Posts Tagged ‘Aviation’

Media layoffs are eroding the quality of journalism on television

February 10, 2010

As it happens, the PBS newsmagazine “Frontline” chose the one-year anniversary of the Buffalo crash to air its investigation . The report rewinds to the dawning of the deregulation era 30 years ago, then walks us back to the present day, methodically showing how the commuter business grew to 52 percent of all airline travel and how two inexperienced pilots were allowed in that Colgan cockpit.

A former Colgan pilot told “Frontline” he got promoted to captain with 500 hours of flight time, less than a third of what the majors require. Pilots are paid only when the cabin door closes, so they work 16-hour days for perhaps $21,000 a year. There’s no pay for canceled flights, so they take chances with stormy weather.

And when a plane goes down? Incredibly, the major airline that “incentivizes” (not my word) this risky behavior is shielded from liability. And the government? As Mary Schiavo, the FAA’s inspector general during the Clinton/Valujet years, puts it: “The FAA protects airlines.”

“Frontline’s” correspondent is Miles O’Brien, who was one of my favorite CNN anchors until he and the network’s entire science team were fired in 2008. Between the PBS exposure and likely tie-ins with NPR, O’Brien’s reporting will probably be seen and heard by more Americans than saw him on cable. PBS also will put the report online in perpetuity.

Will other networks follow? During a decade when the cost of gathering news plummeted, meaning that networks could do more with less, they have instead done less with less.

Everywhere you look, TV news is saving money. And as Miles O’Brien, Larry Doyle and thousands of other journalists might say in response: At what cost?

via Media layoffs are eroding the quality of journalism on television.


Flying with the Low Bidder

February 9, 2010

(Ed. Note: Please watch your PBS Station tonight at 9pm (8 Central) for the Frontline program “Flying Cheap” )

colgan-air-flight-3407There is an old, apt bromide in flying world: It’s easy to end up with a million dollars in the aviation business…just start with twenty million.

And so it has gone for the airline industry. Since the airline business began nine decades ago, airline companies have collectively not made a dime.

And these days the business is as bad as it ever has been. Facing high fuel costs, restrictive labor contracts, an epic recession and intense pricing pressure, the are grasping for ways to make a buck. We all know this – after all we are getting tenned and twentied to death to fly our bags, get some chintzy headphones, a flimsy pillow and thin blanket or a microscopic snack. How far off can pay toilets be?

I always assumed (perhaps it was denial) that this dysfunctional business model did not mean the safety bar was lowered an iota. But over the past nine months, while working on the PBS Frontline documentary “Flying Cheap”, I have learned that is not the case. Airline flying in the United States may be the safest means of travel ever devised since the invention of the wheel, but it is often not as safe as you maybe led to believe.

Over the past twenty years, the airlines have been doing what is common on so many other industries. They have been outsourcing.

The idea has its roots in deregulation. When Jimmy Carter took the government out of the business of dictating airline routes and rates, it was not too long before the airlines cooked up a new operating model we now call hubs and spokes. The idea: gather up passengers from smaller cities – get them to the larger airports – and stuff them into bigger planes for the longer hauls.

Hamstrung by expensive, restrictive union contracts, the big ”legacy” carriers were not structured to efficiently fly short runs in little airplanes. So they started hiring others to jump the puddles and came up with a scheme called “code sharing”. The legacy airlines paid commuter carriers to fly a certain number of flights to their hubs. The smaller carriers borrowed the name and livery of their clients – who would sell the tickets. These airborne contractors were paid by the completed segment (on time) – regardless of the number of passengers on board.

For passengers it made life much more simple. They could buy one ticket form a familiar brand name airline to take them from Peoria to Paris. Most of us would assume that the smaller airline would operate the same way as its larger customer.

But in fact the big airlines generally go out of their way to stay out of the business of their contractors. They point the finger at the FAA and say it is responsible for the maintaining “one level” of safety in airlines large and small. And that is technically true. But the legacy carriers exceed FAA minimums in almost every regard. They have discovered enhancing safety, maintenance and training programs actually accrues to the bottom line. Flying safer also means flying more efficiently.

But all of this requires some significant up front investments – which would put the smaller carriers at a competitive disadvantage. After all they win those flying routes by being the low bidder.

The major airlines do not send their maintenance and training experts – or their Sully’s -to to their regional contractors – because they prefer keeping a thick firewall between the operations.

Perhaps they are listening to their lawyers too much. As it stands right now, the big airlines are not liable when one of their outsource carriers crashes. If the laws were passed forcing that liability to be shared (“joint several liability” is the legal term of art), things would change about as quickly as Continental/Colgan 3407 went from a routine flight to a horrible disaster.

They say this industry has a “tombstone mentality” – meaning people have to die before things change. Let’s hope the souls we lost a year ago did not die in vain.

From Sully – to Sullied

February 3, 2010


A lot of pilots like me spend more time than they probably care to admit reading aviation accident reports. I am not sure what draws us to them. There is some technical curiosity to be sure, there is the hope we can learn a thing or two from the mistakes of others, and to be frank, I suppose there is a component of Schadenfreude that lurks beneath the surface. After all, since we are alive, we therefore must be smarter and better pilots…right? Or maybe it’s just porn for propeller heads.

In all the years I have scoured these reports, read the transcripts of the cockpit voice recorders and the accident narratives as if they were page-turning suspense novels – I have never stopped being stunned by how blind and deluded we humans can be as we hurtle blithely to our own demise.

There are many  examples of shockingly bad, stupid, arrogant or complacent decisions leading to disaster in the air. Off the top, I think of of KLM 4805 in TenerifeAvianca 52 in Long Island…or Comair/Delta Connection 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky.

But I cannot recall reading a CVR transcript that painted a grimmer, scarier picture of poor pilot performance than the one that came out of the black box found in the smoldering wreckage Continental/Colgan 3407 in Buffalo one year ago.

And that is what comes through loud and clear in the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The headline you likely will likely remember is PILOT ERROR CAUSED BUFFALO CRASH.

And that is precisely what the airline industry wants you to think. It is always good to blame dead pilots. They can’t defend themselves and it limits an airline’s liability. They want you to believe some bad pilots slipped through the cracks and the crash was an odd aberration. An act of God – or at least God-awful piloting. No more.

Now there is some truthiness to this – and that is why the airlines get away with it. There is no doubt Marvin Renslow and Rebecca Shaw did just about everything wrong on that flight that from Newark to Buffalo. They both were very tired (the CVR captured plenty of yawns) and Shaw complained of a head cold – and the transcript is littered with “[sound of sniffles]”.  And it seemed as if they used their flight deck as the platform for a lengthy shoptalk/bitch session – right up until the moment the airplane started falling out of the sky.

And when the impossible to ignore stick-shaker violently awakened them to the fact that they were not paying any attention to an airplane that was about to stall – they responded in precisely the opposite way they had been trained. Renslow should have pushed the throttle forward to the fire-wall –  and pushed hard on the wheel – or yoke – to point the nose down so the plane would gain airspeed. This stall recovery procedure is drilled into a pilot’s head since about lesson number three – part of Piloting 101.

As the NTSB put it: “the captain’s response to stick shaker activation should have been automatic, but his improper flight control inputs were inconsistent with his training and were instead consistent with startle and confusion.”

[youtubevid id=”vMy8kZ2_TMs”]

Shaw’s actions – which were apparently unilateral – were also dead wrong. As the plane shuddered, she retracted the flaps – which reduces drag – but also lift – meaning the plane was now in deeper trouble. Their fate was sealed.

Such a horrifying scenario. An airplane running perfectly – in good weather conditions (the small amount of ice they had picked up is not listed as a factor) drops out of the sky purely because the flight crew was not paying any attention to the critical task at hand. So how could a professional flight crew be so horribly – unprofessional?

N200WQ - the Colgan Q400 that crashed in Buffalo On February 12, 2009

N200WQ - the Colgan Q400 that crashed in Buffalo On February 12, 2009

Was it just something about these two pilots? A horrible confluence of minimal experience (Renslow had only about 100 hours on the de Havilland Canada DHC-8-402 Q400 – Shaw about 700) – fatigue and illness? Was fate the hunter in this case? Or were there deeper contributing causes?

A month before we had all watched and marveled as Sullenberger and Stiles ditched that Airbus so deftly in the Hudson River. Continental/Colgan 3407 was the negative image of that event. From Sully – to sullied.

The two crashes offer cases in point for the consequences of a fundamental change in the way we fly in this country that you probably have not noticed. Since deregulation in the late seventies, the large, legacy carriers have outsourced much of their flying to smaller commuter – or regional – carriers. Now more than half of the airline departures in this country are flown by the regionals.

They operate under the same FAA rules than their bigger benefactors play by, but the  latter generally exceed those the minimums in nearly every category – while their smaller contractors squeak by right where the bar is set.

