Sunday, February 07, 2016

Do Pilot Unions Have a PR Problem?

Southwest Airlines pilots walk the picket line in Dallas
Southwest pilots walk the picket line

Last week, the pilots of Southwest Airlines took to the streets outside of the airline's headquarters in Dallas to protest the lack of progress in their current negotiations. The union is not on strike, or even close to it, but is engaged in what is known as "informational picketing" to get their message out. Southwest Airlines' management and the pilots' union have been in negotiations since the pilots' contract became amendable in August of 2012.

If you'll recall, airlines are organized under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Under the RLA, labor contracts never expire but become "amendable". Labor unions continue to work under the terms of the preceding contract until a new contract is negotiated.

The pilots' union at Southwest (SWAPA) contends that the airline has been dragging its feet in negotiations in order to extend the favorable terms of the preceding contract negotiated in leaner times. This standoff has continued for several years while the airline has been recording record profits. The airline, for its part, points out that a deal was reached with the union's negotiators last summer which included raises totalling 17.6% over the life of the contract. That deal was soundly voted down by the union membership.

So who's in the right? Has the airline been using the RLA to delay paying raises to its pilots, or have the pilots just gotten greedy in turning down a great offer by the company? Well, as per usual, it depends on with whom you speak. Each side passionately insists that their version of events is the correct one and that the other side is obfuscating. And also, as per usual, there is an element of both truth and falsehood in each narrative.

But my purpose here is not to adjudicate the differences between the two opposing sides, but rather to point out that pilot unions have a natural disadvantage when they attempt to take their case to the public though picketing and other public displays. The problem is that while many pilots in entry level jobs at commuter and cargo airlines do in fact make a very modest wage, by the time a pilot gets on board at a major airline, he or she is making decent coin. And on average, pilots at major airlines are solidly in the middle to upper middle class arena.

This presents a PR problem when trying to garner a sympathetic ear from a public who may feel that the picketing pilots' income is likely higher than their own. Taking any dispute over wages and benefits to the public inevitably invites an inquiry into and a judgement of what pilots actually make. And of course, helpful members of the press and airline managements are only all too willing to facilitate the discussion by providing actual numbers for public consumption.

Hence shortly after their picketing event, Southwest pilots were met by this headline in the Dallas Morning News:

 High pay, job security and profit-sharing — and Southwest pilots are picketing?

The article was somewhat misleading but not factually incorrect. But it is the pilots who have the burden of getting across their message that having no cost of living raises since 2012 is causing their real purchasing power to erode due to the effects of inflation. It's not an easy message to convey while trying to avoid the "greedy" label.

Another difficulty is that many members of the public don't understand the nature of the pilot profession. For instance, public perception of a pilot's work week may be that pilots have a lot of time off. Some do, but many in the public may not realize that pilots can be gone for weeks at a time and miss many family events and holidays that someone in a traditional job would not. But as with compensation, taking their case to the public invites kitchen table discussions of what pilots should be paid and how much they should work. These discussions will probably not end up favoring pilot demands for higher wages.

Lastly, many members of the public don't have a good understanding of unions and unionism in general. This is due to the fact that with only about six percent of the private work force being unionized today, very few Americans have any experience with unions. With the high water mark of union membership in the US having been reached back in the 1950s and on a steady decline ever since, unions may be thought of by the public as an anachronism in today's economy.

I personally don't get too worked up about any of this. My feeling is that the underlying economics more or less determines wage rates. With an ongoing and worsening world wide pilot shortage in progress, wage rates will inevitably increase as the big four major US airlines have to compete to hire from a dwindling pool of prospective pilots to replace huge numbers of retiring Vietnam era pilots.

And on the bright side, informational picketing allows some of the more enthusiastic members of the pilots' union to expend their energies organizing these outings. It seems to help reduce the discomfiture in some pilots which is being made worse by the length of the negotiations. And it actually looks like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I'll be working.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

How is it Possible to Land an Airliner on a Taxiway?

Alaska Airlines 737 departing from SeaTac

An Alaska Airlines 737 landed on a taxiway at Seattle's SeaTac airport on December 19th at about 8:30 in the morning. While it is not unknown for this sort of thing to happen, it is thankfully rare but also exceedingly dangerous. Luckily for this crew and their passengers, the taxiway was clear at the time and the landing was uneventful.

Taking off or landing on the wrong piece of pavement has been the cause of a number of incidents and accidents over the years. One of the most deadly in recent memory was the crash of a Singapore Airlines 747 which attempted to take off on a closed runway back in 2000 in Tapei and impacted parked construction equipment killing 76.

