Going Direct: Burbank, Tailwinds, The Vice President and Landing Too Long

The news last week of a Southwest Boeing 737 (but I repeat myself) overrunning the runway end at Burbank is a story of the triumph of technology over the failings of human beings. The jet landed a little long on a short runway with a tailwind in heavy rain…yeah, I know, right? Runway 8 is the only runway at BUR with an approach, so, that might explain the tailwind. Burbank being nestled in among the LA basin hills explains a lot of the rest.

The end result wasn’t mass causalities. It was, well, a broken runway and damaged airplane. The part of the runway that broke was the Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) a technology that is essentially frangible runway extension material that very quickly slows the plane down in a linear manner, so it’s a quick stop but not a sudden one.

It’s hard to say how bad it would have been, but it could have been bad. EMAS has come to the rescue numerous times in the past few years, most notably in 2016 when it stopped a chartered 737 carrying VP candidate Mike Pence from going into Flushing Bay.

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The EMAS wasn’t there in Burbank in 2001 when a Southwest 737, Flight 1455, overran that same runway, went through the fence and wound up on the highway that runs perpendicular to the runway end. Nobody was hurt, but it could have been bad. That flight was a case of getting slam dunked on final with a very slight tailwind, challenging circumstances, to be sure, and one where it’s especially hard for the pilots to transition from working their hardest to manage speed and descent while simultaneously preparing mentally for a go around. Tough circumstances, to be sure.

I’d guess similar pressures came into play on this one, though the tailwind component was even more pronounced, the flight landed in heavy rain, braking action was compromised and, oh yeah, it was a short runway, a short runway that has the only approach at Burbank. It will be interesting to see what the NTSB says about all of those factors and how they contributed to the mishap, which will surely be classified as an accident, as the underside of the 737 was damaged in the arresting bed.

Are there lessons for us little airplane pilots? Absolutely. Manage your speed. Know your landing runway length. Know every variable that will make your landing longer than intended, including any allowable tailwind component, a runway that’s wet, icy or snowy, an ATC-initiated steep approach and the performance parameters of your plane. If any or all of those factors are present, it might be best not to count on you doing all the math and adding in the various landing distance factors, which in some cases could more than double the required landing distance, but instead to find a runway long enough that you don’t have to do so much math. And remember, it’s always okay to go around, so long as a go-around can be done safely, which is almost always. If in doubt about whether it’s okay to go around, refer to the previous sentence. And if anyone gives you grief about going around, that’s not you. It’s them putting their ignorance on display. After all, you’re there to have the discussion, which in my book is the best argument there is.

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Going Direct: Swallowed Entirely By The World’s Biggest Plane

I’ve seen some amazing planes and had the chance to fly some equally incredible ones. The ones that have left a lasting impression might surprise you, as they include some models that are hardly household names, like the twin-engine ultralight-type Lockwood Aircam and the Hawker Horizon bizjet, the latter of which is best known as being a huge financial failure. But the planes that have left the biggest dent in my memory are a couple of the very biggest planes ever, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose, and the Antonov An-225 Mriya.

The Soviet-era giant is the one that I remembered yesterday when my boss sent me a video link to a YouTube spot on the plane making its first ever arrival Down Under a few years ago, and the crowds in Perth that flocked to the airport to witness its arrival. For some planes you don’t need to bring the binoculars. This one tops that list.

And I know about that from first-hand experience.

It was the early 90s and I was working for a small publication in Southern California when I got invited to go along with a group of precision scale radio-controlled aircraft industry insiders. I was along to document things. The nearly month-long trek through the former Soviet states included stops in Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and too much ballet, caviar, priceless works of art and evening libations to remember everything distinctly.

But one thing is clear as day. My getting to see the An-225.

I saw the plane from the air while it was parked outside at the Antonov factory and I was one of two people in a side-by-side open air weight shift ultralight that I was flying. It was a blast. But when my instructor suggested, using only hand signals, that we overfly the Antonov factory, well, I assumed it was a really bad idea, that we’d be taken down by a heat-seeking missile homing in our little trike.

As it turned out, no one seemed to care. Phew.

The plane down there looked humongous as we circled a few times at, I’m guessing here, 1500 feet—the instruments would have been in Cyrillic, if there’d been any.

Two days later I was touring the plane as part of our group. As we climbed aboard, going up way higher than I’d figured we’d have to, I kept wondering if there was anything in the hold. As we arrived to the space, I saw it was completely empty. The cliché is true. You could have an awesome game of touch football back there, with 11 to a side. It was enormous. I even got the chance to ascend up to the tail, which sits 60 feet off the ground and three-quarters of that above the cargo deck. It was an airplane. I knew that. But it was an airplane of such a scale that I couldn’t really comprehend how such a thing could be conceived, designed, constructed and flown. I’m still in awe of each one of those necessary milestones.

