Sully the Movie – A Pilot’s Perspective

“So what did you think of the movie?”

I was immediately faced with that question as I walked out of the screening of Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about the 2009 landing in the Hudson River, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

Well, here’s what I think:

Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed the film for the technical accuracy of the flight and subsequent river landing with very realistic use of CGI. It had to be accurate as so much of the material has already been published. The transcripts of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder)  were already published in Sullenberger’s 2009 book Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters, which also told his life story and related the events of the day in great detail.

These CVR recordings lead me to the one aspect I did not appreciate as much – the movie has the CVR played for the first time during the public hearing, while in fact, according to Sullenberger there were only six people present in the audio lab where they first listened to it. But this would not have suited Eastwood’s whole premise for the movie. He built the dramatic edge around the NTSB ruthlessly pursuing Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, the First Officer (very ably played by Aaron Eckhart). In Eastwood’s mind the NTSB were the bad guys, out to get the good guys – the pilots – who were assumed guilty until proven not guilty.

It bears stating here that any accident investigation by nature is uncompromising. Nothing can simply be assumed and every detail has to be interrogated to arrive at a definitive answer. The objective is not to apportion blame, but to learn and make recommendations to avoid similar events in future.

Sullenberger himself was very clear about the conflict in his own mind – could they possibly have made it back to La Guardia or even Teterboro? Here his whole career of over forty years would be judged on 208 seconds and one decision. I could clearly identify with this self-doubt, something we as professional pilots know well. There is always the nagging worry that something could have been handled better, it is the perfectionist nature of our occupation.

Hanks captures the gravitas of Sullenberger in this situation perfectly. He has proved before that he can deliver empathetic portrayals of men in difficult situations (Apollo 13, Captain Phillips), balancing human frailty with steely resolve.

Sully is a great movie, which caters for a general movie audience who would simply enjoy a rollicking drama of good people conquering adversity. Yet it still satisfies those aviators, who have more than just a passing interest in the dramatic events of January 15th, 2009.

Hopefully the movie will also allow a glimpse into how seriously professional pilots take their occupation – Hanks’s Sullenberger provides the ideal example. His one decision on that day led to 155 souls surviving a dual engine failure and a subsequent forced water landing – pilots daily make hundreds of decisions with less dramatic impact, but which directly affects the lives of passengers worldwide.

Go and see the movie!




Royal Aeronautical Society | Insight Blog | Lives before luggage

I have posted a number of blogs regarding passengers’ apparent disregard for their own safety. As valuable additional reading, here is an insightful blog about evacuations from the RAeS:

During the recent emergency evacuation of the Emirates 777 which caught fire in Dubai, a number of passengers endangered their safety and those of others by stopping to collect their luggage. BILL READ FRAeS looks at some of the ideas being proposed to prevent such actions reoccurring and how it may be time for a rethink of the regulations governing aircraft emergency evacuations.

Source: Royal Aeronautical Society | Insight Blog | Lives before luggage

Leave Everything Behind! (Exit before Tweeting…)

Yesterday we witnessed the crash of an Emirates B773 at Dubai. I use the word “witnessed” as we may just as well have been eyewitnesses, what with visuals instantly available on the major TV channels, uploaded from social media. Had it happened a few years ago, we would simply not have had access to these dramatic visuals captured by actual eyewitnesses.

(See my previous blogs on the emergency and social media aspects of this phenomenon: Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready? and Beware the Jabberwock, my son! ).

What I find disturbing though, are the visuals recorded by passengers during the actual evacuation of EK521, with a life-threatening emergency in full swing:
Pax Evacuation EK521

During many previous aircraft emergencies we’ve witnessed this behaviour before: Cell’phones on, visuals recorded and instantly shared on social media. Allow me to be blunt: This type of behaviour deserves a Darwin Award for Deadly Stupidity!

It would appear that in aviation we’re not alone in this:




So what allows us to exhibit this kind of stupidity? What level of intelligence would allow a normally stable individual to jeopardize not only his/her own life, but the lives of others as well?

I can only assume that it is the same level of intelligence which would allow passengers to blatantly disregard the safety regulations, ignore safety briefings and refuse to obey lawful instructions regarding electronic devices.

The bottom line is that anything which could distract one during an emergency should be avoided at all costs – hence the announcement by cabin crew regarding no cell’phones or headphones before departure or arrival. When the fire is at your heels and the smoke is choking you, that is not the time to worry about your branded hand luggage or your personal effects – that is when saving lives should be your one and only concern.

I know that passenger safety is our single-minded concern. As professional air crew we’ll do everything possible to ensure that, but passengers also have a role to play in their own safety!

However, it would appear that any commonsense, reason and responsibility is zipped up and stowed in the luggage when passengers check in….



Why Are You Late!

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lae’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Robert Burns – From: ” To a Mouse, on turning up in her nest with the plough”.

We’re running late.

