Now that the flight data recorder (black box) has been recovered from the Air France flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic, a preliminary report has been issued and, reading between the lines, it’s scary as shit. If you want to fly overseas safely, fly a Canadian airline. Second choice: American. There’s no booby prize.
First, a little background. Most people have heard of ‘stall speed’. This is the reduction in lift due to either slow speed or ‘angle of attack’ (when the wings are between 8 to 20 degrees upwards) or a combination of both. This results in an aircraft’s controls becomes unresponsive. Control is recovered by decreasing the angle (pointing the nose down) or increasing speed or both.
However, many people do not understand what happens at high altitudes. Passenger aircraft are not designed to fly faster than or approaching the speed of sound. The lift point on top of the wing moves backwards as speed increases thereby reducing lift. And, the higher the altitude; the lower the speed of sound. At 40,000 feet the difference between low speed stall and high speed stall can be as little as 50 KPH. It is difficult for a pilot to keep his speed within this narrow range without the aid of computers.
That’s one of the scary parts; everything is ok until the flight computers don’t work. Anyone with experience with computers knows they crash. A crashed computer means loss of data. A crashed airplane could mean loss of life.
Statistically, modern computer-aided avionics have made flying safer than in the past. That is, until something goes wrong. A recent Macleans’ article “Cockpit Crisis” of Sept. 5, 2011 indicates there have been more than 50 ‘loss-of-control’ accidents in the last 5 years, most to them fatal. Minor problems quickly snowball into horrific accidents when pilots don’t understand increasingly complex avionics.
A recent CBC radio program reported that the FAA (U.S. Federal Aviation Administration) admitted that modern pilots are “automation junkies” who don’t know how to fly a plane. In fact, nowadays flying relies so much on computers that most airline pilots fly the aircraft manually for only 3 to 4 minutes per flight; during take-off and landing. That’s not much time to brush up or hone flying skills.
The Air France disaster high-lighted this problem. The Macleans article said the cockpit voice recorder reveals a flight crew “gripped by confusion” as they tried to respond to what should have been a manageable mid-air emergency. The plane was stalling and they kept trying to climb when the proper response should have been to lower the nose and regain air speed. In spite of almost a full minute of stall warnings, they power-stalled the aircraft all the way to 38,000 feet before finally losing control and plunging into the Atlantic.
One problem is the complexity of computerized flight systems. In November, 2010 the Qantas Flight 32 Airbus A380 lost an engine which exploded damaging several key flight systems. The aircraft was still operable with the remaining three engines but the flight crew was bombarded with 54 different warnings and error messages.
Fortunately, there were two additional pilots in the cockpit as part of a training exercise and it was only with everyone pitching in to complete 60 checklists that they could troubleshoot the complicated systems and safely land the aircraft.
Another problem is the aircraft industry’s typical response to disaster is to add additional automation. New planes are built to integrate into existing fleets and pilot-training programs instead of designing them to keep flight crews in the loop. Bombardier has seen the light and is now designing tabbed instruments that display what the pilot needs to see only for each particular stage of the flight i.e. taxiing, take-off, cruise, etc. rather than confusing them with an abundance of unnecessary data. However, this does nothing for existing aircraft which (hopefully) will keep flying for decades.
Still another problem admitted by Air France is their crews do NOT practice manual aircraft handling. Pilots only deal with stalls at the beginning of their training on small aircraft and don’t go back to basic flying as their careers take on more complicated systems. France’s safety board is recommending their crews be trained in stall recovery and high-altitude training for unreliable IAS (indicated air speed) procedures. Gee, do you think???
Furthermore, dealing with stalls in small aircraft is different than large jets. A small aircraft typically has its engine at the center of the airframe. A large passenger liner has multiple jet engines below the wings which, when powered-up in response to a stall, cause the aircraft to ‘pitch’ nose upwards unless the pilot corrects it. The proper response to a stall is nose down, not up like the Air France flight.
As if we don’t have enough problems already, there is a global shortage of pilots caused by the growth of Asian and Middle Eastern airlines. This puts pressure on the industry to fast-track pilots with as little as 240 hours of flying time, much of it in simulators which are NOT the same as real flying.
And this brings us to Canadian pilots. To obtain a private pilot’s license in Canada, pilots train for both stall and spiral-dive recovery and must demonstrate this competency before getting a commercial license. Most Canadian pilots have more than a decade of flying experience before they’re hired as commercial pilots. Many were bush pilots, crop-dusters or military pilots before driving commercial airliners.
So if you fly within Canada, you’re flying with Canadian pilots. And if you’re flying overseas, you’d be wise to choose a Canadian airline. It might cost a bit more but what’s a few dollars in saving when you’re swimming with the fishes?
Sept. 11, 2011
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