a camera to tell you how dangerous, scary, or impossible it was.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oshkosh in winter

Yes, it's a lovely video of landing at Pioneer Airport on skis. But what I find most interesting is the flight over a snowed-in Camp Scholler. Find your "spot."

Monday, January 23, 2012

NTSB's probe into experimental aircraft accidents

The NTSB today said it has finished collecting data on accidents involving experimental aircraft.

Here's the NTSB news release:

WASHINGTON - Throughout the 2011 calendar year, the National
Transportation Safety Board has been conducting a study of
Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) aircraft to evaluate the
safety of this growing and innovative segment of general
aviation. In addition to using the information gathered
during its accident investigations, the NTSB has been
working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the
Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and individual
owners and builders to evaluate a range of issues unique to
this popular segment of general aviation.

"The cooperation we have received from EAA and the E-AB
community has been tremendous," said NTSB Chairman Deborah
A.P Hersman. "Through this study, we hope that we'll be able
to give the innovators and aviators in the community
information about accidents that will result in a real and
immediate safety payoff for them when they are flying these

As part of the study, NTSB investigators have conducted in-
depth investigations of 222 E-AB aircraft accidents that
occurred during 2011. Fifty-four of these accidents resulted
in 67 fatalities. Most of these accidents (93%) involved
amateur-built airplanes, the remaining accidents involved
gyroplanes (4%), helicopters (2%), and gliders (1%). These
accidents occurred in 44 states, with California (18
accidents), Texas (16 accidents), and Florida (14 accidents)
accounting for the most. More than half (53%) of the E-AB
accidents investigated in 2011 involved E-AB aircraft that
were bought used, as opposed to having been built by the
current owner.

The EAA has supported the study by conducting a web-based
survey of E-AB owners and builders. More than 5,000 E-AB
owners and builders responded to EAA's survey, and 4,923 of
these responses were sufficiently complete to use in
analyses. Most respondents (97%) described E-AB airplanes,
while gliders, gyrocopters, and helicopters were each
described by slightly less than 1% of the respondents.

Sixty-three percent of respondents had already built their
E-AB aircraft, 13% were currently building their E-AB
aircraft, and nearly 24% had bought used E-AB aircraft. More
than 340 distinct makes of amateur-built aircraft were
reported, although kit manufacturers accounted for more than
55% of the reported aircraft.

"The NTSB is extremely pleased with the number of
respondents who participated in the survey," said Dr. Joseph
Kolly, Director of the Office of Research and Engineering.
"The survey data provides us with quantifiable, factual
information that enriches our understanding of how E-AB
aircraft are built and operated."

The safety study is scheduled to be completed in the spring
of 2012.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Risk and the perfect picture

(This is a cross-posting from my day job)

There's no question that Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin's aerial photographs of the Crashed Ice event are some of the most spectacular photographs ever taken of the Capital City. True to the nature of geeky pilots, I wondered how it was possible the pilot could legally -- not to mention, skillfully -- get them.

It was difficult airspace for the pilot of the Cessna aircraft to navigate, given the smokestacks along the river (note: they're not so much aviation hazards as they are markers of the point at which the big airport's airspace begins at ground level), the height of the Cathedral, and the heavily-controlled airspace overhead that's meant to protect the jets at the big airport. Any safe pilot is always mindful of the possibility of an engine failure, but Garvin's pilot left himself with few options if something had gone wrong.

Having witnessed the plane circling the Cathedral at a low altitude on Saturday, I tweeted on Sunday that the pilot may have been breaking the regulations to help Garvin get his shot. He was that low.

In MinnPost writer David Brauer's excellent interview with Garvin, the suspicion was confirmed with this passage:

"We had to fly low because of the smokestack of the District Energy power plant. The pilot mentioned a couple of times, 'We're too low, we might get in trouble.' I was kind of saying 'Do what you have to do, but keep doing it,'" the photographer says with a chuckle. "He said he hardly ever got to do cool things like this. He was banking sharp, and flying in high-traffic airspace, so it was technically challenging."

