by Raju Peddada
"If the engine stops for any reason, you are due to tumble, and that's all there is to it." —Clyde Vernon Cessna (1879-1954), Founder, Cessna Aircraft Corporation
"In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks." —Wilbur Wright (1867-1912), Inventor and aviation pioneer
(Swans - June 30, 2014) I have never felt comfortable on a plane. And after many years of asking myself why, I have finally come to the conclusion that it's not the fail-proof technology that makes me nervous, but the human beings. Especially all their variables -- their intentions, inclinations, and motivations, whether they work at a cell in Hamburg, a hanger, or in the cockpit, controlling our collective fate. Again, let's begin with Ernest K. Gann's abstraction, from his piercing memoir, Fate Is The Hunter.
"None of the warriors here involved were forced into battle, a circumstance which removes a certain amount of ugliness and the saddening, hopeless sense of futility normally created when the soldiery is impressed. Here the human combatants have engaged themselves willingly, knowing full well that their blood might stain the field. Therefore this is the only kind of war which might be considered inspiring."
On August 12, 1985, Japan Airlines flight 123, with 524 passengers, slammed into a mountain ridge killing 520 and leaving only 4 survivors. This was a disaster in the making for a long time. Seven years earlier, this same plane was involved in a tail-strike, which means that the nose of the plane is up more than it should be while in landing or taking off, thereby dragging the tail on the runway. This damaged the pressure bulkhead situated in the back -- it is a large, plate-like disc, fitting the diameter of the narrowing tail section of the plane, way in the back that seals the cabin pressure from escaping. The repair of the bulkhead, according to Boeing investigators after the crash, was not correct. The three splice plates joining both the upper half and the lower half of the bulkhead had one particular splice plate that was installed with only one row of rivets, instead of two, which was the standard procedure. This incorrect repair reduced the part's resistance to metal fatigue by 70%. Boeing had calculated that this incorrect installation would fail after 10,000 pressurizations -- well, this aircraft had gone up to 12,318 pressurizations, before it gave way.
When the bulkhead collapsed outward due to explosive decompression, it severed all four lines of the hydraulic systems and blew off the vertical stabilizer, making the aircraft uncontrollable. Yet the pilots flew the plane for 32 minutes in an oscillated flight, in what they refer to as a phugoid cycle, before plunging onto a mountainous ridge, 5,000 feet above sea level. What do you call this repair procedure that did not follow the manufacturer's recommended one? Negligence, or ignorance? Which brings me to another point -- it's confounding that the airline managements and maintenance unions don't have a zero tolerance policy in place for such repairs, when they and their loved ones also travel on the same flights!
On July 25, 2000, Air France Concorde flight 4590, with 109 aboard, trailing flames, crashed on top of a hotel in Gonesse, barely two minutes from the Charles De Gaulle airport, killing everyone on board and four on the ground. Here are the conclusions by France's BEA -- Bureau of Enquiry & Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety.
AF Flight 4590 was 810 kilograms heavier, above the safe maximum takeoff weight allowed, but that was not the problem. At almost takeoff speed, the Concorde's number 2 tire hit a metal strip, about 17" x 1.3" lying on the runway, which had fallen from the engine's thrust reverser cowling of a Continental Airlines DC10, which had taken off minutes before the Concorde. This titanium strip, installed in Houston, Texas, was neither manufactured nor installed in accordance with the procedures as provided by the manufacturer. Another procedure skipped by the Charles De Gaulle Airport authority was the mandate to clear off runway debris before any Concorde took off. Consequently, when the tire nearing takeoff speed hit the metal strip, it ripped off the tire into this 4 kilogram chunk that flew up at almost 300 mph and hit the left wing underside, causing a shock wave that ruptured the number 5 fuel tank. Gas gushed under the wing past the engines, at which point the snapped electric cables, by other tire pieces, in the landing bay ignited the fuel.
At the point of this accidental ignition of jet fuel, both the left engines surged, then suddenly lost power. The plane at this point, having passed V1 speed (abort not allowed after this speed), trailed a long plume of fire and smoke. Even after the flight engineer shut down engine number two in response to a fire warning and captain's command, they were able to takeoff at almost 330 km/h. The plane couldn't sustain the climb nor accelerate beyond 370 km/h after gaining an altitude of 200 feet. In the meanwhile, the intense heat affected the disintegration of the wing. And in order to reverse the asymmetrical thrust creating the starboard wing lift -- banking the plane 100 degrees, the crew turned the power down on engines three and four to level the airplane. But due the lack of airspeed and lift the plane suddenly stalled and crashed into a hotel. That was the end of an era, the supersonic passenger travel.
