“We’ll get that straight when we get airborne”

It’s better to look a little stupid now, than a lot stupid later.

The US NTSB has released full investigative notes on last year’s crash of US Airways flight 1702, an A320 taking off from Philadelphia International airport. We can learn a lot from this crash of a fully airworthy Airbus. It actually got into the air, and then the captain decided to force it back onto the runway. There was substantial damage. It departed the runway. I’m glad all 149 passengers and 5 crew exited the aircraft via emergency exits with no serious injuries. But the jet didn’t look good:

1702

Airline management suggested afterwards that maybe a tire had burst at high speed, and the crew saved the day. That was not the case. The tires, indeed the whole nosegear assembly, was broken by the unusual high-speed post-rotation ‘reject’. The reasons for the accident were, as usual, multiple. The end case was that the takeoff performance speeds were not set in the computer, the A320 didn’t know what V1, Vr or V2 were. This was caused by a complex series of non-optimal machine/human interfaces, computer software, human/human interaction, operational pressures, and possibly medical issues. (The captain reported for duty without allowing the FAA recommended time to pass after taking two prescription medications: midazolam, a sedating drug, and fentanyl, a narcotic used as part of medical procedures.) There is a lot to study here, especially for Airbus pilots.

But the overriding lesson is simple. If jolly hard to do. It’s better to look a little stupid now—reject the takeoff at low speed, taxi back, enter the V speeds, try again—than it is to look a lot stupid later. Like maybe crash.

At the start of the takeoff roll, when the airbus spoke up its warning about the lack of V speeds, the audible alarm saying “Retard” [the thrust levers], the pilots decided to ignore it. From the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript:

retard

retard

“What did you do? you didn’t load. we lost everything.”

retard

retard

retard

“No”

retard

retard

retard

“We’ll get that straight when we get airborne.”

retard

retard

“Wh*. I’m sorry.”

retard

retard

retard

Within the next fraction of a second, the CVR captured the ‘sound of decreased background noise, similar to power reduction’ and then the ‘sound of first impact’.

1702 2

Ouch.

The pilots knew something was not right at the start of the takeoff. But it would look bad to admit error to ATC, the flight attendants, the passengers and the company. They might have to go back to the gate to get more fuel. They might have to fill out paperwork. They might have to talk to the chief pilot. Never mind that the errors are all wrapped up in system design, training, operational practices, and more. They would look bad. Stupid pilots. So they pressed on. Until the captain got so scared he forced the just about airborne jet back onto the end of the runway.

So while Airbus, the FAA, American Airlines training and many more busy suits work on fixing the software and procedures that led to the situation, us pilots can take away an important lesson: It’s better to look a little stupid now, than a lot stupid later.

But good luck always following through on my motto. In the real world, it’s easy to say it, but tough to do it.

Like really tough.

12 thoughts on ““We’ll get that straight when we get airborne”

  1. Another example of the stupid interface of Airbus fly by wire technology and loss of skills by its Pilots !
    I flew the A300 B4 ( great Aircraft ) and also A340/200/300/600 for 2400hrs and can tell that I Blame Airbus completely for refusing to recognize the problem they created ! I watch crew loosing skills and left to go back to “real Aircraft” 747

  2. I flew SA227, DHC 8 100,200,300,B737, B747 Classic and -400, 757, 767, before the Airbus A320. The Airbus is a great machine (in my humble opinion the best), it just needs a different approach, when you realize that you are ready to learn to operate it safely. If you are not sure, don´t go. All the mandatory training items are easy on Airbus A320 due to good automation, but the human interface items need studying and work, and are not sufficiently focused on during training.

  3. It would have been advisable to go TOGA, CONSIDERING THAT THEY HAVE CALCULATED THE SPEEDS, and once airborne to fly selected speeds until they were able to fill in the mcdu again. Just basic flying skills of thrust and attitude

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *