While cruising at FL410 (41000 feet or approx 12.5 kms above mean sea level), an autopilot mode tripped, causing a Falcon 2000 twin-engined business jet (Registration VT-AVH) to gradually enter a bank (61 degrees) and lose altitude (about 730 feet) before situation was recovered by the pilots. There were five passengers onboard, including one passenger under Special Protection Group (SPG) ‘Z+’ category and four crew members. No damages were sustained by either the aircraft or anybody onboard and the aircraft landed safely at destination Hubli.
If it wasn’t for Leader of Opposition and Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi (RaGa) who was onboard, this incident would probably have been treated as a pure technical snag.
When Did It Happen?
On 28 April 2018, Karnataka was poll bound (legislative assembly elections on 12 May 18). RaGa was spearheading an election campaign in the southern state where anti-incumbency threatened to dislodge the Congress government headed by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Any opportunity to garner a few sympathy votes or propagate conspiracy theories is not beyond the envelope for political parties in election season.
To be sure, RaGa must have logged more hours as a passenger than most commercial pilots have in their logbooks. Many pilots I know have flown political leaders like him at least once, if not more. One would expect a modicum of respect for pilots from a frequent-flyer of his stature. But all bets are off in election season.
How News Gets Distorted
After landing at Hubli safely, his political advisers lost no time in crying blue murder. Party members flagged the incident to Karnataka police and lodged an FIR. The pilots had to make repeated appearances before the police for next 2-3 days. The young prince must have a really sensitive ‘mental altimeter’ because he sensed a height loss of over 8000 feet when the investigation report mentions a net loss of only 730 feet. Media went to town with hyperbolic ‘plane sliding off runway,’ ‘crash landing’ ‘near-fatal nosedive’ and ’20-seconds from disaster’ stories. These accounts stand exposed in the DGCA’s investigation report for what they are – fake news.
Even outside a poll-bound scenario, the mad rush for readership and TRPs can lead to sensationalising of trivia. But the truth remained locked in the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) & Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) of VT-AVH. Please read the DGCA report here and view a typical, over-the-top media reportage here. A bizarre term called ‘lack of institutional awareness’ even replaced the enquiry committee’s finding of ‘lack of situational awareness’. Without fact-checking, the entire juggernaut moved to shame the pilots when they had actually saved the day for RaGa and Co.
You can fool all the people most of the time, you can even fool mom, but you can’t fool an aircraft’s digital FDR/CVR; or the investigators who analyse its data in the cold light of day.
Pilot-Shaming is Becoming the Norm
Pilots, cabin crew and even ground staff sometimes end up at the receiving end of VIPs and their mercurial temperament. Few years ago, party workers roughed up an ex-navy helicopter pilot when he declined late BJP MP Gopinath Munde’s flight as it was not in his schedule (read it here).
Personnel under SPG protection can only be flown by pilots with special clearances. Yet when they take safety decisions in their passengers interest, they end up getting blamed or roughed up. This behaviour cuts across party lines and the establishment finds it convenient to blame defenceless pilots whose lifelines (read jobs and licences) are in the hands of their employers and the aviation regulator.
Before we castigate the pilots, allow me to explain couple of things related to the handling of modern aircraft.
Autopilots for Dummies
There was a time when aircraft used to be hand-flown all the time. That was a long time ago. Hark back to the days when average Indians used to travel on trams and bullock carts. Those days, we did not have to contend with the complexities of modern aeroplanes and the airspace they operate in. Air traffic is growing at a rate of 8-10% annually. Airspace is getting more and more congested by the day. As per a report, between 2017 and 2036, the number of airline passengers is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.7 percent. Aeroplanes, aircrew and ATC cannot deal with this kind of growth in the sky without use of automation.
Autopilots do what machines do best. They work as per predesigned logic, perform mundane, repetitive tasks (like maintaining required altitudes or routes) without getting tired or fatigued and – in certain cases – perform that task even better than humans. Availability of such systems with their multiple redundancies is key to safe commercial aviation, that in turn enables millions of businesses to flourish and supports economic growth. Needless to say, without such technological marvels people like RaGa cannot ever reach their lecture pulpits on time.
