Delayed VLJ deliveries allow time for transition

 - May 1, 2009, 8:02 AM

The economic downturn is giving manufacturers and operators of very light jets (VLJs) more time to prepare for the airplanes’ widespread entry into service, according to speakers at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s corporate, air taxi and personal jets conference in London on March 18 and 19.

A few attendees maintained that the airplanes pose no threat to safety, are just like aircraft that have been around for 40 years and will rarely be flown by single pilots (especially in Europe). More attendees, however, suggested that the airplanes pose unique challenges that the industry can address before the small jets darken the skies.

U.S. manufacturer Eclipse entered Chapter 7 insolvency in February. More recently, four groups have formed to buy the company’s assets and restart product support and, in some cases, production of the light jet.

Jim Takats, president and co-founder of simulator manufacturer Opinicus, said that around 500 pilots had been type rated on the Eclipse 500 between March 2007 and January 2009, with the starting standard “covering all areas of the pilot experience spectrum–many with no jet experience and many with very few hours.”

“We had few problems adapting pilots with no jet experience but found instrument skills were an issue, and that you need basic skills to be taught early in training,” said Takats, while emphasizing the importance of being “willing to reject pilots early in training.”

Opinicus built four full-flight simulators for the EA-500 at the Eclipse training center, at Double Eagle II Airport near Albuquerque. 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,” he said.

Bob Barnes, president of Robert Barnes Associates, asserted that VLJs have come and gone in a typical “hype cycle.” Starting with a “technology trigger,” there was then the build-up to a “peak of inflated expectation,” followed by the drop into a “trough of disillusionment,” beyond which there was a gradual “slope of enlightenment” leading to a “plateau of productivity.

“The FAA asked me to take a look at Adam Aircraft and I was appalled,” said Barnes. “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 broad interpretation.

“Questions remain about the adequacy of current regulatory training standards. Boy, is that an understatement,” was his emphatic conclusion. “Luckily, manufacturers feel that more training is necessary. Eclipse showed initiative, and was the only one to require recurrent training in the manual.

“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 maintained that 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 operations.”

Barnes said that 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.

“Eclipse 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,” concluded Barnes. “Someone has to take the lead and install best practice.”

Paul Hewett, training center manager with FlightSafety International UK, said that simulation- based training is the best framework 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. FlightSafety at Farnborough is introducing a mentoring plan, following Eclipse’s lead.

Operational Safety
Capt. John Cox, president and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said that the Eclipse is in some ways just another jet, but “with a couple of exceptions.” In regard to safety statistics, he emphasized the significance of the fact that VLJs to date have been operated more for “personal” flights than previous-generation light jets were and often, in the U.S. at least, in single-pilot operations.

“I don’t agree with [Eclipse founder] Vern Raburn [that] single-pilot operation could actually be safer,” Cox told the conference. “NTSB data show 18 incidents with two pilots and 53 with only one, and of the 371 with 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.”

Cox also highlighted the fact that VLJs “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 differences 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. Even two pilots would find such a situation hard to handle, and the incident, he maintains, highlights issues with avionics design and reliability. “This is not acceptable and needs to be addressed by manufacturers,” he concluded.

Simon Williams, chairman of the British Aviation Safety Partnership, warned about pilots’ relying on automatic systems to the point that manual flying skills suffer. “There is no silver-bullet solution,” he said, pointing to recent studies in the UK showing that bizjets in owner-operator or air-taxi operation had significantly higher accident rates than corporate operations (1.28 and 3.49 accidents per million departures, respectively, compared with 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, too. “They represent seven percent of the total flights but 21 percent of level busts, 20 percent of altimeter setting errors, and four other factors are well above seven percent. That is disproportionate,” he stated.

Chris Hodgkinson, chairman of the 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, business aviation operators submit few reports, and he questioned whether this might be because of the different kinds of pilot [compared with airlines]. “Chirp is there if people feel there’s no other way to report confidentially,” said Hodgkinson. Lawyer Tim Scorer, a consultant with insurance specialist Ince, regarded suggestions that the insurance industry monitor safety management as “novel, but not a popular idea.” He added that, with VLJs, his impression was 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.”

Safety Improvements

John Levesley of the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers (Gatco) said that ATC could help but faced a challenge if the number of entry-level jet movements from regional and private airfields increased 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.

“Don’t design out things that make it easy to upgrade the aircraft later, such as sufficient [antenna] ports,” he urged manufacturers. Levesley also advised pilots to be prepared, to give ATC early prior knowledge (so that you are built into the expectations of the system) and to pay attention to what is happening with Sesar (such as 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 that 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 argued.

John Robinson, operations consultant with the British Business and General Aviation Association, spoke about collision avoidance for VLJs. “Imagine an entry-level jet colliding 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 of less than 5,700 kg [12,566 pounds] mtow 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.

“Step climbs are causing particular problems, so we need provision for continuous climbs,” said Robinson, who posed the question: “Should we apply restrictions [on VLJ operations] in specific airspace given the [combined effect of] lack of ACAS II, single pilot/high workload, complexity of avionics and lack of experience/currency?”

Bob Scott, director of business development with Scott Consulting Services, said that 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 difficult, and regulations don’t satisfactorily support training. I am encouraged, though, by what is being done for light jet training.”

As for 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.”

He continued, “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 [gross error checks], and a tendency to ‘follow the magenta line.’ Pilots can be overwhelmed by technology,” warned Scott.

“New pilots may feel that they are on the periphery of the operation, rather than in charge of it,” added Scott. “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 informed pilots who don’t have the support of a company flight department: he forms a community using Web technology for “collaborative networking.” This “collnet” idea is an affordable way to turn every mission into an opportunity to reinforce training, he maintains.