Sunday, December 15, 2013

Automation Deflation

Well, there has been lots of news lately concerning the automation of aircraft control and the increasing perception that this may not be the best of ideas.

First on our list is the release of a report commissioned by the FAA concerning the use of automation on aircraft and the realization that there are negative unintended consequences. The report is available here.

The next item we'd like to point out is an interesting article in the Atlantic which starts with cockpit automation but continues on to draw conclusions about how the automation of tasks from flying airplanes to stock picking to reading X-rays eventually makes us stupid. Read it here.

Next on our tour is a NTSB hearing on the crash of Asiana 214, the 777 airliner which crashed on a clear day at San Francisco. There is quite a bit of talk concerning the challenges of landing an airliner on a calm clear day and how the automation failures may have contributed to the accident. Read a summary of the interviews here. While we have made our thoughts on this subject clear, in a backhanded way we may owe a debt of gratitude to these pilots who provided such a clear and unambiguous illustration of the dangers of over reliance on automation.

Lastly, we have a story which details how memory of an event may be impaired by the act of taking pictures of that event. We are not psychologists but found this story interesting for the reason that when a machine is inserted between humans and an activity, memories of that activity are diminished. This may or may not have implications for cockpit automation but it seems intriguing.

Please Fasten Your Seatbelt (Update)

We hate to point out that our predictions made recently were scarily accurate (not really), but here goes:

New pilot rest rules are now waiting in the wings and ready for implementation on January 1st. Having to assign flight duty to pilots a month in advance, the new schedules are available and the trend is clear. Due to the hard limits of the new rules, airlines are preemptively scheduling pilots for days with less flying and longer overnights. This if you remember, is due to the new rules not allowing pilots to finish a trip that they were legal to start but due to delays exceeded hard duty limits. Therefore, should a pilot start a trip but become delayed due to say air traffic or other cause and are projected to exceed the time limit, the aircraft must taxi back to the gate and is not permitted to depart regardless of how the pilots may feel.

Airlines, as we predicted, will need to increase staffing to cover the same amount of flying. And as day follows night, our airline recently announced the hiring of several hundred pilots to cover an essentially flat flying schedule. Some of this was attributed to increased vacation time due to longevity, but the rest was laid directly at the feet of the new Part 117 rest rules. So now the airline's pilot staffing costs rise and pilots themselves, who are paid by the hour, will have to spend more days at work on balance to make the same income. And all for negligible safety benefits. Well done, morons.

Ok, our next topic was how the TSA is helping to systematically kill the short haul airline market. Well, the news just broke that the TSA security fee was raised 124% from $2.50 to $5.60 per flight segment as part of the recent budget deal. Almost on cue, Southwest, our favorite airline announced the termination of service to three smaller market airports, Jackson MS, Key West FL, and Branson, Mo. In a cogent analysis, Motley Fool explains that with rising costs driving break even load factors into the 70+ percent ranges, airlines need to fly airplanes full of full fare paying customers. Southwest also recently picked up more slots at LaGuardia and will be bidding on slots at Reagan which American was required to divest as a condition of their merger with USAir.

So to our great relief, fliers departing from New York and DC (anyone you know?) will benefit from the increased presence of a low cost carrier (which isn't really so low cost anymore) but folks in Branson and Jackson and Key West may be driving more.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Southwest 345 Update

We saw this photo of the incident aircraft which crash landed at LGA last summer. It has been put back on it's gear, shrinkwrapped and sent by barge to Albany, NY while the investigation proceeds. We have it on authority that the aircraft will not be repaired as it is not cost effective to do so. Apparently the fuselage was damaged or crinkled near the main gear and the costs of repair exceed the value of having the aircraft put back into service. The captain of the aircraft who, according to NTSB information, took control of the aircraft on short final and caused the nose gear first landing has been terminated. There are conflicting reports that the pilot in question resigned rather than was terminated but this may only be a difference in semantics.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Please Fasten Your Seatbelts

There is not much to say about most airplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn't get hijacked, you didn't crash, you didn't throw up, you weren't late, you weren't nauseated by the food. So you're grateful. 
— Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express, 1979.
The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down. 
— Warren Buffett, annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, February 2008.

Being in the airline business has never been least for managers who try to make some money at it. The industry is simultaneously capital intensive: dependent on very expensive airplanes, labor intensive: dependent on a multiplicity of unionized labor groups, and operations are subject to the vagaries of a politicized oil supply from an unstable part of the world, along with network disruptions due to weather and technology. Piling on top of these challenges to profitability are cascading layers of government from local airport authorities each acting as a duchy unto itself with captive airline tenants as vassals, to the federal government, a multi-headed hydra of taxation, regulation, and control.

 Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines once noted that in no other business does the government actually control the production line as the FAA does the movement of aircraft. Pace their personification as the steely eyed technicians on whose every move passenger's lives depend, FAA air traffic controllers probably have more in common with your average <facetious> friendly and perky </facetious> DMV receptionist. They and their union have figured out that working harder or faster means just that: harder and faster work with no reward. Hence the ongoing job action by FAA employees masquerading as traffic delays and congestion. The whole enterprise should be privatized like they've done up in socialist Canada. (Who's socialist now?) 

The government has enlisted airlines as quasi public utilities for use as political footballs and ATMs for decades. When added up, airlines are taxed more heavily than most "sin" taxes levied on alcohol, tobacco and guns. And those taxes are designed to reduce use of those products. Apparently embarrassed at the panoply of taxes, the DOT won't even permit airlines to break out their fares separate of the taxes applied on their web sites (like every other business on the planet does). They must show fares that already have the taxes and fees included.

Even just this week, the bright lights over at Eric Holder's thoroughly politicized and craven Justice Department Antitrust Division have decided that after allowing two mega-mergers, now is the time to close the barn door on the UsAir American merger. Never mind that the deal has been approved by the shareholders and unions of both airlines, in an industry where network size is a main competitive advantage, we will be left with a duopoly of  United/Continental and Delta/Northwest, while a stunted American and UsAir lose business traffic to the two airlines with larger networks and loyalty programs, and leisure traffic to Southwest and other low cost carriers (LCCs).

For Southwest, our favorite airline, this action by Justice is great news because it was likely going to find itself as a team without a conference in the new landscape. Southwest has recently been forced from it's traditional pocket as a low fare point-to-point carrier, but is in no way conditioned or large enough to make a break on a field populated by behemoths bulked up through the juicing of merger mania. Southwest, along with all airlines collectively face three new and one old threat which will significantly alter the competitive landscape for the industry. Those threats are new rest rules for pilots, new experience requirements for pilots, the TSA, and a new breed of ultra low cost carriers. Let us explore shall we?

New Rest Rules

Following the crash of Colgan Air 3407, Congress not wanting to let a crisis go to waste, enacted the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 which was signed by the President on August 1st, 2010. The bill was sponsored by James Oberstar, (D, Mn) a well known friend of airline unions. This bill served as the perfect vehicle to enact a long standing wish list of union priorities masquerading as safety initiatives. Safety has long been used as a cover under which unions run quality of life and pay enhancements. Truth be told, in days gone by, this was a necessary function to pass needed safety enhancements. However, after being supplanted by armies of government regulators in recent decades, union safety committees are today more concerned with featherbedding and, often in conjunction with the managements of established market players, throwing up barriers to entry to newer nimbler competitors.

Though the Colgan crash was ultimately blamed on an incompetent pilot, the legislation enacted focused on both rest rules for pilots and also minimum experience requirements for new hire pilots. Both are pernicious. Rest rules for pilots operating commercial aircraft have up to this point been based on the number of hours flown within a certain timeframe. One of the rules for instance constrained pilots to operating no more than 30 flight or "block" hours in seven days. This might entail twice that many hours on duty due to sit times, which weren't counted. The new regulations, FAR Part 117 rules which take effect next January, are an entire overhaul and include limits on "flight duty periods" or days at work among other changes. 

The devil, as usual, is in the details. The big change to the rules is a change to how the rules are applied during irregular operations (delays). Previously, if a crew was legal to start their day but then ran into delays which might have had them fly more than eight flight hours in a day, they were legal to finish their flight sequence. Keep in mind that all major airlines have no-fault fatigue policies so under the old rules a crew could always decline to finish their sequence if they felt too tired. The new rules however, prohibit crews from exceeding the hard duty limits regardless of where they are or how they feel. Crews are even prohibited from taking off if, for instance, the planned flight time would mean an arrival say even ten minutes past their hard duty limit.

