Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: "Flight for Control" by Karlene Petitt

The world in which Karlene Petitt's debut novel, Flight for Control, takes place looks very much like our own. It's a world where the airline industry, an important part of the fabric of society, is operating under severe economic and operational pressure...much like it does in our world, but a little...just a little worse.

It's a world where independent agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) come under the extralegal influence of an increasingly out-of-control Homeland Security complex...to a degree perhaps slightly greater than we see in our world.

And it's a world where good men and women strive ceaselessly against these pressures while seeming never to make progress or see improvement in their personal and professional lives. And where, perhaps, they wind up vulnerable to the schemes of a charismatic and Machiavellian figure who promises drastic action to solve their intractable problems.

The narrative is focused on an ex-NTSB accident investigator who left her career for family-track reasons. But circumstances surrounding a series of airline mishaps draw her back into the fray. As it happens, she is married to an airline Captain who is running for a leadership position in the pilots' union on a confrontational platform – the classic "Man on Horseback." There is, of course, much more to his plans than can be seen on the surface.

The plot hurtles forward, keeping the reader engaged. The author, a pilot who flies Airbus A330's on international routes for a major air carrier, keeps the aviation side of the story "shiny side up" to the gratification of the airplane-savvy reader. The dialog is crisp and the characters well-developed and believable.

(Required caveat: The tale includes several scenes where adult characters do adult things with each other. Probably not what you want to give to your aviation-smitten thirteen-year-old...unless you have a very mature thirteen-year-old.)

I found this book hard to put down (as in, "Hey, it's only 11:30 – one more chapter won't hurt me..."), and it left me looking forward to meeting the protagonist again in a sequel.

In several dimensions, the world of Flight for Control is our world, writ large. The question becomes whether this world is some intriguing alternate reality – or our own future. At the end of the book the author includes some "Questions for Discussion" regarding crew-related challenges that confront the aviation industry. We need viable answers to these, or some aspects of the story may become too real for comfort.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Send in the Drones? (cont'd)

I guess we have to talk about this. A post appeared on this blog 20 months ago, saying in part:
..we are being prepared for the day, not very far off, when we will be sharing the skies with Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as drones or remotely piloted vehicles (RPV's)...
As of Valentine's Day, when the President signed the recently passed FAA Reauthorization Act (Public Law 112-95), that day is upon us. There are some who are evincing surprise at the developments in this arena. I can only surmise that they have of late been asleep.

Section 332 et seq. of P.L. 112-95 has quite a lot to say on the topic of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. To begin with, the Law requires that on or before the 14th of May of this year the Secretary of Transportation must enter into agreements with "appropriate governmental agencies" that streamline the issuance of waivers or authorizations to operate "public unmanned aircraft systems" in the National Airspace System [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 334 (c)(1)].

The contemplated agreements must provide for expedited review, approval action within 60 business days, and expedited appeal in the event of disapproval. These agreements will, further, permit one-time approval of "similar operations carried out during a fixed period", and allow a "government public safety agency" to operate UAS's weighing up to 2 kg. within the operator's line of sight, up to 400 feet AGL during daylight conditions in uncontrolled airspace outside of 5 statute miles from any airport, heliport, etc.

One suspects that after about mid-August, anyone that flies low in uncontrolled airspace (agricultural applicators? pipeline patrols? balloonists? transiting helicopters?) is going to need to keep a sharp lookout for little 4 pound camera carriers buzzing around to help the constables search for marijuana patches, meth labs and undocumented immigrants. Will it be the responsibility of the operators of these devices to "see-and-avoid" other traffic? That would seem to be a rule-making matter,but the expedited schedule allows little time for orderly rule-making.

Once that little piece of business is under control, P.L. 112-95 gives the Administrator of the FAA until the 12th of August to set up a program of, at most, five years duration, that will establish six "test ranges" for the integration of UAS's into the National Airspace System (NAS) [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (c)(1) et seq.]. In selecting locations for the test ranges, the Administrator is required to consider "geographic and climatic diversity", "ground infrastructure and research needs", the views of NASA and DoD, and no doubt (though not explicitly required), the location of the districts represented by the relevant congressional committee chairs.

The program's goals are fairly ambitious:

  • To "safely designate airspace" for integrated manned and UAS operations;
  • To "develop certification standards and air traffic requirements" for UAS's;
  • To "coordinate and leverage" NASA and Dod resources;
  • To "address both civil and public" UAS's;
  • To coordinate with NextGen;
  • To verify the safety of UAS's and related navigation procedures before integration into the NAS.