Another deadly incident was that of Comair 5191 whose pilots mistook a shorter runway for the one they had been cleared to use resulting in an overrun accident and 49 fatalities.

Wrong runway and wrong airport landings also occur but on occasion lady luck smiles on the errant pilots. A Southwest Airlines 737 enroute to Branson, Mo. landed at a small general aviation airport several miles short of its intended destination last year. Quickly realizing their mistake, the pilots were able to stop the plane on the very short runway thereby averting a serious accident.

I even recall an incident from many years ago when an American Airlines plane landed at Biggs Army Airfield instead of El Paso Intl, which was its destination. The two airports are immediately adjacent to one another. I remember this incident because not long after that, I had a student pilot of mine attempt to land at El Paso while our destination was Biggs.

As you can see, wrong runway errors are committed by both inexperienced pilots as well as seasoned aviators.

So with the possibility for such deadly results, how is it that pilots can take off or land on the wrong runway or a taxiway? The answer is that it is not easy to do this but it is easier than you might think. And there is a common factor in all of these incidents and accidents. That factor is complacency.

How Could This Happen?

Alaska Flight 27, a Boeing 737-900, arrived in the Seattle area from Chicago at about 08:15 AM and was vectored by Seattle Approach Control to an ILS approach to runway 16 Right. SeaTac has three parallel runways labeled 16 Left, Center and Right. The "16" denotes the approximate runway heading of 160 degrees (it's actually 163 degrees). There is also a taxiway named "T" or Tango, running parallel to the runways between the center and right runway.

An ILS is a ground based radio guided approach which provides both vertical and horizontal guidance to the pilots. When flying this approach, the pilots would be presented with precise lateral course information. Deviation from the course or a lineup on the wrong runway would be prominently displayed on the instruments. 

For this reason, pilots are encouraged or required to always have ILS information tuned in and displayed even when flying a visual approach. And speaking of which, the weather at the time of the incident was quite good:

KSEA 191637Z 12010KT 10SM SCT022 03/02 A2991 RMK AO2 $
KSEA 191553Z 16007KT 10SM FEW016 BKN025 03/02 A2990 RMK AO2 SLP134 T00280017 $ 

This translates to a thin ceiling at 2500 feet at the top of the hour and no ceiling in the report at the bottom of the hour with the visibility being very good. Clearly weather was not a factor and the aircraft was cleared for an instrument approach to the outside runway. How then did they end up on the taxiway?

Cleared to Sidestep

Just a few minutes before landing, and after the aircraft had switched from Seattle Approach Control to Seattle Tower, the tower controller asked if they'd like to land on the center runway. The aircraft stated that they would like to switch runways and were subsequently cleared to land on runway 16 Center.

This maneuver is called a "sidestep" and is a visual maneuver, meaning that it is accomplished using visual and not instrument cues. A tower controller may offer a different runway to a landing aircraft for a number of reasons such as tight spacing on a preceding aircraft, or perhaps a desire to get an airplane with a flow time airborne. In this case, it appears as if the tower controller was simply doing a favor for the Alaska jet as the taxi time from the closer runway would be shorter. 

The audio from the tower frequency can be heard here. The clearance for the sidestep can be heard at the 28:00 minute point.

So at this point, the aircraft accepted the sidestep clearance and would start maneuvering visually to land on the center runway. What else might have affected the crew's ability to identify the correct runway?

It's hard to say for sure but there are some clues. For one, the center runway has just been completely rebuilt. The new pavement on the freshly rebuilt runway is still most likely clean and lacking the usual rubber deposits that most runways have.

Another consideration would be the angle of the sun. The aircraft touched down at 8:31 AM and sunrise in Seattle that morning was at 7:58 AM. The angle of their approach would have put the sun almost directly in their eyes further obscuring the markings on the taxiway as seen in the graphic below. This would have been made worse as they attempted to maneuver to the left of course to line up on the center runway.

The sun was likely obscuring the pilot's vision
The orange line shows the sun direction at 0831 on Dec 19th

How Could This have been Prevented?

One of the more challenging aspects of aviation is that seemingly routine or innocuous situations may contain hidden danger. And there will rarely be obvious signs pointing out these pitfalls. This is why it is incumbent upon pilots to maintain vigilance during not only difficult weather, but also during a simple visual approach in good weather. Some might say especially during good weather.

Being able to recognize when conditions are subtly changing while having the appearance of normalcy is a core skill used to battle complacency.

Another technique that could have been used would have been to have the non-flying pilot tune in the frequency of the approach to the new runway. Often this can seem redundant if the landing runway is in sight, but this crew is probably now wishing that they had. 

What Happens Next?

There will be an investigation. The FAA has already said that they are looking into the event. The pilots will most likely not be fired but they may face some discipline in the terms of time off from work which means lost income. They will also likely have some retraining or a checkride before flying again.

The pilots may, however, not face any punitive action at all if this event is accepted into a safety reporting program. In these industry-labor-regulator partnerships, mistakes made in good faith can be provided immunity from sanction to enhance the reporting of safety related information.

The hazard that this taxiway presents has already been noted in a warning printed on the airport layout depiction as seen below. That this hazard was known may even mitigate in the pilot's favor. 

A warning about taxiway T is printed on the Seatac airport profile

We can probably expect to see some new measures such as large letters painted on the taxiway and further warnings designed to prevent this from happening again but nothing is as effective as maintaining a watch against complacency.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Shifting Currents: Will Regional Airlines Survive?

Regional airlines are operated by little known third party airlines.

It would  appear to observers of the domestic US airline industry that things are finally settling down. After years of turmoil, bankruptcy and consolidation, the remaining big four US major airlines control nearly three quarters of all domestic airline seats. Low fuel prices have meant a season of record profits as well.

The regional airline market, however, is a somewhat different story. Whipsaw fuel pricing, the introduction of a new class of small jets and a pilot labor shortage along with a reassessment of the relationships between regionals and their mainline partners could be changing the landscape.

The regional airline business model consists mainly of little known companies such as Envoy, Expressjet or Republic Airlines that fly airplanes in their major airline partners' livery. Flying as American Eagle, United Express or Delta Connection, these companies sign "capacity purchase agreements" with their major partner airlines to provide service between major airline hubs and smaller regional airports that don't support a mainline aircraft.

Regional Airlines: How We Got Here

The industry has always existed to ferry passengers from major hubs to small feeder cities, but the introduction of small regional jets from the late 1990s fundamentally changed the dynamics of the business model. These small jets such as the 50 seat Bombardier CRJ 200 and the Embraer ERJ 145 could not only go as high and as fast as their major airline brethren, but could also and more importantly, fly as far.

What this meant is that regional airlines could poach passengers from each other's regional feeder airports. For instance, historically, to fly out of a regional airport such as Twin Falls, Idaho, one would have to take a regional airline to the nearest hub which was within the range of the smaller and slower turboprop aircraft. This probably would have been Salt Lake City where Delta was the dominant major airline. The new regional jets (RJs) allowed regional airlines to now fly directly from a smaller city to a hub in another region such as LA, or Chicago.

It also meant that regional airlines were no longer strictly feeders to their mainline partners but rather operators of parallel airlines under the same corporate identity. The real brilliance of the arrangement, however, was that the regional partners were not covered under the collective bargaining agreements which kept labor costs high at the mainline network airlines. How did this happen?

The Unions Get Snookered

The one aspect of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that unions are most jealous of is their scope clause. A scope clause will delineate which work must be accomplished by employees covered under the CBA and which work, if any, can be outsourced. Obviously unions have an interest in keeping the most work in-house and under the agreement.

In fact, unions view scope clause protections as so vital, that those protections are usually set forth in the first section of many airline labor contracts. Thus, the term "Section 1" protections becomes a shorthand for all the restrictions on who may perform work for the company with which the union collectively bargains.

It was a lack of imagination and vision on the part of mainline union negotiators that allowed both existing provisions for the outsourcing of regional flying to remain in airline CBAs, or for those provisions to be imposed after the wave of post 9/11 airline bankruptcies. Mainline union negotiators were caught flat footed by the introduction of the new capable RJs which resulted in stagnation in the amount of flying they controlled. They simply didn't think that the provisions for commuter aircraft flying in their contracts would eviscerate their members' livelihoods.

In 2000, for instance, regional airlines flew a total of 24 billion revenue passenger miles (RPMs), but by 2010 that number had increased three fold to about 75B RPMs. In the same time frame, all network mainline airlines flying stagnated at about 360B RPMs until 2007 followed by an erosion to about 320B RPMs in 2014. The data can be found here and here.

Some, but not all of this mainline stagnation could be attributed to the growth of low cost carriers (LCCs) like Jetblue, Southwest and AirTran airlines, but it became clear that regional airlines were doing a fair bit of the flying that mainline airlines might have done themselves.

In 2011 for instance, regional carriers accounted for 64% of all departures at Chicago's O'Hare airport and 74% at Seatac. Some city pairs such as Nashville - Chicago (O'Hare) have had only RJ service while others such as Austin - Denver might have a mix of RJs and mainline aircraft. Three of the largest regional airlines, Envoy, ExpressJet and SkyWest can be even now counted as major airlines in their own right with each having over a billion dollars of annual revenue.

