Tag Archives: CFIT

Close call: Boeing 737 almost crashes into the water while landing into St. Maarten

A WestJet B737 Demonstrates How the Famous Princess Juliana Approach Can Be Tricky.

Every aviation enthusiast knows about the approach to St. Maarten’s famous Princess Juliana Airport and the remarkable views of aircraft landing there from Maho Beach directly in front of the runway threshold.

While this has always been a great place to celebrate aviation, it can also turn dangerous.

On March 7, Tuesday, WestJet flight 2652 from Toronto was making a descent through a low ceiling to Princess Juliana. The first attempt through rain and low cloud cover was videotaped and photographed by plane spotters who are almost always at Maho Beach to watch incoming aircraft. On that Tuesday they caught a near miss: a near Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT).

The first approach puts the Toronto flight short and low, low enough that jet wash from the Boeing can be seen creating turbulence on the surface of the water. The flight crew does an excellent job of immediately applying power and going around for a second approach. Commercial flight crews, and especially those trained and, in some cases, specially certified to fly into airports with unusual approaches, are well-drilled both in the simulator and as 2nd officers for flights into these airports before captaining a flight there.

Even with the low cloud cover the second approach in the video has a higher trajectory, is more on glide slope presumably and has no problem coming in safely over the water and clearing the famous fence at Princess Juliana.

The video is noteworthy since incidents like this at Princess Juliana, St. Maarten are actually very rare. According to at least one source, there has never been an accident recorded on the final approach to the famous runway 09/27 at Princess Juliana (even though it’s pretty obvious there have been several near-CFIT incidents and actual mishaps by civil and military aircraft crashing short of the runway at the end of a final approach in both good and bad weather in aviation history). This further speaks to the special training commercial pilots undergo to fly the route.

While there have been conversations about closing Maho Beach to the public for safety reasons it has remained open since there have really been no significant accidents for observers on the ground and it remains a sensational attraction for tourists and aviation enthusiasts alike.

Video credit: ATCpilot.com

Salva

Air India 101 conspiracy theory update: debris pictures

On Apr. 21, 2009 I’ve published an article about the Air India 101 that crashed into the Mount Blanc in 1966. Quite surprisingly, that post remains one of the most commented of this blog.

Since then, Daniel Roche, the French aviation enthusiast who has been researching this topic since many years and has conducted several expeditions on the crash site [collecting 5 tonne (?!?!) of plane parts], has sent me emails with pictures that, according to him, would prove his theory of a collision with an Italian fighter jet.

I’ve already written in my previous article what I think about the crash. Plane crash investigations require experts in various fields. They must be performed in accordance with specific procedures and protocols, that cover also how evidences must be collected and preserved. So, regardless what Daniel believes, I still think the official report of the French BEA says it all about the reasons of the crash of the Air India 101 flight.

Furthermore, I don’t like conspiracy theories very much.

However, the last pictures Daniel has sent to me are quite interesting because they show some aircraft parts he has found on the glacier. Text on the debris is English, suggesting an American fighter. I don’t know where he actually found them and I haven’t checked yet if another US or Italian plane has crashed in the same area but I’m curious to hear from any of this weblog’s readers who is able to identify the type of aircraft that parts and tank (?) belong to.

Blue Angels' almost crash: the risk of Controlled Flight Into Terrain during formation aerobatics

On May 22, 2011, the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron was performing at Lynchburg Regional Air Show, Va, when the diamond formation went too low at the end of the “Barrel Roll Break” maneuver. As a consequence of the lower-than-normal maneuver, the Blue Angels aborted the show and all F-18s landed safely. Noteworthy, neither on the preceeding day’s rehearsals, for unknown reasons, the maneuver ended as expected with the break (to see how the maneuver should be performed have a look at the team’s website and select Maneuver 28).

The following video shows both the May 21 and 22 maneuvers.

Following the incident, the Blue Angels announced a safety stand-down and cancelled their next performances (so far, until mid June) for more practice at their home base Pensacola, Florida, and, on May 27, team’s leader CDR Dave Koss resigned and was replaced for the duration of the season by Capt. Greg McWherter, who was the previous Blue Angels’ Commanding Officer.