The livery and logo on that airplane was all Continental – and the passengers probably all thought they were getting Continental levels of service and safety. But they were really flying on a airplane operated by a company called Colgan Air. And Continental? The company makes it a point to stay out of their business – so long as they fly the routes on time. McDonald’s cares more about how their franchisees cook their french fries.

At the regionals, the crews are less experienced, the hours are longer, the pay is much less and the training is not as extensive. And paradoxically, they are flying the most demanding routes in the airline business – lots of time in the weather, in high traffic areas – and lots of segments. It’s the kind of flying you’d like to have a Sully doing for you. But instead, you are getting Renslow.

The FAA and the airline industry insists there is one level of safety among all the airlines – large or small.

But look at the last six fatal airline crashes in this country. All of them were regionals. An unfortunate coincidence?

You decide after you hear from the regional pilots producers Rick Young and Catharine Rentz and I spoke with for the upcoming PBS Frontline documentary “Flying Cheap”. You can see a preview here. And I will tell you more about what we learned tomorrow.

Put Your Head Between Your Legs

January 15, 2010
Source:  NASA/Sean Smith

Source: NASA/Sean Smith

Check out what is either a scene from “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines…or the Letterman show.

The place:  NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The idea:  Drop a helicopter 35 feet to see what happens.  The Army-donated bird was brimming with sensor and rigged up with a shock absorber made of honeycombed Kevlar.  Four crash dummies were strapped in, of which one had sensors in the torso that simulated internal organs (stop it!  I said internal organs!).

The Kevlar cushion was cooked up to protect astronauts in returning spacecraft – but engineers wanted to see it it could be a practical lifesaver for aviation as well.

The helicopter hit the ground at just over 53 miles per hour.  The dummies said their necks were hurting and they were calling their lawyers.

You can watch this story and much more on “This Week In Space.”  Check us out!

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Beware the Aviation Demagogues

August 9, 2009

Politicians who know nothing about aviation will soon be flocking to microphones -like moths to a porch light – demanding the FAA shut down the corridor – the virtual tunnel of airspace – that allows small airplanes to fly unfettered through the busy New York City airspace to either savor the sights or simply save a lot of time.

Such is the nature of rhetoric in the days following a spectacular fatal aviation accident. But all the uninformed posturing and demagoguery will overlook two very important points.  1) Systems devised by humans will never be perfect. 2) The system in place to avoid accidents over the Hudson is extremely effective and safe.

Over the years, thousands and thousands of airplanes and helicopters have safely plied their way through the Hudson River Corridor. The system sounds like anarchy, but it is extremely effective. Pilots tune in the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency of 123.05 MHz and start listening carefully – and talking quickly. They announce their location, altitude and direction using easily identifiable landmarks as points of reference.

I typically begin a flight down the corridor with a call like this: “Hudson Traffic, Cirrus 122CV – George Washington Bridge, southbound, Jersey side, one thousand feet, Hudson.” As I fly down, I keep announcing my location as I reach various landmarks.

The system works well – so long as pilots are tuned in and talking. In addition to making radio calls, it is very important pilots keep their head “out of the cockpit” – looking out the windows constantly for traffic. I prefer to fly this route with another pilot in the right seat – two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Shutting down this tunnel to small airplanes would mean pilots would have to call air traffic controllers – “New York Approach” – in order to fly the route. This means these busy people will be forced to manage even more traffic than they already do. Will that be safer? I suspect not.

Let’s not forget current system is already extremely safe – and this accident looks more like an unfortunate, improbable fluke that put two aircraft on a collision course – each unable to see the other. It was a terribly sad, one in a million event that should not invite a reflexive, uninformed regulatory response.

Seeing the Lady: Fun but Risky

August 8, 2009

The Statue of Liberty from the air above the Hudson River (Miles O'Brien)

Flying low and slow over the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey to “see the Lady” is a real eyeful and a ton of fun – but it is neither for the faint of heart nor the foolhardy aviators.

There is nothing inherently unsafe about it – but it does require a pilot’s full attention.

There are a few ways to do this. One way involves calling air traffic controllers who manage traffic in the New York City region. You tell them where you are – and what you would like to do. If they are not too busy, they will clear you in to the so-called “Class B” airspace – usually at an altitude of about 2,500 – 3,000 feet. – or about twice as high as the Empire State Building.

