Caravan IV, July 26, 2001

Safety and the Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh

By Jonathan Paul, MAPA #5591

This year’s Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh, our fourth, is in the books. It was a big success. Three prior years of Caravan experience have worked out most of the kinks and, everybody agreed that this was the smoothest Caravan so far. The weather and possibly a stagnant economy kept our numbers down from last year’s record of ninety-eight aircraft. Sixty-four Mooneys convened on Madison the weekend of July 22 and flew together into the Oshkosh EAA Convention, the Valhalla of general aviation.

Because the starting date of the convention, renamed Air Venture, was advanced one day to Tuesday, July 25th, we felt we had to advance our arrival at Oshkosh to Sunday instead of Monday. We also delayed our launch time from noon to 6pm. This changed the complexion of the Caravan since a majority of pilots arrived Sunday and we did not have a formal Madison dinner on Saturday evening.

The Caravan spirit of volunteerism was very much evident as in prior years. John Einck and his crew managed the Madison ramp and got all arriving parked and serviced without confusion. . Deanna Puls and Susan McClenaghan ran the registration desk with amazing efficiency. Waldo and Peggy Born drove the shuttle bus. Ken Beaubien, our local guy, did everything else, including arranging for an excellent bag lunch. In short, the Madison ramp was a beehive of activity. Between 2pm and 5pm Bill Rabek, Mooney lead and Dave Peihler (2000 Lead) conducted the pilot briefings, and at 5:45 Mooney Lead fired up and the Caravan was off.

On Sunday morning the weather was low IFR as a front passed through the area. Needless to say, we were very anxious about the weather. In the afternoon we had lines of CB cells to the south and west and one directly overhead Madison that let loose a deluge at about 1pm. The Bonanza group, flying in from Rockford, 100 miles to the south of Madison, came within 2 minutes of aborting. But we were lucky. By the late afternoon the corridor to Oshkosh was clear and we had smooth sailing for our 6pm departure time.

The winds and the Oshkosh tower still had a surprise in store for us. Based on advisories from Oshkosh tower Bill Rabek briefed the Caravan for a runway 36L and 36R arrival. This is the simplest procedure for the Caravan and is basically a straight in approach from Madison. No sooner had Mooney Lead launched than he was advised to expect a Runway 18R arrival. Not only did we have to get 64 planes re-oriented for a reverse direction arrival, but we were reduced from two runways to one. Had we known about this change before launch, we would have increased the departure interval to 10 seconds between airplanes. In any case, we were committed and in the air with 6 second spacing. The new landing instructions were relayed down the line and each group leader briefly reviewed the new procedure and route with his aircraft. In an 18R arrival we had to continue our approach past the Fond du Lac airport until over the shore of Lake Winnebago. A 45 degree left turn along the shoreline put us on a downwind for 18R. A tight turn to base and final put us in position for landing long on the 9,000-foot runway.

Bill Rabek, Mooney Lead was not happy with this last minute change, and repeatedly tried to break into the busy Oshkosh tower frequency with a request for the original runway. His persistence and knowledge of the ATC lingo paid off. When he finally got their attention (and they were very busy with some wayward Bonanza) they acknowledged his request but approved no change. Mooney lead was at this point well past Fond du Lac and on a six mile downwind for 18R. At this point, Oshkosh tower relented and asked Bill if he could still make 36 L and R. Bill said “Sure thing” and he lead his Alpha group with Bravo and Charlie in trail on a dive-bomber approach for the 36 runways. Delta, Echo and even Foxtrots groups still to extend their paths beyond Fond du Lac before turning into OSH so as not to cut off the groups in front that were making their approach.

We all landed safely and were directed to our camping place and thus began a week of airplanes, airplanes and more airplanes.

But there was a pall hanging over Oshkosh this year, an uneasiness that nagged and troubled many attendees including some in the Caravan. It was like a sour stomach. We knew that we didn’t feel too well but we didn’t quite know why. Our concern was given form and substance in an Avweb article by the respected aviation writer Rick Durden. The article said, in a nutshell, that poor pilot technique and an almost-criminal lack of pre-flight planning led to several deaths during arrival operations at the EAA Convention. He adds, “We are at risk of completing screwing the pooch and ending the privilege of flying into the most sacred place and in general aviation”. The source of our anxiety turned out to be the safety (or lack of it) of flying into Oshkosh.

Tony Hale is a veteran Caravan participant and the leader of Charlie group. Tony is a youthful looking MBA from San Antonio, Texas and one of those people who exudes enthusiasm about flying and about his Mooney (a nice looking M20C). Tony is also a CFII and, if the truth be told, a hard-ass critic of his own flying and that of others. Tony, too, felt the collective anxiety. When he returned home, he sent a long e-mail to the Mooney brethren worrying about things he saw and heard about in Oshkosh this year.

