Turbulent Times

Turbulence:

  • sudden, violent movements of air or water

  • a state of confusion, violence, or disorder

We use the word mostly in terms of politics, finance and, of course, aviation. Not many other fields of endeavour apparently experience such movement or confusion!

However, it is the aviation-related turbulence that holds our attention today.

I have recently been asked to comment on a turbulence event, experienced by one of the aircraft in the airline I fly for. As is usual with out-of-the ordinary flying encounters, social media immediately provided some passengers with a fleeting moment of fame. Words such as “I thought I was going to die”; the aircraft “going sideways”; and even people “getting up to open the emergency exits”….. the mind boggles at the thought!

But first, let’s deal with the phenomenon of turbulence. While this is not intended to be a lecture on atmospheric sciences or fluid dynamics, a simple analogy should suffice:

Air is a fluid, and like any fluid it wants to flow from high pressure to low pressure. This leads to the “highs and lows” depicted on your TV weather forecast. Like water, air wants to flow along the path of least resistance, so any obstacles or other flows encountered would lead to ripples and eddies, or in conflicting flows to crashing waves.

Turbulence can be experienced under a myriad of conditions. Thunderstorms, mountain wave, wake turbulence and clear air turbulence (CAT) are just a few of these. I have experienced wind-shear and mountain wave even at the highest flight levels – all contributing to possible turbulence. We describe turbulence in different categories, ranging from light, to moderate, to severe. Anything more than severe (possibly extreme)  could result in control loss or air-frame damage. (To read more about this, see ICAO’s guidance on turbulence.)

In essence, light turbulence would cause ripples in your coffee, moderate would make you spill your coffee and severe would send your coffee all over the ceiling. We would describe turbulence as moderate when equipment starts moving around and as severe when items dislodge and people are injured.

Forecasters can usually predict the areas where turbulence could be expected, but unless we have convective activity with water and ice particles reflecting on our weather radar, pilots cannot see it coming – so clear air turbulence (CAT) usually becomes apparent only once we’re in it.

On the day of this particular encounter Cape Town experienced a massive frontal storm, resulting in north-westerly surface winds of 27 knots gusting to 47 knots at the time this aircraft flew the approach. (That’s 50 – 87 km/h). This would equate to a crosswind component varying between 23kts to 41kts on runway 01. The B738 crosswind limit on a wet runway is 25kts – with the scimitar winglets a max of 15kts is recommended. However, with the visibility and cloud-base allowing, a circling approach with a landing on runway 34 could be considered (bringing even the gust into the allowable crosswind limit) and a number of aircraft reportedly did land on 34.

All this tells us, is that it was clearly a challenging approach with rapidly changing conditions causing some severe turbulence once below 5000ft. Winds over the Cape peninsula have their own very unique characteristics, with the upper winds almost always very strong westerlies and the lower winds affected by the mountainous terrain. (The well-known Cape south-easter in summer, for instance, is usually a purely low-level phenomenon below 5000ft.). So the wind conditions on descent could vary dynamically – quite easily causing turbulence, especially in the vicinity of the thunderstorms present at the time.

This is the nature of AWOPS (All-Weather Operations) which calls for flights to be conducted under all possible weather conditions. The rider is of course that all conditions must be understood, briefed, prepared for, and the go-around or diversion plan must be in place. So I am quite sure that the passengers on this particular flight were not in any danger at any time – very uncomfortable, yes – but not in jeopardy.

Passenger video recordings (now in the public domain) show one or two big jolts and some changes in the aircraft attitude, due to the changing wind speeds and directions. What is concerning is passengers clearly not adhering to safety instructions. Seatbelts not tightly fastened, children being passed around and sitting on laps, cellphones being used – clearly no understanding of how that cellphone or tablet could become a missile if you let go of it – the list continues…. (Remember that this is in the last ten minutes before landing, with the cabin secured and passengers supposed to have turned off all electronic devices). Video Here.

