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: UFOs And The Last Fighter Pilot

Going Direct

I look back fondly but with a clear eye at my flight training way back in the 1970s, done high or not so high above the Joshua trees, sandy basins and rough crumbling granite ridges of the American southwest, which still looks pretty much the same. It’s vast. For me, the training was not all about getting a license or getting a job but merely about getting to fly solo. That was my goal. It still kind of is. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Almost without exception, the most consequential flights I made were the ones when I took off with no instructor weighing me down. I’m being facetious, of course. The instructors—and I had some great ones—were critical to my getting through flight training while not killing myself or any innocent coyotes in the sagebrush below. But they also wanted to give me the confidence I sorely needed that I could do this thing on my own, solo. 

I know all the clichés about flying, the old saw about “slipping the surly bonds,” about how flying sets you free and lets you somehow “touch the face of God,” which I always thought was a really weird thing to say. Regardless, the truth is far more pedestrian and, as such, actually meaningful. Funny how that works.

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Flying was scary at first. Not when I soloed—I was a good stick and ready for that—but later on, when I wandered away from my home field on my first solo ventures to places like Pearblossom and Thermal. Lord, I wasn’t ready!

And I thought there must be something wrong with me because there has always been this generations-old practice of letting kids take an airplane hundreds of miles away from home after having done it once or twice with an instructor (who could bail you out at the first sign of trouble). That experience would possibly include weather weirdness (which it did), airports I had never seen before but now had to land at (a couple baffled me), and decisions I knew I would have to make drawing way more on intuition than experience. I was really inexperienced, too, but I was smart and observant enough to know that these solo ventures would likely involve surprises not of my doing and screw-ups completely of my own doing. That I would somehow need to have the wherewithal in my 16-year-old brain to figure out what to do about it all…it just sounded crazy to me.

Truth was, I was right. It really is a modified version of tossing the kid into the deep end to teach them how to swim, which, interestingly, was precisely how my father taught me to swim, if coming up for air and then thrashing my way to the side of the pool before climbing out and running away before he could do it again is learning how to swim. Flying solo felt like a slightly more consensual form of that same approach.

I never wanted to run away, though. I just wanted to get good at the aviation thing, which I understood even then was a moving target, one that didn’t really seem achievable, though I guessed it must be because I knew a lot of people who had done it, and, with one or two exceptions, none of them seemed like superheroes.

I never wanted to be a great pilot. I never dreamed of being Betty Skelton or Amelia Earhart or Jackie Cochran. I just wanted to have fun flying, which meant simply enjoying the experience. And I knew that I needed to get better to move beyond the anxiety of being at the controls and take in the experience in its essence without any fear filter screening out the beauty.

And I got there. It took me many hundreds of hours of flying and many dozens of flights that went not according to plan, but I got there, flying flights in fast and complex airplanes in busy airspace at great heights, sometimes with way too much weather—and crushing it. And my ruling emotion was no longer fear but joy, as well as an overarching feeling of accomplishment and a deep satisfaction at being able to do something really difficult in a way that’s deeply rewarding.

I guess the surly bonds of earth were all inside me all along. As was the joy.


To read all about the latest in credible sightings by accomplished military aviators of aircraft acting in ways no known aircraft can, check out our Mysteries of Flight column in this same issue (August 2019). I won’t reiterate those details except to summarize that these craft appear capable of zero to hypersonically impossible speeds in 10 seconds. The bottom line is that these appear to be some kind of real objects doing observable things that nothing in the known universe can do, performing maneuvers that no known propulsion system would allow, generating extrapolated G forces that no human could come close to surviving.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying I think they’re aliens, just that they’re objects of some kind behaving in ways we’ve never seen before. And those objects had to come from somewhere. I’ll let others vie over where that might be.

As I said, humans can’t pilot these objects as we understand them, and if they’re drones, the only alternative left, well, nobody’s talking about this earth-changing technology, which is exactly what you’d expect them to do, to not talk about it, if they know anything about it, and the smart money is on someone knowing something.

But if we do have the technology to build flying objects that do these kinds of things, and we’re just not talking about it, then it means the obsolescence of human pilots, at least for these kinds of flights.

And, truth be told, our current frontline fighters can pull Gs that would put the best- trained pilots to sleep, a physiological phenomenon known as G-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC. In some ways, then, it makes sense to lose the fighter pilot in the fighter planes.

That said, our ability to see and shoot at enemy aircraft well out of eyeshot is so advanced that dogfights are largely a thing of the past. And we use drones these days for ground attacks, which is a controversial topic all its own.

Still, fighter pilots are iconic. Some of the best-known pilots ever were fighter pilots. WWI aces Eddie Rickenbacker and Manfred Von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, French aviator and near ace Roland Garros, for whom the French national tennis stadium and tournament are named, WWII aviators such as Chuck Yeager, Bud Anderson and Bob Hoover. The list could go on, but all of these pilots and more are icons to aviators like you and me for whom high adventure might be a long cross country to a bucolic strip in the mountains and really good cottage fries.

UFOs, whatever they are, aren’t the harbinger of the beginning of the end for fighter pilots. Their time as lone wolf dogfighting heroes has come and gone. What today’s fighter pilots do is heroic, few would disagree, but it’s not the same (and hasn’t been for decades) as the feats of the aces of yore. Not that they couldn’t do it. Watch the Blues or Thunderbirds one time, and tell me we don’t train incredible pilots. But the mission has changed.

I guess it’s no different from cowboys or wilderness explorers. Their time has largely come and gone, not because there’s no cowboying or exploring left to do but because the world is smaller, and we’ve got new ways to do both of those formerly romantic things in ways that are a lot more effective, far safer and tremendously less glamorous.

It makes me a little sad but more than a little happy at the same time. With all this modern stuff swirling around the universe, what we do—fly in small airplanes all by our lonesome being heroes in our own small worlds of sky and wind and stars—still matters in a really big way. That it matters not to the world at large but at least to our best friends and, perhaps most importantly, to ourselves is all that really matters.

Face it. This flying thing is still way cool, and until they pry our Super Cubs out of our cold, dead hands, well, we’re going to keep on making the magic happen.

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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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