One year’s end always gets me thinking about the past 12 months and my hopes for the year to come. In my business, one of the things I do is look at the accidents that have occurred, what we can learn from them and how we can prevent future ones. Last year there were two high-profile accidents that have a lot to teach us; unfortunately, the lessons are ones we have already learned but for whatever reasons failed to tackle successfully.
In the first two months of 2009, spectacular crashes captured the nation’s attention. The first, the water landing of an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, involved a migration of Canada geese and ended with the splash heard round the world. The second involved a Colgan Air commuter flight from Newark that crashed and burned on approach to Buffalo. My wish for 2010 is that we actually learn these lessons once and for all.
Lesson 1: Birdstrikes can down aircraft.
For more than 20 years, Birdstrike Committee USA has tried to galvanize government agencies, aircraft manufacturers and airports to definitively eliminate the hazard of birdstrikes. Most large airports have taken this mission seriously and adopted mitigation measures that are usually effective. However, the government has failed to push adequately for and test airborne flock detection and avoidance equipment. If the U.S. Navy can deploy on its submarines technology that can see and avoid fishnets, how is it possible that technology can’t be developed to see and avoid Canada geese?
As far as the engines go, the FAA and aircraft manufacturers have claimed for years that it would be extremely unlikely for a flock of birds to severely damage two engines. However unlikely it might be, last January’s accident showed that it can happen. If there are still some naysayers out there, they need only look at the Frontier Airbus A319 that struck a half-dozen geese on takeoff from Kansas City this past November. The crew landed safely, but both engines were damaged. Aircraft manufacturers need to ramp up R&D efforts to find a technologically feasible way to harden aircraft engines against today’s larger and heavier bird populations.
It’s time to stop talking about the technology that doesn’t exist or how costly this or that is to implement and just get the work done. When the FAA and the industry decide to tackle a problem, they usually find a cost-effective way to do it. Remember fuel inerting? Many people said it couldn’t be done but we now have a vastly improved, much lighter-weight system to provide nitrogen to fuel tanks to reduce the threat of a repeat of TWA 800. I am confident that with the right attention, birds will be a threat of the past.
Lesson 2: Experience and training matter.
The miracle on the Hudson was that a crippled jetliner landed in the hands of a seasoned, highly trained crew with thousands of hours of experience flying not only that particular model aircraft but also a host of other aircraft, including gliders. The tragedy in Buffalo was that an inexperienced, inadequately trained captain was paired with an inexperienced, inadequately trained copilot. Yes, they appear to have met the FAA minimum standards, but years ago, airline hiring standards were significantly higher than the minimums required by the FAA. And more than a decade ago, airlines voluntarily agreed not to pair inexperienced crewmembers. It’s important to remember that age is not the issue; it’s hours of flying experience. The Buffalo captain was in his late 50s but had relatively little experience. The type of flying hours also matter. Winter flying requires crews with experience in winter weather conditions, especially icing. It does not appear that this particular crew was appropriately trained or had the proper experience levels for winter flying in
It’s clear that with many airlines, especially commuters, minimum requirements are becoming more and more the entry-level standard. According to a front-page Wall Street Journal article in December 2009, pilots with as little as a few hundred hours are being hired. How many dead passengers will it take for the FAA and the airlines to take training and experience seriously enough to mandate more hours for entry-level positions? Here is an area that I believe would benefit from rulemaking. Voluntary standards have not worked, and a rule is necessary to protect the flying public from inexperienced pilots.
So while I would like the FAA and the industry to take these lessons to heart and finally get something done on these matters, I would be remiss in not mentioning that the Hudson accident showed us that some things are working well. The rescue effort showed that the planning and training by the City of New York, the Port Authority and a host of other agencies works. Here, the rescue effort appeared to work flawlessly.
The river landing also proved that water landings are survivable and that flotation devices are critical in the event of a water landing. Frankly, I was impressed that all the flotation equipment worked that day. In my experience reviewing aircraft accidents and incidents, it is not uncommon for aircraft slides to fail to inflate or to malfunction. Here I believe that the credit belongs in large part to the efforts of the FAA to improve the reliability of emergency equipment.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN