Friday, March 27, 2015

Murder-Suicide by Plane





An analysis of the CVR from Germanwings 9525 now makes it clear that copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately locked his captain out of the cockpit and then flew his A320 with 150 passengers into a mountain. There has been speculation that Lubitz suffered from bouts of depression, and there is no doubt that investigators will comb through every bit of his past for clues that might explain his actions.

Finding a history of mental illness will be of little consolation to the friends and relatives of the murdered passengers and crew.  What will matter is explaining how this happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. This was essentially a single point failure due in part to policy, and would be unlikely to happen in the US.

Let me explain.

After 9/11 all airlines globally were required to armor and enhance cockpit doors to prevent a breach. This enhancement included provisions to gain entrance in case of a lockout. A code entered into a keypad by the door unlocks the door in a specified amount of time while alerting the cockpit. Should someone in the cockpit hear this alert, they can push a button which then denies access. There is also a simple deadbolt which can be thrown to deny access.

So if someone is up front and wishes to keep out intruders, the door is essentially impregnable. Recognizing the potential for one person to gain access and then lock the door, the FAA designated the cockpit a "no lone zone" meaning that should a pilot exit the cockpit for whatever reason in flight, a flight attendant had to replace him or her up front. Once up front, the door opens with a simple twist of the door knob. Theoretically, should a rogue pilot or flight attendant attempt anything, it would be easy to open the door to call for help.

At least those are the rules for US airlines. Apparently for whatever reason, the rule was not made or enforced in Europe and other places. After this tragedy, the rule is being quickly changed. Aviation authorities and politicians will now have to explain why the rule was not adopted in Europe.

Mental Health Questions


There has been speculation backed up with some anecdotal evidence that Lubitz had suffered from depression in the past. Questions are now being asked about what sort of mental health screening prospective airline pilots undergo. The answer is very little.

After leaving the military, I interviewed with four airlines before being hired. The process was similar at each airline and included a series of document and background checks along with a series of interviews. As far as any mental health screening, two of the four airlines required the completion of a standard personality inventory such as the MMPI while two did not.

Personality inventories are multiple choice questionnaires designed to assess personality types. Some major US airlines are known to give psych evals with a medical professional, but this is not the rule. I have no idea whether the results of these tests are used to eliminate pilot candidates, but that was the extent of any mental health screening I've ever received. I myself might be completely starkers for all I know. My wife certainly has doubts. My extended family, on the other hand, has no doubts whatsoever.

So should mental health questions arise in a pilot, they will be either self reported or evident through behavior observed by family or co-workers. All pilots undergo routine annual (semi-annual for captains) physicals and by law must report to the FAA any visits to medical professionals or any medications taken. The flight doc checks your vision, listens to your ticker, and has you pee in the cup before collecting his $150 (cash or check only, please) before sending you on your way. That's it.

As far as the FAA is concerned, any condition requiring medication will initially result in the pilot being grounded until evaluated by an AME (aviation medical examiner). The FAA specifically mentions four SSRI drugs which can be used while maintaining a medical qualification after appropriate evaluation. They are Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro. Conditions requiring other drugs in this category are grounding. While not familiar with European medical policy, it can be assumed that it is similar to that of the US.

It's easy to see that should a pilot suspect that he may have a condition requiring a mental health examination, it might very well ground him. Not exactly a positive incentive to self report depression or anxiety to the flight doc.

The latest reports indicate that Lubitz was in possession of a medical notice grounding him but had torn it up. Watching a life's dream escape through his fingers while also suffering from depression might have been just enough to send him over the edge.

This was an unspeakable tragedy for all involved, including Lubitz and his family. For some time now, post 9/11 security enhancements were thought to be mainly a problem for American air carriers. This attitude may have contributed to a somewhat lax posture towards cockpit security procedures in Europe. This tragedy will understandably force a reassessment of all cockpit security procedures worldwide.







Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Germanwings 9525




Airliners are not supposed to just drop out of the sky.

For the second time in nearly as many months, an Airbus A320 has fallen from altitude and crashed resulting in the deaths of all aboard. The latest accident occurred over the south of France.

Germanwings 9525, enroute from Barcelona to Dusseldorf with 144 passengers and 6 crew, had just levelled off at 38,000 ft when after a minute or so it started a descent. In the 8 minutes between the start of the descent and the impact of the aircraft into the Alps, no communications were heard from the cockpit crew in spite of multiple air traffic control attempts.

The descent, which averaged about 3300 ft per minute is not unusually steep for an airliner. The aircraft also maintained it's flight planned course during the descent suggesting that some measure of automation was still functioning. 

The wreckage is in a remote mountainous area in the French Alps and will present serious difficulties in recovery efforts. There are no expectations of finding survivors due to the violent nature of the impact into steep terrain.

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) has been recovered and while damaged, has been able to have audio files retrieved by French accident investigators. The flight recorders have not as of yet been located.

At this point, speculation is running rampant but generally pointing in the direction of some sort of loss of cabin pressure resulting in the incapacitation of the crew. This would explain the lack of communication with the pilots. Loss of pressurization at 38,000 ft (FL380 in airline jargon) would result in what's known as a "time of useful consciousness" or TUC of about 20 to 30 seconds. 

