24.5.10

Plane crashes and the ensuing danse macabre..

this has been a bit of a bad year for aviation. the AF447 crash in the atlantic, the yemenia crash off the coast of moroni, the turkish airlines crash at amsterdam schiphol, the afriqiyah airlines crash at tripoli and now the air india express crash in mangalore. each of these crashes led to extensive reporting by the media, as they well should be covered. but somehow when it comes to aviation, the media never seem to get even the basic facts right. this, in turn, means the general public never get to know the facts about these accidents. all they get are some twisted half truths which further propel the aviation related myths that are already existent in their minds. whenever i see these reports, i am usually reminded of something i read in the outlook magazine long back, in the diaries section that they used to publish on the last page. it was a story about a reporter who was rushing to cover a mig-21
crash that happened near palam airport, and even before he reached the site he was relaying back 'facts' to his publication, making outrageous claims that there were 30 people on the aircraft. i would think that pretty much everyone knows that a fighter plane cannot carry more than 2 people, 3 in some cases. and turns out the journo's cabbie corrected him and told him that very same fact.

even though these journalistic lapses are generally annoying, the fact that so many crashes happened this year meant that the annoyance has been slowly creeping within me and taking the form of full blown anger. and the reporting by indian media in the aftermath of the air india express crash was the last straw that broke the camel's back. do they even think before they send out these reports? there are some basic journalistic ethics that need to be followed but i guess in these days of sensationalism, those go right out the window, and titles like 'BURNING PLANE' in font size bazillion are what sells. even so, i feel compelled to write this, knowing that this may not make any difference.

the accident : we are all too keen to pass verdict before we know what happened. this has been the case with pretty much every accident, not just air crashes. in india, if two vehicles collide, almost 90% of the time the blame is placed on the bigger vehicle. unless the smaller vehicle did something ridiculously and obvsiously stupid, the smaller vehicle gets away scot free. similar rules are extended to the sky too. the first half-fact is usually treated as the final cause of the accident. in this instance, there are reports which state that the pilot missed his touchdown point on the runway byh 2000 feet. this was immediately labelled as pilot error, and some of todays papers insist that this was the cause of the accident. none of them talk about other possibilities and facts. no one mentions that the actual zone on the runway where he can safely touchdown extends at least a thousand feet, and that even if he missed that by another thousand, he might still have had enough runway left to stop his plane. no one talks of the millions of possibilities that couldve caused the pilot to miss by thousand feet, if at all he did that. i would say that there are a good number of plausible scenarios where the pilot need not have been at fault. yeah alright, truth is boring.

the point here is this, avoid speculation. its stupid, it propagates unnecessary lies, and i personally think that its disrespectful to the people involved. these crashes are a reminder to us of the dangers inherent in aviation, no matter how much we've tried to mitigate them. and people sitting on armchairs on the ground and commenting on the jobs of those who actually face these dangers angers me. to the media, please state the known facts, and please verify them before stating them. if you wish to speculate, do so intelligently, through someone who actually knows a thing or two about not just flying, but air accidents on a whole. the so called aviation experts presented on the tv channels so far are prize chumps and jackasses in my opinion, who are spouting half baked opinions. get credible people, if you wish to discuss this incident, and not someone who would disrespect the dead crew for a few soundbytes.

the airline : air india suffers from what i like to call 'the aeroflot syndrome'. the airline has done a lot of cutting edge stuff over its lifetime, but being a state owned carrier it will always have public perception going against it, especially in terms of safety and service. sure, some of the service points are debatable, and i'll gladly debate that another day in another post, but i see the safety perception as a bit unfair. i wouldnt go out of my way to vouch for their safety, but i will say they are as safe or unsafe as pretty much any other airline in india. their maintenance practices are probably better than average, would be my personal assessment. but note, its only a personal assessment. in any case, some sections of the media making dubious hints at air india maintenance etc would be well advised to stay clear. i mean, what is it with these people? cant they wait at least for the interim report of the accident investigation? and if you look at the air crashes the past year, it includes a first rate carrier like Air France, as well as carriers like Yemenia who aren't exactly well known. it includes brand new airliners as well as old ones. what does it all say? nothing. wait for the individual damn investigations to conclude.

