(July 2011) On Feb. 12, 2009, A Bombardier Q400 (a modernized Dash 8) operated by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo, New York, claiming the lives of 50 people. In the intervening years the fallout from the disaster has had a sweeping impact on aviation regulation in the United States, arguably more than any other accident in the past 25 years. (The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are not classified as accidents.) As a result of the Buffalo mishap, the government has enacted or proposed a number of new rules or changes to rules on everything from pilot fatigue to minimum ATP qualifications.
One of the changes that has already taken effect is the way that examiners grade stalls on a check ride. At issue is how we teach stall recoveries, how we grade pilot performance on the maneuver and what unintended lessons pilots might come away with after training.
As many of you know, the Colgan flight had just been cleared for the approach to Buffalo International on a dark night with some icing having been reported by the pilots of other airplanes in the terminal area. As the Q400 leveled off, the captain, who was the pilot flying, failed to add sufficient power to keep the airspeed from bleeding off excessively. The stick shaker, which alerts the pilot to a coming stall, came alive. Moments later, the stick pusher, designed to force the nose over to prevent a stall, activated as well. According to data from the airplane’s digital flight data recorder, power was increased to around 75 percent, though standard operating procedures call for maximum power for a stall recovery.
However, the thing that likely doomed the flight is that the pilot, instead of lowering the nose, pulled back on the elevator, ignoring the stick shaker. He then, seconds later, overpowered the stick pusher, which is designed to allow the pilot to do just that but not without great exertion.
Tragically, the result was all too predictable. The airplane stalled, went out of control and then crashed. Everyone on the airplane was killed, as was one resident of the house into which the airplane crashed.
Now, the impulse for a pilot to pull up when an airplane starts to stall is a natural one, one that, like relying on our inner ear’s sense of up and down in instrument conditions, has to be consciously overcome. This is something we learn to do very early in our pilot training. We’ve all been taught since our initial lessons that, when the first sign of the stall comes, you reduce the angle of attack and add power. Goodbye stall. But in the process, you might lose some altitude. If you catch the stall early enough, and that’s what a stick shaker is intended to do, the loss of altitude will almost certainly be minimal.
But that’s not how we’ve historically been tested. Until recently, the practical test standards (PTS) for the airline transport pilot (ATP) flight test called for the loss of altitude in a stall recovery to be less than 100 feet. If you’re on top of things, ready and, in some cases, strong enough, this is a doable standard. In other words, in the sim, it usually works out this way.
After Buffalo, however, the question was raised: Does the 100-foot standard send a dangerous message, that a loss of altitude is unacceptable under any circumstances? That was, after all, the direct message in the practical test. More than a hundred feet loss of altitude and you fail.
Not long ago the FAA decided to change that standard, and we think it was a great decision. Instead of aiming for that ATP level of a 100-foot maximum deviation, the new standard simply is for a “minimal loss of altitude.” One examiner told me that he is not allowed to fail an applicant, period, for a loss of altitude during stall recovery, so long as, one presumes, the pilot recovers to the initial altitude by the end of the maneuver.
In the case of Colgan 3407, the pilot responded in a way that made no sense aerodynamically. Was the training to blame?
Did the pilot’s instincts honed in the simulator kick in at the wrong time? Was he concerned about losing any altitude whatsoever for the reasons he’d flown that way in the sim, such as passing a check, impressing his examiner or not looking bad to his fellow employees in the sim. We will never know. What we do know is that his reaction to the impending stall ended with the airplane losing every inch of altitude there was to lose.
That’s a tragedy upon a tragedy. Under the circumstances, he could have lost a couple of thousand feet and still had room to recover, albeit with a lot of explaining to do and an airplane full of very shaken passengers. But in some cases, and Buffalo was surely one of them, you’ve got to choose. You can lose a little or lose a lot.
Near-New Airplane Boom?
When it comes to the way the airplane industry works over time, there’s only one word to remember: cycles. The business will go up and the business will go down.
Of course things change over time, and aviation changes too. The pace of recovery varies from recession to recession.
While this economic downturn has been unusually persistent, there’s no doubt that the industry will rebound. When it will come back is somewhat less certain. I will proclaim with absolute confidence that the bizjet segment will be back bigger and better than ever before too long. The money is there to support a vigorous and exciting market for everything from light jets to ultra-long-range models.
The light-airplane segment is a very different animal and responds to completely different economic forces. If history is a guide, light GA will take a while longer to recover if it can fully recover at all. Its recent high-water mark of 1,500 airplanes sold in a year sounds like a tall order at this point and for good reason. The very people who are candidates to buy a $300,000 to $700,000 piston single are the people who have been hardest hit by the recession or who have had their confidence in the economy most shaken.
Again, if history is any guide, in the meantime we are likely to see a good market for nearly new airplanes, low-time ones that are nicely equipped and that cost a third to half of what comparable new airplanes cost.
When Cessna discontinued production of its piston lineup in the mid-1980s, there emerged a market for low-time used piston singles. One dealer, Van Bortel Aircraft out of Arlington, Texas, got out ahead of this trend and made a good living selling these high-wing cream puffs. It would scour the country for low-time Cessna singles and twins, make the owner a good offer and then turn the airplane over at a fair and healthy profit. After Cessna resumed production in 1998, Van Bortel was ready to go. Today it claims to be the largest Cessna dealer in the world.
Regardless of what happens with the new airplane industry, I think we’re likely to see this kind of premium-used market mature over the next couple of years, with low-time, high-value used airplanes presenting an attractive option for buyers still too wary to buy new.
Checking Boxes Versus Learning
We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a ground school discussion when something doesn’t make sense to you, so you ask for some clarification, an explanation to help you put things into context. Instead of the instructor launching into an animated and illuminating explanation, you are instead greeted with a pause, a healthy sigh and, then, that look. You know, the one that seems to ask, “Now, why’d you have to go and ask a question just when we were on a roll?”
That look has a lot of subtext. First, it says wordlessly that the purpose of the instruction is to get through with it.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that and very little of it is the instructor’s fault. It’s built into the system. It doesn’t mean that we have to capitulate, though.
When instructors accept the “checking the boxes” approach, they are also accepting an attitude that the purpose of their job is to complete it. Which misses the point, which is to do whatever is needed to help the student master the material. A question is not a roadblock; it’s a critical piece of information. The student is saying, “Hey, if you didn’t notice, here’s something I don’t get. Help me.” It’s a gift.
I know that there are all kinds of factors in our aviation education and certification system that are inimical to open-ended learning. But as pilots, we need it. After all, if we always knew everything that was going to happen in a given flight, our safety record would be near perfect, which it is not.
To its credit, the FAA has started to do something to make the learning more relevant. FAA-approved courses for many ratings have required components for so-called line oriented flight training (LOFT), which is an innovation for which we can thank the airlines. With LOFT the pilot is asked to go about his simulated day, flying an actual mission and being checked on that — there are, of course, random emergencies and contingencies thrown in to improve the value of the LOFT experience.
In light GA training we’ve taken this concept and run with it. Our scenario-based training programs create realistic flight situations and ask the pilot to respond appropriately to changes in the plan, from deviations to mechanical problems to weather challenges. It’s the real world on steroids.
With scenario-based training, learning is the guiding principle, and boxes, even though they might still need to be checked off, momentarily take a back seat. That’s a good thing for student and instructor alike.