Tag Archives: Aviation Investigations

Air Asia 8501 Crash: Cause is No Mystery-Thunderstorms Can Kill

Captain Paul Miller in cockpit

Captain Paul Miller, Night Flight

In the 1931 novel “Night Flight” by Saint-Exupéry, we learn that even intrepid pioneering aviation heroes in the end are not match for thunderstorms in Patagonia.  We find out that thunderstorms can and will kill. We loose the wonderful hero of this timeless novel, a story of some of the earliest commercial night mail pilots. It is a book that professional pilots and readers the world over have kept popular for over 80 years.

Now we see the crash of Air Asia 8501 as the latest dreadful and inglorious chapter in the story of commercial aviation. Thunderstorms can kill.

Thunderstorms can kill with hail, turbulence, lightning and icing.

Hail will shred aluminum leading edges of the wing and tail. Hail will bend, dent and destroy the leading compressor blades of a turbine engine, components spinning at tens of thousand of revolution per minute. Hail will dislodge and destroy the multitude of radio antennae and necessary flight probes sticking out in the free airstream. Hail will pock-mark, crack and puncture flight deck windscreens, windscreens that protect the flight crew from 300 mph winds, minus 60 degree temperatures and air so thin humans can not inhale enough oxygen to live.

Turbulent vertical wind shears will load up a wing with positive two times the acceleration of gravity one moment and slam back in the opposite direction the next with an equal and negative acceleration, and keep doing this over and over again.100_3975

Lightning can burn holes in fiberglass, aluminum and composite components of an aircraft exterior and flight surfaces.

Clear icing can coat an aircraft with a slick covering, increasing its weight beyond the wings ability to sustain flight. Rime ice can build quickly on flight control leading edges, disrupting the airflow needed to sustain controlled flight, raising drag significantly above the engines ability to push forward and again adding weight.

Thunderstorms can and have destroyed numerous aircraft in the history of commercial flight.  The danger to commercial aircraft is so severe that US commercial pilots are required by the FAA and their companies to remain clear of thunderstorm cells and even the overhang of ice crystals, sometimes referred to as the anvil.

Are modern commercial passenger and cargo aircraft safe to operate inside of thunderstorms? This question has been asked numerous times in the week since Air Asia 8501 disappeared from radar screens.  Let’s examine the current FAA standard specifications for commercial transport category aircraft. Are commercial aircraft and engine building companies required to produce aircraft and engines capable of sustained flight in conditions of hail, lightning, icing and severe vertical turbulence?  If so, were any of the current transport category aircraft and engines now flying ever certified by such field tests? Data please?

Are any US certified commercial passenger or cargo airlines currently certified to operate inside thunderstorms in their operation specifications or OpSpecs? I know of none. Are  FAR Part 121 airline dispatchers required to demonstrate their knowledge of thunderstorm avoidance flight planning and flight following by the FAA in order to be certified to operate as a dispatcher?

Are any US certified commercial airmen trained and certified for sustained flight operations inside thunderstorms? Not that I am aware of.

Is FAA air traffic control required by their own regulations to vector commercial aircraft around thunderstorms? Is the national weather service required to keep FAA ATC informed of areas of thunderstorm activity?

So how is it that airlines around the world, operating commercial transport category aircraft, airlines such as Air Asia, in aircraft such as Airbus 320 family, under the direct supervision of a trained and certified dispatchers with access to current up-to-the-minute satellite photographs of, not only thunderstorm cells in the planned flight path of the airline’s flight, but areas and lines of thunderstorms, do not advise their own company flights of safer routes? How is it that the local and enroute air traffic controllers, whose ground-to-air radar is exceptionally good at depicting weather,  might deny a flight’s request to divert around or over a massive area of thunderstorms and then not offer some safe alternative assistance?

Where is the team work, the coordination, the combination of minds needed to improve commercial aviation flight safety?100_0306

Is any of this new information to any certified crew member, airline, ATC, regulator or manufacturer in commercial aviation? Have not thunderstorms been killing commercial flights and flight crew members since the beginning of manned flight. Don’t we find the first popular documentation in the 1931 book, “Night Flight” by Saint-Exupéry. Here our crew members operate aircraft with piston engines, wooden spars and canvas wings.

Now here is the airline industry, more than 80 years since Night Flight with turbine engines, steel spars and aluminum wings. Yet, thunderstorms are still killing commercial flights. Why was Air Asia 8501 the most recent to join the long list?

I wonder if  Saint-Exupéry  would say, “Imagine that? Nearly a century has passed since I wrote my book and this story is still timely in terms of flight safety!”

The chapters are new, the planes are new, the pilots are new, but the story is timeless: Thunderstorms can kill.

Early morning sun rising through clouds.

Early morning sun rising through clouds.

How the NTSB, FAA and BEA Add to the Aviation Disaster Tragedy

Safety Mishap Investigations are intended to prevent the same mishap from ever happening again, from ever reoccurring. But what often really does go on during the investigations conducted by NTSB, FAA, BEA, ATSB and other national boards around the world?

Here is my opinion, here is a look into what often goes on in the name of a Safety Investigation:

Rule One: Protect Those in Power, Those with Money and Influence. Prevent those without Power, Money and Influence from gaining control of any part of the “Safety Investigation” by claiming that the “Common Good of the Traveling Public is at Risk!” Then as the board is claiming this as the reason or charter under which the board is operating and all other reasons, charters or claims to be secondary, self serving, sensationalism, self interest or distractions, proceed on protecting the powerful, moneyed and influential, the board conducts a legal based investigation in preparation for going to court. The questions of “What Happened” and “How do we keep this event from ever happening again?” are lost in the rush to “Who was at fault?” and “Who pays?”

Rule Two: Attempt to find persons and parties without Power, Money and Influence and try to legally blame them for a major element of the mishap. Avoid finding the actual cause of the mishap. This way you will not be tasked with the obvious, that is, finding actions to prevent the mishap’s recurrence the next day, next flight or next operation. This way nothing needs to be fixed and therefore no one is held accountable for not fixing the hazard sooner. Remember that a cause has to be pretty certain or it is not really a cause; rather it is just a coincidental event. But legally often just coincidental event reasoning is sufficient to assign blame.

Rule Three: Generate “Legal Uncertainty” using the term “Probable Cause” [the greatest oxymoron in this field] so that those with Power, Money and Influence have enough legal smoke screen to hide behind. Remember legally that “reasonable doubt” is enough to protect against guilt in a death case and that the generation of Uncertainty will provide that doubt. Forget all about finding causes as the board should be doing. Come up with all sorts of coincidental events about which the board is not happy and make a big deal about how fixing them is so important. Remember to avoid at all costs finding a cause, unless under Rule Two you can find someone who perished.

Rule Four: Turn all the losses of property over to the lawyers to pay compensation as assigned by courts or separate agreements.

Rule Five: Lawyers have ways of evaluating the worth of each human life lost, through a centuries old calculus of case law, gender, net worth, earning power and other accounting practices. Again, turn the loss of life litigation over to the lawyers to hash out who gets paid and how much, there by avoiding having to deal with the human emotional tragedy of loss of life, lives belonging by the way to the “Traveling Public.”

Rule Six: At some very distant point in time down the calendar, maybe at three, five, ten or twenty years, enact some attempts, often outdated by now, at fixing what was wrong in the first place, THE CAUSE(S), that everyone outside the “Parties To The Investigation” and those “Parties To the Investigation” without Power, Money or Influence thought needed to be fixed and demanded such during the investigation. The distancing in time, after the claims litigation is completed allows this process to move forward without incurring new compensation claims. It also allows the human emotional tragedy from having to ever enter into the Mishap Safety Investigation process. Turn that responsibility over to the Grief Counselors who deal with the “inevitability of tragic human loss” in everyday life and this keeps it apart from and unrelated to the investigation for convenience of the boards.

Well, that about sums it up, no?

One question though, why is there no attempt to find out what went wrong quickly so that if the condition exists in other planes, operations, airports, flight crew or other elements of the system, it could be fixed before another tragedy occurs?

Could this be why in commercial aviation we observe the essentially “same disaster” or at least, the same type of disaster reoccurring over and over again? Is the fact that the boards take years to come out with any reports not totally contrary to their basic safety charter and in fact a contributory reason that we take so long to learn the lessons of these mishaps if we ever learn them at all? Isn’t this contrary to the reasoning that every living adult tries to learn in their early years to make life successful? Why is there such a great distance in the thinking and reasoning of every living adult and the thinking and reasoning often of the major aviation safety mishap investigation boards?

Shouldn’t the purpose of a Safety Investigation be to “find out what went wrong and take action to ensure that this event never happens again?” Isn’t that what all of us do in life to keep from making the same mistake twice? Why wouldn’t that same reasoning apply when we are talking about “Flying the Traveling Public Around the World in Our Commercial Aviation system?”

Why have we all failed so miserably to make commercial aviation safer? Why have the operators and the safety people and the owners and the regulators failed to make commercial aviation a form of transportation with a mishap rate either at or very near zero? Why do some airlines, why do some airfields, why do some aircraft, why do some flight crew members operate for years mishap free, often for entire careers? Is it just chance as the lawyers would have us believe? Does that even make any logical sense? Have we ever asked an airline, a manufacturer, an airport operator or a flight crew member who has completed a career mishap free for any suggestions? If so, have we ever heeded the same?

Or are we just stuck on Rules One through Six?

Welp, look back at Rules One through Six above and you may find your answer. Are willing to defer power to the powerful and influence to the influential? Do we then will find the mishap rate continuing to hover where it is now or worse yet spike up at times, in places, with aircraft, with people? Will we all continue to spin the wheel and take our chances that the next tragedy will happen to “someone else?”

Maybe, just maybe, we could chart a different course? Could we start to do actual Mishap Safety Investigations? In many cases now what the NTSB, FAA, BEA, ATSB and other national boards do now is to protect the powerful, moneyed and influential, while at the same time fail to achieve their own chartered purpose of Safety.

When will the leadership of national mishap investigation board finally begin to do what they were established to do? Is there any leader who actually knows what they are supposed to be doing?

If so, their voices have yet to be heard.

This of course is my opinion.

Go Arounds, Missed Approaches and variations?

I would like to suggest that each reader spend a few minutes thinking about how many different procedures that their airline or aviation organization has for conducting a missed approach and/or a go around.

Your first reaction might be “Just one.” But take another minute and consider the variations. Each aircraft type has a slightly different set of procedures. How about the case when an engine is inop? What if the weather is IMC and tower is using IFR procedures in the ATA?
What if the weather is VMC and tower is using VFR procedures in the ATA? How about the case of the flight executing a cleared IFR approach procedure, but when handed off to tower, the clearance reads, “Cleared for a visual approach to land?”
What if the terrain for the runway in use dictates immediate maneuvers, the weather is IMC and tower assumed that you would have broken out and is taken by surprise that you are going around and a large thunder storm is in the missed approach path?
Does your training program give line pilots training and sufficient sim practice to be superbly proficient in all types of MA/GA’s?

What if the weather is so bad that the airframe is icing up with mixed clear and rime during the last 1000 feet and the previous aircraft has not cleared the runway and now tower orders a GA? Has the crew practiced and become proficient in this scenario?

I hope that each reader considers all of the variations on MA and GA for a while and feels free to post a comment on this subject.
Thanks and more to follow on this subject.