Going Direct: When We Don’t Speak Up

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What is your responsibility when you’re flying with a friend or business associate and you see something that either looks flat out wrong or maybe that just don’t feel comfortable with? Most pilots would say, “I’d say something.” But my experience is that, often we don’t actually do that. I know this because I’ve been that person who didn’t speak up and felt terrible about it later (though, thank goodness, nothing ever happened), and I’ve been that person who did speak up and who suffered because of it. There’s risk to speaking up, and it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I haven’t done some kind of risk-benefit analysis before speaking up on many occasions. How bad is the situation, that is, how much danger is the flight in—including your own kiester—and how easy or hard would it be to recover if things started to go south? If the answers are, it’s not all that risky and recovery would be easy, well, it’s possible that it would be easier to just let it go and, who knows, maybe bring it up later when the PIC might be more open to a discussion of the flight.

As an air-to-air photographer, I’ve done a lot of shoots over the years, not even close to as many as some of my good friends have done, but in the hundreds. And occasionally I find myself in a situation where the pilot of the subject airplane (the one I’m trying to photograph) isn’t doing a good job, though it’s been years since this has happened, thank goodness. In this closely controlled situation, it’s easy. I’m running the show, and I can make the call. Of course, the two pilots are both PIC of their planes and the photo ship is the lead plane, so they can make the call too. In fact, the rule is, if anybody sees anything unsafe, say it out loud. I can and have scrubbed the whole session.

But when you’re not in charge or when there’s not an established culture of controlled safety, it’s a harder conversation. When I was just getting started as an aviation journalist, I flew on several occasions with pilots who flew recklessly, not in spite of me being the cockpit with them but b because I was there. The goal, ostensibly, was to impress me with their flying. The actual result was to terrify me. The thought has crossed my mind that terrifying me was the real goal, whether they could admit it to themselves or not. I’ve been in a plane on two occasions when I told the pilot I wasn’t comfortable with what we were doing and asked to fly straight and level and head back home…and they declined and kept up the antics, which included a lot of high-speed, low-level maneuvering in planes not designed for it and with an unwilling audience of one, me.

I’d like to say that I never flew with any of those pilots again, but I did. I kind of had to, unless I wanted to quit my job, because flying with them was part of the deal. And I knew our management—bear in mind this was many moons ago–cared only about the bottom line, which was getting the shoot, or flight or gear test, done. And I needed the job.

But when it’s someone you aren’t actually flying with who seems from a distance to be flying recklessly, what do you do? Do you talk to that person, even knowing that the reckless personality type is often antagonistic toward correction, or do you talk to someone from the airport or the FAA? I’d be loath to do either, knowing that once you get that ball rolling, it could have serious certificate and/or career ramifications for the pilot, who might only need a splash of cold water, if anything at all. Who’s to say our judgment is perfect? If someone happened to see a gifted aerobatics pro do something that looked risky, well, it probably wasn’t. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be, but that, theses people are not only talented pilots but understand the nature of risk at a level lost on the everyday pilot, including me. Still, I’ve heard too many times about pilots who’ve lost their lives in their planes, sometimes taking others with them, that nobody at the airport was shocked. They’d seen that guy flying for years and knew the level of risk he was comfortable with.

At the same time, speaking up can save lives. It saved mine. My brother Roger might have saved both of our lives by speaking up a long, long time ago. I was a newly minted Private Pilot working on my commercial ticket and we flew together from LA to Scottsdale as part of my long cross-country requirement. (The details are fuzzy. It was a long time ago). But this one detail is crystal clear. Coming home the forecasted solid overcast proved much lower than anticipated, and while trying to wander home via a desert highway in low-VFR conditions, I began following a branch of that highway that led into mountainous terrain that the Arrow I was flying would not have been able to outclimb. Roger spoke up. This is the wrong road, he said, sounding like he probably knew what he was talking about. All I knew was that I didn’t know for sure. I made a 180 while the turning was good, quickly found the right road and made it home in one piece.

Sometimes, you just have to speak up, or you won’t have the opportunity again.

