March 2002 Issue

Feeding Skeptics

The public seems willing to think GA is up to no good, so we need to talk it out rationally

Recently I was making two lunch-break errands and turned on WBUR, my usual NPR station. I heard that Robin Young would be exploring the world of GA as it related to the young Tampa student pilot’s suicide flight. The guest on the program: Ken Ibold. I stayed in the UPS parking lot (fulfilling NPR’s dream listener profile) until you were finished talking to her about small airports and breathed a little easier.

As a pilot, obviously I am concerned about the future of GA, and after 9/11 felt a little put upon – that GA was paying a price for something it had little to do with. But this recent tragic incident squashed that theory, and I saw a real problem with our future.

You handled Robin’s questions patiently and with excellent answers, given the short time you had. You were professional and direct and to-the point with your description of the unique situation with small airports and flight instruction.

Thank God for you, for Mike Busch [of AvWeb], Phil Boyer [of AOPA] and the other public people who patiently and firmly continue to educate, explain and inform the average person about the “mystery” of GA. I’m going to an airport meeting tomorrow night about security required at our little 1,700 foot runway as spelled out by the Massachusetts Aeronautical Commission.

I was mildly cynical about the requirements before the Tampa incident. As you said, we know everyone who walks in. Now I’m not so cynical.

Thank you for talking for us. Please don’t stop. And I’ll keep flying Young Eagles and their parents. And by the way, thanks for Aviation Safety – it’s a super publication, one of the few I read as soon as it arrives.

-Louise C. Anderson
Marlboro, Mass.

Ken Ibold replies: Sincere thanks for your gracious comments. My experience with the folks at Here And Now made it clear to me that the general public is quite willing to believe any airplane other than an airliner is a threat to their well-being. It’s up to every pilot, not just those the mainstream media seeks out, to spread the word that diligence need not give way to paranoia.


So Much for Safety
Aviation Safety is the mainstay of the several publications I use to keep abreast of matters important to my continued flying education. I was sadly disappointed in “Tighten That Pattern” [Stick and Rudder, January]. The article’s excellent message was, in my opinion, lost by the tone and language chosen by the author. In two specific comments, the author suggested unsafe practices to his audience.

Since I am not the experienced pilot Paul Bertorelli purports to be, I asked an FAA examiner, “If a student pilot came to you for a check ride and landed on a runway that was occupied by another landing aircraft, would you give the applicant a license?” The examiner told me he would absolutely not issue the certificate because he showed such poor judgment as to be considered unsafe. Seems logical to me.

Mr. Bertorelli also gave us a snapshot of activity at his local airport in which pilots routinely ignore a prohibition published in the Airport/Facilities Directory and do what they want.

He gives no thought to the less-experienced pilot who may be landing at “his” airport for the first time and does not expect other pilots to be doing something that has been prohibited. Would this create a potentially unsafe condition? I think so. Not a safe attitude taken by the author in my opinion.

For you to recommend such flagrant disregard for safety seems, at best, inconsistent with the goals of the journal. After all, your intent is to make us all safer pilots. In my opinion, this article did nothing to further that goal.

-Floyd Sanderson
Grass Valley, Calif.

Two quibbles and a comment. Sharing the runway can be a threat or a non-issue, depending on the aircraft, pilots and runway involved. The pilot in trail must be capable of making that determination, as Mr. Bertorelli stated. Second, Mr. Bertorelli doesn’t set the policy at the airport he refers to. Don’t construe his reporting of what goes on there with an endorsement. What it boils down to is that judgment and risk are subjective factors the pilot involved needs to consider – hence the “in command” part of PIC.


So I’m Not the Only Crazy One
Well said! Before reading “Tighten that Pattern” [Stick and Rudder, January], I attributed my attitude about the patterns flown by student pilots to the telescopic hindsight of being a fogey. “Yes, well back in my day ... (embarrassed silence all around).”

Now, I can wave that article as proof my experience is not the result of senile dementia. Five-mile finals disease exists not merely in the USA. Alas, it has spread to the UK.

My home airport is a towered field on the South Coast of England. On a sunny weekend, the more aircraft movements, the longer the legs. I’ve seen traffic on the left downwind leg for runway 21 head halfway to Gatwick (20 nm away) before turning base.

Perhaps instructors get more rest, and student pilots can take a breather before turning base and concentrating on getting their Cessna 152 aligned with the flyspeck of a runway in the distant haze. Perhaps they enjoy surprising the crew of the passing 727 when LGW is on easterlies.

Whatever the reason, “circuit creep” is not just annoying, it’s poor airmanship and at times downright dangerous. Flight instructors take note. This piece should be required reading at flight schools on both sides of the pond.

-George Irvin
Sussex, U.K.


Tight Patterns and Proper Glide
Thanks for addressing one of my pet peeves in ‘Tighten that Pattern.” As a Citabria pilot I fly tight patterns as a matter of course. With a simple, slow and highly maneuverable airplane, why do anything else?

