It was one of the most horrifying mysteries of modern aviation. An airliner and 228 people vanished over the South Atlantic. This wasn’t Agatha Christie stuff. The killer was not the Professor with a lead pipe in the conservatory of a 19th century Nile river schooner.
No, this was the 21st century. The technology on an Airbus A330 is so advanced that the airplane itself streamed a cascade of digital messages to a maintenance center a continent away. The airplane, under attack, was crying for help.
An aviator who isn’t even curious about this could be the next cold-blooded killer.
There’s been a terrible accident; no survivors. The details were sketchy. Calm winds, an engine failure after take-off. The airplane stalled, lost the hundred feet or so it had gained since lift-off, and became a crumpled pile of parts on the ground.
In April 2007 I read Julie’s article in AOPA Pilot magazine. About a killer of pilots and aviators. It scared me. I photocopied it for Carlo and some other pilot friends. Then I forgot about it.
Two years later an airliner crashed in Buffalo, New York. Colgan Air 3407’s Captain had failed a commercial check ride and proficiency checks before the accident. The First Officer earned $15,000 a year. Food-stamp wages. She had commuted from her parents’ house in Seattle across the entire US to New York, when she had to go to work. She couldn’t afford an apartment closer to her regional job.
They spent an entire night and day at the airport, waiting for their duty flight.
Together they killed 50 people, including themselves. Speculations spread about crew fatigue, weather and icing, underpaid pilots, the usual conspiracies.
Then the National Transportation Safety Board report came out.
The pilots had committed a fundamental error. The worst a pilot can make.
I couldn’t understand it. Every pilot learns about this killer early in primary flight school. Colgan Air’s pilots had to be fatally incompetent, the bottom of the skills barrel, to make such a basic mistake, right?
Because four months later Air France Flight 447, this time with three highly experienced pilots, disappeared over the South Atlantic. 228 lives lost to the same stalking killer.
The speculation over this new crash was intense and wide-ranging. Weather imagery showed huge thunderstorms where the flight disappeared. The airplane itself bleated for help with a deluge of messages automatically sent to its maintenance center.
Air France, Airbus and the pilot unions bickered over hypotheses. A criminal case for manslaughter was filed.
Incredibly, the ‘black boxes’ were found two years later. Last May, robot submarines found the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder, 4,000 meters deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
The data recorder, recovered from a two-year bath four kilometers deep, was readable. The final report was issued last week. The mystery was solved.
The Air France flight crew had committed the same basic error as the Colgan Air pilots.
They say accidents come in threes. I held my breath.
Even as the Air France black boxes were found last May, FLYING magazine published aviation writer Tom Benenson’s “Don’t Quit Stalling”. The article bewailed the decline of stall proficiency among pilots and urged renewed training on stalls.
Also in May, the Experimental Aircraft Association sent me the results of a survey on spin proficiency.
Intrigued, I ran my own informal poll on stalls. Four turboprop pilots and at least one A320 Captain told me they had never experienced actual stalls, not even in flying school. They didn’t know what a stall feels like, never mind how to recover from one. They are all airline or corporate aviation pilots now.
I was stunned.
On the other hand my former flight instructors, who taught me slow flight and stalls, are now A320 Captains and First Officers. Another general aviation pilot who taught me oscillation stalls years ago is also an A320 Captain now.
During my aerobatic training, Meynard and I flew stalls all the time, nearly every flight. Aerobatic and fighter pilots routinely stall their airplanes in competitions and combat.
You can recover from a stall in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I thought every pilot in the world knew how to do that!
Christine is a pilot from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She posted a comment here, also last May.
I’ll never forget kicking the rudder hard in a full power off stall in the Super Decathlon. Equal parts anticipation (here comes the spin, finally!!!), sheer terror and exhilaration as the wing tilts over and the ground comes into view, filling out the windshield and ROTATING!!! What BETTER way to understand the physics behind your flight control input. Adverse effects of rudder, here they are in their pure form.
Then my CFI (former military test pilot, … my medicine man) demonstrated wing wash-out while the stall horn was screaming bloody murder (see, Christina, ailerons are still working)…ha ha…. Awesome sauce!
These days, if I get too slow on the approach and the stick becomes mushy, the hairs on my neck rise up. Stall horn on approach/take-off – won’t sound when I’m PIC. Pitching up in a stall? Not me. You’re absolutely right there, it’s a huge safety factor, not just b/c you learn how to recover from a spin, but once you’ve been in one and checked your altimeter before/after 1.5 rotations, you’ll do your very best not to get into one inadvertently.
So my poll numbers began to even out. Some pilots do get it. Maybe Colgan and Air France were bizarre exceptions. Maybe I was just paranoid.
Then, last week, the third accident happened.
Posted from Manila, August 2, 2011
Referred reading, EXCELLENT articles:
Push, AOPA Pilot magazine, April 2007
Don’t Quit Stalling, FLYING magazine, May, 2011