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Aug 17 2010

Safety and the Big Fat Market

Safety… Oh, that magic pogo stick, overwhelmingly superb to any other when it comes to the aviation marketing. Yes, we need lots of people to spent lots of money in flying – otherwise there will be nothing there, at least nothing reasonable, think pre-Wrights era. People are scared to die, so we can’t live without a concept of “safety” floating around, otherwise they will not pay to get in the air.

I love to study the NTSB records. Going through those monthly lists, carefully browsing both fatal and non-fatal accidents, searching by make and model, trying to understand reasons for those occurrences, merging in my head the fact that those killed or wounded pilots were more experienced than I, frequently with bigger and better ratings… I also tend to google the newspapers for the accident dates, pulling out the images of the catastrophe, names of the participants, words pronounced by their friends and relatives. It is a painful, but huge learning experience.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we somehow decided to make safety a priority over making money on flying. Main lesson carried out from such attempt will probably be that, first, despite all the technological improvements of the aircrafts and ground-based systems, crashes are still there – popular and common, occurring daily, with more or less same frequency and for the same reasons. Second stunning thing would be that those people who crashed were properly certified and tested, yet committed something dangerous and stupid that killed them.

I am not trying to be nasty here, but certain jobs grow in complexity up to the point where they become less and less doable by the waste majority of people. Think brain surgery – if one can do it, doesn’t mean everyone else could. Aviation comes close – even though modern aircraft allow idiots to get up in the air, goof around there and even return safely, feeling them bold and competent, it does not mean that each idiot is really supposed to fly.

There are both great idiot-filtering tools such as high wing-loading aircraft – and strong idiot-attracting objects such as well-marketed “safe” airplanes. Idiot will probably not live long enough while flying the Gee Bee. But he’s likely to invest that half a million into buying a brand-new Corvalis. There is nothing wrong with both airplanes, but idiot’s relatives would rather not see his charred body tangled with the Super Sportster remains.

There is no way to exclude human idiocy as a factor, or make idiot pilots ultimately safe – whatever amount of money they pay, alone or in group. They will find the way to crash even in the Cirrus with deployed parachute – hopefully without killing anyone else. Any attempt to minimize the number of flying retards will adversely affect a lot of good and safe folks from the backbone of the flying community and damage the market, making the prices for anything aviation (and “safety”!) related skyrocket.

I honestly don’t see other way to solve the safety problem, except for defining a way of filtering the idiots out, yet allowing the bigger number of those able to fly get in and go. The only acceptable rule here should be – “no chances for those who want to fly but are unable to work on themselves”, sorry!

Best suggestion here will be to eliminate a unified, “certificated” approach, based on the pilot exams and medical tests created with one-size-fits-all basis. That’s good to lure the masses into flying but safety-oriented training and testing should be custom – without any possibility of “preparing” to the tests, or cheating in any other way. Aspiring pilots must be expected to learn all the necessary, that’s fine, but the single most important thing in aviation is the decision making, not handles pulling or air law expertise.

Flight instructor will be a key person in this game. Knowledge of the aircraft systems, aerodynamics, legal, medical, etc, is assumed – and assumed to extend way beyond the basic “understanding” which most of the tests-passed instructors of today are sporting. But even this is not as important as the ability to judge the student decision making.

Training syllabus should be exclusively and meticulously situation-based, flexible, adjusted to each specific person pretending to fly. There is no value in demonstrating a straight and level stall – it should be either a full power climbing turn, or a power-off full flaps descending one, uncoordinated, accelerated – whatever works best for that specific student! No point in doing any abstract “maneuver” – instructor must be a magician able to understand where the weak areas of the students are and overwhelm him, intentionally poking in those areas.

We all know the guys like that – usually older folks, with lots of experience, always calm and with that little smile in their eyes, able to change your whole understanding of certain flight elements with just a little hint. God bless them for flying with us. Bad that there are very few of them around, as they are commonly considered to be not that good for a massive, money-making machine of the “commercial” training.

If the student is any good in flying – he will suffer, but be able to demonstrate initial understanding of the situation, ability to cope, and finally proficiency and being in total control. Those unable to learn being smart about flying even after lots of work pushed in, should be filtered as unfit and unsafe. Yes that is harsh and means that only few and chosen would be able to fly compared to the todays mass-market. Even lesser number of people will manage to be enough of a pilot and psychologist to teach in such way, but hey, don’t we all want to reduce those daily lists of crashes on to zero?

When the goal is a safe and efficient flying – mass-market for crappy pilots and “forgiving” flying machines is simply not there. Market for much less things of much higher quality things will blossom, for sure. And there is no intention to get the planes out of the skies – filtering does not need to be terminal!

One may be unable to properly fly the aerobatics, but shall be totally okay and safe in the transport plane. Another one would be a great glider pilot, but definitely not a jet jock. People with physical disabilities but right mindset and proper training can go to the skies and fly impressively, comparing to the healthy, but lazy and stupid bums.

