Thursday, March 3, 2011

Killer Engines or Jaws Syndrome?

My husband, Jim, is the man behind the "Jaws syndrome" theory. If you haven't heard about it you haven't read all of my blog posts.  (No worries, even he doesn't hang on my every word.) The "Jaws syndrome" refers to what happened after the 1975 hit movie  featuring a very hungry great white shark terrorizing swimmers on Long Island. After the movie, the number of shark attacks in the newspaper jumped. Were more people being attacked or were shark attacks just more newsworthy?

This is the essence of the question being asked by Captain Fantastic, formerly known as Richard de Crespigny, the handsome Aussie who along with his crew, safely landed Qantas Flight 32 in Singapore last November. 

The A380 experienced a dramatic engine failure shortly after takeoff and investigators are still sorting out all that happened that day. In keeping with "Jaws syndrome" theory then, every out-of-the ordinary event since, whether on a Qantas plane, a Rolls-Royce engine or an A380 is blockbuster news and Captain Fantastic has had enough. In an email yesterday, Richard told me,   

"Today's aircraft engines and aviation are safe. So safe in fact that when "Shit Happens" it is not an issue that it has happened - but rather how the crew respond to manage it, maintain safety and comfort the passengers."

As the man responsible for leading a team of four other highly experienced pilots through so many system failures it took them 2-hours just to sort through the error messages, one must grant some weight to his opinion. He rightly reminds me that just last year, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board urgently recommended the modification and inspection of GE CF6 turbo fan engines after four safety events in two years.  Eight engine events on Pratt & Whitney 4000s resulted in the FAA ordering inspections of almost one thousand engines at the end of last year. 


All of this goes to prove the point that designers and maintenance technicians do make mistakes, and sometimes even the most reliable products will fail. At times like those, he's right  to suggest

"the professional well trained and experienced pilots up front, with the considerable support resources available at the home base - made the right and safe decisions."


Capt. de Crespigny is not alone in this opinion. On a recent Lufthansa A380 flight, I spoke to Capt. Geert Pruess and First Officer Harald Tschira who also proclaimed unfailing confidence in the A380 and its engines and their ability to handle any technological burp along the way.  


To these men and the rest of the flying public I want to make two points - one obvious 1) Both the A380 and its power plants are new technology  and 2) for all the tests and computer-generated failure analysis, there is no way to completely understand in advance the things the machines will do in the real world.  In fact, the opposite happened on Flight 32. 


The very failure of the engines and so many flight control and engine control systems showed the unanticipated consequences from an uncommon but not unknown event - uncontained engine failure.  


Photo courtesy NTSB

The pilots who sit at the (not-so) pointy end of the A380 have professional and even emotional reasons to hold fast to the notion that everything is okay with the A380. I saw the same attitude while writing my book Deadly Departure about the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. Experienced Boeing 747 pilots could not believe that the airplanes they were flying were prone to exploding fuel tanks. Ten years later, the Department of Transportation mandated design changes to eliminate the problem.


It is my hope, that whatever weaknesses in plane and engine that Qantas Flight 32 brings to light will be more quickly addressed than those discovered on Boeing airplanes. But that can't be accomplished if everyone is in denial about the seriousness of an event that was thisclose to becoming a disaster.  That it would have been a crash worthy of a major motion picture is not Jaws syndrome, that's real reason for concern.


Unknown said...

It's true that many journalists try to be noticed in the wake of an incident. That's why your "Jaws syndrom".

On the other side, if there is an engine that, unexpectedly, can become a bomb (we don't speak simply about an engine-stop), that is not "Jaws syndrom". That is real and it has to be addressed.

James Blaszczak said...

I agree with your husband. Not just because his name is Jim, but because he makes a very valid point. When we are alerted to an issue or event that touches a naturally occurring fear, we respond to it. People are not afraid of things or situations they can control. In contrast, when faced with something out of their control, from a rattlesnake to the loss of their job, they become fearful. This fear is generally irrational. Very few people who swim in the ocean will be attacked by a Great White. This, of course, does not apply to the film crews from Discovery Channel.

Relating it to transportation, the statistics just don't support the fear. Tens of thousands of people die on the US highways each year. Compare that to the very few and sometimes zero fatalities for US airlines. Just a couple of days ago a mother lost control and rolled her SUV in Florida. Her teenage daughter and her friend were killed. They were not wearing their seat belts. This tragic event happens many times each month across the US.

Rarely do people feel the same anxiety when getting in an automobile that they feel when traveling on an airliner. The only difference is that they feel in control in their car. It may not be a very good assumption here in metropolitan Houston.

Captains de Crespigny and Sullenberger make good spokesmen for their industry because their noteworthy events give them the credibility to help people deal with their irrational anxiety. The accent and suave demeanor don't hurt either.

What should give people confidence is that every day tens of thousands of flights world wide are completed without incident. These flights are instantly forgotten when passengers are greeted at their destination. When asked, "How was your flight/" The best possible endorsement a customer can give an airline is that the flight was uneventful.