Aircraft Accidents and Separation from the Animals

A couple of months ago, a popular aviation blogger wrote about an independent-thinking airliner captain, deicing an airliner HIS way.  His fellow pilots were skeptical of his safety practices, while the blogger enthusiastically applauded the rogue pilot’s initiative.  I posted on that blog entry that, not only did I agree with the skeptical fellow pilots’ criticisms, but I felt the rogue pilot’s actions – and the response of the blogger – were dangerous.

We have rules in society; they separate us from the animals.  I can’t murder my neighbor for playing Led Zeppelin at 3:00 AM at an ear splitting volume; I also can’t steal my boss’s car.  These actions break the rules and laws of society.  And when we break the rules and laws, there are consequences.

In aviation, we have regulations and guidance that prevent us from dying in fiery balls of flame.  Part of my job is to teach FAA inspectors, NTSB investigators and Industry professionals why the regulations exist and why they must be followed or else risk the lives of the travelling public.

The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) do not dictate subtopics, e.g. deicing or the proper ways to load an aircraft.  However, the FARs do dictate that an air operator design manuals that include procedures for, e.g. safe deicing and aircraft loading.  These manuals are then accepted or approved by the FAA to meet or exceed the safety requirements of the FARs.  The air operators are held to these accepted/approved manuals as their procedures for safe operation.  The rogue pilot, by his dismissing of the company’s deicing procedures, puts his company at risk of violating their own approved procedures, while putting his and every passenger’s safety and very lives at risk because of his impatience and arrogance.  This is not a subject I take lightly; unfortunately I can point to dozens of fatal accidents through all areas of aviation that resulted from someone not following the rules.

But it doesn’t stop there.  I take serious issue with the blogger.

I became involved with blogging as a means to draw attention to my aviation magazine writing and novels; I try to write about aviation safety problems and changes that the industry goes through.  I then offer my opinions or recommendations based on my 35 years of air carrier experience on how the problems should be fixed.

Other bloggers become involved with social media to connect with others with similar interests, in this case all facets of aviation.  This is the most redeeming part of social media: finding birds-of-a-feather across great land distances or across even greater oceans.

But there’s a down side to social media: Misinformation.  Political tweets and postings are chock full of misinformation; exhaustively mind-numbing social media postings ranging from sarcastic banter to out-and-out lies.  But in aviation, when I say misinformation I’m not talking about confusing a 737 with an A320 or thinking there’s a difference between the terms ‘powerplant’ and ‘engine’.  I’m talking about having a large following of aviation enthusiasts, those who take seriously what others say.  In this case, when one has many followers and passes on unlawful information, it can be dangerous; it teaches others to ignore the rules and procedures by glorifying what’s expedient or trendier.

I point to what a former NTSB member – someone who should know better – said to a conference of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) enthusiasts.  He said, “It took a flock of them [geese] to bring down Sully’s [US Air 1549] plane. So a drone is going to bring an airplane down? That’s a little bit of baloney. A drone hitting an airplane in flight and getting digested by an engine might be expensive for the airline, but it’s not going to bring an airplane down.”  This former member is a friend of mine, a political appointee and has thousands of followers, yet he dispensed these opinions to impressionable people who take him at his word, believing that everything he says is true.

As bloggers take on more followers, they increase the opportunity to dispense impressionable information, whether true or false; not just on social media, but on TV or radio.  And as I found with an aircraft accident investigation writer – one with no investigation experience, at all – some of their followers believe their bloggers with an almost fanatical loyalty.

When someone doesn’t question their sources – any sources – even ones with years of air carrier experience like myself, that is the most dangerous situation I can think of.

Aircraft Accidents and Beyond the Perfect Storm

Last week we spoke about the Perfect Storm, the possible direction the aviation industry can take towards single pilot and/or a fully automatic cockpit.  In my view, there were three contributors to the Perfect Storm: Financial, Technological and Pilot Shortage; each has its own reason for recognition.  The pilot shortage is an absolute; it’s hard to change the circumstances behind that fact; the airlines are trying to reverse it.  Financial is dependent on the airlines’ and manufacturers’ investment power.

Technology, however, is without limit; it is uncontrollable.  Each industry’s technology affects many others, by contributing, sometimes unintentionally, to another’s, e.g. navigational technologies in aviation can directly affect advances in maritime and highway navigational technologies.

But can an aircraft’s computer figure out when something happens illogically?  The chances are zero that actual commercial pilots are writing all the programming code to teach the aircraft’s computer how to fly.   So where does the aircraft get its ‘experience’ from? 

An accident I investigated occurred because the elevator trim was rigged backwards; the pilots flew the aircraft into the ocean, unable to figure out why the trim was reversing.  They were acting logically to what they perceived was the problem; if they had more altitude and time, they might have survived.  Ten years later two Cessna pilots, faced with identical circumstances, saved themselves by learning from the accident pilots’ mistake; they flew out of the pending crash by flying illogically to what was normal.  Can a computer be taught to deny its programming and save the aircraft?  Can the automatic piloting systems be properly programmed for all scenarios by non-pilots to operate in a pilot reliant world?

What about the maintenance (MX) side of technologies?  Technologies of a new age airliner are decided by engineers – not mechanics.  One does not picture rooms of mechanics writing code for airliner computers, impressing their troubleshooting experiences into the programming?  Engineers are not mechanics; their understanding of the aircraft is limited to what goes into its design, but know little of how the aircraft acts after it leaves the ‘showroom floor’.

Furthermore, how susceptible are the aircraft’s technologies to outside interference?  With storms on our own Sun capable of disrupting satellites in orbit around our Earth, are computer piloted aircraft less vulnerable to a phenomenon like a solar flare?  What about an intentional electro-magnetic pulse?  One must remember, as was tragically learned with Germanwings 9525, the cockpit is meant to be impenetrable.  If there is a single pilot, his/her hands would be full with gaining control of the aircraft … from the aircraft itself; troubleshooting what could be an excessive number of system problems, while trying to find an airport to land.  And who would the single pilot turn to anyway?  There is no other pilot.  If the aircraft is fully automated, then what can be done to save the passengers or civilians below?

And speaking of impenetrable cockpit doors; we are still in the wake of 9/11; the U.S. is still exposed to terrorism on a global scale.  The biggest concern may be susceptibility to terrorist attack, not only on the airliner, but the air traffic system itself.  How horrific would it be, a terrorist organization hacking into the air traffic system and crashing dozens of airliners full of people into anything they want?

Is it the plot of a bad ‘B’ movie or are we setting ourselves up for disaster?  We need to slow down and consider the consequences of totally surrendering our control to the technology.  Perhaps we are walking ourselves, with eyes wide open, likes lambs to the slaughter.

Aircraft Accidents and the Perfect Storm

Are we headed for the Perfect Storm?  The question reminds me of a story.

Several years ago, when I was with the FAA, I was enrouting (‘Enrouting’ means to conduct FAA surveillance on a flight crew while flying in the cockpit jumpseat) on an Embraer ERJ 145; this jumpseat is akin to sitting on a vegetable crate while resting your nose on your left knee.  The two pilots, both of whom were less than half my age, were quiet the entire flight; either I reminded them of their grumpy Grandfather or they didn’t like the FAA, either reason being credible.

While on final approach, with the field in sight is a very busy time for the flight crew; I remain silent, observing.  However, the first officer suddenly turned to give me the tour of his super-zoomie instrumentation.  I looked from the Captain to the approaching runway to the altimeter as he explained the digital technology.  Finally, the Captain turned and scolded the first officer; ordering him to get back to landing the plane.  It seemed to me that the first officer’s obsession with his aircraft was disturbing; it is a similar obsession I had seen time and again for years after.

NOTE: I’ve contemplated writing a book about my experiences, but as my friend, Dianne always says, “Stephen, your flying stories scare the living hell out of me.”

The progression of the trans-ocean airliner has seen some quick evolutions; in an industry that is less than 120 years old, that has taken us from Kitty Hawk to the unplanet, Pluto, years are a short period of time.  When one considers what goes into an airliner, the time from drawing board to first flight is irrelevant to the time beyond.  It may take three-to-six years to design and launch a new airframe, but whether it stays is determined by the public’s acceptance, feasibility, cost-per-flight hour, and the international customer’s economy.  One can’t view the success of the B747 without also considering the ineffective reaction to the Concorde Super Sonic Transport and its short lifespan, again, in years.

The Dictionary defines a Perfect Storm as a Noun: ‘a detrimental or calamitous situation or event arising from the powerful combined effect of a unique set of circumstances’.   My question, again: Are we headed for the Perfect Storm?  I feel it is a relevant question due to our trust in technology, complacency with aviation safety and refusal to move cautiously.  The first of the unique circumstances is financial.

In the early part of the last century through the 1970s, older aircraft had a flight navigator to fill out the four-man cockpit, with the captain, first officer, and second officer (flight engineer).  The jet age replaced the navigator with instrumentation.  In the 1980s, aircraft like the new B767 made the second officer disappear.  In the 1990s, most three-man cockpits became two-man, e.g. the B747 and the DC-10 to MD-10/MD-11.  Since the 1990s, all commercial airliners are manufactured strictly with two-man crews.

These are important progressions in aviation; each advance has been driven by cost and technology.  One less crewman per thousands of flights, per dozens of airlines, multiplied by per diem, hotels, benefits, training and pay equals BIG savings for the airlines, thus BIG profits for the manufacturers.

The second circumstance: technology used to unseat the trans-ocean airliner’s third crewman took enormous leaps into the new century as digital technology replaced analog.  New airframe and engine designs held reliabilities steady at 98% and better; the introduction of Extended Twin Engine Operations reduced overseas flights by hours, allowing airliners more direct routes over the oceans.  Airframes streamlined, causing less drag, better lift.  Finally, from the 90s to today, the aircraft is more and more responsible for the flight.  The pilot enters the airliner’s flight plan into the flight management computer, taxies it to the end of the runway and hits a button.  Today’s airliner can do almost everything but deploy/retract the gear and secondary flight controls, while the pilot babysits; the ability for an aircraft to do even these menial tasks is probably already here.  With the introduction of NextGen, the pilot becomes even less relevant as the air traffic computers talk to the airliner’s computers for instructions and automatic adjustments.

Now we face a pilot shortage.  The military, once the breeding ground for commercial pilots, has been busy offering pilots attractive incentives to stay military.  Airlines are anxious to hire pilots with less than required flight time; meanwhile foreign carriers attract young pilots to fly for the Middle and Far East airlines.

So, we are adding the third circumstance: do the airliner manufacturers feel the time is right for a single-man cockpit?  Or, with the dawn of unmanned aerial vehicles, are we looking at pilot-less airliners, fully automated?  Airlines are investing millions into the technology to do just that.  And the manufacturers are happily assisting.

Is this the Perfect Storm a-brewing?

In my first novel, I pointed out the dangers of trusting the computer.  Have we reached the technological plateau of automation perfection or are we too quick to accept this future, whether we like it or not?

Oh, and there’s another shortage on the horizon: Who’s going to fix these things?

Aircraft Accidents and the Sine Wave

I’m an aircraft mechanic.  I can speak to the influence today’s safety environment has on, e.g. a mechanic’s safe practices.  Aircraft mechanics – or technicians – like all aviation folks, have entered an era where aviation accidents have declined; not only in the commercial air carrier industry, but in the general aviation community.

The reasons for this dip in the accident numbers can be credited to many things, e.g. better training and improved technologies.  I would like to recognize the learning from past accidents and applying proper fixes, but in the accidents I’ve investigated and the airlines I’ve inspected, Maintenance people don’t always have an opportunity to learn from the past, through no fault of their own.  The maintenance community isn’t as closely tied.

In contrast, pilots are a more tightly woven group; they have better means to learn from the past mistakes of others; it’s in large part because of the training opportunities Operations people have; they have more aggressive training schedules.  Often mistakes other pilots make during a flight are not limited to a specific aircraft manufacturer or model aircraft; for instance, wind shear affects pilots similarly, whether they are flying an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737; each benefits from the same type of wind shear training.  Because operations training is more aggressive, pilot instructors can take a recent event – an incident or accident – program the flight simulator to reproduce the conditions and teach every pilot on the roster the proper safety procedures within a short period of time.

Mechanics don’t have that availability.  But one thing both pilots and mechanics have shared is an increase in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) surveillance.  Whether the FAA has become more of a visible presence on the flight line or become more of a nuisance behind the scenes, it is only fair to give partial credit for the accident decline on the FAA’s increased diligence.

And there lies the danger.  When the going gets good, the budget cuts back.  The government planners are mono-directional; they associate success with obsolescence.  While they should be increasing/maintaining surveillance, they see no need and, therefore, reduce.  It’s like training on the trapeze with the security of a net; release one tie of the net and its integrity decreases.

This starts the vicious sine wave.  As we crest the ‘hill’, accidents are low and manpower is better used.  As the industry slides down towards the ‘valley’, government retracts funding, surveillance cuts back; as oversight drops off, the air operators’ diligence wanes; safety reaches its lowest.

For those of us who follow the Economy’s sine wave patterns know: sine waves, like one that would track Aviation Safety’s pattern, are unavoidable as they represent the irony of history: While we don’t have to learn from history, unfortunately, we will be doomed to repeat it.