24 July 2015

Learning Finesse: Pitch vs Power

Today I leave you with a piece from the archives; an ah hah! moment for me as the relationship between pitch and power on landing really came clear (yes, I’m a slow learner). I wrote this in 2009 but rereading it brought it all back…

Flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

When I first started flying, I presumed that the phrase was referring to the take-off and landing. I hadn’t even begun to conceive of things going wrong in the air; flying from A to B was the easy bit. Getting into the air and getting back down, well, that was where I found my heart beginning to race.


Now that I am only flying intermittently, I’m very aware that my skill-set is diminishing when I don’t get up into the air regularly. The first sign that I’m falling out of date is the quality of my landings. A simple flight after weeks of sitting on the ground is much more stressful than it should be. Instead of instinctively knowing what’s next, I have to think hard and I fall behind the plane, desperately trying to keep up with everything that needs doing.

A major change that has helped me in the Saratoga is shifting from the traditional approach. Like most PPLs, I was taught to use attitude to control airspeed and power to control height. However, the inertia of the Saratoga and its tendency to sink like a stone at low speed, combined with my inability to nudge the power gently enough to keep my pitch steady, can make this difficult. A bad approach can feel like a ship in heavy weather as I adjust the power back and forth to try to keep my perspective of the runway correct.

North Weald

I flew with a commercial pilot last year and he mentioned that this was not the best system for fast planes. When flying a jet, he told me, pilots always used attitude for height and power to control airspeed.

This is referenced in one of my favourite books, Beyond the PPL

In days of yore, instructors always taught that on the approach you should control airspeed with pitch and maintain the correct glideslope with the throttle.

The technique taught was (and still is) a good device for getting students to co-ordinate properly their applications of pitch and throttle.


So the old-fashioned technique is not appropriate for a jet and its pilots are therefore taught to adjust speed with throttle and glideslope with pitch control. The need to co-ordinate pitch and throttle remains as before, but the cardinal requirement for the jet pilot is to monitor the speed on the approach to a degree which usually amazes piston pilots at first. You simply HAVE to nail that speed and catch any departure before it has a chance to develop into anything the least bit significant.

Once I started looking into methods for final approach, I found a lot of discussion about pitch and power. It seems clear that attitude for speed and power for height makes for one of the most practical demonstrations of secondary effects. It also works: I was very happy using pitch and power that way in the Cessna 172 that I trained in.

More power!

But the moment I shifted to using power for speed and pitch for height in the Saratoga, my landings improved. After two days of flying touch-and-go over various airfields, I felt confident in my ability to land this way: point the plane at the numbers and hold it there, use the throttle to adjust the speed. My adjustments remained minor and my approaches became smoother than they’d ever been before. My passengers were amazed at the difference.

However, I don’t think that it not simply a case of turning the controls around. The critical factor is that I began to control the plane using both systems. I finally grasped that it isn’t a question of using pitch or power but that they are completely interlinked. I’m sure this was stated a million times in the PPL but I only understood this as a theoretical concept. I didn’t really have an instinctive feel for the fact that you can’t change one without affecting the other.

I love long finals now simply because I can see how perfectly everything works together. I set up my approach and now I’m holding the pitch steady and watching my touchdown point and my airspeed. I can almost visualise a road leading down to the runway and just a tap on the controls to keep me travelling on it. I know the correct approach speed and holding to it has never felt so easy. My interaction with both the controls affecting both height and speed means that I avoid the abrupt power changes and my approaches no longer make people seasick.


When I completed my PPL, my instructor told me that my flying was perfectly competent but that I lacked finesse. It’s been a few years but I feel like I’m starting to understand what he meant and that just maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this flying thing. Now, if only I could learn to use a soft touch on the rudder and keep that damn ball in the centre, maybe he’d agree.

17 July 2015

Tom Cruise: Hanging on a Wing and a Prayer

Are you looking forward to the new Mission Impossible movie? I don’t usually talk about Hollywood on here (other than for debunking purposes) but there’s a stunt here that I think you need to be an aviationist to really appreciate.

In Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunter is an IMF operative who assembles a team for one final mission: take down the Syndicate. I have to admit, even just hearing the music makes me instinctively perk up.

Ethan Hunter is played by 53-year-old Tom Cruise. The second trailer show a scene where Ethan Hunter climbs onto the wings to try to get in the aircraft when it takes off, leaving him hanging on for dear life.