That means that the pilots would have about 20 seconds to get their oxygen masks on and to start a descent before succumbing to hypoxia. Loss of cabin pressurization was the cause of the crash of Helios 522, a Greece based airliner in 2005, and also the death of golfer Payne Stuart when the Lear Jet he was riding in lost pressurization. 

Currently there appears to be no suspicion by investigating authorities of terrorism or foul play. Witnesses have reported that the aircraft appeared intact and flying normally except for its low altitude. This would seem to at least preclude an on board explosion.

Any theories given at this early stage in the investigation will be grounded in speculation at least until the CVR transcript can be analyzed or the flight data recorder is found. 

UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting tonight that the CVR indicates that the first officer exited the cockpit at cruise and was not able to re-enter. This development changes the fundamental nature of the investigation.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Germanwings A320 Down

A budget European airline A320 has crashed in the south of France in mountainous territory.  As of now, no survivors are expected. More to follow.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Delta 1086 Took Down Nearly 1000 Feet of Fence



Missing fence at LGA (click to enlarge)


Not happy with the media coverage of Delta Flight 1086 and being a seriously dedicated blogger, I decided to travel to LaGuardia to check out the situation myself.

No, not really.

Actually, my trip just happened to take me through LGA last week, and I was able to see exactly where DL 1086 went off the runway and almost into Flushing Bay. What surprised me was that nearly 1000 feet of the fence which was atop the berm that separates the airfield from the bay had been knocked down.

News coverage photographs gave the appearance of only a small section of fence that had been knocked down by the nose of the aircraft. What was not apparent was the nearly 1000 feet of fence that had been knocked over by the MD-88s left wing.

NTSB reports indicate that the aircraft had a normal approach and landing at 133 knots, but that the aircraft started to drift left upon touchdown. The missing fence was between the 3000 and 2000 foot distance remaining markers. Distance remaining markers are large signs along the runway indicating how many thousands of feet are remaining to the end.

A buddy showed me a photo taken in the hangar of the left wing of the MD-88 which was badly damaged by the fence. There were also some reports of leaking fuel which luckily did not ignite.



Monday, March 09, 2015

Possible Brake Malfunction on Delta 1086





An article in today's Wall Street Journal details that investigators are suspecting that the MD-88 which departed the runway at LaGuardia last week may have had a brake problem:

After a normal approach and touchdown, thrust-reversers were deployed as expected, but the plane still veered off the runway at roughly 100 miles an hour, said one of those people familiar with the situation. 
Based on preliminary information retrieved from “black box” recorders and pilot interviews, this person said, investigators are focusing on the performance of the braking system, which was set to operate automatically consistent with the airline’s procedures and safety rules.

All airliners today are equipped with both anti-skid braking systems and also a system known as "auto-brakes". The anti-skid system is similar to the one on your car and releases brake pressure to any tire which is approaching zero RPM, or a skid.

The auto-brake system is designed to automatically apply measured braking immediately after touchdown when the system detects wheel spin-up. It has several deceleration settings and will bring the aircraft to a complete stop if not overridden by the pilot.

The use of auto-brakes is usually mandatory when landing on a wet or slippery runway and contributes an added layer of safety during rollout. This is especially helpful during high crosswind landings.

A pilot's feet rest on the two rudder pedals which control the rudder in the air, but also control the wheel brakes on the ground. The pedals push in and out for rudder control, while applying toe pressure to each individual pedal applies the wheel brakes to the individual landing gear.

During a crosswind landing, holding a significant amount of rudder means one leg is extended while the other comes back towards the seat. Applying toe pressure while simultaneously holding rudder input can be awkward and not very effective. Auto-brakes make up for this deficiency.

Whether one of these systems malfunctioned during the landing rollout remains to be seen but the investigators seem to have found something amiss. Stay tuned.


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Delta Airlines 1086


                                                                                          (AP Photo)
Delta Air Lines Flight 1086 departed the runway at LaGuardia airport on Thursday after landing in low visibility and came to rest on a berm adjacent to Flushing Bay. The MD-88 had arrived from Atlanta at about 11 a.m. with 125 passengers and 5 crew. There were no fatalities or serious injuries and the NTSB has recovered the data recorders and is starting their investigation.

My first impression upon seeing the news reports was that the aircraft was extremely lucky to not go into the bay as it appears to have almost done. A few clicks around the web showed that the aircraft had been sliding sideways along the berm and not directly at it, taking the fence with it as seen above. The berm was to the side of the runway and not at the end. Not quite the "roadrunner-coyote cliff hanger" moment it first seemed.

That's not to say that this isn't a serious incident. It is. The aircraft is most likely totalled with extensive and hard to repair fuselage damage. The pilots themselves have already been drug and alcohol tested (normal protocol), and can now expect a months long body cavity search by investigators and authorities. Lawsuits have most likely already been filed by some passengers.

Lousy Weather


A search for historical METAR reports quickly returned the weather conditions for the aircraft's arrival time. METARs, or Meteorological Terminal Air Reports are the routine periodic weather observations made at almost all airports with instrument approaches. They are typically released at about 10 minutes prior to the hour but can be issued more frequently if weather conditions are changing rapidly.

