November 2000 Issue

A Distracted JFK?

Cockpit tasks could have played a bigger role than disorientation

I have my own opinion about what caused the Kennedy accident. My experience level is very similar to Kennedy’s. I have similar (if fewer) hours (200), similar (if more) hood time, similar solo vs. dual ratio.

Clearly the plane did a graveyard spiral, but I disagree that the cause was spatial disorientation. Had he looked at his instruments (early enough), his documented training and ability was adequate to react.

His problem, I submit, was that when it came time to look up ATIS and tower frequencies, his passengers were not able to help. He had to look them up himself either in the airport guide or try to decipher them off the sectional in bad light. He then had to set his radios.

While he did all this, nothing warned him the plane was going into a spiral. If my own plane is any indication, a slightly heavy wing with a little more fuel in it can put the plane into an ever-increasing bank inside of ten seconds. It takes that long to just to fumble around getting out and unfolding the sectional. If he did, in fact, ever look up, it was likely too late.

I recall reading in these pages awhile back about two experienced IFR pilots going into such a dive over LA, ostensibly because both were “head down.” Clearly it happens.

Perhaps we need to train pilots more about how distractions can cause problems as easily as spatial disorientation, especially for low-time pilots. For instance, while under the hood, make students look up a few tower and VOR frequencies and make them dial them in. (Then see how good they are at recovering from the inevitable unusual attitudes.)

High-time pilots are usually the experts asked to study such incidents. Because distraction management for such pilots is by now second nature, perhaps it’s difficult for them to recall just how distracting things could get. On the other hand, as a low-time pilot, I can clearly visualize Kennedy’s distraction and I can just as clearly relate to why his CFI said he was not (yet) good at multi-tasking in instrument situations.

In my opinion, Kennedy was distracted, not disoriented.

-Eric Hall
Via e-mail

Your speculation is consistent with research that shows the critical role distractions play in causing accidents. The exact scenario that played out in the cockpit of Kennedy’s Saratoga, however, will never be known.


Not Dead Yet, Part III
What is Frank Del Vecchio’s profession? From what profession is he writing his “opinion” in “Not Dead Yet, Part II” [Unicom, September]? In courts of law, only experts in a field of endeavor are given the privilege of their opinion.

His “gossip” is a carryover from the ’50s and ’60s. I refer to his comment, “... the reason physicians have such a poor reputation for safety.”

Physicians/surgeons do not have any worse safety record than any profession. As an example, how many of the accidents reported in the present issue involve physicians/surgeons?

-Charles Nicholson
Via e-mail

Since you asked, Mr. Del Vecchio is a physician and U.S. Navy flight surgeon who holds CFII and commercial glider ratings.


Not Dead Yet, Continued
Do something with Del Vecchio’s slur on physician pilots. There was a report 10 or 15 years ago in which accidents in this high profile group were prominent. The report covered a very short two-year period as I recall, and it also pointed out how difficult it was to categorize by profession the rest of the general aviation pilot population.

Subsequent data I believe have shown the physician safety record to be no worse or better than average. And by the way, hasn’t everyone noticed how often there is a CFI in the cockpit in a midair?

-William Lyons
Via e-mail

The reputation doctors have of flying high-performance airplanes poorly certainly exists, hence the nickname Bonanzas earned as “fork-tailed doctor killers.” But the moniker could just as easily be applied to just about any high-paying career, since those are the people who tend to fly the most.


Not Dead Yet, Reprise
I read with interest Mr. Del Vecchio’s letter and thought I might have some insight into one of his comments concerning financially successful pilots buying more airplane than they have the discipline to maintain proficiency in and then indicating that was why physicians have such a poor reputation for safety.

I am a physician and those of my colleagues who fly are conscientious pilots. Some of us have expensive planes (if new) but all of us bought them used, usually very used. On our ramp the expensive planes are owned by attorneys and dot-com executives. But I am not taking offense at the comment (it may be true), just the assumption that it is money that makes physicians a little more dangerous.

