On February 14th our Chairman, Chris Roberts, spoke to some fifty Members about aspects of airline operations, especially safety. When Chris retired from fast jet test flying he had two options: Warton or get a new employer; unsurprisingly he chose the latter joining Thomas Cook’s ‘My Travel’ airline flying, initially, the MD83 (a Douglas DC9/MD80 development) and then the Airbus A320, A321and A330, so he is well qualified to speak on this subject.
    The first scheduled international passenger flights were introduced by Air Transport and Travel Ltd on August 25th 1919 who flew ex-military DH 4As from Hounslow to Paris. The fare was 21 ( equivalent to about 1000 today) and the fare is the same today…but the experience isn’t. Then flying was for the elite, now it’s for the masses.

A View From The Flight Deck

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    Turning to security Chris said the before the nine-eleven event it was airline policy to co-operate with hijackers, the action taken being left to the Captain. Post nine-eleven lockable cockpit doors were introduced and mandated. This led to problems such as the case of the young German pilot who locked his Captain out of the cockpit so he could crash the aircraft to commit suicide. This is a difficult problem because if a ‘secure’ way of being able to open the door from the cabin is devised, someone will leak it.
    Nasty events include clouds with ‘hard centres’, for example Table Mountain near Capetown, and the effects of poor visibility on the pilot’s perception of glide path angles which look much shallower than in clear conditions. Such consideration led to the development of the ‘autoland’ system utilising the standard airfield ILS (instrument landing system), the first use of which on a scheduled passenger carrying flight was in a Trident 1 on June 10th, 1965!

