Going Direct: Not So Fast: Do Small Plane Pilots Make A Deal With The Devil?

Small plane

A recent story on the webzine Air Facts Journal characterized the decision we pilots of small planes make as being a deal made with the devil.

Without ruining a good read for you, the story by former Flying and Sport Aviation editor Mac McClellan (you can find it here) discusses the difference between transport category jets and Part 23 planes, and the observations he makes are undeniably true. In fact, our entire certification paradigm is built on the concept that standards for planes designed to carry lots of passengers are going to be a lot more stringent than little four seaters. Everything from the level of software certification to the degree of redundancy is more demanding for transport planes, which leaves less chance for error and less reliance on dumb luck to keep the crew and passengers in one piece.

And, as Mac points out, it has worked. Accidents at the airlines are so rare it’s hard to remember when the last crash of a U.S. passenger plane operated by a major airline even occurred. The uncontained engine breach of Southwest Airlines earlier this year resulted in the death of one passenger, but you’d have to go back to Colgan Flight 3407, a commuter plane that crashed in Buffalo 10 years ago, killing 50, to find a crash of a U.S.-operated airliner (a turboprop, not a jet) with multiple fatalities. Flying the airlines is almost inconceivably safe. The drive to the airport is truly a much greater risk.

One risk that remains is the loss of two engines on a big jet. Strangely, in his piece, Mac mentioned the controlled crash of U.S. Airways 1549 into the Hudson in 2009 as a once-in-a-lifetime occasion…only to have the exact same thing happen to a Ural Airways Airbus A321 days after the Air Facts Journal piece was published! And for the past week, we’ve seen dozens of people floating the idea of redesigning engines so they’d survive such multiple-birdstrike incidents—which is how airline flying keeps getting safer. We learn from our mistakes. And it should be noted that in neither accident was anyone killed. 

When we fly our single-engine airplanes, even turboprop- powered ones or single-pilot approved light jets, are we giving away a lot of safety? Yes, we are. Your chances of getting hurt or killed in a small plane are far, far greater than if you were flying the airlines, and your safety in a light jet is far greater than in a small piston-powered single.

That all said, things are changing, and that’s not because the devil is being kind these days, but because we’ve made progress in finding ways to make our flying safer, despite the fact we’re still working under the same limitations—one engine, limited redundancy, one crew member with no professional certification required. For that improvement, we can thank the advent of small, light and affordable digital technology, and improvements in user interfaces and the proliferation of affordable safety systems, everything from runway safety utilities to collision avoidance gear. This has advanced to the point where pilots of light planes have extremely affordable and capable flight control gear available for their planes, some of them featuring advanced-envelope protection that can keep the pilots out of trouble should they begin to lose control, or even consciousness.

And let’s not forget the incorporation of the whole-airplane parachute recovery system by Cirrus Aircraft in all of its planes, even its jet, and by just about every LSA maker in the world.

And we’re just seeing the beginning of all of this. New, affordable and even better technologies will emerge, and they will continue to drive down accident numbers.

Combine this with greatly improved training philosophy, including an emphasis on aeronautical decision making, and you get a compelling array of safety technologies and methodologies working together, sometimes by design, to make our flying safer.

Will flying small planes ever be as safe as flying the airlines? Not even close. But we’re tackling safety in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined and at price points that I still have a hard time believing.

So if we really are making a deal with the devil when we go flying in small planes, then the old goat’s hand is getting weaker and weaker, and our odds are growing better by the year. 

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Going Direct: P&P Interview With The World’s Biggest Flying Car Fanatic

Flying Car Enthusiast
Flying car enthusiast Bolt Awesome. By Luis Molinero/Shutterstock

Why are flying cars so appealing an idea to millions, perhaps billions, and maybe even trillions of people, all of whom think flying cars are the future of transportation?

To better understand this enthusiasm, we interviewed flying car enthusiast Bolt Awesome to get his views on our flying future.

P&P: Bolt, we understand you bill yourself as the “world’s foremost flying car fan.” Why is that?

BA: Because it’s true! And flying cars are amazing and I am their number one fan!

P&P: Have you ever flown or driven in a flying car?

BA: Duh. There aren’t any yet, so, no I haven’t.

P&P: Well, there was one that was approved by the FAA back in the late 40s, the Taylor AeroCar, and there are still a couple of them flying but it never went into serial production.

BA: Why not! It sounds awesome

P&P: Well, no one wanted to buy one and no one wanted to invest in the company.

BA: Well, people were stupid back in the olden days.

P&P: Okay…well, what would a flying car do that gets you so excited about them?

BA: Well, for one they’re awesome, and for two, they’re cars that fly!

P&P: Right. Let’s ask this way. How would you see yourself using one?

BA: Now, that’s an easy one. Ever been in a traffic jam. And you really want to get home but you’re stuck in traffic. With a flying car, you just take off and fly over the traffic and you’re outa there. So long, suckers!

