Ask the pilot

Lessons from a burning plane: What the media didn't tell you about a near disaster in Asia.


Patrick Smith
September 7, 2007 2:22PM (UTC)

If you were watching TV on or around Aug. 20, doubtless you caught the spectacular footage of a burning China Airlines jet on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The Boeing 737-800 caught fire shortly after landing and burst into a fireball on the parking apron.

The incident was eerily reminiscent of the quasi-crash of an Air France jet in Toronto two summers ago. The causes of the mishaps were entirely different -- a fuel tank puncture in Okinawa; a crew-induced runway overrun at Toronto -- but in both cases all passengers and crew managed to escape before the aircraft was completely gutted by fire. And in both cases, media coverage was error-prone and sensationalist.

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Let's start with the second point. First we had Debby Wu of the Associated Press, writing how there had been no distress call from "the pilot" prior to landing. After the fire erupted, a figure of "the pilot" could be seen jumping from the cockpit window. Does Ms. Wu, covering an aviation story for the planet's most influential wire service, not realize that commercial jetliners are flown by two pilots -- a first officer and a captain? If nothing else, was it asking too much for her to specify that one of the pilots could be seen jumping from the window?

Meanwhile on television, clicking from channel to channel, one saw the video from Okinawa as a backdrop to the shrill play-by-play of incredulous news anchors, mouths presumably agape, exclaiming how they had "never seen anything like this." The prompt evacuation and lack of a body count were of course "miraculous," with gratuitous invocations of God and divine intervention. Reports from Canada in 2005 were little different.

People can thank whomever and whatever they want, but in both cases the coverage failed to highlight some important lessons. What I saw was neither unprecedented nor miraculous; on the contrary, these accidents were instructive demonstrations of the value of good crew training and passenger preparation.

Conventional wisdom holds that airplane crashes are nonsurvivable. I can't tell you how many times I've heard cynical fliers remark on the futility of fastening their seat belts. "After all," the logic goes, "if there's an accident, we're all going to die anyway, right?"

In truth, most accidents have survivors, and relatively few are all-out catastrophes. Thus, a little pre-planning could save your life.

Part of that pre-planning is knowing exactly where the doors are -- all of them, as smoke, fire or debris could render one or more exits unusable. You must also understand that should an evacuation be necessary, you will not be taking your carry-on luggage with you. Doing so could put yourself and others in considerable danger. Video and photos from Okinawa show several fleeing passengers laden with carry-ons. One of the pictures I saw shows a woman, already burdened with two shoulder bags, reaching for a third piece of luggage that she had apparently dropped on the tarmac.

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What with the nature of carry-ons these days -- expensive computers, phones and PDAs packed with valuable data -- the temptation to reach for your stuff would be strong. What's the difference, you think, in taking an extra second or two to pull out your laptop? Well, hundreds of people each taking an extra second adds up to a lot of seconds, and if there's a fire encroaching quickly toward thousands of gallons of highly volatile jet fuel, every one of those seconds counts. And although you may be one of the first ones out, you've slowed the channel of escape for those behind you.

This is the reason, by the way, for the litany of prohibitions during taxi, takeoff and landing: Tray tables need to be up, window shades open, laptops and iPods put away. It's not about electronic interference, it's about the need for a speedy egress and situational awareness should anything happen.

I'd be interested to learn if the China Airlines flight attendants attempted to stop people from grabbing their luggage. During an evacuation, crews are supposed to order people -- to scream at them if necessary -- to leave their belongings behind. In Toronto, the Air France cabin crew was lauded for a quick and successful evacuation, yet there too people could be seen scrambling away with items in tow. However, there's only so much you can do in the midst of a panic when you're shoving people toward the escape slides. Based on what we know, these fast-acting crews are owed at least as much gratitude as God or unseen angels.

On Okinawa, China Airlines' CEO, Chao Kuo-shuai, handed out envelopes containing $100 to each of the passengers. (I was going to type "survivors," but that's too strong a word.) "I apologize from the bottom of my heart," he said.

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A final analysis won't be in for some time, but it appears that a malfunctioning slat-positioning mechanism caused a leak in the 737's left-wing fuel tank. Slats, sometimes called "leading-edge flaps," are the movable surfaces connected to the forward edge of each wing, used to increase lift when flying at low speeds. A bolt attached to the down-stop assembly -- a unit that limits the deployment angle of each slat -- had come loose or was damaged, possibly by ingestion of a foreign object, such as a stone or other piece of debris. As the slat was repositioned, the fuel tank was punctured.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD), calling for inspection of the leading-edge devices on all late-model 737s. Reportedly, at least one major airline discovered faulty down-stop bolts in its fleet. No doubt this news will find many squeamish fliers even more worried than normal. If you're one of those fliers, bear in mind that there are more than 2,000 affected 737s operating around the world, and there have been no other tank punctures. The AD should preclude any sequels.

Of course, if you happened to be watching CNN's "American Morning" on the day of the incident, you wouldn't have known which kind of plane, or even which airline, was involved in the first place. An anchor referred to the flame-engulfed airplane as "a big one, a 727." Maybe I'm wrong, but I expect that news anchors probably get around a bit, and are savvy enough travelers to know that most 727s have long been retired from passenger service. They should also be experienced enough to know that neither the 727 nor the 737 is particularly large, as far as jetliners go.

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Additionally, CNN was one of many sources to refer to the airline as "China Air." I'd been waiting for that one, and was not disappointed. Was it too hard simply to read the words "China Airlines" off the side of the plane? The name was clearly visible despite the smoke and fire.

China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan. Its mainland equivalent, Air China, is based in Beijing. For reasons I've never understood, the generic and quite incorrect "China Air" is often used to describe either one of these carriers.

If you're a longtime reader, you'll recognize that we've been through this "China Air" business before, as part of a column on airline malapropisms and bloopers that ran back in 2003 (if not this column's finest moment, then definitely its most pedantic and petulant). Maybe this kind of thing bothers me more than it should, but we don't go around saying "American Air" or "United Air."

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"Singapore Air" is another slangy shorthand that often pops up, as does "British Air." Neither of these is as unpardonable as "Air Italia" (Alitalia), but that doesn't make them right. In Singapore Airlines' case, the airline itself is partly to blame thanks to its home page address, but "British Air" is just lazy. I was rather startled when, in 2005, our friend Scott McCartney, business travel columnist for the Wall Street Journal, actually used this bastardization in print.

British Airways likes to call itself "the world's favourite airline" -- a slogan of somewhat dubious accuracy, since, when you run the numbers, B.A. is actually the seventh largest carrier. On the other hand, "China Air" has earned full rights to be labeled "the world's favorite nonexistent airline."


Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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