He’s One of Us Now

Michael Whitaker

We won’t have final statistics on 2014 for quite a while, but if history is any guide, something like fifteen to eighteen thousand people achieved initial pilot certification last year. One of the most notable additions to the pilot cadre is a gentleman named Michael G. Whitaker. He’s Deputy Administrator of the FAA — the number two man at the agency — and one of the highest ranking officials in a very, very long time to obtain an airman certificate. Whitaker passed his private pilot checkride last October on the first attempt.

According to his bio, he also happens to be “the Chief NextGen Officer and is responsible for the development and implementation of FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).” NextGen is one of the most high-profile projects the FAA has undertaken in the last thirty years. In other words, even before he got into the left seat, Whitaker was not an aviation neophyte. His professional background includes eighteen years working at United Airlines and the now-defunct TWA.

I don’t know if this is an aberration or the start of a trend, but I hope it’s the latter. At one point, many of the key people at the FAA were pilots. Even run-of-the-mill air traffic controllers could often be found on both sides of the radio. Many of the early FAA Administrators were aviators, too: Halaby, Butterfield, Bond, Helms, and so on. Today? Unfortunately, they’re almost exclusively bureaucratic appointees, sometimes with no serious connection to general aviation at all, and it’s rare to find a controller who flies.

Whitaker earned his private pilot certificate last October in this Skyhawk

Whitaker earned his private pilot certificate last October in this Skyhawk

The lack of flying experience by those who are charged with maintaining, improving, and regulating America’s airspace system has a detrimental effect on the policies and programs emanating from the FAA. And why wouldn’t it? Running any organization successfully requires intimate knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of that business. Is it any wonder that GA has suffered over the past few decades? I wish I could put into words how things improve when the person you’re dealing with is a pilot, but the best I can do is describe it as the difference between pantomiming and speaking the same language.

Hopefully Mr. Whitaker will continue to add ratings and certificates, using the knowledge he gains to see the industry from a fresh, almost unheard of perspective: that of a pilot. Based on his post-checkride comments to AOPA, the transition may have already started. Does his impression of flight training ring any bells?

Whitaker said the sheer volume of information to learn was a challenge, as was learning old technologies he knew he wouldn’t have to use very much after earning his certificate given the flight planning assistance that technologies like apps can provide.

He also ran into the two classic student pilot challenges: time and money. When he was putting himself through law school, money was the issue, he said, although at that point he was only dabbling in flight training.

“Of course, now the formula is completely different,” he said of returning to flight training while maintaining his duties at the FAA. “You have the money but not the time. … Getting the hours in the airplane and the training sessions was the challenge.” He set aside the time to fly frequently and advised other student pilots to do the same; when he had to take much of September off from flying, he said he felt like he lost ground.

Most of us who write about general aviation have spent years noting outdated training requirements and the ever-increasing cost of flying. Finally, there’s someone at the top of the organizational chart who’s had the opportunity to experience those things first-hand. It just goes to show the difference between reading statistics from a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation and encountering them as senseless barriers keeping you from a long-held personal goal.

I applaud Mr. Whitaker for broadening his horizons and have no doubt it will be a boon both professionally and personally. The only question I would have for him is: what can you do to convince more FAA personnel to jump into the pool?

Who’s the Best Pilot?

Actor.  Pilot.  Two guys with the right stuff.

One of the many iconic scenes (so much so that it recurs several times in the film) from The Right Stuff has astronaut Gordon Cooper asking his wife, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” before answering his own question: “You’re lookin’ at him!” Gordo was telling a joke, of course, but it got me thinking about what constitutes a truly great pilot in the real world.

Accident statistics show that when light GA pilots try to operate on a firmly fixed schedule — for example, around the holidays — the risk level increases. AOPA recently published an Air Safety Alert to that effect, noting “a cluster of GA accidents occurring in close succession”.

Some of this probably has to do with the fact that the holiday season occurs in the winter for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. While the hot months have their own set of challenges, they tend to consist of things which present equal hazard to all aircraft: thunderstorms, high density altitude, etc. But whereas large multi-engine turbojets are well-equipped for cold weather flying, single-engine recips typically operate with minimal anti- and de-icing equipment, if any.

