Bringing their legacy to Life

On 12 June 2015 I visited the old aerodrome of Saint-Omer in far north-eastern France. The date was the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival there to join No. 7 Squadron Royal Flying Corps as a new pilot.

This aerodrome was chosen by the First World War Aviation Historical Society to be the site of a memorial to all British military aviators, judging Saint Omer to be “the spiritual home of the RFC”.

My 12 June 2015 visit to Saint-Omer aerodrome

Now airman and film producer Tristan Loraine is to make a film honouring the historic contribution of aviators to our freedom, and he’s inviting people who care about these things to get involved in its creation.

It’ll be a homage to all lost aircrew called Angel Fleet. If you click on the link above you’ll see this:

My grandfather, Major Leonard Learmount RFC, was lucky. He survived, but many in the Squadron he eventually commanded in 1917-18 didn’t.

Until the First World War Aviation Historical Society decided – in 2004 – to erect the memorial at Saint-Omer, there was no single monument to honour all lost military aviators from all conflicts. Until Tristan makes this film there will be no single silver-screen tribute to them all.

China Eastern crew did not reply

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), in an initial briefing on the loss of the China Eastern Boeing 737-800 (B-1791), says air traffic controllers monitoring traffic in the Guangzhou flight information region saw the aircraft enter a steep descent and attempted to make contact, but “received no reply”.

Flight MU5735 was just over an hour into its journey from Kunming to Guangzhou at 29,000ft when the fatal descent began.

At present, says the CAAC, investigators are searching for the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. The aircraft hit the ground at high speed and wreckage is widely spread. As a precaution the agency has declared all China’s 737s grounded for checks, although it has not been specific about what checks may be required, and a safety review of aviation infrastructure like ATC and maintenance organisations has been ordered.

China is proud of its safety record, and had not seen an airline fatal accident on its territory since August 2010 when a Henan Airlines Embraer EMB190 crashed on approach to land in fog at Yinchun Lindu airport.

China Eastern crash today

Crashes these days are incredibly rare, but a fairly new Boeing 737-800 of China Eastern Airlines has crashed in China on a domestic scheduled flight from Kunming to Guangzhou. It looks as if none of the 132 people on board have survived.

This incident is unusual in the sense that crashes very rarely happen in the cruise – that is, during the en-route section of the flight. This is because the crew has no high workload to deal with at that time, the engines are operating at a gentle cruise power, and the airframe is not under stress from manoeuvring.

According to the FlightRadar 24 tracker, the aircraft stayed on the same heading towards its destination while it descended toward the point of impact with the mountains. If it had broken up in the air because of sabotage or a catastrophic structural failure, it would almost certainly have spiralled down. But this aircraft was quite young, so structural failure can almost be ruled out.

We have no reports of a distress call to ATC, yet the aircraft began a descent. There was no reason for the crew to have adopted a descent profile at that point, because the descent toward its destination airport did not need to begin for another ten minutes.

If the crew had adopted a deliberate emergency descent because of sudden cabin decompression, it would have levelled at 10,000ft or thereabouts, whereas the last height reported by the tracker was 3,325ft.

The last time – indeed the only time – I saw a flight profile like this, the aircraft involved was the Germanwings A320 that crashed in France in March 2015, and the cause of that, according to the official investigation, was the copilot deliberately crashing the aircraft because of his mental state.

At this point, however, there is no direct evidence to support this conclusion regarding China Eastern and flight MU5735.

The most compelling evidence so far, as is often true so soon after a loss, is what did not happen. A Mayday call did not happen, although during a descent from 29,000ft there is plenty of time to make one.

The investigators will be trying to find out why that was.

Post Script on 19 May 2022: The Wall Street Journal has quoted US NTSB officials working with the Chinese authorities on the crash investigation as saying that the cockpit flight controls appear to have been manipulated deliberately with the apparent intention of crashing the aircraft. The NTSB press office will say only that it is for the Chinese authorities, in charge of the investigation, to make any such statements, and so far they have not done so.

Waspish problems at Heathrow

Apparently insect life at London Heathrow airport has vigorously regenerated during the pandemic lockdowns. This has forced the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) to embrace a new science: entomology.