By the way, I flew the aircraft concerned two days later and found the event described in the technical logbook as “severe turbulence” experienced for a short period. The aircraft was inspected as required and found to be completely serviceable and safe.

Turbulence in the air is a fact of life, just as ships will roll and pitch in high seas, or your car will rattle and shake over rough gravel. As pilots, we try to avoid or mitigate it as much as possible, by avoiding forecast areas, descending or climbing, or even slowing down to the recommended turbulence penetration speed.

Turbulence is also forecast to increase in intensity. Scientists advise that, due to climate change we could expect natural events to become more isolated, of shorter duration and much more intense.

A recent study by Paul Williams of Reading University, published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences forecasts that severe turbulence events could increase by 149% over the North-Atlantic routes – I’m quite sure that the same could be expected locally.

If turbulence worries you, my advice would be to check the weather forecasts before you fly: Should thunderstorms and high winds be possible, change your flight to another day. Once a strong front starts moving from west to east over South Africa, you could expect high winds and possible turbulence aloft. In summer, fly in the morning!

 

 

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Turbulence can be unnerving for most passengers. (Pic: traveller.com.au.)

But more importantly, listen to the Captain’s briefing and adhere to the Cabin Crew’s instructions. The illuminated seat-belt sign is not a signal to get up and visit the toilet!

Should you experience some unnerving turbulence, be assured that the crew will do everything possible to alleviate the situation and that the aircraft is built strong enough to take severe turbulence in its stride.

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Aftermath of a turbulence encounter: Singapore SQ308, June 2013. (Pic: @Alan Cross via Daily Mail).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read between the lines…

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses”.  – Malcolm X –

I’m always fascinated when the ultimate truth of any assertion can be proved by stating “I’ve seen it on TV / read it in the newspaper / seen it on Twitter”, et cetera. Too often something proposed as gospel truth is preceded by the statement “they say….”.

The major difference between the media of Malcolm X’s era and today is the internet and social media. Which means that the power of the media is now in your and my hands – it is no longer held by the media houses and TV majors. Anyone with access to a cell’ phone can now become an instant reporter – even with no training or understanding of the power of the media.

The airlines are learning this lesson the hard way – just consider the recent furore on both United and American. I’ve touched on the issues of social media before, refer to my blogs Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready? and Beware the Jabberwock, my son! . But now it has become even more dangerous, when 140 characters going viral in an instant could potentially bankrupt an airline. It would actually appear to me that passengers are now simply waiting for any little irritation or slight problem to pounce on with their cell’ phones, and once it has gone viral, hoping to sue for some huge compensation.

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Let me get this straight: The way the United crew removed the passenger on the viral video clip is not acceptable and the airline deserved the fallout. Similarly, the way the American crew reacted to the mother and stroller was unacceptable.

But, I believe in the old adage that there are always three sides to a story: Yours, theirs and the truth (and no-one is lying). The bottom line is that airlines and crews need to be very aware of the pitfalls associated with social media. We need to watch our every step and every action, ensuring that no opportunity exists for untoward internet exposure. We need to ensure that all three versions of the truth actually correspond – then we could avoid the negative impact of the viral video phenomenon.

Chris Manno

With the recent emergence of “fake news” and “paid Twitter”, the other danger we are exposed to is that the “they” we so often quote as a source of information could actually be disingenuous – their “facts” should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.

So, the next time someone starts telling you about what “they” say – rather ask “who?”, before endorsing it.

(Cartoons by Capt. Chris Manno – @Chris_Manno)
(Featured image by ParkSleepFly.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Symphony of Flight

“Only once we had started, did I notice that part of the orchestra was dark – the percussionist had misread his schedule and did not arrive!”

I met Kwamé Ryan by chance – I was alerted to the fact that he was a passenger on one of my flights, heading to London via Cape Town after conducting the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic. Through third parties we had arranged to meet in Cape Town to go up Table Mountain and to lunch afterwards, while he had a few hours to kill between flights.