Alter Egos

What one should be careful to not do, though, is to assume that mainline carriers are in actual competition for business with their regional partners. This is due to the nature of the capacity purchase agreements (CPAs) that mainline and regional airlines have entered into. In a capacity purchase agreement, the mainline carrier simply purchases all the seats on the regional aircraft while retaining the marketing, ticketing, and most importantly, the revenue from the sale of tickets.

The regional carrier gets paid regardless of how many seats are filled or how the customer is ultimately treated. The regional airline is effectively wet-leasing its aircraft to the mainline. You can easily see how incentives line up for a less than optimal customer experience on regional airlines...they're getting paid either way. The lack of amenities, spartan service and cramped cabins have made regional jets increasingly unpopular with the traveling public.

So if the customer experience is so negative, why do the mainline airlines outsource their valuable branding and operations to third parties who get paid regardless of product quality? Cost control. Salaries are notoriously low at regional airlines with some crew members qualifying for food stamps. In fact, due to the long term contracts regionals have with their mainline partners, the only way for a regional airline to increase unit revenue is through cost control and cost reduction, which is exactly what they've done and become very good at.

So who wants to work at such a place? One of the reasons that employees may accept the low wages offered by regionals is that hiring standards are lower, or perhaps employees hope to gain needed experience in the industry in hope of landing a better job at a major airline.

This is especially true for aspiring pilots who can count their flight hours as a form of pay. Most mainline airlines have minimum hours requirements for pilots to be considered for hiring. The only way for a young pilot to get this experience other than joining the military has traditionally been to fly for a regional airline. New federal regulations, however, are changing that dynamic which I wrote about here.

The arrangement between regionals and mainline carriers has many of the usual suspects and social justice warriors in a degree of moral high dudgeon due to low wages, but my view is somewhat moderated. It's simply not true that forcing wages higher will result in a greater quality product while leaving service distribution unchanged. In many cases, smaller cities will just lose scheduled air service as costs climb. This is already happening.

Flies in the Ointment

The regional industry has several other vulnerabilities which may eventually change how they do business. One particular achilles heel is the high seat-mile cost that the small jets have. While the cost to acquire and operate a 50 seat jet is only marginally less than say a 737, a 737 will have nearly three times the seats and therefore three times the ability to generate revenue.

After huge fuel price spikes in the late 2000s it became apparent that the economics of the 50 seat jets didn't really work. As a result, many of those jets are being traded in for the larger 70 and 90 seat versions. A new generation of small jet such as the Embraer E series and Bombardier C series of jets feature larger cabins, first class seating and are as comfortable as mainline Boeings or Airbuses.

Now though, with the larger capacity aircraft, regional airlines are bumping back into union contracts which restrict the outsourcing of aircraft of larger than 90 seats. Coupled with an ongoing pilot shortage, at least two mainline carriers, Delta and United, have considered bringing their regional airline operations back in-house.

Bringing the Flying Home?

Last summer, Delta proposed to their pilots a purchase of 20 Embraer E-190 regional aircraft and United recently approached their pilot union with an offer of increased pay which included the introduction of either the Embraer or Bombardier 100 seat aircraft. While Delta pilots turned their offer down for unrelated issues, pilots at United have yet to vote on the new pact which also includes pay increases.

It seems apparent that with the pilot shortage driving higher pilot salaries, the advantages of outsourcing regional aircraft flying to a third party where customer service may suffer is being outweighed by keeping the flying in-house.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?

For anyone interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole of the problems of automation and the concurrent (and inevitable) deterioration of piloting skills, William Langewiesche wrote a great long-form recount of the crash and investigation of Air France 447:

 For Flight 447, it was too late: the probes were quickly clogged. Just after 11:10 P.M., as a result of the blockage, all three of the cockpit’s airspeed indications failed, dropping to impossibly low values. Also as a result of the blockage, the indications of altitude blipped down by an unimportant 360 feet. Neither pilot had time to notice these readings before the autopilot, reacting to the loss of valid airspeed data, disengaged from the control system and sounded the first of many alarms—an electronic “cavalry charge.” For similar reasons, the automatic throttles shifted modes, locking onto the current thrust, and the fly-by-wire control system, which needs airspeed data to function at full capacity, reconfigured itself from Normal Law into a reduced regime called Alternate Law, which eliminated stall protection and changed the nature of roll control so that in this one sense the A330 now handled like a conventional airplane. All of this was necessary, minimal, and a logical response by the machine. 
So here is the picture at that moment: the airplane was in steady-state cruise, pointing straight ahead without pitching up or down, and with the power set perfectly to deliver a tranquil .80 Mach. The turbulence was so light that one could have walked the aisles—though perhaps a bit unsteadily. Aside from a minor blip in altitude indication, the only significant failure was the indication of airspeed—but the airspeed itself was unaffected. No crisis existed. The episode should have been a non-event, and one that would not last long. The airplane was in the control of the pilots, and if they had done nothing, they would have done all they needed to do.