Anyway, it occurs to me that this kind of flying is exactly what we do in the Part 135 world. We operate on someone else’s timetable, and rarely is that schedule created with weather, circadian rhythm, airport staffing hours, or other such operational concerns in mind. As you might expect, the 135 safety record — while far better than Part 91 — does not reach the rarefied heights of the scheduled airlines. Some people feel it should. There are plenty of folks who feel Part 91 should reach that strata as well.

I tend to disagree.

Part 135 has the flexibility to operate at random times and into a far wider variety of places than scheduled airlines. While we do everything possible to make the flights as safe as humanly possible, flexibility cannot help but exact a price. Flying worldwide charter, I don’t know if my next trip will take me to Liberia or Las Vegas. I have to be prepared to go anywhere.

If that sounds incredible, then light general aviation flying should really blow your mind! The non-commercial Part 91 aviating so many of us do for personal reasons takes that freedom and ramps it up a hundred fold. Not only can you go anywhere you want at any time it suits you, you can do it at night, in IMC, in formation, and fly some aerobatics or sight-see along the way. You can fly a weird experimental airplane that you built in your garage. You can tow banners. Drop things from your airplane, then cut them up as they fall to earth? Yes, that’s fine. Fly high… or low. You can change your destination in mid-flight without asking anyone’s permission.

Heck, you can even take off with no destination whatsoever; those are some of my most cherished flights. When I call the VFR clearance delivery frequency at John Wayne Airport and they ask where I’m headed, nothing says freedom quite like using William Shatner’s response from the first Star Trek film: “Out there. That-a-way!”

Wrapping your mind around having the liberty to do those things while not being able to install a radio in your panel without approval from a certification office somewhere in Oklahoma City could cause a migraine… but let’s leave that for another day.

The point is, with added freedom comes added risk. And responsibility. It’s ironic that we think of airline pilots as having the greatest weight on their shoulders when rules, procedures, and operational specifications dictate almost everything they do. I’m not saying their job is easy. It ain’t. But if you’re not in awe of the authority and self-determination placed on your own shoulders every time you launch, think about this: we could have the safety record of the major airlines. All we’d need are the same rules and requirements for flight that they use. Seems to me that would be an awful lot like asking Santa for a big, dirty lump of coal in your stocking.

If there’s a way to have the freedom to land on five hundred foot long strips on the side of a mountain, tackle water runways, engage in flight training, and — most of all — fly to that family Christmas in an airplane with just one reciprocating engine without significantly higher risk than you’ll find on a typical airliner, I’d be quite surprised. But one thing every pilot has in common is that risk management is a major part of the job.

So as you contemplate that cross country flight to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, remember that the best pilot isn’t the one who finds the cheapest fuel, stuffs the most presents into the baggage compartment, or makes the softest landing. It’s the one who best manages the risk inherent in that flight.

Right, Gordo?


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

A Self-Evident Solution

floatplane

Times are tough for general aviation, and we need a solid partner and advocate in Washington now more than ever. Unfortunately, the FAA is proving to be the exact opposite — a lead weight — and it’s becoming a big problem.

Complaining about the FAA has been a popular spectator sport for decades. I feel for those who work at the agency because the most of the individuals I’ve interacted with there have been pleasant and professional. They often seem as hamstrung and frustrated with the status quo as those of us on the outside. In fact, I took my commercial glider checkride with an FAA examiner from the Riverside FSDO in 2004 and consider it a model of how practical tests should be run. So I’m not suggesting we toss the baby out with the bathwater.

But somewhere, somehow, as an organization, the inexplicable policy decisions, poor execution, and awful delays in performing even the most basic functions lead one to the conclusion that the agency is beset by a bureaucratic sclerosis which is grinding the gears of progress to a rusty halt on many fronts.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

If you’re not instrument-rated, the concept of flying an approach in the “wrong direction” probably seems… well, wrong. But it’s not. For decades, pilots have flown practice approaches in VFR conditions for training purposes without regard for the wind direction. There are many logical reason for doing so: variety, the availability of a specific approach type, to practice circling to a different runway for landing, and so on. John Ewing, a professional instructor based on California’s central coast, described this as “going up the down staircase”.