P&P: Would you be able to take off in stop and go traffic? Wouldn’t the plane need some distance to take off?

BA: Nope, it would just go up and start flying.

P&P: So it would really be a flying car helicopter?

BA: I guess so. That would rock.

P&P: Why wouldn’t you just fly home in it to begin with?

BA: Duh again. Because, I don’t know. It’s a flying car so without driving it’s a just a plane…or a helicopter. You gotta drive it if it’s gonna be the car part too. Double duh.

P&P: But in that case, couldn’t you just have flown it all the way home to begin with.

BA: Sure. I guess so. Next question.

P&P:  How else might you use a flying car?

BA: Okay, well, if you’re a pilot and you go to an airport and you have to leave your plane there because it’s not a car too, stupid old fashioned plane, and then there’s no way to get to where you’re going, ever thought of that?

P&P: Don’t almost all airports have rental cars or loaner cars, though?

BA: Of course they do, genius, but are any of them flying cars?

P&P: Touché. So, since this is apparently such a great idea, won’t lots of people want a flying car?

BA: Duh.

P&P: So won’t there be a problem with keeping flying cars from hitting other flying cars?

BA: Science would solve that. That’s the answer to that one. Ha!

P&P: …through some kind of autonomous dependent collision avoidance utility for which there would a standard developed?

BA: Who now?

P&P: Science would do that, right?

BA: Yes! That’s right. Sounds like someone is finally figuring this out.

P&P: And how would this work in the city? Wouldn’t there be a shortage of good places to land a flying car, not to mention a high risk of collision between the many flying cars in the city, and who wants a flying car to crash on top of them?

BA: I would. That would be awesome! Wait, maybe not in real life though. But yeah, in theory, yes.

P&P: Back to where they would land…

BA: At a giant flying car perch. They’d just hover over to them, like a hover bike only cooler, and then land there and you’d go where you were going.

P&P: Like it is for helicopters today?

BA: What? I guess so. But these are flying cars.

P&P: The difference between the two being…

BA: Ever tried to drive a helicopter?

P&P: No, we’d use a car for that.

BA: Exactly! No wait!

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Going Direct: Why Homeland Security’s Warning About Hacking Small Planes Is Just Silly.

GA planes being hacked
The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about GA planes being hacked.

In a breathless warning earlier this week the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a warning that researchers had found that the systems of small airplanes could be hacked. Oh my.

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A cybersecurity firm, Rapid7, did the research, and without naming names so the terrorists don’t win, they said that computerized systems on the electronics of small planes could be hacked by inserting a device inline on the main data bus. The ploy could then be used to give false readings to pilots or to take control of the plane. The danger was downplayed, however, by both DHS and the research firm, because the bad actor would need access to the plane, something both thought was unlikely.

Sigh. Where to begin.

Okay, first off, access to small planes is not hard to get. At many airports around the country, it requires walking through a gate with security features that keep it inaccessible to most golden retrievers and all babies. Once at the plane in the hangar or on the ramp, there’s a very good chance no one would notice or care.

And that’s okay because it’s not going to happen in the first place because it would be a silly, overly complex and totally unproductive way to cause havoc.

Most small planes have one engine. If that goes, they are going to be landing. By regulation small planes that have computerized display systems, so-called “flat panels,” have non-connected standby instruments, either good old-fashioned analog gauges, which are hard to hack but will break all on their own at regular intervals, or standby electric instruments that by design don’t talk to the main bus and which are powered by a separate power source.

Moreover, small planes are not a serious terror threat. The worst terroristic incident using a small plane we know of was when a homegrown unhinged Texas man crashed his small plane into an IRS building in Austin killing the terrorist and one IRS employee. It was a senseless loss of one of those lives. In contrast, attacks on crowds of people using vehicles can and have killed many more people than that. In Austin in 2014, while it wasn’t terrorism, a many fleeing police drove his car into a crowd of people at a festival, killing three and injuring more than 20 people in the process.

But somehow people think that the hacking of the electronics systems of small planes is the threat?

There are real safety concerns both in aviation and in our national security. This is not one of them.

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Going Direct: Why Apollo 11 Is The Most Important Story In All Of Human History

Apollo 11 Launch
Apollo 11 launching on July 16, 1969. Photo courtesy of NASA

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Four days later, its lunar lander would touch down on our planet’s only natural satellite, the Moon.

Should we really care that much? In a way, anniversaries are meaningless. Even round-number ones like 50th, 75th and 100th anniversary commemorations are a stretch. Why does 50 years to the day matter more than 49 years and 364 days? Or 50 years and three days? And you have to admit that we live in a world in which anniversaries are everywhere. All you need to do is go to the Internet to find what happened 50 years ago today, or 83 years ago, for that matter.

