Air crashes, explore not the ashes

By: Dr Asif Channer      Published: 08:15 PM, 27 May, 2020
Air crashes, explore not the ashes

Twenty first century is the century of technology and scientific knowledge with much emphasis on safety and security of all means of transportation. The question arises in the minds as to why planes crash despite these advancements. The Transportation Security Administration screens about 1.8 million passengers every day before the Corona Pandemic, flying carries inherent, built-in risks. It is to be remembered always that the Planes are machines, and machines sometimes may malfunction. Flight attendants and pilots may even fly several times per week, and although the airlines take as many precautions as possible, at these speeds and altitudes, mistakes can have serious consequences. According to the American National Safety Council, the chances of dying in an aviation accident in the US are about 1 in 7,178, while the likelihoods of dying in a car crash are 1 in 98 over a lifetime.

The first air crash in the modern human history was reported on September 17, 1908 and Mr Thomas Etholen Selfridge was a first person to die in the air crash of a powered airplane as a passenger but on a demonstration flight piloted by Orville Wright. He was the serving as a first lieutenant in the US Army.

Plane crashes are multifactorial, however the pilot error is at the top, about half of all plane crashes are caused by pilot error. That may look like a very high statistic, but it makes perfect logic when you think about everything that a pilot must do. Pilots must navigate through dangerous weather, respond to mechanical issues and execute a safe takeoff and landing. Some plane accidents are caused when pilots misread equipment, misjudge weather conditions or fail to recognize mechanical errors until it’s too late. Sometimes too, plane crashes happen when pilots become incapacitated during critical points of a flight. In 2005, a Helios Airways flight to Greece crashed because the flight cabin depressurized, incapacitating the entire flight crew. In 1976, a South African AW flight crashed when the captain suffered a heart attack and his first officer couldn’t control the plane in time.

Pilot fatigue is to be considered important. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines fatigue as “A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from sleep loss or extended wakefulness, circadian phase, or workload.” The phenomenon places great risk on the crew and passengers of an airplane because it significantly increases the chance of pilot error. Fatigue is particularly prevalent among pilots because of “unpredictable work hours, long duty periods, circadian disruption, and insufficient sleep”. These factors can occur together to produce a combination of sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm effects, and ‘time-on task’ fatigue.

Intoxication though rarely but has been on the record. The flight crew members have been arrested or subject to disciplinary action for being intoxicated on the job. In 1990, three Northwest Airlines crew members were sentenced to jail for flying while drunk. At least one fatal airliner accident involving drunk pilots occurred when Aero Flight 311 crashed at Koivulahti, Finland, killing all 25 on board in 1961.

A pilot misinformed by a printed document like map, manual, etc, reacting to a faulty instrument or indicator on the ground/ in the cockpit, or following inaccurate instructions or information from flight or ground control can lose spatial orientation, or make another mistake, and consequently lead to accidents or near misses.

Mechanical Error is other most common cause of plane crashes which accounts for about 22% of all aviation accidents. Mechanical error differs from pilot error, because when a critical system fails, the pilot may be at the mercy of the plane. Some mechanical errors occur because of a flaw in the plane’s design. For example, in 1974 a Turkish Airlines flight to France crashed because of a design flaw in the latch of the cargo door. A West African Airways flight to Nigeria crashed in 1955 because a flawed wing design led to metal fatigue cracks and wing failure.

An engine may fail to function because of fuel starvation for example British Airways Flight 38, fuel exhaustion for example Gimli Glider,Metal fatigue like Kegworth air disaster, El Al Flight 1862, China Airlines Flight 358. In a multi-engine aircraft, failure of a single engine usually results in a precautionary landing being performed, for example landing at a diversion airport instead of continuing to the intended destination. Failure of a second engine (e.g. US Airways Flight 1549) or damage to other aircraft systems caused by an uncontained engine failure (e.g. United Airlines Flight 232) may, if an emergency landing is not possible, result in the aircraft crashing.

Stalling an aircraft (increasing the angle of attack to a point at which the wings fail to produce enough lift) is dangerous and can result in a crash if the pilot fails to make a timely correction. There are different devices which warn the pilot when the aircraft’s speed is decreasing close to the stall speed include stall warning horns (now standard on virtually all powered aircraft), stick shakers, and voice warnings.

Fire and its toxic smoke have been the causes of accidents. An electrical fire on Air Canada Flight 797 in 1983 caused the deaths of 23 of the 46 passengers. The other possible cause of fires in airplanes is wiring problems that involve intermittent faults, such as wires with breached insulation touching each other, having water dripping on them, or short circuits.

Foreign object debris (FOD) includes items left in the aircraft structure during manufacture/repairs, debris on the runway and solids encountered in flight (e.g. hail and dust). Such items can damage engines and other parts of the aircraft. Air France Flight 4590 crashed after hitting a part that had fallen from another aircraft.

