Reflections on an Aircraft Accident
Air transportation- whether via scheduled airlines or business aircraft is impressively safe- observes Jack Olcott. He cautions that such success is not a sinecure and must never be taken for granted.
The recent Recovery of the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from Air France 447- the Airbus A330 airliner that was lost when transiting an equatorial storm over the South Atlantic nearly 25 months ago- renewed questions about the tragic accident.
Data from the aircraft’s “black boxes” appear to confirm initial suppositions that disruption of the aircraft’s system for sensing airspeed- possibly caused by ice formations on the aircraft’s pitot tubes- was a significant factor in the inability of the aircraft crew to prevent the aircraft from entering a deep stall and descending in a nose-high attitude- probably with wings essentially level- for nearly 3.5 minutes before slamming into the sea.
Questions remain- however- as to why an experienced captain- his equally experienced first officer and a 3-000-hour second officer lost control of their aircraft and were unable to re-establish safe flying conditions.
Many years of accident investigations emphasize that all relevant factors and “black box” information must be thoroughly analyzed before authorities can identify with a high degree of certainty the probable cause of an air tragedy. Many early pronouncements- some by official federal investigators- have been proven wrong after all the facts were known. Air France 447 may be yet another case for which considerably more study will be necessary before the operative cause (or causes) can be isolated and addressed.
Nevertheless- this accident should remind Board Members of two cardinal rules:
1) Safe operation of aircraft must never be taken for granted.
2) The Board of Directors has the ultimate responsibility for the safety of its company’s air transportation.
Air transportation- whether by scheduled airlines or corporate flight department- is by far the safest means for moving people between two points. Considering that aircraft operate in a relatively hostile environment miles above the earth and move at hundreds of miles per hour- this fact is a tribute to the people of the aviation community.
Dedicated aviators- engineers- technicians and regulators have contributed to a system as well as a culture that protects travelers from harm and provides them with the realistic expectation that their trip will be uneventful. The reality of a safe trip- however- must never be assumed or taken for granted.
Such complacency can be fatal. Your company’s flight department delivers safe transportation to the company’s personnel and customers only because it functions within a well-structured system in accordance with thoughtfully designed and religiously followed protocols. Crews train systematically- technicians inspect aircraft routinely- and all flight department personnel live within a culture that embraces standard operating procedures and self-discipline.
The outstanding safety record of professional aviation is the result of ongoing dedication to understanding flight and respecting the risks that exist in spite of advances in equipment and technology.
Although Directors are rarely elected to Boards because of their expertise in flight operations- they are ultimately responsible for the safety of employees utilizing the company’s flight department or other means of air transportation such as chartered aircraft or airliners.
Even if one’s idea of Board duties is simply to maximize shareholder value- aviation safety is a Board responsibility since aircraft transport a firm’s most valuable asset—its personnel. Such is the ubiquitous obligation of governance that befalls every Board.
Good management dictates that safety functions must be delegated to personnel with appropriate knowledge and skills- but responsibility can never be delegated. It is essential that Directors include aviation in their governance of the company and their formulation of corporate policies. They must never assume that safety is a foregone outcome resulting from the technology inherent in today’s aircraft. Nor should they discount the essential role of flight personnel.
Board policies on air transportation must be comprehensive. For example- they should reflect the unique hiring and training needs of those who affect the success of the company’s use of Business Aviation—the flight department manager- his or her pilots and maintenance specialists- and support personnel. Travel policy must also include the criteria for selecting charter providers and scheduled air carriers- particularly when business opportunities involve transportation in third-world countries.
While unlikely to be aviators- Directors are ultimately responsible for establishing and implementing a system of safety oversight- including assessment and continuous improvement- for their company’s air travel. Anything less is an abdication of fiduciary duty.
Do you have any questions or opinions on the above topic? Get it answered/published in World Aircraft Sales Magazine. Email feedback to Jack@avbuyer.com