Two air accidents in recent times have shaken the conscience of people around the world.
First was the 27th Oct 2018 crash of a privately-owned AW169 soon after lift off from a football stadium in Leicester, UK. Amateur footage shows the helicopter spinning out of control, all the way to the parking lot outside where the chopper and its five occupants met their fiery end.
Pilots world over must have let out a sigh of despair for what’s surely the ultimate nemesis of helicopters – loss of directional control while executing a high-performance vertical takeoff.
Second was the Indonesian low cost carrier Lion Air Flight 610 crash into the Java Sea on 29th Oct 2018 that took all 189 lives onboard. Preliminary reports indicate a near vertical plunge from 5000 feet. Possibility of automatic systems reacting to erroneous angle of attack (alpha) inputs by driving elevator trim all the way ‘nose-down’ to the sea are under investigation.
Investigators much better informed than me will sift through pulverised debris for months to reach the truth. We must await their findings.
Thankfully, in both cases, the fluorescent orange ‘black box’ has been recovered and chances are, we will get to the data, and possibly the truth as well. Data corroborated with pilots’ screams in uncontrollable aircraft don’t lie.
While the AW169 is a derivative of the hugely successful and ‘proven’ industry workhorse AW139, the Boeing 737 MAX is a sequel to the equally successful Boeing 737 NG (‘new generation’).
One is a helicopter, another an airplane; both from different parts of the world. Both models came in the wake of ‘highly successful’ predecessors. Opposite to the old aphorism ‘nothing grows under a banyan tree’, aerospace successes ride greatly on past precedent. How else would we have a whole lineage of Boeings and Airbuses?
In aviation, successful product comes at the end of a long hard process that starts from the drawing board and culminates with certification.
In between lie many traps, caveats, commercial interests, intense competition, unrelenting pressures, international law, politics, etc. Some of the brightest minds are at work here. Nobody is immune to the perils that come with a heady mix of past success and promise of billion-dollar contracts.
I recall a simple flight test program for clearing a ‘modern’ rescue hoist on a 50-year old helicopter. It was like the marriage of Hugh Hefner (may he rest in everlasting peace) with Crystal Harris. That the old rescue hoist (RH) was unsupportable and obsolete prepared fertile ground for an easy-looking trial. The final word lay with flight test.
Technocrats, sales & marketing teams, scientists, designers, certification personnel and many other ‘supporting’ agencies worked (like they must) to mate the old lady with a new-generation rescue hoist. That the original RH boom could physically support the new hoist was serendipity hard to miss.
There was a small problem. A test pilot who noticed a minute reduction in clearance between the new RH fitment and the swirling rotors. What about low rotor RPM and blade droop? What about ‘negative ‘g’? What about the slender gap leading to a possible in-flight rendezvous, he persisted.
In a marriage of convenience, somebody was playing mother-in-law. First temptation – change the test pilot. Didn’t work in this case. Navy had firm belief in this tester.
This was a minor trial nobody but the vendor and a ‘minority in authority’ could be bothered about. In the face of uncomfortable queries, maybe a few lives (and livelihood) were left ‘hanging’ on a rescue hoist. Trial sorties were flown, data collected, analyses presented.
It would have been easy to pass off the test pilot’s concern as alarmist or unnecessary, given that an old, pneumatic rescue hoist of considerable vintage adorned the Alouette and had served the Navy’s interests well for decades. So what’s the big deal? We’re modernising, after all. Why the hue and cry, one may well ask.
Well, nothing is over till the fat lady sings. In this case, the test pilot persisted. And the organisation tuned in. It was an encore that sent the winch (highly successful on other helicopters) tumbling out of the game. I was not happy or sad. What my team and I cannot touch, see or foresee, we just don’t sign.
For me, evidence from flight test data (of all possible combinations and worst-case scenarios) was a must before signing off ‘airworthiness’. I couldn’t care two hoots if it was a rescue hoist or a fly-by-whatever.
Where is the main rotor-RH clearance data for the old pneumatic winch, somebody asked. I said I don’t know, but I’ll be glad to review it if it’s available. Extrapolation got my UK size-8 boot. So did my goodwill with smooth-talking business development people.
