Low and Fast – No Good Will Come

On two occasions, I have observed a local pilot with a very distinctive aircraft buzz buildings, aircraft, and people. One of them was while sitting in front of my hangar at Pearland Regional. I saw him sidestep right on runway 14 to overfly a hangar at less than 100 feet AGL to pass near a man and woman from a Citabria that had been in the pattern in front of him and stopped at the fuel pumps for gas. (See “Pushing the Margins”). The second incident was at a local airport where we and the other pilot had gone for lunch. We were taxiing out when he was taking off; and as he lifted off, he immediately rolled left to buzz the restaurant full of people behind us (and cockpit video in my airplane captured the liftoff and the beginning of his turn). Not only that, but he had done it with several of his family members in his aircraft. Why put a whole lot of people at unnecessary risk for the sake of ego and a thrill?

You can’t hang around Pearland Regional without seeing, sooner or later, RV’s or warbirds making high speed passes down the runway, often with smoke on. I actually have no problem with that on occasion but really wonder about a pilot who cannot land without “making a low pass” first.

I get it that flying is a lot of fun; and sometimes that kind of flying is a lot of fun. But when you take it to extremes and/or are putting other people at undue risk with your behavior, sooner or later, no good will come of it.

The blog title paraphrases the title from an article I am about to introduce which was written by a fellow pilot and ex-Navy A-6 Bombadier/Navigator (B/N). It is posted in Air Facts and is his cut on the practice of flying low and fast in our airplanes. While flying low and fast was the bread and butter of the A-6 community in particular, every tactical aircrew is trained to do it and at some time has done it. Most of the time, it was part of or solely in support of a mission, but I would be lying to say that sometimes it was not fun. And dangerous as hell. His article discusses both the safety and legal aspects of the practice; and I consider it something all pilots might want to chew on: “Low and Fast- A Bad Combination” by Jeff Edwards.

Isn’t Side Stepping Straight-Forward?

You’re on base leg and you notice a white Cessna sitting at the hold short for the landing runway.  As you round the corner and enter short final, the Cessna taxies forward to take the runway.  You immediately hit the throttle, pull the nose up to the horizon to accelerate and then raise it slightly to climb as you do, raise the flaps a notch, and announce on the radio that you’re going around.  You’re about to overfly the conflicting aircraft; so, in the name of safety, you decide to sidestep.  But which way do you go?

I overheard a debrief where this was being discussed and the student was being told that he could pick either side. And that seems to be borne out by this statement from the Airplane Flying Handbookon page 12-18: “If the go-around was initiated due to conflicting traffic on the ground or aloft, the pilot should maneuver to the side so as to keep the conflicting traffic in sight. This may involve a shallow bank turn to offset and then parallel the runway/landing area.”   The direction of the sidestep…indicated by the shallow bank turn…is not specified.

What I had been taught and always understood was that you sidestepped to the right.  I still believe that to be the best move for a couple of reasons.  First, most pilots sit on the left side of the cockpit in this country, so sidestepping to the right generally gives one the best opportunity to observe the conflicting traffic.  But a better reason is what FAR 91.113 (f) says about what’s legal when overtaking another aircraft: “Each aircraft being overtaken has the right of way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear”.

I found a forum discussion where another CFI claimed that the rule applied only to actions taken in flight and therefore didn’t apply in the pattern.  I could buy that if it weren’t for this quote from Advisory Circular 90-66B “Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations” : “Throughout the traffic pattern, right-of-way rules apply as stated in § 91.113.”

Standard traffic patterns at non-towered fields use left hand turns; side stepping to the right puts you on the side opposite to the direction the aircraft will turn if it is remaining in the pattern.

Of course, Advisory Circulars are not regulatory in nature and only provide recommended practices.  But it shows you what the FAA thinking is.  Doing something else may be perfectly fine but it also may subject you to a violation.  I have read of cases where pilots were prosecuted for overflying..buzzing another aircraft, specifically..and they quoted the overtaking provision I quoted as rationale for prosecution.

The other thing to note is that the Advisory Circular applies to non-towered airport operations.  While I’ve never had a controller issue me a go-around command with a sidestep direction, if they give you one, you are under an obligation to do as commanded unless you are unable for some reason. 

But whatever you do, don’t overfly another airplane on the runway.  The FAA considers it bad form; and it could ruin your day if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Aerodynamics for Pilots

Problems with teaching aerodynamics to pilots or STEM students have been systemic for years; from my perspective it started with a high school physics teacher’s group that started pushing for “Newton only” educational approaches. It’s not that you can’t get there (i.e., from a “Newton only” approach) but that approach is more appropriate for an engineering audience than for the general public. It also illustrates a lack of understanding about the reciprocal nature of the flow field or that Bernoulli’s equation is derived from the analyzation of properties of a particle in a streamline using Newton’s Second Law. Claiming that Bernoulli based explanations, used for years as a simplified explanation for teaching aerodynamics, is wrong is as misguided as claiming that Bernoulli alone is sufficient; they each are incomplete without the other and, in many ways, actually depend on each other. Combined with the pseudo science and incomplete public understandings of technical subjects that often exist and get made popular by the Internet, there is incorrect material now being taught by major pilot education organizations, including AOPA, the Civil Air Patrol and, sadly, the FAA.

The first real move I saw to battle this inaccuracies came in the form of a book published over 5 years ago entitled “Understanding Aerodynamics: Arguing from the Real Physics” by Don McLean and published by Wiley Press. I discovered the book a couple of years ago as I endeavored to wade in to combat what I felt were the technical mis-explanations that gaining traction. My work with McLean’s text has been two-fold: first, to shore up my own understanding of aerodynamics and make sure I had a better handle on the actual physics, and secondly, to find an approach that I get would help me create a “simple-enough” yet technically and physically accurate explanation that would tie together all I had learned over the years. With this blog tonight, I am releasing my first salvo in this effort, a .pdf of a stand-alone presentation entitled “Aerodynamics for Pilots“. (Click the link to download; it’ll take a few minutes as it is a 14MB file.) Like Mr. McLean, I am a believer that every technical subject can be taught at a simplified level most people can understand without making it technically inaccurate, something not always done by groups and organizations dealing with the public and teaching about aviation and spaceflight. While this presentation is aimed at general aviation pilots, anyone who’s interested in how lift is created and how it is used to fly airplanes hopefully will find it educational.

I will eventually put a video version of it up on my You Tube channel; but for now, feel free to download the pdf and read it. If you’d like for me to present or discuss this with your group or class or have any questions or comments, please contact me at: afoster@theandyzone.com.