by Raju Peddada
"Trouble in the air is very rare. It is hitting the ground that causes it."
—Amelia Earhart, 1897 -- Disappeared in 1937, Pacific Ocean
"We have to get out of the mindset of saying, 'no matter how hard we try, we will have accidents,' and into 'we will not have accidents.'"
—Federico Pena, US Secretary of Transportation, 1993-97, at the Safety Conference, 1995
(Swans - June 16, 2014) When we embark on a journey, especially by air, we indulge a dissonance: by willfully courting adventure, we make ourselves vulnerable to something immutable and inscrutable: fate. We know instinctively that we'll be on fate's radar. Let's begin with a passage from Ernest K. Gann's classic memoir, Fate Is The Hunter.
"This is not a war story -- and yet it is. Any tale in which the protagonists are so seriously threatened they may lose their lives demands an enemy capable of destruction. The difference between what is told here and familiar war is that the designated adversary always remains inhuman, frequently marches in mystery, and rarely takes prisoners. Furthermore, armistice is inconceivable and so is complete victory for either side."
An airliner accident is so rare and so distant that they don't register at all with any of us, till its full psychological force is in your face: if a loved one is involved. Accidents are doused in our minds faster than the smoldering fires of the crash site. The networks dwell on them for a few weeks, then glide onto another scandal -- as scandals, disasters, and cataclysms is what keeps them afloat, if not flying. Two passenger planes, Air France and Malaysian Airlines flights AF447 and MH370, just vanish without a trace for days -- till they find small debris bobbing somewhere on the high seas.
Why my sudden interest? Well, my boys and their mother will be flying to Europe this summer, and this brings me nose-to-nose with the whole business of flying. The recent plane disappearances have kept the issue of flying safety as an incessant blip, bleeping on the personal radar -- my mind. It gets louder as their day of departure approaches, triggering horrifying flashes of scenarios and aftermaths in my fecund imagination. And imagination is the terrible curse in such involuntary flights.
When I started sifting the charred history of air crashes, I found something quite sinister in their consistency. Every plane lost had been, to a greater or a lesser degree, due to human error: in malice, greed, negligence, or bad decisions, whether it is ground maintenance, in flight errors, or terrorism. The ethical considerations and mental health of the flight industry, with the maintenance crews and the pilots, has been inversely proportionate to the advanced structures and avionics. While the carbon fiber and ceramic composites have enhanced the power-to-weight ratio, increasing efficiency, sturdiness, and dependability of the planes, the avionics have advanced to a state where the planes could be flown by remote control. Then, why pilots? Why use pilots in the critical stages of takeoffs and landings? What is the use of all these advancements, when we cannot eliminate human distraction and negligence?
Back in the 1950s and '60s, being a pilot was a cool thing. Then, after the deregulation act of the airline industry (1978), something that afflicts all publicly-held corporations reporting to shareholders came home to roost profitability. Which led to the obvious scenario that we have today: 200 pilots carrying the load of 400 pilots, and thinned-out maintenance crews working on the entire fleet of planes, finding shortcuts to their maintenance programs not recommended by the manufacturers.
The professional pilots today are a lot that have become the best client base for psychotherapists. Most pilots don't have families, or have broken families due to their demanding careers. They lead stressful, bipolar, and lonely lives, coddled by every vice you can imagine: drugs, booze, and women, leading to depression, insomnia, and variety of other ailments. Add to this the bane of personal digital gadgets allowed in the cockpit by the FAA. So, what are the consequences?
The average passenger airplane fields two pilots, and they both are responsible for at least 200 lives on board. Let's take into consideration these families, conservatively. Two hundred extended families are actually 1,600 family members, two sets of grandparents, father and mother, and two children -- and we are not counting the siblings that these fathers and mothers may have. So by this arithmetic, in the event a plane disappears, the trauma of loss will affect the remaining 1,400-plus members, to some degree or the other. A lot of business for psychotherapists, wouldn't you say? Not to mention the liability for the airlines, the NTSB cost of investigation, insurance payouts, and other damages not even mentioned here. You would think that such risks would warrant diligence on the part of the airline industry, not on your life, from the evidence here. Why can't we get rid of the pilots and fly the planes remotely, which would allow more investment into better qualified ground maintenance crews, and fewer shortcuts?
