Saturday, October 31, 2015

A New Font

Just an administrative note: I've changed the font to something larger and hopefully easier to read. Let me know if you like it!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Is This the Most Dangerous Airport in America?

An American Airlines airbus barely clears a parking garage
American jetliner attempts to parallel park.

No, this airport is probably not the most dangerous one in America. To my knowledge, there has never been an accident here. This picture, which I took about a week ago on a layover, is from Lindbergh Field in San Diego. An American Airlines A-321 is passing over the infamous parking garage structure located directly off the end of Runway 27, which is the primary landing runway.

So how do I know that Lindberg is not the most dangerous airport? After all, the picture is not an illusion. The airplanes really pass about a hundred feet or so above the parking structure. But even though the structure is really close to arriving aircraft, no plane has ever hit it. It just looks dangerous both from the ground and also from the cockpit.

But just because no airplane has hit the building, does that make it safe? And how does one even define the word safe anyway?

There's an old adage that states "Safety is no accident". It's a double entendre meaning either that the definition of safety is the state of not experiencing any accidents, or that the existence of a safe environment is not one that occurs by happenstance. The second of these definitions is the true one. The first one is false. Let me explain.

Low-Probability High-Consequence Risk Analysis

So let's say that you'd like to do a study of road intersections in your town to determine which one is the most dangerous. One way you might go about it is to head down to the local police station to research accident reports. The intersection that had the consistently highest number of accidents is your likely candidate.

But what if there had only been one accident in your town in the previous year? Unlikely as it seems, could you then state with certainty that the intersection at which it occurred is the most dangerous? It's easy to see that sample size is important in determining the usefulness of accident statistics.

When the sample size of accidents approaches zero, as is currently the case in commercial air travel, accident statistics become useless for the purposes of predicting how or where accidents will occur. Other tools are then needed to identify which practices, policies and procedures have inherent risk, the size of that risk, how much risk is acceptable and how to mitigate that which isn't. This field has become to be known as low-probability high consequence (LPHC) risk analysis.

Commercial aviation shares the problem of low probability yet high consequence risk with other large scale applications such as maritime safety, chemical and petroleum refining and nuclear power. The absolute numbers of accidents in all of these fields are very low, but the consequences of any accident can be devastating in terms of life and property. How can operators determine if they are dancing close to the edge of a disaster given the already low numbers of accidents?

The development of LPHC risk analysis was the result of the realization that even in the absence of historical data from which accident trends can be extrapolated, risk must still be identified and mitigated.

How Does It Work?

There have been many books, papers and theses written on this topic, and while a comprehensive survey is beyond the scope of this 'umble blog, several themes keep recurring as one looks around at available sources. One of those themes is that any comprehensive safety effort must involve a sector or industry wide effort to identify potential risks. 

Collaboration is essential and takes the form of industry wide safety partnerships which include both operators and regulators. One of the results of this type of effort in commercial aviation is the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) in which the FAA partners with corporate and labor union representatives to focus on voluntary safety reporting while providing limited immunity from enforcement actions. This program hopes to encourage user participation and the free flow of potentially pertinent safety information.

It's essentially a get out of jail free card if you screw up and then report how it happened. There are time limits for reporting and intentional non-compliance is not covered.

Another arrow in the LPHC quiver is the collection and analysis of data from more common but less serious incidents in order to build an index of relative risk. The idea behind this effort is that any major accident usually involves a chain of events which line up or form a chain leading to a larger failure. Identifying and mitigating risk in each element in a potential chain of events reduces the likelihood that the risk in each of the individual items will be additive.

As an example of this, some years ago my airline used to fly a visual approach to Runway 15 in Burbank. This particular approach had high terrain in the area coupled with no instrument backup and terminated on a short runway with a downhill runway slope giving a false indication of being on the proper glideslope. I really enjoyed flying it because it was a challenge, but an analysis showed that many errors were being made due to the above elements coupled with the lack of experience of some crews who didn't fly it that often. Since then a decision was made to not fly the approach at night. Probably smart.

Data Driven Safety

Data collection capabilities installed on airliners using new generation digital flight data recorders (DFDRs) now allow the mass analysis of trend information on the actual operation of the aircraft. This type of data was never before available with the older analog data recorders. An industry effort called the Flight Data Analysis Program (FDAP) allows the download and use of flight data for safety purposes.

Data driven changes to training programs and even approach procedures identified as problematic have been implemented to mitigate risk which was present but not readily visible without computer analysis.

Again, going back to LA, an analysis of a particular approach into LAX showed that many airplanes were having to make steep approaches in order to land. Most pilots knew that you had to be ready to fly the approach this way, but it was the data analysis from hundreds of flights which provided the impetus to change the approach procedure to one that is more shallow.

Commercial aviation is now one of the safest methods of transportation available rivalling even elevators and orders of magnitude safer than the car you use to drive to the airport. Still, safety experts continue to use advanced data analysis and statistical methods to make it even safer.

Oh, and the most dangerous airport? That's gotta be LaGuardia...but only after you get into a cab at the airport.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do Pilots Have to Take Routine Tests?

