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Flying Safely

Recently a friend of mine was killed while flying. A few days later a former student called to say that he was now the safety officer for his flying club and wanted to know if I had access to an accident database. He hoped to learn from others’ mistakes and pass that on to his club. In researching my answer to my safety officer friend and remembering the friend recently lost I thought that “flying safe” would be a good topic to for an article.

There is a database devoted to aircraft accidents. It is maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is responsible for investigating aircraft accidents and they provide a publicly accessible database that lists the aircraft type, description of the accident, probably cause, location, date, manufacturer, etc. Figure 1 is a snapshot of the search screen and Figure 2 is a sample return (I searched on the most popular trike manufacturers: AirBorne, Air Creation, and Northwing).

ANALYZING THE DATA

Figure 1 we see seven accidents involving AirBorne aircraft (probably the most common weight-shift aircraft in America). In analyzing the data from Figure 2 we see the following accident types:

  • 2 flights into terrain (or water)
  • 4 of loss of control
  • 1 wake turbulence
  • 0 structural failure

FLIGHT INTO TERRAIN/WATER

This one is simple. There were two flights into terrain and in both cases it was the pilot’s fault. The terrain did not suddenly reach out and snatch the aircraft. No, the pilot was flying too low. In one case the pilot was inside a very narrow canyon near Taos, NM. I’ve seen that canyon and can safely say that anyone who would fly inside of it is an idiot. If you add other popular trike brands to your search you will find that quite a few trikers have ended their flying careers by flying into the ground – all of them fatally.

Figure 1.

 

Figure 2.

The FAA says that pilots of light sport aircraft must fly 1000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2000 feet of us if we are flying over heavily populated areas. Over urban areas we are to be at least 500 feet high. In sparsely populated areas we are to maintain 500 feet separation from people and structures but there is no minimum altitude. These altitude restrictions are to protect people on the ground – not us. But if we use them they will protect us too.

There are light sport pilots who feel that there is nothing wrong with flying a few feet above the ground. Who am I to argue with them? I will say this though – while the definition of “too low” may be vague, if you strike the ground while flying you were definitely flying too low by anyone’s standards.

The fact is the lower you fly the more risk you expose yourself to – altitude is our friend. Risk is like gambling. You want to put the odds in your favor if you want to consistently come up a winner. The lower you fly the higher the probability that you and mother earth are going to have a sudden and unpleasant meeting. Conversely, the higher you fly the more options you have if your engine quits and the less likely you are to run into something. But using this argument we should all be flying at our 10,000 MSL ceiling. But who wants to do that? Most of us love “low and slow” and for lighter, light sport pilots flying is all about fun. If we aren’t having fun what is the point?

So find the altitude that is a fair balance between the fun you desire and the risks you are willing to accept and make sure that you don’t expose others to your risks. Look for ways to reduce the risks associated with flying at your favorite altitude and above all “don’t be stupid.”

LOSS OF CONTROL

All of the loss of control accidents occurred during windy conditions in the takeoff, landing, or taxing phase of flight. In a few cases the pilots were still students. Because lighter, light sport aircraft are, well lighter, they are more susceptible to the air currents. The more active the air the more demanding the aircraft is of its pilot. Additionally, while in the landing phase you are slowing the aircraft down making it more susceptible to an unexpected stall and reducing its controllability.

At lower speeds the speed window between flying and stalling shrinks. If the conditions are gusty the flying versus stalling window can disappear altogether and the transition from flying to falling can be instantaneous. The other challenge while landing is the reduced control we have as we slow the aircraft down. The controls become mushy and less responsive making it more difficult for a pilot to respond to unexpected gusts.

In trikes, when we encounter turbulent or cross-wind conditions, we typically come in at higher than normal landing speeds and literally fly the aircraft all the way to the ground, so that we mitigate the flying versus stalling and the mushy control problems typical of full flare landings. But this technique can be challenging to less experienced pilots since they may over control or over-react when landing in turbulent conditions.

The moral here is know the limitations of your aircraft and yourself and make sure you check the weather religiously. Set limits for yourself that are a reasonable balance between reward and risk. If you are taking a passenger then you need to be doubly certain that you are not putting that person at risk. Smart pilots know that “it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.” Remember too that “takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory.” Again, “don’t be stupid.”

WAKE TURBULENCE

I’m not going to say much about this accident beyond what the NTSB said

– the pilot spent too much time on the runway and put himself and his passenger at risk by doing it. Before you taxi onto the runway make sure no one else is using it. When you do taxi onto the runway make sure you takeoff immediately.

Again, we are flying lighter, light sport aircraft and are consequently very susceptible to wake turbulence. Make sure you understand the characteristics of wake turbulence and how to avoid it. My home airport is Class D with lots of commercial and charter jet, turboprop, and helicopter traffic and yet I’ve never had a problem avoiding wake turbulence.

STRUCTURAL FAILURE

While there are no structural failures in NTSB related to AirBorne aircraft there have been failures with other brands. Fortunately the are extremely rare and in the cases I’ve looked at could have been avoided if the pilot had done the following:

  • A thorough pre-flight.
  • Maintained the aircraft in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Flew the aircraft in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions and within their limitations (which covers both weather conditions and maneuvers).
  • Made sure that all Safety Directives had been applied and checked the manufacturer’s website frequently to be sure no new ones have been posted.

So even in the case of structural failure, as far as I can tell in looking at the NTSB’s data, the pilot could have prevented the problem.

SUMMARY

Flying requires pilots to balance risks and rewards. Flying is inherently risky (just as driving, boating, skiing, biking, etc. are risky). Good pilots consider the risks for the type of flying they want to do and take every precaution to put the odds in their favor. Reckless or stupid pilots do not take the time to consider the risks, much less mitigate them, and they are not afraid to expose others to those risks. They are the pilots we hear bragging about their exploits and feel that they must fly with abandon to prove to others how good they are. These guys rarely do thorough pre-flights, are unwilling to cancel their flight when the weather looks iffy, and are always pushing the envelop.

Remember the old adage, “there are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots.” If I were to sum up this entire article in one statement it would be “don’t be stupid.” We prevent stupidity by remembering what we have been taught and by learning So fly safe, have fun and “don’t be stupid.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terri Sipantzi is the Owner/Operator of Precision Windsports, Inc. based in Lynchburg, VA. Precision Wind-sports is a full service (sales, training, and maintenance) weight-shift light sport aircraft dealer specializing in AirBorne Trikes. Terri’s qualifications include Commercial/Instrument SEL, Sport Pilot CFI WSC, FAA Designated Pilot and Instructor Examiner WSC, Light Sport Repairman with Maintenance rating (airplane, WSC, and PPC), and FAA Designated Airworthiness Representative (WSC). He is a frequent contributor to magazines such as “EAA Light Sport” and “Ultraflight Magazine.” You can reach Terri at www.PrecisionWindsports.com.

July 2009 Light Aviation Edition

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