Published in September 2015 issue

By Eric Auxier

You certainly can’t argue with success, but is there anything you’d like to say to your critics?

Many pilots have been critical of things that we did on that day. One was that we should have simply thrown the aircraft down on the ground. And the second was that we should have evacuated the passengers on the runway as soon as possible.

The first one is easy to answer. If it had been an old aircraft, an old mechanical, aircraft, like an old tractor that sits on a farm, with a diesel engine and a few mechanical cranks, sure, we could have put it on the ground.

With a computer-controlled system, you have to understand the computer systems to know how you’re going to configure them to get the aircraft on the ground. You have to understand what you’re left with, in these modern aircraft today, before you can hope to perform a landing.

So, staying up in the air and doing threat-and-error management was absolutely the right way to go; and, if we had quickly gone to put our aircraft on the ground, I don’t think I’d be here today to talk to you about it.

In relation to getting the passengers off the aircraft and evacuating them straight away, this is a very complex problem. The ultimate answer is that you do whatever it takes to protect your passengers. You have standard operating procedures that work in standard situations. This was not standard. We had an engine that wouldn’t shut down, we had four tons of fuel leaking near hot brakes, and we had a whole lot of other nasty situations.

To evaluate whether to chuck the passengers down the slides straight away, you have to understand the risks connected with doing so. In an evacuation, 15% of the passengers will end up in a hospital. With the exception of the 747s and 777s, all the doors on the A380 are higher than those on any other aircraft in American.

The other factor, in relation to an evacuation, is the certification requirement to get all the passengers, of which there were 853, out of half the exit doors in 90 seconds. You also have to look at the flash point and flame front speed of jet fuel, at what fire and rescue services you have nearby, at all the threats outside, which are many.

I wrote this on my website as an article called The Empirical Skeptic. I answered a lot of those questions about being a skeptic there. One of the worst things you can do in aviation is to presume or assume. In other words, people assumed and presumed that the brakes under the wing were hot. However we never assumed anything. We waited for signs of fire, and there probably would not have been fire, for the reasons above.

We only found out six months after the incident that the brakes under the wing were cold.

If we had presumed that they were hot and had evacuated, I think that there would be people who would not be here today. We didn’t presume; we waited for factual evidence of fire. It didn’t come, we kept them on board, we had no injuries.

It will be a different decision, on any other day, for any other crew on an aircraft. But every pilot should be armed with the knowledge to make that decision, which is a continuous process, using every bit of CRM that you can muster.

Your book, QF32, has been a spectacular hit around the world. And you’re writing two more books now: Big Jets, and Phoenix. Can you tell us about them?

I have been writing a book to replace Handling the Big Jets, by David P. Davies. Every pilot in Australia who went for an airline job had to read that book.

So, it has been a long process and, to do that, I traveled to Airbus, and interviewed the test-pilots there. I was at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby, in the UK, two weeks before the engine blew up on QF32. And so, I had written 30% of the Big Jets book when the engine failure happened. My life has changed since that event. I had to write the story of QF32, which I did. I had to only research one new topic for QF32, which was the loss of lift on the wing, caused by the damage. The rest of the information came straight out of the work I had done to write the Big Jets book.

There is now another book I’m writing, which is on the lessons from QF32. It’s aimed at the American market for leaders and managers. So it’s about leadership, crisis management and decision making. It’s about neuroscience and how the brain works, how we learn, how we remember things, how we respond to stress, how our hormones affect us, and how we respond in a crisis. If you understand how your brain works, it will help you understand how you can control yourself in a crisis and how you can work with others.

There is also a chapter on post-traumatic stress. Half the questions I get asked about QF32 revolve around posttraumatic stress. That was the biggest, most remarkable learning experience I had. In fact, the publisher didn’t really want to put much about PTS into QF32, but I insisted that we did, and that is by far what has had the biggest impact on people. The book will be out in 2016. It’s called Phoenix, at the moment. It has another title, which will come out later, and that’s what I’m working on right now.

It’s really good fun, because my next book applies not just to aviation, but to any high-reliability organization, such medicine, or the space, nuclear, or energy industries. Any context in which failure really has to be unthinkable because the consequences would be so dire. What you need in those cases is knowledge, training, experience, teamwork, and lots of leadership. And, so, that’s my next book. I’m also being pushed to publish another book, that I wrote many years ago, called Physics for the Coffee Table. That’s going to come out after the Big Jets book, so I have three books in the queue. These days, particularly in America, the aviation industry is under great stress. The conditions aren’t so good, the airlines don’t make money, they’ve probably all gone through Chapter 11, and so there’s no spare money to really mentor the pilots; when they join an airline, they are probably left to their own devices. And it’s really up to people like yourself (Captain Aux). You’re doing a great job to pass on some knowledge to help people get some experience, and this is what will make them resilient when they get into an aircraft cockpit.

