The Crash of AirAsia Flight 8501

UPDATE: December 4, 2015

IT TOOK ABOUT A YEAR, but the findings are out regarding the crash of AirAsia flight 8501, the Airbus A320 that went down during a flight from Surabaya to Singapore last December, killing everybody on board.

The crash had nothing to do with the weather, as had been suspected in the immediate aftermath (see earlier posts below). What happened, essentially, is that a combination of mechanical malfunction and human error led to the pilots losing control of the plane.

I was hoping the pilots would be vindicated, but the report doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

The trouble started with a failure of the plane’s rudder limiter, a system that helps regulate control inputs at high speeds and high altitudes. As part of their troubleshooting, the pilots pulled and then re-engaged a circuit breaker that supplies power to this system.* This had the unintended consequence of disconnecting the jet’s autopilot and autothrottles.

In most circumstances, dealing with these automation disconnects should have been straightforward: take control and fly the plane by hand. On this occasion, though, there was a wrinkle: because of reasons tied into the limiter failure, when the autopilot quit, the plane’s rudder deflected sharply in one direction. This resulted in a very hard turn to the left, at one point exceeding 50 degrees of bank (for perspective, a normal turn seldom exceeds 20 degrees of bank, and is usually around ten or fifteen). This would have been startling, but nothing they couldn’t recover from in just a few seconds.

What happened next is the critical part — and the part that I don’t get. We have the captain, who’d been troubleshooting the malfunction, instructing the first officer to “pull down” on his control stick, a request to which the first officer enthusiastically complied — with so much vigor that he sent the jet into a rapid, 5000-foot climb and a high-altitude stall.

As the report sums it up, “The manual handling resulted in the aircraft entering a prolonged stall and upset condition, which was beyond the capability of the crew to recover.” Why the captain asked for the “pull down” maneuver I don’t understand. But the bigger mystery is, why did the copilot make such a drastic input? And why was he unable to recognize and deal with an impending aerodynamic stall?

I just don’t know. And this is shaping up not unlike the Air France flight 447 disaster — the Airbus A330 that stalled and crashed off the coast of Brazil in similarly murky circumstances in 2009. One can read and re-read every analysis and black-box transcription of that accident, yet there are aspects of it — the crew failing to recognize and respond correctly to an ordinary aerodynamic stall — that are forever perplexing.

And does this in some way tie into the design of Airbus aircraft, or into the design of modern jetliners in general? As a corollary, are the skill sets that modern airline pilots have come to rely on inadequate in some fundamental way? Have pilots “forgotten how to fly?” Maybe it’s a bit of both, but it’s simply not right when minor malfunctions lead to a deadly loss of situational awareness.

For instance — if we can do this without turning it into a Boeing-versus-Airbus thing — could somebody explain to me the rationale behind Airbus’s independent side-stick control concept? In traditional airplanes, the control columns and wheels (the yokes, if you must, to use a term I’ve never liked) are physically linked, and they move in unison. When the pilot on the left turns, pushes, or pulls, the controls on the right turn, push, or pull as well. And vice-versa. This makes pretty obvious sense, allowing either pilot to understand exactly which inputs the other pilot is making. On Airbus models this doesn’t happen. When either pilot moves his or her side-stick, the other stick remains in place. Only when contradictory inputs are made is an alarm triggered. In rare circumstances this can lead — as was seen in the Air France tragedy, and possibly in the AirAsia accident as well — to a situation of dangerous confusion. I’m told there are valid engineering and human factors reasons for this design. I’ve never piloted an Airbus, and I’m loath to criticize without learning more, but thus far I fail to comprehend what those reason are.


* The resetting of cockpit circuit breakers is common practice, by the way. It is not, however, at the pilots’ whim. Protocols vary a bit carrier to carrier, but generally, resets are only to be be performed in accordance with written procedures (a checklist for example) and/or under the guidance of maintenance personnel.

Headquartered in Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, AirAsia is the largest low-fare airline in Asia and one of the biggest in the world. It operates about 70 aircraft, all of them A320s, on routes around Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. (AirAsia X is the airline’s long-haul affiliate, and operates the larger A330.) I flew AirAsia between Bangkok and Phuket a few years ago. For what it’s worth, except for a delay on the outbound leg, its operation struck me as no more or less professional than that of any other major airline.

Asia is now the world’s biggest and busiest air travel market, having surpassed both North America and Europe. Low-cost competitors like AirAsia are gaining ground throughout the region.


UPDATE: January 6, 2015

AS OF TODAY, Indonesian authorities are blaming the crash on “ice.” What that might mean, exactly, I don’t know. I’m unaware of any evidence linking the accident to icing, and it’s irresponsible, if you ask me, to be publicly announcing such sure-sounding theories, particularly with a media that is off and running with the slightest new speculative thread.

Indeed, what the media needs right now is a proverbial chill pill. It’s much too soon to be trying to nail down a cause. A properly executed air crash investigation takes months, usually. I was on CNN earlier today, and to the interviewer I said the following (I’m paraphrasing for clarity):

The media’s fixation with this accident is not helpful. With every crash now, it seems we get into this cycle of marathon coverage. I don’t know if it’s because, or in spite of the fact that major plane accidents have become so rare that we’re lavishing so much attention on them. Thirty years ago, when we were dealing with five, ten, even a dozen serious accidents every year, we didn’t obsess like this. Of course, in those days there weren’t multiple 24/7 news sources starving for attention across multiple platforms. And that, more than anything, is what all this focus is about: feeding the news machine.

You won’t see that part of the interview, however, because they edited it out.


UPDATE: January 2, 2015

LET’S SEE if we can square away some of this “tracking” business that has been getting so much attention.

Christopher Drew, in a December 29th op-ed in the New York Times, said that “Airlines use satellites to provide Internet connections for passengers, yet they still do not stream data in real time about a plane’s location and condition.” Two days later, in a similar Times op-ed written by the editors, it was stated that airplane location is updated only in fifteen minute increments.

Neither of these things is true, usually. It depends where the flight is operating, what equipment is on board, and which air traffic control (ATC) facility the crew is working with. As a general rule, flights are constantly tracked and monitored. By regulation a flight must always be in contact, one way or the other, with both air traffic control and company dispatchers on the ground. This is true in domestic airspace, and over the remotest points of the ocean as well.

In the busiest airspace, such as over the continental U.S. and Europe (and many other regions), planes are generally in radar and VHF radio contact, which makes tracking a cinch. ATC and airline dispatchers can easily monitor a jet’s location, altitude and speed (plus other parameters, depending). The same is true even in some oceanic airspace, such as over the North Atlantic, where cockpit equipment such as CPDLC and SATCOM datalink allow more or less real-time monitoring of a flight’s progress. In addition to basic position data, newer aircraft can transmit data about engine performance and the mechanical status of certain onboard systems.

In some areas of the world, however, position reports are sent only intermittently, at designated waypoints rather than continuously. This is the “tracking gap” that the media has been so fixated on ever since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. There is room for improvement here, I feel, particularly for long-haul aircraft that operate routinely in non-radar airspace. Planes could and perhaps should be equipped with a relatively simple, inexpensive, and fail-safe technology that allows continuous location tracking, no matter where.

It was a little startling for the Times to begin with a pair of premises that are only partially true. It’s easy to extrapolate: if the writers don’t know what they’re talking about with respect to aviation, should we trust them when it comes to law, politics, healthcare and so forth? Shouldn’t there be a vetting or review prior to the publication of pieces covering specialized and esoteric topics?

