Monday, January 20, 2014

January 20, 2014

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

"We are all gonna die!" is the standard 'scream response' shown in disaster movies when an aircraft is undergoing some in-flight challenge.  Regardless of the 'sensationalism' of the statement at the time, it is, in fact, a remarkably accurate statement.  Statistically, we are all going to die - at some point, hopefully a long time from now!

I was recently reading the famous transcript from the cockpit voice recorder, of a Boeing 747, which experienced all four engines fail in flight.  Let us set the scene... and please, imagine that you are on board, since there will be questions later!

It was the 24th of June 1982 and a British Airways 747 was flying at around 37,000 feet (11,000m or 11km) above the earth.  They were experiencing a range of unexpected events, including the smell of sulphur in the cabin and strange lighting effects around the engines and in the sky.  They had unknowingly flown into a cloud of volcanic ash thrown into the atmosphere by Mount Galunggung, about 180km South-East of Jakarta in Indonesia.

The three flight crew had an average age of just under 38 years, with the youngest just 32 and the oldest 41 years old.  Engine four surged and then flamed out (stopped working).  As per procedure, the crew performed an engine shut down.  Less than a minute later engine number two did the same thing.  Before the crew could complete the shutdown for the second engine, engines one and three quit almost simultaneously.  The flight engineer was recorded as saying 'I don't believe it.  All four engines have failed'.  A practical, and terribly British statement of fact!

The crew carried out a quick calculation of how far they could travel without engines.  From a start height of 11km, they had a 'still air' ground coverage of about 165km (using a glide ratio of 1:15) - or a little over 20 minutes before their impact - good or bad - with the planet would occur, without any engines working.  The crew agreed on the emergency procedure and planned for both finding somewhere on the land and the option of ditching in the sea - whichever would be the most likely to save lives, at the time that decision had to be taken.  At the same time, they tried several engine restarts, despite being above the recommended 'restart altitude' of 28,000feet, without success.

The captain now had to inform the passengers of the situation.  Please remember, the above is a true account.

What would you have said to your 248 passengers and 15 crew?  Let us make this a multiple choice question!

a) (as in the movies) 'We are all gonna die!'

b) Ladies, gentlemen, honoured guests, all protocols observed, British Airways are pleased to announce that we are using the new green engines from Rolls Royce and that explains the sudden quietness you are enjoying.  Our current fuel burn is zero, making this the greenest 747 flight ever.

c) (ask the first office to hum loudly like an engine ''brrrrrmmmmmmmmm' repeatedly) Ladies and Gentlemen, despite the rumours we still have engines working as you can hear... (move the microphone closer to the first officers engine noise emission).

d) Eh, Chale, it all be fine, we just go find good fitter make spark da engines and come.

e) Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.

f) Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  We are having a wonderful flight with lots of excitement.  We are expecting a support team to arrive anytime now.  Everybody's god is with us.  Whilst we are waiting to land there will be free Champagne and chocolates for everybody and you will all get a wonderful gift upon arrival.  Do not worry about a thing.  What we are experiencing is absolutely normal, and it this is the best flight ever.

If you chose e) then that is exactly what the Captain said - and it is now a famous clip.  He made a clear, clean and factual statement.  He did not hide the gravity of the situation (and gravity was a big part of the situation!).  What was most impressive was the ' I trust you are not in too much distress.'  - he recognised that people would be distressed, and acknowledged it.

The good news is that, as the plane passed through 13,500 feet, and passed clear of the ash cloud, they decided to try another engine restart procedure.  Engine number four came on line and they managed to reduce their rate of descent, gaining time.  Soon another engine started, and the aircraft was able to level off and even gain height, albeit slowly.  Despite some other excitement and more engine failures and restarts, and having the windshield and lights badly damaged by the dust scratching the surfaces, the aircraft landed safely without any loss of life.  The aircraft needed four new engines, new windshield, lights, fuel flushing and a lot of other work before being returned to service.  The crew were given a number of awards and lots of recognition.  They had to invent a solution to making a safe landing, being creative on the approach with available data and systems.  When asked how hard it was to land the plane with a windshield that made forward visibility practically impossible, lacking the usual systems and with such severe engine worries, the captain responded simply that it was  'a bit like negotiating one's way up a badger's arse', a rather blunt statement that gets the point across.  I am sure that all the passengers and British Airways appreciate his teams ability to negotiate their way in the most challenging of situations without getting bitten!

Honesty is always the best policy, even if the news is bad.  It helps people to understand the real challenges the team at the pointy end are facing.  Real cooperation is engaged from early on.  Lying to the passengers, making up stories, or even giving grandiose promises does not help anybody.  Facts do.

However, the correct choice and timing of words is key to ensuring that the people who are in your hands are not frightened, lack confidence in their crew or, equally dangerously, lulled into a false sense of security.  Being a pilot is a tough job, you have to manage the plane and the passengers - as well as the crew itself.  Thankfully, in this case, a successful outcome of a near catastrophe was achieved by excellent skills, a cohesive crew - cockpit and cabin, a well engineered aircraft and a little bit of luck.

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

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