METARs used to be made by real weathermen, but are now mostly automated. Their data is then digitized and available to pilots through a datalink. The report issued about 10 minutes prior to Delta 1086's arrival was as follows:


METAR KLGA 051551Z 01008KT 1/4SM R04/2800V3500FT SN FZFG
                     VV009 M03/M05 A3012 RMK AO2 SLP199 P0006 T10331050=






This can be decoded as follows: First the identification of the type report, then the field identifier KLGA, LaGuardia. The "K" is the country code. The time is listed with the date followed by the "zulu" time or GMT. Since New York is GMT-5, that puts the local time at 10:51 EST, just before Delta's arrival.

Next is the wind which is from 010 degrees at 8 knots. On the runway on which they landed, Rwy 13, this is a left quartering tailwind. The visibility is 1/4 mile with the specific visibility for runway 4 listed as between 2800 and 3500 feet. Obscurations to visibility are listed as snow and freezing fog with a vertical visibility showing 900 feet.

While the METAR reported the specific visibility for Runway 4, there is also a visibility measuring installation on Runway 13 as well. It is most likely convention that only one is listed in the report. There is no doubt that the tower was reading visibility reports for Runway 13 directly on the radio.

The temperature and dewpoint are at -3 and -5 degrees celsius respectively, with an altimeter setting of 30.12 inches of mercury (in. hg.). The rest of the string is more detailed technical data referring to the type of automated sensor package and other details.

What does this mean in English? It means the weather was really really crappy. This report is about as bad as it can get with the airport remaining open.


Landing With a Tailwind


Airplanes normally land into headwinds if they can. The reason for this is that a headwind will reduce an airplane's velocity over the ground resulting in less energy to dissipate during the landing. And as the energy carried into the landing varies with the square of the velocity, a slight increase in velocity will result in a large increase in energy that must be absorbed by the brakes and thrust reversers.

So this begs the question of why was LaGuardia landing on a runway with a tailwind in snow and ice?

The answer is in the visibility. With a reported visibility between 2800 and 3500 feet, the only approach available with low enough visibility minimums was the either the ILS to runway 22 or the ILS to runway 13. The approaches to runways 4 and 31 both have minimums of a mile visibility or higher due to obstacles and other criteria. Of the two remaining approaches, a wind of 010/8 would have been nearly a direct tailwind on runway 22. This left the ILS to 13 as the least worst choice.

(For those who don't know, a runway's designation is it's magnetic course in tens of degrees, i.e. runway 13 is 130 degrees magnetic. Also, ILS stands for instrument landing system, a ground based radio directed approach.)

Given though that the aircraft did not overrun it's landing runway, but rather went off the side may mean that a slight tailwind landing wasn't a factor in this incident. The winds at landing would have been 120 degrees from the left at only eight knots resulting in a tailwind component of only a few knots. 

The issue of low visibilities necessitating the use of a non-optimum runway in snow was a factor in the overrun and crash of a Southwest Airlines jet over ten years ago. It will surely be looked at by investigators in this incident.

Whiteout


Investigators will be sure to focus on exactly where the airplane touched down on the runway. One of the biggest challenges to landing in a low visibility environment is that there is very little time to assess the exact position of the airplane vis a vis the runway before landing. Should the airplane be even just a little bit to the left or right of the runway centerline, there is very little ability to make a correction in the short time between decision height and touchdown. In extreme conditions such as landing just above minimums, determining if a correction even needs to be made can be a challenge.

There have been instances in the past of pilots mistaking runway edge lights for the centerline lights and placing the wrong row of lights right between the gear. Of course this would leave one of the landing gears off the runway in the dirt.

This difficulty can be compounded by a crosswind as existed at LGA. As an aircraft travels down final, it will naturally windmill into whatever crosswind exists. The angle between the aircraft heading and the runway heading is known as the drift angle, and can be disorienting especially in a low visibility approach.

When the aircraft is "drifting" or "crabbed" into a crosswind, the runway will not appear directly in front of the cockpit but will rather be off to one side or the other when breaking out of the weather. Pilots must know where to look for the runway in the windscreen by accounting for the drift angle.

Don't Duck


Another potential error during a very low visibility approach is known as the "duck under". All "precision" approaches, and by that I mean approaches with glidepath information included, will have what is known as as "decision height", or "decision altitude". It means just what it says. We fly down the glidepath in the weather until reaching that altitude and then make the "decision" to land or go around.

There are very specific criteria of what must be in view in order to continue an approach after decision height. While the runway needn't be seen, the approach lights must be in view for instance, and the aircraft must be tracking on centerline. The red runway stop bar lights must be seen to continue below 100 ft above the runway as well. I could go on for several paragraphs about all the specific requirements needed to be met to continue to a low visibility landing.

If at any time all requirements are not met, a go-around is mandatory. The temptation in a low visibility landing is to go in the direction of the things you see which are below the aircraft. It's a natural tendency but must be resisted. A "duck under" may carry the aircraft below the glideslope and result in a short landing. 

Therefore, once visual clues become available, pilots must still reference their instruments inside the aircraft to maintain an appropriate glidepath to touchdown. This requires using a hybrid inside-outside scan during landing which can be disorienting. It is here that the pilot not flying earns his keep by staying on instruments and calling out deviations.

Once on the Ground


Ok, let's assume that the approach and landing were uneventful. Assuming that the aircraft touched down on centerline and in the landing zone (first 3000 feet), what could then go wrong? Plenty. Investigators will be sure to look at the wheels, tires, brake assemblies, anti-skid systems and thrust reversers. A malfunction of any of these could cause some adverse drag that might cause the aircraft to drift laterally on rollout.