Kwamé is a renowned international conductor, who has worked with many of the major orchestras in Europe and the UK. He currently freelances all over the world, while heading up the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Here he works on educational and community development projects.

We hit it off immediately – him the unassuming music man with an interest in aviation (he did consider piloting once), and me the pilot with an interest in music. (Many years ago I was one of the few brave souls who started a commercial classical music station, but that’s another story).

Over a vegetarian lunch (his preference) we shared life stories and anecdotes, remarking on the similarities between the roles of conductor and captain.

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Maestro Ryan conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. (Pic: TSO).

The conductor has to know his craft and the music well, then he has to meet a diverse group of individuals and win their confidence. Once they trust you and your abilities, you now need to mold their separate skills into a well coordinated human machine. This human machine has to be controlled, but also cajoled into performing better than spec – not just playing the notes, but making extraordinary, beautiful music. Only once this is achieved do the bravos and encores follow.

And if something goes awry, you need to think on your feet and save the performance. Kwamé related the story of the percussionist who did not arrive for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. This he only realised once they had started – he then had to improvise, letting another player (I think it was in the horn section) crack the whips and ring the bells, while still playing his/her own parts! The whip cracks, exactly seven of them, also served as cues for the choir to enter – you can imagine the potential for some discordant disaster!

The airline captain’s role is much the same. You need to win the confidence of the crew, the engineers, the ground controllers, the load masters and dispatch (and the passengers). All the time keeping a close eye on all of the many players in this huge orchestra and picking up the false notes or someone playing behind the beat. Only once everyone is inspired to play their part perfectly, do we achieve a push-back on time, a smooth flight and an early arrival.

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Intense coordination and concentration required to arrive at this point, the finale.

Naturally, it does not always work out as planned. And now the captain has to keep calm, track the parts which can be improvised and which not, arrange and re-arrange, keep others’ frayed nerves calm and still conduct the orchestra of flight to please a very finicky audience – the passengers.

Once the flight is over, once the performance is done – it is gone, history. Now the next performance beckons – with all the associated challenges. No two flights are ever exactly the same, just as no two performances are ever the same.

And why do we do it? For the satisfaction of achieving something extraordinary, molding a team into a successful performance.

Then the encores and standing ovations (the compliments on a smooth flight, outstanding service and a brilliant landing), then these only serve to affirm that you have indeed attained what you set out to do – creating something truly beautiful.

(The featured image is from Le Figaro).

 

 

 

 

Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist politely agreed, quickly made a sketch and handed back the napkin adding that it would cost a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked, asking how it could cost that much: “It only took you a minute to draw this!”

“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”

It is the type of answer I am often looking for when faced with comments about my occupation as a pilot – the problem is that you only think of it afterwards!

You’ve heard these assertions before: “Does it not get boring? Surely you should know it all by now – why all the constant recurrent training? You’re paid too much for just reading newspapers, after all the autopilot does the flying! Glorified bus drivers…”

Just as any other older aviator would attest, the answer is that it has taken me almost forty years to hone my skill to its current level.

That smooth flight did not happen by chance – we checked the forecasts, decided on flight levels based on these and myriads of other parameters, drawing on experience. Then we adjusted en-route, flying around convective weather and climbing or descending just to keep our passengers’ coffee from spilling.

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A busy descent ahead when that massive storm is situated exactly where you need to go.

That smooth landing was also no fluke, it took planning and concentration and a large dose of experience to achieve a touchdown in the demarcated zone, at the correct speed (adjusted for weight, wind and surface conditions) staying on the centre-line and turning off the short runway without any uncomfortable, white-knuckle braking.

That experience did not arrive via the internet. It was achieved through the traditionally accepted years of hard work and dedication, endless training, and doing a variety of flying jobs to eventually land a seat in an airliner.

But now it would appear that the long-predicted pilot shortage is starting to bite. ICAO and the major aircraft manufacturers have warned about the predicted shortage of pilots and technicians for many years now, here is an ICAO position paper from 2105 which highlights the major contributing factors and the associated safety concerns.