The following video should jump straight to the aircraft scene, which starts at the two minute mark:

Turns out, Ethan Hunter hanging onto the side while the aircraft takes off wasn’t done with green screens or stunt doubles. Tom Cruise actually held onto the wing while the A400M took off and the producers have released a one-minute “behind the scenes sneak peek” showing how they filmed it. It’s fascinating:

The aircraft is an Airbus A400M Atlas, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. It was most recently in the news after a crash in Seville, which may have been caused by a software issue. The aircraft systems are based on the A380 with military modifications, including an infrared enhanced vision system for enhanced terrain view in low-vis and a Multi-Colour Infrared Alerting Sensor missile warning system. It’s a pretty cool plane (other than possibly the software installation).

In the clip, the stunt coordinator asks the obvious question: ‘Why hang a multimillion dollar star on the outside of an aeroplane and fly around in the normal world?’

Tom Cruise and film director Christopher McQuarrie told Yahoo Movies what happened:
Yahoo Movies UK

McQuarrie : While searching for different locations, the production designer James Bissell bought me a model of this Airbus airplane and presented it as something we could use in the movie. I suggested to Tom ‘what if you were on the outside of this thing when it took off’. I meant it as sort of a half joke, but he said back to me: ‘yeah I could do that!

Cruise: I knew I wanted to have an airplane sequence. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. As a kid I remember flying on an airplane and thinking: ‘what would it be like out on the wing or on the side of the airplane?!’

Cruise: Once I was on the side of the airplane that was it. We had a loading station where everyone got in and checked the cameras. Then they wire we me up for sound. Then I’m on. There’s no way to get me off the airplane half way through!

I’m on the side of the plane from the moment the engine starts to the moment the engine shuts down. The climb, the taxi, down the runway, getting the shot, leveling off, turning around and landing. And I did it EIGHT TIMES to get the shot.

I was interested to realise that one of the most dangerous parts of the flight was still on the ground, when Cruise was at risk of being struck by particles coming off the runway. They did their best to clear the area of birds and brushed the runway down. Cruise realised he couldn’t keep his eyes open because of the jet fuel fumes streaming at him from the engine, so they put in a custom full-eye lens to cover his eyes and protect them.

McQuarrie: I’ve never been more stressed my entire life than I was watching that plane take off and land. True to form the big note that Tom gave me before we took off was ‘Just remember if I look like I’m panicking, I’m acting! Do not cut unless I do this’ and he touched the top of his head. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. But the truth of the matter is he had a great time doing it.

The rig for the camera was custom designed for the shot so that they could film while climbing at a steep angle. Airbus and the test pilot worked with the film crew to work out how it could be done. “Anytime you’re using that kind of power from the engines with that speed you want to make sure the camera doesn’t break off and hit me,” said Cruise.

I have to admit, I think once the engines fired up, I’d be thinking this was a pretty bad idea. It’s hard to believe that Cruise did this eight times, before they decided the shot was good enough. A pilot himself with a soft spot for warbirds, his description of the filming sounds straight out of Top Gun:

“When that thing was going down the runway it was everything to keep my feet down, then it went up and my body was slamming on the side. I was like whoa, this is intense.

Intense is probably not the word I’d use. Bloody insane, more like. Still, that scenes done more to peak my interest in the film than anything else they could have done; I’m looking forward to watching it in the cinema.

14 July 2015

Why Planes Crash: Case Files 2002 is DONE!

Why Planes Crash (2002)-200pxI did it!

It’s taken a lot longer than I expected, but the second book in the Why Planes Crash series is finally finished!

I want to thank everyone on Fear of Landing for their support in this; it’s through this website that I discovered that my obsessions were shared with so many of you.

After two years (!!) the e-book is a real thing now and on sale!

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/1M4NGIl
Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/1M0gGA2
Gumroad (PDF): https://gumroad.com/l/tWjyg
Google Play: http://bit.ly/1Jf3mTd
Kobo: http://bit.ly/1dXW7qa
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1018804416

and many more.

The full list is of online retailers is at http://planecra.sh/book/2002/

I’m really pleased (and relieved!) to have finished this (although I’ve already started on book 3!).

If you enjoy Air Crash Investigation and Mayday, I think you’ll like my books.

Any help spreading the word is greatly appreciated.

10 July 2015

Shocking CRM led to that Abandoned Tupolev at Moscow Airport

This story started, as so many do, with an interesting photograph posted to Reddit.


I was curious, and decided to investigate the accident. The sequence of events that led to the wreck was a lot more fascinating than I expected.

The airline was initially set up as the Makhachkala division of Aeroflot in 1927. In 1994, the Makhachkala division became the Makhachkala Air Enterprise following the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1996, the airline became Dagestan Airlines.