It doesn't sound like a particularly harsh rule until you consider the consequences of what happens during an even minor weather event. On a typical day following a gate hold for a passing weather front, delays getting airborne can easily top an hour. Since any time after push back from the gate is counted as flight time or "block hours" in FAA terminology, a crew which was scheduled for a seven hour and thirty minute day would become illegal under the rules and would have to taxi back to the gate to be replaced after a 31 minute delay. This of course assumes that replacement or "reserve" pilots are available. If this event happened at an airport other than a crew domicile where reserves are assigned, the most likely outcome would be a flight cancellation.

Realizing this, airlines will start preemptively scheduling their pilots for shorter duty days at delay prone airports, or simply be quicker to cancel flights for even relatively small anticipated delays. Both of these actions will raise costs, fares, and increase cancellations all for a negligible effect on flight safety. 

New Experience Requirements

Included also in the FAA Extension Act mentioned above are new experience requirements for new hire airline pilots. Up to now, pilots looking for a career in aviation had to attain a commercial pilot rating and have at least 250 hours of total time before applying to a commuter airline. They would build this time either on their own nickel or more likely as an instructor or perhaps as a pipeline inspector or banner tow pilot flying a single engine aircraft.  The new rules require all prospective pilots looking for work at a commercial carrier to have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate which was previously only required for a captain and requires a minimum of 1500 hours of total flight time. With this one move, Congress and the FAA have done more to kill the commuter airline business than any number of commuter airline crashes ever could.

Since Orville and Wilbur first took to the skies, it has been a time honored tradition that aviation is something that was learned on the job. It could be no other way. Airplanes are expensive to own and expensive to fly. Fuel is expensive and renting a simple Cessna with an instructor can easily cost $150 per hour with forty hours needed for a private pilot's license. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was quoted saying  "We owe it to the traveling public to have only the most qualified and best trained pilots." Sure you do Tony. Just one question: where do you suppose this supply of 1500 hour pilots is going to come from? Flying banners around for a few hundred hours a year or perhaps crop dusting will only take about eight years or so before you are qualified to apply for a job that pays $16,000 to start.

Well, what about degree programs that offer flight training? They are out there and in fact the FAA will give graduates of such programs a break on the required hours all the way down to 1250. A check on the Embry-Riddle website, a respected aviation school, shows comprehensive fees at about $43k per year plus $15k extra for flight costs. The good news is that with hard work, you might be able to graduate in three years with an education costing $174k for that same $16k starting salary. 

If you get your flight experience in the military, the FAA will waive the new hire hours requirement all the way down to 750 hours. The trick is that the Air Force is now requiring a ten year commitment to the service following completion of pilot training. This means that no pilots with fewer than about 12 years of experience will be leaving the military for the airlines which makes the point moot. Additionally, at 12 years in a military career, the pension which only vests after 20 years looks quite good. As a result of the long commitment, pilot slots are going unfilled at the Air Force Academy, and of those who do become pilots, fewer are likely to leave the service for a relatively low paying airline job.

Now we'll be honest in pointing out that while doing practically nothing for safety, (remember, the pilots in the Colgan accident had 3379 and 2244 flight hours respectively) this new rule is an excellent barrier to entry and should serve nicely to bolster wage demands of those of us who are already in the profession. We had the opportunity to speak to the CEO of a commuter airline recently and asked what the plan for staffing his airline was re the new rules. After lots of tap dancing, it became clear that the plan was to park airplanes. There simply wouldn't be pilots to fly them. This means a triage of cutting the least profitable routes while raising fares on routes that will bear the cost and customers who are not able to retreat to their automobiles. With major airlines needing to hire thousands of pilots to replace retiring boomers, look for a lot of parked airplanes. 


Which brings us to one of our favorite federal agencies. The TSA, (thousands standing around) while nominally a security organization, has done an excellent job boosting gasoline and auto sales as passengers in the decade since 9/11 have decided that driving up to six or eight hours is preferable to a figurative body cavity search by government goons. There's not much more to be said about the TSA that hasn't already been said or posted to YouTube except that they are truly an exemplary federal agency embodying everything the public finds endearing about caring bureaucrats. It's all there.

Getting back to our favorite airline, a trend has become clear that Southwest is abandoning its core competency of low cost, high frequency point-to-point operations. In the past year or so Southwest has abandoned city pairs such as Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Spokane-Seattle, Indianapolis-Chicago, Orlando-Ft. Lauderdale, and Baltimore-Newark to name but a few. The reasoning is obvious; they can't make money flying these routes. Certainly lots of people still want to go to these places but have found that after factoring in the time and humiliation of the security "process" their cars look more attractive. Herb Kelleher once noted that Southwest was good at drawing customers not from its competitors, but rather from their automobiles. Well it looks like Kelleher's business plan has met its match in a federal bureaucracy. Who'da guessed?

Ultra Low Cost Carriers

A new breed of ultra low cost carriers have recently debuted which seem to threaten to do to the established LCCs (Southwest, JetBlue) what those carriers did years ago to the established mainline carriers. Airlines such as Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier are based on a truly skeletal service model. Charging for everything imaginable such as aisle seats and stowing a bag in the overhead bin, these airlines are seeking to cherry pick truly price sensitive flyers. With new fleets, and young low cost employees, these airlines have margins which are nearly double that of  the traditional LCCs and mainline carriers. The question is how durable will this model be and how will it scale? With high dissatisfaction rates, the American consumer may have reached their limit on tolerating bare bones flying. Then again, low fares have proven to be the secret sauce of the aviation industry for some time now regardless of service.

In conclusion, the forecast as usual, is doom and gloom. But then again in this business it's the same as it ever was.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nose Gear Failure on Landing

Southwest Airlines flight 345 suffered a failure of its nose gear upon landing on LaGuardia's runway 4. The aircraft skidded to a halt and was evacuated with only minor injuries. NTSB photos show the nose gear which normally folds forwards on retraction into the nose gear bay had collapsed rearward.

The NTSB is investigating the cause of this incident and will determine if the landing was within normal parameters or not, and whether or not the nose gear suffered structural failure due to a defect.

Available audio tape of the radio transmissions indicate that the aircraft had accepted a clearance for an ILS approach. As opposed to a visual approach, an ILS approach must be flown with reference to an electronic signal which should preclude a steep or unstabilized approach. An unstabilized approach is generally one of the contributing factors to a firm landing, though a firm landing alone should not cause the failure of gear components. Even a very firm landing as experienced within the aircraft is usually well within the design tolerance of most airliners.

During a normal landing on an aircraft with tricycle gear, such as this 737 has, the main gear touch down first, followed by the nose gear as the aircraft decelerates. The NTSB has posted on it's website that video and other evidence indicate the aircraft may have touched down on its nose gear first. A nose gear first landing is highly unusual and could contribute to a failure of the landing gear. The NTSB has also tweeted on it's site that the aircraft pitch was a negative three degrees at touchdown which would be consistent with a nose gear first landing.

The aircraft was landing with the maximum flap setting of 40 which generally means the aircraft will fly at a lower pitch angle than with a lesser flap setting. A maximum flap setting for landing is recommended for landing on short runways, as it results in a lower approach airspeed and less kinetic energy to stop. Also of note is that runway 4 at LaGuardia is a relatively short runway with only 7000 feet of pavement available followed by an overrun and water.

When landing on a short runway, pilots must land by necessity in the first thousand feet or so of the landing zone and do not have the option of "floating" the aircraft in search of a smooth touchdown as might be possible on a longer runway. Should the landing not set up quite right, there is very little room for correction and the choices would be to either accept a firm touch down or to go around.

The investigation will undoubtedly uncover the exact cause of this incident, though if it is determined that the nose gear touched down first, these pilots will have some 'splainin to do. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 12, 2013

You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up!

We are continually astounded at the ever expanding depths of stupidity plumbed by the media when it comes to reporting on aviation. Most of it is simply moronic speculation by talking heads who haven't the slightest idea of what they're talking about. For instance we heard one on NPR this morning explaining that the displaced threshold may have made the accident less severe. The theory being that the pilots were somehow flying their aircraft in relation to the runway they saw out the front windscreen and since the runway was displaced, they hit later than they would have otherwise. Brilliant.

What would have made the accident less severe in our estimation would have been if Asiana had actually staffed it's widebody aircraft with real pilots who actually knew how to fly an airplane.

It is amusing to watch complete imbeciles pontificate on some technical reason or another why a crew would fly a perfectly good airplane into the dirt on a calm and clear day. But don't let us stop the fun. Please proceed.

But today we were directed to what must be the most hilarious and ridiculous example ever to make a TV screen. You really just can't make this stuff up but have to see it for yourself:

An Eyewitness Account

Here is an email from a United crew holding short of the runway as the Asiana B-777 approached:

On July 6, 2013 at approximately 1827Z I was the 747-400 relief F/O on flt 885, ID326/06 SFO-KIX. I was a witness to the Asiana Flt 214 accident. We had taxied to hold short of runway 28L at SFO on taxiway F, and were waiting to rectify a HAZMAT cargo issue as well as our final weights before we could run our before takeoff checklist and depart. As we waited on taxiway F heading East, just prior to the perpendicular holding area, all three pilots took notice of the Asiana 777 on short final. I noticed the aircraft looked low on glidepath and had a very high deck angle compared to what seemed “normal”. I then noticed at the apparent descent rate and closure to the runway environment the aircraft looked as though it was going to impact the approach lights mounted on piers in the SF Bay. The aircraft made a fairly drastic looking pull up in the last few feet and it appeared and sounded as if they had applied maximum thrust. However the descent path they were on continued and the thrust applied didn't appear to come soon enough to prevent impact. The tail cone and empennage of the 777 impacted the bulkhead seawall and departed the airplane and the main landing gear sheared off instantly. This created a long debris field along the arrival end of 28L, mostly along the right side of 28L. We saw the fuselage, largely intact, slide down the runway and out of view of our cockpit. We heard much confusion and quick instructions from SFO Tower and a few moments later heard an aircraft go around over the runway 28 complex. We realized within a few moments that we were apparently unharmed so I got on the PA and instructed everyone to remain seated and that we were safe.

We all acknowledged if we had been located between Runways 28R and 28L on taxiway F we would have likely suffered damage to the right side aft section of our aircraft from the 777.

Approximately two minutes later I was looking out the left side cockpit windows and noticed movement on the right side of Runway 28L. Two survivors were stumbling but moving abeam the Runway “28L” marking on the North side of the runway. I saw one survivor stand up, walk a few feet, then appear to squat down. The other appeared to be a woman and was walking, then fell off to her side and remained on the ground until rescue personnel arrived. The Captain was on the radio and I told him to tell tower what I had seen, but I ended up taking the microphone instead of relaying through him. I told SFO tower that there appeared to be survivors on the right side of the runway and they needed to send assistance immediately. It seemed to take a very long time for vehicles and assistance to arrive for these victims. The survivors I saw were approximately 1000-1500' away from the fuselage and had apparently been ejected from the fuselage.

We made numerous PAs to the passengers telling them any information we had, which we acknowledged was going to change rapidly, and I left the cockpit to check on the flight attendants and the overall mood of the passengers, as I was the third pilot and not in a control seat. A couple of our flight attendants were shaken up but ALL were doing an outstanding and extremely professional job of handling the passenger's needs and providing calm comfort to them. One of the flight attendants contacted unaccompanied minors' parents to ensure them their children were safe and would be taken care of by our crew. Their demeanor and professionalism during this horrific event was noteworthy. I went to each cabin and spoke to the passengers asking if everyone was OK and if they needed any assistance, and gave them information personally, to include telling them what I saw from the cockpit. I also provided encouragement that we would be OK, we'd tell them everything we learn and to please relax and be patient and expect this is going to be a long wait. The passenger mood was concerned but generally calm. A few individuals were emotional as nearly every passenger on the left side of the aircraft saw the fuselage and debris field going over 100 knots past our aircraft only 300' away. By this point everyone had looked out the windows and could see the smoke plume from the 777. A number of passengers also noticed what I had seen with the survivors out near the end of 28L expressing concern that the rescue effort appeared slow for those individuals that had been separated from the airplane wreckage.

We ultimately had a tug come out and tow us back to the gate, doing a 3 point turn in the hold short area of 28L. We were towed to gate 101 where the passengers deplaned.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Draw Your Own Conclusions

It is of course quite politically incorrect to suggest that one particular culture has features which might somehow be thought of as inferior to another, but unfortunately science tells us otherwise name calling notwithstanding. Not wishing to make this blog a discourse on HBD, we shall simply offer an account by a fellow aviator in regards to Korean culture and aviation:

After I retired from UAL as a Standards Captain on the -400, I got a job as a simulator instructor working for Alteon (a Boeing subsidiary) at Asiana. When I first got there, I was shocked and surprised by the lack of basic piloting skills shown by most of the pilots. It is not a normal situation with normal progression from new hire, right seat, left seat taking a decade or two. One big difference is that ex-Military pilots are given super-seniority and progress to the left seat much faster. Compared to the US, they also upgrade fairly rapidly because of the phenomenal growth by all Asian air carriers. By the way, after about six months at Asiana, I was moved over to KAL and found them to be identical. The only difference was the color of the uniforms and airplanes. I worked in Korea for 5 long years and although I found most of the people to be very pleasant, it's a minefield of a work environment ... for them and for us expats.

One of the first things I learned was that the pilots kept a web-site and reported on every training session. I don't think this was officially sanctioned by the company, but after one or two simulator periods, a database was building on me (and everyone else) that told them exactly how I ran the sessions, what to expect on checks, and what to look out for. For example; I used to open an aft cargo door at 100 knots to get them to initiate an RTO and I would brief them on it during the briefing. This was on the B-737 NG and many of the captains were coming off the 777 or B744 and they were used to the Master Caution System being inhibited at 80 kts. Well, for the first few days after I started that, EVERYONE rejected the takeoff. Then, all of a sudden they all "got it" and continued the takeoff (in accordance with their manuals). The word had gotten out. I figured it was an overall PLUS for the training program.

We expat instructors were forced upon them after the amount of fatal accidents (most of the them totally avoidable) over a decade began to be noticed by the outside world. They were basically given an ultimatum by the FAA, Transport Canada, and the EU to totally rebuild and rethink their training program or face being banned from the skies all over the world. They hired Boeing and Airbus to staff the training centers. KAL has one center and Asiana has another. When I was there (2003-2008) we had about 60 expats conducting training KAL and about 40 at Asiana. Most instructors were from the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand with a few stuffed in from Europe and Asia. Boeing also operated training centers in Singapore and China so they did hire some instructors from there.

This solution has only been partially successful but still faces ingrained resistance from the Koreans. I lost track of the number of highly qualified instructors I worked with who were fired because they tried to enforce "normal" standards of performance. By normal standards, I would include being able to master basic tasks like successfully shoot a visual approach with 10 kt crosswind and the weather CAVOK.  I am not kidding when I tell you that requiring them to shoot a visual approach struck fear in their hearts ... with good reason.  Like this Asiana crew, it didnt' compute that you needed to be a 1000' AGL at 3 miles and your sink rate should be 600-800 Ft/Min. But, after 5 years, they finally nailed me. I still had to sign my name to their training and sometimes if I just couldn't pass someone on a check, I had no choice but to fail them. I usually busted about 3-5 crews a year and the resistance against me built. I finally failed an extremely incompetent crew and it turned out he was the a high-ranking captain who was the Chief Line Check pilot on the fleet I was teaching on. I found out on my next monthly trip home that KAL was not going to renew my Visa. The crew I failed was given another check and continued a fly while talking about how unfair Captain Brown was.

Any of you Boeing glass-cockpit guys will know what I mean when I describe these events. I gave them a VOR approach with an 15 mile arc from the IAF. By the way, KAL dictated the profiles for all sessions and we just administered them. He requested two turns in holding at the IAF to get set up for the approach.  When he finally got his nerve up, he requested "Radar Vectors" to final. He could have just said he was ready for the approach and I would have cleared him to the IAF and then "Cleared for the approach" and he could have selected "Exit Hold" and been on his way. He was already in LNAV/VNAV PATH. So, I gave him vectors to final with a 30 degree intercept. Of course, he failed to "Extend the FAF" and he couldn't understand why it would not intercept the LNAV magenta line when he punched LNAV and VNAV. He made three approaches and missed approaches before he figured out that his active waypoint was "Hold at XYZ."  Every time he punched LNAV, it would try to go back to the IAF ... just like it was supposed to do. Since it was a check, I was not allowed (by their own rules) to offer him any help. That was just one of about half dozen major errors I documented in his UNSAT paperwork. He also failed to put in ANY aileron on takeoff with a 30-knot direct crosswind (again, the weather was dictated by KAL).

