Coping: Analyzing an Aviation Story

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.

Even  more interesting is the story of an child suspended for claiming to be able to make things disappear.

Weird, huh?

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


10 thoughts on “Coping: Analyzing an Aviation Story”

  1. George, I keep reading about deflation, but as I go to the store and pick up items that cost 1/3 to 1/2 lower in the last year or two, I really can’t see it. In my business ( precision machining), cutting tools and equipment, which we usually stock up ion at the end of the year, has jumped in amounts of 50 to 100% in the last two years. Building materials have increased about 25%. Our health insurance went up 40% last year, with a $2500 per person deduc. This next year they are predicting a further minimum increase of 25% and deducs. to increase to $7500 per person. ( Of course a lot of this item can be blamed on the egregious rush to fatten the hog caused by Obamacare) Where is the deflation here? I can’t see it. Its either inflation or dollar devaluation, but I don’t believe its the latter because my wife is in Canada right now and the Canadian dollar is at 70%, which is the lowest its been in years. What gives?

  2. Data that used to be freely available on the net is now being disappeared. But you can still find it at most University libraries if you are willing to get up off of your fat ass and drive there. With deflation, the price of gas and other things makes it more affordable for someone on Social Security to accomplish!

  3. Re: Texas Boy Suspended. The lad was lucky, they could have called in Homeland; I’m pretty sure “diappearing” people could be considered a terrorist threat. Off with his little head…

  4. I love to fly, and prefer night to daytime flying. It’s a personal thing, I suppose, and it’s usually far less bumpy at night. Early dawn can be a problem, with cloud layers descending and potential runway fog at the destination.

    I’ve had electrical failures in flight(and IMC), engine out, and split gear approaches(not all at once), and while they’re not fun, they are survivable for both plane and occupants IF the pilot flies the airplane first, rather than getting lost in other trivia. It does help to have a couple of flashlights though, and an understanding that life WILL come to an end, though hopefully – not too soon.

    All this happened before I-anythings. For now I’m grounded with too many other activities, and no desire to spend the requisite number of AMUs without a defined purpose. The ever increasing number and severity of regs, and the current attitude of some letter agencies toward general aviation are downers too.

  5. An interesting comment from my son-in-law

    Don’t know if you recall, about 4 years ago Sheri and I experienced a complete electrical failure in our Cessna flying home from Salt Lake City in our Cessna 182RG. Well, I consider it a “partial” electrical failure: for a really complete electrical failure, you would have to have the battery, alternator, and any back-up alternators or batteries all go at once. The odds are nix that would ever happen.

    As he points out, even with everything that provides electricity gone, the engine is turning on mags – much like a lawn mower or motorcycle. As long as you still have fuel, you have a perfectly good flying airplane – and I do not consider that an emergency (unless I smelled smoke, which I did not) Even so, expedient landing is a must in this scenario.

    We chose the closest, largest airport by consulting the yoke-mounted portable Garmin 496 (about the size of a compact camera) which was providing navigation, weather, nearest airports, etc. while running on batteries that would last 5 hours.

    There was an airstrip within 3 minutes – but did not choose it because of no services, and no adjacent towns. When pushing the “Nearest” button on the Garmin, it also showed Twin Falls about 15 minutes away (we were traveling at 184mph in the 182RG – 160 kts).

    The RG (Retractable Gear) does depend on the electrical system, but also provides for a pump handle to manually pump the gear down – which I was prepared to do. Since I had some time prior to getting to the airport, I did some quick checks, shutting the master off and on in an attempt to get one last blip of power out of the battery. It worked – and gave me just enough power and seconds of time to get the gear down before the power blipped off and the battery completely died.

    Our only issue left at that point was a no-rad (no radios) landing at a class D airport – which requires contacting the tower prior to landing. I quickly brushed up on my no-radio tower light procedure – which entails flying towards the runway about 1,000′ above the landing pattern so the tower can see us, and rocking the wings. This normally gets their attention, and they bring out their hand-held flashing light gun so they can signal clearance or no clearance to land. Actually there are 6 different modes, depending on the combination of red, green, or white that they flash at you. I was seeing none of these.

    So, I went around, next time coming closer to the actual tower so they would surely see me – again no lights. The third time I flew right past the tower – right in front of their faces – which I could see from my cockpit. Again no lights.

    I decided to land anyway, since I saw no traffic in the area or on the ground – and sort it out later with the tower. After our non-eventful landing and taxi up to the tower – one of the tower personnel came out. He actually was apologizing that the batteries in their light gun were dead – which explains why I saw no lights.

    So, our aircraft battery is dead, and the tower light gun batteries are dead! What are the chances? It happens. Anything and everything can happen – even with redundant systems. That’s part of flying – that’s part of life! Live with it:)


    • I flew a couple of retractable gear planes in my aviating days, and I’m pretty sure there is usually a way to crank the landing gear down manually. How to do so is part of the training you get when you upgrade from fixed gear to retractable.

      • I thought so, too…but wasn’t sure of the specifics on a Comanche, so I kept my mouth shut. I was checked out on the Lake LA4-200 amphib and it had a manual hydraulic pump…for failure purposes…

  6. Hi.. this is a site I check on historical data.. see if it is what you are looking for on the dow Jones..

    here is a nice little article to on the historical data..

    Here is a great site but you now have to become a member before you can download articles and data from Harvard. a few years ago it wasn’t a requirement. Oxford still has an open source library and so does MIT and BYU

  7. “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.” No – they’ve no fear – remember – everything CAN be monetized – and so can CL, just look at Angies L>

  8. Just wanted to add to your missing data bit. Right after the crash in 2008 our local library got rid of all of the business magazines and periodicals on hand that were from the previous 8 months. They sold them for 25 cents a piece. I thought it was odd that they were clearing house and making room but only with the ones that had information of the crash as it built up before it failed up to that Oct. They did not get rid of any other kinds at the time. I personally know the person who bought every one of them and I was told it could be very valuable information. Who knew? I mean besides the great ones who make decisions that US little people are too lowly to understand.

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