The latest statement from the NTSB on the Buffalo crash suggests the pilot simply let the airplane get too slow. He then reacted badly and stalled the airplane. His reaction was seemingly inexplicable for a professional pilot, as one of the first things you learn during primary training is developing the muscle memory to break a still with forward stick. I don’t buy the notion proposed by some that the pilot mistakenly thought he was dealing with an icing-induced tail plane stall. Even though it’s true that pulling back is appropriate for a tail plane stall (as opposed to the typical main wing stall) absolutely nothing else the pilot did was appropriate for a tail stall. Everything in the NTSB statement suggests the cockpit simply devolved into complete chaos. While they mercifully keep this out of the public eye, the NTSB investigators have suffered through listening to the cockpit voice recorder, and reading in between the lines of the NTSB statement I think it’s fairly clear the pilot simply panicked.
However, Iâ€™m not passing judgment. I’m sure Iâ€™d do no better, even with all the training in the world. My reason for writing this is to say something about the system, not the pilot. When I was doing my instrument training, my biggest takeaway from the whole thing was that it was utter bullshit for peopleâ€™s lives to depend on a pilot doing it correctly when the chips are down. It’s normally easy to fly on instruments, but it gets surprisingly difficult quickly when things go wrong, especially with the disorientation that occurs at night. I really think too much is expected of pilots flying hard IFR in any airplane thatâ€™s not fully automated. Yes, itâ€™s manageable, but not with the kind of margin youâ€™d like to see when lives are at stake, and especially with relatively inexperienced pilots. Oneâ€™s ability to react correctly is shockingly bad when terrified, and Iâ€™m guessing the slow speed situation caught the pilots off guard and scared the shit out of them.
However, don’t we live in a world where automation and control technology has advanced to the point where the space shuttle can deorbit and land itself? Where affordable cars have anti-skid brake systems whose computational power rivals a jet fighterâ€™s? Why, then, are we paying to fly in airplanes without something as relatively simple as autothrottles? The big jets have them, but they are not economical to have on most commuter aircraft. Why is this considered remotely acceptable? Why, in this day and age, is â€œdrop out of the sky and kill us allâ€ included in the set of possible control inputs on any commercial aircraft on which our loved ones are flying?
With the exception of the Hudson ditching, every major aviation accident that’s happened in the past ten years in the US could have been avoided with relatively straightforward control software, including 9/11. (Terrorism aside, why the heck should the airplane’s software allow the pilot to fly into something?) If you don’t believe me, cite one and I’ll explain how simple software would’ve avoided it.
Given that this is all utterly doable, why isn’t it done? The answer is that because of regulations and liability, you can’t add a bloody toaster to a commercial aircraft for less than $100,000 per plane. The idea of regulation and liability is that it should keep us safe, but at this point it is doing the exact opposite. The Dash 8 that killed those people would’ve had autothrottles installed had they not been so expensive, and that expense is caused largely by the regulators who make certification so onerous, and the trial lawyers who make liability insurance prohibitively expensive. The Dash 8 is exactly the kind of airplane that needs them, but it won’t get them until we find a way to regulate aviation without completely stifling technological advancement at the same time.
Because of this unintended stifling effect, we could get rid of the FAA and safety would probably increase. I know trusting souls out there gasp at this idea, but the FAA is essentially an extension of the airline industry, anyway, so what we have now is basically self-regulation with all the advantages of government efficiency. They don’t have the guts to do anything drastic, and almost never have the brains to not do harm. They’ll focus on the small stuff (remember the Boeing 727 wiring inspections a while back?) and completely drop the ball on the big problems. When the FAA found out that the Boeing 737 had a major issue whereby the rudder would hard-over on its own, a problem that occurred over 100 times and caused two major fatal crashes, did they ground the fleet? Nope. That would’ve been too financially disruptive. They simply told the airlines to fly the planes a bit faster so that pilots could have a better chance at recovery when it happened.
Sometimes the only difference between anarchy and government regulation is paperwork. Recognizing this is helpful. Once you lose the blind faith, you realize that your safety is in your hands. You can make decisions to limit your risk. One good one is to avoid commuter flights in bad weather.