Saturday, December 29, 2007


Last Sunday I experienced one of the most completely screwed up days of flying I've ever had. Everything that could go wrong - except loss of life, limb, or license - did go wrong. The entire time I was thinking I'd have to write about it in the blog, but it got so ridiculous that I started doubting whether anyone would believe it all actually happened. Nevertheless, here's the whole sad tale: how weather and maintenance troubles were compounded by incompetence and apathy to create a miserable holiday travel experience for passengers and crew alike. It's a long post, but it was a pretty long day too.

We started in Missoula at 5:15am. Our schedule for the day was MSO-MSP-MSN-MSP, with a 1pm release time. The first hint of trouble was when the captain saw that we were flying Ship 609 and let out a groan. “This thing is the biggest piece of crap,” he exclaimed. “We've had nothing but trouble with it since getting it a few weeks ago.” Apparently he had flown it a few days prior and had the autopilot fail; it was still MEL'd, so we'd have to hand fly and stay below FL290 since RVSM airspace requires use of an autopilot. Also, he'd written up the cockpit door for opening in flight with a closed & locked indication; it had supposedly been fixed.

The mountain peaks were still enshrouded in pre-dawn gloom as I pushed up the thrust levers to begin our takeoff roll from Missoula. The Captain called off V1, then “rotate” and I pulled back on the control column and rotated to 11 degrees pitch and the plane began to lift off. Suddenly there was a loud crash and the darkened cockpit flooded with light. I kept flying. “Positive rate, gear up.” At 400 feet I called “Nav,” and then at 1000 feet: “Flight Level Change, Speed 210.” Then I glanced back and confirmed that the cockpit door had indeed come crashing open on rotation despite a “closed and locked” indication. The Captain was able to pull it closed with his right hand but was unable to get it to latch or lock. He asked if I was okay flying the departure by myself, and when I said I was, he took off his headset and slid his seat back to a more advantageous position for wrestling with the door. At 7600 feet I began the left turn back towards Missoula VOR for the transition from the KONNA2 departure, and shortly thereafter the Captain got the door to cooperate and joined me again. “That's definitely getting written up in Minneapolis,” he said grimly.

Halfway to MSP we used ACARS to pull up the most recent ATIS and it was worse than forecast: 1 ½ mile visibility in light blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the northwest. The Captain, like most at NewCo, is on “high minimums” since he has less than 100 hours in the JungleBus; this requires adding ½ mile and 100 ft to all approach minima, making the minimum visibility for MSP one statute mile or 4500 RVR. We got frequent updates but fortunately the visibility held steady at 1 ½ mile. I flew the bumpy, gusty approach and saw the runway well above decision altitude.

Fixing the cockpit door delayed us by about a half hour, and then we had to get deiced before departure. The weather in Madison wasn't great, about the same as it was in Minneapolis but forecast to get better. We had a Green Bay alternate, and although the weather wasn't really good there it was forecast to be well above alternate minimums by the time we'd get there. Our dispatcher gave us decent contingency fuel but some got burned during the lengthy de-ice process; we were still well above minimum fuel when we took off.

The flight to Madison was very quick; we were barely leveled at FL230 when I got the newly updated ATIS with some very bad news: ¾ mile visibility in blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the west. We got instructions to hold over the final approach fix for the ILS for runway 21. As soon as we knew we couldn't get in yet, the Captain had me message our dispatcher via ACARS with current fuel load and a request for updated weather in Green Bay. Once established in holding, the Captain had me fly (no autopilot, remember!) so that he could figure out our fuel state and options for diverting. He messaged our dispatcher again, still with no reply. He asked Madison approach for Green Bay weather and it, too, was making a mockery of the forecast: ¼ mile visibility in freezing fog and blowing snow. We had to come up with a new diversion plan. The Captain texted our dispatcher to request a new alternate, but wasn't hopeful about a prompt reply and started looking at his options.

Madison notified us that Milwaukee, a mere 60 miles east, was reporting VFR weather. That sounded like a wonderful place to go until we realized that MKE approach plates had been removed with the last Jepp revision. Whoops. Chicago was doable with our current fuel if there was no delay getting in, but that's always a big gamble with Chicago. Our dispatcher finally sent us a message telling us to go to Des Moines; that required 6000 lbs of fuel and we were now down to 4800. The dispatcher had apparently assumed we had enough fuel because of our message from nearly a half-hour prior! The Captain was disgusted and was about to pull the trigger on going to Milwaukee – approach plates or no – when our dispatcher told us they wanted us in Cedar Rapids. Despite high winds the weather was still decent there and we had the approach plates. We had just enough fuel to fly there and still land with 3000 lbs, which is basically “minimum fuel” for a JungleBus. We quickly got re-cleared, pointed our nose southwest, and climbed to a more fuel-friendly altitude of FL240. With “captainy work” complete, the Captain took the controls back.

