Monday, September 24, 2012

September 24th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Last week Ghana was the host country to an IATA (International Air Transport Association) and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) conference aimed at highlighting, and hopefully mitigating against, accidents in the aviation industry on the continent.

It was a fascinating event, and one that the delegates enjoyed and embraced. The participants came from all walks of the aviation life – pilots, Air Traffic Controllers, engineers, safety personnel, planners and, of course, the ‘pen pushers’ – the airport management staff and regulators – in Ghana’s case Ghana Airports Company Ltd and Ghana Civil Aviation Authority.

Accidents in aviation are rare. Sadly, when they do happen the whole industry gets a lot of negative press, with the many ‘safe flights’ being ignored. The early presentations highlighted some facts, which I found fascinating, and am pleased to share and comment upon:

Considering accidents in aviation, there is one particular category that needs highlighted and addressed by all in the industry to save lives and property – that of the ‘Runway Excursion’ . When I asked a group of ‘non-aviators’ what that meant, it made me smile. ‘It sounds like an opportunity to visit a runway!’ was a common ‘non-aviator’ response. What it really means in aviation terms is ‘when an aircraft leaves the runway onto non-manoeuvring areas’ (that is not in controlled manner onto a taxi-way or other surface that it would normally intend to use). Runway Excursions (RE) fall into two categories; ‘over-run’ (going off the end of the runway) and ‘veer-off’ (coming off the side of the runway). Such events do lead to a lot of people visiting the runway in the ensuing investigations. Sadly, such events may also lead to loss of life, as we have witnessed in Ghana with the recent over-run at Kotoka.

So, if there is a conference on this topic, it makes us wonder how often it happens. The statistics are reassuring. In the five years from 2004-2009 there were a total of 594 accidents in the IATA records (does not include military, aircraft without paying passengers and a few other categories). Out of the 594, 164 were RE’s – that is nearly 28%. Out of the 164, 20 resulted in fatalities – or 12% of the aircraft coming off the end of side of the runway during take-off or landing lead to loss of life.

What is that number in relation to the number of flights? In order to put it into perspective, and to establish the ‘record’ for each region, the statistics were considered in relation to ‘flight sectors’. In the USA and Canada, a RE occurred in 0.33 out of each 1,000,000 sectors flown or 0.000033%. In Africa that number is 3.76 per 1,000,000 sectors flown or 0.000376%, or 1 in 376,000 sectors flown – about ten times more likely than in North America, but still a statistical risk that is incredibly small. It is still more dangerous to drive than to fly – and if we consider the road accident rates, driving in Africa compared to the USA or Europe is statistically and practically much more of a risk than flying.

It is interesting that, in the USA, Europe, Africa and the rest of the world, this tiny risk is considered as ‘too much’. 

Boeing is working on some really amazing new systems specifically to reduce the RE risk in all areas of the world.

This raises the question ‘what accident rate is ‘acceptable’’ – to which the answer, in aviation at least, is ‘ZERO TOLERANCE’. I love it, I really do. Here we have the USA with a RE rate of 0.000033% and the big boys who make the flying toys are ‘not happy’ and want to reduce it even further! Wow, that is a lesson for other industries. What is more, the millions of dollars that will go into the research and the millions of dollars that will be spent by the airlines in upgrading their equipment to avoid the miniscule risk of an overrun, has to be an attention grabber. 

I can assure you that the Aviation Industry is special – and it should reassure everybody that ‘not only is the risk of an aviation accident incredibly small, but it is also something that the industry does not take for granted and is working towards improving daily.’

After hearing the numbers, the delegates were put into groups – with folks from each sector of the industry sharing ideas. In the group I was privileged to be a member of, we had representatives from all over the continent – and from all walks of life. Each group was then given ‘case studies’ to discuss. We first considered a particular accident from Europe, where the accident lead to loss of equipment, but not loss of life. It was amazing reading the report and noting the chain of events that lead to a needless loss of an aircraft, disruption to others and some scary moments for all. Everybody on the table could see the mistakes – yet, in this busy European airport, the accident happened in a twinkling of an eye. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision, but the mistakes went back to, believe it or not, the pilot not taking breakfast. When we do not eat properly our reaction times are impaired, and it was noted as a factor in the accident. There were many other mistakes by the crew, but the accident was made worse by the lack of certain facilities and may even have been avoided with some different procedures at the airport. The RESA (Runway End Safety Area) could have been longer, the issue of a railway line at the end of the runway, questions about airport markings, reporting requirements that could have been better, and more came out as contributing factors, as we picked over the dry bones of this unfortunate incident.

The second case study was from South America – and it carried a lot of lessons. Maintenance issues on the aircraft, condition of the runway and more. Loss of life was massive. The biggest thing that we noticed was that the second case study was full of references to ‘lack of communication, management and procedures’. All delegates were drawn into the discussion of ‘how could it be allowed to happen?’

This event was very positive and the outcomes will certainly reduce the accident rate in the rapidly growing aviation activities in Africa. By rapid, we are talking several hundred percent increases in passenger movements on some sectors – especially the domestic and regional movements. 

The question remains, ‘will other sectors of transport take their safety so seriously?’ – what is the safety policy for your company in relation to the use of cars, alcohol and driving, driving hours, maintenance, eating, rest periods, etc.? 

We are told that people are more likely to be in an accident on the drive to or from the airport than in the plane itself. If we in aviation are trying to protect lives, only to see the passenger get into a car and have an accident on the way home to their family, we need to ask ‘shouldn’t all transport industries follow the lead of aviation?’

Remember safety begins with YOU!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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