This Asiana SFO accident makes me sick and while I am surprised there are not more, I expect that there will be many more of the same type accidents in the future unless some drastic steps are taken. They are already required to hire a certain percentage of expats to try to ingrain more flying expertise in them, but more likely, they will eventually be fired too. One of the best trainees I ever had was a Korean/American (he grew up and went to school in the USA) who flew C-141's in the USAF. When he got out, he moved back to Korea and got hired by KAL. I met him when I gave him some training and a check on the B-737 and of course, he breezed through the training. I give him annual PCs for a few years and he was always a good pilot. Then, he got involved with trying to start a pilots union and when they tired to enforce some sort of duty rigs on international flights, he was fired after being arrested and JAILED!

The Koreans are very very bright and smart so I was puzzled by their inability to fly an airplane well. They would show up on Day 1 of training (an hour before the scheduled briefing time, in a 3-piece suit, and shined shoes) with the entire contents of the FCOM and Flight Manual totally memorized. But, putting that information to actual use was many times impossible. Crosswind landings are also an unsolvable puzzle for most of them. I never did figure it out completely, but I think I did uncover a few clues. Here is my best guess. First off, their educational system emphasizes ROTE memorization from the first day of school as little kids. As you know, that is the lowest form of learning and they act like robots. They are also taught to NEVER challenge authority and in spite of the flight training heavily emphasizing CRM/CLR, it still exists either on the surface or very subtly. You just can't change 3000 years of culture.

The other thing that I think plays an important role is the fact that there is virtually NO civil aircraft flying in Korea. It's actually illegal to own a Cessna-152 and just go learn to fly. Ultra-lights and Powered Hang Gliders are Ok. I guess they don't trust the people to not start WW III by flying 35 miles north of Inchon into North Korea.  But, they don't get the kids who grew up flying (and thinking for themselves) and hanging around airports. They do recruit some kids from college and send then to the US or Australia and get them their tickets. Generally, I had better experience with them than with the ex-Military pilots. This was a surprise to me as I spent years as a Naval Aviator flying fighters after getting my private in light airplanes. I would get experienced F-4, F-5, F-15, and F-16 pilots who were actually terrible pilots if they had to hand fly the airplane. What a shock!

Finally, I'll get off my box and talk about the total flight hours they claim. I do accept that there are a few talented and free-thinking pilots that I met and trained in Korea. Some are still in contact and I consider them friends. They were a joy! But, they were few and far between and certainly not the norm.

Actually, this is a worldwide problem involving automation and the auto-flight concept. Take one of these new first officers that got his ratings in the US or Australia and came to KAL or Asiana with 225 flight hours. After takeoff, in accordance with their SOP, he calls for the autopilot to be engaged at 250' after takeoff. How much actual flight time is that? Hardly one minute. Then he might fly for hours on the autopilot and finally disengage it (MAYBE?) below 800' after the gear was down, flaps extended and on airspeed (autothrottle). Then he might bring it in to land. Again, how much real "flight time" or real experience did he get. Minutes! Of course, on the 777 or 747, it's the same only they get more inflated logbooks.

So, when I hear that a 10,000 hour Korean captain was vectored in for a 17-mile final and cleared for a visual approach in CAVOK weather, it raises the hair on the back of my neck.


Monday, July 08, 2013

No Pilots Aboard Today

We turned on the telly Saturday to see the burning wreckage of this Asiana Boeing 777 which crashed while landing on San Francisco International's runway 28L (and for the benefit of the many talking heads in the so-called newsrooms who consistently get it wrong, it's pronounced "two-eight-left" not twentyeight left). Thankfully the casualties were not worse than they were with the only tragic fatalities being two teenaged girls who we are now hearing reports of might have been hit by emergency vehicles. It could've been much worse as the aircraft may have had as much as 15,000 lbs of fuel still aboard upon landing, a normal amount of reserve fuel.

To any trained pilot, the primary cause of the crash was immediately apparent; the aircraft had obviously landed well short of the runway. The video reporting clearly showed the debris field starting at the water's edge and the trail leading to the burned fuselage showed landing gear, horizontal and vertical stabilizers all having departed the main portion of the aircraft. Even visible was an aircraft part apparently still in the water.

This initial conjecture was confirmed several days later with the release of this video taken by a bystander which clearly shows the aircraft well below a normal glide slope hitting the jetty and bursting into flame. The only question that remained is what caused this aircraft to land so short?

Aircraft accident investigations are by their nature slow, plodding, drawn out affairs. The investigators must take their time to account for every possible aspect which may have been a primary or contributing cause of an accident to include such mundane details as what the pilots had for breakfast, or the brand of grease used on the aircraft (a factor in an Alaskan airlines crash years ago). Investigators will go to Herculean efforts to retrieve the voice and data recorders and to reconstruct the aircraft to determine the most likely cause of an accident. It's as much art as science with entire schools run by military and civilian safety agencies devoted to the discipline.

This case may well be different. The pilots are alive, the recorders are intact, the wreckage is readily accessible, and the accident itself was caught on video. This is simply an investigator's dream case. The investigation has already ruled out possible terrorist activity, and the likelihood of a mechanical difficulty seems highly improbable. A British Airways B777 landed short of it's intended runway several years ago due to a fuel icing problem affecting both engines simultaneously, though that problem has been addressed. That aircraft employed Rolls Royce engines while this aircraft was equipped with Pratt & Whitney engines making a similar malfunction very unlikely.

What is left then, is the control of the aircraft by the pilots. One of the most basic skills learned by any pilot from their first days in any aircraft is how to fly a visual approach to a runway. It's quite simply the bread and butter of all piloting skills. What the pilot has in front of him is a small strip of pavement upon which he must place his aircraft after having flown a stabilized approach. By stabilized approach, we mean one that approaches the runway at a constant angle, usually three degrees in slope and at a constant airspeed. This means that at about three miles from the runway, the aircraft will be about 1000 ft above the runway elevation. We can still hear our primary flight instructor repeating "aimpoint, airspeed" while in Air Force undergraduate pilot training over three decades ago.

We were later in our career, a military flight instructor ourselves, repeating the same "aimpoint, airspeed" mantra to our own students. Common rookie errors made by beginning students would be things like channelizing on one particular aspect of the approach to the neglect of others. For instance, a student might be doing a great job controlling airspeed but allowing the aircraft to sink below its optimum glidepath. Or another might be right on glidepath but allowing their airspeed to decay below a safe point. The one most deadly sin which every beginning pilot has drilled into his or her skull is to never become "low and slow" on approach. This is important for the simple reason that the "low" part takes you closer to the dirt you don't want to hit, and the "slow" part takes the aircraft closer to a stall where the wing quits flying. Even being a little slower than normal approach speed makes an aircraft sluggish to fly. Together they can kill.

Another integral part of being a pilot is known as the "crosscheck" or feedback loop. No pilot ever flies a completely perfect approach. Rather, the pilot makes control inputs, the aircraft will respond to those inputs which the pilot will either see visually or on the instruments, and then correct. This feedback loop continues on an approach all the way to touchdown with innumerable observations and corrections being made constantly. The skill to be learned by rookie pilots is recognizing deviations before they become large and making appropriate corrections. As an analogy, when driving down the road, few drivers are conscious of the many small inputs they make on the steering wheel, they just make them before the tires go over the yellow line. A pilot does the same thing but only in three dimensions.

We apologize for spending the last few paragraphs detailing the basics of flying an approach, but we believe it's important to understand the mechanics of how an approach should be flown on a clear and calm day. These principles are virtually the same for every aircraft in the sky regardless of its vintage or sophistication. Pilots need to either fly the aircraft, or ensure that the autopilot is flying the aircraft using these principles to be considered competent professionals.