Dagestan Airlines flight 372 was a scheduled flight from Vnukovo International Airport, Moscow to Uytash Airport, Makhachkala in the Republic of Dagestan. On the 4th of December in 2010, the flight held 163 passengers, five cabin crew and four flight crew.

The captain had 17,500 hours with 10,000 hours on type and 8,500 as commander. He was the pilot monitoring. The pilot flying was the first officer, who had 3,470 hours with 1,150 on type. The flight engineer had 8,750 hours with 1,750 on type. The navigator had 3,400 hours with 1,400 on type.

You would think it was safe to say that they knew what they were doing.

South East Airlines (Dagestan Airlines) Tupolev Tu-154M

South East Airlines (Dagestan Airlines) Tupolev Tu-154M

The plane was a Tupolev Tu-154M, a three-engine aircraft designed in the 1960s and last modernised in the 1980s. The aircraft that day was built in 1992 and had been completely overhauled the year before the accident (2009) and met all relevant European safety standards.

The flight crew landed the Tupolev at Vnukovo at 12:23 local time.

Post-flight inspections and pre-flight preparations were all normal. There were approximately 19.5 tons of fuel on board, plenty for the flight. Conditions weren’t optimal though. The runway was wet with wet snow.

The weather was awful. There were two frontal systems moving from west to east with a trough between them. Winds were forecast at 150-180 km/hour (80-100 knots, 95-110 mph).

At Moscow, snow and freezing rain were falling with a cloud base at 150 metres (500 feet). A Significant Meteorological Information weather advisory (SIGMET) was issued advising of icing from the surface to 4,000 metres (13,120 feet) with turbulence above 9,000 feet. A weather balloon in the local area measured winds at 50 km/hour (27 knots) at 2,500-3,300 feet (800-1000 metres) which increased to 255 km/hour (188 knots, 160 mph) at 29,500 feet (9,000 metres).

The scheduled passenger flight to Uytash, Makhachkala departed Vnukovo Airport normally at 14:07 local time.

As the aircraft climbed through Flight Level 164 (16,400 feet or 5,000 metres), the flight engineer initiated a manual fuel transfer, transferring fuel from one tank to another to even out the balance. The aircraft continued the climb and about three minutes later, the fuel switch was set back to automatic. As they climbed through 25,000 feet (7,700 metres), the flight crew noticed that the captain’s attitude indicator (artificial horizon) showed a different bank angle from the first officer’s. They discussed the issue but it was not particularly a cause for concern.

About a minute later, a fault message illuminated showing P Fuel (fuel pressure issue), followed by alarms ENG FAIL for engines number three and number one.

The crew reported problems with the engines to air traffic control at 14:20. They requested an immediate return to Vnukovo.

A minute later, the number three generator dropped off line, followed by the number one generator. The engine speeds of both engines dropped to 30% and then shut down.

The crew reported that their engines had failed, along with the generators and navigational equipment. The dispatcher recommended an emergency diversion to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, 80 km north of the aircraft’s position.

Two minutes after engine number three failed, after the aircraft had begun its descent, engine number two began to spool down and generator number two dropped offline.

All three generators were now off line. Both attitude indicators failed.

The flight crew diverted to Domodedovo; however they did not appear to go through the checklists to deal with the emergency situation they’d found themselves in.

During the approach, the number 2 engine and the AC power was restored, giving the aircraft a much better chance at a safe landing. However, the crew did not appear to take advantage of this reprieve.

The AC power restored the navigation system, but none of the Domodedovo frequencies were dialled in, although they should have entered the frequencies for the ILS (Instrument Landing System) and the VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio Range, a type of short-range radio navigation system for aircraft).

The gyros, which supply bank and pitch angle information, would have become misaligned as a part of the power outage. However, once the power was restored, the gyros would stabilise and could be caged (by pulling out a knob to restore the gyroscope to an erect position), which would restore the gyros’ functionality. This was clear on the checklist, including the instruction that, if the gyros did not cage on the first attempt, try again. The crew never tried.

The procedure for a single-engine landing on the three-engine aircraft was to set the flaps at 15 degrees for landing; however the flight crew extended the flaps to 28 degrees.

The Tupolev broke through the clouds at 500 feet, finally gaining visual contact to the ground. The aircraft was two minutes from touchdown and far to the right of the centreline of runway 32. The flight crew turned left, until they were almost perpendicular to the centreline. Almost at the threshold, they crossed the runway and overflew the airport and then 60 metres above the ground and 500 metres off of the centreline, they swung right to line up with the runway.

