A Dark and Windy Night…

posted July 1, 2009 by milesobrien

7O-ADJ - the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni - airliner-pictures.net
7O-ADJ – the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni – airliner-pictures.net

A lot of travelers boarding an Airbus today might be thinking twice. After all, yet another Bus is at the bottom of yet another ocean – and another 153 souls have gone west.

Could the European airliners be a latter-day DC-10? – That is, a flawed design – and thus a (relatively) dangerous way to fly?

For the entire Airbus airliner fleet (more than 5400 of them are in service globally), the numbers do not support the conclusion. In July 2008, Airbus’ bitter rival Boeing released a “Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents” from the dawn of the jet age in 1959 through 2007.

At the time of the study, the A330 still had a flawless record: no fatal accidents in the course of a million departures. A month ago, Air France 447 changed that record – but the airliner remains very safe statistically.

Over the years Airbus A300’s have had three crashes that caused deaths. That equates to a rate of .47 airplanes lost per million departures. The A320 series has had eight fatal crashes – or .23 hulls per million departures. And the A340 has never had a fatal crash.

The record is not as good for the A310 – the model of airplane that plunged into the sea trying to land at the capital of the Comoros Islands – Moroni. It has crashed and killed people eight times now (six times on the event horizon of the Boeing study). That equates to a fatal accident rate of 1.42 airplanes for every million departures.

The infamous – and much maligned – DC-10 crashed with fatalities a dozen times for a rate of 1.36 fatal crashes per million departures. Pretty much  a dead heat (if you will pardon the expression).

[It is worth noting that these fatal accident rates have come a long way (baby). Back in the day, the early jet airliners - the 707 and DC-8 - logged fatal accident rates of 4.21 and 4.03 per million departures respectively.]

But take a look at the accident reports for the A310 crashes. There are two common threads. First, they are all attributed to pilot error – trying to land in a thunderstorm, botched use of thrust reversers on rollout, improper stall recovery, spatial disorientation on a dark stormy night, a botched missed approach, and the most infamous of all, the captain who allowed his son to take the controls – leading to a stall and spin.

The second is the airlines were all flagged in third world/emerging nations [Maybe the Russians might quibble with that characterization, but over the years Aeroflot has logged a third world quality record.]

This is why you are hearing so much talk about the so called “blacklist” of airlines that are banned from flying to Europe or the US.

Airlines have to be pretty sloppy (and scary) to get on this roster.  It means they lack:

•    the regulations to properly certify airplanes
•    the technical expertise and resources to oversee them
•    adequately trained technical personnel
•    adequate inspectors to insure they comply with minimum international standards
•    and insufficient record keeping to document what they are doing (or not).

All that said, Yemenia Airlines is not on the European blacklist (now 194 airlines long). But the crashed 19-year-old/17,300 cycle airplane  (7O-ADJ) apparently was – at least in France. In 2007, it was banned because inspectors there found long list of squawks.

So why so many pilot error crashes by crews flying the A310 for third world airlines? Is it shoddy training? Is it simply that the A310 is a cheap, widely used aircraft for thinly endowed airlines? Is it the flying environment in the countries where these planes fly  – with fewer, less sophisticated navigational aids and less air traffic control coverage and expertise?

Could the highly automated Airbus design be ill-suited for these crews/airlines/airports? Or has it saved untold lives in accidents that never happened? These are hard questions to answer.

But unlike Air France 447, we should know the answer to the riddle of this crash fairly soon – as searchers have already found the black boxes.

But the man in charge of the airline claims he knows what happened.

“We never had problems with the plane,” Yemenia Chairman Abdulkalek Saleh Al-Kadi told Bloomberg. “It was purely weather.”

What about the weather? Here is the weather picture (in pilot parlance, a METAR) for MORONI/Prince SAID IBRAHIM (FMCH) airport:

FMCH 292300Z 21025G35KT 9999 FEW020 25/16 Q1017 TEMPO 18015G30KT

Translated – it means the wind was coming out of the southwest (210 degrees) at 25 knots (28 mph) gusting to 35 knots (40 mph). There were a few clouds 2,000 feet. So it was windy and the sky was nearly clear – albeit totally dark  – the crash occurred just before 2 AM local time – and moonset that night was 12:23 AM.

