Hiccup in VLJ deliveries gives operators time to train
Very light jets (VLJs) were the topic of intense discussion at the Corporate, Air Taxi and Personal Jets conference held at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, in March. With the world economy on its knees, the talk was less of VLJs cluttering the skies and more about making the most of a valuable breathing space. Delegates seemed to share a desire to reflect on the experiences of the industry to date and, in particular, Eclipse Aviation, with the manufacturer having entered U.S. Chapter 7 insolvency in February.
Views expressed at the meeting ranged from those of a few who think VLJs are not a threat, are just like aircraft that have been around for 40 years and will rarely be flown by single pilots (especially in Europe), to those of many who agreed that this time it will be different and the industry has a chance, with the economic downturn, to prepare for them.
Jim Takats, president and co-founder of simulator manufacturer Opinicus, which is headquartered in Lutz, Florida, said that between March 2007 and January 2009 some 500 pilots, whose qualifications ranged through “all areas of the pilot experience spectrum, many with no jet experience and many with very few hours,” had been type rated in the Eclipse 500.
“We had few problems adapting pilots with no jet experience but found lack of instrument skills were [more] an issue, and that basic skills need to be taught early in training,” said Takats.
Opinicus built four full-flight EA500 simulators at the Eclipse training center at Double Eagle II airport near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program “dramatically showed the efficiencies inherent in simulator training and demonstrated the importance of inserting real-world elements, such as weight-and-balance calculations, weather considerations, fuel management, ATC and situational awareness,” said Takats.
John Cox, president and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm located in Washington, D.C., said the Eclipse is in some ways just another jet, but “with a couple of exceptions.” He argued that what is statistically significant in assessing the impact of VLJs on safety is the fact that, to date, they have been operated more for “personal” flights than previous generation light jets and often, in the U.S. at least, as single-pilot operations.
“I don’t agree with [Eclipse founder] Vern Raburn when he says single-pilot operation could actually be safer,” Cox told the conference. “NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] reports show 18 incidents with two pilots and 53 with only one, and of 371 [involving] high-performance turboprops, 207 were single-pilot operated. So there is a 50-percent higher risk of an incident/accident with a single-pilot operation.”
Another aspect of VLJ operations highlighted by Cox is that “they often use small, remote strips with inadequate approach aids and little room for error.” For less experienced pilots there may be a risk of runway overruns. “There are two important [factors] with jets: drag management is more important than power management, and if you can’t think at eight miles a minute, don’t fly,” he said.
Cox cited one Eclipse incident where there were several simultaneous error messages that even two pilots would find hard to handle, highlighting issues with avionics design and reliability. “This is not acceptable and needs to be addressed by manufacturers,” he said.
Over Reliance on Automatic Systems
Simon Williams, chairman of the British Aviation Safety Partnership, warned of the erosion of manual flying skills where there is over reliance on automatic systems. “There is no silver-bullet solution,” he said, while pointing to recent studies in the UK showing that bizjets in owner-operator or air taxi operations had significantly higher accident rates than corporate operations (respectively 1.28 and 3.49 in accidents per million departures, compared to only 0.24). Of these, 52 percent were in the landing and approach phase, and of those, 51 percent were loss of control and 25 percent CFIT. “We need to put the focus on the top causal factors, which are dominated by flight-crew error.”
Williams added that business aircraft are responsible for more than their fair share of ATC infringements. “They represent 7 percent of the total flights but 21 percent of level busts, 20 percent of altimeter setting errors and four other factors are well above 7 percent. That is disproportionate,” he stated.
Chris Hodgkinson, chairman of the UK’s Chirp Air Transport Advisory Board, asked whether Chirp (confidential human factors incident reporting program) could help close the safety loop in the VLJ world. At present, he said, very few reports are received from business aviation, and he questioned whether this might be because of the different kinds of pilots compared with airlines. “Chirp is there if people feel there’s no other way to report confidentially,” said Hodgkinson.
Tim Scorer, lawyer and a consultant with Ince & Co., an international law firm that specializes in insurance, said suggestions that the insurance industry should monitor safety management is “novel, but not a popular idea.” He added that with VLJs his impression is that it might be a case of “press-on-itis at 400 miles per hour…a company director with a VLJ is a human factor waiting to happen.”
John Levesley of GATCO (the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers, www.gatco.org) said ATC could help but it faces a challenge if the number of entry-level jet movements at regional and private airfields increases significantly, as is often predicted. He pointed out that such aircraft are “pocket rockets, not gliders” and that without TCAS/ACAS, conflict detection and avoidance could be a serious issue.
