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Full Circle: A380 Lessons

A lifetime of learning contained in a story about Capt. Richard de Crespigny and his Qantas Airways crew.

When I began narrating audiobooks several years ago, I naturally found myself committing a good deal of my time to aviation subjects. I’ve produced a number of aviation titles into audio, from aviation-themed novels on through various technical and how-to books. 

When I finally wrap up one of these aviation books, I invariably find myself walking out of the audio booth with more knowledge about that particular aeronautical subject than when I walked in.

My most recent example of “in-the-booth training” came courtesy of part three of airline captain Eric Auxier’s series, “There I Wuz.” Auxier provided me with an up-close and personal interview with a very renowned airline pilot: Capt. Richard de Crespigny. 

What this man has to say about how to handle a really big problem in a really big airplane is packed full of good information for anyone who finds themselves behind the controls of any size airplane that has developed difficulties.

First, let’s meet Capt. de Crespigny. He flies the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, for Qantas Airways. On Nov. 4, 2010, on Flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney, he and his crew suffered what is called a “black swan event”—an event so rare as to be statistically unpredictable, that comes with major consequences. 

 

Capt. de Crespigny’s black swan came from a massive engine failure; at least, that was the beginning of the dilemma. To quote the captain: “We were flying from Singapore to Sydney, and seven minutes after takeoff, engine number two (the A380 is the world’s largest passenger airliner, it has two decks and four massive engines) exploded. 

“It was the turbine disk itself that exploded. It broke off in three pieces. Two pieces missed the airplane, but one piece hit the airplane with shrapnel, a bit like a cluster bomb or a grenade going off at each of those spots. Some 500 impacts on the airplane and on the fuselage were later detected. 

“It also created major holes in the aircraft, and it cut over 650 wires and damaged 21 out of 22 systems—only the crew oxygen system was unaffected, and that was something we didn’t need at our low altitude.”

Okay, so your big jet has lost one-quarter of its engine power and suffered some other difficulties, you say? But, surely, that can’t be as bad as having to feather one of the engines on a light twin, right?

Wrong. Here’s why, from the captain’s story: “The failure of the engine was not the critical problem. The problem was the loss of the systems, so we had to assess what we had left of the computerized aircraft and find the best way on how to get it down on the ground. 

“It was a very difficult time in terms of decision-making, and the process took us two more hours in the air, and later, on the ground, there was another two hours of decision-making to really guarantee the safety of the passengers. Ultimately, we got the passengers off, they all got home, and there were absolutely no injuries for our black swan event.

“There are a lot of lessons that came out of all the things that we did, which is really an amalgamation of all the skills learned through osmosis in a flying career. I’ve been flying for almost 40 years now, so you learn things during that career and all the decisions you make are a culmination of the knowledge that you assemble, the experience and training you bring to the event, and the teamwork.

“Speaking of teamwork, there were five pilots in the cockpit that day, so we had the culmination of over 150 years of piloting experience. But we all had to put our heads together to get that airliner down on the ground safely.”

As I narrated this tale, here are some of the highlights that came out of this black swan event that every pilot needs to appreciate, understand, and put into their own bag of tricks.

1) This enormously automated aircraft was continuing to function just as it was designed, and the highly automated cockpit screens were producing exactly the proper checklists, procedures and parameters that the onboard sensors told it to. But this data was in many instances wrong, because too many wires and sensors were cut and shorted out for the brains of this Airbus to know what the true situation was. 

Had the crew simply followed the checklists and proposed parameters, they would have undoubtedly crashed. The pilot’s lesson here is to always make sure that what you’re about to do makes good sense and “feels right” for your situation!

2) When you don’t have to rush, don’t rush. And fly the airplane, first and foremost. Once their A380 was stable and it was determined that there was no immediate rush to get on the ground (that is, there was no onboard fire, nor any progressive structural failure), the crew took their time to thoroughly understand and evaluate their situation. 

Faced with so many points of failure and so much erroneous data from the automated systems and checklists, they decided to do what the Apollo 13 crew elected to do during their enormous off-the-charts emergency: stop looking at what had failed and, instead, begin evaluating and cataloging what systems still worked.

By shifting their mental thinking, this crew turned a complex A380, with four million parts and with 1,225 checklists and 250,000 sensors into something far more basic and easy to deal with: they turned it into hardly more than a Piper on steroids, and at that point their decisions became simpler.