I notice that the December 31st op-ed includes a quote from an “aviation consultant.” Not that he said anything wrong or stupid, but I held my breath. This is one of my ongoing pet peeves: when airplanes are the subject, the media loves to cite aviation academics — aerospace researchers, aeronautics professors, etc. As I’ve noted before, these people are bright and their work is important, but they tend to have limited knowledge about the day-to-day operation of commercial planes.

Another question that keeps coming up is why the various black box data — the data recorded by the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) — can’t also be monitored via satellite, radio or wi-fi, in real time, rather than stored away on a piece of aircraft hardware. In other words, we could be constantly aware not only of a plane’s position, but any malfunctions and mechanical problems it might be having.

The main reason why is because it would take immense mounts of bandwidth, multiplied by the thousands of airplanes in the air at any one time, to upload all of the hundreds of parameters monitored by the FDR and CVR. And for what practical purpose, exactly? For the one airplane every 25 years or so that is temporarily missing, out of the 40,000 or so commercial flights that operate every day? Such a thing is certainly possible, but it would be technologically challenging and highly expensive. Is it really needed, in practical terms?

This issue comes up all the time. To me, it’s symptomatic of a culture in which people are accustomed to instant explanations and instant access to everything. “Why can’t we have the answers right now!”


December 31, 2014

FIRST THINGS FIRST, we need to trundle out the boring but critical post-crash disclaimer: It is a bad idea to speculate too broadly on the how-and-why so soon after an air disaster. Almost always the initial hunches and theories end up totally off-base or at best incomplete. We live in an age when people want and expect instant answers, but that just isn’t possible with plane crashes. It often takes months or even years before a cause is nailed down. In some cases we never learn for sure what happened.

That said, a seeming red flag in Sunday’s AirAsia crash is the weather. Could the Airbus A320, flying from the busy Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, have wandered inadvertently into a violent thunderstorm and suffered some kind of catastrophic malfunction or structural failure? It’s possible.

I’ll point out that flying into thunderstorms is about the biggest no-no in all of commercial aviation. The crew had asked for a weather-related altitude change shortly before the disappearance, a request that was denied by air traffic control — presumably because of traffic constraints. This isn’t terribly unusual; pilots ask for altitude changes and route deviations all the time, and not always are they granted. However, that does not mean the AirAsia crew had no choice but to plow headlong into a storm. Worst-case, the crew always reserves the right to do what it needs to do, with or without permission. I cannot imagine the pilots willingly flew into what, on the radar screen, would have been a bright red splotch of potentially dangerous airspace. Perhaps a patch of weather that the pilots presumed would be manageable turned out to be otherwise? We don’t know.

Some are drawing comparisons between this incident and the 2009 Air France tragedy. They occurred under somewhat similar circumstances, and the media is eager to link these recent incidents together and wring some scary significance out of them. Some commentators have noted, for instance, that both planes were built by Airbus. I understand the temptation here, but this is extremely premature, and it’s unlikely that the aircraft model played a significant role. Remember that basically half of all the commercial jetliners in the sky are Airbus models.

An even bigger red herring is the fact that the pilots made no distress call. Several news outlets have brought this up. Effectively it means nothing. Communicating with air traffic control is pretty far down the task hierarchy when dealing with an emergency. The pilots’ priority is to control the airplane and deal with whatever malfunction or urgency is at hand. Talking to ATC comes later, if it’s practical.

Whatever caused the crash of flight 8501, the year appears to be closing on a tragic note. That’s a shame, seeing that 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. Not to sound flip, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and it’s important to look at the broader context. This year will be something of a correction, but over the past two decades the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980, even with more than double the number of planes in the air.

Whenever people bring up the less-than-stellar accident record for 2014, I remind them of how bad things used to be. In 1985, 27 — twenty seven! — serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. That included the JAL crash outside Tokyo with 520 fatalities; the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed 240 American servicemen, and the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic with 329 dead. Two of history’s ten worst disasters happened within two months of each other! That was an unusually bad year for any era, but throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, multiple major accidents were the annual norm. Today, large-scale air disasters are much fewer and farther between. You almost wouldn’t know it, of course, switching on the TV: the media’s fixation and round-the-clock coverage of what, in times past, would have been only short-lived stories (or in some cases complete non-stories), messes with our perspective and gives many people the idea that air travel is a lot more dangerous than it actually is.


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107 Responses to “The Crash of AirAsia Flight 8501”
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  1. Stan says:

    Indonesia follows FAA regulations and all flight dispatcher are required to be trained and licenced. To say that other countries don’t have a flight dispatch system is incorrect.

  2. Jeff Guinn says:

    But the bigger mystery is, why did the copilot make such a drastic input? And why was he unable to recognize and deal with an impending aerodynamic stall?

    This makes me want to blow an aneurysm. AF447 crashed for exactly the same reason: the pilot flying was unaware of what constituted proper attitude for the flight conditions, and due to that ignorance, drove the airplane into an unsustainable flight condition.

    At cruise altitude, pitch changes more than +2º (and even that might be too much) must be viewed with looks of fear and eyes of hate. No airliner can sustain +1600 VSI for more than a few thousand feet at that altitude, never mind what they actually did.

    I’m told there are valid engineering and human factors reasons for this [sidestick] design. I’ve never piloted an Airbus, and I’m loath to criticize without learning more, but thus far I fail to comprehend what those reason are.

    I flew the A320. It wasn’t for long, and it was a long time ago (DC9, MD11, B757 since), but the justification for Fly By Wire (FBW) was that it could integrate all flight parameters and thereby prevent the pilots from taking the airplane outside pre-defined flight parameters. Further, because an FBW airplane is G-stable, it’s control responses over the entirety of the flight regime are very uniform. Conventional aircraft are a compromise — a bit of a butter churn at low speeds, and an over caffeinated thoroughbred at altitude.

    • Jeff Guinn says:

      … cont …

      As for the independent side sticks: pure convenience. It would have been very difficult for the engineers to mechanically interconnect devices which were, by their very nature electronic.

      So they didn’t do it, and wished away the problems that pilots could see coming. Fine in an F-16. Disaster in an airliner.

      (Along with the non-moving throttles, two of the stupidest aviation engineering decisions ever.)

      ANNNND in conclusion:

      You’d think AF447 would have taught the entire aviation community that the control-performance concept is essential for professional aviators.

      If so, you’d have thought wrong.

      • toughluck says:

        What about cheap force feedback? I.e., have the sticks vibrate strongly if the inputs do not match?
        How about a bit more expensive force feedback? I.e., have the sticks move to the currently set position and wrestle for control. Make it so it actually moves only if the stick is being touched (starts at neutral position, when touch, it is tugged to the position of the other stick, at which point they become linked, and any pilot can correct the input. Make it so the captain’s stick needs less force to move to the correct position 🙂

  3. toughluck says:

    I just read this article the other day:
    I came across that when it was referenced in an IT security piece concerning automation. The article itself refers to the Asiana flight 991 crash.
    It’s hard for me to argue with the piece and it made me rethink how to view requirements for airline pilots. I thought that the predominantly Asian approach of low hours and heavy focus on training on a specific plane model made more sense than the US approach of requiring pilots to accrue hours before they go up the ladder, with the latter being much more cost- and time-intensive, and with the risk of failing due to costing too much to be recouped at which point airlines with cheaper focused training simply out-compete Americans.

