Aircraft Accident and ETOPS

Remember that old pre-ETOPS joke?  Generic Airlines’ twin-engine airliner is making its way across the Atlantic Ocean; the Captain gets on the intercom, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain; we’re sorry to report we have lost an engine.  Please don’t be concerned; we still have one good engine.”  Twenty minutes later, the lights go out and the aircraft gets quiet.  The Captain gets back on the Intercom, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve just lost the second engine; we’ll be ditching in the ocean.  Emergency procedures dictate that all those who can swim, please get to the left side of the aircraft.  When the aircraft comes to a stop, swim as hard as you can to land one hundred miles northwest of here.  For those of you who can’t swim, thank you for flying Generic Airlines.”

ETOPS – Extended Twin-Engine Operations, is a product of the economies: fuel, financial and time.  Aircraft manufacturers abandoned the gas-guzzling three- and four-engine aircraft, e.g. B747, MD-11 and A380.  Instead, air operators began demanding two-engine airliners that can safely fly quicker routes formerly monopolized by the aforementioned gas-guzzlers.  The goal: design and build aircraft and engines with never-before attained reliability; capable of flying over water, five hours from the nearest airport; and doing this with only one engine.

The benefits of flying an airliner with just two engines are numerous.  In 1985, when ETOPS was first developed, the age of the twin-engine, long-range aircraft, e.g. B767, B757 and A300 was born.  These airliners were designed with only two pilots, cutting manning costs per flight by one pilot to pay for, e.g. benefits, travel expenses and training.  Two engines use less fuel than three or four, resulting in better passenger or cargo transport miles.  Twin engines have less upkeep costs, e.g. maintenance, overhaul and reliability programs.  As the technology improved from 1985 to the present, the airliners became more reliable, parts are utilized longer before replacement and fuel economy improves with engine modifications, e.g. better materials used, tighter tolerances and ramped up power due to blade design.

When I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Standards department, I took an ETOPS class twice; it’s a great course and I’m proud to be managing a like course now.  But of all the courses I teach, this is the one I don’t personally instruct; the information delivered by my very qualified instructors, is based on teachers with years of ETOPS experience, not familiarization.  It’s one of those subjects where, after three decades of ETOPS operations, splashing an airliner is never a question of ‘if’; it’s a question of ‘when’.

That statement sounds ominous.  However, there is a risk analysis demonstration called the ‘Swiss Cheese Model’ of system failure; the theory is that for catastrophic failure to occur, holes in several slices of a metaphoric ‘Swiss Cheese’ must line up.  Swiss cheese is symbolic because slices of Swiss cheese do not have holes that line up … until that one occasion where they do; that’s when a catastrophic event occurs, like an accident.  A further concern is that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would not be able to properly investigate an ETOPS accident because it lacks any knowledge or experience in the subject, so the probable causes would be in error.

ETOPS is the only FAA-approved program that stipulates: everything must work precisely according to plan for each and every ETOPS flight; if not, any flight could fail with no hope for survival.  Each ETOPS flight has to be unique; each maintenance check, each flight plan, each adherence to the process, by the book; complacency cannot enter the equation … EVER!  Consider this: if a twin-engine airliner ditches (hopefully, successfully) with five hours of flight time away from land, how long does it take for the rescue plane to reach the survivors?

To qualify for ETOPS, each aircraft-engine combination must have thousands of hours of successful operation, e.g. a Boeing airliner with Pratt engines can’t be used to qualify the same Boeing aircraft with GE engines.  Each airline requesting ETOPS has to have thousands of hours with each aircraft-engine combination they’re applying for.  Rigorous training must be given to pilots, mechanics and technical support personnel.  Thorough procedures must be developed, tested and approved.  When the airline is ready to fly ETOPS, the FAA, who has been overseeing the qualifying process, starts their own testing, drilling various scenarios on practice runs or in simulators.  And when this is finished, the real work begins.

An ETOPS aircraft isn’t awarded a permanent ETOPS designation; it earns it every time it flies.  Every system must work; the maintenance checks for every flight are accomplished by qualified mechanics; ETOPS pilots are trained for all emergencies; technical support and flight operations are prepared for every contingency; and many aircraft systems are given regular inflight checks to assure reliability, e.g. auxiliary power units are started and run at cruise altitude after being adequately cold-soaked.

All this is done to assure that any passenger looking out on the wings and seeing only two engines, will just shrug his shoulders and return to his Sudoku puzzle.  It is possible to fly 180 minutes from shore; it’s proven every day to be the norm, not the exception.  The concern is that every norm breeds complacency; when complacency occurs, the holes in the cheese line up.  There’s a list of all accidents and disasters that are born of complacency, including the Challenger, the Columbia, the Titanic, et al.  It’s why when I instruct, my students are required to take accidents and reverse the domino effect back to the original cause(s); nine times out of ten, complacency is at the heart.

There are many boxes to check in order for ETOPS to work correctly; diligence and commitment are not just words, but necessities for each and every ETOPS flight; complacency has no place in ETOPS success.  No one wants to hear, “Thank you for flying (insert airline name) Airlines,” unless it’s at the destination gate.  Besides, the thought of swimming for land just makes me want to take an Ocean Liner to Europe, instead.  Unless it’s Iceberg season; I’ve heard those things can cause their own problems.

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