December 1, 2023

When Disaster Threatens, Instinct Can Be a Pilot’s Enemy

“The feeling in your stomach is very uncomfortable — it’s scary,” said Jean-Pierre Otelli, a veteran flight instructor, acrobatic pilot and author of a series of books on aviation safety.

What is harder to remember, in the heat of the moment, is the proper way to regain control of the aircraft.

In the months since French accident investigators published a report in July on the 2009 stall and crash of an Air France jet over the Atlantic, there has been much debate within the industry about why the pilots failed to take appropriate action in the four minutes it took the plane to plummet from 38,000 feet before hitting the water and killing all 228 people aboard. But the increasing prominence of human error as a factor in fatal crashes like Air France Flight 447 — and like the 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 — is a distressing phenomenon that some safety experts say regulators are only beginning to address.

“You have to overcome what your instinct tells you to do,” said Mr. Otelli, whose book “Pilot Errors, Volume 5” was the first to publish the unedited transcript of the Flight 447 cockpit voice recordings. For the hundreds of pilots he has trained to recognize and recover from an aerodynamic stall, Mr. Otelli said, “the first reaction of all of them is to pull back on the control stick” and drive the plane’s nose higher — a move that only exacerbates the problem. “It’s a reflex that’s almost uncontrollable,” he said.

Learning to overcome that impulse, and instead to maneuver the nose toward the ground to regain speed, takes repeated practice and forms part of the initial training of every licensed pilot. Still, “this is not something everyone is able to do after the second, third or maybe even the fourth try,” he said. “If a pilot has only experienced a stall once or twice — and perhaps only in a flight simulator — chances are higher that instinct takes over in a live situation.”

France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis found that the two co-pilots in the Air France crash had not been trained to fly in manual mode at high altitude or to recognize the approach to, and recovery from, a high-altitude stall. The crew’s captain, a 25-year veteran, had received such training only early in his career. Many airlines have since added these and other upset-recovery techniques to in-house training programs, but no national regulator has mandated regular refresher training.

“Unfortunately, it took these accidents to get the attention of the mainstream aviation community, the regulators and the public,” Sunjoo Advani, an aerospace engineer who runs I.D.T., a flight simulator developer in the Netherlands, said of the Air France and Colgan Air disasters. “As we are now starting to understand, many pilots today are inadequately trained to recognize and recover from loss of control.”

Loss of control in flight is rare. It accounted for only about 5 percent of all aircraft accidents and incidents in the past 10 years globally, according to statistics compiled by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and nearly one-third of those incidents involved an aerodynamic stall. But when it does occur, it is almost always catastrophic: Of the 101 accidents attributed to loss of control from 2001 to 2010, 80 percent were fatal. Of all air passenger deaths over the past decade, 25 percent were the result of a loss of control.

“These accidents are very severe in terms of fatalities and damage,” said Ilias Maragakis, a safety analyst at the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne. “It is the biggest killer in aviation.”

Regulators say one of the reasons human error now figures more predominantly in the accident statistics is because today’s aircraft are equipped with technology designed to prevent pilots from inadvertently putting their aircraft in danger and to alert them to potential hazards. The introduction of advanced ground proximity warning systems, for example, has sharply reduced the number of jetliners crashing into mountainsides — a leading cause of aviation fatalities 20 years ago.

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