Maritime Buzz Job

January 25, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

As the details of the Italian cruise ship accident, the Costa Concordia, came out this mishap began to bear an uncanny resemblance to the aeronautical pastime of buzzing. The ship was on a pre-programmed course, one that it and other vessels took hundreds of times before. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino apparently deviated from the official computerized route. The small island of Giglio was the source of attraction and, according to the ship’s data recorder, the Concordia came within 150 meters (488 feet) of the Giglio coast, much closer than the approved route. The captain had never done this before (he said) but he did have charts on board and electronic equipment showed the rock formation that ripped a 162 foot gash in the left side of the vessel. Schettino admitted to making a “navigational error” when he “ordered a turn too late.”

So why’d he do it? Showboating, if you’ll pardon the pun, comes to mind. According to ABC News, “Italian media have reported that Schettino was close to the shore in order to wave to a friend who was on land. ” The Cruise Critic blog notes that “Giglio’s news outlet says a similar maneuver in August 2011 earned Schettino a letter of thanks from the island’s mayor. Costa’s CEO, Pier Luigi Foschi said that the August sail-by, which was timed in conjunction with Giglio’s patron saint day, was pre-authorized by Costa and local maritime authorities. The ship stayed at least 500 meters (1,625 feet) from the coast for the entirety of the sail-by, added Foschi. …But, citing Automatic Identification System tracking data, which cruise ships with gross tonnage of 300 or more are required to divulge, shipping publication Lloyd’s List reported that the August sail-by “took the vessel far closer to Giglio than the 500 meters claimed by [Foschi]”—and within 200 meters (650 feet) of the “point of collision” on Friday.”

In the aviation world, you won’t often see a buzz job by an airliner on a regularly scheduled run although accident records show that on deadheading legs for Part 135 and 121 operations, the temptation to do something interesting happens often enough that it’s become an educational point for flight operations. Rest assured that the cruise industry will spend a long time studying this mess. For Part 91 pilots could this serve as a really BIG object lesson?

A perfectly functioning ship is driven into the ground by the captain to show off for a friend and innocents are lost. It is highly likely that the captain will be charged with manslaughter and may serve a long jail sentence. In aviation, we’ve seen foreign authorities prosecute pilots for what truly are accidents, such as the collision between a business jet and an airliner over Brazil a few years back. Honest mistakes are one thing. Deliberate deviations are something else. You’ll recall the case of a pilot giving biplane rides a few years back who decided to engage in some “river-running” and tangled with some wires which resulted in the loss of his passenger.

When one gets away with it they’re a hero in the eyes of some (usually uninformed). But the downside risk is so incredibly high that thinking people will think better of the impulse that may infect a few of us. Without being too sanctimonious, we should share the Concordia disaster with the so-called unreachable among us who are prone to put others or themselves at risk. You want thrills? Try bungee jumping with a long tether—that will cure you—Splat!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Alex Kovnat

    The Costa Concordia disaster was partially, but not entirely, a matter of an irresponsible captain showing off. It was partially but not entirely, a matter of said captain deserting his command. Imagine an airline tragedy where yes, the captain was a jerk in flying too close to the ground but also, the flight attendants were overworked and not properly trained to deal with emergencies. According to the latest edition of Newsweek magazine, this is what happened with the Costa Concordia. The Newsweek article I’m referring to, mentioned how cruise ships are often registered under foreign flags of convenience and therefore, are not subject to U.S. admiralty laws. Since these ships are not subject to U.S. maritime laws and maritime unions, crew members often speak English with heavy accents that are hard to understand, are required to work 12-14 hour days, are not trained like they should be and get very little time off. Hence if something happens, they don’t address their responsibilities to passengers as we would like them too.

    This web site is supposed to address aviation not ships, so I’ll not go any further in holding forth on the problems of the cruise ship industry. Let’s just say that with Part 121 or 135 aviation, or commuter aviation, we should ask: Are the flight crews properly trained and motivated? Are they required to fly more hours per month than is good for them? Finally: when boarding an aircraft, one should ask: Are the flight attendants trained in how to handle emergencies?

    For those flying their own planes, its not only so much a matter of not “buzzing”, but also a matter of whether YOU have been working too long a day without enough sleep.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Alex, Good points. Flags of convenience are the dirty little secret of the maritime world and the dollar is the driver. We are finallystarting to address the fatigue issue in aviation as a result of Colgan. There is still a long way to go.

    This is not as big a problem for Part 91 ops because we are our own bosses and get to set the schedule. Air Safefty institute has a safety brief on fatigue that listes the hazards.

    Thanks for yor comments .

  • John Ritchie

    Sometimes the Buzz jobs are authorized by the system. I remember In the 1980s Atlanta Center would have it’s “Family Day” picnic on the grounds in the summer where they would have a Delta L-1011 fly by at around maybe 800 feet (it was darn low for such a big plane) and pull up into what appeared to be a chandelle. They did this several times for the crowd. It was really strange seeing the upper side of the L-1011 fuselage and wings in a steep bank from a viewpoint standing on the ground; you never get to see this profile in “normal” flight . As the ship approached at low level, you would see the full set of landing lights shining through the pine trees before you actually saw the plane. The flights were crew-only “maintenance flights” (5 digit flight ID) and the the adjacent airport 4A7 was NOTAMed for the whole thing at 1:00pm which took maybe 20 minutes total. It was a truly magnificent show, but I sometimes did wonder a bit about the safety of the whole thing.

  • Alex Kovnat

    On the AOPA forums, under Aviation in the News, there were two threads about the 4-engine C-130J doing aerobatics. Now its come to light (to me, at least) that an L-1011 has done something like that. One hopes that all that kinetic energy is NEVER pointed at crowds of people nor at places where people outside the airport boundaries might get hit if something goes wrong.