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 Emergency You Get

Pyrotechnic damage to an F-86 Sabre.  Click for the video.

Ever wonder what goes on in the cockpit of an aircraft during an emergency? Yeah, me too — and I’ve had a few of them in my flying career. Emergencies are like snowflakes and fingerprints: no two are exactly the same.

Perhaps that’s why even experienced aviators find them as interesting to rehash as the general public. The only constant between them seems to be that they never quite match the experience received during flight training. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who flies because there’s no way to simulate every possible scenario, especially when one of the tenets of emergency training is to avoid creating a real one in the process.

Yes, simulators are one answer. But they are not a complete or perfect solution since even the very best sims can only create the scenarios for which they’re programmed. In other words, the usual textbook issues: engine rollback, depressurization, wind shear, runaway trim, electrical failures, instrument failure, and so on.

The most challenging thing about training for emergencies is that there are so many possibilities that we can’t even think of them all. Aircraft are complex pieces of machinery and failures can happen in ways that even those who designed and built them cannot foresee. That’s when our intrepid aviator gets to start using all that experience and systems knowledge he’s acquired to try and puzzle things out.

Two of my emergencies were partial engine failures. One was caused by a blocked fuel filter in a Pitts, and the other was a broken cylinder in a Cutlass. When was the last time you saw that simulated? In training, engine failures always seem to be given as complete and instant losses of power. But in my experience that’s not realistic.

It’s at least as likely that you’ll have some power, but the engine is not running properly and on its way to eventual failure. Now things are even more complex, because in addition to the usual checklist items you must decide whether to shut it down. Will the vibration rip the engine off the pylon? Take a prop blade? At what point are you within glide distance of a landing spot and free to shut down the engine? If there’s smoke or fire, that will certainly impact your decision. What sort of terrain are you flying over? Are you in IMC or VMC?

As I said, a long decision tree with many variables. Some people try to encompass every scenario with a single flow or list of actions. I find those solutions to be tortured and not well suited to every situation. The bottom line is that emergencies often require critical thinking skills by the pilot, even if that thinking is as simple as “which emergency checklist is appropriate to this situation?”.

A fellow Gulfstream pilot related a scenario where he had just departed from an airport and noticed that the Engine Vibration Monitor was indicating excessive vibration in one of the engines. The flight manual for that airplane says not to shut down an engine solely for a high EVM indication. The captain elected to reduce that engine to idle thrust as a precautionary measure.

Then, the flight attendant who was occupying the jump seat in the cockpit told the captain that there was a lot of smoke in the back of the cabin. There was no smell associated with it, however, and no indication of fire either on the instrument panel or in the rear of the aircraft. It was almost a black fog.

The engine was secured and an emergency landing carried out. The cause turned out to be a slightly loose fan blade in one of the engines. Centrifugal force was allowing the blade to rub on the case and the resultant material was being ingested into the pressure vessel via the bleed air system. I don’t think that’s a scenario I’d heard of before it was related to me by the pilot who experienced it. In training, smoke usually equals fire.

Pyrotechnic damage to an F-86 Sabre. Click for the video.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how we train for emergencies because of this video. In it, an F-86 Sabre pilot flying at an airshow is inadvertently hit with a pyrotechnic device in mid-flight. I suppose it’s analogous to battle damage or a bird strike.

He reports that the impact was severe enough that it felt as though the jet had hit the ground. Then the airboss reports that the aircraft is shedding parts. Oh, and he’s at low altitude in an airplane with an ejection seat. What would you have done?

The pilot in question, Ed Shipley, is a model of professionalism and thoughtful flying. He calmly ensures the airplane is stabilized and then worries about ATC. There’s no hesitation in declaring an emergency. Next he gets all the available resources working on his behalf. That means the airboss, the controller, even an F-16 sitting on the ground. Phone calls are made, people consulted, and Shipley gets as much information as possible about what’s happened and what to expect upon landing.

With my theatre and opera background, I’d liken the pilot of an emergency aircraft to the director of an improptu play. To be fair, Shipley had an extensive array of resources available, but that very same help can be overwhelming if not managed properly. I once had an aileron jam due to FOD inside the wing of my airplane during an aerobatic competition and had that problem due to a long stream of questions and suggestions from those on the ground. They meant well, but it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

Partial engine failure in IMC. Click for the video.

Sometimes less-experienced pilots will allow controllers to direct their actions when things should be the other way around. You can find one such example in this Air Safety Foundation “Real Pilot Stories” narration of a partial engine failure (sound familiar?) in actual instrument conditions.

The flight comes through in one piece, and that’s all that matters. But if you watch the presentation, you’ll see that even the pilot admits that he didn’t get the information he needed from the air traffic controller. His decisions were influenced by a person who is not a pilot and didn’t fully understand the details of the situation.

Toward the end of the video, he recounts the lessons learned and in doing so sums up my message: the emergency you get isn’t always the one you’ve trained for.

Banned from the Store

"You're banned!"

