Aircraft Accidents and Intuition

In one little league game, I was playing left field when the ball was hit over my head and out towards Averill Park’s bicycle path.  My manager, recognizing my hopelessness, yelled out, “AHH-TEE-EE … GEDDIT!”  One of my best friends, Artie, ran all the way from right-center and snagged the ball before it could hit the ground.  Artie saved my neck and rescued me from the walk-of-shame back to the dugout.  Yeah, he saved my bacon; he was one of those guys who pitched great, fielded great, hit great and had great team spirit.  Yeah, good old Artie …

Man, I hated dat guy!

Nah, not really.  Artie grew up to become one of New York City’s Finest, a Hero in Blue.  Later, he and his brother, Tim, went on to be well-known Irish connoisseurs of New York Pizza and unofficial Yankee strategists.  But Artie was one of those guys from my youth that had sports intuition.  For instance, intuitively, he knew exactly where the ball would be, whether baseball, football or basketball.  While I would misjudge the pop fly, Artie made fielding look easy, fading in or out as necessary.  His glove magically appeared, even with a bad hop and the throw homed in on the first baseman’s mitt every time.

I spoke a couple of months ago about a pilot shortage on the horizon; the deficit isn’t limited to pilots, because mechanics/technicians will be coming up shy, as well.  This is not a Federal Aviation Administration crisis; this is a Commercial Aviation Industry crisis, and those are the worst kind.  Why?  Because Industry will manipulate the crisis to its advantage, financial or otherwise.  They will also track the shortest route from Point A (pilot/technician shortage) to Point B (solving the pilot/technician shortage).  Often that involves bending the rules.

There is no doubt to the fact that the industry faces shortages.  Supplementing the pilot and technician workforces by encouraging military personnel to work full time in commercial aviation may not be an option; the military continues to incentivize aviators with reasons to stay.

Larger mainline air carriers, e.g. Jet Blue and Delta, can afford to raise employees up through the ranks by creating opportunities to expand their flight training through the airline’s own flight training program(s).  This is a surefire way for the air carrier to control the turnover of pilots, but it doesn’t guarantee experience, not on the scale older pilots have gained theirs.  This is especially telling due to airliners being technologically advanced, forcing the pilot to a position of babysitter instead of commander.

But what of the Regionals or Air Taxis that can’t pay the higher wages?  Will they be able to hire pilots that fly intuitively; that have a sixth sense?  These smaller air carriers will have large turnovers as the pilots opt to fly for the majors and the benefits they promise.  That is usually where the corners get cut, not out of necessity, but out of desperation.  Already these air carriers are becoming creative in their attempts to get around the training requirements and public fear.

About a year ago, EasyJet, a British regional airline, boasted that it employs the youngest female Captain, Kate McWilliams, who was twenty-six.  Her First Officer, Luke Ellsworth, was nineteen; in America, Luke’s the same age as a College Freshman.  Make no mistake, this is a novelty; I sound cynical, but the employment of these pilots has less to do with skill or safety and more to do with uniqueness and advertising.  It focuses strictly on being the first, but the first in … what?

Let’s look at Mister Ellsworth; in England, Luke is not old enough to drive an 18-passenger bus through London, yet he can fly a 180-passenger Airbus A320 over London; that’s a fact, not opinion.  The ‘bus’ pun is not meant to be glib, but to point out that the British Motor Vehicle Department has stricter guidelines; they have issue with Luke’s age, maturity and lack of experience; they find Luke to be unqualified to drive a certain multi-passenger motor vehicle.

By contrast, the crew of US Air flight 1549: Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles, successfully ditched an A320 by flying through a maze of suspension bridges into the Hudson River; the US Air A320 – the exact same type of aircraft flown by Ms. McWilliams and Mr. Ellsworth – became an unpowered glider that had the glide ratio of a brick at low altitude.  Both Sullenberger and Skiles each had more than twenty-six years (that’s Captain McWilliams’s age) of flight time and experience; they each have been flying longer than Captain McWilliams is alive.  When the emergency occurred, they didn’t have time to refer to procedures; instead Sullenberger and Skiles acted intuitively; their actions were automatic, disciplined, refined over decades of flying the airplane, instead of deferring to the computer.  They had seasoned maturity, borne from years of taking control.

Is it feasible to believe that Captain McWilliams and First Officer Ellsworth could have landed US Air flight 1549?  Do they have the discipline and the experience to save the lives of all on board?  Could they leapfrog over the London, Blackfriars or Tower bridges on the River Thames?  Perhaps … perhaps not.  How much of their A320 knowledge depends on the reliability of the technologically advanced aircraft’s systems – systems that did not work on US Air 1549 – and how much is reliant on their individual skills?

On October 14, 2004, a standard repositioning flight for Pinnacle Airways – another regional air carrier – went terribly wrong when the pilots exceeded the aircraft’s maximum ceiling altitude; the aircraft became a glider, the engines refusing to restart.  Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701, a Bombardier CRJ-200, crashed in Jefferson City, Missouri.  The fact that the double-flameout occurred to begin with, speaks to the pilots’ disregard for procedure.  It is fortunate the event didn’t take place with anyone else aboard, perhaps deadheading flight attendants.

What about technicians?  It is true that air carrier programs, e.g. FedEx’s maintenance training program are successful due to its experienced maintenance workforce providing the on-the-job training (OJT).  These air carriers also have an inexhaustible supply of employees who have acquired their airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificates before lining up for the opportunity to nab one of these choice A&P technician positions.

Again, the smaller Regional Air Carriers, Repair Stations and Air Taxis don’t have the benefits that draw large numbers of A&P technicians to their ranks.  Nobody cares if a technician is 26; indeed, a lot of them are; I was.  To clarify, technicians don’t have to avoid wind shear; there is no need for a technician to abort a take-off.

But people do care about experience and technical knowledge; they want to know the engine won’t fall off or the landing gear will extend.  In addition, travelers want the technician to be properly trained, instructed by people experienced in the aircraft-type, using approved techniques.  Air travelers today deserve technicians with even a modicum of mechanical intuition.

In January 2003, Air Midwest 5481, a Beech 1900D full of post-Christmas travelers, crashed; the infamous reasons included that the technicians working the aircraft were inexperienced.  The Air Midwest hangars, specifically Huntington, West Virginia, had technician turnovers that overwhelmed Air Midwest’s ability to train the new technicians coming in.  Furthermore, the trainer overseeing OJT of the incoming technicians was, himself, not qualified to train others on the Beech 1900D; he had never been trained on that model aircraft.  The tragedy should never have happened.

Novelty and rule bending are the issues that have plagued and continue to plague the aviation industry.  Safety is not a game; it is not generated from public relations parlor tricks.  This may be what to expect in the way the aviation industry deals with shortages: do best with what is available; make the best of a bad situation.

Unfortunately, there won’t be someone with better intuition or experience to back these people up; nobody is going to ‘catch the ball’ for them and save their bacon.  There are grey skies ahead and I don’t think increasing technology dependence is the answer.  We, as an industry, have to start outthinking this with the basics; intuition, born of experience.  Anything less is just a circus stunt.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Intuition”

  1. I think the travelling public doesn’t realize (those who aren’t involved in the industry) that a lot of young bucks are getting their ATP certificate at a young age. I would hazard a guess that those same people don’t know the requirements for getting their ATP. I would hazard a second guess that unless a person peeps into the flight deck when they are boarding, they have no clue who is flying the aircraft. And that raises another point – who’s flying the plane at the time of an emergency? Ideally, you would hope that it is the PIC; however, the PIC may be younger and less experienced than his/her first officer … fine and dandy I suppose. It is one thing to know how many rivets and stringers hold an Airbus 320 together, or how to handle an emergency. But to conduct themselves professionally, efficiently, and carry out an emergency checklist with a dual engine failure on a transport category aircraft at high altitude is a completely different matter. I suppose that is where automation can help out; however, at the end of the day you’re relying on the pilot skills and betting that they can save the plane. Which some people don’t have the maturity to do that (sorry, but it’s true).

    1. Great points. I hope the pilots sitting up front can handle whatever is thrown at them, but it is hard to imagine they’ve seen too much outside of a self-flying aircraft. The technology is very entitling, giving a false sense of confidence to the crew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *