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In Aviation, Small Differences Can Have a Big Impact

I am always amazed by how much difference there can be in very small distances.  As I was watching my favorite college football team last night, I was reminded of that fact once again.

As the game was coming to a close our team was down five points and driving towards the endzone.  The quarterback threw a pass near the goal line that was caught, but the receiver was tackled about  a yard short of the goal line that would have won them the game.

Once I got over the heartbreak, which came much later in the season this year than I am used to, it really hit me how often in life a relatively small distance can make a very big difference.

In this case the receiver has over 1,000 yards receiving this year.  He is on watch lists for major national awards.  He has been hands down the team’s best receiver, but he came up one yard short of winning the game for his team.  It had to be heartbreaking for him and his teammates, and I know it was rough for me and all of the other fans across the world.  All because of three feet.

In the flying world, these small distances can be far more critical.

I knew of a crew that clipped the top of a wall near an airfield and carried 80 feet of concertina wire on to the next base they landed at.  Three feet lower and the crew probably doesn’t get to tell the story.  Three feet higher and there is no story to tell.

It can be easy at times to take these small distances for granted.  Does it really matter if we run takeoff and landing data for an airfield we have used a million times in a plane we are very familiar with?  Is it the end of the world if I am a few knots slow on final?  Does it matter if I land a little long on a runway that has plenty of distance?

The vast majority of the time, the reality is that none of the things I mentioned above are going to kill you.  Tons of people do all of these things regularly without any bad outcomes.  At the same time, people have died from every single one of the things I mentioned, because those small differences can be the difference between life and death when flying.

The biggest reminder of this to me is a friend I lost because of a small Pelican Case probably less than six inches in size that got placed behind the yoke.  Six inches of plastic literally cost him and his crew their lives.

Whether it’s six inches, a couple of knots, or three feet, all of these small amounts can make a huge difference in being safe, or at great risk.  It is our job as aviators to keep ourselves on the three feet high and a couple of knots fast side of the situation so that we can not only continue to enjoy this thing we love, but to keep ourselves and those around us safe.

The real challenge with flying is that we also can’t err too far on the safe side, because that can be just as unsafe.  I heard a CFI talking about the dangers of adding too much of a safety margin to our flying that really hit home with me.  It’s acceptable to be a couple of knots fast when you are landing, but say it’s a little windy so you decide to carry a few more knots.  It has also been awhile since you flew so you decide to carry a few extra knots to feel safer.  Before you know it, you are more than ten knots fast on landing which is also not a safe situation.

Despite some of the inherent risks of taking people into the air inside of a metal tube, flying is a relatively safe endeavor when we follow the rules.  All of these small differences are manageable when we put in the proper time for training and experience.  We must settle for nothing less than perfection as we improve our aviation skills.  That doesn’t mean that every single approach will be on speed at exactly the spot we were aiming for on landing.  But when we aren’t on speed and we land long or short we should analyze why it happened.

We should take a moment to think about what we did and what the result was.  Did we pull the power a little early?  Was their a gust of wind right at the flare?  Did we fly speeds for a different flap setting than what we actually configured?  There could be dozens of different causes for our mistakes, but if we never take the time to analyze what we did, we can never fix those mistakes.  More importantly, we increase the likelihood of exceeding the safe limits and having an accident.

I think this constant pursuit of improvement is one of the reasons I love flying so much.  You can fly thousands of miles and after all of that, it comes down to just a few hundred feet of accuracy to end the trip safely.  There is also always room for improvement.  There is no such thing as the perfect flight or the perfect pilot.  There is always a new skill to learn, or a new type of flying to try out.  And there is always an opportunity to make sure we are staying on the safe side of these small differences.

December 6, 2020 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: What to Do When You Can’t Fly

I’ve been going through withdrawals recently, two kinds of withdrawals actually.  The first one is writing because I just haven’t felt like I had anything special to share mostly because of the second one: I haven’t been able to fly.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but being aircrew in the Air Force does not mean that you get to fly all of the time.  In fact, we do a whole lot more other stuff than we do flying, but that might be something for another day.

So what does one who is obsessed with planes and flying do when they can’t fly?

Read about it naturally.

