Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flight attendants honored for response to the Christmas Day 'underpants bomber'

by B .N. Sullivan

AFA-CWA logoThe flight attendants who dealt with the infamous 'underpants bomber' on Northwest Flight 253 this past Christmas Day have been honored by their union. The Detroit-based flight attendants were given the prestigious C.B. Lansing Award for successfully thwarting the terrorist attack on December 25, 2009. The award ceremony took place earlier this week at the annual board meeting of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) in Las Vegas.

Quoting from the AFA press release about the award:
“A catastrophe was averted on Christmas day because of the professionalism of the flight attendants on Northwest flight 253,” said Patricia Friend, AFA-CWA International President. “Their quick responses were nothing short of heroic as they identified and mobilized the necessary resources on board and saved the lives of 290 passengers and crew. They exemplify what it means to be a flight attendant in 2010, a front-line safety and security professional.”

The C.B. Lansing Memorial Award was established following the tragic and heroic events aboard Aloha Airlines flight 243 on April 28, 1988 when Aloha flight attendants faced a sudden and serious aircraft incident. C.B. Lansing did not survive the incident; however her fellow flight attendants persevered, rendering life-saving first aid in-flight as they planned for an emergency landing.

“On the eve of the anniversary of the heroism of C.B. Lansing and the Aloha crew, we honor our fellow flight attendants for their service to the flight attendant profession and once again reminding the public of our true mission,” said Friend.
AFA notes that the C .B. Lansing Award is not an annual presentation; rather it is "presented to a crew or crewmember who displays heroism beyond the call of duty."

There have been seven prior recipients of this honor in the history of AFA-CWA.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

FAA fine season continues: Chautauqua Airlines nailed with $348,000 penalty

by B. N. Sullivan

Chautauqua AirlinesThe U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a $348,000 civil penalty against Chautauqua Airlines, alleging that the airline operated some of its regional jets without performing inspections required by five different FAA airworthiness directives (ADs).

From the FAA press release about the proposed fine:
FAA investigations found that problems with Chautauqua’s management of its maintenance program and its system for tracking the status of airworthiness directives led to the alleged violations.

One AD compliance issue involved mandated repetitive inspections for possible cracks in the lower wing planks of Canadair Regional Jets (CRJ) after every 5,000 flights. The FA alleges that:
  • Eight different Chautauqua CRJs conducted more than 9,900 flights between October 2007 and December 2008 before the required lower wing inspections were done.
  • In January 2009, the airline operated another CRJ on 231 flights without inspecting a different section of the lower wings for cracks and flew a different CRJ for 61 hours without a required inspection of electrical relays.
  • Another Chautauqua CRJ made more than 17,600 flights between November 2007 and January 2009 before mandatory inspections of the plane’s GE engines were performed. Chautauqua also flew one of its Embraer 145 regional jets for 43 days past the time one of its inertial navigation units should have been replaced.
Commenting on the proposed penalty against Chautauqua, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said, “An air carrier’s maintenance program can’t function without a good system to compliance with airworthiness directives. Problems with the AD system are inconsistent with an airline’s continued safe operation.”

Chautauqua, which is a subsidiary of Republic Airways, has 30 days to respond to the allegations.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Piedmont Airlines pilots apply for mediation of contract talks

by B. N. Sullivan

Piedmont AirlinesThe pilots at Piedmont Airlines have applied to the National Mediation Board (NMB) for mediation of their contract negotiations.

Contract talks between the pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and Piedmont management have been underway since May of 2009, but little progress has been made. ALPA says that only two contract sections have been agreed upon in 11 months. The union claims that during negotiating sessions, management "has routinely responded to proposals from the pilots union with a terse 'current book or less'—indicating that the company will only agree to the current language in the contract or concessions from the pilot group."

ALPA accuses Piedmont management of stalling negotiations by resisting attempts from the union to schedule additional negotiating sessions, only offering two days a month over the next five months.

“When we entered into negotiations in May 2009, we didn’t expect it to be an easy process,” said Captain Charles Martinak, chairman of the Piedmont unit of ALPA. “However, we did expect the company to fully engage in the process, which, simply put, it hasn’t.”