3) Always be ready for some—or even ALL—of your “magic” to fail. As airplanes large and small become increasingly automated, pilots have an increasing obligation to really understand the basic nature of what they’re operating and what they would do when those electrons suddenly evaporate into the ether.

As Capt. de Crespigny explained, “We’re dealing now with highly computerized systems, and if you don’t make an effort to get to understand the core of these systems, then you might become a victim or you might think the airplane is flying you. 

“So, if you want to go to a high-tech aircraft that is run by computers, there is a responsibility to understand the underlying systems if you want to use them. Because when those systems fail—and they do fail—it’s up to the pilot now to recover an aircraft that is very complex and much more sophisticated.”

This is as true in a Piper as it is in the A380. The bigger airplane might have grander and fancier automation and other “onboard magic,” but to the extent that the pilot is addicted to and totally dependent on that automation/magic, is the extent that the pilot has become just another passenger. In a nutshell: use it, but know how to lose it!

4) Some final sage advice from Capt. de Crespigny: “Aviation regulations are written in blood. They protect us from incidents that have taken thousands of lives of our predecessors. But that is not enough.

“Professional pilots need to commit to a lifetime of learning. Even with thousands of hours logged in numerous aircraft types, we learn something new every time we fly. Politics change. Economics, technology and companies change. Pilot roles don’t. We are the last line of defense.

“The best lessons happen unexpectedly. We never know when we will next be challenged and when some tidbit of information, however small, is going to become useful to resolve an emergency or abnormal situation. 

“So we read books, study manuals, “armchair” fly and do deliberate hard practice in simulators. We study human factors and involve ourselves in safety management systems. With years of study and practice, we hope we are prepared to expect the unexpected.

“Failure is not an option. The price for failure in aviation is high. We strive to improve and learn from our own mistakes and the stories of those who flew before us. Every story contains pearls of wisdom and experience. Sometimes pilots’ errors are tragic. Other times we escape with only our egos damaged. The best pilots know a tarnished ego is the cheapest price to pay on the path to resilience.”

A special thanks to Capt. Richard de Crespigny and Capt. Eric Auxier for sharing piloting stories that can help us become better at the tasks at hand. 

For the complete story of this noteworthy Qantas flight, see Richard de Crespigny’s book “QF32,” and any of Capt. Eric Auxier’s aviation books. The titles are available in hard copy at Amazon.com (and, of course, in audiobook versions).

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

Full Circle: Wind Dilemmas

Lessons learned about wind and mountain waves.

As I sit to write this, the major theme in my life these past few weeks has been wind. I say that because, first and foremost, we are right now involved in cleaning up our Florida horse ranch from the effects of Hurricane Irma—which, thankfully, amounted to only a half-dozen fallen trees and, literally, an infinite number of tree limbs scattered across our acreage. 

The second reason these past few weeks have involved wind is that I was concurrently producing an audiobook version of Harrison Jones’ nonfiction book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass: Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217.” Reading for the audio version got me to thinking about experiences with wind-induced dilemmas from my own aviation past.

The book itself is an in-depth analysis and interview with nearly all the survivors of the Rocky Mountain Airways Twin Otter turboprop that crashed in a blinding blizzard at the very top of one of the most inaccessible spots between Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colorado on Dec. 4, 1978. 

We follow the passengers and crew through their experience, and then the bands of rescue personnel who mobilized immediately to attempt to locate the wreckage and any potential survivors before they would invariably freeze to death on that desolate mountaintop.

As the NTSB later concluded, the Rocky Mountain Twin Otter encountered an unforeseen severe mountain wave which, when combined with some airframe icing, prevented the commuter airliner from climbing above 13,000 feet (the MEA in that area was 16,000 feet) and the airliner was then gradually forced down into the terrain, just barely clipping the top of the mountain at Buffalo Pass. 

The first miracle was that everyone survived the initial impact with the crest of the mountain, but if rescue folks didn’t locate them quickly (no one knew for sure where they had gone down, and it was the middle of the night in a driving blizzard), none of them would survive.

As the NTSB pointed out in the accident report, one of the things that disguised what was happening was that the mountain wave the flight was involved with was quite smooth. With no wind-induced turbulence to tip the crew off, the initial symptoms of decreasing climb performance seemed to be more related to either engine power output or airframe icing. When the pilot in command is not understanding why something is happening, it’s far more difficult to come up with a reasonable plan to correct the problem. 