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Going Direct: Huge, Gaping Holes in Aviation Security…Is A Good Headline

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I spent Friday night like a number of my journalist friends, tweeting about the criminal drama unfolding live in the Northwest. Though I’m certain you already know this, a ground handler stole a Horizon Dash 8 Q400 (a 75-passenger-ish twin turboprop) and went on an hour-long joy ride.

Horizon Dash 8 Q400
A ground handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stole a Horizon Dash 8 Q400, similar to the one seen here, on Friday, August 10. Photo by Eric Salard (N431QX PDX) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr.

No one else was on the plane, and the pilot of it wasn’t a pilot at all. Richard Russell, who was a baggage handler and tug operator for Horizon somehow managed to get the plane started and took it off without talking with controllers until after he was airborne. The flight included a number of aerobatic maneuvers, a barrel roll and reportedly a loop, as well,

The Q400 was showdowned by a pair of Air Force F-15s, which were reportedly prepared to shoot down the plane if it flew toward the city center.

The situation was harrowing, and the controller who was talking with Russell throughout the flight was remarkable in the way he communicated with the plane thief—it was not, in my book anyways, a hijacking—smartly avoiding alienating Russell while still working to keep the flight away from populated areas. Russel, who went by “Rich,” indicated on a couple of occasions that he was on a suicide mission, mentioning on separate occasions that he wasn’t planning to land the plane and that after he had flown some aerobatic maneuvers he’d point the nose down down and call it a night.

Mainstream media outlets seemed determined to sell the story in a couple of predictable ways. One, the heist revealed some troubling security weaknesses in the airline world and, two, because Russell wasn’t a pilot, he must have used flight sim games to train, so, are flight sim games a big problem for security?

First, no holes in security were revealed in this tragic incident. Russell was well known, had a security clearance and wasn’t even a pilot. The statistical chances of someone like him stealing a plane were close to zero. He was, for sure, an outlier. The bigger problem is a pilot on a suicide mission stealing a plane and killing hundreds, which has happened in recent years, probably at least three times. That is the security hole that no one has much of an idea how to fix. Yeah, I don’t’ either.

The second notion, that flight sim games somehow are a danger to our safety as they train people to steal planes, as Russell did, is not just false but preposterous. Russell was a natural, someone who surely played flight sims but also somehow figured out the complex start sequences of the Q400 while also being able to fly some really challenging maneuvers in a big plane not even designed for them. And let’s not forget that Russell was clearly not out to hurt anyone but himself. Yes, he stole and destroyed a plane. The owner, probably a leasing company, will surely be made whole by their insurance o the plane and the insurance company will likely survive, too. Did he put lots of innocent people at risk. Yes. But he went out of his way to not harm anyone except himself. And let’s not forget that there are simulation games for commercial trucking, commercial shipping, space flight and more. And then there’s the subject of first-person shooter games that are very good at training people in urban warfare. Attacking flight sim games in the aftermath of this personal tragedy is farce.

But can we do any thing in addition to the multi-level security measures we already have in place to prevent such future joyrides by ground agents from happening again? Probably not. Which is okay, because it’s not going to happen again. It’s horribly sad that it happened the once.

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Going Direct: Why Flight Sharing Is A Terrible Idea

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The gig economy is changing the world, for good and for ill. So why wouldn’t it work for private aircraft the same as it would for some guy’s Camry?

When you phrase it like that, the question kind of answers itself, right? Because as pilots we know that Toyotas and TBMs are very different kinds of animal. The TBM does better than 300 knots, and the Camry, well, it gets 25 mpg.

The issue has come to the fore after a congressional endorsement of ride-sharing services was shelved because of pressure from AOPA, says flight sharing company Flytenow (“Flytenow being a pun, I just now realized, on “right now.” Kinda cute, I’ll give them that.)