The incident was obviously a Leader’s fault. He entered the loop too low causing the diamond four-ship formation almost to hit the ground as happened in 1982, when the whole Thunderbirds T-38 formation crashed killing all four pilots (even if in that case the cause of the crash was a mechanical malfunction with the #1 aircraft control stick).

Formation aerobatics requires specific qualifications, experience and training as it’s not easy to perform aerobatic maneuvers. When many aircraft (up to 9 elements) fly formation aerobatics, it is important not only to maintain the correct distance from one another, but also to maintain a very reactive flight attitude: who flies up front is required to anticipate wind gusts, turbulence, and the appropriate corrections, absorbing as much as one can the oscillations in order not to propagate them amongst the rest of the formation. Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is utilised for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.

Formation leader is the role with greater responsibilities: he guides the whole team, ensuring flight safety, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins. For this reason, formation leaders are the most experienced pilots flying in a team. However, even the most experienced pilots can do mistakes and when such errors occur during vertical maneuvers, consequences can be tragic.

In 2008 I was attending an airshow when a brand new NH90 helicopter of the Italian Army, piloted by an experienced crew, crashed into the Bracciano lake after entering a Fiesler maneuver at low altitude and, probably, suffering spacial disorientation caused by the surface of the water.

The above picture was taken on Jun. 1, 2008. For more info visit the NH90 crash page. Image is watermarked.

Who called the “Knock it off”?

After watching the footage of the Blue Angel’s almost crash, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with blog’s visitors and Twitter followers, who might have called the “knock it off” (a radio call reserved for safety of flight issues used to cease maneuvering).

As already explained, the team Leader has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the formation. Many teams (as the Frecce Tricolori) have a  Commander who issues instructions from the ground to the pilots in the air to fine tune timings and distances in the various manoeuvres, supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.  However, in the Blue Angels the Flight Leader is also the Commanding Officer, hence, most probably, it was #1 who radioed the safety order to the rest of the formation. Nonetheless, there are some maneuvers in which other formation members have specific responsibility to cross check heights and distances and during the whole performance, and above all, #4 has a demonstration safety officer role, as he flies at the lowest position in the diamond, from where he has a overall view of the formation. Maybe #1 failed to recognize the dangerous situation and #4 called the safety breakout. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine it but it owuld be extremely interesting to know whether it was the Leader or the Slot or another team member to radio the “knock it off” as it would give us an idea of the formation’ situational awareness.

Even if it is not among his tasks, each formation member can radio a call for a safety issue but it is an extremely unlikely situation, unless the call is made to inform the rest of the formation of a failure involving a single aircraft. Unsolicited safety calls are extremely rare even if the could prevent a so-called “Controlled Flight Into Terrain” (CFIT) of the formation. Military aviation counts thousands episodes of CFIT with wingmen recognizing a potentially dangerous situation earlier than their flight leaders but delaying too much the call that would have saved both lives for extreme confidence in the flight leader and respect of hierarchy.

Air India 101 conspiracy theory

Thanks to Anand, a visitor of my site that manages the WordPress blog http://aviatingindia.wordpress.com/ (dealing with Indian Aviation), I’ve had the opportunity to read an interesting (conspiracy?) story about the Air India flight 101, that crashed in Mont Blanc in 1966. The article provides some interesting details, a theory, according to which, the B-707 was collided with (or was shot down by) a military aircraft belonging to the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF).
Here’s the article that Anand published on the Indian Aviation blog:

