A Skosh of Paranoia


A fellow pilot and I got into a conversation recently about an AOPA accident reconstruction. A Cirrus SR-22 pilot was instructed to enter the pattern downwind at Melbourne, Florida, and then was simply cleared to land without being informed about another aircraft on a straight-in final for the same runway. By the time the Cirrus was on base, the tower tried to fix the conflict by urging the pilot to cut a hard right turn toward the runway. The result was a fatal stall/spin accident.

My friend wrote:

I can all but guarantee that controller had forgotten about the Cirrus on the straight-in when he cleared the accident aircraft to land. I don’t know of any controllers that would clear someone to land from the downwind with the intention of them following an aircraft that was on a straight-in.

Recovery should’ve been simple, have the accident aircraft just continue northbound and make a 270 to join the final for 9R, once clear of the arriving Cessna for 9L and the Cirrus for 9R. Or, a go-around.

Yelling “Cut it in tight” is quite possibly the dumbest thing you can tell a landing aircraft to do unless you’re trying to get them killed.

I agreed with him: the controller probably forgot about the Cirrus and his urgent-sounding instruction to “cut it in tight” was a poor move. AOPA concluded that the issue was a communication breakdown, and while that might be a contributing factor, it’s not the controller who is responsible for the flight. It’s the pilot.

Despite the stall/spin character of the accident, this wasn’t necessarily a stick & rudder flying problem per se. It seems to me that his error was trying to please the controller, that commanding, disembodied voice on the other side of the frequency who seemingly knows best. A better idea might have been for the pilot to simply add power and climb straight out. Or make a (more gentle) turn. Or anything else, as long as he didn’t stall the aircraft.

It’s a shame we pilots feel the compulsive need to follow the flying directions of people who don’t know how to fly. If you step back and look at it from that perspective, the folly of abdicating even the slightest bit of our PIC authority and decision-making power to another becomes evident. But for some reason, this deferral seems to be baked into our DNA, and we ignore that tendency at our peril. Skepticism and a skosh of paranoia are not always a bad thing.

In this case, the smarter move would have been to simply say “unable, I’m going to climb out to the north and circle back onto the downwind” and let ATC deal with it. I actively watch for moments like these when I’m instructing, because they present a vital learning experience for the student that might save their hide somewhere down the line long after I’ve left the cockpit.

I bet if you played this clip for a dozen pilots and ask them to identify the fatal flaw, most would either blame the controller for the poor direction or the pilot for stalling the airplane. Both made errors, no doubt about it. But if you look at it from a larger point of view, I think the issue was simply trying to comply with a controller directive when the correct action would have been to realize it was patently unsafe to do so.

This is all after-the-fact Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course. I can’t claim to know what the pilot was thinking when he cranked into that tight left turn. Perhaps he thought the other aircraft was about to hit him and turned away for that reason. Sometimes immediate action is called for.

Speaking of which, I was being coached in the aerobatic box at Borrego Springs a few years ago and while in the middle of a figure — a 45 degree up-line, no less — the guy coaching me called over the radio and said, “Traffic, turn right NOW” and I simply did it. Good thing too, because a Bonanza went right through our waivered and NOTAMed airspace, totally oblivious to what was going on just feet from his aircraft. If I’d delayed by another second I’d probably be dead.

On the other side of the coin, I was taxiing out from the ramp at São Paulo/Congonhas Airport in Brazil a couple of months ago and the ground controller gave us a taxi route which required crossing a runway, but didn’t include the runway crossing instruction in the route. That was odd, but in foreign countries it’s not uncommon for them to use slightly different words or phraseology. I asked the other pilot to confirm with the controller that we were, indeed, cleared to cross that runway. ATC replied in the affirmative. Whew!

Still, something didn’t feel right. We looked at each other, I set the parking brake, and we agreed that we weren’t going to go anywhere until we were fully convinced that the controller knew exactly where we were. Long story short, our inclinations were correct and ATC was completely confused about our location despite our specifying the exact intersection numerous times. A skosh of paranoia already accompanies most international flying, but this really put us on our toes for the rest of the trip.

You’ll hear all sorts of advice on emergent situations. Some say never rush into anything, others will tell you immediate, decisive action is invaluable. It would be lovely if there was a single “best strategy” for every situation, but like many things in the world of aviation, there are times when one of those responses can save your bacon… and just as many when it might get you killed. The real trick is knowing which is which.

SR22 Delivery Flight

Cirrus Delivery Trip

The life of an aviator is indisputably rich in adventures, unique experiences, and, as Magee phrased it, “a hundred things you have not dreamed of”.

Even in that life, however, there are a few days which stand above the rest. Who can forget their first solo, the successful checkride, or the name of their first passenger? As anyone who’s been there can attest, even the most diminutive among us stands ten feet tall at the end of those flights.

Another big moment — one of the very sweetest in my experience — is the day you escape any niggling notions of common sense and purchase an aircraft of your very own. Today, that often means what a salesmen would refer to as a “pre-loved” aircraft. Pre-owned. You know, used.

A select few among us, however, still have the opportunity to hop a miserable flight in the aluminum tube and take delivery of a brand new airplane just as it rolls off the final assembly line. Think of it! A gleaming aircraft sitting under the lights with flawless paint and interior, the latest technology, zero hours on the Hobbs, and even that elusive “new airplane” smell.

Those who’ve had the experience are typically the deep-pocket types. But occasionally a professional pilot will get to be part of the experience as an instructor or ferry pilot. I’ve had three such opportunities in my career thus far, and even on the periphery of the experience it’s an exciting thing to be part of.

The most recent of the three was a new turbo-normalized X-Edition Cirrus SR-22. The owner purchased the aircraft before he’d even started pilot training. I saw the option list and it literally had every box checked off. In addition to the dual turbochargers and dual intercoolers, it had dual AHRS, dual air data computers, synthetic vision, infrared EVS, G1000 Perspective avionics, oxygen system, TKS “known icing”, an upgraded propeller, and a dozen other things.

I don’t think the buyer thought about the weight of all this stuff when he was selecting his options. The airplane is the heaviest Cirrus I’d ever flown. In fact, the full fuel payload was only sufficient for a single person. I don’t mean a single person beyond the pilot — I’m talking just the pilot! We were over gross weight for the first leg of our return flight, as I’d never even considered the need for a weight and balance computation with just two of us on board. Lesson learned.

We found out later that part of the problem was that this airplane was originally built as a normally aspirated Cirrus. The market for those airplanes was pretty soft at the time, so in order to move the inventory, they retrofitted it with a turbo system at the factory.

This shouldn’t have caused a weight penalty. However, the folks at Tornado Alley Turbo in Ada, Oklahoma took one look under the cowling and realized that this was an older, heavier turbocharger kit that had been in use before the advent of Cirrus’s flight into known-icing (FIKI) certification. The FIKI system has dual pumps and more extensive TKS panel coverage on the airframe, leading to higher weight.

Cirrus had asked Tornado Alley Turbo to find ways to lighten the exhaust system on the FIKI SR-22s, and TAT responded by designing a new exhaust system with lighter material that offset the weight of the deicing components. Problem solved.

The question is, why wasn’t this serial number retrofitted with the light exhaust? TAT surmised that this heavy exhaust system had been sitting on the shelf in Duluth and the Cirrus folks decided to put it on the plane. Good for Cirrus, bad for the new owner of this aircraft, as he may own the heaviest SR-22 in the entire fleet. Although for what it’s worth, I don’t think he really cares one way or the other.

Anyway, I managed to take a few photos along the way, and offer this retrospective on a delivery trip for a brand new airplane.

The airplane had only 13 hours on it when we accepted delivery at the factory in Duluth, MN. Can you imagine the smell of all that sumptuous leather? Thirteen hours is just enough for the production test pilots to ensure everything works properly and the included factory training for the new owner.

Departing Duluth, we cruised in the mid-teens to our first fuel stop in Kansas City. Pit stop, refuel, a quick call to my nephew Michael to say hello, and we were back on the proverbial “road”.

The airplane’s weight was easily felt on takeoff, but once airborne she seemed to do just fine. As with all the heavy turbo-normalized SR-22s, the airplane gave the best numbers up around FL250, where we’d see true airspeeds beyond 200 knots. This was a pretty typical ground speed during our trip. My favorite part of the flight was always the descent, where the ground speed would run up to about 250 knots (288 mph).

The Perspective avionics suite in action. Notice the Garmin GFC700 autopilot. This delivery was about a year ago, and at the time that autopilot was brand new.

The new owner wanted to stop in Ada, OK to have the guys at Tornado Alley ensure the turbo system was set up correctly. As it turns out, no major adjustments were needed, just a few clamps and such needed tweaking.