It was also likely illegal at some point. Here's the relevant FAA regulation:

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

If the engine had failed, there was nowhere for Garvin and his pilot to go but into a neighborhood, building, or the crowd below (one might have been able to limp over to the Sears parking lot to minimize the toll). And on ( b), the pilot also likely failed. The highest obstacle in the area, of course, was the Cathedral at 306 feet, requiring a minimum altitude of 1,306 above it. That would have put him in the so-called Class B airspace above the city, which protects the jets landing at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. It appears that he was circling just outside the reach of the controllers at the downtown St. Paul airport.

This photo, which raced around the Twitterverse -- and deservedly so -- reveals the pilot was no more than 200-500 feet above the top of the spire (estimate adjusted for the use of an 80-200 mm lens).

Who couldn't look at that beauty all day?

And fortunately, airplanes don't usually develop mechanical problems, and Garvin wasn't responsible for following aviation rules -- his job was to get the shot. But the regulations exist because of the high risk involved in low- altitude flights with steep turns, which increase the danger of a stall/spin crash that, in this case, could have far eclipsed the toll in the recent Reno airshow crash.

A study by the Aviation Safety Foundation found that 80 percent of all crashes involving a stall/spin, began within 1,000 feet of the ground.

The challenge of photographing an event like Crashed Ice is also why TV news organizations use helicopters for their photo platforms. The FAA regulations exempt helicopter pilots from the minimum safe altitude requirements above, as long as the helicopters are flown "without hazard to persons or property on the surface."

It's hard to know whether the "trouble" the pilot of the plane was concerned about was the potential problem of an engine failure, or the possibility the FAA would find out .

The FAA has not yet responded to inquiries on the matter, and it's fairly unlikely it will.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The pre-inspection inspection

In a week in which the value and future of EAA with regard to homebuilders has been rightly questioned, I was reminded today -- as if I needed to be -- that RV builder groups are much more valuable for people building airplanes than an other source of advice.

Fortunately for me, two of the most knowledgeable RV builders on the planet live in the Twin Cities and, even more fortunately for me, think nothing of giving up three hours on a Sunday afternoon to go over my RV-7A project before the FAA D.A.R. (likely, Tim Mahoney, another RV builder who knows these guys well) takes a crack at it.

Doug Weiler has headed the Twin Cities RV Builders Group since at least the time when I thought an RV came on four wheels. He and Tom Berge showed up at the hangar today, Doug announcing that the "guys who destroy dreams" had arrived.

By nature, I assume I've done stuff wrong, so I'm always a little skittish about having people look at my work too closely. But when I was building, I constantly heard Tom's voice in my ear. Years ago, I did an interview with him for the RV Builder's Hotline. So I knew -- generally -- what he'd be looking for.

He's done so many inspections, he now has a form to check every little thing. He crawls into places that make me hurt just thinking about it. Nothing escapes his notice. When he called out a problem, I wrote it down on the paper covering my workbench. See? (click here for the large image)

The biggest problem he found were the jam nuts not tight on the forward elevator pushrod, some loose bolts on the fuel tank attach, and the lack of a backout bracket on the TruTrak wing leveler (they were introduced well after I'd bought and installed mine). He had great ideas.

He also told me to change the breather tube route that some people on Van's Air Force had told me to make, after seeing my original route (down around the oil filter was the original). It was a good reminder that sometimes the information you get in a builder's forum, isn't as good as the information you get from a rootin' tootin' expert.

Tom even found a missing cotter pin on the left nut on the right pedal of the rudder/brake pedal on the pilot's side.

One more tip: For an RV-7A bottom cowl rear hinges, a piece of .063 angle should be riveted across the three most inboard rivets of the hinge. Otherwise, Tom said, the "eyes" of these hinges tend to break.

I knew Tom would point out that the oil pressure transducer line and the fuel pressure transducer line should have firesleeve on it, even though Van's' instructions don't call for it, and many others say it's not needed. But he makes a very compelling argument for it to take simple precautions to prevent a fire under the cowling.

One very interesting piece of advice: Tom suggested disconnecting the aileron trim before the first flight. Otherwise, he said, it'll be hard to detect a heavy wing.
Then, once fixed ("it's easy to fix a heavy wing," he says), it can be reconnected.

It'll take me a few weeks to work my way through all of these things, but I'm not in a hurry.

