“We’re too low! We’re too low! We’re too low!”
Boeing Co. Furious warnings from a Boeing 737 co-pilot in September. 08/28/2018 came too late. Seconds later, an Air Niugini Ltd passenger flight crashed into Western Pacific waters, half a mile from the runway at Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia.
One of the 47 people on board, unfastened and thrown forward on impact, died before the aircraft sank.
But investigators were lucky. Sitting in the back of the cockpit, the maintenance engineer recorded the last minutes of the flight on his iPhone just for fun. The footage revealed the sequence of events almost immediately. It showed the pilot heading for a storm cell that lit up on his navigation screen.
He descended blindly through rain and clouds, shaking his wipers, and ignored the command on the flight display to stop. Six other passengers were seriously injured on impact, but there were no casualties.
Several disasters later followed, including two Boeing 737 Max tragedies and a fatal fall into a hillside in March when China Eastern Airlines Corp. jet aircraft – There are renewed calls for aircraft to be equipped with flight recorders or DVRs.
The push is rekindling a standoff between pilots who guard their privacy and crash experts and agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board who are forced to solve mysterious accidents and prevent them from happening again.
Among those advocating dash cams is aviation safety pioneer Mike Poole, who spent over 20 years with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and ran their flight recorder lab. Poole created the first 3D animation nearly four decades ago using data from flight recorders after two planes nearly collided over the Atlantic Ocean.
Poole heads Plane Sciences Inc., a company that specializes in flight data analysis and helps countries set up accident investigation commissions. He helped Papua New Guinean officials recreate the final moments of Air Niugini Flight 73. This is an edited transcript of an interview with Poole from Ottawa.
How can photo or video recorders help in aviation safety?
You are trying to figure out what happened. In a huge, huge number of cases, this would make a very big difference. At the very least, images eliminate or greatly reduce controversy. And this should not be underestimated, because contradictions cause all sorts of obstacles to security.
If you don’t agree with the facts as a global community, then you won’t get to the security measures. It will also make investigations a lot less expensive because it’s not a puzzle anymore.
What do pilots say about image recording?
“It wouldn’t help,” says Uwe Harter, a former A380 captain and executive vice president of technical and safety standards for the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations in Montreal. “So many downsides. We see a lot of privacy issues. There is no way to protect data.
The video can be faked. And see someone die? What does this do to us emotionally? Do we really want to find out what’s going on, or do we want to blame? It’s very personal. We’re just not convinced.” IFALPA represents over 100,000 pilots worldwide.
What images show what you can’t understand from data and voice recorders?
We record a lot of data, but still not enough to play this cabin. A typical camera would be behind the crew and facing forward. You want to know what they can see and what they can’t see. What is the situation in the cockpit? Is there smoke? What is the load in the cab?
You would see who is flying, the overall cockpit display, and all the non-verbal cues like a thumbs up.
The voice recorders in the cockpit are very mysterious. If you ever listened to one of them, you would see how disappointing it is. It’s like, “I’d give my right eye to see what they’re looking at right now and what they’re linking to.”
How important was the cockpit video to Air Niugini’s investigation?
You could see the weather radar, you could see the big red spot coming. You should have seen the wipers rise. They were caught in a big cloudy storm and couldn’t see anything. I can guarantee that without the image being recorded, this crash would have been very controversial because people would have said, “There must be something else.”
They would never have continued their journey if they had not seen anything.” This was the last little piece of the puzzle. So for me it was the golden star of investigations. The shortest time, the smallest details, zero contradictions and a problem that we really need to solve through behavior change.
How about the disaster in China? The crash of the Boeing 737 killed all 132 people on board. According to the Wall Street Journal, the black box data indicates that someone on the flight control initiated the dive.
You’re alluding to instances where the flight crew has committed deliberate acts, and it’s obvious that a DVR will go a long way. In those rare cases, the image will tell you which of the crew members or the third person got into the cockpit.
Historically, this tends to be pretty obvious, because even without a voice recorder, the first thing investigators look at is, did the plane do what it was ordered to do? If you have an intentional action, then you sort of see it in the data. The voice usually confirms this. But a video or image would just eliminate the controversy.
What about the main security and regulatory agencies? What do they think?
The US Federal Aviation Administration said in an email that it is participating in international work to identify types of image recording devices, such as screen capture systems, that record information displayed to pilots, as well as the position and selection of buttons, knobs and switches. It also encourages the voluntary use of flight recorders.
The NTSB, which first addressed cockpit image recorders more than 20 years ago, says the devices will improve safety. The Australian Transportation Safety Bureau says voice, data or video recorders can play a critical role in explaining aircraft accidents. “ATSB welcomes their installation on all passenger aircraft,” Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said in a statement.
What about privacy?
I have the utmost respect for privacy issues and I do not for a moment advocate for them to be illegal. But the value of these images outweighs the potential concerns. The difficulty of finding out what happened when we can know what happened is just an obstacle to improving security.
Join the modern world: many employers permanently store images of their employees. The cockpit is not your personal space. It really isn’t. You get paid to work up there.
Sound is much more sensitive than a camera pointing forward from the back of your head. So why is adding an image a problem? If you only have four frames per second and have an image showing the cockpit instruments and the back of your head, it’s not as bad as you think.
It is watched by the authorities, not the whole world. The images are protected, as is the voice recording from the cockpit.
What needs to happen before DVRs become the standard?
The US must do it. This is the obvious place. Until the lead state actually does this, it will never become the standard. So if the US, Canada and Australia were doing that, you would see ICAO starting to accept it. (ICAO – International Civil Aviation Organization.)