Sunday, December 21, 2014

Most target practice flights piloted by civilians

Matthew J. LaCourse logged more than 2,000 flight-hours in the F-4, and another 1,500 hours in various other aircraft, including the F-16C Falcon, which is the type of plane that crashed Nov. 6. LaCourse and other civilian pilots flew 64 percent of sorties this year. 

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE — Civilians like Matthew LaCourse, who was killed last month when the F-16 he was flying was lost in the Gulf of Mexico, have flown more sorties for the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron this year than active duty military pilots.

After initially declining to answer questions about the use of civilians in military airborne missions, Tyndall officials responded to emailed questions.

The News Herald sent a list of questions to Tyndall public affairs officer Lt. Christopher Bowyer-Meeder, who responded with information from Lena Lopez, a spokesperson for the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, which includes the (82nd ATRS).

According to the email, civilians like LaCourse fly more military missions than you might expect, and the use of civilian pilots creates no additional risk to the Air Force while providing experienced pilots who can fill in where they're needed.

From Jan. 1 to Dec. 12, the 82nd ATRS, which is one of several squadrons within the 53 WEG, flew 526 sorties with the QF-16 and the QF-4 (the former is phasing out the later as a "target" in training operations). Civilians flew 64 percent of those sorties, 337, and civilians make up 60 percent of the aviators in the group while 40 percent are active duty military.

LaCourse retired in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel after 22 years in the Air Force. He'd logged more than 2,000 flight-hours in the F-4, and another 1,500 hours in various other aircraft, including the F-16C Falcon, which is the type of plane that crashed Nov. 6. He was a previous 82nd ATRS commander, Lopez said.

"As for Mr. LaCourse being a civilian pilot, I think it's important to note that he wasn't just a crop duster looking for another job," Bowyer-Meeder said in an email. "He, along with all of our other pilots, was very qualified to be in that plane."

Using civilians as opposed to active duty military pilots provides benefits to the military without increasing risk, Lopez said.

"From an operations perspective, they require no extra training, precautions or supervision; they maintain the same qualifications and training requirements as active duty military pilots," Lopez said. "The benefits are numerous but experience and availability are the highlights."

A civilian qualified to pilot a fighter jet allows the military to keep active duty pilots in deployable combat squadrons. Meanwhile, a local, qualified civilian pilot might develop expertise by staying years in one place.

Investigators continue to search for the cause of the crash, and officials won't discuss the investigation until it's complete, so for now it's not clear if human error, mechanical failure, an act of god or some combination of those caused the $18 million plane to fall out of the sky. When the investigation is complete the findings will be made public.


Private aircraft owners fly higher than Directorate General Civil Aviation limits

Every week, Ammeet Agarwal soars above Mumbai, its ribbons of traffic, its rat race, its myriad laws, enjoying the niche pleasure of flying his own plane. Agarwal, president of Supreme aviation company, owns three planes and is accompanied by his brother, his cousins and other aircraft owners on his tours. Agarwal, 26, said: "We took a spin around the city a fortnight ago as we had maximum visibility that day. We usually fly out four times a month, and go to aerodromes around the state, maybe for a quick breakfast or lunch."

The youngest flyer is 24 and the eldest is 60. They are engineers, surgeons, real estate businessmen, among others. Prasad Bhat always wanted to fly as a child but didn't want to be a commercial pilot. By dint of owning a successful engineering company, he could realize his dreams in 2011. He joined hands with like-minded people who wanted to fly for pleasure, and they bought a plane together. A hobby plane costs around Rs80 lakh to 90 lakh.

Bhat, 52, said: "We struggled a lot with regulations and permissions but it came through. Today, we own two planes, a Cessna 172 and a Diamond DA40. We have gone up to Lakshadweep, Shimla and to southern airports. We mostly travel on Saturdays and Sundays. There is little awareness in India about the concept of private pilots who fly for fun." Bhat received a license from Carver aviation in Baramati, and flies on at least 150 days a year.

Pune-based Vishwas Bhise, who deals in real estate, piloted a glider in the '80s and has flown a plane since 2009. Bhise feels that there is a growing interest in hobby flying despite the tough regulations. "The DGCA (directorate general of civil aviation) has the same rules for commercial and private airplanes. They need be flexible as we're not doing it commercially. Some of their rules are not practical and they still don't understand the concept of hobby flying. There are so many unused aircraft and we can innovate if given an opportunity," said Bhise who co-owns a plane with Bhat.

The high-flying group feels their wings are being clipped by the authorities. The group shares a common sentiment of disapproval for the DGCA. "The Bombay Flying Club had to shift to Dhule because of the tight airspace of the city. If anyone wants a license they have to travel there or to Baramati to learn, which is impractical. Commercial pilots don't have jobs these days, and we have hired one for our plane to go to and fro from its base to Juhu airport," said Bhat.

Agarwal feels the same and believes that the civil aviation ministry is smothering the trend of private flying in India. "In Dallas, USA, where I got my pilot license, people have planes parked outside their houses and the city has 32 aerodomes. India has a bigger potential than the US, but 95% of the aviation bureaucracy is corrupt. Moreover, they have been assigned a low rating by the International Civil Aviation Organisation- which means we cannot even fly into Sri Lanka as Indian aircraft are not trusted there. There is a need for more connectivity to tier 2 and tier 3 cities and there is no commercial service between Surat and Mumbai. We have been to Shirdi in 30 minutes from Mumbai," said Agarwal who added that he has to pay official and unofficial fees at aerodromes if their group is travelling, and that private flying is heavily discouraged by government officials.


Federal Aviation Administration restricts landings at Daniel Field Airport (KDNL), citing trees and other objects in airspace

Daniel Field, managed by operations company Augusta Aviation, has spent more than $30,000 conducting land surveys, removing 30 trees and installing red blinking lights on top of the Newman Tennis Center clubhouse and light poles, said Becky Shealy, vice president of business development for Augusta Aviation.

Until the Federal Aviation Administration says planes can land on runways without flying dangerously close to trees and structures, the agency has halted night flights into Daniel Field.

The restrictions are limited to flights using instrument-controlled approaches, the most common method of pilots using Daniel Field at night, Shealy said.

More trees will need cutting before the airport’s four runways are cleared. The FAA identified 200 “obstructions” around Daniel Field in the airspace for landings.

“If anything is penetrating that airspace, it’s considered a safety issue,” Shealy said.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the obstructions were identified during a “periodic review of instrument flight procedures at Daniel Field.” Bergen referred further questions to Daniel Field, who she said was in the process of mitigating the issues.

Since being alerted to the obstructions, Augusta Aviation has focused on removing or lighting objects in the way of Daniel Field’s most-used runway, which parallels Wrightsboro Road. Aircraft using that runway approach from the west.

The process of identifying the objects, however, has been frustrating, said Steven Gay, president of Augusta Aviation. The FAA says there is one remaining obstruction, but the airport doesn’t know what it is.

“We are waiting for them to say ‘this will do it.’ Because it seems when they said ‘this will do it’ in the past and we do it, it doesn’t meet their ultimate criteria. It’s been a very frustrating thing for us,” Gay said.

Trees were removed from city property at the tennis center, Forest Hills Golf Club, the airport and rights-of-way. None were on private property, but Shealy said it’s possible the airport will have to pay landowners to remove trees as the other three runways have to be cleared.

Daniel Field, which is governed by the 10-member General Aviation Commission, recently fought a proposed Verizon Wireless cellphone tower off Wrightsboro Road. Although the FAA approved the tower, the airport said it wanted to avoid potential problems.

The airport’s close proximity to shopping centers, recreation facilities, neighborhoods and schools doesn’t pose a safety concern, said Kay Roland, chairman of the commission. She said its location is convenient for many flying into the airport.

“This airport is a gateway to Augusta, Ga., even though it’s a small airport. You have all sorts of corporate dignitaries fly in here. A lot of people who fly here bring jobs,” Roland said.
Roland said emergency medicine flights, such as transportation for organ donations, fly into Daniel Field. She said the airport is closer to the area’s hospitals than Augusta Regional Airport, the city’s commercial airport, which also has a general aviation terminal.

Daniel Field is about 3 miles from Georgia Regents Medical Center. Augusta Regional Airport is between 8 and 9 miles.

Shealy said more than 20 flights have had to land at Augusta Regional instead of Daniel Field since the FAA restrictions began this summer. Many organ donor flights are at night, she said.
“Daniel Field is not a playground for rich boys and their toys. We aren’t interested in that,” Shealy said. “This airport serves all the hospitals in the area. Every second counts.”

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Runway is top priority: Norwalk-Huron County Airport (5A1) officials and others participate in 75-minute conference call with Federal Aviation Administration

An airport doesn't serve much purpose without a usable runway.

Doug Arnold, Huron County Airport secretary-treasurer, said that was one of many points made in a recent 75-minute conference call with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"The call was very informative," Arnold said. "It gave a clear picture of the status of the airport and the status of its needs or required maintenance."

Arnold said maintaining the runway is the top priority, but that can be expensive.

"Just seal coating the cracks in the runway will cost $210,000," he said.

Two of the three Huron County commissioners, Carol Knapp from the Huron County Development Council, Delta airport consultants, members of the airport board and a representative from the Ohio Department of Transportation Office of Aviation, were on the conference call.

Arnold, who is a pilot, flew earlier this week back and forth to North Carolina, landing on the runway at the Huron County airport.

Arnold said he had no problem landing on the local runway, though he added it does need repairs.

"There are gaps or cracks on the runway and those will fill in with water in the wintertime," he said. "Then, they will freeze and thaw and the cracks will become wider and cost more to repair."

Small stones or pieces of debris on a runway can also be dangerous, as gravel can be treacherous to an engine's in-take, Arnold said.

There has been some discussion lately about a proposed access road at the airport. This road would permit vehicles to exit the raceway park during large events, without having to close the runway.

Arnold said there isn't much new information to report regarding the road.

A wildlife study might be part of the prerequisites before the road is built.

Arnold indicated there is much wildlife activity at the airport.

"We've had three deer harvested already this season," he said.

There is $600,000 presently available to the airport in federal grants, which would require a 10-percent match. Arnold said those grant funds could be used to make the runway repairs.

The catch in the grant application process is the county commissioners are required to sign the pre-application and application.


Families Channel Grief Toward Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Skepticism of Official Investigation Runs Deep as Families Struggle to Accept Disappearance

The Wall Street Journal

Dec. 21, 2014 7:19 p.m. ET

KUALA LUMPUR— Sarah Bajc is holding on to her mementos of life with Philip Wood, an American executive who took off on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 more than nine months ago and never came home.

They include a gold-painted Agamemnon mask, adorned with a knit hat from Mr. Wood’s childhood, and a photo of the trim 51-year-old Texan on a trip in Thailand, shot in the low light of a mountain shrine where they once sheltered during a typhoon warning.

Now, Ms. Bajc rises early and has coffee alone on the balcony of the Malaysian apartment the two picked out in January. On a recent day, she scrolled through a spreadsheet with some 300 tips about the plane submitted by the public.

One was from a person claiming to have seen an object flaming in the sky the day Flight 370 disappeared. Another alleged there has been a coverup, with proof in a laptop in London.

“I haven’t grieved yet,” said Ms. Bajc, who says she is determined to find out what happened to her partner, a smiling man with salt-and-pepper hair and blue eyes. “I haven’t accepted that he’s dead.…I owe it to him to find out the truth.”

Since Flight 370, carrying 239 people, vanished on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, its fate has remained a mystery. A costly search effort that mapped thousands of miles of ocean and involved some 100 days of scouring for debris has yielded nothing.

That has left the field open for family members, independent analysts and conspiracy theorists to pursue their own inquiries. It is also making it hard for people to let go.

Like many with loved ones aboard the doomed flight, Ms. Bajc—a 49-year-old schoolteacher and divorced mother of three who was born in Utah—is deeply skeptical of the official investigation, which says Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel. With no debris yet found, she said she is confident the plane isn’t in the water.

Ms. Bajc isn’t alone in pushing for answers. One volunteer group has set up a website called The Hunt for 370 to gather clues. Another group of family members, Voice 370, has pushed for Malaysia to release more information on the plane’s cargo, which they hope might contain insights.

Steve Wang, a Beijing IT salesman whose mother was on board, said he still thinks there might be survivors, and that many Chinese family members feel similarly.

The families remain in communication via groups on the social-messaging application WeChat . They also maintain a public account with news about the plane on Sina Weibo , a Chinese Twitter -like service. Its main image is a plane flying, with the words: “You come back soon.”

“I could accept [the plane] is missing, but I cannot accept it has crashed,” Mr. Wang said. “It is still just like a dream.”

Malay Mukherjee, whose son and Chinese daughter-in-law were aboard Flight 370, said he and his wife have been busy trying to care for their orphaned grandsons, ages 3 and 8, who now live with them in Mumbai.

Since losing his son, Mr. Malay, 67, has had to navigate a bureaucratic maze to assume guardianship over his grandchildren and obtain a death certificate, a process that required three trips to Chicago, where his son once lived.

“There are so many theories and it’s very difficult for laypeople like us to make any informed conjectures,” he said.

Robert Brotherton, a visiting research fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London who studies conspiracy theories, says it is normal for people to look for alternative explanations when there is an information vacuum.

But that doesn’t make them true.

“Conspiracy theories resonate nicely with our intuition: Something big and shocking happens, like a plane full of people disappearing,” he said, “and our brains are biased towards thinking it’s because of something big and intentional.”

