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Aviation's New Challenge: Software Glitches and Hackers?

by Sarina Houston 1. May 2015 18:44
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Photo: FAA

The next generation of flying has arrived: From paperless boarding passes to paperless cockpits, we are moving to a completely computerized aviation future. It's almost like something out of a futuristic cartoon like The Jetsons with our tablet computers, internet-ready modernized passenger seats and synthetic vision glass cockpits.

Today's flights are planned on computers and sent to pilot's iPads, replacing the pounds of manuals, charts and checklists that pilots used to lug around. Outdated navigation systems are being replaced with a single, incredibly accurate, satellite based system called ADS-B. Inflight Wi-Fi service for passengers has not only become popular, but it's now almost expected from frequent airline travelers. And our nation's airspace system is getting a complete overhaul with NextGen, which includes programs like ERAM, Datacomm and many other communications systems.

This is all good news… until something crashes (or gets hacked). And we were recently reminded that sometimes computers do crash, when a few dozen American Airlines crews were left without proper charts after their iPads suddenly crashed on them while flying. The software glitch left dozens of flights and many passengers delayed.

Computers are clearly the efficient way to modernize aviation, and it's a welcome and inevitable progression toward a more effective airspace system. But there are a few things that haven't fully kept up with the fast-moving aviation industry, like software management and cyber security.

Are airplane computers secure?
Experts have warned that our industry's efforts to keep iPads, ADS-B and other onboard communication devices secure aren't comprehensive enough. An April 2015 GAO report evaluated the cyber security strength of the FAA's six major NextGen programs: Surveillance and Broadcast Services Subsystem (SBSS), Data Communications (Data Comm), NAS Voice Switch, Collaborative Air Traffic Management (CATM), Common Support Service-Weather (CSSWx), and System Wide Information Management (SWIM), which will all use an IP-based network to communicate with each other, as well as with thousands of aircraft flight deck technologies.

You can imagine that an entire system based on a computer network might be susceptible to hackers. Passengers are connected through in flight Wi-Fi. Pilots are sometimes connected to Wi-Fi via their company iPads, and will also be vulnerable to the hacking of onboard equipment through an IP network. And ATC is going to be on the ground, potentially connected to the same network. While the FAA has taken some measures to secure the networks, information in the GAO report demonstrates that the system is still susceptible to hackers.

"According to FAA and experts we interviewed, modern communications technologies, including IP connectivity, are increasingly used in aircraft systems, creating the possibility that unauthorized individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems, " the GAO report states. In the past, on board systems have been insolated, but IP networking included in the many new NextGen technologies could leave not just one aircraft's systems vulnerable, but any other computer on the network.

How can operators avoid software glitches?
Besides choosing a reliable third-party developer and a company with a sound history in computer application design, there's not much an airline or an operator can do to avoid an occasional software glitch except to prepare for and expect the occasional software glitch. So far, the airlines have been lucky. American Airlines had a few delays, yes, but the problem was one that was easily fixed by handing paper charts to pilots or getting them to a place where they could re-boot, upload new charts and move on. At no time were they actually in any danger.

But what happens when a seemingly trivial software glitch isn't so trivial anymore? This is a question that was relevant yesterday, remains relevant today and will be relevant still in the future. Computers are already in use at most ATC facilities and in most aircraft. A software glitch in an aircraft is a problem, but not necessarily a dangerous one. Airplanes have backup navigation systems, backup electrical systems and backup instruments that are powered by something other than a computer.) A pilot can fly safely if their onboard computer crashes. It would test their skills, for sure, but that's what pilots train for.

A computer failure or software glitch at an ATC facility can cause major delays, possibly even for days. Remember that fire at the Chicago ARTCC facility? It not only knocked out both the primary and secondary communications networks, but it knocked out the whole region's ATC capabilities. Everyone survived, albeit painfully.

If we can glean anything from recent events, it's that in order for our industry to move forward in the world, we are going to have to rely on computers, and computers are not perfect. We have to do what's necessary to mitigate and control any associated risks, like those from hackers and software issues. I suspect that as we learn to protect our computer systems, we'll have a few problems, but the overall outcome will be an impressive, capable air traffic system that allows us to fly even more efficiently and safely than ever before.

What are your thoughts?

How Safe is Flying?

by Tori Williams 1. May 2015 08:30
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There is an age-old question asked to pilots and professionals in the Aviation industry by concerned passengers and family members time and time again. The question, “Is aviation REALLY safe?” is asked more frequently than ever now that the media spends weeks analyzing every single detail of any plane crash. The simple answer is yes; flying is statistically a very safe thing to do. However, I believe that a fear of flying stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the airline industry works. I’m sure everyone has heard the statistics, but I want to point out some facts about the industry that lead to logical reasons why aviation is the safest form of travel.

