In my previous post, I took notice from the Wall Street Journal that the relationship between American and Malaysian aircraft crash investigators has become rather strained:
FAA and NTSB officials didn’t play a prominent role in briefing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak just before his somber announcement Monday that Flight 370 “ended in the southern Indian Ocean.” The analysis was based primarily on work done by satellite-operator Inmarsat PLC and the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the NTSB’s British counterpart. Officials in Kuala Lumpur and the AAIB have a long-standing relationship on safety matters.
“The Malaysians have a much closer association with the AAIB” than with the NTSB, according to one person familiar with Malaysia Airlines’ operations. “There is simply a greater comfort level there.”
I already find Andy Pasztor a little insufferable. He has attacked the competency of Malaysian authorities while purveying sabotage/terrorism theories that stretch credulousness and frankly border on bizarre. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Pasztor again questions the competency of Malaysian crash investigators (note: three weeks on there is as yet no confirmed debris nor has the crash site’s location been found) before indicating someone aboard MH 370 “intentionally turned off the transponder to be invisible to radar.” Patrick Smith already has taken apart much of the inanity of this “theory,” but I’m floored by the claims that turning a transponder off makes an airliner invisible to radar.
Pasztor is confused between two very different tracking systems–primary and secondary radar. Secondary radar relies on the transponder, but as the name implies, is secondary to Air Search Radar (ASR) and other types of radar equipment that don’t rely on interrogating airborne transponders in military tracking facilities. To evade ASR and other types of primary radar, a large aircraft like Boeing’s 777…
…would have to be constructed along the lines of aircraft like these:
The B777, however, is not a descendant of Northrup’s B-2 or Lockheed’s F-117. The 777 is in the lineage of the B-52, an aircraft that is known for having the radar signature the size of a barn door…
…(i.e.: not difficult to detect with radar).
But where is Pasztor getting the information he’s reporting? Likely the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):
“Window seems to be closing” on the chance this wasn’t deliberate. “The way the information has been handled by the investigative authorities in Malaysia borders on irresponsible.” This has been “from beginning to end an exercise, a lesson in what not to do in a major aviation accident investigation.” Isn’t it a little provocative for a reporter to make such accusations without evidence…
Except this aren’t the musings of a media-appointed “expert”–Jim Hall was NTSB Chairman from 1994 to 2001. Andy Pasztor’s descriptions of the unfolding horror of what occurred on MH 370 are almost identical to a man who spouts off insane theories about cyber-warfare and has an ax to grind about 9/11. Hall even questions whether transponders should ever be selected off by flight crews. Um, Mr. Hall?
Many readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder, as may have happened aboard Malaysia 370 (the signal was lost, but we don’t know if this was an intentional act or a power interruption). In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.
Jim Hall really should know better considering he headed the American agency charged with investigating aviation accidents for seven years. Andy Pasztor is a model for calm deliberation compared to the former NTSB chief. But at 9:37 in the interview with Judy Woodruff Hall describes pulling the circuit breakers for the CVR and FDR “black boxes.” If a viewer did not pick up on the history and implications surrounding such an act, let’s take a trip back to December 1997.
On December 19, 1997, Silkair (MI) 185, a Boeing 737-300 flying from Jakarta to Singapore dove rapidly from its cruising altitude of 35,000 into the Musi River:
At 09:05:15.6, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) ceased recording. According to the Jakarta ATC transcript, at 09:10:18 the controller informed MI 185 that it was abeam Palembang. The controller instructed the aircraft to maintain FL350 and to contact Singapore Control when at PARDI. The crew acknowledged this call at 09:10:26. There were no further voice transmissions from MI 185. The last readable data from the flight data recorder (FDR) was at 09:11:27.4. Jakarta ATC radar recording showed that MI 185 was still at FL350 at 09:12:09. The next radar return, eight seconds later, indicated that MI 185 was 400 feet below FL350 and a rapid descent followed. The last recorded radar data at 09:12:41 showed the aircraft at FL195. The empennage of the aircraft subsequently broke up in flight and the aircraft crashed into the Musi river delta, about 50 kilometres (30 nautical miles) north-north-east of Palembang at about 09:13. The accident occurred in daylight and in good weather conditions.
The NTSB essentially accused the flight’s Singaporean captain, Tsu Way Ming, of deliberately crashing the 737, killing 103 others in an act of suicide. Indonesian authorities came to the conclusion the evidence was inconclusive. On account of this terrible tragedy 16 years ago, perhaps Miles O’Brien could have used proper terminology when describing MH 370’s descent:
CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien called the fresh details about the flight a “game changer.
“Now we have no evidence the crew did anything wrong,” he said. “And in fact, now, we should be operating with the primary assumption being that something bad happened to that plane shortly after they said good night.”
If a crisis on board caused the plane to lose pressure, he said, pilots could have chosen to deliberately fly lower to save passengers onboard.
“You want to get down to 10,000 feet, because that is when you don’t have to worry about pressurization. You have enough air in the atmosphere naturally to keep everybody alive,” he said. “So part of the procedure for a rapid decompression … it’s called a high dive, and you go as quickly as you can down that to that altitude.”
