I enjoyed the article on the use of Predator UAVs by Homeland Security (" Beyond the Border," July Pilot), but I couldn't help thinking that the same mission could be performed in a much more cost-effective manner using a FLIR (forward looking infrared camera) equipped general aviation aircraft. The military uses UAVs primarily because they can loiter over "bad guy country" for long periods of time without risking a pilot or requiring the extensive support (suppression of air defenses, armed search and rescue on call, escorts, tankers) that manned aircraft need. Unless illegal aliens are now carrying air-to-air missiles, there is no such requirement on the border. Neat technology, but a huge waste of money.
I understand that the Predator is not allowed to fly in controlled airspace outside of R-2303. If this is true and the author knew it, he misled his readers by not making this very clear. Moreover, I believe that the crash of the Predator on April 25, 2006, did not occur as the government says it did. I was monitoring the border patrol frequencies at 4:30 a.m. that day and heard that the Phoenix (call sign for the Predator) broke off a mission over the Ladd Ranch near Naco, Arizona, because of "difficulties." I recorded the transmissions. News 4 in Tucson reported that the Predator crashed on "Morning Star Ranch, a remote area about 10 miles east of Interstate 19." This is about 50 nm from where the original sign of trouble was noted. Moreover, if the Predator was operating above FL 180, if it ran out of fuel, the pilots certainly could have steered it away from the populated area where it crashed. (I believe at the time of the crash there were no restrictions and the Predator was operating at about 12,000 feet, or about 9,000 agl.) The border is a very political place. It is extremely important that the people know the truth about what goes on down here (I have a ranch right on the border in southeastern Arizona) and it is imperative that reporters and editors take great care in fact-checking their stories.
Jason Paur writes: As stated in the article, the Predators used by the U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) in Arizona are allowed to fly outside of R-2303 once they have climbed to 18,000 feet into Class A airspace and remain in positive contact with air traffic controllers that have been trained to work with the Predator. This has only been the case since the spring and was confirmed by CBP, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FAA. With regards to the crash of the Predator in 2006, I appreciate your input regarding the incident. The only information available at the time of the writing, and the only official information that is currently available, does indicate an inadvertent fuel cut off by the pilot. The aircraft also lost communication with the ground control station after losing power, which may explain why it crashed where it did.
The article "Beyond the Border" paints a picture of the Predator UAV as an aircraft with which I am supposed to eventually be happy to share the air, primarily because it is operated (at least when a reporter is present) by real pilots, and it is equipped with cameras that allow it to "see" traffic (at least when those cameras are operational). Readers should not be lulled by this article into thinking that all UAVs are as "safe" as the Predator is claimed to be. In fact, some UAVs are deaf, dumb, and blind to other airborne traffic. The current Wild West environment in which UAVs are operated is a threat to the safety of other aircraft. I hope my experience with a UAV in a public airport traffic pattern is not the norm. When I filed a VFR flight plan on February 15 from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and again on February 16 from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, the FAA briefer mentioned "unmanned aerial vehicles below 7,000 feet msl within a two-mile radius of Las Cruces." Las Cruces is at 4,456 feet msl. The briefer told me there was no way to contact the UAV's operator, and that it was my responsibility to "see and avoid." On the ground, I happened to see that UAV: It was about the size of a condor, painted dull gray. How are pilots on VFR flight plans supposed to see and avoid a deaf, dumb, and (with regard to traffic), blind UAV that is the size of a large bird but deliberately camouflaged? If it is my responsibility to see and avoid the camouflaged bird, why is it not the responsibility of the UAV's operator to see and avoid me and other traffic? Why is the FAA taking such a cavalier attitude about the menace to civil air traffic represented by the UAVs that do not carry the equipment that is, theoretically, supposed to help the Predator avoid GA traffic?
I enjoyed the article on the Cessna 182T (" Meet the Automatic Turbo Skylane," July Pilot), but I had one comment. The photo of the AmSafe seat belts show them buckled and the seats unoccupied. I was trained, and I train my students, to never buckle these seat belts when the aircraft is parked or the seats are unoccupied since fastening the buckle is what arms the airbags for deployment.
Al Marsh writes: Buckling the seatbelt does enable the system but there is no danger of inadvertent deployment as the aircraft would still need to sustain a significant impact to deploy the airbags (unless the system had been tampered with). Cessna recommends leaving the system unbuckled when not in use and suggests following all pertinent information in the Flight Manual Supplement.
The passenger briefing by the overbold pilot in " Safety Pilot: What Was He Thinking?" in the July issue was priceless. When I was shopping for a Grumman Yankee years ago, the seller/broker responded to my statement that the aircraft was not aerobatic by saying "watch this," and then proceeded to do a roll before I told him I wanted out. I hadn't known there were such "pilots" among us until that day.
I strongly disagree with Bruce Landsberg's conclusion that the primary cause of the accident was "bad judgment." I believe the primary cause of the accident was that the type of training needed to fly the airplane in anything other than straight-and-level attitudes is simply not available. The major contributing cause was the pilot's lack of skill in this type of flying. I get the impression that Landsberg thinks of an airplane as a high-speed automobile. Contrary to the implication, many airplanes can be flown in unusual attitudes without exceeding the normal flight envelope. An airplane does not care if it is upside down as long as the design loads and airspeed limits are not exceeded. The mishap pilot clearly wanted to learn how to get the most out of his airplane. My guess is that he went to the local FBO for training and they turned him away, probably because of liability considerations and/or the lack of a qualified instructor. So he did the next most logical thing - he flew with more experienced pilots to improve his airmanship. What he found was that experience does not necessarily result in better airmanship. I should not be restricted from flying my airplane to its full potential just because others do not want to or are incapable. As one of the leaders of an organization that represents more than 400,000 pilots, Mr. Landsberg is in the perfect position to make a difference. The five deaths in this case were a direct result of previous litigation, which resulted in the disappearance of the type of training that would have prevented the accident.
Bruce Landsberg writes: Aerobatics can be done in any aircraft provided the aerodynamic limits are not exceeded. However, the margins are considerably less in a normal or utility category than in an aerobatic aircraft. The aerobatic aircraft has been tested for controllability in all aspects of flight and shown to be recoverable and there is more time for the pilot to sort things out if he doesn't get it exactly right. This is not true with non-aerobatic aircraft. The idea that aircraft limitations do not apply to a particular pilot if one has been properly trained, is a non-starter with me. Anyone can get an aerobatic waiver from the rules provided they can demonstrate they have the skill and will not put other people at risk by engaging in a demonstrably higher risk activity. What is absolutely unforgivable about this crash is the fact that the pilot killed four other people who had entrusted their lives to him. To blame this tragedy on the legal system is to ignore the pilot's basic responsibility to not attempt a maneuver without the proper training. It's a long stretch to blame the system for this pilot's lack of skill or understanding of why the rules are there.
As to your statement that you should not be restricted from flying your airplane to its full potential, you are free to do so - as long as you get the proper training, comply with the rules, and do not involuntarily involve others. Aerobatic training is available to anyone who wishes to invest the time and seek out the expertise. This accident pilot was irresponsible and brought discredit to himself, to our activity, and death to four innocent people.
In " Robinson Helicopter: The Highest Standards," June Pilot, it was incorrectly stated that the Robinson R66 is a replacement for aging Bell JetRangers. Bell 206 helicopters are not approaching airframe life limits. Pilot regrets the error.
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