17 October 2014

Piper Comanche Full of Arrows

This photograph was sent to me a couple of times with questions of what it might portray and I just had to track it down.

The photograph was first posted to Reddit as This aircraft belongs to a conservation team in The Amazon. Yikes! and then again in September with it’s current headline, The anthropologists decided that this tribe was to remain “uncontacted”. It was the second description that took off, even though in both instances the descriptions was pretty quickly debunked.

The Piper Comanche in the photo is actually part of an art exhibition in Buenos Aires.

Argentina’s new arts district is built “from scratch” – The Art Newspaper

The Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros is showing three large-scale installations at Buenos Aires’s Faena Arts Centre in May. They have created a new site-specific sculpture especially for the arts centre’s 700 sq ft “Sala Molinos” exhibition space and are also installing two earlier works—a Piper Comanche single-prop plane pierced by arrows and a sprawling shantytown neighbourhood built entirely from corrugated cardboard.

The piece is called Avião. Los Carpinteros say that they produced it as a symbol of modernization: the modern transport contrasting with the wood-and-feather arrows.

It seems likely that the idea came from the Sentinelese, a pre-Neolithic tribe living on the Andaman Islands who are notably hostile to outsiders. In 2006, Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who strayed into their territory.

Stone Age tribe kills fishermen who strayed on to island – Telegraph

The two men killed, Sunder Raj, 48, and Pandit Tiwari, 52, were fishing illegally for mud crabs off North Sentinel Island, a speck of land in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands archipelago.

Fellow fishermen said they dropped anchor for the night on Jan 25 but fell into a deep sleep, probably helped by large amounts of alcohol.

During the night their anchor, a rock tied to a rope, failed to hold their open-topped boat against the currents and they drifted towards the island.

“As day broke, fellow fishermen say they tried to shout at the men and warn them they were in danger,” said Samir Acharya, the head of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, an environmental organisation.

“However they did not respond – they were probably drunk – and the boat drifted into the shallows where they were attacked and killed.”

After the fishermen’s families raised the alarm, the Indian coastguard tried to recover the bodies using a helicopter but was met by the customary hail of arrows.

Avião may also have been inspired by another similar piece which has a very different message.

Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows is by Cai Guo-Qiang and on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

MoMA | The Collection | Cai Guo-Qiang. Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows. 1998

The title—which alludes to a text from the third century (known as Sanguozhi)—refers to an episode in which the general Zhuge Liang, facing an imminent attack from the enemy, manages to replenish a depleted store of arrows. According to legend, Zhuge Liang tricked the enemy by sailing across the Yangtze river through the thick mist of early dawn with a surrogate army made of straw, while his soldiers remained behind yelling and beating on drums. Mistaking the pandemonium for a surprise attack, the enemy showered the decoys with volleys of arrows. Thus the general returned triumphantly with a freshly captured store of weapons.

So that’s the story behind the aircraft full of arrows. The only real question is whether the aircraft is still in flyable condition; certainly if they’d used a Piper Arrow instead of the Comanche, one could say it was perfectly arrowdynamic.

I’ll get my coat…

10 October 2014

Bit of a Fender Bender at Dublin Airport

You may remember my post about a previous incident at Dublin Airport, also involving Ryanair: Fear of Landing – “Where’s that Guy Going?” Runway Incursion at Dublin

That was the case where a Monarch crew took a wrong turn and blundered onto the active runway — right into the path of a Ryanair 737 on its take-off run. The Ryanair Captain initiated a high speed rejected take-off at 124 knots. By the time the Air Traffic Controller realised what was happening and shouted at the Ryanair to stop, the First Officer responded, we’re stopped. The Ryanair flight returned to the stand to have its brakes inspected. Meanwhile, the Monarch flight continued on its way, taking off three minutes later. That’s probably the first time ever I’ve felt sorry for a Ryanair flight for being late.

Anyway, Dublin airport has hit the news again, this time for two Ryanair aircraft damaged during taxi.

The Daily Mail ran the story with a typically staid headline:

Passengers watch in horror as two Ryanair planes collide on Dublin Airport runway

The Evening Standard followed suit:

Passengers watched in terror as two Ryanair planes crashed into each other on the runway at Dublin airport.

Quick point: neither aircraft was actually on a runway. The first aircraft was holding short of the runway and the second aircraft was behind it.

Ryanair, on the other hand, referred to the ground incident as a “scrape”. A notice was posted onto their website that afternoon with the following statement:

Two of our aircraft were taxiing slowly to the runway at Dublin Airport this morning. The winglet of one aircraft appears to have scraped the tail of the other. Both aircraft were under the instruction of Dublin Airport Air Traffic Control at the time.

There was no impact on customers on board and Ryanair contacted the IAA and worked with them to return both aircraft to stand. Affected customers disembarked, were provided with refreshment vouchers and boarded two replacement aircraft, which departed to Brussels Charleroi and Edinburgh later this morning.

The notice has since been deleted from the site.

The winglet or sharklet extends above and more recently also below the wing at the wingtip. They increase the performance for jets by reducing drag, which can mean a higher cruise speed or more commonly, better fuel efficiency.

How Things Work: Winglets | Flight Today | Air & Space Magazine

Winglets reduce wingtip vortices, the twin tornados formed by the difference between the pressure on the upper surface of an airplane’s wing and that on the lower surface. High pressure on the lower surface creates a natural airflow that makes its way to the wingtip and curls upward around it. When flow around the wingtips streams out behind the airplane, a vortex is formed. These twisters represent an energy loss and are strong enough to flip airplanes that blunder into them.

But obviously the winglet isn’t going to survive impact with another aircraft’s tail. This photo taken by Niall Carson makes it look a bit more than a scrape, I have to admit.

Irish newspaper accounts of the passengers show that they were somewhat bemused but not actually watching in horror or terror.

Dramatic picture shows wing tip embedded in plane after two Ryanair jets collide – Independent.ie

Andrea Cunningham, from Drogheda, was due to fly to Edinburgh for a job interview this morning and was a passenger on one of the Ryanair aircraft.

Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland programme, Ms Cunningham said the impact was minimal, but the plane shook.

“We just kind of turned a corner and hit into another plane.

“It wasn’t a huge impact to be honest but you could see the plane shook and then it kind of just stopped.

“We were on the plane for about an hour, maybe short of an hour.

“We were just waiting to go back into the airport terminal,” she said.

It seems that visibility was poor and one aircraft was passing behind without quite enough space there. The ATC recordings make it clear that the flight crews involved were really not sure what happened in the moment. Note: if you are reading this from the mailing list, you may need to click through to get the audio file.

This photo, which I was unable to find an attribution for, gives good context for how it happened.

According to a poster on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, this was an accident waiting to happen.

Dublin: 2 x RYR in contact during taxi. Both damaged.

I retired some years ago from 50 years of professional (accident free) flying and I was very familiar with Dublin Airport.

I am quite sure that dozens of us were aware that the south east corner of that airfield, after they built runway 28, was an accident waiting to happen. To say that this little corner, even on a CAVOK day, is busy, is an understatement.

In fact, I have just downloaded an IAA Aerodrome Chart (EIDW AD 2.24-1) which has, at the top left hand corner, an insert diagram entitled (in red) “Runway Incursion Hot Spots”. This shows the problem beautifully.

In the morning nowadays, departures are made from runway 28 and 34 simultaneously so that part of the airfield can get quite congested. If you want my opinion (and you probably don’t) my guess is that the aircraft holding short of 28 was being super-safe and holding back a bit further than normal. The aircraft heading for 34 tried to taxi past but mis-judged his wing tip clearance by about 10 feet.

Now, as an ex-DC-10 captain, I need to tell the great unwashed on this thread that it is quite impossible from the flight deck to judge where your wing tip is within 30 feet or so (see BA 744 at JNB).

My car beeps loudly when I’m backing up into something else, maybe the wing tips need similar sensors? It would at least make for some amusement.