Automatic flight control systems have many levels starting from basic stability augmentation systems to sophisticated, multi-axis, multi-redundant, fly-by-wire systems that can perform most of the flight autonomously. In this wide spectrum of automation, VT-AVH, a Dassault Falcon 2000 is an old lady with just a basic autopilot and minimal redundancy. It’s more advanced cousin is the Falcon 7X. One hopes the SPG-protectee’s team knew the difference and what they were signing up for.
‘Fly Attentive’ at FL410?!
Aircraft manuals specify when and under what conditions pilots have to ‘Fly Attentive’, ‘Fly Hands-on’ etc. Cruising at FL410 doesn’t call for ‘flying attentive’ or ‘hands-on’. You are a long way from home. Subject to certain conditions, crew may pull back their seats, take controlled rest, and even enjoy a meal or sip coffee. On aircraft like the Falcon 2000, some failures in an autopilot subsystem can lead to an unusual attitude or loss of height. It does not necessarily signify a ‘loss of control’ situation or set off ‘RED’ warnings. The ‘Yaw Damper’ failure caution was noticed by the crew, necessary actions as per checklist taken, and pilot came on controls within 15-20 seconds. By this time, only 125 feet was lost in a net loss of 730 feet while flying close to the aircraft’s envelope (service ceiling of Falcon 2000 is 47000 feet). This is Example 1 of good situational awareness.
In Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson‘ accident, he took a good 10-12 seconds to take over controls of US Airways Flight 1549 after multiple bird hits failed both his engines during the critical takeoff phase (at approx 2800 feet altitude). Now, get some perspective on the VT-AVH incident.
RVSM for Dummies
Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) was a concept introduced by ICAO wherein vertical separation between aircraft flying on IFR routes was reduced to 1000 feet so that more of them can be stacked in the congested airspace. Hand-flying the precision required for long hours of cruise in RVSM airspace between FL290 to FL410 can wear out pilots – something that is incompatible with regulations for that environment. Hence failures like that which happened on VT-AVH requires pilots to carefully diagnose what has happened, determine the redundancies available, and if required, declare ‘unable RVSM’ and seek descent below RVSM airspace. This they did within four minutes of the initial indications. This is Example 2 of good situational awareness.
Coffin Corner for Dummies
Commercial jets fly at high altitudes to exploit the better fuel efficiency of turbine engines at altitude. However, as they fly higher and higher, their flight envelope keeps reducing to ultimately reach an area described as ‘coffin corner‘ where reducing margin between stalling speed and critical mach number leaves very little room for the pilot to manoeuvre. Controls become sluggish and things can quickly spiral out of control if not handled with care. If anything goes wrong here, pilots have to fly the plane very carefully and deliberately. Any knee-jerk reaction on controls can lead to stall or overspeed. That the captain took over controls and brought the aircraft back to assigned altitude without ‘over-controlling’ is legitimate action expected of trained crews. At FL410, height loss of a few hundred feet is no big deal. Neither is a bank angle warning unless it has been ignored or overcorrected. Being aware of all this, responding to ATC calls, while simultaneously running a checklist to smoothly regain control over the aircraft with a total ‘on-type’ experience of only 720 hours among the cockpit crew is Example 3 of good situational awareness.
Laud or Punish? Who Decides?
For these three fine examples of airmanship and deft handling, the crew get a police FIR lodged against them and put on media trial by people who cannot differentiate between ‘situational awareness’ and ‘institutional awareness‘. Tomorrow, they could be in government.
Sophisticated flight control computers, air data computers, flight control actuators, extremely accurate, fail-passive marvels of engineering, all work in tandem with aircrew and air traffic management to make flying the safest mode of transport today. Some of those machines can even suffer an odd fool or two. But they are, after all, machines. And machines do fail sometimes. That’s where pilots come in. That’s what they are paid for. When that line of defence falls, disaster can strike – like it did in the case of Air France Flight 447, or any number of accidents where autopilot malfunction or minor failures were either misdiagnosed or mishandled. VT-AVH is not one of those examples.
In another country, those pilots would have been lauded, or the whole incident treated as a technical issue that was contained. Here, we grounded them for three months and sullied (pun intended) their reputation.
How fair is that?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at email@example.com. The author is an experimental test pilot and has flown over 25 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Views are personal.
Cover image for representative purpose only. Image courtesy Dassault Aviation official website.