Aircraft Accidents and the A380

The concept of a Supernova is incredible.  They are the result of a Supergiant star that has reached the end of its life, collapsing upon itself before exploding into the greatest astronomical event known to man.  All the heavy elements it creates are flung out across the cosmos; these building blocks of Life then spring from the star’s death.

After sixteen years of production, the Airbus A380 will fade away, a victim of its own delusion of grandeur.  To be honest, Airbus shouldered an impressive undertaking designing and building the flying behemoth, but Airbus’s timing was a tad off … by about thirty years.

Many of its fans spoke of a wonderful experience, flying on the largest airliner, though it is unclear how different one airliner is from another as seen from the inside.  Several A380 operators boasted many comforts, including passenger showers or a tended bar in First Class.  The coach passengers were seated as tightly as any other airliner, with a maximum seating of 853 passengers.  The A380’s safety record may stand firm, but the small number of A380s flying does not demonstrate a superior safety history.

For its size, the maximum payload was somewhat disappointing; the A380 operator’s empty weight was 611,000 pounds and a maximum take-off weight of 1,268,000. This allowed, depending on the distance dictating the maximum fuel needed to carry, a maximum payload of 184,000 pounds, which is 14.5% of the maximum takeoff weight.  Add to this the four engines required to move the colossus, the fuel economy was reduced by two engines.

The aircraft is impressive; however, in airliner years, it came of age just in time for its funeral. With an assembly line shut down date of 2021, the A380 had only one more year’s success (2005 – 2021) than its less popular older brother, the A310 (1983 – 1998).

There are more impressive lifetimes, such as the B707 and the DC-8, both of which introduced the transatlantic jet age.  The B747, which bragged piano bars and lounges in the early 1970s, was the VIP of wide body elegance; it evolved through different looks to meet different needs, from the B747SP to the new 747-8.  The B747’s arrival put Boeing up front in a technical superiority that lasts to this day.  Boeing’s success lived on in the B737, B757, B767, B777 and B787, each one answered the travel industry’s needs, especially as international travel demanded twin-engine operations over water.

The A380 tried unsuccessfully to out-Boeing Boeing; it arrived at a time when fuel economy meant everything; that twin-engine aircraft were better for the growing passenger travel industry.  The A380 was late to the party with its four engines and lengthy boarding/deplaning times, plus the limited number of airports capable of landing and parking the super jumbo.

But most importantly, Airbus missed Boeing’s one important lesson from decades before: As time marches on, build to need, but then refit to last beyond the original purpose.  Airbus has sold the A300 as a freighter since the early nineties; the A310 has been converted from passenger airliners to cargo, but Airbus did not make all the conversions, leaving the supplemental type certifications to other vendors.  Perhaps, someday, Airbus will move to convert their A320s or A330s to cargo aircraft, but in this arena Boeing is miles ahead.  It may be possible that the A380 can make a comeback in cargo hauling, but, it too, will be post production.

Ironically, Airbus had firm orders to two of the largest cargo movers in the world: FedEx and UPS.  In 2006, the two airlines saw what Airbus failed to recognize, that the A380 was designed to haul freight, period.  However, Airbus flunked the rollout; delays soured the airplane to the two cargo airlines, causing them to look elsewhere and not look back.  FedEx opted for a brand new cargo versions of the B777 and B767, while UPS continued its B767 fleet buildup and invested in the new B747-8.

If you strip away all the luxuries loaded into an A380, the empty weight of the airliner drops considerably; 853 seats, overhead bins, carpets, all but one bathroom, these all add up to thousands of pounds of useless weight, payload weight the airline never makes money from (this was why the piano lounge concept died in the seventies; it cost too much in fuel).  Replace those non-essential creature comforts with main deck cargo loading systems and a forward 9-G bulkhead; the cargo aircraft’s empty weight will increase, but not even close to the passenger version’s empty weight.  Less aircraft weight means more profitable cargo weight can be loaded.

Rarely, if ever, does a cargo flight ever reach its maximum payload weight for the simple reason that bulk prevents it, i.e. ten pounds of feathers takes up more room than ten pounds of bolts.  The interior empty square footage of a wide body airliner is incredible; boxes and envelopes can be stuffed into every square inch of space, never coming close to meeting the maximum payload.  The extra weight allowance assures fuel needed to reach further can be pumped into the wings, thus guaranteeing a greater distance reached for moving freight.  This comes in handy when contracting to a shipper, like the Military.  Cha-ching, cha-ching!