Ideally, rudder application or differential braking should be enough to return the airplane back onto centerline if it strays. As the aircraft speed decreases however, the rudder becomes less effective and the captain must at some point transition from the rudder peddles to the tiller (steering wheel) to maintain lateral control or take control from the first officer. This typically happens around 60 kts or less. I say captain here because most airplanes have only one tiller on the left bulkhead for use by the captain.

(It's one of the perks of captain upgrade: you get to drive while on the ground!)

Braking Action Reports


While LaGuardia airport authorities were quick to take to the airwaves to declare that the runways had just been plowed, often the entire width of the runway may not be plowed. Should an airplane drift for whatever reason towards the side of the runway and get into a snow covered area, nose wheel and braking effectiveness can rapidly drop. And this may happen just as the aircraft decelerates below the point of rudder effectiveness.

We've all been driving on a snowy road following where all the other cars have been making a path, but know that when pulling onto the shoulder all bets are off.

During times of inclement weather, airports will announce that "braking action advisories" are in effect. When this happens, all pilots are required to report what the braking action was like on landing. We use terms such as "wet-good", wet-fair", "wet-poor" or "nil". A report of "wet-poor" or "nil" pretty much stops all operations.

Arrivals just prior to the incident had been reporting good braking action, and there's no doubt that investigators will also be looking closely at all reports and the specific areas of the runway that had been plowed.

Now The Investigation


As far as airplane accidents go, this one will eventually be forgotten by the public at large. No one was hurt and while the airplane is probably a loss, the MD-88 fleet is old and probably scheduled for retirement in the near future anyway. In the best of all possible worlds, if the pilots are found at fault for continuing an approach which should've been abandoned, perhaps they'll get some time off and some retraining before flying again.

Should the cause end up being a mechanical problem, then records and procedures will be reviewed to ensure compliance. Perhaps inspection schedules will be adjusted.

Flying an approach in minimum visibility, in an old airplane, to a short runway bordered by water, in a tailwind is probably as bad as it gets in modern aviation. There is simply very little room for any error. It may not be a surprise that this type of accident happened, but rather that it doesn't happen more often.





  

Friday, March 06, 2015

Ice Ice Baby!






This past week has seen a large part of the country dealing with wintry weather so it seemed like a good time to address icing. Airplanes and ice have always had an adversarial relationship. Ice can prevent airplanes from getting airborne and should they be airborne, ice will do its best to facilitate an airplane's hasty return to Earth, willingly or not.

From the earliest days of aviation, airframe icing was recognized as a threat to flight. Icing will cause problems for aircraft in two ways. The first is the simple weight that icing can add to an aircraft. Many thousands of pounds of added weight from icing on an airframe will increase stall speeds and can prevent an airplane from climbing out of icing conditions.

The second pernicious effect of airframe icing is the addition of drag and the destruction of a wing's ability to create lift. As you'll recall, lift is generated due to the Bernoulli effect with regards to the flow of air over the wing. Faster moving airflow over the wing has lower dynamic pressure than the air passing beneath. This pressure differential generates the lift that keeps airplanes in the sky.

One requirement though is that this airflow must be laminar, or smooth, to work its magic. A coating of ice will destroy the smooth flow of air and result in what is known as boundary layer separation. When this happens, the wing stops producing lift and the airplane drops. As ice progressively coats a wing in icing conditions, the wing's lifting ability decreases and its drag increases to the point where flight is no longer possible.

Even a layer of frost over the top of a wing can have devastating effects on lift. Roughness approximating a piece of #40 grit sandpaper will reportedly reduce lift by 30 to 40%. This loss of lift can produce disastrous results especially during takeoff, which is why icing must be taken seriously.

Ice Can Kill On the Ground


There have been many accidents and incidents attributed to airframe icing over the years. One of the most famous ones was Air Florida 90, which crashed into the Potomac River moments after takeoff in a snowstorm in 1982. While the ultimate cause was determined to be pilot error, the series of errors which led to the crash were caused by the pilots' lack of understanding of the effects of ice on their aircraft.

Specifically, the crew inexplicably failed to use engine anti-icing and also allowed a dangerous buildup of snow to accumulate on the aircraft prior to takeoff. The failure to use engine anti-icing, which heats sensors that determine thrust settings, allowed a false reading from clogged sensors to show that the engines were at full thrust while they were actually set much lower. 

The lower thrust coupled with the added weight and increased drag from accumulated snow prevented the aircraft from being able to remain airborne. It hit the 14th St bridge 30 seconds after takeoff killing 69 of the 74 passengers and crew.

And is Also Deadly in the Air


Ice accumulation while airborne has been a well documented hazard to aviation over the years and also a staple of aviation film drama. Should an airplane fly into what is known as "icing conditions", supercooled rain droplets will freeze on the surface of an aircraft leaving a coating of ice. This coating starts at the leading edge of the wing and slowly travels back over the wing destroying the wing's ability to create lift as it progresses.

A simpler word for "icing conditions" would be cloud. Any time visible moisture is present and the temperature is below freezing, icing conditions are present and airframe icing is possible. Airframe icing is categorized as either "rime"or "clear". Rime icing is opaque in color and easily visible on the aircraft while clear ice is much harder to see and therefore more difficult to detect.

One of the more recent casualties of airborne ice accumulation was American Eagle 4184 which crashed due to icing induced loss of control in 1994. The aircraft, an ATR 72 enroute from Indianapolis to Chicago, had held in freezing rain conditions while awaiting further clearance to O'Hare. While descending to enter a second holding pattern, the pilots retracted the flaps which had been extended for the first holding pattern.

Upon flap retraction the aircraft became uncontrollable, rolling completely at least twice before crashing in a field near Roselawn, Indiana, killing all 64 passengers and 4 crew. The cause of the accident was attributed to a buildup of ice on the wing which only became critical after the flaps were retracted.

Many aircraft now have restrictions against holding in icing conditions with flaps extended as a result.

Clean Aircraft Concept


The mitigation of dangers posed by icing before takeoff and while airborne are two very different problems requiring different solutions, but the end objective is the same: to keep ice off the aircraft. And short of keeping an airplane safely in a warm hangar, solutions to icing have become ever more exotic as the dangers of icing have become better understood.

After many years of trying to come up with a regulatory framework which could be universally and simply applied, the FAA came up with the Clean Aircraft Concept. This formulation left no wiggle room as to how much freezing precipitation could be adhering to an aircraft readying for takeoff:

 The “clean-airplane” concept is derived from U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 121.629, which states, “No person may take off an aircraft when frost, ice or snow is adhering to the wings, control surfaces, propellers, engine inlets, or other critical surfaces of the aircraft or when the takeoff would not be in compliance with paragraph (c) of this section. Takeoffs with frost under the wing in the area of the fuel tanks may be authorized by the Administrator.” 
The FAR also prohibits dispatch or takeoff any time conditions are such that frost, ice, or snow may reasonably be expected to adhere to the airplane, unless the certificate holder has an approved ground deicing/anti-icing program in its operations specifications that includes holdover time (HOT) tables.

The aim of this simple regulation was to put an end to the guessing game of how much snow and ice can safely be on the aircraft for a takeoff. The short answer is none (with occasional frost but only on the underside of the wing). No one would be able to say "oh, it'll blow off during takeoff", or " the exhaust from the plane taxiing ahead of us will melt the snow". The airplane had to be clean. Period.

Don't Drink the Deicing Fluid


Dating to the 1950s and earlier, deicing fluid for use on aircraft was based on ethylene glycol, commonly used as automotive antifreeze solution, or sometimes even ethyl alcohol (the drinking kind). Due to its toxicity to animals, ethylene glycol was mostly replaced by propylene glycol in the 1980s. Ethyl alcohol fell out of favor as a deicer after WWII due to it's popularity as a jaw lubricant with ground crews in Russia and other places. New fluids have been introduced over the years that not only remove ice, but also inhibit further accumulation.

It is important to make the distinction between the terms "deice" and "anti-ice" because they mean different things and the fluids used in each application are also different. The term deice refers to removing existing snow and ice from an aircraft while anti-icing means to apply fluid which inhibits continuing frozen precipitation from adhering to aircraft surfaces.

Specialty fluids have been developed over the years for these two separate functions. For most applications, fluids used to deice aircraft are known as "Type I" fluids while anti-ice fluids are "Types II, III and IV". They function differently.

While Type I fluids are used mainly for deicing, Types II, III, and IV have thickeners included and are designed to adhere to the wing and absorb moisture from additional snowfall or ice accumulations and to then shear off the wing during takeoff. This gives extra time between application and taking off.

This extra time is known as "holdover time" and differs depending on the type of fluid used, its concentration, the type and intensity of the snow or ice coming down, and the outside temperature. We have lots of very complicated charts to figure it all out. If holdover time is exceeded, we go back to the gate and get sprayed again.

A typical Type I fluid will be based on propylene glycol (PG) and will include other ingredients such as corrosion inhibitors, surfactants, or wetting agents and dye. It will usually be diluted with water and heated in the truck to be sprayed on the aircraft.

So as you sit in your window seat you might see the trucks make two passes during deicing. The first pass will be with Type I fluid to deice, while the second pass will be to spray Type IV fluid as an anti-icer. Type IV fluid is green in color and sticks to the wing but is designed to shear off.

Deicing Ain't Cheap


With a quick web search I found a vendor selling DOW UCAR PG Type 1 fluid in a handy 230 gallon pack for $4250. This will typically be diluted 70/30 with water making the solution about $13 per gallon. Keep in mind that it may take up to 500 gallons to properly deice a 737 or A320, two common airliners, so you can see that the process is expensive.

Another facet to consider is what happens to all that deice fluid after it hits the ground. Many environmental jurisdictions are starting to require capture and recycle systems for used fluid which further drives up the costs. Given the thin profit margins of most airlines, it's likely that flights that have been deiced are marginally profitable or unprofitable.

This begs the question of why airlines even fly in snow. Well for one, the airline has no sure way to tell when snow will fall, but the more likely answer is that cancelling flights prematurely is expensive and kills customer loyalty if the competition is still flying. Plus aircraft and crews may also be needed elsewhere.

The new tarmac delay law with it's heavy penalties for long delays certainly contributes to the cancellation equation, but that will have to be the subject of a future post.

Clean or "Cell Phone Clean"


After many years of ambiguity regarding the question of when and how to deice, everyone from the FAA, the airlines, unions, safety administrators and aircraft manufacturers are really on the same page concerning pre-takeoff deicing. The airplane has to be clean to take off. On this everyone agrees.

But in tearing a page from medicine, a new phenomenon of "defensive deicing" is making itself slowly apparent. Airlines managements, while fully onboard with the need to properly deice an aircraft, also don't want pilots to be spraying thousands of dollars worth of fluids unnecessarily. Thus pilots are routinely bombarded with memos to this effect.

Here is where a pilot's and the airlines' incentives may be somewhat misaligned. There are plenty of instances say where flurries may be coming down in windy conditions where no snow may be sticking to the aircraft. In this case it is perfectly appropriate, safe, and legal to depart without deicing.

Pilots also know however that in the back of the airplane are several hundred cell phone cameras with some owners only too eager to snap a picture of a snow flurry for forwarding to the FAA (believe me, I've seen it happen). And the FAA, being the ever loyal guardians of aviation safety, will dutifully send a letter of investigation to a pilot who thought he was doing the right thing advising him to retain a lawyer and to explain his actions.

Having one's livelihood potentially threatened does wonders to concentrate the mind and has resulted in a type of bunker mentality. If one airplane is getting sprayed, they all seem to end up getting sprayed if there's even a flurry still in the air.

And should the hourly weather observation list frozen precipitation at an airport, deicing seems to always continue regardless of whether snow is actually still coming down 45 minutes later or not. And so it goes.

But there's no doubt that a certain measure of over-caution, while an inconvenience, never ended with an airplane in the Potomac.





Saturday, February 14, 2015

Only a Fraction of TransAsia's Pilots Pass Post Crash Exam




In the wake of the crash of TransAsia GE-235, the airline tested all 68 of the pilots currently flying the ATR 72 aircraft at the recommendation of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration. Of those pilots given an oral examination, 39 passed, 10 failed and 19 others were grounded until they take the exam. All of the pilots will be given additional simulator training as well.

Foremost in any accident investigation is an effort to identify the primary cause of the accident and to suggest changes which will forestall any recurrence. In the case of TransAsia GE-235, the pilots' erroneous decision to shut off their remaining good engine appears to be the primary cause. The subsequent testing and failure of a number of pilots seems to provide a smoking gun that poor procedural knowledge is the culprit.

Of those who failed the exam, they will most likely be retrained and retested before being allowed to fly again. Sounds like the problem has been quickly and easily identified and solved. We can all go safely back to our phones. Or can we?

In any investigation, care should be taken to also identify underlying trends which may contribute to the obvious causes of any accident. A facile determination of the cause and a quick and easy palliative certainly serves corporate and political interests, but not necessarily those of the flying public.

This can be especially true if the underlying problems prove to be stubborn, or expensive to fix, or if the political will to fix them is lacking. I believe that all three of these things are happening here.

If Possible, Blame the Pilots


Airline crashes, besides being human tragedies of the highest order, are also both economic and political tragedies.

The economics involve not only the expected payment of upwards of a million dollars per fatality, and the loss of a revenue producing asset worth perhaps $20 million in this case, but also the lost revenue from the inevitable drop in bookings which follows any air disaster. Findings of fault with training, maintenance or procedures can increase any liability or punitive damage awards.

The political tragedy is more subtle but no less real in that questions involving regulatory oversight and preventative actions will be asked of government oversight entities. In the US, the FAA is occasionally referred to as being a macabre sounding "tombstone agency". This term refers to a perception that nothing of substance gets changed until some bodies pile up, and that the agency is essentially reactive.

In the meantime, after any crash, regulatory agencies will engage in a bureaucratic circling of the wagons to deflect any political blowback concerning regulatory oversight or lack thereof, which may have somehow contributed. The words "FAA Approved" which must appear on each and every page of the many volumes of manuals, checklists, and documents used by all US airlines, provide ample incentive for investigators to fault pilots' failures to follow guidance, and not the guidance itself.

In many countries with less stable governments, an air disaster can be a useful cudgel to be used by an opposition political group with which to criticize a currently ruling party or government.

There has been some speculation for instance, that a possible motive for the captain of MH370, the Malaysian airliner which disappeared last year, was to embarrass the Malaysian government which had recently brought charges against an opposition leader towards whom the captain had strong sympathies.

So in consideration of both corporate and political needs, incentives are well aligned to find some measure of incompetence or malfeasance with the people who always arrive first at the scene of any crash, the pilots. Dead pilots, conveniently unavailable to defend themselves, are useful for this effort.

How Stupid Could They Have Been?


As has been widely surmised through the release of the flight recorder data, it appears as if the pilots of GE-235 misidentified which engine had failed, and then shut off their remaining good engine. For this they are being pilloried in the comments sections of various blogs and social media as incompetents, idiots and worse.

Yes, it was a boneheaded thing to do, and it cost them their lives, but does anyone believe they did it on purpose? Or couldn't tell their left from their right? The gauges on an aircraft panel are fairly straightforward. Each gauge corresponds to the engine on same side of the aircraft as the gauge. The left RPM gauge or fire warning is lit? That means it's the left engine. Seems simple.

