Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Won't get there from here

Sunday, February 07, 2010

En Eric Progressed

Wherein I shamelessly rip off Brit.

As recently discussed, boys are different than girls. In case that isn't already too great a leap into the screamingly obvious, I am going to go out on another speak-truth-to-academics limb:

Sons are different than daughters.

Different in the sense that boys are to paper airplanes as girls are to the Space Shuttle.

Different in the sense that, unlike the father-daughter relationship, fathers and sons are bound, to some degree, to be competitive. Sons inevitably compare their strength and agility against their dads', a comparison that goes both ways, and shifts inexorably in one direction.

Skiing is, despite the best efforts of parasitic lawyers, one of the last widespread activities that carries largely unmitigated risk. Yes, bindings are better; yes, more people wear helmets. But the signs at lift ticket windows are unambiguous: this activity is inherently risky, and if you get carried off the hill, no matter your state of disrepair, it is all on you.

I suppose I am a better skier than most, but not nearly as good as many. So as Eric (aka Man Child) first started skiing a couple winters ago, I had no trouble staying just ahead of him. Particularly after his fourth time out, when, given his singular lack of inadequate self esteem, he, without warning, pointed his skis straight down a double-diamond run, plummeting towards a knobbish rise a hundred yards down, which served as a satisfactory launching ramp.

Over which he flew, then behind which he disappeared. Old and wise enough to avoid participating, I stood and watched all this, with two thoughts evenly wrestling for prominence: "I hope he is alright." "His mom is going to kill me."

It took me a good five minutes to edge my way down to where I could see the end of his plummet. In the crash he had shed everything save his last name. Much to my relief, there was a thumbs up and a muffled "I'm good, Dad" from the heap of snow just past the trail made up of every bit of skiing paraphernalia he owned. From that experience he ratcheted his estimation of his skiing skills down a couple largish notches, taking to heart my suggestion that to ski in control is the most important thing. Thereafter, I was easily — while being careful to avoid making it too obvious — able to beat him to the bottom of a run.

Not a month later, I took MC and several of his friends skiing. After a couple warm-up runs on the lower mountain, we went to the top. We were in cloud the last half of the ride up, and on arrival learned we were the last ones, because they were closing the upper mountain due to deteriorating weather.

There we stood, in cloud and driving snow, alone. As mentioned, I am a better than average skier, but singularly inexperienced in the art of powder skiing. The boys were at least as impoverished in this regard.

I expect most girls would have gone right back to the lift and cadged a ride back to the bottom. Not only would it have occurred to them in the first place, the lack of manliness in the second would simply not register.

Instead, off we went, promptly fell, and just as promptly discovered how incredibly difficult it is to stand up again when your arm goes in the snow up to your shoulder without meeting anything more substantial than a wish to push off of.

And once you do stand up, you promptly fall over again because we were in a whiteout.

I have heard the term, but words can scarcely suffice. Everything is exactly the same color; there is no telling ground from sky. Visibility was down to 30 feet. The reason standing was so quickly followed by falling was the combination of slope we couldn't see and even less hint of a horizon made it impossible to ascertain vertical. It is a very odd combination of having all the coordination of a staggering drunk while being completely lucid. If we went too far to the right side of the run — a matter of fifty yards in spots, we could topple over an edge we couldn't see before knowing it was there. With the ends of the known world less than a dozen yards away, we could easily become separated.

Of such circumstances headlines are sometimes made.

From such circumstances, boys learn valuable lessons. Forming a plan. Another huge chunk of mountain was on the left side of the run, so we would bear left until we felt a ridge we could not see, and then follow the base of the ridge line to the bottom. Working as a team. Getting up again in deep snow is much easier with someone else. How important it is to have some general sense of direction. Staying calm under pressure.

Which was certainly much easier for them as teenage boys, who are primarily ABDANF*, with their sense of mortality attenuated to invisibility, than for me.

Took just over an hour to negotiate what we would have done in about three minutes otherwise.

On our third time out this season we decided to go night skiing, the first time for both of us. Our ski resort, Alyeska, is pretty small-time: the entire population within reasonable driving distance scarcely exceeds 250,000. The lift up to the top of the night runs is a rickety appearing thing: two seats, no restraining bar, with occasionally attention grabbing gaps to terra firma. The ride up was otherworldly. A just rising half moon and a spray of stars overhead, mountains as ghostly arena in purest black and white, and the moon-silvered Pacific Ocean off our right shoulder. Between lift towers the ride is silent and smooth, making it seem almost as if we were floating up.

Over the last year, Eric has grown six inches and gained a voice almost impossibly deep. In an evolution fueled by vanished carloads of food, he is not quite a man, and certainly no longer a child.

On our first run, I let him open a lead of 50 or so yards, expecting to close the gap at will. That way I can ski as fast as I want, without making too much of the fact.

Not this time. I found I had nothing for it. Going right to the limits of control, and even a couple times slightly beyond, the gap only increased.

When we got to the bottom, I slid to a stop next to him, and stuck out my hand. "Congratulations, son."

He was puzzled. "What for?"

"For well and truly beating me. This is the first time. It won't be the last."



My wife's term for masculinity in all its risk taking glory: All B@lls, D!ck and No Forehead

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Tin Kicked

The FAA (aka the Tombstone Agency) has fixed some flaws highlighted by last February's Buffalo, NY crash (which I have posted about here), but has not been able to deal with others.
When the National Transportation Safety Board meets on Tuesday to consider a final report, it will face not simple mechanical fixes, but issues of training, management and professionalism by the pilots. During three days of hearings in May, evidence was presented that the crew on the Colgan Air flight was poorly prepared.
To summarize the NYT, the NTSB cited these factors:
  • Inadequate training and quality control

  • Colgan airlines, operator of the mishap aircraft, apparently did not provide training on in-flight icing. The Captain had failed five checkrides during his flying career, two of which Colgan did not know about.

  • Professionalism.

  • In addition to other violations of the sterile flight deck rule, the First Officer had sent text messages from the flight deck, the latest five minutes before takeoff. The FO was also flying with a bad cold.

  • Fatigue

  • The First Officer had commuted from Seattle the night and morning preceding the mishap flight. "[What] to do about pilots who have a grueling commute before they start work — is not something the F.A.A. is eager to take on. Mr. Babbitt said that “there are so many ways that you can be fatigued; commuting is but a little teeny slice.”

  • Experience

  • First Officers can be hired with as few as 250 flight hours. "After the crash, some officials recommended a 1,500-hour minimum, a position endorsed by the unions for the big carriers."
As straightforward reporting by non-specialists, this NYT effort is not bad. It makes no glaring factual errors, nor does it spin the facts it presents.

But I am a specialist, so I am going to go a little deeper.

From the outset, I am convinced that the only issue germane to this mishap was the crew's failure to observe that airspeed was decaying below Vmin for the configuration. Mishandling the aircraft after the autopilot kicked off because it had reached its pitch trim limit is secondary. Everything else might be noteworthy in a general sense, but serves largely to distract from the problem at hand.

The finding on inadequate in-flight icing training is far less damning than it appears, and I doubt the NTSB has anything to back it up. Airframe icing is one of those basic pilot things. It increases stall speed both by deforming the wing and adding weight, while simultaneously increasing drag. If the NTSB was to conduct a knowledge survey of pilots possessing an instrument flight rules endorsement, the percentage not knowing this would hover somewhere just below nil. In addition, all airline flight operation manuals, by definition, are at least as restrictive with respect to icing as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). It is also worth noting that the crew did not violate any icing FARs.

Quality control is a much more difficult issue. Given that the entire reason 49 people are dead is because the Captain mishandled the airplane, it is hard to suggest busted checkrides did not indicate that he was fundamentally unsuited for the job he was doing. However, the article fails to note, because the authors can't be expected to know, why he busted those checkrides. If he failed them for reasons other than basic airmanship, than the real reason for the crash's sine qua non could still be completely untouched.

