Mission Aviation Fellowship

Mermaids frying bacon

When they designed the Airbus, the head of the company was quoted as saying that they were building an aeroplane so simple “even my concierge” at his apartment building would be able to operate it. As we know, commercial aviation is not quite as simple as that, but many of us appreciated Airbus’s attempts to relieve the pilot workload. In doing so however they introduced other potential errors which need to be trapped. I am talking here about the sidestick concept. It is brilliant of course and under normal circumstances works exceptionally well. There is one large drawback. For the non-flying pilot (who is monitoring the progress of hands-on crew member) you have to look across the cockpit to observe the control inputs on the other sidestick. They do not move simultaneously.

You see, in the Boeing (and all other airliners prior to the launch of the Airbus A320 series) there is a large control yoke placed in front of each pilot. It is impossible not to notice the controls in front of you moving which mirror the movements of the other side of the flightdeck. I cannot count the number of times when that particular quality has saved me. I can recall specific occasions when, close to the ground a large deflection of the yoke had my full attention! This was especially true when training new first officers who were not yet attuned to the fact that the airliner takes a certain number of seconds to get airborne.

In the Boeing it was always easy to spot mishandling of the controls by the other pilot, but I know from colleagues on the Airbus it has been a problem in the past and continues to be so

The most common error would be for them to apply a large aft input at the call of “Rotate” such that a ‘snatch’ rotation might occur. To establish in the initial climb safely, the pitch attitude should be gradually and steadily increased at a rate of three degrees per second, to approximately 15 degrees above the horizon. The recommended climb attitude for each type varies, but only slightly. The main point here is to recognise that it takes around five seconds for the machine to be settled into the climb and for part of that time, the main gear is still on the ground. In the Boeing it was always easy to spot mishandling of the controls by the other pilot, but I know from colleagues on the Airbus it has been a problem in the past and continues to be so. An example was the recent tailstrike by a British Airways A350 during a go-around. Although the incident occurred in January, the AAIB report has only just been released in August this year. One of the causes of the damage to the aeroplane was the excessive pitch input made by the first officer which will not have been noticed (or prevented) by the captain who was the monitoring pilot. It is not the first time that this has happened. BA had a similar occurrence some years ago while they were doing Base Training at an airport in France. At that time the base trainer was quoted as saying that much of the problem was due to lack of ‘feel’ for what inputs the trainee was making on ‘their side’ of the cockpit. In the case of the Air France 447 tragedy in 2009 (an A330), the final reports cites ‘pilot error, confusion and crew mismanagement’ as causes of the hull loss. At 35,000 feet, while enroute from Rio de Janiero to Paris, the aircraft pitot tubes iced over which led to the disengaging of the autopilot and autothrust and subsequent loss of accurate airspeed information. Misinterpreting the information available to the pilots led to one of them applying continuous back pressure to the sidestick on his side which exacerbated the stalled condition of the aircraft. This had gone unnoticed by the other first officer and was only discovered when the captain returned to the flightdeck. Maybe if it had been an airliner with a traditional control column design, this accident might not have occurred.

Perhaps one of the best things about our industry is that it was born in a modern age

Perhaps one of the best things about our industry is that it was born in a modern age. By that I mean that it really is safety led. Of course, there are instances when commercial pressures lead to accidents, however the overriding ethos is that we learn from our mistakes. Without being critical, I sincerely believe that other transport systems which originated in earlier times (maritime, railways etc) do not have this culture. Crew Resource Management for example is an aviation related invention. It did not come from another source, however it has been utilised in other fields to reduce accidents due to human factors. One place where CRM has made a difference is in the education/training of hospital surgical teams where effective communication is paramount. It is reassuring to think therefore that if there is a real issue here with regard to sidestick flight controls in the cockpit, the movers and shakers of the industry will do what is necessary to reduce the risk for all. That could include redesigning future airliner flightdecks. It will likely mean changes to pilot training programmes to ensure enhanced awareness by Airbus crews going forward. I suspect that one of the challenges there will be to get the buy-in of experienced airbus pilots. Those for whom the awareness of being unable to ‘see’ what flight control inputs the operating pilot is making is already at a high level. In a similar way to experienced professionals everywhere, those pilots may have a natural resistance to being told there is something they have yet to learn. I had an instance of this myself recently when I was curious to know the origin of the sounds which you can hear with your head underwater in the sea. I was floating on my back in the sea, in a little cove on the Greek mainland near Athens airport. As I was watching the airliners turning on to final approach for runways 03L and 03R I was aware of a persistent crackling, popping, fizzing sound. It was almost like white noise, but had more definition. Hmmm… I thought to myself, the underwater world is a noisy place. But what is it that is making that particular crackling, snapping sound? I did some investigation online (always eager to learn) and discovered there was a variety of theories. One of them was that it was made by shrimp snapping their legs/claws whatever.

“You really don’t know what makes that sound, do you?

However, I later mentioned it to a really old sailor friend of mine. He smiled and said, “You really don’t know what makes that sound, do you?” I shrugged, “Nope, you’re going to have to tell me.” He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner as if he was about to impart some secret information. “It’s Mermaids frying bacon!” Which just goes to prove that there is always something to learn no matter how experienced you are in your field.


James McBride © SEP 22, Skopelos Island.

Author: FTN Editor

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