Tag Archives: Aviation Safety 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.

Safety Forecasts More AF Mishaps

Safety Forecasts and Plans has determined that since AF has devoted so many resources towards trying to prove that they were not legally at fault for the deaths of their AF 447 passengers, that AF has not devoted sufficient resources to preventing future mishaps of all kinds, and therefor should plan on more mishaps for the future.

The statistical review of the past 10 years shows that AF mishaps were preventable, yet AF took steps insufficient to prevent them. Since AF has seemingly now devoted enormous resources to the trying to defend themselves, such as spending as much as $35 million to recover a DFDR by submarine, when all that they had to do was to walk into their own dispatch office and witness supervisory personnel not taking preventative steps to advise line captains about weather hazards in their path.

Example? AF 358 flew into a thunderstorm upon landing. Was the thunderstorm present prior to approach? Did dispatch, flight ops or anyone at AF have a thunderstorm avoidance policy? Did the policy undergo scrutiny, study or in anyway become part of flight operations procedures subsequent to AF 447 departing?

It appears that the thunderstorm avoidance procedures at AF was not change after AF 358 crashed in Toronto. Remember that this crash happened in August of 2005.

AF 447 occurred June 2009. So four years occurred and AF 447 flew into a thunderstorm. So once again the same mishap occurred all over again. And Why?

Very simply because no one in AF, or Canada or any other body determined that the cause of the mishap was flying into a thunderstorm. Blame was placed legally at the hands of the flight crew. Legal blame, legal blame was the product of the Canada Aircraft Safety Mishap Board. In fact it appears that the board didn’t complete the safety task at all.

Should not have the board instead of assigning blame, determined the cause to be an encounter with a thunderstorm? Who claims that the aircraft can fly in thunderstorms? Does the manufacturer? Who does?
And yet less than 4 years later, AF flies another aircraft into a thunderstorm and the various mishap boards are all focusing on the actions of the crew once inside the storm!!!!!!! How absolutely ridiculous and illogical can any attempt be?

The manufacturer of no commercial aircraft and the regulator of no civil aviation authority anywhere in the world builds or certifies any commercial aircraft to operate inside of a thunderstorm.

So why does AF continue to do so? Why does any board expect to find any differing result in the event of an encounter?

AF 447, Safety Forecasting and Planning

Did the AF dispatch office fail to fulfill their duty to look at satellite data?
Did AF flight ops management have a procedure to get the information about recent bad weather enroute passed to transoceanic flight crews, especially those transiting the tropical convergence zone?

When you who are safety managers look at these questions, do you wonder why this lack of procedure was allowed to occur when so many lives are at stake?

If you who are safety managers are able to see that this could be a problem for your airline, then you have created e forecast of things to come.