We've recounted the basic skills needed to fly a visual approach that all pilots should possess, but would now like to explore the conditions this crew encountered on their approach. It has been reported that part of the electronic landing system and also the visual approach lighting system on San Francisco's runway 28L were inoperative Saturday. It's likely much hay will be made out of this fact, but this is a canard as we'll explain. The specific electronic equipment which was inoperative was the electronic glideslope part of the ILS system. This is a directional radio signal which the aircraft receives and displays to the pilot where the aircraft is relative to a three degree glideslope. It is primarily used for landing in instrument conditions, i.e. when the runway can't be seen.

In addition to the the inoperative glideslope, the PAPI or "precision approach path indicator" was also inoperative. This system is a simple array of spotlights behind baffles which indicate either white or red to indicate to pilots their position on the glideslope. The reason for both of these outages is apparently due to some ongoing construction on the runway which necessitated a "displaced threshold" or simply the end of the runway being officially displaced down the pavement a certain distance. The runway is then marked with a new runway threshold by paint. Since the existing systems were calibrated for the original runway threshold, they were deactivated as they would not have been accurate for the displaced one. This is not an uncommon occurrence.

Both of these outages were published in the Notams or "notices to airmen" which detail all pertinent information needed by pilots for landing at any airport. Pilots are expected to review the notams for every leg they fly so this outage should have been known by the Asiana crew even though with the weather being clear, it should not have made any impact on the flight. Our point, though, is that none of it should have been needed for a routine visual approach, especially when the crew had prior knowledge. The 777 can even generate its own internal glidepath for display to the pilots had they wished to set it up.

 We will admit that while flying an approach with no PAPI or electronic glideslope is an annoyance, it is not any cause for alarm. One must simply pay closer attention to the visual cues that are available. When the runway is in sight, pilots are expected to use the appearance of the runway to determine whether they are high or low on the glidepath.

The next bit of information to reach the public is that the pilot flying the aircraft that day had only 43 hours in that type aircraft and that this flight was his first trip to this airport in a 777. While this sounds like it may be the smoking gun, we have cause for doubt. This pilot was a veteran with over 10,000 hours including the 747. Having low hours in type is a routine practice today as modern flight simulators are as realistic as the aircraft. In almost all cases, a pilot's first actual flight in a new aircraft will be on a revenue flight with passengers. There are seldom, if ever "training flights" any more.

Having ourselves flown jumbo aircraft, we know being low on glidepath is more critical on larger aircraft for the reason that the pilot sits well in front of the gear. On a 777-200, the pilot is more than 90 ft in front of the main landing gear. During approach, being even slightly low on glidepath can cause a short landing. It is highly unlikely that these pilots didn't know that being low on approach is problematic but in any event, being slightly low would generally mean getting the tires scuffed up from being drug through the overrun, not a grossly short landing as in this case. The normal touchdown zone for airliners is 1000-3000 ft beyond the threshold. This aircraft hit the jetty which appears to be over 2000 ft short of the threshold, nearly half a mile short of where it should have touched down.

The way this seems to be shaking out is one of two scenarios. Reports indicate that the inexperienced pilot was in the left seat which may mean that the pilot in the right seat was either an instructor or line copilot. If it turns out that the right seater was an instructor, he clearly let his charge get the aircraft well outside of acceptable parameters and beyond his ability to salvage the approach. This is a double failure: the student made a rookie error, and the instructor allowed it, if this was the actual scenario.  Instructors need to not only know how to teach but to let minor deviations occur so the student can learn but never to allow the situation to progress beyond their ability to recover.

In the second possible scenario, the line copilot observed the captain allow a major deviation to occur and said nothing until it was too late. One of the tenets of crew aircraft piloting, is that the crew functions as a unit, and a deviation left uncorrected by the non-flying pilot will be as serious an offense against the non-flying pilot as if he had made the error himself. Non-flying, or monitoring pilots are as equally responsible as flying ones. Here's where the question of culture possibly enters in.

It has been well documented that a hierarchical culture can prevent or interfere with the necessary intervention from a subordinate in a safety sensitive situation. In such a culture, deference to authority and age are held in very high esteem. Korean national crewed airlines in particular have had a string of accidents attributed in part to this phenomenon. Whether or not this is the case here has yet to be determined by crew interviews and analysis of cockpit communications. A concerted effort was made on the part of Korean safety agencies back in the 1980s to address this problem by introducing training and methods known as crew resource management.

We've written previously how automation is slowly allowing hands-on piloting skills to whither. The scariest thought about this accident is that apparently without the routine electronic guidance that these pilots were used to seeing, they made gross errors of airmanship, and the monitoring pilot either did not see the error or was somehow inhibited from correcting it until it was too late. We realize it may seem harsh to criticize the pilots when the official investigation has hardly started, yet it is hard for us to imagine any other cause for flying a perfectly good jet into the ground. Should mitigating evidence appear such as a mechanical problem, we will be the first to offer a retraction. Whatever the underlying cause, though, a gross deviation was allowed to occur and left uncorrected on a clear day with calm winds in a state of the art aircraft.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Are They Sleeping Up There?

Yes. No. That would be illegal, dangerous, and stupid. We're reminded of one of the standard briefing items given by grizzled senior captains to all new copilots: "Don't let me wake up and catch you napping!"

The FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) are somewhat ambiguous about this. While there are rules relating to the amount of rest needed before flight and the length of crew duty days, they don't specifically forbid napping on the job. However, in the spirit of most government regulations of this nature, if it doesn't specifically say you can do something, it's a sure bet that you can't. The FARs also provide a convenient catch-all regulation for dealing with any situation that is not specifically mentioned. That is the "careless and reckless" provision of Part 91 under which sleeping might be covered. And lastly, it should be generally expected by your employer that you stay awake on the job!

And yet, fatigue as it relates to aviation is a huge concern. Fatigue is now recognized as a physiological phenomenon rather than a moral failing. And the implications for flight safety are huge. Fatigue was cited as a factor the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February of 2009 though the NTSB declined to list it as a cause. While the primary cause of the crash was the captain's mishandling of the aircraft resulting in a stall, fatigue of both the captain and first officer likely exacerbated recognition and recovery of the stall. Indeed, the effects of fatigue are well known and can seriously degrade task performance and situational awareness. Studies have indicated that being awake for 24 hrs degrades performance as much as a .10% blood alcohol content. One poor night of sleep in the crash pad and your pilot may as well have a beer before coming to work.

As a result of the Colgan crash, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. This law required the FAA to overhaul existing flight and duty time regulations, and also to require the establishment of a fatigue risk management plan at all commercial airlines. The new regulations, which will be implemented soon, include changes to duty hour limitations based upon when a pilot reports to work in an effort to respect circadian cycles. Fatigue is notoriously difficult to self diagnose and the new regulations acknowledge this. There's a lot to like in the new regulations, but as per normal when dealing with any political process, much mischief has also snuck into the law masquerading as safety improvements.

In any industry that is populated by older more mature companies, but also has younger, nimbler upstarts  unencumbered by legacy labor contracts, a proven strategy is to try to saddle the competition with the same burdens that exist in the older companies. Hence what one might see is an alliance between the established players, their labor unions, and ever willing government regulators to hamstring new entrants. And sure enough, that is in evidence in the new rest regulations. For instance, while the pilots of some low cost carriers may fly 80 or more hours in a month, pilots for the large network airlines fly 60 or fewer hours monthly. So rather than fight their own unions for increased work rules, the legacy airlines petition the government under the rubric of safety to make their competitors fly their pilots less thereby driving up costs. 80 flight hours at a six flight hour work day, which is not unreasonable, means about 14 days at work.

Overall, though, the new regulations should have a positive effect in lessening the exposure of the flying public to the dangers of fatigued pilots. One of the most beneficial methods of combating fatigue though, didn't make the final cut. And that is naps. It has been long recognized that a short nap can produce dramatic improvements in performance lasting up to several hours. Nasa has done extensive research into the science of naps for pilots and astronauts and has found that while there are drawbacks such as sleep inertia immediately following a nap, the benefits are palpable. The FAA however, citing a lack of data, has declined to regulate for controlled napping. This is probably one part science and two parts politics.

