Friday, August 14, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: A Two-Minute Primer on Aviation Regulation

George Carlin asked one incredibly reasonable question once upon a time: “If black boxes survive air crashes, why don't they make the whole plane out of that stuff?”  Until they do, we’ll have to be content to improve the performance of aircraft, refine the operating and performance excellence of aircraft, and also try to train pilots to respect the limits of their own abilities and the flight conditions that surround them.  In the meantime, when planes crash, we refine both flight and its regulation.
            One aspect of the evolution of American aviation is how crashes are often associated with changes in the administration of air travel; equipment changes and the adopting of new technologies. Since the first fatal plane crash, a significant regulatory and investigative structure has grown up around flying in America. Many of these changes occurred because of the crashes discussed in this book. As a consequence, there are terms and concepts that often come up when you talk about flying, especially as aviation becomes more accessible and more regulated, and as aviation accidents became subject to one investigating body:
            The National Transportation Safety Board: New technologies often require new rules. Aviation, like so many other innovations, started out as an unregulated entity, but like many economic innovations, prospered in part because of government interest and government subsidy to develop the technology.  Aviation grew up because of both civil and military needs – carrying postage and providing reconnaissance.  The Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915 and the US Post Office authorized the first air mail routes in 1918. 
            As commercial aviation grew, Congress used the Commerce clause of the Constitution to regulate air travel. Numerous accidents in the post-war era led Congress to create the first legislation regulating the airways, the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The Department of Commerce created an Aeronautic Branch, which was chartered as the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC) in 1934 and consolidated a variety of flight-related functions from Commerce, Transportation, and Post Office. In 1938 the authority of the BAC was transferred to an independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA); in 1940 rulemaking, economic regulation, and accident investigation was transferred to a new Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).
            The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was created by Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States. The creation of the NTSB was another in a series of steps taken starting in the 1950s to relocate CAB authority to other agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (1958) and NASA (1958), and by 1978 the CAB’s remaining function – economic regulation of the airlines – was stripped by the Carter Administration’s deregulation of air travel.  The NTSB formally opened its doors in 1967, but this technically-independent agency relied on the US Department of Transportation for funding through 1975.  NTSB investigators have worked over 125,000 airplane accidents; in addition to their statutory charge in the United States, NTSB officials consult on investigations throughout the world. 
            Individuals interested in the National transportation Safety Board, its functions, and especially its excellent data base of reports from its investigations can go to the NTSB directly at www.ntsb.gov. 
VFR versus IFR: Different meteorological conditions present different challenges to pilots  And, as a consequence, training and experience as determined by aviation authorities determine the circumstances under which pilots should operate aircraft – no one wants a fair-skies flyer trying to hop over thunderstorms.  Here is a brief description of the flight rules governing domestic flight in the US.
            Visual Flight Rules (VFR) apply when atmospheric conditions allow a pilot to operate based on the conditions observable from the cockpit.  Under these conditions, a pilot should be able to observe potential obstacles to safe navigation – changes in terrain, buildings, and other aircraft—and avoid them based on visual data alone.  This is also referred to as the “see and avoid” principle.  In order for VFR to apply, certain minimal meteorological conditions (VFC, visual flight conditions) must be met, and those conditions may vary by airspace, but those conditions usually relate to cloud cover and ceiling, cloud clearances, darkness conditions, and also the amount of controlled traffic. When these local minimum conditions are met, Minimum Visual Flight Rules (MVFR) apply. 
            Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)  are conditions under which pilots navigate based on instrument-only reference and separation from other craft is maintained by air traffic control. IFR is invoked when meteorological conditions make VFR not possible – instrument flight conditions (IFC) prevail because visual reference to navigation obstacles and other aircraft is not possible.  In the terms of the trade, VFC minima are not met.  There are three stages to IFR (departure, en route, and approach) and navigation is usually performed relative to navigational aides such as beacons. Commercial air traffic and aircraft operating in high-traffic environments also operate under IFR.  In the US, an instrument rating is necessary before a pilot is supposed to fly under IFR.