    • Patrick says:

      I am not sure how the “Asian approach” is cheaper for the carriers, aside from the lower wages they pay. The American-style approach is indeed more time and cost-intensive — for the pilot, that is, not for the carrier that eventually hires that pilot. The typical American pilot arrives at the airline having self-funded all of his or her primary training, whereas the young ab-initio cadets have to be groomed from the get-go.

      • toughluck says:

        Lock in, maybe? I’m not sure, but I guess there may be some confidential clauses in their contracts. In the end, they’re paid well by their local standards anyway.
        However, do you feel that something may give eventually? In the sense that the costs to become an airline pilot in the US are spiraling and in the end, it may turn out it’s next to impossible to become one by virtue of simply not being able to make enough to pay for the flying lessons?

  4. Vince says:

    I mean the notion that, “pilots only take-off and land an airplane” is causing pilots to lose awareness in-flight. Although you can understand how something as magical as flight can become mundane after being done all day, everyday, there should be some device to combat that. Not too much work, not too little; this is when humans operate best. So why not institute “pilot in control” guidelines? A pilot must hand fly his jet for (X) amount of time during a flight, leaving cruise control as a long haul luxury rather than primary source of flight control. Those who have driven both automatic and manual transmission cars/trucks can relate on the subject on situational awareness. Sure an automatic transmission is not nearly as sophisticated as auto-pilots; even with the “cruise control” feature activated you still have to steer. While driving a manual, your awareness is definitely heightened because efficient operation of the two-ton metal killing machine you occupy depends on it. “Seasoned” commercial airline pilots may becoming too “seasoned” with relying everything on his or her auto-pilot.

    • toughluck says:

      I beg to differ with regards to automatic vs. manual transmission. I’ve driven a manual turbodiesel since I got my license. On a recent trip to US, I rented an automatic and it was the first time I drove one. Even though it was a basic 4-speed unit coupled to a naturally aspirated petrol engine, the difference made me decide my next car is going to be an automatic.
      While driving a manual, I’m preoccupied with setting the “correct” gear, and relying too much on engine torque at low rpm when I should just downshift (and when an automatic would have kicked down). As a result, I’m not in the correct gear a lot of the time and this is potentially dangerous. Plus, I have my hands on the stick too much.

      The analogy to a plane doesn’t work here as well as it should. The correct analogy (automatic vs. manual) is automatic engine control (with FADEC or earlier generations) vs. manual or having a flight engineer. A pilot doesn’t have to wonder how to operate the throttle with regards to current conditions, he just sets it. The actual commands going to the engine are not directly linked to the throttle. This prevents some catastrophically bad inputs.
      Same goes for fly-by-wire, where the flight computer massages the signal to prevent inputs that could cause an actual upset to the aircraft.

      If there’s anything analoguous to the autopilot in the car is the new generation of cruise control which manages speed up and down by monitoring traffic ahead and behind the car.

  5. Ronald Pottol says:

    Handing over control from automated systems to humans is a hard problem, with cars, even if the human is nominally paying attention, it can take up to 15 seconds. Airbus’s policy of the system just throwing up its hands and dumping everything on the human is dumb, for example, in the AF477 case, there was no need to do that, the autopilot is just as capable (if not more so) of using the same tables of altitude, angle of attack, and engine settings to fly the airplane without the airspeed indicators as the pilots were (I assume, anyways, seems like a simple enough task). I would think that raising an alert (all airspeed indicators failed, flying via estimate!) or some such, and carrying on, would be the correct thing to do. They seem to control everything, until they don’t control anything, and dump it all on the pilot, which is a recipe for failure, as we have seen repeatedly (or, what should be repeatedly enough for commercial aviation).

  6. Chris says:

    What I can’t understand is that this is not the first time the ‘Alternate Law’ mode has been cited as a contributory factor in an Airbus crash. Surely it’s time Airbus and their partners took a long hard look at exactly how obvious it is to pilots that a large chunk of the electronic flight limitations have been removed, and the associated training for dealing with this?
    Patrick wonders why the Co-Pilot put such a large input into the controls? I can’t say for definite but wouldn’t be surprised if he simply didn’t expect the aircraft to respond how it did.

    • SirWired says:

      While the pilots may not be aware how much control the Autopilot is exerting on the plane, there’s not really any excuse for the input that put the plane into the stall. I don’t think the pilot should ever be putting any input into the stick that’s going to be incompatible with flight and then relying on the plane to overrule anything bad the pilot might be doing.

  7. Ben says:

    It is pretty odd that Airbus has a control system that doesn’t move in unison with the other. Maybe at the bare minimum they should make the joy stick controls move in unison and that would solve a ton a problems right there.

  8. Alex says:

    Patrick, are all control columns on Boeings linked? I thought I remembered reading that in the course of the EgyptAir 990 crash the first officer was pushing his control column forward to descend while the captain was pulling his back to climb.

  9. johngoldfine says:

    Hold onto your blood pressure, Patrick, ‘cuz it was the “junior pilot’s” fault! That, and automation doing your job for you.

    • DorkRothko says:

      I don’t think you’ve read that article very closely. He airs the same questions others have asked, that are worth asking. Has automation eroded flying skills to the point that, when faced with a difficult situation and >1 unusual variables, basic, unthinkable mistakes are being made? Was the FO’s relative inexperience a factor? It would seem to have been…why, for instance, was he trying to increase altitude when the captain clearly saw this was a mistake and was trying to do the opposite?

  10. Will in Minnesota says:

    “And this is shaping up not unlike the Air France flight 447 disaster…” Right. Well, all else aside, I still can’t understand the Airbus (non)inter-relatedness dual stick system, which I think was mentioned as a factor in the flight 447 crash findings? I was disappointed that you wouldn’t comment further on this that time around; I just can’t see how having two “virtual” sticks operating independently makes sense… am I missing something?

  11. Emilije says:

    Dear Patrick,

    Respecting your opinion and experience, i’m still a bit confused. Les Abend says that pulling circuit breaker isn’t part of the authorized procedure:

    Also it’s not clear (to me), did Pilots only pull out that circuit breaker to turn off the computer or did they reset it?

    I would appreciate your comment on this.

    thank you!

  12. Rod says:

    The Airbus is here to stay, with its high degree of abstraction (fly-by-wire, side sticks whose inputs are invisible to the non-flying pilot, etc.). They’re here to stay because they’re inexpensive to operate.
    Perhaps more assiduous upset-recovery training would help, but basically the airlines and the world are willing to accept the occasional loss of several hundred lives in mysterious circs as the price for cheap flight.

  13. daniel Ullman says:

    “The resetting of cockpit circuit breakers is common practice, by the way. It is not, however, always at the pilots’ discretion or whim”

    I would doubt this generally and have a problem with it specificity.

    Specificity, pulling circuit breakers in this case seems to something that they learned from a ground crew that couldn’t afford to delay the plane.

    Generally, it does not make a good deal of sense. If the electoral system of an aircraft was this fragile we would likely see planes falling out of the sky much more often.

  14. Dick Waitt says:

    Aside from the aircraft manufacturer, another commonality between this and the Air France downing is in the proximity of equatorial weather. Could there be something here worth looking into?

    I seem to remember you saying something in your write-up about that Air France flight that indicated a fairly common occurrence of extreme weather – whether wind, rain, or whatever – in areas near the equator.