03 October 2014

Five Airbus A350-XWB in Formation

This week had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for plane spotters: Five Airbus A350-900 test aircraft flying in formation. The Airbus A350-900 received its type certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The FAA certification will follow.

The A350-900 Type Certification comes after successfully finishing a stringent programme of certification trials which has taken its airframe and systems well beyond their design limits to ensure all airworthiness criteria are fully met.

The A350 XWB (Xtra Wide-Body) is the first Airbus to have a fuselage and wings made primarily of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer. The A350-900 series seats 314 passengers nine abreast and has a range of 14,350 kilometres, almost the distance from New York to Brisbane.

Airbus say that the A350-XWB is 16% lighter manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) per seat and uses 25% less fuel. The A350 is expected to enter service by the end of the year.

The prototype A350 first flew on 14 June 2013 at Tolouse-Blagnac Airport in France. Now, just over a year later, the A350 hyas its type certification.

The test aircraft collected over 2,600 flight test hours over 600 flights. As a celebration of the type certification the five A350s performed a formation flight at the end of their programme.

It is usually much too expensive for commercial aircraft to be used for formation flying so this is quite a sight to behold.

The video was filmed using a sixth aircraft, a Corvette, which chased the five A350-XWBs.

26 September 2014

Hypoxia on Kalitta 66

This video is making the rounds again and it chills me as much to listen to it now as it did the first time I heard it.

The video features actual audio from Air Traffic Control dealing with a hypoxic pilot. Here are the details of what happened.

Kalitta flight KFS-66 was a cargo flight flying from Manassas, Virginia to Ypsilanti Airport, Minnesota.

Kalitta Air is a cargo airline headquartered in Ypsilanti. Conrad Kalitta started carrying car parts in his twin-engine Cessna 310 in 1967. His business, originally called American International Airways. Kalitta retired in 1997 but in 2000, the company ceased operations and Kalitta came out of retirement to rescue it. He called the new airline Kalitta Air. In 2007 Kalitta received the FAA’s Diamond Award – the highest honor for maintenance training. Kalitta Air is still owned by Conrad Kalitta.

Kalitta flight KFS-66 departed Manassas normally and was en-route flying at FL320: 32,000 feet over the sea. The flight crew had just been handed off to Cleveland’s Air Route Traffic Control Center when air traffic controller Jay McCombs noticed that the aircraft had a “stuck mike” – that is, the Push-to-talk microphone was being pressed , keeping the transmission open.

What was actually happening was that the First Officer was already unconscious and his arm was flailing violently and uncontrollably, disengaging the autopilot and forcing the Captain was trying to hand-fly the aircraft. The air traffic controller can’t understand the Captain and a second pilot in a different plane helps to get the message across.

This transcript is from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Controller Jay McCombs: Kalitta sixty six how do you hear?
Captain: Kalitta six six … (unintelligible)
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six roger. You’re keying your mike and it’s staying on there frequently so please be careful.
Captain: Kalitta six six, declaring emergency.
Second Pilot (in another aircraft): Sir, he’s declaring an emergency with his flight controls.
Captain: Affirmative!
Second Pilot: Yes, sir, he said affirmative on that.
McCombs: All right Kalitta sixty six, roger. What are your intentions?
Captain: Request vectors Ypsilanti.
Second Pilot: Sir, he’s looking for vectors.
McCombs: Alright, Kalitta sixty six, I understand an emergency, you want a vector to
Cincinnati. Is that correct?
Captain: Negative. Vectors Ypsilanti.
Second Pilot: Ypsilanti.
McCombs: Ah, Kalitta sixty six are you able to maintain altitude. What assistance can I give you other than that vector?
Captain: Unable to control altitude. Unable to control airspeed. Unable to control heading. Kalitta six six. Other than that, everything A-OK.
McCombs: OK, Kalitta sixty six understand you’re not able to control the aircraft. Is that correct?
Captain: That is correct.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six are you able to land at an airport that is closer to your position? Pittsburgh approximately five zero miles southwest of your position, Cleveland about eight zero miles northwest of your position.
Captain: Prefer to land aircraft at destination airport as the aircraft is (unintelligible). No possible damage to any part of the aircraft (unintelligible). So we’re slowly, ever so slowly, regaining control the airspeed and the aircraft if we are given the time to slowly reengage.

Meanwhile, follow controller Stephanie Bevins tunes into the frequency so she can hear the pilot. She concludes that he must be suffering from hypoxia. Hypoxia is where effectively your body is starved of oxygen. The onset of hypoxia is often masked by the euphoria – you have a general sense of well-being and can be apathetic to the fact that something has gone wrong. You will feel confused and disoriented. Your time of useful consciousness is limited – the time in which you remain capable of making sensible decisions and correcting the issue.

Bevins knows that they need to get the aircraft down from FL32 to a level where the oxygen is sufficient for the pilots, and quickly before the Captain loses consciousness. At this stage, the Captain appears to only be able to respond to direct commands. McCombs tells Kalitta to descend.

McCombs: Kalitta sixty six if able descend and maintain flight level two six zero.
Captain: Descending now to flight level two six zero, Kalitta six six.
McCombs: Ah, Kalitta sixty six, are you still requesting a vector for Ypsilanti?
Captain: Affirmative. We sure are. Got the aircraft back under control.

The Captain couldn’t turn on the autopilot as his First Officer kept switching it off, which probably saved his life. His focus on hand-flying the aircraft kept him conscious through-out; otherwise they almost certainly would have continued on autopilot at 32,000 feet until the aircraft ran out of fuel and fell out of the sky.

As Kalitta 66 descends, the Captain’s voice changes. Slowly, his words become more understandable and his reactions more professional. By 11,000 feet, he and his First Officer have recovered.

McCombs (to someone else inside Cleveland Center) Kalitta sixty six can I vector him to the right? Try and hold on, we think he has hypoxia.
Unidentified voice: All right, to the right is approved.
McCombs: All right thank you.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six if able fly heading of three three zero.
Captain: Three three zero.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six, area of precipitation 11 o’clock and one five miles extends approximately three zero miles along the route of flight.
Captain: OK, we see that. Looks like it’s (unintelligible).
First Officer: And roger, at eleven thousand Kalitta sixty six.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six roger say intentions.
First Officer: And Kalitta sixty six. Destination Ypsilanti.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six roger. Cleared to Ypsilanti via direct. Maintain one one
thousand.
Captain: OK … proceed direct Ypsilanti, Kalitta six six.
First Officer: And Kalitta sixty six, the aircraft is stable at this time.
McCombs: Kalitta sixty six roger. Again, maintain one one thousand. You are cleared direct Ypsilanti. Contact Cleveland Center one two zero, point seven seven.
First Officer: Twenty seven seven direct. Yip, Kalitta sixty six.

Stephanie Bevins and Marvin McCombs were awarded the Archie for the Great Lakes region, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association annual safety award.

Great Lakes Region Award Winner

Without Bevins and McCombs, there is no telling what would have happened. Bevins’ diagnosis made all the difference to the fate of the passengers, and without McCombs, the necessary actions to solve the problem would not have been taken to get the aircraft down safely. Various individuals were involved in the assistance of KFS66, clearly stated by McCombs who says that “the entire area (Area 5) worked extremely well as a team.”

I agree with NATCA that this is an amazing story which really shows off air traffic controllers at their best. It’s also well worth a listen for all pilots to remind them just how insidious and deadly hypoxia can be.

19 September 2014

Pilot Suicides: Fact vs Fiction

There’s been a lot of news reports about Ewan Wilson’s “breakthrough” that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 must have been a case of pilot suicide, specifically the Captain. The arguments in favour of this are poorly justified and Malaysia Airlines have already responded with a harsh rebuttal.

Malaysia Airlines slams authors for lies, falsehoods in book on MH370 – The Malaysian Insider

There is no evidence to support any of the claims made in the book, which is a product of pure conjecture for the purposes of profit by the authors and publishers.

Neither Wilson nor Taylor were involved in the investigation into the disappearance of MH370, yet they have offered an analysis beyond their knowledge and abilities.