Over about 6 weeks in June and July 2021 two jet crews at Heathrow had to reject take-offs because of unreliable airspeed readings, and several more had to taxi back to their stand because their aircraft’s air data inertial reference unit (ADIRU) had detected anomalies in data from pitot/static sensors. Aircraft involved included Airbus A320 and A330 series, and Boeing 777 and 787 series.

The main reason, of course, is insects (mainly wasps, it seems) nesting in pitot tubes. This is not a new phenomenon, but the summer 2021 burst of particularly intense insect activity raises numerous questions beyond the obvious flight safety ones. As the AAIB puts it: “Proactive habitat management and aircraft monitoring will be required to mitigate the risk. With the move towards ‘greener’ aviation, this may become even more important in the future. ”

In the old days they’d just have sprayed the place with DDT.

The question is, what prompted this “infestation”? The AAIB explains that it appears to be the result of “reduced traffic levels and human activity resulting in a surge of insect breeding during the pandemic lockdowns.

“With less aircraft activity, including less noise and jet efflux to deter the insects, the parked aircraft made an attractive opportunity, with the pitot probes providing an ideal construction site for nests.”

The agency points out that the Heathrow area is an air pollution hot spot not only because of air traffic, but heavy local motorway and urban road traffic also. All of these pollution contributory factors, however, were considerably reduced during the lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021.

Perhaps in 2022, as the pandemic threat recedes and air movements increase, aviation itself will chase the insects away? The AAIB’s recently gained entomological expertise has led it to believe this will not be so – or certainly not this year: “The high level of insect activity in 2021 could lead to a larger number of insects emerging in the spring of 2022. Therefore, even though traffic levels and aircraft utilisation are expected to increase in 2022, the seasonal risk of insects blocking pitot probes could be significant.”

Wasps like pitot tubes

An additional factor encouraging insects to make their nests in aircraft has been simple opportunity: the larger numbers of aircraft parked for longer periods. Pilots and operators of light aircraft operating out of sleepy country airfields have long known that their pre-flight walk-rounds must include inspection of any crevices or hideaways. Even birds have been discovered nesting in engine bays, having found their way in via the cooling air intakes.

Despite the fact that most pilots have suffered a pandemic-induced loss of flying practice, none of this rash of insect-caused unreliable airspeed incidents at Heathrow has led to an accident. To ensure this remains true, the AAIB has recommended an “enhanced use of pitot covers or additional pre-flight inspections.” The airlines and their crews were already doing that!

This issue remains current as far as the AAIB is concerned. It is working with the Natural History Museum to identify the precise wasp species involved in aircraft infestations, their over-winter domiciles, spring nesting, mating and larvae-hatching patterns.

When they have learned all this, they then have to decide what to do about the phenomenon.

Presumably without resorting to blanket pesticide use.

Free airline pilot training? It gets closer…

Airline pilot training free of charge?

Well, not quite. But something promising has emerged on the pilot training market just as the world’s airlines are beginning to slip the surly bonds of earth once more.

The newly created Airline Pilot Club (APC) offers free registration, and a whole range of advice, guidance, professional aptitude assessment, airline pilot standard e-learning course and tech webinars, for all of which there is no charge.

To access this, all that aspiring pilots have to do is join the club.

APC is a kind of marketplace which brings together selected Approved Training Organisations (ATO), airlines and other operators, and aspiring pilots. As at all marketplaces, they are there to eye each-other up.

The downside? There isn’t an obvious one.

But free flying training? Now you’re getting greedy!

No, it doesn’t offer that, but by the time aspiring APC pilots reach the airborne stage of their preparation they will know their own potential, and be as well prepared as they can be to enter an approved training course from which they will almost certainly graduate.

APC doesn’t provide the flying training, but it vets its short-listed ATOs according to a set of strict criteria.

As for financing, next year the Club expects to launch its pilot training funding system. This is designed to enable students who pass their professional aptitude assessment to get financing without having to rely on the bank of mum and dad, which will democratize access to flight training, thus benefiting the entire industry.