Others are just hoping to help improve the odds the plane is found. The Independent Group, a collection of some 20 interested amateurs, aviation experts and scientists, has produced multiple reports offering its own analysis of data tracking the plane.

In October, the group felt vindicated when the search area designated by authorities off the coast of Australia was redirected into an area it had recommended.

Duncan Steel, a New Zealand-based member with an astronomy background said it isn’t surprising debris hasn’t been found, given the remoteness of where the flight is thought to have ended, and the sparsely populated nature of the nearest Australian coastline.

“I understand Sarah is hanging on to the last straws of hope—that indeed the plane was hijacked and landed somewhere and passengers are alive,” he said of Ms. Bajc. “We can’t get anything from the satellite data that’s anything but a terminus in the ocean.…I’m not going to argue with somebody who’s lost a loved one.”

Still, Mr. Steel, who doesn’t have a personal connection to Flight 370, is critical of Malaysian authorities for what he described as their failure to release full satellite logs of the plane’s movements, as well as other data such as details on engine performance.

A Malaysia Airlines official said the carrier has done “its best to share all information available” to people affected by the tragedy.

Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, which is leading the government’s investigation, didn’t respond to requests to comment.

Ms. Bajc said her relationship with Mr. Wood—a scuba diver and outdoor adventurer who she says radiated warmth and calm—changed her life, opening her eyes to the possibility of a happy relationship after a rocky marriage that ended in divorce.

The two met in 2011 in Beijing, at a local music venue called Nashville. Ms. Bajc hadn’t initially planned to join friends there, but the pleasantness of the air on an October evening as she rode her bike prompted her to stop by.

On encountering each other inside, the two felt an immediate pull, she said.

They took holidays across Asia, with Mr. Wood often plugging away at his laptop on the beach. They were obsessive about being prepared: When they traveled, they took an emergency bag with different currencies, insect repellent and other supplies.

Early in their relationship, they bonded over a shared affinity for the same kind of flashlight.

On the day Flight 370 disappeared, Ms. Bajc was waiting for Mr. Wood to arrive in Beijing to help pack their apartment. They were moving to Kuala Lumpur, where Mr. Wood planned to take a job with IBM . Ms. Bajc had lined up a job teaching in a high school.

These days, Ms. Bajc, a former Microsoft executive accustomed to working long hours, is channeling much of her energy toward the search.

As she peered at the spreadsheet of tips on her computer, a newly adopted kitten—named Bourbon, for the drink she was sipping when she first met Mr. Wood—scampered by her feet.

“This appears to be aircraft wreckage [in] the Cambodian jungle,” she read out, as she scrutinized tips collected from the Hunt for 370 site. Ms. Bajc marks such tips on a scale of one to five, based on her assessment of credibility.

“This is a three—a satellite image isn’t proof, but it could be validated,” she said.

Ms. Bajc said her campaign has helped keep her going since March 24, the day she got a text message from Malaysia Airlines saying it had concluded Flight 370 crashed in the ocean. She sank onto her couch, sobbing.

After about an hour, her then-17-year-old son came home. He told her, “They’re just trying to close the case,” she recalled.

The next day, lying in bed, Ms. Bajc grew steadily more convinced her son was correct. “I got mad. Anger is a motivating feeling.”

Ms. Bajc’s efforts have included a Facebook page, Finding Philip Wood, which she has used to appeal for tips. She has made numerous media appearances, attracting notes from psychics to astrologists.

In September, Ms. Bajc and a handful of others hired a private investigative firm to do additional sleuthing.

The firm, which Ms. Bajc declined to identify, is conducting interviews in multiple countries, funded by an Indiegogo campaign Ms. Bajc and others launched that raised about $100,000.

The firm hasn’t yet made findings, Ms. Bajc said.

In the absence of evidence, Ms. Bajc said she is convinced authorities are covering up aspects of the case, and that the ocean search may be a distraction.

One of the more plausible conspiracy theories, she said, is that the pilot was trying to extract demands from the government and Malaysian authorities shot the plane down over the jungle on the Malay peninsula, covering up the evidence.

Malaysia Airlines has denied any coverup.

Ms. Bajc said she understands the odds of passengers’ survival—perhaps on a remote Indonesian island, cut off from communication—have faded. But that doesn’t mean that authorities shouldn’t be held to account, she said.

Most important, she said, she wants to bring Mr. Wood home, in “whatever form that is.”

She said she is slowly building a new life in Kuala Lumpur. The tide of tips coming in regarding the plane’s location has slowed to more of a steady drip.

But she isn’t not giving up.

“Once you take hope away, it’s like turning off the siren on the ambulance—it’s an admission there’s no hope anymore,” she said. “So we have to just keep pushing.”

Original article can be found at:

After more than nine months, many families and friends of passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are struggling to grieve. 

U.S. Navy helicopter crashes in Kuwait training flight

KUWAIT – A U.S. Navy helicopter crashed Sunday morning while on an overland training flight at Camp Buehring in Kuwait.

The MH-60S is assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, and all six personnel aboard the aircraft survived the crash. Three had minor injuries and received treatment. All have been released.

Officials said the crash was not a result of hostile activity. The Navy will investigate the cause.


Federal Aviation Administration drone approvals bedeviled by warnings, conflict, internal e-mails show (With Video)

The Washington Post
By Craig Whitlock

December 21 at 6:45 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration proclaimed a new era in aviation in September when it granted permission to six Hollywood filmmakers to fly drones on movie sets, a decision that opened the door to commercial drone flights in the United States.

“These companies are blazing a trail,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the time. “We are thoroughly satisfied these operations will not pose a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground,” added Michael Huerta, the chief of the FAA.

What the FAA did not reveal, however, was that senior officials had overruled objections from some of its safety inspectors, who had warned after a formal review that the filmmakers’ plans were too risky and should be prohibited, according to documents and e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.

The warning turned out to be prescient. On Wednesday, a camera-toting drone operated by one of the filmmakers, Pictorvision, flew off a set in California and disappeared, according to an FAA report. Tom Hallman, the president of Pictorvision, said crew members found the 20-pound drone the next day in “rugged terrain” on a private ranch about 100 yards from where they had been filming near Santa Clarita. He said no one was injured.

Since giving the go-ahead to Hollywood cinematographers three months ago, the FAA has been swamped with requests to fly drones from other companies. As of Friday, 167 applications from an array of industries were pending, and the government is bracing for hundreds more next year.

Several FAA employees, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation or losing their jobs, said supervisors are pressuring analysts to rubber-stamp the applications without a rigorous safety review.

“There’s huge political pressure to do quick approvals,” said one former FAA flight safety official. “Congress made very clear what they want, and safety is not at the forefront because of pressure from the industry.”

Safety inspectors said they were being marginalized in other ways. Last month, the FAA hired a lobbyist for the Hollywood filmmakers and other companies that want to fly drones. His task? Suggest ways to speed up the approval process.

“How is this not a conflict of interest?” Lance Nuckolls, an FAA safety inspector, complained in an e-mail to colleagues. “I’m now officially numb with total dismay and disgust with our leadership.”

After The Post raised questions about the arrangement, the FAA acknowledged that it had been a conflict of interest and said it ended the contract on Thursday.

The FAA’s caseload is cresting at a critical time and is aggravating disagreements within the agency over how to open the nation’s skies to drones. Cheap, easy-to-fly drones equipped with video cameras have become hugely popular with consumers and hobbyists. But in the absence of clear safety standards and effective oversight, the robotic aircraft are interfering with air traffic and threatening passenger planes.

Since June 1, pilots have reported 25 near-collisions with rogue drones and about 150 other incidents in which drones were spotted in forbidden airspace. Although most weighed only a few pounds, aviation experts said they could have caused a midair disaster if they had struck a plane or helicopter in a vulnerable spot.

Drones can also hurt bystanders on the ground. According to an FAA document, four people have been killed in recent years around the world after remote-controlled aircraft crashed into them.

James H. Williams, the head of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft integration office, declined an interview request or to comment for this story. Last month, during a panel discussion at a drone-industry conference in Tysons Corner, Va., he said the agency always put safety first.

“There are approximately 48,000 people in the FAA, and as far as I know, all of them have an opinion on unmanned aircraft integration, so coordinating across that body is an interesting challenge,” Williams said. “The FAA remains committed to our primary mission of safety, and that’s safety not only for the other aircraft in the air but for people and property on the ground.”

In a statement provided to The Post, the FAA said its drone application process was “rigorous” and “transparent.”

“The safety case for each application is thoroughly analyzed and the rationale for each decision is publicly available,” the FAA said. “As with any emerging technology there is a very active debate about how to approach integration and the FAA has decided to take a staged approach.”

Struggling to keep up

Bogged down by staff shortages and a slow-moving regulatory structure, the FAA has failed to keep up with rapid technological advances in the drone industry.

Although Congress has ordered the agency to integrate drones into the national airspace by September 2015, U.S. officials expect the FAA will miss the deadline by at least two years before it can finalize regulations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Devising rules for larger drones will take even longer.

Until then, the FAA has stitched together an interim patchwork of guidelines. Businesses are prohibited from flying drones without special approval. Recreational drone flights are allowed as long as the aircraft stay below 400 feet and five miles away from an airport. The military and other government agencies need a certificate to fly in civilian airspace.

The guidelines, however, are routinely ignored by drone enthusiasts. With an estimated half-million small drones spinning around America’s skies, the FAA has been overwhelmed.

To alleviate pressure from lawmakers and drone manufacturers to adopt a permanent set of rules more quickly, the FAA announced in May that it would offer a temporary fix.

The agency said it would consider granting approval to certain types of low-risk businesses — such as pipeline inspectors, filmmakers and corporate farmers — to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Requests would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Within days, applications started pouring in.

Insurance giant State Farm wanted to fly 15-pound drones over houses to conduct roof inspections. Chevron and Dow Chemical wanted to use drones to keep an eye on their oil, gas and chemical plants. wanted to test drones to see if they can reliably transport packages to customers’ doorsteps (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Post).

Each of those cases is pending. The FAA has said its policy is to make a decision on each application within 120 days. It met that timetable for the Hollywood filmmakers but has struggled to keep up with the avalanche of new cases.

From the outset, several FAA aviation-safety inspectors complained that senior officials were more interested in speedy approvals than ensuring safety, according to documents and e-mails.

“As I’ve said before, we can do this job ‘good’ or we can do it ‘fast,’ but we can’t do it ‘good and fast,’ ” James Ryan, an aviation-safety inspector, said in a July 24 e-mail to the FAA official in charge of reviewing the applications and several other colleagues.

No anti-collision systems

Satellite-guided drones can be purchased for less than $500 and flown right out of the box. But their affordability and simplicity masks a lack of basic safeguards that are required for other aircraft.

A fundamental principle of aviation safety is that pilots must be able to “see-and-avoid” other planes and objects in the sky – something that drones cannot do. Drones are equipped with cameras that have a limited field of vision. Researchers are working on substitute technologies, but solutions are years away.

Most models are too small to carry radar, transponders and anti-collision systems that regular planes rely on to avoid crashes. Radio transmissions that control navigation are vulnerable to interference and hacking. Many consumer drones are prone to “flyaways,” or flights that vanish and stop responding to commands.

The FAA has certified the airworthiness of only a few drone types for private use. Furthermore, the agency has yet to establish a new kind of pilot’s license for drone operators or minimum training standards.

As a result, when the Hollywood filmmakers filed their drone applications in May, they had to seek exemptions from 15 different FAA safety regulations. That number alone raised red flags inside the agency.

“Seems to be a stretch concerning the world’s most robust aviation safety system,” safety analyst Silas Still wrote to colleagues in a June 4 e-mail. He did not respond to requests for further comment.

The six cinematographers — Astraeus Aerial, Pictorvision, Aerial Mob, HeliVideo Productions, Vortex Aerial and Snaproll Media — filed identically worded bids and were backed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Also submitting letters of support was the News Media Coalition, a group of publishers, broadcasters and wire services that includes The Post. The coalition advocates the use of drones for news gathering, a practice currently prohibited by the FAA.

The filmmakers’ applications omitted some rudimentary details, such as the make, model and performance history of the drones that would be used. They were described only as “rotorcraft” that would fly no faster than 58 mph.

After the FAA insisted on knowing more, the filmmakers identified the types of drones on the condition that the agency keep the details a secret, saying the information was “proprietary,” according to FAA case files.

The cinematographers stated they would abide by other limitations: They wouldn’t fly the drones above 400 feet or for more than 30 minutes at a time. The aircraft would be restricted to closed movie sets on private or “controlled-access” property, and would have to remain within sight of the pilot or a ground observer.

‘High-priority activity’

The biggest hurdle was determining what kind of qualifications the drone pilots would need.

Under long-standing FAA rules, anyone operating an aircraft for hire must have a commercial pilot’s license. The Hollywood companies contended that a private pilot’s license – which is much easier to attain – would be sufficient for their drone operators.

Just because commercial pilots are highly qualified to fly regular aircraft, the firms argued, doesn’t mean they’d know how a drone works. Moreover, commercial pilots would pose a “significant financial burden” because they command higher pay and take longer to train, according to documents the filmmakers filed with the FAA.

The arguments didn’t pass muster with two FAA aviation-safety inspectors, James Ryan and James Kenney, who drafted a denial that would have shot down the filmmakers’ applications.

Enabling private pilots to work commercially would set a precedent, the inspectors wrote, boxing in the FAA while it developed a permanent set of drone regulations. They also noted that private pilots are twice as likely to be involved in fatal accidents as commercial pilots.

While the cinematographers said it would be safer to fly small drones than to film with a manned helicopter or airplane, the FAA inspectors questioned whether there were sufficient precautions to prevent an out-of-control drone from hurtling off a movie set.

“The petitioner has not explained an acceptable means of providing for the safety of the uninformed, non-participating public,” according to the inspectors’ draft denial.

The inspectors’ proposed rejection alarmed FAA supervisors, who urged them to reconsider, documents show.

“This is a high-priority activity,” Rob Pappas, the FAA’s special rules coordinator for drones, reminded the inspectors and other FAA employees in an Aug. 20 e-mail. He advised them to “think outside the box and be careful not to automatically fit rules that apply to aircraft weighing 1000s of pounds to these small [drones].”

Kenney and Ryan stood firm and submitted a recommended denial a week later.

Kenney and Ryan declined to comment, while Pappas did not respond to e-mails and a phone call. Jonathan B. Hill, a Washington attorney who represents the filmmakers, declined an interview request.

In the end, the inspectors were overruled by senior FAA officials. The agency granted formal approval to the six filmmakers in September, finding that their plans were in the public interest and would “enhance safety” compared with using regular aircraft on a movie set. (A seventh cinematographer, Flying-Cam Inc., won approval in October).

Hallman, the president of Pictorvision, the firm that had one of its drone fly away last week, said the FAA approval process was “extremely thorough” and dismissed suggestions that the agency had been too lenient. “I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t go far enough.”

Ethics concerns

One person who was pleased by the approvals was John W. McGraw, a private aerospace consultant and former deputy flight standards director for the FAA. McGraw had been hired by the Hollywood firms to shepherd their bids through the FAA’s regulatory process.

At the drone-industry conference in Virginia in November, McGraw praised the FAA for approving the applications within 120 days. “I had advised my clients, I had downplayed the expectations,” he said. “Lo and behold, I have to say the FAA, not because I used to work there, did a magnificent job.”

As scores of new applications piled up, however, FAA leaders worried they would miss the 120-day deadline in other cases. So they decided to hire consultants to help streamline their case-review system.

On. Nov. 12, FAA employees were startled to learn that one of the new consultants would be McGraw, the advocate for the Hollywood filmmakers. A new organizational chart listed McGraw as reporting directly to Pappas, the special rules coordinator, even though McGraw still represented several companies with pending drone applications.

Lance Nuckolls, the FAA safety inspector who had e-mailed his colleagues to denounce the arrangement, said in a phone interview that he didn’t understand how the FAA could hire a consultant actively involved from the other side. “It was just a frustration over the ethics of it all.” He stressed that he otherwise fully supported the FAA’s review process for commercial drone flights.

Other documents indicated McGraw was working on behalf of SeaTec, an FAA contractor. According to briefing slides prepared by SeaTec, McGraw and other consultants were assigned to help the FAA devise a more “effective and efficient process” for approving drone applications.

In a phone interview, McGraw described his consulting role both as “very minor” and “at a very high level.”

He said he was not involved in reviewing individual applications and has merely explained the FAA’s inner workings to SeaTec. “We had a lot of discussion about how to firewall me.” He said the FAA organizational chart that listed him as a team member had been drawn up in error.

At the same time, McGraw said he realized some safety inspectors had objections to how the agency was handling drone applications in general.

“I’m not surprised some people are concerned about it,” he said. “Change is hard.”

In a statement, the FAA said it had been “assured by the contractor” that McGraw would not work on the project to streamline the drone application review process. “Upon further review we learned that . . . the contractor did allow him to participate on the project, creating a conflict of interest.” As a result, the agency said it “stopped work” with SeaTec and would not rely on any of its recommendations.

Jack Schmitt, a SeaTec executive in charge of the project, did not respond to requests for comment. In a subsequent interview, McGraw said he was disappointed by the decision, noting that FAA officials had originally approved the arrangement.

“We asked that question before the project started and the FAA said, ‘No, you’re fine,’” he said. “There was nothing that was done that would affect any of my clients, so the reality is there was no influence.”

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.

Story and Video:

Charter Operator AB Jets Soaring to New Heights

AB Jets, a Memphis-based charter operator, is celebrating 15 years in business. 
 (Submitted Photo)

David Turner began working for a local charter plane operation in 2000, but five years later Turner decided he needed a change of scenery and started flying for Memphis-based AB Jets.

In 2010, after working his way through the company’s ranks, Turner teamed up with Andrew Bettis to become co-owner of AB Jets, and the two have soared to new heights.

“It was a lot to absorb but I worked hard,” said Turner, 38. “We spent a lot of time together, got to know each other’s ideas, each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how we worked together, and it’s been a great partnership.”

Operating out of Memphis International Airport, AB Jets is a privately owned and operated charter, sales and management company celebrating 15 years in operation. AB Jets now has 40 employees, up from 18 just three years ago, and sales are up around 400 percent over the last five years. The company is currently expanding operations in Nashville to improve service in the Southeast and offer more flight options and availability to clients.

“Our success and growth really does highlight how important it is to have a great team behind you with everybody trying to achieve a common goal,” said Turner.

After starting out with one jet, the company now operates a fleet of eight Lear jets – including two Lear 60s equipped with new interiors and complimentary Wi-Fi – and is licensed to fly in the U.S., Canada, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. AB Jets has a 16,000-square-foot hangar and 4,000 square feet of office space at Wilson Air Center.

Turner said one of the company’s key to success is keeping a stable of well-appointed and well-maintained aircraft with the touches – gleaming aircraft, immaculate leather and polished woodwork – that leave a mark with customers.

“The clients we’ve had were really pleased with our service and recommended us to other people, and it grew from there,” said Turner. “That’s stuff people really notice and remember.”

AB Jets does do some professional marketing, but still leans heavily on word-of-mouth.

“Anyone can offer the same type of aircraft we do, but we take it to the next level so the passengers really notice it when they’re on board,” said Turner. “Anybody can have the same planes we have, but where you really separate yourself is customer service and that is what really brings people back.”

AB Jets places a high priority on safety. The company is the only charter company operating out of Memphis to receive a platinum certification from the independent ARGUS rating system.

AB Jets also believes in making it as easy as possible for their clients to fly with them. In 2011, the company created a simple and efficient prepay program, the A to B Jet Card, which essentially allows clients to fly whenever they need to because they have already paid for the time in advance. The program has increased 320 percent since 2012.

“The program was created in response to our clients and it’s really taken off,” said Turner.

While the company has experienced robust growth since Turner and Bettis teamed up, the duo can’t wait to see what heights they can achieve over the next five years.

“We’ve had a good run the last five years,” said Turner. “We’re excited to see what the next five years holds.”


Oregon man dies after car crashes into airplane hangar

An Oregon man died after his car crashed into airplane hangar. 
(Photo Courtesy: Oregon State Police) 


Police are still investigating a fatal single-vehicle crash that occurred on Highway 207 between Heppner and Lexington on Saturday morning.

Troopers responded to the crash scene at 9:32 a.m. and found a 2002 Hyundai Elantra that had left the roadway and crashed into a nearby airplane hangar.

The driver, 21-year-old Ryan Bennett from Heppner, died at the scene. Bennett was the only person in the vehicle.

Investigators said they believe speed was a factor in the crash and that Bennett failed to negotiate a curve, which caused him to drive off the roadway.

Story and Comments:

Owner of failed Oswego County airstrip admits bank fraud conspiracy

Syracuse Suburban Airport, in Hastings, was being rebuilt in 2010 with $3 million in federal money. Two of the owners have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to commit bank fraud. 

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The co-owner of a small, failed airport in Oswego County has admitted he and others used $3 million in federal grants to commit bank fraud.

Kenneth V. Coon Jr., 59 of Cato, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to conspiracy to commit bank fraud. He admitted that he and others defrauded a bank out of more than $200,000 between 2004 and 2009.

In 2004, Coon and his partners in Syracuse Suburban Airport LLC bought a 93-acre reliever airport site in Hastings for $350,0000. The company received $2.9 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to develop the airstrip, called a reliever airport because it could relieve air traffic at larger airports. The airstrip was never completed.

Coon admitted that in April 2005, he and his co-conspirators obtained a $650,000 line of credit from First Niagara Bank that was only supposed to be used for airport expenses that were reimbursable through the FAA grants.

In December 2005, Coon and the others submitted an invoice to First Niagara to release $125,000 in loan proceeds to buy airport equipment, according to court papers. Instead, they invested the money in a Texas real estate project, court papers said.

In 2006, Coon and others opened an investment brokerage account in the name of Gildner Road Associates, a corporation that they owned, his plea agreement said.

Two months later, they submitted an invoice to First Niagara for the release of $97,604 to buy airport equipment. Instead of using it for that purpose, Coon and others transferred $96,000 from the Syracuse Suburban account to the Gildner Road investment account without telling First Niagara, the plea agreement said.

In June 2006, Coon and his co-conspirators transferred $106,000 from the investment account to the airport checking account. Two days later they transferred $95,700 from the airport checking account to the Upstate New York Bean Company, in Marcellus.

Coon owned the bean company, court papers said.

One of the co-conspirators, David Pizio, 58, of Jamesville pleaded guilty to the same charges in July. He has not yet been sentenced.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ransom Reynolds would not say whether anyone else will likely be charged.

Coon faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine when U.S. District Judge David Hurd sentences him April 17.

Story and comments:

Don’t fleece flyers grounded by SpiceJet's woes: Directorate General of Civil Aviation

NEW DELHI: The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has directed all Indian carriers to accept passengers of SpiceJet's cancelled flights without charging exorbitant spot fares. The regulator's order is "subject to availability" of seats in other carriers and refers to passengers of SpiceJet flights cancelled at the last minute.

"Spot fares are very high, especially in this peak travel season. We have asked airlines to charge a reasonable fare from passengers of SpiceJet's flights that have been cancelled at the last minute," said a senior official.

"After the Kingfisher experience, other airlines do not want to accept vouchers from SpiceJet as they are unsure of getting money from them. Hence passengers will have to pay other airlines to take their flight and get a refund from SpiceJet for the cancelled flight later," said the official.

Former SpiceJet promoter Ajay Singh — who is eying re-entry into the airline by pumping in Rs 1,200-1,500 crore along with a bunch of global PE funds — is understood to have arranged funds for the low-cost carrier to keep flying without any more hiccups. "Ajay Singh is doing a due diligence of SpiceJet and that process will take about a month. But Singh has arranged for funds for the airline to keep operating till he and his PE funds invest in the airline," said a source.

Airline industry insiders believe Singh has finalized his share purchase price with Sun Group chief Kalanithi Maran. "While Maran wants to exit SpiceJet completely, Singh has reportedly told him that the airline needs money more urgently. So, Maran will have to wait for a while before the investors buy out his over 58% stake in the LCC completely," said a source.

Singh has identified some key mistakes made by Maran after taking over the airline in 2010. Among the first changes could be phasing out of the expensive-to-maintain Bombardier Q400s that Maran inducted into the SpiceJet fleet, which earlier had only Boeing 737s. Also, a change in the management team could be on the cards.

"Maran ran SpiceJet through a team of trusted Sun Group officials, who had no clue of the airline business and led SpiceJet to the ground. Ajay Singh, on the other hand, has first-hand experience of running an airline successfully and will be able to turn around SpiceJet," said a source. 


Farthing James W II (Spectrum Aircraft), Beaver RX-550, N105JF: Accident occurred December 21, 2014 in Perris, California

NTSB Identification: WPR15LA067 
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, December 21, 2014 in Perris, CA
Aircraft: FARTHING JAMES W II BEAVER, registration: N105JF
Injuries: 1 Serious.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On December 21, 2014, about 1030 Pacific standard time, an experimental light sport Farthing James W II (Spectrum Aircraft), Beaver RX-550, N105JF, collided with the ground in a plowed field near Perris Valley Airport, Perris, California. The airplane was registered to, and operated by, the pilot/builder under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. The private pilot sustained serious injuries and the airplane sustained substantial damage to the fuselage and right wing during the accident sequence. The local personal flight departed Perris at 1028. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed.

The airplane departed Perris Valley Airport to the south from the ultralight airstrip located adjacent to the approach end of the airport’s main runway (33). A witness, who was positioned at the hangars parallel to the airstrip, watched as the airplane climbed to about 100 feet above ground level (agl) and began a right crosswind turn. He stated that once the turn was completed the engine started to “surge”, and then lost all power. The airplane began to descend, and about 15 feet agl the right wing dipped, and struck the ground. The airplane then cartwheeled, coming to rest upright on its landing gear.

PERRIS ( — The pilot of an ultralight aircraft was injured following a crash near the Perris Valley Airport on Sunday morning, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

Emergency crews responded to a report of an aircraft crash near the intersection of Goetz and Mapes roads just before 10:30 a.m., a spokesperson said.

One person with moderate injuries was transported to a hospital by ambulance.


Mideast aviation firm plans budget airline in Thailand

Dubai-based Transworld Aviation (TWA), a supplier of aircraft parts and aviation maintenance services and the first Middle East company of its kind with a presence in Southeast Asia, is reportedly considering to set up a budget airline in Thailand to tap the growing potential of Chinese visitors to the country.