The plane’s size and capabilities defy statistical explanation, but here goes. The world’s biggest working plane, the one-off Antonov An-225 Mriya was designed and built by then-Soviet company Antonov, headquartered then and now in Kiev, Ukraine. Mriya was designed to carry the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, like the Boeing 747 did with the United States’ space shuttles. After the end of the Buran program, the An-225 was pressed into revenue service.

Powered by six 51,600-pound thrust turbofan engines, the 225 has a wingspan of 290 feet, 65 feet longer than that of the biggest Boeing 747. It has a useful load of nearly 800,000 pounds, allowing it to carry almost 200,000 pounds of cargo with full fuel and go farther than 8,000 nm in the process.

Two other planes come close: the Boeing 747-8 and the Airbus A380 are giants of the skies, as well, but they’re not as big as the An-225, and besides, there are multiples of them. The 225 is sui generis, a one of a kind plane that has been working its tail off—figuratively speaking!—for the past 30-plus years and shows no sign of letting up.

All of which make me enormously happy. Watch the video. You’ll see that these folks are as impressed with it as I once was when I happened into a chance meeting with it. That revelation changed the way I think about airplanes forever and left me spellbound. Which, can you tell, I still am.

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Going Direct: The Lion Air Disaster and the Public’s Crash-ination

Stock photograph of Boeing 737 Max.

By now you’ve probably heard about the crash of Lion Air Flight 610. And you might have heard that there’s been speculation that the Boeing 737 Max crashed because the pilots were flummoxed by faulty readings on the plane’s instruments due to problems with the pitot-static system, which senses the plane’s altitude and airspeed. All 189 aboard the plane are presumed tohave died in the crash, and recovery efforts are underway.

As you might remember, it was this system that contributed to the crash of Air France 447 in the Atlantic on June 1of 2009 while at cruise on the way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all 228 people aboard. When a plane’s sensors give false or unreliable altitude or airspeed (or both) indications, the danger is that the pilots will try to do as they’re trained to do when systems are operating normally and stabilize the flight path by adjusting power and pitch. When the plane is getting bad or erratic altitude and airspeed information, it might be impossible, however, to do anything but make matters worse by attempting to hold the plane’s altitude  and airspeed, because the pilots are chasing false indications without reliable cues. In the Air France 447 disaster, investigators believe that the pilots stalled a perfectly good-flying airplane into the sea because they couldn’t determine how fast it was going or at what altitude they were flying. Complicating their vain attempt was the fact that its was dark atthe time, so they presumably had few or no outside visual cues. It was, for the record, about an hour past official sunrise in Jakarta when Lion Air 610 crashed into the sea. It is not known if the flight was in visual conditions or if it was being flown by reference to instruments solely due to cloud coverage.

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Was the Lion Air flight of a nearly-new Boeing single-aisle airliner brought down by faulty sensors? I don’t know. And none of the people speculating about it know either. And here’s the problem with that.

Crashes of airliners don’t happen often, and that’s surely part of the reason that there’s such a keen public interest in them. When Malaysia Flight 370 went missing under mysterious circumstances in March of 2014, there was unprecedented interest in what had happened. With Flight 370, the biggest question was, was it human error, treachery, or a fault with the machinery?For months,people wanted to hear what the pundits had to say, to hear every little clue that investigators were parsing to try to understand what might have happened and where they should search for the missing airliner.

With Lion Air 610, there will be no lingering mystery. Searchers have already found the crash site and the grim job of recovering the bodies of the dead and getting ahold of the flight recorders has already begun.

And speculation is rampant. It hasn’t always been this way, but it is now, and there’s no going back. The Internet has made instant analysis, for good and for ill—and there’s plenty of the latter and not enough of the former­—a fact of life when it comes to newsgathering. The hijacking of a Horizon Air Q400 by an unstable ground crew member, who subsequently died in what was mostly likely a suicide, is a case in point. The question was, and is, how did the thief, who had no formal training in how to fly the Q400, manage to not only steal it but to fly it well? Could he have taught himself? And should we ban flight simulation games to prevent any such incident from happening in the future? These are not easy questions to answer, with the possible exception of the last one, should we ban flight sim games, because that is a silly question.

With Lion Air 610, there are already questions that need to be answered, none of them the least bit frivolous. They are, how did the crash happen and how can we prevent any such tragedy from happening again?

In this case it’s already clear that the answer to those questions are, we don’t know and, again, we don’t know.

The only comfort is that in this case is thatthe answers are almost certain to come in time to prevent future tragedy, if indeed it is preventable. Will that knowledge be enough to quiet the speculators?

Not a chance.

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Going Direct: Boeing 737s Versus Lockheed Martin F-22s

An article on yesterday posed a question many of us have about the future of our air defenses. Namely, who’s going to fly these planes? Turns out it’s a bigger problem than you might have imagined. And, as usual, there’s more to the story.

First off, no one can seriously do anything but marvel at the technology that’s gone into the creation of the two newest U.S. fighters, the F-35 and F-22, though people will disagree about how much they cost and are costing, which is a lot. But it turns out that having those planes and being able to use them are two different things.

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In the Forbes piece, journalist Niall McCarthy, who, like Nate Silver of fame, uses data to try to understand a complex world that often defies easy analysis. The subject McCarthy and Forbes are interested in is markets, and military aviation is a huge market. In his piece, McCarthy uses the Air Force’s own data to answer questions to which there have been few good answers so far. IN this case, the first question is, how great is it to have the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, the two most advanced fighters in the world? According to what McCarthy can glean from Air Force data, it’s a mixed bag, and it might be getting worse.

According to Air Force figures on usage rates on their planes, neither fighter is getting flown as much as it should be, and not because there are no battles to be fought but because the planes have a terrible dispatch reliability rate. In military aviation, this is known as “availability.” In business aviation, it’s typical to have dispatch rates of over 95 percent. At one point Gulfstream said its G650 (which was my primary plan if I won the big lotto, shucks) had a DR rate of 99.7 percent. The two USAF fighters, in stark contrast, have dispatch rates hovering, even without VTOL capabilities, around 50 percent. Some of that is simply because military planes live harder lives than bizjets. The most reliable plane in the military, according to the Forbes story via the Air Force Times, is the Boeing C-17 transport, at around 84 percent. The worst is the F-22A, at less than 50 percent.

Some of that could be blamed on the aircraft themselves, as McCarthy points, due to their maintenance heavy stealth coatings. And they’re new and super high-tech machines. McCarthy doesn’t mention, but there’s a lot of top secret electronic gear on the planes, and the Air Force isn’t about to reveal what that gear is and how reliable it is, or isn’t.

And that poor reliability rating could get worse rather than better, thanks (or no thanks) to the airlines. With transitioning military pilots looking at good salaries as airline pilots in short order, the market conditions have changed substantially. Previously, the move from the military to the airlines was far less certain, and starting salaries were low. Today with a staggering shortfall of pilots, the airlines have had to increase pay by a lot, and there are jobs waiting for qualified pilots starting yesterday.

Of course, the downside is that flying a 737 or RJ isn’t as much fun as flying an F-22 or F-16—when’s the last time you heard of an Airbus A-320 going full afterburner on departure? Still, when it comes to home and family, an airline job these days will be hard for military pilots to turn down when their commitment is up.

And if the Air Force has a plan for this change in market conditions, we haven’t heard it, but we hope that they do. Because, to state the obvious, an airplane is never available unless there’s someone to fly it.

And if you’re thinking, well, this is where drones come in, we agree. They will be a huge factor in this fast-changing world.

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Going Direct: NBAA Opens With High Hopes But Real Concerns

NBAA 2018 Kickoff Press Breakfast
NBAA 2018 Kickoff Press Breakfast

At the organization’s annual NBAA Kickoff Press Breakfast, NBAA chairman of the board General Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton and president and CEO Ed Bolen welcomed industry leaders and members of the press to the annual NBAA/BACE Convention in Orlando, Florida. Bolen, along with guests Phil Straub of Garmin and Pete Bunce of GAMA, expressed optimism for the industry, along with concerns for its future, all informed by questions about how changes in technology might affect that future.

The event is shaping up to be a big success, with more than 25,000 attendees registered for the show (October 16-18), more than a thousand exhibitors and more than a hundred of planes at the static display at Orlando Executive Airport.

During the kickoff event, Bolen shared that NBAA is celebrating a big victory, having played a big role in defeating the move in Congress, underwritten by the airlines, to privatize air traffic control. At the same time, he applauded the passage last week of a five-year FAA reauthorization bill, the first time in many years the FAA will be funded with any long-term vision instead of continuing resolutions.

But Bunce shared that one big hurdle the industry faces, and this is no secret al all, is the dearth of pilots to fly the planes that GAMA’s member companies are building, a situation so critical that Bolen floated the idea of Congress sponsoring a jobs program to promote aviation education and employment.

Predictably, the subject of ADS-B equipage came up, and Bolen mentioned that helicopters are in particularly bad shape, with just around 30 percent of them currently equipped for flight in ADS-B airspace, with the January 1st, 2020, deadline looming. When he suggested that operators need to get started on getting their planes into the shop, it was hard not to sense a level of resignation that equipage will not happen in time…what happens then, no one is discussing, most likely because there aren’t any good answers.

Pete Bunce made a chilling observation during the presentation, as well, when he observed that while it pains him, because he is a pilot, to acknowledge the fact that automation might help ease the pilot shortage in as little a time as five years. He didn’t say it out loud, but the message was clear. The days of fewer pilots in cockpits is coming sooner than we might know.

Bolen mentioned drones, and cockpit automation, and the new urban aerial mobility movement to underscore how aviation will be changing and it’s to us to keep up.  As Bob Dylan observed more than a few years ago, and it holds true for business aviation, “The times they are a changing,” and as a wise man once said, time stands still for no one, and no organization. We live in interesting times. They will only get more interesting in the years to come.

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