Having been a frequent flyer for many years, I am now at the stage where, despite knowing it's the safest way to travel, I am becoming more and more reluctant to fly. I too watched the documentary about Swissair 111 and found it worrying. Good on Swissair for removing the backing on the insulation which propagated the fire, but what about other airlines. It is becoming more and more absurd that airlines are allowed to forego safety over profit. I spent alot of time studying air crashes several years ago, and found that alot of incidents were and are caused by poor manufacturing policies and the use of clearly unsuitable materials and work pratices. I don't know, maybe it's just me but is flying becoming more and more a thing of personal courage and bravery, or is it still an enjoyable, safe and reliable way to travel.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It can be a frightening thing too. Unfortunately, it takes quite a bit of research and study to learn very much at all about air safety. Of course, crashes make the news, but so many incidents and systemic problems do not ... and I believe that the extent to which the public is deliberately kept in the dark is one of the major reasons why poor policies, practices and workmanship are not improved. It is no suprise that the industry would resist more public exposure of these issues. What is less obvious is why regulators seemingly go along with it, year after year publishing feel-good safety statistics that serve as a smokescreen for the industry's shortcomings.
Having flown professionally for many years and first soloing at age 16, I've always had an insatiable desire to learn more about the profession. I'd have to observe that most pilots that I've flown with or taught were very safety conscious. However there's no denying that a pilot's safety viewpoint is very subjective. It has to be because he's the one that's being continually tested for recurrency, type conversion, upgrade to captaincy or QFI (qualified flying instructor), Instrument Rating Examiner, simulator instructor, Airways instrument ratings, in fact the list is almost endless and starts with his medical category. Normally tests involve both practical flying ability and theory (oral and written). Pilots hate failing tests and instructors don't like failing them but even worse, scrubbing them from the profession or from entering the profession. But that does happen so there will consequently be few within the profession that are incapable. Having said that, people can have a bad day and circumstances can get on top of you - particularly when you're fatigued. Poor crew relationships (aka Crew Resource Management) can lead to unchallenged mistakes. Indubitably the best pilots that I ever had to instruct had a background in cross-country sailplane racing. There's nothing more challenging than pitting your skill and wits against Mother Nature. But there's no use trying to pretend that pilots don't make errors. Supposedly 80% of accidents are attributable to pilot error. It's probably more correct to say that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the blame for an accident is normally sheeted home to the a/c captain. Sometimes that "evidence to the contrary" is there - but not found. Life is full of aggravating and unfair outcomes.
I can only ever once recall having to fly poorly maintained aircraft and that was during a short in-country exchange tour with a US Army Helicopter Company. We all had to carry blade-grip oil in hip flasks to top up every time we shut down - because all the seals were shot and no spares were available and the war couldn't wait. At all other times I had no hesitation refusing an airplane for good reason, but rarely had to do it. It was risky business doing it in combat because you had accidents on top of the high-risk environment of terrain and weather and high density air traffic, artillery, and enemy action (ground-fire ) all to contend with at once. We lost a mate and his crew due to a blade coming off so we knew that risk was very real. Casadio was his name. Sometimes of course components or engines would fail inflight but that's par for the course no matter what the hardware. In just under 15,000hrs I can count the number of really nasty incidents on one hand. If I look back at what kept me out of trouble it was firstly recognising my own limitations and secondly knowing the airplane technically well. Additionally, once you had lots of hours on a particular type you could make it zing. As a military pilot you'd be tasked to do things that civilian pilots never would - low-level aerobatics, formation aerobatics, low tactical manoeuvre overwater at night, nap of the earth low-flying and yet you survive because you work-up to the degree of skill required. So where are my concerns when I go flying as a passenger? Obviously I would make a poor passenger if I worried unduly about every little noise. I know that the A320 has very noisy hydraulics so I don't worry about that. Noises like gear and flap traveling concern me not at all. But, having had some nasty experiences with fire and smoke, I do recognize that hazard as having the potential to quickly bring an airplane down. Most aircraft services sport a high degree of redundancy - or are of no great consequence if they fail (eg flaps and slats). Unfortunately having the a/c electrics segregated into busses and fed from different generators/alternators/inverters is no protection against the faulty and design-flawed wiring that's to be found in many (if not most) modern airliners (an airliner can be modern yet still aging - because of their high utilization). Airliners are expensive and only pay for themselves when full of fare-paying passengers. Neither manufacturers or operators are keen to see them enter a hangar unnecessarily.
Anything else that worries me? Well as per the Charlotte Beech1900D crash I hate seeing primary or secondary flight controls being worked on without a follow-up proving, non-revenue functional checkflight. I also consider modern aircraft to be a real handful for a two-man crew once things come unglued. Swissair 111 was a prime example. Speaking as somebody who flew with and respected a Flight Engineer's knowledge and skills, I think that two-man operations that rely upon computerisation are intrinsically dangerous because (per SR-111) the automation is one of the first things to go down the tubes when cascading systems failures occur because of electrical fires in wiring bundles. Nearly six years after Swissair 111 the best that the industry can do is to informally advise pilots to forget about their long involved trouble-shooting smoke checklists and just "land ASAP". Think about that during your next over-ocean flight to the Far East or Australasia. The International Aviation Safety Assn (IASA) is taking action by contributing to the NPRM on future ETOPS (Long Range/Long-Haul Flights over remote arctic or oceanic tracts). The draft has opted to consider a cargo-hold fire as being the greatest hazard and decided to completely disregard cabin or cockpit fires. That is blindly premised upon a time-honoured rule of politics. If you can't fix it don't bring it up. Denial is a way of life where industry-wide expense is involved. ETOPS is all about reducing costs for airlines by utilizing very economic twin-engined airplanes flying up to 270 minutes from an enroute divert airfield. Those familiar with the rapid demise of SR-111 will identify that as being about 240 minutes too long for any diversion field to be of use....given the current electrical wiring status and configuration of airplanes in current use. That's the threat that's worth worrying and agitating about - because once a fire starts you are stuck with it. It can be hidden and it can propagate sight unseen. It doesn't have to make your environment uninhabitable (but it could). It just has to destroy systems. Over the ocean without navigation or comms and a fire underway..... what are your chances? Not good. With an engine failure? Not bad at all. Would my concerns stop me flying? Not really, the statistics are on my side. But I do feel for the families that felt the same way yet lost somebody. There are very few certainties - but one might be that Western crews are well trained and their airplanes are well maintained. Another might be that Swissair 111 will not be the last airplane to go down because of electrical fire.
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