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Nov 2013 Edition of Powered Sport Flying Magazine

Near Hits

CloudsI never understood why an unintentional close encounter between two aircraft was coined a near miss. If they didn’t hit, they missed. If they hit that would be “near miss” so why not call it a “near hit?” Regardless of name it’s never fun.

This brings me back to a time when I was a first officer for our airline. We were flying on a Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) into Los Angeles International Airport one hazy afternoon late in the day. I was the flying pilot and, per the arrival, we had just leveled off at 13,000 feet. All of a sudden I spotted something about three quarters of a mile in front of us. Oddly enough it wasn’t anything I could quickly identify, because it was so small compared to other aircraft from the same distance. But just a few seconds later it started to become readily apparent what it was. It was a hang glider, and if we didn’t act fast it was going to be right in our cockpit. Thoughts raced quickly through my mind like, “What would a hang glider be doing way up here? And, why is he on a STAR arrival route into LAX!!!” We were going approximately 290 knots and at that speed – about 500 feet per second – time was running out. He was probably less then a quarter mile away when I took manual control of the plane and pulled up. We cleared the hang glider by 200-300 feet, and I saw him go by off the right side beneath us. The whole encounter from start to finish was over in 7 seconds.

Just last year (in the same general area) while descending through 17,000 feet, my first officer spotted something from his side, just below the horizon at our one o’clock. He then said that it looked like a paraglider. I quickly leaned over and we verified together that it was, in fact, a paraglider. This time the stakes were different though, as he was about a mile off our right side and 1,500 – 2,000 feet beneath us as we descended abeam him. In other words we got lucky, and so did he.

It’s worth mentioning that while both the hang glider and the paraglider probably originated from the same general area (the mountains north of LA are reportedly great for soaring), each of the ultralight aircraft allowed themselves to drift well west of these mountains to areas that are heavily congested with industry, freeways, and lots of buildings. Although each were in very busy airspace, had they known and/or cared about FAR 103.15, neither would have been there for that reason either; It says: “No person may operate an ultralight vehicle over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons…”

…I took manual control of the airplane and pulled up. We cleared the hang glider by 300-500 feet, and I saw him go by off the right side beneath us.

Speed is the Ultimate Dealer in the Game of Near Hits

AirlinerThere’s an old saying that goes “If you’re going to swim in the ocean, you have to learn how to swim with the big fish.” It’s a great point to ingest for the new PPG pilot where sharing of the sky comes into play. Unfortunately, that person is usually just unaware of how busy a place the sky really is. Fast moving aircraft, the majority of all aircraft that fill the sky, are here and gone in seconds.. Most people think that if they can’t see the aircraft overhead, there must not be any aircraft that could pose a real threat to them… But nothing could be further from the truth. When one starts flying PPG, an extremely conservative mindset is a must at least until good airspace knowledge and scanning habits are formed. New PPG pilots should enter the sky envisioning that they are immersed in an ocean of aircraft, any of which can come at them from any direction at anytime. I like to use the feet per second example to illustrate my point: Below 10,000 feet mean sea level, aircraft have a speed limit of 250 knots. This equates to 287.5 miles per hour, 4.79 miles per minute, or 421.66 feet per second. Hypothetically, if the pilot of a aircraft going 250 knots sees a slow moving paraglider from a quarter mile away, s/he has about 3 seconds to react, and that’s if they aren’t looking down at the charts, instruments, etc. Above 10,000 feet, speeds increase exponentially, and pretty soon fast moving aircraft are moving in excess of 675 feet per second or more when they’re at or beyond 400 knots.

Some might say this level of caution (or paranoia) is simply unwarranted… To them I say this. In light of a recent spate of PPG high altitude videos posted to YouTube, consider the ramifications of a midair collision between a powered paraglider and an airliner full of people.

…New PPG pilots should enter the sky envisioning that they are immersed in an ocean of aircraft, any of which can come at them from any direction at anytime.

The Delight and the Disappointment that is YouTube

YouTube is a boondoggle for anyone with a video camera and a little internet savviness. You can record your favorite moments and upload them for the world to see. People tend to forget that this includes their video possibly being seen by the FAA and law enforcement agencies everywhere. There are all kinds of videos on YouTube and a little browsing can take you from a moment of laughter to a moment of horror in a minute, literally.

Recently though there have been several disappointing PPG related videos uploaded to YouTube from obviously undereducated pilots who are just entering PPG, or who have very little time in the sport overall. I have to ask myself, why would anyone knowingly put themselves in such legal jeopardy otherwise? Other then the high altitude antics, one PPG pilot shot a video of himself flying his powered paraglider over a city at night, violating both FAR 103.11 and 103.15. The same fellow filmed himself flying his powered paraglider in the clouds in a different video, violating FAR 103.23. Still another PPG pilot filmed himself flying down the middle of a residential street from what looked like 100 feet overhead, yet another blatant violation of FAR 103.15. It seems some newbies especially do not understand the gravity behind the reasons for the rules in Part 103. Worse even than those examples though are similar videos from one extremely experienced paraglider pilot in particular, but whom I would consider to be a “lost cause” at this point. I say “worse” because he – and the occasional experienced pilot like him who intentionally demonstrates the same lack of respect for the FAR’s –  should certainly know the dangers they create to the aircraft they can’t yet see, and the fallacy’s of repeatedly operating uncertified aircraft over congested areas – If not for the risk involved, then at least out of a respect for the sport and for the law. But apparently they do not see the light, and that is the difference – and the opportunity – we as a PPG community have with just an ignorant newbie.

…YouTube is a boondoggle for anyone with a video camera and a little internet savviness. You can record your favorite moments and upload them for the world to see. People tend to forget that this includes their video possibly being seen by the FAA and law enforcement agencies everywhere.

How We Should be Treating the Ignorant Newbie

Nothing turns people off faster then reticule, castigation and scorn. So in the case of the newbie who is just ignorant of the rules, I think we should take on a different approach then the instant, targeted negativity that has been historically illustrated online. These people need to be given the benefit of the doubt that many times they just don’t know what they’re doing, until it becomes obviously apparent otherwise. We have to remember that this sport can be self taught. If we want to preserve the sport from becoming over regulated, it is our responsibility to step up and correct bad habits before they create bad outcomes for everybody. Many times newbies haven’t read FAR Part 103 and don’t know what the official rules are. I’m constantly surprised at the lack of attention it’s given from even reputable PPG schools. Remember, there is not one pilot among us who hasn’t screwed up at some point – Myself of course included! The difference is that the intent of most of us became completely different once we became aware of the ramifications of our actions. So… Go out of your comfort zone and offer some constructive advice to new people in this same place.

Considering the alternative might provide some motivation. Most people when ridiculed just go away and never come back, and therefore we’d never have the chance again to affect positive change upon that person. It’s a chance too big worth loosing, if you ask me. Self policing one of the world’s most affordable and safe forms of flying may seem counter intuitive, but it is because of these very characteristics that we must do it – PPG’s lack of licensing requirements and comparative versatility of launching are other reasons. Nobody likes to correct anybody, but for the newbie who is just ignorant of the rules, you are doing them – and everybody else – a favor.

FAAWhere the FAA Comes In

You might ask though, who is really responsible for this policing? Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of asking that, as it is a matter of asking if you’d rather have the FAA doing it. Having worked around the FAA for two decades, I can honestly say I know how they operate. In a basic sense, the FAA publishes regulations and keep tabs on the number of infractions occurring. Depending on the amount and severity of the infraction(s), they will either take a pro-active or a reactive approach. So far here in PPG we have been too low on the their radar to warrant many proactive approaches, aside from Part 103 itself (if you consider it as such). Believe me when I say though that you’d rather have a proactive approach over a reactive approach. Reactive approaches have historically always been of the “knee-jerk” type in nature, and in the commercial piloting world we describe it as the FAA “dropping the hammer.” These are typically the most restrictive of FAA actions, bestowing upon everybody harsh new regulations severe enough that you wouldn’t wish them even on your non-pilot neighbors.

Before you construct your final opinion of the FAA though, consider who they answer to: The traveling public and folks on the ground everywhere. Of course, the traveling public demand and expect safe sky’s to travel in. But what of the person that burned to death inside their home the night of the Colgan Air disaster? He wasn’t even on board the airplane. While on approach to Buffalo New York, Colgan Air flight 3407 got too slow and stalled. It plunged into a house and killed an occupant along with 49 other people on board the airplane. It would later come out that the plane’s captain had a poor training record. Of course, the public become furious over how the FAA could let somebody like this “slip through the cracks..” My point is that it is both the traveling public and the people on the ground who demand safe sky’s from the FAA. None of us expect to have an airplane come crashing down on our house, and we’d hold the FAA accountable in part if something like this ever happened to us, even if we were outside of our house. Since to the FAA our PPG ultralights are uncertified vehicles flown by unlicensed pilots, think about this the next time you read FAR 103.15: “No person may operate an ultralight vehicle over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons…” It’s then that it really starts to make sense.

This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Powered Sport Flying Magazine