Is Magnetic entering end-of-life care?

Results of the ongoing study into how aviation should carry out a transition from using Magnetic North as its navigation heading reference to True North may soon be pre-empted by a geomagnetic cataclysm.

If that sounds a little over-dramatic, it isn’t.

Evidence suggests the chance of a polar reversal of Earth’s magnetic field – a phenomenon known to have happened many millennia ago – may be particularly high right now. But the truth is, no-one knows for sure.

What is known is that, since 1990, the previously gentle migration of Earth’s North Magnetic Pole across the Arctic region of north-eastern Canada has accelerated significantly. Such an acceleration has not been recorded before, so whether this is a precursor to a magnetic polar “flip” is simply not known.

Meanwhile the Polytechnic University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering – an observer at the Attitude and Heading Reference Transition Action Group (AHRTAG) – has decided this possibility needs to be investigated, if only to come up with a case study to determine what the world’s navigators would have to do if the “flip” happens before the aviation industry transitions to navigation by True North.

The tentative date for that changeover is 2030. The marine industry is insulated against this problem because it transitioned to navigation by True North in the early 1970s.

Bucharest’s studies so far indicate that a polar reversal, according to geological data about a previous such event, could take place over a period of about 100 years, the poles tipping at a rate of about 3deg per year. Such a rapid polar migration would make the continuing use of the earth’s magnetic field as a heading reference totally impractical.

But no-one knows for sure whether the next “flip” will take as long as 100 years.

With this possibility in mind, it is tempting to re-orientate the studies of bodies like AHRTAG (a working group of the International Association of Institutes of Navigation) – so they move away from persuasion backed by data, and move toward simply agreeing the methodology for a transition to True as soon as possible.

But the plan right now is to continue persuading all the global players – airlines, aircraft manufacturers, avionics manufacturers, airports, air navigation service providers and aviation authorities – to come voluntarily on the journey to the “Mag2True” transition. After all, Bucharest University has not reported – yet – on its polar reversal case study!

Apart from potentially confounding aviators, no-one knows what the terrestrial effects of a magnetic polar reversal could be. Will all seasonally migrating animals, birds and fish be similarly confounded? We don’t know.

Above: a gathering of some of AHRTAG’s members meeting on 5 June at the Royal Institute of Navigation, London, England. At the head of the table on the left is Susan Cheng of Boeing, and to the right is Anthony MacKay of Nav Canada, AHRTAG’s chairman.

That Yeti Airlines crash

The Nepal authorities have released information from the crashed aircraft’s flight data recorder (FDR) which shows that both propellers feathered – and the engines stopped delivering power – seconds before the aircraft went out of control.

“Feathering” propellers is an action normally carried out if an engine fails. Selecting “feather” turns the propeller blades into line with the oncoming airstream, so that the propeller on the failed engine causes as little aerodynamic drag as possible, making the aircraft easier to control.

When this accident happened, the Yeti Airlines ATR72-500 twin turboprop aircraft was lining up for the final approach to runway 12 at Pokhara International airport, Nepal on 15 January, at the end of a short domestic flight from Kathmandu. As captured on a local video camera just before the crash, the aircraft’s left wing dropped dramatically and it plunged to earth about 2km from the runway threshold. Just before the aircraft disappeared from view, the propeller rotation visibly began to slow down. None of the 72 people on board survived.

The photograph below is the flight deck of an ATR72 like the crashed aircraft.

Much of the focus of the accident investigators is going to be on what happened to the levers on the “throttle quadrant”, shown in the cockpit centre, in line with the front edges of the pilots seats.

There are six levers in the quadrant. Left to right, these are as follows: the parking brake, the left engine power lever, the right engine power lever, the left engine condition lever, the right engine condition lever, and the flap lever.

The levers are each designed to look and feel different according to their purpose. For example the power levers tops are rounded, the condition levers have a rectangular feel, and all are black except the flap lever. The latter is topped with a distinctive white shape that is supposed to represent the aerodynamic cross-section of the flaps.

