Should we blame the pilot for the Buffalo crash, or bureaucrats and trial lawyers?

The latest statement from the NTSB on the Buffalo crash suggests the pilot simply let the airplane get too slow. He then reacted badly and stalled the airplane. His reaction was seemingly inexplicable for a professional pilot, as one of the first things you learn during primary training is developing the muscle memory to break a still with forward stick. I don’t buy the notion proposed by some that the pilot mistakenly thought he was dealing with an icing-induced tail plane stall. Even though it’s true that pulling back is appropriate for a tail plane stall (as opposed to the typical main wing stall) absolutely nothing else the pilot did was appropriate for a tail stall. Everything in the NTSB statement suggests the cockpit simply devolved into complete chaos. While they mercifully keep this out of the public eye, the NTSB investigators have suffered through listening to the cockpit voice recorder, and reading in between the lines of the NTSB statement I think it’s fairly clear the pilot simply panicked.

However, I’m not passing judgment. I’m sure I’d do no better, even with all the training in the world. My reason for writing this is to say something about the system, not the pilot. When I was doing my instrument training, my biggest takeaway from the whole thing was that it was utter bullshit for people’s lives to depend on a pilot doing it correctly when the chips are down. It’s normally easy to fly on instruments, but it gets surprisingly difficult quickly when things go wrong, especially with the disorientation that occurs at night. I really think too much is expected of pilots flying hard IFR in any airplane that’s not fully automated. Yes, it’s manageable, but not with the kind of margin you’d like to see when lives are at stake, and especially with relatively inexperienced pilots. One’s ability to react correctly is shockingly bad when terrified, and I’m guessing the slow speed situation caught the pilots off guard and scared the shit out of them.

However, don’t we live in a world where automation and control technology has advanced to the point where the space shuttle can deorbit and land itself? Where affordable cars have anti-skid brake systems whose computational power rivals a jet fighter’s? Why, then, are we paying to fly in airplanes without something as relatively simple as autothrottles? The big jets have them, but they are not economical to have on most commuter aircraft. Why is this considered remotely acceptable? Why, in this day and age, is “drop out of the sky and kill us all” included in the set of possible control inputs on any commercial aircraft on which our loved ones are flying?

With the exception of the Hudson ditching, every major aviation accident that’s happened in the past ten years in the US could have been avoided with relatively straightforward control software, including 9/11. (Terrorism aside, why the heck should the airplane’s software allow the pilot to fly into something?) If you don’t believe me, cite one and I’ll explain how simple software would’ve avoided it.

Given that this is all utterly doable, why isn’t it done? The answer is that because of regulations and liability, you can’t add a bloody toaster to a commercial aircraft for less than $100,000 per plane. The idea of regulation and liability is that it should keep us safe, but at this point it is doing the exact opposite. The Dash 8 that killed those people would’ve had autothrottles installed had they not been so expensive, and that expense is caused largely by the regulators who make certification so onerous, and the trial lawyers who make liability insurance prohibitively expensive. The Dash 8 is exactly the kind of airplane that needs them, but it won’t get them until we find a way to regulate aviation without completely stifling technological advancement at the same time.

Because of this unintended stifling effect, we could get rid of the FAA and safety would probably increase. I know trusting souls out there gasp at this idea, but the FAA is essentially an extension of the airline industry, anyway, so what we have now is basically self-regulation with all the advantages of government efficiency. They don’t have the guts to do anything drastic, and almost never have the brains to not do harm. They’ll focus on the small stuff (remember the Boeing 727 wiring inspections a while back?) and completely drop the ball on the big problems. When the FAA found out that the Boeing 737 had a major issue whereby the rudder would hard-over on its own, a problem that occurred over 100 times and caused two major fatal crashes, did they ground the fleet? Nope. That would’ve been too financially disruptive. They simply told the airlines to fly the planes a bit faster so that pilots could have a better chance at recovery when it happened.

Sometimes the only difference between anarchy and government regulation is paperwork. Recognizing this is helpful. Once you lose the blind faith, you realize that your safety is in your hands. You can make decisions to limit your risk. One good one is to avoid commuter flights in bad weather.

8 responses to “Should we blame the pilot for the Buffalo crash, or bureaucrats and trial lawyers?”

  1. For the most part, anything with a prop. Also, certain smaller regional jets, though I’m not sure which ones have full automation or not. I probably should’ve toned it down, because I don’t want to scare people, and even the commuter planes have a very good record. But it is definitely the case that the large jets are safer, and I think that’s because they fly higher (out of the weather), have better equipment, and more experienced pilots. I started to get nervous about the commuters when my flying friends that I’d get drunk with started getting jobs flying for the airlines. I miss the old days when most of the pilots seemed to be ex-military. Anyway, I’ve changed the sentence to be more specific about simply avoiding them in bad weather, which I do.

    • No worries – you don’t have to tone it down for me, but good to know about commuters. As a rule, I do not fly in planes with propellers. I’ve done it once and that was enough!

  2. Why things suck, related:

    I knew someone (actually knew someone who knew someone) who was working for NASA. The job of his dreams – the space program and all that. He got a project to fix a section of code for the shuttle, which because of the intense commenting, review, proving-correct process would be a pretty long project even though the fix was relatively easy.

    Anyway, he started getting curious about how his project fit into the larger system, but he couldn’t really find anyone willing to tell him. As it turns out, the entire system wasn’t used anymore. It was cheaper to pay him (and whoever he was working with, and whoever had to sign off on the work) to do this fix than it would be to go through the official decommissioning process for the system. The guy ended up quitting and going to private industry.

    So, I think simply “being too careful” is another (or the same) reason why Flying Things avoid changes that we’d all like to see implemented.

    Also, big planes freak me out. Things that fucking heavy do not, in most cases, “fly”.

    • Hi, Ken. Damn, that’s a depressing story! It seems there’s been a rash of crashes around the world lately, even discounting the freak bird strike in New York. Maybe it is just reporting bias, since the media gets OCD on things on a rotating basis, it seems. (FedEx went down in Japan following botched landing, and a plane full of kids crashed in Butte on approach.) All seem to have involved loss of control, which is really sad considering one of the few things computers actually do better than humans is control systems for which we have good physical models. An airplane is about as good example as any of this.

      I hate big planes, too! Airplanes don’t scale well, for the same reason land animals sizes are limited (which I’m sure you understand). Everybody knows that, and yet their damn response is “well, fine, but let’s push it!” Every time I get on a jet, and think about the forces involved, I promise myself I’ll get back into flying and buy a Cessna.

      • Hi Jon,

        Me again. I was reading Ken’s comment and it reminded me of a story my uncle told me. He’s an avionics engineer at a research institute at Georgia Tech. We were talking about the advances in computing power found in the F-22. He agreed that the Raptor did pack an impressive amount of computing horsepower but he told me a funny – and by ‘funny’ I mean depressing – story. I guess when Lockheed Martin built the Raptor, rather than use a standard 32-bit processor that was compatible with DoD’s standard programming language – Ada, is it? – Lockheed Martin designed a proprietary processor that was a 33-bit processor. They were able to sell this whole scam to the Air Force by claiming that the non-standard nature of the processor was a ‘security feature’. Security feature! Yeah – job security for Lockheed Martin.


  3. Hi Jon,

    Great post, as usual. Unfortunately, given the enthusiasm with which a large segment of the public has embraced ‘Obamanomics’ (as Robert Reich called it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed) I don’t think we are going to ever see government shrink.

    Too many people are too willing to put blind faith in the ability of bureaucrats with little or no stake in the system to solve our society’s problems. All the bureaucrats care about is protecting their bureaucratic feifdoms.


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