Until such time as AI (artificial intelligence) can safely fly passengers around in airliners, a high demand for human pilots will persist, as the huge salaries now offered by (in particular) Chinese airlines prove.

My inbox is inundated daily with job offers from all over the world, where qualified B738 Captains are currently being offered salaries of US$40 000+ per month. For an expat pilot this would (taking into account the tax free benefit) immediately mean earning your current annual salary in just a couple of months. Any wonder that we are experiencing a drain of pilots from South Africa to these lucrative positions?

The situation is exacerbated further as entry requirements to international airlines are lowered to allow younger and less experienced pilots onto flight decks – so the traditional “stepping stone” regional airlines are now missing these pilots. No longer do you find pilots with contract experience in turbines or jets clamouring to get into the local airlines – they’re being snapped up directly by the international majors.

With no viable local cadet programmes currently in place, it may well be only a matter of time before local airlines have to park aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. Perhaps it is almost too late for airlines to consider recruiting kids from school to train from ab-initio to ALTP. Flying is no longer considered a glamorous occupation and the long hours and time away from home puts paid to the idea that its a desirable lifestyle. So the recruiters may have to look much deeper into their companies’ budgets to attract new candidates.

On the other hand, should a young aspiring pilot currently have access to funding of around R 1 million for an accelerated course, an airline position is virtually guaranteed.

So, next time you fly behind an older, more experienced Captain – be reminded of Picasso: They’re not being paid for that one flight, but for all the years of honing their skills.

 

 

 

 

The Birth of CRM?

I’ve just finished reading “The Wright Brothers”, a definitive study of the aviation pioneers by David McCullough. Very appropriate too, with man’s first self sustained flight on 17th December 1903 being remembered soon.

Its a great read with vast reference material, illuminating the brothers’ relationships with their siblings and parents, taking you from their childhood through to Orville’s death in 1948.

One aspect, which fascinated me, was their intense attention to detail. Nothing was left to chance and every aspect of their work was carefully studied, crafted, tested and rebuilt. At an early stage they realised that the figures and formulas they’ve used from the Smithsonian and revered aeronautical fundis of the time like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute were pure speculation and simply wrong, so they worked out their own. In fact they built their own wind tunnel to test and verify their wing designs.

This research took years – trekking between their home in Dayton, Ohio to the windswept Outer Banks of North Carolina, first with gliders and finally with the engine built to their specs by Charlie Taylor.

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Crumpled glider, wrecked by the wind, 10th October 1900.

The brothers had a number of close shaves – one could hardly expect every new attempt at achieving what many believed was the delusional dream of a few madmen to go off without any problems.

But throughout their persistent experimenting, they remained patient and constantly erred on the conservative side.

In fact – it struck me that, although unbeknownst to them, they were adhering to the basic tenets of CRM:
1. Plan and Operate (Prevent and Avoid).
2. Detect and Correct (Monitor and Challenge).
3. React and Recover (Mitigate the Consequences).

While Wilbur was in France to demonstrate the “Flyer” (with great success), he received a letter from his father, the Bishop Milton Wright, urging him to “avoid all unnecessary personal risk”. At the same time Wilbur wrote to Orville, who was then about to demonstrate the “Flyer” to the US military at Fort Myer, Virginia:

“I tell them plainly that I intend for the present to experiment only under the most favorable conditions…I advise you most earnestly to stick to calms, till after you are sure of yourself. Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready. Be very cautious and proceed slowly in attempting flights in the middle of the day when wind gusts are frequent…Do not let people talk to you all day and all night. It will wear you out, before you are ready for real business. Courtesy has limits. If necessary appoint some hour in the daytime and refuse absolutely to receive visitors even for a minute at other times. Do not receive anyone after 8 o’clock at night”.

He then discussed some technical details about the rudder, concluding with:

“I can only say be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here was an aviator who understood the danger of weather conditions, the threat of external pressure and distraction, as well as the disabling power of fatigue.

