Passengers Fall Ill on American Airlines Flight 109: Another Fume Event?

American Airlines Flight 109, traveling from London to Los Angeles, was two hours into its flight when passengers and crew members suddenly started fainting or otherwise becoming ill.   The captain turned the Boeing 777 around and landed at Heathrow. American Airlines 777 

According to the Daily Telegraph in Britain, the aircraft likely experienced a problem with the aircraft's pressurization system: 

This would suggest problems with cabin pressure, although normally such problems occur during take-off and landing.

American Airlines added that the aircraft was being inspected by maintenance engineers.

Actually, what happened was likely a “fume event.”  For years, the airline denied fume events existed, but now we know that they do.  And we know that they are dangerous.  In fact, I wrote about a fume event aboard another American Airlines Flight (Flight 49) almost five years ago.  

Here's what happens: airlines pump air into the cabin.  The air is a mix of fresh air and air that has been compressed by the aircraft's engines--known as "bleed air."  But when the air distribution system malfunctions, toxic chemicals found in the aircraft's engine oil can be heated and pumped through the airplane, creating a fume event that makes passengers sick

Sometimes the passengers recover quickly, sometimes the ill effects can linger for years, with victims suffering ongoing tremors, memory loss, and headaches.   

If they are injured, passengers can recover against the responsible airline.  Because American Airlines Flight 109light was international, the Montreal Convention applies.  The Convention requires an airline to offer fair compensation to anyone injured as a result of an "accident."  A fume event would likely qualify as an accident, even though some airlines now contend that fume events are a "normal” part of flight.

The flight attendants, however, can't sue the airlines due to workers' compensation laws. That means their only chance for compensation is a product defect claim against Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer.  As it turns out, Boeing has known about the risks of fume events in its designs since the 1950’s.

Piper Turbo Lance Crash in Bakersfield: Icing?

Piper N36402 departed Reid-Hillview Airport for Las Vegas as it was getting dark.  The pilot had his wife and three children on board.  Though the weather was challenging, the aircraft was turbocharged, which would have allowed the pilot to climb above at least some of the clouds.  

The plane's flight path, speed, and altitude changes can be followed on FlightRadar24.  The radar track shows that thePiper Turbo Lance N26402 aircraft made at least one 180 degree turn, but then resumed its course.  

It wasn't long too long after that the pilot found himself in trouble. The radar data shows the aircraft's speed building excessively and its altitude dropping fast.  The made two mayday calls (recording below) before the aircraft crashed, killing all aboard.

The flight conditions were ripe for airframe icing.  The Piper Lance lacked deicing equipment.  Airframe icing changes the aerodynamics of the wing and tail and can bring an aircraft down in a matter of minutes.  The loss of control can be especially dramatic when it is the tail surface that ices up first.

 

SkyLife HEMS Crash and Weather

The SkyLife Bell 407 air ambulance helicopter departed from Porterville Airport at 6:52.  It crashed minutes later, halfway into its 50 mile flight to San Joaquin Hospital in Bakersfield.  The four aboard SkyLife Helicopter Crashwill killed, including the patient being transported.

The flying conditions at Porterville were acceptable.  Though it was dark, the weather was 3300 overcast, with light rain, light winds, and 9 miles visibility.  Under those conditions, the crew could fly “VFR,” meaning they could avoid terrain and other aircraft by simply looking out the windscreen.  Were the conditions significantly worse, the pilot would have had to fly “IFR,” and would have had to rely on instruments and help from air traffic control.

The helicopter crashed east of McFarland.  The airport nearest the crash site does not have weather reporting equipment.  But first responders say that by the time they arrived it was raining hard. Photos of the crash area show dense ground fog. 

 Heavy rain, by itself, does not necessarily pose a safety risk.  But the restricted flight visibility that generally accompanies heavy rain or fog, does.  A helicopter pilot who inadvertently wanders into clouds, fog, or heavy rain can quickly become disoriented and lose control of the aircraft . 

One challenge of night flying is seeing and avoiding poor weather conditions before you wander into them.  Inadvertent flight into clouds is called “continued VFR into IFR conditions.” Sometimes pilots, trying to stay out of the clouds, will fly lower and lower until they strike hillsides or power lines that are hidden in the darkness.  The results of that sort of “CFIT” accident are almost always fatal.

It’s too early to say if weather was even a factor in this case.  After all, the first responders who reported the poor conditions didn’t get to the site for more than an hour after the crash.  But ground scars should provide clues to whether the helicopter might have crashed because the pilot lost control or whether, instead, he struck the ground, wires or a radio tower that he could not see while in controlled flight.  

Investigators will also want to know whether the air ambulance crew had night vision goggles available to them.  Night vision goggles have been a hot button for the NTSB for some time. 

