Published in July 2015 issue

By Alan Carter

In life we have many firsts. First day at school. First love. And if you’re a pilot, first divorce, followed by first amicable divorce…though often the latter is misguided optimism!

In aviation we also have firsts. First solo. First airline flight. First jet flight. And hopefully—eventually— first flight as an airline jet captain.

I have achieved all of the above. But there are other “firsts” too—ones which can shape what that you decide is best in life. And today I mean in your “aviation” life.

You see, I remember the first time as a rookie co-pilot on the Avro 748 (references to this aircraft can be found in all good history books!). My captain said, “You have control. I’ll be back shortly.” And he left me alone in the cockpit.

I thought, “My goodness, where’s he going?” But I later thought, “Wow. He trusts me!”

I also remember the first time the following immortal words were said to me: “I’d be happy to let my family fly with you.” It took me a few minutes to realize what this captain meant: Wow. He trusts me!

I use the same criteria with the pilots I fly with and train: Am I happy to leave them alone in the flight deck with my family in the back? Generally yes. But also, unfortunately, occasionally no.

On one Asian airline I flew with, we had an unofficial shoes-on or shoes-off for takeoff when deadheading as a passenger. Now this is not meant to be patronizing or to say that we’re better than they. It’s purely a matter of trust. You see, if it was a local crew, then shoes remain on— purely to save time should we need to evacuate prior to getting airborne!

This reminds me of the experience of a colleague of mine while undertaking (possibly the wrong choice of word for this scenario!) his six-monthly simulator check, presided over by one of the aforementioned local training captains. While approaching the runway, he decided to make a go-around, as he wasn’t happy that he was correctly stabilized. This meant either his speed, height or flaps configuration weren’t as they should be. So he did the correct maneuver, flew a circuit, and came back for a perfect approach and landing. Now, this was in a Boeing 747-200. His instructor afterwards asked why? Why did you make a missed approach?

To which my colleague replied that he hadn’t been happy, so he’d taken the safe option. He wasn’t expecting the next question: Do you know the difference between a local captain and a foreign captain, i.e. an ex-pat? He waited and pondered a diplomatic response, only to be told, “Foreign captain afraid to die!”

Now, the above is a cultural problem, which has been well documented in air crash investigations. Just read the CVR (cockpit voice recorder) transcript of the 1999 Korean Airlines crash at London’s Stansted (EGSS) airport. Both the copilot and flight engineer, realizing the seriousness of the situation, called out warnings to the captain but wouldn’t intervene, preferring to die— as interfering or intervening would have been culturally unacceptable. The four crew members of the cargo jet perished. If you can find the actual CVR tape online, listen to it. It is chilling listening to the flight engineer’s despair.

I myself have been a victim of this cultural attitude, when, as head of training on the Boeing 747-400 for a Eurasian airline, I refused to release a captain from training because he was not competent. I was advised that this would be a huge loss of face for him and that he would have to resign. So I suggested further training to try to help him. This was not an acceptable option to the management, and I was fired.

Another time, while training pilots on the Boeing 747-400 in Baghdad, I was asked why some captains hadn’t been released from training. I said they would benefit from further training as they weren’t ready. The chief pilot told me to release them immediately. I refused, and subsequently Iranian training captains were employed who did release them—although this was initially denied. A serious diplomatic incident ensued, involving the then Iraqi government at the highest levels and representatives from the United States. I soon decided it would be beneficial for myself to leave that seriously troubled country.

Now you might start to think that I am an awkward so-and-so, but the truth of the matter is that I have been fortunate to have been trained by some fabulous people, from whom discipline, competence and professionalism were not requested but demanded. I don’t expect the pilots I train to be astronauts, just to get to a level where I would be happy to…let my family fly with them.

So, we have the cultural and political problems affecting the safety of aircraft that are operated by crews who really aren’t competent to do so. We also have the culture of how new pilots are trained.

Mr. Airbus and Mr. Boeing build fabulous aircraft, full of automated systems and technology that can present so much information to pilots, but they do no good if the basics aren’t there. You wouldn’t give the keys of your beloved Porsche to your 17-yearold daughter when she has only ridden a bicycle before. The results would be obvious. And the insurance claim would be horrendous!

The same holds true in aviation. So many pilots are really fortunate to come straight from flight school and fly nice shiny, highly automated jet aircraft. But many have failed to master the basics. In the worst-case scenario, all this does is speed them to the scene of the incident/accident faster.

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When I was training for my private pilot’s license, I was taught the pneumonic “PAT is APT to climb,” meaning to climb an aircraft, set the Power, adjust the Attitude, and Trim. And when you reach your cruising altitude, set the Attitude, adjust the Power, and Trim. Okay, that’s basic. But it works!

We also practiced spin training and recovery from unusual attitudes. They weren’t my favorite lessons, to be honest, but invaluable.

I was taught to have a rough idea of your pitch, power and speed—at all times—just in case. For example, on Boeing aircraft spend half an hour with the “unreliable airspeed” data pages from your Quick Reference Handbook, and you’ll easily be able to come up with ballpark numbers that will keep you safe should all that good automation fail. This could have saved many aircraft, as we shall see.

There is a fabulous video on YouTube where an American Airlines training captain is making a presentation entitled The Children of Magenta, which I believe should be compulsory viewing, much as reading Fate Is the Hunter should be compulsory reading—by all pilots.