Those discarded still may have a chance to improve themselves, return and move on. Some people are good to go at the age of 20; others may barely reach the same maturity level around 50+ and after some hard and personal events, that’s life. Go back and retry. If you are too lazy to do that, you are too unsafe to be left loose in the sky. It is just a rearrangement of the human resources I am talking about here, and for the common benefit.

Yes that obviously means that high level commercial flying will became less accessible and more expensive, and that is good – as soon as we will see the reduced number of accidents such as that sickening Continental crash in Buffalo. On the other hand, the low-end segment of the market will only benefit from both pronounced improvement of the actual safety, better pilots and aircraft involved. Prices will adapt, and those eligible will have no troubles to prove themselves and get a decent loan for a high-level career, or pay it out of the pocket for the low-level one. It is just a rearrangement of the market priorities I am talking about here, and for the common benefit.

Aviation-related prices are currently weird due to that fake concept of “safety” married to a small, “luxury” market, disregarding anything but luring the people within and squeezing them out of anything that looks like dollars while they stay. No positive result is assumed – distribution of that money involved sucks. It is spent on assholes going to fly the only way they can, while barring out those able to fly for not being money bags. What about opening way to the capable people while make assholes pay and filter out? Good for all, in my opinion…

There is no way to teach someone to be smart and make good decisions. This is one hell of a work which a person must impose on him or herself with a help of a useful tutor, continuing it non-stop self improvement throughout the whole flying career. And it applies to anyone – from weed hopper flyer to a jet jockey! There is a humiliatingly easy way to test our ability to make good decisions, which will frustrate the dream of many to get off the ground – but make the reality of it safer for all the rest.

Aug 8 2010

What I’ve Learned This Summer

Past spring I was feeling myself pretty bad regarding the whole flying thing. I’ve noticed that my maneuvering was not precise enough, that I dislike the way flying is organized in different places. I had troubles going along with ATC and overall my airman skills have degraded from what they used to be during the flight test. I decided to learn and improve myself, working in three general directions:

  • Discover and learn the new airports;
  • Fly the new types and makes of airplanes;
  • Rethink the organizational pattern from a flight school one to something more efficient.

Each of the steps worked, and proved to be exceptionally useful.

New airports: I have tried the narrow and short runways, located at the high elevation, surrounded with obstacles. I was not pretending to fly “soft field” or “short field” alone, I was actually flying the short AND soft field most of the time. It drastically improved my circuit work, taught me the actual hazards of errors, not the imagined ones. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of the actual field experience against any abstract training. None of those “keep the nose wheel up” things over the concrete taxiway comes even remotely close to the bouncing and banging over the muddy bumps, with flies and mosquitoes entering the cockpit and entertaining you.

You also need to constantly look around when flying unknown airfields – there are all sorts of people in the pattern, and sometimes ignoring the pattern all together. They won’t necessary talk on the radio, approaches could be curved to bypass the obstacles on final. Circuit altitudes need to be taken very carefully, you need to move your head and eyes all the time, noticing everything, and be immediately able to turn out of the possible crash. I have learned the value of looking at the shadow of my airplane to check if there is someone else close, and frantically glancing under the wing before even thinking about the turn. Yes, that is a lot of workload, but this makes you a much safer pilot.

Than there is a whole price/value relationship. Most of the modern flight schools are situated within some sort of controlled airspace, which means that students are paying for hours and hours of taxiing, holding short, circling, going around and such – accompanied by a training area located in about half an hour flight outside of the airport. That’s a lot of money thrown away for nothing, plus lots of nerves wasted in working through a complex environment when barely able to control the aircraft properly. Not good.

Out of the city private airfields, in comparison, does not drain your money in similar way, you can fly much more, dedicate your time and effort to the actual handling of the aircraft, without need to wrestle the system. Together with a lower level of requirements to the “recreational” and ultralight pilots, it makes for a much more useful and cheap flying school, than any of the commercial ones. You just go and learn to do what you love, the best way you can. Good!

Taildraggers: That was another great move. Simply put, no Cessna pilot can possibly attain or even realize the need of attaining certain skills, that taildragger pilot have to understand and master. Coordination, attitude flying, lookout, footwork – all these come far and beyond the “yoke flying”, common for most of the modern airplane drivers.

Let’s take an adverse yaw as an example. Cessnas have it completely engineered out with their complex and efficient ailerons and meticulously calculated sizes of the flying and control surfaces. You can drive it all the way through the skies without even realizing that something is wrong! And this “something” would be a very important link between the arm and leg movement, which should be perfectly coordinated and barely noticeable. Cessna pilots, including instructors, are in general not used to even think about coordination beyond “keep the ball centered” (if you want to) level. That’s why when it comes to uncoordinated flight things almost invariantly up end with the stall/spin accidents – just check the NTSB database.

