June – July 2020

With the downturn in the aviation industry there is less of most everything. Some mishaps are never the less always present. Smoke onboard, engine fails, bird strikes and the never ending story of aircraft overshooting the runway end.

News for 2020 are the premature parking (forever?) of the 747’s from a lot of airlines. A380 has already led the way to the desert. Boeing is being blamed for undue pressure on their in-house FAA designees in connection with the MAX certification. They are in the process of test-flying the aircraft, while selling a few and getting more cancellations.  They have paid 428 MUSD in damages, which is peanuts compared to the billions lost (2,4 Billion USD in one quarter) in aircraft sales, penalties and rectifying what went wrong. The 777X is delayed in the wake of less demand for big aircraft. Job cuts are increasing and by Delta estimated to tens of thousands. FAA has realized that pilot’s records need to be scrutinized, in the wake of the Atlas Air 767 crash, where people were let in to the cockpit who shouldn’t be there in the first place. As in PIA (Pakistan International Airlines), where it is established that up to 1 out of 3 of their pilots have fake licenses. Conversions of passenger planes to semi- or full cargo versions are increasing. The face mask ruling is causing havoc on board with passengers flatly refusing, people denied boarding until complying and general unpleasantness.

On the more immediate serious side, there was an aborted take-off in Britain, after an engine failure, which could have gone badly wrong. It was saved by the Captains glance out of the side window, when he was about to start taxiing on the remaining engine, and saw the escape slide deployed and people milling around the nose of the aircraft. They managed to kill the running engine before anyone got badly hurt. The communication to the cabin crew after the abort had been misunderstood, which – again – shows the value of non-ambiguous communication.

On the matter of overshooting runway ends, a lot has been said in this blog about runways being too short. When runways are long enough you can still go into the terrain beyond, if you choose to land in heavy rain – read wet runway – with a 11 knots tail wind (1 knot above limit value) and touch down one third down the runway. The pilots on Air India Express who tried this a week ago in Kozhikode paid the ultimate price together with 16 others. What made them do this might be explained once recorder readings are evaluated. Nothing so far suggests, that fact that Air India Express is a low-cost subsidiary of Air India, had anything to do with the accident.

 

 

PIA clean-up

In the aftermath of the rather bizarre crash in Karachi some time ago, PIA har fired a number of pilots with bogus licenses, challenged others and even fired some allegedly corrupt employees in the airline management. The airline has been banned from US and EU airspace until further and a few airlines have fired Pakistani pilots.

The crash, bringing attention to the substandard situation in PIA, is unprecedented in a major airline, and quite possibly in aviation as a whole. From available reports, where the fact that the aircraft landed with no landing gear and then crashed with its landing gear extended, at least one deduction can be made regarding the probable scenario. Normally it is unwise to speculate on what happened ahead of a full accident report, but the gear-up landing is an irrevocable fact.

The aircraft came in hot and high. (The pilots were most probably properly licensed.) The aircraft was a state of the art Airbus. The pilots refrained from embarrassing  deviations from the straight in approach, and here they obviously got target fascinated. Getting down no matter what required additional drag and the only extra option was the landing gear, which they extended around 7000 feet. The ATC controller advised them of what they already knew, and offered them some turns to lengthen the approach path, which was repeatedly rejected. Now everything became too difficult and where you normally bring down the gear for landing, they retracted it. The aircraft hollered and complained all the way down to the ground, but obviously the brain can shut out what is undesirable. The tower controller said nothing to help, and they landed on their engine pods. The immediate reaction was to get out of there, and they made an effort to go around, where in retrospect staying down would have saved lives. That they were deeply disturbed is not unlikely, since they – where you normally retract the landing gear in a go-around – they extended it. The engines were too damaged to sustain flight for more than a couple of minutes. Most lives onboard were lost in the ensuing crash.

The faulty gear sequence has happened to highly stressed military pilots, when an unextended landing gear has been advised by the tower controller, and in the go-around the gear has been extended where it normally is retracted. The traffic pattern has been flown with the gear extended, and then been retracted where it normally is extended, to the unlimited enjoyment of the tower controller, who again gently has informed the pilot of the value of a go-around.

 

Boeing

Boeing has been in deep trouble before. In the early seventies they cut thousands of jobs and a billboard on the highway from downtown Seattle to the airport read; ”The last guy to leave Seattle, please turn off the light”.

Now, while considering lay-offs of 16.000 workers, they are also re-starting manufacturing the 737MAX. Even with major cancellations – 373 this first half year and 439 at risk – they have thousands on order. There are plenty of reasons for airlines to want delivery, one major reason being fuel efficiency. Others are advantages with staying with one manufacturer and difficulties with breaking contracts. Many also realize that despite the tarnished reputation it is one of the best airplanes around. Future will tell the full story.

On another positive note for Boeing, badly needed amidst billions of dollars in losses, the new B777X is expected to fly next year. It will come in three versions and with foldable (!) wingtips it will be the largest wide-body around, also able to use regular gates. Lufthansa is the launch customer. They ordered their first B777-9 in 2013. Other airlines that will fly the new 777 are All Nippon Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.

Boeing lovers need some good news when the era for the greatest love of all is coming to an end. The Queen of the skies is abdicating without any distinguished successor. The B747 has served mankind for over half a century (50:th anniversary february 2019), and changed the world of flying forever. Airbus attempt to create a competitor failed. Being a remarkable piece of engineering, the A380 was never the hit Airbus had hoped for. Even though passengers loved it, especially those pampered in first class by upscale Middle East and Asian airlines, some with the possibility of a 5 min. shower before landing, it did not sell well, and its lifespan will be a just couple of decades, by the look of it. The only race in which it manages to beat the 747 is to the aircraft boneyard in the desert, being of course helped along the way by the worldwide downturn in air travel. One should of course regret that such a magnificent enterprise by Airbus, with a flawless air-safety record on top, didn’t make it. Maybe future has another story.

 

 

Bleak future?

The aviation industry is slowly but surely picking itself up from the biggest downturn in jet-age history, with the fewest movements ever on the 14:th of March according to some sources. What will happen is anybody’s guess, but experts are reasonably in agreement that it will take a few years before things are back to normal – if they ever will be – where ‘normal’ would be the situation before Covid-19. The threats are many. Environmentalists are doing what they can to keep people from flying. Fewer flights and initially fewer seats onboard necessitate higher fares, leaving  – again – the market open for some operators to undercut with planes and crew available for the picking, and possibly coming back from bankruptcy under new names with all debts gone.

One (1) government – Austria’s – has realized the danger and without further ado outlawed low-fare airline tickets, and in doing so giving flight safety a big boost, possibly without knowing it. The reason for their action is claimed to be environmental concerns and also salary consolidations. No ticket under 40€ and shorter trips by train is the thing. The salary concern and the ticket price are interesting since they eliminates the interest from low-cost airlines and thus a stroke of genius from that government. By all means pilots are definitely not less safe with a low salary as long as they are adequately trained. What affects safety when cost-cutting comes into play (as mentioned repeatedly in this blog), is the ambition to maximize profits by giving pilots minimum training, maximum duty hours and spending a minimum also on maintenance and fuel reserves. When aviation authorities fail to regulate the industry for maximum safety, the way of Austrias government could be a new road to follow. 

The effect on safety by sound employment situations for airline crews, with conditions agreed upon by management and unions – and especially the adverse effect on safety by lack of same – has been discussed at length in previous articles, as has the effect of budget airlines on the industry as a whole. It is thus regrettable that regular airlines with longstanding good reputations are surprisingly quick to adapt, like highly respectable BA considering to fire its pilots and re-hiring them on a cheaper contract. That should however not have any immediate effect on flight safety (apart from what may come from less motivation showing up for work by some), but it is a highly questionable move.

To give some credit for safety concerns by authorities, it should be mentioned that the European Union keeps updating its list of airlines banned to fly in Europe. With todays update a total of 96 airlines, not only budget airlines, are banned from the EU skies. They can be found on the European Commission EU Air Safety List.

To end on a positive note Boeing lovers will be happy, when they most likely will see B737 MAX back in the skies earlier that expected. According to some sources Boeing is aiming for key certification flights in a few weeks.

 

 

 

May 2020

A month with reduced activity carried the usual mishaps, albeit in reduced numbers. Smoke, engine problems, one runway excursion, turbulence incidents and some fatal accidents with smaller aircraft. As an extraordinary occurrence a man was killed by a 737 when he was talking a walk on an active runway in Austin, Texas.