When I called Cedar Rapids operations a few minutes before landing, they informed us that the gate was not plowed and we'd have to sit tight at remote parking for a while. The JungleBus has no airstairs and the station didn't have jetstairs, so the passengers would have to remain on board. When we touched down in Cedar Rapids, they'd already been on board 3 hours for a flight that was supposed to take 38 minutes! We sat on the ramp for almost another hour until the gate area was plowed; the passengers were on the edge of revolt. Everyone clapped when we announced that we'd be starting our engines and taxiing to the gate.

We soon discovered that being able to taxi to the gate and being able to use the gate are two very different things. As soon as we were parked our marshalers bolted for an adjacent gate. I called operations to figure out what was going on. Cedar Rapids is a small station that's run by another RedCo Regional. They only had a few people working, and it turned out that both of them were needed to turn a scheduled flight that was arriving soon. “We want to get this one out on time. It'll be at least an hour before we can get the gate up to your plane.” The Captain got on the radio and told him in no uncertain terms that was unacceptable: “These people need to get off the plane, now.” The station manager was unmoved. We called our dispatcher, then the chief pilot, and then tried to call the company president before salvation arrived in the form of a United Express gate agent (Air Wisconsin, actually) who had some experience with the JungleBus and agreed to drive the gate. She ended up working the whole flight. She was wonderful – in fact, she was the only real support we got all day, and she wasn't even affiliated with RedCo. Absolutely pathetic.

Our passengers got themselves fed and composed while we waited for the weather in Madison to improve. When it did we loaded everyone up and pushed back to get deiced. By now it was 5:30PM, so we'd been on duty 11 hours, which was longer than we'd thought our day would be but was well under the usual 15 hours maximum duty or 16 hours with reduced rest. We'd be able to make it to MSN and MSP just fine so long as everything went smoothly. Yeah, right!

Deicing in Cedar Rapids took about 45 minutes, first because the rampers apparently had trouble with the deice truck and then because their headset was broken so they couldn't communicate with us. With the station being understaffed, there was nobody in Ops to relay our radio calls to them. They ended up driving around the terminal to Ops to talk to us via radio, then came back to deice us, then returned to Ops to give us our numbers. It was 6:30pm by the time we took off from Cedar Rapids, four and a half hours since we had landed.

The flight to Madison was short and bumpy. The visibility was improving but the winds continued to howl out of the west. The crosswind component was near our maximum for a contaminated runway. I saw Runway 21 shortly after the final approach fix but the approach was still a real workout with continuous moderate turbulence and a 25 degree crosswind correction angle as low as 1000 feet. I told the Captain I'd plant it on and then unintentionally made my smoothest greaser to date, a big no-no on a contaminated runway with a crosswind. Fortunately, the runway was actually pretty bare and braking action was quite decent. “Great landing!”s and handshakes abounded when the passengers deplaned and I privately found it deliciously ironic that their highlight of the whole ordeal was my one screwup.

When we turned off the runway in Madison, I retracted the flaps and shortly thereafter got the ding! of a master caution along with a Flap Handle Disagree message. I ran the QRH which instructed me to reposition the handle to match the actual position of the flaps, and was rewarded with Slat/Flap Fail and a host of other messages. This was no good at all. This had all the earmarks of being broke hard. We called maintenance control while we waited for a Chautauqua E145 to deice so we could get into our gate. When we pulled in at 7:30 pm, maintenance personnel were there to meet us as they'd been working on a RedCo A320 that had been on the ground waiting for a part since 6 am. That part was, as you may have guessed, in our very own cargo hold.

Timing out was now a very real threat. We'd gone on duty at 6:15am central time, so the normal 15 hours max duty time would require us to be on the ground at Minneapolis by 9:15 pm. That clearly wasn't going to happen. However, if we used eight-hour reduced rest, then we'd be good until 10:15pm. When we got the paperwork it showed a flight time of 42 minutes so we figured we'd need to take off by 9:33pm to be legal. However, when cutting things so close we agreed it'd be prudent to run our calculations by crew scheduling and make sure they concurred. The captain called and asked their opinion. The crew scheduler was completely frazzled; unforecast low visibility across the area had thrown the operation into disarray and he had a half-dozen crews close to timing out. He promised to call us back.