They should both be ashamed of themselves for what is nothing more than a cheap and maligned publicity stunt.

One of the claims by Ewan Wilson which is making headlines is that he “found” five flights which he believes were also caused by suicidal pilots.

To clarify, to “find” these cases, you just need to go to the Aviation Safety Network, where there is a list of aircraft accidents caused by pilot suicide. ASN lists nine cases there but Wilson is clearly talking about commercial pilots carrying passengers. That leaves us with five cases, all totally documented.

Each of these five commercial pilots flying a scheduled passenger service is believed (by some investigating bodies, although not all) to have committed suicide, taking their aircraft and their passengers with them: an especially horrifying type of mass murder.

I considered this theory in The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 but as this is currently in the headlines, I decided take a better look at the five cases in question.

1982: Japan Airlines Flight 350

The first example is at best a failed suicide although I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the Captain intended to kill himself or his passengers.

On the 9th of February in 1982, Japan Airlines Flight 350 departed nine minutes late for its scheduled domestic flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo. The aircraft, registered as JA8061, was a DC-8-61 with 166 passengers and 8 crew on board. The flight crew consisted of the 35-year-old Captain, the First Officer and the Flight Engineer.

The flight proceeded normally from there until the final approach.

08:35 Flight 350 was given clearance to land and the wheels were dropped and flaps set ready for landing.

08:44:01 At about two hundred feet above the ground, the Captain suddenly turned the autopilot off, pressed his controls forward and deliberately engaged the thrust reversers of two of the engines.

These means that he reversed the flow of the engines so that the exhaust is directed forward, which is used in combination with the brakes to slow the aircraft upon landing. Reverse thrust on a jet is always selected manually, usually immediately after touchdown. They are not normally ever used in flight and many modern commercial aircraft cannot use reverse thrust in flight.

The DC-8 was one of few aircraft designed to allow for reverse thrust in the air — some military aircraft have also been able to safely deploy thrust reversers in flight in order to increase manoeuvrability, however the Concorde and the DC-8 may have been the only commercial jets to allow this. On the DC-8, the thrust reversers could be fully engaged on engines 2 and 3 in flight once the gear was down but many (most?) airlines prohibit the use of in-flight reverse even when the aircraft is certified for it. The effect would be rapid deceleration and a rapid loss of altitude.

Passengers reported that the aircraft nose dropped suddenly.

The First Officer immediately pulled back on the stick and the flight engineer struggled to pull the Captain away from the controls. Japanese television reported that the First Officer shouted “Captain, what are you doing?” while the engineer fought to gain control of the thrust control lever. However, the lack of thrust put the aircraft into a nose dive and they were too close to the ground to regain control. Eight seconds later, the aircraft hit the water.

08:44:07 The aircraft crashed into Tokyo Bay 510 metres short of the runway threshold.

Twenty-four passengers died in the crash. Initially, it was reported that the Captain had been killed in the impact. However, soon after they discovered that he had discarded his uniform and had been picked up in one of the first rescue boats, telling rescuers that he was an office worker.

The news soon came out that he had been suffering from mental issues and had been put on leave for a year for for mental (“psychosomatic”) issues. After the event, his flight crew from the previous day reported that he had been acting oddly.

Troubled Pilot – TIME

The revelations that appeared in the Japanese press last week painted a chilling portrait of a pilot with a troubled psyche. There were claims that Seiji Katagiri had been suffering from hallucinations and feelings of depression. He once summoned police to his two-story house near Tokyo because he was convinced it was bugged, but a thorough search turned up no eavesdropping devices. On three occasions, his employers had urged him to see a psychiatrist.

The Captain was arrested for “professional negligence resulting in deaths” but was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity.

1994: Royal Air Maroc Flight 630

This was the most difficult of the cases to research as there is very little information online.

On the 21st of August in 1994, Royal Air Maroc flight 630 departed Agadir Al Massira Airport on a scheduled domestic flight to Casablanca. The ATR 42/72 twin turboprop, registration CN-CDT, held 40 passengers and 4 crew.

The aircraft departed at 19:00 local time and began its climb. About ten minutes after the departure at 11,480 feet feet, the aircraft suddenly entered a steep dive and crashed into the Atlas Mountains about 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the airfield.

The investigation concluded that the pilot disconnected the autopilot and then deliberately flew towards the ground. The First Officer made an immediate call on the radio, screaming “Help, help, the Captain is…” but her call was cut off as the aircraft impacted the ground.

A statement at the time by the Transport Minister stated that the accident was “due to the deliberate will of the pilot who wished to end his life.”

The Moroccan Pilot’s Union originally disputed the suicide explanation stating that there was no evidence that the pilot was disturbed or had any grounds to kill himself. The cockpit voice recorder was published in France and apparently confirms the initial reports of the sequence of events. The final investigation report was meant to explain this more thoroughly but there is no copy of the report online. However, the union did not make any further arguments after their initial statement and there appears to be no remaining doubt that the Captain of the flight deliberately took control of the aircraft in order to kill himself and everyone on board.

1997 SilkAir Flight 185

The next case has been the subject of two investigations and considerable controversy. The timeline below is taken from the official report released by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee.

On the 19th December in 1997, SilkAir flight 185 departed for its scheduled flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore with 97 passengers and 7 crew members on board. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-300 registered as 9V-TRF. It was less than a year old and the newest aircraft in SilkAir’s fleet.

08:37 UTC (15:37 local time) SilkAir flight 185 departed Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta for an 80-minute flight to Singapore and began its climb out. The Captain was the Pilot Flying.

08:53 The aircraft reached its cruising altitude of FL350 (35,000 feet) and the flight crew was cleared direct to waypoint PARDI and told to report when abeam Palembang.

09:04:57 The Captain stated that he was going to go to the passenger cabin. Several metallic snapping sounds were recorded, which the NTSB believe were sounds made by the seatbelt buckle.

09:05:15 The cockpit voice recorder stopped recording

09:10:18 ATC informed SilkAir flight 185 that they were abeam Palembang and to contact Singapore Control when at waypoint PARDI.

09:10:26 The First Officer acknowledged this call. This means we have confirmation that the First Officer was in the cockpit at this time. No distress call was ever made or any sign given that there might be an issue with the aircraft.

09:11:33 The Flight Data Recorder stopped recording.

This was 6 minutes and 18 seconds after the CVR stoppage and approximately 35.5 seconds before the aircraft started its descent. Up to the point at which it shut down, the FDR showed no indications of unusual disturbance or other events affecting the flight.

09:12:09 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed the aircraft still in the cruise at FL350

09:12:17 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed that the aircraft had descended by 400 feet. The aircraft then went into a nearly vertical dive.

09:12:41 Jakarta ATC radar recording showed the aircraft passing through FL195 – in less than thirty seconds, the aircraft had descended 15,500 feet. That averages to 645 feet per second or 38,750 feet per minute.

A normal descent in a Boeing 737 would be around 1,500-2,500 feet per minute. After twenty four seconds, the aircraft began to disintegrate.

In less than a minute, the aircraft crashed into the Musi River. In the final seconds before impact it was travelling faster than the speed of sound.

There was no evidence of any malfunction which would explain why the recorders stopped recording nor why the aircraft would go into such a steep and fast descent. The radio continued to work, showing that there was not a general power failure in the cockpit. However, without the Flight Data Recorder, we have no definitive proof of what happened on the aircraft.

The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee reported that it could not determine a cause of the crash due to inconclusive evidence.

The NTSB held its own unofficial investigation. US investigators concluded that the recorders were intentionally disabled to hide a deliberate action to crash the aircraft, most likely by the captain who left the cockpit to disable the circuit breakers and then returned and manually held down the control inputs for nose-down flight at full speed.

1999: EgyptAir Flight 990

EgyptAir flight 990 was a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Cairo with a stopover in New York. The aircraft was a Boeing 767-300ER, registration SU-GAP, with 203 passengers and 14 crew on board.

On the 31st of October 1999, the flight departed JFK airport in New York at 01:22 local time as a scheduled international flight.