In fact, we haven’t even signed on yet – my four sectors rostered for today have been delayed – and I’m already working on what apologies we’ll have to come up with to calm our disgruntled passengers….


The reason today is the knock-on effect of the icy conditions at another airport this morning – the early flights had to wait for the sun to melt ice off the wings. Fortunately we don’t have snowstorms (as in the picture above) in South Africa, but we do find temperatures falling to below zero in winter. Add a little moisture and then you could find contamination on the wings – which, if untreated, we well know the results of. Air Florida Flight 90 is but one example. As we don’t suffer from surface icing too often, we do not have de-icing facilities at any South African airports. Sunshine is our only salvation!

So here we sit after a night stop, waiting for our delayed aircraft to arrive to continue our (delayed) eight-sector pairing.

But that is scant comfort for our passengers who feel that they are entitled to an on-time departure and arrival.

Weather is only one of the many reasons leading to flight delays. In SA thunderstorms are usually the culprits during summer; sometimes driving rain or fog results in go-arounds and diversions from airports with only CAT I or visual approaches. Many times the crosswind component is simply out of limits, ruling out an approach or necessitating a go-around.

From our side its often because of an aircraft developing a technical problem, which, if it can be repaired on the line could result in a short delay of up to an hour. Some snags take more time, especially if specific spares or tools are required – if the aircraft is grounded, schedules have to be adjusted to find other aircraft to pick up the slack, often resulting in all of us kicking our heels for frustrating periods of time.

Often such delays can lead to crews running out of flight and duty time, which legally necessitates later sign-on times for those who night stop at out stations. You should hear the chirps from furious passengers when we finally show up to operate such a flight – very thick skins are required! Explaining the safety aspect usually does not help much – I sometimes get the impression that passengers would rather depart unsafely, as long as it’s on time..

Sometimes the passengers are to blame – my pet hate is passengers who check in (with luggage) and then disappear between the counters and the gates. Its like socks – where the hell do they get to? Now we have to search for their loaded bags, inevitably the very last ones to be found.

Arriving with too many bags also delays us, as those simply cannot fit in a full cabin and have to be carried downstairs to be loaded in the hold (usually after a heated argument..)

Some passengers are like hens arranging nests – why can’t they simply move in, and sit down? While passengers are standing around, going to the toilet or repacking their cases, we cannot close the doors. Late yet again.

Many other reasons can be trotted out for delays. The bottom line, however, is that a delay is only that: A delay. It is not a disaster and it is not the end of the world!

Our airline aims for a minimum target of 85% on-time departures (on time is defined as leaving within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure time) and has achieved that for six consecutive months now.

After all – A safe flight and safely arriving at your intended destination is more important than fretting about a delay.




I’d Rather Fly, Thank you!

Last week a medical professional had a letter published in the Cape Times. In this he questioned the sanity of rules which allow for doctors working shifts of 30 hours plus, after the death of a young doctor in a fatigue-related crash. (Read the letter here).

Dr John Roos is a passionate advocate of CRM for the medical profession – I have worked with him at the recent ICEM (International Conference for Emergency Medicine) in Cape Town, where we co-presented an introductory workshop on CRM. Just from my anecdotal experience of the medical environment I am aware of the extreme demands on these professionals. Suffice to mention that medical malpractice is now the third largest cause of preventable deaths in the USA – in fact the statistics bear out the fact that you are much more likely to die unnecessarily in hospital than in an airliner:

Lost Lives Med vs Flying

According to the Western Cape Department of Health the regulations approved by the HPCSA (Health Professionals Council of SA) do allow for medical professionals to work shifts of up to 30 hours. (Article here).

Well, I am simply astonished at the Neanderthal system employed in our healthcare!

In Aviation we have been aware of the problem for decades. However, the fact that fatigue is a difficult concept to quantify has also been recognised for years. At a 2006 Paris conference on Aviation Safety hosted by the Flight Safety Foundation, IATA and the International Federation of Airworthiness papers presented pointed out how complex issues affecting pilot fatigue were.

Despite our best efforts at improving aviation safety, we are not out of the woods yet. Flight Global conducted a survey of Aviation Professionals a few years ago (Survey Results) and top of the list was fatigue among safety critical staff such as pilots, engineers and ATC’s.

This despite the fact that maximum hours for flight and duty are clearly defined and rigorously adhered to.

The next step is the legally required implementation of FRM and FRMS programmes, where airlines are required to actively monitor and manage pilots’ fatigue. This would imply identifying potentially fatiguing pairings and reporting on fatigue experiences.

Surely medical personnel must be involved in determining these parameters – yet they seem themselves impervious to the idea that doctors could possibly become fatigued.

So, I would rather fly than take the risk of being assessed or operated on by a fatigued medical practitioner! The stats bear me out.


Legal, Safe or Wise?

Whenever an aircraft goes down, pilots immediately want to know “what went wrong?”