Did you know, for instance, that today marks the 74th anniversary of the first successful test of a nuclear weapon? Or that it was 20 years ago today that John F. Kennedy, Jr., died in the crash of a plane he was flying, along with his wife and sister-in-law? Or that it was 24 years ago today that launched its business? Anniversaries are everywhere. And while they are, in a way, just random recollections of things past at what might well as be random intervals, they’re also important milestones to mark remembrances of important things, events that are special to us in innumerable, very different kinds of ways.

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There’s also the human factor of it. I’ll possibly be around for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War II, which will be September 2nd, 2045—I’ll be 86 if I wind up being that lucky. But none of the men and women who waged that war will be alive to look back at it, unless they were young to begin with and somehow make it to 115 or so. The last Union veteran of the American Civil War, Albert Henry Woolson, died nine years before the anniversary. A man named Pleasant Crump was the last verified surviving Confederate soldier. He died in 1950. So 50th anniversaries make sense. Arguably 75th anniversaries, too. Centennials, on the other hand, are historic occasions. That history is really history.

Today, as you doubtless know, July 16, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. Two of the astronauts who went to the Moon, Buzz Aldrin (89), who went for a stroll, the second after Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins (88), who commanded the Lunar orbiter, survive. Neil Armstrong, the first person ever to walk on the Moon, died almost seven years ago.

By July 16, 1969, the space program was still young, slightly more than a decade old, depending on how you figure the start of it. That 11th mission was the culmination of the Apollo program. That mission aimed at going to the moon. Well, since President Kennedy made it a national goal, everything that NASA did was aimed toward us getting to the moon, but Apollo 11 was no dress rehearsal. Its goal was the Moon itself. And not just to the moon, but to land on the moon. And not to just land on the moon, but to land a human on the moon. And not to just land a human (two of them, in fact) on the moon but to then have those humans walk around the surface a bit and bring back some chunks of it to Earth.

Never before had a human being gone to another heavenly body. Never before had a human being walked on another heavenly body.

And never again will there be such a first, though some of us might be alive to see the first Mars walker take his or her first walk there.

No, our journey to the Moon, humankind’s journey to the Moon, changed everything about how we saw ourselves and the place we live. The song Refuge of The Roads by Joni Mitchell on her 1976 album “Hejira” puts a sharp point on it.

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all…

Never before in human history had we achieved the kind of perspective that the Apollo 11 mission gave us all. And those of us who witnessed it on TV, and nearly a half-billion people did, knew right then and there that the world had changed. And it was thanks to the brilliant and brave men and women, thousands of them, who had that vision, to paraphrase President Kennedy when he announced our national goal of going to the Moon, do something not because it was easy but because it was hard, and because doing seemingly impossible things can change the world in ways we can’t even imagine.

It’s the anniversary of an event like no other before or since. I for one will have my head lifted skyward every evening for the next few days. Then again, more often than not, I’ve been gazing in that general direction both literally and otherwise for 50 years now.



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Going Direct: NY Pols Work To Ban Helicopter Flights. Fight With FAA Looms.

FDNY on the scene of a helicopter crash
Members of the FDNY at the scene of a helicopter crash in New York City on Monday, June 10. Photo courtesy of the FDNY

Politico’s Transportation Newsletter is reporting that several New York State and Congressional lawmakers are reaching out to New York City Mayor (and presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio in their attempts to get New York City to ban all “non-essential” helicopter flights over the city, though it’s not clear if that applies to all of the boroughs, a subset of them or just Manhattan.

The push from New Yorkers to ban such flights is in part due to the crash last month of a charter helicopter atop a Manhattan building, which killed the pilot while causing no injuries to anyone on the ground and little damage to the building.

Regardless, the question of who has the authority to do this, the City or the FAA, is at the forefront. It’s long-settled law that the FAA is the sole regulator for traffic, and thank goodness for that. Can you imagine a National Airspace System in which every governmental authority could regulate the airspace above it? No, we can’t either. 

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Still, a trio of powerful US representatives from New York—Jerry Nadler, Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney— argued in a letter to de Blasio that the City does have the right. Furthermore, according to Politico, they want to hear from FAA Administrator nominee Steve Dickinson what he intends to do about the issue.

For his part, de Blasio does seem to know the law and responded to the Representatives that the FAA is the only entity that can ban such flights, not the City and not the State. But what he could do, he argues, is to shut down the New York City helicopter facilities, which would greatly reduce helicopter traffic over the city. We know from watching the decades-long Santa Monica Airport saga just how easy that is, but it is clearly possible, if not politically tenable, not to mention the fact that it would also impact “essential” helicopter operations, which we take to be police and EMS operations.

What will happen? Our guess is that after putting up a very loud and public effort to ban something that they know won’t be banned, the lawmakers will be happy to let the effort die after their constituents’ collective sense of outrage has faded, which is likely to be any day now.

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