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Archive for the 'Articles' Category

To the General Aviation Community,

Click here: MBNMS Pilot Outreach Letter_Jul2012 for a 1-page letter (PDF format) from the superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary that highlights some current and upcoming changes that the FAA is making to the Los Angeles and San Francisco sectional and terminal area charts. The charts will display new notices about flight operations in coastal areas that may be relevant to your activities.

If you wish to verify the authenticity of this email message, feel free to contact me using the information below.

Thank you.

Scott Kathey
Federal Regulatory Coordinator
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
99 Pacific Street, Bldg 455A
Monterey, California 93940
Phone: 831-647-4251
Website: http://montereybay.noaa.gov/

posted by Jul 26, 2012  07:07 PM
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by Ken Steiner

Ken Steiner

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), one of the world’s largest aviation insurance companies. He has been with USAIG for over 29 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Piper Cubs to Boeing 777’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3800 flying hours. He flies a Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

All summer long it seemed that no matter which direction I headed, there was a permanent headwind attached to the front of the plane. If this kept up I was going to trade my airspeed indicator in for a calendar. Finally, the winds agreed to partner up with me on a flight to Truckee giving me an extra 20 knots on the tail. A “smiley face” icon lit up on the GPS ground speed display.

As I entered the pattern for runway 28, that helpful southwesterly was starting to show another personality as it became a brisk low-level crosswind. While my focus was on contending with a crosswind landing, I was not particularly mindful of the “push” I was getting from the tailwind on base leg. Sure enough it blew me well to the right of the runway 28 centerline as I was rolling out on final.

This is a pivotal and sometimes fatal moment for pilots. I knew instantly what not to do. About 4 years earlier at this very runway I had investigated the crash of a corporate Learjet that overshot the extended runway centerline while turning final from a circling instrument approach. As in my situation, the crew found themselves off to the right side on the final approach. In an attempt to get lined up, the crew made a steeply banked turn to the left. Witnesses reported the bank to be well in excess of 45 degrees. The jet stalled in the turn and slammed into the ground killing both the pilot and co-pilot. Fortunately no one else was on board and no one on the ground was injured.

Typically a plane turning base to final is already low, slow, and close to the runway. If wind or bad planning causes you to overshoot the final approach turn, there is a natural urge to want to get realigned in a hurry often by cranking in excess aileron and rudder. The increased load factor in a steep bank significantly raises the stall speed. Further, a pilot may try to arrest the increased rate of descent in a steep turn by increasing pitch attitude. The increased angle of attack causes the already shrinking stall safety margins to further erode. All of this is leading to an accelerated stall that can leave one planted firmly short of the runway. Add poor rudder control and you may even be able to perform a spin on your way down.

Ideally, proper pattern planning is the first step in avoiding this scenario. If you do find yourself off the final centerline, limit bank angles to 30 degrees and don’t use excess rudder to get realigned. Use proper elevator inputs (pitch attitude) to maintain airspeed and use power to control the rate of descent. If you can’t get back to the centerline in an orderly and stabilized manner then prepare to go-around. Don’t let the turn to final become your final turn.

posted by Jan 27, 2010  01:01 PM
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by Vance Cochrane, CFI-I, ME-I at Diamond Aviation

Everyone knows that San Carlos is actually old Spanish for “Saint Crosswind.” Seriously, you can usually, depending on the time of day, expect to have a crosswind when landing at San Carlos Airport.

View of San Carlos Airport from tower In the morning, the air is usually quite still and the tower will assign runway 12. (This limits the noise effects to our neighbors at Redwood Shores.) Most of the time, there is not much of a crosswind on 12. There are no significant structures near the approach end of runway 12 to make much of a difference in the wind patterns. (Some may argue that Houlihan’s is a significant structure, but I won’t comment on what some pilot’s do after the flying day is over.)

Check weather before you fly As the morning progresses, the winds will begin to pick up a little out of the north and thus, after enough people have landed long and hot, the tower will assign runway 30. Now here the situation is a little different. For a long time, there was not much near the approach end of 30 to play with the prevailing wind. There is the little berm near the walking path and sometimes the wind kicks up there giving a little burble. I’m sure many of you have experienced this. Now however, things will begin to change for crosswind landings at runway 30.

As you have already seen, an office building complex is being constructed immediately west of the approach end of runway 30. When the wind is from the west (or left side), and you are landing on runway 30 the presence of these buildings will likely cause turbulent burbles at or near your touchdown zone. What exactly will it do? Well, we don’t know yet. (As construction continues, are we becoming “Test Pilots?”) In a really significant wind, we may enter a zone of calm air as we get close to the runway which may introduce a little wind shear if we are not careful with our approach speeds. Remember use the appropriate methods for landings in a significant wind, which usually amounts to adding half the gust factor to your approach speed. Thus, if you hit an area of calm/dead air you have the extra cushion available. For the benefit of other aircraft in the pattern be sure to report any unusual conditions to the tower.

Little Plane There is no special technique to landing in a crosswind at San Carlos Airport. Normal crosswind methods, either the crab or side slip will work. Do which ever you feel comfortable doing. I have had many students who prefer to crab, while other prefer to slip. The important thing is to land safely within your capabilities, so use your best technique. Another thing about landing at San Carlos is don’t be afraid to request the appropriate runway for landing or departure based on the wind. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been in the Sky Kitchen Restaurant watching Katanas, Cessna 172s and other lightly wing-loaded airplanes making F-104 approaches to runway 12 due to a 5 knot tailwind! Remember, you are the pilot-in-command and if you feel that the runway should be 30, ask for it! Don’t let the tower guys intimidate you. You can tell them which runway you want. Just make sure that your request is a reasonable one. They can either grant your request or deny it, but you will get the point across. Since we sometimes have green controllers (as well as green pilots) we occasionally need to guide them in the right direction.

Here are some other tips to remember when landing at ANY airport:

  • Use the ATIS (if available), but take it with a grain of salt. A little head work from the ATIS information can tell you what kind of crosswind you may expect when landing. Don’t let this become a preconceived notion of what the wind is actually doing. Remember that ATIS could be almost an hour old and the wind direction and velocity may have changed!
  • What does your plane want to do on downwind? In order track parallel to the runway, are you in a crab? This may be an indication of what the wind is going to be on final.
  • What does the windsock say? Even if there is a tower, you should look at the windsock as that is real-time information of the best quality. I wish every airport had a windsock.
  • What does the plane want to do on final? This is the best method if there is no windsock. Just see if the plane wants to crab one way or the other while lined up with the runway and you’ve got your crosswind direction.
  • Don’t be shy about asking the tower (if available) for the current winds.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to make a go-around if you’re not happy with your speed, drift control and position while on final approach. Be sure to stabilize the airplane in the climb and then call the tower to tell them you are making a go-around.