The situation reminded me (as many things do) of a Seinfeld episode, specifically the one where Kramer gets banned from a grocery store after demanding restitution for a bad mango.

Of course, in my case it wasn’t a store, but rather McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas this past Friday which locked me out. My crime? Flying VFR, apparently.

We were cruising over the California/Nevada border with a ground speed of nearly 230 knots. Not bad for a Cirrus SR22. So far we’d only been airborne for 40 minutes and were looking at a total flight time of less than one hour. Again, muy bueno. The weather had been decent. More than decent, actually; I’d managed to avoid any bumps despite the presence of a SIGMET for severe turbulence over southern California. Basically the whole day had been smooth and easy. And just when I thought we had it made…

"You're banned!"

We were starting our descent when L.A. Center handed us off to a Las Vegas Approach controller who summarily announced that we were not going to be able to land at McCarran and please say request. Oh, and remain clear of the Bravo. The tone in his voice made it clear this wasn’t a negotiable point.

Request? I’d like to ask you to repeat that, Approach, because I checked NOTAMs, TFRs, and paid special attention to known delays going into McCarran and found nothing. Okay, I didn’t actually say that, but it’s what I was thinking. I used to live in Las Vegas and have alighted there on literally dozens of occasions, mostly weekends (and frequently holiday weekends at that).

I know as well as anyone that Fridays are busy there even during a normal weekend and was prepared for a logjam at KLAS since not only was it Veteran’s Day, but the big Pacquiao vs. Marquez fight was slated to take place at the MGM Grand on Saturday.

What surprised me was the way they slammed the door on any non-IFR traffic. In 14 years and 6,000 hours of flying, I’ve never been turned away from a public-use airport without so much as a hint that there might be a problem. Well, except perhaps for the days after 9/11 when that ridiculous “enhanced Class B” airspace concept was first tossed at us by the FAA. Boy, talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Government at its worst.

The flight restriction over Nellis AFB made a mess of things

Anyway, I asked the controller if there was anything published that I might have missed, and he replied in the negative. He said that the controllers were surprised as well, but VFR arrivals into McCarran were not allowed and wouldn’t be for the rest of the day — if not the whole weekend.

Apparently the straw that broke the airport’s back was a flight restriction for the annual Nellis AFB “Aviation Nation” airshow. While I saw the TFR and knew we wouldn’t have to fly through it, I’d neglected to think about how the flight restriction might affect arrivals into McCarran. As you can see from the terminal chart snippet, aircraft arriving on runways 19L and 19R head right toward the TFR on downwind.

I’ve never been vectored that far north, even in the Gulfstream IV, but I suppose it could freak out the Nellis air boss to see a constant stream of traffic headed toward his protected airspace all day long. I’ve seen much tighter airspace situations for other airshows (San Diego Lindbergh Field during the Red Bull Air Race comes to mind), but then they didn’t ask for my opinion.

Evidently, the restricted airspace had more or less shut down approaches to two of the airport’s four runways, meaning general aviation traffic had to share with the Big Boys. Cutting half of Las Vegas’s runway capacity on a holiday weekend? Brilliant.

Next strategy: how about a pop-up IFR clearance into McCarran? It’s fortunate I wasn’t expecting that to yield any fruit, because it didn’t. By now I’d wasted enough of this controller’s time and threw in the towel, telling him we’d divert to Henderson.

After an uneventful landing there, we noticed that the ramp was unusually full, and not just with the typical GA traffic. There were plenty of Gulfstreams, Falcons, Challengers, and other high-dollar jets camping out in the boonies as well. It was rather difficult to even find an open space on Henderson’s expansive ramp.

In retrospect, landing in Henderson probably saved time. I called for a cab while on approach to the field and it was waiting there when we landed. On a weekend like this, the six mile taxi cab ride to the Strip was undoubtedly more efficient than the huge pattern, two mile taxi, quarter mile van ride, and taxi stand delay we’d have had to endure at McCarran. Not to mention cheaper fuel and no ramp fees to fork over.

Waiting to depart KLAS last summer. It was 120 degrees outside, and the a/c system wasn't doing much to fight the heat

I’m headed back on Sunday and wonder if Henderson might not be the most efficient way to go regardless of whether they’re accepting VFR arrivals. Sure, I could file IFR, but flying instruments takes so much longer and would probably involve some sort of “flow” delay before takeoff. On the other end, the wait to depart from McCarran (VFR or IFR) can be extensive even when all four runways are operating normally. Just getting a clearance often takes 20 minutes.

I recall a day last summer when I flew to McCarran in the same aircraft. We sat there baking on a 120 degree taxiway for 45 minutes like some sort of composite casserole in the oven, cooling our heels in a mile-long conga line of bizjets watching the oil temperaure creep higher and higher — eventually reaching the red line just as we received our takeoff clearance. The oil temp actually cooled off (due to increased oil flow at higher RPM) once we departed into the scorching heat.

Yes, Las Vegas plays hard ball. Even if you never step foot inside a casino.