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Risk Analysis In Aviation.

by Major Abdul Latif Mohamed RMAF


            “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” [1] Aviation has offered to the human being a variety of possibilities. Some people prefer to fly because it is the fastest way to travel. Others view flying as a sense of new freedom separated from terra firma: the ability to get oneself separated from the hectic world. Yet some other people choose to fly because they are addicted to it; many choose flying as a job that they love to carry out days in and days out. Since flying in an airliner involves putting oneself in a metal tube, traveling at around nine hundred miles an hour, twenty to forty thousand feet above the earth, there are certain risks involve if the necessary requirements are not met. The high sophistication of the aircraft today, apart from increasing the level of safety, is also placing additional burden on the pilot to operate it safely. The fragile nature of human being and tendency to make mistake, makes the possible threat to flying even bigger. This thesis will prove that the level of training and expertise, handling of advance technology, psychological stability and the level of physical fitness modify the level of risk associated with flying activity.

            Risk is associated with any activity in this world. According to the accident statistics, the level of risk in aviation varies depending on the nature of flying. Airline flying is at least ten times safer than driving an automobile. On the other hand, driving an automobile is ten times safer than recreational flying.  The level of risk or threat associated in airline flying is low since the pilots are continuously being retrained to maintain their skills. They have to demonstrate their handling abilities in the proficiency test every six month.  On the contrary, their counterpart in private flying world only sits for the test for every two years. Consequently, aviation accident records are littered with general aviation crashes.  Flying is analogous to driving.  The more frequent one indulges in the activity, the sharper the skill will be, and the lesser the risks are.  For example, bad weather flying is almost a normal occurrence to the highly skilled pilot in advance cockpit aircraft, but a real threat to the unskilled in the basic airplane.  Hence Flight Safety International Organization has a motto that reads, “The best safety device in any aircraft is a well trained pilot.”

            Aviation has benefited the most from advance technology.  “Glass cockpit” aircraft has replaced what used to be called “steam gauges cockpit”. Even General Aviation has started using this technology.  Although this is meant to make flying a lot simpler and safer, there exists a danger that lurks in the shadow.  This danger will catch the unexpected pilot in unexpected time.  Since technology is associated with advance electronics, many contemporary pilots do not really understand the inner working of his cockpit compare to the “old school” ones. A mechanical instrument is a lot easier to understand than the electronic gadgets. Although every aircraft model has been designed and tested thoroughly before being certified to enter the service, it is not hundred percent immune to failure.  When it does fail, the unexpected pilot will be in tremendous trouble.  For example, the crash of Lauda Air Boeing 767, which was due to sudden activation of thrust reverser in flight, rendered the crew unable to overcome the situation. 

            Apart from that, an electronic cockpit is susceptible to electromagnetic interference from other electronic devices, such as laptop computer and cell phones. This can be overcome by telling the respected passengers to switch off all these devices during critical phases of flight. What is hard to overcome is the tendency for the cockpit crew to disregard the aural warning signal such as the ground proximity warning alert since many spurious warnings had been experienced before.  This is the danger.  Advance aircrafts had permitted flying to be undertaken at ease in unfamiliar territory without outside visual reference.  Pilots rely heavily on Flight Management System (FMS). An aircraft will fly a wrong track if wrong coordinates are inserted into the FMS. For example, one degree deviation is equivalent to sixty miles off-track. Track deviation of Air New Zealand DC-10 that hit Mount Erebus is reported due to this incidence. The crash of American Airlines Boeing 757, which hit the mountainous terrain in Cali, Colombia, is due the slow reaction by the captain to the ground proximity warning alert when the aircraft unknowingly deviated from the intended route during the night flight. 

Another outstanding example of the failure in handling advance technology is the midair collision of two RAF Tornado jetfighters. Each of the aircraft, which operated from different airbase at night unknowingly executed the same flight plan and flight profile computed by the onboard computer.  Both jets flew low level on autopilot guidance which involves command flying over the pylons and hills, and the autopilot brought them to the same place, at the same height, and at the same time.  Both jets collided, all four crews were killed instantly and the aircrafts broken into pieces. No expert can put them back together again.  This is the nightmare of advance technology known to the aviation community.

            If over reliance on advance technology is a threat to flying, so is under reliance on it. Pilots tend to disregard the aural warning since they have heard the many false alarms before.  Their work involves doing something that is repetitive. For someone to be able to cope with this type of job, psychological stability is a prerequisite.  Mentally the pilot must be at ease at work.  Pressure to meet the demand of takeoff schedule or landing at the destination airport in weather below the certified minimum, might sway the good judgment of a pilot. In the airline business, where aircraft on ground means loss of profit, it is not easy to make a “no-go” decision.

            Risk level increase tremendously when a pilot goes to work with mixed emotions. Take off and landings are the most critical phases of flight.  These phases need hundred percent concentration. Domestic problems or bad debt will disturb pilot’s mind. The pilot of Royal Air Maroc who had a love affair break up dived an ATR-42 aircraft into the Atlas Mountains killing all forty-two occupants on board. The accident report on the crash of Silk Air Boeing 737 implies that the captain was in a bad psychological state with heavy debt as a primary factor.

            Apart from mental fitness, flying an aircraft demands a pilot to be physically fit. Profit in airline business or even an air taxi operation in General Aviation means pilots need to fly as much as possible. Although Federal Aviation Administration regulation limits a domestic pilot to fly between seventy-five to eighty-five hours per month, a pilot will be on duty as much as three hundred hours to get those seventy-five hours.  In this aspect, flying is not like driving. It involves flight planning, preflight brief, layovers, turn arounds and debriefing. These activities consume time and cause physical and mental exhaustion.  The effect of repetitive exposure to high altitude also taxes the pilot’s health. Flying in marginal weather coupled with some defective cockpit instruments will likely increase the level of stress.

            Hence annually a pilot has to surrender to the physician to get his or her medical certificate renewed.  A battery of medical tests follows before the pilot can be certified fit to resume flying duty. This does not ensure that the pilot will not collapse at the control within the twelve-month period.  There was a case where a captain collapse during the landing phase but fortunately the first officer managed to took over and salvaged the situation.

            On the other hand, a study conducted in the simulator, reveal that not many first officer realize in time to initiate a safe recovery of the aircraft when the captain pretending heart seizure during the approach phase.

            Mental and physical stress normally causes cockpit crew to feel sleepy during long route flight. An undocumented confession reveals that an entire cockpit crew of a Lockheed C-130 aircraft dozes off at the control during the long route cruise. The aircraft had lost four-thousand feet before one of the crew woke up and realized it. Minimum separation between converging or reciprocal traffic is one-thousand feet. An aircraft, which leave its assigned altitude, might hit another aircraft. A research reveals that with a closing speed of more than one-thousand mile per hour, a pilot has only twelve seconds to detect the reciprocal aircraft and to take avoiding actions. If the eyes are sleepy, that duration is much less. In another case, an air traffic controller shouted into the radio to awaken the cockpit crew of an airliner headed out to sea past its destination.

            As a conclusion, the level of training and expertise, handling of advance technology, psychological stability, and level of physical fitness varies the level of risk in aviation. Many pilots feel just as vulnerable to the risks of flying as the passengers in the back. With this knowledge, the traveling public must not get irritated when their flights are delayed or cancelled. “It is far better to arrive late in this world rather than early in the next. [2]

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[1] Captain A.G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London; 1930.

[2] Anonymous quote within the aviation community.