Amazingly, after these manoeuvres the aircraft touched down on runway 32 about 88 metres (290 feet) to the right of the runway centreline. The Tulopev 154 requires over 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) to land on a dry runway. Unfortunately, they were only about 350 metres (1,150 feet) from the (soaking wet) runway end and travelling at 248 kilometres per hour (131 knots, 154 mph) with a vertical acceleration of 2.25g.

They veered across the runway and continued down a dirt track used by security vehicles. The nose gear first touched down 60 metres (200 feet) past the end of the runway. About 100 meters (325 feet) further, the nose gear touched down again, leaving fragments of the nose gear and the nose cone behind.

In an usually scathing analysis, the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK, the supervising body overseeing aviation) said that a pilot must have certain skills to perform a visual approach and landing. As there was plenty of time, they said, to align the aircraft with the runway and touch down safely after breaking through the clouds, the landing clearly demonstrated that the first officer did not have the skills required to be a pilot.


In any event, the aircraft continued, leaving a trail of snow, dirt and debris in its wake, until it struck a three-metre (10-foot) earthen mound and broke up into three parts. The nose continued on to about 9 metres (30 feet) from the perimeter fence, 60 metres (200 feet) to the left of the centre line and about 1,175 metres (3,900 feet) from the first touch down point.

Google Map View

Accident: South East T154 at Moscow on Dec 4th 2010, two of three engines out in flight

The aircraft received substantial damage: the fuselage split in two between frames #32 and #34, the nose section was flattened in the vertical direction with the technics compartments #1 and #2 and the radome destroyed, cockpit floors and bulkheads destroyed with the navigator and flight engineer seats dislocated, nose landing gear collapsed, floor frame in passenger compartment #1 destroyed, stringers of rear fuselage showing significant deformations, right wing separated from the aircraft, the left wing fractured at rib #32 with separation of the wing tip, the left main gear collapsed.

There were two fatalities. A passenger in seat 1E was crushed by the aircraft (“mechanical asphyxia from compression of chest and abdomen by a heavy blunt object, possibly part of the cabin”) and the passenger in seat 3B died of a heart attack. Six crew, including all four flight crew, and 33 passengers received serious injuries. 53 passengers sustained minor injuries. The Tupolev 154 was deemed damage beyond repair.

At the time of the tragedy, the lead prosecutor said that preliminary results pointed to a bird strike, because what else woiuld cause all three engines to fail. But within a day, the investigators had come to the conclusion that it was a fuel issue. They swiftly ruled out poor fuel quality and the wreckage site showed that there was fuel on board.

The problem began when the flight engineer initiated the manual fuel transfer as they climbed out of Vnukovo. No one noticed that he had accidentally turned off the fuel booster pump, which meant that the level of fuel going to the engines fluctuated. There had been previous instances of the fuel booster pumps inadvertently turned off on that model of Tupolev, although never before with such catastrophic results. The engines went out one-by-one as the result of simple fuel starvation.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the four flight crew responded completely inappropriately to the situation. The Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) specifically called out the flight engineer, who shut down engine #1 before the captain had confirmed, and then attempted to shut down engine #2. The report described him as “reckless”, saying that his only coherent action was when he reconnected generator #2 which restored the AC power.

But as we saw above, the return of the flight and navigation systems was largely ignored by the flight crew, and they did not follow the appropriate (or indeed any) checklists as they came in to land, even though they now had full power and one engine back. The captain was called out for lack of leadership. The flight crew, said the report, took “independent but not always accurate” actions, all trying to solve the situation on their own rather than working as a team using emergency procedures. This was a direct result of insufficient training at the airline, both in CRM and dealing with emergency (engines out) and complex (the landing) scenarios.

The report was released in September 2001 and concluded that the cause of the accident was the flight engineer shutting off a fuel pump but that it was more than possible to land the aircraft safely despite the loss of the engines. However, the flight crew had not reacted appropriately to the loss of engine power and not followed procedures for landing with two engines out. The report made it clear that the crew had not been sufficiently trained to deal with the situation.

Four years later, the flight engineer was found guilty in court for under the criminal code, for violating safety rules of transportation and air travel, which led by neglect to the death of two or more people. He was given a suspended sentence of 3 years.

So why is the aircraft still there? Well, generally it’s the airline who has the responsibility of removing the wreckage from a crash site. Some of the aircraft internals may still be useable and often they’ll want to analyse the wreckage for their own internal investigation. However, Dagestan Airlines had their Airline Operator’s Certificate revoked in 2011 after the final report was released. The investigation found counterfeit parts installed on the aircraft, along with significant violations and systemic weaknesses at the airline relating to training, maintenance, work and rest hours along with other issues. During the year of the investigation, ramp inspections found “gross violations of flight safety” to which the airline management was slow to respond. A final audit of the airline was performed which showed that no progress had been made towards resolving these issues. Investigators concluded that Dagestan Airlines were unable to correct the systemic weaknesses in the airline and thus the airline “posed a direct threat to the life and health of its passengers.”