  15. Chris Murphy says:

    More blame the pilots nonsense. But reading between the lines: The airline had poor repair practice to have a bad solder joint on a rudder that caused it to intermittently fail some 23 times over months; but then the pilots didn’t take proper corrective action for this with flight 8501. Their actions were incorrect because they didn’t have training. They didn’t have training because Airbus said the conditions necessitating such training were so unlikely to happen, so they didn’t need training. So really it’s the hubris of Airbus, improper/inadequate repair by AirAsia, improper oversight of those repairs by Airbus and the Malaysian air transport authority. Really last on the list of blame are the pilots, but naturally the headline is “pilot response…caused crash.” Dicks.

    • MW says:

      I more or less agree. We can think of it with the Swiss cheese model ( The control problem should not have happened, but it did. The pilots should have reacted correctly to recover, but they didn’t. Given the history of intermittent failure, the control problem half of this equation was both more predictable and easier to fix, so I feel the bulk of the blame lies with maintenance.

      I’m a little more hesitant to say how much blame lies on Airbus, as I don’t feel I have enough information.

      There was a similar accident in South East Asia some time back (a decade?). Again, a budget airline. A navigation computer kept having intermittent failures, and each time maintenance would pull it out, clean the contacts, and put it back in (or shift it to a different plane.) Eventually a crew reacted incorrectly to a failure (as I recall they needed to fly straight and level for a period after resetting it, but didn’t) and they crashed. This one also was in bad weather, but weather was not a primary cause of the crash.

    • S Fariz says:

      Actually, the Malaysian DCA is not involved in this because the airline in question, Indonesia AirAsia is an affiliate of AirAsia headquartered in Indonesia & are under Indonesian authority overview

    • SirWired says:

      Blaming the pilots is not out-of-line here. The full report states that while the captain was troubleshooting the rudder overlimit system the FO took over flying. The Captain (for whatever reason) gave an order to “pull down” (yes, that’s a confusing order), and the FO proceeded to literally “pull down” on the stick, sending the aircraft into a stall.

      There’s no indication that at any point the pilots were presented with inoperative or contradictory instrumentation, and the faulty rudder control was a distraction (and therefore CRM issue); not a factor in the actual stall, which appears to, unfortunately, be due to communication problem by the captain, and poor piloting by the FO.

  16. jyothi Nayak says:

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  17. Eirik says:

    So, Patrick, if you watched CNN this evening, I guess you would be going mad already. Anderson Cooper when talking to David Soucie;
    – It looks like it was the co-pilot flying the airplane, is that a problem?

    And it went on, explaining the roles of the Captain and the Co-Pilot.

    The quote is not 100%, but it went in that direction, as if the “co-pilot” is a rookie who never been at the controls of an airplane.

    I do get that sometimes the “journalists” have to ask the stupid questions, just to get the professionals to elaborate, but do they really still think that a “co-pilot” is more like a “discovery flight” pilot?

  18. CrazyMotts says:

    The ongoing crash investigation, in my view is yet to answer some of the key questions that are, for some reason, left untouched since the beginning.

    The first one is, why is there no mention of the engine debris/left wing? (both not visible in the underwater pics)

    Why are post-mortem reports of the victims being discussed, since the cause of their death will shed light on the events onboard the aircraft prior to the crash? Also nobody deems bothered about the state of the bodies being recovered.

    Here are my views on the unanswered questions for the crash investigation:

  19. Stuart P says:

    Your point about media competence is very well made. My experience is that any time there is a news story or editorial about a subject with which one is well acquainted, it is horrifying to see what they get wrong. Stories about firearms for example: automatic and semi-automatic are always used incorrectly. If the media gets such basics wrong what confidence can we have in the rest of the reporting. Keep up the good work!

  20. Clive Northrop says:

    Hi, maybe in the future someone could design a “black box” that after sensing a “problem” would start data streaming to a server, or maybe after a few moments after a large amount of “g-force”.

    That way you would only need bandwidth when required.

    Just a thought…

    • Ceb Jorliss says:

      Why? 1 plane is lost, MH370. It may never be found in our lifetimes. Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 has been found and we will have answers soon.

      If the purpose of this equipment everyone wants to cram into planes is simply to feed the 24 hour news cycle then is is wasted money. If it does not directly relate to safety of the crew and passengers then all you are proposing is feeding that news cycle.

      We are very very good at determining what causes plane crashes. Give us a wreck and you will have answers albeit not immediately. All I have seen posted here is a lot of people who simply want quick answers, without realizing the cost of what they are proposing and what it would do to airfares.

    • Dan Ullman says:

      As noted, this would only help while the power in the aircraft was still around. It is terrificly easy to program something to do just that. The problem is whether or not you can get the information out.

  21. Ralph SJNS says:

    Why did the pilot asked to change original flight path at the last minute and venture dangerously into troubled bad weather

    • Rod says:

      Do you have a source for his asking “at the last minute”?
      By the looks of things there were thunderstorms all over the place between Surabaya and Singapore at the time — generally poor weather. They were presumably dealing with one “cell” after another.

      Only the investigation — which we all have to hope will be done with care and deliberation, which takes time — can answer these questions.

  22. Rachid says:

    I still find something very strange:
    Almost any smartphone and tablet, whether expensive or cheap, is equipped with GPS technology that can show, in seconds, your location on earth. You can also use an online software (SaaS) to track your whole life location history on a map, meter by meter/inch by inch. I used that option myself and I was able to retrace my whole movements on a map in several years.
    Now, what is strange is that they are telling us, that those big airplanes equipped with top notch technology, and which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, don’t have a GPS tracker, a technology that exists in phones that cost less than $100.
    Even delivery and trucking companies are putting GPS devices in their fleet for tracking purposes. Even parents are now using GPS to track their children.
    How it comes such small and cheap device doesn’t exist in airplanes, to the point that an airplane that cost hundreds of millions of dollars can disappear just like that.
    This is very strange.
    Can somebody explain ?

    • Dan Ullman says:

      Fairly simple.

      Your self-tracking takes place on your phone or device so you have access to it at all times. From time to time, it gets transfered to what is wrongly called the cloud. If your phone happens to die before the latest information is transfered it will be lost. This real time tracking is an illusion caused by the device that was actually there. It off loads information when it has the time or need to do so.

      Tracking children, or anyone else for that matter, is the same as your maps of where you have been. You ask, the request is sent from your device and, if it is allowed to, it will send the information. That information is a combination of live data held in the phone and data that has already been off loaded. Again, if the device has stopped working you have lost the information that hasn’t been saved.

      With very few exceptions, your package isn’t tracked in real time. If I order something that is being delivered by UPS or Fed Ex, I can only find out where the package was the last time it was scanned at a terminal. I could not, for example, discover that the package is now flying over Iowa.

      Aircraft are tracked much more closely and actually in real time. There was never any real mystery as to where the plane was but rather where it ended up. If the plane went down fully intact and straight down it would have been found in minutes. Unhappily and usually, it didn’t. Depending on a number of factors, including in this case the speed and direction of the water currents, that still leaves a hell of a lot of area between where you lost the target and where it might have ended up.

      Ok, so why can’t you just send a burst of information when something is obviously wrong and continue to send that data? Well, you could (and they might for all I know). But you still have the problem of when the equipment stops working. Say that the plane breaks up at 10,000 feet and you lost radar contact at 20.000 feet. This simply means that you have a slightly smaller area, maybe, to search.

      It takes a fair amount of power to transmit any distance. The black boxes, on the other hand, are passive and connected so it takes only very little power. When that power is gone so is the transmission in both cases.

