Sunday, February 9, 2014

Comment on Sport Pilot and Eliminating the 3rd Class Medical for Private Pilots

With regard to the Sport Pilot license, Private Pilot license and the proposed elimination of the 3rd class medical for private pilots: having trained in 7 different airplanes, I find LSA planes trickier to fly than heavier planes, such as the Cessna 150 and 172. To me, it's a mistake to equate the safety record of sport pilots with the rules for that license category, because the lightweight LSA planes (especially the amphibious ones) are harder to handle in challenging conditions. That's why I'm in favor of the rule change, even if the FAA just dropped the medical requirement for the Recreational Pilot category, which might be a reasonable compromise. If sport pilots can operate safely without an FAA medical exam, then so can private pilots. In fact, I think the pilots currently flying on a Sport Pilot ticket would have a better safety record if they could fly heavier, more stable aircraft.

On Public Perception of Small Airplanes and Learning to Flying

While public perception of flying in small planes is incorrect in some ways, there are a number of areas where it's all too accurate, both with regard to access and safety.

1. Flying is expensive.

I spent over $10,000 learning to fly at age 59. Now retired, I can't afford to use that hard earned (and expensive) pilot's license. Even if I were allowed to fly a Cessna 172, which I'm not under my sport pilot license, the fuel alone costs over $40 an hour. There are no planes in my area that I can afford to fly... no clubs, no one willing to share ownership, no one willing to let me fly their plane just to keep it "in shape"...I tried every avenue I could think of and finally gave up. (Building isn't an money, no space and no interest. I want to fly planes, not build them.) So, yes, I've found the cost to be prohibitive for "the average guy". But, you know what? I think many people in aviation want it that way (see below).

2. Small planes are dangerous.

Undoubtedly, the fear of flying has to do, at least in part, with just being up in the air. Frequent exposure is probably the only cure for the gut-level, emotional response to being high off the ground with only a man-made machine between you and a fatal impact with the ground. 

There are other sources of concern that can be addressed rationally, however. 

For one, it's commonly assumed, mistakenly, that if anything goes wrong in flight, it's a death sentence. The fact is that the large majority of in-flight issues don't force an unplanned landing. Of those that do, most occupants walk away from forced landings either unharmed or with minor injuries.

Secondly, most accidents are partially or entirely the pilot's fault. Things like running out of fuel and flying into bad weather are two of the most common.

Third, despite all of the above, flying is, statistically, safer than driving when measured by accidents per passenger-mile.

Nevertheless, there are some things that the aviation industry should address...public perceptions that are, in fact, accurate, and affect both safety and the desirability of learning to fly.

Small airplanes aren't, in fact, as safe or as easy to fly as they could be because they're stuck with old technology. Much of the basic workings of standard (non-experimental) piston engine airplanes haven't changed since the 1940s. 

Where are electronic fuel injection (EFI), puncture resistant (or better - "run flat") tires, padded dashboards and spill/rupture resistant fuel tanks (among other things)? EFI would make carburetor icing, air-fuel ratio and inverted flying issues a thing of the past, at least as far as fuel supply goes (not to mention manual priming, choke and mixture controls, which cars haven't needed for 50 - 75 years). 

Small aircraft engines do fail more often than their modern automotive brethren. Some argue, with some merit, that aircraft engines work harder than the average car motor, but think about trucks hauling heavy trailers. When towing a large RV, a modern truck or SUV engine is working between 75% and 100% of its capacity all the time (just like an airplane), they generally do it without a hiccup, and they'll do it at sea level or 10,000 feet, automatically. We expect that level of performance and reliability from modern automotive engines. The technology is available. Aircraft engines should use it.

Then there's the issue of airport fuel supplies. Dirt and/or water in gasoline in this day and age? If someone's car were stuck on the side of the road because of "dirty" fuel from the local gas station, you can bet they'd raise a stink. And that's just inconvenience. When people's lives are at stake? Whatever means and regulation are necessary, no one should have a mid-flight engine stall due to fuel that was bad from the pump. I'm not a regulation fan, but what is the public (or a potential pilot) to think when they read about an accident that resulted from such a problem? I was stunned to discover that I had to be concerned about something so basic.

3. Pilots are snooty.

There are some great people in aviation. Most of the instructors I've met were cordial and down to earth. But not all.

 And, I have to say, in my experience as a newbie, many pilots, while they complain about the cost and complexity of flying, in reality want it to be to an exclusive club. (The psychology of which would be a lengthy debate.)

Beyond personality, nearly every pilot I've met is "into" airplanes and, whether consciously or not, thinks that anyone who isn't shouldn't be a pilot. Come on we expect everyone who drives a car to be a "car buff"? Of course not. New (and student) pilots should be welcome in the aviation community without having to be "airplane buffs".

In general, I think it's fair to say that people who have been in aviation for a long time take for granted things that "outsiders" find astonishing, as I did and do.

With apologies for any over-generalizations and many thanks to those who provided training and support as this old dog learned a new trick, best regards and thanks for reading,