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 . . .

Instrument Flying: Behind the Basics – 3


We’ll start with a new image today – the megaphone. Put the small end at the touchdown point, line it up with the runway, and tilt it up three degrees. This is the ILS, or at least a useful image of it.

The picture helps because it gives an instinctive feeling for what we have to do to fly an ILS:

  • Maneuver into the big end of the cone
  • Fly down its axis
  • Make smaller corrections as we get closer to the runway

Last time we talked about how to stay on the localizer – maintain the published track – and how we were using integration. Looking closer, we can take the integration back several levels:

Bank --> Heading Change (and thus Track Change) --> Lateral Displacement

A shallow turn for a short time means a small heading change, changing the track. Imagine the new track drawing an arrow – this is your velocity vector. The longer you stay on the track, the longer the arrow. Visualize (I'll add diagrams when I learn the software) the arrow: if you are correcting back to the on-course you'll want to return to your tracking heading when the tip of the arrow gets there.

The same method – integrate and visualize – works for the vertical axis:

Power + Pitch --> Vertical Speed

Use V/S as you would track to manage vertical displacement – to track the glideslope, if you will. The same method works in both axes:

  • Before you start the approach, have targets in mind – the published track,  and a target vertical speed you calculate from your planned airspeed on approach: airspeed/2 X 10 = 600 fpm for 120 knots (if you have GPS, use your groundspeed).
  • Fly into the big end of the cone and center the localizer.
  • Fly the target heading and see what happens. Now you know something about the wind. Adjust your target. (If you have GPS, flying the published track will keep you on the localizer.)
  • Correct back on, then fly the new target. Repeat and get it nailed (at least for this altitude).
  • As the glideslope comes down to meet you, do what you need to get your target V/S. (It should be as little as possible and preferably only one thing: reduce RPM or MP a certain amount; put the gear down.)
  • See what happens. Adjust your target. (If you have GPS, glance at the groundspeed. If it's only 100 knots, your new target is 500 fpm.)
  • Correct back onto the glideslope by adjusting V/S, visualizing the arrow (your velocity vector in the vertical axis) intercepting the G/S. When you're back on, fly the new target.
  • Continue as above, visualizing the megaphone as it gets smaller, guiding you to that window 200 feet above the approach lights. (Your corrections are getting smaller and smaller.)
  • KEEP YOUR TARGETS IN YOUR HEAD RIGHT DOWN TO MINIMUMS. (They are now accurate to a degree or two of heading and 50-100 fpm.)

That's it! Simple, right?

Actually, it is, and it works, but it does take some thinking about. For example: if the needles are centered, are you flying down the axis of the megaphone?

We'll look at that next time.

Instrument Flying: Behind the Basics – 2


Maintain the published track and you’ll stay on the localizer.

Sounds simple. Makes sense. But it’s not instinctive. You have to think about it.

Here’s a thought experiment. You are running a train down a straight track. You can’t see outside. You have a stopwatch, a remote paintgun, and an accurate speedometer. Your task is to make two marks on the track a mile apart.

Simple, right? You accelerate to 60 mph, hit the paintgun remote and the stopwatch at the same time. Exactly 60 seconds later you hit the paintgun remote again. Mission accomplished!

But what if you are flying an airplane doing 120 knots? You are on (over) the track and you hit the paintgun. You wait 30 seconds and hit it again. Where is the second blob of paint? Sure, it's 1 nautical mile ahead, but is it on the track?

Yes, if your track hasn't changed. That's easy for a train but a big IF for an airplane. The wind could change. Your heading could change. Then the second blob of paint will not be on the track. It will be off to one side. Your localizer needle will be off to one side.

In math this is an example of integration. You are adding up what happens to your position as a result of your velocity vector. The INS or IRS in an airliner does it. Experienced pilots do something like it in their heads.

If you have a Garmin 430 in your airplane you can go to NAV page 1 and fly so TRK is the same as DTK. If you don't you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way, flying heading to compensate for drift. Either way, try to have the picture in your head.

We'll speak more about integration in future blogs. It's a great help if you want to fly IFR with precision.

Instrument Flying: Behind the Basics

P + P = PP

Power + Pitch = Predictable Performance. That is how an old friend, mentor, and instructor puts it. We were speaking of it recently in relation to the AF447 crash.

But sometimes we don't even have attitude available. If, for example, we were to blunder into cloud in a J-3 Cub with only the most rudimentary instruments, we might still pull it out of the hat using the turn and bank: don't touch the power or trim; roll into a coordinated rate one turn and hold it for one minute. With luck we will have maintained level flight and turned 180 degrees. (Of course without attitude, altitude, or vertical speed available our nose has dropped slightly in the turn to maintain 1G flight and during the turn we have been in a gentle descent.)

The point of the formula is that control can be maintained in cloud with very little information. In the J-3 Cub example, the natural longitudinal stability of the airplane, the needle and ball, and a timepiece are almost sufficient.

But not quite! What is missing?

It is the pilot: specifically the pilot's brain with its ability to visualize and integrate. The visualization is often referred to as situational awareness and is recognized as an essential component of the instrument pilot's skills. The integration is equally essential and will be the subject of this mini-series: Behind the Basics.