You can describe flying in a way that sends chills down anyone’s spine. It is where you hurdle yourself through the air in an aluminum box, at altitudes higher than the tallest mountains on earth, at speeds in excess of 500 MPH. For a large majority of people, this is all that they can focus on when they think about flying. There is a lot more to it than that, because the airline industry is an extremely complex and innovative system that is entirely designed around safety.

The statistics are everywhere. Evidently your chances of being killed on a single airline flight are a measly 1 in 19.8 million. The Bureau of Aircraft Accident Archives has recorded a steady decline in crashes over the last several years. Worried about the aircraft mysteriously disappearing? The average over the past 40 years has been one disappearance per year. Add this to the fact that roughly 100,000 aircraft take off per day, and you have an extremely low probability.

Despite all the statistical evidence, some people still experience fear and anxiety over the thought of flying. Everybody loves lists, so I want to list some of the most factual and logical reasons that airline flying is extremely safe.

1. Aviation is the most regulated and scrutinized means of travel. There is an old saying, “The FAA: We are not happy until you aren’t.” The regulations and rules that airline operators and pilots must follow seem to never end. They pertain to types of equipment onboard, crew training, fuel reserves, weight and balance of the aircraft, and hundreds of other things. If it pertains to the safe operation of the aircraft, the FAA has a regulation about it.

2. Security is tight. After 9/11, the airline industry upped their security measures as much as possible. Passengers go through extensive searching and monitoring, doors to aircraft cockpits are locked. Try to look at the random frisking and excruciatingly long TSA lines as a positive thing – they are just a side effect of excessive security measures to keep you safe.

3. Pilots go through rigorous training. As an aspiring airline pilot, I have seen firsthand just how much training pilots have to go through. When you first earn your Commercial license, you are far from piloting in the airlines. Pilots have to immediately begin building hundreds more hours, gaining experience, and even when they reach the airlines they act as copilot for several years. Having two individuals with years of extensive training at the controls should ease your worries a little.

4. Pilots also go through rigorous examinations. In order to maintain a First Class Medical certificate, a pilot must be in top physical and emotional shape. There is an ever-increasing list of medications and physical ailments that will keep them out of the cockpit. This is a sore subject for many, but a reasonable point as to why airlines are safe.

5. Aircraft are expensive. The typical commercial airliner can cost a company upwards of $100 million. If you paid $100 million for a company asset, would you be uptight about the way it was handled and operated? A crash can completely bankrupt a smaller airline, so it is also in the best interest of the number crunchers that flights do not go down.

6. Aviation is constantly evolving. Since that fateful first flight by the Wright brothers, aviation has been growing and advancing at a breakneck pace. Every year new innovations are made that help make operations smoother and safer. Ask any pilot about NexGen and you will see firsthand just how quickly new equipment and systems are being implemented.

I hope that these points will help you reconsider any remaining fear or anxiety you feel towards flying. What safety fact do you find most comforting? Let me know in the comments below!

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Aviation Safety | Tori Williams

More Safety Pilot Questions Answered

by Greg Reigel 30. April 2015 15:00
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This month I thought I would answer some of the questions I routinely hear in connection with operations involving safety pilots, other than questions relating to how to log safety pilot time which was discussed in my January article Logging Safety Pilot Time.


Does a safety pilot need a current medical certificate? Yes. Section 91.109(b) requires a safety pilot for operations in simulated instrument conditions. And since 14 C.F.R. § 61.3(c) requires a person to hold a valid medical certificate in order to act in any capacity as a required pilot flight crewmember, a safety pilot must therefore hold a current, appropriate airman medical certificate.


Does a safety pilot need an instrument rating? No, an airman acting as a safety pilot under Section 91.109(b) does not need an instrument rating as long as the flight is being conducted in visual meteorological conditions. Additionally, an airman who possesses an instrument rating does not need to be instrument current under 14 C.F.R. § 61.57(c)(1) in order to act as a safety pilot because that section only applies to an airman acting as pilot in command, not an airman acting as a safety pilot.


Does a safety pilot need a high-performance endorsement prior to acting as safety pilot in a high-performance aircraft? Currently the regulations do not require a safety pilot to have a high-performance endorsement when acting as a safety pilot in a high-performance aircraft. However, the FAA does encourage those airman who act as safety pilots to be thoroughly familiar and current in the aircraft that is used. Presumably this would include operation of the components that make the aircraft a high-performance aircraft.


Does a safety pilot need a current flight review? No. The requirement in 14 C.F.R. §61.56(c) that a flight review be accomplished within the preceding 24 months only applies to airmen who act as pilot in command. As along as the safety pilot is not acting as pilot in command for any portion of the flight then he or she does not need a current flight review.


May a safety pilot log cross country time for a flight? A pilot only acts as a safety pilot during the time in which the other pilot is engaged in simulated instrument flight (e.g. wearing a view limiting device). Since simulated instrument flight does not include take-off and landing, a safety pilot is not a required crewmember during that portion of the flight. As a result, the safety pilot is not acting as a safety pilot for the entire flight and, thus, may not log cross country time for any portion of the flight.


Is a safety pilot a "second in command" for the flight? It is not uncommon for airmen to refer to their safety pilot as being "second in command." However, unless the aircraft being used is type certificated for operation by more than one pilot or the operation conducted by the pilots requires a designated second in command (e.g. an operation conducted under 14 C.F.R. 135.101 which requires a second in command for IFR operations), the designation of a safety pilot as an acting second in command crewmember is not accurate.


Under the regulations, an airman may "log" SIC time for the portion of the flight during which he or she was "acting" or "serving" as safety pilot because the safety pilot was a required flight crewmember for that portion of the flight under 14 C.F.R. § 91.109(b). In that situation, assuming neither the aircraft nor the operation requires two pilots, the airman is only "acting" or "serving" as a safety pilot, not as second in command for the flight.


Is a safety pilot required to share expenses with a private pilot for a simulated instrument flight? 14 C.F.R. § 61.113(c) provides that a private pilot may not pay less than his or her pro-rata share of the expenses of a flight with passengers. However, under Section 91.109(b), both the private pilot and the safety pilot are required crewmembers for the simulated instrument flight and neither is considered a passenger for the flight. As a result, assuming the only individuals on board the aircraft for the simulated instrument flight are the private pilot and the safety pilot, then Section 61.113(c)'s pro-rata expense sharing requirement does not apply to that flight.

As always, fly safe and fly smart.

Tags:

aircraft instruments, IFR, IMC, safety | Greg Reigel

Pilot Cell Phone Use: Don't Be That Guy

by Sarina Houston 16. April 2015 10:25
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Photo: Jorge Quinteros/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let's talk about your iPhone. It's no secret that the selfie craze has made its way into the cockpit. And why not? As pilots, we get to witness so many beautiful things from a few thousand feet in the air - the sun reflecting off of a puffy cloud layer, a gorgeous sunset against a vast horizon, the city landscape on a foggy morning. We have a great view - some of us are lucky enough to call it our office and get to see it daily - and we should feel free to snap a photo and capture a memory from time to time. And what harm is done by answering that text while we're at it?

But are pilots overdoing it with the selfies and other cell phone distractions? Are we are putting the safety of our flight at stake when we stop to snap a photo or text a friend?

David Yanofsky, a writer for Quartz, seems to think so. In a recent article detailing the "Pilots of Instagram," Yanofsky calls out a number of pilots for violating the sterile cockpit rule and FAA policy on portable electronic devices (PEDs). Yanofsky, whose article made him wildly unpopular among aviation professionals in the social media world, brings attention to yet another way that pilots might become distracted in the cockpit, but he was widely criticized for bringing negative attention to something that really isn't a problem. An airline pilot who snaps a photo of the clouds from 30,000 feet probably isn't creating any sort of hazard at all. Common sense tells you that the short attention diversion in this scenario is really no different than if a pilot glances at his watch for a moments or looks down to read a chart, or is otherwise engaged in conversation with her copilot. But common sense - and a will to survive - should also tell us that taking selfies while flying an approach just shouldn't happen.

The trouble is that often times where common sense should prevail, it doesn't. And there are at least a few cases to prove it. Selfies, or using personal electronic devices for texting has been a contributing factor during a few recent plane crashes.

In Denver last year, a pilot made a series of errors in judgment and crashed after stalling his aircraft during an approach. He and his passenger both died. Soon after, the NSTB reported that the pilots had been taking selfies while in the pattern. At night. In low IMC. Using the flash. We all shake our heads in disbelief, but I'm guessing this person thought of himself as a smart guy. And maybe he was a smart guy. Common sense can clearly escape the best of us if it means we get an awesome photo to share in Facebook. (The pilot also happened to be flying at night and in IMC without meeting the currency requirements for either… but that's another story.)

In 2011, four people died when a medical helicopter operating a commercial flight crashed in a field in Missouri. The helicopter ran out of fuel, and the NTSB listed "the pilot's distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations" as a contributing factor.

More recently, it was reported that a student pilot is suing his flight school, claiming that his instructor was on FaceTime during a simulated engine emergency last December, causing an accident that left the student in critical condition and killed the instructor. The NTSB accident report does not mention the pilot's use of his phone during the flight, but the student's lawyer says they're suing.