What stood out in May was of course the fatal accident with a regular airline involved. PIA pilots made a very surprising attempt to land an A320 in Karachi from a high and hot approach, ignoring the need for a landing gear normally required for a smooth arrival, touching down on the engine cowlings – and then deciding that a go-around was a good idea. None of this went well, to no-ones surprise, but as usual speculations should be kept to a minimum until a full investigation is complete. Self appointed aviation experts are always keen to jump to conclusions, but should they they this time bet on ‘judgement error’ as a contributing factor in this fatal accident killing 97 people, they most probably wouldn’t loose any money. (In the air force, pilots forgetting the landing gear, were always told by the tower controller to go around. That kind advise, saving the scrapping of a perfectly healthy fighter and the pilot from major embarrassment, rendered the controller a nice cake from the local bakery. It seems that KHI tower may not have qualified for any cake in this case.)

One major activity, when not much else is happening, is keeping parked aircraft in shape. Every tenth day the seals have to come off the engines for a short run-up, the APU is run, the air-condition turned on, the flaps are run to exercise the hydraulic systems,  batteries are energized or unhooked, the wheels are turned , etc. in an 8-hour days work, with a more extensive program every 30 days. For extensive parking desert climates with minimal humidity are preferred, where among other things cabin and cockpit windows have to be covered to protect the interior from the sun. 100 MUSD+ investments have to be pampered in order to be ready for service on short notice.      Quite a feat.

Reactivating a plane for service, which takes about three days, basically reverses the storage intake process. Mechanics take off the coverings; restore and purify the water systems; check the fuel tanks and lines to clear any algae; and finish any maintenance checks still on the aircraft’s calendar.

April 2020

Not much has happened (indeed) in the air during last month, while the most draconic economic turmoil in aviation history has affected all airlines across the globe without exceptions. Small companies have gone bankrupt, large companies are about to, and the rest have huge problems.

For those who have taken to the sky there has been among them just two engine shut-downs, two cases where turbulence has caused injury, five cases of smoke onboard, two tailstrikes, one runway excursion and quite a few navigational errors where safe altitudes have been compromised. The most spectacular one was in Moscow where an Emirates A380 managed to chase a false glidepath from above with 1600 f/m descent rate, when they were instructed three times by the controller to do something in order not to hit Russia outside an airport. They managed to make a go-around with the closest distance to ground of 395 feet in the manouvre. Some 450 souls on board.

On the brighter side a new gadget has been introduced on A350 to cover the pedestal since it has proven not to be waterproof after all. Coffee recently knocked out several different functions causing a multitude of visual and aural warnings, indicating that pilot errors come in many different shapes.

While everybody is fighting for survival, sense of honor – or the lack of it – becomes evident. One low-cost carrier is making a lot of noice over the refusal of a countrys government to grant economic support, where they for more than a decade has been trying to tilt the playing field in their favor, with tax and social benefit avoidance and other low-cost manouvres, pressing the economy of the regional national carrier into dark red figures. To save anyone from guessing the low-cost carrier is of course Norwegian and the prestigious airline – called by some ‘the pride of Scandinavia’ – with a 70 year old tradition of uncompromising safety is SAS. Surprised?

March 2020

The purpose of this blog is to highlight deficiencies in the industry affecting safety. Such criticism will be put on hold, since focus from anyone who might listen is on survival, more than anything else, for the foreseeable future. Parking space is already in short supply when thousands of aircraft are grounded by airlines all over the world, some of which has a survivability of a couple of months, or even less. When the industry recovers from the hardest blow in history, there is a good chance it will pick up the pieces in a slightly different way, avoiding competition on a race to the bottom. Tickets will most likely be not just as cheap as before the crash, and hopefully people will learn to pay what it takes to fly with unaffected safety. A welcome change, one might think.

Some of what happened in March is listed below. Not much, really, worldwide. Engine failures and smoke on board dominate.

Tail-strike on landing, smoke on board, engine shut-down in flight, engine shut-down in flight, smoke in cockpit, loss of cabin pressure, 747 rejected take-off with all main tyres deflated, nav equipment failure, odour in cabin, bird strike, bird strike, lightning strike, hard landing, bird strike, AoA vane damaged by bird strike, rejected take-off due to loss of directional control, smoke in cockpit, engine shut-down in flight, crack in fuselage, fumes in cockpit, fumes in cockpit, smoke in cockpit, engine shut-down in flight, loss of engine thrust in flight, lightning strike, engine vibration, rejected take-off due to burst tyre, collision hazard on runway, low on fuel, engine shut-down in flight, engine shutdown in flight, smoke in cockpit, loss of cabin pressure, bird strike, engine failure.