This is probably the safest way to fly the river, but it is not as fun as going lower through the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) corridor. You can fly into that corridor without checking in with controllers manning “New York Approach” so long as you remain below 1,100 feet, stay near the river’s edges and fly no faster than 140 knots (160 mph) The rules are fairly straightforward, but it is extremely important that pilots become familiar with them in advance – and stick to the procedures. (more…)

Steve Fossett and the Killer Wave

July 10, 2009
Portrait of {{w|Steve Fossett}}

Image via Wikipedia

Nearly two years ago, I flew my small plane to the Minden, Nevada, airport to pursue a story on the search for Steve Fossett. I taxied my plane up to the terminal, walked into the service desk at the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) and found myself smack dab in the middle of a planning session for the search team. Wreckage of Steve Fossett’s plane, found in the California mountains.

They wondered how I got in there (the rest of the media was cordoned off in the parking lot). “I flew…and boy, are my arms tired,” said I. The room broke up, and next thing I knew I was talking with Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. I asked her if she would be willing to fly with me over the search area and within an hour or so we were airborne, with a shooter in the back seat flying low and slow over rugged mountains.

It was quickly evident how big and daunting that haystack is out there. When most people think about the desert, they think of the Sahara –- you know, an endless sandbox. The desert on the Nevada-California border is not nearly as blank a slate. The hills are rugged and covered with sagebrush — except near the occasional river, which supports thirstier flora. On top of that, Nevada’s mining heritage has left the ground littered with all kinds of detritus – old jalopies, mattresses, rail cars and the like. Their glints in the sunshine were constant, distracting red herrings. And in fact, the searchers discovered a few old plane wrecks that had been missing for many years.

For the year between Fossett’s disappearance and the discovery of the wreckage of the Bellanca Super Decathlon he was flying that morning,  the whispers and rumors grew that he might have made himself “disappear.” I  looked into this for a long time and could never find a plausible motive for him to bow out, get some surgery and retreat to Argentina.

The “grassy knoll” crowd was finally silenced when DNA testing of the fragments of human remains found near the wreckage proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Fosett reached the end of the line on that mountain near Mammoth Lakes that Sunday morning September 3, 2007.

The mystery was solved when hikers found some of Fossett’s personal effects. The remains of the airplane were about a half mile away -did he surviv the initial impact and succumb to injuries later – or were his remains dragged away by animals? No way to know. Federal crash investigators say the plane hit the ground at a high rate of speed – and then burned. If he survived, Fossett left probably this world terrified and in terrible pain.

Most of us had a hunch at the outset that Fossett flew into a box canyon and smacked a mountain at a high rate of speed, leaving little for searchers to spot from the air. They say you should always go with your first gut instinct on these things –- and so it goes in this case. The National Transportation Safety Board says he was heading north at the time of the crash – the opposite direction he was flying when radar contact was lost. So he clearly realized he was headed for trouble and made a 180 (a u-turn). [You can read the full narrative here.]

One of the cardinal rules of mountain flying is to always be in a position that you can turn toward lowering terrain. The experts say it is a good idea to approach a ridge at a 45 degree angle so you can preserve your escape route.

Diagram of Mountain Wave

Diagram of Mountain Wave

The wind that morning near the crash site was blowing from the south-southwest between 20 and 30 mph. So before he made his turn, Fossett would have been flying up a hill and into the wind. This is the most dangerous place to be if you are flying in mountains. Imagine the wind acting as water does. On the windward side of a ridge, it flows upward – creating strong updrafts (which glider pilots covet). But on the leeward side of a ridge, the wind can create strong downdrafts. Anytime, the wind exceeds 20 knots (23 mph), pilots are advised to put a little more space between them and the “cumulous granite” below (2,000 feet above the terrain is considered a prudent place to be).

But Fossett was out on a “Sunday drive” as his widow described it. When he was last seen, he was about 150-200 feet above the ground taking in the sites. At the altitude where he crashed (10,000 feet above sea level), his airplane was only able to climb at a rate of 300 feet per minute. The experts say the downdrafts Fossett encountered pushed him to the ground at 400 feet per minute. He had flown himself into a dead end.

We are left with the sad irony that a man who took so many risks and survived so many close calls in perilous situations fell victim to an sightseeing tour in a docile plane close to its home on a holiday weekend. In his book, Fossett writes at length about his meticulous planning and careful attention to detail. He was very precise in calculating the risk –- and was really not a daredevil. But aviation is very unforgiving of complacency, and that airplane and that canyon were not impressed with Fossett’s record of amazing accomplishments.

No one is bulletproof –- not even Steve Fossett.

A Dark and Windy Night…

July 1, 2009
7O-ADJ - the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni -
7O-ADJ – the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni –

A lot of travelers boarding an Airbus today might be thinking twice. After all, yet another Bus is at the bottom of yet another ocean – and another 153 souls have gone west.