Both Hale and Dryden cited several planes that landed against the flow of traffic on one of the active runways. This is hard to believe and incredibly dangerous when there may be six or seven planes on short final for the same runway coming in the opposite direction. What is absolutely unimaginable is that any pilot could make such a mistake after having read the arrival procedures published in a crystal clear NOTAM available from a dozen sources. The sad truth is that the offenders probably did not read the procedures.

Less egregious but equally dangerous were pilots who may have read the procedures but did not or could not maintain the correct altitudes, airspeed, or course on the 16 mile VFR arrival corridor from Rippon to the airport. The two fatalities both involve stall-spin accidents that were likely to have resulted from planes having to slow up to unaccustomed approach speeds close to the ground while maneuverability was severely confined by nearby aircraft.

So what does this all have to do with the Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh?

Safety is the foremost concern of the Mooney Caravan. Bill Rabek, who was our flight leader for the 2001 Caravan, is an FAA air traffic controller from Atlanta. He flies a 1981 Mooney 201. Bill is a tall and rugged looking guy with a toothy smile and a quick laugh. He is very likely to repeat his favorite one liner “I’m From the FAA. We’re not happy till you’re not happy”. Bill can often be seen riding around the Oshkosh campsite on his fold-up bicycle looking like and cross between Crocodile Dundee and Rhett Butler. Beneath his southern gentleman façade, Bill is fanatically concerned with safety. This isn’t surprising for a guy who pushes tin through the Atlanta ATCA. For the last four years, Bill has also been the liaison between the Mooney Caravan and the FAA. In this capacity, he worked closely with the FAA in both Oshkosh and Madison as well as with the EAA officials on the ground. He had to sell our proposed procedures to the FAA and assure them that we were not a bunch of yahoos out for a Sunday thrill. Needless to say, the FAA folks are themselves obsessively concerned with our safety, the safety of others, and the impact of the Caravan on general flight operations. Over the four years of the Caravan the leadership has given a lot of thought to procedures and we have improved upon them every year. We believe we have gained the qualified respect and cooperation of the FAA. But it is a very fragile relationship.

When Bill assumed the difficult role of flight leader this year, he brought with him a renewed emphasis on safety .In an early letter to 2001 Caravan 2001 participants, Bill wrote: ”The caravan's overarching philosophy is to provide a safe opportunity for a group of Mooney enthusiasts to travel to Oshkosh together. By flying as a group with a special Letter of Agreement with the FAA we foster safety on the arrival while enhancing the Oshkosh experience with fellow Mooney lovers. Our Prime Directive is “Have Fun, Fly Safe” … We encourage teamwork and safety above all ... We expect to limit the number of aircraft in the Caravan to 100 for safety and logistics reasons but there is no limit to the fun or innovation in the group. At the same time, we will never tolerate unsafe circumstances.”

What the Caravan tries to do is to permit a large group of planes to arrive together at the convention and to camp and/or park together. This is not possible with the standard arrival procedures since arriving planes may be vectored to any of three active runways and be mixed in with all manner of “foreign” aircraft types. If we tried to interject between 70 and 100 aircraft into the standard Rippon arrival stream in a 10-15 minute interval, we probably would stress the system and activate holding procedures. So, it is to the advantage of both the Mooney Caravan and the Oshkosh FAA tower crew to have an orderly and concentrated arrival of the Mooneys.

Each year the Caravan negotiates a Letter of Understanding (LOA) with the FAA. We work directly with the Oshkosh FAA tower chief, Manny Torres. The FAA agrees to reserve one landing area (usually runways 36L and 36R) to the Caravan for the duration of our arrival. We then takeoff from Madison at a rate of one aircraft every six seconds and fly a generally direct route to our final approach course into the designated runway. The Caravan is divided into ten groups of ten aircraft each. There is a 30 second “spacer” between each group. Thus we need a 15-minute block of time to land 100 planes (the absolute maximum Caravan size) and less time if we have fewer planes. As the lead plane approaches Oshkosh (20 miles out), it notifies Oshkosh tower of the position of the Caravan. The FAA has 10 minutes to “sanitize” the landing runway.

As a result of our organization, the Caravan aircraft are dealing only with other Caravan aircraft, and most specifically with the aircraft directly in front. . Each aircraft has been extensively briefed with an exact flight profile and with normal operational and emergency procedures. This is an immense improvement over the standard VFR arrival procedures in terms of safety and predictability. The bottom line is that the Caravan is the safest way to arrive at Oshkosh!

One could think that the Caravan is a hazardous adventure based on the number of aircraft that the Caravan is deliberately launching into a small segment of the sky. The Caravan procedures state in the beginning: “A group flight with this many aircraft has the potential to be hazardous if each participant is not fully familiar with what is expected of them and what they should expect from other aircraft.”

