Monday, March 8, 2010

When you shouldn't bring your child to work.

I've been reading quite a bit about the incident at JFK airport of the child that was given the mic and the order for the planes to take off or go to a radio frequency to controllers for take off. Seems that 2/3rds of the respondent, including some pilots, find in favor of the controller and that no real harm or dangers were presence and that the FAA is overreacting to the whole thing. Frankly, I find such nonchalantness to be not only disgusting, frightening, but down right dangerous. Frankly, I'm often not a fan of government interventions and find we're grossly over regulated, but there are some regulations that are necessary like traffic laws so we don't crash into each other, FCC for transmissions so when we turn our channel on the TV or the dial on the radio, we get the same station every time instead of rivals fighting for it by putting in the largest transmitter. The norm of FAA regulations exists for good reasons. I'm going to tell two true stories and perhaps understand not only do I think the FAA is doing the right thing by suspending this ATC (Air Traffic Controller) which many think is overreaching, but I think he should never work as an ATC ever again nor the pilots that support him.

First has to do with SilkAir, an ATC company for the Swis. In 2002, this company violated regulations and safety protocols when they were allowing some ATC's to take breaks without another to cover their station. Another controller would work both radar screens at the same time. One fateful night, not only was another controller go on a break leaving one controller to work two stations, but maintenance came along and shut down the primary radar. Not a big deal normally, but it will slow down the radar and had another effect that the ATC didn't know about: it shut off the radar immediate collision warning system. Then maintenance shut down the primary phones as well (again, a violation of regulations, you don't do both at the same time as the reason will become apparent) which inadvertly disconnected the backup as well.

While this is going on, a Russian plane heading to Madrid had gone into his range and had been handed off to him. A short time later, a DHL plane, heading to London would appear and was on a collision course at the same altitude. They were several miles apart, and both planes had TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), so he wasn't worried, but a couple of planes on the other station needed his attention. One need more than he was able to give and he tried to get help, but the phones were out. Once he was done, he noticed the problem which by now the Russian TCAS had detected the DHL plane, but DHL hadn't noticed yet and was given the order to ascend (TCAS give actions to avoid a collision). The ATC gave the command to descent which the Russian's obeyed. By this time another plane needing a lot of attention was radioing on the other station and the ATC attention would be on this plane for the next two minutes. This would end up having tragic results. At this time the DHL TCAS had detected the Russian plane and gave the descent command which they obeyed. Now both planes were descending. The other station was using the radio frequency the plane on the other station and DHL wasn't able to get through to tell him that TCAS has given them a descent. The other plane was also needing too much attention and again the ATC tried to phone for help. Afterwords, the planes were now 60 seconds apart when he noticed the imminent collusion and gave the Russian plane the order to descent, descent immediately. Then a 3rd plane on the other station took his attention away. Thinking he's avoided a collision when actually as DHL still hasn't been able to get through, has sealed their fate as the Russian again obeyed him, not their TCAS which was still telling them to climb. 45 seconds later, both crews saw the unbelievable and horrible truth. The last thing on the cockpit recorders were the Russian caption screaming CLIMB! and the DHL co-pilot screaming DESCENT, DESCENT HARD! But it was too late. The DHL tail sliced into the fuselage of the Russian plane right in front of the wing splitting the Russian plane, with over 40 children on board, in half and tearing off the tail of the DHL and igniting the fuel on the Russian plane. The Russian plane fell right where they were and the DHL plane crashed 4km further. The controller, now his partner has returned, returned to his station only to find the DHL transponder working (the Russian lost theirs when they were sliced in half) and descending out of control. He immediately realized what had happened and fell apart. He left and never worked again (he will be murdered two years later by one of the fathers of the children that died). Because the company ignored some inconvenient regulations, two planes crashed and 67 people died, 40 of them children. Added that there's no guidelines as to what to do if you get conflicting instructions from TCAS, as Western pilots are trained to always obey, and non-western pilots, which it's at their own discretion, this was a disaster waiting to happen.

ATC regulation exists because air flight is a very dangerous and serious business. If something goes wrong, you just can't pull over the road and fix it or pull into a gas station and ask for directions. If something goes wrong, people die. If you think it's all safe and sound on the ground with something as simple as clearance to take off. Well, the worse aviation disaster ever which over 560 people were killed when a KLH plane took off thinking they had clearance while a Pam Am plane was still on the runway. A rare radio phenomenon caused a miscommunication leading the KLH plane to think they had clearance when they didn't and the two planes crashed on the ground. Only 61 people survive and all on the Pam Am. So having an ATC that so callously disdain the seriousness of his position, and the pilots that thought it was cute, let someone, a child no less, play around as if it's a toy shows a serious lack of judgement. Such a lack of judgement cost the lives of 69 people in 1996.

Aeroflot, the Russian national airlines, in 1996 had a major mystery. One of their planes, just 4 months old, had crashed suddenly in the Siberian mountains. There was no distress call made and the plane went from cruising along to disaster in a matter of a minute. Imagine the shock when they found out how the plane crashed.

In Russia, one of the few feats of respect and prestige was to become an airline pilot. Especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain. One such man was the #2 pilot of Aeroflot. 5 hours into a flight from Moscow to Hong Kong, the Captain took his scheduled break, putting the #2 in the captain seat and #3 in the co-pilot seat. A family friend, with #2's two children, a 15 year old son and 13 year old daughter, on their first international flight, decided to play a visit to their father in the cockpit. This man being proud of the industry's new toy was showing it off when he came up with the fateful idea of letting his children sit in the seat and handle the controls. After all, the autopilot was in control. First his daughter and he manipulated the autopilot to make a small turn giving the illusion she was flying the plane and then back on course. Then the same with the son. When done with the turn, the son was still in the pilot seat while he visited the family friend as with co-pilot. The child still had his hand on the wheel. What the pilots didn't know was that the auto-pilot will disengage certain parts of the controls if the controls are manipulated for 30 seconds. Since the son was turn the wheel to the right, the airions disengaged putting the control of the bank of the plane to him. The plane started to bank to the right and since this was at night, the people inside didn't notice. Once the son realized the artificial horizon was showing a bank, the pilots got confused and though they were having an instrumentation problem. That is til it reach 45 degrees and the truth hit them. Ask a physic student what happens when a plane going 500km/hr is banked at 45 degrees. You get what is known as G forces. The plane at this bank and speed is now undergoing 2G's. Everyone now feels twice their weight. The co-pilot can't reach the controls and the captain can't get to his seat and the child can't get out. They can't get him to correct the bank and when the plane hits 60 degrees, the plane finally stalls and the autopilot completely disengages. The G forces comes to an end, but now the plane is diving straight down to the ground, the co-pilot, who now got his hands on the wheel pulls the plane up, but does it too hard and the plane stalls again and falls. The captain and co-pilot again gradually pull the plane up, but they run out of altitude and crash into the mountains. 67 people are dead because a father thought it would be fun to let his two children think they were flying the plane only to have one really did and lose control. What makes this story more tragic is that the 757 has an anti-stall device. All they had to do was let go of the wheel and the anti-stall device would had automatically pull out of the dive, but the pilots didn't know this.

The gist is that regulations, in aviation anyways, are in place for a very good reason. About 80% are written in blood because it took disasters like these for us to realize the potential dangers. When they're ignored, too often tragedy strikes and since 70% of disasters are caused by human error, disregarding them and claiming there's no danger and then criticizing the regulatory agency for reacting isn't just rebellious, it's stupid. Just ask those on Value jet 582 about regulation violations that aren't of any real dangers. That is til a fire that wasn't suppose to be possible burned down the plane. Midland 5412 when 7 steps of a rudder control cable wasn't followed and that misalignment cause the plane to stall and crash into a hanger (as well as faulty assumptions about average weight). Alaska Airlines failing to following maintenance regulations that caused the failure of the horizontal stabilizer which cause the plane to crash into the pacific ocean. When one disregards regulations in this industry, they're placing people in unnecessary risk and to have people criticize those that take those risk seriously and claim they're too harsh on those that don't just shows not only a great deal of ignorance, but are a danger to the traveling public. Anyone one with such contempt or ignorance of those risk in my personal opinion, isn't suited to work in the industry. So not only do I think the suspension is right, I think the controller shouldn't ever work again. As for those pilots that support him. I hope they lose their wings. After all, if it's ok for the child to be in the ATC tower, why shouldn't I believe they think it's ok for them to be in the cockpit and I know where that can lead to.

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