The F. But we carried only freight. One winter night, one of our pilots died. He was taken down by a de-icing failure over high terrain inbound to Los Angeles, and none of us were surprised. But Adam Air carried unwitting passengers. Its president director was a wealthy young man named Adam Suherman, who lived in Los Angeles for a few years.
One day, he went back to Jakarta and, with the help of family money, started an airline. It began flying in December One of its s — an airplane that had been around the block for 18 years and was leased from Wells Fargo — was written up by pilots for recurring defects times over the final three months of The number was high because the defects were not fixed.
While flying through an area of bad weather at 35, feet, the crew noticed discrepancies between the navigational systems; while fiddling with a solution, they switched off the autopilot unintentionally and drifted into a bank that turned into an uncontrolled spiral dive, during which the descent rate exceeded 50, feet per minute and the airplane approached the speed of sound before the captain pulled the wings off in flight. All occupants died in terror.
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Seven weeks later, another Adam Air flew an erratic approach to the Surabaya airport among thunderstorms and made a landing so hard that its fuselage cracked and was badly bent , leaving the aft section drooping toward the pavement. No passengers were seriously injured, but the airplane had to be written off. The airline did not provide investigators with the identities of its pilots and was not forced to.
Their training histories and qualifications therefore remain unknown. In , Adam Air lost yet another and was grounded by the Indonesian government. The airline declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Adam Suherman faded from view. The more important point was that Adam Air no longer posed a threat to the flying public. By , Garuda, the national airline, had a notoriously bad safety record. The captain got the airplane going so fast that when he called for flaps to configure for landing, the co-pilot did not dare extend them for fear of structural damage and did not communicate his doubts to the captain.
The airplane landed long , touched down going miles an hour too fast, bounced three times and went careering off the far end of the runway, slicing through an airport perimeter fence and sliding across a road, a ditch and an embankment before coming to rest in a rice paddy and bursting into flames. Because rescue vehicles could not cross the ditch, firefighters could not get their equipment close enough to suppress the flames effectively, and the fire burned for more than two hours. The captain and the co-pilot were not hurt, but 21 people died and others were severely injured.
Garuda was the last straw. From to , the Indonesian accident rate as measured by fatal flights per million departures had grown to be 15 times as high as the global average.
The United States Embassy in Jakarta advised Americans to avoid travel on Indonesian airlines, though within Indonesia that was practically impossible to do. As usual, the numbers worked in favor of individual travelers: Even on the worst Indonesian airlines in the worst of times, the chances of being killed were minuscule. But for foreign governments that had become the self-anointed guardians of their citizens worldwide, the exposure was similar to that of the airplane manufacturers, though less consequential: Inevitably, accidents would continue to occur in Indonesia, and foreigners would die, and it would be hard for their officials to duck accountability unless the officials had registered concern in advance.
In , the European Union and the United States permanently banned all Indonesian airlines from their national territories. This was done for reasons of safety. Residents of Europe and the United States generally did not know or care, but many of the ordinary Indonesians who had grown to hate their airlines were in favor of the ban simply as a form of punishment.
The ban put Boeing and Airbus into a delicate position. They would now be selling airplanes to officially declared unsafe airlines that the American and European authorities expected would keep killing and injuring their passengers at a rate that would be unacceptable in the West. By , the biggest of those airlines was Lion Air. That year, it placed a new order for 40 additional s, and Boeing happily agreed to fill it. The deal was finalized during an Asean summit meeting in Bali that was attended by President Barack Obama.
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Photographs show Obama looking on approvingly as Kirana and a senior Boeing executive signed the contract. No mention was made in the associated news reports that Lion Air was considered to be a dangerous airline and that it was banned from the United States.
Lion Air had been contributing to the casualties almost since its inception. By the time of the signing ceremony in Bali, it was responsible for 25 deaths, a larger number of injuries, five total hull losses and an unreported number of damaged airplanes. An old truth in aviation is that no pilot crashes an airplane who has not previously dinged an airplane somehow.
Scratches and scrapes count. Kirana was once asked why Lion Air was experiencing so many accidents, and he answered sincerely that it was because of the large number of flights. Another question might have been why, despite so many crashes, the death toll was not higher.
These were the brief interludes when the airplanes were being flown by hand. The reason crashes never happened during other stages of flight is most likely that the autopilots were engaged. Boeing knew it had a problem. Instead, Boeing decided to intervene at its own expense to raise standards at Lion Air and try to reduce its contributions to the accident rate. Both Boeing and Airbus had taken larger such actions before.
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Foremost were their epic interventions in China that gathered speed in the late s and endured for years. At the start, civil aviation in China was a mess, with one of the highest accident rates in the world. Dave Carbaugh, the former Boeing test pilot, spent his first 10 years with the company traveling the globe to teach customers how to fly its airplanes.
He mentioned the challenge of training pilots in Asia. They saw a runaway trim. They saw where and how it was handled in the curriculum — always on Sim Ride No. And so on their Sim Ride No. But did they get exposed anywhere else? Or did they discuss the issues involved? It was just a rote exercise.
This is Step No. They were probably the worst. Yet if they flew from Beijing to Guangzhou, it was 1, steps. I remember flying with a captain who would never divert no matter how many problems I gave him. That changed over time. With the support of the Chinese government, which went so far as to delegate some regulatory functions to foreigners like Carbaugh, the manufacturers were able to instill a rigorous approach to safety in a small cadre of pilots and managers, who in turn were able to instill it in others.
It is widely seen to have been a success. Today the Chinese airlines are some of the safest in the world. This was the history that Boeing had in mind 10 years ago when it decided to intervene with Lion Air. We could only do so much, but we knew we had to try. It was an extraordinary effort. Lion Air continued to crash airplanes around runways as it had before. The Indonesian authorities lacked the political will to rein that in. It is no secret that Rusdi Kirana prioritized efficiency over regulation. Recently he made it clear that he also resented Boeing as being presumptuous and typically condescending.
It was perhaps inevitable that the relationship between Boeing and Lion Air would prove fractious. It made sense in an era when airplanes were vulnerable to weather and prone to failures and pilots intervened regularly to keep airplanes from crashing.
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By the s, however, the situation had evolved. It became apparent that because of engineering improvements, very few accidents were caused by airplanes anymore, and almost all resulted from pilot error. In the face of these changes, Boeing clung resolutely to its pilot-centric designs, but in Toulouse, France, the relative newcomers at the European consortium called Airbus were not nearly as shy.
Led by an outspoken former military test pilot turned chief engineer named Bernard Ziegler, Airbus decided to take on Boeing by creating a robotic new airplane that would address the accelerating decline in airmanship and require minimal piloting skills largely by using digital flight controls to reduce pilot workload, iron out undesirable handling characteristics and build in pilot-proof protections against errors like aerodynamic stalls, excessive banks and spiral dives.
The idea was that it would no longer be necessary to protect the public from airplanes if Airbus could get airplanes to protect themselves from pilots. Ziegler announced that he was going to build an airplane that even his concierge could fly. The implicit insult won him the enmity of some French airline pilots, who then as now thought highly of themselves. Ziegler told me he received death threats and lived under police protection for a while. You might think that the would have grown increasingly disadvantaged given the New World qualities of the A, but in my estimation pilots have managed to crash the at about the same rate, largely because of confusion over automation.
In other more positive ways, the and A were closely matched: same payloads and performance, same operating costs, same potential for profit-making. The following year, American Airlines warned that it might abandon Boeing and buy hundreds of the new Airbus models. Boeing responded with a rush program to re-engineer the , modify the wings and make other changes to improve the performance of the airplane and give it some perceptible advantage over the ANeo.
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The rush took five years to complete. Boeing called the result the Max. To keep costs down, as with all previous iterations, the redesign had to lie within the original F.