The controls that can order the propellers to feather are the condition levers, just to the left of the flap lever. When fully retarded, the condition levers shut off the supply of fuel to the engines. When the pilots want the engines to run normally, the condition levers are set to AUTO, which is where they are set in this picture. The setting between fuel shut-off and AUTO is marked FTR, meaning FEATHER.

Now to examine the sequence of events on the flight deck according to the investigators’ preliminary factual report.

A minute and 20 seconds before the crash, the aircraft was flying normally, and the pilot flying (PF, left hand seat) called for flaps to be set to 15deg and undercarriage down. The pilot monitoring (PM) carried out these actions. Seconds later the PF disconnected the autopilot.

Exactly a minute before the crash the PF ordered flaps to 30deg, and the PM responded “flaps 30 and descending”. But the flaps were not descending. Instead the propeller rotation speed on both engines reduced to 25% and the torque dropped to zero.

The crew did not remark on the power loss, but carried out the before-landing checklist and began the left turn toward final approach. After a few seconds the PM suggested that the PF apply a little more power, and just after that the flaps were set to 30deg without any command or status report.

ATC cleared the ATR72 to land, and in response the PF stated twice that there was no power from the engines. A few seconds later the stick-shaker activated twice, the second activation coinciding with the dramatic left-wing drop that sealed the aircraft’s fate. The stick-shaker indicates the imminent risk of stalling.

ATR propellers can auto-feather in the event of an engine power failure, but the system is designed to prevent auto-feather from happening to both props at once.

If the Nepalese investigators confirm that both propellers in the Yeti Airlines accident were indeed feathered simultaneously, it looks as if both condition levers were moved to FTR, or perhaps to fuel shut-off.

For additional context regarding accidents like this, read the immediately preceding story on this blog.

Regional airline safety really doesn’t have to be this bad

Whatever the cause of the recent Yeti Airlines ATR72 fatal crash in Nepal, it will turn out to have been preventable.

I don’t make this prediction lightly. It’s based on years of global airline accident data, which shows that almost all serious crashes over the last decade or more involve small or medium-sized propeller-driven aircraft operated by commuter, regional or freight operators.

It’s not the propellers that are the problem. Other indicators provide clues as to what that might be.

Year after year, most such accidents take place in nations – like Nepal – that have, statistically, a below-average safety score in terms of serious events. So it is a cultural problem. Not national culture, but safety culture within the national industry. That culture relates to how seriously safety is taken within the government’s transport department, the national aviation authority, and the individual airlines, right down to the training of individual pilots and engineers which influences their attitudes to their job.

Among countries with below-average aviation safety performance, Nepal and its aviators face particularly serious challenges, given the country’s extraordinary terrain and the fickle weather that goes with it.

Having challenges to face, however, should not degrade safety. Nepal has a duty to its air travellers to become the world’s expert in navigating its local terrain and flying safely despite its extreme conditions. All countries whose aviators routinely face extreme or unusual conditions have a duty to become experts at the challenges unique to their environment, and to be proud of that expertise., and the February issue of Flight International, examine what regional and commuter operators can do to raise their safety standards to those of the best in the world. They also review what the world’s best did to raise their game from relative mediocrity in the 1990s and early 2000s to the zero-accident status they can now demonstrate almost every year.

Author gives the MH370 story the Hilary Mantel treatment

There are other accounts of what happened to the disappeared Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, but Capt Verne Pugiev’s just-published book is about as close as you can get.

Pugiev, a nom de plume, is quite obviously the experienced Boeing 777 captain he claims to be, which is a good start if the truth about this “mystery” is what you seek.

The thing that intrigues me about this book is the way he has chosen to describe what happened. Just as the much-lauded writer Hilary Mantel, in her trilogy about King Henry VIII’s life and times, chose to write history in the form of a novel so that she could join all the recorded historic dots, bringing humanity to old academic narratives about the Tudor court, so Pugiev has taken the facts we know about MH370 and woven them into a chilling account of what – more or less certainly – happened.

He could, of course, have written a technical report as if he were an accident investigator, but the form would not have allowed him to fill in between the dots, and it would have been a dry-as-dust read. Meanwhile, as the story of the doomed aircraft recedes further into history, Pugiev clearly wants to fire up readers’ imaginations to keep public curiosity alive.

