Hon. Bruce Landsberg
National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB]
Ron Timmermans: Hello, I’m Ron Timmermans from Orlando, Florida, a ground and flight training instructor for the Bonanza / Barron Pilot Training program or BPT, as we like to call it. Thank you for joining us for this BPT TAKEOFF interview today.
I’m pleased to host a conversation with the Honorable Bruce Landsberg, Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB]. Bruce has one of the most recognizable names in aviation history. For more than 20 years, he served our pilot population while working at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA], eventually chairing the AOPA Foundation and Air Safety Institute until he retired in 2014.
Since leaving AOPA, Bruce Landsberg received a Presidential appointment to the National Transportation Safety Board in 2018 and is now the Vice Chairperson of the NTSB. And as many of you know, Bruce is an avid general aviation pilot and instructor, and he flies a beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza. Bruce has attended the Bonanza Baron pilot training program on numerous occasions over the years, and is registered for another BPT clinic in Norfolk, Virginia.
Bruce joins me now for a conversation, sharing his unique perspective and insights on some topics of interest to all general aviation pilots. So, Bruce, thank you so much for joining me today.
Bruce Landsberg: It’s my pleasure to be with you, Ron. And it’s a pleasure to be with all of the pilots out there who are watching.
We might start off by describing the relationship between the FAA and the NTSB. As many people know, FAA is involved in the enforcement side of things and in doing some of the safety directives and things like that.
NTSB is challenged with purely safety. And our job is to look at accidents as they occur; figure out what happened; figure out why it happened; and then make recommendations to the FAA; to the industry; to the individual pilot groups; and so on as to how to avoid having this happen again.
One of the biggest challenge areas that we face as pilots is weather. Once you’ve mastered the airplane, the weather becomes the biggest blockage to our completing flights, and you need to learn a lot about it.
I’ve been privileged over the years to fly a lot of capable airplanes and the bigger the airplane is, and the more its altitude capability, the easier it is to deal with weather. Most of the weather – with the exception of thunderstorms – occurs in the bottom 20,000 feet of the atmosphere. And while the airlines are up doing a lot of weather flying and they have the most weather-tolerant machines, we are flying in the bottom part and we’re not getting near as much weather reporting out of that; i.e., pilot reports [PIRREPs] to help improve the forecasting of that weather.
Now, I would hope that most pilots would know that most of the general weather forecasting for aviation comes out of the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City. They’re staffed 24–7-365 – and they are, every eight hours, updating the forecast to show what’s going to happen. They have told me on multiple occasions that if they get more pilot reports, they can then say, did we hit the mark on our forecast? Or did we miss? And pilot reports are the best way to do that.
The challenge we have is that the system, as it’s currently constituted, is not very efficient, at all. We have to call ATC, tell them what we’ve got, and that’s not so hard on us. For the controller, however, it becomes a bit of a problem because they don’t have an easy way to put those PIREPs into the system. There are all different kinds of ways and each facility has a different way of doing it. There’s very little standardization and a lot of them never make it beyond the local facility. Now that’s helpful for the people that are flying within that sector, but it doesn’t help the weather service to say, “Hey, we were forecasting icing today between 4,000 and 10,000 feet and we don’t know whether we hit the mark or not.” That’s why it’s important for us to get this in.
So a couple of things: the FAA acknowledges that this is a problem and they are working to fix it – and at some point I think we’ll get there. But the real solution to this is crowdsourcing. We use it a lot in our cars with applications like WAZE and those kinds of things, where everybody is putting in and what they’re doing and the system knows where they are; what road they’re on; what kind of traffic they’re engaging in. Then you can put in notes about whether there’s a car on the side of the road, broken down or there’s construction or whatever it happens to be.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do the same thing with our electronic flight bags [EFBs], so that you would have a button to push on your EFB that would say “PIREP.” It knows where you are, how high you are, what kind of aircraft you are. All you need to do is to punch a couple of buttons. It would take less than probably 15 seconds to send an electronic PIREP directly to the Aviation Weather Center.
This has been a dream of mine for the last several years. NTSB doesn’t actively get involved in that, but we are allowed to advocate and we do have a recommendation to the FAA to fix the PIREP system.
Now, that’s easier said than done – and there is some technology involved – but we’re working on a little project with industry right now and with the Aviation Weather Center to try to fix this. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a demonstration of it sometime in the not too distant future, such as early next year.
If that works, the forecasts that we have will get immeasurably better. Once we can start to get thousands of PIREPs in every single day so that the Weather Center can use their super computers to say, “Whoops, we forecast icing between here or we had turbulence up to 15,000 feet on this day and there wasn’t any. Or, we didn’t forecast any icing and people were finding it, so we need to make a change.”
This will do more for our ability to complete trips than a lot of other things that people have suggested. It’s safety, pure and simple.
Ron Timmermans: Excellent, Bruce, I am so encouraged by the experiment that you’re going to try with Aviation Weather Center. I certainly wish you much success in that.
I can certainly see where PIREPS can help the Aviation Weather Center, not only look back at how did they do in their current forecast, but also look forward and revising the future forecasts based on actual current conditions as experienced by pilots at 6,000 or 7,000 feet over a certain point in space and the like. Certainly, that will be great.
I would also see that PIREPS – actually, they are getting a little bit easier for us to use with the electronic flight bags. Both ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot, with which I’m the most familiar, have pull-up charts where you can just fill in the blank for all the information. Then, when you do reach ATC or flight service station on the radio, you can just merely read down the list and very succinctly and quickly get your pilot report in.
But I see on the other side where technologically it’s difficult for them to get all that information transmitted to the Aviation Weather Center. If pilots get a better train of thought on PIREPS, we should probably think of PIREPS as pilots’ social media platform. They’re our way of telling other pilots around and certainly ATC and Flight Service of the conditions that we’re encountering for those who are flying along the same route behind us or considering going that same route in the other direction. They’d at least know what we found. So, if we think of it as social media, maybe it’ll be more popular than having to file a PIREP. Just a thought, Bruce, to share with you, as well.
Bruce Landsberg: Absolutely. The other thing I would say is some people are a little intimidated by having to follow a specific format. You don’t need to do all of that. You just need to say to the controller – and in most cases they know where you are – just to say, “Hey, I’m encountering occasional moderate turbulence at this altitude.” Or, “I picked up some ice at this altitude.” Or “It was forecast, and I’m getting a great ride at 8,000 feet.” That really helps.
The benefit ,in addition to the immediate now-casting that goes on, Weather Center tells me that if they can get a significant number of these, the one day forecast on the progs, which are pretty good, they can extend that level of accuracy out to about three days. Now, think how that’s going to help your planning and thinking about maybe narrowing down that “weather window” that we all talk about in terms of flying.
Ron Timmermans: Yes, indeed. So there are many great advantages for pilots to use the results of PIREPS and that should inspire us to make those PIREPS, as well.
I’m encouraged that it’s becoming a little bit simpler for pilots and that the technology will soon change and perhaps early next year, we’ll see a big improvement in PIREPS, both on the pilot side and on the Aviation Weather Service center side.
Well, Bruce, thanks for joining us today and thanks for your service to our nation as part of the NTSB. I remember that your appointment in 2018 is for a five-year term; are those one term only? Or can you get appointed to a second term? What’s your plan after 2023?
Bruce Landsberg: Well, some people are looking forward to getting reappointed. My role here, I think, is going to be limited to one term by design.
I have a book that I would like to publish and our ethics rules don’t allow us to do that. I’m looking forward to getting back into the community here and spending more time flying around and talking to folks about doing what we all love, safely.
Ron Timmermans: Yes, indeed. Bruce, thanks so much for joining us today in this BPT TAKEOFF interview. You’re a truly remarkable pilot and a leader dedicated to safety for all of general aviation.
We’ll look forward to reading your book in the not too distant future, after you finish your term on NTSB — and we’ll look forward to seeing you at a FBO somewhere around the country, as you fly in in your Bonanza. And those of us that fly in can meet you and greet you, as well.
Thanks again for being part of this interview today, Bruce.
Bruce Landsberg: Thank you for having me.
Ron Timmermans: Okay. For those of you listening today, I just wanted to encourage you to pursue routine proficiency training, whether that’s through BPT or the WINGS program or both. I think it’s important for all of us to remain safe pilots in the sky to submit to proficiency training.
So, please consider joining the many Beechcraft, Bonanza, Baron, Travel Air, and Duke pilots who regularly attend the BPT Clinic to maintain and improve their flying skills.
I’m Ron Timmermans a member of the ground and flight training staff for BPT — and I hope to see you at a BPT clinic soon.
Link to video interview: