I was talking not long ago with a relatively new pilot and Cirrus owner who also is the founder of a very successful software company. This fellow enjoys flying his airplane immensely but, like all of us, is concerned about the accident rate in piston-powered airplanes.
What frustrates this pilot is how many light-airplane accidents are blamed on pilot error. As he pointed out to me, there is no other business that could succeed if it continued to blame all serious problems on its customers. And in no other business that I can think of are the customers’ problems nearly as serious as in an airplane accident.
At the time we were talking, I agreed with my friend. There must be something fundamentally wrong with a product if a significant number of people who buy it are unsuccessful at using it. I was about to demand that we re-examine the way we design and certify light airplanes instead of routinely blaming the pilot for screwing up.
Before I could head down the “don’t blame the pilot” path, however, the FAA released safety statistics on the Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop, which is now subjected to the most stringent training and checking requirements of any airplane weighing less than 12,500 pounds. And those new requirements have worked beyond anyone’s best hope.
As you probably know, the MU-2 had compiled the worst safety record of probably any type of airplane, and certainly the worst for any turboprop, during the past 25 years. The accident rate was so high it even got the attention of Congress, which issued demands for the FAA to ground the airplane.
The FAA responded with several major reviews of the MU-2 certification to confirm that it met the rules in place when it was built. And the airplane passed with only some minor changes, such as installing a higher wattage heater in the Pitot tube. But serious accidents continued.
Finally, in 2006, the FAA issued a special federal air regulation (S-FAR) that set new, very thorough training requirements for any pilot flying the MU-2. In the three years since the new rules went into effect, there have been only two accidents in MU-2s and neither caused a fatality. In the 30 months before the new training standards, MU-2s crashed 14 times, and in 10 of those accidents people were killed.
The safety improvement in the MU-2 is simply astonishing. There might have been fewer hours flown in the fleet in the past three years than in the 30 months that preceded the rule change, but the safety improvement in fatal accident rate was complete. And three years is enough time for the random nature of accidents to be accounted for. With no change to the airplane, and big changes in the pilots who fly them, training and testing has to get all of the credit for the MU-2 safety change.
The MU-2 is a quirky airplane. It has a very small wing that contributes to its high cruise speed. The wing flaps are huge and effective at lowering stall speed, but they do add enormous amounts of drag. The airplane uses spoilers for roll control, so it is essential to center the control wheel, particularly with an engine out, or the spoilers will kill some available lift. And like many airplanes with design roots nearly 50 years old, there are potential traps in some of the airplane systems for the poorly trained pilot.
The point is that no amount of experience in a conventional piston or turboprop airplane really prepares a pilot to fly the MU-2. I think the early 20 series Learjets are probably more like the MU-2 than any other turboprop. And those early Learjets also posted a comparatively poor safety record.
The FAA could have used its S-FAR authority to require pilots to earn a type rating to fly the MU-2, just as pilots must in any turbojet or any airplane weighing more than 12,500 pounds for takeoff. But the FAA didn’t think a type rating was a stringent enough training requirement to resolve the MU-2 safety problem.
To earn a type rating, a pilot must receive specific training in the type — in an approved simulator or the airplane — and then pass a check ride. In airplanes that require a crew of two, a pilot must be retrained and rechecked every 12 months to keep the type rating current. But the FAA doesn’t spell out in great detail exactly what a pilot must learn about an airplane and its systems nor every maneuver that must be demonstrated. Flight schools and training companies have some room to write their own type-rating courses.
However, for the MU-2 the FAA wanted to specify exactly what a pilot is to be taught, how much time is to be spent on the training and what maneuvers must be successfully demonstrated on the check ride. And the S-FAR also requires recurrent training and checking that a normal type rating would not have, since the MU-2 is approved for a single pilot.
I know extremely experienced pilots who have logged thousands of hours in their MU-2s, but they had to undergo the same training and checking as a pilot new to the airplane. Only a relative handful of training programs are approved. And the most experienced MU-2 pilots say the training is thorough and a good workout of all of the skills necessary to manage the airplane.
The FAA has used its S-FAR power in the past to address the accident rate in the Robinson R22 helicopter. There is nothing wrong or unsafe with the R22 but, like the MU-2, it has some flying-quality differences from the helicopters most pilots learned to fly. In that case, the S-FAR required specific training for instructors teaching in the R22 and established a minimum amount of time in type. And as with the MU-2, the S-FAR worked and the accident rate in the R22 plunged.
So the evidence seems clear. The accident rate in light airplanes could be cut if we were willing to demand a level of training and checking that goes far beyond normal requirements. But those more extensive demands would add cost to airplane operation and would undoubtedly prevent some pilots from qualifying, either because they couldn’t meet the higher standard or were unwilling to try.