Captain Dale Mojta, who leads the Negotiating Committee for the Piedmont pilots, added, “For 11 months, we’ve sat across the table from a management that seems to have no interest in coming to an agreement. Hopefully, a mediator can put an end to these stonewalling tactics, and this pilot group can get the fair contract we deserve.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Three crew killed in Antonov AN-12BP freighter crash in the Philippines

by B. N. Sullivan

Three crew members were killed and three others were injured when a chartered Antonov AN-12BP aircraft crashed in the Philippines on the evening of April 21, 2010. At the time of the accident, the aircraft (registration UP-AN216) was operating as Pacific East Asia Cargo Flight Q8-7815 from Mactan-Cebu International Airport (CEB) to Angeles City-Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (CRK). The aircraft impacted a rice paddy several miles southeast of the airport, near a town called Mexico, where it broke up and burned.

The Aviation Herald, quoting the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), says that "the crew reported a fire on board a few minutes prior to impact with the crew attempting to get the airplane onto the ground immediately." Those on board were said to be nationals of Russia, Uzbekistan, and Bulgaria.

News reports from Philippine media indicate that the aircraft was operating as a charter on behalf of UPS.

UPDATE: FlightGlobal, quoting the director-general of the CAAP, reports that aircraft was on a wet lease to Interisland Airlines, a charter operator in the Philippines.

The CAAP official also said that the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thoughts on Europe's volcanic ash cloud crisis and aviation logistics

by B. N. Sullivan

volcanoFor days we all have been watching a crisis unfold in Europe as a large cloud of ash from the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano spread over much of the continent's airspace. Because of the presence of ash in the atmosphere at commercial flight levels, IFR air traffic has been suspended or severely limited in most of western and central Europe, save for Portugal, Spain, southern Italy and Greece. This has caused an unprecedented disruption of passenger and freight traffic into and out of Europe, and within the continent. In fact, it seems that the whole world has been affected, since airlines on every continent have had to cancel flights to and from Europe.

Air carriers are losing millions and millions in revenue each day. Faced with the prospect of huge operating losses of a magnitude that threatens their very survival, many in the aviation community are questioning whether this near-total suspension of air traffic in the region really is necessary. In principle, everyone subscribes to the "safety first" mantra, yet many have wondered if what amounts to a continent-wide ground stop is the correct solution. Airline managers and crews alike have begun to debate how to assess the true level of risk at a given time on a given route so that flying can resume.

As of this writing, the volcano is still erupting, it is still spewing a dense column of ash into the air, most of European airspace is still closed, and the outlook is, well, "iffy." There is even a concern that the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull could trigger that of a second Icelandic volcano, called Katla. All three past recorded eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull have triggered subsequent Katla eruptions. If that occurs this time, the present situation certainly could worsen.

In the past 24 hours, several carriers received permission to operate ferry flights to reposition aircraft -- mostly at low flight levels under VFR -- and several of those have been billed as "test flights." Publicity about the outcome of the so-called "test flights" has said that no problems were encountered, i.e., the engines did not choke or become damaged by ash.

The implied message is that since everything was hunky-dory on those "test flights," flight restrictions should be lifted to allow carriers to fly their planes at their discretion.

However, these were not scientifically conducted "test flights." The aircraft were not equipped with particle collectors or other sensors that could detect and measure the composition of the ash cloud through which they presumably flew. The fact that they flew and landed again without apparent problem does not mean that safe conditions prevail.

In contrast, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) did send aloft an aircraft equipped with instruments that could sense and measure components of the ash plume. The aircraft, a Dornier 228, departed from Cranfield and flew over East Anglia and the North Sea, and towards the Dutch coastline. The Nerc researchers reported that their instruments "identified three distinct layers of volcanic residue." Specifically, "Heavy, gritty particles seem to be sitting at around 8,000 feet, whilst lower down in the atmosphere there are sulphurous chemicals and finer dust particles."

The report went on to say, "The Dornier is also fitted with a storm scope and a weather radar, which are standard instruments in any commercial planes, and these were not able to detect the volcanic clouds."

So, is it safe to fly commercial aircraft in the area of the ash plume or not? On the one hand we have a small amount of research data from the Nerc Dornier flight, which documented levels of contaminants in the air column that could prove problematic for aircraft engines. On the other hand, the successful ferry flights provide anecdotal information that at least some flights can be operated safely (although the potential for cumulative effects from repeated exposure to the volcanic ash is not addressed by such flights).