My own experiences with mountain waves were certainly nowhere near as dramatic, but they were personally attention-getting. Being more of a flatland pilot, my initial exposure to the effects of wind across undulating terrain came from those small bumps in the earth around Kentucky and West Virginia that we Easterners call mountains.

About 50 years ago I was skittering around Eastern Kentucky in, if my memory serves me correctly, a Piper Pacer with a 90 hp engine. It was a breezy day—nothing too outlandish—and I was giving a student some dual in the art of crosswind landings at an outlying grass field we often used. 

After a half-dozen acceptable takeoffs and landings in the quartering wind that was 20, with maybe gusts to 25, we left the airport for a little local flying up higher to get away from the bumps. 

After a few steep turns and whatever else I thought the student could use, I figured that we’d top off our day with a simulated engine failure, then head back to the barn. I chopped the power and announced: “Engine failure.”

The student picked a field below in a reasonably wide valley between two rows of hills, and set up an approach to a large pasture. Down to about 300 feet everything looked fine, so I announced, “The engine is working again; just go around and head back to the airport.” The student complied.

Sort of. 

He did everything right. So did the airplane. But Mother Nature did not. The student pushed the power up to max; 90 horses surged into the prop, and he turned us toward the airport that was on the far side of the next ridgeline. But we were, I figured out later, on the leeward side!

At max power and max climb speed, we were barely holding altitude—and the ridgeline in front of us was getting nearer! I was getting less comfortable with every passing moment, until I finally said, “I’ve got it.” 

Suspecting there was something now wrong with our engine, I did a snappy one-eighty to head back for our simulated emergency landing field—one that I figured we might need for real. Partway back—and, it turns out, away from the effect of the downward wash of wind over the ridgeline—we began climbing normally again. We climbed to a higher altitude, then crossed that ridgeline far above the mini-mountain wave effect beneath us.

Many years later I was in a light twin flying between northern Colorado and Montana, where there are some real mountains by anyone’s standards. It was a breezy, clear day and I was flying at the MEA, enjoying the view of the ridgelines and canyons that passed below. 

What I noticed first was the airspeed slowly trickling away as the autopilot kept pitching us up a little more as it tried to hold our altitude. Again, my first thought was that something was wrong with the power output from the engines, or at least one of them.

Yet all the engine gauges were middle of the green. They sounded fine, too. So what could be happening? It took me a few moments to see the obvious: the line of higher mountains to the northwest of my location were at a right angle to the prevailing wind. We were apparently in a downwash of wind from them. 

I requested a higher altitude from ATC, pushed up climb power and while the rate of climb was a little lower to begin with, a few thousand feet of climb later, the performance numbers went back to normal as we got above the downward effect of the distant mountain wave.

But don’t think that only smaller airplanes are susceptible to this sort of wind-induced dilemma. About 30 years ago I was the captain of a Boeing 737-400 headed westbound to San Francisco over the middle of the biggest rocks in the Rockies. We were at FL310 on a windy day, with our ground speed being clobbered by the constant westward flow. Still, the sky was smooth—so all was well, right?

First clue: the sense of the airliner trying to climb, the autopilot rolling in nose-down trim and pulling off engine power to keep us at altitude. I commented to the copilot something insightful, like, “What the hell?” 

I disconnected the autopilot, reduced the power on both engines until they were back at idle—and we were still being propelled upward at over 2,000 feet per minute! It was hard to believe what the gauges were saying. I pulled out full speed brakes, and still we were climbing! 

The copilot told ATC that we couldn’t hold altitude; that we were being pushed up. We got to 35,000 feet and I began to seriously worry because, even thought the sky was still smooth, if we went much higher the air would be (in a manner of speaking) too thin to keep the wings from stalling—“coffin corner,” it’s called.

Then we hit the turbulence, which started at severe and quickly got worse. Our big Boeing airliner was simultaneously being pushed upward and churned all around the sky! We needed to get down—quickly—before the wings decided to do the job for us. 

I was just about to call for gear down (at this airspeed, it would have probably done some gear damage) to get more drag to stop us from climbing when, in the blink of an eye, the washing-machine sky we were in went dead calm.

