Aircraft Accidents and Discipline

On September 17, 1908, Lt. Thomas Selfridge flew into history; he became the first recorded fixed wing aircraft accident fatality.  Selfridge was taking a test flight for the Army, flying as a passenger with Orville Wright.  As Wright entered into a right turn, the aircraft engine failed; the plane made a shallow dive into the ground.  Wright survived, but Selfridge was pinned under the engine, receiving fatal injuries.

Obviously, this tragic event was, for the available technology and aviation knowledge at the time, unpreventable; there was no previous experience for Orville Wright to benefit from to avoid the disaster.  One only has to look at later tragedies in space flight, the next frontier, e.g. Apollo One, Challenger and Columbia, to see that even learning curves can spark disaster caused by unknown elements or, in the case of both Space Shuttles, arrogance and complacency.  But we can’t escape that excuse these days, especially with standard flight knowledge.

Since 2003, I have been critical of individuals who tweak hard-earned privileges to their advantage; rights merited by more qualified professionals.  These persons ride the coattails of experts in their field or hide in the shadows of more competent individuals.  There is no discipline in acquiring these privileges; no knowledge went into the privileges; no responsibility is taken for use of the privileges.

For instance, people who abuse the Americans with Disabilities Act suffer no consequences for their arrogance; they’ll carry anything from a cat to a full-grown turkey onboard a passenger flight without regard for others’ safety or comfort.  The privileges acquired by, e.g. the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (UVSI), are damaged by those amateurs who use drones with absolute disdain for the safety and privacy of others.  These amateurs amount to a very small percentage of the specific community, yet they draw the most attention – mostly negative.

People with real disabilities have worked hand-in-hand with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other like organizations, to promote safety in the air.  Their trained service animals won’t snap at other passengers, defecate from fear of jet noises (which cause major delays and cost the operator thousands of dollars) and are able to handle emergency situations, while aiding their owner during evacuations.  The UVSI works hard to eradicate real drone threats, trying to bring in line the amateurs who abuse the privileges of using the commercial airspace and who are the drone threats.

In the 1965 movie, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, a group of men with the financial means to buy aircraft, race from London to Paris in 25 hours, 11 minutes.  Released almost 53 years ago, the movie is a classic example of how money does not represent experience.  Several ‘pilots’ play a dangerous game of learning to fly while preparing for the race.  The lyrics speak to their acquired skills: “They enchant all the ladies and steal all the scenes,” and “Up, down, flying around, looping the loop and defying the ground.”

In my first novel, The Air Crash Files: Jet Blast, my protagonist, Daniel Tenace, makes an off-handed comment about light-sport pilots in the air above Fauquier County, Virginia; he calls them ‘FDGs’ (Future Dead Guys).  The character states this, not as a citizen tired of, e.g. the ultralight engine’s ‘lawn mower’ noise – though at early morning hours, they are annoying.  He makes the remark because he and others have spent years training to work on and fly aircraft; that aviation is, like the sea, unpredictable and unforgiving.  One has to be prepared for anything.

This is not a reflection on the many people who are legitimate Light-Sport Pilots belonging to legitimate organizations, e.g. The United States Ultralight Association (USUA) from whom I expect to receive a strongly worded letter in the near future.  On the contrary, I find these organizations to be excellent advocates for their members, providing advice, regulatory support and a community that stands behind each member, because, let’s face it, Government Officials don’t know everything.

To better understand the requirements to operate as a Sports Pilot, review Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Subpart J, Parts 61.301 through 61.307; General Operating and Flight Rules are listed under 14 CFR Part 91.  14 CFR Part 61 Subpart J lays out all the hurdles and obligations a Sports Pilot needs to meet to obtain their certificate.  The issue I have is not my feelings on what qualifies a person to fly Sport Pilot; instead, it’s the discipline to continue flying successfully and safely in that unpredictable and unforgiving sky.

In 14 CFR Part 61.303, the requirements are given for operating a light-sport aircraft.  A person using a United States (US) driver’s license to operate a light-sport aircraft (LSA) must comply with restrictions and limitations of the US driver’s license and hold a valid FAA-qualified medical certificate, that it is in good standing and in the applicant’s possession.  An applicant must pass a knowledge test on aeronautical knowledge; they must pass a practical test on operations specified in 61.309 and 61.311.

Yet my concern remains: is possession of a US driver’s license as a requirement enough to apply for a light-sport aircraft certificate?  LSA pilots must pass familiarization training, yet I feel there isn’t incentive to be current; up, down, flying around looping the loop and defying the ground doesn’t qualify as being current or building experience.  Is there a time limit on recurrent training?  If the window of opportunity for LSA pilots is a month or two in a six-month period, how do they refresh their skills and what regulation requires it?  If they break a leg or have surgery during this missed window of opportunity, are they required to retest?

I spent three years in a trade school chasing my Airframe and Powerplant certificate; when I joined the airlines, that certificate only qualified me to train as a mechanic.  There was a time limit saying that: even though I had years of experience working, e.g. DC-10 maintenance, if I didn’t work on a DC-10 in a specific amount of time, then I had to retrain, start from scratch.

Private and commercial pilots are the same way; recurrent training is mandatory.  Recurrent training is not required as a gimmick or money-making scheme; it is dictated to assure the pilot or mechanic holds the highest level of safety first.  Toba Beta said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice reduces the imperfection.”

The CFRs are ambiguous; they are written that way to assure some wiggle room in the regulations.  I may have missed a point of 14 CFR Part 61, but I don’t see how not being proficient is discipline.  To obtain any type of pilot certificate based initially on possession of a US driver’s license hardly seems to inspire one to build experience.  Is a desire to be a LSA pilot enough or does one have to go beyond a requirement; to take the initiative to be better by practice?

Orville Wright lived until 1948.  He saw firsthand the advances made in aviation, launched from his and Wilbur’s dream.  Yet, I’m sure Orville lamented that Lt. Selfridge died because something happened outside of his control.  If Orville had anticipated the engine failure, the effect it would have on the aircraft’s stability could have been minimized; perhaps Lt. Selfridge would have lived a longer life.  Every life is full of what-ifs.  It’s important not to ask what-if all the way to the crash site.

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