Jet Upset: Not a Good Tabloid Headline…


I think its time again to haul out this sad picture, which hangs in just about every flight school or ops office and which has served to warn generations of new pilots about the perils of flying with the wrong attitude.

The recent loss of an AirAsia Airbus A320 serves as an example: The accident investigation board cited a solder crack in a circuit board as a causal factor – it did indeed set off a number of events which clearly caught the pilots unaware, but the major cause was the pilots’ inability to recognise their aircraft’s departure from the intended flight path – and their “incapacity” to recover from that upset, potentially due to a mixture of “carelessness and neglect”.

Flight path management is the pilots’ primary task. There are obviously other tasks to be accomplished (navigation, weather avoidance, radio work and a myriad others) but controlling the aircraft’s current and projected trajectory by way of energy management remains the most important.

What the recent AirAsia crash and that of Air France 447 a while ago clearly illustrate, is that we need a different training approach to avoid pilots losing control in flight. LOCI (Loss of Control in Flight) has become the major cause of aircraft accidents. (Review the below graphic from Boeing’s latest annual Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Aircraft):

CRM Acc Stats 15

It tells me that pilots would rather leave the flying to computers and autopilots, while they fiddle with circuit breakers and try to figure out “what this thing is doing now”.

It would appear that the captain of AirAsia 8501 was out of his seat to pull circuit breakers without consideration of the consequences and when the Airbus went into “alternate law” the FO could not accomplish the basic recovery from a stall event at altitude. (The same problem the pilots of AF447 had over the Atlantic Ocean).

High altitude flying comes with its own set of problems. I won’t bore you with the definitions of “coffin corner”, but at high altitude aircraft have three possible limitations: Certified altitude, Thrust Limit Altitude, and Buffet or Maneuvre Margin.

On the B738 I fly, thrust is usually the most limiting factor, as at altitude you may find that you have insufficient thrust for anything but relatively minor maneuvering. The Boeing FCTM (Flight Crew Training Manual) clearly states: “Flight crews intending to operate at or near the maximum operating altitude should be familiar with the performance characteristics of the airplane in these conditions.” 

The fancy FMC (Flight Management Computer) will provide you with a limited bank angle which won’t exceed the current available thrust limit, only if you’re operating in LNAV (Lateral Navigation) mode. In any other mode – and this is what many pilots miss – you need to maintain your own speed at least 10kts above the lower buffet limit and use a maximum of 10 degrees of bank. Should you run into the thrust limit, you can only reduce bank angle, increase thrust to max continuous, or descend (or all three).

Which all goes to show that at those altitudes the potential for control loss is very high.

In a recent blog, David Learmount ( ) stated that in 18 control loss accidents since the year 2000 almost 2000 people lost their lives. That is simply unacceptable. Crashing an aircraft which, despite some technical issues, is fully flyable, is an indictment of our pilots’ level of training and expertise.

It is not the jet that gets upset – it has no emotion in this regard. It is the pilots who should be the last barrier of redundancy, but who are failing by causing the jet upset.


Is there anyone on board who can Fly?

The recent death of a pilot while in flight has seen a flurry of reaction. An American Airlines A320, Flight 550 was en route from Phoenix to Boston, but diverted to Syracuse when the captain became ill. Media reaction ranged from declaring the co-pilot a hero to posing questions about the medical condition of pilots.

So what are the actual chances of a pilot becoming incapacitated? By all accounts the chances are reasonably good – after all, pilots are subject to the normal range of human afflictions, ranging from simple colds to food poisoning and heart attacks. However, while trying to find some stats on incapacitation I could not find any record of pilot incapacitation on a commercial airliner which resulted in an accident. Neither could I find any of a double or simultaneous incapacitation – the chances of which must be so remote as to be negligible.

So I’m afraid that all the Microsoft Sim pilots who are ready for the call to duty when they board a commercial flight may well never receive that call!

In fact, the remote possibility of pilot incapacitation should not be a concern to passengers at all.

Air crew are well trained for such events and either pilot would be able to continue or divert the flight and land safely. In fact, one of our final line checks for new command upgrades is a “solo” flight, where the instructor captain becomes “incapacitated”.

In a real life situation the cabin crew’s role as safety officers also becomes clear. They are well trained in providing emergency first aid. They would also assist in moving the incapacitated pilot’s seat far back and to restrain him/her from interfering with controls. If necessary and if time allows the pilot could even be removed from the cockpit. Cabin crew members are furthermore trained to assist pilots with checklists and radio selection, which would lighten the workload in a single pilot diversion, approach and landing.

However, this rather non-event scenario would obviously not suit Hollywood! In fact, a quick Google search reveals at least ten movies with pilots in distress and some rock-jawed passenger-hero saving the day. Let’s be honest, you have to be at least Charlton Heston or Harrison Ford (or Lauren Holly – remember “Turbulence”?) to pull off such an incredible feat!

Lauren Holly

Lauren Holly in Turbulence.

My particular worst scenes of impossible wishful thinking were in Airport ’77 with Jack Lemmon telling pax in the B747 on the seabed that they’d be OK, as the aircraft is pressurised!

Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon in Airport ’77.

Airport 77

Wishful thinking!

Or what about the rappelling between aircraft in “Air Force One” – only in Hollywood!


C-130 and B747 formo in” Air Force One”.

Now the question a number of people have asked me: Could a non-pilot land a commercial aircraft?

I think it is highly unlikely that it would result in a successful landing – with lots of patter and assistance (provided the radio frequencies are set up correctly) a non-pilot would probably manage to position the aircraft near an airport, using the various automated systems. He or she could possibly even configure it for an autoland, should conditions allow – unfortunately any out of limits situation may well disengage the autopilots. However, manually executing a landing would probably result in severe damage and possible loss of life. Let’s face it, unless you were trained for this, gently placing many of tons of metal onto a very narrow piece of tarmac at speeds of around 250 km/h will take some doing!

Fortunately we do not have to worry about such Hollywood scenarios. Rather enjoy the flight and trust that your pilots are well rested, well fed and healthy!

Featured Pic: Getty Images. Other Pics: Movie Promo Material