More than any group in the country, a physician’s entire professional career is based on the careful juggling of risk assessment with perceived gain, the same sort of decision-making a pilot makes. We are trained to take risks and do take them daily.

When we perform surgery or prescribe medication which potentially could be fatal, things usually turn out well partially because of our risk assessment and skill, but also because the patient wishes to get well and is on our side. Some physicians begin to believe that their successes are entirely due to their skill, giving them a sense of invincibility in their assessment of risks and appraisal of their own capability.

They are forgetting a critical point. The laws of physics want us on the ground, not in the air and they want us on the ground as quickly as possible. Unlike in medicine, survival of the pilot is not an issue.

I believe that a component of the accident rate among physicians is due to their experience with constant risk taking and how it affects their opinions of themselves. As Clint Eastwood said in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” In flying, truer words were never spoken. It would be interesting to see what the accident statistics reveal if accidents were grouped based upon the career of the pilot.

-Barry Jeffries
Via e-mail

Although the accident reports have a spot to indicate the pilot’s profession, many investigators merely put “civil” or “business,” which effectively renders the entry useless for information purposes. If the NTSB ever starts taking the entry seriously, we’ll be glad to do the research.


Bam-Bam in the Right Seat
Every day I sift through the mail looking for the next issue of Aviation Safety. My face smiles when it finally does show up. I almost drop everything and quickly scan through it. Later that evening I read it cover to cover. The September issue hit home with the pre-flight article. The part I liked the most was the comparison of airplane doors to car doors.

I take this for granted, for I’ve been closing aircraft doors for the last 15 years. I took a customer of mine up just last month for a New York City/Hudson tour. He was a bright guy so I didn’t need to tell him how to get in the aircraft and how to buckle his seat belt.

But I sure wish I had briefed him on door closure procedures. We were getting ourselves settled in, I decided to bring up ATIS and have it play while I settled into the cockpit.

It was warm, so I left both doors of my Commander 114 open. I was adjusting my yoke clip when Bam! and then again Bam! At first I thought, “What the ?!?!?!?” Then, without looking, I realized what he was trying to do. He damn near broke the door off. ’Nuff said there.

I decided to give him the full briefing. I even showed him where the sick sacks were. The lesson to be learned is don’t assume that others will know what you know. We’ve each come a long way as pilots and we are far beyond the normal layperson.

-Roman Sawycky
Mountainside, N.J.


Spiral Bound
As a long-time believer in the importance of the graveyard spiral, I was glad to see “Unnatural Reaction” [Accident Probe, September] by Thomas Oneto.

I would like to clarify one statement he makes. Oneto states “the entry is insidious – resulting from spatial disorientation.” This might lead the reader to believe that pilot confusion is an essential beginning to the spiral scenario. One characteristic of the graveyard spiral that makes it so insidious is that disorientation is absolutely unnecessary.

Wolfgang Langewiesche noted this in his classic book on the art of flying, “Stick and Rudder”: “That the average airplane really wants to spiral dive is the cause of an effect that has cost many a life.” Most pilots don’t know this, due to improper training and bad textbooks. The brand-new FAA “Airplane Flying Handbook,” Publication No. FAA-H-8083-3, contains the same old erroneous statements about lateral stability that have been printed in many flight training texts.

In the Turns section: “Shallow turns are those in which the bank (less than approximately 20 degrees) is so shallow that the inherent lateral stability of the airplane is acting to level the wings unless some aileron is applied to maintain the bank.” In the Basic Instrument Flight section: “The airplane is inherently stable and, except in turbulent air, will maintain approximate straight and level flight if left alone.”

If these statements were true, an autopilot would be virtually unnecessary. Pilots who believe these fallacies might delude themselves into thinking they can fly in IMC without an instrument rating. General aviation accidents like the Kennedy tragedy leave no indication as to pilot mental processes. However, the presence of a CVR has disclosed that some air carrier graveyard spiral mishaps occurred because the crew failed to detect that a spiral entry was taking place.