IMHO, based on this report, the NTSB is deaf to the screamingly obvious: the reason the crew failed to note the impending stall was because modern Flight Management System (FMS) equipped airplanes are very corrosive to a good instrument cross check, particularly airspeed.

Until flight departments start actively encouraging turning off all the magic when the conditions are permissive, all the checkrides in the world will be no more effective at addressing the fundamental cause of this mishap than dog obedience classes.

Of course, that still leaves busted checkrides as noteworthy in a more general sense. He certainly wouldn't be moving up to the Bigs with his, but the FAA's own rules having nothing to say on this score, and if they did, the jeopardy attached to each check event would inevitably lead to problems in their conduct. So identifying a quality problem doesn't mean there is an easy, or even any, solution.

The lack of professionalism this crew demonstrated is disturbing, but not necessarily in the ways the report discusses.

That the FO was texting five minutes before takeoff isn't even necessarily a violation. On the ground, the sterile cockpit rule applies only when the aircraft is moving. If the crew were in a queue for takeoff at the time the FO sent the text message, doing so would have been completely legal. The report doesn't talk about context, and I'll bet that is because the NTSB didn't, either. With respect to this accident, though, texting before takeoff simply does not matter, any more than driving the wrong way down a motorway depends on not having signaled when pulling away from the curb.

On the other hand, flying with a bad cold could well have contributed to failing to adequately monitoring the aircraft. So far as I know, all airlines award a certain amount of sick leave per year (my airline provides the equivalent of one month flying time per year, which accumulates) so that pilots can largely eliminate health decisions from their checkbook balance.

Fatigue also is not convincing. The FO commuted from Seattle to Newark via Memphis. I don't know if there were any other jumpseaters on her flights, but if there weren't any, or the other jumpseaters were gentlemen, she would have been able to toss the futon (if she was commuting on an MD10 or MD11) on the deck and potentially get at least four hours sleep. Further, by the standards of my typical schedule, there is nothing noteworthy about an all night commute. Fatigue just comes with the territory.

Required experience definitely deserves attention, although this is another problem that is less straightforward than it sounds. In the Bigs, two thousand hours as pilot in command (FO time doesn't count) of a turbine powered aircraft is pretty much the floor. However, that isn't reason to apply the same standard to commuters airlines. Turboprop aircraft are slower, far more forgiving, and don't present anything like the energy management issues that jets do. So 2,000 hours is beyond any reasonable upper bound.

Unfortunately, reasonable and doable experience levels are not necessarily the same thing, particularly now. Why? Checks, as in the kind that most of you don't write many of anymore. Once upon up until about ten years ago, people wrote lots of checks, and they got flown, at night, in single engine planes, to clearing banks. That is how most civilian pilots got enough flight time to get hired at commuters, then move up to the Bigs.

Getting flight time without getting paid for it is extremely expensive — roughly $150 per hour for a complex (i.e., retractable gear, variable pitch prop, IFR capable airplane). Without the gap filler that flying checks used to provide, making the minimum flight time for an FO even 500 hours could well mean that commuter destinations won't get any service because there simply won't be any pilots.

This mishap is extremely frustrating. This crew was undisciplined — blabbing below 10,000 feet is just wrong, and flying with a bad cold (or the Capt allowing the FO to fly in that condition) is no better. Looking at systemic problems, even if they aren't directly related to the crash makes sense. Unfortunately, I am left with the sense that the NTSB never directly addressed the most important reason the airspeed problem went completely undetected: too much magic, too often, takes the human out of the loop.

Which leads to surprised humans.

And corpses by the cord.

Epically, Fantastically, Face-Palmingly Wrong

From The Economist, comes this lead para that speaks volumes — all of them scathing — about both the writer and the editor:
ALL men are created equal, or so reckoned Thomas Jefferson as he drafted America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. Subsequent Americans have had reason to question the founding father. So too have people in the land from which the new nation gained its freedom. America and Britain are among the most unequal countries in the rich world ...
For this I am paying $100/year?

Ohhhh, that's what caveat emptor means.