Pilot Flying Fears?

Education is the best way to deal with safety concerns — especially if you’re a pilot.

I recently took part in a forum discussion that revolved around safety issues. The person who started the discussion, a helicopter pilot training to be a CFI, was concerned about the possibility of flight schools emphasizing the fun part of flying without adequately addressing the dangers. It wasn’t a failure to teach emergency procedures that bothered him. It was the attitude of flight schools and CFIs. He worried that flight schools, in an attempt to keep enrollment high, were failing to make students understand just how dangerous flying helicopters can be.

While I’ll agree that flying helicopters is dangerous, I also agree that driving a car or or crossing the street is dangerous. In fact, you stand a far more likely chance of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle than in an aircraft. The pilot who started this discussion knows this, but he still wonders whether flight schools should be making student pilots more cognizant of the dangers, especially early on in training.

I understood his point of view, but I really don’t know firsthand how much his flight school is downplaying the dangers. The general feeling I came away from after reading his comments was that he had a fear of flying. (This turned out not to be the case.) While it’s always good for a pilot to be afraid of what could happen, there comes a point where the level of fear becomes unhealthy. Yes, it’s true that pilots need to be mentally prepared to react to an emergency within seconds. But no, we don’t need to spend every moment of every flight actively thinking about all the emergencies that could ruin our day — or end our life.

Experiences Teach

I flew with a 300-hour pilot a few years ago. He’d gone through training and was a CFI looking for a job. (I have flown with quite a few CFIs looking for jobs, but that’s another story.) We were on a cross-country, time-building flight in my R44. I would eventually fly a total of 20 hours with him.

Early on in our first flight, I learned that his CFI, who was the flight school’s Chief Flight Instructor, had been killed in a rather disturbing fiery crash. Although she had over 2,000 hours of flight time, she had only 24 hours in the helicopter make and model. On that fateful day, the NTSB concluded that the accident was caused by:

The pilot’s improper planning/decision in attempting a downwind takeoff under high density altitude conditions that resulted in a loss of control and impact with terrain. Contributing to the accident were the helicopter’s gross weight in excess of the maximum hover out of ground effect limit, a high density altitude, and the gusty tailwind.

(I don’t really want to discuss this accident here; I think deserves a discussion of its own elsewhere in this blog and hope to address it in the months to come.)

Near GormanIt soon became apparent to me that the pilot was unusually fearful of flying in the mountains. Our route required us to fly west from Wickenburg, AZ to the California coast near San Luis Obispo. He started fretting about the mountains ahead of us while we were still in the flat deserts of Southern California. The mountains he was worried about showed elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet on the chart; we’d be flying over a road that ran in a relatively straight and wide canyon. That part of the flight turned out to be uneventful and he seemed genuinely relieved when it was finished.

Monterey BayOddly, later in the flight, when the Monterey tower instructed us to cut across Monterey Bay at an altitude of only 700 feet, I was pretty freaked out. Here we were, in a single-engine helicopter flying far from gliding distance of land, without pop-out floats or personal floatation devices. My companion, on the other hand, was perfectly at ease. In fact, I think he thought me cowardly when I asked Monterey tower for clearance to fly closer to shore.

This is a great example of how experience teaches. My companion was a “sea level pilot,” who did all of his training — and flying — in the watery areas around Seattle. He was comfortable with water and low-lying lands, but he was fearful of the conditions that had taken the life of someone he knew very well. I was a desert pilot with most of my experience flying over dry land, much it in high density altitude situations, including more than 350 hours flying tours over the Grand Canyon at 7500 feet or higher. I was comfortable flying over most kinds of terrain at just about any altitude but very fearful of flying over water.

(Nowadays, I wear a PFD when doing any extended flying over water and require my passengers to do the same.)

Learn from Other People’s Mistakes

Back in the forum, I began wondering if the pilot who had started the thread was concerned because he’d lost someone close to him in a crash — much like my cross-country companion had. (That turned out not to be the case.) I said:

If a person thinks too much about the danger of ANYTHING, they won’t be comfortable doing it. I admit that I don’t concern myself with it. I do everything I can to fly safely and maintain a safe aircraft. I’m confident in my abilities and never push the envelope of comfort more than I absolutely need to. I don’t fly around thinking that at any moment, something bad could happen. If I did, I’d hate flying and I’d likely be a horrible pilot.