Military radar tracked the flight between 1:19 a.m. and 2:40 a.m. the day it went missing, the source told CNN, but it’s not clear how long it took the plane to descend to 12,000 feet.
I’ve never heard this maneuver described as anything other than “Emergency Descent.” High dive describes MI-185, or EgyptAir (MS) 990 on Halloween 1999…
FDR data indicated that, at 0149:45 (27 seconds later), the autopilot was disconnected. Aside from the very slight movement of both elevators (the left elevator moved from about a 0.7° to about a 0.5° nose-up deflection, and the right elevator moved from about a 0.35° nose-up to about a 0.3° nose-down deflection) and the airplane’s corresponding slight nose-down pitch change, which were recorded within the first second after autopilot disconnect, and a very slow (0.5° per second) left roll rate, the airplane remained essentially in level flight about FL 330 for about 8 seconds after the autopilot was disconnected. At 0149:48, the relief first officer again stated quietly, “I rely on God.” At 0149:53, the throttle levers were moved from their cruise power setting to idle, and, at 0149:54, the FDR recorded an abrupt nose-down elevator movement and a very slight movement of the inboard ailerons. Subsequently, the airplane began to rapidly pitch nose down and descend.
Mystifyingly, only one of the three other pilots, Captain Ahmed El-Habashi, reentered the cockpit:
Between 0149:57 and 0150:05, the relief first officer quietly repeated, “I rely on God,” seven additional times. During this time, as a result of the nose-down elevator movement, the airplane’s load factor decreased from about 1 to about 0.2 G. Between 0150:04 and 0150:05 (about 10 to 11 seconds after the initial nose-down movement of the elevators), the FDR recorded additional, slightly larger inboard aileron movements, and the elevators started moving further in the nose-down direction. Immediately after the FDR recorded the increased nose-down elevator movement, the CVR recorded the sounds of the captain asking loudly (beginning at 0150:06), “What’s happening? What’s happening?,î as he returned to the cockpit.
The airplanes load factor decreased further as a result of the increased nose-down elevator deflection, reaching negative G loads (about -0.2 G) between 0150:06 and 0150:07. During this time (and while the captain was still speaking [at 0150:07]), the relief first officer stated for the tenth time, “I rely on God.” Additionally, the CVR transcript indicated that beginning at 0150:07, the CVR recorded the “sound of numerous thumps and clinks,” which continued for about 15 seconds.
According to the CVR and FDR data, at 0150:08, as the airplane exceeded its maximum operating airspeed (0.86 Mach), a master warning alarm began to sound. (The warning continued until the FDR and CVR stopped recording at 0150:36.64 and 0150:38.47, respectively.) Also at 0150:08, the relief first officer stated quietly for the eleventh and final time, “I rely on God,” and the captain repeated his question, “What’s happening?” At 0150:15, the captain again asked, “What’s happening, [relief first officer’s first name]? What’s happening?” At this time, as the airplane was descending through about 27,300 feet msl, the FDR recorded both elevator surfaces beginning to move in the nose-up direction. Shortly thereafter, the airplane’s rate of descent began to decrease. At 0150:21, about 6 seconds after the airplane’s rate of descent began to decrease, the left and right elevator surfaces began to move in opposite directions; the left surface continued to move in the nose-up direction, and the right surface reversed its motion and moved in the nose-down direction.
Captain Ahmed El-Habashi has begun pulling against Relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti’s nose-down control inputs, a critical error:
The FDR data indicated that the engine start lever switches for both engines moved from the run to the cutoff position between 0150:21 and 0150:23. Between 0150:24 and 0150:27, the throttle levers moved from their idle position to full throttle, the speedbrake handle moved to its fully deployed position, and the left elevator surface moved from a 3° nose-up to a 1° nose-up position, then back to a 3° nose-up position. During this time, the CVR recorded the captain asking, “What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engine(s)?” Also, at 0150:26.55, the captain stated, “Get away in the engines,” and, at 0150:28.85, the captain stated, “shut the engines.” At 0150:29.66, the relief first officer stated, “It’s shut.”
Note to self–don’t sit down and ask suicidal colleagues “what’s happening.” Grab the crash ax and beat ’em unconscious with it. Before he turns off the engines.
Between 0150:31 and 0150:37, the captain repeatedly stated, “Pull with me.” However, the FDR data indicated that the elevator surfaces remained in a split condition(with the left surface commanding nose up and the right surface commanding nose down) until the FDR and CVR stopped recording at 0150:36.64 and 0150:38.47, respectively. (The last transponder [secondary radar] return from the accident airplane was received at the radar site at Nantucket, Massachusetts, at 0150:34.)
This reminds me of a strategy I learned back when I was a flight instructor–if your student (or any other pilot) is doing something that will get you killed, cover his or her eyes with your hands. If the person won’t let go of the yoke at that point (99% chance he or she will instinctively), hit him or her with a blunt object.
Egyptian investigators disagreed with the NTSB report, finding that MS 990 crashed due to mechanical failure–a hard sell given the CVRs and FDRs were intact, unlike the unpowered recorders on MI-185 almost two years previously. But like the Indonesians, the Egyptian investigators’ findings were at odds with the NTSB’s. The similarities wouldn’t stop there.