Each of these -- the research flight and the ferry flights -- provided a snapshot of conditions in a particular chunk of airspace at a particular point in time. Unfortunately, neither can logically be generalized to apply to the whole region over a longer period.

Why? Because the location and composition of the volcanic ash cloud is constantly changing, and those changes are difficult to predict with any certainty.

I happen to know a thing or two about volcanic emissions -- not because I am an earth scientist or volcanologist, but because I am a long-time resident of Hawaii's Big Island, where Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983. Over the years, those of us who occupy the same island as Kilauea have acquired quite a bit of empirical knowledge about the volcano and its emissions.

Here are a few things I have learned, that also apply to the present situation:
  • Volcanoes do not erupt in a continuous and uniform fashion, but in irregular bursts of varying duration. During some periods a volcano may emit large amounts of ash, smoke, steam, and gases, but those periods will be interspersed with others during which emissions are more sparse.
  • The gunk emitted by a volcano is not homogenized; it varies in composition and density -- sometimes from one hour to the next -- and as the plume rises into the atmosphere and is carried along by winds, some components may become more concentrated, while others may diffuse, or dissipate into the upper atmosphere, or fall to earth.
  • Weather affects the direction and density of volcanic ash plumes. Changes in wind strength and direction, humidity levels, and barometric pressure determine how high a plume will rise, how far it will spread, and how long it will remain in a given area.
And no matter how much you may yearn to be able to just 'put a cork in it' and make it stop, there is no way to control or predict when a volcano will erupt, how long it will continue to erupt, or what kinds and amounts of stuff it will puke up. Its most prominent characteristic is that it is always changing.

The current eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano may continue apace, may settle down a bit, or it may intensify. It may cease tomorrow, it may continue erupting for weeks or months, or -- like Kilauea -- for years or decades. And it may or may not trigger that nearby volcano, Katla, to erupt. We don't know, and we can't know.

That said, I really would like to see less debate about whether or not a given sector of airspace is "safe" for commercial air traffic, and instead see more discussion about practical work-arounds. It may be a matter of re-ordered logistics.

If, for example, airports in southern Europe remain largely unaffected, why not engage in an operation not unlike the Berlin airlift, wherein air traffic from abroad is directed in a concentrated fashion to, say, Madrid, Lisbon, and Rome, coupled with a massive mobilization of ground transportation -- buses, trucks, rail -- organized and marketed as a "package" to deliver goods and people to and from cities elsewhere on the continent. And, should changing weather patterns bring the cloud south, contingency plans should be in place to shift traffic to/from other hubs.

I'm sure there are other possible solutions as well, including ramped up sea lift, but the point is that this situation may be with us for some time, and it could intensify. Even if it goes away soon, it could re-occur. Contingency plans must be made to anticipate and deal with events like this, preferably before they arise and devolve into crises.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Connecting flight: Red Bull Skydiver moves from one glider to another in mid-air

by B. N. Sullivan

This video brings a whole new meaning to the term "connecting flight," and includes some spectacular air-to-air videography of an amazing stunt involving two gliders and a skydiver.

The skydiver, Paul Steiner of the Red Bull Skydive Team, moves from one Blanik glider to the other during flight, and then reaches up from one glider to touch the rudder of another during mirrorflight. All this takes place about 2,100 meters (about 6,890 ft) above the ground.

Bravo to the skydiver, kudos to the videographer -- and let's have a big round of applause for those Blanix Team glider pilots, too!

If the video does not play or display properly above, click here to view it on YouTube.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dramatic emergency landing by Cathay Pacific A330 at Hong Kong

by B. N. Sullivan

Cathay Pacific AirwaysA Cathay Pacific Airbus A330-300 (registration B-HLL) made a dramatic high-speed emergency landing at Hong Kong International Airport on April 13, 2010 after both of its engines malfunctioned during approach. The aircraft, operating as Cathay Flight CX780 from Surabaya, Indonesia, touched down on Hong Kong's runway 07L at a speed of 230+ knots, and six tires deflated due to heat from the high energy braking that was required. All 309 passengers and 14 crew members evacuated the aircraft on the runway via emergency slides. A number of passengers suffered minor injuries in the evacuation.