And when Tim Mahoney takes a look at this bird for the actual inspection, I'm betting when he finds out Doug and Tom have already given it the once-over, and the appropriate items have been fixed, that'll make his job, and my day, a lot easier.

Here are most of the specific items:

1) Move oil breather hose back to the way I had it before VAF told me I should change it.
2) Separate engine probe wire bundle from starter cable
3) Safety wire the dipstick assembly better
4)Set engine idle to just above stall (haven't done any tinkering on actual engine operation)
5)Firesleeve the oil and fuel lines to the transducers
6) Use a cork, rather than a typical paper, gasket between the fuel servo and the FAB plate.
7) Attach .063 angle across the innermost three rivets on the bottom of the cowling aft hinges. The eyes tend to break in that spot.
8) Seal inside of lower cowling with a white epoxy.
9) Torx screws on the wing tips but do not use any stainless on fuel tank attach points.
10) Retorque all fuel tank attach bracket bolts (one or two were loose)
11) Tighten jam nuts on the forward elevator pushrod
12) Disconnect aileron trim before first flight to aid in establishing whether there's a heavy wing.
13) Add backout bracket prevention to TruTrak wing leveler (mine was purchased before TT made these available)
14) Use foam to seal the forward gap between the main wing spar and the fuse. Aileron boots not needed.
15) Silicon seal area around the bottom edge of the rear window.
16) Use a longer flap weldment bolt
17) Change -8 screws in flap housing covers to 3/8" length.
18) The left aileron push tube is binding, rod ends bearings aren't clocked properly. Loosen jam nuts, adjust, tighten.
19) Right flap pushrod also binding for same reason.
20) Crotch strap bracket...use a spacer and bolts to to tie front and back together rather than nutplate through the floor.
21) Top rib cutout under floor (for installing yoke) is cracked.
22) Bolt missing on passenger stick spreader bar
23) Add washers to the ball joint installation for canopy struts
24) Add led to elevator counterbalance
25) Cotter pin missing on left side of right pedal bolt on pilot side
26) All tires to 40 pounds
27) Double check to be sure the forward tank attach bolt wasn't torqued down.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cuts at EAA

It appears to be Black Thursday at the EAA. From what I am told, Twenty to 30 people were let go today, including the people who put together the electronic newsletters (and including Fareed Guyout, who has been a very good friend to the homebuilder community and EAA Radio's efforts during Oshkosh).

The people who were let go were told to leave immediately and there is a staff meeting getting underway today at 4pm (CT) for those who remain.

I don't yet know if there was a funding reduction somewhere or if this is a strategic shift but have messages in to EAA.

Update 4:43 p.m. More information from inside:

* The cuts appear to be more than 35 people.

* Two staff laisons to EAA Radio were cut.

* The entire E-pubs division was cut (except Ric Reynolds).

* All video and photography was cut. (Goodbye, Tips for Homebuilders?)

A recently appointed VP (& new head of AirVenture) is rumored to have resigned in protest.

Update 5:24 p.m. Just got an email response from Dick Knapinski.
Here's the release he just put out:

EAA AVIATION CENTER, OSHKOSH, Wis. — (Jan. 12, 2012) — EAA President/CEO Rod Hightower today announced changes that will allow the 170,000-member organization to better fulfill its mission to grow participation in aviation. EAA is strengthening and reshaping the organization to capture the opportunities within its long-term strategic plan. As a result, the organization will be adding important capabilities, and aligning its resources with strategic priorities

“This will strengthen our organization in several key areas to more effectively meet the needs of our members, donors and aviators,” Hightower said. “We’ve made these moves after spending the past year reviewing EAA’s operations to best align them with the organization’s goals, and listening to many EAA members and supporters regarding the most valued areas of EAA.”

The changes include the addition of new positions, transfers of responsibilities, and the elimination of some positions. There are also senior leadership changes as well, including:

Jeff Skiles – Vice President, Chapters and Youth Education. Skiles is already well known as one of the famed “Miracle on the Hudson” pilots and for the past two years as Young Eagles co-chairman. He brings a wealth of aviation experience and passion to this new role as EAA strengthens and expands its global Chapter network and industry-leading Youth Education initiatives and programs.