Later, in the same post, I said:

You might also consider reading NTSB reports for helicopter accidents. What you’ll find is that most accidents are caused by pilot errors. REALLY. Reading those reports will help you learn what mistakes others have made so you’ll avoid them in the future.

He saw these two comments as conflicting and replied that I couldn’t really say that I wasn’t concerned with danger if I was reading accident reports.

My response was:

You need to understand that it’s BECAUSE I read the NTSB reports that I’m NOT overly concerned with the dangers of flying. The NTSB reports educate me about what can happen when you do something dumb: fly too heavy for your type of operation, perform maneuvers beyond the capabilities of your aircraft, fly into clouds or wires, etc. Each time I read a report and understand the chain of events that caused the accident, I file that info into my head and know to avoid the same situation.

I went on to say a lot more about what I’ve learned from NTSB reports. I read them for helicopter accidents at least once a month. Another pilot in the forum said he does the same thing — in fact, he even has a browser bookmark that’ll pull up the reports by month! I cannot say enough about the usefulness of these accident reports for training and awareness.

Unanswered Questions Can Fuel Fear

As I look back now on the flights I took with that mountain-fearful CFI — with the forum discussion in mind — I’m wondering whether the flight school had properly debriefed its students after the loss of the Chief Flight Instructor.

What had the flight school told him and the other pilots? Had they told him what caused the crash? I know that back then, before the NTSB report was issued, the flight school was in denial about the aircraft being overweight for the operation. Had they told their students anything at all? Were my companion and the other pilots and student pilots at that flight school left to wonder how such a great, experienced pilot could have been involved in a crash in the mountains?

Were his unanswered questions fueling his fear?

Another thing I suggested in the forum is that flight schools might want to conduct monthly seminars that students are required to attend as part of ground school training. Get all the students and CFIs into a classroom or meeting room with a few knowledgable, experienced pilots at the front of the room. Pick 3 to 5 recent helicopter accidents for which the cause is known. Talk them out. Explain what went wrong and what could have prevented the accident. Don’t point fingers; present facts.

Why don’t flight schools do this? Could it be because of what this forum pilot originally said: flight schools don’t want to scare off students by discussing dangers? If so, they’re doing their students — and the rest of the aviation community — a serious disservice.

Education and Experience are the Answers

Nowadays, if you want a job as a pilot carrying passengers for hire, you’ll need at least 1,000 hours of experience as a pilot in command. (Yes, I know some companies will take less, but those are few and far between.) There’s a reason for this: they want pilots who have experience flying. Experience leads to skills, knowledge, and confidence.

Some people think 1,000 hours is an arbitrary number and frankly, I have to agree. My first 500 hours were very different from the average CFI’s first 500 hours — in some respects, my experiences are “better,” while in other respects, a CFI’s experiences are “better.” But I also can’t see any other easy way to gauge a job applicant’s level of experience.

But it isn’t just experience that makes a pilot a good pilot. It’s also knowledge and attitude. Both of these things could be the end product of a flight school’s training program.

Many flight schools seem satisfied getting students and putting them through a “program” with just enough skills and knowledge to pass a check ride. Many students, who don’t know any better, are more interested in the cheapest way to get their ratings than the quality of the training.

I believe that with better quality training and better quality experience, less hours of experience should be necessary to have and prove good piloting skills. I also believe that pilots with better quality training and experience will have a better, safer attitude toward their responsibilities as a pilot.

It’s not a matter of teaching new pilots to be fearful of what could happen by stressing the dangers of flying. It’s a matter of educating about dangers — and how to avoid them.

What do you think?

Three Charities You Can Help by Helping Yourself

It’s the time of year for giving, so give!

At the end of the year, many non-profit organizations make their year-end plea for funds. They know the same thing deduction-savvy taxpayers know: a donation before year-end can get you a write-off on April 15th.

