Unforgiving. Thoughts on Aviation Tragedies.

Owen Zupp - Friday, March 14, 2014




Unforgiving.


By Owen Zupp

An excerpt from '50 Tales of Flight'




The fate of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is still unknown. Each time an aircraft goes missing with one soul or hundreds on board it rekindles thoughts on the potentially unforgiving nature of aviation. In the stratosphere we can truly be at the mercy of man, machine and Mother Nature. For MH370, we're still wondering which of these players dealt a deadly hand.....


The news comes all too frequently.  While Malaysia Airlines MH370 is still missing it has stirred memories of a another tragic week when aviation was also filled with heart-breaking loss. The loss of the two Albatross aircraft dealt a single massive blow and a series of accidents in just a few days further added to the count. The national broadcaster’s senior helicopter pilot and crew were lost, just as the news of an ill-fated mercy flight filtered down the wire. Only hours later, a senior sports pilot and his passenger went missing with a fatal outcome. The terrible loss of life in New Zealand when a hot air balloon was destroyed and a Tiger Moth crash saw the passing of John Fisher; a man who had once flown his Tiger from the United Kingdom to raise funds for charity. In the cruelest manner, it seemed we were all reminded that tragedy is the ever-present companion in the skies we seek to transit.

As the son of a former combat fighter pilot, I had grown up around the potentially fatal nature of aviation. As I flicked enthusiastically through fading photographs of fast jets, my father would answer my questions in an even tone. Often my enquiries with reference to the pilots was met with, “He got killed by ground fire near Haeju”, or “I think he put a Mirage in off the coast during a training exercise”. Their young faces beneath flying helmets still stare back at me so many years later.
My own first encounter with the harsh lessons of aviation started as a student pilot. Still a paramedic by trade, I stood at the Royal Aero Club counter as the crash horn sounded and the ominous black, oily plume rose from beyond the runway’s end. Off duty, I drove my car the short distance around the airfield perimeter and entered the factory where the Piper Cherokee Six had plunged vertically through the roof. One burnt survivor has been thrown onto the rooftop, while I dragged another from the smoke-filled building. Four remained in the wreck, still strapped into their seats; lifeless. Any complacency about aviation that youth may have been tempted to bestow upon me was banished at that very moment.

In the losses of recent times, as is so often the case, there are not necessarily any common themes. Each was in a different type of aircraft, with the weather varying from despicable to fine and clear. The pilots ranged vastly in experience and their operations covered the spectrum from private flying to commercial aviation. The only shared trait seemed to be the tragic outcome.

I read through the various news reports with a strong dose of suspicion, borne of decades reading of ill-informed, sensationalist reporting. Details seemed to change by the hour and rumours took on the status of fact until the next piece of hearsay could be generated in the public domain. What could not be disputed was the life-altering impact of these accidents upon so many. To such a backdrop, one by one I recalled the faces of those that I had seen lost at the brutal edge of aviation. As I penned each name, the sobering truth was rammed home to me; no one is immune.

The list of names was far longer than I had anticipated. They ranged from pilots with whom I had shared a meal and conversation, to close friends and work colleagues. Nearly all of them were commercial pilots eking out a living in general aviation, though some had also been lost pursuing their passion just for the love of it. Some were starting their journey, excited at their first gainful employment and some were experienced mentors in the service of the nation’s aviation regulator.
One by one I recalled their faces. The ‘old hand’ Bill whose ultimate oversight in forty years of safe flying was not spotting the glider that sheared off his Bonanza’s tailplane. And Brinley, celebrating at the local restaurant at the news he’d secured a position with the national carrier only to perish nights later, circling into a black hole in rural Australia in the foulest of weather. Trevor, whose single-engined fish spotting aircraft had force landed at dusk into the frigid waters, only to survive the impact, but not the swim to shore. Mark, who’d tried one too many hair-raising flying feats at too low an altitude, only to pancake into the rising terrain. Alan and Peter, who had been searching for another aeroplane when their own Cessna’s engine had failed over inhospitable terrain. Fernando, who descended gently into the ground in the wee hours with a full load in his Baron. My fellow freight pilots who had been lost within a couple of months in a bleak, wet winter of low cloud and icing levels.On and on the list continued as face after face stared back at me.