Could the European airliners be a latter-day DC-10? – That is, a flawed design – and thus a (relatively) dangerous way to fly?

For the entire Airbus airliner fleet (more than 5400 of them are in service globally), the numbers do not support the conclusion. In July 2008, Airbus’ bitter rival Boeing released a “Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents” from the dawn of the jet age in 1959 through 2007.

At the time of the study, the A330 still had a flawless record: no fatal accidents in the course of a million departures. A month ago, Air France 447 changed that record – but the airliner remains very safe statistically.

Over the years Airbus A300’s have had three crashes that caused deaths. That equates to a rate of .47 airplanes lost per million departures. The A320 series has had eight fatal crashes – or .23 hulls per million departures. And the A340 has never had a fatal crash.

The record is not as good for the A310 – the model of airplane that plunged into the sea trying to land at the capital of the Comoros Islands – Moroni. It has crashed and killed people eight times now (six times on the event horizon of the Boeing study). That equates to a fatal accident rate of 1.42 airplanes for every million departures.

The infamous – and much maligned – DC-10 crashed with fatalities a dozen times for a rate of 1.36 fatal crashes per million departures. Pretty much  a dead heat (if you will pardon the expression).

[It is worth noting that these fatal accident rates have come a long way (baby). Back in the day, the early jet airliners – the 707 and DC-8 – logged fatal accident rates of 4.21 and 4.03 per million departures respectively.]

But take a look at the accident reports for the A310 crashes. There are two common threads. First, they are all attributed to pilot error – trying to land in a thunderstorm, botched use of thrust reversers on rollout, improper stall recovery, spatial disorientation on a dark stormy night, a botched missed approach, and the most infamous of all, the captain who allowed his son to take the controls – leading to a stall and spin.

The second is the airlines were all flagged in third world/emerging nations [Maybe the Russians might quibble with that characterization, but over the years Aeroflot has logged a third world quality record.]

This is why you are hearing so much talk about the so called “blacklist” of airlines that are banned from flying to Europe or the US.

Airlines have to be pretty sloppy (and scary) to get on this roster.  It means they lack:

•    the regulations to properly certify airplanes
•    the technical expertise and resources to oversee them
•    adequately trained technical personnel
•    adequate inspectors to insure they comply with minimum international standards
•    and insufficient record keeping to document what they are doing (or not).

All that said, Yemenia Airlines is not on the European blacklist (now 194 airlines long). But the crashed 19-year-old/17,300 cycle airplane  (7O-ADJ) apparently was – at least in France. In 2007, it was banned because inspectors there found long list of squawks.

So why so many pilot error crashes by crews flying the A310 for third world airlines? Is it shoddy training? Is it simply that the A310 is a cheap, widely used aircraft for thinly endowed airlines? Is it the flying environment in the countries where these planes fly  – with fewer, less sophisticated navigational aids and less air traffic control coverage and expertise?

Could the highly automated Airbus design be ill-suited for these crews/airlines/airports? Or has it saved untold lives in accidents that never happened? These are hard questions to answer.

But unlike Air France 447, we should know the answer to the riddle of this crash fairly soon – as searchers have already found the black boxes.

But the man in charge of the airline claims he knows what happened.

“We never had problems with the plane,” Yemenia Chairman Abdulkalek Saleh Al-Kadi told Bloomberg. “It was purely weather.”

What about the weather? Here is the weather picture (in pilot parlance, a METAR) for MORONI/Prince SAID IBRAHIM (FMCH) airport:

FMCH 292300Z 21025G35KT 9999 FEW020 25/16 Q1017 TEMPO 18015G30KT

Translated – it means the wind was coming out of the southwest (210 degrees) at 25 knots (28 mph) gusting to 35 knots (40 mph). There were a few clouds 2,000 feet. So it was windy and the sky was nearly clear – albeit totally dark  – the crash occurred just before 2 AM local time – and moonset that night was 12:23 AM.

With that in mind, let’s try to imagine ourselves on that Yemenia flight deck. The Moroni airport has one runway that allows planes to land either toward the northeast (20 degrees) or the southwest (200 degrees). Airplanes nearly always land into the wind, especially when it is blowing as strong as it was at FMCH that night.

But there is only one precision instrument approach to the airport – and it is for the opposite runway. The crew was forced to fly a visual approach to runway 20 on a dark night over water – approaching an island that probably does not have many lights blazing at that hour.