Remember: Winds at San Carlos Airport can be tricky and anyone who isn’t proficient and comfortable in dealing with all the issues I’ve dealt with in this article should get some serious dual instruction.

That’s it for now and remember: Every landing is a crosswind landing, only the component changes!

posted by Feb 18, 2009  05:02 AM
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Someone once said, “If you don’t think too good, then don’t think too much.” I can recall a few aircraft accidents that really didn’t take much thinking on anyone’s part to investigate. Sure, as an aircraft accident investigator there are certain rules about maintaining one’s objectivity, gathering factual information, and never jumping to a conclusion, but when the smoke clears sometimes you just scratch your head and say “what was this pilot thinking?” These are the kind of accidents that really aren’t accidents. All the circumstances were deliberately put in place to produce the results. It would have been an accident if the crash hadn’t resulted.

Several years ago the pilot of a twin-engine corporate jet was preparing for a flight and was unable to get one of the engines started due to a failed starter. Rather than ground the aircraft and have repairs done locally our hero, who was anxious to depart, reasoned that he could do an “air-start” once airborne to get the second engine turning. All he would have to do is take off on one-engine. The results were predictable. During the attempted single engine take-off he learned that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. He rapidly lost control of the jet and crashed before becoming airborne. He survived, but the plane and his career were a total loss.

One of my memorable accident investigations involved an instructor and his commercial student who attempted a landing at a snow-covered mountain airport in the Sierras. This particular airport was unoccupied throughout the year so there was no information available on the runway conditions. From the air, the pilots could see wheel tracks in the snow, which obviously meant that other aircraft had landed there. What they did not know was that the tracks on the runway below were made by snowmobiles.

Upon touch down the plane came to a rather abrupt stop as it plowed through the deeper than expected snow, but was otherwise undamaged. Since they could not taxi back, the instructor and the student decided to push the plane back to beginning of the runway in order to take-off. During the first take-off attempt, the plane bogged down in the snow again this time putting a mild bend in the prop blade. Not quite ready to call it a day, they pushed the plane back and tried to take off again. Since this particular plane was not snowplow equipped and already flight impaired from the bent prop, the aircraft’s nose dug in deep enough on the take-off roll to flip the plane over on its back.

While the above stories do have an amusing quality to them, the sad part is that there are many more where these came from and some of the results are far from amusing. As pilots, we accept certain inherent risks as part of our flying and we manage those risks to make our aviating as safe as possible. When a pilot deliberately creates an unnecessary risk and steps outside the boundaries of common sense and reasonable aeronautical decision-making, he is no longer a pilot, but rather a spectator on his way to the scene of an accident.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group(USAIG), one of the world’s largest aviation insurance companies. He has been with USAIG for over 28 years investigating all manner of aviationaccidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 777’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3700 flying hours. He flies a Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Jan 22, 2009  09:01 PM
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It was 109 degrees on the ramp at Sacramento International. My preflight was a half-hearted walk around the plane and an oil check. I must confess my mind was more on getting the prop started to get some air circulation than it was in a detailed aircraft inspection.

At about the time I was lifting off I noticed that the air speed indicator was reading “zero”. Some errant bug probably took up residence in the pitot tube while the plane was parked overnight. I mentally kicked myself not only for my hurried pre-flight, but also for not using a pitot tube cover during my overnight stay.

The loss of the airspeed indicator did not concern me for this flight, but it did remind of an accident I had investigated a few years back. A high-time pilot in his Mooney was taking off from the Santa Monica Airport. Well into the take off roll he noticed that his air speed indicator was reading “zero”. Although everything else was operating normally, he got so concerned with this faulty reading that he decided to abort the take-off with insufficient pavement remaining. He sailed off the end of the runway causing the landing gear to collapse and did considerable damage to the plane. There was no reason to abandon the takeoff as the laws of aerodynamics and basic pilot skill will allow an airplane to fly just fine without an air speed indicator.

A more insidious aircraft accident occurred many years ago and involved a passenger jet airliner. The flight crew noticed that the airspeed was increasing during the climb-out. They were so concerned about exceeding the mach number speed limitations that they kept increasing pitch attitude and pulled back on the power in effort to reduce the ever increasing indicated speed. The aircraft eventually ran out of speed and stalled. The crash killed all on board. What the crew was unable to figure out was that the pitot tube had become blocked. The air trapped in the line expanded as altitude increased sending an increasingly higher, but false, indicated airspeed reading to the crew.

The point is, if you need to only remember one thing, remember to “fly the plane”. There is no reason to wreck a perfectly good aircraft by becoming fixated on one problem to the exclusion of fundamental airmanship. A clogged pitot tube is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve had 3 of them in 37 years of flying. In warm weather months insects are usually the culprits. In the winter, ice can have the same effect. Without a speed reference, you may inadvertently exceed an aircraft’s structural limitations or sail off the end of the runway during landing if going too fast. Go too slow and you may fall out of the sky.

In VFR conditions, basic attitude flying and power management will serve you well. To train for this sort of an event, find a safe altitude somewhere and cover your airspeed indicator. Approximate an approach to landing with full flaps and approach power. Establish a pitch attitude that you are accustomed to seeing during an approach with a normal rate of descent on your VSI. Uncover the airspeed indicator and see the results. Now do the same in takeoff and cruise configurations to see how close you come to the target airspeed. Practice till you are consistent.

In IFR conditions it is more a matter of flying by the numbers and reverting to partial panel technique, but the best plan here is judicious use of pitot heat to avoid the problem in the first place. That includes function testing the pitot heat system during pre-flight before launching into the icy cotton.

If you have a GPS, you automatically have a back-up air speed indicator. Convert your normal indicated approach speed to a true airspeed and deduct the headwind. For example, let’s say your normal IAS approach speed is 70 knots, and you have calculated this to be a TAS of 75 knots. As the headwind is 10 knots, your approach speed on the GPS should be about 65 kts. Your GPS may also have a TAS display function that you can monitor. It’s just a reference so don’t forgo your attitude flying skills.

A functioning airspeed indicator is a nice instrument to have onboard, but if it quits, the plane will chug along just fine without it. All the pilot has to do is fly the plane. Hopefully the only time that your airspeed is reading zero is when you are on the ground.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), one of the world’s largest aviation insurance companies. He has been with USAIG for over 27 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Jun 28, 2008  07:06 PM
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by D. Gordon Matthews, ATP, CFI-I

Click for full size image One day a few years ago, I was on an instructional IFR flight from KSJC to KSCK with a very perceptive and talented instrument student. The flight conditions were IMC with KSCK ATIS reporting a ceiling of 600 feet, sky obscured and one-mile visibility. The tops were 2500 feet, a typical central California Winter morning. As we approached Stockton, the all familiar words came crackling over the radio “Cessna 9027Hotel, turn left to 320, maintain 2000 until established, cleared for the Stockton ILS runway 29R approach, circle to runway 11L”. My student immediately and mechanically pressed the PTT switch and blurted out “Roger, turn left to 320, maintain 2000 until established, cleared for the approach, 27 Hotel”.

She then looked down at the approach plate and after, what seemed like to her, an eternity because we were in actual IFR conditions, she asked me “How do I fly this approach? The approach plate is showing a Minimum Descent Altitude not a Decision Altitude”.

I was stopped in my tracks and dumbfounded. I suddenly realized that, I didn’t know the answer to her question, I was the CFI and we were in actual IFR conditions (all simultaneously). I had flown this approach literally hundreds of times before and for some reason, unknown to me, I had never noticed that with, what turns out to be, all published “ILS, circle to land” approaches you are not given a Decision Altitude (Height) but rather a Minimum Descent Altitude. I said, very calmly, to instill confidence, as any good CFI would, “Since we aren’t going to land, let’s fly it like an ILS, straight in approach, down to the MDA and we’ll talk about it later”.

Because of a tight schedule for both of us, later didn’t come for several days, which gave me some time to research an answer. The answer, that I sought, was not easily obtained and I’m not sure I’ve got it right yet. Let’s review a bit and you will understand my dilemma.

An ILS is a precision approach with a glide slope, localizer, final approach fix (which is the glide slope intercept point, at or below the minimum glide slope intercept altitude), decision altitude (height) and a missed approach point. A non-precision approach, on the other hand, has a final approach fix, a minimum descent altitude and a missed approach point.

The glide slope and a published decision altitude (height) are only found on precision approaches, while minimum descent altitudes are only found on non-precision approaches.

According to Jeppesen’s chart glossary the DA(H) is the altitude or height on a precision approach where a decision must be made. It, further, defines the minimum descent altitude as the lowest altitude authorized on a standard instrument approach procedure, where no electronic glide slope is provided. Sounds like to me, if you’re given a decision altitude (height) you’re doing a precision approach and if you’re given a minimum descent altitude you’re doing a non-precision approach. However, let’s look a little further.

On a Jeppesen ILS approach chart, in the profile view, the precision approach flight path is traced with a solid black line, while the non-precision approach flight path (the Localizer – Glide Slope out) is traced using a dotted black line. These flight paths are the same until glide slope intercept. The precision approach then starts down along the glide slope to the DA(H) followed by the missed approach point. The non-precision approach, however, continues at the published altitude until reaching the non-precision final approach fix symbolized by the Maltese cross where it starts down to the MDA and eventually the missed approach point.

If we are given a minimum descent altitude, then we are executing a non-precision approach. We, therefore, are obligated to maintain our published or assigned altitude until we reach the non-precision final approach fix. This is, of course, well past the glide slope intercept point. We now are permitted to descend to the MDA at any reasonable rate. This rate could, initially, allow us to legally go well below the glide slope.

I conclude that, since on an “ILS, circle to land” approach we are not given a DA(H), but rather an MDA, therefore, we are executing a non-precision approach. It follows that, we can not legally start our descent at glide slope intercept and follow it down. We must maintain our altitude until the non-precision final approach fix and then start our descent. I, further conclude that, since the glide slope is one of four required parts of an ILS, this precludes the use of the term ILS to describe this approach procedure.

Therefore, there is no such thing as an “ILS, circle to land”. I think it would be much better and more accurate to call it a “localizer, circle to land” because that is what it is.

posted by Aug 31, 2007  01:08 PM
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by Syl Heumann (syl@syl.net)

There is no mystery to adjusting a magnetic compass. The only things needed are a non magnetic screwdriver and maybe some masking tape. No compass rose, no pelorus, no special equipment. Just follow the instructions below. These adjustments should be made away from any hangar buildings or other possible sources of magnetism. They should also be made with the engine running at enough RPM to assure that the voltages are at cruising levels, and with all radios and normal electrical equipment turned on. If the airplane has a canopy, it should be closed.

It is important in the following steps that the 180 degree turn be done as precisely as possible. If you have a gyro, use it. If not, mark left and right wing shadows with tape on the ground, and make the turns using the shadow. If this is the case, be aware that the sun moves 1/4 degree each minute.

  1. Go north (or south) by the magnetic compass.
  2. Zero the gyro (un-slaved) or put masking tape on ground.
  3. Do a 180 degree turn by the gyro or shadow.
  4. Halve the compass error using the N-S adjustment screw (non-magnetic screwdriver).
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 until there is no error.
  6. Go east (or west) by the compass.
  7. Zero the gyro – or use tape.
  8. Do a 180 degree turn by the gyro or tape.
  9. Halve the error using the E-W adjustment screw.
  10. Repeat steps 6-9 until there is no error.

Now go north by the compass and zero the gyro if necessary. Make turns of 30 degrees by the gyro and note any errors on the magnetic compass. These errors should be recorded for the compass correction card.

The compass is now adjusted as accurately as it can be without changing external factors. Never change the adjustments except when on a N-S or E-W heading, and then only the proper screw. It is not possible to adjust headings other than the cardinal ones without upsetting the entire adjustment of the compass.

If these adjustments won’t correct the compass on N-S and/or E-W headings, then something in the airplane is amiss. You will have to research whether the problem is with the airframe, under the panel, or elsewhere. There is a strong magnetic field lurking in there someplace.

Don’t even try to adjust your compass using an airport compass rose because of the difficulty of aligning the airplane accurately. The method outlined above will produce better results in a fraction of the time!