Admittedly, there were those who had been sticking their neck out further than the rules and common sense would advise. But for most it was simply a case of the odds stacking up against them in a series a compounding smaller events; the classic ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of Dr. James Reason. For a few it was the simple bad luck scenario of wrong place-wrong time. Universally, however, they are all still with me; even though I had not thought of many of them in recent years. They are with me every day. They are with me as I flight plan and as I retract the landing gear. They are with me as the day becomes night and as the weather turns dark and walls of water confront me. They are with me always.

They are not evil spectres awaiting my demise, they are those who have gone before and paid the ultimate price. They paid for their harsh lessons with their lives and I am now the benefactor of their loss. In many ways, I owe them for the joy I have experienced in the skies above. They may have gone before, but they have stayed behind to tell me when enough is enough and when danger is lurking. They are there when the hair stands up on the back of my neck. They level the playing field and stand on the kerb whenever the temptation to cut a corner may exist.

They were acquaintances, colleagues and close friends who lived and breathed for aviation. I count myself as fortunate to have thus far safely encountered my way, but this is not an automatic right. It requires an ongoing commitment to safety and discipline at all times and anything less is to dishonour those who have sacrificed so much. We call the skies our home and it is not a dangerous place to encounter. However, as those who have been lost recently and in the distant past can attest, aviation can be very unforgiving.


Fly Safe.

An excerpt from '50 Tales of Flight'


                                                                 


Malaysia Airlines MH370. Into Thin Air?

Owen Zupp - Wednesday, March 12, 2014




Malaysia Airlines MH370. Into Thin Air?


By Owen Zupp



As I write these words, there is still no trace of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, flight MH370. By contrast, the level of speculation and the range of theories know no bounds. The usual suspects of terrorism, catastrophic failure and hijacking have appeared in print beside theories as extreme as UFO abduction. It's all hearsay and guesswork; but I suppose the media can’t sell advertising on an empty page.

MH370 is not the first, nor will it be the last, sizeable aircraft to go ‘missing’. There has been a Boeing 727, 707 and Lockheed Constellation that have vanished from the face of the earth and even Air France 447 was ‘whereabouts unknown’ for a good period of time before some debris was located. This is just an abbreviated list.

The fact remains that it is a big sky and a big planet. Even when a search area can been positively defined, the ability to find a needle in a haystack is no mean feat. A good number of aerial searches in the past have had to make numerous sweeps over the very same area before any tell-tale signs of wreckage have been found. In the case of MH370, its precise tracking details are still a point of conjecture as it appears to have left its planned flight route. This complicates the task even further.

In an era of ‘smart phones’ and reality TV, everyone seems to want the inside information and an answer now. Patience has gone and the quick fix is close enough it seems. The truth is that there are no answers to be found regarding MH370 at this stage. The investigators are undoubtedly doing their utmost to examine the few details they have to piece together a starting point, while any resolutions are still a long way off.

Aviation in both its execution and its subsequent investigations prides itself on  methodology. Measured responses and practical solutions are the order of the day and the aircrew or investigator that rushes in does so at their own peril. It is understandable that families need answers and aviation bodies want facts to shape future plans, purchases and policies. However, jumping to conclusions serves no-one in the short or long term.

All that is truly known is that a large aircraft established in cruise flight has experienced an event and now it cannot be found. The nature of that event is unknown, but the fact that the crew were possibly over a dark ocean in the middle of a dark night would have brought all manner of additional factors into play. For the moment, all other details are subject to investigation.

Not yet a week has passed since the disappearance of MH370 over patches of sea and jungles that have kept secrets for centuries. Still the mainstream media yearns for a juicy detail or the latest theory, often selling it as if it were virtually fact. They are straining to keep the story on the front page, but how long can they last. If the search creeps into weeks, will their resources remain focused on the story when there is celebrity news breaking from Hollywood?

A few hard core professional reporters will undoubtedly remain, but I suspect the rest will fade to sporadic updates until something of substance is found. And then the circus will come back to town and want immediate answers and big headlines once again. All the while the aviation professionals tasked with uncovering the real truths will continue to work away, poring over data and endeavouring to draw conclusions from threads of information. These individuals are in it for the long haul to enhance aviation safety. The mainstream media is a caffeine shot.

For all concerned, I hope that the wreckage and its ‘black boxes’ are located sooner rather than later. Then we will be able to gather the facts and begin to fill in the sentences. Then those same facts can be used to build a better future. Aviation is an industry built on lessons from the past, with a good many regulations written in the blood of those that have gone before. Unfounded speculation sells newspapers, TV time slots and little more. Only through patience and dedication will the apparent tragic loss of MH370 ever serve any real purpose.

Fly safe.





                                                                 

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