In general, I prefer educational charities over other types. (For obvious reasons, I don’t give to religious charities, although I did donate to Non-Believers Giving Aid right after the disaster in Haiti.) I think it’s important to keep quality information flowing from the folks who can create it to the folks who can benefit from it. That’s why I suggest the following three charitable organizations if you’re interested in making year-end contributions to charities that directly benefit you and your family:

  • NPR LogoNPR (National Public Radio) had its semiannual pledge drive last week. I caught the tail end of it while driving to do errands, but never got around to picking up the phone. That’s a shame because they often have matching funds during fund drives, so my $50 donation can get my local NPR affiliate $100. Still, I’ll send my contribution by visiting the Support Public Radio page on its Web site. NPR, if you’re not aware, airs a wide variety of radio programming, from talk shows about current events and science to comedy and music. Even if you don’t listen in on the radio, you can subscribe to podcasts for most shows. And if you listen in more than one listening area — for example, I listen in Washington State during the summer months and Phoenix in the winter months — consider splitting your contribution between both of the radio stations you listen to.
  • PBS LogoPBS (Public Broadcasting Service) is similar to NPR in that it airs a lot of educational and thought-provoking content. From Sesame Street to NOVA, from FRONTLINE to Masterpiece, these are the folks who teach and entertain us with something more substantial than the latest incarnation of CSI and Dancing with the Stars. Although you can donate during a pledge drive and receive a “gift,” you don’t need to wait for a pledge drive to donate. (Seriously: do you really need another tote bag?)
  • Wikipedia LogoWikipedia is the online encyclopedia. Say what you will about its accuracy, but you can’t deny that it’s one of the best free sources around for general information about any subject at all. These days, you can’t visit a Wikipedia page without seeing “an urgent appeal” from Jimmy Wales. That’s because it costs a ton of money to run those Web servers. If you use Wikipedia — and who doesn’t? — why not send a little cash their way? Yes, it is tax-deductible in the U.S.

These are the ones on my list. If you think about it, you’ll probably come up with others that might be more meaningful to you and your family. These are organizations that enhance your life and help round out your knowledge. Don’t they deserve your support?

Take a moment and send a little cash their way. It doesn’t matter how much or how little — even $20 can help, especially when hundreds of people just like you send the same.

And remember the added bonus of a tax deduction in April.

Helicopter Academy / Boatpix

What do YOU think?

Despite the fact that my contact page clearly says I do not give career advice, I got the following e-mail message today:

I have read some of your posts and would love to hear your opinion. I am working on my helicopter commercial license and I came across helicopter academy. They offer low hourly rates and train you to work hand and hand with boatpix.com They guarantee to get you to 300 hours and guarantee you a CFI job and aerial photographer. The contract does not actually state they will gurantee hire you after your training. They give you their “word” As a fellow aviator I know people tend to make things up just so you pay for the flight as they sit back and build their own time. Do you know of this flight school? Is it the real deal? I would appreiciate your thoughts on the matter. Thanks for your time.

What do I think? I think that a promise from a flight school — or any other organization interested in getting you to sign on the dotted line — is as good as the paper it’s written on.

Autorotation is Not a Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedure

Especially when you’re two miles out at sea.

Picture this: An R22 helicopter without floats operating two miles off the coast of Miami, FL. On board is the CFI-rated pilot with 600 790 hours of total flight time and the private pilot rated “passenger” with 115 hours total flight time. They’re operating at about 40 knots 100 feet above the waves on an aerial photo mission, photographing boats. The wind in Miami, 13 miles away, is from 120 at 13 knots and it’s 26°C with a dew point of 21°C, resulting in a balmy 74% humidity.

The pilot had just completed a 180° turn to the south when the low rotor RPM horn sounds.

The pilot adjusts the throttle to compensate — in other words, we should assume that he adds throttle. The horn stops blaring, but 3 seconds later, it does it again.

So what does the pilot do? Despite the fact that the helicopter does not have floats, he enters an autorotation. The helicopter crash-lands in the ocean, the occupants escape, and the helicopter sinks. The pilots are rescued 10 minutes later by a privately owned boat. The helicopter is left unrecovered (so far) in 150-250 feet of seawater.