A month in the life of aviation

An industry already smarting from high oil prices (albeit on its way down) and other problems, like not getting new planes as planned due to the MAX grounding, are now hit by a virus scare, the impact of which cannot yet be estimated in dollars and cents, quite possibly even fatal for some airlines. People are put on furlough, hiring has stopped, part-time and pay reduction are introduced, planes are grounded – like Lufthansa 50% of the fleet, and from China a passenger drop of a staggering 85,5% is reported. European and US carriers have to cope with the White House master planner, banning all flights into the US from the major part of Europe. Shares are down worldwide for an unforeseeable future.

What happens in any four weeks to the industry, apart from the above, is a number of various incidents. In February the list looks like this:

B744 tail-strike on departure.                                                                                                      DH8D nose-gear collapse on landing.                                                                                            A319  overran runway on landing.                                                                                                B763 engine shut down in flight, burst tyre on departure.                                                    B744 rejected take-off due to trash bin on runway.                                                                    CRJ1 nose-gear collapse on landing.                                                                                              Cockpit smoke.                                                                                                                                    A320 engine shutdown in flight.                                                                                                      A320 burning odour on board.                                                                                                        CRJ9 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B738 overran runway on landing, killing 3.                                                                                  B738 collided with tow truck.                                                                                                          A320 could not retract landing gear.                                                                                            A319 strong chemical odour in cockpit.                                                                                        B735 landed short of runway, gear collapse.                                                                                B752 main gear collapse on landing.                                                                                          B738 flap problem.                                                                                                                            B738 cracked windshield.                                                                                                                B789 tail strike on departure.                                                                                                          A320 nose gear did not retract.                                                                                                        B733 could not retract landing gear.                                                                                              A319 burning odour on board, autopilot failure.                                                                        B738 captain incapacitated.                                                                                                              Air Italy bankrupt.                                                                                                                              A319 strong chemical odour in cockpit.                                                                                        BCS3 uncontained engine failure.                                                                                                B738 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B777 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                        A319 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                        A319 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      A320 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      B752 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      A321 tail strike due to runway incursion.                                                                                    B777 landing gear fire.                                                                                                                      E190 dropped nose wheel on landing.                                                                                          A319 burning odour in cabin and cockpit.                                                                                    A320 fumes in cabin.                                                                                                                          Evacuation after landing with burning tyre.                                                                                A319 dropped main wheel on departure.                                                                                      A20N rejected takeoff due to engine fire.                                                                                      A321 engine shut-down in flight.                                                                                                    A320 could not retract nose gear.                                                                                                    A321 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B773 fumes in cockpit and cabin.                                                                                                    B733 runway excursion.                                                                                                                  SA227 runway excursion.                                                                                                                B733 runway excursion on backtrack.                                                                                          Co-pilot eye hit by laser.                                                                                                                B734 cockpit smoke.                                                                                                                          B738 cabin smoke.                                                                                                                              B738 ground collision.                                                                                                                        B738 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                          A321 loss of both nose gear wheels on landing.                                                                          B772 loss of communication.                                                                                                          A320 severe hard landing.                                                                                                                DHC8 engine failure.

If one cares to read through the long list above, one might suspect there are some maintenance and pilot training issues in the industry. Two areas where cost-cutting should be avoided. Cost-cutting, brought on by low-cost carriers, is fighting a battle with the corona virus for first place, in being the greatest threat to aviation, in the spring of 2020.

 

Miscellaneous

The search for the long lost MH370 might be restarted, since new data analysis has established three new areas, based on three different possible scenarios, not previously examined. Final decisions pending.

Quantas is having problems finding an agreement with their pilots union regarding operation of their planned ultra-long flights. Fatigue rules are playing a part. A threat to hire outside help, i.e. non-union pilots is regarded by the union as extremely dangerous to the company image among the flying public. For good reason. If you choose to fly with the company ”that never crashed”, their pilots playing a major part in that achievement, it might be bordering on fraud to have ”rent-a-pilot” cockpit crew, without telling anyone. At least according to the pilot union. Unfortunately Quantas is not the only airline tempted to save money where they should not.

Three of Iran Airs more modern aircraft are banned from EU airspace due to sanctions making necessary updates impossible. 

Contrails contribute to global warming more than previously understood. Efforts are now in progress to minimize that effect by finding altitudes with atmospheric conditions not causing contrails. Another industry effort for less climate impact.

