The Greatest Threat to Aviation Safety

Monday, September 9, 2013
By George Hatcher

According to the people who ought to know—the NTSB, Flight Safety Foundation, Boeing—recent studies indicate that the biggest threat to aviation safety is pilots not doing go-arounds.

Excuse me?

Apparently,pilots need to recognize and respond faster to unstabilized approaches (approaches that need correction in heading, speed and/or altitude.)

Pilots tend to want to land when they come in for a landing; and surveys indicate that although airline requirements are to abort landings if their approaches are unstable, go-arounds happen proportionally less often than they should. The Director of Global Programs at Flight Safety Foundation, Rudy Quevedo, “The physics of landing mean that the plane should be centered, on the correct trajectory, the correct descent rate and the right speed.”

In George’s Point of View

This conclusion seems to me a major oversimplification of the multitude of aviation problems.

I would not presume to say that I know if weather, mechanical failures or human failures are most frequently responsible for aviation disasters. I do know that problems tend to occur together.

I know, for example, that there are countries (like India where a recent aviation school scandal revealed the licensing of pilots who cannot fly or pass flying exams.) When a pilot who couldn’t pass his flying exam has an accident, a go round would not have helped.

And as for a crash like the Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines that crash landed at San Francisco International Airport–the plane flown by someone unfamiliar with the airport and the plane he was flying came in too low and hit the seawall (among other things.) How can one say that failing to make a go around was the problem–when the plane was too low and at the wrong angle even before reaching the runway.

It is easy for a statistician to say some of these accidents could have been prevented with a go-around; but in how many of these accidents was a go around actually an option? Planes hit seawalls, encounter wake turbulence, strike cables, have flat tires, flap failures, bird strikes, suffer wind shear, idiots who attempt to open doors in mid-flight, and hundreds of other problems. A go-around is not always an option.

Undoubtably, especially on small planes, a second or even third shot at landing will correct minor landing physics issues. It’s probably somewhat easier on a small plane than a 777, And if you ask a pilot that had a runway overrun, he will probably tell you the exact instant when he should have gone for the go-around, and knew when it was too late.

It should be noted that sometimes when the plane is on a wrong trajectory, incorrect descent rate, and wrong speed, it might not be possible to manage a go-around; there may well be a factor like a bird strike, mechanical failure, faulty flight indication, or icing crimping the physics.

It’s very easy for a guy with a pencil in his hand to say pilots should have aborted their landings at the first sign of trouble. Sometimes we should look at surveys and statistics like Mark Twain, and realize that “There are lies, damned likes and statistics.”

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