Pilot Selfies, apples, and oranges

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The NTSB recently release a “probable cause” report on the fatal crash of a Cessna 150 in Colorado last May. The agency determined the probable cause of the accident to be:

The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.

That last line is the first time the agency has identified cell phone use as a contributing factor to a fatal accident. They based that conclusion on footage from a GoPro camera, recorded on the penultimate flight a few minutes earlier, that showed “the pilot and various passengers…taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

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Thoughts on Distracted Driving

I really dislike driving cars. I know this is usually a blog about flying, but being a pilot has focused my dislike of driving to levels I didn’t know existed. Over on his blog, the NTSB Chairman posted about the problem of “Distracted Driving” and an interesting observation about so-called “hands-free devices.” According to several scientific studies, hands-free devices increase our ability to keep our hands on the wheel but do nothing about the equally (if not more) dangerous aspect of cognitive distraction (“not paying attention”).

For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

Driving a vehicle is usually a fairly easy task, except in the worst weather conditions, and we do it so much that it becomes routine, repetitive, almost mindless. I’m sure many of you couldn’t name many specific details about your drive home from work today. But despite this routine, driving a car is a very complex task. It’s never actually that repetitive or routine. Maybe the roads we take are the same, or the time of day you’re driving on them, but you’re probably not sharing those roads with the exact same group of drivers at any one time. The speeding, slowing, honking, doddling, belching mass of humanity on our roads is a variable that requires every bit of our attention to keep our own cars from hitting any of theirs.

What scares me is the number of drivers I see that are blatantly on their phones. I don’t even mean hands-free devices–they’re just driving the car with one hand and holding the phone to their face with the other. This means that the “human variable” of driving is much more dangerous–mindless zombies that aren’t capable of paying attention–and I treat them that way, often giving a nearby car a wide berth if I know the driver is on the phone. In New Jersey, as in many places, it is illegal to operate a handheld phone while driving, so there are other issues to consider, such as increased enforcement. But even without enforcement, we all have to understand that, handheld or hands-free, talking on the phone and driving a car are incompatible activities. It’s like driving in dense fog: your reactions will be delayed and even physical senses like peripheral vision will be impaired because your immediate attention is busy trying to understand and respond to the conversation.

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever scared of flying, and I usually respond that no I am not scared of flying, but I am scared of driving. At least in an airplane the problems are usually my own–both to cause and to deal with–and I can train and study to make better decisions and to fly better in an emergency. But in a car, with all the millions of human variables out there, who knows when one of them will not be paying attention at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about that but redouble my own attentiveness and to implore you all to consider setting a personal rule to not talk on the phone while driving.

Sequest-ow-er

Today the FAA issued a press release detailing at least one of their responses to the recent “sequester” of across-the-board spending cuts dimwittedly implemented by Congress.

Trenton, NJ - Mercer County Airport (KTTN)

In a not-so-surprising move, they decided to close 149 traffic control towers across 38 states, representing about a third of the nation’s 500+ control towers. You can see the full list here. The closures will begin April 7th and will fulfill at least part of the $637 million in cuts required by the sequester.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Indeed, it is estimated that about 2,500 jobs will be lost, and could affect the $200 million in business revenue these airports generate collectively. But that’s actually the less important issue, in my opinion a distant second, to the issue of safety.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

It is true that there is plenty of flying done every day at non-towered airports around the country. We as pilots are trained to monitor and self-announce our positions and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF. That system works, but as Richard Collins explains in his very interesting book The Next Hour, “there is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation.” He goes on to cite that “the NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights…flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Just last week I encountered a situation at my local uncontrolled airport that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was out flying in the pattern with other students and instructors, practicing short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, when an airplane decided to join the pattern in an unconventional manner (taking a shortcut). That wasn’t the only problem–although he was active in stating his intentions to join the pattern for the active runway, 10, he was in fact flying to join the pattern for the opposite runway, 28. It wasn’t until he crossed directly through the downwind leg of the busy traffic pattern, narrowly missing another aircraft, that he realized his mistake.

Sure, many of the airports whose towers will be closed might seem “sleepy” on most days. But having extra eyes on the sky is never a bad thing. They can help in emergencies, or when the weather gets bad, or when the traffic becomes congested. Let’s take for example the lone tower scheduled to be closed in New Jersey, at Trenton-Mercer Regional (KTTN, the airport shown in the photos in this post). It’s actually the first towered airport I flew to, and they were the first controllers I talked to, nervous as I was. It is not what I would consider a “sleepy” airport. According to the entry on AirNav, KTTN saw more than 200 operations per day in 2010, before Frontier Airlines added scheduled service to several destinations in the Southern US. I cannot imagine how this airport will operate without a control tower: large and small aircraft, intersecting runways, military operations, complex ramp space.

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Apparently there is the possibility of a last-minute amendment proposed in Congress to provide more funding for control towers. This seems unlikely to me, and since it has only been pegged at $50 million, may be insufficient anyway. The FAA mentioned that the towns themselves, such as Trenton, could take on the cost of operating the control tower.

Some communities will elect to participate in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport

This may also be somewhat difficult. I’m not sure there are many cities and towns that have room under their financial belts, let alone the aviation saavy, to take on this responsibility.

So it seems as though we as pilots will just have to make due, and after my experience last week, I can’t help but worry more about safety. In a final note about traffic and midair collisions, Richard Collins had this to say after he installed a traffic alert system in his small single-engine airplane (incidentally, based out of KTTN for many years).

The main thing that I learned was that when near an airport, there’s a lot more traffic than I ever saw…

That sure is a scary thought, and with the loss of these control towers, we have many fewer eyes (or radar dishes) that we can count on to help keep enough space between our airplanes.

Mistakes

With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.