The issue, according to Flytenow is simply one of how pilots communicate with one another. And if that’s the only issue, we’ve got to agree with them. Right now the FAA deems it legal to advertise for sharing a flight by using a piece of paper, a thumbtack and a bulletin board at your local FBO. What you can’t do, oddly enough, is issue that same message via electronic distribution. We agree with Flytenow that it’s a silly distinction. It makes it sound as though the FAA is living in the 1950s. End of that commentary.

So here’s the scenario. You live in Seattle and you decide you want to go to Portland. (I’ll leave it to your Northwesterners to fight it out over whether that’s a good idea or not.) But except for you and a bag, you have an otherwise empty airplane. You put a message on the bulletin board (kind of a hassle when you think about it): “Going to Portland (PDX) tomorrow. Have room in my Piper Arrow for another one or two people. Call 555-555-5555 (that number is fake, by the way). And you return home and wait for a reply. Which never comes. Because not even three people look at that bulletin board.

The alternative is to use an electronic clearinghouse for people looking to share rides. Once people get used to that idea, well, it’s kind of cool to think you could hop a ride down to Portland just for the pro-rated share of the gas money. Well, that’s where things get tricky. Unless you’re a certificated charter company, you can’t charge for the flight, only share costs (And, please, I know it’s more complicated than that but that discussion will miss the point.) So if gas winds up costing $250 bucks for the flight down, which is about 150 miles as the crow flies, that would be roughly 80 minutes of flying in the Arrow, which say burns 10 gallons an hour of $5 fuel, so roughly $75 dollars for fuel, split in half equals $37.50. Seattle to Portland for less than $40? Who’s not going to take that deal? You can add a couple of other fees in there, the rental fee, if it’s a rental, the tie down at the destination, of course, and part of the oil consumed. But the cost to the pilot in a full flight would be minimal.

Maybe the bigger question is, who’s going to want to fly that flight, and there are two kinds of pilots who would, those who need to go to Portland anyway (to try out the coffee in that town?) and people looking to build time. The latter group is a real concern. Will these pilots, probably mostly young people looking for that magical 1500 hour number when you can get hired by the airlines, be in essence offering really cheap charter for the time building? I think this conclusion is unavoidable. And let me add that if the Arrow’s seats get filled, which you can do on such a short flight, then the pilot’s cost goes down even more.

But the larger concern behind flight sharing companies isn’t really how the word is spread but how the risk is addressed. The bulletin board limitation makes sense if you think the FAA might want to limit the scope of such flight sharing without changing its rules otherwise.

Who’s the bad actor in this whole affair? According to Flytenow in its online blog it’s AOPA that’s siding with big business, and “ignoring the interests of their own members, and departing from Europe’s GA success story.” In much of Europe flight sharing is allowed. Flytenow says it’s been done without any loss in safety. We’re skeptical of all of that.

Would a thriving aviation gig economy impact charter providers? Probably to some degree, but remember that most charter is done in airplanes that are too costly to operate to make sense to use for flight sharing to begin with.

In our view, the issue Flytenow raises is a red herring. AOPA doesn’t care, it says, and we think they’re being honest, how pilots communicate with each other, and it suggests in its official statement that Flytenow is conveniently ignoring another stipulation of the FAA’s cost sharing rules, that you need to be going somewhere with a common purpose. If you’re flight-sharing friends (customers?) are going to a wedding, you need to go to a wedding. In fact, some interpretations would read that you need to be going to the same wedding.

Though it chooses its words carefully, AOPA is essentially saying that it’s concerned that widespread flight sharing will result in tragic accidents and put general aviation in the kind of spotlight it doesn’t need to be in, right now or ever. We agree.

Here’s AOPA’s response to Flytenow’s blog: “In order for this public transportation activity to be enabled, similar to other operations that transport passengers for compensation, we believe it must be done with safety parameters at the forefront, with pilot and aircraft standards in place to properly manage risk. If, however, that risk is not managed, the reaction and ramifications could do real harm to general aviation.”

Yup. Flight sharing sounds fine in general, and it will sound even more fine to the general public, who will not be able to distinguish between charter and the Uber of the air (a phrase FlyteNow seems to hate, by the way). A big part of our concern should be protecting folks who can’t tell the difference between Part 91 flight sharing and a California Condor.

