Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part blog looking at a report submitted to the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace (IJAAA) and published September 12, 2016, through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Scholarly Commons. It is titled Seeing the Threat: Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Visual Meteorological Conditions (commons.erau.edu/ijaaa/vol3/iss3/13). It was written by Jon Loffi, Jamey Jacob, and Jared Dunlap, all of Oklahoma State University (OK); and Ryan Wallace of Polk State University (FL). It is a well-researched paper that looks at the risk(s) that commercial and general aviation aviators experience flying in the same National Airspace System (NAS), with and being able to see Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operating within the NAS.
First, may I remark, that this is a well-researched paper with excellent findings. The authors recognize that their research is one to be built upon; for the baton to be passed and taken through to the next lap. All metaphors aside, there is one negative comment I must bring forward: this research is years too late. It is definitely one to act as a foundation, and other writers should be able to build upon what is here. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), Embry-Riddle (and any other UAS instruction institutions) and every other alphabet group who finds UASs a possible intrusion upon the established NAS have been way too passive; they have complained about the new ways or simply accepted their presence while entitling inexperienced UAV operators to interfere with air operations that have themselves, e.g. airlines, oil rig helicopters, crop dusters, etc. been in existence for DECADES.
The report starts out with four basic questions:
1. What is the mean distance in which an aware pilot can reliably visually detect a converging UAS platform under visual meteorological conditions?
2. Is there a substantial difference in detectability of fixed wing versus quadcopter UAS platforms?
3. Is there variability between a pilot’s perceived visual distance from a UAS and their actual distance?
4. Based on the FAA’s model for Aircraft Identification and Reaction Time, would the pilots have adequate time to evade a UAS collision?
It is not my intent to go into specific detail their set-up, much less the findings; I will give some conditions that were used. The test aircraft was chosen for consistency: a Cessna 172S G1000. Test subjects (TS) were mostly 20-25 years of age, while a 25-30 TS and 60-65 TS were thrown in to mix things up. Test flight approaches that resulted in the sightings were organized; two UAS platforms were equipped with ADS-B and painted to contrast with the background, flying within visual range. For the sake of space, not all caveats and explanations will be listed here. Overall detection was a 40.3% of the intercepts’ success rate. The detections occurred between 0.10 and 0.31 statute miles.
The results displayed in their chart showed that a hovering or transitioning UAV being detected to either side of the test aircraft (port or starboard) were less likely to be scanned by the observer than a UAV coming head-on, and that was influenced by which of two UAVs were observed. Estimated and Actual estimated distances as guessed by test subjects varied little by comparison.
The authors point out that the results were based on ideal situations: each pilot was aware of the UAV and from which direction it came; conditions were perfect for distance sighting and weather conditions. There is no delusion of what the findings portray: a need for continuing research.
In my business, I’ve found it is vital that we do not operate from ‘tombstone investigation findings’; we must be diligent, working from a strong stand of facts, while not giving away the store to the inexperienced with agendas. The air industry cannot repeal what will be put into place; once regulations are written and permission is granted, no ‘take-backs’ can be made. We stand on the precipice of safety on such a grand scale, not only with General Aviation, but with commercial aviation. There are also those on the ground that trust the skies enough not to glance constantly over their shoulders for falling aircraft.
This research paper must be the first of many. Let’s get this right before we regret our impatience.

Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part One

This is going to be a two-part blog looking at a report submitted to the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace (IJAAA) and published September 12, 2016, through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Scholarly Commons. It is titled Seeing the Threat: Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Visual Meteorological Conditions (commons.erau.edu/ijaaa/vol3/iss3/13). It was written by Jon Loffi, Jamey Jacob, and Jared Dunlap, all of Oklahoma State University (OK); and Ryan Wallace of Polk State University (FL). It is a well-researched paper that looks at the risk(s) that commercial and general aviation aviators experience flying in the same National Airspace System (NAS), with and being able to see Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operating within the NAS.