Our visit to TAT added to my already high level of respect for the company. They had guys working on our plane all afternoon. The final charge? Zero dollars. They were just happy to have us there, the logic being that if the turbo system operated properly, we’d be happy customers and it would help their reputation. I couldn’t agree more.

I think there’s also a bit of a safety concern. These turbochargers and the related exhaust components are high speed (30,000 RPM), high heat producing widgets. An exhaust leak can be a serious hazard, and turbo system maintenance is vital to safe flying. It’s not that they don’t trust Cirrus to set up the turbo properly, but the folks in Duluth couldn’t be as knowledgeable about the turbo as the folks who designed and built those components.

TAT found that this airplane has the older heavyweight turbo system on it. Apparently it was built as a normally aspirated airplane and then turbocharged later in order to sell it. While the guys were working on the plane, they gave us a car to drive into town for lunch, and upon our return offered us a tour of the GAMI/TAT facilities.

This is a mockup of what the turbo system looks like on the SR22. They build it, box it up like this, and send it to Duluth. Cirrus just bolts it to the engine. TAT’s goal was to make the installation as “idiot-proof” as possible.

This is where the balanced fuel injectors — sold under the name GAMIjectors — are manufactured. These balanced fuel injectors are the key to lean-of-peak engine operation and have been a part of the Cirrus since the beginning. I’ve flown a thousand hours behind these things, so it was fascinating to see how they’re made.

These are molds for part of the turbonormalized SR-22 exhaust system.

This is an SR22 turbo system, boxed up and ready for shipment to Duluth.

Exhaust component inventory on the shelves at Tornado Alley. Each of those pieces is worth thousands of dollars.

GAMI has a highly instrumented test cell where they test out all their products. Right now they’re working on the G100 unleaded 100 octane fuel. You can see a tank of the stuff on the trailer in the foreground. At the time of our visit, they were testing it on an SR22 they had put into the Experimental category.

This Continental IO-550-N engine has been running at 400+ horsepower for years, and it was at TBO when they installed it!

The test cell control room. The circuit boards are for an upcoming turbo and fuel controller. At the time of our visit, the buzz surrounded a new feature called World Peace.

We departed Ada late afternoon for our next stop, Albuquerque. While in cruise, an instrument scan of the engine page showed an electrical anomaly.

It seems that the Cirrus’s electrical issues haven’t completely been solved, although they’re a great deal better than they were in the days of the early SR22 models with the “old” electrical system and the analog engine gauge backups.

This is a good learning opportunity. Alt 1 shows no amps, but all bus voltages are normal. What’s happening here?

Check out the “max groundspeed” number! Apparently this is not only the heaviest SR-22 in the fleet, but also the fastest…

The next scheduled stop after Albuquerque was Las Vegas, however we elected to continue on to Los Angeles due to weather coming up from the south. As it turns out, it was a good move. We would have been stuck there for days.

This photos shows one of the great safety features of the glass panel. Weather is downloaded from the XM satellite and displayed on the huge MFD map. On the right side of the screen you can see that it’s showing NEXRAD radar, cloud tops, lightning, cell movement, SIGMET/AIRMET, METARs, and PIREPs — all in graphical form, along with the age of the data (typically 2-5 minutes old).

By watching the rate at which the cells were moving from left to right, we were able to time our passage through the “gap” between the blue restricted areas on either side of the Daggett VOR.

Looking back at the weather we had skirted.

The high desert north of Los Angeles. We were passing over Lake Arrowhead and looking west. These isolated buildups are typical of the high desert area in the summer.

Delivery completed! The shiny new airplane is tucked away for the first night in her new hangar at Torrance Airport.

When Glass Breaks


It’s tempting to think that flying a modern “glass panel” airplane with redundant alternators, batteries, buses, screens, sensors, and instruments means you’ll never have to fly partial panel again, doesn’t it?

These avionics suites are professionally-designed, installed, FAA-certified and can run $50,000 or more even for a lowly single-engine piston aircraft. They benefit from the latest technology and are designed to be fault tolerant. They’ve been torture-tested and engineered to withstand the environmental rigors they will endure.

So, at the very least, the odds of a major in-flight failure should be lower than when flying behind a panel with 30 year-old analog gauges with all their vibration and attitude-sensitive moving parts.

Alas, in my experience this has not proven to be the case. Quite the contrary, in fact. Much like flying a multi-engine aircraft, there are simply a lot more parts and systems to fail on a glass panel. Those systems are electronic and as such tend to be far more sensitive that their predecessors to things like moisture, improper or unstable voltage, and grounding issues.

