August 1, 2007
By Bruce Landsberg
AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg flies a retrofitted aluminum TAA but avoided tar and feathers in Duluth.
In 2004 the AOPA Air Safety Foundation published the first report on technologically advanced aircraft (TAA). Back then there were only a few thousand TAA in the fleet. Today, hundreds of TAA are coming into the fleet monthly. There are three types of aircraft that can be designated as TAA: 1) a completely new design from companies such as Diamond Aircraft Industries, Cirrus Design, or Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. (formerly Lancair); 2) a new-from-the-factory classic design from companies such as Mooney Airplane Co., Cessna Aircraft Co., Hawker Beechcraft Corp., or Piper Aircraft Inc. with a glass panel; or 3) a retrofitted aircraft that carries at least a multifunction display, an IFR-approved GPS navigator, and an autopilot. Nearly all new production is now on the electronic bandwagon.
This diversity makes comparing safety and training of TAA to non-TAA a daunting task, but we've done our best. I presented the early results to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association's fifth annual Migration (COPA's annual get-together) at the Cirrus factory in Duluth, Minnesota, in late June. The report addresses all TAA, not just Cirrus. As with other ASF studies, we've probably managed to irritate everyone including manufacturers, owners, friends at the FAA, the NTSB, and AOPA, which means the report is about on target. There's something for everyone to like and a few things that may not be what anyone had hoped for.
The aircraft are not quite the panacea that some thought they'd be, at least at this point in their evolution, nor are they nearly as bad as some of their detractors would have you believe. The major area we'll discuss here is accidents.
There are some things that complicate the study, and many of the findings have more to do with the role of the aircraft and who flies it than with the fact that the aircraft is technologically advanced. In broad terms, an aircraft used mostly for cross-country trips would likely have more accidents relating to weather than would a training aircraft, which is much more likely to have a landing or takeoff accident because it spends most of its time in the pattern and is not exposed to much serious weather. So we'll reference traveling TAA and training TAA, and you should understand that this is a blurred distinction.
There are some definite wins. Fuel mismanagement, a major problem in legacy aircraft, is all but eliminated in TAA. By comparison, we're losing better than two aircraft a week in the legacy fleet to fuel exhaustion and starvation. It seems that flashing annunciators that can't be reset and warning tones or verbal reminders get even the thickest pilot's attention and, best of all, most systems require no action on the part of the pilot to calibrate critical fuel remaining. One of the slickest presentations is a range ring that shows up on the moving map. If the destination is inside the ring, there's enough gas; outside the ring means a fuel stop is more than just a very good idea.
Slick aerodynamics allow fixed-gear airplanes to match or exceed the performance of legacy retractables. That eliminates the forgetful pilot's belly slide and keeps the maintenance bill relatively low. It's a big step forward, but there is no free ride. Small wings that allow high cruise speeds also mean longer landing distances. If you operate off a 3,500-foot runway or longer, that's not much of a concern, but some traveling TAA are not designed for really small airports.
A number of pilots believe, abetted by sales literature and a few marketing personnel, that TAA have somehow altered the fundamentals of GA flying. However, despite some differences involving how the aircraft are operated, the core of decision making and many of the risk factors remain much as they have been with legacy aircraft. A while back I compared aircraft to chain saws (see " Safety Pilot: The Great Airplane Chainsaw Massacre," August 2005 Pilot). Manufacturers can add wonderfully improved safety devices, but for the tool to perform its intended function there will always be an element of risk. In the hands of the unskilled or careless, both aircraft and chain saws are deadly regardless of built-in safety.
We arbitrarily identified any accident aircraft built after the manufacturer switched to glass as TAA. Retrofitted TAA were not included in this study's sample, as the NTSB did not always identify the avionics on a legacy accident aircraft. It's not perfect but it helps to compute exposure. I won't get into the details of rate here, but fleet numbers alone do not tell the story. The new aircraft appear to fly quite a bit more than older aircraft. Between 2003 and 2006, glass-cockpit TAA accounted for 57 of the 3,783 total GA accidents. Eighteen of the 792 total fatal accidents were in such aircraft. There are several interesting comparisons, and I'll speculate on the reasons. You can draw your own conclusions.