It is a lot of fun reading all of the various blogs and news sources out there, most of which I have stumbled across on Twitter, and they do provide incredibly value assets to someone like me who soaks in anything they can find related to planes.  I have learned, in my relatively short years, that there is as much information out there to be taken in as you are willing to search for.  The awesome thing about the aviation industry is that it is full of people who will talk your ear off about anything you want to know.

For an avgeek, that is a lot of fun, but for someone whose career is in aviation, it can make all the difference in the world.  It really makes no difference if you are a flyer or if you work on the ground supporting flight operations, we all stand to gain so much by taking the chance to learn from anyone who is willing to share.

As I mentioned, I haven’t been able to fly for a little while because I keep getting sick every time I am supposed to fly.  As much as that sucks, I did have an instructor who has forced me to take advantage of this time and not waste it.

He gave me a couple of exercises that forced me to get into the regulations and expand my knowledge.  Admittedly, I was a little annoyed at first because I was in the middle of other things, but once I got past the initial reaction and started digging into the books it reminded me why I love my job, and how cool it can actually be.  There is just something about feeling like you have expanded your own knowledge base that is incredibly rewarding.

While studying the FARs may not be as exciting as studying military tactics, there is still plenty that can be learned that is very exciting, and may just save your life.  The best example is Capt Sullenberger who landed his plane on the Hudson.  He had spent countless hours studying and learning for a situation just like that.  There is a quote from an interview that he did with Katie Couric that really sums this all up perfectly:

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”  -Capt Sullenberger

I apologize that I couldn’t find a solid reference for that quote, but whether he said it or not, the message remains true.  We work in an industry where serious accidents are a very real possibility every single day.  The only way to be prepared for those accidents is to put in the time and effort now, at ground speed zero.  There is no way to know everything all at once, but a solid foundation of safety can be developed over time if we only put forth the effort.

So as much as it sucks to be grounded for long periods of time, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take advantage of that time to become better aviators or improve our abilities on the ground.  There is an unending fountain of knowledge that we all can partake in, if only we put forth the effort to take it in.

November 17, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Improving Aeronautical Charts Will Improve Safety

As a Navigator, most people really have no idea what I do when I fly.  I can’t say I blame them since there are almost no commercial aircraft that fly with a navigator, or engineer, anymore.  With the growth of GPS use there honestly isn’t much need for us most of the time.  Even the plane I currently fly on is being replaced by one that doesn’t need a navigator, or an engineer.

With that being said, a lot of the work I do outside of flying is important to the missions that all kinds of different aircraft do.  The vast majority of work that I have done for the last year or so is building charts for us to fly with.  I won’t bore you with the details of what that entails, but suffice it to say that it is essential to keeping our crews safe so they can effectively accomplish their missions.  As a navigator, utilizing my chart effectively is vital to getting us where we need to be and when we need to be there to drop off our cargo.

The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Chart reading is a diminishing skill in this modern era of GPS, which is really a shame, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter how well you can read a chart if the chart is inaccurate.  The crazy thing is that many of the charts we use today were made as many as 50 years ago.  I’m sure it is not much of stretch to convince you that quite a bit has changed in the landscape in 50 years or so.

What’s awesome is that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who is responsible for keeping those charts updated, is actively working to do just that.  The Washington Post has a great article about the details of that program and how it is slowly working to improve safety in the greatest frontier in the US, Alaska.  They wrote about how awesome this program can be better than I could, but there is one aspect of the story that I want to focus on.

These updated charts will drastically improve safety in all parts of the US, but most of all in Alaska where, according to the article, you are 36 times more likely to die than the average US worker.  That is just unacceptable when the ability exists to drastically improve safety.  Improved technologies like airborne lasers (lidar) and radar (ifsar) are capable of creating not just better paper maps, but collecting the data necessary to improve GPS and other new devices that can save these courageous pilots’ lives.

Unfortunately, the government’s inability to pass actual budgets has stalled the project and delayed the benefits that it can bring.  There is so much benefit to be realized that some of the contractors have continued working in the hope that the funding will ultimately materialize.  It is incredibly irresponsible of those in a position to make a difference to stand idly by while they could take action that will save lives.

The aforementioned article gets into some of the specific numbers but it is a relative pittance that would be needed to have significant financial improvements to go along with the safety benefits.  At this point we can only hope that those in a position to make this happen will get past the politics and take action so that they can make the money they so anxiously pursue, but more importantly save the lives of people who deserve the best information we can give them.

October 20, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.