Since the dawn of aviation, we have tried to balance cost, convenience and availability against risk, and I think we have done a pretty good job. For the paying passenger, the pilot-training requirements and airplane standards are very high and the record good. For the person flying for his own reasons, the rules are more relaxed, and the cockpit is open to as large a segment of the population as possible. As long as the accident rate remains acceptable to the people who buy and fly light airplanes, and also remains acceptable to the public, everything works fine. Any pilot can assume the most conservative possible position and elevate his own safety potential without imposing his standards on other pilots.
But if the accident rate becomes unacceptable, as it did with the MU-2, we have conclusive evidence that there is a solution. Yes, it is to blame the pilot, but then also to devise a method to prevent those pilots from making predictable errors.
The new Gulfstream G250 is a beautiful airplane with its long and highly swept wing, elegant T-tail and sleek nose that sweeps gracefully into the canopy. But the landing gear is too short. Part of that impression is caused by the unusually tall landing gear of the other big cabin Gulfstreams that have stood tallest and proudest on the ramp since the G-II. But it is more than a simple visual impression with the G250. The gear is just shorter than on other airplanes of similar size.
When Gulfstream was making the fundamental design decisions for the G250, it assembled a panel of business jet operators, including several that operated the G200 that the new airplane will replace. Such advisory panels are the norm in the industry and make recommendations on all aspects of performance and appearance, and the manufacturer pays close attention.
Because the G200 was derived from the Astra, it retained the shorter landing gear of that smaller jet even though it has the largest fuselage diameter in the super midsize category. To me, the G200 gear always looked too short. But that’s not the way G200 operators see it. They like the low stance. They don’t want their airplane to stand out on a crowded ramp. And they demanded that Gulfstream not raise the landing gear height in the new G250.
The wing, the landing gear and the type certificate are all new for the G250, so Gulfstream could have made the landing gear any height it wanted with no penalty. In fact, it might have been easier to design the wheel wells and other parts of the wing with a taller main gear. But Gulfstream listened to its customers, who in this day of business jet bashing don’t want be noticed, and the G250 is being built close to the ground.
When you look at a G250 and wonder “why did they do that?” now you know. Customers demanded long legs in the air and the shortest possible legs on the ramp.
Safe Flight Instruments, the company that pioneered angle-of-attack instrumentation, has a new, relatively low-cost system that is priced for turboprops and pistons, to achieve maximum takeoff and landing performance.
Conventional angle-of-attack (alpha) systems in jets and turboprops use a vane mounted on the fuselage. The vane streamlines with the relative wind passing around the fuselage. Through flight testing, the angle of the relative wind is calibrated to the behavior of the wing to calculate alpha, which is then displayed to the pilot so he can know how close the wing is operating to maximum lift without risk of stalling.
However, high-quality alpha systems are expensive, too expensive for most propeller airplanes. And they are more difficult to mount on singles because the propeller slipstream disrupts the relative wind flowing over the fuselage. The Safe Flight solution is to use the standard stall-warning vane that is on most singles and light twins to sense changes in alpha.
The leading-edge stall vane normally operates in an on-or-off mode to warn of approach to stall. It is a crude form of alpha measurement and only provides a single data point, which sounds the horn at a specific alpha below the actual stalling alpha. The vane operates in the stagnation point on the leading edge of the wing. The stagnation point is, as the name implies, a very small area where the slipstream divides to pass over or under the wing. The stagnation point moves as alpha changes, and the vane follows that change.
Even though we get only an on-off stall warning from the standard vane installation, the vane is actually moving over a range that can be measured, and that movement represents a change in alpha. With a modified vane, Safe Flight is able to track changes in alpha and show them on normal cockpit instruments without the need for expensive fuselage-mounted vanes, thus saving a great deal of cost.
To see the system in action, I went flying with Safe Flight boss Randy Greene in the company’s B-55 Baron. The vane on the wing looked like that of any other Baron stall-warning vane, but in the panel was a round dial to show alpha, and on the glareshield was the fast-slow alpha indicator found in many jets. In the fast-slow indicator, chevrons light up to point toward too-high or too-low alpha, and a circle lights up when you’re right on.
I have thousands of hours in Barons but I never flew the way the Safe Flight alpha system directed for maximum performance. By keeping the alpha indicator on the maximum lift point, I flew amazingly steep approaches with very short landing roll. Climb-out was also impressively steep. And because the system relies on a measurement of alpha, instead of an airspeed, any maneuver such as a bank or back pressure on the stick instantly shows an increase in alpha.
The lower-cost Safe Flight alpha indication system made its debut on the Cirrus SR22 with known ice equipment. Cessna, Kodiak and Diamond are now testing it for installation on some of their singles, and I hope other manufacturers will also choose to offer this added safety and performance instrument that jet pilots have had for decades.