His book, rather predictably entitled “The Missing Plane: A Chilling Novel Based on the Real-Life Loss of Malaysia Airlines MH370”, is out in paperback.

The factual dots joined up in Pugiev’s story show the author to be a convinced follower of Capt Simon Hardy, a real 777 captain whose mathematical calculations and practical flight simulations of what happened to MH370 represent, in my opinion, the most accurate description of reality available. Back in 2016, Hardy was working with the Australian authorities who were leading the sea-bed search for the wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean.

Intriguingly, when the official search for the MH370 wreckage was abandoned for totally unconvincing reasons, Australia and its Malaysian and Chinese partners studiously avoided looking in Hardy’s predicted MH370 resting place.

Anyway, Pugiev’s narrative takes you as close to what really happened as we can get until MH370s wreckage is finally located and recovered, as it will be for sure.

The only question is when.

US pilot shortage set to ‘isolate small communities’

The US airline pilot shortage is not exactly breaking news, it’s a problem that has been developing as a result of the post-pandemic resurgence in air travel, but it continues to worsen.

The shortage hits the regional and small commuter airlines hardest, because the national carriers poach their captains and copilots, especially those with experience. They have always done this, but the situation for the regionals is particularly dire right now.

In a statement in its just-published end-of-year report, the US Regional Airlines Association’s CEO Faye Malarkey Black, has warned: “If policymakers fail to do their job, and do not give the pilot shortage the urgent attention it warrants, small community air service will be a thing of the past, and air travel will soon be a privilege reserved for those residing in our urban centres.” 

The report reveals that about 500 regional aircraft types are grounded across the country for lack of pilots to fly them. In November the RAA had estimated that the US airline industry had a shortage of about 8,000 pilots overall. Some of the larger regionals like Piedmont and PSA have been offering tempting joining bonuses, but these and the need to boost pay to retain pilots is becoming another factor in making marginal regional operations un-viable.

Voicing a familiar theme, Malarkey Black highlights the sky-high cost of training for professional pilots, and calls for legislation focused on “equitable access to aviation careers”, adding that the government “should be moving heaven and earth to make it easier for aspiring pilots from all backgrounds to access affordable, high-quality training”. Black urges: “We need to bring forward legislation to allow the next generation of pilots and mechanics to obtain student loans and grants.”

America is not the only part of the world where post-pandemic pilot shortages exist, but it does have a unique rule that makes it impossible for licensed pilots to enter the airline industry immediately following training, even if the training was airline-specific. This rule makes the pilot shortage – particularly for the commuter carriers where many rookie copilots would normally begin their professional careers – far worse.

This rule, requiring that pilots must have 1,500h in their log book before they can fly for commercial airlines, was the result of a kneejerk political reaction to a fatal commuter crash in February 2009 near Buffalo, in upstate New York. A Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 stalled during the night-time descent toward Buffalo airport, the crew lost control, and all 49 people on board were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s main verdict was that the crew had not monitored the airspeed and had failed to lower the nose to un-stall the wings when the stickshaker activated. There were many other circumstances that were arguably contributory factors, including crew fatigue and the matter of crew training performance records, but federal politicians saw fit to attribute the whole thing to a lack of flying hours, so they mandated the 1,500h rule.

Thus, in America, a pilot with a full commercial license at the end of training – which normally means he or she has about 400 hours in their log book – cannot fly as copilot for an airline even if the carrier thinks they are good enough. They have to become flying instructors, obtain any kind of general aviation job, or fly single-pilot Cessna Caravan freighters for a small package delivery company until they have notched up 1,500h.

Many in the industry believe the 1,500h rule was never appropriate, but even more so now when modern pilot training programs take advantage of today’s much smarter flight simulation training devices to render a newly-trained pilot ready for the right hand seat in a commercial airliner. Change, however, does not look likely.

Visibility in pilot recruitment

Whether an aspiring pilot is an ab-initio trainee, or a qualified pilot looking for a job, visibility in the recruitment marketplace is better than knocking on doors. But how do you make yourself visible?