Chad Jensen – Manager of EAA’s Homebuilders Community. Jensen brings extensive homebuilding experience and aviation skills to this important role as EAA increases its knowledge and information capabilities for Homebuilders and the amateur-built segment of aviation. He will have extensive involvement with Flight Advisors, Tech Counselors and the passionate community of builders.

Heidi Strand of Blue Door Consulting in Oshkosh will lead EAA Marketing on an interim basis while EAA completes a search for a Vice President of Marketing. Strand will lead EAA’s brand and marketing capabilities and also be responsible for EAA digital media properties and strategy.

Vice President, AirVenture. This newly created role will lead the world’s premier aviation event to continued growth and importance as the preeminent general aviation marketplace.

“Much thought and collaboration has been invested in the reshaping process to make EAA a stronger organization, better equipped to lead aviation and welcome the next generation of aviators,” Hightower said.

Update 5:29 p.m. RVer Chad Jensen, homebuilt community manager, moves to senior leadership position.

Update 5:47 p.m. More names of the departed leaking out: Steve Buss (Young Eagles and Chapter relations), Ron Wagner, Sue Lurvey, Adam Smith.

Update 5:51 p.m. Adam Smith, AirVenture manager and VP resigned.

Update 7:13 p.m. Also out: Jim Koepnick of EAA photo, Rob McAllister of EAA video. There is still video/photo capability Jim Soyk, still on staff.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Starved and Exhausted: Why can't pilots manage fuel?

There's really no excuse that I can think of for running out of fuel other than either willful stupidity or the passive kind. My flying buddy was surprised the other day when he pulled his flying club's Arrow out of the hangar and discovered a right fuel tank run almost completely dry. How do you miss that? Wouldn't you at some point wonder why you were rolling in so much control out put to keep the heavy wing from dropping.

True, whoever ran it dry had another tank to count on once the big fan in the front stopped turning, but the event is an example of fuel mismanagement or, more accurately, no management at all.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau today issued "Starved and Exhausted," a report on the number of fuel starvation incidents in that country, which obviously has plenty of application here. Stupidity knows no boundaries. (Here's the pdf of the report)

The report documents several common problems by citing several individual cases. Coincidentally, this one rings a bell:

These occurrences are sometimes referred to as ‘finger-troubles’, on the basis that a pilot did not ‘use his/her fingers’ to select the tank with more fuel remaining. It is probably more helpful to look at why the pilot did not make that selection in the first place.

The simpler an aircraft’s fuel system, the easier it is to avoid selecting the wrong tank. A Cessna 150, with a separate fuel tank in each wing, has a very simple fuel selection, either ‘off’ or ‘on’. Although the Cessna 172 and 182 have a similar fuel system, the fuel selector has four selections; ‘off’, ‘both’ wing tanks at the same time, or either wing tank. In contrast, the Piper single engine training fleet all have separate wing tanks, but only one tank can be selected at any one time.

Once a selection of tanks is available, there is a greater chance of selecting the empty one, and the greater the number of tanks, the greater the chance of a mistake. The risks are increased when pilots forget to change tanks during the cruise when workload is lower, or when pilots forget to select the appropriate tank prior to the approach to land. Although tank selection for approach and landing is often specified in the aircraft flight manual, following this procedure will only be successful if the pilot has also ensured that there is sufficient fuel in the required tank for landing.

These risks are best managed by the strict application of a standard procedure, fuel logs and checklists. If a pilot is disciplined in always writing down a tank change with the time of the change, then any doubt about whether a tank was changed can be checked against the fuel log. If a tank change had been forgotten, then there will be enough information available to work out how to rebalance the fuel quantities. The use of a fuel log is discussed in the next case study.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The RV paperweight

I "finished" N614EF after a more-than-10-year construction over the weekend. And I sat down to figure out how to finance getting it into the air, only to realize -- again -- I can't. So there it sits, ready to be inspected, and presumably ready to fly. But the sales tax, insurance, and transition training costs are -- for now -- insurmountable, especially since my wife's unemployment started yesterday and who knows how long that will last. I also badly timed getting an estate plan put together which comes with a $4,000 legal bill. D'oh!

In the meantime, though, I'm buoyed by the RVers who produce great videos.

Like this one:

(h/t: Fun Places to Fly)