This past Sunday when I first wrote about AirAsia QZ8501, the plane hadn’t been found, and the article was, I’ll admit, a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. After all, it was still the same day the flight disappeared, and I’m sure finding an airliner that’s gone down in the sea is no easy task. Especially when the search planes and ships have had the weather working against them continuously the entire time. It’s difficult to spot floating debris from the deck of a ship when the sea is rough, and high winds have precluded the use of helicopters and planes throughout much of the time since the plane was lost.
That being said, floating debris and bodies have now been found, and as of this writing, it’s believed the plane itself may have been located also. However, even though the Java Sea is relatively shallow in that area, strong currents are continuously moving the wreckage – it’s estimated that some of the wreckage has moved as much as 30 miles since yesterday. Since divers aren’t able to get into the water in rough seas like this, it hasn’t been possible to get down to the plane for any recovery operations there. Hopefully, all the bodies will be found, as well as the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. Only after those are brought up will we begin to find out what happened.
Reports from the scene continue to be confusing and contradictory, though; some initial reports said that 40 bodies had been recovered, but it now seems there have only been seven bodies taken from the sea.
It’s probably a safe bet that weather was the cause of the crash because there was violent thunderstorm activity in the area at the time the plane was lost. The plane’s captain had requested permission to ascend from 32,000 to 38,000 feet in order to get above a storm, but was denied the request because of air traffic above – one report indicates another plane flying in the area at 34,000 feet. Still, thunderstorms can be dangerous to a plane. George Bibel, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of North Dakota, discussed what could happen to a plane caught in a thunderstorm. Under severe circumstances, the storm could actually cause the breakup of a plane, but pilots know to avoid getting into the worst of these.
There is also the question of a stall, which possibly could have happened with Flight QZ8501. Bibel addressed this also, and pointed out that although pilots are taught what to do, flight simulators don’t currently have the capability to simulate a full stall. Since they can only simulate the beginning of one, pilots don’t get any practice at all in recovering from them.
I mentioned just above that Flight QZ8501 may have gone into a stall, and there is good evidence of this. Geoffrey Thomas, editor of AirlineRatings.com, explained that radar data shows QZ8501 climbing through 36,300 feet after their request to change altitude was denied. Furthermore, the plane had slowed to a lower speed, from 540 miles per hour down to 406 mph. Whether the pilot chose to climb or was simply caught in a severe updraft won’t be known until the data recorders are recovered.
This is similar to what happened to Air France Flight 447 as it was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009. Due to icing of the pitot tubes, which measure airspeed, the pilots lost indication of how fast they were flying while climbing to avoid a huge thunderstorm mass, and through a series of pilot errors, and relying on an autopilot “normal law” system that unbeknownst to them had switched off and put the plane in an “alternate law” operational mode, they were ignoring stall warnings because they mistakenly believed the Airbus A330 wouldn’t let them go into a stall. In fact, the plane was in a completely manual flying mode then, and the pilots didn’t even know it.
All this brings us back to training for airline pilots on how to handle stalls. The lack of any capability in flight simulators to go into a full stall needs to be addressed without delay so pilots can practice what they’ve so far learned only in theory. Also, there appears to be a fundamental flaw with the controls of Airbus planes because when one pilot does something with the controls, the other doesn’t see what he or she is doing. This proved to be fatal to Flight 447 when one of the copilots was pulling back on the stick to gain altitude, and the other copilot’s stick wasn’t indicating what was taking place. Boeing doesn’t have this problem, because when one pilot does something in the cockpit, it’s indicated at both pilots’ seats.
Because Flight QZ8501 was an Airbus A320, is this what happened? We don’t know yet, but we’ll likely know sometime in the near future. In the meantime, there needs to be a public outcry to all airlines to implement the necessary upgrades to their flight simulators. And equally importantly, there needs to be a strong call to Airbus to stop using a system that encourages pilots of their planes to rely solely on communication between the two in the cockpit seats. One pilot needs to see what the other is doing, and in the case of Flight 447, this was woefully lacking.