Do commercial pilots know what they’re doing? Flight Safety expert Philip Chandler believes many airline pilots have lost basic skills that save lives in emergencies.
“In the final few days of 2014 an A320 of Air Asia flew into the Java Sea killing all 162 on board. What had been a perfectly airworthy jet with a minor system fault had fallen in a stalled condition from 28,000 feet with the Captain pushing the stick forward to regain airspeed and the Co-Pilot pulling back; the aircraft’s flight control system had detected conflicting signals, and taken the democratic decision to let them cancel each other out- the result was none of the aircraft’s control surfaces (the flaps and assorted moving parts that steer the aircraft) moved. If this seems familiar, it’s because only five and a half years earlier Air France 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris had plummeted in to the Atlantic with the same confusion in the cockpit. Although both accidents had their roots in minor technical faults, the aircraft flew into the seas as a result of crews’ dependence on automation – and ignorance of what to do if things go wrong. The crew failed to carry out correct actions that even the private pilot of a light aircraft would be expected to get right.
As isolated incidents these two events would be bad enough, however Loss Of Control Inflight (known as LOC-I ) is now the leading cause of fatalities on modern airliners. Since 2006 43% of fatal incidents on airliners have been due to the inability of the aircrew to operate the aircraft. Nor is it an Airbus issue, Asiana managed to bounce a 777 along San Francisco airport after the crew, including a training captain, failed to understand the autopilot logic and stalled on short finals. Three of the 307 aboard were killed, two of whom were notably not wearing their seat-belts and were flung clear of the wreckage suffering blunt force trauma, possibly from being run over by a fire tender.
Nor does it only affect fixed wing aircraft, in August 2013 a Super Puma of the CHC Helicopter Corporation crashed just short of Sumburgh Airport after entering a vortex ring state, where the aircraft is trapped in a column of descending air of its own making. In that case the crew had again failed to fully understand the workings of the automatic pilot and had allowed the aircraft to get too slow with too little power available to maintain height. This of course being only one of many possible ways to suffer a fatal accident in a Super Puma the numerous technical failings the type has suffered in the last decade being worthy of an article on their own. Hint hint (OK Philip, go for it. Ed)
Although accidents can happen at any stage of the flight only around 24% of fatal accidents occur while an aircraft is cruising, the time to really worry is during the final approach and landing. During this phase of the flight 49% of fatal accidents take place, accounting for 47% of the 3191 deaths that have occurred since 2006. Just to prove that you can’t relax once the aircraft is on the ground 20% of deaths occur because the aircraft runs off the runway, lands abnormally or the pilots just miss the big ass piece of tarmac they’re supposed to land on. As recently as 5 August 2016, a Boeing 737-400 of ASL Airlines failed to stop on Bergamo’s 9209 foot runway and instead ended up straddling a dual carriageway another 900 feet further on. Fortunately it was a freighter operating for DHL so there were no passengers to worry about and both crew survived (the aircraft on the other hand may need a bit of a polish before re-entering service). Slightly further back in April 2013, a Lion Air 737 landed in the water 0.6 nautical miles short of the seawall that protects the runway threshold. In that case the crew continued to descend below the minimum safe altitude despite not being in sight of the runway. When they finally made the decision to go around they were far too low and only the shallowness of the water prevented any fatalities.
Is too much automation to blame? Probably not, aircraft accident rates in commercial aviation have been decreasing as automation has allowed aircraft to be operated more efficiently than ever before. However, this has removed the onus on aircrew to maintain core flying skills with the so called ‘Children of the Magenta’ blithely following the lines presented to them on the in cockpit displays and successfully completing hundreds of flights. But when something does go wrong many lack the basic skills required to fly the aircraft and make the wrong decision when faced with the unexpected. The miracle on the Hudson and the successful end to QF32, an A380 that suffered an uncontained engine failure, were in no small part due to the training and experience the crews had that allowed them to Aviate, Navigate and Communicate when things started to go wrong. Unfortunately, although many fine websites exist that allow you to determine the best seat to choose for any flight, the author has yet to find one that gives you a detailed breakdown of the flight decks experience levels.
Current trends since 1999 indicate that on average there are 4.14 hull loss accidents per million departures, leading to 32 fatalities per million departures. With nearly 38 million scheduled flights per year that’s a decent line in revenue for Boeing and Airbus in replacing lost aircraft. With an annual average of 1233 deaths in commercial accidents it is however fair to say that no matter how terrifying the flight may seem, you’re significantly more likely to die on the drive to the airport than on the actual flight. In the UK alone there are an average of 2500 road traffic deaths a year. So maybe catch the train to the airport next time.”
Since working in Flight Safety, Philip Chandler regularly Googles airline safety records before booking flights.
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Air Asia Accident Report
Air France Accident Report
Asiana Accident Summary
CHC Accident Report
ASL Accident Details
Lion Air Accident Report
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