Point of View

Americans flying high after four years of safety

February 21, 2013 

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SILLYCRUISER — Getty Images/iStockphoto

On the night of Feb. 12, 2009, I was with my recently widowed father in Sinclairville, N.Y., a tiny village in the western reaches of the state. After my father went to bed, I stayed up to watch the 11 p.m. news. Soon the newscasters began to talk about a plane crash near the Buffalo airport.

The story immediately caught my attention, as I’m a private pilot. Plus, I was only about 60 miles south of the Buffalo airport. Reporters struggled to find out what happened, and first reports were of a small plane going down in a neighborhood. The weather, a wintry mix of light snow and fog, slowed rescue efforts.

By morning the awful truth was clear: The crashed plane was a Dash-8 Q400 operated by Colgan Air for Continental, and all 49 aboard, plus one person on the ground, were killed.

It was a tragedy, but in another way, a milestone, as it was the last fatal wreck of an airliner in the United States. The four years that have passed with no such accidents is unprecedented; air travel has never been safer. Making the airlines this safe has taken a lot of work and diligent oversight. Just as crashes are never the result of just one problem, air safety is the result of many continuing improvements in pilot training, equipment, meteorology and navigation.

The most spectacular of accidents – mid-air collisions and flying into mountains – just do not happen here now, mainly because of better equipment on board and better weather forecasting. The fatal problems with the British DeHavilland Comet in the early 1950s and Lockheed Electra around 1960, which both suffered in-flight breakups, led to better understanding of airplane construction and metal fatigue.

The Colgan crash at Buffalo and the Air France Flight 447 crash into the south Atlantic, later in 2009, might have been caused by the same type of pilot error – pulling back on the controls while the plane was in an aerodynamic stall. The proper response is to push forward to try to lower the nose.

Analysts were mystified at the wrong response by the pilots and turned most of their attention to pilot training. They urged a redoubling of training related to interpreting what the instruments are telling the crew, in order to avoid stalls. The “startle effect” remains troublesome. Who hasn’t been surprised and done the wrong thing?

During my own flight training, I did dozens of stalls, which occur basically when the wings no longer generate enough lift to support the plane. This can happen when the speed is too low, the nose is too high or both. Stalls can be disorienting and unpleasant, even when the pilot knows they are coming.

The traveling public, the true beneficiary of the airlines’ safety records, can be grateful for the amount of government oversight that goes into aviation. Virtually every aspect of each airplane (even the little ones I fly) and each airline are scrutinized in detail. Every part has a serial number and is logged; every radio has to perform up to FAA standards.

Airplanes undergo meticulous inspections at regular intervals, at least once a year for the kind of plane I fly. Airliners get quick exams before every flight, but as time passes the inspections get more and more thorough. When the time for a “D check” comes, the plane is out of service for weeks and is taken down to virtually the bare metal.

Pilots are trained and retested throughout their flying lives. I have to have a physical exam every two years; for airline pilots it’s every six months. I have to fly with an examiner every two years, while for airline pilots it’s much more frequent.

And when crashes happen, the government, airline and the airplane’s manufacturer spare no time or expense to try to figure out why. When Sully put his Airbus into the Hudson River a couple of years ago, the cause was clear – the geese. But when the Air France Airbus sank in thousands of feet of the Atlantic, things were much more difficult.

After spending nearly two years and millions of dollars, using navies of several countries and sophisticated underwater gear, the wreckage was found. With the data recorders finally in hand, investigators determined the cause and set out to make a similar accident unlikely.

Travelers can be pleased at the impressive safety record of American aviation, but it’s only with careful oversight by regulators and compliance by pilots and airlines that this enviable safety will continue.

Bob Kochersberger, a private pilot, teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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