Russian Flight KGL9268: Former NTSB Investigator Says Missile Brought Airbus Down

A few days ago, most were saying it's too early to tell what brought down the Russian Airbus that crashed on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 aboard.  Now, there's talk of the aircraft being downed by a bomb.  

Why a bomb?  The best explanation comes an article written by former NTSB investigator Doug Herlihy, appearing in the Goldendale Sentinel:

First, it’s likely that the aircraft came apart in flight.

The pieces of aircraft and persons on board are being found spread over 20KM (over 15 miles) in the mountainous region of the southern Sinai. The spread of wreckage is the most critical piece of the accident puzzle.    

When aircraft break up in flight, the parts are spread by two phenomena: the “ballistics” of the pieces and the wind.  “Ballistics” refers to the shape and weight of the object (like bullets or feathers) and how they will fly to earth.  The second factor is the wind at various altitudes as the parts fall to earth.  Like tearing a pillow in the wind, the parts are widely spread.

Second, aircraft seldom blow up because of a defect lurking within.  History shows that they almost always blow up because of an outside force.

Rarely, have any system or fuel supply or tank ever exploded a modern airplane.  Jet aircraft jet fuel, like kerosene and diesel fuel is not prone to explosion.  And, though it is not uncommon for an airliner to be hit by lightning, it’s almost unheard of that it has caused an explosion. Investigators know that either an on-board bomb or a hit by an explosive device is very high on the list of clues to search for.

EMS Industry Leader Commits to Retrofitting Helicopter Fleet with Crashworthy Fuel Systems

Earlier this summer, the NTSB asked the FAA to require helicopter manufactures to equip all new aircraft with crashworthy fuel systems.  If history is any guide, we can expect the FAA to ignore that recommendation, despite that the FAA has known of the dangers posed by existing fuel system for decades.

But now Air Methods, one of the nation's largest EMS helicopter operators, has committed toAir Methods EMS retrofit its entire fleet of more than 70 Airbus AS350 helicopters with fuel systems that don't needlessly catch fire in a crash. 

Air Methods is committed to retrofitting 100% of our Airbus AS350/EC130 (H125/H130) fleet, and we are working directly with a thried party who is seeking certification for a crash resistant fuel system for the entire Airbus line.. . . For us, it's about doing the right thing."

The program will be costly.  And Air Methods is taking the action entirely voluntarily.  The FAA does not now require retrofitting, and it's unlikely it ever will.   

But, as Air Methods says, maybe it is about doing the right thing, rather than the most profitable thing. The question is, will other operators follow?

Van's Aircraft Company Sued

Experimental amateur-built aircraft crash more often than those assembled in a factory. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that, when compared to factory-built aircraft used in similar flight operations, amateur-built aircraft crash three times as often.  Our own National Transportation Safety Board studied the amateur-built accident rates and made similar findings.Victoria Vabre photo

One might expect that, because they are built by an amateur, an experimental aircraft’s wings would tend to fall off more often than those of a factory-built aircraft.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Most experimental aircraft are structurally sound.  Rather, according to NTSB data, the biggest issue is engine failure, often because of fuel flow problems.

And that’s exactly what brought down an experimental Van’s RV-10 aircraft in Toledo, Oregon, in June 2014.  The aircraft lost power on takeoff, killing the pilot and his 4 year-old passenger.  The NTSB concluded the engine failed because it wasn’t getting fuel.  Investigators found broken fragments of sealant in the aircraft’s fuel line where, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be.   

There are no statistics on how often the companies who sell kits get sued, but it’s hardly ever.  After all, who is responsible for the defect in the aircraft’s manufacture or design that caused the crash? The company who sold the kit?  Or the guy who spent several years putting the kit together in his garage?  While some builders follow the kit maker’s directions to the letter, many do not, taking it upon themselves to modify at least some portion of the aircraft. That's allowed by regulations and seems to be part of the fun of building the aircraft.  For example, John Denver was killed years ago when the amateur-built aircraft he was piloting crashed off the California coast.  The amateur who put the kit together thought he had a better way of doing it and installed the aircraft fuel valve in a place other than as recommended by the kit's seller.  The NTSB ultimately determined that it was that modification that led to the crash. 

But even if the victim’s lawyer proves it was the kit maker, and not the builder, who was responsible for the defect, few kit makers carry insurance.  That means a verdict against the aircraft company may be impossible to collect.

Despite the hurdles, the family of the girl killed in the Toledo crash has filed suit against Van’s Aircraft Inc., blaming it for exploiting FAA “loopholes” that allow it to sell aircraft  that have not been properly tested and are thus unproven and unsafe.  The suit goes on to allege that

Not only are Van’s aircraft designs untested and unsafe, but its assembly instructions are also inadequate and unsafe.

The suit goes on to allege that the fuel flow transducer that Van's supplied with the kit was dangerous because it was not capable of dealing with a blockage, as would be required of on a fuel flow transducer mounted on a factory-built aircraft.

We can expect Van’s to argue that their experimental aircraft are just that – experimental.  They are not intended to have all the safety features included with factory-built aircraft.  That is why the word “experimental” is required by law to be prominently displayed inside each one.  

Air Traffic Control: "Where in God's Name are You Going?"

In the end, no harm done.  But certainly an example of an air traffic controller having a bad day. Note: at 32 seconds the controller assigns the Challenger a heading of 180.

Boy Injured by Plane that Landed on Beach Sues

Nicholas Baer was body boarding in Carlsbad on the Fourth of July when a plane towing a banner crash-landed on the beach and injured him. The twelve-year-old is now suing the pilot and theCarlsbad Piper Crash company that owns the Piper that struck him.  The boy's attorney argues that even though the Piper's engine failed, the pilot shouldn't have landed on the beach where someone could be injured. The pilot should have instead attempted to land in the water. Though the pilot might not have fared as well had he landed in the surf, there would certainly have been less chance of injuring beachgoers.

Seems that the boy's attorney has a point. And this particular scenario - beachgoers being injured or even killed when a pilot attempts to put his plane down on the beach - is not entirely unheard of. It happened in Florida a year ago. The pilot in that case tried to land his Piper Cherokee, and in the process hit and killed a man and a daughter who were walking on the beach.  And it happened in Venice Florida Piper Crash2010 when a Lancair pilot landed on a beach in Hilton Head after his plane lost its propeller. In that case it was a lone jogger who was killed.Hilton Head Lancair Crash

In each of the cases, the victims were innocents. The risk of being injured by an airplane was certainly the furthest thing from their mind.

FAA Kept Sleeping Controllers Study Results Secret

Air traffic controllers fall asleep on the job.  At least they do occasionally. That came as big news in 2011, when two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport without ATC help because the lone controller was snoozing. No injuries there, but in 2006 a Comair regional jet crashed while taking off in Kentucky, killing 49 of the 50 people on board.   The air traffic controller who cleared the plane for takeoff didn’t notice the plane was taking off from the wrong runway.  He had slept only two hours in the previous 24.   

The question then was whether the problem of sleeping or sleep-deprived controllers was an isolated one or instead a significant, pervasive risk to aviation safety. 

The FAA paid NASA $1.2 million to find out. The NASA study's findings:  the schedules controllers work lead to chronic fatigue and pressure to fall asleep.  In fact, a third of the controllers in the study reported that fatigue was a “high” or “extreme” safety risk.  More alarming was that 6 out of 10 controllers report that they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse in attention while driving to or from a midnight shift.  If sleepiness is making controllers unsafe to drive, it’s certainly making them unsafe to work.

The study’s conclusion was clear: 

Chronic fatigue may be considered to pose a significant risk to controller alertness, and hence to the safety of the ATC (air traffic control) system.

Perhaps most interesting is that, according to an Associated Press report, the FAA has kept the FAA’s report secret for three years.   Though completed in 2012, the study was released just this week. No explanation from the FAA as to why it has kept the study from the public for all this time.

NTSB Recommends Crashworthy Fuel Tanks for All New Helicopters

Robinson Helicopters began installing crash-resistant fuel tanks in 2010.  Robinson Helicopters with fuel tanks installed before then tend to catch fire during accidents that, but for the fire, would have been survivable.

The Australian authorities thought that the safer tanks were a good idea.  Enough Robinsons had caught fire after minor accidents that in 2013 the Australian government grounded all RobinsonAustralian R44 Post Crash Fire R44 helicopters operating in Australia until their owners installed the new-style fuel systems.

The NTSB asked the FAA to follow suit and issue a similar order grounding R44 helicopters in this country.  But the FAA refused.  Even assuming the old-style Robinson fuel tanks were needlessly dangerous, the FAA thought they really weren't all that different from the fuel tanks installed in many other older helicopters.  If the FAA grounded Robinsons until they were fixed, they'd have to ground a lot of helicopters produced by other manufacturers as well.

But the FAA has known about the trouble with old-style fuel systems for a very long time. In fact, since 1991, FAA regulations have required manufacturers to install in their helicopters fuel systems that are proven "crash resistant."  Trouble is, those regulations apply only to helicopters designed after 1994.  They do not apply to helicopters that are manufactured today, but were designed (or certified) before 1994.  

Unfortunately, the majority of light helicopters manufactured in the US today were designed before 1994, and so in practice the regulations seldom apply.  The NTSB thinks its time for that to change.  The NTSB's latest safety recommendation asks the FAA to:

Require, for all newly manufactured rotorcraft regardless of the design’s original certification date, that the fuel systems meet the crashworthiness requirements of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 27.952 or 29.952, “Fuel System Crash Resistance.”

What will the FAA do in response to the NTSB's recommendation?  If history is a guide, unfortunately, the FAA will do nothing.