For reasons no one has been able to explain (and I’ve inquired with two separate FSDOs in my area), this practice is no longer allowed at towered fields. Here’s what John wrote about the change:

…the FAA has decided that opposite direction approaches into towered airports are no longer allowed. To the uninitiated, practice approaches to a runway when there’s opposite direction traffic may seem inherently dangerous, but it is something that’s been done safely at many airports for as long as anyone can remember. One example in Northern California is Sacramento Executive where all the instrument approaches are to runway 2 and 90% of the time runway 20 is in use.

At KSAC, the procedure for handling opposite direction approaches is simple and has worked well (and without incident, to my knowledge): The tower instructs the aircraft inbound on the approach to start their missed approach (usually a climbing left turn) prior to the runway threshold and any traffic departing the opposite direct turns in the other direction.

For areas like the California Central Coast, the restriction on opposite direction instrument approaches has been in place since I arrived in June and it has serious implications for instrument flight training since the ILS approaches for San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara are likely to be opposite direction 90% of the time. For a student to train to fly an ILS in a real aircraft, you need to fly quite a distance. Same goes for instrument rating practical tests that require an ILS because the aircraft is not equipped with WAAS GPS and/or there’s no RNAV approach available with LPV minima to a DA of 250 feet or lower.

The loss of opposite-direction approaches hurts efficiency and is going to increase the time and money required for initial and recurrent instrument training. As good as simulators are, there’s no substitute for the real world, especially when it comes to things like circling to land. Between the low altitude, slow airspeed, and division of attention between instruments and exterior references required for properly executing the maneuver, circling in low weather can be one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous aspects of instrument flying. If anything, we need more opportunities to practice this. Banning opposite-direction approaches only ensures we’ll do it less.

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

Eliminating the third class medical just makes sense. I’ve covered this before, but it certainly bears repeating: glider and LSA pilots have been operating without formal medical certification for decades and there is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest they are any more prone to medical incapacitation than those of us who fly around with that coveted slip of paper in our pocket.

AOPA and EAA petitioned the government on this issue two years and nine months ago. The delay has been so egregious that the FAA Administrator had to issue a formal apology. Obviously pilots are clamoring for this, but we’re not the only ones:

Congress is getting impatient as well. In late August, 32 members of the House General Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to expedite the review process and permit the FAA to proceed with its next step of issuing the proposal for public comment. Early in September 11 Senators, who were all co-sponsors of a bill to reform the medical process, also asked the Department of Transportation to speed up the process.

So where does the proposed rule change now? It is someplace in the maze of government. Officially it is at the Department of Transportation. Questions to DOT officials are met with no response, telling us to contact the FAA. FAA officials comment that “it is now under executive review at the DOT.”

The rule change must also be examined by the Office of Management and Budget.

When the DOT and OMB both approve the proposal — if they do — it will be returned to the FAA, which will then put it out for public comment. The length of time for comments will probably be several months.

After these comments are considered, the FAA may or may not issue a rule change.

It occurs to me that by the time this process is done, it may have taken nearly as long as our involvement in either world war. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll have an acceptable outcome.

Example 3: Hangar Policy

The common sense approach would dictate that as long as you’ve got an airplane in your hangar, you should be able to keep toolboxes, workbenches, American flags, a refrigerator, a golf cart or bicycle, or anything else you like in there. But the FAA once again takes something so simple a cave man could do it and mucks it up. The fact that the FAA actually considers any stage of building an airplane to be a non-aeronautical activity defies both logic and the English language. Building is the very essence of the definition. People who’ve never even been inside an airplane could tell you that. In my mind, this hangar policy is the ultimate example of how out of touch with reality the agency has become.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline.  Reversing the trend will require help from many areas -- including the FAA.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline. Reversing the trend will require help from many areas — including the FAA.