Apparently Orville heeded his brother’s advice and the first two weeks of the demonstration flights went off well. But on the 17th September 1908 a blade of the right hand prop cracked and broke off, vibrating enough to break a stay wire which had supported the rear rudder system. This rendered the aircraft uncontrollable and Orville crashed. He was severely injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first fatality of powered flight.

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The wreck of Orville’s crashed aircraft at Fort Myer.

Wilbur was at his shed at Camp d’Auvoirs, Le Mans on the 18th September when he received the news of Orville’s crash. This led to another profound CRM statement:

“Now you understand why I always felt that I should be in America with Orville. Two heads are better than one to examine the machine”.

Erring on the side of caution was one of the Wright Brothers’ enduring qualities. They understood that risk was inevitable once one decided to become airborne – but they believed in well calculated risks.

With 2016 about to become history, perhaps it is time to once again reflect on how far we’ve come since the dawn of powered flight at Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk. I certainly do when I cruise in air conditioned comfort at high altitudes and Mach numbers.

Perhaps it is also time to realise that we disregard many of the lessons learnt by those pioneers of flight at our own peril. Rather let us take a leaf out of the Wright’s book and “be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here’s wishing everyone bon voyage and safe flights in 2017!

 

 

 

 

 

“Captain”

“It’s a heavy professional burden on the Captain to know he may be called upon to tap into the depths of his experience, the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to think quickly; weighing everything he knows, while accounting for what he cannot know”. – Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

My work as a Human Factors instructor consists mostly of presenting CRM Initial and Refresher Courses, fitting these in-between flying a full roster as a line pilot. Every now and again however, there is an opportunity to run a Command Upgrade CRM Course for First Officers.

Such was the case again last week, when I did the introductory day for a group of young Kenyan F/O’s and it once again reminded me of the major mindset change required when moving from the right seat to the left seat.

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Six KQ FO’s discovering their behaviour profiles in the Command Upgrade CRM class.

Distance wise it may be a move of less than a metre, but it represents a major change in responsibility.

As Captain Richard Phillips put it: “The Captain is responsible for the crew, the ship and everything on it. Period.” (Richard Phillips was the Captain of the Maersk Alabama, when it was hi-jacked by Somali pirates).

In simple terms, ICAO defines the PIC (Pilot in Command) as “The pilot responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time”. That responsibility covers vast areas of legal authority, essentially ensuring that the Captain’s authority overrides almost any other while the aircraft is in motion.

The applicable law may differ slightly from country to country, but in essence it states that the PIC is responsible for:

The operation and safety of the aircraft while he or she is in command;
The conduct and safety of flight crew members and passengers carried, and
The maintenance of discipline by all persons on board.

The PIC furthermore has the authority:

To give such commands he or she deems necessary in the interest of the safety of the aircraft, persons or property, and
To disembark any person or cargo, which in his or her opinion represents a potential hazard to the safety of the aircraft, persons or property.

In short, the buck stops here.

Captain Al Haynes, the hero of United 232 said that as a pilot you can never be ready, but you can be prepared (for any eventuality). And every flight is different, despite the general perception that routine flights become boring and, well, routine.

Flying is like playing the piano: Sometimes you get to sight read a simple Three Blind Mice, other times you have to find your way through sight reading a Bach Toccata and Fugue.

Or as a wise old Captain once said, it’s like playing bridge – you always play with the same 52 cards, but you are dealt a different hand every time.

Then you also fly different aircraft on different routes with different crews – and as any pianist will tell you, different pianos are different to play, requiring some adapting.

But there is a limit to how far you can and should adapt as PIC. You may experience intense pressure from line engineers, management, fellow crews and passengers to accept an aircraft, avoid a delay or push out at all costs. Yet at all times you have to balance that pressure with those imperatives of the law, which gives you the authority as Captain.

Sully Sullenberger put it sagely – as Captain you have the power of the park brake – that aircraft goes nowhere until you decide to release the brake.