  23. Brian Anderson says:

    With respect to aircraft tracking, “bandwidth” requirements should not be an issue. I can encode a flight number, latitude, longitude, altitude, speed and heading in about 32 ASCII characters and transmit that every 2 minutes for a grand total of less than 1000 bytes per hour per plane. Even if there are 10,000 planes flying over the ocean at any one time that’s only about 2.5 Kbyte/sec for the entire Iridium satellite system – about what is required for a single voice call. This is a trivial data load.

    Such a system would drastically shrink search areas in the event of a total loss of communication and would enable “pseudo real time” tracking with automatic alarms for any significant deviations from flight plans.

    There may be reasons not to do this, but communication bandwidth is not one of them.

  24. John says:

    The worst year had 2,500 deaths in air accidents? Every year 25,000 people die from auto accidents in the US alone. Who’s doing anything about that? We have lost more people due to auto crashes than have died in all our wars, and yet there seems to be nothing done about making our public roads safer. It seems that one is safer in a war zone than just driving to work.

  25. Ramapriya says:

    I don’t know how true this cove’s analysis is but it does appear meticulous, prima facie… As he’s concluded, icing seems to have been a contributory if not causal factor.

    • cmurf says:

      I don’t find this to be a satisfactory analysis for two reasons. First, it doesn’t qualify the type, quantity or rate, and thus the significance of icing at the aircraft’s altitude. It says the critical icing layer was at an altitude well below that of the flight. Second, the Airbus 320 is equipped and approved for flight into known icing conditions. Yet the author of the article doesn’t say precisely how/why icing would affect the flight.

      Also, the article wrongly suggest AF447 encountered clear icing and that this was a factor in its crash. The factor in AF447 was pilot obstruction due to ice crystal accumulation. That is not the same thing as icing.

  26. Kris says:

    It is high time that air travelers should demand at least the location of the aircraft is known in case of a disaster.
    It is also possible to have survivors in a disaster and time is the most valuable thing so that rescue mission could be launched to save any survivors.
    In this day and age when a mail package is tracked all over the globe along its journey, it is hard to understand that a long range aircraft worth 150 to 300 million dollars depending on type carrying over 200 passengers who are priceless to their loved ones is not being tracked for at least it’s position by lot of airlines.

    • S Fariz says:

      Kris – mail package tracking is totally different to the tracking of airplanes in REAL TIME. It is much more complicated, and of course costly. Problem is airline passengers nowadays want cheap fares & more cheap fares. There’s only so much an airline can cut to satisfy that need and still make reasonable enough profit to satisfy its stakeholders. Indeed, I can’t think of any other industry that have seen lower prices (when inflation have taken into account) and increasing costs. I think the airline industry is unique in that sense.

      Unless it is mandated, you can be sure that airlines will be reluctant to pay if their cost benefits analysis shows that it’s not bringing in money. It may be callous but it’s the truth.

  27. Greybeard says:

    And the business about the flight not being authorized to fly on that day keeps getting reported, as if that has ANY bearing on the crash! One reporter did say “Not that this necessarily has any bearing on the crash” or some such, but “necessarily” and “couldn’t possibly” aren’t synonyms, either.

  28. johnnyrio says:

    I’m by no means any kind of expert on these incidents but I have seen every episode of Air Crash Investigation as well as read numerous books on air crashes and I do have my own two cents to offer.

    I’d put everything on an ice related incident. We know weather was a factor and at that altitude it’s most likely ice, and frozen pitot tubes will bring a plane down easily (Air France 447). I’m guessing it was either frozen pitot tubes or too much ice on the wings.

  29. Paul says:

    Just a thought… why don’t airliners install CCTV into the cockpit? At least in situations like this, everybody will be aware of the facts so we can learn from them.

  30. […] Originally Posted by HassaanAbdeen I know this is not the right forum for this kind of question. But I remember we have pilots among us who I'm reaching out to. I always knew the plane is safe when it's in the air and it can sustain weather conditions and turbulences with no concerns because it is designed to do so. Now this Indonesian flight got me wondering! The pilot requested to change altitude to avoid the bad weather, but was denied. Then few minutes later the plane crashed. My questions to our pilots and the experts: 1) what bad weather at high altitude was they referring to? 2) if it was turbulences, how come in can bring the plane down? 3) if it wasn't turbulences, what weather at such altitude can bring it down? 4) they denied him changing the altitude because other airplanes occupy the air. Shouldn't there be plan B in such cases where they change altitudes of different airplanes to provide a safe path to the one in danger? 5) I always knew take offs and landing are the most risky status of an airplane due to runway and weather conditions (like fog, snow… etc.). Am I wrong? 2014 could be the worst in aviation history. Yes, each plane in the Far East was lost for a different reason. But it should be a wake-up call to the jurisdiction bodies, no? A site with some sensible commentary : The Crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 […]

    • Rod says:

      As always, Patrick is far more qualified to reply than I. But he doesn’t seem to be doing that here.

      A thunderstorm can bring an airplane down no problem. Any airplane. One feature of thunderstorms is violent updrafts and downdrafts. So yes, potentially catastrophic turbulence, possibly exacerbated by hail, icing, etc. In fact, you can get into trouble just getting too close to the things. Yet planes have emerged unscathed from the middle of thunderstorms, just as someone might emerge unscathed from a collapsed building.

      Yes airliners fly around thunderstorms all the time, since in principle their onboard radar tells them the areas to avoid.

      What I don’t understand is that the crew requested climb (as if they could out-climb a thunderstorm, which in the tropics can reach incredibly high). You would think a course change would be more useful, but I’m out of my depth here.

      As for Plan B, if you think the controller is leaving you in a dangerous spot, you can disregard his/her instructions and do as you see fit (while informing the controller of course) so he can tke measures to keep aircraft from colliding. As Patrick say, nobody can “force” you to fly into a thunderstorm.

      Finally, take-offs and landings obviously involve being very close to the ground. So if things go wrong, the consequences are immediate.
      (Whereas, if you’re at cruise altitude, hopefully you can solve any problems with all that useful space between you and the ground.) Takeoffs and landings involve major speed and configuration changes. Cruise doesn’t. Which is why it’s the safest phase.

      But really, it’s all incredibly safe, which is why the (increasingly rare) accidents get such gobsmacked attention.

  31. Chuck says:

    Good points, but it’s also good to note that the only countries that have a certification requirement for flight dispatchers are the US, Canada, and China. Many airlines (but not all) in Europe have a US-like dispatch office, as do the big middle eastern carriers, but there is no formal requirement for a license or any joint authority regulation like the one in the US outside those three countries.

  32. smartnsweet1 says:

    Had a specific question for Patrick that got lost in my anxiety earlier. All the fearful flyer classes, books, reassurances, etc,…tell us that turbulence won’t bring a plane down. Even AF 447 was brought down by a cascade of misfortune starting with frozen pitot tubes. But, with Air Asia coverage, the media and their experts have been saying that, yes, severe turbulence can bring down planes. So, what’s the truth? If I’m in severe turbulence, do I need to worry that the plane is at risk, or believe the experts who tell us that the plane is “built to handle it”. And, yes, I always wear my seat belt, though I wish that others would…

    • Rod says:

      FAA definition of “severe turbulence” >> “Occupants are forced violently against seat belts or shoulder straps.”

      • cmurf says:

        Adding to this, it also says “Food Service and walking are impossible.” And there is something worse than severe turbulence: extreme turbulence. This is the one where the aircraft is “practically impossible to control. It may cause structural damage.” So it takes an awful lot of turbulence to get to structural failure. People will be screaming and vomiting well before structural failure. If you wonder whether the force of the seat belt will leave a bruise, you might be in severe turbulence. Your chances of serious head injury from airborne objects like laptops are way higher than the plane breaking up in flight.

