May 3, 2013
In the U.S. we have a federal Highway Trust Fund that takes money collected from fuel taxes and uses it for road improvements. And people are pretty comfortable with that. Every time you fill up with gas, 18.3 cents per gallon (or 24.4 cents for diesel) goes into the fund. Once the trust fund began to accumulate serious money, the temptation to raid it for other agendas became irresistible, so now it pays for mass transit and other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with roads and bridges.
Partly because there are more highway drivers than users of the nation’s airspace, nobody’s objecting so far to a move by government to very quietly steal money from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to pay for air traffic controllers’ salaries and avoid furloughs brought on by the recent sequester of federal funds. In fact, the relief at the fact that furloughs are being cancelled seems to have completely fogged the vision of those who would ordinarily be most alert to this kind of money grab.
The AATF is supposed to pay for improvements to airports and airways, to make both safer. The original intention of legislators was to create a mechanism to pay for needed improvements in such areas as navigation aids and airports. A ticket tax, fuel tax, and other excise taxes would provide for greater revenues as usage rose. For years, government officials looking for ways to patch over budget shortfalls have tried to tap the fund to pay for operations, which was not the intent of the law.
But furloughs and flight delays, regardless of the arguments over whether they are necessary or justified, have one clear result: they inconvenience people. Principles tend to go out the window when people can’t get where they want, when they want to get there. And these days, a short-term Band-Aid often looks better to politicians than a long-term solution that requires negotiation and compromise.
January 23, 2013
The Boeing’s 787′s problems with onboard lithium-ion batteries led to the FAA’s decision to ground the fleet. That’s hardly surprising. But some erroneous information has found its way into public forums concerning the nature of these high-tech but somewhat touchy batteries.
To begin with, the kind of battery used on the 787 is rechargeable, which makes it different from the small lithium batteries sold in AA sizes at the hardware store. Those get used up and thrown away. The 787′s rechargeables also are different from the lead-acid batteries commonly used to provide start power for automobiles. About 20 years ago, it was common to add water to lead-acid batteries when the quantity of electrolyte, a dilution of sulfuric acid, dropped too low. Today the batteries are sealed and vented.
Lithium undergoes a spontaneous chemical reaction in the presence of water, which is one reason water is not a component in its electrolyte. The electrolyte is not an acid, nor is it corrosive. The liquid used in lithium-ion batteries is made up of organic chemicals — more specifically, hydrocarbons. The greatest risk, therefore, is that the electrolyte might ignite and burn; despite some news stories to the contrary, corrosion is not a concern.
The battery also relies on an ultra-thin plastic membrane perforated by tiny openings to allow ion migration between the positive and negative poles. Maintaining battery integrity relies heavily on the precision manufacture of that component and others, as well as on the quality of materials used in fabrication. One potential weakness of lithium-ion batteries is a kind of thermal runaway in which voltages get too high and create high temperatures in one cell, which can break down and affect adjacent cells, causing a destructive cascade.
The current investigation appears to be narrowing to the manufacture of the batteries and of the battery charging systems that control rate of charge, and thereby ensure safe operation. Meanwhile, because Airbus reportedly plans to use lithium-ion batteries on its new A350 family of airliners, it is following developments closely.
August 1, 2012
Right after September 11, 2001, when terrorists used the U.S. airlines to achieve their ends, the creation of a government entity responsible for securing air travel seemed right and prudent. In the aftermath of the attack, a new cabinet-level department (Homeland Security) was created that incorporated numerous agencies, some of which had already existed. The Transportation Security Administration was entirely new, an entity created solely in response to 9/11.
The TSA would ensure that aircraft, ramps and boarding areas would be screened to be free of devices or substances (and, it was hoped, people) that could cause harm. At the same time, the sky marshal program, originally launched under President Richard Nixon, was resurrected to place armed undercover federal officers aboard random flights — the theory being that if someone managed to get past the TSA, the airplane cabin would be covered. Some airline pilots were trained and armed, but cockpit entrances were reinforced to bar entry, which was the first line of defense for the front office.
A lot of people probably thought at the time that these measures would be temporary. After all, the original sky marshals were disbanded in 1973, only to be revived again later, and largely forgotten again even later than that. We got used to that on-again, off-again pattern, and figured that, you know, let 10 or 15 years slide by without any incidents, and the TSA would slowly fade away, just as before.
Only now it’s looking like what you see is what you’re gonna get — forever. Yes, forever is a long time, but currently, if one looks for a rationale that might allow the money and resources consumed by air security to be spent on something else, it’s hard to make the argument. In a way, the decision to give the federal government sole responsibility for secure air travel was a line which, once crossed, couldn’t be traversed again.
It’s not just that a huge bureaucracy has been created — it has — and that once created, bureaucracies endure — they do — it’s the simple logic that abandoning air security and re-opening air travel to people who would perpetrate violent acts is unthinkable. Why? Because it practically invites anybody who harbors the idea to go ahead and carry it out.
