Ask the pilot

Pilots fear bombs and ground collisions, sure, but what are the other scenarios that fill them with dread?

Published January 25, 2008 11:34AM (EST)

On Jan. 17, a British Airways Boeing 777 arriving from Beijing landed short of the runway -- crashed, if you prefer -- at London's Heathrow airport. It was the first serious accident involving a 777 since the type entered service 13 years ago. Reportedly -- and this is far from a known fact -- the plane lost power in both engines while maneuvering on approach. The crew made an immediate turn toward the runway and managed to glide to a semi-intact touchdown just inside the airport boundary. It could have been much, much worse.

Before getting to the how and why, allow me a moment to critique the media's handling of the event.

Coverage was more or less as expected, which is to say misleading at best and embarrassing at worst. The networks trundled out their "aviation experts," while the newspapers did their usual hatchet job, garbling facts and turning a complicated incident into a silly caricature. (Alan Levin's analysis for USA Today tops a short list of decent efforts.) The Associated Press peppered its stories with gratuitous quotes from passengers, including a fellow who had this to say following the evacuation of all 152 people from the badly damaged plane: "I didn't speak to the pilot, but I saw him, and he looked very pale."

Really, you mean he didn't stop to chat? And I love that, "the pilot," as if there's one guy sitting up there by himself. For the record, there would have been a minimum of three pilots on the flight deck -- a captain and two first officers. The 777 is technically a two-pilot aircraft, but long-haul international flights carry one or two relief pilots in addition. All of these pilots are fully qualified to operate the plane in any regime of flight, and any one of them could have been at the controls at the time of the emergency, depending whose turn it was for that segment. I take it the passenger was referring to the captain? (And of course he looked pale ... he was British!)

Anyway, enough harping on reporters. The more pressing matter is, what the hell happened?

I wish I could tell you, and although people are hoping for a neat little explanation, there isn't much to go on. Neither the airline nor investigators have revealed any details. It will likely be many months before official findings are released; jumping to conclusions this early in the game is a bad idea. Just the same, I can't deny there is a 700,000-pound question hanging in the air, as it were: How can a jetliner -- any jetliner -- suffer a malfunction of both engines simultaneously?

Early speculation focuses on the possibility of a malfunctioning engine control computer or auto-throttle system. A 777's engines are controlled and monitored by an array of electronic boxes, and it's conceivable that something went awry. Indications are that the engines did not fail outright; rather, an uncommanded thrust reduction occurred when the plane was very close to the ground, leaving the crew insufficient time to recover.

But allow me to present one other potential culprit that the average passenger is unlikely to consider: birds. That's right, birds. What happened at Heathrow might be totally unrelated, but this is worth discussing because, frankly, I think we're lucky to have escaped one or more large-scale, bird-related accidents in recent years.

Bird strikes, as they're called, are fairly common and seldom harmful (unless, of course, you're talking from the bird's point of view). I've experienced many strikes in the course of my flying career. The damage in each case was a minor dent or superficial crease, if anything at all. Aircraft components are built to tolerate such impacts. I've seen videos of bird carcasses being fired from a sort of chicken cannon to test the resistance of windshields, intakes and so forth. Occasionally, however, strikes can be serious, or even deadly -- especially when engines are involved.

Modern jet turbofans are powerful and resilient, but they don't take kindly to the ingestion of foreign objects, particularly those slamming into their rotating blades at high rates of speed. The innards of a jet engine are essentially a series of interconnected fans -- compressors and turbines -- spinning at thousands of RPM. Bend or snap one of the many internal blades, disrupting airflow or throwing an assembly off balance, and the results can be anything from a mild burble to a series of violent stalls to a total power loss. In rare cases, a badly damaged engine can even come apart -- a so-called uncontained failure.

The larger the bird, obviously, the greater the potential for harm. Most species weigh less than a pound, but imagine a wild turkey, a vulture or a goose -- or a whole flock of them. Flying at 250 knots -- in the U.S., that's the maximum allowable speed below 10,000 feet -- a plane hitting an average-size Canada goose will be subject to an impact force of more than 50,000 pounds. Even small birds pose a threat if struck en masse. Because of their density, European starlings have been referred to as "flying bullets."

In 1960, an Eastern Air Lines turboprop went down in Boston after an encounter with a flock of starlings, killing 62 people. Three of its four engines had failed or were damaged. In 1995, a military jet crashed in Alaska after losing two engines in an encounter with geese.

Some colleagues of mine once hit a small flock of guinea fowl on takeoff at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They diverted their DC-8 to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with two of its four engines surging and overheating.

Only days before the British Airways crash landing I had heard a more recent story about a Boeing 767 that ingested several birds on liftoff from an airport in Europe. The aircraft suffered a total power loss in one engine and partial loss in the second. It returned for a safe landing, but had the second engine failed, there's a pretty solid chance the plane would have crashed. I fly 767s to Europe all the time. I could have been one of the pilots. Then came the Heathrow mishap, and the first thing I thought of was birds.

I am occasionally asked which possible scenarios are the most feared by pilots. What is it that they dread? Passengers, for their part, worry about many odd, or even impossible, scenarios, and are often surprised by what they hear. I'd put cargo fires, flight control failures, bombs and ground collisions at the top of my list. But birds too are something to think about.

Care to hear another one? OK, let's talk for a minute about wake turbulence.

The hazards of wake turbulence were the topic of a column back in November 2006. To recap: The powerful vortexes spun from the wingtips of larger aircraft can sometimes pose a danger to other, smaller traffic. With all of the turboprops and regional jets now out there, sharing congested airspace with bigger and heavier planes, I'm somewhat surprised there haven't been any incidents.

That there haven't is a testament to good training; both pilots and air traffic controllers are familiar with the basics of avoiding wakes. Still, I worry that younger, inexperienced crews might not be as knowledgeable as they should be. A few weeks ago I asked a friend who'd just been through new-hire training at a regional airline what he'd been taught about this subject. Not much, really. He had no idea, for instance, that the Boeing 757, though smaller than many other jets, produces the most powerful wakes ever recorded. He'll be flying 37-seaters into and out of LaGuardia, Washington National and other busy airports all the time, in close proximity to 757s.

OK, so timeout. Doubtless this column is managing to scare the crap out of the many nervous fliers who normally read it for comfort. It's not my usual M.O., I admit, to conjure up such grisly specters.

But I'm doing it for a reason. I'm doing it because a bit of tough love is exactly what we need right now. Without it, we run the risk of becoming complacent, overconfident or just plain forgetful.

Here in the United States we are riding strong amid the safest-ever stretch in the history of modern commercial aviation. Indeed there have been one or two tragedies, yet the last crash involving a major U.S. air carrier occurred in November 2001 -- more than six years ago. That's astonishing, if you think about it, and it's something that every pilot, controller, mechanic -- and every other individual with a hand in making the system run safely -- ought to be proud of. It's an ultimate irony: In a time when airlines have lost all respect, staggering through six-plus years of financial ruin, they have nonetheless maintained an impeccable standard of safety.

I've made mention of this crashless streak various times in past columns, to the point that it has become something of a mantra. I've done this for the sake of perspective ... because eventually it will end.

The truth is, our luck will run out. There will be another catastrophic accident at some point. Affirming this today is a good way of reducing the shock later on. It's not to suggest that we let our guard down; it's to recognize the inevitable and acknowledge that no system, no matter how good, can ever be perfect.

And unfortunately, when it happens, we need to brace ourselves for the reaction. The dearth of any truly calamitous air disasters for such a long stretch all but guarantees an explosion, if you'll pardon the expression, of sensationalist media coverage and panic. The spectacle attributed to relative nonevents over the past few years -- for instance, the bizarre, wall-to-wall coverage of a JetBlue emergency landing in 2005 -- is a depressing precursor of what's to come.

The worst thing about the crash will be the loss of life. The second worst thing will be the overreaction, hype and total lack of context. Rather than acknowledging the sad but inevitable end of a remarkably fortuitous streak, reminding ourselves that flying has never been safer, the talk will be of crisis, fear and of unseen danger ahead.

Don't quote me on the birds or the wake turbulence, but you can quote me on that.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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