The Corcorde was ultimately grounded forever, and this after a 27-year faultless record. You know what Continental Airlines paid as a penalty and compensation to Air France? A total of 1.3 million Euros! While AF paid 100 million Euros to the families of the victims. Such are the vagaries of airline settlements. As of March 3, 2012, Continental ceased all operations, disappearing under the United Airlines umbrella.
If you are interested in the morbidity of human arrogance, in their denial of errors, obfuscation of responsibility, cutting the corners to feed their greed, in the context of air travel, one has to read through some crash investigations: American Airlines flight 587 (use of rudder control responding to wake turbulence); Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763 and Kazakhstan airlines flight 1907 mid-air collision; Air France flight 447 (wrong decisions by the pilots leading to aerodynamic stall. They found a major part of AF447 fuselage at the bottom of the southern Atlantic, more than 12,000 feet deep, with many passengers still bucked in sitting positions. Can you imagine any resolution or closure for the relatives, who were waiting for their loved ones? And what upon getting this information, that their bodies may never be recovered, instead they'd be getting a check for about 17,000 Euros? Some of our profound losses are usually shoved under by a simple device: callous and impudent crassness.
One in particular, KLM flight 4805 and Pan Am flight 1736, was a comedy of errors by the air-traffic controller and two sets of veteran pilots, which resulted in the largest aviation disaster with 583 dead -- though, nothing was comedic about it.
Airline accidents cannot be tolerated -- if anything warrants a "Zero Tolerance" policy, it must be this: the total elimination of airline crashes. There are many technologies existing right now that are applicable in saving lives in case a plane is in distress. Why is it that everything has to be financially feasible and equitable? Why should people have to go down with the planes, when it's lot cheaper and easier to provide them with the option of bailing out? Which is more expensive, saving lives by training and following flying and maintenance protocols correctly, or paying out $350 million in damages, plus the cost of the plane?
Here are some technologies that could help in making our air travel more safe and assured. One of the things they should implement right away is live sharing and streaming of flight data from the flight recorders and transponders. And the ability of the ground controls to take over a flight in case of terrorists, or better guide the pilots in solving mid-air problems. Also, this may sound naive and simplistic, but why not equip adult passengers with parachutes, and provide an escape hatch by redesigning the planes. Why not equip the planes with automatic inflating mechanisms that keep the plane afloat when it hits the ocean? Or, why not rig planes with heavy-duty chutes that open and bring the plane down slowly, in event of catastrophic failure, after the ground controller had shut the engines off? If the planes are equipped with chutes and inflatables, landing on any surface softly would become a possibility.
I can never understand why we cannot abort the takeoff after the plane has reached V1 speed -- we must find a way to stop the planes even when they have attained takeoff speed; after all, they are still on land. Don't we use snagging apparatus for takeoffs and landings on a carrier? Can we engineer steel wires embedded into the runways, triggered by a switch, to be activated in case a jet is unable to stop or needed to abort a takeoff? The steel wire mechanism would spring up and snag the landing gear high enough to retard the plane's speed considerably, or stop it altogether. I will tell you why these solutions are not being sought -- they are simply not "cost-effective" to the airport authorities and the airlines that have to foot the bill. In which case why not tax the passengers another $50 to $100 for the installation of stopping and aborting apparatus? Is insurance the only solution?
When we could power 17 Apollo missions with 100% F-1 engine success rate and no human error, why can't we take passengers, at less than the speed of sound, safely to their destinations? When we can land a one-ton Rover 43 million miles away on Mars, without crashing it, why can't we apply that technology here to save lives? There's that Voyager Spacecraft, launched in the 1970s, somewhere nearing the interstellar space, past our solar system, still streaming data to JPL, and we cannot get data streamed from a plane a few miles away? Drones are in the air 24/7, controlled by 20-year-old land-based pilots, without any accidents -- can't we avoid suicidal-malicious or psychiatric cases flying us to or away from our loved ones? Could Elon Musk provide some answers?
If the manufacturers, the airline industry, NTSB, and FAA cannot find answers for our pre- and in-flight safety, they should ask George Lucas, Ridley Scott, or James Cameron (too bad Stanley Kubrick is dead) to come up with solutions to our pre- and in-flight problems -- there's probably more imagination in those three than the rest of them combined. Costs and profits should never be put on the same balance with lives. It sure feels that passengers are expendable, but not profits.
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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)