In Richard Collins' latest book, The Next Hour, he explores flying safely from a wide perspective, based on his long flying career. Through accident analysis and real-life experience, Collins offers insight into how you can be sure your own "Next Hour" will be a safe one.
Collins has selected these excerpts from his book to give Flying readers an insight into the common sense lessons he's learned from the left seat.
On the Title of the Book:
The title, The Next Hour, was chosen because of something that came to mind a long while ago. We measure flying by the hour and I have often been asked how many hours I have. I always kept a log current and could answer with some accuracy. Once I passed 10,000 hours (on the way to over 20,000), pilots would respond to my flying hours with something like: "Gee, that's a lot." My reply was always: "Yes, but only the next hour counts."
On VFR vs. Weather:
Scud running, which is what pilots are doing when they continue VFR into adverse weather conditions, was widely done in the good old days. A lot of pilots were pretty good at it. There were rules under which the scud was run — if you were to survive. The objective was to not fly into terrain or obstacles, to stay in VFR conditions, and to be constantly prepared to take "no" for an answer. Pressing on at all costs didn't, and doesn't, work.
When we are flying VFR, ceiling and visibility are the determinants of success and they count along every inch of the route that is to be flown. The IFR pilot's job is actually easier because he is concerned mainly with weather at airports to be used. The en route considerations of thunderstorms and ice are a big part of the IFR picture but they are not there all, or even most, of the time.
On IFR vs. Weather:
Years ago a lot of us thought that an answer to the weather accident question could be found in more widespread use of IFR flying and better equipment in airplanes used for IFR flying. This more or less came to pass but, alas, we were wrong about its being a solution to the accident problem. Where in the good old days the number of VFR weather-related fatal accidents was more than double the number of IFR weather-related fatal accidents, that has reversed. Now, serious IFR weather trouble happens about twice as often as serious VFR weather trouble.
On Weather and Night Flight:
Weather looms large in night accidents. Whether VFR or IFR, about 60 percent of the fatal accidents that occur at night are in inclement weather. That defines an area where the risk doesn't just ratchet up, it zooms up. If we could improve just one general aviation safety problem area, fixing night flying might do the most good. Trouble is, to fix it you might have to make it impractical. The risk will always be higher at night because the demands on the pilot will always be higher.
A lot of factors come into play when considering wind. One relates to the difference between the steady wind and the peak gust. The more difference, the more difficult the landing will be and the harder any crosswind will be to deal with. If the wind is blowing over a more or less level surface, the wind direction will shift a bit in a clockwise direction in the gusts and in a counterclockwise direction when the velocity lessens. That means that the crosswind component will change with the velocity.
Anything upwind of the runway can alter this. Trees, buildings, hills, anything can make a difference in how the wind behaves. On takeoff we can sit and observe that high-tech wind sock for a moment to see how the wind direction is moving about. For landing we can survey the area upwind of the runway to get some idea of how the wind might be affected as it travels across the runway.
On Low Speed Losses of Control:
Low speed losses of control are a lot like weather accidents in that almost all involve serious injuries or fatalities. It is not a minor problem, either. About a fourth of the fatal accidents in general aviation are related to this. It is, in fact, right up there with IFR screwups as a leading cause of fatal accidents.
To understand what goes on at low speed, a pilot has to have a keen awareness of angle of attack. Most wings stall at an angle of attack between 15 and 18 degrees. The speed at which airplanes stall is covered in the POH. This information covers angle of bank, different flaps settings and center of gravity. Certainly if a pilot flies with good margins above the published stalling speeds, there won't be low speed problems because he won't get close to the stalling angle of attack.
On Weight and Balance:
When I got my private certificate in 1952, the knowledge (written) test consisted of 25 true-false questions. Needless to say, there wasn't a way to do a weight and balance calculation on a true-false test, and it is safe to say that I flew away with little knowledge of the subject.
Maybe that wasn't so important at the time. The airplanes were simple two-seaters or simple four-seaters and because the airplanes were not accessorized as they are today, and the fuel tanks were smaller, filling the tanks and the seats and throwing a bag or two in the back didn't create any problems.
On Collins' Own Mid-Air Collision:
Jim and I were 30 minutes into our flight, on final for the short runway. The runways weren't connected. The short one started after we passed over the long one, more or less at a right angle. Jim was flying from the front seat. We let our students fly and solo from the front because they liked it that way despite the placard that said solo was to be from the rear seat only.
