Preston Clive
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Aviation: Nightmare. Upon Nightmare. Upon Nightmare

Germanwings Airbus a320, the accident aircraft. (IMG: Lufthansa)

No matter how much you sit and explain the science of aviation--the concept of lift via air passing front to back over the wings of a plane thereby creating a huge lifting force that easily overcomes the force of gravity from takeoff to landing--folks don't take naturally to the idea of sitting in an eighty ton (in the case of the max takeoff weight of the Airbus (EPA: AIR) a320) tube with wings; many folks fly in a varying state of anxiety (with some exceptions who just love flying) that never ends until touchdown.

The past twelve months have most emphatically not done anything to help flyers get past this fear--a fear I have written about already not only here but over on our sister site IdealMedia. We have endured the devastating crashes of MH370 (Malaysian Air, 777-200, all 239 dead, now THE greatest aviation mystery of all time), Air Algerie 5017 (MD-83, all 116 dead), MH17 (Malaysian Air, all 298 dead), AirAsia 8501 (Indonesian carrier, all 162 dead),  Sepahan Airlines Flight 5915 (Iranian carrier, 39 lost, passengers/crew of 40), TransAsia Airways Flight 235 (Taiwanese, ATR-72 turbo prop, 58 passengers/crew, 43 dead) .  .  .  

.  .  .  and now to this list we add today's disaster with Germanwings Flight 9525, an Airbus a320 (same base model/manufacturer as the Air Algerie 8501) that went down in the mountains of southern France after a steep descent. 150 passengers and crew--all hands onboard-- are assumed lost forever. The plane, which is part of the fleet of Germanwings, a regional subsidiary of legendary German carrier Lufthansa (XETRA: LHA) , went into descent that didn't seem to quite constitute an uncontrolled dive .  .  .  we can see this based on the public radar data which recorded the flight's trajectory up to its final moment .  .  .  but it was pushing up on the limits of a severe, commanded descent. 

The plane's model is Airbus' equivalent of the legendary Boeing (NYSE: BA) 737 series, the smallest jet in the Boeing 700 line presently in operation; in other words, the Airbus a320 is designed for smaller routes, regional carriers hopping between states and countries within a closer proximity than those larger widebody liners that cross the yawning oceans of the world .  .  .  although both Boeing with its 737-900 and the newer incarnations of the a320/321 families have had their fuel capacity, efficiency and ranges increased (for example the new Boeing 737-900 could fly from Kona Airport in Hawaii to LAX and still have another thousand miles or so potential range to continue flying into the USA mainland. That is a substantial international range.

The Germanwings flight was en route from Barcelona Spain to Dusseldorf airport in Germany, and went down--this after the crew managed to get off a distress call (the contents of which I'm sure we will hear about as time moves on)--in the southern zone of the French Alps. In the difficulty of reaching the crash site due to its residing in the inaccessible interior region of the mountains, this crash is reminiscent of the worst single aviation crash in history--JAL 123 which went down on Mt. Osutaka ridge in Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, an extremely difficult area to access with rescue equipment (at least beyond the basic helicopter anyway). 

According to a continuously updated article on the breaking story in the NYTimes,

Bruno Lambert, a mountain guide who lives in Chanolles, a tiny hamlet in the Prads-Haute-Bléone municipality, said the area of the crash was sparsely populated and had harsh mountain terrain. He said there had been heavy snowfall recently, and that the area was prone to avalanches.

“The mountains are very hard to access, there is no road access, neither in the summer nor the winter,” he said. “The people around here live in very isolated hamlets, and at this time of year, there is almost no one.

“With these mountains, it is highly improbable that there are survivors,” he said.

A local official in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said that an initial survey of the area by a helicopter showed that debris had been spread across a very craggy area.

Continue reading the main story

The French Interior Ministry spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that crash debris had been found. He told BFM television that the search would be an “extremely long” and arduous, because the plane went down in a remote area.

One can only speculate what caused a loss of control at cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, which the plane had achieved that the time of the crash, but flight tracking site FlightAware suggests that the plane descended 16,600 feet during the flight's final eight minutes. . . which is a substantial sink rate indeed.

One item that is going to come up for close scrutiny is the age of the liner, which is not necessarily the giant red flag that the public thinks it is by the simple fact of the plane's age alone: it was first passed to Lufthansa in 1990 after engaging in its first flight the year before; thus the vessel was not quite very old, but it was moving beyond the middle age years. 

What many must understand is that much of the plane is regularly overhauled and replaced. There are some who suggest that aged airliners are extremely safe for one simple reason: over the years of its carefully observed operation, the maintenance crews and pilots get to know the qualities of the airframe and specific engines--all of its unique quirks and tendencies versus other planes of the same make and model--and thus all of the plane's qualities as an individual are fully anticipated, corrected, and the airframe is closer to perfection than other, more recently produced a320's (or any plane model) which take time to give out their own special quirks and tendencies, which the ground crews can then respond to and massage to bring the plane close to perfection. Many pilots feel safer on planes that have been "broken in" and vibed for flight quirks.

Those who have read the IdealMedia article linked at the top know I am an advocate for increase of hand flying at altitude, as pilots rarely get to fly any longer in random, unforeseen scenarios. They are autopilot operators who hand fly for about three minutes of each flight.

Whether or not this accident is another example of the extremely small amount of hand flying that pilots get to do--especially at altitude, where this plane lost control--remains to be seen. Perhaps the autopilot tripped owing to unforeseen circumstance of flight sensor data unreliability and handed the plane over to the pilots, who as a matter of policy NEVER hand fly airliners at this altitude (they take off, put the autopilot on between 1-3000 feet, and don't turn it off until 500 feet above the runway to land it); they may have lost control owing to the unique and very different flight dynamics of a full, fuel heavy liner in the extremely thin air of flight level 38k feet. One false move with the pitch of the airplane, or a bad rudder input could induce a stall, which is deadly at those altitudes for inexperienced pilots.

There is much more to be learned--but these days have not been a great inspiration to the more jittery of air-travelers.

Preston Clive