Airmanship (Still) Trumps Automation
Over the summer, I had the honor and privilege of accepting the Flight Safety Foundation’s Cecil A. Brownlow Award for “significant contributions to aviation safety awareness” on behalf of the entire FAA Safety Briefing team. I was delighted to find that one of my table companions at the aerospace media awards dinner was Captain Richard de Crespigny, captain of Qantas flight QF32 and author of the newly-published eponymous book about the Airbus A380 flight that made headlines back in November 2010.
If you don’t immediately recall the incident, QF32 sustained a catastrophic (and I do mean catastrophic) uncontained engine failure shortly after departing Singapore’s Changi International Airport. Shrapnel from the injured engine tore through many parts of the aircraft, damaging or destroying multiple systems. The book is de Crespigny’s riveting account of how he and his crew – both technical crew and cabin crew – coped with yet another of those highly improbable, can’t-possibly-happen, “black swan” events that no crew could realistically train to handle.
Having learned that he would be the dinner speaker, I downloaded QF32 to my magical iPad mini and read it start to finish on the flight transporting me to the event. It is a gripping read, and de Crespigny’s post-dinner presentation was even more enthralling. As with so many events that come out well, the headlines fade and we all forget – if we ever realized to begin with – how easily there could have been a less happy ending.
Many of us may also fail to appreciate how much we benefit from the long accumulation of technology and training improvements that have too often resulted from the many unhappy endings in aviation history. Fittingly, one of the key points threaded through de Crespigny’s presentation was his own recognition of how much he, the crew, and of course the passengers of QF32 owe to the sturdiness and resilience of the aircraft, as well as to the extensive experience, rigorous training, and unwavering discipline of the crew.
Airmanship and Citizenship
In that connection, there was a very interesting pre-dinner conversation about the proliferation and potential of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to do everything from pizza delivery (remember the summer’s “DomiCopter” experiment?) to piloting aircraft on transoceanic routes. As was very clear in de Crespigny’s QF32 experience, drones might do just fine as long as everything goes according to plan, and they might even do a creditable job when the failures that occur fall into the range of faults that systems designers can anticipate.
But when it comes to the black swan events like the cascade of can’t-possibly-happen failures on QF32, the human knowledge, experience, training, and skill that collectively comprise airmanship make all the difference between success and failure. As de Crespigny observed, there were so many failures and levels of failure that the battered airplane was simply overwhelmed. It took every bit of the crew members’ collective expertise to sort, prioritize, and decide when to ignore the befuddled automation’s stream of ever-shifting instructions. Clearly, the QF32 crew’s performance was a bravura example of the professionalism and airmanship every aviation citizen should aspire to emulate.
As I mentally replayed some of these points and discussions on the return flight, I marveled at the way that aviation citizenship is a privilege that transcends the more conventional boundaries of nationality, language, culture, and customs. Captain de Crespigny’s audience that night was truly a multinational and multilingual mix, but we were all aviation citizens, with all the shared values, customs, vocabulary, and culture that make us a discrete community. Like everyone else who attended, I left that dinner with a renewed sense of pride in belonging to the family of aviation citizens, and determination to be worthy of this amazing privilege. (FAA Safety Briefing Sept/Oct 2013)