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Lawyer says pilots could have landed the plane
Lawyer for Swissair victims says pilots could have landed safely
Last Updated Fri, 28 Mar 2003 10:45:53
HALIFAX - A lawyer for nearly 100 families of people who died in the Swissair crash said he disagrees with the safety board report saying the pilots could not have prevented the crash.

INDEPTH: Swissair

Mark Moller said he agrees with most of the findings in the report of the crash of Swissair Flight 111 prepared by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

FROM MARCH 26, 2003: Report clears pilots in Swissair crash

He said he uncovered many of the same causes and contributing factors the TSB did in its $57 million investigation.

But he disagrees with TSB investigators when they say the fire spread too fast for the pilots to land the plane safely in Halifax.

"I'm not prepared to buy into that conclusion. I think what they should have done is immediately initiated a landing mode and gotten themselves to Halifax," said Moller.

He said watched the TSB news conference on TV with the widow of one of the men who died in the crash. He said it was sad to hear that if the insulation on the plane had been fire-retardant, the crash wouldn't have happened.

"This was an avoidable accident," Moller said. "It really didn't have to happen, and that makes it very hard to swallow the consequences when loved ones are no longer with their families."

BACKGROUNDER: Transportation Safety Board's recommendations

Swissair has already paid most of his clients wrongful death settlements, Moller said. Swissair and its insurance companies have paid out an estimated $700 million US in settlements to surviving family members.

Written by CBC News Online staff

IMO just another example of the TSB NOT wanting to place blame. Captain Adams (see thread) I believe Delta's chief pilot of the the MD-11 aircraft and who participated in the sr111 investigation said they could have landed the plane safely and I believe him. He had no agenda about not placing blame.
Posts: 2569 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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It would be interesting to learn why Mark Moller believes that the pilots could have got the aircraft safely on the ground. I have studied this section of the TSB report quite closely, and I find that it is very credible.

The TSB says that if the crew had initiated a minimum time emergency descent at 0114:18 UTC and had proceeded direct to the G NBD (a radio beacon on the extended centreline of runway 06 at Halifax), the aircraft would have crossed the runway threshold at 0126:17. However, the aircraft started to have major systems failures about a minute before this time that would have prevented a successful landing from being conducted.

I suspect (pure speculation on my part) that Mark Moller is in effect saying "Well, they first smelled smoke 3 minutes and 40 seconds prior to 0114:18, and that if they had initiated a minimum time diversion to Halifax at that point that they would have been on the ground before the fire disabled the major systems." But, the aircraft was proceeding in the general direction of Halifax during this 3 minutes and 40 seconds, at a speed of over 500 kt. So it was about 30 miles further way from Halifax when the smoke was first noticed than it was when the TSB calculates a minimum time emergency descent would have been started.

Even if the crew had decided at 0110:38 (when a strange odour was first noticed) to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible, all they could have reasonably done was to head direct for Halifax, increase the engine thrust to maximum continuous thrust, and start a slow descent at the maximum allowable mach number (MMO). Once their flight profile intersected the minimum-time emergency descent profile, they would initiate an emergency descent (thrust to idle, speed brakes extended, and descend at MMO until they reached the maximum allowable airspeed (VMO), then descend at VMO. They could perhaps have shaved a few seconds from the landing time that the TSB calculated, but it still seems unlikely that they could have gotten on the ground at Halifax before the fire made the point moot.

Flight crews are not provided with any means to calculate a minimum-time emergency descent profile, so in practice they would likely have initiated the descent either too early or too late. So an actual emergency descent profile would likely take a bit longer than TSB's theoretical calculation.

They could possibly have tried to land at the military airfield at Shearwater, but the crew likely did not even know of its existence. It was a bit closer than the Halifax airport, but it almost certainly has less fire-rescue crash response capability, as it is not used by commercial traffic. The main runway at Shearwater is runway 16/34, which is oriented at about right angles to the direction the aircraft was coming from. Thus they would have had to make a 90 degree turn to line up with the final approach course, which would have added at least two or three minutes to the required flight time.