Mumbai: On January 24, 1966, Air India flight AI 101 Mumbai-Paris crashed on Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps on the border of France and Italy.
Amongst the 117 passengers killed was noted Nuclear Scientist Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha. Although the world believes the aircraft crashed, Daniel Roche, an aviation enthusiast who has spent five years researching and collecting the remnants of the plane from Mont Blanc, says the plane was hit by an Italian military aircraft or a missile.
Roche, 57, a property consultant in Lyon, France, has collected about three tonne of parts of the two Air India (AI) aircraft that crashed into the glacier of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps (4,810 m or 15,781 feet).
One was the propeller aircraft Malabar Princess, which crashed in 1950, and the other was the Boeing 707 Kanchenjunga. “While the parts of Malabar Princess were found around one spot, those of Kanchenjunga were found scattered around a 25 km range,” he says.
Roche says that while the Malabar Princess is a clear case of a crash, the Kanchenjunga was hit by an Italian military aircraft or a missile. “If Kanchenjunga had crashed in the mountain, there should have been huge fire and explosion as there was 41,000 tonne of fuel in the aircraft, but that was not the case. Just two minutes before the crash, the aircraft was at 6,000 feet above the ground. According to me, it collided with an Italian aircraft and as there is very little oxygen at that height, there was no combustion that could cause an explosion,” he says.
During his excavations in the Mont Blanc glacier, he found the black box of the aircraft, the pilot’s manual, a camera, jewellery, and other belongings of the passengers that had over the last 40 years sunk some 8 km into the glacier and descended down the mountainside.
Talking about his suspicion of the Italian plane, he says, “There were news reports that time about an Italian aircraft that had gone missing the same day. There are chances that it collided into the aircraft.I managed to find a fuel tank of the Italian plane with inscriptions on it,” he says.
“I do not know whether it was a conspiracy or what as Bhabha was going to give India its first nuclear bomb, which the nuclear powers of that time did not want,” he says. “..I feel that it is my duty to tell the truth to the world based on the evidence. If the Indian government wants, I am ready to hand over the documents and the belongings of the passengers to them…” he says.

As soon as I read the article I checked through files the news of any military aircraft crashed on the same day of the Air India flight AI 101. According to the information I’ve gathered, on Jan 24, 1966, the ItaF recorded only an aviation safety event: an F-104G suffered an emergency during take off from Grazzanise airbase (Central Italy, South of Rome, hundred miles to the South of the Air India crash location). The pilot ejected safely and the aircraft was heavily damaged. On Jan 25, 1996, the following day, an F-104G of the 9° Gruppo of the 4^ Aerobrigata crashed near Accumuli (Rieti) to the ENE of Rome. The pilot ejected safely but the aircraft was destroyed. So, the statement “There were news reports that time about an Italian aircraft that had gone missing the same day” is probably true, but it is not related to the Air India crash. It would be interesting to understand which kind of Italian inscriptions were found on a (possible) tank, where / how far it was found (it is possible the tank or part was lost in another event/time/occasion). I don’t think the aircraft was shot down for various reasons. First of all because evidences would be found, second because the investigation report did not mention any possibility the aircraft was destroyed by anything else than the impact with the mountain. Third, if the ItAF was interested in downing the aircraft, why don’t do that far from the boundaries with other two nations? It would have been far easier to shot it down above the Sea, in Souther Italy or above the Adriatic. I suggest reading the final report of the inquiry board that is available in French language with other information at the following address: http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19660124-0. I quickly read it and found that the inquiry board experts visited the crash location more than once and by analysing the wreckage and the remains of the aircraft stated that everything pointed to a crash caused by an impact with the ground (we would call it Controlled Flight Into the Terrain CFIT, today). For Aviation Safety Network: “The commission concluded that the most likely hypothesis was the following: a) The pilot-in-command, who knew on leaving Beirut that one of the VORs was unserviceable, miscalculated his position in relation to Mont Blanc and reported his own estimate of this position to the controller; the radar controller noted the error, determined the position of the aircraft correctly and passed a communication to the aircraft which, he believed, would enable it to correct its position.; b) For want of a sufficiently precise phraseology, the correction was mis-understood by the pilot who, under the mistaken impression that he had passed the ridge leading to the summit and was still at a flight level which afforded sufficient safety clearance over the top of Mont Blanc, continued his descent.”

Anyway, another statement in the above article is worth analysing: “While the parts of Malabar Princess were found around one spot, those of Kanchenjunga were found scattered around a 25 km range”. The aviation enthusiast is referring to another Air India crash that occurred incidentally on the same place (Mont Blanc): on Nov. 3, 1950, the “Malabar Princess”, a Lockheed Constellation, operating on the Mumbai-London route crashed into the mountain while approaching Geneva, one of the intermidiate stop-over. The aircraft hit the Mont Blanc 30 meters from the top.
By the way, there can be hundreds of reasons that can explain why the debris were scattered in one case and in the same spot in the other, the most obvious of which is the different cruising speeds.