It's a great article. Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Air Asia 8501: The Automation Failed First Followed by the Pilots

Automation failure caught the pilots by suprise

The final report on the crash of Air Asia 8501 was released on December 1st and serves to highlight a number of problems with highly automated aircraft and the pilots who fly them. If you'll recall, this was an A320 which crashed into the Java Sea killing all 162 passengers and crew last December.

In short, a broken solder joint had caused multiple fault indications in a rudder control unit during the flight. By itself this was not a huge problem, but when the captain attempted to reset some circuit breakers in response, the autopilot disengaged and the underlying rudder fault became a problem.

From the accident report:

The cracking of a solder joint of both channel A and B resulted in loss of electrical continuity and led to RTLU (rudder travel limiter unit) failure. The existing maintenance data analysis led to unresolved repetitive faults occurring with shorter intervals. The same fault occurred 4 times during the flight.  
The flight crew action to the first 3 faults in accordance with the ECAM messages. Following the fourth fault, the FDR recorded different signatures that were similar to the FAC CBs (circuit breakers) being reset resulting in electrical interruption to the FACs. 
The electrical interruption to the FAC caused the autopilot to disengage and the flight control logic to change from Normal Law to Alternate Law, the rudder deflecting 2° to the left resulting the aircraft rolling up to 54° angle of bank. 
Subsequent flight crew action leading to inability to control the aircraft in the Alternate Law resulted in the aircraft departing from the normal flight envelope and entering prolonged stall condition that was beyond the capability of the flight crew to recover.

So this crew was confronted with a technical issue which had recurred numerous times. It appears that the captain became frustrated with the repeated messages being generated by the faulty rudder unit and finally pulled the FAC circuit breakers. His goal was to reset the computers which he'd seen a maintenance technician do on the ground. It's an understandable impulse, and one that many users of computers have felt: if it's acting wonky, just reboot it.

It should also be noted that this procedure was unauthorized for the situation. The "electronic centralized aircraft monitor"or ECAM, is a display which alerts pilots if something goes wrong and also provides checklist steps to resolve the issue. Pulling circuit breakers is almost never called for and wasn't the correct procedure here. The captain got ticked at having to address the recurring issue and went off the script to apply his own "fix" by recycling the FAC circuit breakers.

The problem was that in resetting the computers, he was in effect sawing off the branch upon which he was sitting. To understand why, we need a little background on the airplane and its flight control systems. The highly automated Airbus has no direct mechanical linkage between the cockpit and the wings, but is rather controlled by a total of seven computers including two flight augmentation computers or FACs. These computers control the movement of the control surfaces using input from the pilots.

Alternate Law

The computers normally provide protection from unsafe flight regimes such as a stall or upset. However, when the computers sense that there is something wrong with their inputs, they revert to a mode known as "Alternate Law" where the computers no longer provide such protections. Pulling the circuit breakers, or essentially cutting power to the computers caused them to revert to alternate law.

It is here where the real problems began. In control of the aircraft at that time was the relatively inexperienced first officer who had just over 2000 hours total time. After the aircraft reverted to alternate law, the rudder malfunction manifested itself in a deflection of the rudder.

A deflected rudder at altitude can quickly upset a swept-wing transport like the A320 due to an aerodynamic phenomenon known as "roll coupling". This is where a yaw input, or movement about the vertical axis, induces a roll. It is an artifact of the swept-wing design of modern airliners and normally not a problem. Here it became a big problem.

Stall Warning

The aircraft immediately rolled to the left at a rapid rate and yet the first officer did not apply any stick input for 9 seconds, which is an eternity when your airplane is rolling over. This may have been due in part to the "startle effect" where a rapid and unexpected change takes some time to recover from or to "regain one's wits". Another possibility is that the first officer was not looking at the primary flight display but had his attention on the autopilot which had disengaged.

One of the primary rules of aviation is to "fly the airplane first", but after the relatively low workload of cruise, having to take manual control of the airplane can be disconcerting. Add to this the aural warnings of a disconnected autopilot and a rapid roll and there is little doubt that the first officer had his eggs scrambled at that point.

He did, however, manage to right the aircraft to a nearly normal bank. It was at this time, while the pilots were in manual control of the aircraft and without computer protection, that they killed themselves.