All the attention given to fatigue though comes down to a simple fact of life. Sometimes you just get tired and it may or may not have anything to do with how much sleep was achieved the night before. Having a bowl of your favorite chow mein followed by sitting on the sunny side of the plane in mid afternoon during a long cruise might just have you nodding off, and there's little to be done about it. So while certainly no napping in flight occurs, on occasion one pilot has been known to let the other take both the controls and radio in order to do some enhanced overhead panel study, or perhaps to check the eyelids for leaks. All in the name of safety, of course.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Do Phones Really Interfere With the Instruments?

When it comes to your phone and other electronics interfering with aircraft electronics and instruments, the short answer is maybe. Does this make them dangerous to use during takeoff and landing? Probably not. Are flight attendants, who are charged with enforcing this rule under pain of discipline from their employers, and fines from the FAA, a little overbearing at times? Sure. Wouldn't you be if the usual folks to push it are the frequent fliers who know better, and are the same ones who try to explain to you why it's a stupid rule? Does the persistence of this rule really have more to do with bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude on the parts of both the FAA and FCC than with any real or imagined danger? Absolutely.

A little background: Electronics on airplanes or avionics, have traditionally been used for communications and navigation. Any radio is susceptible to interference from another nearby radio due to bleed over. Owners of ham radios are well acquainted with complaints from neighbors who can hear their transmissions over their TVs and radios. The noise you hear on your AM radio when you drive under a power line is the same thing, as your radio is picking up the RF (radio frequency) energy from the line. For this reason, the RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) which advises the FCC,  first recommended a ban on inflight electronics in 1961. 

Fast forward to today and the situation is only more complicated. While the avionics of yore were strictly analog and consisted of just radios, virtually everything on a modern airliner is controlled by digital electronics. This includes even the flight controls and engines. Aircraft manufacturers have replaced throttle and flight control cables with digital controls to reduce weight and to improve control of aircraft systems. When you look up front in the cockpit and see those large throttles, they're not physically connected to the engines at all, but simply relay signals to a computer which then electronically commands fuel valves in the engine to control thrust. All Airbus and soon all Boeing aircraft will have completely electronic flight controls, which means there is no physical connection between the cockpit and the wings. Some 737 aircraft which have been retrofitted with cargo fire warning systems actually transmit their own data to the cockpit by radio. Rewiring the aircraft was considered too cost prohibitive. Clearly, we don't want to interfere with those things.

On the other side of the interference ledger, consumer electronics have been revolutionized by digital electronics as well. While old "bag" analog cell phones might have transmitted with as much as 3 watts, modern digital phones are typically well under 1 watt and can be as low as 20 mW. They even self regulate their power output depending on the signal quality they receive. This is why leaving a phone on accidentally in flight will quickly drain the's searching for a signal at maximum power. Standard WiFi signals are also in the range of several hundred milliwatts. Most personal electronic devices (PEDs) are types of computers and while they may emit only tiny amounts of RF radiation, they are operating in the same frequency range as the computers on the aircraft. Of special concern here is the GPS signal upon which the aircraft depends for navigation. GPS satellites are in high earth orbit and their signals are quite weak, and might be blocked by closer transmitters that are bleeding over. 

The end result of the melange of electronics on board an airliner is a cacophony of potentially competing signals from a radio spectrum point of view. We remember from our military days catching a ride in the back of an electronic reconnaissance (spy) plane. The pilot explained that because the electronics in back were so sophisticated and temperamental, no updates could be made to the cockpit without extensive testing and RF deconfliction. The same principle more or less still applies, but it is nigh well impossible to test and catalog the many thousands of different types of consumer electronics being brought on board and hence the general ban during takeoff and landing. Another potential problem is devices which are misbehaving electronically due to perhaps being dropped or broken.

The entire question then simply rests on risk mitigation or "do you feel lucky today, punk?". Well, do ya? A charter flight which crashed in 2003 in New Zealand killing eight, is usually cited as one that is thought to implicate a cell phone. The pilot's own phone was connected during the last few minutes. Whether the aircraft's electronics themselves were compromised is unclear. Overall, though, while the potential is certainly present, trying to determine whether any one anomaly noticed up front was caused by a cell phone in back is close to impossible without extensive instrumentation and controlled conditions. 

While we routinely observe momentary anomalies in aircraft performance, interference in radio communications, and systems that just don't do what they're expected to do, there's no way to tell exactly why these things happen. Most are considered just annoyances, such as a bit of static on the radio, and don't impact operations at all. There are so many redundancies in systems and procedures, that only a truly major disruption in electronics would compromise safety, which we've never experienced nor heard of. Many airlines are even issuing their pilots iPads and other computers for use as approach charts and flight data computers to further reduce the weight of carrying flight book bags. These devices are required to be used during all phases of flight to include takeoff and landing.

So here is where the bureaucratic risk avoidance mechanism kicks in. Even though these devices are probably safe to use during takeoff or landing, no government bureaucrat is going to risk his job and government pension to sign off on lifting the ban...without the proper motivation. And as per usual, when dealing with a circle-the-wagons turf protecting agency such as the FAA, that motivation will come from political pressure. And sure enough, the hue and cry for relief on the use of PEDs in flight has become so great that this past August, the FAA announced the formation of an industry working group to address the issue. After that, rules will have to be written, comment periods observed, and maybe then some relief will appear. But, until such time as a consensus can be reached that both assures safety and gives the regulators some political cover should anything ever really go wrong, we'll all just have to carry along a real paper crossword puzzle for the time between pushback and ten thousand feet.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

So You're on Fire. What Now, Genius?

Actually, that was a trick question. You're always on fire when flying in a jet. Two fires are always (or should be) burning on an airborne 737, three if you've got the APU running. Burning fires are how a jet engine works. No firee, no workee. Unlike the engine in your car, which needs the fire to be relit by the spark plugs at every cycle of the piston, the fire in the hot section of a turbine engine is lit once when the engine is started, and is then self sustained with no external ignition source until the fuel source is cut off at engine shutdown. 

Of course there are safety systems in place to relight the engine should the flame go out for some reason, but this system would only be used in an emergency. But what kind of things might make the fire go out or cause a flameout as we say in the biz? As any boy scout can tell you, a fire needs three things: fuel, oxygen, and ignition. Obviously, running out of fuel would be one reason to cause a flameout. In 1978, a United Airlines DC-8 crashed for just that reason. The crew became preoccupied with a landing gear problem and simply ran the jet out of gas and crashed. The only silver lining was that relatively few people were killed due to no post-crash fire. The fuel tanks were empty. Extreme rain ingestion has also been known to cause engines to flameout though modifications to intakes have minimized this problem by diverting rain away from the hot section of engines.

But getting back to fire, it is very useful when it is controlled and stays where it's supposed to. What happens when it escapes? On an airplane, nothing good. The short answer is you either land, put it out quickly, or die.  An uncontained fire on an airplane is probably the worst thing that can happen to any pilot short of hitting the ground. Besides all of the usual problems associated with fire such as smoke and heat, on an airplane you can't escape and the clock is ticking as the fire destroys the systems used to control the airplane.

On May 11, 1996, ValueJet 592, a DC-9, crashed into the Florida Everglades after catching on fire shortly after departing from Miami. The accident report stated that the cause of the fire was improperly loaded oxygen generators stored in the cargo compartment which caught fire shortly after takeoff. What is notable about this accident is that the crew became aware of a problem just six minutes after takeoff, and crashed into the swamp about three minutes later. It took that long for the intense fire to sever the control cables. In the aftermath, airlines were required to install cargo fire warning and suppression systems though they would not have saved that fated airliner due to the burning oxygen generators providing their own oxygen.

On September 2, 1998, Swissair 111, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, crashed into the North Atlantic just off of Nova Scotia after a fire broke out in the space between the cockpit and the fuselage killing all 229 passengers and crew. The investigation revealed that insulation installed in the walls of the aircraft likely caught fire from a wiring defect. Aircraft systems were quickly compromised by the fire and the aircraft hit the water 21 minutes after noticing odors from the fire and only 30 miles from Halifax. The crew was faulted for taking time to dump fuel and run checklists, but it's not clear if a direct route to Halifax would have mattered as the flames spread so quickly. The pilots' flight manuals were found to have been melted indicating that they were using them to beat back the flames before hitting the water.

