Big Brother is Watching

The two most dangerous words in aviation:  "Watch this!"

“Hey, I’m not paranoid. But everyone is out to get me…”

In the 21st century, nary a day goes by that a security camera, paparazzo, web cam, smartphone photo, Twitter post, or e-mail doesn’t undo a celebrity, politician, or executive somewhere. An entire industry of magazines and low-budget television shows (TMZ, anyone?) testifies to the fact: we are always being watched.

Did you stop by the bank or eat at a restaurant today? Smile — you’re on candid camera! Driving in your car? Cameras abound on highways and streets. Law enforcement vehicles have them built-in. If you used a credit card, proximity key card, or access badge, your location has been logged. At work and at home, computer and/or phone usage leaves a trace, too.

Speaking of phones, we tend to forget that our phones connect to cellular networks periodically whenever they’re powered up, whether we’re actively using them or not. The cell towers they connect to are an indicator of one’s location — evidence that has been used in court. Even refrigerators are digital these days. The one my wife and I have keeps track of when the door is opened so that it can run the freezer’s defrost cycle at the appropriate intervals.

"What's it doing now??"

“What’s it doing now??”

Do you ever think about these things? I do. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I simply don’t like being monitored, especially if I’m not sure who’s doing the watching or what nefarious schemes they might be able to hatch with the collected data. The bottom line here is that in many respects, privacy seems to be a thing of the past. It’s part of the price we pay for technology and convenience, and it’s one of the darker sides to the digital age.

It shouldn’t require the presence of a camera to keep an aviator from experimenting with Stupid Pilot Tricks. But let’s face it, knowing we’re “under glass” may help keep those of us with Type-A personalities on the straight-and-narrow when we’re tempted to do something that is, shall we say “on the margins” of acceptable behavior. Perhaps it’s flying a bit too low, busting weather minimums, rolling a non-aerobatic aircraft, or just a low approach with a slightly aggressive climbout at the other end.

Alas, in some cases the presence of a camera seems to have the opposite effect, actually encouraging behavior that is beyond the pale. I’ve noted quite a few examples of that in the past. You can find hundreds more on YouTube.

The latest example, a low pass by a Pitts biplane that appears to come within inches of persons on the ground, has been picked up by the national media.

From CNN:

The pilot, identified as Jason Newburg, previously had an FAA waiver to do aerobatics at the airport, but the waiver expired in November, an FAA source — who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation — told CNN.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said Thursday the agency is investigating the incident.

“Even with a valid waiver, there is a requirement that people on the ground not be endangered,” he said.

The irony here is that Mr. Newburg is a fairly well established airshow performer. Unlike recreational and competitive aerobatics, airshow pilots (especially those with a surface waiver) can do pretty much anything they darn well please with only one exception: they can’t put people on the ground at risk. Typically that’s interpreted as keeping the aircraft’s energy directed away from the crowd. It will be interesting to see how the FAA proceeds with their investigation. If the individuals who were so close to the fly-by are part of the airshow performer’s “team”, would this constitute a violation?

The FAA’s army of inspectors and attorneys makes and interprets these rules, so only they know the answer. Regardless of which way it goes, it was clearly unwise to have a video of that sort posted on the internet because the average Joe (including the media) doesn’t understand the FAA’s national airshow program. Even if all the paperwork was in order and it was legal by the letter of Advisory Circular 91-45, FAA Order 8900.1, and FAA Form 8710-7, those things are meaningless gibberish to the general public. All they see is something that looks dangerous. It spread across the internet and onto cable channels faster than… well, than a Pitts doing a 200 mph fly-by.

Think you’d never fall victim to the temptation to do something stupid while being recorded? Don’t be so sure. This kind of thing isn’t limited to intentional stunts. In an era of glass panels, portable GPS receivers, tablets, and smartphones, it’s worth remembering that if you’re got a computerized device in your aircraft, everything you do is being recorded. Your flight path, attitude information, altitude, position, acceleration, and many other parameters might be stored on silicon.

Even something as simple as a graphic engine monitor will be creating log files with your power settings, fuel flows, engine temperatures and pressures, and more. They’re fantastic tools for diagnosing engine issues, but the fact that they record data can come back to haunt you if a warranty claim is required or if the FAA or aircraft owner suspect improper operation.

Simple aircraft are not exempt. If you’re flying a rag wing Cub, the presence of an ordinary transponder means you’re position is being monitored and recorded onto tape by the FAA. You might think a 1200 code will protect you from identification, but as long as the device is transmitting, it’s also sending out a Mode S code that’s been assigned to that radio.

Upon interrogation, Mode S transponders transmit information about the aircraft to the Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) system, TCAS receivers on board aircraft and to the ADS-B SSR system. This information includes the call sign of the aircraft and/or the transponder’s permanent ICAO 24-bit address in the form of a hex code.

Even if you don’t have a single piece of electronic equipment in your aircraft, you’re still flying a loud vehicle that attracts attention from those on the ground. Think about that. Big Brother isn’t always electronic. Sometimes he’s a flesh-and-blood human witness. Ironically, they can be far worse than electronic evidence because unlike computers, people can take proactive action against pilots they perceive to be doing something wrong. A Garmin G1000 isn’t going to call the FAA on you. At least, not yet. But a human?

So don’t forget, my friends: it may not be 1984 anymore, but it’s still 1984. Whatever form he may take, Big Brother is always watching.

The Double Standard

The Stearman is a World War II-era, fabric-covered radial engine tailwheel trainer.

Last July, an Alabama resident unhappy about the noise generated by an antique Boeing Stearman biplane decided to take matters into his own hands. According to the FBI, at least one witness on the ground saw Jason Allen McCay fire “several shotgun blasts” at the aircraft as it attempted to land at Campbell Field.

The plane was at an altitude of about 75 feet and was about 300 feet from touching down when McCay fired the shots.

Fred Campbell, who built the airstrip in 1963, bought the Stearman biplane in 1976 and, since that time, he and friends have completely rebuilt the plane. The plane had not flown for 30 years when they took it up on test flights June 22. The plane was concluding its third test flight of the day when McCay fired his shots.

McCay previously had filed numerous complaints with various agencies about airplanes flying over his house. He told investigators he fired when the Stearman biplane flew over his home because he wanted to scare the people on board.

The punishment? McCay was indicted by a federal grand jury on a single count of “attempted interference with an aircraft”.

This strikes me as a woefully inadequate charge. Aside from cases of self-defense, any time a firearm is intentionally and repeatedly discharged directly toward humans, an aggravated assault or attempted murder charge seems more appropriate.

The classic Stearman biplane:  wood structure covered in fabric skin.

The classic Stearman biplane: wood structure covered in fabric skin.

I’d argue it’s especially so in this case because it involved an aircraft in mid-flight. Even if the occupants were unharmed, any hit to the Stearman itself could have brought the entire plane down. That sounds like a hell of a lot more than just “attempted interference with an aircraft”.

McCay pled guilty and was sentenced to one year of probation. Though unconvinced of the sincerity of McCay’s apology, the judge somehow came to the conclusion that jail time was not warranted.

Perhaps the prosecutor or judge were sympathetic to the defendant’s antipathy toward aircraft noise. Or maybe there’s something in the law that made interference with an aircraft the strongest charge they could make stick. Either way, there’s a double standard here, folks.

I’ve never understood the logic that allows Harley-Davidson to build (and/or their owners to modify) motorcycles with straight pipe exhausts in order to generate as much noise as possible while in general aviation we spend untold hours and fortunes modifying aircraft with mufflers, new prop designs, hush kits, and adjusting takeoff and landing procedures, flight paths, and more to minimize our noise footprint.

The Stearman is a World War II-era, fabric-covered radial engine tailwheel trainer.

The Stearman is a World War II-era, fabric-covered radial engine tailwheel trainer.

If McCay had walked into a restaurant and fired several blasts toward people and later claimed it was “just to scare them”, would he have skated with a year of probation? Of course not. It would have been national news on TV and a trending topic on Twitter for a week.

What if he was unhappy about highway noise and had fired at a car or the aforementioned Harley from an overpass? Forget probation, he’d be looking at a very long prison sentence. So why are pilots less worthy of protection under the law?

