Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Biggest Air-Crash Danger? Flying Into a Hillside: 'Controlled Flight Into Terrain' Accounts for Four of the Five Large Jet Crashes This Year

The Wall Street Journal

By  Andy Pasztor

Oct. 30, 2013 9:59 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON—Despite record-low airliner crash rates world-wide, flying into mountains or hills has reemerged as the deadliest threat to commercial aviation in 2013.

Data released Tuesday at an air-safety conference here indicates that such accidents, in which confused pilots typically fly a perfectly functioning aircraft into a hillside, are now the biggest global killers of passengers and crews on jetliners and turboprop aircraft. So far this year there have been at least a dozen fatal accidents around the world in this category—called controlled flight into terrain—versus an annual average of six crashes since 2009, according to Jim Burin of the Flight Safety Foundation.

The hazard was supposed to be sharply reduced by adoption of enhanced ground-collision technology and years of industry-wide training efforts. But on Tuesday, Mr. Burin told conference participants that such accidents are "making a very unwelcome comeback," partly because many of the turboprops that went down in 2013 weren't equipped with collision warning devices. Even when anti-collision devices were available, pilots disregarded their warnings.

Controlled flight into terrain accounts for four of the five large jet crashes since the beginning of 2013, including an Asiana Airlines  777 that slammed into a seawall in July while trying to land at San Francisco International Airport, killing three passengers and injuring dozens of others.

The latest crash rates, according to safety experts, underscore the apparent cyclical nature of some commercial-aviation dangers even as overall fatal-accident rates continue to improve. In this environment, industry leaders must be mindful that "it takes continuous pressure and continuous effort" to maintain safety advances," Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the conference.

"Some accident causes that were considered to be adequately addressed seem to recur, often unexpectedly," according to Mr. Weener. So "should the industry be prepared to readdress old and familiar causes of accidents?"

Since 2003, more than 1,000 people have died in commercial-aircraft accidents classified as controlled flight into terrain, the top cause of fatalities in earlier decades.

But the "paradox of accident prevention," according to Mr. Weener, is that when airlines get good at training pilots to avoid certain hazards, crash rates drop and "the apparent need for (stepped-up training) goes away."

Kevin Hiatt, chief operating officer the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., said: "We must not let our guard down. Complacency is our enemy."

In his keynote address, Mr. Weener also said that more training and improved simulators are required to combat aerodynamics stalls—or events in which aircraft suddenly lose lift—the other leading cause of major commercial-aircraft crashes world-wide.


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