The planned airline, backed by local joint venture TWA Thailand (of which TWA holds 49% and a private Thai investor 51%), would, in a first step, offer charter flights linking Bangkok and Phuket with destinations in southern China starting from the end of 2015, local media reported. However, TWA has yet to confirm the plan.

Observers say that despite the large number of budget carriers crowding the sky over Thailand, there is still potential for direct connections between Thailand and second-tier cities in southern China which are currently not served on direct routes by the main big players such as AirAsia, China Southern Airlines, Dragon Air or Shanghai Airlines.

Other market drivers are the anticipated rapid rise in Chinese tourist numbers to Thailand in the coming years, as well as incentives granted by the Thai Ministry of Transport which aims at developing Thailand into a regional hub for aviation and is currently expanding Bangkok’s main budget carrier hub, Don Muang Airport, as well as Phuket International Airport.

Apart from forging out plans for a low-cost airline, TWA is also preparing to set up a regional aircraft-maintenance and parts distribution center in Thailand aimed at servicing and supplying parts for military and government aircraft as well as smaller and private jets, but eventually also commercial airplanes. Such a center would compete with the two existing large regional aircraft maintenance centers in Singapore, operated by SIA Engineering, part of the Singapore Airlines Group, and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, operated by MAS Engineering, as division of Malaysia Airlines.

According to TWA’s chairman Abdullah al-Sulaimani, his company’s biggest sales propositions are the quick turnaround of OEM aircraft parts, its service expertise and its experience in emerging aviation markets. Apart from TWA’s presence in the GCC, it has also expanded to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Tanzania, as well as to the US in the past.

TWA’s current customer list shows prominent Middle East carriers such as Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways, Oman Air, RAK Airways, Pakistan International Airlines, Yemenia and Air Arabia. Other major customers include Air India, Sri Lankan Airlines, Thai Airways and Indian budget carriers such as Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines, IndiGo and SpiceJet. TWA also serves several defence organisations, the royal fleets of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, as well as private and corporate aviation operators.

In Southeast Asia, Sulaimani sees long-term growth in the aviation sector particularly supported by the launch of the Asean Economic Community by end-2015 and with it the liberalization of air traffic rights in the ten-country bloc. There will be a single aviation market as a result of the Asean Open Sky Agreement that will remove relatively tight national laws and aviation regulations and open the market for a number of new airlines and routes.


Marshalltown Municipal Airport (KMIW) issued improved runway approaches • Utilizes GPS technology

 Shown is the Marshalltown Municipal Airport/Niederhauser Field sign at the facility’s entrance, 2651 170th St., Saturday. Marshalltown Aviation, Inc., a subsidiary of Midland Aircraft Sales and Service, Inc., is manager.   

Stephen Valbracht has been in the aviation business for 15 years and continues to be amazed at technological advances.

Valbracht, manager of the Marshalltown Municipal Airport, was talking specifically about new instrument approaches to both sides of the airport's primary runway installed one month ago.

The new approaches takes advantage of newer GPS technology allowing pilots to navigate to the runway while also giving the pilot a vertical path to follow, he said.

"These approaches lower the height to which an aircraft can fly without first seeing the ground," he said. "Also, by providing an instrument-guided path on which to descend, the aircraft are in a better position to see the runway during poor weather."

Valbracht was thrilled to describe the new equipment, which was once only available with a significant investment.

"It is great," he said. "The instrument approaches are something we have enjoyed at larger airports over the years and now is available in Marshalltown."

Aircraft affiliated with area businesses and industry have taken advantage of the new equipment, as are other pilots.

Valbracht said a number of central Iowa companies rely on the airport and the new GPS equipment is an economic development tool which makes the area attractive to expansion or new business and industry.

Marshalltown was issued the new equipment as a result of local efforts which required a specialized survey and other work.

"The advances in aviation technology the past 10 and past five years has been amazing," Valbracht said. "The GPS technology now in place at the Marshalltown airport is something we would have dreamt about 10 years ago."

Valbracht became manager of the local airport in 2009, assuming control from long-time manager Bill Smothers.

Midland Aviation Sales and Service, of which Valbracht is co-owner, also manages the Newton Municipal Airport.

Ethan Nasalroad, Valbracht's partner, is the Newton manager.

The Newton airport obtained the GPS equipment a number of years ago at the request of the former Maytag Co.

Marshalltown airport business hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

For more information, call 641-752-0012.


Capt. G A Fernando: And they called it pilot error

by Capt. G A Fernando
A former member of the Accident Investigation Team of The Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka

On the morning of November 28, 1979 an Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 left Auckland for the Antarctica and the South Pole on a sightseeing flight. In command was Capt. Jim Collins, an experienced pilot with 11,000 hours of flying experience of which almost 3,000 were on the DC-10. This was the 14th such flight undertaken by Air New Zealand, and because it would be longer than usual (11 hours) Capt. Collins had two First Officers (co-pilots) and two Flight Engineers to provide in-flight relief.

Collins was both surprised and delighted when his roster showed that he was slated to operate Flight TE901 because it was a rare privilege. Air New Zealand operated four such flights a year during summer when there was 24/7 sunshine in the Antarctic.

The crew reported for a special briefing on the Antarctica flight as early as November 9, and were told that their proposed route would take them from Auckland to Invercargill and thence over the Auckland Islands at the southernmost part of New Zealand, onward to Cape Hallett and then the McMurdo Sound, a forty mile-wide, obstacle-free, frozen sea where there was an American Base (Operation Deep Freeze). Finally, they would return to Auckland via Christchurch. An old Computerized Flight Plan (CFP) of a similar flight conducted by Air New Zealand on November 6 was given for reference as their routing will be the same.

Forty miles, in Sri Lankan terms as the crow flies, is about the distance from Ratmalana Airport to Adam's Peak. At the briefing the crew was also told that if the weather was clear they could do a low pass at 1,500ft over the New Zealand (Scott) Base and US Base with the permission of McMurdo Radar before returning to Christchurch. Capt. Collins had taken his atlas and note book along, and at the briefing had plotted the geographical coordinates. The crew was told that significant high ground such as Mt. Erebus (13,000ft), an active volcano, would be to the left of track. It was a pre-planned route with geographical coordinates of latitude and longitude which could be fed into the Inertial Navigation Computers that could be coupled to the Autopilot for navigation purposes.

At his home on the night before the flight Capt. Collins had drawn the intended track on a map and his atlas using the old CFP. Usually the crew would have been given a magnetic cassette tape with the pre-planned route loaded on it, but because this was an unscheduled flight, the pilots would have to load the geographical coordinates from their CFP, manually into the inertial computers through a Cockpit Display Unit (CDU). Inertial navigation does not rely on any external aids to navigation and is totally self-contained. This navigation system, which was invented for use in guided missiles, works on the measurement of acceleration in the North/South and East/West directions, and updates an entered position. It therefore could navigate from one entered position (called a Waypoint) to another. In fact the whole route could be programmed before departure. It was very accurate and the pilots of modern big jets trusted the system implicitly as it consists of three different computers monitoring each other. So if one gave erroneous readings that would be detected and eliminated.

