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Airports with Over Water Approaches

by Al Peyus
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Like many of us, I get confused trying to understand some of the FAA regulations. Why are commercial operators (Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121, and 135) required to protect their passengers by providing floatation devices and Part 91 operators are not?

Throughout our great country, there are airports, both non-towered and towered, that are geographically requiring us to fly a traffic pattern that places us over water and beyond gliding distance from shore as we prepare to land. I have included a sampling of those towered airports in this article.

When flying under Part 121 or 135, you must provide a floatation device for all passengers if your flight path is going to take the aircraft beyond gliding distance from the shore. That means that when on an approach, either under VFR or IFR, at ATC direction or because of the airport's geographical location requires that the flight altitude be below 2,000 feet AGL and one mile or more off shore, the operator must provide floatation devices fro everyone on board the craft. This excludes the equipment that is required for flights that are 'extended over water.'

Many of us do not even realize the potential problem because landing at these airports is an everyday affair. We have become jaded to the hazards that are laying in wait for us. Like most hazards that are present in our everyday life, we become so use to the hazard, and baring any incident or accident, we become inured to it. That desensitization occurs any time we repeatedly face a hazard and walk away safe and sound. That does little to minimize the actual hazard that is still there waiting for us. So, what can we do to keep from falling into that complacency trap?

This can be handled through the same training, both mental and physical, that we do keep our skills keen and in the forefront of our brain doing VFR, instrument, multi-engine, and instructor training maneuvers. We have to think, read and practice what we will do for every action and reaction in our training to make this actions almost instinctive. Training to minimize this complacency can be accomplished simply by knowing the glide distance and then practicing in flight to prove the numbers are correct and the aircraft will, in fact, do what the book says.

Do you know how well your airplane glides? What is the best glide speed for the given conditions? Is it based on temperature, wind, humidity, or weight? Does it change with conditions? What are the best conditions? More on this in just a bit.

Let's first talk about the flotation device. Is it needed? If it is required for commercial operations to provide flotation devices for all persons on board, why would the private operator not provide for his/her passengers' safety? Aren't these passengers just as important? A floatation device is a device that is certificated to keep a person afloat for at least a short time to allow rescue.

A flotation device can be as simple as a removable seat cushion to as fancy as an ocean certified, fully hypothermal, inflatable suit. What is needed is something that keeps a person afloat while waiting for assistance. For Part 91 operations, it must compromise between doing the job and fitting the operator's pocketbook. As with any safety equipment, it has to fit the need and be readily available to everyone on board. With the wide variety of devices on the market, there is little reason not to have some version of the flotation device on board.

Here are some of the airports that we can, and do, get outside the gliding distance of shore just by following ATC directions in a normally accepted traffic pattern. On the East Coast there is Boston Logan (BOS) in Massachusetts, Witham (SUA) and Clearwater/Saint Petersburg International in Florida. On the Southern coast we have Lakefront (NEW) in Louisiana. On the West Coast there is McClellan Palomar (CRQ) and Monterey (MRY) in California. And we cannot forget the Great lakes area. In Pennsylvania there is Erie International (ERI) and Wittman Regional (OSH) in Wisconsin.

In my personal flying, I have flown into Monterey (MRY), Boston Logan (BOS), Portland, Maine (PWM), and San Francisco (SFO) in VFR conditions following traffic while under control of ATC and well outside the gliding distance of shore at 2,000 feet AGL. This is considered a 'normal' pattern for traffic control that pilots in the area know and accept without worry or concern for the hazard that lays in wait.

Do not be lulled into thinking that this problem is only at towered airports. There are numerous non-towered airports across the United States that are just as close, or closer, to water then those mentioned above. The non-towered airports are more dangerous for numerous reasons one of which is simply because there is no tower to immediately notify emergency services that a pilot has a problem.

I have also flown into Providence town (PVC), Galveston (GLS), Sky Harbor (DYT), and Halfmoon Bay (HAF). These non-towered airports, by their geographical location, put pilots and aircraft beyond gliding distance of shore while flying a 'normal' pattern. And that is without traffic to force us outside of our typical 'tight' traffic pattern!