With these pilot projects established, no doubt to the financial pleasure of the usual suspects among DoT contractors, the cognizant managers will need to hustle to comply with the next requirement of P.L. 112-95. The act gives the Secretary until November 10th of this year to develop a "comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil [UAS's] into the [NAS]." This plan is to be formulated "in consultation with representatives of the aviation industry, Federal agencies that employ [UAS] technology in the [NAS], and the [UAS] industry." [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (a)(1) et seq.] (One wonders whether the GA community will have a seat at that table.)

The Act is fairly explicit on what it expects this "comprehensive plan" to comprehend, among other things (emphasis added):

  • The anticipated rulemaking that will (i) define operating and certification standards for civil UAS's, (ii) ensure that UAS's incorporate "sense-and-avoid" capability, (iii) establish standards (including registration and licensing) for operators and pilots of UAS's;
  • To project methods to enhance the technologies needed to achieve safe and routine operation of UAS's in the NAS;
  • To recommend a phased-in approach to the integration of civil UAS's in the NAS;
  • To project a timeline for this phased-in approach;
The plan is required to provide for the "safe integration" of UAS's into the NAS "as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30th, 2015."

The Act requires that the integration plan be forwarded to congress within a year (i.e., by February 14th, 2013), and that also by that date "the Secretary shall approve and make available in print and on the Administration’s Internet Web site a 5-year roadmap for the introduction of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system...," said roadmap to be updated annually.

And, finally, the Act requires [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (b)] that:

  • "not later than 18 months after the date on which the (integration) plan...is submitted (i.e., at latest, by August, 2014)...the Secretary shall publish...a final rule on small (i.e., 25 kg or less) unmanned aircraft systems that will allow for civil operation of such systems in the national airspace system...",and;
  • "a notice of proposed rulemaking to implement the recommendations of the (implementation) plan (presumably to encompass UAS's other than "small")...with the final rule to be published not later than 16 months after the date of publication of the notice (i.e., not later than December, 2015)."
So let us summarize the timeline:
  • May, 2012: Agreements with government agencies on waiver procedures for operating public UAS's (of max. wt. 2 kg) in the NAS;
  • August, 2012: Likely first operations of public UAS's in the NAS under waivers;
  • August, 2012: Establish "test ranges" for development of UAS technologies and methods needed for integration;
  • February, 2013: UAS Integration Plan due to Congress; Roadmap published in print and on-line;
  • August, 2014: Deadline for final rule for civil operation of "small" (i.e., 25 kg.) UAS's in the NAS.
  • December, 2015: Deadline for final rule for civil operation of all UAS's in the NAS.
The planning and rulemaking processes set in motion by the recent act of Congress deserve close watching, particularly as each key milestone is reached. It's going to get busy up there over the next few years!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Are you Sinistral?

Over on an on-line forum that I frequent, a question has arisen about whether the prevalence of left-handedness in the pilot community matches that in the general population.

So, a somewhat unscientific experiment. Could I ask visiting pilots (only, please), to register their "handedness" (one vote each please!) on the widget at the top of the sidebar at right. I'll say up front that I expect to see no real difference between pilots and folks in general, but hey, that's why we do the experiment!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nothing to Report

We approach the end of winter, and it has been a really remarkable season in the Northeast. (Meteorological winter is defined to encompass the three calender months having the lowest mean temperatures, i.e. December, January and February – at least here in the northern hemisphere.) We're 10 weeks into that span with only three more weeks to go. And flying over Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut on Monday, I saw no evidence of snow cover at all. None. Zero. That's remarkable.

Since the season began on 1 December, N631S and I have been able to make the trip between KBDR and KVKX seven times in each direction, of a possible ten. That's a much better dispatch rate than we've achieved in the previous couple of winters. (At left, the flight southbound for Christmas weekend.) There was one weather related diversion in December, recounted in these two posts, but that was a result of fog, not the wintry stuff endemic to the period.

And it's been warm. Out of seven Friday afternoon departures from KBDR since 1 December I've only once needed to have my friends at Three Wing Flying Services hook up N631S's Tanis pre-heat system – meaning that every other time the temperature was above 40ºF. I've used the pre-heat system a few times of a Monday morning, after a 6:00 AM arrival at KVKX, but never due to anything lower than about 30ºF. In short it's been quite mild.

Of course I'm not complaining. A look into my logbook for the last ten weeks shows many entries that are variations on the theme: "IFR in VMC; uneventful." And of course uneventful is good! But it doesn't provide a great deal of fodder for posts on this blog having the potential to entertain and enlighten my occasional visitor. Still, I'll take the deal.

There are three weeks left in the season and almost certainly I'll find myself on Amtrak a time or two. And then March may be anything but benign...time will tell. However, at the risk of appalling my friends from the midwest, the Mountain States, or Pacific northwest (who have had, of late, far more entertaining weather) I can say that the Winter of 2011-12 already belongs in the "Win" column and I'll hope for one just like it next year.