We headed upstairs to keep the passengers abreast of what was going on. Many of them had been at the airport since 5am, for the aforementioned canceled A320 flight. Some had been waiting since 6am the previous morning. They were understandably at their wits' end but were grateful that we were keeping them in the loop. One man who was on his second day confided to me that we were the only positive contact he'd had with RedCo through the whole ordeal. I didn't tell him that we're not even RedCo but the cost-slashing bottom-feeder subsidiary.

The maintenance guys rebooted the airplane a few times and it was yielding positive results. I headed up the jetway to give the good news to the passengers. I hadn't been horribly positive in my previous assessment so the news that the flaps would get fixed was welcomed all around. The bigger question was whether we could beat the clock. Crew scheduling still hadn't called. The Captain asked me to call them back; I kept getting a busy signal but finally got through only to be royally chewed out for calling the crew scheduler when he had said he'd call us back. The Captain and I weren't really willing to leave without talking the crew scheduler but figured we could get loaded up and ready to go before he called. We summoned the gate agent, who'd had a long day and had been rather brusque with us to this point, and told him that we had 40 minutes to get loaded, pushed back, deiced, and taxi to the runway. He flatly stated that this was impossible and it would take at least 30 to 40 minutes to get the people boarded. The Captain said that if that was the case then there was no point as we'd have to turn around and deplane them when it became clear we couldn't get off the ground by 9:33pm. “Fine, I'm canceling the flight,” snapped the gate agent as he turned to head up the jetbridge. I guess that's that, said the Captain. We awaited crew scheduling's inevitable call.

It wasn't the call we expected. “Why aren't you off the ground yet? I show you fixed!” They hadn't even been informed that the flight was canceled and were furious to find that we were sitting doing nothing while the precious final minutes ticked away. It was too late now. There was no way to make it to the runway in time under the best-case scenario. Crew scheduling asked us if we wanted to ferry the airplane back under FAR 91, which has no duty time limitations. We were all tired but felt that we could make the flight safely, and just wanted to go back to our families for Christmas Eve Day. We said yes, and then the Captain and I plodded up the jetbridge once more to retrieve the paperwork for the ferry flight.

Big surprise: all the passengers were still standing around, looking at us expectantly as we entered the gate area. The gate agent had not canceled the flight as he threatened; he had not told the passengers anything. I was furious, at this point I felt like going up to the guy and screaming at him. It wouldn't help, though, it could only come back to hurt me. I held my cool and helped the Captain explain to the passengers why we couldn't legally take them. Meanwhile the gate agent spoke to ops on the phone. I later found out that he told them – within earshot of many passengers – that he believed the Captain wanted to time out so he could spend the night in Madison.

Of course as soon as we canceled we went from top priority to last priority. After the passengers left, the gate agent started to do so before I reminded him that we still needed our flight paperwork. “Of course I can wait on you, I've been doing it for over two hours already,” he grumbled. Then he changed his mind: “I gotta be downtairs. Call Ops for your paperwork.” Ops had just sent our paperwork over the printer when the Captain emerged from the restroom, and then I realized that we were both locked out of the gate with no way to get in.

We called ops with no answer. We waved for rampers. We searched for other gate agents. We tried waving to our flight attendants through the terminal windows and cockpit windows. Nobody saw us. I'm not sure how long we were locked out but it was at least a half hour. The day was getting more and more ludicrous. Finally we were able to get ahold of Ops and they sent a ramper upstairs to let us in. We quickly set up for the flight, pushed back, and got the heck out of dodge.

The weather had passed by MSP when we finally touched down around 11:30pm, but the day had a few annoyances left in its bag of tricks. Our gate was occupied and we taxied around the airport for a few minutes; then the rampers guided us into the gate wrong and we had to remain on board while they located a tug and realigned us so the gate agent could open the door. It was 12:15am by the time Dawn picked me up in front of the baggage claim. It was an 18 hour day for three measly scheduled legs.

It turned out to work well for me. Crew scheduling gave me the 24th off in an unusual fit of compassion, although I had been scheduled for reserve. Dawn and I had our Christmas that morning, and then traveled to my parents' place for the extended family Christmas that afternoon and the immediate family Christmas that night. I did end up getting called to fly a Vancouver turn on Christmas Day but that was alright because the 24th was a fine Christmas. I did, however, have to restrain myself from hysterical laughter every time a family member asked, “So, how are things going with NewCo? Are they a good company?”

