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It has been suggested that aviation safety could be promoted by adopting single-pilot operations. The conceptual frame-work of a single-pilot operation is based on pilot error and management. It has been demonstrated that a pilot’s analytical thinking in times of an impending accident during a flight is critical to saving the situation.
This paper aims at exploring the implications of pilot threat and management in aviation safety. It discusses the Colgan Air Flight 3407accident that occurred in February, 2009, in New York. It gives the findings of the team that was formed to investigate the cause of the accident, and the legal system upon which the accident could be analysed. In describing the legal framework of the accident, this paper considers the Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention.
In addition, this paper analyses the legal suits that resulted from the 2009 flight accident, and how the cases could impact aviation safety in the future. This paper analyses a study by Earl, Murray, Bates, Glendon and Creed (2012) which investigated the impact of Line Operations safety Audit (LOSA) on pilot error and management. Results show that most accidents could be prevented by pilots when they apply critical reasoning as applies to aviation.
Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident is one of the recent air flight accidents that have claimed many lives in the US. The accident led to death of the crew on board, 44 passengers and one person who was on the ground. An independent board was formed to investigate the cause of the air crash that lead to loss of many lives in New York. The aviation safety board in the US raised questions on the qualifications of the pilot. Legal suits were launched by families of those who lost lives in the air crash. Colgan Air Company was the defendant.
The accident and investigation
The two-engine aircraft had a capacity of 74 passengers and was owned by Colgan Air. A few minutes after being cleared from Newark Liberty International Airport, the aircraft disappeared from the radar. The aircraft was heading to New York from New Jersey. The weather was characterised by light snow, and winds were flowing at 15 knots.
Therefore, the weather could not have caused the air crash because it was fairly conducive for flying. Controllers at the tower unsuccessfully attempted to communicate with the crew. The controllers even requested other airways to contact the crew, but they reported that they could not locate the plane. It was reported that the plane was flying on autopilot at the time of the crash.
If a plane is on autopilot, then a pilot is not giving it any instructions. However, the pilots prepared the plane for landing after they noted that all was not well. The speed of the plane was significantly low even after preparing it for an emergency landing. Six seconds after the pilot instructed the crew to set the landing flats at 15 degrees, the plane’s stick shaker sounded.
The device sounded to warn the crew that the plane was flying at low speed. It was after the warning from the stick shaker that the pilots disengaged the autopilot. The pilot erroneously increased the power of the plane by about 75% while at the same time increasing the nose. Sound pilot procedures require that a pilot increases power by 100% and lowers the nose. This is intended to prevent stall of a plane.
The pilot applied to much pressure on the stick pusher and control yoke. As a result, the plane was destabilised, and the pilot could not control it. The plane rolled and crashed on a residential building in New York. High sounds of engines were heard by witnesses who were near the site of the plane crash. All the crew were killed and the 44 passengers on board the plane. In addition, the owner of the house onto which the plane crashed was also killed by the crash. Luckily, his wife and daughter sustained minor injuries.
An investigations team was formed by the national Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the cause of the plane crash. The team of investigators made their findings public on February 25, 2010. The board raised issues with the training of the pilot. It was made public that the pilot had failed one of the essential examinations in aviation. The inadequate training could have made the pilot make unsound judgement on stall recovery procedures.
It was concluded that both pilots acted against sound aviation requirements, and their actions led to the plane crash. The crew’s failure to regularly monitor the speed of the aircraft was also reported having contributed to the accident. In addition, the board concluded that the pilots could have acted unprofessionally because of fatigue. Fatigue among pilots has been cited as a major factor contributing to air flight accidents across the world.
The Chicago convention and Annex 13
A plane crash could cause great destruction of human lives and property. The Chicago Convention was agreed upon and signed by 52 member states in 1944 (Dodge & Kitchin, 2004; Huang, 2009). The Chicago Convention formed the International Civil Aviation organisation (ICAO). The ICAO is a body of the United Nations which oversees international air travel with the aim of ensuring air travel safety (Bennun & McKellar, 2009). The Chicago Convention sets rules of air travel, safety and registration of planes across the world.
The Convention also gives information on member states’ rights in relation to air travel (Bennun & McKellar, 2009; Huang, 2009). The Convention is based on 19 annexes which aim at promoting professional aviation standards and practices. The annexes are changed regularly by ICAO to ensure that they align with changing practices and standards in the aviation industry across the world. Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention contains rules on aircraft accident and investigation (Huang, 2009).
Annex 13 outlines the steps to be taken by member states in assessing the damage caused by a plane crash. Annex 13 also outlines the procedures that should be followed to conduct thorough and independent investigation following a plane crash (Dodge & Kitchin, 2004; Huang, 2009).
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If a member state does not follow the Chicago Convention that governs international air travel, then its planes could be excluded from international aviation business and air travel (Huang, 2009). Refusal to follow the regulations of the Chicago Convention implies that a member state is not committed to air travel safety for local and international travellers (Bennun & McKellar, 2009).
In some circumstances, a member state’s international airport could be temporary closed if found to have sub-standard aviation facilities. The aviation facilities could be aircrafts, control towers or landing areas, among others (Bennun & McKellar, 2009). An aviation company could be suspended from operations if found to have personnel with questionable qualifications.
Legal suits were launched by families of those who lost lives in the air crash. Colgan Air Company was the defendant. A criminal prosecution following a plane crash could have major implications on the crew, an aviation company, an engine manufacturer, an airport or a country’s aviation regulatory body.
Sometimes pilots direct planes yet they have no required flying hours and experience. In such circumstances, there is a high likelihood that aircraft accidents could occur. If an investigation into a plane crash finds the pilot responsible for the accident, then he or she is prosecuted in a court of law.
