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Look Before You Leap

Look Before You Leap

Paul Clough takes a close look at the value of visual approaches for airline pilots.

On 11 July 2013, a Boeing 777 of Asiana Airlines of South Korea crash landed at San Francisco Airport. There are a number of videos of the last moments of the flight before the aircraft impacted on the sea wall on approach and broke the tail off the aircraft leading to the fireball that erupted afterwards. Some of the videos juxtapose the normal instrument approach to the runway with the actual flight path of the subject aircraft. It is clear from these videos that the airline was flown too low on approach for a safe landing. Additionally when it became obvious to the crew that the aircraft was low the nose was raised appreciably, reducing the airspeed to a dangerously low level. The crash was inevitable from about 200 feet to impact as a result.

Other features of the event were that the captain, whilst experienced on other jets in the Asiana fleet, had no more than 43 hours experience on type; while the copilot was said to have very little experience. There was a third pilot, a form of training captain, also on the flight deck. It would appear that that crew is endorsed on the B777 by way of simulator rather than by hands on training in the actual aircraft.

The weather at San Francisco was exceptionally good with a light wind prevailing. In short, ideal flying for a visual approach by the crew. Finally, the instrument landing system and other glide slope guidance facilities were out of service.

It can safely be said that the crew did not have a glide slope backup to their visual approach. It may be callous to say it but the whole of the crew of that aircraft apparently did not know how to conduct a visual approach into San Francisco on the day.

This brings me to the nub of this article. It may be that current airline pilots are being lead into the paths of unrightiousness by the manner in which they are being trained and controlled in the airline medium.

Some of the older generations of reader may remember how we were trained to fly initially. We were taught a rectangular circuit pattern with a takeoff path, first crosswind, downwind, a base and a final. Each separate part required a pilot to make visual assessments. I was regularly told a good downwind leads to a good base which in turn leads to a satisfactory landing. I then went to a military situation with a controller determining just how I would conduct a helicopter approach and touchdown. The circuit pattern after qualification was truncated somewhat to fit into other military traffic. I then joined an airline and circuit patterns were the exception rather than the rule. A straight in approach to Sydney or Melbourne was the norm.  I am sure that other pilots had similar experiences. Within TAA, there were two schools of endeavour: the mainline Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne pilots; and the Qld bushies. We flew F27s but we adopted at least the downwind, base and final of the circuit as we had to fit with potential charter aircraft in an uncontrolled environment. Invariably our approaches into Western Queensland were visual approaches without glide slope guidance. You became quite adapt at judging height, speed and avoiding stray animals in the various outback airfields which were sometimes grass or gravel surfaces. What we Queenslanders did seemed normal and not unusual.

However, when I was elevated to the B727 as a captain, a whole new outlook was necessary. Visual approaches were the exception to the rule, Mostly we operated into the major capitals with an ILS to touchdown and very little circuit work. When one operated to an airport such as Coolangatta which did not have an ILS, a VASIS was provided for glide slope guidance. Much was made of using the various electronic aids to complete the landing satisfactorily rather than the eye ball Mark 1.

To complete this narrative, we could fly Bne–Syd between 52 and 55 minutes flying time for a block to block time of one hour to one hour, five minutes.

What is the situation in the modern era? Everybody and his dog run a national airline today and they fly intercontinental as a matter of course. Services between second and third level cities are very limited and airline pilots do not get experience of bush flying on their path from Cessna 172s to B737s and bigger aircraft. Some pilots are joining airlines in Australia with not much more than 500 hours flying about secondary airports in the major cities on puppy planes. Overseas the changes are more dramatic. There is an Asian system where a pilot can get a multi- purpose licence to fly as copilot in airliners with no more than 170 hours and a heap of simulator time.

It was my experience that this trend tends to unbalance the budding pilot’s exposure to all of flying’s hazards and impediments. For my sins, I accepted an appointment as a F27 captain flying for Luxair from Luxembourg in 1990/91. I flew with local Luxembourg co-pilots. Each of them had trained in the clear skies of Texas, USA for about 200 hours then they did an engineering and conversion course with Fokker on F27s and were on the line with little more than 300 hours. Europe is not the bush. Everything there is full on sophistication. Every airfield has two parallel runways with ILS at each end with locators to burn. The airfields are controlled to within an inch of their lives. The weather is usually appalling and crosswinds of 50 knots gusting to 70 knots not unusual. As a result, the F/Os, I flew with were very adept at instrument approaches to 50 feet on raw data. The controllers invariably sent all aircraft to an outer locater to run down the ILS on each of the parallel runways and it was common to find oneself number eight or number nine to land. The F/Os took this in their stride. For an old bushy brought up on visual approaches driving an F27 out to a locater 10 or more miles from touchdown and then another 10 miles into land on a beautiful clear day seemed both a waste of time and fuel. Hence I requested a visual approach into various major airfields in Europe on the days it warranted it. The response in the cockpit was shock horror and the controllers were equally alarmed at this unseemly request. The French said “Mon Dieu”, the Germans ignored me until I repeated it three times and the Brits said “You must be a colonial”. The Italians simply waved their arms. Clearly, in Europe, visual approaches do not form part of the skill set of either pilots or controllers.  I thought I may introduce a bit of the bush experience to my local F/Os and get them to do a visual approach at the home airfield, Findel, when the weather permitted it. The response was little short of mutiny. Most remonstrated with me that such was not permitted in Luxair aircraft. Not so, the ops manual was silent. When push came to shove the F/O broke out in a sweat and was most uncomfortable with the prospect of looking out of the aircraft and using judgment to land the aircraft from a circuit pattern. Such was the concern that some F/Os approached the German Check Captains who advised me that requiring an F/O to conduct a visual approach was to cease. I could do them if I thought it appropriate but do not teach them or demand them of an F/O as it was not done that way in Europe. Strange, but true.

I now work as a lawyer and stick and rudder flying is behind me. On occasion, I travel in airliners from Brisbane to Sydney or Melbourne. I notice that the aircraft is slowed up considerably to about 250 knots from north of Singleton/Newcastle. The aircraft is then flown slowly out to sea past Sydney airport to about 15 to 20 miles toward Wollongong. Then the aircraft turns toward land and joins into a lengthy pattern toward a long final onto Runways 34 left and right. The aircraft touches down about 1000 feet in and proceeds to exit on a high speed taxiway about three miles from the terminal and then slowly taxis to the terminal. Few flights take less than one hour and 25 minutes. This is about 20 minutes longer than when I flew the B727. I should mention that this procedure is all done in good weather. What the delay must be when the weather worsens is hard to envisage.

Clearly, the malaise that enveloped Europe with the demise of visual approaches has reached the shores of Australia.

Pilots of airliners in Australia are being conditioned to accept that a long drawn out ILS approach is the norm in all conditions and visual approaches are to be avoided at all costs.

What is the law on this unsavory practice of banishing visual approaches? Controlled airspace is the province of Air Services Australia. The determination of the controller overrides the pilot in command status of the airline pilot to the point that the pilot is directed to do what is in fact a waste of time and fuel. The fact that the passengers of the airliner are also delayed is of no concern to ATC. Time is money does not seem to strike a chord in ATC officialdom.

If Europe has abolished the visual approach and if training is truncated to about 170 actual hours for overseas pilots supplemented by simulator time and if captains are actively dissuaded and prohibited from flying visual approaches when they think it advisable, does this not set up the circumstances that occurred in the San Francisco airport B777 accident?

Perhaps the Asiana 3 flight deck crew had not practised visual approaches in fine weather. When confronted with the fact that they did not have the comfort blanket of an ILS guidance system to couple into and they had to fall back on their eyes to determine a safe approach to land became too much. The three pilots may never had the exposure to visual conditions as good as San Francisco was that day and not have realised the dangers of low slow flight on a visual approach.

I suggest that it is necessary to ensure that our airline pilots are given experience in visual approaches as often as possible and that the law should be changed to remove the blanket control that air traffic controllers have over nullifying visual approaches to satisfy a more ordered and conditioned approach into the major airports in Australia.

If we are going to develop airline pilots on a production line system devoid of bush flying, the risk of some of them being unable to conduct a safe visual approach when necessary is going to present itself in the future.

Watch this space…

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