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bugs & Quirks

An old aviation axiom says "Never fly the 'A' model of anything!" While perhaps overstated, it does illustrate the truth that new aircraft designs inevitably have kinks that need to be worked out of them. Some of these are more serious than others. When I was at TWA, they were having a problem with the B717 where ice melting in the forward galley was seeping down into the electronics bay directly underneath and shorting out major components. That's a pretty big deal. Less seriously, I can't count the times I had to reset the FCECU #2 circuit breaker on the Q400 to clear a spurious #3 Rud Hyd caution light right after startup. Until Bombardier finally found a fix last year, there were a few planes that did it every third cycle or so.

NewCo has had pretty good luck with JungleBus reliability thus far. The major flaws seem to be related to cold-weather operation; we've had problems with the potable water system freezing on the ground. Other than that, most of the bugs have been annoyances with little effect on our dispatch rates. I know jetBlue had a lot of problems when they launched the JungleBus+, but the Brazilians seem to have got on top of it pretty quickly and incorporated the fixes into the production line. There are still plenty of little things the JungleBus pilot has to watch out for.

After finishing IOE last week, I had a few days off and then started three days of reserve on Monday. With only about 25 FOs off of IOE compared to 75 Captains, our usage is going to be much higher for a while, which is fine with me as I hope to get some good experience in the airplane before upgrading in a few months. I flew all three days, including NewCo's very first flight to Chicago-Midway on Wednesday. On Monday, I had one flight from Minneapolis to Missoula. I got to experience three JungleBus quirks and bugs on that one flight.

When you first apply AC power to the JungleBus after it's been "cold" (batteries off), it runs a Power-up Built In Test (PBIT) that tests various systems including the fly-by-wire. It takes three minutes and is notoriously sensitive to any interruption during that time, including moving any flight control or putting a load on the batteries. If anything is out of place, you get a "Flight Control No Dispatch" EICAS message that requires a power-down or even maintenance action to clear. The best course is to just leave to cockpit for three minutes after powering up.

On Monday we were about 10 minutes from pushback for Missoula with the APU off since the gate was providing warm air for cabin heating. One of the rampers didn't realize our APU was off and disconnected the external power without asking the captain. Pzheuwww! With only the DC essential busses still powered by the batteries, most of the cockpit went dark. The Captain quickly opened his window and yelled for the guy to plug it back in. In the meantime he started the APU in case it happened again. With AC power back on the airplane, we did a quick damage assessment. Most electronic airplanes really don't like to be depowered unexpectedly. This time we seemed to get away with it...until we saw the dreaded "Flight Control No Dispatch." We realized that the ramper plugging in the external power again had restarted the PBIT just before the Captain put a draw on the batteries by starting the APU. Whoops.

The Captain called maintenance control. They listened to the circumstances behind the PBIT interruption and then directed us to turn to on the #1 and #2 electric hydraulic pumps. After a few seconds, the EICAS message went away. It turns out that not all "Flight Control No Dispatch" messages are created equal. For one resulting from an electrical interruption, supplying hydraulic power to the flight controls is enough to make the computer realize it's not really broken after all. Good to know.

We finished loading, handed out the paperwork, buttoned up, and pushed back. After engine start we ran the before taxi check and I obtained taxi clearance. The Captain engaged the steering handle and pushed up the thrust lever to start moving. DING! "Master Caution, Steering Fail." Hmm. That's great. When you first engage the steering handle, you're supposed to let it go for a few seconds to let the system test itself before reengaging the steering and beginning taxi. The Captain figured he'd just not waited quite long enough. Momentarily engaging the handle again didn't clear the message.

The Captain whipped out his cell phone, turned it back on, and called maintenance control again. This is one of the things that was a lot easier to do at Horizon, where you could simply call over the radio. We were blocking the busy alleyway at MSP until we could get steering back. Maintenance directed us to pull and reset the circuit breaker for the Modular Avionics Unit (MAU) #2. The Master Caution tone began ringing incessantly as various systems pulled themselves offline for self-tests. We waited with bated breath as the messages extinguished one by one until the EICAS was completely cleared. Problem #2 solved.

The flight went very smoothly until we were approaching Missoula. The weather was reportedly decent but not quite enough for a visual approach. We got vectors to the ILS 11 (yes, you can get vectors to the approach in a few parts of Montana). I was flying; while on downwind I called for the approach checklist, which the Captain ran. We were in green needles, meaning that we were set up for ILS guidance rather than FMS guidance. Both Nav radios were tuned to the ILS frequency.

