By lex, on June 25th, 2011
While back east last weekend, your host had the opportunity to chat with an occasional reader about a number of things, among which was my transition to general aviation after two decades and change of pushing fast metal around at taxpayer expense. My interlocutor was a general aviation enthusiast himself, and operated chiefly in the Midwest I gather, a region where weather effects comprise a similar, if seasonal, risk to flying that terrain does here on the west coast.
When he asked me what my thoughts were about GA, they turned chiefly to aviation safety, which in turn reflects on aviation safety culture. Sure, an FA-18 is faster than a Cessna 172, or a turbo Mooney for that matter, but you get used the fact that your top-end cruising speed in a piston single is less than your nosewheel lift-off speed in the Hornet pretty quickly – it is what it is, and constraints are relative. And I’ve got enough time in aircraft with steam gauges that transitioning from a glass cockpit back to six-pack round dials and gauges didn’t represent much of a challenge, although it’s fair to say that I’ve had my share of finger-fires using relatively modern comm/nav suites such as the Garmin 530 or 430 sets. Had I three thousand hours or so of dobbering through sub-pages and twisting knobs, no doubt it would be as careless a thing as entering a waypoint via the Up Front Control or laying a courseline on the moving map was in the FA-18. At $180 or so per hour for a Cessna 182 with all the bells and whistles, gaining that kind of familiarity and proficiency would take me several lifetimes and cost me several marriages however, so I always bring the quick reference guide and try to stay well within my comfort zone.
So I don’t so very much miss cruising at high relative mach numbers so much as climbing to 35,000 feet, well above any weather in my path, relatively free of conflicting traffic and safely buffered from mountainous terrain, which is always there (out west, especially), even when you can’t see it. I don’t miss my weapons systems so much as I lament my relative lack of familiarity with general aviation comm/nav systems. I don’t miss trolling at the edge of SAM engagement zones – especially when I’m not the flight lead – nor keeping my head on a swivel for anti-aircraft artillery, truth be told. But I do miss my radar altimeter, regret the absence of an angle of attack gauge – stall occurs at the same AoA regardless of gross weight – and it sure would be nice to have a few ten thousand pounds of excess thrust near to hand when something unexpected looms right head. I don’t really miss my ejection seat all that much, although I reserve the right to change my mind on that matter in the event of an irrecoverable engine failure over a low overcast or at night.
Naval Aviation is a profession, and general aviation is, generally speaking, a pastime – there are almost always other ways to travel, and most of them are – if not more convenient – certainly cheaper. But pilots fly because flying is what defines them as pilots, and so I have the weekend gig to give me a hundred hours of so of paying work per year to offset the thirty to forty hours per year I get of “fun” flying, which in the main consists of practicing instrument approaches in the Cessna rotation, or practicing stall and wheel landings in that beat up old Citabria at Gillespie Field. Sure, there is the very occasional trip to Monterey, Scottsdale or even Hanford, California, but by and large my “fun” flying is mainly designed to gain new skills or sharpen old ones. These are challenges I set myself, albeit challenges that are constrained by the different safety cultures of my old life and my new one.
Nobody wants to auger in on a flight, whether military or civilian. The main difference is the many layers of organizational support and oversight the military operator has compared to his general aviation counterpart. When you’re a relatively young aviator, formal guidance such as the Naval Aviation Training and Operations Standardization (NATOPS) and squadron Standard Operations Procedures (SOP) augment your relative lack of experience, which comes in time, and good judgment.
An old friend of mine one said that good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. There’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s also true that your risk exposure varies with experience: A relatively new aviator, someone with perhaps 300-500 hours of total flight time, and less than 200 in model, is exposed to training and familiarity risks – he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and is thus typically paired with a more senior flight lead or – in a single aircraft mission – scheduled for milk runs that let him gradually build airframe time without unduly taxing his skills. At about a thousand hours or so there is a second risk spike, as the more experienced pilot gains a sense of mastery and tries to “find his limits”, all too often by exceeding them. The last risk spike – and each is lower than its predecessor – comes at about the 3000-4000 hour mark. This is usually when a TACAIR military officer finds himself shouldering significant administrative and leadership burdens as a squadron commanding or executive officer. There’s just so much baggage he’s carrying outside the cockpit that he often doesn’t have the time to adequately prepare for a more challenging mission, or maybe he allows himself to bring some of that baggage with him into the machine, where it longs to get loose and wrap itself around the rudder pedals.
But – and this is an important distinction – even as the senior aviator’s judgment and experience vectors grow longer, his oversight vectors remain in place: A squadron CO is still subject to the same number of flight reviews, physical examinations, human factors councils, closed-book tests and training sessions as is his rawest nugget, even if the latter gets a little closer day-to-day scrutiny than the former. The downside of course, is that the rising experience vector eventually intersects with a declining physical condition vector; eyesight fades, reaction times increase – flying fighters off aircraft carriers at night is indeed a relatively young man’s game.
If I was to fly even something so simple as a post-maintenance functional check flight as a commanding officer, I’d still brief the Squadron Duty Officer on my intentions, I’d file an IFR flight plan, travel to an authorized range, and be in constant contact with an air traffic controller and have access to the SDO back at the base on the aux radio should something go awry. As a junior pilot, I would have been carefully scheduled for a mission that satisfied identified training objectives and would be actively led by an experienced aviator from start to shut-down. He’d have briefed my on his expectations for every step of the flight, we would review squadron SOPs and I’d get quizzed on various emergencies and tactical procedures. Any deviations from the briefed profile would be carefully noted and thoroughly debriefed, and if I made a habit out of stepping outside the box, I’d find myself seeking new employment (and in this economy!)
In that little Citabria back at Gillespie, I’d get a one-hour checkout, schedule her on a whim, and – having checked weather (and especially crosswinds) – putter off into the sky. If it wasn’t a controlled field – something entirely novel to my experience in the military – I wouldn’t even have to talk on the radio, to anyone. I certainly wouldn’t have to file a flight plan, and no one would know where I was or what I intended to accomplish. It is, for the military aviator, a breathtakingly liberating experience. But with great freedom comes great responsibility, and a comparison of mishap rates between the military and general aviation communities is revealing: In Fiscal Year 2010, Navy had a 0.78 rate of Class A aviation mishaps (defined as greater than $1million or any fatality) per 100,000 flight hours. In 2009, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, the GA community experienced a rate of 1.33 fatal mishaps. That’s a 71% higher rate, and it’s not controlled for aircraft or mission complexity, nor is it even a completely apples to apples comparison – it’s not unheard of for a naval Class A mishap to breach the million dollar cost threshold without loss of life.
Airplanes are airplanes, fast or slow – the physics of flight don’t much change. The difference between military and general aviation then, is one of safety culture. In naval aviation you’ve got grunches of organizational back-up and institutional processes keeping you as safe as possible, given the extremely high performance equipment and exceptionally tasking missions.
In GA, once you get your ticket punched, you’ve got you.
So fly safe.