Unfortunately, I too often find myself in the pattern behind a pilot who apparently thinks his 152 is a 747 and who doesn’t turn base until he’s at least a mile from the numbers. I understand that faster and more complex aircraft may require a bit more distance to sort out in the pattern, as I sometimes fly them myself. But the worst offenders are usually flying the simplest and slowest planes, and even pilots of quicker craft sometimes overdo it. (I was once number two behind a guy who was halfway to the next county when the female tower operator inquired acerbically, “Comanche five four three, are you planning on turning base any time soon?”)

A corollary of spacious patterns is the tendency to drag it in under power and with the flaps set at about 400 feet agl. Flying final at an altitude that’s way below any reasonable glide path invites a panic attack if the engine falters, as well as rendering the airplane all but invisible to traffic above and behind, but I see it being done all the time.

-Richard H. Hendrickson
Ashland, Ore.


Tight, Yeah, But Watch Winds
“Tighten That Pattern” makes some good points, however there are some cases in which a wider pattern may be needed when there is a crosswind on the downwind side of the field to prevent overshooting the final approach path. Too narrow a pattern will require a steep bank at low airspeed and low altitude in order to line up with the runway. Conversely, with the crosswind coming from the upwind side of the runway a tighter pattern can be flown with safer margins. In any case it’s always better to plan your pattern with respect to both traffic and wind conditions.

-Paul Cabassa
Keystone Heights, Fla.


Why the Foreign Language?
In the 1940s, the most efficient transfer of information was by the use of Morse code printed by teletype machines at a rate of 120 to 180 characters per minute. Any word or idea that could be abbreviated or symbolized saved time and increased the efficiency of the information transfer. Thus, the development of coded weather reports filled the need.

In the year 2002, Morse code and teletype have been replaced by satellite, high-speed computers and CRT displays. Technically speaking there is no justification for the use of METAR instead of writing “Meteorology Aviation Routine Weather Report” or KDCA 251455Z 27014G30KT 1/2SM R28L/2400FT instead of “Washington National Reagan Airport on the 25th at 1455 Zulu, the wind was from 270 degrees at 15 knots gusting to 30 knots with visibility of 1/2 statute mile on runway 28 left or 2400 feet on the electronic visual range.”

Why do we tolerate the continued use of this archaic foreign language? Is it because the professionals need all of the abbreviations to feel superior to those that cannot read them without a crib sheet? We managed to learn English, why must we learn another language of the past?

-Robert E. Froelich
Salt Lake City,Utah

We agree with you on both counts. The technology is there to make it plain language, and thank goodness some software does it for you. But come on, what good’s a certificate if there’s no secret code?


This Gut Check Misplaced
I was very disturbed upon reading the article “Ice: Gutting It Out” [Judgment Calls, January]. It is frightening that the author should have such an attitude about flying in icing conditions utilizing an aircraft without certification to operate in such circumstances. What I find even more disconcerting is that the article gives pilots the false assumption that the ideas are acceptable.

I realize that one must realistically expect that pilots flying in the winter may accidentally encounter icing conditions, such as if the weather were to change faster than forecast or perhaps a weather system strengthened when it was not predicted to do so. However, flight into forecast conditions conducive to icing is not only obtuse, it is also illegal. All of the Cessna 172s I have flown have the restriction of “flight into known icing conditions is prohibited.”

A Cessna 172 is a poor example of a plane to try to attempt a flight to Aspen even on a clear day, let alone in IMC in the winter with strong winds. Minimum en route altitudes in the Aspen area exceed the author’s idea of a cruising altitude of 14,000. Additionally, the performance of a 172 at 14,000 feet would be marginal at best.

Turbulence, which would exist around the mountains with winds at Aspen as presented by the author, would make maintaining altitude impossible. Mix in even the smallest amount of ice and the pilot would soon be presented with the challenge of trying to land a plane on the face of a mountain, if one is so lucky to be able to see it.

The author presents two scenarios as examples of how to make a “go/no go” decision. A “warm layer escape” is stated to be essential to make the “go” decision. Ironically, the weather provided in the “go” scenario does not fit the author’s criteria for a “warm layer escape.”  An additional juxtaposition in the article is the requirement to be able to fly above the clouds or between layers. That cannot be assured with clouds from 2,500 to 14,000 in Des Moines area, which is still well east of the frontal system. Enough said.

Finally, the idea of flying nonstop from Palwaukee to Aspen in a C172 is not a good idea. When the weather is sour enroute and the destination is surrounded by unfriendly terrain, the last thing a pilot would want to worry about is fuel. A fuel stop would be mandatory, especially with strong winter winds; remember, we are supposed to be flying at 14,000 feet.