Google Street View

This means that now, there is no one with the responsibility of clearing the aircraft from the site and so it sits, gently gathering rust, as a reminder to the flights inbound to Domodedovo of how quickly it can all go wrong.

03 July 2015

SR-71 vs F-16

What I’ve been doing when I should have been writing:

  • Reading The Martian (highly recommend!!)
  • Finishing the edits for the next Why Planes Crash e-book (want early access? Join the mailing list!)
  • Working on a redesign for the website (coming soon!)
  • Drafting two complicated accident reports (still in progress)

I am sorry that I haven’t managed to finish a new article for you this week but I did love this image which has been making the rounds. Based on the tone, I’m pretty sure this is Brian Shul’s story.

Also, did you know that the entire SR-71 Flight Manual is now available online? http://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/manual/.

So, that should keep you occupied until next Friday! See you then.

26 June 2015

Hungarian Air Force: Three aircraft down in past six weeks

You may have heard about the second crash first, when this video of a last-minute ejection started making the rounds:

The video was filmed at Hungarian Air Base Kecskemét, one of three Air Force bases in Hungary. Kecskemét Air Base is in Bács-Kiskun county and has a concrete runway (12/30) which is 2,499×60 metres (8,199×197 feet). It’s most well-known for the Kecskemét Air Show which, in 2008, was the largest air show in Europe.

The pilot departed Kecskemét in a Saab JAS 39 Gripen to fly a training sortie but shortly after take-off, he discovered that the nose gear was no longer responding. He repeatedly attempted to recycle the landing gear but, unable to deal with the situation in the air, he opted for a belly landing. He lost control of the aircraft as he touched down. When it started to slew off the runway, he ejected.

As you can see in the video, the ejection seat failed to separate from his chute, which added an additional 176 pounds and caused an extremely heavy touchdown. The pilot suffered a vertebral fracture when he impacted the ground but was reported as in stable condition the same day.

He may have had this accident in mind, when a prototype Gripen crashed and flipped over. Amazingly, the pilot in that crash got away with minor injuries and a broken elbow:

The Hungarian Defence Minister lashed out over the incident claiming that the government has “wasted the money necessary for the purchase of fuel for combat aircraft, spending it on all kinds of festivities and celebrations.” He said that the lack of fuel meant that pilots weren’t spending enough time in the air.

The Saab JAS 39 Gripen is a Swedish single-engine fighter aircraft. There are five Air Forces which operate Saab Gripens: Swedish, Hungarian, South African, Czech and Thai.

This is the second Gripen crash in less than a month. On the 19th of May, a Gripen who had flown to Čáslav in the Czech republic to take part in a joint exercise overran the runway. Both pilots ejected and the Gripen came to rest in a field.

Hungarian news website index.hu yesterday claimed that the runway overrun at Cáslav was caused by pilot error: the commander of the Gripen “pressed both the brake and the accelerator simultaneously” while landing. The Czech Defence Minister stated that a technical malfunction has already been ruled out, leaving only pilot error as the cause. The pilot was discovered to have only flown eight hours this year. The aircraft was severely damaged in both the front and rear.

Gripen means the griffin, a mythological animal that is half lion, half eagle and I think it’s fair to say the Saab has the majestic presence of both animals.

(I was deeply amused by this seven-minute promotional Wargames video for the Gripen in the Swedish air force, especially “Isn’t it a little short for a fighter?”)

However, the Hungarian air force losing two Gripens within a few weeks of each other seems rather careless. Luckily, the Gripen jet in the ejection video is expected to be repaired and returned to service.

On top of everything else, today Hungary’s air force lost a third aircraft, a Yakovlev Yak 52 training plane which caught fire during a training exercise. One pilot suffered burns, the other escaped the cockpit unharmed.

Hungarian airforce loses third aircraft in two months – The Budapest Beacon

[Defence Minister] Hende held a press conference at an air-force base in Kecskemét today to announce that Hungarian air force had improved considerably since 2010. According to Hende the number of pilots has increased from 20 to 32 and the number of technicians from 56 to 91. He also said that the number of hours spent in simulators by pilots each year had increased from 1484 in 2009 to 2632 in 2014. Pilots make an average of HUF 555,000 (USD 2,000) a month, said the Defence Minister.

Investigations of all three accidents are in progress.