If the aircraft involved is similar to the type you happen to fly, the interest in possible causes takes on an even more personal imperative. The recent crash of the FlyDubai B738 at Rostov-on Don, Russia lead to much speculation – and as I fly the B738, I obviously took a personal interest in the crash.

The recent interim report by the Russian Authorities provides some insights into the situation leading up to the crash. This preliminary report clearly states that, in accordance with ICAO standards and practices its sole objective is to prevent aviation accidents and no blame or liability is apportioned. The Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder are still being interpreted and that information will undoubtedly provide further insights into the factors involved.

What is insightful is the final paragraph, which reads:
“For the purpose of preventive measures the investigative team recommends to:”
And then adds 5 recommendations, all relating to the same issue – here summarised in their para.2: “Have additional training on elements of go-arounds in various conditions, in manual control mode with two engines operative from various heights and with insignificant flight weights”.

They also refer to the 2013 B735 crash at Kazan and the 2006 A320 crash near Sochi, stating that the safety recommendations issued by the investigation teams should be “repeatedly studied and analyzed”.

It would thus appear that, at this early stage no malfunctions are reported and that the second go-around ended in a loss of control situation. This led the investigative team to feel that they needed to publish immediate recommendations regarding training.

Just looking at the facts presented: There were 7 crew members and 55 passengers on board, which makes for a very light aircraft. Take-off weight is given as 68 tons. Just doing the simple maths, I would reckon that they had a zero-fuel weight of anywhere between 50 – 55 tons, depending on whether any freight was carried. That would mean that they could have carried anywhere between 13 to 18 tons of fuel. The report does not indicate how much they had, but they flew for just over four hours, made an approach and went around, then held for just over 1 hour and 40 minutes before requesting a second approach. Just using raw numbers, calculating conservatively they had probably used around 12 tons of fuel by then.

So on the second go-around the aircraft would have been very light and at TOGA thrust it would have climbed very rapidly – as indeed indicated in the report.

Both approaches were manually flown using the HUD system. FlyDubai’s B738 airframes are apparently not certified for dual channel approaches and auto-lands, so this would have been according to their SOP’s. (A number of operators prefer this option, probably because of the lower costs associated – pure speculation on my part).

Importantly though, the report states that both approaches were flown “without significant heading or altitude deviations” – in other words, these were well flown approaches.

So it appears to be the go-around that went wrong – and from a Human Factors perspective I would await the final report and CVR analysis with great interest.

I have no idea how long the crew had been on duty, but they had clearly flown for more than 5.5 hours at that stage and were conducting the second approach well after midnight. The report uses Z time, but the local time was just before 04h00. Needless to say, as we know from dire experience – humans are diurnal beings and we do not perform well nocturnally.

Neither do we perform well when tired or fatigued. I have just recently presented a CRM workshop at ICEM 2016 and the emergency medical fraternity were extremely aware of the dangers when humans are tasked to perform in demanding situations while fatigued.

While the preliminary report suggests that training for go-around manoeuvres is required, I sincerely hope that the CRM aspects will be thoroughly investigated when the final report is published.

My own experience in airline operations is that what may be completely legal may not necessarily be safe – nor wise.






Why do we do what we do?

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Antoine de St. Exupery – The Wisdom of the Sands

A few weeks ago I was interviewed for a newspaper article and the old question came up again: “Why do you fly?”

I gave the standard vague answer about the different dimensions, the challenges, the joys – and that I simply have to fly.

Then, during an early morning departure out of Cape Town the answer came to me, when both the FO and I grabbed our cameras and snapped away to capture the beauty of the early morning fog reflecting the flaming hues, with the stark mountaintops protruding through the low cotton-cloud to be bathed in brilliant sunshine.


Just another departure, another sunrise – but we were captured, captured yet again by the intense beauty. This coupled to the sense of control, balance, power and achievement – and then I realised: We do what we do because it sets us apart. Its that constant yearning for the next horison. Or to paraphrase St. Exupery – that yearning for the vast and endless sky.



I don’t think an auditor would snap pictures of numbers to share on social media – “Hey, look at these books I’m doing today!” Or a lawyer dealing with yet another divorce, or a doctor dealing with another case of the common flu….

People in other occupations share their holiday pictures – “Hey, here we are at this exotic location! Having a great time! Cost a fortune!”

We do that too, but it is our work and our workplace which captures the imagination. We just snap an ordinary day at work and people react in amazement – “Stunning, you’re so lucky…”



That’s what sets us apart – we’re lucky. We enjoy what we do, we love what we do and we would not want to do anything else.

I know it’s not always a bed of roses. Sometimes life’s curved balls make different demands on us – but for the instinctive pilot giving up on flying is not a consideration. Inevitable it may eventually become, but the longer we can postpone the giving up, the loss of license, the retirement, the better.

Because there is always another horizon to cross, another aircraft to fly, another exotic memory to add!