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This year the FAA has received an average of 250 reports a month of drones near airports - a rise of nearly 100 a month from most of last year. This is especially worrying as a study carried out on behalf of the FAA showed that a drone colliding with an aircraft will cause more impact damage than a bird strike of equivalent size and speed.

The study, carried out by a consortium of universities under the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (Assure), found that unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), being made of stiff plastic with a mass of batteries and cameras,  have the potential to cause more damage than flexible birds do.

Interestingly, while bird strikes have always threatened aviation - meaning reducing the hazard of a bird strike has become something that regulators and the aviation industry have had to take very seriously - according to the FAA’s accident database, small or medium sized birds have only caused 3 fatal accidents since 1990. However, the study found that these aircraft-manufacturing standards designed for bird strikes aren't appropriate for ensuring planes can withstand collisions with drones.

Animations released by the FAA show how dangerous a drone strike can be, causing significant damage to a plane's engine or tail area. Additionally, researchers found that a drone's lithium ion battery was likely to shatter in high-impact collisions, raising the potential for a fire. Although drone operators need special permission to operate in some areas near airports, the rise in reported sightings suggest not all operators abide by the law, even though the result of colliding with an aircraft during the critical stages of flight - takeoff and landing - could be catastrophic.

Preliminary statistics for 2016 issued by the NTSB recently showed that the fatal accident rate in general aviation (GA) dropped below 1 accident per 100,000 flight hours - to 0.989 - for the first time in 50 years.

The figures were noted at a meeting of transportation stakeholders who were reviewing progress being made in addressing the NTSB’s Most Wanted List for 2017/2018. This list ascertains the most critical areas in need of attention to reduce transportation accidents, with loss of control in-flight in general aviation having been on the list for two years, as it is one of the most significant causes of fatal accidents.

The preliminary statistics also revealed that whilst the fatality rate had reduced slightly from the previous year, the majority had occurred in GA accidents. In total, there were 1266 accidents in GA, with 213 of these accidents involving fatalities.

A spokesperson for the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) said “We’ve made some real progress in reducing GA fatality rates as an industry.....there’s more work to be done, but the downward trend is reassuring and we’re hopeful that ongoing work will continue to prevent these accidents”

The issue of pilot shortfall in the USAF is not a new one, however the figures turn out to be a lot worse than Air Force officials were citing up until very recently. At the end of the fiscal year, the shortfall had increased to around 2,000 pilots - which is 500 more than previously thought - and as the USAF needs to have about 20,000 personnel across Guard and Reserve on active duty, this means the shortfall is about one in ten.

Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski (who has been put in charge of the Air Crew Crisis Task Force which concentrates on solving the problem of pilot retention) feels the solution is to train more pilots. Air Force graduates have been steadily growing in numbers over the last few years, with 1,200 graduating in 2017. However, last September Head of Air Education and Training Command, Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, said that the Air Force probably needs to graduate around 1,600 pilots each year just to keep up. Yet training and graduating this number of pilots would mean more planes, more instructors and of course, more students.

As an attempt to recruit and retain its personnel, the Air Force has brought in several new measures recently. These include:

  • Changing the way they recruit (lifting the barriers to allow those that previously may have been barred from joining);
  • Increasing Air Crew Incentive Pay (brought in to stop the exodus of experienced military pilots to the airline industry);
  • Expanding their Career Intermission Program (a work-life flexibility initiative to enable talent to be retained);
  • and allowing more retired pilots to be recalled under the Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty program.

The Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty program has expanded from the 25 retired officers originally allowed to return for up to a year, so that retired pilots can now serve for an additional three years. The USAF is hoping that around 200 retired personnel will return, some in the role of instructor pilots, so that the ability to train more recruits will widen. Officers who elect to return to active duty will come back at the rank they held when they retired but will not be eligible for promotion. They will receive the same pay and benefits as other officers and whilst not eligible for retention bonuses, may receive Air Crew Incentive Pay.

It is hoped that these initiatives will create a healthier Air Force and ensure combat missions abroad can continue.

Further reading

President Donald Trump recently directed Elaine L. Chao (U.S. Secretary of Transportation) to launch The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program will be used to integrate and accelerate the safe use of UAS into the national airspace. The program will allow Lead Applicants (state, local, and tribal governments, who will serve as the primary point of contact with the FAA), to partner with Interested Parties (public and private sector applicants such as UAS operators or manufacturers).

The program will gather operational and other data, which will help tackle the most significant challenges in integrating drones into the national airspace while reducing risks to public safety and security. Additionally, according to the FAA it is “expected to provide immediate opportunities for new and expanded commercial UAS operations, foster a meaningful dialogue on the balance between local and national interests related to UAS integration, and provide actionable information to the Department of Transportation (DOT) on expanded and universal integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS).”