Adrenaline Can Make You Stupid


Anyone in law enforcement will tell you that in a real gun fight, fear and the adrenaline that will be dumped into your bloodstream as a result, can nearly incapacitate. The same can be true for stage fright or any other high stress situation. Fine muscle control and reasoning can evaporate. Concert pianists, police, figure skaters, and pilots all have the same need to practice what they do until it becomes second nature. It counteracts the effects of fear and surprise.

An old adage in aviation says that the first step of any emergency procedure is to first wind your watch. What this really means is that you should first take a moment and contemplate what is actually happening for there is very little in flying that requires instant reaction. An engine failure at 1000 ft certainly isn't one of those times.

So how did they screw it up?

The only way that that question will be definitively answered will be through a thorough analysis of the cockpit voice recorder to see who said what to whom. Someone identified the wrong engine as failed, and someone shut down the good engine. It may have been the same person. There was a high time instructor sitting in the cockpit jumpseat who may have had some influence.

While I have no way of knowing for sure, my guess is that the pilots of TransAsia GE-235 allowed the surprise of an engine failure on takeoff to cloud their judgement so much that they rushed and made a simple, yet fatal error. But in a high stress environment and under the influence of an adrenaline dump, human judgement can go out the window.

I know this because I've seen it happen. Lots of times. With students.

Training is Good but Experience is Better


Being an Air Force flight instructor is probably one of the least glamorous, yet one of the most rewarding jobs a young company grade officer can have. The T-37 was loud, hot and slow but an incredible amount of fun to fly. It was the students, though, that made the job a kick. They were beyond enthusiastic about being where they were.

But while they worked hard and leaned forward, they knew that a few bad rides in the jet could bust them out of the program, and for many, their life's dream. That kind of pressure amps up the desire to do everything correctly to a fever pitch.

This meant that when I'd pull an engine back in the jet or simulator, there were plenty of times when the student would jump on the wrong rudder. They'd overthink it and literally knee jerk the wrong foot. I also saw this plenty of times during spins. When the airplane is falling 10,000 ft a minute, the stress is palpable.

I even had a student attempt to pitch his aircraft into mine on a formation flight when his intention was to break the other way. I was ready for him, and pushed my jet over to avoid a collision. He had telegraphed his intent by looking the wrong way while clearing.

What these students were lacking was a deep and ingrained foundation of experience. They had no cushion to fall back on. This is what hours of training and repetition are designed to establish. My contention is that while the TransAsia pilots had satisfactory hours totals on paper, they were lacking real experience in actual hands on flying. This is a byproduct of automation.

But Weren't They Experienced Pilots?


A pilot's flight hours used to be the badge of experience. Old heads could regale young bucks with the stories of how they obtained their thousands of hours hand flying a 707 around the world. This is no longer the case. Once a real measure of experience, automation can easily hide the measure of true experience that was once contained in a pilot's total hours count.

For example, in a 14 hour trans-oceanic flight, pilots today may only actually hand fly the aircraft for a total of a few minutes or less. And it's not because they're lazy; this is usually corporate policy. The use of automation is becoming if not completely mandatory, then highly recommended.

Automation saves fuel, and it standardizes the operation of the aircraft which managements like. And let's be honest, it's also safer. But it also allows the placement of low time pilots with little actual aviation experience in cockpits thereby staving off some of the effects of the pilot shortage. Pilots with many thousands of hours in their logbooks may have as little hand flying time as my former students.

And the dirty secret about all of this is that airlines are just fine with barely qualified pilots staffing their cockpits. The alternative is to park airplanes. And should one crash, blame the pilot, make a public showing of retraining and get back to normal operations.

Ab Initio, Automation, and the Pilot Shortage


There is currently a worldwide pilot shortage which is expected to grow progressively worse in the next few years. This shortage is most acute in the Asia-Pacific region which is experiencing extremely fast growth in the aviation sector, and yet lacks a robust private aviation sector from which to draw pilots. The demand for pilots is so acute in India, they are experiencing a rash of fake pilots passing themselves off as the real thing. From Aviation Week:

The potential problems could be particularly acute in the Asia-Pacific region which Boeing projects will need 41% of the more than one million new pilots and maintenance technicians it forecasts will be needed by the world’s airlines over the next 20 years. The combined worldwide requirement is expected to include 533,000 pilots and 584,000 maintenance personnel.

Airlines outside of the US are resorting to a number of strategies to provide the numbers of pilots needed to fill their schedules. These include ab initio training and automation.

Ab initio training refers to a type of training program used mostly overseas which takes prospective pilots off the street and trains them from a pedestrian all the way to their placement in an airline cockpit. It typically involves a rudimentary flying training program in a simple trainer to the point where the student amasses several hundred hours and a $100,000 bill before being placed in an airliner. The emphasis is on airline operations as opposed to actual stick and rudder proficiency.

Run in conjunction with participating airlines, the tab is then paid back over some number of years with the hiring airline. Graduating with only several hundred hours of total time, a prospective student then starts in the right seat of one of today's highly automated airliners. While proficient in running an automated cockpit, an ab initio pilot never has a chance to gain a solid foundation of "stick and rudder" or hand flying.

A pilot with this type of background may fly for an entire career with nary a hiccup. Highly automated cockpits are designed to be flown from just after takeoff to just prior to landing in the control of the autopilot and autothrottles controlled by a flight management computer preprogrammed with the entire route. They work just fine for most of the time but on occasion things go wrong. And when things go wrong and the automation quits, a qualified pilot should probably be on hand to actually fly the airplane.

Coming to a Cockpit Near You


Well, you might say, I'll simply avoid flying on small, obscure Asian airlines and should be just fine. Maybe. But consider that the pilot shortage is a worldwide phenomenon and airlines even here in the states are starting to curtail their schedules due to a lack of pilots. The FAA, in recognition of the hazards of low time pilots, recently raised the hours requirements last year from 250 to 1500 hours. This has only served to exacerbate the problem in that personally financing the required hours before being qualified to get a job is nearly impossible for most aspiring pilots.

Add in the coming deployment of commercial drones which will take the few non-airline jobs available to aspiring pilots such as pipeline inspection or banner tows, and you can see the dilemma that even domestic airlines face.

Will drones eventually replace airline pilots and make the whole problem moot? Absolutely. But in the interim, which may be a while yet, pilots should still probably be able to fly their aircraft when the automation, or an engine, quits.

A Way Forward


There is a way to cut this Gordian knot of a need for both greater numbers of pilots and pilots with actual flying skills. It will cost money of course and require some bureaucratic and corporate risk taking, but the alternative will be more preventable accidents like Air France 447 and Asiana 214 where nominally experienced pilots flew good airplanes into the ground for no reason.

The US Air Force and US Navy have been running the equivalent of their own ab initio flight training programs for decades. In both services, pilot candidates with no previous flight time at all are trained in an intensive year and a half program and graduate to fly everything from transport aircraft to jet fighters. The difference between these military programs and their civilian equivalents is an immersion in nothing but stick and rudder flying to include aerobatic training even for transport pilots.

If I recall, I graduated from USAF undergraduate pilot training with about 175 hours of total time and after a checkout in my follow on aircraft, was placed in the right seat of a KC-135 tanker which is a military 707. But every hour of that 175 was hand flown and involved aerobatics, spins, stalls, and formation flying. Expensive? Sure. 

Could such a program be modified for civilian use? I have little doubt that such a solution must, because the alternative will be either parked airplanes, or more likely, additional dramatic dash cam videos of crashing airplanes.




Sunday, February 08, 2015

Cessna T-37 Single Spin Recovery Bold Face





For those who might have forgotten, I think it goes like this:

Throttles – Idle

Rudder and Ailerons – Neutral

Stick – Abruptly full aft and hold

Rudder – Abruptly apply full rudder opposite spin direction (opposite turn needle) and hold

Stick – Abruptly full forward one turn after applying rudder

Controls – Neutral after spinning stops and recover from dive

(43 words as I remember)

And if that doesn't work there was always this:

Handles - Raise

Triggers - Squeeze

The above bold face items were two of the  memory items required in the Air Force's undergraduate pilot training program while in the T-37 phase of instruction. The first is the spin recovery, and the second is the ejection sequence.

The course ran for about a year and successful completion would result in the award of silver wings and the aeronautical rating of pilot.

Bold face memory items were required to be committed to memory and recalled verbatim. Every morning, a briefing was conducted to go over items pertaining to the day's flying. One of the segments of the briefing was known as the "stand up".

A designated instructor would present an emergency scenario and then call upon a student to stand and verbally walk though all the steps required to resolve the emergency. Should the event require the use of a memory item, the student was expected to recite the bold faced item perfectly as a first step. Incorrect recitation would be followed by a command of "sit down".

This meant that the student was grounded for the day. This morning dog and pony show probably induced more stress in the students than would an actual emergency in the aircraft, and came to be widely hated by all.


Wrong Engine Shut Down?




The data readout from TransAsia's flight data recorder has been made available. The first warning in the cockpit was associated with the right hand engine (No. 2). The crew next discussed a failure associated with the left engine (No. 1). The left engine was then throttled back and shut down.

Shortly thereafter the right hand engine auto-feathered. This is an automatic feature on the ATR 72 which feathers the propeller (aligns it with the windstream to reduce drag) when the power from the engine falls below 18%. This is essentially an engine failure of the right hand engine and though it continued to run, it was not producing thrust.

The crew then discussed and attempted a relight of the left hand engine. Engine data suggest that the relight on the left hand engine was successful though perhaps too late to recover the aircraft.

The ATR 72 also features an automatic yaw compensator which would automatically apply rudder to counteract any adverse yaw resulting from an engine failure.

All these automatic features are designed to reduce the workload on the pilots in the event of an engine failure on takeoff. What they cannot do is counter basic airmanship mistakes such as misidentifying and shutting down the wrong engine.

There has been some discussion that perhaps there were miswired engine indicators. This is not an unknown occurrence, but pilots should use all available resources to make a determination of a failed engine. This would include other gauges such as fuel flow and exhaust temperature and also the performance of the aircraft itself. The aircraft will always yaw towards the failed engine.

In any event, miswired engine indicators should be noticed on engine start. If starting the left engine and the right hand RPM indicator spins up, that would be a big clue. At this point there is no evidence of miswired gauges.

An engine loss of thrust at 1000 ft agl (above ground level) should be no cause to take rash action. The aircraft is flying and will continue to fly well with only one engine. In this event, a proper course of action would have been to continue to fly the aircraft to altitude and then to methodically proceed through engine failure checklists.