Now, why does this method work? It’s easy! Look at Figure 1. The magnetic disturbance in the airplane is to the right of the compass so the compass has a clockwise error. Figure 2 shows that in doing a 180 degree turn, the disturbance is now on the left of the compass and it now has a counter-clockwise error. This explanation is for the N-S errors, but applies equally well to the E-W ones.

Fig. 1 Fig. 2

If the compass is adjusted so that when you do an exact 180 degree turn by the gyro or shadow, and the magnetic compass also makes a 180 degree turn, then all of the magnetic forces or disturbances inside the airplane must be balanced on both sides of the compass. The adjusting of the N-S screw made the compass think that there was an equal and opposite force on the other side of the airplane. See Figure 3. The magnetic compass is now acted upon only by forces outside the airplane – and that force is the earth’s magnetic field.

Fig. 3

Now you can go and check the compass rose at your airport. If it doesn’t agree with your compass, then the compass rose is probably wrong!

posted by Aug 31, 2007  09:08 AM
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Weather I consider ice accumulation equivalent to an aircraft being on fire. You have to take immediate action or the consequences will be disastrous. Some pilots rely on the belief that there will be plenty of forewarning before things get serious. Perhaps, but it depends on how fast the ice is accumulating and in some cases it can be very rapid indeed. Usually there will be an increasing loss of performance i.e. loss of climb rate, decreased airspeed, an inability to maintain altitude and so forth. If corrective action is not taken you will not gently descend back to earth, but rather the plane will stall and plummet horrendously out of control. The time to act is at the first onset of ice. You will have to either descend to warmer air, climb out of it if conditions and aircraft performance permit, or do a 180 degree turn to go back to where the air is hopefully still ice-free.

I’ll never forget one of my earlier aircraft accident investigations when a pilot flying a Cessna 210 at cruise altitude in heavy IMC radioed center that he would be returning to the airport because of ice. The plane stalled in the turn and went straight down. Result of Cessna 210 encounter with heavy icing conditions

The picture above shows what was left of the plane. It impacted like a lawn dart, sticking out from the snow-covered ground at a 90 degree angle. Three people were killed. The pilot took off where ice would be an obvious factor enroute and didn’t take corrective action until it was too late. The crash scene image has never left my mind and it weighs heavily any time that I have to make a flight in potential icing conditions.

Unlike turbine or jet engine aircraft that bleed hot air to the wings and tail for ice-protection, the average piston general aviation aircraft may, at best, be equipped with pneumatic wing boots, or a “weeping wing” system and maybe a “hot” prop. These systems offer a false sense of security and only permit an opportunity to escape icing conditions. They are not designed to fly in heavy icing conditions continuously.

Lightning Even with some wing ice-protection, an unprotected tail section can accumulate a lot of ice and cause the aircraft to stall. Don’t forget that in most general aviation aircraft the horizontal tail surfaces are aerodynamically “down-loaded” in normal flight to counterbalance the weight up at the front of the plane. If the tail stalls, the down-load is lost and the nose pitches steep down. In addition to the tail, ice can accumulate on engine air intakes and antennae causing power loss and lack of radio capability. Do you really want to deal with all this while you are flying in the wet stuff?

Besides better ice-protection systems, turbine-powered aircraft have another advantage that piston-powered aircraft do not have: Lots of excess power. Jets and turbo-prop aircraft can out-climb a lot of stuff that an ice-laden piston airplane cannot. Trying to climb at a few hundred feet per minute increases the exposure time to ice accumulation which in turn degrades performance even further. It is tempting for a pilot to expedite a climb out of icing conditions, using a “best rate” or “best angle” speed, but the increased pitch attitude in the climb may cause an increase in ice accumulation on the bottom of the wing surface as it becomes more exposed to the air stream.

In a discussion of ice, pilots rarely give due consideration to the aircraft’s windshield. Most piston aircraft defrosters are pretty useless when it comes to getting rid of windshield ice. Unless you have a true “anti-ice” (heated or chemical spray) windshield, a frozen-over windshield will have you flying blind when you break out into clear air if the temps are in the freezing range. At cruise altitude you will not see other traffic and if freezing temperatures extend to the surface, trying to find the runway and landing will be an interesting experience with your forward vision obscured.

Lightning It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss specific strategies or the legal requirements related to flight in icing conditions, but suffice it to say any possibility of an ice encounter needs to be evaluated in the preflight planning stage. At any point in your planned route, you must be able to articulate an escape plan to non-icing conditions. If you can’t do this with a reasonable degree of certainty then stay on the ground and take a cue from the advertising folk: Got Ice? Just say “No!”

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), the worlds largest aviation insurance company. He has been with USAIG for 20 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Cessna Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 30, 2007  12:08 PM
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Plane “Ouch!” I muttered after turning around too quickly and banging my head on the leading edge of the wing during preflight. I haven’t even started the engine and I’m already an aviation casualty. The reality is that you don’t have to be airborne to have trouble come-a-callin’. In fact, you may be surprised at the variety of accidents that frequently occur on the ground even before we get into the airplane. Our mind-set as we meander around the familiar airport environment is far different from our focus in the air. Often our mind may drift as we become preoccupied with a pending flight or the price of Avgas. In Part I of “Grounded” we will explore the hidden dangers of the parked airplane.

Most ground-related accidents aren’t well-publicized. The smoking holes get all the press. Even a plane running out of gas and making a successful landing on a road will be “page one” news. Ground accidents may not have much pizzazz, but they can be serious and costly. It can turn an otherwise good flying day into a disaster and even a lawsuit. The examples that I present are real and are taken from my claims files.

Parked planes seem to be a magnet for airport vehicles, fuel trucks, other planes, and spaced-out pilots driving their cars. I have had more than one claim reported where the pilot was driving his own car and hit his own plane. We tend to be much more attentive driving in a supermarket parking lot where we can anticipate trouble. Oh yes, and just like in the parking lots, not everyone will stop and leave a note after hitting your plane. Sad and dangerous, but true. Even if you have only been gone from your plane for a few minutes, always do a walk-around before you get in. I have handled claims where pilots have become airborne unaware that their planes were damaged by someone on the ground who didn’t stop to leave a note.

