Airbus design again contributes to crash

One contributor to the A320 crash off Brazil in 2009 (Air France 447) was that the two pilots were making opposite inputs on their control sticks. The aircraft was in a stall, and therefore it was crucial to push the nose down, to regain airspeed. The instinctive human reaction (of untrained people) is to pull the nose up, since the airplane is falling. To oversimplify a long sequence of events drastically, pilot made the correct move, but the other pilot apparently panicked, and pulled back on his control stick. He continued to do this as they fell from 40,000 feet all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

A new accident report says that the same thing happened in the crash of an  Indonesia AirAsia Airbus A320, flight QZ8501, last year.

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How often do pilots skip checklist steps?

Board blames fatal overrun on pilot error.
Source: NTSB Issues Bedford Gulfstream IV Crash Report | Flying Magazine

Checklists were a major innovation in flying, and are now being pushed in health care. But as I research this, it’s clear that although pilots all swear by them, use is less than 100%. Perhaps less than 99% – and a 1% error rate is very high when there are hundreds of items on a flight.

It’s very hard to know the real number. But the pilots in this crash, both very experienced, did pre-takeoff control checks for less than 10% of their flights!

Data from a recorder installed in the airplane showed that in the previous 176 takeoffs, full flight control checks as called for on the GIV’s checklist were carried out only twice and partial checks only 16 times. The pilots on the evening of the accident skipped the flight control check, which might have revealed to them that the gust lock mechanism was still engaged.

This particular item – forgetting to unlock the “gust locks” – has been killing pilots since the first gust locks. Famous examples in the 1930s were the prototype B-17, and the head of the German Air Force. (Both discussed in my forthcoming chapter on standard procedures in aviation.)
Gulfstream IV jet with six on board - crashed and burned after failed takeoff.

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? – IEEE Spectrum

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? 

I’ve been tracking the potential for drone (Autonomous vehicle) delivery of packages since before Amazon proposed it. I’m generally very skeptical that it can play a major role in delivering routine packages. And I certainly thought Amazon’s claimed timetable was blowing smoke. (As it turned out to be.)

Basic issues include safety, landing somewhere in urban areas, weather (except where I live) and payload/range/weight. Longer range or bigger payload require a larger vehicle, which is more of a  potential safety hazard. Micro navigation (phone poles) might also be a problem, as stated in this IEEE article, but I can envision technical solutions to that issue.

Here is a 2013 IEEE article that makes the basic anti-Amazon case.  Amazon was talking about being ready in 2015!

Yet over a longer period, say before 2020, there are niche applications that will be feasible. Whether they will be economically sensible remains to be seen. Rather clearly, deliveries will start with small, high-value, urgent packages.  Here’s a  video about a rural demonstration of delivering meds.

Here is my comment to someone who said drone delivery was impossible because of theft and safety.

Theft is an issue, but there are many potential partial solutions. For example, once stolen the drone would not function. (It could still be stripped for parts, but that has possible solutions as well.) So it becomes an arms race/incentive system, just like stealing packages from your front door.

   Safety is an issue in cities, but suppose the drones become as safe as a delivery truck driving through your neighborhood. A six rotor drone is pretty robust. Safety is less of an issue in some regions. And there may even be ways to “crash safe,” including airbags, parachutes, etc.

Regulatory fear is likely to continue to be a big issue in the USA. In my opinion, that is a shame, and will destroy the US lead in the technology (for which there are many good applications – just probably not package delivery). So I’m glad to see Amazon is taking a role in proposing sensible regulation. 

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? - IEEE Spectrum

General drone technology clearly has a productive future. But my guess is that the US will be pushed aside by other countries that are less hung up about regulating every possible problem. (E.g. Australia?)

Why RC drones won’t be a danger to small planes

The rules for flying radio controlled aircraft are under tremendous debate and change, mainly because of two new technologies that have together created a new business. The  technologies are tiny flight management systems costing about $100, and excellent lightweight cameras like the GoPro (invented by a UCSD grad). The new business is using drones for low-altitude photography (and eventually for other applications, although IMO not for package delivery).

Congress put the Federal Aviation Administration in charge of figuring out what rule changes are needed. So far it has done a slow and weak job. (One result is that the U.S. has lost leadership of the industry, and may even become a backwater. That is a topic for another day.)

Pilots are instinctively concerned about risks to manned aircraft, from unmanned aircraft. Much argument back and forth has ensued, but there is little or no modeling or investigation. (What happens when a 2 pound quadcopter collides with small plane at 140 knots? Apparently there have been zero experiments on the issue.)  Here is an interesting blog post on this issue.

Why See and Avoid Doesn’t Work – AVweb Insider Article.

My take on this issue is that the likelihood of serious air-to-air collisions is tiny. Far fewer than bird strikes, for example. A much bigger sour of injuries will be untrained idiots flying drones over crowds of people.

Why Malaysia Air 370 could not have been remotely controlled

I recently visited some friends and colleagues at Wharton to discuss my work on evolution of flying. Naturally, Malaysia Air  MH370 came up. We have continued the discussion by email since I got back. Here is a note I wrote, explaining why it’s impossible to preprogram a flight plan so that the pilots could not override it, if they were conscious.


Notice the automatic circling when it reached Athens. Everyone onboard was dead.

Sid, overriding manual override  is designed to be impossible. The pilots always have override. Indeed, the first 2 items on some emergency procedures are:

1) Disengage autopilot

2) Disengage auto throttle

and there are specific buttons to make that easy to do in a hurry. (As well as by going into the Flight computer and reprogramming it, or rebooting it, etc. ) Continue reading

Latency in UAV operation (geeky)

An interesting question about how much latency is acceptable for UAV operation.  My answer, based partly on my radio control flying experience, is that it depends heavily on the context. 200 milliseconds is too long for stunt flying, but not a problem for flying larger UAVs at higher altitudes. The operator has to “dial in” their reflexes to the situation, just as sailors do with different sizes of sailboats.  Here’s an example where low latency is essential:  

A seeming paradox is that longer latencies are acceptable only at higher Stages of Control. (See my draft book for discussion of this concept.)  At the high end (what I call Computer Integrated Flying), if enough knowledge is embodied in the aircraft, the operator can pull back entirely from flying, and switch to “commanding” the aircraft.

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NYT review of photo drone recommends illegal and unsafe behavior

This review really missed the boat on both law and safety issues for drones. Some of what it discussed is illegal (unfortunately – I think the present law against commercial use of UAVs is too strong). A lot of it is unsafe, or rather it will be unsafe in the hands of newbies who buy this expensive but very-easy-to-use piece of technology.    Review – The Phantom 2 Vision Photo Drone From DJI –

If you have the $1200 for one of these undeniably cool machines, and the interest, the best approach is simple: buy one, and give it to me.  More seriously, here’s some good advice about learning to do photography with these.  It’s written for photographers who fundamentally are not interested in the flying part, and it’s not nearly “sufficient” for safety, but it gives a good idea of what you are in for.

Here are two videos of idiots flying these vehicles and having nasty crashes.  After the break: my two exchanges with the NY Times about the article.

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