The Airline Pilot Club (APC) has now developed a software tool that makes all its candidates for pilot employment or training courses visible to airlines and approved training organisations (ATO).

Airlines’ traditional ways of finding pilots are direct advertising and working with agencies. Advertising is a shot in the dark, but can be effective because those who apply have made a specific choice to do so. The only trouble is the applicants are self-selected and unfiltered. Agencies, meanwhile, can supply lots of names, but the qualifications and experience are self-declared and need checking.

Licensed pilots may reply to advertising, but in the end that’s a passive approach – a waiting game. Meanwhile ab-initio students/wannabes have traditionally had to trawl the flying schools and their promises, and hope.

Imagine joining a forum that brings the three industry components together – pilots, flying schools and airlines. There they meet, in a joint marketplace, where they can all see each other and where all the participants’ claims have been checked for accuracy.

That’s what APC members can do. Having proven themselves worthy of APC membership via indicative assessment, and having trod the pathway to pilot competence, their completed APC profile becomes their shop window to the ATOs and airlines, who can then contact them – direct – with individual proposals.

This smart new APC service takes the leg-work out of finding a training pathway, and makes it easier for airlines to fill crew vacancies.

The RAF goes green

With a 90min Airbus Voyager test flight out of its Brize Norton base, it seems the Royal Air Force has chalked up a world first.

On 16 November the Voyager, the military tanker/transport version of the A330-200, took off with its Rolls-Royce Trent 772B turbofans burning pure, 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Many airlines have operated different types with a mix of standard aviation fuel and SAF – usually less than 50% – but no-one is believed to have used pure SAF before.

On board were an RAF crew supplemented by representatives from the SAF manufacturer BP, Airbus Defence & Space, and engine manufacturer R-R. FlightGlobal has reported a statement by Airbus experimental test pilot Jesus Ruiz, who was the aircraft commander for the test: “From the crew perspective, the SAF operation was ‘transparent’, meaning that no differences were observed operationally. The test plan was exhaustive and robust and has allowed us to compare SAF with JET [A]1.”

RAF Voyager tanker/transport (Crown Copyright)

BP crafted the SAF from used cooking oil. This being a flight operated in British airspace by my alma mater, the RAF, I have an unaccountably earnest desire to learn that the cooking oil came from the deep-fryers of English Fish & Chip bars. Given that Capt Ruiz confirms the flight went without a hitch, it seems BP successfully ensured the fuel was not contaminated with salt and vinegar!

Joking aside, this is a very welcome achievement, as is the RAF’s stated objective for sustainable flight. Chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston says the RAF is committed to achieving net-zero air operations by 2040, a decade ahead of the present global aviation target.

How did that happen?

How did that happen? A Boeing Stearman lands on a Cessna 182.

A Cessna 182 was nearing the end of its landing roll on runway 22 at Dunkeswell aerodrome, Devon, UK, when a Boeing Stearman landed on top of it.

Remarkably, both pilots survived, but the Cessna pilot was badly wounded when propeller blades cut through the top of his cockpit.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch report describes what the Cessna pilot experienced: “With around 100 m to go to the [runway] intersection [where he intended to turn off to the right], the pilot reported that he heard and felt what seemed like an ‘explosion’ and then became aware of propeller blades rotating in front of his face. He recalled that the cockpit was filled with debris from the shattered windshield, shards of metal and splintered wood.”

It was a cloudy day but the visibility was pretty good below the cloud-base, which was 1,200ft above ground level, with a few patches at 600ft to 800ft. The AAIB says Dunkeswell witnesses described the weather as “workable”.

The pilots of both aircraft say they made calls on the Dunkeswell Radio frequency, but only the Cessna pilot received a reply.

Both pilots were alone in their aircraft, and both of them were experienced aviators.

Neither was aware of the other aircraft’s presence in or near the Dunkeswell circuit, and at the point of collision neither had seen the other.

If I were to stop the story here, even experienced general aviation pilots would wonder how this situation could possibly have developed. The answer, as usual, is that lots of factors combined; but even after reading the AAIB’s report, some questions remain unanswered.

