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Homebuilders Workshop: The Real Problem with Aviation Safety Rests with Entire Industry

By Ed Wischmeyer

This was the second year of the EAA Founder’s Innovation Prize, and again I found out by surfing the web that my submission did not make the final five. Although this was, of course, a major disappointment, there are still ideas worth sharing.

As a PhD engineer, my approach to the Founder’s Innovation Prize contest was to do the research and seek root causes. In doing that research, it became apparent that the underlying safety problem is not merely with pilots, training, or equipment; a major underlying problem is the entire industry’s approach to safety. Having worked much of my professional life in aviation safety with side excursions into flight instruction and aviation journalism, a number of underlying points became prominent:

• The real problem in aviation safety is not just with the pilots. The real problem is that blame is being dumped on individual pilots, rather than the entire industry working to encourage solutions

• Current safety messages do not treat pilots as human beings, only as statistics. Pilots in the field respond by ignoring such messages (if they even receive them) and worse, sometimes by ignoring safety practices altogether

• Current safety messages are a we/they proposition. We bureaucrats want you #@%#$ pilots to clean up your act and make our statistics look better. There is a clear disconnect between bureaucrats and pilot

• The current definitions of loss of control (NTSB) are so poorly conceived that “reducing fatalities due to loss of control” is as meaningless a phrase as “reducing death due to heart stoppage.” For example, the publicity about the NTSB loss of control forum a year ago gave three exemplar loss of control accidents: two were in illegal IMC, the third was in an airplane with a stall warning system that is no longer certifiable

• Almost all aviation communications, safety content (if present at all) is segregated from the other content. In other words, safety really has nothing to do with the good stuff

• Even in homebuilt judging, if you have flight-tested your homebuilt, they can consider that in the judging, but that flight testing isn’t required and really doesn’t matter in awarding prizes for best of the best, nor does participation in the Flight Advisor or Tech Counselor programs

• The LOC accident reduction rate goal of the contest is completely unrealistic, as is obvious when the a wider data set is analyzed

• The vacillations in FAA pilot certificate flight test in stalls and low speed flights indicate that that part of the FAA is clueless about pilot skills and flight safety. However, a pleasant surprise is that AC90-89B is much more realistic in flight testing for stalls than AC90-89A was.

You’ve heard the phrase, “It takes a village…” Same goes for safety.

• • • • •

Speaking of loss of control… I am blessed at this point to own both a glass cockpit RV-9A and a steam gauge RV-8. There are lessons to be learned here, too, from owning two different airplanes with two wildly different cockpits.

The RV-9A was bought to replace a really sweet old Cessna 175 that already had too much money poured into her and needed an avionics upgrade. The RV-9A has a full glass cockpit, autopilot, flight director, ADS-B traffic and weather in, pretty much everything electronic, with ADS-B out soon to come.

But there are frustrations in toyland:

•  The glass cockpit avionics are very complex, and there is much to learn

• Some of that learning has to do with design decisions that don’t jibe with my experience and expectations, and the justifications for those design decisions are unpublished

• The manual doesn’t cover all of the details, so you have to learn some things the hard way. Should you want to compare and contrast similar features, you’re on your own. This is fine if you have a hacker mentality and are satisfied that your guesses apply to the rest of the system, but if you really want to know…

• On my plane, there are numerous intermittent problems that just don’t make any sense. When one of those pops up, it can be as much of a distraction as an unusual attitude recovery. Some of these problems may or may not be traceable to the original poor installation, but still…

That old Cessna was a joy to fly VFR, because you could do just about anything in it, and it was a joy to fly IFR because there was little automation to get in the way, with steam gauges, no autopilot and no WAAS. The RV-8 is a joy to fly VFR, partly because it’s a taildragger, and partly because it has tandem seating, so the pilot is on the airplane centerline. Those kinds of joys are central to why we all fly.

But there’s a reason why the Cessna and the RV-8 are so much more satisfying to fly than the much better equipped RV-9A. A major component of the joy of flying is skilled operation of complex machinery in challenging conditions. In other words, control. In the Cessna and the RV-8, I was/am in control of the airplane and the avionics. In the RV-9A, when the avionics are messing with me, that’s of loss of control, a different kind of loss of control. But instead of taking away lives, this loss of control takes away joy.






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