In my opinion as an engineering test pilot, the only way the aircraft could have been landed at Halifax before 0125 (when the fire started to affect major systems) would be if they had deliberately exceeded MMO and VMO. However, MMO and VMO are imposed for structural and handling qualities reasons, and there is a very real risk that the aircraft would have been lost anyway if MMO and VMO had been exceeded by more than a small margin. And, there would have been a continuous aural overspeed warning occurring if MMO or VMO was exceeded, which would have greatly interfered with communications between the two pilots, and between the pilots and air traffic control. Given that the pilots did not know that they were dealing with a soon to be major fire, they made the right decision to not exceed MMO or VMO. If they had known at the very start that the only hope to live was to exceed MMO and VMO, they obviously would have gambled that the aircraft would not be lost due to the overspeed. But they had no way of knowing what was going to happen.

Kevin Horton
Posts: 15 | Location: Ottawa | Registered: Thu March 27 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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In my opinion, the recent landing of a Singapore Airlines 747 pretty much settled the question. This is the one that experienced a tailstrike on take-off a few weeks ago. The strike pretty much wiped out the APU, and set off a fire indication. No fuel dump was done, and the plane landed about 40 tons overweight. It was a successful landing. They didn't even blow the tires. The only real variable I can think of that might have changed the situation with SR-111 would have been the fact that they may have had to land with the tail-mounted engine down, which would have reduced their reverse thrust capability by a third.

"They shall mount up with wings, as eagles." Isaiah 40:31
Posts: 26 | Location: Florence, SC | Registered: Mon April 29 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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The weight isn't the problem. Aircraft are landed at weights up to and over the maximum allowable take-off weight during type certification flight testing every week. Take-off performance flight testing requires a large number of take-offs to be flown while measuring to establish the take-off distance. These flights will often start out well over the normal maximum take-off weight, with a landing a few minutes after each take-off. The only issues with a landing above max landing weight are: smooth touchdown, runway length required, brake energy available and max tire speed.

The problem with SR111 was simply how quickly the fire progressed. TSB determined that the aircraft could not have landed before 0126:17, even if they had flown an optimum minimum-time emergency descent, and headed straight for Halifax. But major systems were coming off line before that time. The First Officer had lost his flight displays. The cockpit ceiling above the Captain's head was on fire (probably). I don't believe they had much of a chance.

I do agree that knowing what we know now, they should have attempted to get the aircraft on the ground as quickly as possible. But I don't believe it would have made any difference to the final outcome other than shift the site of the crash to land vs water. But there is at least the chance of some survivors with a crash on land, so it is a shame that this possibility was missed.

Kevin Horton
Posts: 15 | Location: Ottawa | Registered: Thu March 27 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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David, I just wanted to say hello to you. I haven't seen you around in a while. I have to tell you that the final report regarding the pilots' ability to land left me with more questions than answers. I keep thinking back to that WSJ article that said the two pilots argued- the co-pilot wanted to do a quick decent which was nixed by the captain. I called the reporter who wrote that story and he and the paper totally stood behind that story. I would have appreciated it if the investigators had addressed that but am not surprised they didn't. I have spoken to so many pilots that feel very strongly that this aircraft could have been landed. Unfortunately I will always be left wondering. Though I have great respect for the CTSB (and I really mean that) I don't feel that all my questions regarding this were answered (crew behavior) though I think they certainly did the best they could with what they had to work with. I don't know why Captain Adams would have any reason not to be honest with his assessment of the situation and he actually knew quite a bit about MD-11s as he flew them with the rank of captain. We were also told that he had participated in the TSB investigation in some capacity. As for this lawyer- I don't really think there is even anything in it for him to disagree with the report at this point believe it or not. I wish he would have gone into more detail about his thoughts on this. I will also say that at this point I feel tremendous sorrow for the pilots (and their families) because nobody should have had to fight this horrible fire caused by a superfluous entertainment system add-on with possibly (see Gary Stoller�s articles) shady origins. It goes without saying that the mylar insulation shouldn't be on any plane* but I'm pretty darn sure that despite the wording by lead investigator Vic Gerden at the news conference, my daughter and all the other victims of sr111 would be alive today if it weren't for some very greedy people involved in pushing through the IFEN. I think the final report supports my thoughts on that. Will we ever really know what went on in that plane that terrible night?

