Monday, December 6, 2010

Airbus A380 weighs man and machine on the scale of fallability

Photo courtesy Airbus
What does a nightmare look like to airline pilots flying 465 people on the world’s largest and newest airliner? Well it must look something like what the five, count ‘em five, pilots on Qantas flight 32 saw after takeoff from Changi airport in Singapore last month.
With the exception of the night and day differences in technology, it might also have looked like what the pilots of United flight 232 saw before that plane made an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa 21 years ago. 
Last week, while working on the story for The New York Times about the new report on Qantas flight 32 by the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau, I decided to call Denny Fitch. I was sure Denny would have some interesting things to say about what it’s like to be on a flight deteriorating so badly, the plane has to be flown in ways never taught in flight school.
Denny isn’t like the handsome Capt. Richard de Crespigny, the Australian pilot in command of Qantas Flight 32, (and the one the journalists down under are calling Capt. Marvel.) Oh Denny’s cute enough, don’t get me wrong. His story and de Crespigny’s differ because on United flight 232, Denny was not flying the plane. The DC-10 instructor pilot for United was a passenger on the flight, enjoying a comfy seat in first class on his way home to Chicago from Denver on a sunny day in July 1989.
The plane was at cruise altitude, more than an hour into the flight with 284 passengers aboard when the tail mounted General Electric CF 6 engine came apart - sending shards through the plane’s hydraulic lines at a point where all three systems converged. The engine was lost, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Lost also was the pilots’ ability to manipulate the flight control surfaces.
In the three-heads-are-better-than-one department, Capt. Al Haynes, first officer William Records and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak figured out a way to establish rough control of the airplane by adjusting the thrust on the wing engines. That’s what Denny found them doing when he went up to the flight deck and volunteered his services.
 “Obviously the normal complement for the DC-10 is three,” he told me during a phone interview from his home on Friday. “To have a training check airman or an instructor pilot be able to come up and do multiple things, well that’s a benefit,” he said. “Eventually it became my assignment to control the airplane through that method. Handling the throttles, that was my job.” 
More hands on the controls, more brains processing the constantly evolving situation; these are the factors that link the pilots then with the pilots now.
So now imagine, the aforementioned de Crespigny, his first officer Matt Hicks, second officer Mark Johnson, staring at cockpit displays illuminated like the proverbial Christmas tree and error messages scrolling by like a Karaoke machine gone haywire and conclude how very pleased they must have been to have A380 captains David Evans and Harry Wubbin also in the cockpit when their date with near-disaster arrived.  
Capt. de Crespigny, by the way, has spent two years interviewing folks at Airbus, Rolls Royce, (even Boeing) for a book he is writing about the world’s largest passenger jet. “The captain is a technically-minded guy,” said Richard Woodward, a Qantas pilot and a safety executive with IFALPA. “His technical knowledge of the airplane is very deep.” But academically-minded aviators notwithstanding, the ATSB report shows all of the men have some pretty impressive log books, both in total flight hours and hours on type.
Flight crew member
Total experience (hours)
Total A380 (hours)
         I did the math so you don’t have to.Combined, the five had nearly 76,000 flight hours 5,000 of them on the A380. Keep in mind, this is an airplane which has been in commercial service for only three years.   
     Their experience was called into action during Flight 32’s nearly three hour ordeal as the crew received more than seventeen notifications of malfunctions, most of which, if occurring solely, would be considered a major event. From losing one engine and having two others in degraded mode, to partial loss of flight controls and warnings about the weight and balance of the airplane, few in-flight emergencies with this many airplane malfunctions have landed without a single loss of life or injury, Mr. Woodward told me. 
     “Engine failure is a big ticket problem, the loss of hydraulics is a big ticket problem, the loss of control authority and electrical capability, any one of them is fairly substantial,” he said. 
     I’m guessing the ATSB shares Mr. Woodward’s opinion. “The aircraft would not have arrived safely in Singapore without the focused and effective action of the flight crew,” the chief commissioner Martin Dolan said to reporters at a news conference the day the report was issued. 
     This kind of statement has to be a balm for airline pilots today. They’ve been through some public relations – how shall we say - challenges lately. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board held a symposium on the issue in May and I’ve written about a few of the more peculiar ones on my blog
     Pilotless airplanes are already being dispatched on military missions. I regularly hear from folks who promise cargo flights will be next.  This “progress” requires that we buy into the premise that the human weighs heavier than the machine on the scale of fallibility. I know a few folks who don’t buy that, starting with Denny Fitch. 
      “You cannot have all the experience in your life to equal 76 thousand hours of experience. These airplanes are piece of machinery and it will occasionally break down though in one of a million different forms. At the end of the day it is the human factor that counts.”
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