We invite airline passengers to review the safety tips and articles presented here. Please visit David Evans' blog for additional safety information at http://asj.nolan-law.com/.
Basic Air Travel Safety Tips
More Than Red Lights Are Needed For Warning
Reactive Versus Proactive Safety
In the Flying Public’s Interest
On the night of 16 October a helicopter ambulance with four persons aboard – one an infant patient being evacuated – struck guy-wires reinforcing a radio tower near Aurora, IL. The wires ripped through the helicopter and caused it to plummet to the ground. All four persons were killed in the shattered heap of wreckage.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating. One of the big questions is how the helicopter came to be flying so close to the radio tower, which had flashing red lights on the mast to warn of its presence.
But the red anti-collision beacons, many of which are mounted on antenna masts for years, have limitations. Flashing red lights are not easily discriminated as to range at night, let alone relative height. News reports indicate that the red lights on the mast in Aurora were working at the time of the accident, so clearly they are not sufficient.
Even during the day, the threat of hitting masts and guy-wires is very real for low flying aircraft and helicopters. Masts are hard to see. When flying into a rising or setting sun, masts are almost impossible to see ahead.
Masts, in short, are an all-day, every day threat to helicopters. That is especially true at night, even for helicopters in which the pilot is equipped with night vision goggles.
Accident data indicate that 50 U.S. registered helicopters were involved in wire strikes from 1996-2000. That works out to an average rate of ten per year, but the number of dangerous guy-wire impacts – as opposed to electrical wire strikes – is not known.
Unfortunately, equipping helicopters with cutters that snag and cut high-tension electrical wires is probably not a solution. Guy-wires that are surrounding and supporting antennae masts are of a different sort – high-tensile stranded steel, not electrically conductive filaments surrounded by insulation. No rotor blade is going to survive an encounter with a guy-wire or electrical high-tension wire. No cabin or rotor-mast mounted cable cutter is ever going to neatly sever a supporting guy-wire.
The answer is to make the helicopter pilot increasingly aware of the proximate presence of a guy-wire, and to increase such awareness the closer he gets.
One idea is to mount a laser light near the top of each guy-wire; the light would point down the length of the wire to the ground. By this means, some visibility of the wire is provided without creating a nuisance to the public of light pollution.
How well this would illuminate guy-wires for pilots remains unknown. This approach also does nothing to alert pilots during daylight.
Another method involves a simple transponder mounted on the antenna mast and coding an aural message on a discrete frequency. That frequency could be installed in an interrogator aboard the helicopter and triggered by the mast’s transponder at a usefully short range. “Usefully short” infers that nuisance warnings to helicopters passing the mast tangentially, and at a safe distance, would not be triggered (courtesy of the Doppler shift).
A typical message could be a warbler, followed by a "heads up" in the pilot’s headphones along the following lines:
"Caution: a 300 foot tall mast surrounded by guy-wires strung at 45 degrees is on your present track at a distance of 3 nautical miles. You must immediately climb to 350 feet or divert at least 30 degrees left or right of your present track to avoid collision."
This is not a technically challenging task and, if adopted for both military and civilian use, cost would be nominal.
Enhancements, such as the triggering of a centrally-mounted laser-light show illuminating guy-wire mounted reflectors, could be justified for particularly dangerous masts astride well-traversed routes. The reflectors would make all the difference to a laser light shining down the length of wire.
It should be noted that isolated tall buildings would also benefit from transponders (Chicago’s Sears Tower, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, and various other high value edifices).
A higher form and format of warning is required and justified for a higher degree of safety. The NTSB has called for Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (TAWS) on medical helicopters. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has not acted on this two and a half year old recommendation. TAWS is entirely self-contained on the helicopter; it compares the helicopter’s position in three-dimensional airspace against a digitized terrain data base in computer memory. The digitized terrain base can contain made-made objects, providing the pilot with a warning of threatening ground or man-made objects ahead. This technology has been mandated for all airliners, and it has prevented a number of crashes.
However, if TAWS is not going to be mandated for helicopters – especially for medical evacuation helicopters, as urged by the NTSB – the tower/building mounted transponder seems an eminently viable and low-cost means of warning pilots that they are flying toward a man-made hazard to navigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating, and the report is probably months away. And with good reason; investigators have a lot of issues to explore.
Not the least is this message, sent out by the flight department at American Airlines after the incident:
“SUBJ: NEW ELECTRICAL CHECKLISTS
A RECENT FLIGHT DIVERTED INTO ORD AFTER COMPLETELY DISCHARGING THE BATTERY IN FLIGHT. THE CREW FOLLOWED THE CHECKLISTS CORRECTLY, WHICH COME DIRECTLY FROM BOEING, AND [WHICH] DID NOT DIRECT THE CREW TO LAND AT THE NEAREST SUITABLE AIRPORT … NEW CHECKLISTS WILL DIRECT THE CREW TO LAND THE AIRCRAFT AT THE NEAREST SUITABLE AIRPORT IF THE BATTERY IS DISCHARGING AS WELL AS ADD A LIST OF ALL ITEMS ON THE STANDBY AC, STANDBY DC, BATTERY BUS AND HOT BATTERY BUS. YOU WILL SEE THESE CHECKLIST REVISIONS SOON."
