Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Polish Air Disaster: No Rush To Judgement

When an airliner crashes, everyone wants to know why.

And if a large segment of a country's civic, military and cultural elite were wiped out in a single aviation tragedy, the demand would get urgent.

But it seems that the Russians are too anxious to suggest they already know the catastrophic loss of Polish jet that carried nearly 100 people to their deaths was due to pilot error - - attempting to land in fog against the advice of Russian air controllers.

I investigated several commercial aviation accidents when I was a reporter at The Milwaukee Journal.

And I learned was that often the first assumption about a cause is either wrong, or needed to be read in a broader context - - so patience was important as investigators did their technical and scientific work.

An example:

In 1985, Midwest Express, then a new carrier and later renamed Midwest Airlines, suffered its only fatal accident when one of its DC-9's crashed in Oak Creek just after takeoff.

Yes, the final ruling was pilot, or human error.

But there were interesting contributing or ancillary factors:

The pilots had to react quickly to a blown right engine. The pilot-in-command stamped down on the right rudder pedal, thus further tilting the plane in that direction with full power coming from the still-functioning left engine.

And so the plane rolled over further to the right and nosed in, upside down.

But the subsequent, meticulous investigation showed that the engine that blew had a rotating part with a track record of in-flight failure, but neither the airline or the Federal Aviation Administration had moved fast enough to get the part replaced.

And when the engine blew, there was virtually no conversation between the pilot and co-pilot - - no so-called cockpit management - - that might have produced some better decision-making and problem-solving.

And it was the FAA that had approved that crew procedure that required Midwest pilots to maintain what was known as a "sterile cockpit" on take-off when generally that concept was meant to stop extraneous conversations, but not vital back-and-forth.

Everything cascaded down on the Midwest cockpit crew in a crisis, split-second circumstance, and 31 people died.

So these things are not as simple as one party screwed up, and everyone else had clean hands, especially because it's all too easy to blame a cockpit crew that died at the scene.

We might, for example, learn that the captain or pilot-in-charge as the Polish airliner made its approach was under pressure from his superiors - - military and civic leaders on the plane - - to attempt the landing.

Or that the Russian air controllers' alleged instructions or admonitions were unclear, either due to phraseology or poor electronics.

Or that there is a history of difficult communications between Russian controllers and Polish pilots that went into the Polich captain's decision-making.

Or that there was a mechanical problem or problems compounding a tough landing.

These are suppositions. I could conjure up others, or put them into a combination or combinations that could doom an airliner making a landing on a clear day.

We'll find out - - though I have to say it is not a confidence-builder that Vladimir Putin has taken personal charge of the investigation.

When there is an aviation disaster in the US, an independent agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, not only takes charge but guarantees to all parties that no one's participation in the inquiry can be used against them.

The goal is to find out what happened and make sure it is isn't repeated, thus making ths skies safer.

I wonder if that's the goal case in this tragedy?


Anon Jim said...

It is understandable from an economic, and as a stretch 'green', standpoint that they had almost the entire leadership of the Polish government and military traveling on one airliner.

Having said that it just goes to show, you never want to have all your eggs in one basket.

Am not being trite, this is a tragic situation and my heartfelt condolences go out to the people of Poland.

Whether or not the Russian government had any role in this, I doubt it - but would not be completely surprised if it turned out they did.

James Rowen said...

Very odd comment.

James Rowen said...

Very odd comment. At least the first two graphs.