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport enroute to Paris. All 230 passengers and crew were killed. While the aircraft was not technically brought down by a fire, the investigation focused on the possibility fuel-air explosion in the center wing fuel tank after discounting terrorist activity. The mixture of fuel fumes and air in the space above the fuel in that tank, or ullage, was believed to have become volatile due to heating from the air conditioning pack which had been used extensively on the ground due to a delayed departure. It was believed that ignition was provided by a voltage anomaly or short circuit which was then transmitted to the tank through the fuel quantity measuring system. The takeaway from this accident has been the introduction of nitrogen gas inerting systems designed to keep the fuel ullage non-volatile. 

Ironically, an uncontained fire on a pod-mounted engine, which most airliners have, is not as serious a situation as a fuselage or cargo compartment fire. All airliners are equipped with engine fire suppression systems consisting of bottles of fire retardant which can be discharged into a burning engine. But should the engine fire not go out, it will simply stay in the engine. The slipstream will likely keep the fire from travelling up the engine strut to the wing. Fuel and hydraulic fluid can be cut off to a burning engine using fire control switches in the cockpit. The extinguishing agent used in these systems, a type of Freon, is no longer manufactured due to environmental concerns about ozone depletion, but enough supplies remain for current needs.

We've covered a variety of causes of and reactions to aircraft accidents caused by onboard fires. While extremely rare, an airborne fire is an extremely serious event. It's one of the reason's that aircrews have so little sense of humor when passengers smoke in restrooms, and toss smoldering butts into the trash. That reinforcement you see around the trash container door is designed to contain an explosive fire. There are also smoke detectors and extinguishers in restrooms for that reason. The latest concerns about fires have concerned aging wiring bundles which can explode rather dramatically when they get moist. Aging or flammable insulation is also a concern.

While flying remains one of the safest modes of transportation, all pilots are aware of those who have gone before and done battle with this particular demon. It is not one which takes many prisoners. The ill-fated Concord in the above photo hit a piece of debris on takeoff which shredded a tire that punctured the fuel tank. The leak was then ignited by the engines. There were no survivors. If you're ever unlucky enough to be on an airplane which catches fire, expect a rough ride because the folks up front know the clock is ticking.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Airliners Today Just About Fly Themselves, Don't They?

Well, they kind of do. Until they don't. Then what happens is either a pilot flies the aircraft or there's a worse outcome.

The first autopilots date back to 1912, barely a decade after the Wright Brothers first flew, and the capabilities and complexity of these devices have been growing since. The earliest autopilots were simple affairs designed to keep the aircraft straight and level to reduce the pilot's workload. In modern transport aircraft, the autopilot is just one of many systems which can be categorized under the heading of flight management. Today's flight management systems which include the autopilot, auto throttles, air data and navigation computers are designed to control and optimize the operation of the aircraft from takeoff through landing.

When autopilots were first introduced, their purpose was simply to reduce the workload on the pilot so he could tend to other duties such as navigation, radio communications, and engine monitoring. As the size and range of aircraft grew, autopilots were later recognized as way to reduce pilot fatigue to allow longer flights. Flight duty rules even today restrict length of flight duty time a pilot can be required to fly without an autopilot. Since the early 1980s, though, the focus of flight management systems has been on fuel efficiency.

Like an automobile, the consumption of fuel in an airplane can be greatly affected by how it is operated. For any given weight and air temperature, there is an optimum speed and altitude which will produce the greatest efficiency. Flying even a few knots either faster or slower than optimum speed can result in  "over burn" or wasted fuel. Just a thousand or so feet above or below optimum altitude can also have the same deleterious effect on fuel consumption. There have even been cases of overseas flights getting into trouble because of a pressurization problem requiring a descent, only to find that the aircraft didn't have enough fuel at the lower altitude to make its destination.

Navigation has undergone a similar transformation. Long gone are the days when pilots would use a radio receiver to fly from ground based radio station to station. Inertial reference systems, ring laser gyros, GPS navigation, and performance based navigation systems such as RNP now allow pilots to fly from any point on the planet to another in the most direct route independent of ground based navigation aids. Precise guidance systems allow for extremely accurate approach guidance even in mountainous terrain with little visibility, the bane of many an aviator over the years. The fuel and time savings using direct routing have greatly increased efficiency and would astound ancient mariners who had only the stars and sextants for guidance.

Determining when to climb and descend also has a significant effect on fuel efficiency. Flight management computers can determine the winds at altitude and adjust for a very precise descent point. These systems fly complex flight profiles with far more precision over a longer period of time than can humans. The fuel savings are significant and easily justify the many millions of dollars spent on these systems.

"Hand flying" or manual control of an aircraft then, has become actively discouraged as the machine simply does it better for longer. Any decent pilot can fly as well as an autopilot for a short while, but doing it for hours on end is neither feasible nor desirable. Automation has changed the very nature of piloting over a relatively short period, but as with any transitional change, there have been some unintended consequences not all of which are good. These problems include the atrophying of piloting skills which on occasion are still needed, complacency as pilots are reduced to system monitors, and a disturbing trend of  people who are simply unqualified occupying cockpits with some disastrous results. We will address all three of these issues.

An inevitable result of the increase in automated flying and reduced manual control by pilots has been a concurrent loss of piloting or "stick and rudder" skills. Whether or not this is a good thing is somewhat of an open question. All major airlines have now fully embraced all facets of automation, but have also included the following admonition in a typical flight manual for pilots to maintain their stick and rudder skills:
Pilots must hand fly the aircraft periodically to maintain proficiency. This will only be accomplished when flight conditions permit, procedures do not require the use of automation, and the dictates of safety, service, and efficiency are not compromised.
So what was once the bread and butter of the profession, a skill which was a pilot's stock and trade and took years to acquire, is now only expected to be practiced periodically. Rather than a lament by pilots who see their skill set made superfluous by technology, the question needs to be asked whether the stick and rudder skill set is still needed. Apparently the FAA thinks so and has data from actual incident reports to support that position. Another recent FAA report also notes that training for human interface with technology is lacking as well. Our opinion is that while automation is steadily improving, it has a long way yet to go until real pilots are made completely anachronistic. In the meantime, we let raw piloting skills deteriorate at our peril.

On February 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, NY with the loss of all lives on board. The NTSB, in its report, faulted the captain of that flight for improperly responding to a low airspeed situation that occurred on approach. The Q400 aircraft they were flying had been delivered new to Colgan in 2008 and had the latest avionics suite to include an autopilot, glass panel displays, and stall warning systems. Further investigation into the captain's aviation background revealed that he had failed multiple flight examinations and had needed remedial training to be brought up to standards as recently as two years before the accident. In this case, the captain was simply unprepared to salvage a bad situation in spite of all the automation systems at his disposal.

There is an adage concerning computers which states that one of their chief benefits(?) is that they allow humans to make mistakes at a much faster and efficient rate. It should be to no one's surprise that the addition of computers to airplanes has proven the enduring wisdom of this aphorism. As mentioned above, while automation demotes the use of hands on flying, the programming of flight computers becomes ever more critical. A mis-programmed route will result in an airplane flying a precise GPS guided, auto throttle speed controlled path to a place that neither the pilots nor controllers expect. Entirely new classifications of gross navigational errors have had to be created to account for the mis-programming of automated flight systems.

The nature of skills needed to manually pilot an aircraft involve a constant feedback loop of control inputs, followed by results delivered by instrumentation, followed by corrections to achieve a desired flight state. The automated cockpit, however, requires intense programming prior to flight followed by a hands-off monitoring of the aircraft as it executes the programming.This is a classic mismatch of skill sets. A pilot trained from the beginning of his or her career to be "in the loop" and to "fly the jet" is now reduced to the job of monitoring of a system that almost never makes a mistake, assuming it was programmed correctly.

The operative word here is "almost". For automation does fail and on occasion fails spectacularly. The nature of irregular operations or system failures is that they don't generally pre-announce their arrival. It is during these times that the pilot has to step in to manually fly the airplane during a critical phase of flight without the benefit of having warmed up. A well known human reaction characteristic, the startle response, which can temporarily disrupt a logical response to an unexpected situation, further complicates an attempted recovery when automation fails. We can't help but think that bringing all attention and skills to bear on an unexpected situation or system failure will be exacerbated when the ground state was from one of semi-disinterested monitoring vice being an active participant in the flight feedback loop.

On December 20, 1995, American Airlines Flight 965, a Boeing 757 employing state of the art automation, crashed while descending for landing at Cali, Columbia. The accident report implicated improper programming of the aircraft's navigation computer. Specifically, a database discrepancy between the on board electronic navigation database, the controller's instructions, and their charts resulted in the crew typing in an incorrect instruction. While the crew thought the computer would take them to a beacon near their destination, they had inadvertently typed instructions to fly to a point in nearby Bogota. The resulting turn in mountainous terrain to the errant point, and the crew's failure to monitor their position, caused the aircraft to hit a mountain resulting in the loss of 159 passengers and crew and the aircraft.

While the previous two examples of problems with automation are associated with pilots who currently have or at one time had the requisite piloting skills for their responsibilities, a trend of pilots being placed in cockpits who never developed the appropriate skill level is equally disturbing. On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330-203, departed Rio de Janeiro for Paris, France. The aircraft was last heard from at 01:35 UTC and was never heard from again. A search later revealed wreckage, though it appeared that the ocean had swallowed whatever evidence there was of the cause of the accident. It wasn't until nearly two years later when the flight and voice data recorders were recovered from the ocean floor, that a chilling picture of the fated airliner's last minutes emerged.

While the captain was sleeping on his break, copilots 32 year old Pierre-Cedric Bonin, and 37 year old David Robert entered an area of turbulence. For an unknown reason, the autopilot and auto throttles disconnected leaving the yeoman aviators to manually fly the aircraft. This should not have been a problem to any experienced pilot. Several rookie airmanship errors, however, such as pulling back on the control stick while in a stall, failing to understand the indications the instruments were relaying, and a profound lack of situational awareness doomed the aircraft and its 228 passengers and crew to a watery grave within three minutes. It is chilling to read the transcript of the last words of two pilots who clearly did not know how to fly their aircraft out of danger.

The two young copilots of Air France 447 were likely given only rudimentary stick and rudder training before graduating to automated cockpits. We'll refer to them as automation babies. It is expected that any time an aircraft automation system places the aircraft in an undesirable state, the pilot is expected to recognize the situation, and to take proper action to return the aircraft to a desired state. From our experience as a military flight instructor, it is far more difficult to take an aircraft which is out of a normal state and return it to within proper parameters than it is to maintain that aircraft within the proper parameters in the first place. The skill level required to fix a bad situation is far and away greater than that needed to maintain the figurative middle of the lane. Couple the need for a greater skill level needed for recovery with the startle effect, and the potential for disaster seems uncomfortably close when the automation decides to take a powder.

We are now transitioning from a time when nearly all commercial pilots cut their teeth on aircraft with either rudimentary or no autopilot, to one of where after a short initial period of hands-on flying, all flying is done using automated systems. Automation babies will not have the skills to fall back on when things go awry. When Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger glided his Airbus A320, one of the most highly automated aircraft flying today, into the Hudson river after both engines had failed, he was relying on the skills he had acquired manually flying Air Force trainers and fighters. No automation system exists that could even pretend to do what a well trained stick and rudder pilot did that day.

We honestly have no quarrel with the overall philosophy of using technology to enhance aviation safety and efficiency. The airline industry is under tremendous cost pressure and technology holds the key to a safe and profitable future for airlines. Care must be taken, though, to ensure that automation is employed wisely, and that piloting skills are maintained at least until such time when automation can truly fly the airplane under any circumstance. Pilots are expensive to train and with the cost pressure on airlines due to rising fuel prices and the expense of training pilots on complex automation systems, basic piloting skills have unfortunately come to be considered expendable. This is folly. Our fear is that the gap between the time where automation is truly robust, and where the reservoir of old school piloting skills dries up may allow more Air France 447s to hit the water.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Let's Talk about Air Traffic Control

Recently, we were contacted by a close relative who was concerned about aviation safety due to the possibility of a shortage of air traffic controllers. Never mind that most of the effects of the current budget impasse have been manufactured by the administration, it got us thinking that the public perception of the role air traffic controllers play in modern aviation has become somewhat skewed over time. Are they as essential to aviation safety as they once were? What role has technology played in the movement of air traffic? Let's investigate.

While the history of the heavier than air craft dates back to the Wright brothers in 1903, air traffic control has its beginnings in the 1920s when people with flags would signal pilots when they could take off and land. What we consider modern air traffic control, with controllers actively directing the flight of aircraft, didn't occur until after World War II when radar became commonplace. The post war air traffic system that was developed consisted of aircraft following radio beacons across the country, and then being directed or "vectored" by a controller using radar to an instrument approach for landing. Tower controllers would control traffic in the immediate vicinity of an airport and control takeoffs and landings. 

It is important to note that while airplanes flew for decades without any need for ground control, air traffic control or ATC exists for two separate and sometimes conflicting reasons: safety and efficiency. In the infancy of aviation there was a theory that came to be known as the "Big Sky Theory" which posited that the sky was so big and airplanes were so small that collisions were unlikely. As aircraft grew larger and faster, it was soon determined that the sky was not so big after all. There are no fender benders in the air. Any collision would likely result in fatalities in one or both aircraft. Several high profile mid-air collisions such as the Cerritos DC-9 accident in 1986 crystallized the need for improved and error free aircraft separation standards.

Concurrently, runways that were located near population centers became more valuable as air traffic increased. Construction of new airports in congested urban centers has become prohibitively expensive so the existing runways are needed to accommodate the greatest amount of traffic consistent with safe aircraft separation. At times the need for increased airspace utilization seemed to conflict with the need for the safest possible operation and all of this pressure was placed on the backs of air traffic controllers. Move traffic too inefficiently and the public complains about delays, but make one egregious error and people could be killed. Hence the popular depiction of an air traffic controller as a chain smoking coffee mainlining emotional wreck.

But is this still the case? As in most every other aspect of human endeavor, technology has made huge advancements and changed the very nature of aviation as a result. Let's start with technology improvements in aircraft. The introduction of inertial navigation systems (INS) beginning in the 1970s and later GPS systems have largely eliminated the need for commercial aircraft to navigate by using ground based radio aids. While equipment on modern aircraft can still receive and use these radio signals, they are not necessary for extended range navigation and hence controllers are not as necessary to make sure aircraft stay on these imaginary "highways" in the sky. Most flight plans today are "point to point" with the aircraft able to navigate directly to a point hundreds or even thousands of miles away on a direct route.

As a result of the Cerritos accident mentioned above, in-flight air traffic avoidance systems were developed and installed on all commercial aircraft. This system known as the traffic collision avoidance system or "TCAS", is an airborne data-link in which all participating aircraft with compatible equipment have a display in the cockpit showing the location and relative altitude of every other aircraft in the vicinity. The system not only detects possible threats, it can issue verbal and visual signals to the pilots in each aircraft to avoid a collision. All aircraft which wish to operate in the same airspace as commercial airliners must have some type of this equipment installed. This system has virtually eliminated the possibility of a mid-air collision.

Lastly, an array of technologies have been installed on modern transport aircraft which fall under the general category of automation. On board flight navigation computers are now able to fly complex arrivals and departures with highly precise altitude, lateral positioning, and airspeed. Whereas before this technology was deployed, a controller might have to issue dozens of instructions to each individual aircraft, now a controller might issue one clearance for the entire procedure which the aircraft will then follow from initial descent all the way to the runway.

Technology has also been improving the equipment that controllers themselves use albeit at a slower pace. Controllers now utilize predictive software tools which show where an aircraft will be at some future point based on current parameters. Flight clearances are now transmitted electronically to aircraft directly through a data link obviating the need for controllers to read them to pilots. The future of air traffic control technology will ultimately deconflict an aircraft from all potential collisions before it even takes off. Controllers today, like pilots, are becoming more system managers than hands-on operators. Artificial intelligence and other promising technologies will eventually mean fewer controllers will be needed to manage this system as it will only require human input by exception backed up by airborne systems and pilots.

While air traffic control is a government function in the U.S., there is no innate reason for this to be so. A private corporation called Nav Canada handles all traffic control functions in Canada. There are other private corporations which provide ATC functions in other countries thereby avoiding the inevitable politicization and cost inefficiencies of a government bureaucracy with equal or better safety records. 

Commercial aviation is already one of  the safest modes of transportation available and promises to become ever safer as new technologies are deployed. Were all radios to go dead today, rest assured that every airliner aloft would land safely. So the next time you hear of threats to air safety due to engineered budget crises, know that those threats are empty.