Sunday, May 29, 2011

Findings of Air France Flight 447 Flight Recorder From The Airbus A330-203

The Air France flight from Rio de Jeneiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.  The flight recorder was recently found, and the results released by the Beueau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses, the French agency responsible for investigation of civil aviation accidents or incidents.  The report lays out in detail the last moments of Air France flight 447.

The flight traveled normally as it approached severe weather over the Atlantic.  The Airbus 330-203 is one of the most advanced fly by wire aircraft commercially available.  In fact, a pilot certified in the Airbus 330 is certified in the Airbus 320.  Fly by wire means that every interaction between the pilot and the aircraft is electronically, and digitally in the case of the 330.  Critics of the automated functionality of the Airbus 330 argue that the pilots become disengaged from the aircraft, and are poorly trained to handle in flight emergencies.  They reason that today's pilots don't have the actual flying experience necessary to fly the plane should the systems fail.  They might be right.

Flight AF 447 traveled normally for some time as it approached a system of heavy weather.  The captain was on break, away from the cockpit when the pilot disengaged the autopilot.  The pilots noted discrepancies in the air speed indicator, with readings from 265 knots to 60 knots.  The pilots then disengaged the autopilot and the following actions were recorded by the planes flight data recorder:
  • the airplane climbed to 38,000 ft from a cruising altitude of 35,000,
  • the stall warning was triggered and the airplane stalled,
  • the inputs made by the PF were mainly nose-up,
  • the decent lasted for 3 mins 30, during which the airplane remained stalled.  The angle of attack increased and remained above 35 degrees,
  • the horizontal stabilizer went from 3 degrees to 13 degrees and remained in that position through the end of the flight,
  • the engines were operating and always responded to crew commands.
The horizontal stabilizer is the 'wing' on the tail of the plane.  Based on these findings, authorities suspect the pilots tried ascending, perhaps because they believed their airspeed to be faster.  Likely, by climbing to 38,000 and increasing the angle of attack to 16 degrees, the aircraft stalled.

When an aircraft stalls it means it is no longer flying but falling.  An aircraft stalls because it does not maintain a certain threshold airspeed.  After the likely stall, the plane dropped at a vertical speed of -10,912 ft/min (terminal velocity for a skydiver falling to earth is roughly 10,000 feet/min.). The 38,000 foot decent lasted 3 minutes 30 seconds.  These findings and other details of the crash are contained the BEA report recently published.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Don't tail gate that big-rig.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently found that the rear underride guards on big-rig trailers fail to protect automobile occupants from injury even in low speed crashes.  The rear underride guard is a fancy name for the slim iron bar that attempts to prevent your car from sliding underneath the trailer of the truck. 

I've often traveled down the highway at normal freeway speeds and noticed that if we were to run into the trailer for some reason, we would be guillotined.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirms my suspicions.  Current underride guards are wholly insufficient to prevent an obvious hazard.  Manufactures, carriers and brokers for years have resisted any type of regulatory change, which has resulted in the continued use of unsafe underride guards. 

The continued use of the known hazardous underride guards will result in unnecessary wrongful death, traumatic brain injuries, amputations, spinal cord injuries, and other catastrophic injuries. 

The technology is available that would keep all of us more safe on our nation's busy highways, but many operators and carriers do not require the safer and stronger underride guards.  The result of unsafe underride guards can be seen in the photo results of the test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

 Clearly, the passenger in the top photo has a much better survival chance then in the lower photo.  Unsafe underride guards were used in the bottom photo.  So, the next time you are staring down a metal bar on the back of a big-rig, back off the gas a little and be aware that there is little preventing your car from going underneath the undercarriage of a big-rig.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Double whammy: High Gas Prices and Fuel Efficient Supply Chain Disruptions

The Toyota Prius is the new fuel efficient leader, again.  After a brief tarnishing from the sudden acceleration fiasco, Toyota Prius is once again the darling of car buyers.  According to APM's Marketplace, Toyota of Hollywood was paying their sales force a $500 bonuses for every used Prius they produced.  Prices of fuel efficient cars increased with the cost of gasoline. 

The price of a gallon of gas in California was at $4.22/ga as of April 25, 2011.  Not long ago, the price of a gallon of gas was over $4.00, and then just as now we bought primarily fuel efficient cars.  The recession helped ease the demand of oil, and the price dropped.  That dropped resulted in Americans once again buying bigger cars.  Now that oil is reaching new heights in the markets again, we will see more people buying fuel efficient cars.  This increased demand alone is enough to boost prices for the more desirable cars.