He urged the manufacturers, “Don’t design out things that make it easy to upgrade the aircraft later, such as sufficient aerial ports.” Levesley also advised pilots to be prepared, to give ATC early prior knowledge so that they are built into the expectations of the system and to pay attention to what is happening with SESAR (for example, preferred trajectory proposals for the new Single European Sky structure for air traffic management). “We stand at the dawn of a new age of ATM technologies which will see immense changes in the next 30 years. We don’t want VLJs to be the late windscreen wiper on the Model T production line,” he said.
British Business and General Aviation Association operations consultant John Robinson spoke about collision avoidance for VLJs. “Imagine a scenario where an entry-level jet collides with an A380 over London,” he cautioned. “It is flown by a [private pilot] with 250 hours and the aircraft is not equipped with ACAS.
“Currently, aircraft with mtows of less than 5,700 kilograms [12,666 pounds]
do not require ACAS [but] all aircraft should have ACAS II. OEMs should make provision for it to be fitted, as Cessna is now doing for the Mustang,” he added.
Robinson also said, “Step climbs are causing particular problems, so we need provision for continuous climbs.” He asked rhetorically, “Should we apply restrictions in specific airspace given the [combined effect of] lack of ACAS II, single-pilot/ high-workload, complexity of avionics and lack of experience/recency?”
Bob Barnes, president of Robert B. Barnes Associates, an engineering consulting service based in Scottsdale, Arizona, claimed that VLJs had come and gone in a typical “hype cycle.” Starting with a “technology trigger,” followed by the build-up to a “peak of inflated expectation,” then by the drop into a “trough of disillusionment” beyond which there was a gradual “slope of enlightenment” leading to a “plateau of productivity,” he said. “And we all know where VLJs are now.
“The FAA asked me to take a look at Adam Aircraft and I was appalled,” he said. “They said simulation was too expensive and not necessary. We were brought in to certify the A500 as single pilot…and found that human factors issues in certification are open to a very broad interpretation.
“Questions remain about the adequacy of current regulatory training standards. Boy, is that an understatement!” he declared. “Luckily, manufacturers feel that more training is necessary. Eclipse showed initiative and was the only one to require recurrent training in the manual. It needs to be saluted. It has made significant contributions and caused the industry to look at important issues. Today’s regulatory environment for training and licensing is a mess,” he said. “Someone has to take the lead and install best practice.
“VLJs offer us an opportunity to examine differences in philosophy and to come together,” continued Barnes. “But there is no real definite leadership about doing anything. The three biggest challenges are: the use of automation; processes, flow patterns and checklists; and instrument proficiency.” He said pilots of the Cirrus SR22 piston single do far better in evaluations than high-time airline pilots “because they know the systems and are used to single-pilot [operating environments].”
Cirrus is working on its own VLJ, the all-composite V-tail Cirrus Vision SJ50, which made its first flight in July 2008. The company anticipates FAA certification in late 2010, with deliveries to follow early the next year.
In December the company released more detailed preliminary performance and specifications numbers, projecting max takeoff weight to be about 6,000 pounds, with a useful load of 2,300 pounds and 1,960 pounds of max usable fuel.
NBAA IFR range of the Vision will be about 1,000 nm, though its VFR range is expected to be near 1,400 nm.
The Human Factor
Barnes said there are no controlled studies of VLJ training programs by the regulators, that there is evidence of poor feedback loops and there is no publicly available empirical data. “The FAA seems to think all this is fine, though,” he said.
FlightSafety International UK’s training center manager Paul Hewett said simulation-based training is the best for VLJs such as the Cessna Citation Mustang, where workload for single-pilot operation is “three to five times as high” as in multi-crew operations. Partly for this reason, FlightSafety at Farnborough is introducing a mentor program, following Eclipse’s lead.
Bob Scott, director of business development with Scott Consulting Services, said training with limited resources is an issue for corporate aviation. “People in the corporate world seriously need help,”
he insisted. “Instructors need to be standardized, which is very difficult, and regulations don’t satisfactorily support training. I am encouraged at what is being done for light jet training, though.”
With VLJs, he commented: “It is a serious concern that the people who are least qualified are going out with these high-performance aircraft and lots of flexibility.
“The problem with the modern cockpit is that there is too much head-down time, mode confusion, over reliance on computer-generated information, failure to check the obvious [for example, gross error checks] and a tendency to ‘follow the magenta line’. Pilots can be overwhelmed by technology,” he said.
“New pilots may feel that they are on the periphery of the operation, rather than feeling in charge of it,” he added. “However, generally there is little or no supervision after initial training and no mentoring for purchasers of used aircraft.”
Scott has developed a new philosophy for keeping pilots who don’t have the support of a company flight department, which forms a community using Web technology with “collaborative networking.” This “collnet” idea is an affordable way to close the loop by consolidating training on an ongoing basis, taking every mission as an opportunity to reinforce training.