July 1, 2009
By Bruce Landsberg
Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg has served the association since 1992.
Looking at some of the new aircraft—and the same old accident causes—got me to thinking again about how good engineering can really assist in not depending so much on the training or the human memory, neither of which is particularly robust. Fifteen years ago I opined in “ Safety Pilot: Wish List” (April 1994 AOPA Pilot) about some design features that would be helpful in new aircraft. A few have been incorporated and many are still languishing on a drawing board somewhere. Here’s a second round.
Last time we talked a lot about annunciator lights and most new aircraft come with them to varying degrees. We’ve had great success with Technologically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) in fuel mismanagement accidents because the machine unambiguously lets the pilot know when the sound of the engine will stop—the accident involvement of TAA running out of fuel is nil compared to legacy airplanes. If you’d like to see how we’re doing go online. Don’t have a new aircraft or avionics setup? Get a good timer that buzzes or flashes at the appropriate times. You do have to remember to set it but in the older aircraft I fly, it’s a great reminder and it’s cheap.
The next area for good annunciation should be door warning lights that indicate if a door or external baggage area is not secured properly. Use a key to lock external baggage doors—every time. You can’t buy a new car today without door warning lights and chimes, so why not airplanes? Becoming airborne with unsecured doors shouldn’t be a critical situation but sometimes it becomes one. There are numerous accidents where pilots wrestled with the door instead of focusing on flight.
A recent case involving a Cirrus SR22 departing into low IMC would have been disastrous if the aircraft had not been equipped with the chute and the pilot did not have the presence of mind to use it. The aircraft was lost but not a life. This isn’t a new problem, and leave it to free enterprise to come up with an aftermarket door annunciator system, but wouldn’t it be more cost effective to just include it in the first place on every aircraft leaving the factory? Cirrus isn’t the only manufacturer that has had an occasional grand opening and it really is time for manufacturers to put their A-team engineers on not just annunciating door problems but fixing them.
Here’s an easy fix—in this day of Internet and electronic documents, why not put all pilot information and service manuals online and without needing a password? Save a tree. Cirrus gets an “A” for this since it allows prospects and owners to get what they need when they need it. I suspect hard-copy sales of these books is not what’s keeping companies in business and a better informed pilot community is to everyone’s advantage. This also applies to avionics and aftermarket equipment.
Moving to the front of the aircraft, since the engine(s) are such a critical part of the operation, wouldn’t it be nice to actually open up a cowling on a preflight and see that everything is connected properly and not leaking? One could check fluid levels, hoses, belts, wiring—all kinds of important stuff. Hawker Beechcraft gets the “A” for the Bonanza cowl and I have personal experience on the value of this relative to an oil leak on a new engine. Looking through the oil dipstick “trap door” of most aircraft just isn’t very enlightening about what’s going on in the engine room. When maintenance is needed, and it will be, being able to just pop the hood to get to routine items saves about a half hour of labor. It also doesn’t require two people to wrestle with a large piece of fiberglass or sheet metal—sometimes on a windswept ramp. That’s always entertaining to watch but not really helpful to the maintenance operation. Over a few years of ownership the extra cost of easy access is recouped by better maintenance, better owner inspection, and savings on the shop bill.
Speaking of routine maintenance, I’ve often wondered about things such as oil filter changes. Why mount the filter vertically where gravity will invariably allow some of the black greasy stuff you’re draining to get onto that nice pristine engine or cowl? Again, there are aftermarket kits but it just seems like this could be designed in up front.
In the sad new world of security reality wouldn’t it make sense to put some better locks on the doors and perhaps even build a throttle lock right into the quadrant or panel? There are aftermarket units but I’ll bet a sharp engineering student could figure this out. The beauty of the throttle lock, compared to many of the prop locks I’ve seen, is that you can’t forget to remove it. Forgetting the prop lock is not a mistake someone will make more than once, and a throttle lock doesn’t require standing in the rain to attach or remove. Quick and easy is something that any security system should aspire to.
To ping glass primary flight displays for a minute, I’d really like to see two areas go back to analog display, or at least allow the option. If you’ll recall, in the 1980s General Motors tried large digital speedometers on many of its cars. The public didn’t like them much. Ditto digital watches—they were all the rage but in an absolutely unscientific experiment I’ve been running, most people have gone back to analog. (There are exceptions and you know who you are.) The reason is it’s easier to glance at relative position and get the scoop than to actually read a number.
Airspeed for takeoff and landing typically will be in the three- to four-o’clock position. Altimeters read out in thousands of feet for IFR cruise flight at 12 o’clock and 500-foot increments for VFR cruise flight at six o’clock. A quick glance immediately advises if a correction is needed up or down. On approach minimums, I visualize where the hundred-foot pointer will be. Can’t do that with a digital readout.
But there is a place for digits in altimeters. The drum pointer type used on most turbine aircraft, before glass became standard, was excellent. Thousands and hundred of feet were shown digitally in the center of the display, eliminating multiple needles that caused more than a few crashes. The hundreds and smaller numbers were shown by a needle that swept the perimeter of the dial just as it does in the old three-pointer. It’s the best of both worlds and could be generated on PFDs but for some programming. I’d have the analog display and the digital- watch types could have theirs.
Just to prove my point or start an argument, some of the best human factors engineers in the business work for NASCAR. There, the tach is the critical instrument; it’s analog and it’s usually mounted directly in front of the driver. A quick glance at the relative position of the needle says more power or “oops.”
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The FAA has asked the National Transportation Safety Board to review a judge’s ruling reversing a fine it levied in an unmanned-aircraft case.
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