Saturday, April 05, 2014

Bad Pilot

It is becoming depressingly clear that no trace of the missing Malaysian airliner is likely to be found. The simple enormity of this search is hard to appreciate for those who haven't spent much time flying at 500 kts for hour after hour over empty ocean.

The current search area now encompasses an area of 84,000 sq miles about 1100 miles off the coast of Australia. A three hour flight is required just to get to the area which limits search time to only three or so hours before return. Search by ship is slow and tedious.

It is also likely that the battery powering the beacon attached to the airliner's black boxes will soon run out of juice and fall silent. The listening device being used to listen for the beacon can only be towed slowly through the water so ambient noise doesn't drown out the signal which may only be audible for perhaps 10 miles at best. This means that at the depths in that part of the Indian Ocean, the listening device would need to be almost directly above the aircraft to hear it. And as of now with no surface debris, deciding where to tow the listening device is sheer guesswork.

Though speculation initially ran rampant, I've noticed an interesting down-tick in further speculation about the one theory which seems most plausible: that the captain hijacked and crashed his own aircraft.

I think the reason for the reticence to further explore this possibility in the media is that it's so disconcerting. Many of the efforts to protect commercial aircraft from terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 focused on the protection of the cockpit. These measures included armored cockpit doors and armed pilots. Now to consider the possibility that the trusted person behind the armored door himself may be a source of terror would understandably leave many passengers feeling more vulnerable than ever. After all, pilots are supposed to be the very picture of competence and stability.

That image of integrity and rectitude has long been fostered by airlines to assuage a natural fear of the quite unnatural process of hurtling through the air in an aluminum tube five miles above the earth. A competent professional after all, is up front at the controls.

One of the great frustrations of pilots following 9/11 was the zeal with which the newly empowered goons working for the TSA would remove cuticle scissors and shampoo bottles from crew luggage. We were told that having such things which would facilitate a breach of the cockpit, were prohibited. Arguing that having access to the cockpit was actually our job description would bring blank stares. No pilot ever needed to have a nail clipper to commit mayhem as has been demonstrated in the disappearance of MH370 and other incidents.

I do wish to make a note that I am very sensitive to the issue of blaming pilots for aviation disasters which unfortunately has a long and sordid history. Whenever an airplane crashes, blame will inevitably need to be assigned. In a simplistic sense pilots are always at fault for crashes as their job is to prevent crashes. And save for unseen catastrophic mechanical failures, some measure of either commission or omission can always be laid at the feet of the pilots.

Plus they have the added advantage of usually being dead.

In any airline crash there will be political implications. Governments heavily regulate every aspect of airline operations down to the most picayune of minutiae. Every page of every manual we use is stamped with "FAA Approved". The irony of course is that to modify an old aphorism, those who can, fly and those who can't, work for the FAA.

I can't overstate how many feds have ridden my jumpseat who have difficulty having an intelligent conversation about aviation or the industry. They may know a few things such as the speed limit below 10,000 ft or will gladly bust you if the address on your medical certificate doesn't match the one on your license, but have little other clue about the operation. Don't get me wrong, most of them are very nice people but they are products of their environment. Their incentive is to get a guaranteed federal pension and it shows.

But there is probably no federal agency other than the FAA that is better at circling the wagons when under attack. Job one at any bureaucracy is of course organizational survival with the nominal mission being somewhat down the list. But should a plane crash, deflection of any possible critique of current policies and procedures becomes primary. Dead pilots, who are conveniently not available for testimony are outstanding candidates for this effort. Live ones fare little better save for flukes like Sully.

Then of course there is the airline itself. The sum total cost of any crash in today's litigious environment can easily top a billion dollars in liability and hanging all this on mistakes made by pilots may help to deflect corporate liability. This is especially true if the pilots are in violation of some corporate or FAA policy. And that is without exception always the case. By design.

When I started in aviation flying for the Air Force nearly 35 years ago, I found the aircraft manuals we used to be dense, convoluted, needlessly repetitive, and nearly useless. This I chalked up to military bureaucracy which was largely born out when to my delight I found the materials provided by the airline to be wonderful. They were clearly written with topical and situational logic. But that is changing. And it is clear that the change has little to do with aviation safety but rather a preemptive legal defense in the event of an accident.

Our manuals today resemble those old military manuals I so loathed. They are loaded with prescriptions and proscriptions so thick that it is nearly impossible to operate a flight and not be in violation of some arcane directive. Make no mistake, these directives have little or nothing to do with aviation safety but are the result of the ladling on of new requirements following each incident which happens in the industry today.

As an example, in 2006, Comair 5191 attempted a takeoff on a wrong runway in Lexington Ky resulting in a crash and fatalities at the end of the shorter runway. Determining the cause to be pilot error, the FAA issued a decree stating that all crew members must audibly verbalize the runway direction before takeoff in the belief that the 30 ft red and white painted numbers on the runway weren't enough in spite of no evidence that the rule would help rather than distract.

This is what's known as requiring everyone to wear diapers after just one person poops their pants. The point is that making a specific rule for every action in the aircraft merely drives non-compliance as every new incident or accident seems to result in another rule rather than relying on what used to be known as "airmanship" or judgement. Think of a 55 mph speed limit on the interstate. Everyone speeds and now the cops are free to pull over who they like.

So while manuals have become less useful for crews, they have become very useful for aviation lawyers for both the victims and the company following any accident as it can easily be shown that the pilot was in non-compliance with something somewhere. And if he was in non-compliance with the directive to say something at a particular time, lord knows what else he was slacking on. Case closed. Bad pilots.

But this time it's a little different. We may really have a bad pilot. And that can't be good because there's not really any cure. Publicly blaming this guy and calling it a day isn't really going to work because there's no way to keep it from happening again in the public's mind. And this situation demands that something be done. The question is what? Passing a new rule to not be nutters doesn't quite fill the bill.

Pilots are already some of the most highly scrutinized and closely monitored professionals working today. Commercial pilots are subject to physicals every six months and random no-notice alcohol and drug checks, in addition to working in close proximity to other pilots and crew on a daily basis. As pilots, we are always watching the other guy out of a sense of self preservation if nothing else. Most airlines' hiring processes include multiple interviews and usually include a personality inventory test to weed out the eccentrics. (Delta Airlines even used to require an actual interview with a shrink during hiring).

In short, it doesn't appear that anything can be done that is not already being done. Which isn't helping. If Captain Shah actually killed himself and his passengers in what could be the largest murder-suicide since 9/11, it was likely to embarrass the current government of Malaysia. And if that was his intent, he succeeded wildly.

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Capt Rob