When one deals with commercial aeroplanes, helicopters and their certification processes, my example of a rescue hoist for Alouette may sound like a streetside lozenges-versus-Cadbury’s Dairy Milk comparison.
But here’s the deal. It’s very much possible (and highly tempting) to ride on past successes and come under a ‘halo effect’. It is also possible to pass off seemingly innocuous ‘enhancements’ in design as ‘read across’ from past programs. If certification buys the argument and flight test crew sign off, a legitimate ‘stamp of approval’ may soon follow.
What is not tested by test crew will be put to test by line pilots ill-prepared for the ‘black swan’ event that may ensue. There’s no point then seeking refuge under ‘fly the plane first’ or ‘it’s not there in the manuals because that’s basic flying’ kind of truisms – not for latest generation aircraft that have enough literature to drown you if you were sinkered with it; or have a small, innocuous note hidden somewhere between reams of bound paper.
As investigation into both accidents proceed, there’s a real need to address some seemingly innocuous concerns.
As aircraft become more and more complex, so do the manuals and associated literature. The AW139 manual for instance is over 3000 pages long and occupies most of the physical storage space in cockpit (what about a Loss of Control event, when things ‘fly’, please ask).
Don’t quote me Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) and all of that. In India of 13th Nov 2018, the Operations Circular on EFB itself is over 60 pages long and hardly readable or adaptable to helicopter cockpits where pilots are required to compute in-flight C of G on so-called ‘new generation’ machines – something not done even during my flight test course.
Then there is the Flight Crew Operating Manual (FCOM) and Quick Reference Handbook (QRH). It’s like prescribing Encyclopaedia Britannica as a remedy for stomach cramps. And the law dutifully endorses it like a panacea for all that’s wrong in the industry.
Back to the point one more time. If you refer the QRH and still screw up, you’ll be skewered by lawyers baying “RFM takes precedence over QRH”.
If you can pull off a tail rotor failure or elevator trim runaway while pouring through minutiae hidden between thousands of pages entire teams took years to prepare, well, good luck to you.
Most folks just get by shrugging their shoulders at the frailty of a commercial licence. Not everyone is Sully nor is every airplane an Airbus.
Automation is now up against a new crop of pilots who caress smartphones and tablets more than they do the controls of an airplane. Thousands of pages of tedious flight manuals are required to be crunched by pilots whom airlines prey upon as ‘easy buy’. Is it the pilots’ fault if they are not able to cope? What have we done to make the cockpit, rules and manuals user-friendly?
It’s so easy to blame them after they’ve gone down in seconds while we have the benefit of hindsight and rocking chairs.
Most folks these days can’t digest more than WhatsApp videos and jokes, pilots included. How much have we done to simplify aircraft manuals and emergency procedures for them?
For instance, is it coincidental that the NTSB recently called out NOTAMs as being a ‘bunch of garbage’, hiding small, highly relevant details within a haystack of verbose diarrhoea that flight crew are expected to sift through while flying a plane? Well, which plane?
I am by no means advocating dilution of piloting skills. Quite contrary to that, i am asking that such issues be also addressed during design, R&D, training and documentation – where the real devils reside. When a busload of innocent passengers are driven to the sea, nothing should be off the table.
Let us bring back focus on the human with all its weaknesses, and design that must cater for ‘new generation’ pilots with not so much MAX performance at hand.
My heart goes out to every single soul on those two aircraft and their families who have the right to full, scientific & humane explanation of what went wrong and what we as ‘testers’ could have done to prevent it.
Sorry, we don’t need an ‘it was all there in the manuals’ or ‘everything cannot be written down’ kind of explanation. It must go beyond. Have we reached a point where there’s ‘too little airplane to fly’ on most days, followed soon after by ‘too much airplane to fly’ when things go horribly wrong?
I’ll be keenly following the investigation into both accidents in the days to come. So should all of you fare-paying passengers and aircraft owners.
Keep flying the plane. Also keep asking the relevant questions.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: If you are a flight crew, please consult national regulations, the Rotorcraft Flight Manual or Aircraft Flight Manual and your company’s Operations Manual as applicable to the type you fly. Views are personal. I can be reached at email@example.com.