We had popped out of this mountain wave-induced wind machine at 35,400 feet. We stopped climbing, the airspeed began to drop, and I then pushed engine power to a low cruise setting. After coordinating with ATC, we turned off our route that had us headed toward the highest mountains and eventually drifted back down to our assigned altitude of FL310.

So that’s what I spent Hurricane Irma doing: narrating the book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass,” which is about the results of a wind-induced accident, while listening to the winds howl around my own home. 

 

Like an old captain once told me nearly 60 years ago, “Son, don’t fool too much with Mother Nature. She can win anytime she wants to.”

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer, a best-selling novelist and the owner of more than a dozen personal airplanes. Send questions or comments to

Full Circle: A Controller Speaks, Part Three

Highlights from "Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller" by David Larson. 

This month I’ll be continuing a series that highlights the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller (one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I’ve produced and narrated), David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller.” 

“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. With the author’s permission, here are more highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower and radar facility.

The old airplanes that flew out of the northwest corner of the Greater Miami International Nuthouse hauled more than just pigs and chickens around the world. Sometimes they hauled race horses, and sometimes they hauled other exotic animals from one zoo to another.

One day we’re going about our air traffic control thing in the tower and the guy working local had rolled a DC-6 off 9L. 

“Hey,” the controller said as he flipped his radio to speaker mode, so everyone else could hear it. “This guy keeps whispering to me. Can any of you understand him?”

“Say that again,” he said to the pilot, as we all listened intently to the radio.

“96BL needs to come back and land,” the pilot said in a voice so soft we could barely hear him with the radio on full blast.

“96BL, enter a left downwind, cleared to land Runway 9 Left,” the controller said. “What’s the nature of your emergency?”

“Cleared to land,” was the whispered response. 

“What is the nature of your emergency? Say your fuel remaining, and souls on board.” (We always asked how much gas they had and how many people… or souls. There is a lot of speculation as to why we were required to ask that, but at Miami we assumed that it was because the fire department wanted to know how big the fire was going to be, and how many bodies and survivors to look for. Consequently, supervisors would tell the controllers to ask the captain for bodies and burn time every time they worked an emergency. We never put that out on the air.) 

There was no immediate answer. “We are going to need an animal handler,” the pilot eventually whispered.

“What did he just say?” the controller asked. “Say again, 96BL.”

“We… will… need… an… animal… handler… Out.” 

We all got that message loud and clear. He had no more to say. 

We got everybody out of his way, called the fire equipment out, told them the “animal handler” thing, and sat back to see how things played out. 

The DC-6 made a giant, slow, gentle turn to final and touched down on the runway ever so gently. Even as the plane turned off the runway he was shutting down all four engines. As the big silver dinosaur slid to an almost imperceptible stop, the escape hatch opened, ropes uncoiled down to the pavement, and the whispering crew climbed down to the ramp. 

As the story goes, this particular DC-6 was taking a giant anteater—along with other cargo—to a zoo someplace in the Midwest. At some point as the plane sat on the ramp getting ready to leave, the Vermilingua extricated itself from the cage and ambled up front to spend some quality time with the crew. 

Oddly enough, as soon as it got in the cockpit it crawled up on the pedestal (the console between the pilot seats that has the throttles sitting on top of it) and fell asleep. The crew was whispering because they didn’t want to wake up the giant long-nosed dog that had three-inch razor-sharp claws. 

While we’re on the subject of flying wrecks at Miami, several stories come to mind. My wife, Christy, was working south local one day. The south runway on an east operation at Miami is usually only used for arrivals. Some of the cargo hangars were fairly near the approach end of that runway, and you might get one or two of these departures in the course of working that position.

One of the things that you need to know about the wonderful world of air traffic control is that almost all of the rules were written by lawyers after some type of heinous crash or screwup. Way back in the day, our rule book was known as the ANC, or Army, Navy, Civilian—and it was about 10 pages long. 

Then a few years passed, a few pilots died along with a lot of passengers, and the ANC became the ATP or Air Traffic Procedures. This book was several hundred pages long. Today, this book is called the 7110.65. I keep a copy next to my bed to knock intruders unconscious.