*Lyn Romano, the chairman of IASA and myself along with other members of her group, went to a meeting in September of 1999 to ask the FAA to speed up the replacement of the mylar blankets on aircraft . We didn�t manage to get them to change their minds on this issue. It was like talking to a wall. If I remember correctly there are still 600 planes in service in the U.S. flying around with this potentially volatile insulation. Airlines have been given at least 5 years to replace these insulation blankets with safer material. I know that Lyn and her safety group have dedicated the past few years to getting the FAA to speed up the replacement of this insulation material and trying to call attention to a myriad of safety issues.

Kevin, just wanted to say thanks for the interesting comments. I think what pilots have hopefully learned from the tragedy of sr111, is how little time one might have to get an aircraft on the ground and how quickly things can potentially deteriorate when there are any signs of a fire be it smoke or odor. I worry that when the newspapers announce that the pilots couldn't have done anything to land safely that the important lesson might be lost-get an aircraft on the ground ASAP. I have to agree with you that it wasn't the weight issue but the catastrophic fire looming that was the central issue.

Posts: 2569 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Hello Barbara! It has been a while sure enough. I pray you're doing well. I haven't read the entire report yet, but I am working my way through it. There's quite a bit of information there.

"They shall mount up with wings, as eagles." Isaiah 40:31
Posts: 26 | Location: Florence, SC | Registered: Mon April 29 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Just wanted to mention that this is IMO still open to discussion. I think that it was important to start counting a possible landing from the very moment that they smelled smoke. That's really the point- that any sign of smoke whether it be an odor all the way to a full fire should be acted on immediately and treated as a full blown emergency. Still more questions rather than answers.
Posts: 2569 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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IMHO, it may be that there is room for too much of speculation on the issue of a timely and successful landing.
It is about extrapolating every other factor - and then saying that they probably would have managed if they only had got started with it at once;
Nothing is predictable at all, since if they had started an emergency descent (and maybe dumping of excess fuel) at once, a number of actions done in another order could have either favoured their chances....or made things go disastrous much sooner. A switch toggled or not toggled could have made a hugh difference - and what possibilities are there (now) to predict how a different way of switch toggling might have affected how fast the situation deteriorated?
And if the pilots had landed soon and managed with it, then maybe they would have been made "heroes". But if they had landed "hot" and wrecked the aircraft, then maybe that nobody had recognized that there was an even worse alternative - i.e. the outcome that was the actual one.

Posts: 4 | Location: sweden | Registered: Tue April 09 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Lenkarl, you are right, it's very hard to say how the chain of events might have changed had things been done differently. We are all speculating.

You wrote:

But if they had landed "hot" and wrecked the aircraft, then maybe that nobody had recognized that there was an even worse alternative
I have often thought about this. I wonder how many times near-disasters happen without anybody every knowing.

The TSB's theory is that the first whiff of smoke came around the time the fire ignited. As it spread, the smoke was vented and the smell disappeared until the "smoke switch" shut down cabin fans. It is the TSB's position that, since the smoke disappeared, there was no reason why the pilots would have started an emergency landing before the time of the "Pan pan pan" message to Halifax ATC. It is their contention that from that time and position, it would not have been possible to have the aircraft on the ground prior to the time of the crash. But it is only a theory.

Had the emergency landing procedure commenced at the first sign of smoke, there is no way to know what the outcome would have been, but, in our opinion, this clearly would have been the right approach. There are experienced heavy jet pilots who are adament that this should have been the reponse. In a way, the TSB's analysis supports this view inasmuch as it asserts that by the time they started the emergency landing procedure, it was already too late.

All we really know is that the course of action they chose didn't work.
Posts: 90 | Registered: Fri March 29 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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