In spite of this many people believe that it is not a safe procedure whereas in fact it is incredibly safe. Worldwide there has NEVER been an accident due to a system malfunction. It was suggested that greater fidelity than standard ILS glide slope and azimuth localiser would be better but that is not the case. What the pilot needs is the assurance that the performance of the ILS is safeguarded against interference from ground traffic. Advice to pilots is that if you have a landing problem (eg a failed engine) in clear weather “use auto land”.
    The centre console on a modern flight deck is the crew’s computer interface for feeding in the data for navigation, flight modes etc and also for autopilot control. The pilot today is a systems operator rather than an aviator. The overhead panel carries the failure warning lights; the Airbus philosophy is that satisfactory systems operation is denoted by no lights. This leads to short check lists; one A4 page.
    Traditional flight instruments have been supplanted by screens; up to five on the Airbus. All the flight data are displayed graphically and this can cause problems. In the traditional cockpits which had standard instrument layouts pilots were trained to carry out a scan pattern taking in all the vital information. With comprehensive screen presentations it is possible to become too engrossed in the detail of some particular aspect. Head up displays (HUDs), common for many years on military aircraft, are now available on airliners but some operators are not specifying them because of the training burden.
    Navigation using maps and hand-held computers has been replaced by satellite global positioning systems (GPS) displays which “spoon feed” today’s crew who may not even have to enter their route which has been pre-loaded by ground engineers. The displays show the route, the weather, the waypoints, the track and so on. The pilot task is to check the displayed track with beacon information using aviation charts.
    Runways were then discussed with photographs of interesting examples. They differ widely in length, approach hazards and so on and are categorised according to difficulty as A, B or C. Cat A are routine, Cat B require the pilot to have special training and for Cat C a specific licence is required.
    As for cabin crew they are not there just to serve meals but for safety. The size of the crew is proportional to the number seats and the number of exits, all of which have to be manned. The ‘cosmetic’ aspects of the job, for instance food and drink service, duty free sales, can distract the crew from observing possible safety issues. An important task is the passenger safety briefing. Many passengers do not pay attention to what is vital information for their own safety and for the safety of fellow passengers who may be put at risk by those who have ignored the briefing.
    Remember, said Chris, that in an emergency the passengers’ circumstances can change from carefree comfort to being in a wet, cold muddy field very quickly. Be dressed for what the weather will be outside should the worst happen during take-off and landing; in particular don’t take your shoes off. Also, don’t wear nylon clothing which melts when heated and never, ever stop to get your hand luggage from the overhead lockers. The delay could cause the death of passengers behind you. Locking the overhead lockers would be a solution to this real problem. For short haul operators hold baggage loading piece by piece is labour intensive, slow and expensive so charging for hold baggage was introduced by low cost airlines to drive more passengers to take cabin bags. (Long haul airlines use pre-loaded containers.) There are far too many bags in the cabin, said Chris, which affects safety directly and also increases the number of bags going through security checks - the more bags there are the more likely something unpleasant will get through. The little bar code sticker on your bags is very important as it will still be there if the main label is torn off. So always remove the old ones or your bag may end up in Moscow!
    Regarding oxygen masks, some aircraft have chemical oxygen generators activated when the mask is used leading to a burning smell and warm gas - don’t worry, that’s normal, but passengers aren’t told. Why are the cabin lights turned off for take-off and landing? Just so the passengers have some night vision if it all goes dark in an emergency. What about ‘air rage’? If passengers do become enraged they will be tied up in restraint gear by the cabin crew, many of whom are being given martial arts training. Lithium batteries are a dangerous fire risk and not long ago they were not permitted on aircraft. Remember your laptop has them! A ban would be unacceptable at present, but it may come. Fire in the air is rightly feared by aircrew.
    External collision hazard factors affecting safety include birds, bats and hail, the latter being capable of shattering windscreens. All that can be done is to deter and avoid. Flying through volcanic ash clouds causes the build up of deposits on stator and rotor blades seriously degrading engine performance so it is important to avoid such clouds.
    The number of major accidents per million airliner departures has dramatically dropped from 6.21 in the 1960s to 0.57 in the 2000s. The big three causes in the period 2007 to 2016 were runway excursions, flight into terrain and loss of control in flight (LOC-I). The first two were reduced by technology, eg ground proximity warning systems, but the biggest killer is pilots losing control of a flyable aircraft. LOC-I kills more passengers than all other categories added together. The problem is tackled by upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT). The basic problem is the loss of situational awareness where perception does not agree with reality. Causes can be external such as weather factors including microbursts, or internal where the pilot “loses the place in the script” which not uncommonly happens during go-around procedures, spatial disorientation perhaps caused by acceleration factors, or confusion in interpreting attitude and direction indicators (ADIs) where the one in use differs from that which the pilot trained on at the start of his career.
    Commercial pilots are trained on straight winged aircraft then go to the airlines to fly swept winged aircraft which have different stall behaviour. At the airline they will do type training on simulators and their first actual flight will be on an aircraft full of passengers! The simulators are high fidelity ‘Level D’ machines which incorporate aircraft avionics and electronic systems. However, the motion simulation is comparatively poor and can be misleading, more to some pilots than others, and no simulators provide post-stall feel because no modern airliner has ever been departed in a stall during flight testing so the data doesn’t exist. So, should the airliner pilot find himself in a stall situation he remembers his training….in a Cessna! A Cessna does not behave like a swept wing airliner whose handling is more like a Hunter.
    In 1982 the first wide-body jet was certified for two crew operation. Airworthiness requirements have not kept up with technology and the autopilot is still seen as a back-up to the pilot who will have to take over in the case of failure. The airworthiness requirements should recognise that the all the information needed to fly the aircraft is vested in the autopilot so it should be considered the primary system and qualified accordingly. Future aircraft need to be fully automatic and no pilot should be forced to take over when he is not ready.
    Chris concluded by describing an advanced simulator he is involved with that addresses the shortcomings noted above. Desdemona is a development disorientation training simulator with optimised motion cueing based on side force rather than angular change. The gondola can rotate through 360 degrees about all axes at speeds to generate realistic g forces, there are innovative visual aids and the computation includes advanced post stall aerodynamics.
    This comprehensive, well illustrated, wittily delivered and somewhat worrying talk kept the audience enthralled right to the end.