Early media reports from the scene suggested that both of the aircraft's engines had failed or been shut down during approach -- one shut down while the aircraft was some distance from the airport, and the other during short final -- and that neither engine was functioning at the time the aircraft landed. Cathay Pacific claims this was not the case, stating that while the number one engine had indeed been shut down, the number two engine was functioning. The airline also confirmed that all four tires on the left main gear and two on the right had deflated.

Later it emerged that both of the Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines had become frozen at 70% of N1 speed. Subsequently, one engine was shut down, while the other was left operating at that speed for the landing. Cathay Pacific gave this account of a press briefing by Dennis Hui, Manager of Maintenance Support at the airline’s Engineering Department, on April 14, 2010:
He said that after further investigation of the flight data from CX780 and having interviewed the crew, updated information had shown a clear picture of this aspect of the incident.

He said it had been determined that the number 2 (RH) engine was at idle power throughout the approach and landing at HKIA, and the Number 1(LH) engine was operating at 70 per cent of its maximum power, and frozen at that level.

Mr. Hui said: “This is a higher power setting than is required for a normal approach with a single operating engine. Consequently, this higher than normal power setting led to a higher than normal approach speed and incorrect flap configuration.

“The aircraft therefore touched down at approx 230 knots, as against a normal 135 knots at this aircraft’s operating weight.

“However, the aircraft touched down on the correct position on the runway, but due to its high speed had to brake hard and use reverse thrust from the operating engine to bring the aircraft to a halt.

“The high speed and high energy braking led to very hot brakes, tyre deflation and the report from the FSD outside the aircraft that it had observed flames and smoke on the landing gear,” he added.

Mr. Hui said details of what happened and what caused the engine malfunction are now the subject of CAD [Civil Aviation Department] investigations. Cathay Pacific was co-operating closely with the investigation, along with Airbus and Rolls Royce, the engine supplier.
At the same press briefing, Quince Chong, Cathay's Director Corporate Affairs, praised the crew of Flight CX780, saying, “The pilots and the 11 cabin crew all demonstrated professionalism of a highest order in handling a most testing situation. It was due to their training, professionalism, their judgment, and ability to perform multi-tasks under a highly intense situation that the injuries had been kept to a minimum.”

Ms. Chong mentioned that the evacuation had been accomplished in two minutes.

UPDATE Apr. 15, 2010: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Cathay Pacific has stopped refueling its planes in Surabaya "as a precaution," suggesting that fuel quality is being looked at as a possible cause of the dual engine malfunction. For the time being, Cathay flights will instead make a refueling stop at Jakarta.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department has taken fuel samples from the Airbus A330 for tests, and also has retrieved the aircraft's flight data recorders for analysis.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fatal AeroUnión A300 freighter accident at Monterrey, Mexico

by B. N. Sullivan

AeroUnionAn Airbus A300 B4F-203 aircraft operated by Mexican cargo carrier AeroUnión has crashed near Monterrey, Mexico. Early news reports from the scene say there was a post-crash fire, and there were a number of fatalities. Some news report said that five crew members on board the A300 had been killed, but this has not been officially confirmed at this time.

The accident happened at around 23:00 local time on April 13, 2010 near General Mariano Escobedo International Airport (MTY). The airport, which serves Monterrey, is located at Apodaca, Nuevo León, Mexico.

Twitter user @e_benavides has posted some photos from the accident scene.

More details will be posted here as they become available.

UPDATE: The Aviation Herald identifies the aircraft registration as XA-TUE, and says that the accident occurred as the aircraft was departing Monterrey bound for Los Angeles. The same source also reports that the aircraft "lost height after takeoff from Monterrey International Airport's runway 29 and impacted a highway losing an engine and wing before falling back onto the ground." The Aviation Herald says there were two crew members on board; Mexican sources say there were five crew -- three pilots and two mechanics.

UPDATE Apr. 14, 2010: Mexican news Web site El Universal is reporting this morning that the accident happened as the AeroUnión A300 was arriving at Monterrey from Mexico City; Monterrey was an intermediate stop, after which the flight would have continued on to Los Angeles. El Universal reports that there were six fatalities, including the five crew members, plus one person on the ground. The El Universal article includes several photos from the scene.