Avoiding turbulence is another effort, mainly for safety and comfort. There is a previous article on turbulence in this blog. Turbulence comes in the form of light, moderate and severe (and extreme according to a separate scale). Normally not dangerous as long as you are wearing your seatbelt, but severe (or extreme) turbulence shall always be avoided. Sudden encounters has caused injuries, mainly to cabin crews working in the cabin. Forecasts have been less than perfect, and avoidance has often been based on pilots reports. Beginning this year IATA has launched a Turbulence Aware tool based on a different type of reports by participating airlines. Turbulence, or energy dissipation rate (EDR) is calculated using six inputs from all participating aircraft: true airspeed, angle of attack, pitch, pitch rate, roll and vertical velocity, measured eight times per second. Data is fed to a central data base and then fed to other aircraft in real time and to forecast centers on ground. Aircraft flying in smooth air is transmitting that pleasant fact each 15 minutes for others to enjoy. When all airlines represented by IATA, there are 292 of them, participate, turbulence avoidance has reached new heights.

FAA – Southwest relations have been to chummy according to whistleblowers and new investigations. FAA has previously been accused of too tight relationships with Boeing. FAA and other regulation authorities around the world face the same problems. One is manning. People who know things about aviation are normally out there working for airlines in one way or another. Authorities have to rely to a large extent on what information they are fed by whom they are set to control. That was normally problem-free, since all involved had one common goal which was flight safety above all else. Friendship developed over time. That situation has been strained by cost-cutting creeping into the system, where good relations has hindered firm standpoints. Another problem facing authorities is the dual demand for creating a healthy economic environment for airlines, based on what new demands for savings the airlines are constantly presenting, and the demand for regulations based on safety alone. Normally not possible to combine.

The number of incidents with unruly passengers necessitating an intermediate landing are on the increase. Drugs are involved, but the major factor is alcohol abuse. The fact that most cases involve taxfree liquor brought and drunk onboard, points at what for half a century has been one of the most daft thing in the industry, second only to dangerous goods. Airline employees has for years wondered why taxfree sales are not moved to arrival halls. Todays environmental concerns alone should prohibit the tons of things you can buy in a departure hall at any airport with self esteem from being sent up in the air for no reason. (Any extra weight cost 4% fuel to carry – per hour. A ton extra cost 400 kg of (wasted) fuel on a ten hour flight).

 

 

Progress?

Airbus is looking for certification for an aircraft able to perform a fully automatic take-off, the only phase of any flight still needing a pilots gentle touch. Could be seen as a giant leap for aviation, apart for the ambition behind it. Automation does not need visibility, and the few flights per year cancelled due to heavy fog would be able to take off as scheduled. That is not the major ambition. Pilots need a few hundred feet visibility to be perfectly happy, and full automation would pave the path for the wet dream of the industry radicals – the pilot-free aircraft.

It must be stated here that anyone not believing in progress – like internet would be a temporary fling – will eventually be proven wrong. Even so, if you are worried about the thought of entering an aircraft without pilots, you can rest assured that it won’t happen in the near future and not with present infrastructure. It is hard to see an aircraft figuring out how to handle an engine failure halfway over the ocean, avoid sudden turbulence, chose a landing site with bad wether all around, deciding on a intermediate landing to offload an unruly passenger, make an emergency landing due to smoke in the cabin etc.

On top of that, service on board would have to be fully automatic, since no cabin crew in their right mind would fly without their pilots. They know facts about flying. Some don’t, including those planning for the change. Even more worrying is the fact that the ambition is not for any industrial improvement, apart from not having to pay pilot salaries. That would be a sales pitch for any aircraft manufacturer, greater than Boeings latest ”no-need-for-simulator-training” för the MAX. Since flying can never be made free of charge, the reasonable principle would be to stop cost-cutting where it doesn’t affect safety. It has progressed past that point long ago, and consequently has to be reversed rather than continued. It is reasonable to believe that at least one big player tends to agree today, after the possibly greatest loss of money for any company in modern history.

Cost-cutting has infected the industry. Budget airlines like Lion Air is allegedly chummy with the Indonesian government enabling safety short-cuts in all areas of management including maintenance and training. The US government is today worried about the already ill-reputed FAA’s too friendly ties with budget Southwest Airlines. In order not to kick somebody already down, one should not blame the latest tragedy in Turkey on Pegasus being a low-cost airline. Time will as always tell, but there are numerous threats imaginable to any such airline, like tired or inadequately trained pilots, low fuel reserves or company pressure to land rather than divert. What a fully automatic aircraft would have done that evening is up to any ones imagination.

The old story (the ideas have unfortunately been around for a long time) went something like; ”Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard this fully automatic aircraft. Sit back and relax, and rest assured that nothing can go wr…nothing can go wr…nothing can go wr…..

Beep.