        Patrick makes a superb point about how the media so routinely gets aviation matters so incredibly wrong, can they be trusted to tell us anything? I think most of the time they’re wrong any time they are interpreting facts rather than merely reporting facts. It’s newsertainment. You’ll learn more about the real world taking the dog for a walk than from the news.

    • cmurf says:

      Short answer is no you really don’t have to worry about it, and the talking heads don’t know what they’re talking about. There is a possibility of structural failure in flight, for all sorts of reasons it’s very unlikely. Usually pilots know about turbulence in advance, adjust airspeed below (one of the various) maneuvering speed(s). This is sometimes also called “turbulent air penetration speed”. Rather than structural failure during extreme turbulence, the wing briefly partially stops flying. It’s effectively an aerodynamic stall but short lived, not abrupt, and you’re unlikely to notice it unless you’ve had flight training.

  33. Mags says:

    So, the argument against constant data streaming is…bandwidth? Really? This may have been a constraint a decade ago, but it’s fairly trivial to stream a massive amount of flightstats. Even with thousands of aircraft in the air, this isn’t a blip in the usual datastream. If this were in place, we would already know what happened to Air Asia.

  34. Jimmie S. says:

    Thank you for your perspective. One phrase in the article stood out: “In some cases we never learn for sure what happened.” Like with TWA 800 and MH 17?

    • Rod says:

      I think we do know what happened with TWA800. It’s just that some people can’t let go.

      As for MH17, we definitely know what happened: it was shot down by a ground-to-air missile. Though (true) we may never know who fired it or, perhaps more importantly, in exactly what circumstances.

      As for MH370, now there’s a case where we’d better accommodate ourselves with the notion that we may never know.

  35. Ma Zhenguo says:

    According to the ASN figures:

    Starting from the year 2000, nine years out of fiteen had more casualties than 2014. And each of the ten years of the Nineties had more as well.

  36. Bijan says:

    Accidents can be/are unfortunate events. It’s marvelous that humans strive to eliminate them.

    Seems like the evidence points to the fact that the current setup of pilots and machines is at/near an inflection point in history. Many young people have grown up and become pilots without really having that necessity of ‘seat of pants’ experience that the older generations started with nor the technology that the younger ones are growing up with (highly realistic VR simulation anywhere, home etc..) so we need to do something, time to change.

    Regarding tracking, I can tell you first hand, it’s really trivial to globally track something as large as an aircraft. Note that logistics companies around the world are currently scrambling to monitor the exact conditions and locations of every item/kg/lb of freight, in real time. After they fully ‘sensor up’ there will be huge changes based on the ‘big data’ analysis that follows but I’m off topic.

    It’s been a while since humanity had a leapfrog in transportation technology and it looks like we can build tools to have another leapfrog moment.

    Would you prefer your children utilize transportation systems that at best can aim for a 1% accident rate thanks to more knobs, gauges, displays etc… or a 0.0001% (yes that could be an achievable metric) failure rate with full automation?

    Imagine how these changes would transform societies based on what we’ve witnessed historically with these changes?

  37. Miguel Dominguez says:

    Not that I am disagreeing with you, Patrick; I am not, but I understand those recurring questions about real time CVR and FDR datastream uploading. Imagine this scenario, which I think sounds familiar: A plane goes down. Seasoned crew, on an modern aircraft that had just passed a D check. Nobody knows what happened or even venture a reasonable hypotesis (hence the completely unreasonable hypotesis straight out of Geraldo-like reporters’ asses). The flight recorders can shed some light. But here’s the thing: they are at the bottom of the sea, or damaged beyond recovery. The FAA investigators, good as they are, will eventually figure it out, but they will never have the full picture, and some questions will remain unanswered. If only the data had been readily available in a safe location from the very beginning.

    In that scenario, I think it is reasonable to consider those technological challenges. But that is just me.

  38. Prestwick says:

    The cries of “it’ll be too much data!” or “data overload!” are red herrings. A single packet of data containing a planes call sign and their GPS co-ordinates is extremely small. Visa operates a global infrastructure routing far more data on far slower connections (member banks rocking 56k dial up or 128k satellite ISDN are very common.)

    So let’s just do it. For the families of the victims who’ll be found .

    And by the way, telling those families that these disasters are extremely rare doesn’t bring them closure or relief. Only more grief that an industry – from airline execs to pilots – refuses to move with the times.

    • lhhung says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one that sees it this way. It sounds more like a lack of managerial will and fears about costs rather than anything technical.

      It reminds me of a conversation I had with a tech consultant/manager who was justifying the Y2K debacle by saying that the experts at the time had said that this was too expensive to store the extra date information.

      I pointed out that this was not true – I had written compression routines on 60’s era hardware and it could have been easily done as many techs said at the time.

      Her answer was to repeat frostily that “EXPERTS” had been consulted. Her butt had been covered with that rationale before and she wasn’t about to abandon it decades later no matter how wrong it was…

      I think the answer is the same here – doing things differently and better are feasible but management doesn’t want to bother.

      The arguments advanced here are not very convincing, technically or logically (I mean almost all safety measures are only rarely of use).

      Of course, it would be helpful if Patrick can point to where he obtained the EXPERT opinion so why transmitting extensive flight information takes up so much bandwidth in an age where wifi is being offered on flights.

      Here’s one link I found which makes sense to me…

      • Rod says:

        A question for Prestwick and Ihhung. Any such system would by definition be electronic. Conceivably this could have worked in the case of the AirAsia crash.(But then they quickly found that airplane anyway.)

        However, in the case of MH370 — which is the Big Enchilada that we’re all really thinking of here, isn’t it? — it does seem to a lot of people that the mostly likely scenario there was pilot suicide. And the crew are able to shut down electronic systems as a wedge against the horror of an onboard fire (see Swissair 111). Whoever was at the controls of MH370 appears to have shut down everything (starting with the transponder) that could have been used to locate the aircraft. So what use is a system that — if deployed on the Malaysian 777 — would have been shut down long before the airplane ever reached wherever it now is?

        Maybe Patrick could comment on the possibility of locating such a device well away from the fuselage (wingtip?) and powering it with a continuously recharging battery that operates autonomously. Oh, and an automatic fire-retardant system to cut off and smother the thing in case it were to overheat.
        Is this plausible?

        Someone else pointed out that it’s little comfort to desperate relatives to explain to them how rare such occurrences are. And a pilot going round the bend … it happens, right?

      • cmurf says:

        Problems with the dailybeast article:
        1. It proposes 15 minute granularity in reporting. AF447 from moment of first unexpected event to crashing into the ocean was 4 minutes. AirAsia from last radio report to last radar contact 5 minutes, In both cases evidence of wreckage is found well within a reasonable distance from last known location. So 15 minute granularity is actually worse than what we already have.

        2. Proposes automatic position reporting upon flight path deviation due to “rogue intervention or because of violent weather conditions”, acknowledging AirAsia would be exempt because the pilots intentionally changed course. And since violent weather conditions don’t themselves cause a change in course, this idea is pointless. The article doesn’t describe how to distinguish between normal pilot inputs and abnormal or rogue inputs.

        3. The propose ground based infrastructure to collect the data doesn’t exist. The $50,000 estimate is absurdly low. It’ll cost a lot more than this, even assuming every ICAO member agrees on a single repository for all this collected data, which they won’t. And without economies of scale, the price goes up higher. No airline operating in the U.S. and Europe, and likely not any domestic flights, need this system. So why should they pay for something they don’t need? Now it costs even more.