After the aircraft again rolled left, the first officer's side stick input was a sharp pull. This caused the rapid climb rate followed by a loss of airspeed and a stall. The data recorder showed input from the left side or captain's stick about 30 seconds after the initial roll but confusion on the part of the captain and apparent panic on the part of the first officer doomed the aircraft.

A very inexperienced copilot in an automated cockpit.
He had just over 2000 hours total time.
After the abrupt climb and stall, the captain instructed the first officer to "pull down" which is a rather confusing command. Pulling means that the nose will go up, not down. The first officer's reaction was to pull even harder on his stick which is the exactly wrong thing to do in a stall. The nose needed to be lowered so the airplane could regain flying airspeed. At the very least the first officer should have asked the captain what he meant, but in any event any aviator worth his salt knows that control forces must be relaxed, and angle of attack must be reduced in a stall. It's aviation 101. Or should be. 

Dual Input

It was also here that the electronic controls on the Airbus contributed to the problem. Unlike a Boeing which has a two control wheels which are connected mechanically, the side sticks on the Airbus can each provide separate, and opposite, instructions to the flight computers. The aircraft doesn't give priority to either pilot's inputs but rather sums the inputs for a resultant signal. So while the captain was making appropriate inputs to recover from the stall, the first officer maintained his hard pull which resulted in a net nose up command to the flight computers.

Another basic axiom of aviation is that only one pilot flies at a time, and it should always be clear who is in control of the aircraft. The captain failed here by not verbalizing his assumption of control to his copilot. A firmly annunciated "I have the aircraft" should have resulted in the first officer releasing his grip to allow the captain to recover from the stall. That never happened.

This is almost the exact scenario which doomed Air France 447 which I wrote about here. In that accident, a minor upset at altitude was exacerbated by one of the pilots maintaining a backwards pull on his side stick which didn't allow the recovery from a stall. Everyone perished in that crash.

Automation as Blessing...and Curse

A common theme on this blog has been that while the introduction and use of automation on airliners has been an overall boon to both safety and economics, it is not now, nor for the foreseeable future, going to be a replacement for having well qualified pilots who can actually fly airplanes.

That day will arrive eventually, but current technology simply can't yet replicate the required safety margins required to carry passengers.  

Automation has been widely deployed around the world by airlines which operate in countries that lack any significant general aviation or military aviation programs from which to draw pilots. Without these so-called "farm leagues" to train and groom pilots, the trend has been to take very inexperienced pilots with a bare minimum of flight time and to place them into highly automated cockpits. It is there that they will be expected to gain experience before moving into the left seat.

The problem is that highly automated cockpits offer virtually no real experience in real stick and rudder flying. The job consists of managing checklists and systems which the first officer on Air Asia 8501 no doubt accomplished adequately. He just couldn't fly the airplane out of a stall.

An old aphorism states that you can't tell who's swimming naked until the tide goes out. Don't get caught with a naked pilot.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

If Our Satellites Saw Metrojet Explode, Why Didn't They See Malaysia Flight 17?

Did our satellites see the MH17 shootdown?

While I normally steer clear of geopolitics, I came across a blog post by Ron Unz asking this question. Unz, if you remember, is an entrepreneur who once ran for governor of California.

Writing in the comments section of an article on the Russian presence in Syria, Unz wonders:

But the real issue has been ignored by our worthless MSM. Within just a couple of days of the airliner’s destruction, America had already released satellite data showing a mid-air explosion, therefore strongly implying a bomb. However, after more than a year, the US has still failed to release any similar satellite data regarding the destruction of MH-17 in Ukraine, which occurred in a war-zone subject to far greater American surveillance.

Malaysia Flight 17 was the 777 which was shot down by a missile while flying over Ukraine. So do I have any idea about or opinion on the downing of MH17? Not in the slightest other than it was probably an unintentional launch by someone who thought they were shooting at a combatant aircraft. I'm not sure I buy the "false flag" theory of an intentional shootdown. That would be truly evil. But it's true that whoever did it, accidentally or not, certainly wanted to pin it on the other side. Here's where the satellites come in.

The US DoD has long been interested in space based intelligence and missile early warning. Dating back decades to the Cold War, satellites have been employed to try to detect missile launches. Given that the flight time for an ICBM is about a half hour or less, having a means to detect launches from space was an important priority.

Fast forwarding to the first Gulf War, the threat of Iraqi Scud missiles made clear the need for expanded theater missile detection in addition to strategic missile warning. The resulting system called the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) gives American intelligence agencies real time data on missile launches. The plume from any missile launch can be detected by infrared sensors and one would presume that the system is deployed over not only the entire middle east but also our old Cold War nemesis, Russia.