The profit a heavy box brings to an airline far exceeds that of a passenger taking the same amount of space.  To the point, a passenger and his seat takes up 41,472 cubic inches of volume and the average weight is 185 pounds per passenger – the seat is not added in; the airline never makes money off the weight of the seat, whether they fill it or not.  A coach ticket between Los Angeles to JFK airport costs an average coach passenger about $200, while a First Class passenger pays $1000.  That is between $200 to $1000 per passenger that the airline makes, minus the cost of Wi-fi, flight attendant pay, drinks, weight of carry-ons, emergency oxygen systems, weight per minimum number of bathrooms, gate agents and airport gate rental fees.

What profit does a box of equivalent dimension and weight as the above mentioned passenger, make for a cargo airline?  A box with the same volume of space (41,472 cubic inches) and weight (185 pounds) costs an overnight cargo shipper, according to the shipping service requested, between $2200 and $4000.  There was a saying we had in the cargo airlines: Boxes don’t eat, drink, or complain … EVER!

It might have been incredibly profitable if Airbus designed the A380 as a cargo airliner for so many reasons.  The four engines would have been a benefit giving heavy freight a better range; less landings equals more straight flight time and less wear-and-tear on the airliner.  The interior volume could have been better utilized and not wasted on profit-killing luxuries.  The A380 might have given Boeing’s B747 a good competitive race, particularly at airports where shipments meet, e.g. coastal maritime shipping ports or straight routes into Middle Eastern Asia and the Far East.  Unfortunately, Airbus designed the A380 to show up the B747, to be the biggest jumbo jet made.  It was a gamble that, not only did not pan out, but may have cost Airbus too much profit. Through its many evolutions, the B747 introduced the age of wide body passenger flight in the seventies; it then pioneered another age: international freight hauling.  Its versatility made Boeing the true supergiant of the airliner industry; the B747’s fame continues to shine like a supernova; its influence will breathe life into the future of cargo airliners.  The A380, however, will fade to obscurity, becoming what a supernova leaves behind – an impossible to see, Black Hole.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XXII: ValuJet 592

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet DC-9-32 aircraft, registration number N904VJ, crashed in the Florida Everglades near Miami, Florida; a tragic end to a standard flight.  Oxygen generators in a Class D cargo compartment started a fire, which engulfed flammable items, including an aircraft tire.  The crew tried to get in front of fire-caused electrical and mechanical failures while the passengers were stuck in a metal tube filled with smoke.  It is unsure that anyone survived to impact in the Everglades.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report AAR-97/06 (DCA96MA054) lists several probable causes of the accident in a rare two-paragraph form – more than necessary to answer the question: Why did ValuJet 592 crash?

The probable cause (PC) first paragraph states: the accident “resulted from the airplane’s Class D cargo compartment that was initiated by the actuation of one or more oxygen generators being improperly carried as cargo…”  Wait … What?  The bullets to this statement are that Sabretech (ValuJet’s repair station) had improperly labeled, packaged and loaded the oxygen generators on the aircraft; the oxygen generators were not made safe and should have been considered hazardous material.  ValuJet failed to properly oversee Sabretech and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) failed to require smoke detection and fire suppression systems in Class D cargo compartments.

The second PC paragraph stated that “contributing to the accident” was the FAA’s failure to monitor ValuJet’s and Sabretech’s programs; the FAA’s breakdown of adequately responding to previous oxygen generator fires with programs to address these issues.  Last, that ValuJet failed to ensure Sabretech was aware of the ‘no-carry’ policy and provide proper hazardous training.  THESE are THE probable causes of the accident.  To those experienced in commercial airline operations, NTSB report AAR-97/06 reversed the significance of the two paragraphs, placing Operational Error second.  Why?

To understand the probable cause’s first paragraph, Class D cargo compartments, like that found on the DC-9-32, have been used in jet aircraft since the Boeing 707, i.e. 1957, almost forty years prior.  They are not containerized; the freight is loaded by hand, separated by netting and other restraint devices from movement that causes center of gravity shifts.  Cargo compartments don’t cause fires; if used as designed, they could not be the ValuJet 592 accident’s PC.  Neither the Class D cargo hold, the tire or the oxygen generators led to the accident; they were symptoms of a bigger problem: the Root Cause.

The term: probable cause, is a misnomer; it is a band-aid.  Probable, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, is: “likely to be the case or to happen”.  With accident investigation involving months and years worth of testing and analysis, the travelling public deserves more than “this is likely to be the” cause.  Discovering Root cause is much more effective; it is laser sighting.  An analogy: Break a weed on the surface (probable cause), the weed disappears for a while, but eventually returns.  To kill the weed, you dig the root out of the ground (root cause) completely; that’s how one stops the problem permanently.

The Class D cargo compartment, the oxygen generators and the tires were coincidences; three innocuous items brought together by Operational mistakes that led to disaster.  The worst kind of mistakes, they come from ignoring rules and policies, i.e. Operational Error.  THAT is why ValuJet 592 crashed.