Yes, pilot Fred Campbell and his airstrip are going to be the cause of some noise. But it’s worth noting that the airport has been there for half a century and that McKay built his home adjacent to an operating airport. If those of us living near roads and highways have to deal with the constant buzz of vehicular traffic going by, it’s only fair that those near GA airports do the same, especially when users of such airfields are doing as much as reasonably possible to mitigate the noise.

Being a good neighbor goes both ways. It’s just a shame the law isn’t enforced in a way that reflects it.

FAA Proposes Class D Airspace at LAX

Proposed addition of class D airspace to the class B surface areas

As Andrew Jackson said during his farewell address to the country, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. Nowhere is this more true than when dealing with our freedom to fly.

Thankfully we’ve got organizations like AOPA to help monitor the reams of NPRMs and documents issued by the federal government on a daily basis. I say thankfully because as connected as I am to the industry, there’s no way I could keep up with the blizzard of paperwork flying out of Washington. It’s hard to remember how we did it even half as well before the advent of the world wide web.

AOPA recently found a proposed change to the Los Angeles Class B airspace. This change isn’t a physically large one, and it won’t have much if any impact for most pilots. The reason it caught AOPA’s attention is that it telegraphs a significant shift in the way the FAA uses airspace.

The FAA defines the problem by noting that airplanes performing missed approach procedures at LAX sometimes stray outside of the lateral confines of the Class B airspace surface area. They do not explain exactly why this happens. Since published missed approach procedures keep pilots within the confines of protected airspace, one can only assume that controllers are providing radar vectors which take pilots out of the Class Bravo. The only other options I can conceive of would be repetitive faulty airmanship and/or a poorly designed approach procedure, neither of which is likely.

I have a feeling this might really be about the approximate 15 degree offset between the runways at LAX and the alignment of the Bravo surface area corridor which should — but for some reason does not — parallel it.

The solution proposed by the FAA? They want to add small Class D cutouts to the north and south of the surface Bravo airspace:

Proposed addition of class D airspace to the class B surface areas

If you’re confused, welcome to the club. Every pilot learns early on in primary flight training that Class D airspace is always centered around an airport with an operating air traffic control tower. Specifically, an airport too small to receive a Class B or C designation. These designations are based on the number of operations and passengers enplaned and deplaned in a given year. LAX is one of the busiest airports on the planet and is long established as a Class Bravo field. Class D airspace is not designed for the LAXs of the world.

Assuming the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is not in error — and boy would this be a big one — the FAA’s proposal for LAX would establish one of several new precedents. It’s a testament to the confusion this NPRM creates that I cannot even determine which precedent would be set. Either this would mark the first tower-less Class D airspace I’ve ever heard of, or the first time a single air traffic control tower was responsible for two different classes of airspace (B and D) at the same time.

AOPA references to this proposal as a “quick-fix” are a generous assessment in my opinion. The reasons for the change aren’t clear. Why are aircraft leaving the protected airspace during missed approaches at LAX? And if that’s happening, shouldn’t fixing the approach, re-aligning the Bravo surface area or expanding the Class B airspace slightly be the common sense solution?

Even if the FAA is determined to add Class D airspace, they shouldn’t be attaching it to LAX. The LAX tower already coordinates closely with both Santa Monica and Hawthorne towers. Why not just extend the Santa Monica and Hawthorne airspace slightly?

Another head-scratcher from the NPRM:

This action is based on the results of a study conducted by the Los Angeles VFR Task Force, and the Los Angeles Class B Workgroup.

A Google search of those two organizations yielded nada, so I wonder if they’re referring to the Southern California Airspace Users Working Group. If so, it would add a new level of perplexity to the issue, because that organization is comprised of people who actually fly in this airspace and would be the first to see the oddity of the FAA’s proposal.

Again, the practical effect of the changes being proposed by the Feds at LAX are small. That’s not the real problem. The larger issue is the misuse of airspace classification and the confusing precedent it would set. As an long-time instructor, I don’t even know how one would teach something like that to a student. In my experience, students often learn best when they understand the reason behind rules and procedures. Unfortunately, in this case that clarity is sorely lacking.

A Carb-Free Future

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry stopped producing new airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

It wasn’t until the General Aviation Revitalization Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 that things started to change. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. The whole VLJ (very light jet) market came into being.

But the liability problem never totally went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

Most recently, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Therefore, as of November 1, 2007, Precision Airmotive LLC has been left with no choice but to cease production and support of its float carburetor line.

We are working with the engine manufacturers and others in the industry in an attempt to minimize the impact on general aviation and to provide future support for this product line. There is a substantial quantity of parts and carburetors stocked at our distributors, which should be sufficient to support the industry for a short time.

I’ve seen this news devolve into an argument over the merits of fuel injection vs. carburetion in aircraft powerplants — something which drives me batty. Doesn’t anyone seen the larger picture here? Because crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate.

The only solution to this problem is further liability reform legislation. This could be as simple as changing the law to allow NTSB reports into evidence. Currently, plaintiff’s attorneys know that NTSB accident report findings are not admissible in court. Ostensibly this is to protect the NTSB from outside influence, but an unintended consequence has been to remove the most skilled and impartial source of information on the cause of aircraft accidents from the courtroom. And that vacuum gets filled by paid “expert” witnesses who tell the aviation neophte jury exactly what the plaintiff wants them to hear.

This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Personally, I think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. Wake up, people. Today it’s Precision Airmotive. Tomorrow it will be your company or industry that goes down for the count.

Think about it.

Charts: Are They Required?

If I had a “frequently asked questions” list for glass panels, the first question on the list would probably be: “is it legal to fly with electronic charts alone (ie. no paper on board)?”. Without exception, every person I’ve flown with in an Entegra or G1000 equipped aircraft has made this inquiry.

My response has always been that while it’s not a wise idea to fly without paper since an electrical component failure could render your whole charting system inoperative, from a legal standpoint, electronic charts are acceptable as a substitute. Get caught above the stratus without your approach plates? If you have the electronic charts, go ahead and do the approach.

In fact, as far as I know there is no legal requirement to carry charts whatsoever. This applies to VFR and IFR under Part 91. And from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make sense that there would be. There are aircraft out there — my Pitts S-2B is one of them — which literally don’t have any room for a chart. No room to unfold it, store it, keep it secure during hard aerobatics, etc. Sure, we use one during cross-country operations, but for acro flights? Who really has a chart readily accessible to the pilot in that scenario?

If there is an FAA regulation, case law, regional counsel legal opinion, advisory circular, directive, or other binding document which indicates otherwise, I’m not aware of it.

The only exception I can think of is on the Los Angeles terminal area chart on the Special Flight Rules panel which states “The following rules shall be adhered to while utilizing the Los Angeles Special Flight Rules Area:” and below that one of the requirements is “The pilot shall have a current Terminal Area Chart in the aircraft”.

Los Angeles terminal area chart excerpt

Beyond that, I just don’t see any regulation requiring charts. The closest thing would be 14 CFR 91.103:

Sec. 91.103 – Preflight action.

Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include —

(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;

(b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information

Anyway, I bring this up now because the FAA has issued Advisory Circular 91-78, Use of Class 1 or Class 2 Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), which basically confirms my thoughts on the matter. In summary, electronic charts are acceptable legal substitutes for paper charts, but carrying paper backup is recommended.

In other words, common sense. Which, when the government is involved, isn’t necessarily all that common.

The phrase “electronic flight bag” is probably not part of your lexicon, but it refers to a wide variety of panel mount and handheld electronic navigators. The Advisory Circular covers everything from the G1000 to a lowly black-and-while portable GPS and is, I believe, the first time the FAA has granted implicit admission of “non-IFR” receivers to the cockpit.

As always, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring receipt of the latest and most currently available information lies with the pilot. That much remains the same. But it’s refreshing to see that the FAA doesn’t care how you get the data as long as you get it.

Now the that door is open, I would love to see a parallel Circular to make sites like Weathermeister legal for official FAA weather briefings. Lord knows the data is infinitely cleaner and easier to interpret when viewed in such a manner. Alas, one step at a time…