The short answer is yes, of course they do. Anyone venturing into the field of aviation is also volunteering for a career of regular and comprehensive testing. These evaluations take the form of oral tests, written tests, simulator check rides, and line checks in the aircraft from both company designated "check airmen" and FAA inspectors. It's a never ending cavalcade of evaluations from before an aspiring pilot ever steps foot into an airplane all the way to a few months before retirement.

And oddly enough, aviation is one of the few professions that requires such comprehensive testing. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, are mostly good to go once they finish school, though some doctors are now having to test to maintain certification every five or ten years. As a general rule, most professional pilots undergo a formal exam or "checkride" every year, but are always subject to no-notice ride-alongs by evaluators.

Testing from the Start

Each and every certification that a pilot must achieve along the way from neophyte to seasoned captain is accompanied by both written and flying examinations. I took the military route which involved a year of intensive flight instruction to get my wings followed by months of more training in the specific aircraft I was assigned to fly. During USAF undergraduate pilot training (UPT) there were checks for the first solo ride, contact or basic acro flying, instrument flying and finally formation flying in the T-37 primary trainer. It was all then done again in the T-38 supersonic advanced trainer aircraft. 

Besides the designated check rides, each daily ride was graded by the instructor. No pilot was ever more than three failed rides from being booted out of the program. That tended to help student pilots keep focus. Once having graduated, check rides were given for each new certification such as air refueling, night bombing, or in the case of the Navy, carrier qualification. The military has dozens of qualifications depending on the aircraft and mission.

Back to Square One

Back in the civilian world after separating from the service, it mostly all had to be done over again. All of those military ratings count for naught in the civilian world. The FAA does throw a bone to ex-military pilots by granting them a commercial instrument rating for their military training. It's not nothing, but it's not enough to get hired by an airline. For that, a certification known as an Airline Transport Pilot, or ATP rating, is needed. This involved, you guessed it, another checkride with an FAA examiner in an airplane you had to rent.

My future employer at the time also required what is known as a "type" rating, which is a checkout to fly a particular model airplane, in this case a 737. The FAA at that time did not allow checkrides to be flown in the simulator so I had to rent an actual 737 to fly my checkride. It was only $50....a minute! To top it off, the airport we took off from, Seatac, went below minimums while we were doing touch and gos elsewhere so we had to hold for nearly an hour before getting back in. It was spendy, but I got my type rating.


Most all airline training today is done in high fidelity three axis flight simulators. These machines, which cost millions of dollars, can faithfully reproduce nearly all flight regimes with very realistic computer generated visuals. The computer can generate any kind of weather that might be encountered to include thunderstorms with lightning and can even insert wayward air traffic that must be avoided.

The simulators are so good that the first time most airline pilots fly a new model plane is on a revenue flight with passengers. The FAA certifies each simulator to make sure they reproduce the airplane's characteristics accurately. The least favorite part about flying these machines though, is the emergency procedure.

In day to day flying, almost nothing ever goes wrong. In fact statistically, an airline pilot today is very unlikely to ever experience an engine failure or other major system failure. But that doesn't mean that these things don't happen, and the simulator is how pilots are kept prepared for these very unlikely events.

Engine failures, fires, hydraulic leaks, landing gear failures, loss of pressurization and flight control malfunctions are just some of the myriad emergencies which can be summoned by the simulator operator. In the military we called it "dial a disaster", and two hours of emergency procedures in "the box" with your employment on the line can really scramble your eggs. Crashing the sim, otherwise known as the red screen of death means that the ride is over figuratively and literally.

What if You Bust?

Failing or "busting" a checkride is a rare event, but it does occasionally happen. Sometimes people are just having a bad day, and other times they come to training unprepared. Checkrides always include an oral exam on policies, procedures and systems, and a knowledge bust can mean the ride is over before it starts. Crashing the sim is rarely the cause of a failure. Poor decision making such as finding yourself in bad weather with low fuel is a more likely cause of an unsatisfactory outcome. Sometimes a diversion is called for.

As airplanes do a much better job of flying themselves due to automation, the emphasis has shifted away from strictly mechanical proficiency towards decision making and teamwork. Crews are expected to work together to solve problems. A recently adopted paradigm for most airline training does not allow for individual failure, but rather the crew will either pass or fail together, just as in the airplane.

If a crew fails a ride, they will be given some remedial training and then take the ride over again. There may or may not be some loss of income during this process as they won't be allowed to fly until passing the retake. In very rare cases, a pilot ends up having more difficulty or has a weakness uncovered. This almost never happens, but the process can lead to being let go for pilots who can't pull themselves together in the sim.

Rest Assured

Airline passengers who have the misfortune of finding themselves on board an airliner with a mechanical difficulty should rest easy in the knowledge that the pilots flying their plane have most likely seen and successfully dealt with the problem many times before it actually happened.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A General War Story

First I must offer apologies, dear readers, as I was slammed the past three or so weeks and have not been keeping up my side of the blogging bargain. But I am now back: tanned, rested and ready to resume providing content for all your aviation blogging needs.

My absence consisted of preparing for my annual check ride, several trips out to Cali for a concert and to assist a charitable work group associated with our old church, and several trips to Colorado Springs. These last trips were for both wifey's college reunion, and to visit the whelps, both of whom are currently matriculated at the Air Force Academy, affectionately known and hereafter referred to as the Zoo.

Why is the school known as the Zoo? Well, a central area known as the terrazzo or "T-zo" where the cadet wing forms up can be viewed by visitors from an elevated area adjacent to the chapel. A civilian school might call this area a "quad". Lore has it that the cadets felt as if they were animals in a zoo while being looked down upon over the fence. Graduates of the school are known as "Zoomies", an appellation which dovetails nicely with a lyric from the Air Force Song: "Here they come, zooming to meet our thunder..."

I always enjoy my trips back to the Zoo. I didn't go there myself, but as a spouse and parent of three Zoomies, there have been quite a few trips up to "the Hill" over the years. And as it turns out, I know nearly as many classmates at my wife's reunions as she does. You see, we met as instructor pilots at Williams AFB in the mid-80s. 

The practice back then was to send a huge chunk of newly graduated 2nd lieutenants from the Zoo to the same pilot training base. A good selection of those pilots would, upon graduation from pilot training, be returned as instructors themselves. Wifey was among this group along with many of her classmates from the Zoo.

The Reunion

So we had our cadets with us talking to old friends with whom we had instructed aspiring pilot candidates in the venerable T-37. My kid's eyes bulged as they realized that a few of our old pals had stayed in and had made general rank. In fact, at 30 years, only the Generals were left on active duty as all others had to retire by then per regulation.

Now as I said, I didn't go to the Zoo but am always prepared to handle the inevitable questions about what inferior school I did attend when at these events. My usual schtick is to state that no, I didn't go to the Academy, but rather to college. And then since my commissioning source was OTS which means I was a  "90 day wonder", I'll say that it only took me only 90 days to learn what it took the Zoomies four years.

This had one of the guys visibly upset but it's only a joke as I have the utmost respect for anyone that graduated from the Academy. I doubt that I would have made it through. 

Ok, back to the story.

The Bachelor Party

I was older and had just returned from an overseas assignment, but was thrown in with this group of fresh faced pilots as their supervisor. For many of them, I was their first boss. So as a captain at age 26, I was more or less in loco parentis for a dozen or so 23 year old lieutenants. You might imagine that this situation had the potential for some less than optimal outcomes, at least from a military decorum and order point of view, and of course you'd be correct.

One result of my engagement to my future wife was that a group of guys in my flight got together and threw me a bachelor party which involved an RV, and a gentleman's club. And that's all I'm going to say about that. But...a seed was planted. (Metaphorically speaking of course!)

It was just a short while later after I'd been given the job of Flight Commander that one of my lieutenants announced that he was engaged to be married. My thought was that since my party was such a success, why not a reprise for one of my guys. So that's what we did. Only we were going to take it up a notch...or two.

I planned the entire event. We rented an RV, put a keg of beer in the shower and drafted a guy in the flight who didn't drink to drive the rig. On the appointed day we collected about a dozen guys and the bachelor, whom I'll just refer to as 'R'. After collecting our merry band of yahoos, we started off for the west side of town to the storied Great Alaskan Bush Company or ABC. 

Following lots of drinking, puerile hi-jinks and general mayhem, we decided to relocate the party back to one of the guys' houses. In an effort to be the consummate bachelor party host and attentive boss, I had also taken care to arrange for some additional entertainment to be provided by a young lady practiced in the art of exotic dance. We had a schedule to keep.

It was on the drive back that events accelerated. "R" being somewhat small in stature and having been fed ample amounts of liquor, started to wobble a bit. Meanwhile, another associate, we'll call him 'J' , had followed us in his newish BMW. It seemed a bit odd to me that he didn't want to ride in the RV, but looking back on it after all these years it made perfect sense. Plausible deniability has its uses.

Well, at some point, one of the more adventurous RV riders, we'll call him 'C', thought it might be a good idea to exit the RV and to climb up on the roof for some "urban surfing" while cruising down the freeway. Even in our inebriated state, the rest of us knew that this was an extremely bad idea and he was pulled back inside. Meanwhile, J pulled up alongside the ship of fools only to have his Beemer splashed with the contents of R's belly as he stuck his head out the RV and hurled.

This development had the ship's complement in stitches, but the best was yet to come. After arrival back at the house, the 'entertainment' arrived and started her show. R had been stripped to his skivvies and was getting a lapdance when who should decide to crash the party? You guessed it, R's fiance and a few friends.

They marched in, surveyed the scene, and then without a word turned and marched out. All I could think was that R would thank us in the morning. There are plenty more girls out there after all. I spent the next day hosing down and deodorizing the RV. Let's hear it for PineSol!


Well, no one knew it, but we had not one, but two future Air Force Generals in our soiree that night. R went on to fly a fighter and retired as a General. And he's still married to the same girl though she never spoke to me again. J, the guy in the soiled BMW, also went on to fly fighters and make General though he'll no doubt deny any and all association with this event.

C, the urban surfer, now flies for American Airlines.