Rivers of Blood…
As in all fatal airline accidents, the crashes of MI-185 and MS-990 led to litigation. Unsurprisingly, the lawsuits against the regional subsidiary of the island’s national carrier went nowhere in Singapore:
The incident led to several lawsuits in Singapore and the US against SilkAir, Boeing and other manufacturers of the aircraft’s parts. Many of these cases were eventually settled out of court. The first trial took place in the Singapore high court in 2001, where the families of six victims sued SilkAir for negligence and sought higher damages than what the airline had offered them. The basis of their lawsuit was that the pilot or co-pilot had caused the crash. However the judge dismissed the case; their subsequent appeal was also rejected. Most of the other families had already accepted SilkAir’s compensation of between US$140,000 and US$200,000 per victim.
A perfectly functional Silkair 737 exceeds the speed of sound before breaking up and smashing into an Indonesian river; Silkair in no way found liable. That decidely was not the case in the U.S.
Boeing and several aircraft-part manufacturers were also sued in various US states by some of the victims’ families. In 2004, in the first US trial, the jury in the Los Angeles superior court found that defects in the plane’s rudder control system were to blame and the court ordered the manufacturer Parker Hannifin to pay US$43.6 million to the families of three victims; neither Boeing nor SilkAir were found to be at fault. Evidence of the faulty rudder had been recovered in 2003. After news of the discovery emerged, Boeing dropped its claim that pilot suicide had caused the crash and withdrew its lawsuit against SilkAir, and SilkAir’s insurer likewise dropped its lawsuit against Boeing.
Parker-Hannifin took the full brunt, likely on account of ongoing issues with 1990s-era 737 rudder hydraulics which caused two crashes in the U.S. (P-H having manufactured such parts). In a strange coincidence, the NTSB’s initial findings for the first crash were “The National Transportation Safety Board, after an exhaustive investigation effort, could not identify conclusive evidence to explain the loss of United Airlines flight 585.” Parker-Hannifin hit the roof over the Los Angeles judgement:
You would think that with such a veritable mountain of evidence on its side, the defendants in this case would easily get this case dismissed, no? Think again, because this is where the Attorney Retirement Lottery System — otherwise known as Tort Law — takes over. Add to that a piece of legislation known as 49 USC Section 1154(b) which states: “No part of a report of the Board, related to an accident or an investigation of an accident, may be admitted into evidence or used in a civil action for damages resulting from a matter mentioned in the report.” The “Board” in this sentence refers to the National Transportation Safety Board, despite the fact that the summary reports are public documents and represent the best possible and independent study of an aviation accident of this nature!
Now, according to our sources, the courts have conveniently interpreted this to mean that the summary findings cannot be introduced as evidence. What does that leave? The NTSB technical supplements, which can stack six feet or higher. However, the reality — and lawyers as well as the legislators who are mostly lawyers know this — is that very few average jury members can digest such detail to reach an informed conclusion. That, if I remember correctly, is the reason that we have an NTSB in the first place — to digest all the raw information and provide us with a summary finding that lists the most probable cause(s) for the accident. In this case, no reports were allowed as evidence in this trial.
The L.A. Superior Court treats 49 USC Section 1154(b) as a blanket prohibition on admitting NTSB reports, which the statute says verbatim, and Parker feels cheated? So…rewrite the statue?
(b) REPORTS.—No part of a report of the Board, related to an accident or an investigation of an accident, may be admitted into evidence or used in a civil action for damages resulting from a matter mentioned in the report.
No. Make sure nothing ever makes it to trial:
On March 29, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Brian M. Cogan granted defense motions to dismiss the claims of many of the remaining plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation In Re Air Crash Off the Coast of Nantucket Island, Mass. on Oct. 31, 1999. The litigation arose out of the EgyptAir Flight 990 accident on October 31, 1999. The aircraft, a Boeing 767, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 60 miles south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, on a flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Cairo International Airport in Egypt. All 217 persons on board the aircraft died in the accident.
Judge Cogan’s decision pertained to three complaints that had been filed by multiple plaintiffs on behalf of multiple decedents and were referred to as the Dimitri, Habashy and Mohamed cases. Motions to dismiss were filed jointly by the Boeing Company (the aircraft’s manufacturer), Parker Hannifin Corporation (a component-part manufacturer) and EgyptAir (the operator of the aircraft).
…No Longer Flow Green
With as many of Boeing’s airframes flying, crashes of its products are not uncommon. Two 727s, seven 737s and two 777s have crashed with passenger fatalities in this decade alone. But only in the cases of Ethiopian Airlines 409 in 2010 and Asiana 214 last year has the plane-maker faced lawsuits from survivors or on behalf of the deceased. Yet…
From the beginning, according to a U.S. government official and others, Boeing was upset that it took about three hours—much longer than would be typical—for Malaysian authorities to inform company representatives the jet hadn’t been heard from.
Boeing’s team remains “quite frustrated and doesn’t trust the process,” according to one person familiar with the company’s views.
What process might that be, Boeing?