Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: "Understanding Air France 447" by Capt. Bill Palmer

In a recent radio interview, a doctor described a procedure followed in many hospitals when a patient dies. The attending physician stands before his peers and presents the case – what symptoms were seen, what actions were taken, what results were observed, what errors were made, what needed actions were omitted, what lessons were learned, what changes ought to be made. Discussion ensues. The process is, literally, deathly serious as the cost of the knowledge gained is someone's life. This learning process is called "Morbidity & Mortality Rounds".

This process came very much to mind as I read Capt. Bill Palmer's excellent "Understanding Air France 447". In this case, aeronautical sins of commission and omission were committed. Fatal results ensued. 228 people died. Attention must be paid.

Perhaps in a more just world, the Chief Pilot at Air France would have come forward with a book that covers this ground. Of course, some combination of legal trepidation and organizational pride will preclude that from happening and so Capt. Palmer has stepped into the central role. By his deep expertise in the systems and behaviors of Airbus aircraft (and the A330 in particular), he is highly qualified to do so.

Although Capt. Palmer clearly cares deeply about safety, this is not a passionate book. It is, rather, a thorough, methodical and ordered presentation of the facts and circumstances with a minimum of inference. Conclusions are drawn when justified by evidence; possibilities are suggested only if supported by the record.

The author starts us off with an outline of the chronology of the event, the basic biographical data of the flight crew, and an overview of the operational environment that prevails on these long flights across the lonely South Atlantic. He reviews the adverse weather conditions that the flight encountered. We learn about the icing-related failure modes of the pitot-static system that in all likelihood caused a temporary loss of all airspeed data, precipitating the cascade of events leading to loss of the aircraft. A clear and helpful description of the Airbus' fly-by-wire system, its control laws and ancillary systems gives the reader a basis for understanding the events that follow with frightening speed.

At 02:10:05 UTC on 1 June 2009, due to absence of airspeed data, the autopilot on A330-200 aircraft F-GZCP disconnected, returning control to the Pilot Flying (PF). There was nothing else wrong with the aircraft. And yet, four minutes and 23 seconds later, the Airbus smashed into the unyielding surface of the ocean below. To aid in understanding how this could have happened, Capt. Palmer divides the period from autopilot disconnect to impact into four phases – three only seconds long, the fourth just a few minutes. He dissects each phase, examining crew actions and aircraft responses, slowly assembling a tragic picture of inadvertent error and ultimate futility.

As each phase of the event progressed, recovery of control became more challenging and less likely. During the first phase, the airplane was climbing while being subjected to inappropriate control inputs, yet recovery to controlled level flight would have been fairly simple. In contrast, sometime during the final phase the airplane probably became unrecoverable. At any event, approach to recovery would by then have required extremely aggressive measures beyond the experience, training, and probably the imagination of the pilots.

The first eight chapters of the book are concerned with the laying out of facts and the explanation of relevant background. They are the foundation on which the last three chapters stand. These are titled, "The Human Element", "Lessons Learned" and "Going Forward". Here, the author delves into the "Why?" of AF447. He discusses fatigue issues, control mode confusion, mis-understanding of aerodynamics in the cruise environment, and gaps in training. As is usually the case, there is no single "smoking gun" behind this tragedy – each of these factors probably played a role.

In his discussion of "Lessons Learned", Capt. Palmer points to a range of issues:

  • Better understanding of the mechanics of stalls at high-altitude is needed.
  • More refined understanding of the subtleties of degraded flight control laws is needed.
  • More time spent hand-flying in the cruise environment is needed.
  • Adoption of the 'Safe Harbor' concept (a fallback, fail-safe pitch-and-power configuration) is advisable.
  • The programmed behavior of the Flight Directors may have contributed to the accident and should be reviewed.
At the end of his book, the author calls for improvements in the training of line pilots to address these and other lessons and shortcomings. He sums up the situation pithily, saying:
"We must not allow mastery of the Flight Management System to be confused with airmanship."
...and his last sentence seems to be addressed to everyone in the industry who is charged with preparing pilots to take responsibility for the lives of passengers: "We have been warned."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Today at KBDR

Early this morning the bright sun was shining at Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) and warming the old aluminum bones of some visiting veterans. The 2013 Wings of Freedom tour of WW II aircraft maintained and flown by the Collings Foundation was again in town. The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine", the Consolidated B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft", and the North American P-51C Mustang "Betty Jane" were waiting quietly on the ramp for the day's visitors and admirers.

We are fortunate that there are dedicated men and women who work very hard to keep these old birds flying, helping us to honor the memories of those who went to war in them. And so, a few words about each of these wonderful machines and about their old namesakes...

The original "Nine-O-Nine" was a 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Squadron aircraft that completed 140 missions in Europe without an abort or loss of a crewman.

Today's airplane, s/n 44-83575, was license-built by Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, CA and was accepted by the USAAF on 7 April 1945 – making her 68 years old. Born too late to see combat, she served as an air/sea rescue aircraft and as a transport. Sold into civilian life, she worked for two decades as a fire-fighting aircraft and then was restored to wartime configuration. A serious accident led to a second restoration, but since then she's logged over 1,200 tour stops. Since the unfortunate loss of "Liberty Belle" in 2011, "Nine O Nine" is one of only ten airworthy B-17's in the world.

The original “Witchcraft” was a B-24H, built at Ford's Willow Run plant in Michigan in 1944. She began combat service on April 10th, 1944, flying the first combat mission of the 467th Bomb Group. Over the next year “Witchcraft” flew 130 combat missions, never turned back from a mission, and never had any crewmen injured or killed. Her last mission was flown on April 25th, 1945.

The airplane we see today is B-24J s/n 44-44052. She was delivered from the Consolidated Aircraft Company's Fort Worth, Texas plant in August 1944, 69 years ago. In October of 1944, she was transferred to the Royal Air Force and saw combat in the Pacific Theater. At war's end, the aircraft was abandoned in Khanpur, India, never expected to fly again. However, in 1948 the Indian Air Force succeeded in restoring 36 B-24's, including this one, to operational status – and thereby hangs a tale.

These B-24's served the IAF until 1968 and then were abandoned. 44-44052 spent 13 years in derelict condition until she was discovered by a collector, shipped to England and ultimately acquired and restored by the Collings Foundation. Today she is the only airworthy B-24J and one of only two flying B-24's (the other is a B-24A).

The P-51C that carried s/n 42-103293 was built by North American at its Dallas plant in 1943. That aircraft went to England where it flew for the 370th Fighter Squadron, 359th Fighter Group. There, it suffered substantial damage in a training accident (search on the s/n HERE) in which Capt. Carey H. Brown, Jr. of Monroe, NY was killed. The aircraft was written off on 3 May 1944 and sent to the scrap heap.

After many years, significant parts of the airframe were recovered by a professional aircraft restorer – including the data plate. This allowed the resurrection of 42-103293. When the aircraft was rebuilt in 2002 and 2003 it was completed as a 2 seat version, a TP-51C. This field modification added a second seat with flight controls and instrumentation for training purposes. (At least 5 TP-51Cs were built during WWII for training and VIP transport.)

This Mustang is painted as Col. Charles M. McCorkle's "Betty Jane", that he flew as commander of the 31st Fighter Group in the Mediterranean Theater. Col. McCorkle had 11 confirmed kills, six in the Mustang. After the war, he rose to the rank of Major General, retiring in 1966. He went West in 2009.

Col. Charles M. "Sandy" McCorkle in the cockpit of his Mustang