What do I do now?

December 9, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Lyman H.

    the first test will be if the immediately prescribed policy implemented is that captains will no longer be allowed to leave to cockpit for any reason during the flight. if that occurs, the problem will be deemed “solved for now”, and after the hub-bub dies down, fundamental reform will be abandoned. let’s hope that the establishment comes clean, and addresses training!

  • Eric F.

    Perhaps they need to upgrade the drivers seat on that bird to include a chamberpot attachment??

    Seriously though, a student pilot here in USA is expected to recover from this situation, by reflex, promptly and safely, in maybe 700 feet not 7000, before even being permitted to fly any airplane solo.

    What kind of training did this “first officer” recieve?!?

  • John Hey

    It is true that technology is getting us away from the stick and rudder skills that were our daily diet. An older Delta captain told me that the Colgon accident was pure basic airmanship failure, but on their frequent check rides this is not tested for since they presume any airline pilot has that ingrained in them and besides, it is not real fun to stall a B737 or do grave yard spiral recoveries in them. Maybe we are funneling our students into the big iron track too early. Lets just hope TSA won’t get in the mix!

  • Gerard

    Yes, technology for all it’s benefits can sometimes lead us astray. Pilots need to remember how to fly the plane, provided they were taught that skill in first place, which apparently this Indian FO was not.

    I am not planning any flights in India soon, but I still need to fly and often it’s on Colgan Air under the Continental logo, so the story of flight 3407 is of particular interest to me. While airmanship if properly applied in those last 23 seconds might have saved the day for flight 3407 , the fact is the aircraft should have never been allowed to get into a stall in the first place. I have read and re-read the transcript of the cockpit voice recording for flight 3407 and while I feel sorry that the last hours of their lives are laid bare for all to read, it is apparent that this flight crew was not performing at their best. Yes, there were contributing factors, but clearly the crew’s lack of professionalism in the cockpit contributed to ineffective management of the aircraft and ultimately the entry into a stall which apparently they were not properly trained to address. There was a combined 5000+ hours in the cockpit and it counted for nothing that day.

    Yes, we need to turn off the glass cockpit every so often and practice stick and rudder flying, but regardless of who or what is flying the plane, we still need to manage the flight, from pre-flight to shutdown. It is easy to get complacent, but pilots need to bring their A-game to each and every flight. Flight schools, commercial operators, the airlines and the FAA need to ensure the pilots have an A-game to bring. GA or ATP we should all strive to be professionals in the cockpit.

    This is the link to the NTSB report for flight 3407 which includes the CVR transcript.


    Read it and ask, what would you have done differently?

  • Jerry Chao

    A friend of mine with some knowledge of India Aviation Industry told me there are some issues with pilots falsifying qualification in order to get those positions. There is a shortage of pilots due to the rapid expansion. Without getting into the specifics, I was horrified by the story. I am not surprised by the performance of this 25 year old co-pilot. Let’s hope at least the captain is well qualified.