Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flying May Not Be As Safe As You Think

They say flying is the safest form of travel – but is it?

Almost anyone can get a driver’s license these days, which makes traveling by car all the more dangerous. It amazes me how some people got their driver’s license when you walk down any major street in a big North American city – bad drivers seem to outnumber the good ones.

Northwest AirlinesImage via Wikipedia

But those very same bad drivers could just as easily be your next flight crew, commanding a multi-billion dollar seven-story airliner, with hundreds of people on-board.

Just last week, a passenger flight from San Diego, California, USA to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA lost contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC) for over an hour.
Initially, ATC thought Northwest Airlines flight 188 had been commandee

Northwest Airlines A320 upon takeoff.Image via Wikipedia

red by hijackers, but after the pilots re-established communications, it is feared that they had fallen asleep.

The massive Airbus A320, with 147 passengers, flying at a standard cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, overflew its destination airport by about 150 miles, all while the radio communication between

Airbus A320-200 of the  national carrier - Swi...Image via Wikipedia

the ATC and the pilots was mysteriously quiet.

ATC watched flight 188 on radar, continued to try to raise the plane on the flight radios, and by in-plane text messages (similar to a facsimile transmission between the cockpit and the tower), but according to an ongoing investigation, the pilots were “non-responsive.”

Eventually, ATC contacted two other Northwest Airlines planes, and one of those managed to contact the pilots of flight 188, and they re-established contact with the ATC.

But because of the lengthy silence, ATC ordered the pilots to make a few unnecessary maneuvers to ensure the plane was under their control, and not a hijacker.

Another instance of pilot error in the States last week narrowly avoided a major disaster.

Last Monday, Delta Flight 60 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Hartsfield, Atlanta, USA, landed on a taxiway instead of the parallel runway.

The Boeing 767, with 194 passengers and crew, was cleared for landing on Runway 27R, but instead landed on Taxiway M.

The taxiway and runways are clearly differentiated by the color of lights used.
The runway has white lights running down the sides and middle of the runway, while the taxiway has blue lights running down the sides, and green lights running down the center of the taxiway. This lighting pattern is an international standard which all pilots from all countries know and use all the time. Not all airports have the lights running down the center of the runway or taxiway (smaller landing strips may just have lights down the sides of the runway) but the colors used are all standardized.

Luckily, no other aircraft were on the taxiway or connecting runway because a collision with a plane preparing to take-off with a full load of jet fuel and hundreds of passengers on each plane would be catastrophic, according to airport officials.

The passengers and crew of flight 60 are also lucky that both the taxiway and the runway are the same length – 11,890 feet long. If the taxiway was much shorter, the plane would have slid off the pavement, into a field, a ditch, a vehicle, a building or some other structure, which could also end a catastrophic event, seeing as the average landing speed at most airports is between 150 to 200 miles per hour.

The American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are both investigating both incidents.

But both these incidents raise the warning flags that despite all the technological advances in air travel, there will always remain one possible form of error which can never be fully eliminated – human error.

Just as when you step out onto a busy street to cross an intersection, or hop into a car or truck, you put your life in the hands of complete strangers around you in their vehicles.

Scary thought.

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