Try to imagine that you’re a member of Congress who thinks it would be good for the country to gradually reduce air security in the name of traveler convenience (I mean, everybody hates the check-in, right?) or cost savings (TSA costs just under $8 billion a year, DHS just under $40 billion). Where would you start to try to sell the idea?
Food for thought. So what do you think?
June 11, 2012
The National Transportation Safety Board needs no introduction, especially these days, when the pace at which it issues communiqués, announces industry forums, and e-mails press releases is unmatched in its history. Just to refresh our collective memories, the five members of the board are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for five-year terms, a time span deliberately designed to foil political influence on the choices. The President also nominates one member of the board to a two-year term as chairman, which requires Senate confirmation, and a second member as vice chairman for two years.
While it’s impossible to measure the effectiveness of one board, this group of five seems to be exceptional in its ardor for safety. And although aviation accidents sometimes seem to grab more and bigger headlines, a review of the issues this group has tackled shows a wide-ranging and deep concern for all modes of transportation, with a special focus on fatigue and distraction while driving on the nation’s highways. A cursory examination of aviation issues alone reveals a broad scope of investigation. Last August, following the rupture of an airline fuselage and the resulting decompression, the board undertook a thorough examination of airplane fuselage structural integrity. That fall, the issue of public aircraft — those operated by state and local governments or their contractors — was given a thorough airing. Exemption of this class from regulations that govern all other operational categories is now under review.
After a catastrophic crash of an unlimited racer at the Reno air races, the board conducted a lengthy investigation of the cause and published a comprehensive revelatory report that showed hard-nosed science and engineering in its analysis. Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman (more on her later) made it clear that the purpose of the effort was not to shut down air racing but to make it safe for participants and onlookers alike. Having detected a trend indicating a lack of safety, the group polled amateur-built aircraft builders, owners and operators to analyze data that showed most accidents were occurring during the first flight of these aircraft. (That had been long suspected in the community of builders, many of whom wisely hired professional test pilots to execute a series of escalating taxi tests culminating in a first flight prior to piloting the aircraft themselves. Now everybody knows it.)
An upcoming forum to be held June 19 and 20 will explore the operation of general aviation aircraft, and if it is as far-reaching as most of this board’s work, it is guaranteed to save lives. The number of lives saved can never be known, which is the peculiar irony of safety efforts.
Beginning with its chairman, the board is made up of unusually well-credentialed people. Chairman Hersman, who has made it her business to communicate as openly as possible with the public, is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a master’s degree from George Mason. After wide experience as a Congressional staffer, she was appointed to the board by President George W. Bush and became chairman following nomination by President Obama when she was just 39. She also had the foresight to earn a commercial driver license that qualifies her to drive a heavy passenger bus equipped with air brakes–and a motorcycle endorsement. She’s serving her second term as chairman and will leave the board in 2013.
The current vice chairman is Christopher Hart, a lawyer, engineer and pilot. He holds commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings and both bachelors and masters degrees in aeronautical engineering from Princeton. He learned his lawyering at Harvard and actually has served on the board before, during the early ‘90s. Just prior to his return to the NTSB, he held two key positions at the FAA, including deputy director for air traffic safety oversight. He’ll leave the board at the end of this year.
On his second five-year term is Robert L. Sumwalt, a 14,000-hour pilot with a 24-year career in the airlines and another eight elsewhere. He served on the Air Line Pilots Association’s accident investigation board and chaired their human factors and training group. He’s also consulted with NASA and authored a book on aircraft safety. His term will be up in 2016.
Mark R. Rosekind has become one of the world’s leading experts on fatigue, which has been on the board’s list of major concerns for years and undoubtedly led to the FAA’s recent overhaul of regulations governing pilot duty hours. He earned his A.B. with honors at Stanford, two masters and a PhD at Yale, and finally, a post-doc fellowship at Brown University Medical School. He’ll be with the board through the end of 2014.
Earl F. Weener has a PhD, 24 years with Boeing, flies a Beech Bonanza and holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License that he uses to navigate his steel-hull trawler along most of the waterways in the nation. As one of Boeing’s chief engineers, he had a key role in developing the first glass cockpits aboard the 757/767 airliner families.
The measure of this board’s accomplishments can be read in the proceedings of their various forums and hearings, through which you can begin to comprehend how deeply they probe into the issues facing them. When the helicopter medical evacuation safety record was marred by a string of fatalities, board members involved the entire industry and discerned some business practices (“shopping,” in which those soliciting missions in questionable weather will continue to press for someone willing to fly despite the conditions) that might have eluded a less experienced and deliberative group.
When this board made it a regular practice to invite the families of accident victims to safety forums to give voice to the tragic impact of unsafe operations, it rose above the normal levels of Washington bureaucracies and demonstrated to all who would listen that safe operations mean that pilots, passengers, patients — the people transported by aircraft — will come home to those who love them. This group of five deserves to be remembered.