Elaine L. Chao stated:

“This program supports the President’s commitment to foster technological innovation that will be a catalyst for ideas that have the potential to change our day-to-day lives”. 

On November 1st, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to overhaul the regulations related to the certifying of helicopters.

The proposal would revise regulations in title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 27 (Airworthiness Standards: Normal Category Rotorcraft) and part 29 (Airworthiness Standards: Transport Category Rotorcraft).

In its proposal, the FAA stated “The proposed changes are necessary to address modern designs currently used in the rotorcraft industry and would reduce the burden on applicants for certification of new rotorcraft designs”.

The existing regulations, which were brought into force in 1964 “.. do not address increasing design complexity” and “have not kept pace with advances in technology for rotorcraft.” Currently, to accommodate changes the FAA either issue:

  • Reoccurring Special Conditions – (when the FAA finds the applicable Airworthiness Standards do not contain adequate or appropriate safety standards because of a novel or unusual design feature)
  • Equivalent Level Of Safety findings (ELOS) – (where a design does not literally comply with the Airworthiness Standards but compensating factors exist that provide an equivalent level of safety)
  • Or Means Of Compliance (MOC) issue papers – (document compliance methodologies that fall outside existing guidance and policies)

The changes would “incorporate the requirements of equivalent level of safety findings that the FAA has imposed as conditions for approving certain design features”. The same testing, analysis and inspections as currently would need to be complied with but it is thought unnecessary burdens on both the FAA and the helicopter industry would be reduced with these changes.

The FAA is inviting comments up until January 30th, 2018 and the NPRM can be found here

An Air Force investigation released last Thursday has revealed that an improperly-assembled engine was the cause of an F-16C crash on April 5, 2017.

The Air National Guard F-16C Fighting Falcon crashed at around 9:17 a.m. - shortly after departing from Joint Base Andrews - about six miles southwest of Andrews and 12 miles south of Washington. The pilot was a member of the 121st Fighter Squadron and was flying with three other F-16s as part of a routine training operation when the plane “experienced an uncommanded engine acceleration, followed by a loss of thrust.”

It was the first flight for the single-engine fighter, following installation of an overhauled main engine control (MEC) unit. The Air Force Accident Investigation Board looked into the crash and forensic specialists found that the MEC unit had been incorrectly reassembled, with the absence of the 600-degree training ring and associated anti-rotation pin leading to the malfunction of a pilot valve. This caused a huge excess of fuel to be delivered to the engine which manifested as uncommanded acceleration, progressing to engine overspeed and a massive engine fire.

The pilot was able to put out the fire but the engine was unusable. He therefore aimed the aircraft towards a nearby wooded area and ejected. Although he was medically evacuated and treated at Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic at Andrews, the pilot was not injured in the incident and subsequently released on the same day.

The President of the Accident Investigation Board, Air Force Col. David Cochran, stated:

“It is critically important to ensure that all small washers, shims, pins, clips, and retaining rings are accounted for during the MEC overhaul process, in accordance with the applicable technical order guidance. Omitting or improperly installing any of these items, as stated in the technical order, did result in failure of the MEC and aircraft loss.”

According to the Air Force, the plane cost $22 million and the environmental clean-up cost more than $856,000.

At the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) annual conference on October 16, Robert Nichols, (FAA Surveillance Services Group Manager) informed the delegates that the FAA is already reflecting on which radars to retire and which to keep as back up to the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast  (ADS–B) – even though progress in equipping aircraft has so far been slow.

ADS–B is an element of the US Next Generation Air Transportation System  (NextGen), the national airspace strategy for upgrading and enhancing aviation infrastructure and operations.

It is an environmentally friendly technology whereby an aircraft transmits its position via satellite signal, which it broadcasts, enabling it to be tracked – with no interrogation signal needed from the ground. This GPS location information is much more accurate than current radar equipment and the FAA believes it will “transform all segments of aviation”, improving safety and efficiency both in the air and on the ground.

With ADS-B, pilots will be able to see traffic, weather and flight information services (such as temporary flight restrictions) on their cockpit displays. This should enhance safety by improving situational awareness, allowing for self separation and reducing the risk of runway incursions.

However, although the FAA require ADS-B transmitters to be fitted by January 1, 2020 (ADS-B Out), there is as yet no mandate for ADS-B In, which receives data and provides it to in-cockpit displays.

Considering there is only just over two years before the mandate comes into force, progress has been slow in equipping aircraft, as currently just 27% of all U.S. aircraft (including military, commercial and general aviation) have been fitted with the necessary avionics. When questioned by an FAA representative though, airline executives stated they were on track to make the deadline.

For the second time in only 6 months, an Air Canada flight is being investigated by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding an event at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – this one on Sunday October 22nd.