However, Japan is reeling from the earthquake and its aftermath.  Japan suffered its worse drop in industrial production ever: a 15.3% drop.  Toyota's production alone dropped 63% in March.  Experts don't expect production to return to normal levels until October.  This is the supply side hammer that will send the price of fuel efficient vehicles through the roof.  If you own a fuel efficient vehicle, it appears the best time to sell it will be in about two months, what with fear mongers suggesting $6 plus/gallon this summer.  However, the best bet might be to just hang onto that fuel efficient car and just save a buck or two on gas.

Friday, April 22, 2011

New Airline Passenger Rights Go Into Effect

The Department of Transportation issued new regulations to protect passengers on April 20, 2011.  The new regulations will go into effect in about 120 days (depending on when they are printed in the Federal Register).  The following is a summary of the salient new regulations:
  • Bumped Passengers are entitled to compensation of double their ticket price up to $650 when delayed domestically from 1-2 hours, and quadruple their ticket price up to $1300 when delayed longer.
  • An airplane must cancel a flight after a four hour tarmac delay.  After two hours, the airline must provide food, water and toilet facilities.
  • The list price of a ticket must reflect the actual cost (including bag fees, government fees, and other surcharges).
  • Ban post purchase fare increases (a very dubious practice).
To submit comments regarding the new regulations, or to read a detailed analysis of flight delays, passenger delays and costs go to

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What caused the Southwest Boeing 737 to open in midflight?

Southwest grounded 79 Boeing 737 to perform inspection and maintenance of the outside skin of the aircraft after Flight 812 developed a hole while at cruising altitude.  The airline is concerned about a condition known as aircraft skin fatigue.  The crack developed through the body of the fuselage over the wings of the aircraft. 

Metal fatigue, a larger category to aircraft skin fatigue, is a known problem in modern aircraft design and maintenance.  Metal fatigue is a condition that occurs in airplanes because the exterior metal skin endures expansion and contraction of the aircraft every time it reaches cruising altitude and descends again.

The strange twist involving the Southwest Boeing 737-300 is that the manufacturer did not expect any metal fatigue, nor require any inspections for metal fatigue until the aircraft reached 60,000 takeoff and landing cycles.  The aircraft of Southwest Flight 812 had only about 40,000 cycles under its belt.  Boeing has since lowered the threshold from 60,000 cycles to 30,000 cycles to inspect the 737's skin for signs of metal fatigue.

Boeing does not have an explanation for how the crack in the skin of the aircraft developed, nor any rational for recommending additional inspections.  While many at the FAA believed Federal Regulations solved the metal fatigue problem, this recent Southwest incident raises concerns over the current inspection regimen.  I once heard an aviation crash investigator make the obvious but profound comment that "aviation does not like mysteries."  In other words, until we solve the mystery of exactly why the skin of the Boeing 737-300 failed on the Southwest flight over Arizona we are at risk to repeat the incident, but with far worse consequences.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Car Crash deaths at their lowest since 1949

When I was in high school, getting your driver's license at age sixteen was a rite of passage; And so was experiencing the tragedy of losing a friend to a car accident. We lost nine students, most to car and motorcycle crashes my senior year of high school. The fact is the roads are safer now than they have been since 1949. Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation released statistics showing the number of car crash deaths dropped again in 2010. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the largest drop in car crash deaths came in 2008 when the death rate plummeted 9.7%. California was amongst the states with the steepest decline: traffic related deaths were down by 11% in the state. Many attribute the significant drop in 2008 to the stark downturn our economy took. First, people were buying less goods, and the number of semi-tractor trailers on the road plummeted. Big-rigs travel legally at 75 mph in many states, and they weigh approximately 80,000 lbs when fully loaded. The result of fewer big-rigs is fewer wrecks. Experts also attribute the drop to fewer teens being on the road. Since jobs all but disappeared, the high school summer job did not materialize for most in the summer of 2008. Parents were not in a position to provide cars, insurance and gas money for their children in the face of daily bank closings, mass layoffs and multi-hundred point swings in the stock market. The result was that high school kids left the freeways en-masse. Some evidence exists that in the second half of 2010 death rates from traffic accidents began increasing, which corresponds to the economic up-tick. However, Secretary of Transportation Ray La Hood promised to "continue our efforts" to ensure the safety of our highways.