When they work as designed, for the most part they are a major asset to flight safety. When they don’t, it can really leave you scratching your head about what’s going on. While it’s rare for the whole panel to go dark, when problems do crop up they can be quite vexing to troubleshoot. I had a flight like that recently in a Cirrus SR22.

Garmin GNS-430 data card failure

I had just departed Napa County Airport (KAPC) for John Wayne (KSNA) with a planned route covering about 320 nautical miles. It was a low IFR departure at night with ceilings of about 500′ AGL. I broke out of the clouds at about 2000′ and continued climbing southbound.

The first problem I encountered was a failure of the #1 Garmin GNS-430 data card. This was more or less a non-issue. Data cards are inserted and removed every 30 days to update the database, and every now and then the jostling will cause one will go bad. The 430 was still useful for radio communication, so I simply elected to use it’s screen as a place to display traffic.

I was passing east of San Jose a few minutes after departure when the traffic sensor failed. Again, I’ve seen this before. After checking that no circuit breakers were blown, I rebooted the avionics bus and the traffic sensor came back online.

Avidyne PFD failure

About 10 minutes later, the PFD suddenly failed. It was receiving power, as evidenced by backlighting around the buttons surrounding the screen bezel, but the screen was badly corrupted. Again, I’ve seen this on various SR22s, but it usually happens on boot-up. So I powered down and rebooted the entire electrical system, batteries, alternators, avionics, the whole works. No change. Again, no breakers were blown and the emergency checklist for PFD failure was not much help.

When I encounter avionics issues in an aircraft, one of the first things I check is the health of the electrical system. As I mentioned earlier, unstable or improper voltage does bad things to electronics. In this case, the bus voltages were a bit odd. Normally in an SR22 the main bus should run at 28 volts and the essential bus at 28.75. What I saw on the MFD engine page was ~28.5 and ~29.3. Roughly a half-volt too high on both buses.

I’d never seen that before. Was it possible that both alternators were producing too much voltage? They are independent devices and a malfunction in one alternator shouldn’t affect the other, so perhaps the problem was in the Master Control Unit or somewhere else.

It was about this time that the yellow “Alt 2″ light appeared on the annunciator panel, indicating that alternator #2 was offline. Yet the according to the MFD, the essential bus (which is powered by alternator 2) was still running about three quarters of a volt higher than the main bus — a sign that alternator 2 was still working.

Like I said, a head scratcher.

(For you Cirrus gurus out there, I should note that this is one of the SR22 aircraft with the improved electrical systems built after they replaced the analog engine gauges with the storage box in the upper right corner of the panel.)

Anyway, a bit more sleuthing revealed that TAWS, sferics, and autopilot systems were also offline. A TAWS system test said “TAWS system unavailable. Computer OK. AHRS bus not available.” The sferics system was coming and going.

The autopilot, despite what the PFD failure checklist said about being able to use the autopilot without the PFD, would not work correctly in any mode. It always wanted to turn right. The S-Tec 55X is a rate-based autopilot, and it gets rate-of-turn information from an analog turn coordinator located behind the instrument panel. I recalled something about the S-Tec only being able to connect to GPS 1 for navigation guidance without the PFD, and since that radio had no navigation data available due to the faulty data card, it was stymied. But it should have at least been able to function as a wing-leveler.

So there I was, flying southward on a very dark (though clear and technically VFR) night with no visible horizon in an all-electric aircraft with a bum electrical system. From the flight up to Napa, I knew there was a horizon out there, it was just masked by all the light emanating from the instrument panel. After reducing the panel lights to the minimum possible, I was able to make out a faint horizon. I’m sure my ophthalmologist would have commented on the eye strain this was sure to cause, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right?

The next step was to advise ATC of the issue. By this time I was well south of the San Francisco metropolitan area and over the San Joaquin Valley, which was socked in with low fog all the way to the Los Angeles basin. The best course of action seemed to be a diversion to the west since the fog wasn’t present in that area, so I proceeded in that direction and let Oakland Center know what was happening. Along the coast, there were plenty of VFR airports and the situation became more “visual” once I was in an area with city lights and highways.