If you are fortunate enough to have your airplane in a hangar, the odds are that you will probably be unfortunate enough at some point to come down with a case of hangar rash. Shoe-horning planes in and out of a hangar is a cumbersome task that carries with it a certainty that the plane will be damaged if 100 percent care and attentiveness is not given every time you move that plane. Are the hangar doors fully open? Is the tug or tow bar mechanically sound and properly secured to the plane? Any objects (like cars or other planes) in close proximity? Do you know how far back can you push the plane before it hits the rear hangar wall? Keep focused on the task at hand and not the flight or other distractions.

Safety FirstFailing to use chocks is a good way to get an unwanted surprise. I have handled a lot claims where unchocked airplanes have rolled away on seemingly level ground into other planes, buildings, or vehicles. The resulting damage can be awesome. Don’t deceive yourself by thinking that because you are nearby or will only be gone for a few minutes that nothing will happen. The gradient of seemingly flat ground can be deceiving and once a plane starts rolling it quickly builds a momentum that can’t be stopped by human strength alone. Even on level ground, all it takes is a well-placed breeze, prop blast, or jet thrust to set things in motion. Some pilots think that the heavy weight of larger planes will keep it from rolling – Wrong! If it has wheels it can roll and with the close quarters of parking at airports it only takes a few feet of movement to have a collision which is both costly and embarrassing. Don’t rely on parking brakes alone. Always carry a set of chocks in your plane and use them when you park.

Accidents on the ramp apply not only to airplanes, but to people as well. I have handled a number of serious injury claims (broken arms, knees, teeth, and facial injuries) that came simply from people tripping over tie down fasteners, ropes, and chains. Passengers have also received similar injuries from falling while getting in and out of aircraft, especially on low-wing planes, and as incredible as this may seem, both pilots and passengers are still departing this lifetime after close-encounters with moving propellers. Never allow anyone to board, deplane, or approach an aircraft with a running engine.

Happy planeAs comfortable as we might be in an airport environment, it is a foreign land to our non-aviation visitors. The temptation to wander about and sight-see is normal. It is your duty to supervise your guests like a mother hen and advise of them of the hazards. On the ramp make sure that you escort your guests at all times and do not let them wander off. Children and pets need special attention in this regard. Always monitor and assist passengers getting in and out of your plane.

In Part II, “Grounded – After the Engine Starts,” we will explore some of the unique and little known hazards facing a pilot during taxi operations.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), the worlds largest aviation insurance company. He has been with USAIG for 20 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Cessna Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 30, 2007  09:08 AM
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Ramp view at San Carlos Airport

You would think that taxiing an aircraft is a relatively low risk proposition. We follow painted lines. We move at slow speeds. Ground traffic is often controlled by ATC. We have signs, rules, radios, and space to maneuver and yet this seemingly innocuous phase of aircraft operation results in numerous avoidable, expensive and embarrassing accidents. In fact, the odds of having an airplane accident during a ground operation are far greater than accidents due to airborne-related events. As I had mentioned in Part I of “Grounded”, part of the problem is that aircraft accidents on the ground are not well publicized and many pilots are unaware of the potential for trouble.

Cessna 421 with part of wing missing!

Just recently, I investigated a typical needless ground accident. A pilot had taxied his twin engine airplane to the run-up area, but had to hold on the taxiway as the run-up area was full. A Cessna 172 behind the twin became impatient and tried to cut in front of the twin. In doing so, the left wing of the 172 over-lapped the right wing of the twin. The 172’s wing got chopped up by the twin’s propeller. In spite of the considerable damage, it could have been worse had the 172’s gas tank ruptured causing a fuel spill and fire. All this because of one pilot’s impatience and bad judgment.

Of course we can read about this and say “I would never do anything like that”. Maybe so, but even if we avoid the obvious, accidents can occur when we are subject to distraction and inattention. Taxiing an aircraft is a seemingly undemanding task. It is easy to let our thoughts wander while moving on a spacious ramp. We are not “on guard” as there is no perceived danger. Some of us are even fiddling with avionics, charts, or checklists when we should be keeping our mind and eyes on the road.

About two years ago I had just landed at a large uncontrolled field and was taxiing on the main parallel taxiway toward the ramp. As I was approaching an intersection, a Piper Cub came darting out from an arterial taxiway completely oblivious to my presence and was headed towards the same intersection. Having just enough knowledge of Physics 101, to realize that two aircraft could not occupy the same space at the same time I stopped my plane about a 100 yards from the intersection. Even though I had already stopped well clear of the intersection, the sight of another airplane was enough to startle the Cub pilot into making a panic stop, not a good thing to do in a tail dragger.

Piper Cub up on its nose!
In disbelief I watched as the Cub went over on its nose with the tail up in the air and the propeller trying to screw itself into the ground. To make matters worse, the pilot (of considerable girth) was stuck in the snug cockpit of the up-ended aircraft and fuel was pouring out of the wing tanks toward the hot engine and exhaust. I radioed the unicom for assistance and went over and helped extricate the Cub pilot out of the plane. Fortunately, there was no fire. Just a bent prop and bent ego.

A point of importance. The Cub pilot was no novice. He was an experienced, professional pilot who had a momentary lapse of attention as to where he was and what he was doing. As in the first example with the 172, the consequences could have been fatal if a fire had broken out. Don’t be lulled into feeling safe and secure because you are on the ground. When you are taxiing an aircraft, your level of attention and focus should be no less than when you are airborne.

Never play the “I think I can make it” game when trying to maneuver around aircraft on the ground, especially when parking. You either can or can’t clear it. If there is any doubt, shut it down and take a look. Don’t feel embarrassed if you have to get out the old tow bar or have someone help you push the plane if you find yourself in a tight spot. It is a far better decision than causing damage to two planes: your plane and the plane you hit. Also, don’t abdicate your judgment to well-meaning passengers, and passersby that are helping to guide you or reassure you that you will pass clear of a particular obstacle. Stay alert. I have even handled a number of claims involving pilots who were blindly following the direction of line people when they hit another aircraft or obstacle. As much as they would like to blame the line person, the Pilot-In-Command is still responsible for the safe operation of his aircraft. Never be lulled into a false sense of security just because you are following a painted line on the ground. It is not an insurance policy that will prevent you from hitting another parked plane, building, or other structure such as a utility pole. Scan for hazards as you do in flight and watch your wing tips.

