Macho flying by pilots is back in the news, despite a protest by Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe over a preliminary report by the French Bureau for Accident Investigations (BEA) into the crash of one of its A320s into the sea off Perpignan on 27 November last year.
That crash killed four Air NZ flight crew, an official from the NZ Civil Aviation Authority and two German pilots who were on board performing a hand back check flight following the completion of a lease by Frankfurt-based XL Airways.
BEA says the cockpit voice recording shows that a New Zealand pilot persuaded the reluctant German captain to perform a risky flight control recovery manoeuvre at a dangerously low height and speed.
The tape ends in screams.
The recovery procedure is normally practised in simulators or at altitudes of more than 4000 metres. When it dived out of control it was between 900 and 600 metres above the sea, with its flight control computers deliberately disabled, with gear down and flaps extended for landing and its speed cut to less than 160 kmh instead of the 240 kmh or above that would have been appropriate in normal flight.
Fyfe says the airline has not been allowed to give insights into the crew’s actions, but also told NZ media in one interview that he couldn’t explain why the test was done at such low altitude.
He should read the report more carefully. The data shows that it was done that low because an Air NZ pilot insisted on it.
The French authorities say they are not making a final finding on the cause, but calling on aviation authorities to take action to “prevent improvised manoeuvres by crew in so-called acceptance flights.”
Air New Zealand has not excelled in training flights. On 27 March 1965, it wrote off a Lockheed Electra making a low speed approach to a landing, but all survived.
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On 4 July 1966, two of five company flight crew died at Auckland when they attempted a risky failed engine emergency training exercise in a DC-8 and the pilot engaged reverse thrust on the engine he was supposedly shutting down.
Examples of accidents caused by deliberately flying aircraft into dangerous conditions are found in accident archives worldwide, including Australia, but the final reports are usually couched in evasive language.
On 31 October 1954, what was described officially as “an error of judgement” saw a four engined turbo prop TAA Vickers Viscount deliberately attempt a three engined takeoff from Mangalore in Victoria at less than normal take-off speed, killing three of the eight flight crew who were on board for training and familiarisation purposes.
On 10 October 1985, a small Pel-Air Westwind corporate jet plunged into the sea off Sydney from 5000 feet shortly after take-off when, to quote the investigation, “the captain probably simulated the failure of all three flight attitude indicators.”
The captain was claimed to have done this to younger pilots on previous occasions. Doing it in pitch darkness at a steep angle of climb proved fatal.
On 29 October 1991, an RAAF Boeing 707 crashed into the sea off East Sale with the loss of all five people on board after it was seen flying “incredibly low and slow” by witnesses. The crash was attributed to a “simulation of asymmetric flight resulting in a sudden loss of control.”
On 14 October 2004, a Pinnacle Airlines 50-seat CRJ-200 jet was being ferried empty across the mid west when an older pilot attempted to impress a younger pilot by “testing the limits” of the jet in terms of altitude and speed.
They died on the fringes of a housing estate near Jefferson City after both engines failed and couldn’t be re-started.
Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand needs to focus on flight standards in his airline rather than indignation. It was his pilot insisting on a dangerous manoeuvre too close to the ground. And airlines are responsible for the standards and actions of their pilots, no “ifs”, and no “buts”.