A Dark and Windy Night


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 mucha 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.

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.

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