Report AAR 97/06 supported its PC/Class D theory by referencing, first, a Saudi Arabian Airlines L-1011 which caught fire in 1980 in the C-3 cargo compartment during flight.  The source of fire was not determined, which begs the question: Why was it referenced?

The second example occurred February 3, 1988; American Airlines Flight 132, a DC-9-32, had an in-flight fire on final approach; the fire was started by a hydrogen peroxide solution (an oxidizer) and sodium orthosilicate in close proximity.  The combined chemicals didn’t burn, but, the report suggests, ignited combustibles in the luggage.  The root cause: the chemicals were not labeled as Hazardous, which was strictly Operational Error.  The accident report AAR-88/02, however, cited in four Recommendations about cargo compartments, focusing away from the Hazardous materials and Operational errors.

The decision to improve Class D compartment integrity was a good direction to take; any moves to improve safety are always welcome.  Shipping deflated aircraft tires is not dangerous nor is the shipment of oxygen generators.  Class D compartments should have been upgraded to make them safer, not because the Class D compartment ‘caused’ the accident.  Citing the Class D as the cause, probable or otherwise, distracted from the real culprit: a total disrespect for procedure, e.g. shipping hazardous materials in a cargo bay not rated for hazardous materials.  The issue became skewed.

Why the NTSB went in this direction was puzzling; logically, it made no sense.  It is like blaming the iceberg for the Titanic disaster; the iceberg did not hunt down and jump in front of the Titanic; the ship sunk due to human error in design (unsealed watertight compartments), in manufacture (inferior rivet materials) and in safety (moving too fast for available visibility).  A similar perpetrator that caused Titanic’s sinking was responsible for ValuJet 592: Culture.

A word search was conducted on report AAR-97/06, looking for the word, ‘culture’; it came up one time, in an FAA letter to ValuJet.  But culture was the one concept that escaped this NTSB investigation.  Why?  Because investigators MUST be experienced in commercial aviation.  How many investigators had/have worked for air operators or repair stations?  How many investigators had the career experience to relate to what was happening at ValuJet in 1996?  How many investigators have never: met a flight time; worked with competing cultures; dealt with union issues; experienced FAA inspector oversight; deferred a component; worked multiple flights; midnight shifts; got pressured from management; met a ‘hard down’ airplane; screaming flight planners; aircraft-on-ground (AOG) situations; weather; deicing; working with contractors and being solely responsible for an aircraft’s airworthiness?  In NTSB accident meetings I attended, culture issues were a foreign concept.  Then seven years after ValuJet 592, my NTSB maintenance investigatory group saw similar culture issues with the Air Midwest 5481 accident.

Why is culture so critical to ValuJet 592’s tragedy?  Because the accident happened during a time the contract maintenance provider (CMP) became an industry norm.  For years airlines accomplished their own maintenance or worked closely with other airlines with established facilities.  However, with the rise of low-cost airlines, e.g. Peoples, Air Tran, Southwest, and international expansions into foreign markets, overhead costs associated with maintenance were first to be targeted, e.g. manning, employee benefits, pay and heavy maintenance equipment; business expenses that could be transferred to the CMP.

While the NTSB did not know CMPs existed, the FAA had limited CMP experience, grasped even less about outsourcing.  This was further confused by the expanding Regional airline (RA) contracts.  Industry gave more responsibility to RAs and CMPs with no vested interest in the air operator.  The contractors learned expensive lessons about how far an airline would go to save money.  ValuJet’s CMPs outsourcing practices created problems with training and authorizations to conduct work.  ValuJet’s oversight of its contractors suffered, adding layers for the FAA to keep tabs on, all while ValuJet bought more aircraft and expanded.  This is how shipping oxygen generators as company materials got through the net.  Multiple cultures that repelled or clashed with each other, obscuring problematic issues.

Culture should have played a pivotal role in AAR-97-06’s probable cause because the FAA allowed ValuJet, a low-cost carrier, to get away from them.  ValuJet’s place in the market grew … at an irresponsible rate.  The airline exploited a good market, its popularity accelerated expansion.  ValuJet’s failure to oversee its contractors masked the FAA’s ability to oversee, especially outsourced maintenance.  If these red flags were mentioned in AAR-97/06, could the FAA have recognized similar problems with Air Midwest 5481 or Emery 17?  We will never know.

It is encouraging to know that one accident can prevent another, but only if the issues are recognized the first time.  The cycle should have been broken, repeat problems addressed and prevented.  We have seen/are seeing accidents that repeat themselves.  This just makes missed probable causes all the more frustrating.