Category Archives: Aviation Safety

The Classic Definition of Insanity — Privatizing Essential Government Services . . . Again . . . and Expecting Different Results!


We’ve tried this failed experiment before, and once again it’s your safety and the nation’s security that are at stake as we try it yet again.  Yep, we’re talking lives, property, and national security sacrificed upon the altar of a long-discredited philosophy that places corporate profits above your (and the nation’s) interests.

Standard warning posted outside Air Traffic Control Facilities — Looks “Inherently Governmental” to me!

This time it’s the remnants your Air Traffic Control system they want to sell off.  You remember air traffic controllers.  They’re the only federal employees during the run up to and aftermath from the 9/11 attacks to actually have performed flawlessly in saving lives that day and disrupting further attacks.  The FBI and CIA?  Not so much.

The usual suspects are at it this time as well.  If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time then you know who they are.  They are Congressman John Mica, “Think” Tanker Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, and privatization forces both within and outside congress.  And, as always, all one need do is follow the money.

We’ve seen before how these forces work together.  They manufacture a “crisis” by defunding, sequestration, furlough, and intentional disruption, then claim the only “solution” to Congress’ inability to govern (in other words do the one job your representative and senators were elected to perform) is to spin off yet another essential government service so that corporations can profit from those services while charging taxpayers two, three, four or even more times what we now spend in return for reduced levels of service over what we currently receive.

Now we have another proposal to privatize, either through a government-run corporation (how’s that Post Office thing working out for you, by the way?) or spin off to corporate America (ditto Blackwater, Haliburton, Harris Corporation, Lockheed Martin AFSS, and many other examples too numerous to list), the remaining two of the original three legs of this nation’s air traffic control system.  Those two remaining legs would be this nation’s vital Air Route Traffic Control Centers and Terminal Facilities (Terminal Radar Approach Controls and Control Towers).

What was the third leg, you ask?  The one that is now a laughable shadow of its former self?  We’ll get to that now:

Here’s an example of what to expect from the selling/spinning off of your air traffic control system — the system you already bought and paid for.  John Mica and Robert Poole advocated for and achieved the privatization of the Flight Service Stations that file flight plans; coordinate overdue aircraft notifications; and brief general aviation pilots on everything from equipment outages, to presidential aircraft movements they need to avoid, to hazardous weather and other safety-related information critical to the conduct of safe flight.  It was their crowning achievement, designed according to them to save the government money while providing better service for less cost.  How has it worked?

Dismally.  And you, the taxpayer, are paying what I conservatively estimate to be four times as much per operation as you did before the sell-off.  Worse, because AFSS facilities were consolidated and vital services were curtailed to increase corporate profits, people have actually died as a direct result of John Mica’s and Robert Poole’s efforts, others have had rescues delayed after crashes (see below), and the security of even presidents of the United States — both past and present — has been violated on more than one occasion because private pilots left flight service briefings unwarned of presidential movement flight restrictions.

Before FAA Administrator Marion Blakey transferred to Lockheed Martin control of most of this nation’s Automated Flight Service Stations back in 2005, the FAA in the preceding year conducted around 25,922,000 “operations” (defined as any pilot contact whether by radio or telephone for a specified service).  By 2011, the last full year for which such data is currently available, that number had dropped to around 6,553,000 (a figure which includes right around 435,000 operations performed by the FAA’s few remaining Alaska Flight Service Stations).  That’s a drop of right around 75%.  Where did all those pilots go?  If you ask they’ll gladly tell you their horror stories.  Many quit using Flight Services because of notoriously bad service, incorrect information, and long waits on the telephone and over the radio since Lockheed Martin took over AFSS operations.  Indeed it initially got so bad that many pilots in the Lower 48 were calling FAA Alaska Flight Service Stations to file flight plans and get weather briefings even if they were going no farther north than the Florida panhandle.  Really.  I’m not kidding