When the controller gave us our final vector and cleared us for the approach, I pushed the APP button to arm the autopilot's approach mode; this was confirmed by the appearance of a white LOC and GS in the flight mode annunciator just above the attitude indicator. This means that the autopilot will retain its previous modes (Heading and Altitude in this case) until it's able to capture and follow the localizer and glideslope. As expected, the LOC annunciation changed to green as the localizer started centering, and the airplane began turning to capture it. The next thing was very unexpected: both my localizer display and the Captain's turned yellow, and LOC and ALT disappeared from the flight mode annunciator, replaced by the default modes of ROLL and FPA (flight path angle).

The JungleBus' autopilot will only capture and follow a localizer signal when each pilot is using on-side navigation guidance; that is, the Captain is using NAV 1 and the FO is using NAV 2. When this is the case, the HSI displays green needles. If either pilot pushes their V/L button to change over to opposite-side navigation guidance, both pilots' needles turn yellow and the autopilot will refuse to capture the navigation signal. If the LOC mode is already active, the autopilot reverts to its basic modes of ROLL and FPA. This is exactly what happened - except neither the Captain's hands nor mine were anywhere near the flight guidance panel. It was like the airplane pushed a V/L button on its own.

Flying the airplane is always Job One. Since the airplane was in a 15 degree bank when it reverted to ROLL mode, it would continue making big turns until I changed the mode. I quickly punched ALT and HDG, confirmed those modes on the FMA, and used the heading bug to guide the airplane back towards the localizer. Next we needed to figure out who had the off-side nav guidance. My nav display still showed LOC 2 like it should, so it had to be the Captain. "Push your V/L button," I said. Voila, green needles. I pushed APP again and this time the airplane obediently captured the localizer but remained in the ALT (altitude hold) vertical mode. I saw why: during all this we had passed through the glideslope and it was now below us. I pushed the FPA button but ALT simply flashed at me in the mode annunciator. Grr, the altitude selector. I spun it up to some random altitude, pushed FPA again, and set it for a 4.5 degree descent to capture the glideslope from above. Now we were high and fast. "Flaps 3, Gear Down." The airspeed wasn't decreasing fast enough so I decreased the descent angle to 3 degrees until the airspeed was just below the Flaps 5 limit. "Flaps 5, Landing Check." I increased our descent angle to 4.5 degrees again and captured the glideslope just before the final approach fix. The airspeed was still high but with a 3 degree descent and the airplane dirtied up it decreased fast enough for me to get the airplane stabilized at Vapp well above the 1000' minimum altitude for doing so. We popped out of the clouds much closer to minimums than the ATIS had led us to believe. I clicked off the autopilot and autothrottles and made my nicest landing so far.

The whole episode left me with a rather uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I'd handled it fine and made a good recovery but furious button-pushing on approach in IMC with big rocks around really isn't an ideal situation, especially with two pilots very new to the airplane. The fact that the airplane's gremlins screwed things up rather than one of us almost made it harder to figure out what was going wrong and correct it. It would've been a lot harder to figure out if I hadn't seen the sim do it several times. I'd been told the bug was not specific to the sim and the airplane could also do it, but this was the first time the Captain and I had seen it in the airplane. I'll be watching for it like a hawk in the future, that's for sure.

Quirks like this are one of the reasons that I'm glad I'll get a few hundred hours as a FO before I upgrade. The current Captains are having a tougher time getting experience because the majority have flown very little on reserve since finishing their IOE. As we get more airplanes and more routes that situation should correct itself, though.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blogging at FL350

Wow, it feels great to be flying again! I hadn't touched an airplane since mid-September. There's nothing like a three month break to make me realize that even with the hassles of the job and the way this career has soured the last six years, I wouldn't be able to stay away for long if I tried. Flying, it seems, is a bug not easily uncaught.

I was actually more nervous going into this IOE than I was in 2004 when I first flew the Q400, which is strange because the JungleBus has a lot more in common with the Q400 than the Q400 has with a Navajo. Once I got started, though, I became comfortable pretty quickly. I passed my line check last night on the fifth day of IOE with 26 hours in the airplane.

I think back in October I remarked on the blog that I'd be doing IOE in the left seat. The people in the training department who told me that were wrong, it was FO IOE only and I won't do CA IOE until it's time to actually upgrade. I'm quickly learning to take everything I hear at NewCo with a grain of salt!

The JungleBus is a really sweet-handling airplane, moreso than anything I've flown with the possible exception of the Beech Baron. The airplane and the simulator are astonishingly close in feel; although that is the general idea of a simulator, they seldom replicate it so well. I guess the fact that the control feel is completely artificial and computer-generated makes it easier to replicate!

