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Too Many Planes - Too Few Trained Pilots

October 18, 2019

Thanks to airline frequent flyer accounts, which were a later addition to personal international flying adventures that began over fifty years ago, the author has accumulated miles in several airline accounts that approach ten million. That crazy statistic coupled with emergency landings, near misses and the odd crash should qualify one as an experienced traveler and pundit on airline safety.

My first known experience of pilot error was an attempted landing in an Air China Boeing 737 into Ulan Bator, Mongolia on a cold winter night many years ago with a one wheel/one wing landing touch down and an immediate gunning of the engines to regain space in the air. Fortunately, we were able to recover lift rather than sheer the wing or explode. After circling forever to burn the fuel down to fumes, we did land though the plane required a new wing before it would ever fly again. The Air China website still shows the aircraft type employed that particular evening though we must remember their pilots often perform better in take-offs than landings-much like the Japanese kamikaze pilots of old.

A follow-up review of that evening with the Regional Boeing manager prompted the question as to whether he chose Air China or Mongolian Air to fly into Ulan Bator. His response was unequivocal-he flew only Mongolian Air as the Air China pilots had few innate flying skills. He said the Chinese learned to fly on simulators whereas the Mongolian pilots grew up in Russian aircraft that seldom worked. Innate skills and practical experience overcome most any “fail-safe” automated system. Sadly, it is true today though a later experience when a Mongolian-piloted, aged Russian Mi-8 helicopter, fell from the sky does support the fact that aircraft quality does play a vital role as well.

The only way to pass the time on long-range Mongolian helicopters was to sleep which was cramped as the interior of the fuselage was filled with mammoth fuel tanks. Fortunately, Joey was not with me on the trip in question though the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia woke me up to tell me we were going to crash-I thanked him that I was fortunate to know that I was about to die. In this event, fortunately we were out of fuel and in the Air China incident we were blessed to have fuel to enable a lift off after the touch down. The helicopter was damaged but with no fuel there was no fire providing an opportunity for a new adventure in the middle of the Mongolian steppe.

Back to modern times, most people in the world are familiar with the travails of Boeing with the Boeing 737 Max following the fatal crashes of two of their new aircraft. The New York Times Magazine recently published an article entitled What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max?  

As the illustration above suggests, there was a problem in the cockpit associated with the pilots beyond the issues that have fallen at the feet of Boeing and their new product. Simply stated, it is a lack of “airmanship” which is difficult to define but includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communication and, most importantly, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings. Airplanes are living things that the best pilots strap on rather than sit in a cockpit.

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 carrying 189 people was the first of the new Boeing 737 Max aircraft to crash into the ocean. The pilot was ill-qualified to deal with a runaway trim situation in which the pitch of the plane or nose altitude takes on a life of its own and the aircraft loses its aerodynamic balance. The correction is to switch off the electrics and revert to a parallel manual system. The net result for the failure to do so was the loss of all life and the recovery of the voice recorder shown below.

There were no steps taken to ground the fleet or root out the cause to heighten awareness that some allege may have been due to the billions of dollars of additional Boeing 737 Max aircraft Lion had on order. However, on March 10, 2019, an equally new 737 Max flown by Ethiopian Airlines went down on departure from Addis Ababa with the loss of 157 people on board. Flight-data recordings indicated that the immediate culprit was the failure to manually respond to a sensor failure like that in the case of the Lion Air incident. Flights of the aircraft were banned pending further evaluation. Perhaps the wreckage shown below of the Ethiopian crash is even more disconcerting.

The tremendous growth in air travel and regional airlines transformed the business of flying as airplanes became so automated that individual pilot skills were a thing of the past. The pilot population exploded to a universe of 300,000 with variable and unpredictable skills. As was the case of the Air China pilot attempting a landing in Ulan Bator many years ago, they were trained on simulators and only knew simulator solutions.

What are the take-aways from all of these points? (1) Do not fly start-up foreign airlines; (2) When flying to the capital of a developing country, give priority to a well-established international carrier-most all of them fly to the capitals of their former colonies out of historical nostalgia; (3) Do not fly Air China as apparently not much has changed according to a Boeing pilot instructor; (4) Beware of private aircraft charters unless you know their safety record; and (5) There are two kinds of pilots-old and bold-there are no old/bold ones. Happy trails!

As the colder seasons arrive, thoughts of a good warm soup come to mind.  Instead of the regular soups you've grown accustomed to, try spicing it up with these easy to prepare soups from all over Southeast Asia.
Throughout Southeast Asia, soups and broths are designed to cleanse the mouth and refresh the palate.  Bowls of steaming broth are often served alongside the main course, so that diners can slurp a mouthful of soup in between spoonfuls of rice or the main dish.


Enjoy a sample recipe from the book!
Cambodian Chicken Rice Soup with Lemongrass
(click on recipe to download pdf)

Explore all of our Southeast Asian Cook Books.

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