What We Don’t Know

There are a few things we don’t know that could explain the reason for the low rotor RPM horn:

  • How much did the pilots and their equipment weight? An R22 Beta (not Beta II) is a very small helicopter. Although they had burned off 45 minutes of fuel, there is a possibility that they were still heavy for the flight conditions.
  • Which direction did they turn? A turn that would have put them into a tailwind situation — especially at low speed — could rob them of airspeed. If airspeed dropped below ETL, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air.
  • What speed were they operating at? Without the benefit of forward airspeed and effective translational lift, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air. If the speed was close to zero, the aircraft might have gotten into a settling with power situation. The natural (but incorrect) reaction of increasing the collective to arrest the rate of descent could have triggered a low rotor RPM warning if available power was exceeded.
  • Were the engine and its components functioning properly? If the engine or magnetos were not performing to specifications, the resulting reduction of engine power could cause a low rotor RPM horn. We have to assume the engine was still running because the NTSB report didn’t mention an engine failure.

But regardless of the reason for the low rotor RPM horn, it’s the pilot’s decision to perform an autorotation to into the ocean that needs to be questioned.

The Robinson Low Rotor Horn

In a Robinson helicopter, the rotor RPM green arc is 101% to 104%. (Please don’t ask why; I don’t know. Yes, it is weird.) The low rotor RPM warning system is designed to alert the pilot at 97% RPM. (See it in action for yourself here.) This is a very early warning. The idea is that if rotor RPM is deteriorating, once it gets past a certain point, it could could become unrecoverable very quickly. The earlier the pilot is warned, the better off he is.

At the Robinson factory safety course — and, one might assume, at many flight schools that train in Robinsons — pilots are taught that a Robinson can generally fly at an RPM of 80% plus 1% per 1000 feet of density altitude. Given the temperature, dew point, altitude, and altimeter setting (30.01), the density altitude was 1,612 feet. That means that the helicopter should have been capable of flight when operating at only 82% RPM.

I need to stress here that this is a general rule of thumb. Do not attempt to fly around at low rotor RPM to test this. While it’s true that my flight instructor at the Robinson safety course had me fly for a few minutes in the Long Beach, CA area at 90% RPM with the horn blaring just to prove that flight was possible, RPM is not something we play with in non-training situations. The formula is simple: RPM = life.

Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedures

The Robinson R22 Pilot’s Operating Handbook is quite specific on what to do in the event of a low rotor RPM warning. On page 3-10, in the red-tabbed “Emergency Procedures” section, it states:

A horn and an illuminated caution light indicates that rotor RPM may be below safe limits. To restore RPM, immediately roll throttle on, lower collective and, in forward flight, apply aft cyclic.

The NTSB report indicates that the pilot initially “adjusted the throttle to compensate for the [low rotor RPM warning] condition” and was immediately rewarded with recovery. But that was followed by the horn sounding again only 3 seconds later.

It had to be scary for the pilot. After all, he’s only 100 feet above the water and he’s supposed to react by lowering the collective. But the emergency procedure and repetitive training doesn’t tell us to enter an autorotation, which would be a full-down reduction of the collective. The reduction of the collective, coordinated with the rolling on of the throttle, should be slight — perhaps an inch or so. This reduces drag on the blades while the increased throttle provides power to increase their RPM.

What Was the RPM?

One of the things we don’t know is what the RPM was when the pilot decided to enter autorotation. If it had deteriorated to the point where autorotation and cyclic flare were the only tools to recover RPM, his decision was probably a good one. Better to hit the water relatively softly than from 100 feet up, falling like a brick.

If RPM had deteriorated to that point that quickly, however, it’s important to recover the aircraft to learn why. Other than a complete engine failure — which was not mentioned in the report — it’s hard to imagine what would cause RPM to drop enough to warrant such a drastic recovery action.

Who Was Flying?

There may be more to this than what meets the eye.