Hazards while taxiing are not just limited to other aircraft. Taxiing over dips and depressions on the ground can cause a prop strike. Extra caution is needed on unpaved surfaces. Sometimes depressions will be camouflaged by standing water so as to look like an innocuous puddle. I handled one such prop-strike claim at SQL after a heavy rain had covered an otherwise well-marked, but recessed storm drain. When a nose gear enters even a small depression, the strut compresses which can bring prop clearance down to nil. Speaking of airport storm drains, be careful when taxiing over drains, grates and manhole covers. I have handled claims where these gave way under the weight of light planes causing prop strikes and serious airframe damage.

One of the most demanding aspects of taxiing can be trying to stay oriented at an unfamiliar airport. Anyone who has been to LGB (Long Beach) knows how intimidating an airport can be on the ground. Add in darkness or other forms of limited visibility at an unfamiliar or complex airport and you could find yourself wandering into trouble. Inadvertent runway incursions can and have had fatal results. Get ground-orientated as part of the preflight. Study the airport diagram, monitor the taxi signs and markings and never hesitate to ask ground control for “progressive taxi” either to or from the runway. If you become disorientated, stop where you are and figure it out. Don’t proceed blindly.

We’ve covered a lot of “ground” in this two-part series. You shouldn’t feel that the accident boogey-man is lurking in the shadows every time you get near a plane, but you need to be aware of some of the lesser known, but all too common potential traps for the unwary. Just use a little heads-up airmanship and you won’t be “grounded.”

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), the worlds largest aviation insurance company. He has been with USAIG for 20 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Cessna Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 29, 2007  12:08 PM
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It is easy to feel relatively secure in dealing with known aviation risks.  We can plan for potential hazards such as bad weather or systems failures and then apply an alternate course of action to insure the safe outcome of a flight.  The prospect of a mid-air collision, on the other hand, bothers most pilots since it is a scenario that is real, but seemingly unpredictable and one that we may not be able to control.  We worry that we could be broad-sided out of the sky even while exercising all due caution and vigilance.  Indeed, there are few pilots out there who have not at one time or another had to take an evasive maneuver to avoid another aircraft in close proximity.

Mid-air collisions are seldom a single random event which involve two aircraft that simply run into each other.  Like other accidents, midair collisions have a causal chain.  That is to say that independent circumstances set the stage for the accident that is yet to come.  I have investigated a number of aircraft mid-air collisions over the years and in each situation there are identifiable links in the chain which allowed the accident to take place.  Let’s take a look at a few examples in the briefest of terms.  We are not focusing on the accident, but the contributing factors.  Most of these accidents happened over 15 years ago and all involved fatalities.

A Piper climbing out of Long Beach collides with a DC-9 on approach to Los Angeles international.  Factors: The pilot of the Warrior was relatively new to the area.  For unknown reasons his transponder was found to be in the “standby” position.  He was not in communication with ATC and he had entered Class B airspace without clearance when he hit the DC-9.

A Piper in-bound to the Oakland airport was on a 45 degree entry to runway 27 right and collided with a Cessna which had just taken off from runway 33 on a straight out departure.  Factors: The airport tower radar was out of service.  The tower failed to provide adequate warnings to each aircraft.   The use of runway 33 for takeoff and 27 for landing increased the collision conflict risk.

A Mooney had just pulled on to runway 12 at the Half Moon Bay airport and was on the take-off roll when it collided with a Cessna just about to touch down on runway 12.  Factors: Uncontrolled airport.  The Mooney did not communicate his departure on the unicom.  It was also determined that the pilot of the Mooney did not have a current medical certificate or biennial flight review.

A Cessna 172 and a Cessna 152 collided near Morgan Hill, California.  Factors: Each aircraft was on an instrument training flight with a student under the hood and an instructor in the right seat.  Both aircraft were operating without the benefit of ATC radar advisories in a corridor of busy airspace.

Each of the above respective “Factors” relate a measure of increased risk that were a fundamental part of the collision.  Playing armchair quarterback for a moment, put yourself in the position of each pilot.  What could have you done on each of these flights to minimize the risk, break-up the causal chain and prevent a tragic outcome? Some are obvious, some are not, but the point is that these accidents did not happen out of the blue and were preventable tragedies.

In the above accidents the weather was excellent VFR, the collisions took place below 5000 feet AGL and they occurred within 5 miles of an airport.  These underlying conditions often prevail during mid-air collisions.  There is no mystery here.  The airspace below 5000′ and in the vicinity of an airport brings together the greatest confluence of transitioning aircraft and the collision risk simply increases through statistical probability due to higher numbers of potential targets.  Pilots are also at much higher workload levels down low than in cruise flight and may not be giving the requisite attention to scanning for traffic.

Good VFR conditions tend to increase the volume of flight activity and can also bring a measure of pilot complacency given the relatively relaxed structure of the VFR operating environment.  The wild card contributing to the threat are pilots who disregard the rules, use non-standard pattern entry or departure procedures and don’t communicate their position or intentions especially at uncontrolled fields..  Even controllers can make mistakes so never hesitate to question them if you have any doubt or uncertainty regarding their communications.

Even if one pilot is mostly to blame by setting the stage for a collision, it will be of little comfort to the other pilot given the often fatal outcome.  Consider that there is always someone out there who is constructing their own causal chain towards a mid-air collision.  Basically they are an accident waiting for a place to happen, but it takes two to create the big bang.  By anticipating this threat and by actively using the collision avoidance skills that you were taught early on you need not be a part of their future.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), one of the world’s largest aviation insurance companies. He has been with USAIG for over 27 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 29, 2007  09:08 AM
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It was a beautiful summer’s day as the pilot and his family were flying back in the late afternoon after visiting friends in Sacramento. Over Concord the pilot could see that the marine cloud layer was blanketing the Bay Area with the coastal stratus just touching the tops of the East Bay hills. He thought he could see under the clouds over to the Bay side, but it was really just an illusion of light bouncing off the clouds and maybe some wishful thinking on his part. No matter, he knew the area well and would just stay below the clouds to get home.

Clouds over hillsAs he approached the hills he had to descend little by little to keep from entering the scud. To stay under the clouds he descended below the ridgelines and was now flying through the passes. A feeling of unease started to creep in. At this low altitude all the familiar landmarks melted into the homogeneous terrain and he wasn’t quite sure of where he was or where he should be going. He turned to avoid entering the clouds blocking his path, but had little room to maneuver. In an instant the windshield turned a solid gray-white causing a complete loss of orientation as to which way to go. Seconds later there was a loud “blaam” followed by eternal silence.

