Thursday, February 5, 2015

Harder Than They Make It Sound

Lots of people have lots of things to say about aviation safety, myself included, and it might surprise you to hear me say that I am sick of it.  No, I'm not sick of the message, but I am sick of saying and hearing the same things but not seeing any effect in the safety record.

(Today the internet is awash in horrifying pictures of a large turboprop with only one engine turning hitting a bridge in what appears to be a Vmc rollover.  Are we spending enough money on training? How often has this question been asked?  And how often answered: the lack of effectiveness of training programs is addressed in 14CFR135.225, which specifies that low-time (ie, just out of training) captains of turbine-powered airplanes must use higher approach minima.)

My recent forays into helicopter flying have reinforced how difficult training is.  Despite nearly 6,000 hours of flight time in fixed-wing aircraft I am an 8 hour helicopter student: the R-22 pre-landing check (carb air temp, engine gauges, rotor RPM, and warning lights) sometimes costs me 10 knots of airspeed.

One of the big ideas in safety is "Situational Awareness," a phrase old enough to be nearly a cliché. Those rather dry manuals urge students to practice "SA", but actions are more than words. A recent SA situation illustrates how difficult SA really is. (BTW, despite my struggles with the aircraft I perceive that my helicopter SA is about where my airplane or glider SA is. But I could be wrong...)

Here's the set-up: I was getting ready to fly with a student who needed some pattern work, but the field was IFR at 900 overcast.  I told him that I was willing to wait, since the TAF suggested clearing, and had him get the airplane ready so we could have our fingers on the start button when the field went VFR.

I thought about asking for a Special VFR, but hesitated for two reasons: first, Special VFR is usually a tool for getting into the airport, and should only be used to get out of the airport with extreme stupidity, or at least caution.  I hesitated (Law of Primacy) to have my student's first exposure to SVFR be backwards.  Second, there were inbounds fairly close (I checked this on flightaware), so we wouldn't get the SVFR clearance even if we asked.

Soon enough, the clouds began to part, and we walked out to the airplane.  The beacon was winking at us from the tower, but it was clearing rapidly so I called the tower on the phone to suggest a tower observation of 900 scattered.  "We were just looking at that," the controller said, and I said "From here, and I'll swear on a stack of meteorology texts, it's only 45% coverage.  I swear!"

He wasn't buying it right away, but pretty soon the beacon stopped and we heard "Attention all aircraft, Pocatello is now VFR, ATIS Bravo is current."  Oddly enough the ATIS said runway 3 was in use, even though 21 is the calm-wind runway, so we taxied to the hold short line of runway 3.

For some reason I got curious about the location of the inbound and monitored Salt Lake Center while we did the runup.  Sure enough, a SkyWest CRJ checked in, with ATIS bravo, and asking for the runway 21 ILS instead of using runway 3.


"SkyWest 7429, Salt Lake, the tower says there's a Cessna in the pattern for runway 3, expect the VOR-3 approach."

That didn't sound right, so I called ground and offered to depart runway 3 and maneuver to use runway 21 for landing.


"SkyWest 7429, Salt Lake, the Cessna is willing to work with you if you still want runway 21."

"7429 thanks, but it looks like it's clearing quickly and we'll be able to do a visual."

Ground relayed the same message to us a few seconds later.

Look back over this event: the situational awareness involved the internet, face-to-face communication, telephones, and the radio.  Throw in some lights, because I turned all of ours on to help the inbound see us.  And the transponder, which is now permanently on ALT since the recent change in the Aeronautical Information Manual.  And the eyeballs.  (I will omit sixth sense, ESP, and synchronicity as contributing factors.  Or should I?)

This is all in addition to flying the airplane!

This is all in addition to flying the airplane!

The moral is simple: SA is hard, it takes a lot of knowledge, and it takes a lot of practice and experience.