Okay, I'm going to slaughter a few sacred cows here today, because if there is one thing I am awfully damn tired of hearing, it's how many hours an airline pilot had before he did something INCREDIBLY FUCKING STUPID before flying his airplane into the ground in a completely AVOIDABLE accident and usually (but not always, thank God) killing people.
I've seen this happen with my own two eyes more times than I care for, and heard stories about far too many more. Yes I'm a pilot, though I haven't flown in some time. I was also a Flight Test Engineer for Grumman aerospace, then General Dynamics, then Lockheed. I did that for about seven years. Dealing with accidents (though I never had to deal with a fatal one) was part of my job. Whenever there was an 'incident' and the pilots were told that the 'company representatives need to talk to you', I was one of those 'representatives' on the other end of the phone.
Now this little rant is because they announced the preliminary findings on the crash of B-17G '909'. After listening to this, anybody who knows anything about B-17's knows exactly what happened. Unless they change the preliminary findings, if what they said was true, it's blatantly obvious what happened.
But before we get into that, I've heard bandied about, several times now, that the PIC (Pilot In Command) had over 20,000 hours. People say that like it means something. Well you know what? Ralph Kramden had over twenty years as a bus driver! In NYC no less! So let's put him in a formula one race car and make him drive at Indy and see how he does!
Some of you may find that to be a bit facetious, but it's not. An airline pilot is a bus driver. No more, no less. That's all you are, and in this day and age it takes even less skill than driving a bus, because everything is automated. Korean Airlines, which you may recall flew into the ground at SFO, did so because between the pilot and the copilot they had landed that aircraft less than a dozen times COMBINED. Now yes, KAL is a bit of an extreme example, their pilots are hands down the worst in the world, but they prove the point. Flying a modern airliner is easy.
Now, another quick aside here. My father flew in B-17's, B-24's, and B-29's. He was a gunnery instructor during WW2 and he had thousands of hours in all of those aircraft. He knew a lot about flying them, and he saw a lot of them crash. The biggest problem was that with the training aircraft, it was not uncommon for them to lose an engine on takeoff during training. As they'd train the pilots while training the gun crews and the bombardier so every flight took off heavy weight. If you banked into the dead engine, the plane would crash and everyone onboard would DIE.
You'd think having been taught that, and told that many times, it wouldn't happen. Yet my father saw it happen several times. But those were green pilots, right? And this was before ANY safety regulations for flying existed. Little known fact: More Army Air Corps crew were killed during WW2 in training than fighting the war. A lot more. When the war ended they were still losing something like 10,000 men a year. That's when it was discovered that training was where they lost everyone, and not over Germany (something that they could cover up during the war, but not afterwards — think about that a moment).
So, let's get back to the issue at hand. We have a pilot in 909 who has 'over 20,000 hours as PIC'. But apparently no one ever taught him how to deal with an in flight emergency? Apparently he never had a safety brief? And apparently he didn't really know all that much, for all of his hours flying, about B-17's.
How can I say this? Let's make it simple: He fucked up by the numbers.
Now, getting over whether or not he should have even taken off (magneto problems), I want you to think about this: He's taking off in a B-17 that is either heavy, or damn close to it. It has eleven people on board, and being Americans, you can pretty much guarantee that the average weight of those people is over 200lbs. So he's flying with over a ton of cargo. That's a lot of weight. On take-off, one of the more dangerous phases of flight in an aircraft he loses an engine.
He doesn't declare an emergency. That right there probably would have cost him his license for the rest of his life. He's in a heavily loaded airplane with eleven people. A B-17 has problems climbing out with all four engines running, he just lost one, and he doesn't declare an emergency? What the hell! Is there a commercial jet in the world today that if you lose an engine you don't declare an emergency? I can't think of one, if someone else can, please tell me.
Now why didn't he declare an emergency? To me it's obvious: He didn't want to do the paperwork. He didn't want the airplane to be grounded. He didn't want to have to give those eleven people their money back. He didn't want to do a lot of things and that right there is why he shouldn't have been flying that airplane. Why he shouldn't have been flying any airplane! He had stopped putting the safety of his passengers and aircraft first.