And don’t even think of asking pilot Michael Trapp about the services he received from Lockheed Martin’s Lansing AFSS.  They darned near managed to kill him.  Mr. Trapp contacted Lockheed AFSS as his Cessna 150 was going down into Lake Huron on July 26, 2011.  He thought his radio distress call was being picked up by Lansing AFSS.  Unfortunately, in the name of cost cutting and unbeknownst to Mr. Trapp, Lockheed Martin had closed Lansing AFSS.  His distress call was instead answered by someone in Leesburg, Virginia.  That someone was totally unfamiliar with the area around the Great Lakes, and consequently unfamiliar with the landmarks Mr. Trapp relayed to the controller.  That just so happens to violate a clause in the AFSS contract that stipulates AFSS controllers will have familiarity with the area they are servicing.  So, despite Mr. Trapp having given his approximate location after an initially incorrect position report, the controller in Leesburg still managed to send rescuers to the wrong lake — only four hours after the crash, because the Leesburg controller did not initially relay to the Coast Guard the seriousness of the situation.  What should have been perhaps an hour ordeal wound up with Mr. Trapp treading water for eighteen hours and throughout a very long night before being picked up the next day by boaters unconnected to the rescuers searching in the wrong area.

Meanwhile, despite never having fully complied with the terms of their contract and having chased away three out of every four pilots using Flight Services, Lockheed Martin still get paid as though they were still handling nearly 26,000,000 operations per year.  Indeed, the FAA announced in September of 2013 that they were extending Lockheed Martin’s contract for an additional two years at a cost of $221,000,000.  That’s on top of a previous three-year, $356,000,000 extension awarded in 2010.  Those figures as far as I know doesn’t include bonuses routinely given to Lockheed Martin despite repeated noncompliance of contractual obligations.  Lockheed Martin then bragged in the same press release that they had in 2012:

  • Filed more than 1 million flight plans for aviation pilots;
  • Provided more than 1.5 million pilot weather briefings;
  • Answered 457,575 aviation radio contacts; and
  • Helped pilots in 6,691 aviation search and rescue events.

Now, I’m no math wiz, and the FAA has yet to release statistics for all 0f 2012 and beyond, but it appears to me from the above numbers that total operations dropped even further to less than 3,000,000.  In just two years!  Additionally, a quick calculation reveals that if (a big”if” considering the decline in numbers seen ever since Lockheed Martin took over) Lockheed Martin AFSS specialists continue to work 3,000,000 operations a year over the two-year life of that latest extension, they will pocket nearly $37 per operation.  Or, in other works, $37 for every telephone and radio call made to a Lockheed Martin AFSS.

Sounds a bit like one of thoseI-made-$15,000-last-month-working-at-home” scams, doesn’t it?

Think that’s a good deal for the taxpayer?  Robert Poole and John Mica do.  But don’t even think of letting them do for your (because you bought and paid for them) En Route and Terminal Air Traffic Services what they did with your (which you also bought and paid for, but which they gave away) Flight Service Stations.

And don’t let your congressman or senators tell you that you must now relinquish services you bought and paid for, and turn them over to corporate profiteers, because your congressman or senators either cannot or will not do the job they were elected to perform.  Any congressman or senator telling you that has just told you that they are unfit to govern and shouldn’t be in office.

Indeed, John Mica has been telling his constituents that he’s unfit to govern for over a decade.  Question is, are the voters in Florida’s 7th Congressional District finally going to listen to him this time?

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The Real Culprit in the Germanwings Flight 9525 Crash


Doomed Germanwings Airbus D-AIPX — Photo from Wikipedia article on Germanwings Flight 9525

I just this past week returned to the U.S. from an extended trip to South and Central America, and much has happened in aviation safety since I left.  Therefore I’m postponing until next week the continuation of my series on our fall 2014 cruise into the Sea of Cortez to concentrate on such matters today and Wednesday.  Fun Photo Friday will still await you however with some interesting flora photos of desert flowers.

It appears with near certainty that Germanwings copilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately killing himself, five other crew members, and 144 passengers on March 24 of this year.  Not so apparent is that he had a lot of help dating back to an innovative Boeing design concept made way back in 1967 — a concept that accelerated in acceptance in the 1980s to become the de facto standard for airliners today.

That concept was the elimination from the cockpit of the flight engineer position.

Oddly enough just two or three days before the Germanwings crash I was having an interesting dinner conversation on the topic of flight engineers with a retired Qantas pilot.  I remarked that I thought the elimination of that position from cockpits was a huge mistake at the time, and that subsequent events had proven me correct.  Little did I suspect that my points would receive further validation just a few days later.

But first a little history:

In the early days of commercial aviation cockpits routinely contained five crew members — pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator.  As radio equipment became more reliable and easier to operate the first position to go was that of the radio operator.  Advancements in navigation eventually made navigators redundant.  Jet engines eventually did the same for the flight engineer, whose job on piston aircraft was to monitor aircraft systems and to diagnose and correct system abnormalities and failures.  That was quite a tall order in the early days of multi-engine piston aircraft and variable-pitch propellers.  Not so much with the advent of turbojet technology and the computerization of systems.

