Aircraft Accidents and the Comparisons to Politics

I’ve been watching the Presidential debates and runs with a quizzical eye: political pundits are like aviation experts; I don’t care which side you lean towards, the cacophony of views, conjecture and sarcasm that are pumped out of CNN, FOX, MSNBC and the major networks, each with that opinion-thing going on. They are trying to get their experience around a huge multi-tentacle leviathan that is politics. They alternately bring hope to their readers and followers before dashing said hope with their next word.
And they all have books … no, they’re tomes that resemble marble slabs sported by Fred Flintstone; they are thick with rhetoric and spell out words of doom should the opposing party enter the White House. The only guarantee along those lines is that their books will hit the two-for-five table after November 4th.
MH370, the Malaysian Airlines B777 lost over two years ago is the aviation equivalent of the previously mentioned political race. Self-described aviation experts and scientists have conned the victims’ families into thinking that there is a hope of finding what’s left of the airliner; for over 870 days, the search has not only proved fruitless, but near impossible. And yet the experts continue to sew hope that they will find the airliner sitting uninjured in an upright position on the flat sandy floor of the ocean.
Anyone who would like to understand what an airliner looks like following an uncontrolled impact in the ocean need only view pictures from China Airlines flight 611 that crashed in May 2002. The aircraft comes up in small pieces that resemble an animal turned inside out. Add to that the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of feet of water it passes through vertically full of cross-currents and drift that can bring whole damaged sections of the aircraft miles from each other (the Titanic’s debris field is 3 miles by 5 miles). The debris still floats and scatters on movements of the ocean, dropping small chunks every which way for miles.
Without getting offensive, the odds of finding the victims in any kind of recognizable state … or even at all … are astronomically impossible. The chance that the aircraft’s many, many distorted fragments will even be identifiable are, again, astronomically impossible. The chances of ever finding the aircraft – which is equivalent to finding a needle in a block long warehouse full of haystacks – shares the same unlikely odds. An oceanographer stated that the search patterns flown over the last 870 days have been in the wrong place all along; another expert adds his/her opinion to a lost cause. Family members are criticizing authorities to use the parts washed up on beaches to find the aircraft. What no one says is, that doesn’t do anything to find the aircraft.
So why do these experts keep the flames of hope going? I feel it’s to keep the attention for themselves alive; that they are looked to for hope, so the hope feeds their spotlight; that their books on the accident investigation have to make it through the editing process first so that they get the most mileage off the tragedy. And the families still hope.
When will somebody step up and say, “There is nothing that can be done beyond what we’ve done. It is time to let them rest in peace and move forward.”

Aircraft Accidents and Decline of the Jumbos

I remember ten years ago being excited that my alma mater airline was purchasing several A380s and using them for cargo aircraft. The two major cargo carriers were to be the United States’ launch carriers for the super-jumbo and they promised to change the way cargo was shipped worldwide. However costly delays leading to even more costly reorganizing on part of both airlines led to both UPS and FedEx cancelling their orders. UPS made alternate plans in its fleet to meet its Far East stations and FedEx gave the 777 a go.
Now, ten years later, both the A380 and the 747-8 assembly lines are being drastically reduced, with an eye towards cancelling the future of the jets. In the world of commercial aviation, ten years is not a lot of time. The 737 has been on the assembly line since the sixties and shows no sign of relenting its crown.
The size of these two jumbo jets means that several 737s can be built in the same time one A380 or 747-8 can make its way to the end of the assembly line, thus the number of these aircraft will never catch the A320, A330, 737, 767 or even the numbers put out before shutting down the assembly lines of the 727 and 757. The 747 may not be as big a loss seeing as the 747-400 surrendered its assembly line to the -8, so no new buildings had to be built or extensive studies invested to create the next generation 747.
But the A380 was a large investment. It takes the sale of hundreds of A380s to pay back the original investment dollars, the rising costs of labor and the ability to churn out enough planes to put the aircraft in the black. It’s not certain, but in 2006, it was thought that seven years of regular production would put the A380 into the ‘making money’ envelope; the jury is still out to determine if enough planes were built to make it. Certainly there are no US customers; they never entered the A380 market.
The good news is that to date there are no major accidents with an A380 or 747-8 at the center. This will become less likely since not as many will be flying as compared to other models. It’s ironic, but these two will probably reign supreme as the safest aircraft aloft, simply because the odds of an accident decrease with the limited number around.

Aircraft Accidents and Public Interest

An interesting study was conducted by three representatives of the University of Oxford in the UK; they were examining how aircraft crashes in different parts of the world are tracked by websites like Wikipedia. The results showed disparity in attention based upon, e.g. crash location, victims’ nation, and even death tolls. I found the findings to be ambiguous, not for anything other than the research parameters, which seemed to take too much and not enough into consideration.
For my part I only use Wikipedia as a reference; half the time I don’t trust the accuracy of the information. I may check an accident in Wikipedia for the date or any available information without having to waste time sifting through a local news report. But the information is dependent on the integrity of the source(s), which I have found often to be biased.
But I have noticed differences in interest in my time involved in accident investigations. To stress my point let’s use two accidents that occurred within eight months of each other in 2003. Two US Air regional carriers, both Beech 1900D aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff under similar circumstances and – it turns out – from similar causes: elevator maintenance.
Air Midwest 5481 received a heavy dose of attention partly because of the time it spent by itself in the news. The tragedy took 21 lives and drew attention because of the futile attempts of the crew to fight an aircraft that was doomed from the retraction of the gear. Attention was almost absolute and the later findings did much to boost awareness as well.
Colgan Air’s Beech 1900D crashed eight months later. Two people died – both pilots – and the attention was non-existent; it was only reported in local newspapers. Just like the NTSB’s cynical view of ‘nobody cares if only pilots are killed’, the media took the same approach.
But to the same end, I notice that now, in our growing media progressive world, the banality of the reports splashing on the aviation news services, some that don’t even fit the DoT definition of ‘accident’. Though interesting in a ‘so what happened today’ kind of way, these reports instead push the mantra that flying is dangerous, often by those who understand it the least.
It’s one thing for a news reporter to stare with a deer-in-the-headlights look into the camera as she reports that a tire ‘exploded’ on landing, but then to add to the injury by inviting aviation experts to bemoan the aviation industry is going down the tubes because of an air turn back or an engine shut down. For instance, today’s news: “an emergency landing after a fuel leak”; “plane blows two tires on landing”; and “plane returns because of engine issue.” We’re destroying our own industry by making mountains out of molehills; none of these cases rise to the level of accident, and barely to the level of incident. Yet we treat the news as if the passengers arrived kissing the ground and finding religion.
As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Aircraft Accidents and Articles

I read an article in Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network about the TransAsia Airways flight GE235 ATR accident after departing Songshan airport in Taipei, Taiwan:

Report: many factors lead to stall-induced loss of control and crash of a TransAsia ATR-72

I would have been content to criticize the circular for erroneous reporting – and I’m convinced the reporter had not read the report – but the Aviation Safety Council (ASC) report itself dwelled into conjecture. ‘Had the crew prioritized their actions to stabilize the aircraft flight path, correctly identify the propulsion system malfunction which was the engine number 2 loss of thrust and then take actions in accordance with procedure of engine number 2 flame out at take-off, the occurrence could have been prevented.’ This sounds a lot like speculation and not fact; another name for Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
The probable cause of the accident was a problem with the Automatic Feathering Unit (AFU) on the #2 engine; to be clear, the engine manufacturer (per the report) knew of an anomaly with the AFU and was trying to fix it. Coupled with this, the airline had not generated proper procedures for engine stalls or even ATR72-600 differences training. But according to the article and the ASC report, the pilots were not up to the task, even shutting down the wrong engine.
Per the transcript, at 10:52:38 the first problem occurs when a Master Warning sounds; at 10:52:39, the Captain takes control and pulls back the throttle on #1 engine; this was most likely done to minimize induced yaw from the good engine. They then follow the heading bug while adjusting speed and trim as they fly over Taipei. Around 10:53:00 the #2 engine flames out, which is confirmed at 10:53:07. Even though they fail to ever re-engage the autopilot, the pilots are calm and communicating. Between 10:53:08 and 10:54:05, stall warnings, sticker shakers, terrain warnings (buildings) and an inability to engage the autopilot monopolize their conversation. At 10:54:07 the first officer announces that both engines have flamed out; there is no mention of intentionally turning off #1 engine. For the next 24 seconds, as the captain dodges buildings and flies the aircraft-turned-glider, the first officer tries to start an engine. At 10:54:31 the aircraft impacts the bridge; the aircraft’s emergency lasted 113 seconds.
I’ve worked with the ASC before; they do great work and are very tenacious. I’m struck by many instances of speculation in the factual part of the report. I admit I haven’t heard the recorders first hand, but the words in the transcript are unmistakable – there was no ‘decision’ to shut down the number one engine.
I was also struck by the assumptions of the Flight Safety Foundation’s article and wish they would have better reviewed the final report. Their twitter person also seemed to be out of touch with the information relayed in the report. The fact that the AFU malfunctioned and may have contributed to the confusion with the good engine appears to be less reportable than the pilots’ culpability. It also needs to be mentioned that the difficult obstacle course the pilots flew through at the end should not to be underestimated. And as a final note, pilots are not maintenance troubleshooters; they don’t have the technical background to determine most problems, especially one that doesn’t behave like normal.