Aircraft Accidents and Retirement

I recently got to look at my retirement portfolio and discovered, to my surprise, that I’m doing pretty darn good.  While my first retirement funds continue to mature, I still look at five years (minimum) until full retirement.  If my novels catch on, perhaps my retirement can be more fruitful (shameless plug) – maybe a cruise or two.  I write for the fun of it.  Any other financial benefit is just so much unexpected lasagna.

Man, I love lasagna.  My bride makes it with sweet Italian sausage and …  I’m sorry, I digress.

I still can’t get my mind around the fact that my wife and I are looking at a life of leisure; I’m fifty-seven years old and, the last time I checked, still in good shape; heck, I still have a lot to offer the next generation, from analog aircraft maintenance to accident investigation.  But then, on second glance, I’ve been watching my older coworkers get off the workforce train for over three decades now.  And before the faint voice of my hammock called to me, I’ve seen that what made them so valuable, so inspiring to people like me; it got off the train with them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been in aviation for over thirty-five years.  A wonderful career; unique, yet dependent on the careers of many others who took the time to bestow on me their experience, wisdom and ‘tribal knowledge’.  I have been truly blest.  However, as these mentors step out of the workforce forever, a voracious hole replaces them, one that cannot be filled.  What’s worse, what’s left amounts to agenda-builders, politicians and bean-counters, whose first reactions to the departing mentors are, “Good riddance to them,” and “we’d thought they’d never leave.”  As we, the mentor’s apprentices, clean up following the retirement parties, the agenda-builders, et al, are tossing out decades full of knowledge by the barrel-full.

That paragraph sounds cynical: agenda-builders, politicians and bean-counters.  Why not just say, “Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my”?  But there’s logic behind my point, not that politicians or accountants are purposely trying to undermine safety; I truly don’t believe anyone is intentionally trying to make the skies less safe.  But I would never want my Congressman piloting my airplane or have my tax preparer fixing my airliner.  In reality, these folks understand a scintilla of how any airline works, even those accountants who work for an airline.  Safety is not measured in dollars, but in experience.

I used to work for an operator who flew DC-10 and B727 aircraft.  All the flight controls (ailerons, flaps, slats, spoilers, elevators and rudders) and engine controls for those aircraft are run by cables.  With over two hundred aircraft in the fleet, my co-mechanics and I became quite adept at changing and rigging cables.  It wasn’t just that the proper routing was important (re: Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned IV: Colgan Air 9946) but the conditions necessary to rig the cables properly (re: Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned I: Air Midwest 5481).

Today’s next generation airliners are digital.  All those flight controls previously mentioned are now operated digitally, which means wires carry signals to hydraulic units at the flight control or engine; this advance has reduced weight by thousands of pounds of cables per aircraft, while improving efficiency and reliability.  This is what makes bean-counters happy: less fuel burned, better on-time departures and reductions in repairs.  Politicians are happy because the aircraft are more ecological.  Everybody is happy.  Indeed, these are win-wins for everyone.

Until we forget everything about how we got to this point.  The longer we go without revisiting the past, the easier it is to forget what’s important.  The more we trust digital technology to cure all our ills, the greater will be our fall.  At a cruise altitude of 37,000 feet, that’s a long way to fall.

What’s that you say?  “The technology is flawless; it’ll never fail?”  Tell that to Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles on US Air flight 1549 when their primary instruments relied on the engine generators.  Maybe Captain Kang-kuk and Captain Jung-min of Asiana Air flight 214 relied too much on the technology when making a routine landing in San Francisco – maybe not.  However, something failed to work right.  Perhaps if Captain Dubois or First Officer Robert were alive, they could testify to the unreliability of technology during the final minutes of Air France flight 447.  I’m not mocking these professionals – never.  Each of these professionals were properly trained, accrued hundreds of flight hours in the accident aircraft types and were qualified in every sense of the word.  But we can’t close our eyes to what is happening here.

Let me revisit the cable issue I spoke of with the B727 and DC-10.  Each new-age airliner is built with a redundant system … you know, just in case the technology fails.  One redundant system is a cable-driven spoiler on each wing; in case of system failure, at least one spoiler is mechanically driven to provide the pilots with limited, yet adequate, control of the airliner.

To give perspective, the older airliners relied on systems that employed about forty cable-driven actuators, fuel controls and release hooks.  Now they have about one or two cable systems.  Does one believe that a cable change/rig will come up enough in the years between scheduled maintenance for the mechanics to become proficient?  Probably not.  And each month, the industry retires qualified mechanics and erasing their experience.

For the last year, I have had the fortune to work with some of these outstanding aviation veterans; they’ve come back to teach a new generation of inspectors and industry professionals where we in aviation came from.  Their approach is patient; the topics can be tedious, yet they are just as important as when the procedures were being actively written so many years ago.

The greatest road block to the dispensing of knowledge comes from the agenda-builders, et al, who decide on what’s important and what can be cancelled as far as training.  You see, it’s the bean-counters who are cutting the budget for training; they task the agenda-builders to clean house and reduce the number of old classes.  The agenda-builders, lacking that experience level, cut training with indiscretion, often replacing that training with stuff that looks cool.

Again, ‘stuff that looks cool’ sounds very cynical; “God, Stephen you’re old.  Yell at kids to get off your lawn much?”  Let me justify my statement: one of the things I teach my students on is about complacency.  A British airline called EasyJet recently went on social media showing a twenty-six-year old Captain and a nineteen-year old First Officer of their A320 Airbus.  This is truly a novelty; the airline: EasyJet, thinks this ‘stuff looks cool’.

Not that it matters, the Captain is female, which is part of the novelty.  Instead, let’s focus on the First Officer, a man, who is unable – because of his age – to be licensed in Great Britain to drive an 18-passenger bus through Piccadilly Circus – I swear, look it up.  However, he can fly a 150-passenger Airbus over Piccadilly Circus.

Does one think the EasyJet crew has the combined experience to fly out of any emergency?  Perhaps they do have the training, but I’m talking about experience, not training.  Both Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles of US Air flight 1549, each have flying careers that span longer than the EasyJet Captain has been alive … period.  I wonder how the EasyJet crew would handle a situation that tapped years of experience of the US Air flight 1549 crew over the Hudson.

I imagine that as I walk out the door on my last day, the lock won’t even click behind me before my memory will be, not unlike a wisp of steam dispersing in a hurricane.  My hope is that something … anything, I’ve passed on, will stick.  Perhaps, but not likely; there’s too much pressure for the aviation veterans to be forgotten.  As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  So be it; the fight will no longer be mine.  Instead, I’ll just go in and work on dinner with my bride.

Maybe she’s making lasagna.

3 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Retirement”

  1. Interesting post, and you raise quite a few good points (I wouldn’t expect otherwise). The mentality of those coming up through the piloting ranks is different now generation wise. One of the courses I had to take for my degree was in flight safety … all of the students in it held a minimum of a private pilot certificate. You had a few who had their instrument rating. But generally they all had less than 200 hours. I was even more baffled when I saw maybe a third of the class sitting there with their heads down, dozing off when talking about engine failure when flying single pilot IFR! I may be hitting this one a bit too hard here, but the older [wiser] types seem to have a greater appreciation for flight safety. Granted, I’ve only seen a small sample of it; but it’s also something I’ve learned from talking to various CFI’s. The cocky attitude of “it won’t happen to me,” or “let’s push the limit and see what we can accomplish,” is flat out foolish. My question is how many of these students if they ask themselves that same question when faced with a real life emergency would have the same confidence to get out of it? That’s the point. All of the wiser ones are leaving after distinguished careers, and trying to pass on that knowledge. And unfortunately, the up and comers don’t want to listen to it.

    1. Exactly. I would hate to have to put your question to the test, because frankly, I’d be afraid of the consequences of what I feel the answer would be. As you yourself have experienced, even conversations with aviation industry veterans produce learning events that one who is coming up through the ranks can never acquire, but can most certainly benefit from. I see a few that come through my courses and are so turned off by the tediousness of the subject matter; I say, even the smallest detail can catch you in the rear and usually have an accident investigation that drives the point home. Yet, they fail to learn because neither my instructors or I don’t keep them entertained enough. And to your point about engine failure lessons and how some would sleep through it; this also speaks to the over confidence both pilots and mechanics get into because of the reliability built into today’s equipment, that when things do go south there’s no preparation for it in their past; they end up gliding their aircraft to the accident site, unsure of the options that may have been available. Good points.

    2. Exactly. I would hate to have to put your question to the test, because frankly, I’d be afraid of the consequences of what I feel the answer would be. As you yourself have experienced, even conversations with aviation industry veterans produce learning events that one who is coming up through the ranks can never acquire, but can most certainly benefit from. I see a few that come through my courses and are so turned off by the tediousness of the subject matter; I say, even the smallest detail can catch you in the rear and usually have an accident investigation that drives the point home. Yet, they fail to learn because neither my instructors or I don’t keep them entertained enough. And to your point about engine failure lessons and how some would sleep through it; this also speaks to the over confidence both pilots and mechanics get into because of the reliability built into today’s equipment, that when things do go south there’s no preparation for it in their past; they end up gliding their aircraft to the accident site, unsure of the options that may have been available. Good points.

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