Losing Competence: Asiana 214 and the “Loss Of Control” Accidents

document.write(" serif">Introduction

Asiana 214 is in my dreams. All day her last two minutes of manually controlled flight replay in my head. Searching for a cause does not distress me. The pilots were clearly incompetent. But how did we get to this pretty pass? My overwhelming sense that that's where we are distresses me greatly.

For the last few years disasters like this one have come to be known as “Loss Of Control” accidents. It's a catchy label, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter. The pilots of these airplanes – I'm thinking of Colgan Air at Buffalo, Air France 447, and Asiana 214, but there are many more – these pilots fundamentally did not understand what was happening, so they were unable to do their jobs.

How has this come about? And how can it be fixed?

At this point I don't know if this is going to be a blog, a series of blogs, or a book. I know only that I must explain the technical issues, explore the commercial and financial forces as they interact with my trade, and try to map a path through this crisis.

Flying has grown into a huge industry. The era of limitless supplies of hugely keen, military-trained pilots is over. Worldwide, there will be a demand for over 600,000 pilots in the next decade. Where will they come from?

I love flying. Most of my working life has been in airplanes, flying and teaching. I see flying as a living link between the sailors of the past from Magellan to Jack Aubry and the space explorers of the future like Jim Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.

Sailing, navigating, flying: these have always been apprenticeship trades. You learn the theory, but you also learn the practical, the hands on. You practice. You repeat. You get sharper. Gradually you come to understand what you have to do to stay sharp, to stay competent. (Or, in airline-speak, to maintain your compentency.) Then you pass your knowledge on.

Somehow this process has broken down. There is no single villain, no smoking gun. Instead there are many villains conspiring unwittingly, starting with you and me, airline customers, frequent flyers, looking for a painless flight and, most of all, for a deal.

Training a pilot, says Transport Canada (in the Flight Instructor's Guide), must be done right the first time. The pilot can't see his airplane moving through the air, because most of the time air is invisible. Instead he must imagine the air flowing over his wings and through his engines, and imagine the air pushing on his slipping or skidding fuselage and fin. Above all he must imagine the angle the airflow makes meeting his wings and how this critical parameter is related to lift and airspeed. He must viscerally feel the drag curve as he controls this angle, the Angle of Attack, as he slows his airplane for approach and landing. He must understand at all times where he is on that curve and what the consequences are. He must know how to fly.

It is not as easy as 1, 2, 3. It requires work and practice, and most of all it requires imagination.

Pilots don't call it that, of course. That sounds too much like an artist, an inventor, or a writer. Pilots refer to it as Situational Awareness. It's what was missing in all of these “Loss of Control” accidents. But why? And how can we fix it?

More to come . . .