Compared to the Q400, the JungleBus is much lighter on roll and the overall control feel is smoother. Like most jets, it's tougher to slow down and you have to choose between slowing and descending because it doesn't do both at the same time very well. You can't do 250 knots to the marker like you could in the Q400. I expected that, though, and gave myself extra room and configured early whenever I got stuck high, and it always worked out pretty well. The biggest difference was landing: the JungleBus approaches at close to 5 degrees pitch up and the flare is more pronounced, which along with a higher stance gives it a very different sight picture in the flare. It feels like you're still at 20 or 30 feet when the mains touch down. None of my landings were all that great, but the check airman was happy just to see them on centerline and in the touchdown zone. The landing gear on the JungleBus is quite a bit more forgiving than the Q400; my hardest touchdown felt about like the average Q400 landing.

Other than landings, the IOE was spent learning how to use this version of the FMS software (the sim has an older version), working with ACARS, figuring out how they do things in MSP, and generally just getting in the groove of things. I found that there are quite a few FO duties on the line that aren't being taught in the sim (after all, they were primarily training us as captains), so I experimented in how to most efficiently incorporate those duties into the existing flow patterns.

After flying the JungleBus, I'm even more convinced that it should really be at mainline. It's a "regional jet" in name only. It has 2200 mile range, good fuel economy, and altitude/speed performance of much larger airliners. NewCo is already flying routes like MSP-YVR, MSP-IAH, and MSP-BOS. More concerning, from a passenger standpoint the JungleBus is much more comfortable than the CRJ200 and even the newer CRJ700/900 series. I hope that mainline pilots realize what a threat this poses to their flying and hold firm on scope. Ultimately if we at the regionals do our job and get our labor costs up to a reasonable level, it will make economic sense to put the E-jets back where they belong at mainline. I'm guessing some of you will think that counterproductive - intentionally pricing ourselves out of a job! - but pilots are coming to realize that a job at the regionals is pretty worthless so long as your mainline partner can put "your" flying back up for bid.

I tried hard not to think about that too much on IOE, though. Mostly I sat back and simply enjoyed being back at home in the air.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

An Airline of One

A few posts ago, Fred asked what general aviation pilots could do to "attain or attempt to attain the same kind of safety levels the airlines have." It's a good question and one I've thought about a fair amount. Honestly, I don't think GA can ever match the airlines' safety record without flying becoming prohibitively expensive or losing it's utility. That said, GA's current safety record isn't even close, and I think there are certain aspects of airline operations that GA pilots can mimic to cost-effectively tighten the gap. The following list is not exhaustive, and not every item will apply to every type of GA operation, but I think it's a good place to start to build an "airline of one."


In the past it was just accepted that airliners would be better equipped than their GA brethren. Today, the microchip revolution has given us lightweight, relatively cheap advanced avionics that make it possible to fly a C172 with better equipment than many airliners. If you're still flying with yesterday's technology, there are likely some upgrades you could do that would boost your safety.

Now, if money was no object you could go ahead and retrofit your airplane with glass, autopilot, dual WAAS enabled GPS, terrain mapping, traffic avoidance system, radar or strikefinder, weather datalink, and ice protection, and you'd have a cockpit on par with the most advanced airliners out there. Of course few GA pilots have pockets that deep, and all that would be complete overkill for the kind of flying most pilots do. My advice is to look at the above list, decide which upgrade offers the greatest improvement to safety for the kind of flying you do, and start with that. If you fly around VFR in a busy urban area, it's probably traffic avoidance. If you take frequent VFR cross-countries, you'll find a weather datalink invaluable. I think an autopilot is almost essential for single pilot IFR (more on that later). If you find yourself shooting a lot of non-precision approaches, adding a glideslope to every approach with a WAAS-enabled GPS will instantly improve your odds. Thunderstorm avoidance and ice protection are must-haves for someone who uses their airplane for serious IFR transportation in all seasons. A glass cockpit, while flashy, is actually way down on the safety list for me; its main advantage is that it allows more seamless integration of all the above listed features.

It's worth noting that installing every bit of equipment mentioned above would only give you airline-equivalent equipment, not capability. There would still be days that airliners could fly but you should not. Airliners can fly in a wide variety of icing conditions not because they have anti-ice equipment but because they have the performance to get out of icing conditions quickly. Likewise, having on-board radar doesn't help the airliner tackle monster lines of storms nearly as much as having the speed and range to just go around areas of dangerous weather. Adding equipment does nothing to increase safety if you simply use the equipment to put your airplane in situations beyond its capabilities.