The assembled contributory factors – in no particular order – are these: Dunkeswell Radio maintained an imperfect listening watch for its air-ground communication service (not ATC as such), the duty officer having multiple other duties while on watch; the Cessna pilot (G-OMAG) intercepted final approach from the “dead side” without clearing the non-standard arrival; the Stearman pilot (N68427), based at Dunkeswell, states he made several calls to Dunkeswell Radio when returning to the circuit, but received no response; neither pilot heard any calls from the other, both believing they were alone in the circuit; forward visibility from the Stearman’s cockpit is limited, especially directly ahead and below the nose. Finally, the AAIB found that the airport operator was not aware that the main AIP (aviation information publication) entry for Dunkeswell did not contain reference to the requirement for inbound traffic to join the circuit via either the downwind or base legs of the active runway. Accordingly, commercial AIP providers did not do so either.

The sequence on the day (20 August 2021) goes something like this: the Cessna, having obtained prior permission to arrive at Dunkeswell, took off from Bodmin – about half an hour to the west – at 13:00. The Stearman had taken off from Dunkeswell at 13:05 to carry out some flying in the local area to the north, and returned later intending a couple of circuits.

At 13:26 the Cessna passed Exeter to its north, and at the same time the Stearman joined Dunkswell’s left hand circuit for runway 22 from the east, and carried out a touch-and-go at 13:29. The Stearman pilot said he made a radio call indicating his intentions but could not recall getting an acknowledgement. Following his touch-and-go, N68427 flew a left hand circuit (see illustration below), intending to land from a curved base leg into a short final approach, because the wing-down attitude provides better sight of the runway for a Stearman pilot.

At about 13:27 the Cessna pilot called Exeter and said he was continuing with Dunkeswell Radio, then called the latter and was informed runway 22 was active with a QFE of 986hPa.

The AAIB report says that when the Stearman entered the 22 left hand circuit from the touch-and-go, the Cessna was about a mile to the west of the airfield, the dead-side of the circuit. The Cessna pilot decided to turn north (see illustration above), then carry out a right hand loop onto the base leg, continuing the turn onto final approach from the dead side. At that point, says the Cessna pilot, he called “Golf alpha golf final 22”. There was no acknowledgement, and the pilot told the AAIB he thought his aircraft was alone in the circuit.

CCTV images of the two aircraft show the two aircraft on final approach, the Stearman slightly higher, initially curving in from the left of the runway extended centreline, the Cessna on the centreline. As they converged, the Stearman remained higher than the Cessna and slightly ahead of it, the latter overhauling the biplane because of its faster approach airspeed. When the Cessna touched down just beyond the displaced runway threshold, the Stearman was above and close behind it, with the Cessna in the pilot’s blind spot below the biplane’s nose.

As the Cessna slowed toward its intended turn-off, the Stearman “touched down” on top of it. The AAIB report provides the Stearman pilot’s perception of what was happening: “The pilot reported that the landing ‘didn’t feel right’ and that the aircraft was not responding to control inputs. He applied power to correct what he felt was a drift to the left, then reduced power to idle. The aircraft continued to swing further to the left, off the runway and onto the grass.” (see headline picture).

The Cessna pilot could not open his cockpit door, but the Stearman pilot managed to do it and helped him out. The airport fire and rescue service attended rapidly and doused the Cessna with foam because fuel was leaking from the left wing tank.

Because the airfield only provided an air-ground communication service, not ATC as such, communications are not logged, but the pilots and some airport witnesses report calls being made in this case. The mystery is: why didn’t either pilot hear the other’s calls?

The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Skyway Code provides plenty of apposite advice for this serious incident. One piece is this: “If you believe the circuit is clear but are not sure, there is no harm in asking over the radio whether there is any other traffic – it is not unknown for pilots to stop making position calls if they believe they are alone in the circuit.” Another is to stick rigidly to circuit procedure, which would include not joining from the dead side.

UK aviation: caught in the crossfire

With the destabilizing effects on global aviation of huge fuel price inflation and unprecedented Russian military aggression in Europe, worsened by post-pandemic staffing shortages, it’s amazing that international commercial air transport works at all right now.

International cooperation has never been more crucial. Yet in the UK, an example of how NOT to do aviation – especially right now – has just been highlighted.

