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Sep 9 2012

Why They Crash? Part 2: Human Factor

Every time we hear the infamous term “human factor” related to an aviation accident, it is almost invariably combined with another cliché: “pilot error”.

Though not necessary wrong, it is important to understand that pilot – by a virtue of his position – is always at the end of the events chain. His involvement may be major or minor factor, but whoever the fault – pilot is the first to be held responsible, and his unlucky passengers and cargo are those who’d ultimately suffer from the event.

Let’s look at the most common type of human errors related to the flight safety. Using airline statistics from the previous article, I am getting the following numbers:

37.85% – accidents directly attributed to the pilot error (navigation errors resulting in collision with terrain, attempt to fly through a thunderstorm, fuel mismanagement, ground loops or runway excursions on landing, etc.)

14.01% – accidents related to the engine failure (fire, catastrophic failure, consequent forced landing in a hopelessly unsuitable area, etc.)

11.93% – accidents related to external events (aircraft destroyed by terrorists, crashed by some fuel or service trucks, arson, etc.)

8.45% – accidents related to the control difficulties (excessively demanding aircraft handling, runaway trim or similar conditions, control surfaces or connections failures, etc.)

3.29% – accidents related to the ground roll (landing gear failure on takeoff and landing, asymmetric leg retraction or trust reverse, blown tires, stuck brakes, etc.)

1.74% – accidents related to the aircraft systems (autopilot failures, electrical fires, navigation system or oxygen supply failures, catastrophic decompression, etc.)

Disregarding unknown causes and minor, rare occurrences, such as airplane disintegrating in the air due to a poor design or maintenance, responsible for barely 1.72% of the known cases, this count gives us a hefty total of 77.27% of the accidents directly or indirectly related to a human error, or criminal intention.

That’s ¾ of all cases!

Scary.

Even removing those dummy truck drivers smashing parked airplanes, and nasty terrorists blowing airliners from the sky, we still have more than 65% of the accidents traceable to the pilots, controllers, or mechanics negligence and incompetence.

How happen that pilots carrying an Airline Transport license, with thousands of hours, still manage to overshoot or undershoot the runway? Depart the runway, reaping the aircraft in pieces engulfed in flames? Stall and spin it on a published departure, or sink to the ground on approach? Why the heck do those highly trained and competent individuals deviate from the canned and proven flight course to smack an aircraft into the mountain wall? Just having a bad moment?

And those incredibly smart and organized ATCs, who yell on the pilots for minor mistakes, yet fail to separate Jumbos on a collision course – or pass the developing trouble to a buddy, who doesn’t bother to check out a handful he just got? The whole air traffic control system was created to help pilots know each other’s position for sure, with ground control keeping an eye on the radar – but we still have air-to-air collisions every year, and the whole bunch of sophisticated electronics doesn’t help much to survive the ever shrinking separation minimums…

Airlines spend trillions of dollars in maintenance, yet we continue getting news about the airliner engines flaming out, hulls popping into explosive decompression, doors opening in flight, and even the stupid air conditioning systems dripping water on the passenger faces as a minor nuisance. Pilot can do just as much when he’s facing a need to land the crippled airplane in the middle of nowhere, scratching the thin, soft belly over a rough terrain at a landing speed of hundreds miles per hour!

And personally, I would not exclude the ramp truckers from the responsibility chain. They are paid way too well, and their unions defend them way too much, so they don’t feel sorry about damaging millions-worth airplanes – and risking the lives of those who will travel in a repaired ship, with less strength and durability in it.

Looks like the problem is not in the people per se, the whole system is overloaded and cumbersome. And whatever happens within it, though designed with the best intentions, ends up in completely stupid and avoidable human mistakes that lead to a final disaster.

Too much politics and money involved to do things right. Completely obsolete and idiotically bureaucratic procedures and requirements keep on lingering in the aeronautics regulations system for ages, because adding them is so much easier than removing. Ergonomics and usability of the flight management systems – from the airplane cockpit to the ground control tower – is Stone Age, with pretty (and pretty expensive) neon lights and soft plastic added to demonstrate the “progress”. Insane insurance bills make profit margins a joke, yet amount of money paid for everything “aviation grade certified” makes flying ridiculously expensive…

And inefficient.

There isn’t much we can do to squeeze more from the pilots – they are already way too overstressed for a sky bus and truck drivers. Their tasks are simplified, but procedures are overwhelmingly complex and dumb.

Can we filter out the pilots prone to make bad decisions, thus minimizing the factor of pilot error? Current flight training system is specifically focused on exact procedure following, excellent memory and discipline. This is quite opposite to independent thinking and decision making – basically modern pilots are intentionally selected to be primitive robots, easily liable in case of an accident, as they generally don’t survive it.

I would say that we can definitely do better, though this will require a paradigm shift.

It is hard to ask much more from the ATC’s – human brains have limits in the number of objects to consciously and consistently control, so even with all the electronic aids, looks like we are pushing this limit every time global business requires reduction of flight separation minimums.

The whole concept of communication between ground and air units could be changed, though – from imprecise and error-prone voice chat to precise and immediate telemetry, predefined banks of requests and responses, precisely integrated into the navigation and traffic control structures. That’s also a huge paradigm shift, minimizing human participation and impact – though making the system more dependent on a technology, with all corresponding development and maintenance issues.

What surely MUST be done is booting the unions, lawyers and politicians out from aviation for everyone’s safety. This may require some sort of dictatorship imposed by the government, but hey, if that’s the only way to do that – it should be done. Unless we really want to keep “enjoying” the images of charred human bodies scattered between the aircraft remains, pretty much daily in the news.

Future?

Imagine a heavily robotized aerial-transport system, optimized planet-wide. Aircraft are as good as it gets to fly the Earth atmosphere. Think neatly maintained airports, able to receive these aircraft anytime, any weather, within each design limitations. Dream take-off, en route and landing procedures orchestrated and controlled to the smoothest possible level by automated systems, dynamically adjusted to the ever changing logistics scenarios.

Imagine the people dealing with this system – much more managers than operators, much more architects than truck drivers. Intelligent, capable to make quick and smart decisions and stand for them, personally responsible, efficiently communicating… There will be much less of them needed, comparing to the current number of the cockpit and tower monkeys. But they would be also much better paid for designing and supervising the automated systems, improving and guaranteeing safety of the traffic flows in the real time.

Imagine everyone responsible for the airports and aircraft maintenance being held liable, directly and personally, for what they are doing – thinking about every action that may affect safety of the system. No more goofballs on a tractor smacking the tail of aparked airplane. No more idiots unable to latch the cargo doors. No more assholes leaving debris on the runway or forgetting to fuel the aircraft before flight.

Imagine a new generation of pilots, as smart and efficient as the above mentioned aerospace system managers, working the layer of emergency response, military and law enforcment flying. Aviators, not operators – understanding the system and capable to cooperate with and within it! Air taxi will stop being a killer, becoming a flexible and efficient transportation mean…

Sounds like a dream to me.

You say, many will lose their nicely paid jobs? Of course, and to hell with them! I would rather be sitting in a computer-controlled and human-supervised airplane, safely travelling from A to B in the most efficient way, than care about lazy and dumb asses who think McDonalds is no different from the airport in a sense of work quality and responsibilities.

And looks like we are slowly moving in a right direction, however, there will be many lives lost until we get there. God knows how I’d like the future to come faster, so I could enjoy the crow-hopping around the small local airport in a vintage biplane, knowing all too well that no dumbass will attempt to ram me going “low-level IFR” without any regard to everyone else’s lives. Strict rules help. Smart systems save lives. We need to be there.