Bells and Whistles

I perused the recent archives here at the House of Rapp and was surprised at how often I write about aircraft accidents.  It may seem morbid.  But ever since I started working as a CFI, I am conscious of the fact that with my own personal approval, pilots go hurling off into the clouds in new, high tech, 3/4 ton aircraft crusing at nearly 200 mph.

That’s a big responsibility, and as such it occupies a lot of my thoughts.  When an incident occurs, I want to learn everything possible from it so that I — and more importantly, those I’m charged with teaching — avoid the same fate.

John’s Killing Zone article got me thinking about the recent Cirrus SR20 accident in New York City.  I’m not sure what happened there.  I’ll leave it to the NTSB to figure that out.  As John pointed out, the weather may have been marginal, the pilots were new to the area, and the route was bounded by obstacles.  And none of those things may have been factors.  What got me thinking were the questions about why the parachute wasn’t used.

I spend a fair amount of time talking to my students about the CAPS system.  For those of you who aren’t “in the know”, CAPS stands for Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.  It’s a parachute for the whole airplane.  When deployed, it lowers the whole airplane down to the ground slowly enough that the occupants can walk away without injury, although the aircraft will usually be a total loss.

Here’s an analysis of CAPS deployments to date, including a step-by-step illustration of a CAPS system in use.

When transitioning pilots into the SR20 and SR22, most initially see CAPS as a get out of jail free card, albeit a one-time use card with a high price.  They don’t understand the limitations of the system.  And more importantly, they haven’t researched general aviation accident statistics enough to know that in many — perhaps most — accidents, the CAPS system would be useless.

From what I can tell, most accident scenarios would still result in an accident even with the parachute:  low altitude stall/spin.  Controlled flight into terrain.  Poor pilot judgement (aerobatics, buzzing, etc).   Loss of control on takeoff or landing.  Taxi and other ground accidents.  The list is long, and in the end, hopefully students realize that a ballistic recovery system is no panacea.

This is true of the Cirrus’ other systems, as well.  Skywatch, TAWS, GPS, autopilot, and other cockpit tools are useless in most of these scenarios.

I applaud Cirrus Design Corporation’s emphasis on quality training.  The transition training is well thought out, and their materials and AFM are better written than any other comparable aircraft I’ve seen.  They emphasize recurrent training, use email and web technology to keep owners abreast of the latest information, and seem dedicated to keeping the accident rate low.

Despite that, I believe the Cirrus is going to be involved in more accidents than comparable aircraft.  For one thing, it’s designed and built for cross country flying.  That means pilots are going to be flying long distances and encountering weather.  They’ll also be flying in unfamiliar areas.

The other reason is statistical.  There are just a lot of them out there.  Cirrus is outselling everyone at the moment, and one of the down sides having a lot of planes in the air is that when accidents occur, they’re more likely to be in one of your planes.  That doesn’t mean the Cirrus is unsafe.  If I thought that, I wouldn’t fly it.

Finally — and this is really what I wanted to say — let’s look at the type of people flying these aircraft.  The SR22s I instruct in are about $265/hr.  A two hour flight with instructional costs will run close to $700.  I have students who will make flights like that a couple of times per week.  These guys are successful, fast pace, type-A personalities.  They’re used to getting their way, making it work, pushing through and solving problems by either working really hard or throwing money at it.

This is not always an asset in the cockpit.  In aviation, sometimes the answer is to not tackle the problem at all.  Stay on the ground.  Turn around.  Land.  Or, ask for help.  Admit you’re lost.  Declare an emergency.  This is not an easy or natural mindset for a lot of these guys.

The Cirrus is fast becoming the modern day “Bonanza”, and the high net worth / low time individuals buying them are the 21st century “doctors”.  Their bank account can easily outstrip their piloting capabilities.  Putting them in a fast, slick, complex airplane with a ton of switches, knobs, buttons and systems can be risky.  But that’s who Cirrus is marketing their airplanes to, and they’re the only ones who can afford to fly them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not disparaging these guys.  They’re smart, fun, colorful personalities with whom I enjoy flying.  I’m simply analying the personality traits that don’t transition well to aviation.

When you realize that the SR22 is as high as some of these pilots can get in the food chain without running into insurance limitations which lead to professional and/or multi-pilot crews, the risk becomes clear.  I believe the risk is manageable, but it has to be countered with quality instruction, recurrent training, personal minimums, and good judgement.

I spend considerable time tailoring instructional techniques to the type of person I’m flying with.  It’s critical that they understand the role their own attitude plays in safety, because at some point I’m going to get out of the plane, and they’re going be out there on their own.

  2 comments for “Bells and Whistles

  1. Dave Starr
    October 15, 2006 at 4:28 pm

    Well thought out and well said, Ron. Given an average ability and decent instruction there is no such thing as a GA aircraft that’s “too much” for an intelligent GA pilot. But sadly there are a tremendous number of examples of attitudinal problems where the pilot misinterprets his skills in other areas of life … medicine, business, entertainment, investing, etc. as being directly transferable to flying the aircraft and a battle of wills results in which the aircraft wins.

    I am not a CFI, but have been directly involved with primary and advanced flight training in one manner or another since 1951. I see little change in the attitudinal-related accidents in all those years. Instructor/flight school owner says, “Sorry you can’t rent my airplane to do that.” Highly successful low-time pilot says, “I could buy and sell you, so I’ll buy my own airplane.” Blam!

    Reading accident reports would be a fruitful exercise for pilots at any stage of their career. There is something to learn from virtually every one of them … and if you’re the type of reader who gets involved in the reading you’ll find yourself wanting to shout at the subjects of the report sometimes, “no. no, can’t you see it coming”?

    Nova will air a report on the most notorious attitude-related accident of the all this coming week… (I’ll try to watch so I can see how close they come to the real accident report … my guess is not close) … Tenerife, where an extremely high-time, supremely high-respect captain just pushed up the throttles and barreled off down the runway into another aircraft, sans take-off clearance and with the other members of his crew questioning his actions. Was the airplane too much for him? No, certainly not, but his attitude of infallibility apparently was.

    A dose of humility would benefit us all. There’s a lot to be said for the “Killing Zone” theories being advanced but pilots with hours from 1, to 10, 100, 1000, 10,000 hours and beyond could all remember a line that’s stuck in my mind from a WW-II pilot’s drinking song: Take heed all you bird men, this tale of remorse, an airplane can throw you as quick as a horse.”

    @ Graeme … what Kennedy/Bonanza incident were you referring to?

  2. Graeme
    October 15, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    Well Written Ron. There is a reason I used you to help me get checked out in a new type of A/C the and the G1000. You helped a lot making me confident in that. Sure, it takes a right TYPE of pilot to fly the SR20’s and the 22’s..and you are not the only one in the past week to write an arcticle calling the SR2X “too much airplane”. Look, those A/C can very easily get ahead of the (lowtime) pilot and can become dangerous. From what I’ve read, the SR20 is a rock solid plane when you fly it from point A to Point B, a bit tricky (or different to land) and fun to fly. But it should be stable, easy to fly and predictable is what I’ve also heard. I’ve read other stories recently regarding the Kennedy incident that he died as well…because his Bonanza was too much plane and a bit too complex.

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