The guy who came up with the APC idea is well-known in European pilot training and recruitment circles: Captain Andy O’Shea. He was head of training at Ryanair for 18 years and chairman of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Aircrew Training Policy Group (ATPG). You can learn more about him and the training innovations he pioneered at the ATPG here.

It was O’Shea who shocked the airline and training establishment by revealing a few years ago that more than 50% of fully licensed pilots applying for Ryanair jobs consistently failed flying tests in a simulator session for which they had been given plenty of time to prepare. Other airlines then admitted their experience had been similar.

The author and O’Shea in his days as Ryanair Head of Training

Not many people know this, but there are about 7,000 fully licensed pilots in Europe who have never been able to get a job. Not because they were casualties of the recent pandemic – this phenomenon pre-dates that. They were simply trained to license minima, and passed. It was like someone passing their driving test and looking for a job in Formula One.

So when O’Shea, having introduced several highly innovative recurrent training systems at Ryanair, finally left the carrier, he wanted to set up a system that introduced aptitude-tested, motivated, technically prepared wannabe pilots to ATOs that would then put them through a training programme that prepares them to do more than scrape through their license.

This is the course that would see them pass the acceptance check-ride at his old airline.

There’s more, but you’ll find it at the link I provided earlier, and at APC.

How to win air travellers back

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Air travellers are dreaming nostalgically of the golden age of flying.  

No, not the Pan Am Stratocruisers of the 1950s for which the boarding pass was elegant millinery for the ladies and trilbies for the chaps. The golden era ended two years ago, at the end of 2019. And we’re talking about the whole air travel range from Wizz Air A320s to Emirates A380s.

Guests at hip dinner parties now compete to see who can claim to have gone the longest since they last got airborne. This is not, dear reader, a “who is the greenest” competition. Their agonising anecdotes drip with nostalgia. Even Ryanair customer-service horror stories qualify for full-on “those were the days” treatment. It seems memories of a 17-inch seat-pitch with no seat-back pouch to hold your stuff are recalled fondly.

Anything for a sniff of aviation fuel.

To listen to them, you’d think these intrepid voyagers would kill to get aboard any aircraft given permission to get airborne since the Covid pandemic’s grip slackened last summer. So why don’t they? Why are the winning dinner party anecdotes those that claim the longest grounding?

The long-suffering airlines are doing their best to win passengers back, but the principal barrier preventing them returning to anything like normal service is uncertainty, particularly on international routes. Domestic routes in big markets like the USA are almost normal, since they don’t face differing national rules on how to manage borders in a pandemic.

In the Good Old Days of 2019, business leaders could get on with running their businesses. Now nationalism is in – and treaties/alliances are suddenly uncool – they have to negotiate continually with governments both at home and abroad, to agree ways of meeting the ever-changing rules that limit what they are permitted to do today.

Unfortunately, uncertainty is with us to stay, even when the pandemic is brought under control, because nationalism has been on the rise since the Trump presidency in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and the influence of increasingly belligerent governments in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Beijing.

However hard they try, cabin crew and pilots cannot entirely disguise the stresses they face in this new working environment. And when stressed cabin crew meet stressed passengers who have been juggling for days with Covid tests and providing proof of them on arrival at the airport, the golden age seems far away.

There has been a severe shortage of happy stories about air travel, but a few glints from the golden age may yet be in the offing.

Airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Qantas are wheeling A380s out again, their press offices fondly reminding passengers that this huge machine provides perhaps the best air travel experience available – even in the economy cabin.

Marketing air travel is not easy right now, but one thing is for sure: selling air travel nostalgia is one of the few tactics likely to work.

A change of heading in the skies

Pilots set their desired heading using a magnetic compass, don’t they?

Well, mostly, no.

In a few years, practically none will do that. That’s the subject of this page today, because change is in the pipeline.

A traditional standby magnetic compass

Aviation has inherited a legacy from navigators’ historic reliance on Planet Earth’s magnetic field for direction: by international agreement, aviators still use the position of the geomagnetic north pole as their heading reference, just so that all pilots fly by the same rule book. Very few, however, still use a magnetic compass to determine which direction to point their aircraft.

Magnetic compasses don’t point to True North, just somewhere near it. In fact they point to “Magnetic North”, whose present position is on the north-eastern coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far northern territories, about 500nm from True North. The difference exists because the Earth’s subterranean magnetic dipole is inclined about 9.5deg to its rotational axis.

To add to the confusion, the North and South Magnetic Poles’ surface positions are not static, but very slowly – and unpredictably – drifting.

The ultimate geographic heading reference – for charts and for air navigation – is True North, 90N Latitude, because Earth’s rotational axis is a constant and latitude/longitude is arranged around that.  So any aviator using a magnetic compass, or other systems for detecting the horizontal component of earth’s magnetic field, has periodically to update the aircraft’s heading reference systems for magnetic polar drift.

Also – during long flights – the local angular difference between where the aircraft’s magnetic compass points and where True North actually is varies, especially during a very long flight. Of course, in aircraft with sophisticated flight management systems (FMS), many of these variables are automatically compensated, but unless the data in the FMS is regularly updated, some of the compensations applied will be wrong.

The areas shaded in yellow and magenta are the parts of the world where the difference between True and Magnetic North is +/- 10deg or less. In all the rest, the difference is greater. The green shaded areas are the regions where the difference is so great that Magnetic North is unusable, so True North is used anyway.

This has to change, because there are better ways of navigating now. For professional pilots flying modern aircraft, the use of Mag North as a heading reference ought really to be history, but the process of agreeing – globally – when and how to conduct the transition to a True North heading reference has been slow. Getting all the world’s nations to agree to synchronise such an exercise is much more an effort of political and administrative will than a technical challenge.

If you have already been confused by the above description of the inconsistencies in using the Earth’s wandering magnetic field as a heading reference, you are likely to find that when you consider instead the modern alternatives, they sound comparatively simple – even if the enabling technology is sophisticated.

The modern alternatives to navigation by Magnetic North are use of the now-familiar GPS-type satellite navigation systems, combined with modern inertial navigation systems, also known as inertial reference systems (IRS).

When you turn on your car GPS, it knows the position of your car, but doesn’t know which way it’s pointing until you start moving; then it immediately detects the direction and speed of travel.

Today’s IRS are, effectively, incredibly sensitive 3D accelerometer systems, and the data they produce is fed to computers for analysis. The combined platforms can be an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS, which also has magnetic input) or a pure IRS. When an IRS is switched on, it doesn’t know its position, but it senses the earth’s rotation, and from that works out the orientation of Earth’s axis, and therefore the direction of True North. The combination of the GPS aircraft position data and the IRS directional reference provide all the data required for highly accurate navigation.

What of backup, just in case things go wrong?

First of all, the system – in advanced aircraft – is duplicated or triplicated. If GPS fails or is locally jammed, the IRS/AHRS – which is completely autonomous – remains highly accurate as a dead-reckoning navigation system until GPS is regained and position can be updated.

Canada, in whose far northern territory the geomagnetic North Pole is located, has for decades required that all navigation in its northernmost airspace is conducted using the True North heading reference. Given its practical experience in this science, Canada has taken the lead in a relatively new but expert multinational body called the Aviation Heading Reference Transition Action Group (AHRTAG), which coordinates with ICAO.

AHRTAG reckons the changeover from Magnetic to True – now given the shorthand title Mag2True – should be in operation by March 2030.

If this subject has piqued your interest and you are curious to explore the Mag2True journey in greater detail, a description of the transition plans will first appear in Flight International’s November issue, out at the end of this month, and on FlightGlobal.com.

That American Boeing 757 crash at Cali in 1995: should the investigation be reopened?

American Flight 965, a Boeing 757 descending at night toward its destination at Cali, Colombia, collided with an Andean mountain ridge, killing 159 crew and passengers. Miraculously, four passengers did not die.

The accident report that emerged from the investigation laid all blame at the feet of the pilots, softening the blow by citing some flight management system navigational anomalies as contributory factors.