        4. AF 447 had limited automatic position reporting. MH 370 opted not to pay for this. And AirAsia was under radar contact. So the only flight in 2014 the proposal by this article would have helped would be MH 370, but they opted out of the service. The article blames red tape rather than the airline though.

        • John LM says:

          All your points are spot on. It’s been a strange year in aviation but the fact that this type of technology has been available for years but has not been implemented even after AF447 and the hundreds of crashes that came before it shows that we already have this covered in usable terms. I also notice people are harping on the tracking function and not the data storage (which is arguably more important and the crux of Patrick’s response) shows that this is more a emotional request then one of pure necessity.

          Airplane manufacturers, airlines and their oversight agencies have spent many millions of dollars making air travel safer then ever over the last 50 years. Collecting data I would gather to say, is not the most expensive ever proposed but cool heads realize under normal circumstances this problem is non existent in most circumstances. Planes are tracked in a multitude of ways on the back end and black boxes are extremely reliable under the harshest of conditions. I would say it’s the publics need to know right away and the 24/7 news cycle that is really pushing this demand. People were hashtagging like crazy after only a day of the plane not being found but before MH370 they would have patiently waited for the professionals to do their jobs.

          The most important thing that needs to come out of all this is to make air travel safer then it already is. We need to focus on what went wrong and not on our own obsessions under the guise of caring for the families. They deserve the truth, not speculation.

  39. Marci says:

    Thank you Patrick. I had been looking forward to reading your take on this recent incident knowing yours would be the best and without the ratings-seeking bias that we get from typical mass media.
    I love your book and articles on current events. Your time and dedication are much appreciated.

  40. dave says:

    Interesting point in this article

    The FAA working group established that today’s pilots have a number of “vulnerabilities.”

    The prime one is that if the automatics fail, the pilots are no longer practised in managing without them.

    • cmurf says:

      Re: comments 18 & 19. The statement “In all three cases there was nothing wrong with the aircraft that would have prevented the pilots retaining control if they had been practised at operating without the automatics” is so unqualified as to be asinine. Pilots routinely train to fly airplanes without the autopilot. The final report on AF447 acknowledges this, and that pilots don’t have any surprises or problems flying without automated systems.

      The problem is with conflicting sensor information which is why the autopilot disengaged, and likely why pilots became confused. If you read the AF447 final report it’s reasonable to conclude they thought they were in an overspeed condition rather than a stall.

      Further, the report cites a lack of simulator fidelity when departing from the aircraft’s normal flight envelope. This means there’s no way to simulate the behavior of the airplane when its operating outside normal flight envelope. I don’t know if that problem has since been adequately resolved in the U.S./Europe, let alone elsewhere in the world.

  41. dave says:

    Wondering how a pilot reacts to this article. Seems to indicate that computerization of the cockpit has led to less safe flying

    • Rod says:

      Patrick is the expert, but I’ll say this:
      Computers like to monitor systems, whereas people like to fly airplanes.
      The apparent disconnect Learmount is talking about is perhaps due to these roles having been reversed, especially chez Airbus. The problem is exacerbated by Airbus doing completely gratuitous things like having manual control of the aircraft occur via a sidestick whose moveements are invisible to the pilot not actually flying, which makes it just that much easier to slip outside the information loop.
      There seems to be a strange love of abstraction among Airbus engineers.

      That said, who knows how many lives have been SAVED by “fly-by-wire” (pioneered by Airbus)? That information is, by definition, not available. So it can’t justified to make sweeping statements like computerization has made flying less safe. Flying is increasingly safe, dramatically more so than it used to be.

      Also, the four crashes mentioned by Learmount are divided evenly between Airbus and McDonnell-Douglas (whose aircraft have a much lower degree of automated abstraction).

      Anyway, the causes of the Air Algérie and AirAsia crashes are still a matter of speculation.

  42. cmurf says:

    Fox News reports “unbelievably steep climb”
    Yet another example of flawed aviation reporting, such as “black boxes, must be recovered before officials can start determining what caused the crash”. However a “steep climb apparently beyond the performance envelope of the aircraft” sounds suspiciously like autopilot and pilot confusion due to airspeed reporting inconsistency.

  43. John says:

    It is my understanding that the system doesn’t constantly stream CVR and FDR data to the satellite. It sends a position report ever few minutes. However, if an anomaly is detected it begins to stream data. In the case of Aur France for example it would have begun transmitting when the autopilot disengaged.

  44. Yash says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I stumbled upon your website when I googled “why do airlines have black box on the plan instead having it cloud based or on a remote location.”
    The above article was well explained and brings up my confidence in air travel.

    Keep ’em coming.


  45. Josh says:

    Interesting post, as always. Is there a certain culture in other countries for airline pilots NOT to have autonomy in terms of taking off in bad weather, changing course around weather, diverting to alternate airports, etc? Or is this more of an American/European unwritten or even written rule?

  46. John LM says:

    I don’t want to jump to conclusions so this question is hypothetical and something I’ve been pondering while reading about AF447. Why is it that when pilots of an Airbus might need automation and stall protections most (Alternate Law) does the plane hand back almost complete control to the pilot quickly and without warning? I understand the mechanics of the systems and the different laws after reading “Understanding AF447 by Bill Palmer”, but I still don’t get why the computer doesn’t use another source of info such as GPS and angle of attack sensors to help pilots flying with bad or no primary information? As it stands now losing the AoA sensors does not disconnect the AP and has contributed to the Air New Zealand/XL crash and caused a 4000 ft loss of altitude on Lufthansa flight last week. Any ideas on why the discrepancy or your opinions on this subject?


  47. Jeff Guinn says:

    Patrick — great post.

    Pure speculation here, but what the heck. I bet that weather will be a contributing factor, with the primary cause being late and inadequate decisions putting the aircraft in an area of extreme turbulence.

    There are procedures for making emergency routing deviations, and the crew was likely late perceiving the weather threat.

    Also, in my experience, unless you are in a U-2, SR-71, or the ISS, trying to overfly significant CB is never a good idea.

  48. Andy Blankertz says:

    Why isn’t ther a single button to active an EBIRB like beacon? Or are things so hectic that even hitting one extra button is too much?

    • John LM says:

      You would be surprised the tunnel vision that can accompany situations of overwhelming stress. The human body has a tendency to shut down extraneous stimuli when an emergency hits. People point out that the pilots of AF447 ignored the stall warning even though it chirped continuously, but tests show the first thing the body does in stressful situations is turn off the auditory portion of the brain. We have to be trained to push back and stop the tunnel from forming. Our natural tendency is to freeze up but only through repeated excercises do we learn to function at this level. Professionals who train continuously will push the button, others who let repetition and automation dull their senses might not push it.

      • Marc says:

        Regarding auditory shutdown – every time I venture into a McDonald’s, I am staggered by the sheer amount of noise behind the counter. Fryolator alarms seem to be going off non-stop; they would drive me insane, but the staff just ignore them and go about their business. And that’s just a McDonald’s during a not-too-busy lunch hour. I’m not at all surprised that the flight crew of an endangered airplane would have selective hearing!

  49. dave says:

    latest is that they ask for a route diversion to avoid the thunderstorm but were denied due to crowded skies. They were forced to fly through the thunderstorm and put lives at risk. Now how stupid is that?

    • Rod says:

      As Patrick points out, if you believe ATC instructions are putting your aircraft at risk, you may disregard them. Nobody is “forced” to do something they know to be dangerous.

      Anyway, as my flying instructor put it, ultimately it’s better to get yourself into trouble than to get yourself killed.

      As of this time, we don’t know for certain what happened. Though an upset and “loss of situational awareness” in severe weather would seem to be a candidate.

  50. dave says:

    You don’t need to be a pilot to know weather was a huge factor in this crash. Look at the intensity of the thunderstorms at the time. What were they doing trying to fly through that?

    • Rod says:

      Who says they were trying to “fly through” it?
      Airplanes fly through areas with thunderstorms all the time. That is, they weave around dangerous cells where necessary.
      As has been pointed out, it looks likely that weather was a factor in this event. More than this it would be reckless to conclude.

      • dave says:

        “weaving around” is not the same as flying through. Look at the weather radar and the last contact. They were flying directly into a severe cell.

        • Rod says:

          Oh well, why bother even holding an investigation then? Case closed.

        • S Fariz says:

          Dave – it could be that they were misled by a non-existent gap on the weather radar.

          It’s not the first time it had happened – Southern Airways 242, 37 years ago.

  51. JuliaZ says:

    Journalism about air crashes sinks to a new low. I’m very sorry that they are adding “blonde” to the qualifications of being an idiot, since I am one, but these commentators clearly have no idea WTF they are talking about. Also, only caring if flights are dangerous FOR AMERICANS… keep it classy, Faux News.

    • John LM says:

      While I didn’t see this segment I have read about it and her reasoning isn’t completely out of left field if she actually knew her aviation history. Two major accidents in the last 30years have been caused by confusion between the two measurement systems, one being the Gimli Glider. So maybe all the vitriol being spread across the Internet against her is cometely fair since I’ve seen many uneducated comments being thrown around. *Disclaimer* I’m a card carrying Democrat and I loath Fox News, but I don’t support the internet mob mentality.

    • Jeff Guinn says:

      The international mishmash of units makes a dog’s breakfast seem orderly by comparison. Unsafe? No, not quite.

      Smart? Heck no. Way dumber than any blonde.

  52. Ari says:

    Ok, I understand that the most critical task is making sure the airplane is flying. But there’s two pilots. So you’re saying that in a fall from 32,000 feet – which, even if straight down would take a couple minutes – neither one would think to radio ATC and say ‘we’ve got a problem’ or send any kind of distress signal?? That’s hard to grasp.

    • Anonymous says:

      Why?? If the aircraft is going down, the LAST thing to cross your mind will be to share your troubles with ATC. No, with the altimeter unwinding fast, the pressure would be quickly mounting to Do Something to make it stop.

      I’m sure Patrick has previously quoted the flying adage “Aviate, navigate, communicate” — in that order.

  53. smartnsweet1 says:

    Okay. The fearful flier is back. The terrifying video from Japan last week and not this horrible tragedy. Thunderstorms happen every day, all over the world. Yes, airlines will–fortunately–yield to safety rather than profit and adjust schedules to avoid them when possible–most of the time. Even if so, climate change has brought us stormier weather, with greater intensity and frequency. I always took comfort in the old saw that the planes were built to handle hurricane force winds and weather, as uncomfortable as it might be for passengers. Now the media and are admitting that “weather” and turbulence can bring down a plane. Um…what to believe? And, the next time I fly, how do I know it’s just a few minutes of discomfort, vs. the beginning of the end? Any helpful advice? (Until Elon Musk builds his continental and under-the-ocean trains?)

    • smartnsweet1 says:

      typo…”now this horrible tragedy”.

    • Take a cruise ship instead? There are risks with every form of transport. Even walking. Do a risk/reward assessment before you leave and just do your best to be safe.

    • yestwo says:

      I sympathize with what you wrote. How do I know its just a few minutes of discomfort and not the beginning of the end? That’s my ultimate question too. I tell myself that five billion passengers fly every year. On flightradar24 you see 8000-10000 planes in the air 24 hrs. Such figures help me.

    • nicholas Robinson says:

      What is the “terrifying video from Japan last week”?

      • smartnsweet1 says:

        Sorry, South Korea to Dallas. The flight landed in Japan because several people were injured by severe turbulence. There’s a video out taken by an American passenger.

        Thanks to all for your wise and kind words. Yes, everything is a risk, and the risks remain low in flight, thank heavens. It’s just if your number comes up, it’s a terrifying way to go… Now I’ll just go and put my vivid imagination on hold. 😉

  54. JP says:

    Thank you Patrick for this post. Winter weather-related delays happen all the time – ice, winds and poor visibility are obviously dangerous. I wonder, are monsoons taken less seriously?

    Well for what it’s worth I hope for the best – that they find the plane and many survivors.

    (BTW- your book is the best. Most of my family is/was at some point involved with airlines but I was always afraid to fly. This, despite my cousin being a captain, my dad long-retired flight engineer, mom a stewardess and it goes on and on. I’m a professor of biology. I guess I just never trusted the system: all those wires and parts, something could go wrong any time! Your book has alleviated some stress. Thank you!)

    • Marc says:

      > I wonder, are monsoons taken less seriously?

      This is a (small) pet peeve of mine: a typhoon is a storm – the Asian equivalent of an Atlantic hurricane.

      The monsoon is a _season_; it’s what we Westerners tend to think of as “the rainy season”, though the weather it brings actually depends on local geography.

  55. nicholas Robinson says:

    Okey dokey pokey! The proof that the yawns are already setting in is when a story on Mashable (yeah, okay, not the best news source BUT) entitled “11 DIY ways to camp indoors when the weather outside is frightful” is above the billing for the AirAsia crash. *yawn*

  56. nicholas Robinson says:

    As Patrick says, people’s memories are short.

    I remember sighing at some point in 1985 that a major — and I mean over 300-dead– airline disaster seemed at one point to be happening every week.

    Umm, that’s maybe because at one point, it WAS happening every week.

    I don’t remember what the rest of the world was preoccupied with when Air India and JAL went down within ten days of each other — both 747s packed to the gills with travelers — but it can’t have been so earthshaking. Perhaps we were all quite used to major airline disasters back then.

    This was only slightly post the major hijacking era, when another TWA flight being hijacked to Beirut just mainly elicited a collective yawn — but complacency seems to have overtaken the public of late, so all this in one year seems to be one huge conspiracy. Is George Bush suddenly back in power? Hmm . . . no, that can’t be it.

    The Russians? Yes!!! They shot down MH17! Or did they?

    I wonder when the yawns are going to start to set in this time. Considering air traffic (sorry, no backup stats) has about doubled since 1985 and accidents have about halved (again, sorry, just an educated guess) it seems like it’s coincidence: 10, conspiracy: 0 at this point.

    Actually, you could just cynically view it as a “market correction.”

  57. Jeff BH says:

    I guess my question about ATC reactions to pilot course change requests is this: in countries which the military has an outsized role in the political equation, is it more difficult to get such requests honored? I’ve heard pilots in China say precisely that: that the amount of military-controlled airspace makes course change requests less likely to be both asked for and honored.

    • Jeff Guinn says:

      In China, getting directs approved is almost impossible — never mind convoluted routing. However, the moment you add “due weather” to a request, there is never a problem.

      In the area, Vietnamese and Singaporean controllers are *very* professional. Malaysian controllers aren’t as good, but they always accede to course changes due weather.

      Of course, it really helps if the pilots are making requests well ahead of need.