This is a serious flying hazard! So why do we so readily accept this risk? Don't we have training programs that teach us to watch out for flying hazards and then how to void them?

Some of the reasons are hard data supported. Engines have become more reliable. Aircraft are being made with more stable systems. Our own dispositions and attitudes play a major role in this hazard identification. We psyche ourselves by saying, 'I am a great pilot and I can handle whatever the aircraft throws at me,' or 'this engine is so good, it will never quit.' We're lulled into a false reality that has been taken many to the edge deflating point of facing a hard reality. The numbers of incidents and accidents have dropped in this regime of flight aiding us in becoming inured to this hazard.

As we fly at these airports and in these patterns, the hazard is mentally minimized with each flight. We did not go into the drink. We did not have that engine failure! We did not sweat bullets getting the aircraft safely on the ground! Therefore, there is no danger in flying extended patterns placing us beyond gliding distance of shore! That is, until that day when the engine does fail! What a miserable way to bring us back to reality!

Do you remember that first flight over an expanse of water as a solo student pilot or a new certificated pilot? After a very short time, we were able to count the cylinders as each fired. Each time we safely made it across that water, it 'seemed' to become safer. After many water crossing, it became 'no big deal' and as safe as flying in a closed pattern.

So how do we break our complacency and get back to thinking of the safety of our passengers and our own well-being? One of the fastest ways to get the big picture of what we are really facing in these heavy traffic pattern vectors and non-towered watery traffic patterns is to do the math.

A typical traffic pattern altitude for reciprocating engines is between 800 to 1,000 feet AGL and 1,500 AGL for turbine-powered aircraft. At pattern altitude can you glide to shore when you are - mile, - mile or one statue mile from shore? If you do not know the answer off the top of your head, it is time to go to the books.

All the required data is found in the aircraft Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) or Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM), The Limitation, Emergency, Abnormal, and Performance sections will have all the data you will need to get the hard numbers for the glide speed and gliding distance based on traffic pattern altitude. Notice the speed for glide does not change. It is simply a matter of the lift over drag equation providing the best forward distance for the least altitude lost. It is the best lift over drag for the aircraft's wing design. It is not like maneuvering speed that must be adjusted for gross weight.

After you find the hard numbers, it is time to test those numbers in actual flight. Grab a flight instructor and head for your favorite local practice field and test the numbers out. The flight instructor has demonstrated this maneuver many times in his/her career preparing student and commercial applicants for their check ride repeating this identical type of flying. It is an eye opener for all of us!

Set your self up first at - statue mile and normal traffic pattern altitude, then - of a mile, and finally one mile. In each case, pull the throttle to idle and pitch to your best glide speed and see where it gets you. The flight instructor is there to help protect you from an errant action and provide the guidance to help make this a safe flight.

I have not mentioned that, although conditions do not affect the glide speed, wind does affect the distance traveled over the ground! A head wind shortens the distance traveled while a tail wind increases the gliding distance. Humidity reduces lift, which also shortens gliding distance.

An important point to remember for any situation; keep your flight to landing as close to 'normal' as you can. Keep your 'pattern' as close to the normal pattern you always fly. We always want our landing to be into the wind for the best control, in a normal configuration (flaps and gear), and at practiced normal approach speeds. By exercising 'normal' procedures, we can minimize 'Murphy's Law' from jumping up and biting when least expected or wanted.

Now, back to those flotation devices, where can you get them? How much do they cost? Do they have a service life? Do they have to be replaced? Is there a trade in value for out-of-service-date equipment?

To find where to get these devices, all you have to do is check the web under aviation equipment or call your friendly aviation store. There is a wide variety of devices out there to fit almost every budget and able to cover every need.

After finding the device that appeals to your needs and pocketbook, check the FAA Technical Service Order (TSO) information on the flotation device. That will tell you the service life and offers inspection requirements. The marketing information on each device will tell you all you ever wanted to know about the device; its size, color, shape, trade in value (if any), servicing requirement (if needed), and cost.

So, the question that started this all. If it is required for commercial operations, why are we operating under part 91 and not providing that all-important flotation device to each of our passengers? It is just because it is NOT legally required?

Al Peyus is an Aviation Safety Inspector in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.