It appears that these gentlemen expended a lot of time and effort to research this topic, which this author feels should have been evaluated years ago. I won’t question the lack of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) participation, aside from statistical information, e.g. mid-air sighting data; the FAA Mike Monroney Center at Will Rogers Airport is only 75 miles from Oklahoma State University’s main campus in Stillwater, OK. There is housed several simulators, one being a 737 simulator that would have proven to be a reliable source of data of how UAVs can/can’t be seen from a landing aircraft, without risk to human safety. To be honest, I have concerns that the conditions in the paper were obscure to the urgency of the issue, but I will look at the data next week.
But first, I admire these gentlemen for researching this topic; never before have I felt that we treated an issue such as this (UAS in the NAS) with an attitude of ‘Tombstone’ investigating – reactive, not proactive. If I come off as cynical towards them, it is because I am an analytical person by nature; my writing sometimes comes off as cold, distant, so I mean no disrespect. Unfortunately, I’m often focused too much on the hole I’m digging, I fail to see who gets hit with the dirt I’m throwing over my shoulder.
According to the report, between November 2014 and January 2016 the FAA reported 1346 sightings and near misses of UAS platforms. Think about that: that amounts to over 100 sightings nationwide per month or at least three per day. And those were the ones reported or where the UAS was even seen.
The three writers note that “Until such benchmarks are established for electronic Detect, Sense, and Avoid Systems, pilots must rely on visual means to ensure positive separation from UAS platforms.” This is why the FAA simulators would have been invaluable. The report estimates that 58.8% (391 events in fifteen months) “of UAS encounters occurred near airports where UAS operations are prohibited.”
This is remarkable! For one, sightings of UAVs near JFK, LGA and EWR have been made since at least early 2014 that I’m aware of, probably earlier. Secondly, I’ve flown in the cockpit of major airliners for some thirty-three years, airliners that ranged from Embraer 135s to DC10s. Even in the best visual conditions with unlimited visibility a UAS can be invisible to the naked eye against a background of trees, neighborhoods, oceans, mountains, etc., even if you are expecting to see something that small; it is twice as hard to gauge its speed, altitude and direction. Approach speeds of an airliner at altitudes that a UAS can operate are between 150 to 200 knots (172 to 230 MPH); take-off speeds can be higher with the nose pointed up at the clouds. These are the busiest workload times that airline pilots must endure, even spreading the wealth between two pilots.
So let’s look at some undeniable facts of flying: airline pilots on approach are extremely busy, e.g. manning the radios, looking for other more noticeable traffic that would show on their radar, deploying flaps at the right time, lining up the approach, checking engine gauges, dealing with onboard anomalies, checking instruments, lowering gear and checking for lock. Now it’s expected for them to scan the horizon for a device the size and bulk of a barbeque grate in a 3-D landscape (X, Y and Z axis). The UAS does not register on radar, is not lighted and the operator has the visual limits of a straight line where he/she is flying the drone – and nowhere else. To give some perspective, in those conditions a UAS would be impacting the airliner before the pilot knew what hit it.
Some airlines even require their pilots to shoot approaches using the Heads-up device (HUD); what this means is the Captain is using the HUD; its screen is littered with digital information the Captain must reconcile while the First Officer is occupied with the remaining tasks of landing the airliner.
Imagine the effect of an airliner struggling to stay in the sky; lateral control is greatly reduced due to engine ingestion resulting in unexpected yaw at an unrecoverable altitude. Think US Air 1549, or worse, American 587 over a heavily populated area.
This week a Porter Airlines Bombardier Q400 had a near miss with a UAV while approaching Toronto; two flight attendants were hurt. A Q400 is slower than a jet, but even then the reaction was not quick enough to avoid injuring two flight personnel while making evasive maneuvers to dodge the UAV.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) disputes these findings of the FAA; they have conducted their own research which, while reducing the FAA’s numbers, does nothing to eliminate the reported risks the UASs make to the NAS. They argue that terms like ‘close calls’ and ‘near misses’ are inaccurate, qualifying instead as ‘UAS sightings’; a rose by any other name …
The AMA insists that since December 2015 reports of sightings have steadily declined and that since many of the sightings can’t be substantiated for distance, speed or altitude, the FAA’s numbers are in error.
