Aircraft Accidents and Meeting Quota

Headline from the BBC on Thursday, December 15, 2016: EasyJet Wants More ________ in the Cockpit. The subject is purposely omitted for this paragraph so my reader(s)’ attention is focused on my intent, not what is assumed.
EasyJet wants more women in the cockpit; this amounts to setting a quota aimed, not only at gender, but, in this case, particularly at age. EasyJet flies between the British Isles to international destinations, e.g. Iceland, Serbia, Spain, etc. and is a quite successful low cost airline. This raises my question: Is this the stupidest concept I’ve ever heard? Answer: YES! It isn’t that I think the concept of hiring women as pilots is stupid; not by a long shot. As an airliner mechanic, accident investigator and aviation inspector for over thirty-five years many of the more qualified pilots I’ve dealt with have been women pilots, professionals who don’t resort to hubris to prove their worth or skill.
This quota seeking is a dangerous precedent to set … and insulting. “We realize the fact you’re a (poor, mediocre, good, great, fantastic [choose one]) pilot, but what we’re really interested in is that you fill a quota.” Personally, as a manager, I’ve been held to strict hiring standards, hiring only those that fill a certain gender or ethnic requirement; it doesn’t work in many instances. Let me elaborate: it would be next to impossible to find enough Inuit Eskimo aircraft mechanics to hire to an airline based in Miami, Florida; the Inuit Eskimo aircraft mechanic numbers just aren’t there. Not to mention, this practice denies equally qualified aircraft mechanics from being offered the jobs.
But let’s look at EasyJet’s last milestone: Captain Kate McWilliams. She is the youngest female A320 captain in the industry, 26 years old. I’m sure she’s more than qualified, but how much experience does she really have?
But it doesn’t stop there; she recently posed for a selfie with her first officer, Luke Elsworth, 19 years old. These two pilots’ ages added together barely reaches 45 years; NOT 45 years of experience, but age. Coincidentally, Captain Sullenberger and First officer Jeffrey Skiles, the flight crew of US Airways 1549 each had been flying longer than Captain McWilliams has been alive. Sullenberger and Skiles each drew from their many years of experience to successfully save that A320 in New York that day. Think about that.
Ironically, First Officer Luke Elsworth is too young to drive an eighteen passenger Autobus (public transportation bus) through the streets of Piccadilly Circus in London – qualified drivers are twenty-one years old or more – yet he can fly an Airbus with 150 passengers OVER Piccadilly Circus. Since he is a heartbeat away from taking control of the aircraft, it isn’t a matter of if he could fly the A320; the problem is nobody has questioned whether he should fly the A320.
The industry’s response would be: Airliners are so technologically advanced that the aircraft practically flies itself – no safety concerns. But then we look at accidents like British Airways 38, Asiana Airlines 214, US Air 1549; and we’re forced to conclude that these ‘infallible’ aircraft – designed by fallible humans – are only as good as the humans that fly them.
We are light years ahead of where we were even twenty-years ago when it comes to technology and qualifications. That doesn’t mean we relax our standards; or settle on the more attractive to snag the brass ring of being first. It is the diligence we exercise in putting safety first, popularity second, that will allow us to keep the planes flying; the passengers’ freedom to travel, secure.

Aircraft Maintenance and Methyl Benzotriazole

A friend of mine sent me pictures of a 757 being deiced in upstate New York. The deice truck had an enclosed ‘bucket’ that housed the deice applier (in its early days, we referred to that as the ‘glass coffin’). It immediately brought back memories of me spraying a 727 in an open bucket at the end of a very tall boom, or worse deicing from a tall stand being pushed by a tug.
The fun part of the open bucket-on-a-boom was that after the radio controls got gummed up by glycol and water; my driver couldn’t hear my yelling STO-O-OP! as I was nearly decapitated by the trailing edges of the 727’s elevators. Oh, and by the way, the reason I didn’t lower the boom was because the radios weren’t the only controls that got gummed up. That, plus my driver’s interpreting the term ‘Ramp Speed’ as ‘Ramming Speed’. “Hello, Mrs. Carbone? Yeah, your husband lost his head at work.”
Those were the days we could see the hazards. At least we thought we did.
It turns out the sharp edges of an elevator weren’t the only danger for deicers; there was also the Methyl Benzotriazole – or MeBT – that was in the air. What is Methyl … I mean, MeBT? It’s a lubricant. Furthermore, it’s a carcinogen. And not just any carcinogen, MeBT is a quick acting cancer agent.
Where does a lubricant fit into deicing? The manufacturer of deicing fluids mixes it with the pure glycol or polypropylene glycol during manufacture. It is used to lubricate the hot deice pump’s internal gears while applying deice fluid on the aircraft. Without it the gears would eventually seize or become a maintenance burden.
Now, MeBT isn’t a standard carcinogen. You can rub it into your skin with little to no effect, unless you use it as a cologne (not recommended). One could probably drink it straight (or with a twist of lime) and be unaffected … except for some very unpleasant stomach distress. No, MeBT’s cancer causing super power is most dangerous when it is being inhaled; it goes right for the lungs and a quick route to the bloodstream. Just like one would experience breathing in a heaping helping of deice steam as it blows in their face.
But, one may argue, I said the deicer’s bucket is enclosed, cut off from the outside environment. And, so I did; and be thankful that person is now safe. But when do airliners deice? Just before departure/pushback, often at the gate (according to the airline and/or the airport because an airline’s deicing program is individually approved and all are not alike). The hapless victims are now the cargo handlers, the mechanics at or near the deice gate, pilots walking around a neighboring airliner, airport security, or any number of authorized airport personnel within breathing distance. According to which way the wind blows determines who gets the MeBT to the lungs.
So, let’s be aware of not only the dangers we see, but those dangers that we can’t see. One doesn’t need a scuba tank, but instead one should be aware of the conditions and what’s going on nearby.
Even if it’s at a gate next door.

Aircraft Maintenance and Teaching Tools

FedEx made a contribution to Seattle’s Museum of Flight: a section of a 727 fuselage that gives a view into a cargo aircraft.
It is an example of how the airlines give back to the aviation community by donating sections or entire aircraft to the aviation learners of America. That isn’t limited to one group, but the separate organizations that call aviation their home.
Airlines like FedEx and AirTran have donated older model aircraft like the 727 and DC9 to aviation schools. These aircraft serve to familiarize maintenance students with high flight time aircraft; airliners that would still fly today if they were younger with less cycles. But these planes haven’t lost their value to the instructors who use the static models to train on everything from rigging to hydraulic repairs; from electrical troubleshooting to fuel cell inspections.
Airlines and the military donate old workhorses to airports for anti-terrorist training, aircraft fire practice and hazardous training. These selfless gifts allow multiple shifts of workers and numerous first response teams access to the real deal to practice the art of saving lives. These contributions are priceless.
And then there are the donations, like the 727 to the Seattle Museum of Flight; these are just fun; the chance for an aviation enthusiast, e.g. future pilot or mechanic, to discover a world that I cut my teeth on; a career that I loved every minute of: air cargo.
I know what I’m going to see the next time I’m in Seattle.

Aircraft Accidents and the Moving of Maintenance

Aircraft Maintenance is like the forgotten son of the aviation industry. Any improvements made by pilots, no matter how small, are always heralded by air operators, while Aircraft Maintenance has to jump up and down in orange neon to be noticed. One of the goals of my blog is to shine – at times – a light on the accomplishments of mechanics and maintenance in particular.
Last week I read an article in Aviation Week that spoke to some money saving proactive thinking on part of Maintenance:
The article spoke about two airlines that are based across the Atlantic: SunExpress, a Turkish airline based out of Antalya airport in Turkey; and Aer Lingus, an Irish airline based in Dublin, Ireland. They are working with Boeing to redesign their heavy ‘C’ check workcards; moving maintenance that would normally restrict an airliner to the hangar for a long heavy check and repositioning it to line maintenance duties. This will cut down the downtime an airliner must have for heavy maintenance, while guaranteeing safety is not compromised.
What this means to the airline is better utilization of its equipment with improvements in customer demand; the aircraft can be spending more time flying passengers or cargo with less hangar time. But the better part is – from a maintenance perspective – is that less work is being contracted out and assuring more in-house opportunities for the airlines’ employees, namely mechanics.
Line maintenance is an airline’s front line of defense against delays and unexpected aircraft break-downs. But all airlines, whether they fly passengers during the day or a cargo airline that exploits the night, have down times where the aircraft sit for hours, where time for maintenance is available so it can best be accomplished. Reorganizing the task cards associated with heavy checks to line maintenance affords the airlines’ mechanics job security and possible overtime to meet the new assignment of work – more work, more pay for employees.
And the side caveat is that those who bemoan contractors taking work from the airlines’ mechanics will benefit from these changes because the more work done on the line, the less work is given to the contractors. And the airline is smiling because they can utilize the aircraft more without sacrificing airworthiness.
That’s enough to make anyone stand up and take notice of Maintenance.