Maintenance is a factor in a rather small portion of GA accidents; putting a C150 on an airline-style progressive maintenance program would cost a lot without much improvement in safety. That said, there's a pretty widespread tendency in the GA community to simply ignore inoperative equipment until the next annual or 100 hour inspection. There are certainly circumstances when certain equipment isn't needed and the plane can be safely and legally flown with it inoperative, but pilots rather seldom define those circumstances and instead their decision ends up being based on how badly they want to make it home. The airlines use Minimum Equipment Lists which strictly define which equipment may be inoperative for flight, under which circumstances, and any special pilot or maintenance procedures that must be followed. If you own an airplane, you can develop your own MEL in cooperation with your local FSDO. The procedure essentially consists of obtaining a master minimum equipment list for your aircraft, meeting with an airworthiness inspector to ensure you understand the process, customizing the MMEL for the equipment actually installed in your own aircraft, submitting your MEL for approval from the FAA, and receiving a letter of authorization that makes your MEL a legal document.

Two Pilot Crew

I think there's a misperception among GA pilots that the reason airliners have two pilots is because they're more complex aircraft. That's not really true with highly automated modern airliners; the JungleBus is actually less workload-intensive than the Navajos I used to fly around single-pilot IFR without an autopilot. The beauty of having two pilots is that one can devote all their attention to flying the plane while the other takes care of all the other tasks. I know single-pilot IFR can be done, but I also know that there are lots of situations that demand that you "aviate, navigate, communicate" more or less simultaneously and none of them gets done particularly well.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go hire a FO to accompany you on all your IFR flights; an autopilot can very ably take the place of Pilot Flying, freeing you to devote your brainpower to all the other tasks that need accomplished. Of course you still need to monitor the airplane to make sure the autopilot is doing what you want it to do, but that requires a lot less brainpower than manually flying the plane on instruments in moderate turbulence while copying a reroute and entering it into your navigation system. I flew lots of hard single-pilot IFR without an autopilot when I didn't know any better and the job demanded it, but now in a personal airplane I'd get an autopilot and use it extensively. There are too many pilots who simply use the autopilot in cruise when they feel there's no challenge to hand-flying and then turn it off when it's time for the "manly flying." That's insanity - cruise is the one time you can get by just fine without an autopilot, its real worth is in the workload-intensive arrival and approach phases.

If you fly only VFR or light IFR, an autopilot may be overkill but you can still make the aviating easier on yourself by keeping the airplane in trim. It always amazed me as an instructor to see students with hundreds of hours struggling to tune a radio or write down a clearance because they were fighting an out of trim airplane. Trimming should be automatic; you should instinctively do it every time you make a power or airspeed change.


Airline crews have the advantage of never being alone in the sky. Besides air traffic control, help is always a radio call away in the form of our dispatcher. While they can't make the Captain's decisions for him or her, they can make those decisions a lot easier by providing all the pertinent information. Now, you probably don't have a dispatcher you can call up at anytime, but you can use every resource available to make sure your decisions are based on the best information. That starts with having current and appropriate charts in the airplane as well as an AFD (or equivalent, I like JeppGuide) and making yourself familiar with your planned airports of use. Enroute, you should keep yourself updated on weather conditions along your route and at your destination. A weather datalink makes this task a lot simpler, but pilots without a datalink can get the same information from Flight Watch or FSS stations. You should know how to contact them at any given time; make a habit of calling them on every cross-country flight for at least one weather update. Your goal is to never be surprised; you should know about changing conditions well in advance and revise your contingency plans accordingly.

Checklist Usage

I've actually written about this before so I won't repeat myself at length, but the airline system of flow patterns and checklists (not do-lists!) is one thing that GA pilots can easily mimic to improve safety and make flying easier for themselves at the same time.


There's a truism in the military that applies equally to aviation: "Fight like you train and train like you fight." The airlines are doing a much better job than they did in the past to make training realistic and applicable to the real world of line flying; General Aviation, unfortunately, has some catching up to do. The overriding emphasis is on checking off FAA requirements and prepping the student for the checkride rather than adequately preparing them for the real world flying they'll do after the checkride. The reality is that if you're trying to get training done reasonably close to the FAA minimums, there isn't enough time to train the maneuvers to checkride standards and do significant "real world prep." The GA community is unwilling to recognize that the current training is inadequate and petition the FAA to increase the minimums because they (likely correctly) fear that increasing the already-high cost of flight training will dissuade many would-be students.