We have built a three-tiered briefing system into the Caravan. Four hours before launch, the flight leaders (one for every 10 aircraft) are briefed on general procedures with an emphasis on the flight leader’s responsibilities and emergency procedures. Three hours before launch, we conduct the full 90-minute briefing of all pilots and their extra eyeballs (everyone is encouraged to attend). And finally, in the hour before launch, each group meets with their leader out on the ramp for a 20-30 minute Q and A session and to go over the mundane details like the taxi out procedures and to review emergency procedures.

To supplement these briefings, each pilot is given a thick handbook of Caravan procedures upon registration and is expected to have studied them before the briefing. In the months before the Caravan, Bill Rabek and others were tireless in their admonitions for all participants to go out and practice the flight profile before hand and to establish target power settings for the various segments of the flight.

The procedures themselves have safety foremost in mind. Unlike the Bonanzas to Oshkosh flight, the Mooney Caravan is not a formation flight. Flying formation is difficult advanced flying that requires special training and certification. Such experience is not required nor expected for the Caravan. The basic requirement is to be able to fly straight and level at 125 knots and maintain station relative to the aircraft in front. Good basic flying skills are expected. The lead aircraft of each group navigates for the entire group and maintains position relative to the group in front. The 30 seconds between groups decouples each group from the group in front and dampens out oscillations in speed and course. This was a lesson learned from the first Caravan (1998) when we had one group of 46 aircraft and the entire caravan acted like a giant “snap the whip” as minor variations of course and speed magnified as they were transmitted down the line.

Emergency procedures are an important aspect of the Caravan. In the first Caravan we had one aircraft abort due to a blown engine after takeoff. This aircraft returned safely to Madison with little disruption to the Caravan. In 2000, we had several aircraft abort during the approach phase due to concerns about spacing. These aircraft neatly followed the proscribed abort procedure reversing course until the tail aircraft passed by and they fell in behind and landed normally.

In short, though Mooney Caravan might appear to be a risky venture, it is, in fact, designed to be considerably safer than the standard Oshkosh VFR arrival procedure. Within the Caravan, each pilot, can be assured that everybody in the immediate vicinity has undergone an extensive briefing, is flying an airplane of similar performance, and that within the Oshkosh Class D airspace, we will encounter no non-Caravan aircraft.

Now, having said that the Caravan is safe, we could actually go a further to make it safer. Tony Hale in his open letter not reserves his criticism only for the other guy. He also cast a critical eye on the Caravan itself: “Still, I saw with my own eyes a very apparent and material lack of compliance with the [Caravan] procedures with regard to one Mooney. As group leader, I didn't see my group at all, but I did see a couple of airplanes in front of me. It wasn't entirely dangerous, but it did cause me to take immediate action to ensure separation. I'm a believer that not everyone can or should fly. Flying is fun, but should not be treated as lightly as owning a ski boat, or playing golf. Being a good pilot requires recurrent training, both in the air and on the ground, and a diligence in keeping skills sharp, and judgment in check.”

Over the year there have been other reports of minor and not so minor examples of poor flying and judgment in the Caravan. Dealing with Caravan-internal problems is a sensitive issue, indeed. After all, we are all peers and sometime friends. And some possible measures, such as requiring an instructor’s signoff, go counter to the traditional informality of the Caravan. Such requirements would tend to make the Caravan less attractive and cumbersome for those wishing to join in. One new procedure the Caravan leadership intends to pursue in 2002 and subsequent Caravans, is a post flight de-brief and critique. This would identify problems that developed while the details are clear. We would discuss possible solutions, and identify pilots who did not follow procedures. It may be hard for the Caravan leadership to point the finger at a fellow aviator, who was unprepared or who did not follow procedures. But the process of identifying unfit or careless pilots and discouraging them from future participation is the least we can do for the safety of the participants and the future of the Caravan itself.

Finally, there is a word of caution to all future Caravan participants and anyone going to the EAA Convention. Even though the Caravan will make your arrival safer, you will still have to depart by yourself. The VFR departure procedure is inherently a time of considerable threat of mid air collision. It requires the highest level of vigilance in looking for other aircraft that may also be departing, arriving, or not where they meant to be. Keep your eyes outside the cockpit until you are 30 miles from Oshkosh, especially in poor visibility. Follow the departure procedures exactly. Do not improvise or cut any corners. Believe us, your life depends on it.

In summary, the Caravan is safe. It is safer than the VFR arrival procedure. The Caravan leadership is determined to keep it that way, and to improve safety when and how it may be possible. It is also fun and the very best example of the Mooney fraternity

Tony Hale wrote at the end of his long letter to the Mooney mail list: “I will continue to participate in the Mooney Caravan, and am convinced that it is a very safe way to go into Oshkosh. The organizers have always kept safety in the forefront”.