Pilot vs. Instrumentation

Pilot cockpit

My ski locker partner is a Delta pilot. One morning he spouted his views on young pilots who “grew up playing video games.” That’s pretty much how they fly, he said. Always on instruments and lacking the hours he logged flying without all the latest onboard computers.

It sounds like the National Transportation Safety Board might agree with him. The agency recently held a hearing to explore causes behind the UPS cargo jet that crashed on approach to Birmingham last summer.

The crew was coming in on “a computer-generated path to give vertical guidance,” but then changed their tactics at the “last minutes because the onboard computer did not perform as they had planned,” according to The New York Times.

Some at the hearing felt there were “strong parallels” between that UPS crash and the Asiana flight that came up short at San Francisco International Airport in July.

Both accidents involved “heavy pilot reliance on automation, possible failure to anticipate its limits, not enough experience landing without a full instrument system, and failure to keep track of key parameters.”

Airspeed was determined to be the issue in the Asiana crash, which killed three people aboard the burned-out Boeing 777. In the UPS crash, two crewmembers died. The cause was probably related to the altitude of the Airbus A300.

Fatigue might also have been a factor. The accident happened around 5 a.m. New regulations from the FAA regarding hours of work and rest are in place for commercial pilots but don’t apply to pilots flying cargo. The new rules were in response to the commuter plane that crashed in Buffalo five years ago.

UPS released a statement saying, “crew rest is a complex concept.” They reckon it’s not always the case that “a pilot who flies at night must be tired.”

But now UPS the FAA and the pilots’ unions are looking at “whether adherence to the stricter passenger rules would have changed the crew’s work schedule.”

“There is no reason to exempt pilots simply because they’re carrying pallets rather than passengers,” said the safety board chairwoman.

Details of the UPS crash suggest a flight dispatcher failed to provide “all relevant weather information to the crewmembers, who may not have anticipated a low deck of clouds.”

Apparently the crew was not using the main runway’s instrument landing system because it was closed for maintenance. They were landing on a shorter runway without vertical guidance. But they were comfortable enough to send “a text message asking their hotel to send a van to the airport.”

A course change from air traffic control “threw off the onboard computer that they were counting on to provide guidance.” Experts told the safety board hearing that the pilots ignored four factors indicating they were “not proceeding along their planned path.”

When they were at the altitude equivalent to a 20-story building, a warning system beeped they were descending too rapidly. The A300 was like a two-ton safe swaying overhead on a frayed rope. Seven seconds later it was over.

It should be noted the captain was no rookie. He had “more than 20 years of experience with UPS and had previously flown into Birmingham 175 times.”

But investigators said UPS pilots “seldom flew non-precision approaches outside training exercises.”

In the Asiana crash, the instrument landing system also was “disabled for maintenance.” (I don’t understand this.)

In the coming months, the safety board will issue findings on both crashes.

Another pilot, who flies for UPS, also shares our ski locker room. He’s a little more reserved than the Delta pilot and didn’t want to comment on his work schedule. But he was quick to say that he “likes to stay below 38,500 feet,” although he often has to cruise as high as 41,000 feet.

What’s his fear at higher altitudes? Solar radiation. But that’s another story.

The Tarmac’s View:  Other than mathematics (maybe), there’s no such thing as an exact science. Nor is aviation exact. Eighty percent of airplane crashes occur due to pilot error. Pilots, airlines and regulators learn from mistakes and their remarkably high safety record keeps getting better. In my book, all pilots are heroes. May the fallen rest in peace.

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