We agree with AOPA that creating a gig economy around privately owned and operated light aircraft is a huge safety risk we’d all be well advised to avoid.

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Going Direct: July 4th Edition: Is Flying Free Enough?

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We pilots pride ourselves in taking part in the most private and unfettered leisure activity that humans ever came up with. In the United States, that’s pretty much what it is. Free. If I want to go flying, I drive to the airport, I park my car, I walk out to my plane and I go flying. The county lines aren’t written anywhere in the sky. There are no speed traps in Sunset Valley to boost their tax revenue. You can pass from Texas to Oklahoma or Maryland to Virginia, theoretically, without seeing any “Now Entering” signs. And if you stay out of certain large swaths of airspace the government has cordoned off for military use or for security purposes, you can pretty much fly anywhere you feel like without getting permission from ATC or talking to a soul, so long as you stay clear of clouds within certain tolerances, don’t go over 17,999 feet, have a valid pilot certificate and medial authorization, have completed your currency in terms of a flight review or equivalent, have a recognized medical certificate for the type of plane you’re flying, don’t go too fast, fly at the right altitude and avoid flying over football stadiums and nuclear power plants. And when you come in to land, make sure you use the proper pattern altitudes, communicate as required with ATC—if they acknowledge your existence at all, because standard practice in Class B airspace is for the controller to not even respond to you if they’re too busy.

Pilots need to know all of this stuff and comply with it with, in most cases, no margins allowed. If all or most of that sounds free, well, I agree with you.

Freedom has always given us the freedom to do what we want when we want, so long as we abide by the rules. And in aviation, it seems sometimes as though there are nothing but rules. In fact, learning “to fly” is largely learning what the rules are that put demands on you and limit what and how and where and when you can fly. Some of them make perfect sense, like talking with ATC before you do a quick touch and go at Dallas Forth Worth International (I’m joking, don’t even do that WHEN talking with ATC, as if they’d let you) or flying the proper arrivals at Oshkosh when the flying circus is in town. Some rules are less easy to understand, like staying certain distances away from clouds when VFR…I’ve been flying for a few decades and have yet to figure out how far 500 feet from a ragged puffy cloud is. And others, like many of the FAA’s seemingly arbitrary medical standards, are impossible to understand. You just do it.

And when you have to do something that you can’t even figure out why you have to do it, let alone how to do it, it calls into question the idea of freedom. AOPA, for all the good they do, and its’ a lot, are largely politically reactive and not proactive. That is, they don’t do much to cut out the bad stuff in the regs that make us less free to fly; they just keep the feds from piling more bad stuff on top of it. Thanks, AOPA, for that.

But how about undoing a lot of the rules that keep us from exercising our 1776th Amendment to the Constitution that says that pilots ought to be able to fly in relative peace with only as much regulation as there needs to be in order to keep us and our passengers and ground bound citizens of earth relatively safe.

I’m not talking about any kind of wholesale repealing of the laws of the air, just a common sense paring down and common-sensing (a word now if it wasn’t before) of the existing regulations.

There may not be a Second-and-a-Half Amendment to the Constitution, but maybe there should be, one that states in no uncertain terms that pilots have a right to own and fly planes without even the need to mention a militia at all. What I’m all for is common sense plane laws. Because living in a nation that prides itself on the freedom of its citizens needs to be reminded on a regular basis why it exists, to serve the people of the land, and not vice versa. When it comes to planes, that balance definitely needs to flipped, at least in my humble, one-citizen’s opinion.




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Going Direct: Does Your FAA Medical Mean Anything?

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I was talking on the phone yesterday with a friend who’s had the distinct non-pleasure of going back and forth with the FAA about his special issuance medical. In the spirit of full disclosure, he has two health issues the FAA is concerned about, one, atrial fibrillation, that’s arguably justly concerning, and the other, prostate cancer that’s been treated.

