The Future of GPS?

In January a software upgrade designed to support a new generation of GPS satellites called Block IIF was installed resulting in the failure of over 10,000 US military GPS recievers.  While civilian receivers were not affected in January, the next steps in this process may have profound implications for civilian GPS users including pilots who increasingly rely on GPS for navigation.Launching the New GPS Satellite

Late last week the US Air Force launched the first of 12 new satellites designed to provide ultra-precise navigation and timing services.  These satellites will be used by both military and civilian receivers and are intended to be less vulnerable to jamming as well as longer lived.  They will use advanced atomic clocks for improved accuracy and will benefit aviation safety and search and rescue efforts.  This new system built by Boeing, has been dubbed GPS 2F-1 and is expected to last 12 years under solar power.  It is said to be twice as accurate as the current system.

Currently nearly a billion people worldwide use GPS for everything from recreation and farming to aviation, banking and disaster relief, in addition to it’s military uses.  Many are asking what the effect will be for the everyday user of GPS.  Will the new satellites be compatible with existing civilian receivers, or will we all have to purchase new ones?  Will the old system be phased out and what is the expected date when all 12 new satellites will be in operation?  Will my little handheld TomTom stop insisting that I turn right in 300 feet, even though that would put me over the side of a cliff?  We can only wait and hope.

California Chooses Air Safety Over Birds..At Last

It’s finally happened.  The pin heads in Sacramento have done the right thing.  They’ve chosen the safety of the flying public over the safety of birds.  On January 1, 2010, a new law gives California airports the right and responsibility to eliminate bird hazards, even if it means killing the birds.   Senate Bill 481 does not allow killing protected or endangered birds and requires airport officials to exhaust other mitigation methods before taking the most extreme action.   Even so, critics are complaining the law may lead to more birds being killed in the areas around airports.

Bird strikes are nothing new.  A jet on takeoff sucks a bird into the engine, loses power and has to go around and land.  I remember one early Monday morning flight from San Jose to Los Angeles.  As the nose of the plane lifted from the runway, there was a loud THUMP!   That’s all, just a thump.  I’d nearly managed to convince myself it was nothing when the pilot announced we’d hit a bird and would have to circle back to the airport and land.   We put down our Wall Street Journals and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one on that airplane who said a silent prayer or two.  Within 15 minutes we were back on the ground.  But, it was a long 15 minutes for me. 

The most recent and highly publicized bird strike occurred January 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River after hitting a Canadian Goose (or two).   The sight of a hundred and fifty passengers clinging to the wings of a sinking aircraft in the middle of the Hudson brought the danger home to the public in a powerful way.   And the FAA was pressured to release their database of aircraft and “wildlife” collisions. 

Airports and airlines have been voluntarily reporting bird strikes to the FAA for twenty years. The FAA  has withheld specific information about airports and airlines, making it impossible for the public to learn, for instance, which airports have a severe bird problem and which don’t. Until now, FAA officials have said it’s necessary to keep specific information from the public because it might discourage voluntary reporting. The information could also be embarrassing to some airports with higher numbers of bird strikes.

The over 100,000 bird strike reports contained in the database account for only about 20% of bird and wildlife strikes according to the FAA’s own estimates.

Bird and wildlife strikes cause more than a half-million hours of aircraft down time and cost U.S. civil aviation more than $500 million annually, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the threat to air safety is on the rise with increasing populations of many wildlife species that are hazardous to aircraft.  

Fatal Crash Addison, TX

Cessna 172 downed by bird strike in 2003 near Addison, Texas

Plane collisions involving birds and other wildlife have doubled around 13 large U.S. airports since 2000, according to data the FAA recently released.

John Ostrom, who chairs the Bird Strike Committee USA which advises the aviation industry, says bird and wildlife strikes are sometimes deadly.  Over 200 people have lost their lives since 1988 because of  airborne collisions with birds, according to Ostrom’s committee.

The populations of some migratory birds is increasing in the U.S. thanks to environmental safeguards.  A top US bird-strike researcher says populations of some of the biggest birds in North America – eight pounds each or more – are exploding thanks to aggressive environmental and conservation efforts.   And birds have grown accustomed to being around humans and large, noisy machinery, including aircraft. Air traffic worldwide has grown nearly 5%, on average, each year for the past two decades.

In California, Sacramento is the leader with over 1470 bird strikes  recorded at Sacramento International Airport from 1990 to 2008. For years, Sacramento Airport officials have followed federal law which requires them to protect travelers from “bird strikes.”  Under a federal depredation permit,  airport workers try to divert wildlife from an airplane’s flight path through harassment, trapping or relocation.  Only as a last resort, airport officials are given authority and responsibility to remove birds to protect human lives.

Senate Bill 481 gives all public use airports in California with federal depredation permits assurances that they have a legal right to remove birds they believe may endanger planes.  SB 481 further states that the taking of birds at public airports to protect public safety does not violate state law and amends the Fish and Game Code to codify existing practice based on compliance with federal law.

According to sponsors of the new law, Sacramento International Airport has  the highest number of bird strikes occurring in the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region and the sixth highest number in the nation.  This is not surprising as the airport sits in a major bird migration pathway, surrounded by agricultural land.   Sacramento County notes that California needed the new law because state law did not explicitly allow for public airports to take wildlife as a last resort, or to carry out other methods to protect public safety during airplane departures and arrivals. 

Of course, airports have tried for decades to control bird populations and minimize risk to aviation by employing so-called “humane” method such as lasers, noise cannons and habitat control to deter nesting and roosting in the open areas surrounding airports.  These techniques are often effective. And the new law  stipulates that killing birds should only be part of a wildlife management plan that emphasizes non-lethal wildlife management.

At last the Legislature has made it clear  airports can take more direct measures to keep the skies around their runways clear of wildlife, including eliminating birds if other measures don’t work.

For now, California’s flying public can take comfort in two things.  The skies surrounding our airports may get safer, and our state government is capable of making a rational decision in favor of airports and safety over irrational protection of wildlife at all cost.  Two good things to note.

How Safe are Small Airplanes?

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General aviation airplanes have one of the world’s best safely records among all forms of public transportation.  In fact, since 1950, the accident rate per 100,000 flying hours is down by more than 93%.

Some of us will always feel a little nervous about flying in small airplanes.  But here are a few facts about how safe they really are.  Nearly twice as many people are killed each year in recreational boating accidents than in accidents involving private planes.

A small plane that loses power at 10,500 ft altitude can glide for more than 15 miles.  This gives the pilot ample time to select an appropriate landing spot, over 700 square miles of available landing spots, in fact.

In 2006 out of 22.8 million hours of flight operations, general aviation had only 303 fatal accidents.  On the average, 80% of small plane accidents involve no loss of life.

According to the FAA approximatley 36% of all accidents occur during descent and landing.  Another 18% take place during taxi and takeoff.  Only about 15% of accidents are found to be due to mechanical failure of the aircraft.

Experience as well as equipment are often a factor in general aviation fatalities.  Statistically, pilots with fewer than 100 hours are the most likely to be involved in a fatal  crash.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Manufacturers of light aircraft continue to innovate with safety in mind.   Single lever controls, electronic displays with audible alarms, fuel injection to prevent carburetor icing, improved lighting, seats, belts and attachments, low fuel warning lights, internally lit instruments, more redundancy in instruments…all play a part in making light planes safer to fly.  When something does go wrong, the whole aircraft parachute is often there as a last resort.  This technology is credited with saving many lives.

Last year my husband’s flight instructor lost a wing in flight and crashed into a vineyard.  He was able to deploy the BRS chute on his Challenger light sport aircraft and walked away from the accident with only minor bruises.

Critics of general aviation say the accident and fatality rates are still too high and safety improvements lag behind those of commerical aviation.  So called general aviation accounted for 91% of all aviation fatalities between 2002 and 2005.

The highest fatality rate is among single engine, fixed gear airplanes.  These accounted for 118 fatalities in 2006, down significantly from prior years.  Collision with terrain, wires or trees was the most common cause (52.5%), followed by loss of control (42.5%).

So, while flying a small plane is still riskier than watching football, general aviation is safer than traveling by car.  There are one tenth as many accidents per vehicle mile and the accident rate has steadily gone down since 1980.  Pilot training is a lot tougher than what is required for a driver’s license.   Aircraft is closely regulated, aircraft mechanics are certified and the NTSB reviews and publishes details about every reported accident.

So, while is is true that commerical airlines have a significantly better safety record than general aviation, it is also the case that flying your own small aircraft coast to coast (if you are a licensed, experienced pilot) is considerably safer than the same trip by car.