Obviously the article in question has several flaws. I am sure that the FAA would get to use a paper shredder for the license of a pilot who got into trouble while flying in the weather presented in the article. I do not believe that a piece of writing that essentially says “it is acceptable to break the rules as long as you are careful” has a place in a publication named Aviation Safety.

-David C. Ison
Atlanta, Ga.

Bruce Chien replies: Please note that the discussion opens with “It’s better to adopt a policy of avoiding icing where possible, getting out of it quickly when you do encounter it, and learning to recognize icing scenarios that aren’t flyable” and concludes with: “Rent a car and complete the trip overland.” The underlying premise of winter decision-making must clearly be ice avoidance. An educated pilot will come to the correct conclusion.

In fact, pilots landing with ice on board, or who encountered ice, and pilots flying in weather for which they are temporarily in violation of their type certificates are amazingly common.

Anyone teaching in the winter, monitoring the Center frequency, commonly hears piston single pilots urgently asking for deviations, and there are many types of airplanes for which there are no known ice certified variants.

The point of this discussion was not legality, but strategies for safe decision-making. We don’t teach this and, sadly, pilots are left to learn it by themselves. By the time these pilots are on Center frequency they too, are concerned with safety rather than legality.

As you point out, a C-172 would be ridiculous. But the article referred to using a Skylane (C-182), which is one in which a pilot might be tempted to consider such a flight. I stand by the “outs and bolt holes” strategy. You need either a warm escape below or known flight in predicted clear.

It’s clear that when you’re boxed above an ice layer with 26-degree surface and short fuel, the pilot is a fool. Any midpoint stop, if cold, has to be clear. But, once the pilot has messed up, the question is what to do with what you have.

The NTSB and FAA hold that any conditions consistent with ice accumulation are known icing conditions. History is replete with bad outcomes from flights in which the pilot had no outs or bolt hole. A pilot continuously needs alternatives that are consistent with safety.


Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
I hope I’m not the only guy who just ran out of fuel on the way from Palwaukee to Aspen. It wasn’t the ice that got me. Must have been some kind of time warp. That 492 miles seemed to last forever.

-Steve DeGroff
Via e-mail

Bruce Chien replies: PWK to ASE is 880 nm; the bird just isn’t going to make it nonstop (“492 nm” was an editing error). My favorite mid-point stop is Hastings, Neb.


Count Me Out on This One
If I’m reading the ASE weather correctly, I’m going to go to APA on this one. There’s no way I would consider going to ASE with a northwesterly wind of this magnitude. Circling to runway 33 is not an option, and I don’t see myself landing with an 18G25 tailwind at this or any lower field elevation. The descent from over the DBL VOR would also be most interesting in a non-pressurized aircraft.

-Bill Pfeifer
Knoxville, Tenn.


You’d Have to be Nuts to Try That
Curious choice for a lesson in flying ice, a mid winter IFR trip from the plains into Aspen, in a Skylane! It’s a no-go to start with.

The leg into ASE would have to be filed with the Bureau of Mines. Denver (DVV) to Aspen (ASE) can be flown via Kremmling at 16,000 but Denver (FQF) to ASE direct requires 18,000. It’s rarely possible to know cloud conditions over the divide from the weather forecast alone. Count on clouds.

Maintaining any kind of schedule on a route like this requires three things: turbocharging, propeller deice and oxygen for an hour, at least. Otherwise you’re going to do a lot of driving on that last leg, driving that in bad weather may be more nerve-wracking and dangerous than the flying.

-W.S. Lyons
Via e-mail


Living with Backups
Yes we do partial panel retraining with our instructor, and yes we have a backup electric vacuum, and yes we have a backup AI in our 1980 Saratoga [Instrument Check, January]. But after we installed the backup AI in the only available location, on the far right side of the panel, we realized it would be very difficult to include AI #2 in the scan.

We then added an inexpensive toggle switch that connects to the autopilot. If AI #1 should fail, we could flick the toggle switch so AI #2 would then drive the autopilot. It doesn’t demonstrate our piloting skills, but in a real pinch it would relieve a very stressful situation.

-David M. Shepherd
Via e-mail


Failed Vacuum: Challenge or Deadly?
We hear all the disaster stories of pilots who experience vacuum pump/gyro failures in IMC.

From that kind of outcome-based reporting one gets the impression that such failures are nearly uniformly fatal – most of these pilots are unable to maintain control of the airplane. The last year has provided several high-profile examples.

I wonder, though, what the real numbers show. How many people actually experience total vacuum failure in IMC, and of those how many go on to simply fly on partial panel to safety?

It seems to me that we are creating an atmosphere of inevitable disaster. If true, everyone needs to install backup non-vacuum equipment, while if untrue we need far more stress on the manageability of these failures. Any ideas or numbers available?

-Julius G. Goepp
Via e-mail

We suspect hundreds of vacuum pumps fail annually, perhaps thousands. How many lead to accidents? A few. Emergency partial panel may be scary, but it’s not overwhelmingly fatal.