Oneto’s article is generally very good, but I believe it is imperative to emphasize the significant fact that almost all airplanes have a built-in spiral tendency.

-Don Smith
San Diego, Calif.


How to Avoid Without Seeing?
I’m troubled by the lack of an affordable collision avoidance system for GA. We are all taught that “see and avoid” is absolutely mandatory for safe flight. However, this advice often simply is inadequate due to: (1) simply not seeing the other guy in spite of a careful watch (head on approaches and high wing aircraft rising into low wing aircraft both come to mind); and (2) with the increasing array of electronic equipment to be found in and available for the cockpit, the attention of more and more pilots appears to be focused inside the cockpit instead of outside of it, increasing the risk of midair collision.

I’m not talking about collision danger in the traffic pattern, but rather collision danger at altitude and away from airports: places that too many pilots appear to regard as “safe.” Hence, outside scans become less frequent and more casual. Some reliable CAS system is needed now and even more in the future for any type of flying.

My flying is strictly VFR on largely clear sunny days in a fairly slow plane (PA-28-140) in the Portland/Northern Oregon area. Within the last three months the following incidents have occurred to me:

While traversing Class G airspace over foothills/farmland in level flight at 3,500 feet and 110 knots nowhere near an airport, a pilot in a Cessna doing figure 8’s from low to high altitude almost hit my tail while climbing. He couldn’t see me due to his high wing and I couldn’t see him because he was rising up into me from behind.

While cruising at 6,500 feet and 115 knots in Class G over farmland/low foothills a V-tailed Bonanza intersected my course directly ahead and less than 100 feet above me. (I could easily see the individual oil stains and streaks on his cowling.) I simply didn’t see him and I can only suppose he didn’t see me. There was no warning at all. I always fly with both my navigation and landing lights on and fly very cautiously watching for other traffic. In reviewing both incidents, I cannot think of a single thing I could have done that would have given me some timely warning of these inbound aircraft.

Since I would like to enjoy my flying and not be constantly straining my eyes simultaneously in all directions and living in fear about the one plane out there I simply don’t see until it’s too late, I decided to see about installing a collision avoidance system to warn me.

Here’s what I found out: There are three companies making such systems for “general aviation” (their description).

The B.F. Goodrich Skywatch costs in excess of $24,000. Ryan International has several systems. The cheapest one is nice but fails to tell you the bearing to the other traffic. The system does tell you altitude differentiation between you and the nearest traffic, whether it’s inbound or outbound from you and the distance to other traffic. It costs $6,000 before installation, which adds another $1,000 or so. Monroy Aerospace has a portable unit that sells for less than $800. The problem is, this unit will just tell you there is traffic within 1,500 feet vertically and four miles horizontally. No bearing, no altitude information.

I’m shocked that such a basic safety feature costs so much. The Ryan system appears to be the most cost effective one. Still...

My question to you is this: Do you know of another company that makes a more affordable CAS system? Is there another way to acquire an early warning capability to detect incoming aircraft?

Judging from the comments I have heard from other pilots, some cost effective method of warning us of impending midair collisions is well overdue. What light can you shed on this issue?

-Langton Richards
Via e-mail

We’ll have a report on the state of the art of traffic avoidance technology in an upcoming issue. In the meantime, here’s some food for thought.

The number of actual mid-air collisions each year involving general aviation aircraft that do not happen in an airport traffic pattern can be counted on one hand.

When it comes to near mid-air collisions, data from NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System showed that only 3.6 percent of the reports filed in the last 12 years dealt with near mid-air collisons involving general aviation airplanes and 0.8 percent involved two GA airplanes.

Granted, the majority probably go unreported, but it may give an indication of why equipment manufacturers aren’t clamoring for a solution.