Let's sift through some relatively recent accidents that reveal not only pilot errors in the air, but also, maintenance negligence. But before we wade through these horrifyingly traumatic accidents, let's look at one modern plane: Boeing's 777, which is the pinnacle of human creativity and engineering. Let's look at some numbers:
—Three million parts from 500 suppliers make up the 777
—The 777-200LR set a world aviation record for longest sustained flight: 11,664 nautical miles in 22-plus hours.
—First plane approved by FAA to fly extended range with two engines.
—First plane to be designed & electronically pre-assembled 777 using computers.
—Best airlines dispatch reliability rate of any twin engine plane, at 99.3%.
What powers the plane? It's a General Electric's GE90-115B power plant. The largest and most powerful jet engine ever manufactured. Here are some test numbers:
—FAA 150 hours block test new record. During the test the engine ran for over 60 hours at triple red-line conditions, which is maximum fan (2617RPM), core (11,321RPM), engine temperature (2013F), and oil temperature (297F). Far above the extreme requirements.
—World record for thrust, totaling 127,900 lbs of thrust.
—Hail storm test -- hail ingestion rate at 3/4 of a ton in 30 seconds.
—Water test -- water ingestion rate at 4.5 tons per minute.
— 5.5 lbs per bird ingestion test -- no airfoil deformation, no material loss, 50% thrust requirement, demonstrated 100% thrust capacity.
If today's planes are the apex of human creativity, then flying and maintaining these planes must match that, but to a great covered and denied extent, it is abyssal. And once in a while, when there is a disaster, which I am surprised is not too often, what it reveals, like the tip of an iceberg, is not only the endemic and systematic corruption of the flier's protocol, but the maintenance as well. How far can we police people or legal entities? Let's look back at one of the worst disasters.
One year after the airline industry was deregulated, on May 25, 1979, American Airlines (AA) DC10 flight 191 to Los Angeles crashed moments after takeoff. The lengthy NTSB investigation concluded that while the plane taxied for takeoff, the number-one engine on the left wing came loose and flipped over the top of the wing, damaging the controls, resulting in the retraction of the lift slats. When the plane gained altitude, the left wing stalled, while the right wing, with its slats still working, produced lift. Subsequently, the jet rolled and dipped to the left, banking at the irretrievable angle of 112 degrees, inverting to a slight extent, before plowing down near a hanger, killing all 271 aboard.
Why did this happen? Well, AA, in order to save man-hours in maintenance, had the crews remove not just the engine for maintenance, but the top attached pylon itself. The pylon is the stem that attaches the engine to the wing. So they removed the engine attached to the pylon from the wing altogether, which was just "easier." It was not recommended by the manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas. Detaching the pylon was easy -- just a matter of sliding it down, helped by gravity, but reattachment was another thing. The pylon rigging and coupling into the wing with tight tolerances was done nonchalantly. The engine was carted by a fork lift, meant for pallets and crates, to the wing and lifted into position -- banging and putting pressure many times onto the rigging, two finely calibrated openings, weakening the rigging, where the pylon was attached. This faulty procedure was repeated every time they serviced the engine, weakening and creating stress fractures. It's like trying to do surgery with plumbing tools!
NTSB grounded all DC10s, and soon enough discovered the same faulty and corrupt maintenance procedures with all airlines. Unfortunately, this gave a bad reputation to a solid plane, which actually was not a manufacturing defect, but a faulty and corrupt maintenance practice by the airlines. The maintenance procedure was eventually banned, at the cost of 271 lives. This cannot be classified as human error; it is corporate and human greed leading to deliberate negligence. Let's see if we could find solutions in the next installment.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)