There is a fact the report establishes that needs to be addressed in this world where unwelcome UASs intrude upon the NAS with no notice, especially near airports. From the moment the pilot of any aircraft, e.g. general aviation, helicopter or airliner, first recognizes a UAS, it takes 12.5 seconds for the aircraft to respond to the pilots’ evasive commands.
When one is racing up on a destructive obstacle in its path, 12.5 seconds is an eternity.

Aircraft Accidents and Compensating for Inexperience

I recently got into a word-for-word disagreement with a friend of mine; we come at accident investigation from a different direction – not like compass headings 90°-to-270°, but more like 30°-to-60°. The disagreement involved books written to document the ‘facts’ behind well-known accidents, how certain authors were much more believable based on … hmm, I’m not sure. And that’s what disturbed me about the discussion.
I have on many occasions been very critical of the NTSB and some of its investigators, that their attention to detail was lacking and their lack of experience deserved more attention. These are people, investigators, who are first on the scene (after the human remains have been removed) and begin digging through the wreckage for clues. Now for all their lack of industry experience, none of them have been hired in because they are without time working with metal – or these days, composites – or because they’re really good writers who know when to use an Oxford comma. They bring to the table, in varying degrees of knowledge, an ability to eventually get to the root of problems that caused accidents. And if they can’t draw from experience, then they rely on the team of experts they lead at the accident scene, each being from a different part of industry.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about conspiracy theorists. To clarify, not all people who write opinions are conspiracy theorists. But at the same time, people who write about accidents fall under two categories: the ones that live it and the ones that quote the ones that live it. I am one of the ones that lived it; I don’t have to ask anybody else to explain it to me so that I can get it right. Now I may have my opinions about accidents I didn’t work, e.g. MH370 or TWA800, but those opinions will stay mine; I will never try to sell a book to voice them.
Some people feel that they need to add to the confusion; their opinion(s) will rise above the noise made by so-called experts on-site because … well, I’m not sure why these people are called to write, what amount to, hardcover opinion pieces. The only reason I can think of is to make money off people who are too gullible to appreciate the truth; people that think these writers are experts because the writers say they are.
But they are not. And people are being taken in by these writers every single day.
I read a book two years ago; it dealt with safety and procedural problems within the airline industry. The book was authored by someone who had spent a total of, maybe several months working in flight scheduling, a part of the industry (not associated with my specialty: maintenance) before continuing as a newspaper contributor for several decades. I read the book prior to appearing with the same writer in an aviation school seminar, my book being fiction and the writer’s being non-fiction.
The writing in the book was all second-hand information; a lot of ‘he said, she said’, but nothing qualifying as original thought or original ‘it happened to me’. Accusations and allegations flew indiscriminately like a drive by shooting, again, all based on hearsay. Furthermore, the book was littered with quotations; some were not even complete quotes, but selected words cherry-picked specifically to make the writer’s point. One thing I’ve learned about quotes, especially those cherry-picked – or bookended by ellipses – is that they are not to be trusted as reliable. That is not to say that quoting Charles Dickens isn’t worthwhile, but the placing of quotation marks to distort the meaning of the quote is wrong.
At the aviation school seminar, I was making a point to a student’s question about Repair Stations and contract maintenance, this writer took possession of the microphone to dispel my opinion; the writer began by saying, “In the real world …” before mocking my answer to the student’s question, which was aimed at my background. Now you may say, “But Stephen you just used an incomplete quote with an ellipse.” Yeah, I did. But I don’t think I needed any more than that to get the point across that this writer didn’t know the subject matter that he/she spoke to. Besides, I was sitting right there when the quote was made, so it wasn’t hearsay.
Everybody has an opinion; hey, I’m an Italian New Yorker, no one understands that better than me. However, I prefer to keep my opinions to myself, especially in a politically charged year such as this. But more importantly, my opinions are based on my first-hand experience; whether I’m talking to my sons about auto repair or a classroom full of aircraft mechanics about an accident, you can bet I’m speaking from personal knowledge or else I make it clear that I’m not; I will even say, “Let’s look at the regulations or the policy.”