Again, the situation on this flight is convoluted and there were two investigations. Initially the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, who had jurisdiction over the accident, delegated the investigation to the NTSB in the US. The NTSB began their investigation but then proposed handing the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as their evidence suggested the aircraft crash was intentional rather than accidental. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority refused and the NTSB continued their investigation which continued to point to a deliberate action by a crew member. However, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority believed that the NTSB was not sharing information and stated that they often learned of the NTSB’s views in the press. The Egyptian investigators had access to the data collected by the NTSB and launched their own investigation which concluded that the crash was caused by mechanical failure.

This is the first accident ever where I’ve been unsure as to which report is the official investigation.

The general sequence of events on the flight is agreed by both parties and I have used both reports for reference.

01:26:35 EgyptAir flight 990 contacted New York Centre and continued to climb to FL230 as they flew out over the Atlantic.

01:35:52 EgyptAir flight 990 was cleared for a cruising altitude of FL330, roughly 33,000 feet above sea level.

01:40 The Relief First Officer suggested that he relieve the Command First Officer at the controls, stating “I’m not going to sleep at all. I might come and sit for two hours, and then…” that is, offering to fly his portion of the trip at that time. After some discussion and catty comments, they agreed that the Relief First Officer would get some food and then start his shift. The Relief Officer appeared to have taken the First Officer seat within the next few minutes.

01:41:52 An oceanic clearance was issued and acknowledged by the flight crew.

01:47:18 New York Centre requested that EgyptAir flight 990 change frequencies.

01:47:39 EgyptAir flight 990 changed frequencies and the Captain reported in with “EgyptAir ah, nine nine zero heavy, good morning” on the new frequency. This was the last transmission to ATC from the aircraft.

01:48:03 The Captain said to the Relief First Officer, “Excuse me [RFO nickname], while I take a quick trip to the toilet.” The Relief First Officer responded with “Go ahead please.”

After the Captain left the cockpit, sound was recorded in the cockpit which included human speech but it was not possible to identify who was speaking or what the words were.

01:48:34 A click and a thump was reported, followed by the Relief First Officer saying “I rely on God.”

10:49:45 EgyptAir flight 990 was cruising on a heading of 080 at 33,000 feet when the autopilot was disengaged, almost certainly manually and intentionally, as there was no aural warning. The aircraft remained in level flight for about eight seconds when the Relief First Officer said again, “I rely on God”.

01:49:53 The throttle levers were moved from cruise power to idle and an abrupt nose-down elevator movement was recorded. The aircraft pitched nose down and began a fast descent. The Relief First Officer repeated his statement of “I rely on God” another seven times.

01:50:06 The Captain returned to the cockpit and said “What’s happening? What’s happening?” The elevator movements continued and the aircraft began to pitch down.

01:50:08 The aircraft exceeded its maximum operating airspeed. The Relief Officer repeated again “I rely on God” and the Captain, “What’s happening?”

01:50:20 The aircraft descended to 21,000 feet and the elevator movements changed to a nose up direction, which the NTSB believes were the result of the captain making nose-up flight control inputs. The aircraft’s rate of descent began to decrease. That’s when the left and right elevator surfaces began to move in opposite directions. The aircraft’s elevator had split.

Up until this time, the elevator surface movements were slightly offset but consistent (that is, both were moved in the same direction at the same time). This is where the reports diverge: the Egyptian report concludes that the mechanical failure already existed before the aircraft left New York for Cairo and eventually caused the aircraft to go out of control. They state that the Relief First Officer disconnected the autopilot after observing some unusual movement of the column and throughout was trying to regain level flight. The US report concludes that the dive was initiated by the Relief First Officer and the resulting stresses on the aircraft, specifically the two pilots applying force on the control column in opposite directions, caused the elevator split.

01:50:35 At 16,000 feet, the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder ceased recording. Radar recordings showed that the aircraft climbed again, this time to approx 24,000 feet and then entered a final dive into the ocean. During the dive, the aircraft reached an estimated airspeed of 0.99 Mach and experienced g-forces from +0.98 to -0.227 before it crashed into the ocean.

2013: Mozambique Airlines Flight 470

On the 29th of November in 2013, the regularly scheduled Mozambique Airlines flight departed from Maputo International Airport to Luanda, Angola with 6 crew and 28 passengers onboard. The flight progressed normally and the aircraft was in contact with Gaborone Area Air Traffic Control and cruising at 38,000 feet. Radar showed that the aircraft, an Embraer EMB-190, suddenly started descending at 6,000 feet per minute and then disappeared. The aircraft did not arrive at Luanda, where it was scheduled to arrive about 90 minutes later and there were no reports of unscheduled landings anywhere in the region of the route.

Search and Rescue teams found the wreckage in the Mbwabwata National Park the following day and recovered the black box with the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. The Flight Data Recorder revealed that the aircraft had no mechanical faults. However, it also showed unexpected configuration changes in the cockpit.

A few minutes before the crash, the First Officer left the cockpit and went to the washroom.

The captain, alone in the cockpit, manually selected the aircraft flight altitude three times. He changed the flight altitude from their cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to 592 feet. The elevation around this time was over 3,000 feet, making the final flight altitude selection below ground level.

Then the auto-throttle was re-engaged. With the steep descent, the throttle level automatically retarded, setting the power to idle. The Captain manually selected the airspeed and set it to the maximum operating speed of the aircraft.

There was no evidence of accidental configuration. All of these actions displayed a clear understanding of how the automatic flight systems worked and with clear intent.

The autopilot was on and the aircraft hurtled to the ground. During this time, various warnings and alarm chimes could be heard sounding in the cockpit but the Captain did not appear to take any notice of them. Then there was the loud sound of banging on the cockpit door with demands to be let into the cockpit. The spoilers were deployed and held until the end of the recordings, proving that the aircraft was under human control as it descended at 6,000 feet per minute.

From the preliminary report:

All action observed from the recorders requires knowledge of the aircraft’s automatic flight systems as the entire descent was performed with the autopilot engaged. This displays a clear intent. The reason for all these actions is unknown and the investigation is still ongoing.

The aircraft crashed into the border area between Botswana and Namibia at high speed. There were no survivors.

The final report has not yet been published but if it is not complete by the one year anniversary of the accident, an interim report should be released with updates as to their progress.

Conclusion

Note that in every instance, if we accept that each of these was in fact an intentional suicide, the pilot chose to take control of the aircraft and crash it immediately. This is a huge contrast to Wilson’s theory:

‘Suicidal pilots killed 600 people’ says expert ahead of Birmingham event – Birmingham Mail

Mr Wilson believes that pilot Shah shut his co-pilot, Fariq Hamid, out of the cockpit on flight MH370, then shut off all communication and turned the aircraft around, veering off course.

He then depressurised the plane, and once the cabin crew and passengers’ oxygen had run out, they died from hypoxia.
The accident investigator believes that the pilot then made eight different course changes before finally allowing MH370 to fly on auto-pilot for the last few hours of its journey into the southern Indian Ocean.

The Australian Transport Safety Board published a report which is referenced as a part of the theory, because they stated that the final period of the flight appeared to fit the characteristics of an unresponsive crew/hypoxia event. However, the idea that the Captain was in control and deliberately disabled the passengers and crew in order to fly on autopilot until the aircraft ran out of fuel is quite a step beyond that and certainly not a theory that the ATSB, or any other investigating body, has put forward as viable.

The five pilot suicide/murder cases cited all show a clear course of action by the pilots: gain control of the aircraft and crash it as quickly as possible.

In no instance has a pilot ever tried to disable flight crew, cabin crew and hundreds of passengers and then fly the aircraft on autopilot until it ran out of fuel before gently guiding it into the water. It makes for a lovely Hollywood ending but in a real-world tragedy, it’s all plot and not enough facts.


If you found this interesting, you might like to pick up my books:

12 September 2014

UPS 1354 and the unforgiving nature of flight

On the 14th of August in 2013, UPS Airlines Flight 1354 departed Louisville International Airport at 05:04 EDT on a cargo flight delivering to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama.

The captain was the pilot flying and the first officer was the pilot monitoring.

The aircraft was N155UP, a ten year old Airbus A300F4-622R. Its first flight was in November 2003 and it was delivered to UPS on the 13th of February, 2004.

Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport’s main runway, 06/24 with a precision approach, was closed from 0400-0500 local time.

UPS flight 1354 was due at 04:51, which meant that only the shorter runway 18 was available for the inbound flight.

The weather forecast was for variable low clouds which could require the flight to divert to an alternate airport.

The dispatcher did not warn the flight crew of UPS flight 1354 about the low clouds or the single-approach option to the airport. Neither did dispatch bring up the fact that runway 06/24 would reopen at 05:00. At no point during the flight did the crew receive any of the variable forecast information.

This has been referred to as “the fatigue flight” as a result of the cockpit conversation before the flight, which was released in February. The Captain and his First Officer clearly discuss fatigue and over-work as they wait for to be cleared for their flight.

03:42:53 Captain We have two extra hours today in Birmingham.
03:41:58 Captain Rockford is only fourteen hours and * minutes rest. So you figure a thirty minute ride to-for hotel…
03:42:04 First Officer I know by the time you…
03:42:06 Captain …fourteen hours…
03:42:08 First Officer …by the time you go to sleep you are down to about twelve. (wow).
03:42:14 Captain This is where ah the passenger side you know the new rules they’re gonna make out.
03:42:17 First Officer They’re gonna make out
03:42:18 Captain Yeah. We need that too.
03:42:20 Captain I mean I [stammer] don’t get that. You know it should be one level of safety for everybody
03:42:23 First Officer It makes no sense at all.
03:42:24 Captain No, It doesn’t at all
03:42:24 First Officer I know. I know.
03:42:26 Captain Nope.
03:42:27 Captain Which means that you know * real pilot.
03:42:32 First Officer You know.
03:42:32 First Officer And to be honest. [stammer] It should be across the board. To be honest in my opinion whether you are flying passengers or cargo or you know box of chocolates at night. If you’re flying this time of day…
03:42:36 Captain Mm hmm. Yup (We work).
03:42:49 First Officer …The, you know [stammer] fatigue is definitely…**
03:42:32 Captain Yeah…yeah…yeah…**
03:42:54 First Officer I was out and I slept today. I slept in Rockford. I slept good.
03:42:59 Captain Me too
03:43:00 First Officer And I was out in that sleep room and when my alarm went off I mean I’m thinkin’ I’m so tired…
03:43:06 Captain I know.
03:43:06 First Officer …and I slept today.
03:43:07 Captain Exactly.
03:43:08 First Officer I know you know and we just are goin’ to Birmingham. What if I was goin’ to Burbank?
03:43:10 Captain and these people—
03:43:11 Captain Really God, I know these people have no clue. I know.
03:43:14 First Officer and I just don’t understand what they…
03:43:17 Captain And they you know they talk about cost. Well on the passenger side it just costs just as much. The same thing. You know, I mean give me a break. And these companies are the ones that are really making the money. They got a lot of nerve.
03:43:22 First Officer Exactly. Exactly. Making the money. I know.
03:43:30 Captain Yeah they do that [stammering] * says [stammering] a lot about what they how they think about you
03:43:34 First Officer * says a lot *.

The Captain was off duty from the 5th to the 12th of August. The hearing found that he took steps to mitigate the effects of fatigue:

  • August 12: Napped at home and acquired sleep room in Louisville
  • August 13: Adequate opportunity to rest in Rockford
  • August 14: Acquired sleep room in Louisville

The First Officer was off duty from the 10th to the 12th, however the hearing was less impressed with her sleep patterns and stated that she mismanaged her off-duty time.

  • August 12: returned to duty with about 9-hour sleep debt
  • August 13: less than 5½-hour sleep opportunity
  • August 14: acquired sleep room in Louisville

The NTSB felt that she was aware of her fatigued state and also expressed concern in the hearing that the final approach of the flight was during the window of circadian low.

The FAA defines three types of fatigue: transient, cumulative and circadian. Transient fatigue is acute fatigue by extreme sleep restriction – that is, being awake too long or having very little sleep over one or two days. Cumulative fatigue is mild sleep restriction or extended hours awake across a series of days, which is what seems to be described for the first officer. Circadian fatigue is the reduced performance during nighttime hours.

The window of circadian low is the lowest point of performance, alertness and body temperature. It is considered the hours between 02:00 and 06:00 on the home-base time zone for flight crew who are on a standard day-wake/night-sleep schedule.

The symptoms of fatigue include:

  • Measurable reduction in speed and accuracy of performance,
  • Lapses of attention and vigilance,
  • Delayed reactions,
  • Impaired logical reasoning and decisionmaking, including a reduced ability to assess risk or appreciate consequences of actions,
  • Reduced situational awareness, and
  • Low motivation.

The Captain and his First Officer seemed fine during the flight but as they reached the final stages of the flight, they began to make mistakes.

At 04:20 they listened to the Birmingham ATIS for airfield information.

Birmingham Airport information Papa zero eight five three Zulu observation wind calm visibility one zero. sky condition ceiling one thousand broken. seven thousand five hundred overcast. temperature two three. dewpoint two two. altimeter two niner niner seven. localizer runway one eight in use. landing and departing runway one eight. notice to airmen runway six two-four closed. all departing aircraft contact tower one one niner point niner for clearance taxi and takeoff. advise controller on initial contact you have Papa.

This appears to have been the first notification the crew had that runway 6/24 was closed.

With still half an hour to run, the Captain briefed his first officer for the non-precision approach into runway 18. The First Officer entered the approach into the flight management computer.

This “profile approach” means that the flight management computer can set up a glidepath for the crew to follow from the final approach fix to the decision altitude. For runway 18 at BHM, the flight crew follow the vertical path guidance to 1,200 feet above sea level, as opposed to step-downs, staggered descents where the crew must constantly monitor the minimum altitude for each step.

The aircraft was cleared for the localizer 18 approach, however, the flight management computer wasn’t set up correctly.

…although the flight plan for the approach had already been entered in the FMC, the captain did not request and the first officer did not verify that the flight plan reflected only the approach fixes; therefore, the direct-to-KBHM leg that had been set up during the flight from Louisville remained in the FMC. This caused a flight plan discontinuity message to remain in the FMC, which rendered the glideslope generated for the profile approach meaningless.

The key information here is that the flight management computer wasn’t set up correctly, neither of the flight crew noticed and, as a result, the glideslope information was meaningless for the approach that they were conducting. There was a clear error message which neither crew member paid any attention to.

If the flight management computer had been set up correctly, then the autopilot would have engaged the profile approach and the aircraft would have descended on the glidepath to the runway.

At the final approach fix, they were at 2,500 foot above sea level, instead of the expected altitude of 2,300.

Neither pilot realised that the flight plan was not verified. Nor did they notice that the vertical deviation indicator was pegged at the top because the aircraft was showing as over 200 feet below its (meaningless) flight path. The crew knew they were above, not below, the glidepath at the final approach fix. Yet they still somehow did not realise that the flight management computer was wrong.

The Captain did notice that the autopilot did not engage at which point he changed the autopilot to vertical speed mode, as one would use for a step-down approach. He didn’t mention changing the mode and they continued their descent without proper monitoring.

The decision altitude for runway 18 is 1,200 feet above sea level. If the runway is not in sight, the flight crew must stop descending. If they can not see the runway then they cannot continue the approach but must break off and go-around.

During the “Before Landing” checklist, the First Officer noticed that the autopilot was in vertical speed mode. The Captain then increased the vertical descent rate to 1,500 feet per minute. This means that not only do they have the heavy workload at a point when their bodies are at a circadian low, but he’s just significantly increased the pace.

04:47:02 First Officer There’s a thousand feet, instruments crossed checked, no flags.
04:47:05 Captain Alright, ah, DA is twelve ah hundred.
04:47:02 First Officer Twelve hundred yeah….

DA is decision altitude. To confirm to the UPS stabilized approach criteria, they should not be at a descent rate greater than 1,000 feet per minute. An unstabilized approach requires a go-around. And yet, they continued to descend.

The ATIS information stated that the cloud ceiling was at 1,000 feet so they expected clear skies once they descended below that. However, the weather information was incomplete and didn’t mention the variable ceiling. The cloud base at their location at that time was about 350 feet.

At 1,000 feet above sea level, about 250 feet above ground level, the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) sink rate caution alert sounded through the cockpit. The captain reduced the vertical speed to about 1,000 feet per minute and called out runway in sight. The first officer confirmed she also had the runway in sight.

The Captain reduced the speed further but the aircraft was still descending rapidly and aiming for a point one mile short of the runway. The First Officer made no further altitude call outs after the initial 1,000 foot and neither crew member seemed to be aware at how low they were.

The next sound on the cockpit voice recorder is the sound of rustling with the volume increasing for about 5.4 seconds as they hit the trees.

The Captain and First Officer had just enough time to realise what was happening before the aircraft impacted the ground and caught fire. They were killed in the impact.

The NTSB found that there were many steps that could have reduced the risk factor of this flight: the First Officer could have reported herself as fatigued. The dispatcher should have given the flight crew better information about their flight. The Captain could have gone around as soon as the planned “profile approach” did not start as expected.

However, in the end, the death of the flight crew was caused by continuing an unstabilised approach long after it was clear that things were not as they should be.

The acting Chairman of the NTSB closed the hearing with this statement:

Air transportation is as safe as it is today largely because rigorous aviation safety practices have been developed out of respect for the inherently unforgiving nature of flight.

In the end, that lack of respect caused this accident and their deaths. Maybe someone else will learn from their mistakes.

More details can be found on the NTSB site on their page detailing the Board Meeting: UPS Flight 1354.

05 September 2014

Creative Air Marshalling

It’s not often that aircraft marshalling hits the headlines but this video of ME1 Tan Wen Kai of the Singapore Airforce has gone completely viral.

Aircraft marshallers use hand-signals to communicate with aircraft on the ground, for example to give directions. It’s the equivalent of guiding someone into a parking space, except there’s not much use in yelling “Back a bit, back a bit, STOP!”

The Republic of Singapore Air Force updated their Facebook page after the video went viral to explain the context:

ME1 Tan Wen Kai executed his creative marshalling moves with one of our F-15SG, as part of a planned exercise segment during the recent Exercise Pitch Black held in Darwin, Australia. Creative marshalling is a tradition for many fighter squadrons and is deliberately scheduled into long exercises and during competitions to boost the morale of both the air and ground crew. Due planning and supervision are given to ensure that the creative marshalling is operationally safe. Play the video to check out what creative marshalling means to our flight line crew during our earlier Command competition Hot Shot!

Reddit, as usual, was fabulous about it:

Now that’s how you marshal an F-15

Ground, Eagle 1. We’re just waiting for Thriller here to finish busting a move. We’ll be good to go in about zero-three.

Marshal, try not to annoy the guys with missiles….

This thread has been linked to from elsewhere on reddit:
[/r/theydidthemath]How much fuel is burned by a F-15 fighter jet while waiting for the ground marshal to finish breakdancing?

The answer, by the way, is around six pounds of fuel, or pretty close to a gallon.

Air Marshallers have very clearly defined movements which they use to guide aircraft. Looking at the ICAO guide, it does look a bit like dancing:

The point is, although the marshaller may be having a great time dancing, creative marshalling isn’t confusing to the pilots, because the key movements are instructions which are clear if you know the code.

The RSAF video has reawakened interest in another marshaller, Dean Tabreham, who’s marshalling went viral in a video purporting to compare various nationalities marshalling practices in 2007. I have to admit, I could watch this guy all day long. But more importantly, it’s easy to recognise the marshalling signals within his dancing:

I wouldn’t want *my* marshaller to do this, because I’d be laughing too hard to park the plane. But I love watching them guiding other planes in.

29 August 2014

Amazing Aerobatics

Since my Tiger Moth flight, I’ve been even more excited about aerobatics that I was before, which really is saying something.

It’s pretty neat knowing how it feels to be in the middle of a barrel roll, of course, but also it makes me feel a lot dizzier when watching the pros in action. So I’m glad that I’m able to share some new (and one new-to-me) aerobatics videos with you this week.

This first one of the Blue Angels is just amazing, because the we’re right there in the cockpit. However, I don’t recommend watching it on a full stomach if you suffer from air sickness!

And of course I can’t feature the Blue Angels without giving the Red Arrows equal time. This is part of a “dynamic simulation ride” which puts you in the backseat for a 3D experience at the London Science Museum. This video really shows off the synchronisation:

I have to admit, I flinched at the wake turbulence at the 4:19 sequence. Not the Red Arrow pilots, though! They just keep rolling.

This brand new Red Bull video was filmed as a promotion for GoPro but it sure does show off the camera at its best as Hannes Arch flies over the Austrian Alps:

Even footage from the ground can be dizzy making, and this video from a few years back shows some astounding footage of aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker putting a bi-plane through its paces. I can barely keep spatial awareness walking through a doorway, so I can’t imagine trying to keep myself safe while doing spins and rolls:

Most amazing is how that plane spins while flying straight up into the sky (at 1:49 in the video). I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t be possible.

I don’t think I’d ever dare do any of this but I sure do love watching other people push aviation to its limits. I’d love to see your favourite aerobatic videos in the comments!

22 August 2014

Flying Over the Alps in a Private Jet Simulator

One of the great things about aviation is that you get to meet the most amazing people. Take Murray Simpson: he’s a pilot with something close to a million trillion hours who learnt to fly in the Royal Air Force and later spent many years flying in East Africa before turning his eye towards corporate jets. He’s incredibly talented and one of the top (maybe the top!) examiner in the UK. And he’s my friend.

These days, he works for FlightSafety International, an aviation training company with some of the best simulation equipment in the world. FlightSafety International offer training for flight crew, maintenance: you name it, they’ll teach you how to do it. I bet you could take over an airport and staff it with their training alone.

And you want to know what’s really amazing about Murray? He invited me to pop over to FlightSafety’s facility in Farnborough to have a look around and find out what a training session in a simulator is really like. I have better friends than I deserve!

I’d never been in a simulator before, although I’d seen one when Cliff did his IFR training. That simulator was a bit disappointing, if I’m honest. I expected something less like a box and something more like an amusement park ride. There was nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong, but it simulated dials and settings, not flying a plane. The whole point was to test you on your use of instruments, which was fair enough, but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we arrived at their offices at Farnborough. The posters on the wall announced that they had “full flight” commercial aircraft simulators with high-resolution images and large field-of-view display systems built on motion platforms. So rather than just a heads-up display, the simulator was meant to recreate the motion: the platform moves in line with the visual cues to give the illusion of flight. But these weren’t for entertainment, they were for training, so I guessed it would be a minimal effect.

We started with a cup of coffee and a tour of the building to see the classrooms. It was clear that no expense was spared: there were 15-30 desks per class room with dual monitors and a large aircraft yoke on every desk. Murray showed me how the instructor could control the scenario from the front of the class and easily watch every move of the students. It looked like great fun: if I had monitors with interactive scenarios and my own yoke when I was at school, I would have paid a lot more attention to the teacher.

After a tour of the building, we reached the Flight Simulator halls. I won’t lie: it was a little bit of a dark and creepy place with large pods on black greasy mechanisms. Murray led down the stairs to see the machinery and then back up again to follow a platform along the long dark room. He stopped at a white pod that said Citation Sovereign across the side.

We crossed a narrow bridge into the pod. Inside was a small room with a trio of passenger seats and a wall of monitors on the right showing display settings and maps. Straight ahead was the cockpit. Murray chose LSGS, Sion airfield in Switzerland. He seemed to consider a couple of settings and then flicked a switch. The cockpit windows came to life, showing a long grey runway ahead and snowy hills on either side. It looked a bit like a fantasy game of a winter wonderland. Murray showed me the METAR for our flight which I pretended to be interested in. We weren’t really flying, after all, so I was unlikely to have to abort due to bad weather. Murray waved me forward. “Strap in.”

I sat down and looked around. There seemed to be straps everywhere. The dashboard was a huge collection of gauges and dials. I blinked. Could I fly this plane? It took a few minutes to start to make sense of all the gauges: there was the altimeter, and there the artificial horizon. As I spotted individual dials the dashboard began to come together. Still, it looked pretty complicated for a video of a take off.

“Strap in,” said Murray again. I confronted the most complicated seatbelt I have ever seen. There were straps everywhere. I found a shoulder belt and pulled it down. Between my legs I found a round buckle which no hint as to where I would slide in the tongue of the shoulder strap.

I’ve always rolled my eyes a bit at the cabin crew demonstration of how to use a lap belt but at that moment, I sure wished there was someone showing me how to put this thing on. Murray busied himself getting into the other seat. He didn’t say anything but I was pretty sure that, if I couldn’t even manage the seatbelt, I wasn’t going to be allowed to fly the plane, even if it wasn’t a real one.

I poked at the buckle until the tongue snapped into place. That’s when I realised that the round buckle had slots for over half a dozen straps and started making my way through the maze of them. Murray set us up for take-off configuration and politely managed not to laugh. I ended up with two slots in the buckle that were unfilled but I was clearly securely strapped in. Besides, we weren’t actually going anywhere. “Ready,” I said.

“Great. I started you on the runway. You have control.”

“I have control.” I felt silly. I mean, the display showed a lovely image of snow topped mountains and a runway stretched out before me but it was just a picture. The cockpit model was seriously detailed but it was just that, a model of a cockpit. It wasn’t real.

“We’re blocking the runway,” said Murray. “Power on?”

Right. I pushed the throttle forward and the aircraft lunged forward and to the left. Shit, rudders. I struggled to straighten out the aircraft as we pummeled down the runway. What did he say my take-off speed was? Where was the damn speedometer anyway?

“92 knots,” said Murray with a knowing look. I had no idea if that was take-off speed or how fast I was already going. I searched for the right gauge as we hurtled too fast along the runway that the plane threatened to veer off of at any moment. Finally, there we were at 92 knots and I pulled back on the yoke just to get off the ground so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by running off onto the grass at the side. Luckily, the aircraft handled like a dream and we rose into the air like a feather. My stomach sank: my rate of climb was insane, we were going to stall if I didn’t get it under control. I pushed the nose down and find the vertical speed indicator, 500 feet per minute. I unclenched the yoke and tried to breathe.

That wasn’t just some picture of a runway. I was there.

I had no time to think about it. Murray called out navigation instructions for Geneva as we rushed down the valley towards mountains that were unquestionably higher than us. I increased the rate of climb and it finally sunk in that I was nowhere near the heading he’d told me to turn onto on climb out. I could control either the rate of climb or I could stay on the heading bug but it was quite obvious I couldn’t do both, let alone watch the speed. “Trim, trim, TRIM,” shouted Murray. I couldn’t even work out which way I needed to trim and I just shook my head. No sane person on earth should have allowed me to be in charge of this aircraft.

But Murray smiled. “Over, there, see?” There was what might have been an airfield in the distance except that at that moment, the bright blue sunlit sky turned ominously grey. I glanced over, ready to cede control. Murray muttered under his breath and seemed to be searching for something on the dashboard. “Must be here somewhere,” he grumbled as I flew straight into cloud.

“Do you know I’m not instrument rated?” My voice came out as a squeak.

“You’re fine. Oh, sorry, lets get rid of this weather.” The outside flickered and it felt like a pinch to the arm. “Just a simulation,” I told myself, over and over. But it didn’t feel like a game. I was clearly in the aircraft, flying. Even when the sky flashed back to blue, there was no doubt in my mind that this was real.

“Right, got it?” I stared at the dials but Murray pointed at the airfield to our left – Geneva – and I set myself up on final approach for a straight in. We were perfectly visual. I was *finally* in trim. It should have been easy. But the aircraft was too fast and I had descended too far. “Go around,” said Murray and I pushed the power back on. A deep breath escaped as I pulled away from the runway. “I’ve got this,” I told him, in case he was wondering if I could do this at all, in case he wanted to break off the trial and take control.

Murray just tapped at the power. “You need a bit more.”

We came around again. This time I had plenty of time in the circuit to get set up. I watched the PAPI and aimed for the numbers as Murray talked me through the speed and altitude. “Don’t over-correct, keep your eyes out there, you’re fine. ”

I pulled the power off as we crossed the threshold of Geneva runway 05. My heart skipped a beat. The wheels touched the runway and I held the nose up for as long as I could. Gently and slowly the nose sank to the ground and as the aircraft began to slow, Murray looked at me and said, with utter shock in his voice, “That was perfect.”

I breathed in for the first time since we took off and look around at Geneva airfield. Here on the ground, I could see the video game quality of the landscape around me again but as I pulled onto the apron, in the pit of my stomach, I wasn’t actually sure it was an illusion. I half expected a follow-me to come out and lead me to my parking space.

Beaming from ear to ear, I started to chatter at Murray. The flight was fantastic, every movement so real. Could I do it again?

Murray flipped a switch and the world shifted. We were back at Sion, on the runway, ready to take off again, as if we’d never made that flight. “Come on then. This time, get it in trim.”

Retracing the flight for the second time, I coped a little bit better with the various demands. I had enough time to look out the window and wonder at my own reactions. The fact that we flashed back to the start and were flying to Geneva again did nothing to convince my brain that I was in a chamber in a dark room: I continued to believe that I was flying this aircraft, on track of a beautiful if somewhat unreal snowbound landscape. I started chattering again about how real it felt.

“The aircraft doesn’t handle exactly like this,” said Murray with a shrug. “I mean, it’s close, just not perfect. The flight-deck is an exact replica of a Citation Sovereign. The performance and handling is programmed using data from test flying of the actual aircraft. It’s close enough to satisfy the governing bodies that you can do Type-Rating training in the sim. Once you’ve checked out here, you can walk straight across the apron and get in the plane and fly away.” He grinned. “We’re airside. They trust us.”

It must be amazing to work there. Flight Safety International cover 135 aircraft models and have over 300 full flight simulators. Murray and the rest of the staff at FlightSafety International could fly a different plane into a different part of the world every day and it would take them years to get through all the configurations.

Of course there’s a cost to all this and a joy-ride in one of the simulators is more than a simple little PPL like me could ever dream of. “Sure, it’s expensive,” said Murray. “But the plane costs millions. You send your zero-hour pilot here and for a tiny percentage of the overall cost of the aircraft, you’ve got a type-qualified commercial pilot trained for your aircraft in two weeks.” He made it sound like a bargain.

Pilots usually come together to be trained as a two-man flight crew and get to spend 32 hours in the sims – 16 in control and 16 in a supporting role in the right seat. And if a pilot comes on his own? “Well, then an instructor needs to sit in for 32 hours – half the money and twice the man hours.” He shrugged. “It’s not a problem, but we prefer them in pairs.”

So, if I can get together a few thousand quid and find a rich friend to join me, we could spend 32 hours in the simulator, 16 of them in control. I’ve already got £183.30 saved up so it shouldn’t take long. Maybe Murray will get me a discount if I promise to ask for someone else to instruct me.

15 August 2014

The Runaway Runway Van

I often talk about how an accident is caused by many small things that have gone wrong as opposed to one big mistake. This incident which was reported by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada last month is a perfect example of this.

The 11th of March in 2013 was a rainy night at Toronto International Airport in Ontario. Sunwing Airlines, a Canadian aviation company based in Etobicoke, offer scheduled and chartered airline services out of Toronto and routinely do their maintenance and grooming during the evenings, while the aircraft are parked at gates at the east side of Terminal One.

That evening, an engineer and a technician went to fix C-FTLK, a Boeing 737-800. The technician drove them there in a Sunwing maintenance van: a 2007 Chevrolet Express Cargo 2500 with a 4.8 L engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission.

The van was painted white with a large Sunwing logo on both sides. On the roof was a large aluminum platform with a ladder running down the left side. On the front left corner of the platform as an orange beacon light.

The engineer completed his work at 23:00. The groomers were still onboard cleaning up the cabin and flight deck.

The technician drove the engineer back to the company facility and then returned to the 737 to finish off. He parked the van left of the nose of the aircraft waited for the groomers to finish.

It was about half an hour later when the groomers finished and exited the aircraft using the left-hand main door.

The last of the groomers tried to close the aircraft door behind him but struggled with the weight of the door in the rain. The technician pulled forward and got out of the van, signalling to the groomer to leave the door, that he would take care of it. The groomers left.

The technician checked the ground power unit on the right side of the aircraft before boarding the Boeing 737 through the left-hand main door and checking the the cockpit.

When he came out, he realised that his van was gone.

Up in the airport control tower, it was a quiet night. Night operations are not very busy at Toronto International and multiple ATC roles during the day are regularly combined at night.

That night, there were three air traffic controllers. One was working as the tower controller, one was working combined north and south ground and the third was there for post-handover monitoring.

Meanwhile, the little-van-that-could made its break for freedom. The technician had left it idling and in drive. Once he disappeared into the cockpit of the aircraft, the van began to move.

It rolled forward, grazing the outer cowling of the Boeing 737′s left engine. Undeterred, it rolled under the wing and continued forward, heading straight for runway 24R, the active runway.

The van’s speed varied between one and five miles per hour as it drove across the apron and into the manoeuvering area.

Ground controllers at Toronto watch the traffic from the window and have a radar display for the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE). The surface detection equipment is a safety system which monitors the manoeuvering area of the airport in order to help controllers detect potential runway conflicts. It provides detailed coverage of movement on runways and taxiways.

However, it doesn’t cover the aprons or the gate area, in order to reduce the clutter on the display. The first seven hundred feet of the little van’s epic journey were not monitored by the surface detection equipment. It reached intersection DV.

The ground controller saw the movement on his display, a slow-moving target just past the gate area. He thought it might be a false target. He spent two minutes on other duties before checking his display again.

The van continued.

The tower controller was standing and moving around as he kept watched over both the departure and arrival runways.

The ground controller looked back at the display and saw that his slow-moving target was now coming up to the threshold of Runway 24R. He showed the tower controller the blip on the display. Neither could think what the display might mean as they scanned their electronic flight progress strips and looked outside. They had no idea what the blip might be.

The third controller scanned the area with binoculars but the van was over a mile from the tower and in shadows near the brightly lit Terminal 1. The controller never saw the van; there seemed to be nothing there.

Air Canada flight 178 was an Embraer EMB190 registration C-FLWH. It was inbound to Toronto from Edmonton International with five crew and sixty-seven passengers on board. They’d been cleared for an instrument approach to Runway 24R. It was a quiet night and Air Canada 178 was number two, after Air Canada flight 1126 which was seven nautical miles ahead of them.

Air Canada flight 1126 landed without incident.

The crew could see the airfield clearly and saw the preceding aircraft vacate the runway from five nautical miles out. The approach was stable and the crew continued.

The tower controller had an unknown something entering the active runway and Air Canada flight 178 on late finals. He still didn’t know what it was out there but he urgently needed to abort the incoming landing. Because he was asking an aircraft less than 4,000 feet from the runway threshold to pull up and go around, the controller spoke quickly and as a result, his words were elided. “Air Canada” became “ercana” in his rush. In addition, the aircraft’s Extended Ground Proximity Warning System sounded at the exact same moment.

Time (UTC) Source of message Cockpit audio Meaning Aircraft position
03:39:04 EGPWS–automated “Minimums” Descent below the decision height 250 feet radar altitude (796 feet asl), 4,500 feet from the threshold
03:39:07 Pilot monitoring “Runway in sight” The runway is in sight visually approx. 230 feet radar altitude
03:39:08 Pilot flying “Landing” Continuing the landing approx. 220 feet radar altitude
03:39:12 EGPWS–automated “Two hundred” Radio altimeter callout for descent below 200 feet 200 feet radar altitude, 2,550 feet from the threshold
03:39:12 ATC “ɛrkænə 178, pull up and go around, sir” Instruction to Air Canada 178 to go-around 200 feet radar altitude, 2,550 feet from the threshold

The controller waited a few seconds and when he didn’t get a response, he called again.

Time (UTC) Source of message Cockpit audio Meaning Aircraft position
03:39:19 ATC “178, pull up and go around” Second instruction to Air Canada 178 to go around 125 feet radar altitude, 1,100 feet from the threshold
03:39:23 EGPWS–automated “Fifty” Radio altimeter callout for descent below 50 feet 50 feet radar altitude, approximately overhead the displaced threshold

The controller did not get any response to his calls. He could clearly see the radar blip blocking the runway and the Air Canada flight heading right for it.

During a normal approach, such as the one flown by Air Canada 178, the EGPWS makes several standard automated aural call outs, which are broadcast simultaneously over the cockpit speakers and the pilots’ headsets. During post-incident simulation, it was noted by TSB investigators that the callouts were significantly louder than the radio or intercom audio, which is delivered solely to the pilots’ headsets. The volume of the intercom and radio is adjustable by the flight crew, whereas the EGPWS audio is not.

The flight crew had clear sight of the runway and were seconds away from landing. That, combined with the dodgy acoustics, led them to believe that although they clearly heard the words “go around”, the instruction must be meant for another aircraft. They continued.

The controllers stared at the runway. They must have been holding their breath.

Air Canada flight 178 cruised directly over the top of the van and touched down. The separation between the van and the aircraft was less than thirty-five feet.

As Air Canada 178 cruised down the runway, the tower controller called them a third time and asked if they’d seen anything on the runway. This time the crew responded. They hadn’t seen a thing.

The van trundled across the runway and continued straight across taxiway D7.

The controllers reported the incident and the airport authority sent staff out to search the area.

The van drove into the grass. It got stuck when it struck a taxiway reflector sign and stopped, once again out of sight of the radar display, where it waited patiently for someone to rescue it.

Fourteen minutes later, airport staff discovered the missing white van. The engine was running and the headlights, taillights and beacon were all on. The automatic transmission was set to drive.

The Air Canada flight continued on to Ottawa. Air Canada Operations, by now aware of the near-miss, instructed the crew to disconnect the power to the digital voice-data recorders upon their arrival. These DVDRs record two hours of the conversation in the cockpit (as opposed to on the radio) and then over-write the data.

At Ottawa, the flight crew was met by company maintenance staff who said that they would disconnect the DVDRs. However, they didn’t get around to doing so until an hour later, and the cockpit voice data from the landing at Toronto was overwritten.

The investigators discovered that the beacon on top of the van, which was designed to use a 37.5 watt bulb, actually only had a 7 watt bulb installed.

Although visibility was good, a seven watt bulb was not enough to draw attention to the vehicle. The flight crew expected an uneventful landing and could not see any obstacles on the runway. Although the cockpit voice data was lost, the crew stated that they discussed the transmission to go around and agreed that it couldn’t be meant for them. As the report put it, the communication was insufficient to challenge the flight crew’s mental model of the situation.

From the incident report:

Following the occurrence, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) issued directives to the Toronto Pearson aviation community reiterating the prohibition against leaving vehicles idling and unsecured on the airside. The GTAA also published and disseminated information on the luminosity requirements for vehicle roof beacons and did spot checks to inspect beacons and require inoperative or inadequate beacons to be repaired or replaced. Sunwing Airlines reported to Transport Canada that it has inspected all of its airside vehicles and ensured that their roof beacons meet specified luminosity standards.

The van was returned to service with a new beacon bulb installed.

So, another happy ending… but more by luck than good management on this occasion!