But in my view, as I expressed to my ex-Qantas dinner companion, the flight engineer performed another equally valuable yet unadvertised function.  The flight engineer was the last defense in the event that something went wrong with the human element of flying — incapacitation of either of the pilots, an attempted breech of the cockpit, and, yes, even suicide by aircraft.  And I had the facts on my side to back up that claim.

First let us consider intentional crashing incidents involving airliners equipped with a flight engineer.  There are two of which I’m aware, and one of those was actually a DC-10 being used to haul freight rather than passengers.

  • Japan Airlines Flight 350; DC-8-61; February 9, 1982 — Captain Seiji Katagiri attempted to crash the DC-8 while on final approach to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.  First officer (copilot) Yoshifumi Ishikawa and Second Officer (flight engineer) Yoshimi Ozaki managed to wrest the controls from Captain Katagiri, but not in time to save the aircraft from landing almost 1,000 feet/300 meters short of the runway into shallow water.  There were 24 fatalities, but 150 survived thanks in no small part to the presence of that third member of the cockpit crew.
  • Federal Express Flight 705; DC-10-30; April 7, 1994 — Auburn Calloway was riding in the jump seat (spare cockpit seat) of the DC-10.  Unbeknownst to Captain David Sanders, First Officer James Tucker, and Second Officer Andrew Peterson, Mr. Calloway was about to be fired from Federal Express even though he was still in possession of company credentials that allowed him access to the cockpit.  Also unknown to the crew was the fact that Mr. Calloway’s guitar case contained four hammers (two claw and two sledge) and a speargun.  Mr. Calloway attempted to kill the flight crew with the intention of commandeering the DC-10 and deliberately crashing it into Federal Express facilities in Memphis.  Despite horrendous injuries and severe damage to the aircraft, including inverted flight and near supersonic velocities performed to throw their attacker off balance, the crew were able to subdue Mr. Calloway and perform an emergency landing.

Now let’s take a look had what has happened since the elimination of that third crew member:

  • SilkAir Flight 185; Boeing 737-300; 19 December, 1997 — While cruising at Flight Level 350 (thirty-five thousand feet) Captain Tsu Way Ming rose to leave the cockpit.  On his way out the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) stopped recording, presumably after Captain Tsu intentionally silenced it by pulling the circuit breaker supplying power to the CVR.  From this point on everything is pretty much speculation because there is no CVR recording.  The presumed sequence of events would have Captain Tsu reentering the cockpit and either manufacturing a reason for First Officer Duncan Ward to leave the cockpit or outright incapacitating him.  At any rate, there was no third crew member to stop what happened next.  A short time later the flight data recorder (FDR) “failed” and the aircraft entered a steep dive.  There were no survivors out of the 97 passengers and seven crew.
  • EgyptAir Flight 990; Boeing 767-366ER; October 31, 1999 — Shortly after Captain Ahmed El-Habashi left the cockpit to use the lavatory, relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti is recorded by the CVR saying in Egyptian Arabic “I rely on God.”  About a minute later the aircraft is throttled back and nosed over and put into a dive.  Captain El-Habashi reentered and attempted to recover the aircraft.  The FDR recorder shows that while he was pulling back on the control yoke First Officer Al-Batouti was countering that by pushing his control yoke forward, resulting in a so-called “split condition” on the elevators — left (pilot side) elevator in the up position; right (copilot side) elevator down.  Again, no second officer to intervene and 217 passengers and crew are dead.
  • Royal Air Maroc Flight 630; ATR-42; August 21, 1994 — Captain Younes Khayati disengaged the autopilot, took over manual control of the aircraft, and sent the aircraft earthward from an altitude of 15,000 feet/4,600 meters.  Forty-four dead.
  • LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470; Embrear 190; November 29, 2013 — Captain Herminio dos Santos Fernandes locked out his first officer from the cockpit and then proceeded to reset the autopilot four times.  The fourth setting was for below ground level.  The CVR recorded the first officer repeatedly pounding on the cockpit door to gain entry.  Thirty-three dead.
  • Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; Boeing 777-200ER; 8 March, 2014 — I warned earlier about speculation in advance of finding the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, but if they are ever found and recovered I now believe we will discover the 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard that aircraft will have died under similar circumstances.