The airlines are not, I think, bearing up to their responsibility of passing on, or managing knowledge; getting, storing and distributing knowledge to help pilots become resilient. It’s up to people like IFALPA [International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations] and people like yourself to help pilots become resilient. And that’s why I’m really keen to help you.

Thank you very much, I appreciate that. And I agree: it seems like a trend in the airline industry that it’s gone more and more to the bottom line. We may have had a little bit of a boon on the relief of oil prices, where we’re actually making money hand over fist. I agree: maybe a trickle of that could go to training and greatly increase the safety margin.

Well, I think the FAA is doing something that the rest of the world is not. To be in commercial transport, you’ve pushed the minimum number of hours up to 1,500. That’s a good step. We have pilots in Australia that can be in the right seat with less than 200 hours experience, and I don’t necessarily follow that logic.

It’s really important that the pilots gain as much knowledge as fast as they can. The problem is that the aircraft are getting more complex, and what the industry—and I’m really talking about ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization]— what ICAO has never done is identify the fact that, as the automation has increased, the pilots are getting less hands-on  experience. They’re getting isolated from their machines.

Imagine being a pianist going to play a concert, and you haven’t practiced for a month. You can’t do it. So, when a pilot is in an aircraft and the automation fails, if he hasn’t had hands-on experience, he’s like the pianist at the concert, or Tiger Woods going out without practicing for the last month; it doesn’t work.

So, as automation has increased and hands-on time has decreased, the error is in ICAO not pushing up the simulator time requirements. The pilot is a lot more exposed today than he’s ever been before in having to face more critical situations with less hands-on time. ICAO must change their requirements for simulator training.


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 For some US airlines, we’re down to recurrent training, simulator, and route checks once a year.

We have a total of four simulator sessions, route check, and several safety checks, so we’re certified seven times a year.

The reason you’re not getting much simulator flying time is because the simulators are so expensive. They cost $20 million dollars. 40% of the cost of the simulator is to license the data. So simulators will never get cheap. And that’s why you’re not getting simulator experience, because they’re too expensive.

At a conference I opened in London last year, I warned the simulator manufacturers that they should make simulators available to pilots in their homes, where you are now . . . You should be able to put on an Oculus Rift-type headset, and be able to have a virtual reality simulation of seeing the cockpit of your A320, link that into a hosted service, and simulate flight. So, you can simulate go-arounds, you can simulate the things that you rarely do.

If the flight simulator manufacturers do not do that, then Airbus and Boeing will have to protect their reputations by providing simulation solutions themselves. And I can easily see Airbus and Boeing hosting simulator services to which you can connect from home using virtual reality goggles and you can keep yourself current. Because the current system is not working.

 In light of the increasing automation in the cockpit, what advice do you have for the aspiring pilot today—not only in pursuing his or her career, but in being the best pilot he or she can be?

That is a big topic and, since the incident, people have sent emails to my website. I’ve built a page on the website, which is at QF32.com. If they go there, the first thing they see is Aspiring Pilot. And I list all the factors there. They include how you prepare at school to be a pilot, how you would prepare your skills to join the airline, and the many methods to do that.

Once you join an airline, you have to keep your skills developing or you will lose relevance. The pilots who had flown non fly-by-wire aircraft, and who maybe now have to convert to flyby- wire aircraft in their late 50s, are finding it very hard. So, all pilots must keep their skills improving as the industry changes.

Also, pilots must give themselves a secondary or backup career in case they lose their medical [license], because many do.

So, to be resilient in life—and for aspiring pilots it’s really a story of resilience in your life and career—you need a backup career and to develop backup skills if you lose your license; it’s an enormous topic, and that’s answered on my website at QF32.com.

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That’s a common question I get as well. “Hey, what degree should I get? An aeronautical degree?” No! Get a business degree, or something else that you’re passionate about.

I agree. This is not a rule for everyone, but I think that an aviation degree is too specialized.

To be a resilient pilot means that, when the automation does fail—and it will fail—you have the skills to maybe invert the logic, build the airplane as a Cessna from the ground up, and fly that aircraft the way in which Sully Sullenberger flew his onto the Hudson River.

