Can a GA Airplane Replace the Airlines?


An insurance company executive mentioned to me the other day that the pilot who worries him most is the one who buys a general aviation piston airplane with the idea he can use it to replace his airline travel. I knew immediately what he meant. The accident record shows thatpiston airplane pilots have very few serious accidents in flight training, and the record is not too bad in local flying, but when pilots start launching on longer trips with a specific schedule in mind, the wrecks start to pile up.

It's not difficult to imagine why traveling pilots do less well than when the same pilot is flying locally or in training. Pressure to get there on a schedule can cause any of us to depart into conditions we would never consider if we had not committed to be there. This is the oldest news in aviation safety preaching. It's often called "gethomeitis" but it can just as easily be "get- thereitis" on the outbound leg.

But with new high-performance piston singles costing a half-million bucks and more, and the most popular piston twins still in production selling at well over a million, these airplanes should, and can, come close to matching the reliability of scheduled transportation offered by the airlines. No general aviation piston airplane can match the incredible safety of the scheduled airlines, but they can come acceptably close.

The key to piston airplane traveling utility is partly hardware, and the rest is human performance. For decades piston airplanes lacked the equipment to tackle many weather conditions, but those issues are now largely solved. So the major impediment is the human, his flying skills and his decision making.

The fundamental equipment requirement to travel is complete and redundant primary instrumentation to control the airplane in the clouds, combined with a full capability autopilot. All new high-performance piston airplanes have this. In every model I can think of, spinning gyros have been replaced by electronic attitude heading reference systems (AHRS) that are then backed up by an independent attitude gyro, airspeed indicator and altimeter. All key elements are electrically powered, and there is enough reserve power to operate all critical equipment for at least 30 minutes after loss of main electrical power. It is extremely unlikely that the pilot of a new high-performance piston airplane will be left in the clouds without attitude information and the other primary data to get the airplane safely out of the clouds.

The autopilot is crucial to control the airplane during high workload periods when the single pilot has his hands full with controllers, navigation and analyzing the weather. No pilot should consider a solo IFR flight without a functioning autopilot. It's not permitted with paying passengers, and it's not permitted in single-pilot jets, and it should not be attempted in piston airplanes.

Another critical hardware element that has become almost universal in high-performance piston airplanes is satellite delivered weather information. The most critical is the Nexrad radar mosaic that is sent down five to 10 minutes after the big Doppler radars make their sweeps. The radar picture is a few minutes old, but is absolutely fresh enough to use for avoidance of severe weather. The satellite systems such as XM Weather also deliver all airmets, sigmets, forecasts, metars and other information to keep a pilot in flight as up to date as if he were still on the phone with the briefer.

Nearly as essential as the instrumentation and weather data is icing protection. I don't think it matters whether the system in a piston airplane is certified for flight into known icing conditions because it is at best an escape device. I have yet to fly the piston airplane that has the necessary reserve of power to continue flying in significant icing even with the ice protection system functioning normally. There are just too many unprotected areas for ice to accumulate, and the drag adds up to rob the piston airplane of a reserve of power to climb if necessary.

What isn't necessary at all is a second piston engine. I like twins of any kind and feel better with another engine while flying in the clouds or over hostile terrain or open water. But the record shows that catastrophic engine failure in traveling piston singles is not a big issue in the safety record. If you keep fuel in the tanks and the fuel selector in the proper position, the piston single is reliable enough for on-purpose travel.

For the human pilot to qualify for safe travel the answers are less clear. The obvious requirement from the safety mavens is "training." I agree, so long as the training is not the same as required to earn the instrument rating. I prefer the word practice to training in this situation. By that I mean you must fly IFR all of the time so that it becomes second nature. And you must practice dealing with the weather as it is, not as it was forecast. The problem with conventional IFR training is that it is artificial by nature. For example, IFR training places tons of emphasis on holding, when holding just doesn't appear as a factor in the accident record. My other problem with IFR training is that it treats all instrument approaches as being equally safe, when they are not.

Yes, if you never descend below minimums on a non-precision approach and stay exactly on course, you will never hit anything. But the record shows that pilots of all stripes, from major airline to corporate jet to beginner, do less well on a non-precision approach than when flying an ILS. The most recent scheduled airline crash after an unprecedented period of safety came on a non-precision approach.

My recommendation for the traveling GA pilot is to avoid non-precision approaches to small airports when the weather is iffy. Much better to fly to a less convenient airport served by an ILS than to add the undeniable risk of a non-precision approach. The coming wide area augmentation system (WAAS) GPS approaches create a pseudo-glideslope of great precision that emulates an ILS signal, and that is an improvement. But what WAAS can't do is put the all-important approach light system at the end of the runway, and it can't provide the extra cleared space and wider and longer runway that are inherent in the ILS approach. The ILS runway simply provides more margin for error, and adding margin is what keeps us alive.