This isn’t about what a morass of bureaucracy the FAA’s medical division is, and it is. Want to talk to a live person? Good luck. Want to leave a voicemail for them to follow up on? Ha! My buddy after all this time finally got the paperwork from the FAA for his special issuance, and it took nine months to do so, only to be informed by the FAA that his medical clock started ticking when he started the process not when he finished it, so all this work was for three months of flying. Then he gets to start again.

My even bigger issue is that the FAA is concerned about his prostate cancer, which isn’t there any more. The heart issues I get. If someone has a stroke or a heart attack—and they can come without warning—while flying, then it could be game over for everybody onboard, that is if he could no longer fly the plane and if the person in the other pilot position couldn’t fly it either. It’s exceedingly rare when that happens, maybe a couple of times a year, maybe a few more times that are suspicious but can’t be proven. Still, I get their concern, even if the risks aren’t very high. I mean, every time we go flying the engine could quit over a landscape of water and alligators, but we do it anyways. There’s risk.

But the prostate cancer is another issue altogether. With this one, what is the FAA really worried about? This is the slowest spreading cancer, and if it goes bad and the person gets sick, you can bet he is not going to be out flying. In short, it’s an illness that doesn’t have a sudden onset component and that the pilots affected by it will self regulate. So why is the FAA getting involved? You got me. I have to assume it’s because they’re big and powerful, so they can.

Just how important are flight physicals to safety of flight? I think they have a really minor impact on it. In fact, I wonder if aviation would be safer if every pilot instead of getting a regular flight physical attended a three-hour long presentation on how to avoid in-flight loss of control. If the FAA were to do that, the accident rate might not drop precipitously, but it would save more lives that flight physicals do.

How do I know this? I don’t. But the evidence strongly suggests that safety education results in fewer accidents and fewer deaths. Although they don’t publicize it much, the airlines have achieved a nearly perfect safety record due to the innovative safety programs they’ve adopted, not to mention the requirement that airline pilots get checked every six months, as opposed to every two years for most of us, or even less, depending on your age and the type of medical certification you opt for.

Ideally, politics and medicine would be separate disciplines (admitting that the term “discipline” is generous when applied to politics). Medicine is a science, and while it’s practiced imperfectly, the idea has its roots in the scientific theory. In medicine that translates into treating patients with medications and procedures that the evidence shows work and have the fewest associated risks. So as researchers study the effect of particular treatments, doctors can then modify their practices in order to come up with better outcomes.

Another central tenant of medicine is to do no harm. This can be tougher to stick to than you might think. To do no harm might be to avoid doing a surgery when doing it gives the patient worse odds than not doing it. Again, evidence based care rules the day, and individual outcomes and overall survival rates almost always increase, sometimes dramatically, when doctors use best practices based on hard evidence.

So let’s get back to the FAA and the subject of medical certification. If the FAA requires pilots to get a medical certificate to go flying a certified airplane, and they do, shouldn’t there be an evidence-based model to justify that decision? Who is benefitting? How many lives are saved? How long should pilots go between flight physicals, and what evidence supports those intervals? The answer to all of these questions is, we don’t have supporting data on any of those practices. So if the FAA keeps a pilot out of the cockpit because they’re taking a medication that’s on the agency’s banned list, right or wrong that is  doing harm to the pilot, and if there isn’t any evidence showing that there’s an increased risk to the pilot or the public, then that’s unethical.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the FAA to provide supporting documentation for its medical determinations. After all, if the agency is making decisions based on what’s best for the public, it will be able to produce the evidence and that evidence will support those decisions, right?

In some cases, that’s certain to be the case. With pilots who’ve undergone major coronary surgery, the FAA would surely be able to find data to back up their determinations. The problem comes when they can’t find any supporting data or when the data they can find contradicts the FAA’s actual practices. In those cases, I think the agency should be required to amend their guidance to reflect the evidence.

BasicMed has proven a popular route to medical certification. It’s not as basic as I’d like, but when the FAA studies the safety implications of it, I’m guessing it will find that there’s been no loss of safety for pilots flying under BasicMed. That should be all the evidence it takes to make conventional certification a lot more basic itself.


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