To do otherwise is a special type of dishonest; to push one’s self off as an expert where one has no expertise is deceptive, but more than that it’s dangerous. The fans of aviation, e.g. enthusiasts, planespotters, aviation educators and students; those who are truly looking for information is why I write … it definitely isn’t for the money. I respect them because we share the same interests and I know what it means to get it right. Deceptive writers, those pawning themselves off as ‘experts’, I can’t do anything about what they do. They just seem to me to be snake oil salespeople, bottling water in hard-or soft-covered bottles marked: Dr. Experience.

Aircraft Accidents and Drama

The following of accident investigations via documentaries and movies is turning into quite the business. For example, the movie, Miracle Landing, the 1990 movie based on the Aloha Air flight 243 accident, starring Wayne Rogers. Numerous books are written on a variety of accidents from TWA800 to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, complete with the author’s personal how and why he/she knows the real truth behind the event(s). And there are also documentaries, such as the Mayday (or Air Crash Investigations or Air Emergency) series, that tells the stories of accidents past with information based on real events. Sounds intriguing, don’t it? Actually, it’s a lot of drama with liberties taken on the facts.
How do I know? I worked some of those accidents portrayed in the series and even appeared in one episode called ‘Dead Weight’, show date April 30, 2008.
‘Dead Weight’ follows the events leading up to and through to the aftermath of the Air Midwest 5481 accident that occurred on January 8, 2003. I was asked by the producers to participate in March 2007; I was then flown down to Charlotte, NC, to be filmed.
When you are being filmed, you do not associate with the other people filming their scenes, so you don’t have any say in what goes into the script, accurate or not – kind of what happened with movies like Sully. In essence, you are coming into the middle of a narrative without any knowledge of what precedes or follows in the script that bears on what you are saying or have said. Let me give you an example: the ramp agent, or gate agent, that gives a skeptical, doubtful look when the pilot says they have no issues with the weight and balance; the actress makes a face that, to me, says she thinks there’s something wrong, but that she will defer to the pilots’ decision. If this were the case and the gate agent was privy to an unsafe flight condition before launch, she would have been held to a higher responsibility than just a shrug of the shoulders as suggested. I used to be a load master for a cargo airline; weight and balance is something every pilot – and every gate/ramp agent – takes very, very seriously.
But let’s go to the investigation itself. It is dramatized in the episode that the lead investigator was in absolute control of the investigation, almost to the point of micro-managing. The truth is that the Inspector-in-charge (IIC) has little to no sway with each individual investigator or their groups. Each party lead investigator (like me) was hired for their expertise and – though they may advise the IIC – they don’t check in with him/her for advice.
So the “Ah-ha” moment the IIC supposedly has about the cables was not even in her wheelhouse. To be truthful, the ball got rolling because the FAA found out – not the NTSB – that the cables had been rigged not long after the aircraft crashed, within a few hours, and certainly before the cables were extracted from the wreckage. In fact, that is why the cables were even looked at, a timely ‘discovery’ for my first part of the investigation.
It’s not like the FAA to demand credit and very much like the NTSB to take it. The point about the cables being mis-rigged was relayed to me as I travelled to Huntington, WV, to conduct on-site interviews with the maintenance folks and scour through the maintenance records, especially (now) of the cable rig and training. It was during these interviews that other, more irresponsible behavior was discovered that I relayed during the episode. These items were discovered, again, not just by me, but by my investigatory team members who brought their expertise with them.
A point I tried to make during my spot on the episode – a crucial issue – were the layers of unknown contractors conducting maintenance on the aircraft. This discovery was made weeks later when the operator confessed to the fact. It also turned out to be the most important finding of the maintenance issue because the mis-rigging of cables; the skipping of maintenance steps; and the confusion of job functions all came from that discovery of the contractors and their oversight.
So while the documentary tried to tell a story, some the facts of the accident were not communicated to the audience. It’s not a crime to tell fabrications in a story or even to tug at people’s heartstrings for dramatic effect. But I’ve communicated with enough aviation enthusiasts, whether at book signings or while teaching, to appreciate the fact you want to know the truth and not a line someone is selling you.