Airbus has issued a statement that included the following information about the accident aircraft:
The aircraft involved in the accident, registration XA-TUE, MSN (Manufacturer Serial Number) 078, was first delivered as a passenger aircraft from the production line in May 1979. The aircraft was converted into a freighter in 1998 and has been operated by Aero Union since June 2002. The aircraft had accumulated approximately 55,200 flight hours and 27,600 flight cycles. This aircraft was powered by GE engines.
Condolences to the families and friends of the crew members who perished, and to AeroUnión.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Merpati Nusantara Boeing 737 crash in West Papua

by B. N. Sullivan

Merpati Nusantara B737A Boeing 737-300 aircraft (registration PK-MDE) operated by Indonesia's Merpati Nusantara Airlines was seriously damaged in an accident at Rendani Airport, Manokwari, West Papua. No fatalities have been reported among the six crew members and 86 passengers on board, however at least 20 people were hospitalized with injuries. It was unclear if the injured were passengers or crew. [Update: The Aviation Herald reports that no crew members were injured.]

The accident occurred shortly before 11:00 AM local time on April 13, 2010 as the aircraft, operating as flight MZ-836, was arriving at Manokwari from Sorong, West Papua. News reports from Indonesia indicate that upon landing in poor weather, the aircraft overran the runway by several hundred meters. It came to rest in a river, with its fuselage broken in two.

An accident investigation team has been dispatched to the scene from Jakarta.

[Photo Source]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Frontier Airlines fined over emergency exit issue

by B. N. Sullivan

Frontier AirlinesThe U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a $380,000 civil penalty against Frontier Airlines for a slip-up that followed reconfiguration of the passenger cabins of some of the airline's planes. According to the FAA press release announcing the proposed fine:
The FAA alleges that in 2008 and 2009, Frontier reconfigured the passenger cabins on some of its Airbus A-318s and -319s, to permit dual-aisle access to the overwing emergency exits. However, the airline did not replace the existing placards with placards showing the new configuration, as required. The placards are in place to tell passengers how to operate the overwing exits. Frontier then operated these aircraft with the wrong placards in place.
The FAA says that Frontier operated the non-compliant aircraft on approximately 900 flights.

The carrier has 30 days to respond to the FAA.

Darby Aviation's air carrier certificate suspended by the FAA

by B. N. Sullivan

FAA logoThe U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has suspended the air carrier certificate of Darby Aviation "until the company demonstrates to the FAA it can conduct operations in accordance with regulatory requirements." An emergency order suspending the certificate was issued by the FAA on April 8, 2010.

In its announcement of the certificate suspension, the FAA said:
Darby Aviation has failed to produce an acceptable Operations Manual or an approvable training program despite repeated FAA efforts to inform the company of the required changes in those documents. As a result, the company has no accepted Operations Manual or approved training program.

The FAA also has determined that Darby Aviation’s chief pilot and its Director of Operations are not qualified to hold their positions.

The company’s lack of proper operating guidance and its failure to follow basic regulatory requirements has undermined the FAA’s confidence in Darby Aviation’s ability to ensure safe operations.

Based on those considerations, the FAA determined that emergency action was necessary.
This is the second time since 2005 that Darby Aviation's operating certificate has been suspended.

“The FAA will not let a carrier continue to operate if it doesn’t meet strict qualifications,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement about the suspension. “All carriers, no matter what the size, must have approved pilot training programs. Our mission is to keep air travelers safe.”

Darby Aviation is a Part 135 operator headquartered in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The company has 10 days to appeal the emergency order.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polish president and many VIPs die in Tu-154 crash at Smolensk, Russia

by B. N. Sullivan

A Tupolev Tu-154 operated by the Polish Air Force crashed this morning while attempting to land at Smolensk Airport (XUBS) in western Russia. On board the aircraft were the President of Poland, his wife, and many other Polish VIPs, including high-ranking government and military officials. The exact number of souls on board is still unclear at this time, but early reports range from 88 to 132. There were no survivors.

Weather was said to be very foggy. Early (though unofficial) reports say that the accident happened after a missed approach. The aircraft reportedly hit trees while attempting a go-around. Photos of the accident scene show the aircraft wreckage in many pieces.

President Lech Kaczynski and a large delegation were traveling from Warsaw to Russia to participate in events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn masssacre near the city of Smolensk.

This is a huge tragedy for the people of Poland, and I offer them my sincere condolences.

UPDATE: reports that Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) has confirmed the identity of the aircraft, as follows:
The Tu-154, serial number 90A-837, is aircraft 101 of the Polish air force presidential division, 36 Specjalny Pulk Lotnictwa Transportowego (36 SPLT).
The progression of events directly preceding the accident are still uncertain. The Aviation Herald reports the following:
There are conflicting reports, that the airplane may have gone around three times with the crew considering to divert to Minsk (Belarus, 170nm west of Smolensk) or Moscow (Russia, 200nm east of Smolensk) before attempting their fatal 4th approach. Other reports say, that the crew was adivsed by air traffic control in Belarus to not continue to Smolensk due to fog, but to divert to Minsk and later, after hand off to Russian ATC, Russian Air Traffic Controllers recommended to divert to Moscow, the crew however continued to Smolensk. Other reports say, that the airplane was holding over Smolensk which was mistaken as attempts to approach the airfield and go-arounds.
Russian authorities have said that the aircraft's flight data recorders have been recovered from the wreckage. has posted several photos of the accident aircraft "taken in happier times."

If the video does not play or display properly above, click here to view it on YouTube.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

British Airways and Iberia sign merger deal

by B. N. Sullivan

British Airways and Spanish flag carrier Iberia have signed a final merger agreement. Today's agreement will implement terms set forth in a memorandum of understanding signed by the two carriers in November of 2009.  The merger is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

According to a press release issued by Iberia, the merger will create a new holding company called International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, which will be known as International Airlines Group. Both airlines will retain their current operations and operate under their individual brands - British Airways and Iberia. The merged carrier will operate a fleet of 408 aircraft flying to 200 destinations.

Airline officials said that the merger "will benefit both airlines’ shareholders, customers and employees," and "has been structured so that it can take advantage of further consolidation in the global aviation industry." Although such consolidations often result in work force reductions, no announcements have been made regarding staffing levels going forward.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Drama on United Airlines Flight 663: A smoker, not a terrorist

by B. N. Sullivan

United AirlinesFor the past several hours I have been watching a drama unfold -- 'watching' via my computer monitor, that is. The story I am about to tell emerged over a period of several hours, during which I monitored Twitter and many news Web sites. What follows is a summary of what is known so far, pieced together from numerous sources -- subject to amendment when information from official sources becomes available.

Earlier this evening there was an incident aboard a United Airlines flight while it was en route to Denver from Washington, DC. It seems that a male first class passenger decided to sneak a smoke in the forward lavatory of the Boeing 757-200, which was operating as United Flight 663. The smoke was noticed, the passenger was confronted by Federal Air Marshals (FAMs), and some sort of verbal exchange followed.

Apparently the behavior and/or statements of the passenger were perceived as suspicious enough that the crew requested that law enforcement officials meet the plane when it landed at Denver. In fact, early news reports suggested that the passenger may have been trying to set fire to his shoe (like the infamous shoe bomber back in 2001), although those reports were later tempered, implying instead that the incident arose from a "misunderstanding" rather than a true threat. (ABC News quoted an unnamed US security official who said the passenger may have made a "sarcastic" comment about lighting his shoes on fire when he was confronted by the FAMs, who had been told by flight attendants that smoke was coming from the lavatory.)

In any case, two F-16s from Buckley AFB were dispatched by NORAD to intercept the United aircraft and escort it during its approach to Denver. Upon arrival, just before 7:00 PM local time, the airliner parked at a 'remote location' at Denver International Airport. The passenger at the center of the drama was taken into custody, and the aircraft was searched for explosives; none were found. The Denver Post reported that the remainder of the 157 passengers and six crew members deplaned and were bused to an airport fire station where they were "interviewed by the FBI."

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a brief statement about the incident, saying only that "Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft," that the plane had landed safely at Denver, and that the passenger was being interviewed by law enforcement.

At some point along the way, several news media reports said that the suspicious passenger was a diplomat from Qatar. This turned out to be accurate, given that the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, DC released the following statement, via its Web site, a short time ago:

(Yes, it was all in capital letters, exactly as I have posted it.)

Moments before I began to write this post, several news media -- quoting unnamed law enforcement officials -- reported that no criminal charges will be filed against the Qatari diplomat.

UPDATE Apr. 8, 2010: Several news media are reporting today that Qatari government officials have informed the U.S. State Department that the Qatari diplomat who caused last night's incident would leave the United States, probably by the end of this week.

This morning, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano issued the following statement about the incident:
“I commend the Federal Air Marshals on board United Airlines flight 663 last night, who swiftly responded to a potential threat to passenger safety while the plane was in flight. These highly trained individuals took appropriate and immediate action to secure the aircraft and communicate the potential threat to authorities on the ground—ensuring that the flight was met by TSA and law enforcement officials when it landed safely in Denver. I spoke to the Air Marshals this morning, and I expressed my appreciation for their vital service keeping passengers around the world safe from potential threats of terrorism—work that nearly always goes unnoticed. We always treat security-related incidents seriously until verified otherwise, and thankfully this incident posed no actual security threat."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

NTSB: Poor tire maintenance led to 2008 Learjet 60 crash at Columbia, SC

by B. N. Sullivan

NTSB logoThe U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reached a determination of probable cause concerning the September 2008 crash of a Learjet 60 at Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE), West Columbia, South Carolina. The aircraft (registration N999LJ), operated by Global Exec Aviation, LLC, overran runway 11 at CAE during a rejected takeoff, following a tire failure. The aircraft crashed and burned, killing four of the six people on board. The NTSB concluded that the probable cause of this accident was "the operator’s inadequate maintenance of the airplane’s tires, which resulted in multiple tire failures during takeoff roll due to severe underinflation, and the captain’s execution of a rejected takeoff (RTO) after V1, which was inconsistent with her training and standard operating procedures."

The NTSB has provided this summary of the accident events:
On September 19, 2008, at 11:53 p.m. EDT, a Bombardier Learjet Model 60 (N999LJ) operated by Global Exec Aviation and destined for Van Nuys, California, overran runway 11 during a rejected takeoff at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

After the airplane left the departure end of runway 11, it struck airport lights, crashed through a perimeter fence, crossed a roadway and came to rest on a berm. The captain, the first officer, and two passengers were killed; two other passengers were seriously injured.

The investigation revealed that prior to the accident the aircraft was operated while the main landing gear tires were severely underinflated because of Global Exec Aviation’s inadequate maintenance. The underinflation compromised the integrity of the tires, which led to the failure of all four of the airplane’s main landing gear tires during the takeoff roll.

Shortly after the first tire failed, which occurred about 1.5 seconds after the airplane passed the maximum speed at which the takeoff attempt could be safely aborted, the first officer indicated that the takeoff should be continued but the captain decided to reject the takeoff and deployed the airplane’s thrust reversers. Pilots are trained to avoid attempting to reject a takeoff at high-speed unless the pilot concludes that the airplane is unable to fly; the investigation found no evidence that the accident airplane was uncontrollable or unable to become airborne.

The tire failure during the takeoff roll damaged a sensor, which caused the airplane’s thrust reversers to return to the stowed position. While the captain was trying to stop the airplane by commanding reverse thrust, forward thrust was being provided at near-takeoff power because the thrust reversers were stowed. The Safety Board determined that the inadvertent forward thrust contributed to the severity of the accident.

The Safety Board also found that neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor Learjet adequately reviewed the Airplane’s design after a similar uncommanded forward thrust accident that occurred during landing in Alabama in 2001. While the modifications put into place after the Alabama accident provided additional protection against uncommanded forward thrust upon landing, no such protection was provided for a rejected takeoff.
In a statement to the press, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said, “This entirely avoidable crash should reinforce to everyone in the aviation community that there are no small maintenance items because every time a plane takes off, lives are on the line.”

Those who are interested can find much more detailed information about this accident investigation by following the links below:

Accident Report Synopsis, including itemized conclusions, statement of probable cause, and safety recommendations

Cockpit Voice Recorder Transcript - 40-page 'pdf'

NTSB Accident Docket where you can find links to all materials pertinent to this investigation.

Photos of the Accident Scene -

Earlier posts on about this accident:

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Update on the Aviastar-TU Tupolev Tu-204 crash at Moscow

by B. N. Sullivan

The Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) has released a few more details about last month's crash of a Tupolev TU-204 (registration RA-64011) near Moscow Domodedovo Airport. The aircraft, operated by Russian carrier Aviastar-TU, was destroyed when it crashed while on approach to Domodedovo, after a ferry flight from Hurghada, Egypt. There were no passengers on board, but all eight crew members were injured in the accident. The accident occurred on March 22, 2010.

A brief report posted earlier this week on the MAK Web site states that the aircraft had taken on 16 tons of fuel before departing from Hurghada. At the time of the accident, there was "no less than 9 tons of fuel" remaining in the aircraft's tanks. MAK also has concluded that the engines were functioning normally prior to the crash.

Information obtained from the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder indicated that the crew were carrying out an ILS approach to runway 14R at Domodedovo, using the flight director and autopilot. At an altitude of about 4,000 meters, the automated systems failed, so the crew switched to manual controls. They did not notify ATC and dispatch that the automated flight control systems were not functioning, nor did they request any changes to their approach. They continued the approach, but crashed about 1 km short of the runway.

The investigation is continuing.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Flight Options pilots ratify labor contract

by B. N. Sullivan

Flight OptionsThe pilots at fractional jet operator Flight Options, LLC have ratified their first labor agreement.  The ratification was announced on March 31, 2010 by the the pilots' union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Airline Division, Teamsters Local 1108.  According to the Teamsters, 88% of the union’s membership voted in favor of ratification.

Teamsters Airline Division Director Capt. David Bourne said in statement to the press, "The new contract with Flight Options is the basis for a strong labor-management partnership between the Teamsters and Flight Options, LLC.  A first contract that works for pilots and their families, as well as management and Flight Options customers, is a great achievement for the entire industry.”

The new agreement is the culmination of more than three years of negotiations between the Teamsters and Flight Options.  According to the Teamsters, the new agreement provides for an immediate salary increase, longevity increases, additional paid time off, job security protections, an expansive basing system, and a grievance and arbitration process.

“This contract is the product of thousands of hours of work and a joint commitment to the success of our pilots and the company,” said Capt. Mat Slinghoff, President of Teamsters Local 1108. “The pilots I represent have achieved a milestone and they look forward to playing an active role in the company’s future success.”

A contract signing ceremony will take place in mid-April.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Canada's Skyservice Airlines folds

by B. N. Sullivan

SkyserviceCanadian charter carrier Skyservice Airlines, Inc. abruptly ceased operating and filed for receivership yesterday, March 31, 2010. The company was burdened by large debt obligations, and what media reports refer to as the airline's "unsustainable" cost structure. The airline's closure will put roughly 1,000 staff out of work.

According to receivership documents filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Airservice had 1,088 employees on March 31, 2010, of which approximately 74% are unionized. Statements to the court indicate that all employees have been paid for their work through March 31. Plans are underway to repatriate employees posted overseas.

The majority of Skyservice employees will be terminated, although about 50 will be retained temporarily to assist with the wind-down of operations.

According to a CTV News article about the demise of Skyservice, the company went through a series of cost-cutting measures in 2008 and 2009:
Starting in the fall of 2008, management cancelled snacks at internal meetings, restricted BlackBerry use, lowered office thermostats and scrapped company-paid parties in favour of potlucks. Besides issuing layoff notices, Skyservice also instituted a hiring freeze and reduced some salaries. Restrictions were even placed on printing, photocopying and long-distance calls, but the relative small savings weren't enough to save the airline from entering a tailspin into receivership.
The Skyservice Cabin Crew Association issued the following statement:
The Skyservice Cabin Crew Association ("SCCA") is deeply saddened by today's announcement that Skyservice Airlines Inc. (the "Company") has been petitioned into receivership. The SCCA has worked diligently with the Company and the other employee stakeholders over the past year to find $10 million of savings for the Company. Unfortunately, even those concessions were not enough to prevent today's event. Many of our members have been with the Company since its inception in 1994. They and all of our members have devoted and committed themselves with enormous energy to the airline and its passengers. For us, this last chapter is a tragedy. The SCCA has retained the law firm of Koskie Minsky LLP to represent the interest of its members in the receivership process. We will ensure that our members' rights are protected to the full extent of the law.
In a statement of its own, the company said, "Skyservice Airlines and the receiver are committed to winding up the business in an orderly and responsible manner. The company and the receiver will continue to treat employees and other stakeholders fairly and in a transparent manner throughout this process."

Best of luck going forward to all Skyservice crew members and staff.