Flying - - FRONT PAGE - By Les Abend

Aloud, muf­fled boom is heard from within the cock­pit. The air­plane be­gins to buf­fet. The two pi­lots ex­change wide-eyed glances. From years of rou­tine and train­ing, they si­mul­ta­ne­ously turn to­ward the cen­ter in­stru­ment panel and be­gin to fo­cus their at­ten­tion on the elec­tronic en­gine dis­plays. The nee­dle of the left en­gine N1 gauge is gy­rat­ing rapidly, ac­com­pa­nied by an EGT tem­per­a­ture nee­dle that has reached the red zone. The am­ber mas­ter cau­tion light on both sides of the cock­pit in the eye­brow of the glareshield is flash­ing. The cap­tain stabs the light with an in­dex fin­ger, ex­tin­guish­ing the dis­trac­tion.

Be­fore the pi­lots have time to com­pletely eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion, a chime sounds in the cock­pit. A flight at­ten­dant is call­ing. In­stinc­tively, the copi­lot reaches for the hand­set. The cap­tain shakes his head and com­mands, “En­gine fail­ure/se­vere dam­age check­list first.” The copi­lot nods and be­gins to tap his iPad, search­ing for the com­manded check­list.

As the check­list items are com­pleted, the cap­tain replies with the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses. But be­fore all the tasks can be ac­com­plished, both pi­lots feel a no­tice­able and un­com­fort­able rush of air es­cap­ing through their ear canals. A glance at the cabin al­ti­tude gauge and the cabin rate gauge in­di­cates that air is rush­ing into the at­mos­phere. They are about to ex­pe­ri­ence an ex­plo­sive de­pres­sur­iza­tion.

The cap­tain im­me­di­ately aban­dons the en­gine fail­ure/se­vere dam­age check­list and be­gins the mem­ory ac­tions re­quired for an ex­plo­sive de­pres­sur­iza­tion. Both pi­lots don their oxy­gen masks and ver­ify that in­ter­com com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween them is op­er­at­ing. The au­topi­lot is dis­con­nected. The cap­tain be­gins a rapid de­scent, de­ploy­ing the speed­brakes. The air­plane dives to­ward 10,000 feet.

The copi­lot selects the ex­plo­sive de­pres­sur­iza­tion check­list on his iPad, recit­ing the items re­quired to be ac­com­plished. His voice is dis­torted with both a nasally tone cre­ated by the cup of the oxy­gen mask and the hiss of air be­ing ex­haled. The cock­pit is a noisy mix of chaos and con­trol.

While the copi­lot ver­i­fies check­list com­ple­tion, the cap­tain de­clares an emer­gency on the cen­ter fre­quency. Once the air­plane lev­els at 10,000 feet, the cap­tain reaches for the in­ter­com hand­set and calls the cabin. A flight at­ten­dant de­scribes the destruc­tion of the left en­gine cowl. Shrap­nel pen­e­trated a cabin win­dow, the fuse­lage and por­tions of the wing lead­ing edge. A pas­sen­ger has been se­verely in­jured and feared dead. It’s not a good day.

Af­ter check­lists are com­pleted, the cap­tain de­cides on a di­ver­sion­ary air­port within 100 miles from their present po­si­tion. The two pi­lots take a mo­ment to as­sess and eval­u­ate their sta­tus. Since the air­plane ini­tially rolled into a 40-de­gree bank among other un­typ­i­cal han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics, they are con­cerned with the pos­si­bil­ity that some of the flight con­trols, specif­i­cally the lead­ing-edge de­vices, could be com­pro­mised. A de­ci­sion to land with an ab­nor­mal 5-de­gree flap con­fig­u­ra­tion, ver­sus 30 de­grees, is made. The ref­er­ence speed for land­ing will be nearer 175 knots, as op­posed to the typ­i­cal 150 knots.

The higher land­ing speed will re­quire an anal­y­sis of the ap­pro­pri­ate per­for­mance chart to de­ter­mine that the air­plane has enough us­able run­way length for the di­ver­sion­ary air­port. In ad­di­tion, an­other check­list ap­pro­pri­ate to the ab­nor­mal flap con­fig­u­ra­tion has to be used. The copi­lot be­gins the ap­pro­pri­ate tasks while the cap­tain com­mu­ni­cates via the in­ter­com to the flight at­ten­dants re­gard­ing the sit­u­a­tion in prepa­ra­tion for a po­ten­tial emer­gency land­ing.

The cap­tain also makes a PA an­nounce­ment to re­as­sure pas­sen­gers that the out­come of the flight will be suc­cess­ful. With the as­sis­tance of the au­topi­lot, he con­tin­ues to fly the air­plane and com­mu­ni­cate with ATC.

Does the above de­scribed drama

sound fa­mil­iar? Most likely; this sce­nario was sim­i­lar to the events on board South­west Flight 1380, which suf­fered a cat­a­strophic, un­con­tained en­gine fail­ure this past April. A cracked fan blade was the cul­prit for the en­gine’s destruc­tion. As of this writ­ing, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in­ves­ti­ga­tion seems to be lead­ing to­ward the con­stant ex­po­sure of the CFM56-7B en­gine to run­way de­bris on take­off and land­ing be­cause of its vac­u­um­like suck­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic. The dam­age is col­lo­qui­ally called, “tooth de­cay” by me­chan­ics. (Not that I would shame­lessly pro­mote a book writ­ten by a cer­tain au­thor that writes this col­umn, but the sce­nario is also rem­i­nis­cent of an event in Pa­per Wings.)

My pur­pose for pro­vid­ing the nar­ra­tive was not to an­a­lyze the South­west ac­ci­dent but rather to con­sider the in­ci­dent in the con­text of air­line pi­lot train­ing. With present-day re­cur­rent train­ing, line pi­lots at most U.S. air car­ri­ers are ex­posed to one emer­gency event at a time. With my air­line, un­less a sim­u­la­tor mal­func­tion or a sim­u­la­tor en­try er­ror oc­curs, mul­ti­ple emer­gen­cies are not pre­sented within one par­tic­u­lar train­ing “flight,” or one par­tic­u­lar take­off and land­ing cy­cle. If mul­ti­ple emer­gen­cies are in­volved, the sub­ject pi­lot can cry foul.

The sin­gle-emer­gency-event-at-a-time phi­los­o­phy has been part of air­line cul­ture for as long as I can re­mem­ber. The phi­los­o­phy is most likely an an­ces­tor of FAA stan­dard­iza­tion in re­gard to sim­pli­fy­ing pass/ fail re­quire­ments. And for the most part, this type of train­ing has been suc­cess­ful.

En­gine fail­ures, en­gine fires, hy­draulic is­sues, flight-con­trol mal­func­tions and so on have all been in­cluded in the sim­u­la­tor en­vi­ron­ment. But these are all rel­a­tively con­trolled events that are han­dled by proper check­list man­age­ment.

Granted, some prac­ticed emer­gen­cies in­clude a check­list de­ci­sion tree of mul­ti­ple steps that might af­fect other sys­tems. But for the most part, only one mal­func­tion is in­volved. As an ex­am­ple, a com­plete hy­draulic fluid loss also in­volves flight con­trols, which in­clude flaps, spoil­ers and ailerons.

Most ac­tual emer­gency sit­u­a­tions en­coun­tered by air­line pi­lots are not gar­den va­ri­ety, by-the-book oc­cur­rences. The sit­u­a­tion is com­pounded with mul­ti­ple prob­lems, as with South­west 1380. That be­ing said, a suc­cess­ful out­come can in­volve in­no­va­tive and pri­or­i­tized de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Such was the case for Capt. Al Haynes and crew when they landed a hy­drauli­cally crip­pled DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. The fa­mous event was the re­sult of a cat­a­strophic me­chan­i­cal fail­ure that never should have dis­abled the air­plane as it had been de­signed.

In my past life as a 767 check air­man, part of our re­cur­rent train­ing in­cluded a no-harm, no-foul por­tion that in­volved mul­ti­ple emer­gen­cies. It was ac­tu­ally a fun ex­pe­ri­ence that chal­lenged not only our fly­ing skills but our de­ci­sion-mak­ing skills.

Al­though time con­straints and costs make it dif­fi­cult to sched­ule within a nor­mal re­cur­rent train­ing pe­riod, per­haps it’s worth con­sid­er­a­tion to prac­tice re­al­is­tic mul­ti­ple emer­gen­cies with­out the pres­sure of pass/ fail for such sce­nar­ios. If struc­tured ap­pro­pri­ately, it would add value to the train­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

With schedul­ing be­ing a con­sid­er­a­tion for air­lines, an al­ter­na­tive would be to add a sep­a­rate train­ing pe­riod in be­tween nor­mal re­cur­rent cy­cles for the sole pur­pose of prac­tic­ing mul­ti­ple emer­gen­cies. It would be a chal­leng­ing, al­beit hum­bling, ex­pe­ri­ence worth its weight in self-eval­u­a­tion.

So, are air­line pi­lots train­ing for the real world? Judg­ing by the in­dus­try safety record over the past decade or more, the short an­swer would be yes. But with any pro­fes­sion, there is al­ways room for im­prove­ment. That be­ing said, I can hear my col­leagues grum­ble, “An­other train­ing pe­riod? Re­ally, Les?”

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