Recently an independent re-examination of the data by a team of aviation and accident investigation experts has concluded that simply writing off the crash as “pilot error” was a bad decision. The pilots were among American’s best, yet the crew exchanges on the cockpit voice recorder, according to their peers, demonstrated a degree of confusion that was out of character.

Initially the Colombian/American investigation team believed alcohol in the pilots’ blood might have been a factor, but later forensic testing confirmed the alcohol was a product of tissue degeneration. Having ruled out alcohol as a cause of the pilots’ uncharacteristic confusion, the investigators failed to ask whether there might have been an alternative explanation for it, confining the event to history as simple pilot error.

A new feature-length documentary film about the American Airlines Flight 965 opens in the USA this week, examining the official accident report produced at the time by the Colombian authorities with the aid of the US National Transportation Safety Board. It raises questions that should have been asked at the time, but were not.

If this new investigation reveals the truth for the first time, it will shake public confidence in the commercial air transport industry.

Germany studies air navigation fundamentals

Germany’s aviation agency DLR is using a non-stop flight from Hamburg to the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic ocean to study the earth’s magnetic field, a navigational resource for aviation and migrating birds alike.

The same flight, operated by Lufthansa using one of its Airbus A350-900s (D-AIXQ), is enabling a crew rotation for scientists working in Antarctic waters in the German research vessel Polarstern.

Lufthansa Airbus A350-900 D-AIXQ is preparing to carry scientists to the South Atlantic

On 30 March Lufthansa’s A350 departs for this, its second non-stop flight on this route, chartered by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven. The first such trip, which took place in February, was the longest non-stop flight a Lufthansa aircraft had ever made – more than 13,000km, with a duration of more than 15h.

This time, the A350 will also be carrying scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutschen Zentrums für Luft und Raumfahrt) who will be collecting measurement data to provide further insights on the influence of the Earth’s magnetic field as it affects aviation.

The surface location of the North Magnetic Pole, located at present among the far north-eastern Canadian islands near northern Greenland, is continuing to migrate in the direction of Russian Arctic waters at a faster rate than a few decades ago.

At this rate the magnetic North Pole is expected to pass the geographic North Pole moving in the direction of northern Russia in the next few years. The full significance of this increased rate of changing polarity is not understood, but the earth is – according to scientists – overdue for a polar reversal of its magnetic field. The last polar reversal is believed to have occurred about 750,000 years ago, and although the potential consequences for earth-dwellers are not fully understood, they are believed to be significant – and not only for air navigation.

In fact navigation would be the least of the problems mankind is likely to face. Marine navigation has been based on True North since the early 1970s. Aviation has had the capability to change, but is still plodding on with navigation referenced to the magnetic poles because the industry is reluctant to incur some modest, one-off costs in making the changeover.

“With the second flight to the Falkland Islands, we are not only pleased  to be able to support the AWI’s polar research expedition, but also to make an important contribution to further research into the Earth’s magnetic field,” says Thomas Jahn, Fleet Captain and Falklands Project Manager. “We have already been supporting climate research projects for more than 25 years now.”

The main reason for this second flight to the Falklands is to rotate the Polarstern crew and to pick up the research expedition team. Since the beginning of February, a team of about 50 researchers have been collecting important data on ocean currents, sea ice and the carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean, which, among other things, enable reliable climate predictions.

On 2 April, using flight number LH2575, Lufthansa’s A350 will be bringing AWI’s international research team and the DLR scientists back to Germany. The landing is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on 3 April at Munich Airport.

Darwinian thoughts on airliner species in a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic’s dramatic effect on air travel has accelerated aircraft retirements, particularly older long-haul types. This, of course, includes the undisputed Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, the withdrawal of which has been the cause of many misty-eyed moments among aviation romantics.

British Airways’ last 747-400, in retro BOAC livery, on its way to retirement

The “other jumbo”, the Airbus A380 was already suffering a crisis of its own before Covid’s arrival, and the pandemic motivated the manufacturer to put the trickling production line out of its misery.

The A380 – technically an excellent, if over-engineered aircraft – was the victim of a miscalculation by Airbus way back in the late 1980s-early 1990s about the shape of future global air transport. The A380 was to replace the 747, but the belief that a replacement would be needed at all was based on an assumption that the industry would continue to develop much as it had in the previous three decades.