In 2014, the FAA issued a Final Rule that restricts Part 121 (airline) pilots from operating any electronic devices for personal during flight operations. The rules states that pilots are only allowed to use company-issued devices for tasks that are directly related to the operation of the flight, for safety-related purposes or for company communications. But this rule does not apply to Part 135 or Part 91 operations. General aviation pilots are allowed to use cell phone and iPads during flight, for which most of us are grateful. After all, where would we be without ForeFlight? And how convenient is it to use our phone to call for a clearance instead of relying on an RCO? And, of course, it's nice to be able to capture a beautiful sunset on camera every now and then.

But we should not be taking selfies on final approach at night and in IMC, or during any other critical phase of flight. And we should really try to limit our cell phone use during flight to aircraft operations and emergencies only to ensure we don't lose focus on the task at hand and find ourselves the recipient of an FAA violation or worse, a fatal accident.

Don't be that guy. Don't be the guy taking selfies on final approach. Don't be that guy using FaceTime in the middle of a training flight. Don't be that guy messing with the GoPro at 300 feet on upwind because you forgot to turn it on during the preflight. Don't be the guy that dies in a plane crash, leaving photos or video footage of your mistakes in your wake.

Maybe we should just put down the phone, look out the window and enjoy the view.

Is Your Co-Pilot Depressed?

by Sarina Houston 2. April 2015 00:20
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Photo: NIMH

In light of the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in which one of the pilots locked the other out of the cockpit and then intentionally flew an Airbus A320 into a mountain in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board, the issue of mental health in pilots has resurfaced.

After the captain of the aircraft got up to use the restroom mid-flight, 27-year-old co-pilot Andrews Lubitz locked him out and refused to allow him back in. Then he reportedly programmed the autopilot to descend from an altitude of 38,000 feet down to 100 feet with the intention of crashing into the side of a mountain along the way.

Investigators reportedly found an anti-depressant medication in the apartment of Lubitz, along with other evidence that suggested the Germanwings first offficer was seeing a doctor for depression.

Lubitz had not informed the airline of this most recent bout with depression, but people who knew him have come forward to say that he was suicidal at one point. And, according to an ex-girlfriend, he had a temper. But how could anyone have known that this person could commit such a heinous act?

CNN reported that Lubitz passed an aviation medical exam in 2014, which a Lufthansa official said didn't test mental health. But even if the exam did covered mental health issues in depth, what pilot would admit to depression or mood disorders knowing that he'd lose his job? For many pilots, flying is a life-long dream - a career that they've worked hard for - and to know that depression, suicidal thoughts or a more severe mood disorder would essentially disable them from flying professionally and perhaps even as a hobby, would be a tough pill to swallow. Because they'd lose their jobs, careers, and for many, their livelihood, most pilots who have experienced depression or other symptoms of a mood disorder or mental health issue, will, sadly, fail to report them.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that mental illness is common in the United States. In 2012, according to the NIMH website, about 18.6 percent of adults in the United States had some form of mental illness (not including those related to substance abuse.) Luckily for the traveling public, most of them are not suicidal.

We can probably assume that this statistic carries over to the pilot career profession, although statistics pertaining to pilots with a mental illness won't reflect this same trend due to the nature of the job. We rely on self-reporting procedures, and when a pilot's career is on the line, chances are good that he or she just won't report it.

Eighteen percent of adults in the United States have some sort of diagnosed mental illness. This could be anything from minor depression or social anxiety to bipolar disorder or suicidal behavior. To be more specific, the NIMH says that a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) occurs in about four percent of all adults. A serious mental illness is defined as one that interferes with normal life activities and results in "serious functional impairment."

So, according to these numbers, somewhere between four and 18 percent of people in general have some sort of mental illness. This means that if you're a pilot, up to one out of six pilots you fly with could be suffering from some sort of mental illness. Luckily, very few of these people are also suicidal, and flights continue to operate safely every day.

Germanwings Flight 9525 was, perhaps, a case that could have been prevented. But what's the fix for depression in pilots and the failure to self-report? Better mental health screening for pilots? Better working conditions? A mandate for two pilots in the cockpit at all times? (Most or all U.S. airlines already employ a strategy of this kind, by the way.) Take the human element out of the cockpit altogether?

While we need to do all we can to prevent another tragedy like this from occurring, how far will we go, or how far should we go, to save ourselves from… ourselves? "Better" mental health screening could lead to even less reporting by pilots. Two pilots in the cockpit will help, unless the second physically overtakes the first one. And can we really take the human element out of the equation altogether? Even RPAs - remotely piloted airplanes - are flown by humans on the ground. If one of these pilots were to be suicidal, they could still fly the airplane into a mountain.

Is there a solution to making certain that a suicide mission like Germanwings 9525 doesn't happen again? Or is there a certain element of risk - a low probability/high consequence risk like an aircraft suicide mission- that we must accept as human beings functioning in a world with other human beings? Or is there a happy medium? What are your thoughts?





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