Training: Flight School Safety

University of North Dakota's aviation training program adds air bags, glass cockpits.

FLY0510 Train 1000x624

FLY0510 Train 1000x624

University of North Dakota’s
new Cessna 172s for flight training
are equipped with AmSafe seat belts/
air bags, just one of the program’s new
safety enhancements.
Courtesy of AmSafe

When we talk about flight training safety, we usually refer to the steps an instructor can take to ensure a lesson is not marred by an incident or accident. However, there are also operational considerations that can contribute to flight training safety. I recently had a chance to talk with Dana Siewert, the director of aviation safety for the University of North Dakota (UND) aerospace program, about some of the steps UND has taken to enhance the safety of its flight training program.

With UND conducting approximately 120,000 hours of flight training each year, Grand Forks, North Dakota, is one of the top 20 busiest airports in the country. One of the first changes to enhance flight training safety was implemented following a midair collision that caused the first fatalities for the UND program. In the early 1980s, a Cessna 182 climbed up under a C-172 Skyhawk in the pattern and collided with the Skyhawk. Since that time, UND has specified that all single-engine Cessnas it orders be equipped with the optional overhead skylights.

There is no way of knowing if the skylights would have avoided the accident, or if they have avoided any collisions since then, but UND felt that if it did avoid even one collision, it would be more than worth the small investment per airplane (currently about $2,300). Siewert said that every airplane is also equipped with all available exterior lights, including strobe lights, recognition lights and alternately flashing landing and taxi lights, to help with day and night collision avoidance.

Collision avoidance has also been enhanced through the addition of ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast) to most of the newer airplanes in the UND fleet as part of a grant associated with an FAA study on the effectiveness of ADS-B in the collegiate flight-training environment. Both the Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campuses and the University of Alaska in Anchorage also took part in the study.

The FAA Center for Excellence for General Aviation Research (CGAR) 2008 annual report states that “evaluation of more than 26,000 ADS-B utilization surveys indicates that ADS-B makes a significant improvement in overall traffic awareness, increasing the number of airplanes seen during flight by 60 percent and triggering 25 percent more avoidance maneuvers than either ATC advisories or visual-only acquisitions.” The report also mentioned that ADS-B significantly improved training efficiency. As part of the study, large screens were placed in the flight planning room, by the duty desk and in the main academic building. Each screen displayed the traffic up to 300 miles away from the airport in each direction. This allowed an instructor and/or student to decide which practice area or airport was best to use based on real-time traffic information, enhancing the training accomplished while reducing the risk of a collision.

Another improvement in the cockpit is the gradual migration to glass cockpits as older aircraft are replaced. UND has both the C-172 with the Garmin G1000, and the Piper Warrior and Seminole with the Avidyne PFD, although it is gradually transitioning to an all C-172 single-engine fleet. It is working with Garmin to develop the ability to download data from flights and “play back” a flight using X-Plane flight simulation software. The flight could be viewed from various angles both inside and outside the cockpit, allowing the student to see and critique his or her own performance after a lesson.

A planned enhancement that could be used to analyze overall training safety and effectiveness involves programming the G1000 with specific parameters, such as airspeed and descent rate for a stabilized approach. During annual maintenance, this data could be downloaded and analyzed to determine how frequently students were outside the desired parameters. The flight data in the G1000 could also be used after a mishap or accident to determine exactly what happened. This would be very valuable, especially in cases where there are no survivors and no witnesses on the ground.

The final safety link in the UND flight-training program came courtesy of the new Cessna 172s, which are all equipped with an AmSafe seat-belt air bag ( I first encountered the seat-belt air bags in our Civil Air Patrol squadron’s new Cessna 182T, but I didn’t know their history or how they worked, so it was very interesting for me to talk with Bill Hagan, the president of AmSafe, and learn more about this recent innovation.

AmSafe supplies the seat belts for 95 percent of the world’s commercial aircraft. In the late 1980s, the FAA introduced new requirements for seat-belt strength in commercial aircraft. Certain seats, such as those in the bulkhead rows, could not meet this requirement due to the proximity of the bulkhead wall. AmSafe developed the seat-belt air bag to meet the FAA requirements for those seats that could not satisfy the test with just a seat belt.

The first seat-belt air bag flew on a commercial airliner in February 2001. Others are now installed on 40,000 seats on more than 50 airlines. Some airlines are starting to install the seat-belt air bags on every seat in a certain class of service, and one airline is planning to use the seat-belt air bag on every seat in the airplane. The air bag is armed when the seat belt is latched. It is deployed by a module that is attached under the seat in a commercial aircraft, or to the airframe under the seat in general aviation airplanes. The G switch in the module is set to deploy the air bag at eight to nine Gs, with the rate of deceleration factored in to avoid air-bag deployment during a hard landing.

General aviation manufacturers were quick to see the potential benefit of adding the seat-belt air bags. The pilot and copilot seats in a small airplane are a safety nightmare. The occupants sit close to a rigid instrument panel covered with protruding knobs and controls. Even if the seat belt and shoulder harness are strong enough to withstand the force of a crash, the attach points might give way, allowing the heads and faces of the front-seat occupants to slam into the instrument panel and control wheels with devastating results.

At this point, approximately 90 percent of all new single-engine 
airplanes are delivered with the AmSafe seat-belt air bag installed, and there are kits available to retrofit the air bags to about half of the older airplanes in use. About 150 air bag-equipped general aviation airplanes have experienced an accident. Half of those accidents were not serious enough to cause the air bag to deploy, and there were no injuries. Of the remaining 75 accidents, about half were non-survivable. In the other 37 accidents the air bags deployed, reducing injuries. In 16 of these accidents, it was determined that the air bag literally saved the lives of the occupants.

In one example, a student practicing night takeoffs and landings with an instructor lost situational awareness turning final and flew into trees about 20 feet from the ground at 70 to 80 knots. Even though the airplane suffered major damage, both the instructor and the student were able to walk away from the accident, with only the instructor requiring a few stitches.

UND has experienced one accident in which the air bag deployed. A student pilot on a night cross-country landed long and added power to take off again. As he climbed into a “dark hole” visual environment, he lost situational awareness. Sensing low airspeed, he pushed forward on the control wheel and hit the ground at full power. His only injury was a cut to the forehead, caused by his headset, that required six stitches.

Training accidents are seldom caused by one simple error, and safety cannot be achieved by any single factor. The instructor must be well-trained, alert and ready to respond immediately to recover from any situation in which the risk outweighs the learning opportunity. The student must be conscientious and work hard to be prepared for each flight. Both the instructor and the student must be aware of their limitations and avoid exceeding them. However, the steps taken by UND and other flight schools can go a long way in providing an extra margin of safety, helping to avoid many potential accidents, and making any accidents that do occur more survivable.