The final report on the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 tells a lengthy but ultimately old story; many things combined to lead to the October 29, 2018 disaster that killed 189 people. The National Transportation Safety Committee details nine as it lists the shortcomings of Lion Air, Air Nav Indonesia and Boeing. Incorrect, flawed, erroneous, incomplete and ineffective are just some of the damning words that litter the list of contributing factors.
But it is its recommendation to Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration that goes to the heart of the global debate that heated up with the twin Max disasters. What is the role of the pilot in recovering from unexpected events in flight? Is that expectation accurate?
Pilots in countries with a well-established history of commercial aviation can brag of thousands or tens of thousands of hours of experience. We see these high-time pilots in the Netherlands, the UK, America, Australia and many other first-world nations. But it is not the case in the developing world where demand for air travel over the past two decades has outpaced many countries’ ability to hire and train pilots.
While in the US, an air transport pilot must have a minimum of 1500 hours, elsewhere it is not unusual for first officers to have just hundreds of hours in their logbooks. As I wrote earlier this year for The New York Times, dozens of nations from Germany to the UAE use ab initio programs, recruiting non-flyers and turning them into airline pilots in as little as 2-3 years.
So it doesn’t really matter that insiders are debating the philosophical question of whether more experienced pilots could have handled the problem. Indonesia’s recommendation to the industry is that it work with reality.
Boeing flight test pilots “have more knowledge about the aircraft design characteristics than normal pilots. This level of competence usually cannot be translated to most pilots,” the NTSC report said. The FAA, Boeing, Airbus and the rest “should re-evaluate their assumptions for what constitutes an average flight crew’s basic skill and what level of systems knowledge a ‘properly trained average flight crew’ has when encountering failures.”
I imagine that the recommendation would get a big, fat “Amen” from Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger who said basically the same thing to a Congressional hearing on the 737 Max in June.
“We shouldn’t be blaming dead pilots, we need to do much more than that,” Sully said before adding, “We must make accurate assumptions about what is possible in extreme emergencies given the distractions, the workload, the task saturation. You’re right we shouldn’t expect pilots to compensate for flawed designs.”
One has to give Indonesia credit for stripping the varnish off the “superior pilot” myth in this one of the many safety recommendations it makes in the Lion Air report. It’s a sophisticated acknowledgment that while air safety is sometimes high-level philosophy when accidents happen it is as down to earth as it gets.