Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Budgets and Flying IMC

Flying IMC
Sunday was a great flight to go see Mom.

The second of two troughs of low pressure was making its way through Southern California bringing steady rain, low overcast, mist, low visibility, no icing threat below 9,000 feet, no forecast turbulence - all the makings for a great Instrument Meteorological Conditions instrument flight.

In Southern California, IMC flight is a rarity, so I relish every chance I can get to go do "actual" instrument flight. Not the fake stuff where you have a safety pilot or an instructor, but the real deal where you really can't see, and really must pay attention, and really must be "on your game" because the consequences of failure are catastrophic.

In congested air space, such as Southern California with a couple of Class Bravo sectors, numerous Class Charlie zones and untold Class Delta spaces, the Federal Aviation Administration has established Terminal En-route Clearances. These are basically pre-approved instrument flight plans. All a pilot need do is call up Air Traffic Control on the ground to get a clearance - no filing of plans an hour before take off - and the route is well established and published.

The TEC system is custom made for missions such as mine: getting down south to see Mom on a day when the weather keeps most pilots on the ground.

And so off I went, into the wild grey yonder!

It was an impeccably precise flight. Everything was perfect: my on course tracking, altitude assignments, standard rate turns, engine cylinder head temperatures, speed - everything!

But the one thing I have learned about aviation over the years is that nothing is ever perfect - something ALWAYS comes up to challenge piloting skills, decision making, or situational awareness.

Sunday was to be no different.

As I approached the airport I dialed in the Automated Weather Observation Station - the wind was mildly offshore at 050 degrees, 5 knots. That would favor runway 6, but was not so much of a tailwind as to make landing runway 24 out of the question.

So I requested from ATC my preferred instrument approach to the airport - the GPS 24 approach. As you would guess, this means I was planning on landing runway 24.

This particular approach is a "non-precision" approach. That means that there is no vertical guidance; all altitude indications are by waypoints along the flight path to the airport.

I had flown this particular approach in IMC dozens of times before so I was very familiar with it - and frankly everything went smoothly as soon as I was cleared for the approach, including the 90 degree turn onto final, which takes some forethought to complete successfully because of the size of the turn.

On final I was tracking my altitude waypoints - a few miles from the airport the controller calls me up and says, "6641M, do you have terrain in sight?"

I look out the window - right in front of me are clouds, but I know there's nothing higher than I am along my path and altitude, so I look down and I see the ground through a hole in the clouds. Pfft! Of course I see terrain, so I affirm with ATC.

But that got my mind thinking: why would ATC say that? Is my altitude off? Am I too low on the approach? Or is there some hazard that I'm not aware of?

This was enough of a disruption to interfere with my situational awareness; where the hell was I in relation to everything going on around me?

In other words, that little query from ATC made me doubt myself.

I double checked the approach plate. Hmmm, Fogva intersection says 1200 feet. I better hold that altitude.

I had already left the radio frequency of ATC for the local unicom and had announced my position and intentions, waiting to pass the Fogva intersection so I could descend again.

And as I got close to Fogva I looked down and saw airplanes. Parked. On the ground. And a big "24" at the end of a runway.

"Hey," I said out loud to myself, "that's my airport!"

I looked again at the approach plate - dumbass, the 1200 feet position was 3.5 miles from Fogva. Fogva is the approach end of runway 24.

But the clouds had parted for my arrival! The AWOS had broadcast that there were "few clouds at 800." The broken and overcast layers were higher than pattern altitude. Sure enough, those few clouds were not enough to inhibit visual flight.

So I called up ATC again, told them I had decided to circle to land runway 6, had the airport in sight and to cancel IFR services.

I circled, and made a text book, greased landing on 6. My dumbass maneuver actually turned out to be beneficial to the flight, put me on a better runway heading, and actually was kind of fun since runway 6 is very rarely used.

Kind of like California Governor Brown's proposed budget for the Division of Workers' Compensation - a budget that would increase employer assessments 134% to pay for additional DWC services and fund the as yet untapped $120 million Super Disabled Slush
Fund (aka, supplemental disability fund created by Senate Bill 863).

SB 863 was, and for a big part, still is, an IMC flight. Lots of clouds, rain and mist. Visibility, if any, is limited. But for us IFR pilots, those who have been in the workers' compensation system for years and have experience with such conditions, SB 863 is just a different challenge. We've trained endlessly for such "weather," and just like IMC in Southern California, we don't get to practice "actual" all that often (albeit probably more often in the past 20 years than in any other historical segment).

Brown's budget plan would increase assessments for the Revolving Fund by $177 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and runs to June 30, 2016, compared to $131.4 million collected for the current fiscal year.

Honestly on a pro rata share spread amongst all the employers in the state, that's not that much of a dollar increase.

But the distribution is a little troubling to me - it seems that the governor's budget proposal is going to cause us to miss Fogva, to lose situational awareness.

And this is why: Assessments account for more than 96% of all revolving fund revenue. Administrative penalties of about $3 million a year are the next largest component, representing between 1% and 2% of all revenue.
There's no $3M here...

Then there's license and permit fees that are planned to generate about $1.1 million, and some investment income of about $250,000.

There was a time not too long ago when most of the DIR budget came from the General Fund. In the budget pressure years of the Schwarzenegger Administration it was decided that since DWC is in place to benefit employers (and, by association, workers) that employers should pay for its operations, so the bulk of funding was established by an increased tax on policy premiums the employer pays; i.e. assessments to go to the "revolving fund."

Revolving, I suppose, because money goes in, and money goes out, with out as much oversight as if under the watch of the State Controller...

A couple of blog posts ago I essentially railed on DWC for its lack of juevos assessing, and collecting, fines and penalties against wayward and recalcitrant claims processing houses. In fact, I believe I called the audit process "a joke."

I just checked - yep, that's what I said.

$3 million a year in administrative penalties? The governor must mean "assessed" penalties, because that much is not collected. In fact, not even half of that is collected.

In my post, "Stop Whining and Do Something," I basically excoriate the administration for letting claims houses get away with near murder. The extrapolation on what the Audit Unit actually collected in penalties (albeit that extrapolation is based on conjecture - but it is illustrative) highlights why compliance in California is, in my mind, pathetic.

When it really comes down to the numbers, there is no motivation, no urgency, no FEAR, that the mishandling of a claim will result in anything more than just another injured worker dumped into some other social safety net system, such as Social Security.

Here we are, flying around in the system, and the governor gives DWC a TEC route clearance. But DWC seems to mis-read the approach plate, perhaps because of some disruptive query, and flies right over Fogva.

The good news is that DWC can cancel its IFR clearance and land on the favored runway - make the governor proud by actually collecting $3 million in penalties.

In fact, if audit results were really enforced, there would be much more than $3 million in penalties. And that money could go to further fund the Audit Unit so that it could actually do its job of making sure that benefits are delivered as required by law.

California work comp administration keeps passing by the airport. The target is right under our wing. We just need to cancel IFR and circle to land; but our situational awareness keeps getting interrupted by misdirected inquiries.

Employer assessments fund DWC. Employers expect some return on that operational investment - which means taking care of the people that seek benefits, and that in turn means making sure that benefits reach injured workers timely, efficiently, accurately, and per plan (i.e. the law).

Collect those penalties, fund the Audit Unit, meet or exceed budget expectations.

And then grease the landing.

Oh, by the way, Mom was doing great - that a post for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment