Know thy airplane

An airplane departs with all three static ports blocked, and the pilots quickly become confused. The altimeters appear consistent, but the computer is flashing contradictory automation warnings, and the pilots can’t understand. Eventually the stall warning alarms, at the same time their airspeed looks to be excessive. The pilots crash their airplane into the ocean, killing 70 people, all because the static ports were taped over by a maintenance worker.

Another airplane is on a routine flight from Rio de Janero to Paris. It’s just crossed the equator and the pilot has headed to rest, per company rules. The pilot flying is the least experienced member of the crew. Suddenly, the autopilot disengages due to an airspeed indication failure. The inexperienced pilot begins flying by hand, but ultimately stalls the airplane, a condition that persists all the way to the ocean 35,000 feet below. By the time the airplane impacts the water, the airspeed indication is corrected, but the pilots are confused by automated messages from the computer and design flaws that prevent one pilot from feeling the control inputs of the other. 228 people lose their lives.

A third airplane departs normally, flying from Toronto to Lisbon. The flight is routed 60 miles south of their filed course, for traffic congestion. They received an oil temperature warning, followed by a fuel imbalance warning, which they tried to correct. Finally recognizing that their fuel was low, the pilot in command assumed that the problem was a computer glitch. When the engines flamed out, he realized that they actually had a fuel leak. The plane diverted to the Azores, landing safely save for blown tires and minor damage. All 306 passengers and crew survived the accident.

All of these incidents and accidents may seem unrelated, but they all have a common thread among them: the flight crews aboard them became confused, missed opportunities to correct the problem, and ultimately were forced into a situation that was far worse than it had to be. Even though the pilots of the Air Transat flight saved their passengers, had they been on their original course, their flight would almost surely have resulted in a water ditching, and a significant loss of human life. It was luck, not airmanship, that saved their lives.

If the cardinal rule in aviation is “fly the airplane”, the corollary to that rule must be “know thy airplane.” The two fatal accidents happened because the pilots on those planes were confused by their highly sophisticated automated equipment, and failed to fly the airplane. But they also failed on a technical level: they failed to understand the indications the plane was giving them, some of them the most basic things they learned from their first days of pilot training. In the third case, the pilots couldn’t believe they had a fuel leak, disregarded the low fuel issue, and nearly lost their aircraft.

Automation has tremendously improved the safety and reliability of airline travel, and has even made general aviation safer and more efficient. It’s possible for the general aviation pilot today to have just as much information in the cockpit about weather conditions, flight conditions and aircraft systems as an airline captain. On-board weather radar products, engine monitors, GPS and autopilots make flying general aviation easier, safer and more enjoyable. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from these incidents and accidents, it’s to remember that automation’s job is to be a help, not a crutch.

The story would have been different if the pilots in the first airplane had used known power settings and a clock to get a rough gauge of their altitude, had disregarded their automation, and simply flown the plane. They could have climbed to a safe altitude, intercepted the localizer, and used the radar altimeter to gauge their height from the ground. Instead, they panicked.

And the second airplane would have landed safely in Paris if the crew had recognized that a loss of airspeed indication was their problem. Transcripts in fact show that they correctly diagnosed the problem within 11 seconds, but their choice to haul back on the control yoke resulted in a stall. If they had used known power settings and attitude indications, pitot heat and their “loss of airspeed” checklist, 228 people would be here today.

It’s easy, of course, to be an armchair pilot after the fact. It’s easy to shake our head at these pilots, and think, “how foolish, how could that have happened?” Yet these accidents serve as a crucial reminder that flying the airplane is the primary responsibility of the pilot. Automation is helpful, but it’s not the pilot in command. We have to know how the automation works, and know when to ignore it and do our jobs. And, most importantly, the most urgent thing (a screaming alarm) may not be the most important.

What happens when you fly the airplane during an emergency? A friend of mine relayed a story about how the engine quit on him and his wife over Florida. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the fuel sump had worked its way loose during flight and departed the aircraft. This caused the right tank to drain completely of all the fuel, and led to fuel starvation of the engine. The pilot immediately took command of the aircraft, identified an off-airport landing site, pitched for glide, and then proceeded with the engine restart procedure. The remaining fuel in the left tank was sufficient to restart the engine and result in a safe landing. Repairs were made, and my friends are alive today. Truth be told, this is the kind of pilot to whom I’d want to trust my life.