the airplane : the 737-800 has had 8 hull loss incidents so far. if you count from the first generation 737, thousands have been built. this one had a line number 2481, and was two years old. what does that mean, again? probably nothing. we dont know YET. there is always a section that comes up with dubious assesments of the aircraft type, sub-type and even manufacturer. the 737 is not unsafe. nor is the a330, which had two crashes in 12 months. hell, even the tu154 that crashed with the polish president on board, which is a soviet era aircraft known to have a bad safety reputation, is acutally quite a safe aircraft since many of its accidents were caused by factors beyond the aircraft or crew. a few were shot down by missiles, one ran into snow ploughs on the runway that atc had failed to clear, and one was in a mid air collision due to atc error. yet even aviation buffs give me a weird look when i tell them i want to fly on a 154. i do not have a deathwish, i insist it is a safe plane. sure, there have been planes with design flaws, but the planes involved in this year's crashes dont have any known serious flaws, and to insinuate otherwise without proof would be irresponsible. even in the case of the fedex cargo md-11 that crashed in narita, this holds true. the md-11 has certain quirks of handling, but i doubt it has been established as a design 'flaw' yet.

the airport : mangalore airport has a bit of a peculiar runway, which is elevated, and has steep runoffs at either end. it is debatable whether there was adequate space in case of a runway overrun. people will second guess the decisions behind making the runway the way it is now, and it is very probable that the runway may have played a part in the accident. probable, not conclusive. but guess what, a sizeable number of airports have such problems. we build airports where we can, not necessarily where we ideally should be. we cannot always build perfect airports, sometimes they have to be built within some constraints. in madeira, portugal, the runway extends out in to sea on huge pillars. this plane would probably have been a goner there too. what does that say? nothing. airports arent perfect, we have to work with what with have. huge runways on plain spaces are probably possible only in deserts. where there is population and terrain around, we adjust and work a little harder. deal with it.

the crew : one of the initial statements i heard on the news was that pilot error was ruled out because the captain had 10000 hours flying experience. sure, but that does not rule out error. it probably does minimize it, but does not rule it out. but ill concede that one since it's at least not disrespectful to the poor chap. then came the news that the pilot is a british national of serbian origin. there have been some two-bit publications making an issue out of foreign pilots working in india. the nationality of the pilot probably had nothing to do with the crash, such generalizations are borderline racist i would say. for example, all russian pilots arent drunk, all chinese pilots arent bad with english, and all spanish traffic controllers aren't atrocious with their accents. some are, but only just as many as you would find in india, england or the united states. in any case, the key is respect. indications of pilot error or not, speculation on their actions is useless at this point when no facts are known. also, i have a bone to pick with the pilot unions who have brought in pilot workload as a factor. the wreck hasnt stopped burning yet, and these hacks are already pushing union agenda. there isn't anything yet to prove pilot workload as a factor, and pilots should be the last ones making such claims before the investigation is complete. at least out of respect for two dead colleagues.

in conclusion : there is never one single cause for aviation accidents. it is always a series of systemic faults and flaws that culminates in an accident. sure, it may have been triggered by something immediate and plausible like pilot error, but there are always systemic underlying causes. in every damn accident. and the reason we have improved aviation safety over the years is because we have studied these over and over again, and imbibed the lessons industry-wide. in country like ours where there have been incidents where aspersions were cast over the findings of investigative proceedings in the past, the media has an important role and opportunity here to bring us some honest investigative journalism. it's always easy to make scapegoats out of pilots, and if the media stupidly plays up half truths, the real truth may get lost in the cacophony. sure, you could call it pilot error, and train all pilots flying to mangalore a few extra hours on the simulator to understand the airport better, but the systemic causes will strike elsewhere in a different form and incident, and claim more innocent lives with it. the focus should be on an honest investigation, and to learn the lessons from its as soon and as effectively as possible.

3 comments:

vaidehipatil said...

the reports of 'near crashes' have increased so much all of a sudden.. planes barely managing to land before they ran out of fuel or dipping beyond their normal altitudes.. these scare laypersons like me :( no one noticed these misses before or are they observed just after a major disaster happens..

and wholeheartedly agree about the disrespectful bit.. the pilots died too.. speculating what might have gone in their head, why they did this or didnt do that won't help anyone.

fulcrum said...

well, the 'near crashes' are the worst bits of reporting. most often, these are regular run-of-the-mill incidents that happen frequently all around the world. turbulence for instance. the aircraft, for most of these cases, is designed to deal with it. if two aircraft come within a thousand feet of each other in midair, it IS allowed under some conditions. no one is aware of such things.

these reports pop up either after accidents, or on slow news days. the trouble with these reports that exaggerate every little incident is that when an actual serious near miss incident occurs, it often does not get the sort of attention it deserves.

fulcrum said...

http://news.rediff.com/report/2010/jun/21/another-air-scare-at-srinagar-airport.htm

this looks to me like an example of the non events media pick up on.. there is a list of other events at the end of the article where except for the mangalore crash, only one is worthy of mention.