Finally, the traveling general aviation pilot needs to carefully consider the terrain under his route. The high mountains of the western United States are simply too high for the typical piston to traverse during periods of strong winds or other bad weather conditions. The piston airplane just doesn't have the performance margin to overcome what nature can dish out when minimum en route altitudes climb above 12,000 feet. The turbulence or icing conditions can also overwhelm a piston airplane over the mountains of the eastern United States. The major airlines didn't do well over high terrain when they were flying piston airplanes, and GA pilots can't go under all conditions, either.

So, with the right equipment and a pilot who practices his real world IFR flying, avoiding the highest terrain during poor weather or non-precision approaches when visibility is low, a piston GA airplane can do well in replacing the airlines. And when you consider the two-hour check-in times at the airline terminal, the GA airplane can beat the airlines door to door on trips of several hundred miles. But my insurance company friend still has reason to worry because GA pilots, even though they now have the necessary equipment, have not been making the correct decision every time. Let's hope the humans catch up with the airplanes.

SimCom Tailors Training to YouThe company that insures my Baron is no longer impressed that I have a Pro Card from FlightSafety in a business jet. Jet pilots haven't always done the best when they fly piston airplanes, so now I have to receive type-specific training in the Baron to qualify for insurance.

I chose SimCom this year for my Baron training because I had been impressed by their school when I attended several years ago, and because the company puts so much emphasis on the owner-pilot. SimCom knows that pilots of piston twins bring an enormous range of skills or lack thereof, and is dedicated to customizing its training course to the individual as much as possible.

Unlike the jets at SimCom or other major training facilities, the FAA does not have an extremely detailed requirement for initial or recurrent training in piston airplanes. Sure, all the basic skills must be checked in a piston airplane, but SimCom's instructors work with the pilot to identify areas that need the most work and concentrate on those. SimCom offers its most flexible recurrent training course - the Advanced Refresher - that is scheduled for two days and is almost entirely customized. But even the standard recurrent course will be adjusted to suit a pilot's needs.

For its piston-twin training SimCom uses flight training devices-they are not simulators because there is no motion - that have huge screens in front of the airplane fuselage. The projected images move as airplane attitude changes and give one the extremely real impression that the world is moving. The cost of a real Level C or D simulator that is used for jet training is way too high to be justified for piston twins, but SimCom's training devices do an excellent job while keeping cost under control.

My major interest in recurrent training was practicing engine failures in the Baron, something that cannot be done safely in the real airplane and is hard on the engines even when done at safe altitudes and airspeeds. Engine-out practice is a staple of jet training so I'm used to flying around from the most critical moment on takeoff on only one engine, but in a jet there are no prop levers to throw, and the jet will fly on one if the pilot is doing his job. That's not necessarily true in a piston twin.

In a jet standard procedure for the pilot flying is to move his hand from the throttles to the control wheel at decision speed on takeoff. This reinforces the concept that if there is a problem before reaching V1 decision speed the pilot will yank the levers back to abort, but after reaching V1 he will continue the takeoff and fly. I have adapted this technique to my piston twin flying, except decision speed comes when the landing gear is up and locked. If an engine fails before that point, my procedure will be to pull both throttles back and land straight ahead. After the wheels are up, a Baron will continue under most circumstances, but the drag of the gear doors opening and closing, which takes only about four seconds, could kill the climb.

With the simulator programmed to kill an engine as soon as gear retraction began, I practiced my procedure, and it worked. I hit on or near the runway under control each time. When the engine failed with the gear up, I was able to climb away every time, but the simulator demands perfection in keeping the slip-skid ball and bank angle just right. I also practiced an engine-out go-around, which can only be attempted with plenty of extra speed and no flaps extended.

SimCom instructor Robert Silva also showed me a takeoff procedure I had not tried, and I found that it works very well. Instead of keeping my right hand on the throttles during the critical early parts of the climb, Bob suggested I move them to the prop control levers. Getting the correct propeller feathered as soon as possible is the key to any engine-out climb performance in a piston twin. The conventional wisdom is that you identify the failed engine by noting which way the airplane is yawing - dead foot, dead engine is the memory aid - and then pull the throttle back to confirm you have identified the failed engine correctly. But then you need to move your hand to the prop controls where you again have a chance to grab the wrong one. If, as Bob suggests, you already have your hand on the prop levers, all you do is pull back the one you have identified as the dead engine. Believe me, you will hear a huge change in sound if you mistakenly start moving the prop lever of the operating engine and you can quickly reverse yourself. It doesn't matter that you haven't moved the throttle of the failed engine. There will be plenty of time to do that once at a safe altitude.

Like all simulators, the training devices at SimCom are far less stable than the real airplane and require good instrument scan to control, but that just makes the training more valuable. If you want, SimCom instructors are always ready to fly in your airplane to supplement the sim. The company has training devices for all of the popular piston twins and turboprops, and is adding Level C simulators for more business jets to its fleet. The training was a real workout, and I feel good about my engine failure practice and the prop lever technique Bob showed me. The recurrent course I chose was scheduled over three days, but by spending more time in the sim and classroom each day I actually flew the sim a little more than scheduled and was still finished in two days. SimCom has much to recommend it, but catering to the individual pilot's schedule and requirements is its strongest suit.