Thursday, January 1, 2015

Opinion- QZ8501- Aviation Cannot Afford to Ignore Uncomfortable Issues

Neelam Mathews

A lot of water has flown with speculations galore since the unfortunate crash of AirAsia A320-200 QZ8501, an airline with a decade-old accident-free record. However, it has stirred up long-standing issues that are unfortunately only raked up when attention is drawn by tragedies such as this. One such issue is the urgent need for tracking guidelines that seem to be caught in a quagmire of vacillation by world bodies responsible for aviation health.
This nightmare has also exposed the insularity and arrogance of governments. Why, for instance, were SAR operations not started immediately once the plane went off the radar? Yes, the weather was bad and still is. As an aviation safety expert said,this attitude “is unpardonable.” Having faced the nightmare of MH370, one would have thought that as soon as contact was lost with the aircraft, there would be alarm bells ringing.
Call it geo-politics or egos, everybody seemed to be waiting for the other to ask or offer help as we journalists, gobbled every piece of information we could get our teeth into. 
Boxed by a number of thunderstorms, it has been said there was ‘task saturation,’ with just too much for the pilots to fathom and cope with in a cockpit of mixed messages. Time now for an interactive discussion on when is automation too much that it has robbed humans of basic crisis skills. A former pilot queries why the captain did not call out 'Mayday', the magic word that would have given him priority over any other aircraft in the vicinity? Is there a lack of culture inference here? Are Asians not aggressive enough? Or was the crisis training missing out here? Can we really blame the ATCOs? Just asking.
While it is unwise to draw conclusions, increasingly there is talk of the iced-over plane stalling, reminding us of the AF447 that went down also near the equator. It was deduced in the Air France casethat neither the pilot nor co-pilot had been trained on how to deal with an unreliable airspeed indicator at cruise altitude, or in flying the airplane by hand under conditions that AirAsia crew too faced.
“Airbus A320 has a technical limitation that Engine Anti-Ice should not be ON during climb and cruise when temperature is below -40°C. Aircraft have crashed in past when they flew too high to avoid weather and turned engine anti-ice system ON. The lighter the air becomes, the more engine power (velocity) is require to generate lift. With anti-ice systems ON, a good percentage of this engine power is dispersed towards anti-ice thus stalling the aircraft," Mirza Faizan, aviation analyst tells AerosspaceDiary. 
Meanwhile, an EASA Airworthiness Directive (AD) on Replacement of Airspeed Pitot Probes dated Dec 5 this year noted: “Occurrences have been reported on A320 family aeroplanes of airspeed indication discrepancies while flying at high altitudes in inclement weather conditions. Investigation results indicated that A320 aeroplanes equipped with Thales Avionics Part Number (P/N) 50620-10 or P/N C16195AA pitot probes appear to have a greater susceptibility to adverse environmental conditions than aeroplanes equipped with certain other pitot probes.”  EASA says replacement of the affected Thales probes is “a precautionary measure to improve the safety level of the affected aircraft.” The AD noted  the pitot probe “did not demonstrate the same level of robustness to withstand high-altitude ice crystals.” How safe is safe?
“An issue like this cannot be looked in isolation. There must been a dangerous cocktail laced with stress brewing in the cockpit…..Over automation has resulted in pilots losing their hand-flying skills,” said Pranav Kumar, aviation enthusiast.
As Asean Open Skies policy takes shape by end 2015. The fast-growing congested Asian market will have to address areas of concern on training as airlines scurry to get pilots for fast expanding fleets.

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