It is a tragic scenario that plays over and over again. This is the most common type of fatal accident that I investigate in the Western States and it occurs all too often in our area where we have an abundance of coastal stratus and hills. It happens to both instrument and non-instrument rated pilots alike. Scud running is one of the most dangerous flying activities you can undertake because, as with the pilot above, it can seem like a fairly benign idea to begin with, but may turn out to be a lethal one-way trap.

Radio towersWhat constitutes scud running? Well, even undefined you pretty much know it when you are doing it (and you usually don’t feel good about it). I tend to think that anytime you have less than a 1000 feet of altitude between the ground and the base of the clouds you are running short of VFR maneuvering room. Even when the terrain is flat, surface elevations and cloud bases will vary over distance and may shrink your safety margins quickly. Other lethal hazards associated with scud running include hitting obstructions such as utility structures or wires. Even without obstructions, spatial disorientation from an inadvertent cloud encounter can cause a non instrument pilot to lose control of the aircraft.

Like walking into quicksand, the danger may not be apparent until it is too late to retreat. The solution is easy: Don’t go there. Don’t even think about it. If low clouds block your path don’t be tempted to sneak under. Light can play funny tricks and tempt you with false illusions of clearing in the distance. See if you can circumnavigate a safe route even if takes a bit longer.
If you are qualified, current, and equipped for instrument flight, make the effort to request an IFR clearance. If not, then land and consider your options to either wait it out, rent a car, or spend the night. Tomorrow is another day and it is better than the alternative.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Assistant Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), the worlds largest aviation insurance company. He has been with USAIG for over 20 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Cessna Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 28, 2007  11:08 AM
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you cannot help but hear and read of precautions that individuals should take to help prevent identity theft.  We pilots have another area of potential exposure to identify theft: The FAA Pilot Certificate Number.  From the early 1970s until just a couple of years ago, the FAA would issue a newly certificated pilot a certificate number that was the same as the person’s Social Security Number (SSN).  We are required to carry our pilot licenses while flying which means that they are usually kept in our wallets or purses.  Not only is there exposure from loss or theft, but when you complete an insurance application or pilot history form, you are usually asked to supply your FAA Pilot Certificate number.  These documents are transmitted through the mails, by fax, and sometimes over the Internet.  They are subject to handling by numerous persons and businesses who might not be taking any security measures to safeguard your precious SSN!

If your pilot certificate number is the same as your Social Security Number, you should be aware that you can now request a unique, 7-digit pilot certificate number from the FAA.  Full details and forms for downloading are available on the web at: http://registry.faa.gov/airmen.asp  In addition, this site will allow you to establish an account with the FAA which can be used to update your pilot certificate mailing address online without having to mail anything.  There are lots of other neat features available at this site including airmen searches and forms to request a copy of your pilot certification records.

FAA Pilot Certificate

Certain aircraft registry forms, such as Change of Address and Aircraft Bill of Sale, are available at: http://registry.faa.gov/aircraft.asp  However, if you need to register an aircraft, the use of an original, multi-carbon Aircraft Registration Application, AC Form 8050-1, is required.  Photocopies and computer-generated copies of this form are not acceptable to the FAA.

posted by Aug 27, 2007  09:08 AM
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Last week while flying back to the Bay Area, the topic for this article came to me in a flash. Well, actually several flashes. Over on the west side of the San Francisco peninsula nature was putting on one of its most dazzling shows. Brilliant bolts of lightning arced across the sky. I didn’t have to look at my Stormscope to know where the bad stuff was. Luckily, I could enjoy this dramatic scene from a safe and respectful distance. The less fortunate were reporting some pretty rough rides to ATC.

The early Vikings believed that lightning came from Thor striking his hammer on an anvil as he rode his chariot across the clouds. There is an alternative belief for the non-Vikings among us that lightning occurs when negative and positive electric charges in the atmosphere start to separate due to the shears associated with thunderstorm development. An accumulation of negative charges in clouds will eventually discharge towards a positive charge such as the earth or other clouds.

LightningThis discharge is basically an electrical spark in which the flash lasts about half-a-second and the heat can be up to five times the temperature of the sun. The noise you hear (thunder) is the compression of the super-heated air around the bolt as it slices through the atmosphere. By the way, lightning strikes occur about 100 times per second on our planet. One study suggested aircraft lightning strikes occur approximately once per every 1000 flight hours.

The good news is that lightning is a relatively rare factor in fatal aircraft accidents, but it certainly is a potential hazard. Between 1959 and 1988 there were 9 fatal airline accidents attributable to lightning strikes. On December 8, 1963, a Pan American Boeing 707 sustained a lighting strike near Elkton, Maryland, which ignited a fire on the right wing. The wing separated and 81 people were killed. On February 8, 1988, a Metroliner was hit by lightning near Mulheim, Germany, causing the electrical system to fail while IFR. During an uncontrolled descent, a wing broke off resulting in 21 fatalities.

Lightning strike exit burn on elevator trim tab of a Lear jet
Lightning strike exit burn on elevator trim tab of a Lear jet

Normally, when lightning strikes an aircraft, the metal airframe provides a conductive path for the electricity to travel through it and dissipate back into the atmosphere. Composite structures incorporate a metallic mesh to provide the necessary conductive path. Lightning often strikes the front of an aircraft first. The physical evidence of a lightning strike is usually in the form of some small electrical pitting or arcing marks which are often found on nose cones, prop spinners, cowl inlets and leading edges. Similar small burn marks are found where the lightning exits the airframe at control surface trailing edges, trim tabs, and tail cones.

While the external arcing marks are usually a minor cosmetic concern, the energy of a lightning strike can instantly fry electronic equipment causing the pilot to lose instrumentation and avionics, which is a bad thing to happen when traversing a thunderstorm under IFR conditions. I know of one pilot flying a Cessna 210 who had this happen and he lost control of the aircraft. He barely recovered in time. I have also seen radar dishes look like black cast-iron frying pans after a lightning strike.

Besides the electronics, another concern about a bolt of lighting traveling through an aircraft is the destructive potential to bearing surfaces. Bearing surfaces are typically designed for applications where frictional contact is to be kept to a minimum. A lightning strike may cause electrical pitting on these bearing surfaces essentially destroying them. A strike on other surfaces such as propeller blades may compromise structural integrity requiring a complete replacement depending on the manufacture’s criteria. Usually manufacturers provide lightning strike inspection procedures for their airplanes and components.

