Sunday, August 9, 2009

The price of FAA ignorance.

A lot has been written about the Obamacare of late. There's something that happened that was plastered all over the media but is getting little attention (well, two, but I've already written about Sotomayor), the accident over the Hudson. Seem in 6 months we've gone from miracle over the Hudson to tragedy over the Hudson. I thought I give this one some thought because there have been comments about the FAA that I thought were wrong as well this is a prime example for what government SHOULD do.

As I've seen from the photos and witness testimony as to what happened in the course of the tragedy that took the lives of 9 people including one child, this really came as no real surprise, though I took it with shock with empathy of the horror that the people, both witness and victims, must had been going through. I have left it no secret that I'm studying aeronautical engineering. One of the past times I have is researching air disasters and their causes. In hopes of some day building a better and safer plane, I thought it wise what can go wrong and how to remedy them. What I found out was somewhat what I wasn't expecting. We hear so much about air accidents when they happen think too often something breaks down and the people are doom and the plane crashes. Turns out it's nothing like that. Mechanical error only accounts for 30% of all air crashes (that's including those that cause pilot errors which I call forced errors after the tennis term). 70% are caused by perfectly functional aircrafts. They're caused mainly by mistakes, pilot error. Anyone watching this tragedy saw a prime example of pilot error. A pilot of a private winged aircraft was flying where he shouldn't and just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this happens far more than you may realize.

As a coincidence, I was researching small plane accidents compared to commercial accidents as well as auto accidents on the NTSB website. My niece was getting married the next day and I was checking in the hotel where the ceromony was being performed when I got wind of the news. All I could do is shake my head. What I learned during this news blitz something I haven't researched yet that floored me: private pilots are not required by the FAA to communicate their flight, tracking, or plans. When I heard this I was nearly in a rage. Now I know how the circumstance happened.

FAA gets a lot of flak (pun intended) by pilots because of their heavy regulations and powers. Though I'm not much of a fan of government and regulations, the FAA is one that I do support for one main reason: there's reasons behind the insanity. With a few exception (mandontory retirement being one of them), there are well established reason for the regulations. The one that most pilots hate is the maintenace regulations. If our cars were put under the same regulations as airplanes, we would have our cars in the shop every months and spend 2.5 times what the car is worth new for the maintenance. The reason is simple: if the plane breaks down, you can't pull over the nearest cloud and call AAA for help. Just ask anyone on Alaska Flight 261 what can happen? Those that don't get the sarcasm, there aren't any. All the passengers were killed when the horizontal stabilizer malfunctioned causing the plane pitch control to be worthless and the plane spiraled into the pacific ocean. What caused the disaster? First, lack of maintenance that cause the rod to be stripped by the controller. When that happened, only one bolt was holding the stabilizer in place. Once that failed, the horizontal stabilizers (the wings that control the pitch) were left hanging loose with now way to control the pitch. This was a failure of ONE bolt. Heck, weight can lead to disaster as Midland flight 5481. When a car is over sized, it just loses mileage or a tire or two. With flight 5481, the plane, fully loaded with passengers and luggage was too heavy (they were using weight measures from 1930 and Americans have gotten a lot fatter since then) so it's center of gravity was aft (towards the rear). That and a maladjusted maintenance error on the elevators doomed the plane as it shot straight up from take off, stalled and crashed into a hanger.

As we seen, a fender-bender can mean death. The regulation that commercial planes have is that they have to be on radar and in voice communication with a tower at all times. This is to keep the planes from flying into another's airspace and avoid an midair collision. The fact private planes don't have it is insane. This means they can pop around anywhere at any time. Since they don't have to communicate and some don't have transponders which most ATF's relay on for critical information such as altitude, airspeed, and position. Some use the old radar, but if not, a private plane can be in the way and nobody would be the wiser as to it being there. This is what happened in New York. I'm sure in the end it will be attributed to pilot error. The pilot of the plane couldn't see the helicopter and since was on radio silence, the helicopter pilot had no way of knowing it was there. Add that he can't see with the bottom wings that the helicopter is there till it's too late. Tried to turn, hit the blades severing his left wing and spiraling out of control and destroying the blade assembly that caused the nose dive of the helicopter. All because the plane wasn't required to communicate its intent and position.

What makes this sad and disgusting to me is that this has happened before. Apparently the FAA didn't learn it's lesson over the Areomexico disaster which happened in LA. A private plane, a new comer to LA, the pilot wasn't familiar with the airspace and was trying to use landmarks to find his way. ATC didn't detect him and he ended up hitting the tail of Aeromexico flight 498 destroying the tail of the jetliner while killing everyone on board the single engine plane instantly. Neither plane ever saw each other. When a jet is going 180 MPH with a small plane going 120 MPH, they close fast. Though the jet liner had an collision avoidance system, it only works with the other plane has one too. The disaster lead to the death of 4 on the single engine, 280 on the jetliner, and 15 on the ground as the plane crashed into a Cerrito neighborhood. The end results, 2 planes, 8 houses on impact, 9 more from the fires, and nearly 300 people dead because one stupid moron wasn't paying attention to his flying. It doesn't matter that he broke the law by flying into the restricted airspace of LAX. They're all dead. When I did a comparison of small private planes and their accident rate I found this to be perhaps the biggest problem in all of transportation. The accident rate of those planes are worse than cars (commercial flights on the other hand are the most safe way of travel when compared to miles traveled. Not even close. about 150 times safer). The biggest reason for accidents with these planes are listed as pilot errors. 80% of those errors are caused by pilots not paying attention to their flying.

Accidents happen. People makes errors, mistakes, or just plain can't see everything all the time. That's why there are regulation in air travel. That's why for the most part the FAA should be seen as something the government does right and well: protect lives and property. Though burdensome, flying is the safest way to travel (commercially). However, when rules are broken or accidents happen and the causes aren't addressed as was in the case in New York because that accident should had never happened. When Areomexico 498 was destroyed and why, that regulation should had been made mandatory by the FAA so something like that never happens again. In fact, NTSB did make that recommendation, but they're an investigative organization, not a regulatory one. That's the FAA's job. The fact that the FAA didn't make that change as far as I'm concern, they're the ones who have the blood on their hands over the crash in New York. In fact, their blood in on their hands for every single accident these planes are involved in since that epic disaster which has happen over 100 times the last 10 years (most were non-fatal, thank God, but not all). As one investigator has put it, to get the FAA to do something you have to have enough bodies till they finally do something. Perhaps 9 isn't enough since 300 wasn't. As far as I'm concerned, that's 309 already too many.

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