All posts tagged 'Safety' - Page 2

The Importance of Accident Investigation

This semester I am taking a class that is required for my major called "Aviation Safety Programs." I did not know much about this class before the first day, besides that we would be learning how to be safer and more cautious pilots in our flight operations. Now that the first week of classes has come and gone, I am looking forward to this class more than most of my others. The basic setup of this class is that we will be reading and watching videos about aircraft accidents and analyzing what went wrong. We then write 250-500 words a week about a factor of the accident that stuck out to us. A large percentage of our final grade is calculated from a presentation that we each give about an accident that is randomly assigned to us.

This may sound grim, but it is so important to sit down and work through exactly what caused a deadly accident to happen so that you can avoid the same mistakes in the future. Whether it is pilot error, instrument malfunction, or an accident caused by ATC, knowing how to understand and avoid the same fate is paramount to creating safer skies.

For example, the first accident that we investigated was Colgan Air flight 3407. As 40+ aviation students anxiously watched the projector screen, we were shown a video that recreated the accident with a 3D model of the aircraft and instruments visualizing what the black box had recorded. Additionally, this video had real audio from ATC communicating with the copilot shortly before the accident. It was disturbing to hear, as it made the accident seem so much more real.

After watching the video, we opened discussion to what we believed went wrong. Was it icing? Was it the captain who had previously failed stall awareness training? Was it the first officer who had been working so much between flying and being a waitress that she was deliriously tired? It is important to consider all of these factors and logically work through why this was a bad decision/scenario. We then read the NTSB report and discussed how they came to their conclusions.

This is the infamous accident that lead to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introducing the "Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009." Many things changed in the world of professional aviation after this law was passed. Regulations governing pilot training became much more strict. Additionally, the hour requirements for a pilot to earn their ATP rating changed from 250 to 1500. Although both pilots had several thousands of hours of training, the distraught families of the victims who pushed for these updates to regulations simply wanted to try and ensure something like this never happened again.

As you can see, the aftermath of this accident was colossal. It had a huge impact on the aviation industry as a whole, the effects of which aviation students will witness firsthand for years to come. Had the NTSB reported that the cause of the accident was icing with minimal other factors, perhaps the outcome would have been different. However, we cannot be sure of this. The important thing to gather from this is that the entire accident could have been avoided if the pilots had stopped the sequence of bad events from early on.

The "Decide" model is often used to evaluate in-flight emergencies. Having a prior knowledge of events that have lead to accidents can assist with logical thinking when evaluating impeding danger.

Each accident starts as a chain of events. Imagine dominos in a line. When you knock down one, others start following after quite quickly. One of the things we will be doing in my class is identifying which moments leading up to the accidents are dominos. We will analyze where it starts, what makes it worse, and what the ultimate result is. I think that this is fascinating, and it is extremely important for all pilots to examine aircraft accident reports to become better informed and prepared in case they recognize something that could be a domino.

I want to encourage every pilot out there, whether it is their profession or they fly for fun, to begin paying attention to accident reports. It can be difficult, as most pilots have an "it won’t happen to me," attitude, but doing so will help make flying safer for yourself and everyone around you.

How Safe is Flying?

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!

Are You Prepared for Instrument Failure in IMC?


Photo: Wikimedia/Meggar

Autumn is in full swing, and the cooler nights tend to make morning fog a common occurrence in many places. While fog might not be a problem for you if you are IFR-rated and current, it’s nevertheless a good time to review your emergency procedures – like instrument failures and partial panel procedures.

A failure of any instrument in the cockpit of your airplane is difficult enough to deal with during a VFR flight, but the proper procedures after an instrument failure in IMC can mean the difference between life and death. While we tend to remain "current" by flying IFR flight plans and instrument approaches on a daily or weekly basis, unless you work for a company that requires it, you probably don’t practice instrument failures or partial panel procedures enough.

Are you ready for an instrument failure in instrument conditions? After training your eyes and brain to "trust your instruments," can you immediately recognize instrument errors and reverse that deep-rooted feeling that your instruments must be correct?

Identifying instrument failures seems like an easy enough task – after all, if an instrument is behaving erratically, there’s a good chance it’s malfunctioning - but it’s difficult for our brains to determine exactly what’s happening at first glance when an instrument fails, and sometimes the failure occurs slowly, such as the slow icing over of a pitot tube. And that’s only the first part of the emergency. The second part is responding correctly. While in the clouds without correct instrument indications, knowing which way is up can be puzzling to even the most experienced pilots. Here’s a quick review about how instruments react to common types of failures in many light aircraft.

***This is not a substitute for instruction. Please consult your aircraft’s POH for emergency procedures specific to your airplane! ***

Pitot-Static System Failure:
A problem with the static system will appear on the airspeed indicator, altimeter or vertical speed indicator (VSI), or a combination of the three.

  • Blocked Pitot Tube: A pitot tube blocked with insects is a common culprit of erroneous airspeed indications. This type of blockage might be noticed during takeoff, when the airspeed doesn’t increase as usual. With a total pitot tube blockage, the airspeed will read ‘0’. But the pitot tube can also be blocked during flight with ice or heavy rain, and as ice accumulates slowly over the pitot tube, the airspeed indicator will show a slow decrease in airspeed, maybe not even noticeable at first.

    Since the pitot tube is used just for the airspeed indicator, a blocked pitot tube will not affect the altimeter or VSI.

  • Blocked Static Port: A blocked static port isn’t too much of a problem if the aircraft is equipped with an alternate static source (many are). But without alternate air, a blocked static source will cause the airspeed indicator to act as a reverse altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed during a descent and a decrease in airspeed during a climb.

    With a blocked static port, the altimeter will freeze, showing the last altitude recorded before the blockage occurred, and the VSI will indicate ‘0’.

  • Pitot and Static Blockage: If both the pitot tube and static system are blocked, the airspeed indicator will act like an altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed when climbing and a decrease in airspeed while descending.

Gyroscopic System Failure:
There’s a reason the vacuum gage is checked during the engine run-up. It’s because two of the three commonly used gyroscopic instruments run on a vacuum-driven pump, and if these instruments fail, flying can be pretty dangerous.

The gyroscopic instruments typically include the turn coordinator, heading indicator and attitude indicator. The heading indicator and attitude indicator are vacuum-drive most of the time, so a vacuum failure or loss of suction will cause the attitude and heading indicators to ne unreliable.

Many commonly used turn coordinators are electrically driven (done for redundancy and as a backup to the vacuum system), and will fail along with an electrical failure.

A pitot-static or gyroscopic failure can be difficult to diagnose and confirm at first. The trick is to think about a failed instrument on a systemic level by determining which, if any, other instruments are also affected. If your airspeed seems off, check your other instruments. If they are also indicating erroneously, than you can bet there’s a pitot and static failure. If only the airspeed is incorrect you can rest assured the pitot tube alone is the culprit. By cross-checking often and making sure all your instruments agree with each other, you’ll be able to determine which are malfunctioning and take appropriate action. What’s the appropriate action? Covering up the inaccurate instruments and converting to a new insrtument scan that will keep you alive and allow you to land safely.

In any case, the quick and proper diagnosis of an instrument or system failure will turn an emergency into an inconvenience (although you should always declare an emergency when the situation warrants). A good pilot is always prepared, and preparation in this case comes with consistent practice, so be sure to brush up on your partial panel procedures often!

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