Around 12% of all plane crashes are caused by weather conditions. Although flights are often grounded when weather conditions are deemed hazardous, storms, heavy winds and even fog can sneak up on pilots and air traffic controllers. Lightning strikes can be especially dangerous. When lightning hits a plane, it can disable it in many ways. Aviation accidents have happened because lightning caused electrical failure, because it ignited fuel tanks and pipes, and even because the flash itself caused temporary blindness. Even milder weather conditions can cause plane crashes. During a flight to Lebanon in 1977, the pilot encountered a thick fog as he prepared to land. Circling back, he retried the landing several more times before fuel ran out and the plane could no longer stay aloft. In 2010, an Indonesian plane carrying 103 passengers crashed when inclement weather conditions caused the pilot to overshoot the runway. The plane skidded into a pool of water at the end of the runway and crashed into a nearby hillside.

Ice and snow can be major environmental factors in airline accidents. Even a small amount of icing or coarse frost can greatly impair the ability of a wing to develop adequate lift, which is why regulations prohibit ice, snow or even frost on the wings or tail, prior to takeoff. Air Florida Flight 90 crashed on takeoff in 1982, as a result of ice/snow on its wings. Airlines and airports must ensure that aircraft are properly de-iced before takeoff whenever the weather involves icing conditions. Modern airliners are designed to prevent ice buildup on wings, engines, and tails (empennage) by either routing heated air from jet engines through the leading edges of the wing, and inlets, or on slower aircraft, by use of inflatable rubber “boots” that expand to break off any accumulated ice.

Volcanic ash Plumes of volcanic ash near active volcanoes can damage propellers, engines and cockpit windows.

Plane crashes that are caused by sabotage draw the most media attention, but they only account for about 9% of total plane crashes. Regarding terrorism and hijack the aircrew are normally trained to handle hijack situations. The strict airport and airline security measures are in place to prevent terrorism, such as security checkpoints and locking the cockpit doors during flight. Mentally ill passengers have been known to attack both pilots and passengers, and some have even detonated bombs in an attempt to commit suicide while in flight.

The bulk of the remaining plane crashes, about 7%, are caused by other kinds of human errors. Some plane crashes are inadvertently caused by air traffic controllers. Air traffic control mistakes have caused planes to crash into mountains, to land on occupied runways and even to collide in midair. When a plane is loaded, fueled or maintained incorrectly, that’s human error too.

Electromagnetic interference by the use of certain electronic equipment has been proven fatal hence they are partially or entirely prohibited as it might interfere with aircraft operation such as causing compass deviations. Use of a mobile phone is prohibited on most flights because in-flight usage creates problems with ground-based cells.

Bird strike is an aviation term for a collision between a bird and an aircraft. Fatal accidents have been caused by both engine failure following bird ingestion and bird strikes breaking cock pit wind shields. Jet engines have to be designed to withstand the ingestion of birds of a specified weight and number and to not lose more than a specified amount of thrust. The highest risk of a bird strike occurs during takeoff and landing in the vicinity of airports, and during low-level flying by military aircraft, crop dusters and helicopters.

In addition to these factors there are runway incidents which include Runway excursion – an incident involving only a single aircraft making an inappropriate exit from the runway. Runway overrun – a specific type of excursion where the aircraft does not stop before the end of the runway (e.g., Air France Flight 358).Runway incursion – incorrect presence of a vehicle, person, or another aircraft on the runway (e.g., Tenerife airport disaster).Runway confusion – crew misidentification the runway for landing or take-off (e.g., Comair Flight 191, Singapore Airlines Flight 6).

The airport design and location can have a large impact on aviation safety, especially since some airports such as Chicago Midway International Airport were originally built for propeller planes and many airports are in congested areas where it is difficult to meet newer safety standards. For instance, the FAA issued rules in 1999 calling for a runway safety area, usually extending 500 feet (150 m) to each side and 1,000 feet (300 m) beyond the end of a runway. This is intended to cover ninety percent of the cases of an aircraft leaving the runway by providing a buffer space free of obstacles. Many older airports do not meet this standard.

Deliberate aircrew action is the hidden dimension of the air crashes although most air crews are screened for psychological fitness but some have taken suicidal actions. In the case of EgyptAir Flight 990, it appears that the first officer deliberately crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. In 2015, on March 24, German wings Flight 9525 crashed 100 kilometers (62 mi) northwest of Nice, in the French Alps. All 144 passengers and six crew members were killed. The crash was intentionally caused by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz. Having been declared “unfit to work” without telling his employer, Lubitz reported for duty, and during the flight locked the pilot out of the cabin. In response to the incident and the circumstances of Lubitz’s involvement, aviation authorities in Canada, New Zealand, Germany and Australia implemented new regulations that require two authorized personnel to be present in the cockpit at all times.

Due to Military action the Passenger planes have rarely been attacked in both peacetime and war. However there are Examples like in 1973, Israel shot down Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114.In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007.In 1988, the United States shot down Iran Air Flight 655. In 2014, an undetermined party in Ukraine shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, therefore such incidents should be ruled out.

Lastly, the three Ps: Pilots, Planes and Plans along with the Crew Resource Management making use of the experience and knowledge of the complete flight crew to avoid dependence on just one crew member, need synchronization to avoid precipitation of crashes both domestically and internationally in the contemporary future.