From the South Ramp
"Aloha Columbia"
--Hank Bruckner: 

 February 2003

Aloha, Columbia
On behalf of the General Aviation Council of Hawai'i, I’d like to extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the crew of Columbia. Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon were true heroes and we owe them a huge debt for their courageous and selfless pursuit of knowledge to benefit all of mankind.  It is tragically fitting that our last view of Columbia was as a shooting star across the heavens.  Shooting stars will never be the same again.  Godspeed.

The GACH bond to the space program is a strong one, thanks to member and astronaut Dr. Ed Lu. Ed was scheduled to launch next month on mission STS-114 aboard the orbiter Atlantis, to spend some five months on the International Space Station. On his first mission in May 1997 (STS-84), Ed took a GACH patch into orbit, where it traveled some 3.8 million miles in just over nine days.  It is prominently displayed on my office wall, for all to see.

NASA has some of the best minds there are, and I have no doubt that causes will be found, fixes implemented and our manned space program will resume.  We are again reminded that there is absolutely nothing routine or humdrum about venturing into space.  We’ll move on, but we’ll never forget.  

Aftermath

When young Chezray Hayes struck Manuahi Ridge near Pelekunu Valley on the north shore of Moloka'i, the impact reverberated throughout the aviation community and the public at large.  Whenever someone comes to grief in an aircraft, there is an inevitable flurry of media activity as people seek the how’s and why’s, and this accident has certainly been no exception.  Anyone deemed to be an “expert” is asked what happened and why by eager reporters.  When an airplane just disappears over the ocean, those questions tend to remain largely unanswered, absent any wreckage to examine.  In this case, however, what happened is not so much of an issue as why, and will likely remain that way.  

Within the aviation community there is no shortage of opinions and likely scenarios, but we will never know for sure, because none of us were in that cockpit at the time.  Most of us have learned not to speculate to the media about an accident or incident under active investigation, though the temptation may be great, especially if we hold strong opinions.  Experience proves that sometimes the apparently obvious cause of an accident turns out to have little or nothing to do with it when the details are finally discovered and analyzed.  All too often, however, sufficient details are just not obtainable.

Where the physical evidence shows no causative mechanical deficiency or medical condition, we enter the nebulous territory of perceptions and decision-making, and the process becomes very subjective indeed.  Scenarios are built on assumptions rather than fact—assumptions that may or may not be relevant and accurate. Sadly, in such an instance, there is no one to verify or refute them.
Trying to figure out why Hayes flew into the ridge is a case in point. One could build a plausible, even compelling scenario that involved weather and pilot experience, but plausible and irrefutable are two very different creatures. This is especially hard on family and friends who ache to find out exactly what happened and why their loved one is gone.   So, what can we take away from this tragedy?  Nothing new, I’m afraid.

Flying, like so many other pursuits, involves a chain of decision-making.  These decisions build on and feed each other and together, shape the path of events that arises from them.  As each decision is made, the range of available options changes and often narrows until, sometimes, there are no acceptable options left.  Perfect information can help make perfect decisions.  Perfect information is an illusion.  Sufficient information, though, is often attainable. The first key step is deciding whether it really is sufficient.  The next step, of course, is making decisions based on that information.  If you incorrectly judged the information to be sufficient, subsequent decisions are likely to be flawed as well. That may not become apparent, however, until the range of acceptable options has narrowed, possibly too far.

More important than the basic flying skills imparted during flight training is the ability to gather and analyze pertinent data and make appropriate decisions—in a word, judgment.  That doesn’t come quickly or easily or out of a book. It is largely based on experience, and absent that experience, caution and conservatism must rule.  As a friend and accomplished aviator often says, regarding flying decisions, “If there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”

During normal, generally benign trades weather, local pockets of challenging conditions may still occur, as each island shapes the weather in its own way.  Differences of a few degrees in wind direction can make a huge difference in where showers may pop up, and where turbulence will rattle your teeth.   This winter, however, has been anything but normal, and trades days have been far outnumbered by Kona conditions.  A front or shear line has assaulted the Islands every few days to some degree or other, often without a period of normal trades in between.  These fronts and shear lines bring a generally moist, unstable air mass along and each island’s dynamic will be quite different than during normal trades.

Such was the case when Chezray embarked on his solo cross-country flight.  A rather ugly cold front had swept through the northern islands the day before, leaving unsettled weather and westerly winds behind it as it slowed and stalled over Maui, with its trailing edge extending westward over Moloka'i.   There was a lot of residual moisture in the air, and low temperature-dew point spreads were reflected by poor visibility, especially closer to the trailing edge of the frontal band.  

When I fly, I try to always have an out—a Plan B.  Plan B needs to be updated constantly, as the situation changes.  Conditions can change rapidly, however, and may rob me of my Plan B before I even realize it, especially during non-typical conditions.  By knowing where I am at all times and especially where I am in relation to terrain and obstructions, I have a good idea of the general direction I’ll need to turn for Plan B.  If I don’t know exactly where I am, I need to head somewhere safe while I sort things out.
Aviation is not without risk.  Few worthwhile things are.  The constant task is to manage that risk and keep it within acceptable limits.  Sometimes that is a very daunting task.  Our heartfelt condolences go out to Chezray’s family and friends.

Security
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t noticed that airport security has become a major concern over the past many months?  A recent TSA inspection of the HNL perimeter turned up a number of concerns and resulted in corrective action by the airport folks.  One was the changing of the combination to the two access gates by the T-hangars.  Twice.  Why twice, you ask?  Well, seems that someone posted the new combo on the outside of the gate.  C’mon, guys!

Kalaeloa
Some of you may have noticed that the HCC/UND flight program is in the process of moving their operation to Kalaeloa from HNL.  There have been some stumbling blocks, however, including a current lack of security for based aircraft and a lack of taxiway signage.  Expect the UND presence there to increase as these and other issues are resolved.

Great Hawaiian Air Race 2003
As this goes to press, this year’s GHAR will be underway, weather permitting.  If you aren’t a participant, please be on the lookout for those who are.  Racers will be crisscrossing the north and south shores of Moloka'i, Lana'i, and Maui on the 15th en route to Hana and again on the 17th, as they head to Dillingham Field from Hana.  On the 16th, some will be flying an optional event between Hana and Lana'i, and on the 17th, some will also fly an optional event from Dillingham to Kaua'i and back.  Most aircraft will be relatively low, especially near checkpoints on the shorelines of the islands.

Aerobatic Masterpiece
HNL is host to a new beauty—a Giles 202 aerobatic homebuilt made largely of carbon fiber/composite high-tech stuff.  This one sports a 200 HP engine and roughly a 500-degrees-per-second roll rate and an absolutely gorgeous paint scheme.  Vertical penetration is nothing short of amazing.  Mark Dunkerley is the proud owner (he’s also the president and COO of Hawaiian Air Lines).  Mark has been a successful aerobatic competitor on the Mainland in the Advanced category.  A very welcome addition to Hawaiian skies.
 
Be careful out there.