UK-based eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace will be certificated by the UK CAA according to EU rules despite having separated from EASA

The reason international aviation is still working despite global instability is because the world wants it to, and has set up robust systems to enable it. Like commercial shipping, commercial aviation is naturally a global industry.

That’s why both those industries have specific United Nations agencies devoted to overseeing globally agreed standards and operating practices (SARPs). These agencies are the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. Total regulatory unity doesn’t prevail worldwide, but a high degree of harmonization does.

The world’s two most influential national/regional aviation authorities responsible for turning ICAO SARPS into national law are the European Union Aviation Safety Organisation (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These two have worked together for decades to improve the harmonization of their regulations, making them identical where possible. They still meet regularly. Most of the world’s national aviation authorities (NAAs) more or less copy the regulations of one or the other into their own NAA rules.

All the EU states have always had their own NAAs – and still do. But since the 1980s they have worked together on harmonizing their aviation regulations to make Europe’s aviation industry work better.

In the early 2000s, EASA was born out of its predecessor the European Joint Aviation Authorities, to unify Europe’s interpretation of all those ICAO SARPs.

Back in the early 1980s, believe it or not, Boeing had to build almost as many variants of its 737 series as there were countries in Europe, because some nations insisted on safety systems than the FAA did not require, and some of these specifications were unique to each country. For example, one of the UK’s additional requirements – then – was for a 737 stick-pusher.

Today the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is faced with the consequences of returning to the bad old days because of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Although Theresa May, the UK prime minister preceding Boris Johnson’s election, had instructed the CAA to remain an associate member of EASA following “Brexit”, when Johnson came in his government insisted on ideological purity, thus no CAA association with Europe’s multinational agency.

Meanwhile, right now the CAA has to prepare its reaction to the imminent arrival on the world stage of a new form of commercial air transport: eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing), also known as Urban Air Mobility. Expected to take the air taxi world by storm and make it sustainable, the UK plans to be involved in all aspects of this new industry, including manufacturing.

At a time like this, when the world has agreed to harmonize rules associated with another massive new aviation development – drone operation – it does not make sense for any nation to declare unilateral independence from the world rule-making processes.

The CAA, fully aware of its dilemma, has released a statement pledging that it will follow exactly the EASA rules on certification for eVTOL.  Of course, it has to duplicate the regulation in UK law, and any UK eVTOL products or services will be subject to scrutiny by EASA to ensure that it does just that. Hence the UK’s promising eVTOL manufacturer Vertical Aerospace is having to undergo identical parallel certification by two agencies: the CAA and EASA. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Meanwhile the bureaucratic burden placed on the UK agency is evident from this script heading pages on the CAA’s website: “UK-EU Transition, and UK Civil Aviation Regulations: To access current UK civil aviation regulations, including AMC and GM, CAA regulatory documents, please use this link to UK regulation. Please note, if you use information and guidance under the Headings below, the references to EU regulations or EU websites in our guidance will not be an accurate description of your obligations under UK law. These pages are undergoing reviews and updates.

Bringing their legacy to Life

On 12 June 2015 I visited the old aerodrome of Saint-Omer in far north-eastern France. The date was the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival there to join No. 7 Squadron Royal Flying Corps as a new pilot.

This aerodrome was chosen by the First World War Aviation Historical Society to be the site of a memorial to all British military aviators, judging Saint Omer to be “the spiritual home of the RFC”.

My 12 June 2015 visit to Saint-Omer aerodrome

Now airman and film producer Tristan Loraine is to make a film honouring the historic contribution of aviators to our freedom, and he’s inviting people who care about these things to get involved in its creation.

It’ll be a homage to all lost aircrew called Angel Fleet. If you click on the link above you’ll see this:

My grandfather, Major Leonard Learmount RFC, was lucky. He survived, but many in the Squadron he eventually commanded in 1917-18 didn’t.

Until the First World War Aviation Historical Society decided – in 2004 – to erect the memorial at Saint-Omer, there was no single monument to honour all lost military aviators from all conflicts. Until Tristan makes this film there will be no single silver-screen tribute to them all.