As an interesting aside, the term “Captain” for the PIC is attributed to Juan Trippe, founder of Pan Am – he apparently decided that his flying boats deserved “Captains” as on ships. (The flying boats were also where the Pan Am call-sign “Clipper” had originated). Thus the First Pilot became the Captain and the co-pilot became the First Officer. To compete with ocean liners of the day, Pan Am offered first-class seats on their flights, and flight crews’ style became more formal. Instead of being leather-jacketed, silk-scarved airmail pilots, the crews of the “Clippers” wore naval-style uniforms and adopted a set procession when boarding the aircraft – hence our still wearing blue pants and white shirts on the flight deck today.

But in the final analysis, the title of Captain would mean absolutely nothing if the pilot wearing those four bars is not willing, capable and able to accept the authority and massive responsibility that comes with the territory.

 

 

 

 

The Law is an Ass

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot.”
 – Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist –

It would appear that a number of pilots would agree with Mr Bumble (perhaps not in as much as they are unhappy spouses of domineering wives – as Mr Bumble was), but feeling that some laws are applied contrary to common sense.

I find it interesting that the application of law should actually require lawyers, people schooled in law, who could stand in court and argue totally divergent points of view on how the same law should be applied. Often the stated law is interpreted on the intent of the law – clearly an indication that the law is poorly drafted.

Undergrad law students learn that the four principal purposes and functions of the law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The law should be a guidepost for minimally acceptable behaviour in society.

So it should be simple to apply the law, but experience has shown that serial criminals could be absolved and innocent people could become victims of those laws, which should actually protect them. Sometimes the application of the law defies any common sense – perhaps one has to agree with Mr Bumble…

As pilots, we also have to deal with a plethora of laws. While subject to the laws of the land, we are also subject to the various laws as set out in the subdivisions of the Aviation Act. (I’m referring to the South African situation).

The Civil Aviation Technical Standards (CATS) and the Civil Aviation Regulations (CARS) with their many Parts apply in various stages to everything we do in, with and around our aircraft.

In effect, these aviation laws are an extension of the laws of the land and international law setting the guidelines for minimally acceptable behaviour in our society  – and aviation in particular. (We’re back to Law 101 now).

The aviation laws are clear – the interpretation of some laws are perhaps debatable – but the very basic aim is to ensure safety.

However, the laws of nature leave very little space for argument: Newton’s apple will eventually have to succumb to gravity.

Yet we hear daily of pilots defying the laws of nature: overloading aircraft, disregarding density altitudes, flying into adverse weather conditions – the list goes on and on…

Add to this the tendency to feel that “the law is an ass – it doesn’t apply to me, in fact it only applies to others…”.

Here it is instructive to note that in a study overseen by the FAA in an attempt to discover what would make a pilot “accident prone”, they found five common traits in pilots who were prone to having accidents:

  1.  Disdain toward rules.
  2.  High correlation between accidents in their flying records and safety violations in their driving records.
  3. Frequently falling into the personality category of “thrill and adventure seeking”.
  4. Impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined in information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions taken.
  5. Disregard for or under-utilization of outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors and air traffic controllers.

The first trait is probably the most illuminating.

This week I encountered the argument that the skies should be free and that recreational pilots should be left to self-regulate.

I’m afraid that this argument only strengthens the FAA’s first trait of accident prone pilots (above).

The skies would only be “free” if you were the only aircraft around (disregarding your legal obligations to those on the ground and to society), but as soon as two aircraft share the same airspace, some rules need to be applied: Who has right of way, direction of circuits, see-and-avoid, etc.

Whether you regard the law as an ass – or not, please pay heed to what well known flight instructor Rod Machado has to say about aviation law:

“Rules, regulations and SOP’s are symbolic of aviation’s accumulated wisdom. Each one is a historical whisper of errors made, planes lost and limits challenged. Herein lie the posthumous tokens of aviation’s best lessons. They linguistically map out aviation’s hazardous territory. To operate beyond these areas is to thumb our noses at the gods of probability”.