There is no other explanation. Don't tell me he 'forgot to declare an emergency', he's got 20,000 hours! Right?
This brings us to the moment he doomed the airplane to crash and killed the 6 people onboard — and lets not sugar coat it. HE killed them. Through his negligence and yes, stupidity. It's harsh to say that, especially about the dead, but when it comes to preventable accidents that kill a lot of people, I'm not much for giving slack. So here he is, he's got an engine out on the right side of the airplane. Anyone with a brain knows that if you bank into that engine, YOU'RE GONNA CRASH. Okay? That's not a 'possibility' it's a cold hard fact. You are going to crash. People are going to die.
But he can't bank left. It's a right-hand pattern; he has to turn right, into the dead engine. Now if he had, oh I don't know, DECLARED AN EMERGENCY, he would have been able to turn LEFT like he SHOULD HAVE. But you know what, there's all that paperwork, the refunds, the plane being grounded... Nah, I have 20,000 hours! It'll work THIS time, for ME!
Yeah, well it didn't. The aircraft continued to sink (lose altitude) until it crashed. I'm personally amazed he made it as far around as he did before he hit the ground. I'm also amazed he put the gear down. You're barely flying, and you have to know you're gonna crash, and you put down the drag? WTF? Yes, I know it's common for a lot of pilots to think that they're going to make it, right up to the moment they crash and die. I've read more than enough cockpit voice recorder transcripts from dead pilots. You keep working the problem. But when you caused the problem, maybe you should take a moment to reconsider your choices? Sure a gear up landing sucks, especially in a propeller driven airplane. But you can fix that.
So yes, 909 was 100 percent pilot error. I don't know if no one ever told him that you can't bank any WW2 era bomber into the dead engine and expect to keep flying. If not, they have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. But the bigger problem here was that the pilot threw safety out the window, fucked up by the numbers, and crashed the airplane killing 6 people. Makes me wonder about how he survived those previous 20,000 hours, right?
And it also shows that those 20,000 hours don't mean shit. You take a bus driver and put him in a finicky high performance vehicle, and you sure don't expect him to go out there and win the Indy 500. You don't even expect him not to crash. Hours in airliners don't translate to hours in other aircraft. To date I have witnessed three crashes in person — one of which almost killed me. All three of those pilots had over ten thousand hours of experience. But the amount of experience they had in the airplanes that they crashed, under the conditions that they were flying in, it was a lot less than that. And it showed. Because they did stupid shit, which in one case got 11 people on the ground killed and dozens more injured.
Too many airline pilots think that because they have lots of hours, they have lots of skill. I've seen this too many times and once even had some gal tell me that she knew more because she flew an A-380, when we were discussing flight characteristics in a small single engine airplane.
Well I gotta lot of skill sitting on my couch at home, and guess what? It's directly transferable to damn near any airliner out there. This isn't to say all airline pilots are unskilled, I've met a lot who I would trust to fly any kind of aircraft. But that's because they fly airplanes other than an airliner. They learned on many different aircraft, transitioned through many different aircraft, and have found themselves in many different and difficult situations. But let's be honest here: Flying is easy. It's so easy that anyone can do it. But flying is also inherently unforgiving of mistakes. You can't just pull over to the curb. You have to land, and there are only certain places where you can land safely.
Because of this, there are a lot of rules when you're flying. There are also a lot of rules that apply to each and every type of aircraft. When you start breaking these rules you are literally taking your life into your own hands. In some cases you are literally committing suicide. Now that's fine if it's just you, but it's not fine if other people are counting on you. And when you start putting ANYTHING before the safety of your passengers: You're done.
That guy who was flying 909? Yeah, I met him once. I thought he was an okay guy. I even flew in that very airplane. So I gotta ask myself: How the hell could he have been so damned stupid? And I think that the foundation that owned that airplane needs to sit down with all of their pilots and tell them that if they're not putting the safety of the passengers and the aircraft first — paperwork be damned — then they shouldn't be flying for them. Or perhaps, anyone.