For both total and fatal accidents, TAA have had fewer than half as many takeoff/climb accidents on a percentage basis as the overall fleet. This is anyone's guess at this point, as traveling TAA are not as likely to be used in primary training and thus have less exposure to the takeoff phase of flight. This conclusion is tempered by the fact that some traveling TAA are entering the training fleet. Check back in two years.
Despite the promising record for takeoff/climb, the accidents studied showed a higher percentage of landing accidents (52.6 percent versus 39.8 percent) and go-around accidents(10.5 percent versus 4.2 percent) in TAA. Legacy training TAA such as the Cessna 172 and Piper Warrior will suffer as they always have. Some speculation is that TAA of new design with very efficient wings often have higher wing loading. These aircraft provide great cruise performance, but landings are a bit more demanding with higher speeds, less potential float, and more power required than with some of the legacy wings. I should clarify that this is a training issue, not an aircraft problem. Just to check my theory, I compared the landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle in several traveling legacy aircraft with traveling TAA at 20 degrees Celsius and sea level: Cessna T210 — 1,520 feet; Beechcraft Bonanza A36 — about 1,530 feet; Columbia 400 — 2,600 feet; and Cirrus SR22 Turbo — 2,344 feet. Since by definition, traveling TAA are used in more cross-country flights, they lose home-field-familiarity advantage.
A case in point is a recent accident at a short, narrow (2,875-by-50-foot) mountain resort runway where several pilot-witnesses noted that a Columbia 350 approached "hot and high," bounced twice, and lost directional control in the ensuing go-around and struck parked aircraft. This accident had nothing to do with technology. It had everything to do with putting a low-performance pilot into a high-performance aircraft. That is always a recipe for trouble. Based on information in the preliminary NTSB report, the available landing distance was just slightly more than the book landing distance. It's betting the farm that an average pilot will consistently achieve the same performance as do the factory test pilots. If the trip profile requires operating into an airport like this, the prudent thing to do is to change aircraft or change airports. This type of operation leaves no margins.
Maneuvering accidents, a leading cause of fatalities in GA overall, were greatly reduced in TAA. As the fleet splits into traveling and training machines, the roles seem to lead pilots away from the low pass, buzz job, or impromptu aerobatic display. As trainers, the pilots and aircraft are under considerable supervision, which may discourage maneuvering foolishness, and in traveling TAA the focus is on getting someplace, not buzzing.
The area where traveling TAA fared the worst was in weather-related accidents. These accounted for nearly half (44.4 percent) of glass-cockpit fatal accidents compared with 16.4 percent for the GA fleet. There is still no way to determine how many of these pilots had datalink weather available to them, but it is reasonable to assume that many did. We have asked the NTSB to really dig into the datalink connection, because a number of these accidents relate directly to what the pilot knew and when he knew it.
VFR into instrument conditions is a leading cause for weather accidents in all aircraft, TAA or legacy. A classic accident occurred in 2005 when a Cirrus SR22 piloted by a 1,100-hour flight instructor and the airplane's owner flew into a mountain while scud running up the Columbia River gorge at night. One would be hard-pressed to find a worse area to attempt this kind of activity, since that mountain had claimed numerous other aircraft. Friends noted that the pilot had done this sort of thing a number of times before in the Cirrus. We come to the inescapable conclusion that even with fabulous instrumentation, including terrain awareness systems on some aircraft powered by Wide Area Augmentation System GPS on a large multifunction display, this activity is as deadly as it has always been.
On the other hand, it may be possible that many more marginal trips are being completed successfully. In the safety business we tend to look at the wreckage and overlook the positives. However, a nasty characteristic of accident statistics is that pilots are always successful until the last trip.
Absence of an accident doesn't mean that it's a safe operation. My belief is that the TAA have the potential to increase transportation utility, but that comes with increased responsibility for the pilot. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in Wind, Sand and Stars, "The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them." So it is with TAA.
There is much more to be said about training and transitioning into the new equipment, but we'll leave that for another time. If you'd like to look at the full report, it's available online. The new aircraft provide a new level of awareness and performance, but they have to be flown intelligently. Remember chain saws.
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