Tag Archives: aviation safety

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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Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

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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Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

May the Festivities Begin


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and a Happy חֲנֻכָּה to all my Jewish friends. May everyone have a great and wonderful holiday season filled with friends, family, and insightful reflection on all that has gone well for you over this past year and all the things for which you have to be thankful in your life.

The following is a piece written by Brian Fung for the Washington Post.  Although it’s geared toward my former profession — Air Traffic Control — the sentiment that we should thank those who work through this holiday to keep us all safe should apply to so many more of our public servants and military than just controllers (the same public servants who find themselves publicly attacked and scorned today by those in Washington with an agenda . . . an agenda that somehow doesn’t include working on Holidays or sharing in sacrifice for the betterment of the country; see Indentured Servitude is Alive and Well in the U.S.).

Thank an air traffic controller today

By Brian Fung, Updated: November 27 at 11:38 am

Two-and-a-half million people are going to try to fly someplace Wednesday. If you’re one of those poor souls, you may be itching to strangle someone by the time you collapse into your shoe box of a seat. But, realistically? Our headaches as passengers — flight delays, long lines at security — mostly get sorted out before we board the plane.

Not so for air traffic controllers, many of whom are preparing for a high-stress day that’s even worse this year due to a wintry storm that’s battering the East Coast. Even as the rest of us sit down to a big turkey dinner on Thursday, many of the nation’s 27,000 air traffic controllers will still be on duty.

Once a plane leaves the airport, responsibility for tracking it gets handed off to a local departure controller — a TRACON facility, for short — that monitors a wider area. There are dozens of these. Then, as the plane leaves the region, another facility, called an area control center (ACC), takes over. The process has to take place in reverse when the aircraft reaches its destination.

Air traffic control is a highly specialized industry, but it’s also a shrinking one. By 2019, the country is expected to have shed more than 12,000 air traffic control jobs, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s because a huge share of the sector’s workforce is about to retire.

(Click on this link for the original article along with a chart showing the age distribution of today’s controller workforce)

To head off a looming shortage of controllers, the FAA plans to hire more than 11,000 new workers by the decade’s end. Becoming an air traffic controller can be a harrowing journey in itself. That’s because there’s really only one path to an ATC job if you haven’t held one before, and it runs straight through the FAA. New ATC candidates spend years studying for the FAA’s pre-employment exam; if they score below a 70, they have to wait another year to take the test. This wouldn’t be quite so stressful if time weren’t working against the candidates; most controllers get their first jobs in their 20s and work for only about 30 years before retiring.

In 2011, air traffic controllers famously made headlines when some were caught napping on the job because of their exhausting work schedules. The FAA introduced new regulations for work shifts to try to curb the problem.

(See my take on this scandal in U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on Sleeping Controllers)

ATC workers do get compensated pretty well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a starting controller’s salary begins at $37,000 but quickly ramps up to a median of $108,000 a year.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a massive shift in air traffic technology that controllers will need to adapt to. For decades, the nation’s air traffic control system has mostly relied on the same radar technology that told World War II-era controllers where their planes were. But now the FAA is rolling out upgrades that add satellite technology to the mix. This is useful in places where we can’t build a radar tower — like in the middle of the ocean — but it also requires new standards, policies and procedures that controllers will need to learn in addition to doing their regular jobs.

Air traffic controllers are giving up their Thanksgiving to keep our pilots from crashing in mid-air. So whether you know one or not, let’s make today Thank an Air Traffic Controller Day.

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