Thursday, July 29, 2010

Don't Blame It on the Weather!

James Fallows is a National Correspondent for The Atlantic whose work I enjoy greatly and respect immensely. He also happens to be a capable instrument-rated private pilot (I believe he owns a Cirrus SR-22). Mr. Fallows maintains a blog wherein he comments on matters political, cultural and occasionally aeronautical, and yesterday he offered observations on the Airbus mishap in Islamabad.

The information in the post is helpful and cogently presented...but there are a couple of paragraphs, tangential to the main thrust of the piece, that I feel require a counterpoint. He has this to say:

"Bad weather is ultimately responsible for most of what goes wrong in aviation.(*) Fog or clouds that keep pilots from seeing the runway (the Polish airline tragedy), strong or gusty winds that complicate the process of touching down, icing in below-freezing clouds (Colgan in Buffalo), severe turbulence from thunderstorms (probably the Air France flight over the Atlantic), etc. ..."

The asterisk points to this footnote:

"(*) For another time: the different genesis of commercial-airline versus private-pilot accidents, with flat-out pilot error playing a far larger part in the latter case. But there too weather makes a huge difference."

With all due respect, I disagree. Bad weather is not "ultimately responsible" for anything. Bad weather simply is!

The fog in Smolensk wasn't responsible for the accident that killed the Polish president; blame lies with poor decisions made (for whatever reason) by the flight crew. The cold, wet weather in Buffalo wasn't responsible for the Colgan Air crash; at issue was the inability of the Captain to respond correctly to the situation. We don't know what brought down Air France 447 (and may never know) but other aircraft passed through that area before and after the fatal flight without incident.

The quoted footnote seems to imply that "private-pilot accidents" differ in kind from air-carrier accidents. Certainly they differ in frequency (air-carrier accidents being far more rare). But in the vast majority of cases, across all segments of aviation, the sudden meeting of aluminum and unyielding earth is the result of carelessness, incapacity or neglect on the part of the flight crew. We, ourselves, are the greatest source of risk.

Don't blame it on the weather.

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