Monday, April 12, 2010

Mental, and Physical, Fog

This past weekend a 20 year old, Soviet-designed aircraft carrying a who's who list of Poland's elite crashed near it's destination in Smolensk, Russia; all souls aboard were lost.

Such as it is, that's most of what I know about the incident, but certainly less than what I've read about it. And even simply stating these facts adds a bias, calling to mind an aging aircraft from a region and era that were not known for sophisticated civilian transport designs. 

I would guess that most people not affiliated with the aviation industry use their experience with automobiles as a near-analogue to developments in aviation. Hence, the general public might hear "20 year old aircraft" and imagine a rustbucket of barely functioning parts that's just waiting to seize up at the worst possible opportunity. Thankfully, in the industrialized nations this is quite far from the case. 

Civil transport aircraft are designed from the outset to meet an in-service lifetime of approximately 30 years. The regulatory regimes of the industrialized nations require an ongoing series of in-depth inspections, maintenance, and overhauls for all operating aircraft, and the rules are much more strict for aircraft that carry passengers for commercial activity. 

These days, it's quite likely that an aircraft will be delegated to the boneyard not because it's been deemed unsafe, but rather that it's become too expensive to operate profitably. Fuel and maintenance costs drive industry decisions, and older aircraft are generally much more thirsty and cantankerous than their modern counterparts. But the safety of a well-maintained older aircraft is closely inline with that of a well-maintained newer aircraft.


Now to talk about the fogs. Flying is a mentally demanding task. Doing it well requires close adherence to established procedures and a constant, dispassionate, realtime evaluation of risk. The psychological and human factors elements of pilot performance are many, and while pilots are well-trained, they are also subject to human error. Sometimes the "need" to be on the ground at a certain place and a certain time can overwhelm, and decision making starts to become suspect.

I'm a pilot, or at least a student pilot, and I relish the opportunity to be in the air. Even as a passenger in cattle-class, I still get a thrill when the turbines spool up to takeoff power and I'm thrust deeper into the back of my seat. I'm also an aerospace engineer, albeit on the periphery of the industry, having worked for a sub-tier supplier for many years. I enjoy providing a play-by-play of what's going on with flight's I'm part of, sometimes to the alarm of those flying with me.

On a recent red eye flight into Chicago-Midway, I was one of the few passengers awake in the dimmed cabin as we approached the airport. We were in clouds, and I expected we'd get below them promptly and be on the ground in short order. Except the clouds went down to the ground and there was no visibility of the runway. We did two go-arounds, meaning that the pilot determined the landing approach was in someway unstable or unsafe and chose to climb out before trying something else.

I was worried at this point; worried mostly about the frame of mind of the pilot and co-pilot. While my car was parked at Midway and it'd be a PITA to land elsewhere at ~2am, I didn't want the folks up front to be thinking of anything other than how best to get the plane safely on the ground. Airline procedures, FAA regulations, and air traffic control were all aligned similarly, but it was the two people with their hands on the controls that were making the decisions that mattered. 

Maybe by the third time around the fog was patchy enough that they caught sight of the runway's threshold and could land with sufficient confidence. I hope so. But that third approach was the most fear I've ever felt in an aircraft; moreso than my first time skydiving, or even when a 2-seat Cessna's door popped open after takeoff right next to my elbow. Because at the end of a long day, when everyone else around was already asleep, those two pilots were battling physical and mental fogs. And my life depended on their ability to do so successfully.

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