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WHY AIRLINE PILOTS CRASH

The reason is very simple, and very well known, and there's almost no doubt about the fact that the reason I'm about to suggest is involved with virtually every aircraft crash recorded where "pilot error" is given as a reason: the reason is "lack of hands on experience."


Yes, I can hear you saying "But the pilot of XYZ-9876 had logged over 10,000 flight hours.” And that's likely true--many of the crashes lately have involved veteran airline pilots who have logged thousands of hours up in the sky, many of them on the specific aircraft that they died in.

Anyone who is a pilot or an aviation buff already knows where I'm headed with my line of thinking, because it's unoriginal. The problem I'm going to mention is well known in the airline business--it's been a subject of heated discussion within the industry for years now, at least going as far back asAir France 447, a crash of an Airbus a330 widebody in June 2009 that killed 228 people on its way to Paris from Rio in South America. The discussion actually predates this crash by a few months, to February of 09, when Colgan 3407 went down and crashed in Buffalo New York.

The problem is lack of hands on, actual flying of a large commuter aircraft, particularly at altitude conditions and in challenging weather environments. A pilot may have 10,000 flying hours, but most of this is spent in an airliner merely turning the knobs that control the autopilot and the rest of the controls that keep a modern commercial jet operating smoothly and comfortably and with full communication with Planet Earth. A computer operator/HVAC guy.

A pilot typically gets the plane out onto the runway, with flaps configured for takeoff, pushes the throttles forward until he reaches takeoff speed, retracts the wheels once ascent is confirmed, then the flaps, and by roughly the 90 second mark he hands the plane off to the autopilot to continue the climb, the long cruise, and he will not pull the plane out of autopilot until his descent to his destination has taken him to the very end of his final approach. Then, at 500 feet, he will trip the autopilot and land the plane, which will take about another one to two minutes. On a flight from the US to Europe, or Asia, or anywhere for that matter, a pilot will actually hand-fly the plane for around three to four minutes. Total. Then on the way back, his opposite number—First Officer if he’s a Captain, vice versa if vice versa—will do the flying while he takes care of the radio duties during those hands-on moments.

This is because airline companies know that autopilot computers are far more efficient at flying an airplane. They fly with the most minimal amount of drag, making them more fuel efficient than humans and thus more cost-efective. They're less likely to make navigation errors, stall the airplane (as in AF447) and so on.

But this extreme dependence on autopilot comes at cost. You have pilots who rarely handle the airliners that they're paid to fly, except at the very start and the very end. Airlines train their pilots for unusual situations and autopilot failures on a simulator at headquarters, but this is not the same as actually flying a plane loaded with breathing, talking passengers depending on the pilot for their precious lives.

Flying a heavily-booked, fuel-laden airliner at 39,000 feet is much different than taking off and landing. If sensors get temporarily frozen or an engine flames out due to a blizzard of softball sized hail stones way up in a thunderstorm's upper section, the autopilot will be tripped . . . and flying in the thin air of this altitude (preferred by carriers because of the fuel efficiency achieved via the reduced amount of drag) will without question be a nerve wracking experience for the pilot. He is caught in a difficult situation, forced to make life and death decisions in real-time and with little margin for error. Repercussions of errors in judgment are instantaneous: game over.

It's no accident that Captain "Sully" Sullenberger who famously landed his Airbus a320 (the same make and model craft that went down this past Sunday via Air Asia) on the Hudson River flew during his time off from work. Much was made that he flew gliders--and rightfully so, as flying a glider is pure Handling, 100% rudder, aileron and gravity... there are no power levers--but the simple fact that the man had regular, recent experience of actual flying an actual aircraft through the actual sky for prolonged periods beyond mere takeoff and landing . . . this was a primary deciding factor. This goes as well for Capt. Bob Pearson, who in 1983 famously flew his brand new Air Canada 767 all the way down from 41,000 feet with no fuel whatsoever--due to an error in converting pounds to kilograms during fueling, the plane ran out of gas while cruising halfway along the trip, experienced a double engine flameout, and began to sink from cruise. Captain Pearson, also a recreational pilot who flew both props and gliders during his off-time, brought his plane down for a legendary silent landing at abandoned Gimli airfield, famously having to cross control his rudders and ailerons into a crab configuration to burn off excess altitude and airspeed to make Gimli without overshooting the runway.

Poor pilot training and lack of actual flying time with hands on the controls, fully controlling the plane while facing the unexpected--these have created pilots ill-equipped to confront life-threatening situations. Colgan 3407 in Buffalo. AF-447. These were two textbook, almost watershed examples of pilots ill-equipped to handle a simple stalled aircraft. In the former, the stick shaker and stall protection system (and audio stall warning) were guiding the pilot to push the yoke forward to gain the speed necessary to get out of a stall (triggered by activating flaps with insufficient airspeed). Instead he--inexplicably, perhaps due to nerves, perhaps misunderstanding--pulled back on the yoke, deepening the stall, stripping the vessel of it's last vestige of lift and sending the plane plunging straight into Buffalo NY. None survived.

In the latter, due to freezing over (at altitude, while passing through a storm system) of the craft's speed sensors, the plane handed control of itself back to the pilots as the autopilot had no reliable speed readings to fly the plane with. As the plane was in the midst of its ongoing, monotonous cruise at altitude, the co-pilot needed to do one thing: nothing. The plane had been flying successfully, straight and level and at speed. One simply needed to keep the plane doing what it had been doing. Instead, the pilot yanked the nose of the plane upwards by pulling back on his sidestick--instead of yoke "steering wheels," current Airbus models have joystick-like "sidesticks" just in front of the armrest of each pilot. By pulling back he sent the plane upwards, further into the thin air of the atmosphere, holding the nose there while the stall warning shouted "stall, stall," well over fifty times at the pilot. The two co-pilots and captain sat trying to figure out what was wrong with the plane until all realized when it was much too late that the junior copilot had been stalling the plane by pulling his stick back. The plane fell out of the sky like a stone, it's nose pointing slightly upward, slamming with a belly flop onto the Atlantic and killing all on board with an unimaginable number of G's delivered via the contact with the water.

This lack of hands on flying experience--ongoing handling of the plane while facing the unexpected for a reasonable period of time--is agreed upon as a problem by all, but it seems all that this “agreement” results is more training in simulators. This is not the remedy. Flights must be opened up, autopilots must be turned off for more than just takeoff, and the last couple of hundred feet before touchdown. There is a syndrome in brand new pilots when on the job called The Pucker Effect . . . this is the butterflies in your gut, the on-the-spot feeling when new pilots self-consciously realize how many lives they have in their hands. It hits them that this is not a mere simulator. . . and turns their hands and feet to ice. The plane feels heavy suddenly, and the sphincter “puckers.”

Pilots must be allowed to take more control of their flights-otherwise, the button pushers that helm our flights nowadays will remain as ill equipped as ever to handle unexpected, dangerous scenarios in the air. They’ll never get past the “pucker,” and the gallons of fuel and their corresponding dollars saved by maximizing autopilot efficiency will be negated by these ongoing horrific crashes. Ridership will dwindle, payouts from lawsuit threats will escalate. Our Air Force is shrinking, and thus the days of fighter aces leaving the service and confidently and easily handling the light duty of an airliner are vanishing. Most of these guys come out of flight school. It’s time to insure they get enough time behind the wheel.

For all of our sakes.