I totally love and appreciate the fact that now I do check where the plane’s nose is pointing to, and that my arms and legs are moving properly. The machine I was flying did not initially have a slip-skid indicator, but when it was installed later on – I was keeping the ball centered simply by “instinct”, without even looking at it! More, when I was trying to coordinate looking at the instrument, it was much less precise and quick than when flying the “seat of the pants”. By the way I would not say that it describes the feeling correctly – mostly I am keeping an imagined “line” going from nose to tail of the plain aligned with the flight path, or angled to it, as desired.

Of all those interesting things, Cessna was only asking me to compensate for the prop effects, and only if I was not busy with something else – so I’m glad to learn that there is a lot beyond that point…

Attitude flying: This is another thing that taildraggers flying really taught me, and it become only better when applied to flying the conventional gear aircrafts. It is perfectly possible and good to set an exact airspeed by simply placing the nose higher or lover over the horizon. Yes that’s a common knowledge, but how much of you guys can set fifty knots just glancing over the nose of your plane, or at the wing? What about switching that to seventy or forty knots, on demand, immediately, barely double-checking the airspeed indicator? I am learning to do it right now and am totally happy about it! Cessna’s comfortable instrument panel was, again, way too helpful to let me learn the airspeed control properly.

Attitude flying, coordination and ability to synchronize the flight path with longitudinal axis of the aircraft lead directly to the three-pointer landings. I should admit I am still learning to do that with all the necessary elegance, but hey, how much I’ve gained on the way to it! Taxi, landing or taking off in a conventional gear airplane now looks like a silly joke – I am not exaggerating!

Think about the “adding a little bit of power” while practicing the soft-fields in the Cessna – you set certain rpm and land long and soft, that’s it. Now with the taildragger we may routinely float over the runway (or other surface) in the ground effect, touching down exactly where needed. You can land harder or softer, shorter or longer, keep the plane under total control and maintain any airspeed/attitude you want, not only during the approach, but through the flare and touchdown! You can save all but the worst bounces, easily control the ground looping tendencies, dance on the pedals, making the touchdown precise and smooth with small, barely noticeable movements! That’s a lot, and incredibly cool…

I still have a long way to go in this department, but comparing to the Cessna take-off and landing operations, it is just another world. Like an acrobat stunts compared to the baby first steps.

Ground loops: So much talking about them, and yes, the whole movement of the plane out of control looks and feels scary. It is immediate and requires being calm and proficient to counter it before the loop even thinks to happen. Is it somehow imminent? Depends on what you are flying, where and how. If it is a nice and controllable plane in reasonable conditions, you will have to work hard to ground-loop it. If that’s a little short-coupled bitch with barely enough directional control and stability over the harsh surface and with nasty crosswind – you’d be probably destined to ground loop even being a good pilot, just a question of statistical probability.

What the whole movement of the tail beyond the main wheels teaches you is the same ever important thing – thinking ahead of the plane, staying alert, not panicking, moving controls in a coordinated, smart and efficient way, always understanding the axis of the plane related to the flying path. It makes you incomparably better pilot as opposed to the Cessna driving. And there is nothing wrong with Cessnas – problem is that you only learn in them how to drive, not to fly! In all honesty, even being licensed, I was not a pilot before I’ve encountered the taildraggers and learned how to handle them.

Homebuilts: Ah, those weird and sometimes crude flying machines… Can’t tell you how much you can expand your horizons flying them! Tail-wheel and conventional gear, with pushing or pulling props, strange flight dynamics and sometimes outright weird cockpits and controls – those hand-made machines can be incredibly rewarding and fun to fly. They can also teach you way beyond that expensively and efficiently designed Cessnas, Pipers or Cirruses can possibly do. I’ve realized many things thanks to the ultralights and homebuilts flying, and am totally confident that without them my understanding of what aviation is about would be quite limited.

Another great thing about homebuilts is the people around them. Those guys are simply wonderful… Smart, dedicated, totally in love with flying and tinkering with their aircraft, full of hands-on knowledge and funny prejudices… I love to see them around, talk to them, listen, ask, and study their machines. Those are the best folks you can possibly find in the world of aviation – nothing to do with overly commercialized “professionals”. Any of those gray-haired dudes with 20-30 years of quite risky flying experience is a far cry beyond the abilities of the typical young hobbs-focused “instructor” in the commercial flying school, thinking only about his future career as an airline pilot.

I had an honor and privilege to fly with Wayne Winters, Eugene Novinski and other historical persons in the ultralight and homebuilt world, and am absolutely thankful that it happened. I’ve learned a lot from those Pilots and hope to learn a lot more in the future.

Resuming: Diversity is the key. Different planes, different airports and unknown terrain make you much, much better flier than you can ever dream to be while driving a same make and model within a fifty-mile circle around your home base. I am very glad that I’ve bothered myself to go through all that additional training – I’ve learned a lot and become much more of a pilot then I was after receiving my license.

Next steps would be improving the taildragger skills, learning the aerobatics, working on the STOL performance and trying more and more airplanes, probably purchasing one of those fantastic homebuilt kits later on. Let’s see. And I can only recommend to any PPL get out of the familiar routine of Cessna or Piper driving and try the real thing. If you are serious about flying, you would definitely love that, I promise!