Therefore it's really up to the individual student to ensure that they get training that goes beyond the minimums and really prepares them well for the sort of flying they plan on doing. My suggestion is to find a forward-thinking, flexible, and preferably experienced CFI and tell them what kind of flying you intend to do after you earn the intended certificate or rating, and ask them to tailor your training accordingly even if it adds on some flight time. Secondly, once you get the rating, use either your instructor or an experienced pilot to ride along with you on a sort of IOE where you can gain some real-world experience outside the training environment before venturing off on your own. During this time search out challenging weather, airports, and airspace, so the first time you encounter these on your own it will be old hat.

The above advice applies not only to training for a new certificate or rating but recurrent training as well. Airline pilots get a lot more recurrent training than the average GA pilot, generally every six months for Captains and once a year for FOs. The FAA's recurrent training requirements are pretty skimpy for private pilots: one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction once every two years. Many BFRs seem to be basically a warmed over PPL or instrument checkride, with a little airwork plus a few trips around the patch or down the ILS. Unless the pilot feels like they really need brushing up on these areas, I think it'd be far preferable to actually go somewhere the pilot might normally go under the usual conditions and have the instructor ride along and observe. Many pilots get lax in their discipline and procedures over time and this is a lot more likely to come out during a "normal" line flight than in a training environment. With experienced instructors few and far in between these days, you may want to do this with a CFI once every two years for the official BFR and do it with an experienced pilot whose judgement you trust at other times, at least one a year.


The average airline pilot has a lot more experience than the average GA pilot, even in this day of 250 hour regional FOs. Few GA pilots have the time or money to fly 800-1000 hours a year - and those that try are guaranteed to become quickly bored with flying. When you fly as much as airline pilots do, flying get a lot easier, almost a second nature. This doesn't put the GA pilot at as much of a disadvantage as one may think: familiarity can breed complacency, and flying the same equipment in and out of the same handful of airports all the time means that 10,000 hours can simply be the same hour repeated 10,000 times. The GA pilot can make their more limited flight hours count by varying the kind of flying they do and stretching themselves (within the margins of safety, of course). Taking a mountain flying or aerobatics course will expand your experience out of proportion to the flight hours involved; adding an instrument rating makes you a more precise pilot and a multi-engine rating makes you think ahead more even if you don't intend to fly IFR or twin-engine airplanes. Inexperienced pilots might think I'm talking about taking all the fun out of flying, but you can only go bore holes in the sky for so many hours before it gets old and gaining new experiences is the key to fun flying.

Of course the things I'm suggesting aren't cheap, and many people have a rather limited flying budget. There are ways to increase your experience level without blowing your life savings. You can double the length of your cross-country flights by finding a flying buddy to split costs with and trade off every leg. Hang around the airport long enough and you'll become friends with more experienced pilots with their own airplanes; get yourself invited along on some flights with those who have a good reputation and you'll learn a lot just by watching them work. There's a lot of good knowledge to be gained from reading various aviation magazines. I've personally found reading NTSB reports excellent for gaining experience vicariously; more than once I've had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu while flying and then realized it was because I was in a situation I'd recently read about in an accident report.

Flight Operations Manual

What determines what you can and can't do in an airplane? If you said FAR 91, you're being way too easy on yourself. It's pretty easy to be in legal compliance with Part 91 and still get yourself killed. I'd like you to consider the following: Part 121, which all airlines fly under, is considerably more restrictive than Part 91 - yet each airline has its own FAA-approved Flight Operations Manual that's usually even stricter than Part 121! This contains pretty explicit instructions on how the airline's pilots are expected to fly and what limitations they are under.

For years safety experts and CFIs have recommended that GA pilots develop their own personal minimums, and many have. In many cases this is a number that the pilot arbitrarily picks and keeps in their back pocket, such as "I will not fly VFR outside the traffic pattern with less than 2000' ceiling or 5 miles visibility." I would suggest that having personal minimums is pretty useless if you don't write them down along with specific guidance on what to do if a personal minimum is exceeded, and then give that guidance the same weight as the FARs. At the airlines, disregarding the FOM is as serious as breaking a FAR. Ideally, GA pilots would write their own FOM and treat it the same way airline pilots treat their FOMs. A lot more can go into this FOM besides just weather minimums: I'd include guidance on training and currency, required preflight action, inoperative equipment, fuel requirements, checklist usage, etc. It gives yourself a standard to hold yourself to. There's nothing that says you can't rewrite the FOM as you gain experience; the point is that you don't find yourself revising your personal "minimums" mid-flight!


There's obviously a lot more that goes into general aviation safety than the above; these are just some areas in which I see the airlines having an edge on GA when that needn't be so. Like I said, GA won't likely ever approach the safety record of the airlines, but it'd be huge to simply improve GA's record to where it's as safe as, say, driving.