PAPI Lights - Wikipedia
PAPI Lights – Wikipedia

To add to the challenge, runway 20 does not have a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI). This is an array of focused light beams that sit beside a runway  and give a pilot a visual indication of where his craft is relative to the ideal glide path.  A four light PAPI – as you see here will show the pilot two red and two white lights when he/she is at the correct altitude for a safe approach. More red – and you are too low…more white and you are too high. It is truly pilot-proof.

But without those lights on that dark night over the water, the crew would have had a hard time judging how close they were to the ground (or the surface of the sea). It is called “spatial disorientation” and it kills a lot of pilots and passengers (including John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law).

They apparently tried to land once – but aborted the approach – turning around in a “black hole” – itself a perilous maneuver – especially for a crew that would be a bit rattled and distracted by their predicament – and were, no doubt, dog tired after a long day of flying.

It is the perfect recipe for losing focus on your gauges – and forgetting which way is up – and how far is down.

The Paradox of 'Simplicity'

June 10, 2009

Boeing 707

Air France Flight 447 went down in a giant, dangerous, violent storm that might not have been survivable under any circumstances. But as the Airbus A-330 penetrated that huge system of thunderstorms, sensors, systems and computers on the plane started failing in a rapid cascade that would make any pilot’s head spin – even if he was not in the middle of extreme turbulence flying blind in the night.

The failures likely sealed the fate of the 228 souls sealed inside that thin metal tube as it hurtled through the dark, stormy night – but were they contributing causes with their own roots – or simply the unavoidable outcomes of a decision to fly such a perilous course?

Airbus A-330

Airbus A-330

Remember, more often than not, an airliner goes down at the end of long chain of unrelated, seemingly innocuous decisions, malfunctions, mistakes and external factors. Remove any single link (or even change their sequence) and you have an on-time arrival at Charles de Gaulle. So how do those system failures fit in the chain of calamity?

Consider for as moment these two cockpits. On the left is the granddaddy of jet airliners – the Boeing 707 – which first flew paying passengers in 1958. On the right is the Airbus A-330 – which started flying the line 35 years later. Now quick: which is the more complex airplane? Looks can be deceiving.

Relatively speaking, the 707 is a much simpler airplane – which is different from saying it is simpler to fly. Mastering and monitoring all those steam gauges required an alert three-person crew. In the 707, the burden of the complexity – and the opportunity for error – is on the human side of the instrument panel. Because humans make mistakes and machines do not, airplane designers have steadily shifted that workload to the other side of the gauges over the years. The A-330 instrument panel is proof they have done a bang up job. It looks simple to fly doesn’t it? It is.

The joke is that in the not too distant future, flight crews will consist of one human pilot and an ill-tempered junkyard dog. The pilot is there to watch the computers fly the airplane – and the dog there to bite him if he tries to touch the controls.



Airbus has embraced the philosophy (if not the joke) with zeal. The company builds highly automated “Fly-By-Wire” airplanes. NASA developed the first fly by wire aircraft in 1972 – an F-8C Crusader. On FBW planes, the movable surfaces on the wings, the horizontal and vertical stabilizer are not connected to the controls on the flight deck with cables, pulleys pushrods and hydraulic actuators as they were on the 707.

Instead, electrical wires transmit the pilot’s commands to hydraulic actuators that move the aero surfaces. Between the pilot and those surfaces is a bank of computers that are actually flying the plane. The computers are programmed with some strict rules (in fact, Airbus calls them “Laws”) designed to assess the human commands from the flight deck – and veto them if they would put the plane in harm’s way. Point the nose too high or too low – or bank to steeply and the computer will correct your bad airmanship. Who’s in charge here?

Pilots like to call their autopilots “George” (old phonetic shorthand for “gyro”, which makes the AP work) – on an FBW airplane, “HAL” might be more apt.

HAL 9000

HAL 9000

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

-From 2001: A Space Odyssey

But what happens when the silicon co-pilot gives up the ghost? It gets very ugly – very quickly. Just before Air France 447 went down, it transmitted a four-minute spurt of text data reporting 5 failures and 19 warnings via its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). The data is cryptic and we will only know the full scenario if searchers find the black boxes, but we know the autopilot disengaged, the flight control computer failed, warning flags appeared over the primary flight data screens used by the captain and first officer and the rudder moved beyond its limits.

A-330 Pitot Tubes

A-330 Pitot Tubes

All of it is consistent with a flight control system that was getting some bad information about how fast the airplane was moving through the air. The device that performs this task is called a pitot tube. Pointed in the direction of flight, it measures the relative pressure of air as it flows in. For pilots this is a crucial device – (like an EKG for a heart surgeon, I suppose).

If you don’t know your airspeed, you can easily stall or overspeed the plane. That’s why the A-330 has three pitot tubes. They tend to be ice collectors on an airplane flying through precipitation. If they glaze over, or get clogged with crystals, they won’t work – so that is why they are heated. Even so, A-330 pitot tubes were icing up and failing in flight so Airbus issued a “service bulletin” recommending airlines replace them with a newer model that has a more powerful heater. It was not considered urgent – and so the pitot tubes on the doomed plane had not been removed and replaced. But I would not focus on this too much.

The epic thunderstorm system that Air France 447 flew into would have been a huge hail and af-447-storm-clouds1ice-generating machine that could have overwhelmed even the new and improved pitot tubes if they had been installed.

Regardless, the failure cascade chronicled in the ACARS text message hauntingly matches a 2008 event when an Air Caraibes A-330 flying the same route encountered some serious pitot tube icing. That plane was not in such severe circumstances so the crew was able to get things back under control – and lived to tell the tale.

Now here is a key point to remember: as systems fail in an Airbus, the laws that the computers live by change from “normal”, to “alternate”, to “abnormal alternate” to “direct”.  At each stage the computers surrender more authority to the humans – until finally silicon surrenders and the carbon pilots are on their own – with no help at all from HAL – at just the point they need him most.

They were in the dark, getting hammered by turbulence, flying blind, by hand, a plane that was designed and built to be controlled by machines – with human supervision.

Suddenly that deceptively simple cockpit was a riddle so complex it could not be solved.

A Dark, Stormy Night over the Atlantic

June 1, 2009

Photo of F-GZCP - the airliner that crashed - from JetPhotos.Net

So what happened to Air France Flight 447? It is early and speculation at this juncture is often wildly wrong. And remember, there are usually several factors that conspire to bring an airliner down. But here is what we do know for sure. Keep this in mind as you process the often inaccurate reporting on aviation that is so prevalent in the mainstream media.

The Timeline – The flight, carrying 216 passengers and 12 crewmembers, left Rio de Janeiro at 2203 GMT (7:03 PM local time). It flew beyond radar coverage 3 hours and 33 minutes later (at 0133 GMT). A half hour later (0200 GMT) – now four hours into the flight – the plane encountered heavy turbulence. Fifteen minutes later (0215 GMT), now a long way out to sea, it transmitted automated signals indicating the plane was in serious trouble.

“A succession of a dozen technical messages (showed that) several electrical systems had broken down,” according to Air France CEO Pierre-Henry Gourgeon. He described the failures, which included (most ominously) the pressurization system as “totally unprecedented situation in the plane.”


Weather over Atlantic during crash - From Naval Research Lab

It was a dark and stormy night – in a place that is home to the world’s worst thunderstorms. Just as it disappeared, the Airbus A330-203 was flying into a thick band of convective activity that rose to 41,000 feet. This equatorial region is known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone – it is where Northeast and Southeast Trade Winds meet – forcing a lot of warm, moist air upward – which condenses – an efficient thunderstorm producing machine.

The crew had “Sully-esque” seasoning – The Captain had 11,000 hours total time (1700 in the Airbus A330/A340). One Copilot had 3,000 hours total time (800 in the Airbus A330/340) and the other Copilot had 6,600 hours total time (2,600 in the Airbus A330/340).

The Airbus A330 has a good record – and this was the first crash of a twin-engine A330 in revenue service in its history. In 1994, seven employees of Airbus died when a 330 went down during a test flight. The accident report says it was a case of pilot error. The airplane that crashed last night – tail number F-GZCP – had no accidents or incidents in its history. It went into service on April 18, 2005 and had logged 18,870 hours. In 2006, it’s wing collided with the tail of an Airbus A321 on the ground at Charles de Gaulle Airport – the damage was classified as “minor”. It was last in the hangar on April 16, 2009l for routine maintenance. No serious squawks reported.

No reason to believe terrorism – While you cannot take the possibility of a bomb off the list just yet, no groups have claimed any responsibility for downing the plane. What good is a terrorist attack if the perpetrators don’t, well, terrorize us?

So consider this as a possible scenario: The crew is flying toward a line of storms in the dark, out of range of land-based radar. They are equipped with on board weather radar however – and can use it to thread their way through the bad cells if need be.

It is quite likely the airplane was struck by lightning – or it could have triggered lightning by the mere act of flying at Mach .8 through storm clouds. It is not impossible that could have sparked a fuel fire – but that is highly unlikely. In fact, it has been four decades  since lightning alone caused an airliner crash in the US. A lot of time and effort is spent protecting airplanes from this clear and present danger (interesting piece here). And airliners get hit by lightning all the time – you don’t hear about it because nothing bad happens. Remember, it is seldom just one thing that brings a modern airliner down.

Many of those airliners that get hit by lightning are so called fly-by-wire aircraft (meaning the controls in the cockpit are linked to the movable surfaces on the airplane by electrical wires and computers). Airbus pioneered FBW control systems in commercial airliners and the engineers in Toulouse have gone out of their way to demonstrate their products are safe in stormy weather. There are four fully redundant electrical systems on an Airbus – and if the worst happens, a manual flight control system that allows the crew to fly the plane (barely) using the rudder, differential thrust on the engines and horizontal stabilizer trim. [You may recall that is how the crew of United flight 232 managed to get a DC-10 on the ground in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989 after a complete hydraulics failure]

Ironically, one of the systems most vulnerable to lightning strikes is the on-board weather radar located in the nose cone. It cannot do its job if it is shielded from lightning like the rest of the airplane is – and so it is more likely to go down when bolt strikes (which is, of course, when you need it most). So it is possible this plane was hit by lightning, knocking out the radar.

You can imagine the crew was suddenly preoccupied with multiple electric failures that left them in the dark, over the ocean and without weather radar as they hurtled toward some epic cumulus nimbus thunderheads. This would have been a serious emergency that should prompt a pilot to do a 180 and head for the nearest suitable size slab of concrete.

The fact that the airplane sent automatic warnings that it had an electrical problem means, by definition, that it was not a total, instant failure. But did things cascade from there? They might have found themselves inside a huge storm only able to control the airplane manually – which means minimally – with the rudder primarily.

And then there is the Airbus rudder. You may recall the crash of American Airlines flight 587 on November 12, 2001 as it departed New York’s JFK airport. The plane encountered some wake turbulence and the copilot apparently stepped too hard on the rudder pedals – breaking off the graphite vertical stabilizer and rudder (the tail).

As long as we are talking about pilot inputs leading to broken airplanes, consider this important point: when the Airbus FBW system is up and running as it should, there are all kinds limits placed on the pilot’s ability to move the control surfaces of the airplane. It’s sort of like a governor on a car engine. If you move the controls too far, too fast in any direction, the computer, in essence, ignores the human being’s commands and keeps the plane inside the flight envelope. This is designed to stop a plane from stalling, spinning, gaining too much speed or pulling too many “G’s” because a pilot is over-correcting (which of course, is not correct at all).

But as the electrical systems start failing, the machines lose their authority to trump the humans fairly quickly. Depending on how many multiple failures of redundant systems there are, the so called flight control laws change to “Alternate”, “Abnormal Alternate” and finally “Direct Law”. At each level, the pilots get more authority to move the control surfaces without the machines intervening. So a combination of loosened fly-by-wire reins, cruise speed and extreme turbulence would increase the potential for an in-flight breakup.


AA 587 crash site in Queens - from NOAAEven today’s advanced - seemingly invincible - airliners are no match for Mother Nature on a bad night. If a big airplane ends up in the teeth of a powerful thunderstorm, it could be torn to pieces in an instant.

We do know whatever happened on that airplane in its last few minutes was nothing short of horrifying. It is hard to imagine the kind of turbulence that would break up an airliner. My heart goes out to the passengers and crew.

Will we ever know what happened? This one will be hard. The wreckage will be likely strewn over a wide area – and locating the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice Recorders won’t be easy since they are likely at the bottom of the sea – possibly 24,ooo feet below the surface. Even if they are transmitting their homing signals, you would need a lot of luck and a pretty stout submersible to retrieve them. But that may be moot – as simply knowing where to search will be difficult.

One thing which may help: those automatic messages indicating system failures – which are designed primarily to give mechanics a heads up about problems so they can turn a plane around on the ground faster – no doubt contained much more information than is now in the public realm.

Which brings me to this wild idea: why not send steady streams of telemetry from airliners to the ground all the time – ala the space shuttle? This effectively places the “black boxes”, safe and sound – on the ground. Imagine how invaluable that much data would be right now – given the the distinct possibility this could remain an unsolved mystery.

We all need to know what happened to Air France 447. Is there something that makes the A-330 fleet unsafe in certain conditions? In the absence of real facts, will conspiracy theorists spin a tale of terrorism and government cover ups? Did the flight crew make crucial errors in judgment? Or was this an unavoidable scenario – bad luck with odds so long that nothing or no one is really to blame?