Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Nothing can possibly go wrong

When technology fails
Training must prevail



This is a fully automated flight. The only flight crew on board are the Flight Attendants. Computers will fly the plane, so relax and enjoy the first fully computer-controlled flight.

Rest assured that nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go …

When we surrender to technology

Following the disappearance of AirAsia Flight 8501 some people are comparing the loss to the crash of Air France Flight 447 and speculating that a technology failure coupled with pilot error might be the cause for both crashes.

"Pilot error" actually translates for those speculating, to lack of pilot training. In the case of the Air France Airbus A330, it is known that the flight deck crew failed to work together, that they made bad decisions that, in the end, put the plane into the Atlantic.

Air France Flight 447 went down after entering a storm that, according to information provided by the recovered "black box," caused the air speed pitot to freeze up, cancelling auto-pilot and apparently causing instrument failure.

AirAsia Flight 8501, an Airbus A320, also flew into a storm before disappearing into the sea.

While the Air France disaster is directly attributable to lack of air crew training and dependence on technology, the same can be said for the air crew of the Asiana Flight 214 that crashed its Boeing 777-200 short of the runway at San Francisco International. According to reports, the auto-pilot went off and the flight crew was insufficiently trained to make adjustments to airspeed and altitude to avoid the crash.

Common problem When flying in environments where there is no reference to the ground - above clouds, in storms, at night - humans often are disoriented and lose their sense of attitude (up, down; left, right). Pilots train to depend on instruments to maintain the aircraft's attitude. If the instruments fail . . .

On the other hand

When flight crews ARE thoroughly trained, when something goes wrong, the plane still is brought down safely.

Not so long ago the pilot of US Air Flight 1549, one Chesley B. Sullenberger III, managed a safe landing in the Hudson River after his plane lost power due to birds being sucked into the Airbus A320-214's two engines.

Sullenberger flew gliders, and later trained others, during his freshman year at the Air Force Academy. While in the Air Force, he was a member of an aircraft accident investigation board

Back in 1983, Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767-233 ran out of fuel before reaching its Edmonton destination.

The pilot, Captain Robert Pearson, was an experienced glider pilot, so he was familiar with flying techniques almost never used by commercial pilots.

According to the Wikipedia entry, The 767 was one of the first airliners to include an Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS), which operated on the electricity generated by the aircraft's jet engines. With both engines stopped, the system went dead, leaving only a few basic battery-powered emergency flight instruments. While these provided sufficient information with which to land the aircraft, a vertical speed indicator—that would indicate the rate at which the aircraft was descending and therefore how long it could glide unpowered—was not among them.

First Officer Maurice Quintal began to calculate whether they could reach Winnipeg. He used the altitude from one of the mechanical backup instruments, while the distance traveled was supplied by the air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, measuring the distance the aircraft's echo moved on their radar screens.

The bottom line for the Air Canada flight was a powerless landing on a drag strip at a former Canadian Air Force Base in Gimli.

As an aside, Sullenberger's Airbus 320 and Pearson's Boeing 767 have glide paths of "about" 15:1 ( the aircraft drops one foot for ever 15 feet forward). That varies by weight of the vehicle, but typically large jets fly at 30,000 feet or higher; at a 15:1 ratio - you do the math.


While the above applies to air travel, training to handle events when technology fails is a requirement for almost all endeavors. From simple things: the electricity is off or the phone won't work, to critical things like brakes failing on a vehicle or a mechanical failure on a production line, people need to know what to do and feel confident in doing what is necessary. That comes only from training, training, and more training.


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