What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry

The “fly” button is third from the left on the second row. The “land” button is cunningly hidden behind a removable panel in the rear lavatory. The rest control the in-flight-movie.

The aviation industry is one plagued with red tape and strict process, and not without good reason. With more than half of all plane crashes caused by pilot error, and the flying public unwilling to fly without pilots in the pointy end, aviation authorities are doing everything they can to turn the cockpit into a robotic, process-driven office.

Believe it or not, the problems that pilots face, and which cause aviation disasters, are often the same issues we face every day at the office. So the ways these have been solved and mitigated are worth a look, whether you’re flying a plane, or flying a desk…

Don’t distract me when I’m busy

Take-offs and landings are extremely busy times for pilots. Besides being the cool, calm head there to deal with emergencies when they happen, take-offs and landings are where they really earn their money.

Under 10,000-feet, airline pilots must obey a concept known as the “sterile cockpit”; that means they aren’t allowed to discuss anything except the job at hand. Checklists, departure or arrival routes, weather and radio communication with air traffic control, that’s all, nothing extraneous.

And you can tell when you’ve climbed to 10,000ft even as a passenger, it is usually signified by the pilots turning off the landing lights (the bright white lights in the wing roots) and turning off the fasten-safety-belt lights (as weather permits).

Applying this to the office: We all have busy times, I’ve seen several ways of signifying  that you don’t want to be disturbed and just want to get things done. Sometimes small flagpoles on desks can be have status flags hoisted up them, “do not disturb” or “only disturb me if it’s urgent”, for example. Other companies have employed simpler policies, business intelligence (BI) experts BusinessObjects, now part of German megacorp, SAP, uses headphones to indicate disturbability (a word I just made up). No headphones means the door is open. One headphone in means it needs to be pretty important. Both headphones means my head is down and the building had better be on fire…

Be specific when you tell me something

The language used by airline pilots has evolved over decades to become very strict and specific, and not without good reason. The deadliest aircraft accident in history (besides 9/11), where two fully-laden 747 collided on Tenerife’s Los Rodeos airport’s runway in fog in March 1977, has been put down to a misunderstanding of terminology.

Waiting to depart at one end of the runway, a KLM 747’s impatient Captain said on the radio that he was “ready for takeoff”. Meanwhile, a Pan Am 747 was still taxiing on the runway.  Continue Reading “What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry”

Where is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? Here’s one theory…

Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was operated by this Boeing 777-200ER, reg 9M-MRO

I know as soon as I post this the wreckage will be found and I’ll look like a mug, but I had a theory bubble to the top of my brain which might explain where Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is, and why it disappeared.

The Facts

So we know the following:

  • The aircraft took off at 00:41 Malaysian Standard Time (MST) on 8th March, which is 16:41 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
  • The Subang Air Traffic Control Centre lost contact with the aircraft around 01:22 local time.
  • The aircraft hasn’t been heard from or seen since.
  • No mayday call went out. 
  • Both ADS-B and secondary radar returns stopped at the same time.
  • Primary radar returns from a nearby military radar station reportedly shows the aircraft turning back for land before vanishing.

Theories in the bin

The Boeing 777 is a aircraft with a remarkable safety record. A technical failure is highly unlikely to have happened because the 777 has multiple, redundant systems. A fuel-tank explosion like that of TWA800 is now impossible due to a process of “inerting” where nitrogen is pumped into the empty space left behind when fuel is used up – meaning you can’t get enough of an “air-fuel vapour” to reach flashpoint.

A missile strike would have caused a primary radar return, and also a flash in the sky. The US National Reconnaissance Office admitted it has full-globe capabilities for watching for flashes – typically used to identify the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles. They say they didn’t record any flash.

The aircraft didn’t fly into a thunderstorm, in fact the weather in the area was relatively calm.  Continue Reading “Where is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? Here’s one theory…”

Boeing 777 Crash Lands at San Francisco Airport Killing 2

Boeing 777 Crash Lands at SFO
Boeing 777 Crash Lands at SFO

On Saturday morning Asiana Airlines flight 214, flying from Seoul-Incheon in South Korea, crash landed killing two passengers. This marks the first fatal Boeing 777 crash in its 20 years in service.

Eyewitnesses say the aircraft was low on approach and had a very nose-high attitude right before the tail struck the sea wall at the end of runway 28-Left (28L). The tail section sheared off along with at least one strut from the main landing gear, which is visible in the pictures from the beach.

Similarities to British Airways flight 38

Immediately this resembles the British Airways flight 38 crash landing where a similar Boeing 777 crashed at the end of the runway at Heathrow, however there are several factors that suggest the causes here are different.

The BA038 incident occurred after the aircraft had flown through some unusually cold air causing water in the fuel to turn to ice. As the aircraft approached Heathrow, the relatively warmer temperatures closer to sea level caused some of the ice to be released into the fuel pipes. This ice hit a system known as the fuel-oil-heat-exchanger (FOHE for short) and solidified. This caused a dramatic reduction in fuel flow to the engines and a lack of thrust. The rest is history – the aircraft hit the ground with so little forward momentum that it stopped almost immediately but hard enough to drive the landing gear through the wings. That’s how they are designed – you want your landing gear to fail before the wing fails! BA038 bellied onto the end of the runway and everyone escaped unharmed (except for some minor injuries picked up by sliding down the escape slides).

But this appears to be a totally different problem for one critical reason: the engines on the Asiana Airlines, and associated fuel systems, are different. The FOHE issues that hit the BA flight are specific to the Rolls Royce Trent 800 while the Asiana is equipped with Pratt and Whitney PW4090 powerplants.

Initial Speculation and Conjecture

Personally, I think it’s fairly obvious what has happened here. But I may be wrong.

The key factors to bear in mind are:

  • The reports that the aircraft was very low on approach
  • Eyewitnesses saying the aircraft had a very nose-high attitude before the accident
  • Understanding the override-able nature of the flight-envelope protection on the Boeing 777 (compared to Airbus’s envelope protection philosphy)
  • The reports of a tailstrike
  • The visible damage to the underside of the aircraft, and the collapsed/missing landing gear

These items indicate, to me, a “low energy state” at the latter stages of the approach. What pilots call “low and slow”. Low energy states in aircraft can result in aerodynamic stalls, especially when performing manoeuvres such as turns.   Continue Reading “Boeing 777 Crash Lands at San Francisco Airport Killing 2”

American Airlines’ New Livery


Today, after months of speculation and guesswork, the world finally got to see American Airlines’ new livery. Doing away with the bare-metal, full-length stripes and the “AA” with an eagle in the middle, the new paint scheme will work on the new all-composite aircraft coming out of Boeing and Airbus, which simply don’t allow for that “bare metal” look. (They’re not metal for a start!) The new livery is getting a mixed reaction, some love the new, modern style, while others think it is sacrilege to play around with such an iconic brand. The last time American got a new look was back in 1968, so this is an historic day in aviation. Its timing is telling of just how the company wants to leave its old image behind as it claws its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The new Logo

Also joining the new livery is a new logo for the brand:


Retaining the eagle, although in a very stylised form, the logo is a lot more contemporary than its predecessor. However, its abstract design could make it less impactful. Some commenters are saying it looks too much like other logos, such as the one Air France recently adopted:

Continue Reading “American Airlines’ New Livery”

FlightLevel390 has Vanished! Hello, Dave?

Not Captain Dave.

Have you seen him? He’s vanished off the interwebz! The mysterious, greying Captain, fond of Japanese superbikes and perfect landings, only known as “Dave” has removed his blog, “flightlevel390”. And I’m not the only one who is missing this paragon of aviation blogging awesomeness…

In fact, you don’t have to look very far to find a plethora of people calling out for the venerable flyboy:


The Disappearance of FlightLevel390 – The Greatest Mystery Since ‘Who Shot Mr Burns’?

This is turning out to be a big Internet mystery – and there aren’t too many of those around these days.

To avid fans of the blog, Dave dropped enough hints to let us know he flew for Phoenix, Arizona-based US Airways. He was also type rated and current on the Airbus A32x family (A319, A320, A321). So when Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III decided to land his US Airways A320 on a particularly wet runway in New York in January 2009, many of us faithful readers suspected our beloved Cap’n might have been at the controls.

Continue Reading “FlightLevel390 has Vanished! Hello, Dave?”

Landing the Boeing 737

“Ladies and Gentlemen, does anyone know how to fly a plane?”

The question they should be asking is, of course, “does anybody know how to LAND a plane?” Flying is easy. Landing is hard. It is every Flight Simulator geek’s dream to be asked into the cockpit to save a pressurised tube full of terrified holidaymakers. But faced with an actual 40-ton flying shard of impending death, could you actually do it?

All of a sudden we were at 700ft with Aberdeen’s now-familiar runway 16 ahead of us. Wind was calm, flaps were down, gear was down and I had a 30 million dollar aircraft and 100 souls in my hands. (In my mind)…

Peter un-paused the sim and I guided the plane down as I had practiced at home. The VSI needle read -750 feet per minute, a nice gentle descent down the glideslope (GS). However, I was used to automated call-outs and this aircraft was designed about 30 years before they were added to aircraft.

I kept the 737 on the centreline, aimed for the touchdown zone (marked by large white rectangles painted on the asphalt) maintained 750ft per minute descent until I guessed we were about 50ft off the ground then I closed the throttles and pulled back on the yoke to soften the landing.

Continue Reading “Landing the Boeing 737”

Flying the Boeing 737

737-200 in Britannia colours. Britannia are now part of the TUI group.

Last weekend I traveled to Harrogate in Yorkshire to try my hand at flying the Boeing 737-200 airliner.

Hidden away in a hangar on the outskirts of the beautiful (and quite historical) town is Real Simulation, a company selling flight simulator experiences in their full-motion 737 and F4 Phantom sims.

Upon arrival (arf arf…), I met Captain Peter, an experienced pilot whose long career started in the Royal Air Force and ended with the airlines ferrying self-loading freight. He told me fascinating stories about the times he learned about the treatment of jet fuel (and how it turns into a gelatinous, frog-spawn-like substance when it isn’t done properly) and the time he got to fly a British Aerospace 146, which was scraping the bottom of the MEL – Minimum Equipment List – across the Irish Sea. The MEL defines the absolute least amount of functioning equipment a plane must carry to be dispatched legally. Peter said, “we had two crew, four engines, and that was about it.”


Dispatching a Boeing 737-200

Peter led myself and two other eager wannabe airline pilots to the simulator. First impressions were that it was quite roomy – behind the instrument panel and flight yokes were the Captain and First Officer’s seats. Behind those was a roomy space in front of two observer chairs. Behind those, a large open space with a whirring computer in the corner. It was about as big as one of my childhood bedrooms. But at one end there was a plane’s cockpit. And this one moved about on hydraulics.  Continue Reading “Flying the Boeing 737”

American Airlines New Livery

As the old bare-metal livery “departs”, the world waits to see what the new one looks like… as it approaches… and lands. Or something. Yay, planes!

American Airlines have announced they will change the polished-bare-metal livery their aircraft have sported since the 1930s. There have been several leaked designs and even a purported photo showing a new Boeing 777 painted in dark grey ready to be the first to receive American Airline’s new livery.

American Airlines’ Old Livery

Being British, and living the entire length of England away from London Heathrow, I don’t get the opportunity to see many American Airlines aircraft, but they always stand out when I do see them. The last one I saw up close was at “MDPC/PJU”, also known as Punta Cana Airport in the Dominican Republic, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. It was a 757-200 that was doing a trip from Kennedy Airport in New York, and back. It was beautiful. The scorching sun turned the entire fuselage into a massive ball of flaming light. Incredible. Compared to the white Spirit Airlines Airbuses and our First Choice 767-300ER, the AA jet really stole the show.

The bare-metal livery has some advantages. Paint isn’t weightless – and saving 200 kilograms of weight on every flight means you get to carry a couple of passengers for free, compared to the competition.

No paint means no repainting – it saves on maintenance costs over the lifetime of the aircraft too. If you’re wondering if the bare-metal look is more prone to corrosion, a question I first asked when I saw my first American Airlines jet, they kind of are but not in a serious way. Every aircraft gets a clear coat over the entire fuselage anyway, for AA, that clear coat simply goes over the bare aluminium skin. For other aircraft, it goes over the paint layer. One less layer of paint, one less barrier to corrosion. Simples. Continue Reading “American Airlines New Livery”