The flight was uneventful until its final impact with terrain on the planned descent into McMurdo Sound. The point of impact was 26 miles left of the intended track with the summit of Mt. Erebus slightly to the right instead of the left. All 257 passengers and crew were lost, putting the country of three million people into an acute state of shock. How could this happen? Air New Zealand was a well-respected airline with a good track record. Their company slogan was 'Nobody does it Better'.

The Chief Accident Investigator of New Zealand's Civil Aviation Department, Ron Chippindale, and his team got on to the job immediately and conducted a thorough investigation. The so-called 'black boxes' (Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder) - which are in fact painted a bright shade of fluoro-orange for easy location at a crash site - were recovered and their data downloaded and decoded. As this had been a sightseeing or pleasure flight, almost every passenger carried a camera. Therefore, many photos were also available for analysis. Unfortunately, the DC-10 aircraft type had had two previous serious crashes in the recent past (in Paris and Chicago), so mechanical failure could not be ruled out.

Subsequently, however, it was discovered that the aircraft was fully operational and technically sound, and that unlike the other two recent crashes where the airplanes were out of control when they hit the ground, in this case the aircraft was under the full control of the Captain and his crew, and almost at level flight when it impacted the terrain.

One of the items recovered from the crash site was the note book of Capt. Collins, and that was returned to the family. In March 1980, when the entire family was out of their home for the first time after the crash, a person or persons unknown broke into the house, possibly to get access to the dead Captain's note book. What they were looking for, and who the intruders were, remains a mystery to this day.

The Civil Aviation Department Chief Inspector's report was finally released in June 1980. In essence it stated that the airplane was flying in cloud and the crew was unsure of their position and descended too low and hit the northern flanks of Mt. Erebus under full control and that it pointed to 'Pilot Error'. This was accepted willingly by Air New Zealand. To all intents and purposes it seemed like a complete 'whitewash' as dead men cannot defend themselves. The 'Human Factors' and the cause behind cause had been glossed over.

By July the same year the Attorney General of New Zealand ordered a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the accident due to the growing public uneasiness and rising anger felt by the airline pilots, flight engineers and next of kin of the 20 crewmembers. A well-respected judge named P. T. Mahon was to head it.

One of the greatest critics of the Civil Aviation Department Chief Inspector's report was Capt. Gordon Vette, a senior Air New Zealand pilot and instructor who knew Capt. Jim Collins, the Captain of TE109. Only a year earlier Gordon Vette became famous for helping to rescue the pilot of a single-engine Cessna 188 lost over the Pacific Ocean, and was recognised by the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators of the United Kingdom (GAPAN). In 1993 the story was made into a film titled 'Mercy Mission'. By standing up for his friend, Vette's loyalty to the airline was questioned by many of his friends and associates who knew that by doing so he was exposing Air New Zealand to litigation, if found guilty of negligence.

During the hearings, in their evidence both executive and line pilots of Air New Zealand had been unanimous in stating that Capt. Jim Collins was known to be careful, conscientious and methodical. Capt. Vette provided technical support to Justice Mahon. After 75 days of hearings, it was discovered that, unknown to the crew, the McMurdo waypoint had been changed in the Computerised Flight Plan (CFP) the night before the doomed flight. The new track now defined would take the aircraft right over Mt. Erebus and not along the forty mile-wide McMurdo Sound.

This amended position in the current CFP of their flight, was what was entered into the 'box' on the flightdeck by the crew, and the INS system faithfully gave guidance to the Auto flight system to fly the aircraft toward the mountain. It was also proved that the Chief Investigator got it wrong. TE901 was not inside cloud but flying in clear weather.

If that was so, why did the crew not see the high ground? It was proved by Capt. Vette that the crew experienced a condition called 'sector whiteout'. If there was a strati-form layer of cloud above, objects such as mountains become invisible on account of the absence of shadows due to reflected light from the snow. An optical illusion tricks the brain which is expecting the aircraft to fly over flat frozen sea which is forty miles wide, as briefed, and deemed to be safe to descend in. Capt. Vette was also able to prove that when flying in the clear, the terrain the ill-fated crew saw was at the same visual angle as the terrain they were expecting to see. Therefore Capt. Collins and his crew had got lured into a visual trap. This led the crew to assume they were on course as briefed. They had no reason to doubt the navigational performance of the aircraft as it was extremely accurate up to Cape Hallett.

The DC-10-30 was a second generation tri-jet which was a 'pilot's dream'. It had, amongst other equipment, weather radar which could be used to 'paint', or scan and reveal, high ground. It was however shown by the manufacturer that mountains covered with powdered snow gave insufficient radar returns. Then what about the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS)? It had been introduced not long before and gave out many spurious warnings, If and when it was triggered off, the crew was caught by surprise, and pilots of that vintage didn't trust it totally. Even on that flight Collins did not use full thrust and attempt to climb at the highest angle possible. Had he done so, the outcome may have been different.

By contrast, the computerized, fly-by-wire aircraft of today can provide the maximum performance if the pilot reacts quickly and 'firewalls' (forward to the stop) the thrust levers (throttles) while pulling the control stick back to the stop as the engines will produce the maximum possible power. Meanwhile, the computers automatically monitor the engine conditions and speed will be converted to height in the quickest and most efficient way without the airplane stalling aerodynamically and falling out of the sky. These 'escape procedures' have to be practiced by airline crews every six months to remain current.

This was a landmark case as many reforms were carried out to highlight the organizational responsibility in the ICAO 'Human Factor' writings. This Royal Commission Report in general and Capt. Vette in particular also helped to accelerate the development of the forward-looking, Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) which gave color-coded lateral terrain guidance and information to pilots to avoid high ground.

Although the Royal Commission of Inquiry report was presented to the New Zealand Parliament, Ron Chippindale's Civil Aviation Department report was still accepted as the official version of what happened to TE901. Accordingly, it was also rejected by Air New Zealand as there was much at stake for the airline's reputation. It seemed a big mistake to take on the Government and government-owned Air New Zealand. Both Justice Peter Mahon and Capt. Gordon Vette felt the 'heat'. The Judge died at the relatively young age of 62, while Vette was forced to quit for standing up for truth and justice!

However, the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association recognized Capt. Vette and he became the first recipient of the Jim Collins Memorial Award for Air Safety. Sadly, by then he had suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak.

Post Script: Twenty years after that fateful crash, Air New Zealand officially apologized to the Collins family for not being there when they needed them most.