Monday, December 29, 2014

AirAsia 8501 - A Series of PILOT Errors? MH 370 was Pilot Malfunction. Was This?

Although I made a career as a global business negotiator/attorney, I have held a pilot's license since I was 17 so the loss of Air Asia 8501 interests me both as someone who has flown in that part of the world in the back of the plane and as a pilot trying to figure out what caused the accident.

Unfortunately, this could be yet another case of PILOT error instead of mechanical failure.

It is still too early to know what happened but AirAsia is somewhere at the bottom of the sea.  One thing I heard today, if true, was that the craft may have been flying about 100 miles per hour too SLOW for the weather and attitude, according to someone with access to a radar report. If that is the case, it could have "stalled" like the Airbus 447 that went down in the Atlantic in 2009.

In that case an instrument iced over and the pilots had to fly on manual. Because the control stick on an Airbus is on the side of the seat next to the outer wall --unlike the Boeing where it is front and center --it would be hard for the chief pilot to know that the co-pilot had pulled it BACK, which at a slower speed causes you to stall and lose attitude. At night, they never saw the ocean coming. They were too busy to actually look at what one pilot was doing that led to the crash.

The good news is that unlike the missing MH370 that disappeared over the Indian Ocean -- at depths of 10,000 to 20,000 feet, the Java Sea is only about 150 feet deep, making it easier to pick up its emergency beacon signal.  Air Asia had been upgrading planes for real time tracking but this aircraft did not yet have it installed.  It is a matter of time before it is found.

Unlike MH370 I do not think this was pilot hyjacking, but either a mechanical malfunction or a pilot error or even a combination - if the pitot tube iced up as happened on the Airbus 447 incident over the Atlantic in 2009.

I had my own experiences with night flights over Asia and malfunctioning aircraft (in Texas) which is covered in "Better Times Ahead April Fool."

I also have direct experience with flying a small aircraft into a thunderstorm. It happened when I was about 18, a newly licensed pilot. I belonged to a flying club that owned a four passenger Mooney Super 21 like the one on the photo below:
I was waiting on my parents as a front approached the airport. I was hoping we could get off the ground soon enough to go around it. By the time they arrived and we were cleared for takeoff the clouds were over the airport. As soon as we lifted off and started climbing I knew we were in serious trouble. The wings were shaking violently. I realized that if we got any higher and went into the clouds we were done. So I stayed as low as possible - hoping not to run into any ground obstacles and called the control tower to inform that that we were coming back to land. It was dark and the plane was still shaking as we touched down.

The rain by then was falling heavily.  We taxied back to the hanger and parked the plane. The next morning the sun was out and we flew the thousand mile trip without incident (on one of those trips we were buzzed by military jets near a restricted zone but that's another story for another day). I had learned a valuable lesson - never never fly anywhere near a thunderstorm.  The big jets have radar to pick their way through a storm but even they avoid the "red" areas that indicate hail and sharp downdrafts and updrafts that can tear wings from an aircraft.

Stay tuned for updates.

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