Among other stupid things that have arisen from having bureaucrats make rules is the odd fact that we can’t tell a pilot what is happening to his/her aircraft without first saying “it appears.” That led to a hilarious story about a Cessna 402 that took off without having the door latched correctly. The copilot went back as they became airborne—and the door fell open just as the guy grabbed it, dragging him out into the atmosphere with it.

“Ah, it appears your aft door is open, and someone is hanging onto it screaming.”

Another story is that a cargo DC-8 taxies to the approach end of 9R, and calls ready to go. Christy waited for a gap in the arrivals on the final, and then puts the DC-8 into position, telling him to be ready to go. Once the runway was clear, takeoff clearance was given, black smoke rolled up behind the big jetliner, and it slowly started creeping down the runway.

Just past the tower the wings on the big DC-8 generated enough lift; the nosewheel lifted off the ground, followed closely by the main wheels, and the eager craft was committed to the commerce of aviation. 

That was when one of the engines fell completely off the aircraft, slammed into the runway, and slid down the centerline like a Japanese torpedo at Pearl Harbor.

“It appears you’ve lost an engine,” Christy told the pilot as she watched the engine lazily come to a halt on the runway.

“I know,” said the pilot. “We’re trying a restart but we want to come back and land.”

“No,” she said. “I mean, it appears you have LOST an engine.”

“I know that!” he said, obviously irritated. “We’re coming back.”

“Roger,” she said calmly. “Cleared to land Runway 9L; Runway 9R is blocked by your engine. I suggest you look out the window.”

The scary part is that when the airplane got back to the ramp they found that when the engine flew the coop, it hit the engine next to it, knocking that one loose from its pylon, and it was swinging freely in the breeze just waiting to make a break for it at the earliest possible moment.

Here’s another story. As I said before, we worked a lot of really old airplanes back then, and one of the biggest examples was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.  I admit that working this flying museum was pretty cool, and there was no place else in the United States that you could actually see this many working examples of this type of aircraft moving in and out of a major airport. 

The downside was that these aerial crates were really starting to show their age, and anytime you saw one crank up on the ramp, you knew it was just a matter of time before you had some type of emergency on your hands.

This was the case late one night—well, actually, early one morning—on the midnight shift. An inbound B-377 called the approach controller, and shortly after that declared the not-so-surprising emergency of having one of its engines out of service. The radar controller got the “bodies and burn time” numbers from the pilot and passed the information on to the tower controller.

At some point prior to the aircraft getting to the airport, the crew tried to lower the landing gear. Aircraft with retractable gear have a series of lights (usually three) that show green when the gear is safely down, and red when the landing is going to be really noisy and the pilot will need full power to taxi to the ramp. 

The indicator lights in this aircraft showed the crew that the nosewheel was being timid and refused to come out of the safety of its little house under the flight deck. The pilot informed the approach controller; the approach controller informed the tower controller; and the tower controller informed the crash equipment, which immediately raced out to the runway and waited.

The pilot lined up his eager craft on final approach to the runway, and the approach controller instructed him to change to the tower radio frequency.

Now, the guy in the radar room was a little… high strung, so he kept calling the guy in the tower on the override feature asking what was going on with the inbound emergency. 

The guy in the tower was very laid back, and kept trying to work the emergency, feed information to the crash and fire chief, work other traffic he had, and answer the radar guy’s incessant questions. 

Finally, just before the Boeing touched down, the radar guy called again and the tower guy said something to the effect of, “Get XXXX out of my ear!” Shortly after that, the Boeing touched down safely with what was apparently a faulty light in the cockpit, and taxied to the ramp with crash trucks in tow.

Unfortunately, at some point on final the captain had asked one of the crew to go down a ladder in a trap door that was in the floor of the flight deck so he could check the nosegear with a periscope that was installed there for that purpose. 

The crew member verified that the nosegear was actually down, and was on the way back up the ladder as the Boeing touched down. The shock of the landing jarred the crew member’s grip loose from the ladder, causing him to fall back down the trap door—and breaking his arm and a few ribs.

This single incident turned a nonevent into an “aircraft incident with injuries,” which in turn got the NTSB involved.

In the course of the NTSB investigation, they requested all of the pertinent data from all air traffic facilities that had worked the ill-fated Stratocruiser. That included the interphone transcripts from Miami tower. Both of the controllers got some time on the beach for that one.

The full story is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear/read that sort of thing.)

Next time: Some final incidents from DTW and MIA. 

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

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