Archive for 2010

What do I do now?

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Last spring was not Air India Express’s finest hour when the Boeing 737 first officer inadvertently disengaged the autopilot and the flight plunged nearly 7,000 feet from cruising altitude.

“The 25-year-old co-pilot was adjusting his seat forward but instead pressed the control column forward, putting the Boeing 737 into a 26-degree nosedive ” reports ABC News. The captain had gone aft to attend to physiological needs when the aircraft headed earthward in a big hurry. The cockpit door was locked so there was some delay getting back onto the flight deck. One can only imagine that conversation!

The notable comment of the month was the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation mentioning that the young co-pilot had not been trained to handle the situation and “probably had no clue to tackle this kind of emergency”.

What emergency? An aircraft in cruise disengages the autopilot?

So what appears to be true is that this first officer was

  • Incapable of  moving around in a cockpit without bumping critical flight controls. That seems like a rather important skill to master.
  • Unable to diagnose that the autopilot has disconnected and the aircraft has entered a power dive? The recovery is something that any private pilot is required to demonstrate on a practical test. (Reduce power, roll wings level, smoothly raise the nose to level flight and gradually reapply power.) Ditto comments above.
  • Unable to unlock the cabin door – although admittedly, a 26 degree nose down attitude with a rapidly increasing bank angle and airspeed could be somewhat distracting.

The pilot’s announcement to the terrified cabin, after control and composure was sort of regained, was that the aircraft had hit an “Air Pocket” which was the cause of the near-death experience. (Not to worry – the great and powerful Oz has every – thing – under – control – I hope. )

The Directorate General also noted that the 25 year old co-pilot would be ” dealt with.”  That’s a given but what of the airline training department and the government certification process that ever allowed the situation to progress to this point? And how come it took 6 months for this to become public? Inquiring minds are inquiring.

As the U.S. struggles with how to staff flight airline decks with competent pilots there may be something to learn here. I hope the Indian political establishment resists the temptation to “assist” and lets the responsible safety professionals  address the issues. That may include termination of some officials.

Basic airmanship is coming more into question as the aircraft increasingly “fly themselves.”  The Colgan accident in Buffalo bears some superficial similarity. Within GA, we see very sophisticated flight management systems on even the most basic of aircraft and there is some concern that many pilots are becoming too automation dependent and when it fails or is mismanaged, they are unable to recover.

This incident occurred only a few days after another Air India Express B737 overshot a runway with 158 fatalities, ostensibly because the pilot was fatigued. More shades of Colgan.

These problems do not happen in isolation and the fact that something didn’t develop into an accident is often because the last link or two in the accident chain was missing. Do you feel lucky?

This unfortunate and unflattering sequence began long before nature’s call beckoned the PIC from the flight deck. That point applies to all flight operations be they GA, corporate, or air carrier.

Kid Car Seats aboard Aircraft?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Next week the NTSB will hold hearings on a pending recommendation that car seats be required on board aircraft.

Some observations:

Airlines —

1. Requiring children in car seats is a great idea when the aircraft is full because then Mom doesn’t have to hold a squirming, squalling child for four hours. The kid is happier too.

2. From a safety perspective, there might be some minor added benefit in a few crashes involving a moderately sudden stop.  The benefit in crashes that terminate on mountainsides, short of the runway after an IFR approach or in a fireball is far more limited.

3.  Passengers having to make a quick exit that require climbing over a car seat in an emergency could be significantly slowed down. Should  any rule prescribe that car seats can only be placed by windows or the center seat of wide-bodies with dual aisles?

4. Economics – requiring families to pay for an extra seat may force more to drive where the risk of fatality in a car crash is much higher than in airline flight even without the seat. The airlines probably don’t want to give up that revenue either. Net – more lives are lost but not in airplanes.

General Aviation – -

1.  Since the interior of GA aircraft are similar, but not identical, to cars – car seats are helpful for securing children too small to comfortably and safely fit under a seat belt.

2. In four passenger aircraft you won’t be able to wedge another Munchkin in and will have to upgrade to a larger flying machine. Sorry,  but the tool has to fit the trip or the trip has to be modified to fit the tool.

3. For those flying volunteer charity flights – we strongly encourage the use of car seats . In a survivable crash, they could make all the difference and we’ve seen one clear instance of that. Other losses are harder to pin down due to how the accident data is collected, but I’m confident that there have been other losses.

Turbulence is also a big consideration regardless of aircraft type and it makes sense to have the right kind of restraint when moderate or the occasional severe jolt comes along. A babe- in-arms is quite vulnerable under those circumstances.

As for another good reason why you might want to secure your toddler – Check out ASI’s Toddler Overboard Real Pilot Story.

Should car seats be required on Part 91 flights (non-charitable flights) for children under the age of two? Take the Poll.

Point of No Easy Return

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Wonder if this has happened to anyone else? During a recent IMC flight, a last minute clearance spiked the cockpit workload.

The full instrument approach and transition had been programed into our glass cockpit. Approach Control advised to expect vectors for the ILS and upon hearing those magic words it was  back to the procedure menu to activate Vectors To Final. On this particular box that wipes out all the transition and intermediate way points. The Magenta Line to Heaven appeared and life was good:  a 45 degree intercept to a few miles outside the FAF.

The controller was busy and a short while later cleared us direct to an intermediate fix that was on the extended centerline.  Hmm – how to get there? All the intermediate way points had been vaporized. To get back to that way point meant canceling this approach and resetting the full approach. There were only a few miles until final approach intercept.   As the left seat pilot, I cheerfully asked the right seat pilot to solve the problem – A time-honored tradition! (He was senior to me on the aircraft anyway).

First thought was to go into flight plan mode and see if loading the way point would work – but then we’re out of approach mode and about to intercept.

How about pushing the “Undo” soft key that gets you back to where you were – the full approach with all the way points ? Sorry – that is on the next generation unit which hasn’t been delivered yet.

While the short between two headsets was going on,  the aircraft intercepted the final and the co-pilot advised ATC we were crossing the localizer. The controller, who had been busy with other duties, immediately cleared us for the approach and everything ended well with no cross words.

I called the Tracon afterward to see if this  our foul up? They are reviewing the radar tapes to evaluate  – for educational purposes only. It was all very cordial but illustrates one of the transition points between the old way of navigation and the new. Suspect there will multiple revelations on both sides of the Mic.

ATC needs flexibility to deal with dynamic traffic and pilots needs some certainty especially when time is limited. The goal is to get to common  understanding of how the other side lives.