With that in mind, let’s try to imagine ourselves on that Yemenia flight deck. The Moroni airport has one runway that allows planes to land either toward the northeast (20 degrees) or the southwest (200 degrees). Airplanes nearly always land into the wind, especially when it is blowing as strong as it was at FMCH that night.

But there is only one precision instrument approach to the airport – and it is for the opposite runway. The crew was forced to fly a visual approach to runway 20 on a dark night over water – approaching an island that probably does not have many lights blazing at that hour.

PAPI Lights - Wikipedia
PAPI Lights – Wikipedia

To add to the challenge, runway 20 does not have a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI). This is an array of focused light beams that sit beside a runway  and give a pilot a visual indication of where his craft is relative to the ideal glide path.  A four light PAPI – as you see here will show the pilot two red and two white lights when he/she is at the correct altitude for a safe approach. More red – and you are too low…more white and you are too high. It is truly pilot-proof.

But without those lights on that dark night over the water, the crew would have had a hard time judging how close they were to the ground (or the surface of the sea). It is called “spatial disorientation” and it kills a lot of pilots and passengers (including John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law).

They apparently tried to land once – but aborted the approach – turning around in a “black hole” – itself a perilous maneuver – especially for a crew that would be a bit rattled and distracted by their predicament – and were, no doubt, dog tired after a long day of flying.

It is the perfect recipe for losing focus on your gauges – and forgetting which way is up – and how far is down.

22 responses to A Dark and Windy Night…

  1. darrelchaney says:

    Miles,

    As usual, a very well thought out and well written piece. I cannot understand why any airport would remain “operational” when it doesn’t even have the minimum rudimentary lighting. PAPI on that runway would have possibly saved 153 souls.

  2. johnniepal says:

    Great post, especially the last 2 paragraphs. I recently have been on two airline flights as a passenger dressed in a pilot uniform. Since I stick out I received 5 questions regarding the Airbus. Public speculation about the Bus is on the increase. I am just glad I wasn’t dressed as a rock star. I have flown other Airbus’s but not the A310. With the absence of a PAPI or VASI I would have hoped the crew would have been able to build into the FMS and artificial glide slope as you can on most other FMS’s. Past employers of mine have had it in their operations specifications that you will not make an approach and landing to a runway unless there is some sort of glide path guidance for the intended runway. Maybe not so here……..

  3. fjcastil says:

    Well laid out Miles. But from my point of view this accident again posts more questions about training and flying the Bus fleet.
    Though given the conditions described at the time of the crash, it seems this airport would be challenging to any crew, on any airplane.
    Question though, how many times a week had this plane and crew landed on this runway under similar conditions? Guess this time they ran out of luck, and so did their precious cargo, God bess their souls. Reminds me of Tegucigalpa Airport in Honduras, where I land several times a year, and where another A-320 went out of the runway last year, after once again, bad pilot decisions.
    I fly all around Latin America very frequently, and these accidents make one wonder how safe are these Third-World airports, and the airlines that operate in these countries.

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  5. willy says:

    Thank you for this excellent analysis. I spent a week in Moroni on the island of Grand Comore 20 years ago. I traveled via the one weekly Air France flight from Paris via Jeddah. The islands and ocean are physically beautiful and scientifically important because coelacanths live there (coelacanths are an ancient group of fishes first discovered alive in 1938 – write back if you want to know more).

    The Republic of the Comoros has had a very difficult recent history. Three of the four islands in the Comoros Archipelago, including Grand Comore, broke away from France in 1975 (there is a French naval base at the fourth one, and it remains under French administration) and the early revolutionary governments were notoriously unstable (for what happened after the revolution, see E. G. Mukonoweshuro. 1990. The Politics of Squalor and Dependency: Chronic Political Instability and Economic Collapse in the Comoro Islands. African Affairs 89: 555-577. http://www.jstor.org/stable/722174). In 2006, a U.S. State Department website noted: “Comoros, with an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) per capita income of about $700, is among the world’s poorest and least developed nations.” (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5236.htm)

    None of this excuses the international airport on Grand Comore for not providing adequate basic services for landing the A310 on a dark and windy night. The airport is near the northern tip of Grand Comore, north of the city of Moroni, so the city lights would not have been very helpful to the crew. Another problem for flights bound for Moroni is that there are not many other places to land such a plane anywhere nearby – it is a pretty remote place.

    Hopefully, this accident and your comments will help spur new international regulations for airports in such remote and impoverished places.

    P.S. I have always enjoyed and appreciated your reporting, and I am glad that you a blogging.

    • Thanks for the nice thoughts. The cost of a PAPI lighting system should not be an issue! There is no goo reason – even in a poor country – that it should not be there! I hope this does lead to change – but sadly, 153 may have had to perish to make the airport safer.

    • The airline should have paid for the PAPI’s if need be!

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  7. airlinologist says:

    The article is simply saying that all fingers should be pointing away from Airbus. This is true considering the statistical track record of its airplanes. Airbus, especially after the recent two crashes, should be so grateful for such objective, non-feverish article.

    Despite the great concern about the safety of the international civil aviation, there are still some airports, airplanes, and operators acting against the trend. Some more concrete regulations/ actions should be in place to ensure the safety of the innocent airline passengers.

    It is true that some Russian airlines have some operational problems. However, I think that talking about Aeroflot was totally out of context in the article for the following reasons:
    • The aircraft is non-Russian made.
    • The aircraft is operated by Yemenia.
    • Departure and arrival airports of the flight are non-Russian.
    • No Russian citizens were reported among the crash victims so far.
    • The updated list of banned airlines by EU does not include Aeroflot (http://bit.ly/xs3ps).
    • Aeroflot has a daily flight to JFK which simply means that it is not banned by US aviation authority.
    • The same source quoted in the article (Aviation safety net) is also saying that USA has the highest rate of civil casualties (http://bit.ly/QJFA2).
    • Aeroflot has achieved TRUEngine status for its CFM56-5B engines which are powering its Airbus family aircraft (http://bit.ly/13smLI).

  8. P.J. Tobia says:

    As someone who regularly flies into crappy airports, I’m always interested to learn just how poor their safety equipment is.

    Is there a global report card for airports, like the one you link to for airlines?

  9. dwshanks says:

    Glad to have you back on the bird watch!
    Looking forward to your analysis of the new info on AF 447 showing it was intact upon impact.

    dws

  10. thinking1 says:

    The worrisome thing is the way the French Investigators are now involved in a massive coverup of the causes of Air France flight 447 crash. The investigative report released today would have you believe the jet fell from the sky intact and bellied into the water. Almost impossible! And one slight problem—the recovered bodies were found mostly nude indicating clothing had been stripped from them while falling through air. Airbus is fearing for it’s survival. Fact is the tail fin design is flawed as is the common cause failure of 3 pitot tubes which in giving faulting information to the computers caused them to make bad adjustments to the avionics. The plane broke up in air as it experienced high g forces from overspeed. One of the major events was the tail fin breaking off first which immediately disabled the plane.

    If the report is so honest why can’t we read it? Where is a copy? I’ll read it in French if available!

  11. thinking1 says:

