Monday, July 15, 2013

July 15th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

It has been interesting to see the varied reaction to the report on the Allied Air overshoot, at Kotoka International Airport, last year. The report, as we all expected, makes it clear that the aircraft touched down over half-way along the runway, in poor visibility and heavy rain. The aircraft overshot the end of the runway and broke through the perimeter wall, sadly killing passengers in a vehicle on the other side of the wall. In basic terms the aircraft appeared to approach too fast, too high, landing long. A sad day for all concerned.

In comparison, we have the accident in San Francisco, where an Asiana airliner approached too slow, too low, landing short, breaking off the tail section and spinning out to the side of the runway. Amazingly, the death toll and injury list is incredibly short. Another sad day for all concerned.

Both accidents appear to have ‘pilot error’ as a key part of the accident recipe. One of the first comments in the San Francisco accident reports was about the weather, which was clear, yet it was followed with commentary about the layout of the aerodrome (the approach over water to a sea wall) and possible links to aerodrome construction work going on.

Whenever there is an accident, we must consider all of the factors – human, weather, mechanical/electronic (did an aircraft component fail), fuel/fuel-flow, terrorism/sabotage, aerodrome facilities, air traffic instructions, etc. In aviation, we always like to consider the WHOLE recipe. Imagine that the wife of an aviation accident investigator burnt a cake. They would investigate the oven in which the cake was cooked; the ingredients utensils used; the temperature of the room at the time; were the children present; what was the gas pressure at; had the cook slept well the night before; was the floor slippery; was there sufficient light; how recently was the cookbook purchased; did she confuse Celsius with Fahrenheit; had she had a fight with her friend on the phone; what was she wearing at the time; what else was she doing… and the list would go on. A burnt cake investigation would take six months and the result would detail everything! A non-aviation investigator would simply throw the cake away and hope that the same mistake wouldn’t happen again. In Aviation we NEVER take anything on face value. I believe that this is a good thing and try to carry it through to everything in my life.

We must note that the Allied Air crash, last year, was the FIRST accident of its kind at Kotoka, in over half a century of operations. Nonetheless, we hear hoards of voices crying ‘how can we stop this happening again’ or ‘we must take measures to protect the public’. Well, that is good. It reflects an aspect of ‘aviation minded approach to safety’. Aviators have no tolerance for such accidents.

I am a little concerned that there may be a knee-jerk reaction, and hope that when the final report comes out, it will reflect on the probability of such an accident recurring, as well as a solution that is practical and measured in its response to the need for changes at KIA, Allied Air, and the industry in general.

However, before we all vote for a few million dollars to be spent because of this incident, I believe that we should get our ‘Transport House in Order’.

Let us make some comparisons on the roads. If a tro-tro ran off the edge of the road, killing as many, or more, than were killed in the Allied Air Crash, it may make a headline for a day – most probably be reported somewhere on an inside page of the papers. There would be little investigation, and I am certain that there would not be a national report on ‘the first time a tro-tro ran through the barrier at xyzkrom’. No, it would be just another ‘accident’. RTAs (Road Traffic Accidents) are seen as a part and parcel of the risk of travel in West Africa. Thankfully, we take a different approach to our aviation. All the same, why can’t we take a better approach to our roads – and waters?

Pilot error is clearly a regular component in air accidents, as is driver error in road accidents. In the air, we insist on high standards of training – sadly, our roads clearly demonstrate that good driving skills and knowledge of the highway code are rare. It is impossible to drive for more than a few minutes without seeing some stupidity or other.

But it is not just the drivers who contribute to accidents.

I drive the road from Tema to Akosombo regularly, and the holes in the road are growing to the point where they could swallow a small child, likewise, the Afienya toll booth has ruts so deep that you have to drive carefully to avoid removing the sump from your engine. These and other, similar, issues have dramatically increased the accident risk for those driving that road. If it were a runway, it would be closed down. Yet, we continue to pay tolls to use these abysmal excuses for ‘safe roads’.

Car maintenance is another issue, it is exacerbated by poor road conditions. Rumble strips, badly maintained culverts, eroded road edges, rutting from overloaded trucks and potholes, put our suspension through a lifetime of vibration cycles in a few hours of driving.

I am sure (OK, I know because I see the damaged cars by the side of the road) that many of our roads are accident prone – and that the road condition itself is a contributing factor to the accidents – one that costs lives, and livelihoods, on a regular basis. I would love to see a proper investigation into ‘who is responsible’ for such accidents – apportioning blame between driver, vehicle condition, road condition and weather condition. I assure you that the drivers have a share in the blame, as do those who maintain (or not) the vehicles, the police who turn a blind eye to vehicle condition and loading and, of course, those responsible for the road surface...

Let us all hope for a similar response to each and every road accident as we see in the response to the Allied Air and Asiana accidents. Let us see the same concern for ‘average people’ as much as we see for those able to afford air travel.

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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