Boy, does this message raise questions.
First of all, hasn’t the industry learned anything after the Swissair flight 111 tragedy of 1998? In that crash into the waters off Nova Scotia, Canada, that killed all 229 aboard the MD-11, the crew attempted to diagnose where smoke entering the cockpit was coming from before deciding to divert to Halifax. The airplane was downed by a raging electrical fire above and behind the cockpit.
Canadian investigators determined that some 20 minutes elapsed from smoke first wafting into the cockpit to loss of most instruments and control of the aircraft. The word went out: when faced with an electrical emergency, and especially if an electrically-stoked fire is suspected, land immediately.
Indeed, manufacturer Boeing put out a Flight Operations Bulletin in June 1999, before the investigation was completed in the Swissair crash, enjoining operators to "land as soon as possible." As Tom Melody, the Boeing senior manager and chief test pilot for MD-11 customer service, said in the bulletin, "Don’t delay … consider whether you would rather be on the ground – or in the air" with the prospect of an electrical fire raging in some unseen region of the airplane.
That bulletin went to all Boeing’s MD-11 customers, including American Airlines.
Apparently, the bulletin had no effect on the checklists Boeing provides its customers.
Apparently, American Airlines did not look at all of the checklists for the Boeing aircraft it operates and take action to modify them. Note the whiff of blame in the message American sent to its flight crews: “Boeing [checklists] … did not direct the crew to land at the nearest suitable airport."
Oh, and it appears that pilots were not given clear and unambiguous guidance as to which systems were connected to the various flight essential busses.
Now, after the accident at O’Hare, American is galvanized into action, promising checklist revisions “soon.”
Not soon enough to prevent the emergency landing at O’Hare.
This is the second time American’s procedures have been questioned. After the November 2001 crash of American flight 587, an Airbus A300-600, in New York City, killing 265, the airline’s advanced aircraft maneuvering program (AAMP) came under scrutiny. There was a belief among some NTSB investigators that AAMP predisposed the first officer, who was flying the airplane, to aggressively whap the rudder back and forth, which caused the tailfin to snap off.
Thus, the flight department’s belated memo raises serious questions about how the airline – any airline for that matter – provides aircrews with guidance and training before they get into serious trouble.
Afterwards is often too late. □
Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, has vowed to change the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative (CSI), because he thinks this approach is absolutely wrong. Under the CSI, the FAA treated airlines and airplane manufacturers as valued customers. In Congressional hearings, the FAA’s “cozy” relationship with the industry was roundly criticized.
If CSI is abolished – as it should be – what could be done to make the FAA more accountable to the flying public? After all, passengers are really the customers the FAA serves to protect through various safety programs.
And yet these customers know virtually nothing about the airline or airplane on which they’ll be flying. Contrast the situation with other services; even hairdressers (barbers) and financial planners (not to mention lawyers) have to post their certificates upon their walls above their “cockpits” (desks/chair/computers). In aviation, there is an inbuilt pact of trust implicit in the “terms of carriage,” and the Airworthiness Certificate and Registration Certificate is posted inside every cockpit door. But the general public has very little knowledge of these documents.
One thing that could be done is to create a new page on the FAA’s website, along the lines of a “full disclosure concept,” in which Joe Q. Public could access the following information on every airline, air taxi and air charter company:
It is also within the state-of-the-art to generate a useful safety index or score. In fact, the UK-based FlightSafe Consultants Ltd. has produced a safety index based on a carrier’s past accident record and ten other factors related to underlying safety levels. These indices include fleet age, fleet composition (all newest-technology airplanes to all oldest-technology), the quality of airline management, and so forth. The FlightSafe calculation features a safety multiplier, in which a heavier penalty is applied as the accident rate per 100,000 landings increases. For example, a rate of 1 accident per 100,000 landings carries a multiplier of 0.80, and a multiplier of 0.40 is applied to a rate of 9 accidents per 100,000 landings.
As part of the calculations, fatal accidents carry double the weight of minor accidents. An airline can score between 10 (a perfect safety record) and 0 (which applies automatically to those carriers with 25 or more accidents per 100,000 landings).
It is suspected carriers will not relish the FAA putting out information such as that suggested here. But, then, imagine an FAA website that carries real safety information, not just self-serving rhetoric, which is the present situation.
The list of items could be pared. Like it is said, if you want a radio, ask for a color television.
But based on a new government theme of transparency, relevant safety information could – and should – be provided in the public interest.
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