The sight picture of the approach end of the runway was perfect. The speed was perfect. It was a great day right up to the point where the innocence of the moment was lost. There was a flash of something, followed by quite a bit of noise, followed by the feeling that our Cub was injured and being jerked around, followed by an even louder noise. I took the controls and landed straight ahead, on the short runway. I knew that we had just had an encounter with another airplane at an altitude of 50 or 60 feet.
On Engine Failure:
There is only one place that we can get a reasonably accurate picture of the role mechanical things play in our general aviation safety picture. This information comes only in the record of fatal accidents.
Why is this true? Well, there is no requirement that the failure of a piston engine be reported to anyone. Also, if the airplane is not badly busted up in the forced landing that follows an engine failure, the event might not be considered any kind of accident. And unless the local police report the forced landing to the FAA, which publishes a list of reported events, there might be no aviation record of the event. I would add that the police usually do report aviation events if such come to their attention.
On Perfect Landings:
It has always been my thought that there are two phases to a landing. The first phase is the approach. It concludes when the airplane crosses the threshold of the runway. The standard threshold crossing height is 50 feet on most ILS approaches so that is a good number to use for the point where you transition from the approach to the landing. Folks can argue all they want about how far out on final the approach should be stabilized. Make no mistake, though, if it isn't stabilized at 50 feet there can be major problems with the landing. To see what this looks like, fly an ILS and put into the old memory bank what it looks like on the glideslope when crossing the threshold 50 feet high. Not too slow, not too fast, not too low, not too high, just perfect. Make it look like that every time and landings will be easier.
On the Danger of Total Reliance on Avionics:
Software changes reflect an opinion and are not always good. The last time that I flew a G1000, the software had been changed and I could not find a readout of the track being made good on any page. Knowing the track is essential to the automatic navigation of the airplane by the autopilot but apparently someone decided that the pilot should be kept in the dark about track. Poor change. Often the software was so different in the Skylane and the 400 that some things were available on one and not on the other and screens could be configured differently. On one software version, the timing of a flight was so screwed up that I looked at my watch in an airplane for the first time in years.
On Being the Pilot-in-Command:
The regulations are completely clear in saying that the pilot-in-command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of the aircraft. The regulations also state that the pilot-in-command is responsible for the safety of the flight and that in an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot-in-command may deviate from any rule to the extent required to meet that emergency. That defines a two-edged sword. On one hand, it gives us great latitude as we fly our airplanes. The pilot is the ultimate boss, just like the captain of a ship. On the other hand, it gives us total responsibility if anything bad happens. That is why "pilot error" is an overwhelming favorite when we get to the blame game after an accident.
On Accident Rates:
This is the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 hours.
To give a frame of reference, the NTSB calculates accident rates for various fleets of airplanes. The latest statistical summary when this was written covered 2004. The NTSB gives the rate for single-engine piston airplanes as 1.50 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours. Piston twins come in at 1.95, turboprops at .69 and jets at .24.
On the FAA and Regulations:
Pilots sometimes grumble about the amount of regulation governing aviation. There is actually not much. Once a pilot has a certificate, the FAA can all but fade away unless the pilot has an accident or commits some egregious aeronautical sin. This is especially true if the pilot happens to own the airplane that he flies. I never had an accident as pilot-in-command and I owned airplanes for most of the 57 years that I flew, other than the midair when I was a kid. In all my travels I was never ramp checked by the FAA and the only time I had to show my pilot certificate and medical was when I rented an airplane. In other words, I could have flown without any FAA documentation for the whole time and never been caught. An airline pilot did that some years back and as best I recall he had made captain before he got caught.
On Collins' Own Flying:
Someone suggested once that I take flying so seriously that I probably couldn't enjoy it. Nothing could be further from the truth. For 57 years, 50 of those in the magazine business, I immersed myself in aviation and enjoyed every minute of it. The business associations were great, but what I enjoyed most was trying to perfect the art of going places in light airplanes. Travel was what my flying was all about.
On the Future:
I'm an optimist, though, and think better things will come. When I was a kid, serving in the Cub Scouts during the darkest days of World War II, I loved the song "White Cliffs of Dover." To a kid, the promise, "There'll be love and laughter, and peace ever after, tomorrow just you wait and see. ..." was enough to make me look forward to better times. I'm no kid now but for general aviation, today's headwind can and will be turned into tomorrow's tailwind.
The Next Hour is available exclusively at Sporty's and can be ordered for $24.95 at sportys.com. 800-776-7897