Every so often, I’ll get a note from a reader urging me not to go flying in our old Beechcraft because of some perceived danger, bad dream, or whatever.
Most of the time, I don’t pay much attention, but this morning a reader sent the following now which really serves to correct some public misperceptions about flying light aircraft.
First, the story from reader Anton…
Did you see the Kim Kommando item about night crash landing with only i-Pad data?
No, I hadn’t seen it…but I did find what is likely another version of the same story, over here.
Basics: Man and woman take off on a night flight from Wyoming to Wisconsin, have an electrical failure in their 1959 single engine Comanche 250, make a textbook wheels up emergency landing at Rapid City.
The report mentions the Comanche is a “135 MPH” aircraft. Well, no. Wrong. A Comanche 250 actually cruises at 157 knots and since a knot is 1.15 MPH, that’s more like a 180 MPH airplane. A Comanche isn’t a good airplane, it’s a great airplane.
Just as an opinion, FlightAware is dandy if you want to look up where a particular airplane is on its current flight, or even past flights.
But it helps to understand how FlightAware works: It’s tied in with the national air traffic system and so when you look at a flight, like one I took in May of last year, you’ll see that my speed as filed was 131 knots. And yes, FlightAware has our airplane shown as a Sundowner (which it is not), but that’s because it’s so old and Musketeer isn’t consistently spelled by ATC…who knows?
Point is: If you want to eliminate the winds aloft, climb times, and such, all of which goes into an “as filed” as opposed to “how the plane really works” a better reference is Pilot Friend’s Comanche 250 summary page And, in the case of our old airplane, Pilot Friend shows exactly the right numbers for the Beech A23-15 over here as top speed 122 knots which translates to 140 miles per hour.
This isn’t all about speed, though: It’s about the problem of a light plane being able to fly after experiencing a total electrical failure. They can, and they do. And they land safely.
Redundancy is Key
While the story underscores being able to make a safe landing at night, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Which gets me to my second point: When you talk about total electrical failure that’s a very bad thing – but with or even without an iPad it is NOT the end of the world.
There are three different systems that give pilots information while flying. One system of instruments is electrical. This one gets used a lot because it is very convenient. If an aircraft has an autopilot, for example, the GPS can tell the autopilot where to go and the pilot gets to eat a sandwich or just keep an eye out. Course corrections can be automated and yes, the gear comes down at the flip of a switch.
There are two other systems, however, which in this airplane story appear to have worked as planned.
The first is the static system. This means some basic instruments like vertical speed indicator and altimeter work just fine.
Related is the pitot system (think of it as ram air) which means the airspeed indicator (speedometer) is working, too.
Then, there’s the vacuum pump on the engine. Since the engine was still operating, the airplane was likely providing the 4.5” of vacuum to spin up both the artificial horizon, and backup if used, that means that even with the loss of the turn coordinator (electrically power on a lot of older planes like ours) that “attitude gyro” would keep you from pitching up, or down.
The magnetic compass still says where north is although night navigation is damn difficult without electronics.
Flying by flashlight is dangerous. Why? Wrecks night vision.
But toss in an iPad with a GPS/AHRS connected and dimmed for night use and you’re good to go.
The story ultimately is about good airmanship, but it’s also about recent advances in great electronic add-ons that give ADS-B weather, GPS and AHRS data. This later is critical: It’s short for Attitude and Heading Reference System.
Since I’ve been talking so much lately about compunism and the arising ubiquitous computer sea in which we all swim lately, this aviation safety story is a fine example of how growth of networks is occurring in many – and often unseen – ways.
The FAA began the process years back with a press to install Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast capability and requirements (come 2020) to light aircraft. That lead to low powered wireless devices in airplanes like our ADS-B receiver WAAS GPS receiver.
And that led to companies like iLevil and Sage Tech building high performance portable units for ADS-B in and that’s what led to the safe landing on KRAP – the designator for Rapid City, SD. Great choice of field, too… (we’ve been in there). 8,500 feet and wide concrete. It’s also about 9-miles from downtown Rap City so not as much light/glare. Damn fine pilot call.
In order to use heading and attitude information from an iPad, the most likely add-on in use would be either have been the Clarity by Sage Tech, or iLevil versions of integrated ADSB-In and AHRS systems. That would give the iPads synthetic vision capability.
Either one of the units will set you back around one aircraft money unit (AMU – or a thousand dollars. (Like a Boat Unit of money, lol.)
But what they bring to the table is a system that connects wirelessly to iPads and wifi enabled GPS receivers (like our iFly 720). That means not only heading and attitude, but also weather data that’s often as fresh as 5-minutes (although time lag in ADS-B weather can be a factor in storm dodging, so you need to be aware of it).
Personal learnings from the story?
#1 is simple: Don’t fly at night. I like getting out at the crack of dawn – the air is always smoother and so on. But unless there’s a compelling reason, we take off until 20 minutes before sunrise. We get a lot of deer on the runway down here. But with that much like you can always find 600 feet of open field if you need it.
For early morning hours, we use large LED flashlights with fresh EveryReady Lithiums – changed before every flight, too. Preflights are important as all get-out.
#2 is to move up the plans to add the AHRS data link.
Are electrical failures on older airplanes common?
Sure. But they are not the end of the world. We’ve already had one. In our case, we were about 100-miles short of our destination and the alternator failed. I noticed the amp meter in the panel pulsing negative that it hadn’t done before.
That meant load-shedding. Off when the nav lights, rotating red, one radio, strobes off, and carefully not transmitting on the radio except to update ATC on our plans. Volume on the radio down…
We continued to our destination (Ellijay, GA) with no issues where the alternator and voltage regulator were replaced, along with new belt and the rest of an extreme airplane overhaul. We even put the old belt tie-wrapped on the engine in bush pilot fashion. That way if our current belt ever broke in the wilds, we could slip the replacement on without having to pull the prop off.
I’m not sure what the FAA things of such things, but like my flight test in ground effect, not all good safety practices are in the CFRs.
Old airplanes, like old cars, can be cranky sometimes. There’s a joy to mastering them, however, that’s hard to beat.
More important, and as this story shows, aviation safety is improving…and a good bit of it is due to ubiquitous computing…and at least in this instance, that’s a very good thing.
The other thing that’s involved is constant improvement in pilot training and test standards. No, you don’t have to be a Superman or Superwoman to be a pilot. The reason aircraft insurance is less than our cars is simple, though.
There’s not an idiot in the left seat (or in these cases, the right seat, either).
I looked it up and our airplane insurance ($30,000 stated value policy) is less than $600/year through AOPA. Got that? $600 and 140 miles per hour.
The car and pickup? $1,100 per year and we both have perfect records, no tickets. If insurance is half the price I have to conclude small airplanes are twice as safe.
In a world where small aircraft are getting safer, and cost less than a decked-out Camry, I simply can’t for the life of me understand why there aren’t more people lining up to learn to fly.
I must be missing something. Maybe average people like averageness…yeah, maybe that’s it.
Politics of CraigsList
I got a kick out of someone calling my attention to the politics section of CraigsList.
Not only is there a campaign to legalize nudity in Oaklawn, TX, but widely diverse views on Obama’s performance in office.
But keep an eye on it. CL may be getting on the Citizen Reporters News Train. They have a local news section already, but results are spotty.
But if people start to contribute and hate all the ads on other sites, it might do something. And if they do, lookout HuffPo and WaPo.
OK, snacks and work…more implications of ubiquitous computing and what it means to investors in Peoplenomics tomorrow.
Write when you
wake up…. break-even