Example 4: Field Approvals

These have effectively been gone from aviation for the better part of a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to add a new WhizBang 3000 radio to your airplane, a mechanic could get it approved via a relatively simple, low-cost method called a field approval. For reasons nobody has even been able to explain (probably because there is no valid explanation), it became FAA policy to stop issuing these. If you want that new radio in your airplane, you’ll have to wait until there’s an STC for it which covers your aircraft. Of course, that takes a lot longer and costs a boatload of money, if it happens at all. But the FAA doesn’t care.

Homebuilts put whatever they want into their panels and you don’t see them falling out of the sky. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

Just to show you that it’s not only the light GA segment that’s suffering, here’s a corporate aviation example. The ability to fly in RVSM airspace — the area between FL290 and FL410 — is very important. Being kept below FL290 is not only inefficient and bad for the environment, it also forces turbine aircraft into weather they would otherwise be able to avoid. The alternative is to fly at FL430 and above, which can mean leaving fuel and/or payload behind, or flying in a paperwork-induced coffin corner.

Unfortunately, RVSM approval requires a Letter of Authorization from the FAA. If the airplane is sold, the LOA is invalidated and the new owner has to go through the paperwork process with the FAA from step one. Even if the aircraft stays at the same airport, maintained by the same people, and flown by the same crew. If you so much as change the name of your company, the LOA is invalidated. If you sneeze or get a hangnail, they’re invalidated.

From AIN Online:

Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA.

Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”

When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.

It’s bad for safety and the FAA knows it. If they were able to process paperwork quickly, it might not be such an issue, but many operators find that it takes many months — sometimes even a year or more — to get a scrap of paper which should take a few minutes at most.

Show Me the Money

So what’s behind the all this? Americans love to throw money at a problem, so is this a budget cut issue? Perhaps the FAA is a terribly cash-starved agency that simply isn’t given the resources to do the jobs we’re asking of it.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, that’s not the case. He testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week that the FAA’s budget has been growing even as traffic declines:

The growth of the agency’s budget has been unchecked, despite the managerial failings and the changes in the marketplace. Between 1996 and 2012, the FAA’s total budget grew 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion. During that same period, the agency’s air traffic operations dropped by a fifth. As a result, taxpayers are now paying the FAA nearly twice as much to do only 80 percent of the work they were doing in the 1990s.

Over that same 16-year span, the FAA’s personnel costs, including salary and benefits, skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion — a 98 percent increase — even though the agency’s total number of full-time workers actually fell 4 percent during that time.

Self-Evident Solutions

Okay, we’ve all heard the litany of issues. From the inability to schedule a simple checkride to big problems with NextGen development or the ADS-B mandate, you’ve probably got your own list. The question is, how do we fix the problem?

I think the answer is already out there: less FAA oversight and more self-regulation. Look closely at GA and you’ll see that the segments which are furthest from FAA interference are the most successful. The Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) sector and the industry consensus standards of the Light Sport segment are two such examples. The certified world? Well many of them are still building the same airframes and engines they did 70 years ago, albeit at several times the cost.

Just as non-commercial aviation should be free of the requirement for onerous medical certification, so too should it be free of the crushing regulatory weight of the FAA. The agency would make a far better and more effective partner by limiting its focus to commercial aviation safety, promoting general aviation, and the protection and improvement of our infrastructure.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Teaching a Homeless Man to Fly

decathlon-inverted

Question: When you’re in a room with other people, how can you tell if one of them is a pilot?
Answer: Simple. He’ll tell you.

Aviators are a proud lot, and with good reason. Ours is quite an exclusive club. Despite that fact, I’ve long believed that learning to fly actually has wide appeal among the general public. From my earliest days in the industry, those who discovered I was a pilot would invariably show great interest in my aeronautical activities. More often than not, I would come away from the conversation with the feeling that they were envious of my ability to defy gravity and soar with the birds.

The question then is why more individuals don’t (as they say at Nike) “just do it”. For starters, it requires a lot of money. Then there’s the logistics, the time commitment, and the challenge inherent in weaving one’s way through the modern flight training maze. Changes in instructors, weather delays, antiquated tests and teaching techniques, and so on. Many look skyward, but few take the bull by the horns and see that dream through to completion.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s those who are the least well equipped to succeed who make it to the finish line. Ward Welvaert, a professional contract and ferry pilot, recently wrote about how he taught a homeless man to fly:

Something was different about Patrick but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I was young(ish) and struggling to make a living as most all flight instructors do. I didn’t feel like it was my place to decide who should be taking flight instruction or who should not – as long as the person is safety oriented and shows good judgment. I don’t remember who told me but someone pulled me aside in the lobby of the FBO and asked if I knew Patrick was spending the nights sleeping in his car out in the airport parking lot. Apparently people had noticed Patrick sleeping in his car and asked if he was OK. Patrick seemed to be more comfortable talking to the line men and he had confided in one of them, told them he lived out of his car, he’d spend a week at the airport and then go to work as a road construction laborer for a few weeks. Every time he’d go away to work he’d save his money and then come back to the airport to fly.

Ward’s post reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten: that I too once taught a homeless person to fly. In my case, the student was a fairly young man in his early 20s who already held a private pilot certificate. James ended up on my schedule because he wanted to fly acro. At our first meeting, there was no immediate indication that he was at all different from any other student at the FBO. His clothing and mannerisms were completely conventional. He was quite energetic about the aerobatic course and talked at length about how the ultimate goal for him in aviation was always the freedom and excitement of all-attitude flying.

As with any new student, the process started with a bit of paperwork. When the forms were handed to me, I noticed he had left the “contact” section completely blank. No phone number, e-mail, or address. I asked about that and James said he didn’t have any of those things. He was couch-surfing in order to conserve every dollar possible for flying. He didn’t even own a car. This guy biked to the airport and worked in the pilot shop to earn money. How’s that for single-minded dedication?

Couch-surfing is not illegal. Nor is riding a bike or lacking a cell phone. So eventually the training began, and as I recall, James was a pleasant and upbeat personality in the cockpit, not to mention a good stick. Every CFI craves students like that. You know, the ones that make you look brilliant without having to do too much work?

Anyway, he was making respectable progress through the 10-12 flight hour course when suddenly things came to a screeching halt. He completely disappeared off the schedule, and despite asking around, I couldn’t figure out what happened to him. The guy just vanished into thin air. I was truly disappointed. Had my instruction been inadequate, I wondered? Did he finally run out of cash? Was he popped for selling meth or something?

It wasn’t until a month or two later that someone informed me that he’d heard James was hit by a car one day while riding his bike to the airport. The only reason they knew that much was because James had taken the time to call the pilot shop and say he wouldn’t be able to make it in to work. Nobody had details, like which hospital he’d been taken to or how badly he’d been hurt. That was as close as I ever got to figuring out where he went.

I’ve known other itinerant people, souls like kites who were simply meant to travel in whichever direction the wind carried them, but given the resources and support required for successful flight training, I was impressed with James’s dedication to a very challenging goal. It never entered his mind that it was unachievable, nor did I ever hear him complain about the lack of creature comforts in his life. He was flying, it made him happy, and that was all there was to it.

In retrospect, his status may have been an advantage because James had no family or financial commitments to consume his resources or energy. He didn’t have much, but everything he did have was directed toward flying.

I’ve no idea whether he ever completed aerobatic training, but unless that car seriously and permanently disabled him, I can’t imagine the answer would be “no”. It just wasn’t in his character to be deterred. How can you not admire that in a person?

James, like all memorable students, wasn’t just a learner but a teacher as well. He taught me a valuable lesson about persistence and dedication, two very American qualities which have become the exception rather than the rule in our society. Whenever someone tells me they could never possibly find the time or money to pursue flying — or any dream for that matter — I always think about James, and I know the truth: if there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Upset Recovery Training: Not Just a Fad

Boeing-787-9-Aerobatics

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years”.

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980’s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day, actually. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.