So, am I just scaremongering and saying, “My way is best,” or “It’s my way or the highway”? No, I am not. It’s just that sometimes to move forwards, we have to go backwards and examine where things started. In aviation, this means going back and analyzing basic flying skills and basic understandings of aircraft performance—if we are all to succeed professionally and safely in this fabulous industry of ours.

I mentioned accidents that could have and should have been prevented, where perfectly “flyable” aircraft have ended up in smoking holes.

There are very few scenarios that are outside the ability of any pilot to control. Ones that could be beyond a pilot’s control are catastrophic failure or terrorism. Even though the recent disaster at Bagram Airbase (OAIX) in Afghanistan, where a Boeing 747-400 crashed after takeoff, was never going to be a recoverable situation by the pilots, it looks like human error still crept into the error train, by virtue of the mis-loading of the freight.

Pilots, for 99% of their flying duties, are and should be the masters of their own, their crews’ and their passengers’ destinies. To facilitate this, all pilots should always be thinking of the following—without exception:

Contingency planning, situational awareness, team work, understanding your aircraft’s technical systems— and having the required basic flying skills to safely aviate.

Should the above concepts not be a part of a pilot’s everyday thinking and behavior, then eventually we will end up reading about him or her in the press for very sad reasons.

Take the 2013 Asiana Airlines (OZ) crash in San Francisco. How could a perfectly serviceable aircraft on a beautiful day be allowed to crash? Was it…?

Culture. Captain is God and the other crew members too scared to intervene?

Procedures. Incorrectly carried out, both while airborne and on the ground? Blame. Autoflight system. Noooooo!

Or consider the 2009 Air France (AF) flight 447 accident from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. When did it start going wrong? Well, I suggest initially, when the captain decided to take his rest.

Culture. I can’t even begin to guess what the captain was thinking.

Procedures. Incorrectly carried out. It’s an airplane! Fly it like one!

Blame. Autoflight system. Nooooooo!

The captain should have been on the flight deck, monitoring the airplane’s passage through the thunderstorms in the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone. Then, when systems started to fail due to icing, there was no understanding of what icecrystal icing can do to an aircraft’s systems and how to manage it.

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The following are the last words as recorded by the CVR:

CAPTAIN: You’re pitching up.

SYNTHETIC VOICE: Sink rate. Pull up.

CAPTAIN: Go on pull.


CO-PILOT: Let’s go. Pull up, Pull up, pull up.

SYNTHETIC VOICE: Pull up. Stall. Pull Up. Priority


CO-PILOT: [Expletive] We’re going to crash. This can’t be true!


CO-PILOT: But what’s happening?

CAPTAIN: (Ten) degrees pitch attitude.


—End of recording.—

Or take the case of the Turkish Airlines (TK) Boeing 737NG crash at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, in 2009, where again a perfectly flyable aircraft was allowed to stall and crash.

Culture. Again, I can’t even begin to think what the captain(s) were thinking. Procedures. Incorrectly carried out.

Blame. Auto flight system. Noooo! (Though the auto-throttle system was criticized.)

Another example: the Birgenair (KT) Boeing 757, which crashed in the Caribbean in 1996. Yes the pitot static system was covered up externally, but why was this not picked up before flight?

Culture. Can’t even begin to think what the crew members were thinking. Again! Procedures. Incorrectly carried out.

Blame. Autoflight system. Yes! But the aircraft was, again, flyable.

Here are the final words from the CVR:

CAPTAIN: Not climb. What am I to do?

CO-PILOT: You may level off. Altitude okay. I am selecting the altitude hold, sir.

CAPTAIN: Thrust levers. Thrust. Thrust. Thrust.

CO-PILOT: Retard.

CAPTAIN: Thrust. Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back.

CAPTAIN: Don’t pull back. Please don’t pull back.

CAPTAIN: What’s happening?

CO-PILOT: Oh, what’s happening?

—End of recording.—

Now, I don’t wish to discuss here the technical issues affecting these flights, just the human elements. And believe me, there are so many more.

There is a basic trend in the above accidents: a lack of understanding of the autoflight systems and a lack of basic flying skills.

Understand icing, how it occurs, what it does, and what you can do. Know your basic pitch and power settings, have the stall recovery maneuver ingrained into your mind the same way that the date of your wife’s birthday is.

From the above transcripts, two crews stated, “What is happening?” They are dead.

The phrase “What is happening,” is not an acceptable phrase on the flight deck—unless it is followed up with understanding and correct procedures. Otherwise, there is no excuse.

You would expect that after more than 30 years in this fabulous industry I would have seen huge improvements.

Yes and no.

Improvements in technology, yes. But pilots’ attitudes? Too often, I’ve seen complacency, a lack of professional pride, poor training, and, bizarrely, an attitude where the pilots can’t be bothered to improve themselves because they know everything—in this day and age!

So what can we do as an industry?

Better training, for sure. It is okay and necessary to spend hours understanding the automatics. But during initial and recurrent training, take all the automation away. Turn your shiny Boeing or Airbus into a Cessna 172 and fly it. There’s no need to punch at buttons or scream for the autopilot in the hope that some magical electrons are going to save the day.

Well, that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now! Fly safe and keep the blue side up. If you can’t, fly towards the sky pointer, reduce your pitch attitude, give it a fistful of power—then reevaluate!