A disturbing trend I’m sure you’ll agree.

So much for the history lesson.  Now back to Germanwings Flight 9525:

Final flight path of Germanwings 9525 from Wikipedia

Already Lufthansa, parent company of Germanwings, has mandated a second person be in the cockpit at all times.  That means a flight attendant must be present if either the captain or first officer leaves the cockpit for any reason.  But is that really enough?  Will a flight attendant know what the remaining pilot is doing with the controls?  Would she be able to wrest control from a suicidal pilot if necessary?  And what if she did somehow do that, what then?  Is she expected to recover the aircraft from a dive until the other pilot manages to regain entry into the cockpit?

Descent profile of Germanwing 9525 from Wikipedia

Pretty laughable “solution” when you consider what’s expected of that flight attendant.

What’s needed is a third qualified pilot (yes, flight engineers were qualified) in the cockpit.  But don’t expect that to happen.  That’s another salary airlines don’t want to pay — the real reason airlines wanted that position eliminated in the first place.

Meanwhile, how long before I’m proven correct yet again?

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ATC Zero — The Nightmare at Chicago En Route Center


Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

This week we got yet another lesson on the dangers of consolidating air traffic control facilities in the name of “saving money.” We also got a lesson on the abject failure of privatization, the “think tanks” that push privatization, contracting out maintenance of vital infrastructure, corporate greed, and the Washington corruption that breeds this sort of thing.

Harris Corporation employee Brian Howard allegedly cut radar and communications cables, set fire to vital equipment, and then attempted to go all Norman Bates on himself this past week.

Future Harris Corp. employee Norman Bates

The result is millions of dollars in damages and probably hundreds of millions in lost revenue to the airlines. That Harris contract, by the way, is worth some $331 million. Considering the impact to people, business, and national security, was it worth it? Ask your congressman and senators.  And ask if Harris Corp. is going to foot the bill, although we already know the answer to that one.

While you’re at it, ask where your congressman and senators stand on the consolidation agenda of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District, or the privatization of vital national defense infrastructure also pushed by him as well as the completely discredited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. For if both these men had their way it is very likely Indianapolis Center, Minneapolis Center, Cleveland Center, and Kansas City Center would not have been around to pick up at least some of Chicago Center’s traffic. Instead, if these two had their way, all those centers would have been in just one facility, and that facility would be the one down.

What would have been the impact of that? See for yourself:

FAA Area Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) Boundaries, a.k.a., “En Route Centers

We get this lesson on a fairly consistent basis. There was the 2003 evacuation of Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), which handles approach services to every major airport in Southern California. That disruption resulted from a brush fire and effectively shut down to IFR aircraft nearly every airport in half the state. In the past three years alone we witnessed no less than three evacuations of the Chicago TRACON, which serves O’Hare, Midway, and other Chicago area airports. And in 2007 Memphis Center went ATC Zero because a single critical phone line bundle was cut. That disruption closed off 100,000 square miles of airspace for around three hours.

But that’s all peanuts compared to this latest failure. It will be weeks, possibly even a month, before Chicago Center is up and operational once again.  Meanwhile, adjacent centers are trying to pick up the slack and Chicago Center controllers are being assigned to various TRACONs to handle what part of the load they can.

By the way, we’ve already tasted the devastating failures of at least one of Robert Poole’s ideas — the destruction of this nation’s Flight Service Stations and the services they once provided to general aviation pilots. Read:

During the Cold War no one would have stood for consolidation and privatization of such vital national defense infrastructure, yet we have bought-and-paid-for politicians, “think” tank “experts,” and corporations pushing this agenda every day. Why? Because there’s a lot of money to be had, that’s why.  Government money.  Tons of it. And these people don’t care about national defense, so this latest lesson will be conveniently swept under the door mat once public memory has faded.

But rest assured that this lesson has not been lost on those who would do us harm. They now know our vulnerabilities. They’re probably counting on those vulnerabilities to exploit them in the future. And I’m sure those same people are sitting back, planning and plotting, and all the while cheering on the likes of Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation, and Congressman John Mica, and wishing them all the best of success in their endeavors. Because, as we all know, greed is good . . . if you’re looking to exploit an enemy. That’s why the standard FAA ATC sign you saw above — the one so prominently displayed outside every FAA ATC facility in the nation — should read:

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read

Bibliography:

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