In my book QF32 I talk about riding motorcycles, and having old motorcycles that we had to fix. So, you need to be a fearless pilot, so you can be prepared for the unexpected. And you need to be courageous. And, to be courageous, you’ve got to have confidence. And, to have confidence, you have to have played with the machinery, so that it doesn’t scare you. So that’s knowledge and experience.

I would absolutely recommend that people not do dangerous things, but play with hardware, play with motorbikes, play with cars and engines. People should not be afraid to get down, dirty and deep into the technology that they’ll be using. Pilots should never be afraid of technology. The airplane should be worn like a glove that amplifies your body. You are flying the aircraft; it is never flying you. So, that’s probably the first thing for young people, to get out there and get themselves dirty, and to roughen themselves up in a few machines. Because an aircraft is nothing but a flying lawn mower.

And that’s what I always suggest to my readers. I say, “Get out of that fancy, EFIS-equipped Cirrus, and get into a beat-up old steam gauge Cessna 152, and learn to fly stick and rudder.” And I think that’s a good foundation.

When I converted to the Airbus, I went to the engineering department of the engine manufacturer, which generally had an office in my airline. I’d say, “I want the engineer’s introduction course to the engine.”

I received a book, called the General Familiarization Course [Gen Fam], that’s about an inch and a half thick, and it’s a tour of the engine in a great detail. Because a lot of pilots think that all you need to know is that you turn the key, and it starts. And that’s all the airlines require you to know. I think that that information is insufficient.

So, I get the workshop manual for the engine. I don’t have to remember it, but I have a knowledge-management system where everything is cross-linked, so the knowledge is never lost. But my knowledge will always go down to the deepest section of the engine that is possible. And that is how I remain confident about understanding engines.

That reminds me of General Chuck Yeager, who came from the engineering and mechanical side of the business and became one of the greatest pilots in history. So your point is very well-taken. Wrapping it up, one quote from your book is, “My greatest reward has been meeting QF32 passengers around the world”. Can you tell us more?

In the book, I describe how I gave my mobile phone number to the passengers.

Because, if you are empathetic with your passengers, then you know what they’re thinking during an emergency. You know what their concerns and their worries are.

The passengers have no control, and that’s the primary thing. They have no control, so they start to panic, because they can’t do anything to remedy their situation. They might think they’re going to die, and they can’t do anything about it. So, the first thing we did in the air was to say, “You are safe.” And that is really an important thing to say.

And then, on the ground, I gave them what I call ‘full and open disclosure.’ I told them what had happened and why, and what was about to happen to them. I told them how to be prepared for the press.

Then I gave them my mobile number and said that, if they thought my airline wasn’t looking after them or if they thought that we didn’t care—and ‘care’ is an important word— then they should call me. That’s called a ‘personal guarantee’. We are now four years after the incident, and no one’s called  to complain, no one’s called to ask for help. But many people have called to say, “Thank you.”

I’ve now had contact with about 100 passengers out of the 400.

I would say that 95% of the passengers suffered some sort of post-traumatic stress. And this has been very much misunderstood. I’ve taken it as a challenge to make myself available to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. If they have a problem, I’m happy to go and talk to them, or I’ll see them if I can, and I’ll answer their questions. Because they were safe, and if they did suffer stress, it’s important they have it treated, otherwise it will never disappear.

The relationship I have with the passengers may have started because they were stressed, and they rang up to ask about it. It’s now moved to a place in which the people to whom I have spoken are absolutely happy with how it all went. And we’ve built up really strong bonds that will last for the rest of our lives. In fact, the bonds extend down to the children of some of the passengers.

So the relationship I have with the people extends to their families. And it’s a privilege to be close to them. Passengers are wonderful people. They deserve our highest respect.

We have a responsibility, when we fly our airplanes, towards every person sitting at home. They have the right—those people at home have the right to expect that their traveling spouses or their family members that are flying on my aircraft will come home for dinner. And it’s my responsibility to get every passenger home to that table for dinner. To get them home, not just off the aircraft. I’ll get them home. That’s my responsibility.

I’m meeting all these people. It’s a wonderful experience to be close to all the passengers. I love it, and it’s one of the most wonderful consequences to come from my experience.

Anything else you’d like to add?

QF32 is a story of team excellence. Where eight teams—the pilots, the cabin crew, Air Traffic Control, the policemen, the firemen, the ground staff, the Qantas Crisis Center, and even the passengers—pooled their knowledge and their training and their experience. It’s a team result, and I’m really proud of those teams.

Eight teams brought 469 passengers and crew home to their loved ones after a black swan event.

The author would like to thank Elliott Hayot for his invaluable help in the writing of this article.