The next question: weather to land at an intermediary airport or continue on to Los Angeles. I monitored the electrical system for the next 20 minutes and nothing got any better or worse. The PFD failure didn’t bother me. I just wasn’t keen on flying without communication radios. But the way I saw it, none of this stuff was going to affect the engine. I had good VFR conditions in an area and along a route I was very familiar with. In fact, it was hard to find a field I hadn’t been to. Even if all electrical power was suddenly lost, I had no concern about being able to make a safe landing at a known airport. So I continued the flight, and landed uneventfully at Santa Ana about an hour later.

In reviewing my logbook, about 2/5ths of my 5,500 hours are in glass panel airplanes. Yet they account for 100% of the electrical and partial panel abnormalities I’ve encountered. It’s not that the aircraft are poorly designed, built, or maintained. I believe it’s due to the fact that they are just more complex and, as I mentioned at the top of the page, less tolerant of voltage, humidity, and other conditions which are outside the design specifications. The failures can take on interesting forms.

On the plus side, I was discussing the flight with a fellow SR22 pilot and realized that even under “partial panel” conditions, I was still flying with a suite of avionics which would be the envy of many general aviation pilots.

I don’t look back on the situation as a hazardous one, but rather a puzzling scenario I have not been able to fully explain or duplicate. Nor is it one which I’ve ever seen simulated, something that’s worth considering when you think about the possibility of flying with broken glass.

I Love Days Like This

It’s so rare to get true winter weather here in Southern California. But as Lesley always says, it never fails to rain on opening night, and last night was no exception. Boy did it pour!

I nearly broke into a Gene Kelly-esque dance all the way down Avenue of the Arts as I made my way to OCPAC for the opening night performance of Die Zauberflöte. Ave. of the Arts even has the right kind of street lights for it! But there’s something about the ultra-modern look of the theaters which kept me from indulging myself. (Note: I may also have been concerned about looking stupid, although that’s never stopped me before).

I’ve been making quite a few flights to northern California lately, and this weather has certainly made that part of my day job interesting. I’m not used to seeing low pressure systems around here, but California has been surrounded by them for the past week. Several cold fronts have blown through, bringing lower snow levels and higher concerns about in-flight icing. It’s the one thing that really worries me when flying, and it must be approached with extreme caution. This is especially true in fast composite ships with so-called “laminar flow” airfoils, as contaminating this kind of wing leads to an especially dramatic loss of performance.

The last two round trips have been in a TKS-equipped SR22. Despite low freezing levels and airmets for icing, IFR conditions, mountain obscuration, and turbulence, I was comfortable flying the route because I knew the tops were 10-12,000′. There were plenty of alternate airports nearby, and the deicing fluid was topped off to give me some time to get out of any ice which did build. As it turns out, there was only one bit of ice worth noting, right as I climbed out of the top of a cloud layer. The worst icing is often found at the tops of clouds, so that wasn’t a surprise. For the most part, between ATC and PIREPS I was able to stay out of the precip most of the time when I was above the freezing level.

The TKS system works much better when you prime it properly. The first time I ever tried using TKS, it seemed to be useless. It was a summer flight across the Dakotas a few years ago. No one had ever told me that it can take several minutes for the fluid to make its way to the outboard panels, and by that time the ice could have covered the panels so thoroughly that they’d be unable to protect the wing.

Now, my standard preflight procedure on the system is to top off the TKS tank (the only way you’ll know how much fluid is on board), turn on the pump to ensure it works, and wait for fluid to come out of each panel before turning it off. Then, when you enable the system in flight, you’ll get immediate protection. I’ve standardized on coating the wings and tail surfaces with deice fluid (“normal” setting) before entering precip when it’s below freezing, and using the “maximum” setting at the first sign of ice.

Of course, the airplane is not approved for known-icing, so the TKS is just one tool to buy you time to change altitudes, turn around, find VMC, get to warmer air, or something else which will stop the accumulation.

The worse thing about ice is that it’s unpredictable. We don’t really understand why it occurs in some places and not in others, even when the conditions seem to be ripe for it in both places. It might be light icing for one pilot and severe for another one who flies through the same piece of sky only minutes later.

Pilots hate the unknown more than anything else. We strive for complete control over the flight, and that means being able to predict with certainty every critical aspect of our aircraft’s performance. Ice robs us of that capability. Our climb rates, airspeeds, handling, and other characteristics change. The airplane takes on a new personality, and the only thing you know for sure is that it won’t be as friendly as the one you’re used to.

Whoever said ice belongs in your drink and not on your airplane was right.

On the ground, though, all this rain has been a welcome sight after years of drought here in the Southland. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I hear a Gene Kelly song calling my name…