Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Benefit of Experience Seems Lacking in Air Asia Recovery

When Air Asia first learned it had lost flight 8501, en route from Surabaya to Singapore on December 28th, the airline was somewhat prepared; its communications department had recently attended an IATA event focused entirely on handling crises in the digital age. 

It would not be the first airline to lose an airplane, or even the first to have one mysteriously disappear in some vast expanse of ocean. Why not learn from the experience of others? The benefits seem clear, at least as far as the airline is concerned. The same cannot be said for Indonesia's government. 

This is a country with more than its share of air accidents, at least four planes in the last two decades have crashed into the water. After all, Indonesia is country of 17,000 islands, the world's largest archipelago . 

So it is mystifying that the national effort to recover the Airbus A-320 and the remains of the 162 people on board looks as if it is being handled by first-timers.  Wreckage is hauled up and repeatedly dropped back into the sea. Twenty percent of the Navy's divers are sidelined by decompression sickness.

"I told them safety first. But as we know soldiers, they are always working hard to find the bodies," Indonesia Navy commander Rear Adm. Widodo was quoted as saying on CNN.  "They are not thinking about safety but about doing their duty." 

When the military ship assigned to haul up QZ8501 raised and dropped segments of the plane for the second time, I dialed up Steven Saint Amour, who has been involved in the deep water recovery of a number of airplanes over the years from the 1994 recovery of Itavia Flight 870 (Read more in my forthcoming book, The Crash Detectives)  to Air France 447 in 2009. I called because I wanted to understand what could cause lines to snap when hauling wreckage out of the water.

Saint Amour with wreckage in 2002 
"When a plane crashes you end up with a million razor blades. Everything has sharp edges," he told me. When using lifting straps he described a belt and suspenders approach that involves wrapping the straps in duct tape and then running all that through fire hoses to protect the lines from bare, shredded, knife-like metal. “Chain works great too, but the disadvantage is that it is heavy,” and difficult to manage when trying to thread under wreckage or through windows and other openings in the plane.  

Steve’s company Eclipse Group, based in Maryland, actually contacted the Indonesians looking for a contract to provide its services to find and retrieve QZ8501. “We never heard back from them,” he told me. As far as Eclipse is concerned that was just as well, as their next assignment was locating and recovering another missing airplane.

Larry Glazer Twitter photo
On September 4, 2014 controllers lost contact with a Socata TMB 700 piloted by New York businessman Larry Glazer who was traveling from Rochester to Naples, Florida with his wife Jane. Glazer reported trouble with the airplane and asked to descend to a lower altitude but there was no further contact. The plane continued to fly on a straight course until running out of fuel northeast of Jamaica.

On January 21, while the Indonesian Navy was struggling with high seas and military divers who could work 10-15 minutes at most at the 120 foot depth where the AirAsia plane rests, the adult children of the Glazers were issuing a press release thanking Eclipse and the Jamaican government for the recovery of their parents and parts of the plane from seas more than nine thousand feet deep.

Saint Amour isn't trying to sound smug, when he describes the six-day survey and recovery operation in the Caribbean, “We’re proud of the fact that we had an aircraft that nobody thought we were going to find and we had a successful mission.”  

Itavia DC-9 photo courtesy Werner Fischdick 
In fact, he spent some time during our call describing how during the Itavia Airlines recovery from ten thousand feet below the Tyrrhenian Sea, the crew dropped the DC-9s wing back into the water.

“Nobody got hurt, we realized what we had done and adjusted accordingly,” he said. Left unsaid is how that experience and others over two decades of wreckage recovery contributes to success.

Today, after pulling 70 bodies and the plane’s black boxes out of the Java Sea, the Indonesian military announced it was calling off any further recovery and apologized to the families. There are many words to describe the work the Indonesian government has done over the past month, but “success” wouldn’t be among them.

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