Posts Tagged ‘Discovery Channel’

Practice your crashes

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

I was recently watching a Discovery Channel special about a group of scientists and pilots who decided to crash a Boeing 727 in the Mexican desert in order to better understand what affects survivability versus fatalities in a real-world crash. (Click here for video clips from “Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash.”—Ed.)

If you get an opportunity to see the show, you should. It made me think of a couple things. First, you can get a 727 for a relatively paltry sum (they paid $425,000 for theirs). Second, it makes me wonder how many people are familiar with the crash landing procedures in their airplanes–specifically jets.

During the experiment, cameras were installed in the cockpit in order to film the crash from that point of view. During the last part of the descent, a female voice can be heard saying, “Falling….falling.” It’s clearly a voice that is tied into either a radar altimeter or a ground proximity warning system (GPWS, pronounced “JIP-WIZ”), and it is this voice that got me pondering thought number two.

Modern aircraft have all kinds of bells and whistles that start making noises under specific circumstances. In this case, it was because the 727 was forced, via remote control, into a descent that was nearly three times the norm, like what might happen if a crew fell asleep. On the CRJ that I flew for Comair, there were a number of warnings that came on at low altitude if certain conditions were not met. They included general terrain or obstacle warnings, gear problems, flap settings, descent rate warnings, and wind-shear warnings.

All of these could be cancelled if the crew—especially the first officer (FO)—knew how. The overrides were primarily intended to help a crew cancel a nuisance message that shouldn’t otherwise be on. The volume level of the warnings is not adjustable. They have one setting: rock-concert-loud. (You know, that whole sleeping-pilot thing.) Unfortunately, any other communication is virtually impossible, so there are switch-lights that can be pushed to cancel the audible warnings. Unfortunately again, the switch is nuclear: It kills everything.

But in an impending crash, that’s good. Most airlines don’t practice full-blown crashes in the sim. However, because I have a morbid sense of humor and a never-ending curiosity, I did it several times. Scenarios that might drive the use of such a checklist could include a total failure of the gear system, loss of fuel, loss of engine power and/or total electric power (think: lightning strike), even an inflight collision with another plane or some of the geese that Sullenburger missed. The crash-landing checklist is several pages long, and I wanted to be familiar enough with it that I could get to the nuts-and-bolts of it quickly if I needed it.

Getting rid of extraneous noise is a major part of minimizing workload when trying to crash-land with a minimal rate of damage and a maximum chance of survival.
If you ever get a chance to do a total crash scenario in a sim, you should, especially with the gear up and in various flap configurations. The airplane does not fly the same, and the speed and control response will vary from what you are used to. Besides, in a worse-case scenario, you want to at least be able to say, “I’ve done this before.” In a safe environment, of course!—Chip Wright

Ariel Tweto gets her ticket

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

In last season’s Flying Wild Alaska on the Discovery Channel, we were following the adventures of Ariel Tweto, wondering if she would be able to find time to hit the books and knock out her private pilot training.

Well, wonder no more. In the season (and series) finale that aired on July 20, Ariel took her checkride and passed. Of course, we didn’t learn that until the final five minutes of the episode. We had to suffer through much hand-wringing and consternation over the fact that Ariel’s examiner would be someone from the FAA rather than a designated pilot examiner. This being reality television, we also had to endure speculation that she might not pass the oral (she did) and that she might blow her short-field landing (she didn’t, but she did do a go-around).

In many ways, Ariel’s flight training experience mirrored everyone else’s. She had an extremely busy schedule, making it difficult to schedule her lessons; her flight instructor John Ponts left in mid-training. She switched aircraft a few times, so she had to familiarize herself with different systems and avionics each time. (At one point, she was training in a Cessna 207, which brings its own set of challenges to a student pilot.) Flight Training interviewed Ariel for the January 2012 issue, and you can read that interview here (and see a video of the whole gang at AirVenture 2011).

Some might argue that Ariel had a lot going for her as a student pilot–she grew up in a flying family and had well-maintained aircraft at her disposal. But she also grew up in Alaska, which probably dealt her more than a few weather delays. And it can’t have been easy for her to learn to fly while filming a reality TV show. Often while watching her struggle to land I was thankful no cable station ever wanted to videotape my flight lessons and broadcast them to a national audience. So here’s to Ariel, who eloquently summarized her hard-won flying privileges at the end of the episode: “I just need a runway, and then I have the whole world.”—Jill W. Tallman