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It's Always a Blind Spot If You Never Look There

When the GPS Fails ... What's Your Backup Plan?

Once a skill prized by pilots, the modern aviator has turned navigation over to the autopilot, navigation app, or other GPS-enabled device. And most of the time that works just fine.

The thought of losing this function and having to revert to the basics may seem pretty remote. However, it does happen. Garmin was hacked this summer, and we lost the use of their systems. Once when I was in South America, my pilot friends there told me that, during a presidential visit, the US military intervened, and all of their GPS readings were off by 30 miles with no advance notice. (The GPS system is operated by the US government as a global service to the world; I guess this type of action is part of the fine print.)

Electrical failure, component problem, GPS system issue — there are many scenarios that could involve a loss of GPS navigation, and therefore all pilots should be aware of how they would safely operate in these conditions. 

Many years ago, before LORAN-C and GPS, I had an experience that taught me a valuable lesson about navigation basics. I was headed out into the deep water in the Gulf of Mexico, and the flight was at the limits of my fuel supply. After drawing lines on a map and figuring the wind drift, I set out with a load of men and tools. 

The trouble came when I was getting close to my destination and I could see two possible rigs that were 30 miles apart. My heading was taking me right in between them, and I did not have enough fuel to go to both. Which was the right platform? If I guessed wrong, I would have to fly an hour and a half back to the shore, get a fresh load of fuel, and go back.

I was lucky, I guessed correctly and did not have to bear the shame of missing my target and wasting three hours of time on the helicopter. When I told the story back at the hangar, one of the more experienced pilots gave me some good advice.

He said that you only have two accurate instruments in a VFR helicopter: the clock and the mag compass. If you know the distance and heading before you leave, you will never get lost if you follow this basic rule: fly out the time and turn into the wind!

Instead of correcting for wind drift, fly the heading and allow the wind to take you slightly off course. Turning into the wind at the end of the flight will take you right over your destination.

It sounds too simple but it ALWAYS works. It's an easy backup plan for when the sophisticated stuff fails … have a great, safe flight!
– Stan Rose
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Scanning for Trouble Outside of the Aircraft

We all talk about "keeping your head on a swivel" when you're in the air, but how do you actually do that?

To really improve your airborne safety, it can't be a random act, only done when you think about it. You must develop a purposeful habit to continually clear the airspace around your aircraft. It should to be as natural and as frequent as your instrument scan, but outside the aircraft.

What was the first thing you learned when you were developing the "big six" in your instrument scan? How to look at an instrument for a fraction of a second and take in what it was actually telling you — not what you expected or wanted to see, but what was really on the gauge.

The next thing you learned was how to keep the scan moving, to avoid getting trapped or fixated on one gauge for an inordinate amount of time. You taught yourself to analyze with your mind, not your eyes; none of the information you saw on a particular gauge would improve by staring at it.

Keep your eyes moving in the same pattern every time, and analyze the information you picked up on your own time. Gradually, you learned to look for changes in the information from one scan to the next and then reacting appropriately to the change.

What about outside of the aircraft — what can you see and what can't you see? Have you reviewed the blind spots on your aircraft? How do you minimize them?

From where the aircraft has been in the last few second, try mentally projecting where it is going to be in the next few seconds. There is your area to scan. Watch for shadows, corner-of-the-eye images, and perceived motion. What's above you, below you, in your 5 o'clock, 7 o'clock?

Scan a lot, nobody said this was going to be easy.  Where's the big danger spots in a helicopter? Above and behind descending at you, below and behind and climbing at you —  so look there a lot! When is the last time you caught yourself staring at the rotor? That was wasted time when you could have been protecting yourself.  

When is the last time you did a clearing turn before climbing or descending? It doesn't matter whose fault the mid-air was, it's still going to screw up your whole day. You wouldn't change lanes on the interstate without looking all around, what makes you think you can get away with it in flight? There's no such thing as an airborne fender bender.

Ask anyone who has been shot down if the "big sky little airplane" axiom works (it doesn't). Scan inside and out, constantly,

You really have only one ass to risk (1*). Whether you're on the ground, in flight, that number (1*) never changes, Let's be careful out there …
— J Heffernan
Taking a Second Look Before Return to Service
The other day I had the pleasure of working with Wayne Fry, who is the FAA Flight Standards Division Manager for General Aviation Safety Assurance. We were speaking to a group of small operators about how they could incorporate safety management systems (SMS) into their operations to improve safety and operational performance.
While the group was discussing ways to improve work processes, some attendees mentioned that, although it's always a good idea to "get a second opinion," there often isn't another A&P around in small operations to check the work. Whether informal or formal, these types of check-ins with colleagues can help A&Ps slow down — in a good way. They avoid rushing and by talking through their work, they have a chance to review the procedures and ensure that nothing was missed.