Under the worst circumstances, a lightning strike can penetrate the fuel system and ignite fuel vapors causing an aircraft to explode or burn as in the case of the earlier mentioned 707 accident. I investigated an accident involving a Piper Arrow that did ignite and explode in the air while traveling through convective activity. Due to the extensive destruction of the plane we could not conclusively state that lightning caused the explosion, but it seemed a logical possibility given the surrounding circumstances. Most planes are designed to prevent this situation, but a mechanical or structural deficiency could allow it to happen.

No TrespassingConsider that lightning is really just an unusually bright “No Trespassing” sign for aviators. You can often see and avoid it way in advance if you are VFR and, if IFR, it is easily detected if you have a Stormscope or Strikefinder on board. Lightning is trying to tell you that this is a place where you are not welcome. With in its boundaries you will meet the rest of the family: hail, heavy rain showers, and killer turbulence. Lightning won’t be a problem if you know enough to stay away from thunderstorms. If you don’t know enough to stay away from thunderstorms, than kindly put your pilot’s license back in the cereal box from where it came from. Enjoy the fireworks, but do it from a safe distance.

Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Assistant Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), the worlds largest aviation insurance company. He has been with USAIG for over 20 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3000 flying hours. He flies a Cessna Turbo-182 based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 20, 2007  11:08 AM
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Crop DusterLast week I planned a flight from San Carlos to a crop duster airstrip in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.  The weather forecast seemed pretty consistent on my route with occasional rain showers and cloud bases ranging from 3000 to 5000 feet thanks to an active area of low pressure.  I departed IFR to get out of the area, but by the time I got over to the San Joaquin Valley the weather was decent VFR and I cancelled my instrument flight plan and was proceeding comfortably below the clouds at 3500 feet.              

Wall of CloudsAbout 50 miles from my destination, I noticed what could only be described as wall of clouds blocking my route that seemed to extend up from the ground to the bases of the clouds above me.  I could not circum navigate around it and because there was no instrument approach at my intended destination there was little point in trying to get an instrument clearance.  I opted to call it day and headed back to the barn.

The next day I learned that a Cessna 210 had been in the same area about an hour before me and had broken up in flight.   The three on board were killed.  The preliminary information indicates that the pilot was not instrument rated and likely lost control of the plane during an inadvertent encounter with IFR conditions.  I could identify with the pilot’s predicament, but not with the tragic outcome.

There are thousands of NTSB fatal aircraft accident reports which contain the familiar words “pilot failed to maintain VFR” as part of the probable cause findings.   A catch-all phrase to be sure, but one that often reflects the prologue of non-instrument pilots who encounter IMC conditions.  Keep in mind that we are talking about situations where the IMC encounter occurs at sufficient altitude with no obstructions nearby and the pilot loses control of an otherwise airworthy aircraft.   Low-level scud running, on the other hand will shorten the life expectancy of both instrument and non-instrument rated pilots alike as they fly, often under complete control, into unforgiving terra firma.

As part of our certification all pilots are required to maintain control of an aircraft by reference to the instruments.  Unfortunately, it is a skill seldom kept proficient by most non-instrumented rated pilots.  In reality it is essential to be able to control an aircraft by instrument reference not only for inadvertent cloud encounters, but also for flying under conditions of night or low visibility when there may be no outside horizon to reference.  The ability to integrate the use of both instrument and outside visual flight references makes one a much more precise, smoother, and safer pilot.

Instrument PanelIf you ever find yourself in a position of inadvertently losing outside visual reference your initial objective is to focus on the instruments to maintain a straight and level flight attitude (obstacle clearance permitting) and ignore any false sense of motion that could lead to spatial disorientation.   The attitude indicator will be your best friend here.  You will also have to fight the feelings of anxiety and fear that come with this situation especially if there is turbulence.  Just because you are in the clag, the laws of aerodynamics have not been repealed and your plane will fly just the same.   You will just have to work a little harder and keep your cool.

Use trim to stabilize pitch attitude and apply small, gentle control inputs while keeping your eyes on the instrument panel to maintain straight and level.   A properly trimmed aircraft will fly itself.  Better yet, use the autopilot if you have one.  Just make sure that you thoroughly understand how to use it.   Get help from ATC if you can, but don’t lose control of the plane while fiddling with the radios.  When you get settled you will need to either do a gentle 180-degree turn back to clear skies or climb or descend if cloud bases or tops permit.

Why is it so important to focus on straight and level flight?  A loss of control under IMC typically occurs when the pilot isn’t paying attention or starts succumbing to spatial disorientation and the aircraft starts to bank.  As the wing drops down the aircraft also starts to descend picking up speed.   A pilot will react by pulling back on the yoke without first leveling the wings.  This aggravates the situation by increasing the bank angle, descent rate, air speed and wing loading.  This is often referred to as the “graveyard spiral.”  Speeds can quickly exceed structural limits causing the aircraft to break up as the pilot tries to pull out of it.  If you find yourself in this situation level the wings, reduce power, and slow the aircraft as best you can before gently pulling out of the dive.  Keep it straight and the plane won’t break.

Plane about to enter IFR conditionsIdeally the best course of action is not to be in a position where you have to “cancel VFR,” but stuff happens and it is best to be prepared as you would for any potential emergency through recurrent training.  With an instructor on board, a cloud encounter can easily be simulated in VFR conditions by putting on the hood and practicing an exit strategy by doing turns, climbs, and descents with and without the use of an autopilot.   The session should also include unusual attitude recoveries and how to obtain assistance from ATC.  This is simple stuff at which all pilots should be proficient.   Remember that a plane doesn’t care if it is in clear air or clouds; it flies pretty much the same.  As in most things in life, attitude is what counts.

Ken Steiner Editor’s Note: Ken Steiner is the Claims Manager and Asst. Vice-President for the San Francisco office of the United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), one of the world’s largest aviation insurance companies. He has been with USAIG for over 27 years investigating all manner of aviation accidents involving aircraft from Cessna 150’s to Boeing 747’s. Ken is an active pilot holding ATP and CFI certificates with over 3500 flying hours. He flies a Turbo Skylane based at San Carlos, and yes, his flying record is free of any accidents, incidents and violations!

posted by Aug 20, 2007  09:08 AM
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