Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Simulating Excellence

Time was, pilots learned to fly a new airplane by (of all things) getting in one and flying it--almost always with an experienced instructor at their side. Besides being expensive, the problem with this is there's no way to credibly "pretend" a dangerous situation exists in a real airplane really flying over real Earth. Creating such a situation "for real" is obviously not a smart idea, either.

Simulators were invented to fill the need for a "safe" venue in which pilots could practice dealing with possibly challenging equipment failures or other untoward circumstances, but there was a huge realism gap--until the dawn of the computer.

Now, a state of the art simulator can cost as much or more than the airplane it's built to pretend to be, and they do their jobs well. Sometimes frighteningly well. It's been said that a pilot's job is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. Well, in the hands of a competent instructor, a pilot can experience years' worth of such moments in just a few hours, and emerge from "the box" wringing with sweat but capable of a far higher level of performance. Think "Rocky."

At some point in the past decade or so, however, interests I can't identify managed to convince those in positions of oversight that the unrealistically adverse nature of such grueling training was undesirable, perhaps even in some ways counterproductive, certainly more expen$ive, and today's ubiquitous Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) was born.

AQP training is touted as "realistic," because it considers admittedly unlikely multiple failures as impossible. In other words, yes, we must be trained to competently handle failure of one engine on a multi-engine airplane. But to have an engine with a statistical mean-time-between-failures well into five-digit numbers give out, and then to see a fire erupt elsewhere on the airplane? AQP says, "Not bloody likely," so such a scenario isn't made part of the syllabus. Instead, almost that amount of expensive simulator time is used making us "even better" at something arguably less difficult than walking and chewing gum, but far more "realistic," such as, say, monitoring a fully functional airplane's autopilot flying a textbook instrument approach through a thick fog. Now where'd I leave my "EASY" button?

The goal, I mean, the result is the reduction of expensive training without statistically measurable negative impact to safety. I don't doubt it's worked. Odds are that someone will never again experience what I did one bright afternoon in May, 1996.

But 21 people (counting me-I'm somebody!) are alive and unhurt today, and a Brasilia turboprop is (as far as I know) still turning kerosene into Newtons and noise somewhere out there because another pilot and I were trained to handle anything even remotely survivable that could happen to us in that airplane.

So when that day of reckoning came and that super-reliable engine hatched an inferno that took out both hydraulic systems (which, of course, can't happen), leaving us to deal with controlability issues, performance degradation, system failures, the need to take irreversible actions that would commit us to a downward flight path, the possibility of the airplane's uncontrollable departure at high speed from the runway we'd choose, and no brakes, we did something rather "realistic" to cope with that unrealistically adverse scenario.

We analyzed the information. We prioritized the risks. We compromised. We elected not to trust a Book that said what had happened was impossible to tell us what was likely to happen. We couldn't just deal with what should have been. We had to deal with what was.

Another flight crew recently faced another "impossible" situation that no AQP program I'm aware of addresses: a total loss of power beyond gliding range to any airport. AQP didn't teach Sully how to ditch an Airbus in the Hudson without hurting a soul; doing so would be a huge waste of time and money, because having to do such a thing couldn't become necessary often enough to warrant training everyone to handle it.

Fortunately for a statistically insignificant number of people, most of us trained before the advent of AQP still do what we can to intensify our own AQP training as much as the "system" will tolerate, and airplanes land safely all the time with problems they couldn't develop, to discharge their insignificant cargo onto jetbridges they should never have had to use.

Now, most people I know are very price-sensitive, and most of them will accede that the cost of reducing risk goes up exponentially as the risk left over decreases.

But if we're ever both not on some flight that can't happen together someday, I sure don't hope you won't stop by the cockpit and say hi after it's not over. After all, it wouldn't deeply trouble me to not see good training, however outmoded and unrealistic, not go unacknowledged.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I’ll buy that we all enter this world naked, but penniless? No. A lucky few will be never again be as cold, hungry, or alone as they are in those first moments. They live with every material need met in advance, and yes, many disgrace their family names in ways that seem to repeatedly prove the cliché, “money can’t buy happiness.” Truth be told, however, nothing can buy happiness.

Most unlike matter and energy (things that money can buy), the state of Happiness cannot be conserved; it can only be created - or destroyed. And one thing necessary to create it is the solitary immaterial thing distributed equally amongst everyone in this life: Time. Inasmuch as time is money, then money is also, most assuredly, time.

No one awakens to Today with any guarantee of Tomorrow. None of us gets more, or less, than twenty-four hours per day. Only within our precious, inaccumulable daily allowance of Time can we create Happiness. We do it by living how we wish to live; doing what we love to do, first and most. Wealth can buy us Time, which we need for Happiness - but first, we must love.

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue