Once again, the fear of flying

In turmoil: If the co-pilot was in charge of the Malaysian aircraft at the time of the incident, he could have been overwhelmed by turbulence if he had not experienced it before or if it had not been covered in detail.  

The tragic disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flight MH370 over the Gulf of Thailand is another reminder of Murphy’s Law: “If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.” The flight had just settled into its cruising altitude of 35,000ft when it disappeared from the radar screens. There were no distress calls or signals indicating an emergency.

The information that is available is sketchy. A report indicates that there were radar anomalies, a rapid loss of height and a change in heading. Aircrafts don’t disappear off the radar unless there is a transponder failure. It was still within range for radio contact to inform the Air Traffic Control. There are reports of a oil slick in the sea off the Vietnam coast. This discounts the explosion theory as the aircraft would have disintegrated, and fuel or hydraulic fluid would have vaporised before hitting the waters.

The weather conditions in the area would have been of vital importance. If the aircraft had encountered high thunderstorm clouds and they were on the lee side, there is every possibility of the aircraft having encountered a warm downdraft which would have resulted in a rapid loss of airspeed. All modern high-performance jet aircrafts have FADEC (Full Authority Digital Electronic Control) that sets engine thrust limits based on ambient temperatures. An aircraft flying at 35,000ft and encountering temperatures that normally exist at a much lower altitude would find rapid loss of speed and non-availability of thrust due to the limits set by FADEC. The only option is to lose altitude rapidly. Did flight MH370 encounter such a condition?

The Digital Flight Data Recorder will reveal the final moments of the flight. If the weather had been clear as reported by some people, and it was a case of Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), it could be a case of “loss of control,” but it is intriguing that the experienced pilot gave no distress call. Another question that may arise is whether both the pilots were in the cockpit at the time of the event. The co-pilot had about 3,000hrs, which is ten times more than what many Indian carriers have for their co-pilots. He could have been overwhelmed by the turbulence if he had not experienced it before or if it had not been covered in detail during training.

Similar incidents

The MH370 event bears some intriguing similarity to three other accidents — The SilkAir MI185 crash into the Musi river in Indonesia on December 17, 1997; The Air France flight 447 which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, and the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco on July 6, 2013.

In the SilkAir crash, the radar returns disappeared and the aircraft went into a near vertical dive before crashing into the bottom of the river. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the U.S. determined that it was a case of pilot suicide, as the captain had deactivated the flight recorders. One hopes that the MH370 sequence of events stops with just the radar return anomalies and rapid loss of height.

In the case of AF 447, we had two inexperienced co-pilots in the cockpit at the time of weather encounter and the lack of experience resulted in the wrong interpretation of the auto flight system, resulting in the aircraft falling out of the sky, killing all on board.

The Asiana accident highlighted the fact that the captain under training was transitioning to the B 777 after several years of flying an Airbus aircraft. He misunderstood the auto flight system of the two types of aircraft. The investigation report will definitely highlight the lack of type experience of the pilot under training. In the case of MH370, even though the co-pilot had about 3000hrs, these were mostly on narrow body aircrafts. He was in the process of transitioning to the wide body aircraft. In the event of an emergency and the captain’s absence from the cockpit, there could have been confusion due to the change of type and lack of experience on type.

In Indian aviation, we never learn from past accidents; nor do our regulators or airlines show any interest in preventing a recurrence. The best example of confusion while flying a different type of aircraft is of the October 12, 1976 Indian Airlines caravelle aircraft crash, soon after take-off from Bombay. The pilot had been flying a Boeing aircraft during that time and opted to fly the caravelle as the captain was not available. The two types of aircraft have switches moving in opposite directions and the confusion resulted in the fatal accident. The loss of 158 lives in Mangalore is a tragedy that is still fresh in our minds but we see a complete lack of commitment to safety by the Ministry of Civil Aviation or the Director General of Civil Aviation. The recent downgrade by the Federal Aviation Administration of the U.S. is the result of the total apathy of authorities in India.

These fatal events should open the eyes of our regulator and the airlines. They have all highlighted problems such as the lack of experience, transition training to a different type of aircraft, and the lack of extensive training in flying in adverse weather conditions. Our airlines are keener on filling the seat in the cockpit, rather than ensuring that trained and experienced pilots occupy the cockpit seats. The policy of pushing inexperienced pilots into the captain’s seat is extremely dangerous. While the world standard for a captain on a wide body aircraft is not less than 6,000hrs, a majority of which would be on high-performance modern airliners, airlines in India require a mere 2,500hrs. In the U.S., an airline co-pilot is required to have a minimum of 1,500hrs while in India a pilot qualifies with just 200hrs on a light piston-engine aircraft.

The NTSB will be involved in the investigation since MH370 was an American-manufactured aircraft. Unlike the Indian authorities, preliminary reports will come out as soon as the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Digital Flight Data Recorder are recovered and decoded. The next few days will throw some light on what could have happened to this tragic flight.

(Capt. A. Ranganathan is a former airline instructor pilot and an aviation safety expert.)

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:38:10 AM |

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