The helicopter was operated by Helicopter Academy, a flight school with locations across the U.S. The school’s Web site clearly advertises it as a low-cost training company:

$250 PER HOUR R22 HELICOPTER TRAINING TIME BARGAIN and we are the ONLY company in the world that can guarantee you a job.  We operate a fleet of helicopters and like other schools our insurance requires 300 hours helicopter time and an instructor’s rating to fly for us. We train you to work for us and offer a job to all graduates, including transfer student and instructors who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

Helicopter Academy’s other business is BoatPix, which uses helicopters to photograph boats and then sells the photos to the boat owners and others. It’s widely known that BoatPix pilots pay BoatPix (or Helicopter Academy) for the time they fly aerial photo missions. The company’s Web site alludes to this:

…you pay for the first 100 hours at $250/hr, the second 100 hours at $200/hr and the third 100 hours at $150/hr….It’s  $25,000 for the first 100 hours where you’ll do mostly training, $20,000 for hours 100  through 200 where we’ll introduce you to our photo contract which will subsidize your flying and $15,000 for hours 200 through 300 where you’ll do almost exclusively photo and will learn this skill that is valuable to our photo contract and making you a valuable pilot to us.

I added the emphasis in the above quote. It begs the question: who was actually flying this aircraft? The NTSB report suggests that it was the 600791-hour CFI. But was that really the case? Was the 115-hour private pilot paying $200/hour to be “introduced” to the photo contract — as a pilot — while the 600791-hour CFI took the photos?

High Risk Operations

In March 1999, Robinson Helicopter issued Safety Notice SN-34. The latest version of this Safety Notice is dated April 2009. Titled “Aerial Survey and Photo Flights – Very High Risk,” it starts out saying:

There is a misconception that aerial survey and photo flights can be flown safely by low time pilots. Not true. There have been numerous fatal accidents during aerial survey and photo flights, including several involving Robinson helicopters.

It goes on to list some of the possible dangers of low time pilots conducting aerial photo flights. It also makes some recommendations for minimum requirements for aerial photo/survey pilots, including a minimum of 500 hours pilot-in-command. BoatPix is one of the operations that has chosen to ignore this recommendation.

My question to helicopter pilot wannabes out there: Are you that desperate to become a pilot that you’re willing to trade your safety for flight time?

Pilot Experience and Decision-Making

What it all comes down to is whether the pilot made the correct decision for the situation he found himself in. I’m not convinced that entering autorotation over the ocean on hearing a low rotor RPM warning horn is the correct decision.

True, both pilots walked (or perhaps I should say, swam) away. But if the rotor RPM could have been brought back into the green while in flight — something a well-trained or experienced pilot could have accomplished if there wasn’t a mechanical problem — the watery autorotation and the resulting loss of the aircraft could have been avoided.

Hopefully, the Probable Cause report for this accident will shed some light on what really happened. Until then, it certainly gives pilots some food for thought.

November 1, 2011 Update: The Probable Cause report doesn’t add much to what’s reported here other than to clarify airspeed and PIC experience. The official Probable Cause is “A loss of main rotor rpm for undetermined reasons.”

Update, March 17, 2012: Just found another accident report with someone else using autorotation as a cure for low rotor RPM. He crashed, too.

Some Concerns about Home-Schooling

Is it an excuse to teach religion instead of science?

I’ve always been concerned about the quality of education kids get these days. Underpaid teachers, peer pressure that rewards bad behavior, high drop-out rates. As I reported back in November 2008, kids are graduating the local high school without knowing how to tell time on an analog clock. It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation with most teens; they seem absolutely clueless about anything that isn’t on television or the Internet — and I’m not talking about PBS or Wikipedia here. They can’t spell because they have spelling checkers that do that for them. They can’t do math without a calculator. While I’m obviously not talking about all young people here — there would be absolutely no hope for America’s future if the problem affected every kid — it’s certainly more than half of the ones I come in contact with.

And “No Child Left Behind” just made the situation worse. It forced teachers and schools to teach just so kids would pass exams. Teaching by rote rather than ensuring that kids understand what they’re being taught is not doing the next generation any good.

These days, concerned parents are taking an active role in their kids’ education. While I personally believe that working together at the end of the day on homework and even just discussing what was learned in school each day is enough, many parents are going the extra step: they’re home-schooling their kids.