Of course the "sources and methods" of our intelligence capabilities are, or should be, highly classified for obvious reasons. If an enemy knows what we can see, they will take pains to avoid detection or to spoof those capabilities. For whatever reason, however, adherence to that principle seems to be in short supply these days. So by very quickly confirming that an explosion had been detected over the Sinai Peninsula, the inevitable questions about other events will surface as they have here.

Presumably, if current systems can see a smallish explosion on a jetliner then they would not only have seen the destruction of the much larger Malaysian 777, but also the location of the missile launch that took it down. There are also good reasons why our systems might not have been able to detect the MH17 shootdown as well. Perhaps there were gaps in coverage due to satellite geometry or there might have been interfering weather conditions. Either way, shouldn't the limits of this technology be kept secret?

All of this might make for a good Le Carré novel, but the spies in his novels including the governments they worked for were at least competent.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Falling Out of the Sky - The Mystery of the de Havilland Comet

de Havilland Comet
Square windows were the problem

This week's inflight breakup and crash of a Metrojet Airbus A-321 reminded me of the story of the first jet powered airliner of the postwar era, the de Havilland Comet. The Comet, first flown in 1949, was to be the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin to passengers. Remember that without pressurization or supplemental oxygen, most humans will suffer hypoxia symptoms above 10,000 ft. Pressurized and heated cabins are the one thing that makes flying long distances at altitude acceptable to the general public.

The mysterious inflight breakup of three Comets shortly after their introduction into commercial service served to highlight the importance of metal fatigue in aircraft design. While consideration was given to the issue in the design stage, it was the design of the windows, which were square, which proved to be the problem. It was at the corners of the windows where stress was concentrated and where metal fatigue caused structural failure which brought the airplanes down.

The full story, which is quite interesting, can be found here. It's a neat engineering whodunit.

Investigators have not as yet officially released the cause of the Metrojet crash, but it is believed that the aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure. An onboard bomb is now being suggested as the cause of the crash though consideration is also being given to structural failure due to an old repair. No matter the reason for the failure, any significant structural failure of an aircraft at altitude can sometimes but not always result in the loss of the aircraft.

Why So Much Damage?

So you may ask why does a hole in the fuselage whether caused by metal fatigue or a bomb cause so much damage?

Pressurization of an aircraft is achieved by pumping air under pressure into the fuselage while restricting the outflow. Think of the airplane as one of those large inflatable jump houses at a carnival. A fan blows air in while vents let only some of the air out. Airplanes work in the same way with compressed air coming from the engines acting to inflate the fuselage or "balloon" and an outflow valve to control the amount of pressurization.

Now think about what happens when you drop a shaken can of soda on the ground. Sometimes a small hole in the pop top just squirts out a bunch of soda, but at other times the whole can might rupture and spray everywhere. I've seen flight attendants drop a can of soda in the galley that explodes where soda covers just about everything instantly. You haven't seen mad until you see that.

The same principle applies to a pipe bomb. Burn a small pile of gunpowder in the open and it makes a brief poof. Put that same powder in a pipe and it expands explosively when the metal in the pipe bursts.

The point is, expanding gas when trapped in a pressure vessel can result in tremendous damage when the pressure vessel fails. This is why bombs aboard aircraft are so dangerous. Regardless of where the bomb is placed, it is the pressure shock wave which will find the weakest point in the structure. When the structure fails, the release can do tremendous damage. In the case of the Metrojet crash, the tail section was found separate from the rest of the wreckage. It may have separated due to the failure of the pressure bulkhead at the aft part of the cabin.

Barring 100% prevention of bombing attempts, which seems unlikely, future aircraft design may have to incorporate some sort of predesignated pressure relief panels. They might be designed to fail at a lower pressure than the rest of the fuselage pressure vessel. It's the world we now live in.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Will There Be an Airline Strike?

Will there be an airline strike?
Florida News Journal

The pilots of Southwest Airlines are the latest airline labor group to reject a proposed labor contract. By a vote of 62% against, the 8000 pilots at Southwest recently voted to turn down a tentative agreement which was forged after three years of negotiations with the low cost carrier. Earlier this year the pilots at Delta Airlines and flight attendants at Southwest also rejected proposed contracts.

Does this mean that there will be an airline strike soon?

While the future is impossible to predict, the answer is probably not. To understand why, it is important to understand how the negotiation process works at airlines. It is somewhat different than at other unionized industries.

Railway Labor Act

Collective bargaining at most unionized industries in the US is governed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. This law provides for the formation of labor unions and the right to bargain collectively for wages and work rules. The law also sets down the requirements for the conduct of strikes and/or lockouts. Airlines, however, are not included under the provisions of the Wagner Act but rather are governed under a law known as the Railway Labor Act or RLA.

