Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Air France Special Blog

This blog has been prompted by the recent report that has come out. Plus, a question came up on the message board about it this week.  Below is the original question and afterwards is the reply that we gave. Hope you find it helpful. Also, our views are our views only. They are not representative or Air France, Airbus, Virgin or anyone other than us. The accuracy is based on solely what we have found out through our own research only...
Question from message board:
I have been fearful of Flying since I hit my mid 20's, prior to this I had no fears and would frequently fly. My main concern is the air craft falling out the sky. We hear this is not possible as when the aircraft goes forward lift is produced, and if all engines fail we can glide down to ground.

However, the BEA report on the air France flight 447 incident Published 12th July 2012 states that the aircraft fell out of sky at a velocity of 10,000ft/min. The report proportions the blame on the pitot tubes (all 3 failing), human error and ergonomics of the cockpit.

In layman's terms can you explain why the incident happened and what has been done so it does not happen again.



Our reply
Hello Lee,
Let me give you a 'lay answer'

I am not a pilot so don't normally answer these directly. I have listened to the pilots talk for about 15 years and, of course lately, a lot about Air France.  I would say up front, that if you are learning to get over a fear of flying, the Air France incident can both help and hinder depending on your mindset. I will come back to this point at the end of this reply....

First things first.  Flying is not 100% safe. It is not far off. It is the safest form of transport including walking.  However, there is a slight risk of something happening. Because of this slight risk, pilots and aviation professionals in general go through rigorous training and retraining constantly. Part of this training includes 'Human Factors' as the mechanics and processes are so slick now.  Why? 

Over the years, every single accident that has occurred (thankfully there are not many) gets investigated with the goal of that accident never happening ever again.  Over the years, it became apparent that the human being is part of the problem.  So human factors training was introduced via CRM (Crew resource management) to iron out the human failings we have. For example, one pilot does not do anything or touch anything without cross-checking with the other pilot.  Either pilot (or cabin crew for that matter) can challenge the pilot over something if they are not happy.  This is from years ago when the Captain was God and no-one dared challenge HIM (cos they were mostly hims!)  Accidents give us valuable learning into what could be done better next time. This has got so exact that every millisecond of a flight can be analysed. It is a terrible tragedy when something happens to a flight and people are lost. There is no explaining that away. The only slight consolation is that every nuance of that flight is investigated until we know what happened so we can prevent it happening again. One interesting fact is that no incident was ever caused by a single thing going wrong - it is always a chain of random events coming together at the wrong time.

So what has happened since Air France incident?

The general public would be forgiven for thinking that we have been waiting for this report to come out to rectify the problems. Way before it was public knowledge, the pilots worldwide on these aircraft (and other types) have been overloaded with exactly the same situation that the Air France people had to deal with. It has been used to remind pilots of what to do with inaccurate readings as they had to deal with.  Every pilot has had to correct the problems and deal with it effectively. Which, they all have, or they wouldn't be flying still. Also, the Pitot tubes have been changed so that those original ones are not out there anymore.  This was done straight away actually.  There has been a lot of press hype about first officers and no Captain  and their flying hours...etc ... However, every pilot that gets into a commercial aircraft is equally trained.  Their number of flying hours can vary but that can work both ways. There are many ex-military pilots who are first officers with more hours flying than the Captain on the day.  (When pilots switch airlines, they go back to the lowest rank again and work their way up)  The ergonomics comment I haven't seen. It does seem that the pilots did not hear or ignored stall warnings and that could have been that they were overloaded.  (A stall occurs when there is not enough air flow over the wings. This is normally rectified by simply dropping the nose forward and lift is restored.)

The easiest way to think about us as humans and needing to be aware of our limitations...

Two simple examples:

Have you ever gone to the freezer and found that at some point you must have put something in there without meaning to such as the Salt, tomato ketchup or a pair of shoes?!

Have you ever been lost in the car, started to panic and then drove right past the huge sign that you were looking for because you couldn't see it.  Some people can't have the radio on in the car when reversing as it overloads their concentration level...  That is why CRM training (human factors) is so important for pilots.  That is also why, as mentioned earlier, every pilot has been overloaded the same way as the Air France pilots were so that they learn from it.

So, in our opinion, this incident is unlikely to repeat.  It seems from the findings that the unfortunate pilots in this incident made a fatal error. There is a lot of talk that this should never have happened. Of course, whilst this is what we all want, it has happened and the whole aviation industry will learn from this terrible incident. 
People who have a fear of flying will say, 'There you go... See, it isn't safe.  Human error...'  The problem with a fearful mind is that it seeks out information. What are we feeding our brains?  It is right to learn the facts but searching for anymore information about this incident will not help you.  You know enough now.

You need to decide (if you don't mind me saying) whether flying is better than not flying.  There is risk everywhere living. It does not matter how many times someone tells you that flying is the safest form of transport. It makes no difference. What makes a difference is that you make a rational choice about how you live your life and in what areas you will manage the risk within it.  There is a slight risk with flying that something could happen to you. Of course there is. However, it is about making an informed choice not a choice out of fear. 

As fantastic as we are as humans, we are still beholden to the fear mechanisms that run our body: Fight, flight or freeze. These non-thinking animal responses have stayed with us as they have a place. They have a place when we need to react without thinking to an immediate danger. Dwelling on the negative or slight risk to flying, makes them larger than they deserve to be. Then, because we are training ourselves up to perceive flying as life threatening, we will be able to trigger the basic fight, flight or freeze responses very quickly. We might be able to do it just seeing an aircraft flying overhead.  That is how clever and quickly our body can respond to a perceived threat....

It is up to you now. Flying is as safe as it can be with what we know with current technological and psychological advances.  In 20 years, it will probably be even safer again.  You have learned fear of flying from an early age. You do not have to stay a fearful flier if you do not want to... It is always possible to learn to live without the fear - step by step....

Hope that helps?
Best wishes

PS  If you are running one of the fear programmes we call 'Intellectual Resistance' you would have got quite angry with the comparison between flying an aircraft and putting tomato ketchup in the freezer!


Take care

Paul & Richard

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