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about home-schooling. I don’t have kids; I decided early in life not to take that path. I don’t regret it. I sometimes wonder how my kids would have turned out — whether they’d be smart or lazy or interesting or dull. I’d like to think that they’d know how to tell time by the age of 18 and aspire to something more substantial than stocking shelves at the local supermarket.

I do know that if my kids weren’t getting the education they needed at school and I couldn’t help them by being part of their nightly homework routine, I’d likely consider home-schooling. After all, if you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.

My neighbor home-schools her kids. She has four of them ranging in age from about 5 to 12. She and her husband are either Evangelical or Born-Again Christians. I don’t know which and I don’t care. The last thing I want to do is have a discussion about religion with people who scratched religious slogans into the wet concrete of their driveway.

And this brings up my concerns about home-schooling. While browsing the news with the Associated Press (AP) mobile application on my BlackBerry (while waiting for a notary public at the bank), I stumbled upon an article titled, “Top home-school texts dismiss Darwin, evolution.” It reported:

“The majority of home-schoolers self-identify as evangelical Christians,” said Ian Slatter, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association. “Most home-schoolers will definitely have a sort of creationist component to their home-school program.”

It went on to say that, “Two of the best-selling biology textbooks stack the deck against evolution,” according to educators who reviewed the books.

And this is the root of my concerns. I believe that science textbooks and science lessons should be about science. Evolution is a widely accepted component of the science of biology. The alternative — creationism or its disguised alter-ego, “intelligent design” — is not. There is a wealth of scientific evidence to back up evolution; there is no evidence to back up creationism.

Clearly, the failure to teach accepted science as that — accepted science — is a serious shortcoming in the home-schooling textbooks that shoot down evolution. The children being taught that evolution is “only a theory” are being given an inadequate education — one that could put them at a serious disadvantage if they go on to college or attempt to pursue careers in science or medicine.

One of the books doesn’t hide its intent:

“Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling,” says the introduction to “Biology: Third Edition” from Bob Jones University Press. “This book was not written for them.”

The textbook delivers a religious ultimatum to young readers and parents, warning in its “History of Life” chapter that a “Christian worldview … is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.”

The Christian worldview is the only correct view of reality? In whose world? I don’t think the millions of Jews, Muslims, or Hindus in the world would agree with that statement. I know the atheists wouldn’t. Does that mean that Christian children should be taught a different version of reality than the rest of the world? To what benefit? Certainly not the benefit of the children.

And what of the home-schooling parents that don’t want religion to be part of their children’s curriculum? The AP article discusses their struggle to find appropriate science textbooks.

Evolution Book(Might I suggest starting with Daniel Loxton’s excellent book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be? It’s not a textbook, but it’s a great introduction to evolution for kids and parents.)

So here’s my question: if a school board has to approve textbooks that are used in public school classrooms and home-schooled students have to take and pass standardized exams, who is approving the textbooks used in home-school “classrooms”?

And then I recall this, a piece of “Hate Mail” that was sent to Bobby Henderson of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You can find it here, but to save effort for the folks too lazy to click, I’ll repeat it here in all its glory, as an example of home-schooling gone terribly wrong:

wow you people are crazy i pray to my LORD jesus christ that you people wake up God created man in his own image and im sorry but if you look like noodles with meatballs growin out your BUTT you need to go back to SPACE or get back in the pan where you’ll be somebodys dinner!

people will believe anything!!

i am verryyy happy i was well homeschooled becuase i would be in jail for punching a teacher in the face when she tried to tell me about this so called spagetti monsterr!

i hate to be the breaker of bad news but when you look around when u die u wont be with your master meatball you’ll be burning in the pits of HELL and i am a REAL christian and that hurts to know that so many people are gonna be in hell! over a random guy that started a joke and has nothing better to do besides make up some god for fun then see how many people are loving this idea.

God bless you wacked out meatball loving freaks!

-christy

(I recommend Bobby’s site if you’re interested in seeing where reason and faith collide.)

Christy is right about one thing: People will believe anything. But is it right to teach it to their kids?