If a court finds the prosecuted pilot guilty, he or she could even face life imprisonment. He or she could also be suspended from flying planes over a period of time. Therefore, professional and career life of a pilot could be negatively impacted if a court of law finds him or her guilty of causing an aircraft crash. With such past record, it is difficult for the pilot to be hired by leading international airline companies.
It has also been demonstrated, in some cases, that a faulty engine could cause a plane crash. Such reports blame the engine manufacturer for the accident. For example, Rolls Royce is a leading multinational aircraft engine manufacturer in the world. If a plane using an engine manufactured by Rolls Royce crashes, then an investigation could look at all the parameters that could have led to the accident.
If it is found that the accident occurred as a result of a faulty engine, then the company could be prosecuted for manufacturing faulty engine systems. Such a legal action could have negative impacts on the engine manufacturer. The overall effects could be reduced sales. In some cases, an engine manufacturer could be declared bankrupt (Bennun & McKellar, 2009).
Investigations could also blame airports and aviation companies for plane crashes. For example, an airport could have sub-standard control towers which could imply that pilots are rarely given instructions on weather and other aviation matters. Criminal prosecutions against airports could impact their daily operations and annual financial performance. Criminal prosecutions of aviation companies, e.g. Airbus, could impact their financial performance and customer satisfaction (Bennun & McKellar, 2009).
Criminalisation of the pilot
The Chicago Convention requires regular reporting of accidents in the aviation industry. However, there have been concerns that such reports often lead to pilot criminalisation. There are people who advocate for pilot criminalisation while other people argue against the practice. People who advocate for pilot criminalisation argue that the prosecuted pilot could learn from previous mistakes and act professionally to prevent accidents from occurring in the future.
However, such arguments do not take into consideration the fact that aircraft accidents could occur as a result of interplay of various factors. For example, a pilot could be off duty and enjoying his or her evening drink. All over sudden, he or she receives a call from his or her senior flight manager requesting him or her to fly an aircraft to some destination. The pilot rushes to the airport to obey the orders from his or her senior at the workplace.
He or she flies an aircraft that was scheduled to be serviced earlier in the day, but it was not serviced due to unknown reasons. A few miles from the airport, the pilot encounters bad weather and the aircraft starts to develop mechanical problems. It should not be forgotten that the pilot is drunk, and he or she might not think critically to prevent an impending accident. A few seconds later, the pilot loses control over the plane and it crashes killing all those on board, leaving him or her alive.
Criminalisation of such a pilot could not lead to a reduction in the number of accidents in the future. Research demonstrates that criminal undertakings regarding aviation accidents should consider a number of factors (Bala, Sharma & Kumar, 2013). In the above example, court proceedings should consider that the plane was not serviced as scheduled, there was bad weather and the pilot was drunk.
Research demonstrates that criminalising a pilot does not reduce his or her rates of making errors in the future. Flying a plane is a complicated practice that requires experience and sound judgement. Therefore, pilots become better professionals as they accumulate their flying hours (Bala et al., 2013). Criminalisation of pilots has led many experienced pilots to leave the lucrative aviation industry to join other industries (Dekker, 2003).
When many experienced pilots leave the aviation industry, then the industry is left with less experienced pilots who have higher chances of causing aircraft accidents than the experienced pilots. Therefore, pilot criminalisation does not prevent aircraft accidents from occurring in the future. In fact, pilot criminalisation could increase the number of aircraft accidents because it looks at the pilot as the cause of an aircraft accident.
Line Operations Audit System (LOSA) on pilot error and management has proved to be an effective way of reducing the number of aircraft accidents (Earl, Bates, Murray, Ian & Creed, 2012). A LOSA is involved with gathering data that identify potential causes of aircraft accidents. The problems are addressed in time to prevent accidents in the future (Earl et al., 2012; Helmreich, 2000).
The Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident led to loss of many lives and property. The four crew members on board, 44 passengers and one person on the ground were killed by the plane crash. The team of investigators formed to determine the cause of the accident blamed the pilot and his co-pilot for the accident.
If the pilots did not die in the plane crash, they could have faced criminal charges. However, criminalising the pilots could not prevent accidents occurring in the future. Colgan Air was responsible for hiring a pilot who had failed a mandatory aviation test. That was against the Chicago Convention.
The pilot licensing body was also to explain why the pilot was given his licence yet he failed the aviation test. To prevent aircraft accidents occurring in the future, aviation companies across the world should adopt LOSA. A LOSA is aimed at rectifying problems that could cause aircraft accidents in the future. Adoption of LOSA could help aviation companies to deal with eminent threats using their safety culture. A LOSA aims at improving international air travel safety by adopting regular accident and incident reporting systems.
Bala, I., Sharma, S. K., & Kumar, S. (2013). Exploring Raw Safety Aspects in Aviation Industry. Computer Engineering and Intelligent Systems, 4(1), 80-97.
Bennun, M. E., & McKellar, G. (2009). Flying Safely, the Prosecution of Pilots, and the ICAO Chicago Convention: Some Comparative Perspectives. J. Air L. & Com., 74(1), 737.
Dekker, S. (2003). When human error becomes a crime. Human Factors and Aerospace Safety, 3(1), 183-92.
Dodge, M., & Kitchin, R. (2004). Flying through code/space: the real virtuality of air travel. Environment and Planning A, 36(2), 195-211.
Earl, L., Bates, P. R., Murray, P. S., Ian Glendon, A., & Creed, P. A. (2012). Developing a Single-Pilot Line Operations Safety Audit. Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors, 2(2), 49-61.
Helmreich, R. L. (2000). On error management: lessons from aviation. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 320(7237), 781.
Huang, J. (2009). Aviation Safety, ICAO and Obligations Erga Omnes. Chinese Journal of International Law, 8(1), 63-79.