Flight AC781, an Airbus 320 was arriving at SFO after a six hour flight from Montreal, Canada. According to the FAA, ATC had cleared the flight to land on runway 28R and the crew had acknowledged the instructions whilst some miles away from the airport.

However, during its final approach, a controller in the tower ordered the flight to make a go-around, as they were concerned that the preceding arriving jet might still be on the runway.

When the crew of Flight 781 failed to respond to six calls from the tower, ATC used a flashing red light gun - which is standard protocol when an aircrew is not responding to radio instructions - but the flight did not respond to this either.

Fortunately, the runway was clear of aircraft when the jet touched down safely at 9:26 p.m.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Air Canada said: “Upon landing, the crew was informed the tower had attempted unsuccessfully to contact the aircraft, however the message was not received by the crew.”

In light of the first incident, Federal regulators had implemented new policies concerning landing procedures and control tower staffing levels at SFO, however when the crew eventually responded, they apparently told the tower that their radio had malfunctioned. Air Canada is also investigating the circumstances.

American Airlines (AA) are the latest airline to become publicly embroiled in an argument with a passenger.

Tamika Mallory, a New York-based activist and co-founder of Women’s March, was removed from a flight last week after becoming involved in a row over seating.

On arrival at Miami International Airport for a flight to New York, Ms Mallory used a kiosk to change her seat from a middle, to an aisle seat. However, after a disagreement with a gate agent regarding the reassignment, an AA pilot intervened. According to Ms Mallory, the pilot asked her “Can you get on this flight?” and “Are you going to be a problem on this flight?” 

Ms Mallory, who had already assured the pilot that she would be fine, admitted to losing her temper at this point to which the pilot told her “You’re going to get yourself a one-way ticket off this plane.”

Wanting to get home as she was attending a wedding, Ms Mallory then boarded the plane and took her original middle seat. However, her name was called over the loudspeaker and she was asked up to the front of the plane where she was informed she was being removed from the flight, along with her travel companion. Two officers then arrived to remove them.

Ms Mallory took to twitter to vent her anger, saying “He had no business getting involved in a seat dispute” and said of the airline staff 'I was singled out, I was disrespected, and he was trying to intimidate me. I was discriminated against.'  

American Airlines eventually released a statement regarding the incident, calling the event an “error” with the seating assignment. American spokesman Josh Freed stated: “Due to an error with a seat change request, Ms. Mallory was informed her requested seat was not available and she was given her original, pre-reserved seat.” He went on to say “Our team members apologized for the error and attempted to de-escalate the situation” and when asked stated that the company doesn’t “tolerate discrimination of any kind,”

Ms. Mallory was eventually rebooked on the next flight to New York’s LaGuardia airport but maintains she has never been given an explanation as to why she was asked to leave the flight in the first place. 

Investigators from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board have revealed that on September 18th, air traffic controllers (ATC) in India reportedly ignored four Mayday calls from an Air Canada Boeing 787-9.

The Dreamliner, bound for Mumbai from Toronto, had flown for 16 hours with 177 passengers and 14 crew members on board when they arrived at their destination. However, due to a runway overrun by a Boeing 737, the active runway was closed and the flight was ordered into a holding pattern.

According to a bulletin released by Canadian authorities, after an hour of holding, crew members on the flight - which had scheduled duration of around 14 and a half hours - asked for clearance to an (unnamed) alternate. Mumbai controllers informed the crew that they could not be accommodated as it was at maximum capacity.

A second request on the advice of their dispatchers, to divert to Hyderabad around 350 miles away, was also refused on the grounds of capacity.

With fuel running low, the flight issued a Mayday call but was again put into a hold. Investigators were told by Air Canada that ATC “continued trying to divert the flight or attempted to place it in another hold”. After a total of four Mayday calls, ATC were eventually convinced to give the airliner a straight-in approach to runway 09L at Hyderabad.

Although the aircraft landed safely, it had been operating for approximately 17 hours by the time it touched down. Canadian officials say they are “in contact” with their AAIB counterparts in India about the incident.

Airbus Helicopters (the leader in the global civil helicopter market) have confirmed that they are developing a new image processing system that will be able to detect a helipad and perform automatic approaches and landings.

The new system, "Eye for Autonomous Guidance and Landing Extension", or “Eagle” will be able to perform in challenging conditions, thus improving the safety of aircraft. It is hoped it will reduce pilot workload at a critical stage of flight and in the most demanding environments and conditions, benefitting search and rescue (SAR) operations and in future, unmanned vehicles. 

The system can spot the “H” marking on a helipad then uses three high resolution cameras to create a stabilized high-definition image. Processing units and on-board video analytics are used to compute such parameters as direction, distance and elevation and the “H” is tracked, with the information shown to the crew, at the moment, on a conventional display.

The first flight using the Eagle system is expected to take place this week. The system has been undergoing ground tests since May of this year and could possibly enter the market by the end of the decade.