Wayne’s great suggestion is to use pilots as your second set of eyes. Although they may not have any maintenance experience, you will both benefit by having them take a look.

Explain to them what you did. If you take a little time to walk them through the steps that you took to do the procedure, they may have some questions that would be helpful and you might remember something that you did that might need to be checked. Show the pilots your toolbox and everything that you have used or installed on the aircraft. It might just jar your memory about a potential hazard: “Where did I put that last rag I was using to cleaning up?”

This type of education is also helpful for pilots who want to understand how their aircraft works beyond "pull up on the slanty stick to make the houses smaller." Pilots who really understand their aircraft systems are better equipped to detect and troubleshoot issues in those systems.

While you describe your work to pilots, this is a good time to demonstrate what a “positive” safety looks like: which direction a bolt should be installed or the proper method of cotter pin installation. This will improve those pilots' preflight skills, particularly when a ship is being returned to service after maintenance.

When Wayne described this process, there was no sense of distrust between the pilot and the A&P — just a good opportunity to collaborate on safety! In addition to ensuring that the procedure has been properly reviewed, thereby adding an additional layer of safety in a small operation, you also have a chance to educate pilots and develop the entire teams' skills for communicating about future maintenance problems.
– Stan Rose

Accident Review: Pre-Employment Checkride Gone Wrong

Disclaimer: We don't intend to place any blame on the pilot involved—we weren't there. We're using this accident report to create some talking points that may prompt other pilots to consider how they would confront similar circumstances. We recommend that you use this as a springboard for further discussion with a colleague. 

Basic Information

NTSB Accident GAA19CA514:
The helicopter pilot was being evaluated for a pilot position with a prospective employer, who was an ATP pilot and who occupied the right front seat during the check ride. The helicopter pilot was asked to perform an autorotation as part of the evaluation.

While entering the autorotation, the helicopter pilot noticed that the rotor and engine needles were split and that the engine tachometer indicated 0 rpm. He believed that the engine had failed. In subsequent questioning, the pilot reported that he could not hear if the engine was running during the flight because he was wearing a noise-canceling headset.

The pilot maintained the rotor rpm in the green and entered a flare about 40 feet above ground level. He attempted to cushion the landing, but the helicopter landed hard. The helicopter sustained substantial damage to the horizontal airframe tube cross-member.

During a post-accident examination of the helicopter, the throttle linkage functioned normally. All spark plugs were removed and examined; they exhibited indications of normal combustion. A fuel sample was obtained through the sump valve, and no water or particulate contamination was found. No evidence of any pre-accident mechanical malfunctions or failures were found with the helicopter that would have precluded normal operation.

Probable Cause and Findings

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:

The pilot's improper landing flare during an autorotation, which resulted in a hard landing. Contributing to the accident was a loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined because post-accident examination revealed no evidence of any pre-accident mechanical malfunctions or failures with the helicopter that would have precluded normal operation.

Discussion Points

Issue 1. Put yourself in the position of the pilot who was looking for a job. The prospective employer was airplane rated and he asks you to perform an autorotation … what would you do?
  • Is the employer helicopter rated or fixed-wing only? Does it matter?
  • Was the pilot qualified to do an actual autorotation with a passenger on board? The documentation shows that he had an instructor rating.
  • Does the operator's insurance typically cover nonstandard maneuvers?
Issue 2. Let’s talk about noise-canceling headphones. I have no experience with this technology, but it “sounds" like we should think about what we would do in a similar situation.
  • How important is it that a pilot can hear the sounds of his/her aircraft's operation?
  • Are there other times when a noise-canceling headset might hinder your response to an emergency?
Issue 3. The pilot had a total time of under 400 hours, and it sounds like the engine was not at fault. 
  • Was the pilot distracted by the engine failure?
  • Was the pilot distracted by the checkride?
  • Or both?
  • Would it be better to “demonstrate” an autorotation with the needles joined?
– Stan Rose
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