    I have since found the BEA report on the net and read it. Cleverly the investigators have ignored the more likely scenario that most of the jet would have slammed into the sea intact if the tail fin had first broken off in mid-flight. This would still be consistent with the damage observed. Also, they report the first 30 bodies recovered were clothed which directly contradicts other reports at the time. Also, the report is not sophisticated enough to understand the nature of analysing the true degree of redundancy in the aircraft systems. For example if one pitot tubes are all electrically heated by non-independant power supplies, then if one freezes over the others are likely to do so as well, etc. My brother works for IBM and long ago he predicted that sooner or later computerized planes would experience problems with software glitches because it is very difficult to test all the possible combinations of inputs and outputs. In this case, the BEA report is tacitly acknowledging the key importance of the speed data to the flight controls based on the amount of discussion in the report. In the old days, the true redundant backup to the pitot tube was the pilot who could “hunch” whether the plane was flying too fast or too slow. But this is clearly not possible with an airbus. Thus a whole new generation of technology is required to provide true redundant speed inputs. For example this could include GPS, pitot tubes, AOA’s, and other new devises which operate independantly and provide a “voting” function to increase the likelihood of accurate speed data. Until such a system is devised, the Airbus must be grounded to fix that and to replace the tailfins with aluminum. The Airbus is clearly too marginal to fly in bad weather otherwise. Reading the report it is clear the French are trying to buy time. We we have to wait for yet another crash before this situation is resolved. Meantime can I suggest we at least relocate the black box inside the tail fin so at least it will float following the next crash???

  12. roselasting says:

    Kerala (A south Indian state) chief minister’s flight develops mid-air engine failure
    DH News Service,THIRUVANANTHAPURAM:

    An Indian Airlines flight carrying 136 passengers, including Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and two other ministers, from here to New Delhi via Kochi had a miraculous escape when it had to land in Nagpur following a mid-air failure of one of its twin engines.

    The flight which took off from here at 6:15 am landed in Kochi and had then taken off for Delhi with 136 passengers when it developed the snag near Nagpur.

    State Minister for Water Resources N K Premchandran who was also on the flight told Deccan Herald that he heard a loud noise at the back of the plane and it shook. “It was enough to shake us off the slumber. The sound of the engines also became quite feeble. Soon, the pilot announced that there was a technical snag and asked us to fasten our seatbelts as we were landing in Nagpur,” said the minister.

    Premachandran, who was also a member of Parliament, said the fact that there was no turbulence and the sky was clear made it a bit scary.

    New aircraft – A 321

    “We became a bit apprehensive and our worries were over only after the pilot landed the plane safely. It was only after the landing that the pilot announced very apologetically that one of the engines of the Airbus 321 had indeed failed,” he said. According to the minister, the pilot also appeared to be surprised as he said that the aircraft was brand new and that there was no reason for it to develop an engine failure. Later, the VIPs and passengers continued their journey in another aircraft which was flown in from Delhi.
    Indian Airlines sources here told Deccan Herald that since the A 321 aircraft was only a year old the incident was alarming.

    “Engine failure is a rare incident even though it does not endanger an aircraft all on a sudden. It can still carry on flying for two more hours with a single engine,’’ a source said.
    Achuthanandan and Premachandran were in Delhi to attend a meeting on the Mullaperiyar Dam controversy between Kerala and Tamil Nadu convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the evening. Achuthanandan and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan would be in Delhi for two more days to attend a crucial meeting of the CPM politburo which will discuss the issues in the party’s Kerala unit and the setback the LDF suffered in the Lok Sabha elections.

    All Indian pilots are trained to fly only with single engine on multi so no accidents due to pilot skill in India.
    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

  13. roselasting says:

    Kerala chief minister’s flight develops mid-air engine failure
    DH News Service,THIRUVANANTHAPURAM:

    An Indian Airlines flight carrying 136 passengers, including Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and two other ministers, from here to New Delhi via Kochi had a miraculous escape when it had to land in Nagpur following a mid-air failure of one of its twin engines.

    The flight which took off from here at 6:15 am landed in Kochi and had then taken off for Delhi with 136 passengers when it developed the snag near Nagpur.

    State Minister for Water Resources N K Premchandran who was also on the flight told Deccan Herald that he heard a loud noise at the back of the plane and it shook. “It was enough to shake us off the slumber. The sound of the engines also became quite feeble. Soon, the pilot announced that there was a technical snag and asked us to fasten our seatbelts as we were landing in Nagpur,” said the minister.

    Premachandran, who was also a member of Parliament, said the fact that there was no turbulence and the sky was clear made it a bit scary.

    New aircraft

    “We became a bit apprehensive and our worries were over only after the pilot landed the plane safely. It was only after the landing that the pilot announced very apologetically that one of the engines of the Airbus 321 had indeed failed,” he said. According to the minister, the pilot also appeared to be surprised as he said that the aircraft was brand new and that there was no reason for it to develop an engine failure. Later, the VIPs and passengers continued their journey in another aircraft which was flown in from Delhi.
    Indian Airlines sources here told Deccan Herald that since the A 321 aircraft was only a year old the incident was alarming.

    “Engine failure is a rare incident even though it does not endanger an aircraft all on a sudden. It can still carry on flying for two more hours with a single engine,’’ a source said.
    Achuthanandan and Premachandran were in Delhi to attend a meeting on the Mullaperiyar Dam controversy between Kerala and Tamil Nadu convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the evening. Achuthanandan and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan would be in Delhi for two more days to attend a crucial meeting of the CPM politburo which will discuss the issues in the party’s Kerala unit and the setback the LDF suffered in the Lok Sabha elections.

  14. roselasting says:

    You are here: Home » National » Kerala chief minister’s flight develops mid-air engine failure

    Kerala chief minister’s flight develops mid-air engine failure
    DH News Service,THIRUVANANTHAPURAM:

    An Indian Airlines flight carrying 136 passengers, including Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan and two other ministers, from here to New Delhi via Kochi had a miraculous escape when it had to land in Nagpur following a mid-air failure of one of its twin engines.

    The flight which took off from here at 6:15 am landed in Kochi and had then taken off for Delhi with 136 passengers when it developed the snag near Nagpur.

    State Minister for Water Resources N K Premchandran who was also on the flight told Deccan Herald that he heard a loud noise at the back of the plane and it shook. “It was enough to shake us off the slumber. The sound of the engines also became quite feeble. Soon, the pilot announced that there was a technical snag and asked us to fasten our seatbelts as we were landing in Nagpur,” said the minister.

    Premachandran, who was also a member of Parliament, said the fact that there was no turbulence and the sky was clear made it a bit scary.

    New aircraft

    “We became a bit apprehensive and our worries were over only after the pilot landed the plane safely. It was only after the landing that the pilot announced very apologetically that one of the engines of the Airbus 321 had indeed failed,” he said. According to the minister, the pilot also appeared to be surprised as he said that the aircraft was brand new and that there was no reason for it to develop an engine failure. Later, the VIPs and passengers continued their journey in another aircraft which was flown in from Delhi.
    Indian Airlines sources here told Deccan Herald that since the A 321 aircraft was only a year old the incident was alarming.

    “Engine failure is a rare incident even though it does not endanger an aircraft all on a sudden. It can still carry on flying for two more hours with a single engine,’’ a source said.
    Achuthanandan and Premachandran were in Delhi to attend a meeting on the Mullaperiyar Dam controversy between Kerala and Tamil Nadu convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the evening. Achuthanandan and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan would be in Delhi for two more days to attend a crucial meeting of the CPM politburo which will discuss the issues in the party’s Kerala unit and the setback the LDF suffered in the Lok Sabha elections.

  15. cameron says:

    I do not think the Airbus in inherently unsafe based on anecdotal evidence from recent crashes. The fact that thousands of uneventful flights take place each day in such aircraft provides quite a bit of reassurance of reliability. Sure, latent defects are always possible (the 737 rudder actuator problems come to mind) but the chances of these leading to a major accident are quite remote. Whatever your opinion on the much discussed Airbus fly-by-wire (I, by the way, see ‘human in the loop’ as an asset), it has had an enviable operating record. Statistically speaking, flying on the airlines is safer that most other forms of transportation, perhaps even walking.

    In the case of this accident, it certainly seems that they crew was dealt a very bad hand indeed. Flying into a poorly-equipped island airport at night in less than ideal conditions. In this situation, there is little room for error. Fly into a cloud or lose track of the horizon, you better be paying attention to your instruments to ensure that you are where you think you are (or where you expect the autopilot to be taking you). It was late and the crew was likely tired. Was this the final straw?

    We can debate the significance of the contributing factors until the cows come home, but there is one question that must be asked to get at the core of this accident: why was the flight in this situation to begin with?

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