Passed in 1926 as a result of negotiations between the railroads and their unions, the RLA was an effort to balance the rights of workers with the realization that a strike against a railroad could be acutely disruptive to the national economy as a whole. Airlines were included under the jurisdiction of the RLA in 1936.

Under the RLA, contracts never "expire", but rather they become "amendable". Should an agreement not be reached by the amendable date of a contract, both workers and management are obligated to continue on as before while a new agreement is crafted.

Should an agreement not be reached, the RLA provides for specific requirements to be met before either management or labor is "released" to "pursue self help" otherwise known as a strike or lockout. One of these requirements is for an impasse to be declared by a mediator after which a mandatory 30 day cooling off period is observed. Only then would a strike be authorized.

No airline today is anywhere near this happening.

Presidential Emergency Board

And even when it does happen, it might not happen. The RLA contains a provision wherein if a labor action  threatens to "substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service," the National Mediation Board (NMB) may notify the President of an imminent threat to commerce. The President may then appoint a three member board to make recommendations for a resolution. This delays a strike even further.

This last happened in 2001 when President George Bush intervened in a labor dispute between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics by invoking a PEB. Before that, Bill Clinton used a PEB to head off a strike by pilots at American Airlines in 1997. With only four major airlines controlling a majority of air travel, it is possible that airline strikes may be a thing of the past. No president wishes to be seen doing nothing in the face of packed terminals and irate flyers.

But as I mentioned above, no current airline is anywhere near an impasse in negotiations. In fact, due to the ongoing pilot shortage, airline managements may wish to get labor troubles behind them quickly as the competition heats up for a dwindling number of pilots needing to be hired to replace the tsunami of retiring pilots. 

This happened recently at Republic Airlines where management threatened to declare bankruptcy in order to increase pilot wages to attract applicants. Republic had been cancelling flights due to a lack of pilots.

It's nice to be wanted.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Russian Metrojet A-321 Crash in Sinai (Update)

A Russion Metrojet A321 crashed in the Sinai

A Russian Metrojet A-321 with 224 passengers and crew crashed in the Sinai Peninsula Saturday after being lost on radar. The aircraft was enroute to St. Petersburg from Sharm El Sheikh and was climbing through about 31,000 ft when radar contact was lost. There were no survivors found. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders have been found in good condition.

There were preliminary reports of the pilots having made distress calls but those were later rescinded. The wreckage was found in two major pieces spread over an area of about 8 km. Such a dispersal of debris suggests that the aircraft may have suffered an inflight breakup.

This has led to speculation concerning either a terrorist missile, MANPAD or structural failure. A terrorist group claimed credit for downing the aircraft but these reports have been dismissed as not being credible as has a video that the group released.

Intelligence reports claim that the terrorist organizations known to be operating in the area did not have missiles capable of reaching the altitude at which the aircraft was flying. A notice to airmen (NOTAM) had been released advising aircraft in that area to not operate below 26,000 feet due to terrorist activity. Likewise, analysis of the wreckage will confirm whether or not a bomb had been placed on board.

The aircraft itself, an Airbus A-321, was one of the oldest of the type in operation having been delivered in 1997. While the age of the aircraft should not be a factor in the crash, the aircraft had suffered a tailstrike in 2001 which resulted in significant damage while it was owned by Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The aircraft was repaired and returned to service.

There have been several instances of airliners suffering structural failure which was due in part to repairs done after tail strikes. The most notable of these was Japan Airlines 123, a Boeing 747, which crashed in 1985 after a faulty tail strike repair failed resulting in a rupture of the pressure bulkhead.

Speculation and conspiracy theories are as usual expected to run rampant. Cutting the wheat from the chaff when an airplane goes down amid geopolitical unrest is always a challenge. Hopefully the truth behind this tragedy emerges unscathed.

UPDATE: The crash area is now being reported as 350 x 500 meters, smaller than initially reported.

UPDATE 2: Analysis of the cockpit data recorder now suggests that the crew had no warning before a catastrophic event brought down the aircraft. Further analysis of the wreckage should be able to discern the nature of the failure and whether it was a bomb or structural failure possibly due to an old tailstrike repair or undiscovered corrosion.

UPDATE 3: While no evidence of a bomb on board the downed Metrojet airliner has yet been publicly produced, David Cameron, PM of the U.K. has  gone on record stating that a bomb was the likely cause of the crash. US officials have also said that they suspect a bomb was the cause. The U.K and now the Netherlands have suspended flights to the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the announcement.

New Post: You may also be interested in how a bomb can bring down an airliner: Falling Out of the Sky

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A New Font

Just an administrative note: I've changed the font to something larger and hopefully easier to read. Let me know if you like it!