Emirates, by far the A380’s biggest user, will certainly be able to continue flying many of them

That didn’t look like a bad decision at the time, but Boeing’s predictions turned out to be far more accurate. The US manufacturer foresaw the diminution of the importance of hub-and-spoke networks feeding the world’s major airports where they sit astride the globe’s air travel arteries – the traditional trunk routes. The A380 was ideal for serving these.

But the American manufacturer’s crystal ball showed smaller widebody twins taking over from thirsty quads, and carrying passengers who wanted it straight past the massive hubs directly to the secondary cities. The 767 was already showing the way in the 1990s, with American carriers on transatlantic routes, but the 777 and 787 extended the possibilities. Darwin had smiled on Boeing.

Although Airbus was also ready for many of these long-haul twin opportunities with its flexible A330 twin series (and now the A350), in the mid-1990s the four-engine A340 had initially become much more popular than Airbus had predicted. Europe, culturally less of a risk-taker than the USA, was not yet ready to fly twins over extended oceanic routes, or over endless Arctic and Siberian wildernesses. In a quad, an engine failure raises the crew’s blood pressure a bit, but they can elect to continue to destination. In a twin, it means an instant diversion.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in July 1995, Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration were ready to gamble on bringing a brand-new big twin, the 777, into service with pre-cleared permission to fly over oceanic or wilderness regions where the nearest diversion airport could be up to three hours away at single-engine flying speed. That extension from the previous 2h meant there were hardly any routes a twin couldn’t fly. Boeing and its FAA partner went for it; and what’s more they got away with it. A single early-days disaster would have put paid to that policy, but it didn’t happen, and now everyone takes 180min ETOPS (extended twin engine operations) for granted. Darwin had smiled on Boeing once more.

Today, in the pandemic, the Airbus A340 is suffering a fate similar to the 747’s, but there will be fewer tears simply because it could not have achieved the iconic status the 747 had won through its status as the world’s first jumbo jet, its sheer longevity, and its unique shape.

Among today’s widebodies, Darwin will continue to smile on the newer big twins, and the few remaining tri-jets and the older big twins will be parked or converted to freighters before their time would normally be up. Meanwhile, the marketplace that the new big twins have had to themselves for some time is to be invaded by what may turn out to be a particularly timely product: Airbus’ single-aisle venture into long-haul, the A321XLR.

Another anomaly brought by the pandemic is that air cargo has been the saviour of many airlines during the pandemic, because unlike passenger traffic, cargo has hardly been affected. For example, Taiwan’s China Airlines has just announced an operating profit for 2020 on the back of cargo, and recently took delivery of a new 777F.

Short-haul – and thus the single-aisle fleet – has not been hit as hard as long-haul simply because domestic air travel is free of the border restrictions that nation states impose on travellers when they fear the spread of infection from abroad.  But as in their long-haul fleets, airlines are still disposing of the earlier versions of their 737s, A320s and regional aircraft.

Exceptionally on a global scale, the US domestic carriers are forecasting break-even levels of passenger business by June, with strong demand from the leisure travel market, although there is slightly less confidence in a business travel rebound. Domestic carriers elsewhere, in less geographically large countries – particularly those with mature high speed rail networks – will take longer to recover than the likes of American, Delta, United and Southwest, and may not have had the government injection of survival cash the US airlines have had – plus the boost from the fact that the USA has successfully accelerated its Covid vaccination programme. Is that Darwin smiling on America again, or just on big, prosperous nations? He may well be smiling on China too.

No-one can be sure of the post-Covid shape of the world’s commercial air transport industry. Truisms, abound, like the contention that the strongest carriers will survive, and that the pandemic’s result will be further consolidation and fewer airlines. One of the unknowns is whether people’s travelling priorities will have changed, especially in the light of growing concern about climate change. Will long-haul, in particular, be a victim of such a concern?

But at present, whenever there is a hint that lockdown may be eased, people are rushing to book holiday travel. Air travel will indeed survive, the question is: what will it look like?