Nah, let’s not test the pilot’s instincts

Alf has been a bit of a stay-at-home, resisting opportunities to join his jet-setting parliamentary colleagues on overseas junkets. When you live in the best town on earth, he says, why bother looking at the also-rans?

He can muster another strong argument against air travel. Flying can be bad for your health, if the bloody plane slams down somewhere other than its scheduled destination.

His disinclination to travel by air is reinforced by news overnight that Airbus has issued a warning to pilots in the wake of the Air France crash into the Atlantic Ocean in the past week. Airbus is telling the pilots its instruments could register “incoherent” speed data.

Incoherent speed data? What the hell is a pilot supposed to do when the speed gauges go wonky?

The Telegraph reports from Paris:

Electronic messages from the Airbus A330-200 in the minutes before it went down early on Monday with 228 people on board disclosed an inconsistency in airspeed readings.

If the pilots were unaware that the readings were faulty, they might have mistakenly altered speed, jeopardising their aircraft.

The Airbus circular said the correct procedure when faced with unreliable speed indications was to maintain thrust as if the plane were climbing and keep the nose just above horizon level. A spokesman said the notice was being sent to pilots of all its aircraft and not just those who flew A330s.

It’s standard practice after accidents – the company tells us – to issue such notices (called Accident Information Telexes) to remind pilots of procedures that are outlined in aircraft manuals.

“Incoherent” speed levels could be caused by the airspeed sensors, which are tubes that work on air pressure, being obstructed, most probably by ice. The tubes are normally heated to prevent such blockages at high altitude.

More than 300 aircraft similar to the missing Air France jet are in service worldwide.

But here’s what unnerves Alf:

The incident has rekindled debate among pilots over whether the Airbus planes are “counterintuitive”.

“This is a plane that is conceived by engineers for engineers and not always for pilots,” Jean-Pierre Albran, a veteran pilot of Boeing 747s, told Le Parisien newspaper.

“For example, on a 747 the throttle is pushed by hand. You feel it move in turbulence. On recent Airbuses, this throttle is fixed. You look at the dials. You don’t feel anything.”

At the end of the day, Alf isn’t willing to put his money on all Airbus pilots behaving contrary to their instincts when things go awry.

Fair to say, until the past week the Airbus A330 had not been involved in a fatal incident involving passengers since it began commercial operation in 1993.

But in 1994 an Airbus A330-300 crashed during a test flight soon after take off from Toulouse airport – pilot error and faulty autopilot systems were blamed for the crash, which killed three pilots, two engineers and two observers.

Several serious incidents have been associated with the plane.

On October 7 last year a Qantas A330-300 suddenly lost 650ft in altitude after a fault caused the autopilot to disengage.

Thirty-six people on board were hurt, 12 of them seriously, as occupants were slammed into the roof of the cabin.

In 2001 an Air Transat flight performed the world’s longest recorded glide by a jet airliner after an A330-243 suffered double engine failure following a fuel leak over the Atlantic Ocean during a flight from Toronto to Lisbon.

The airliner lost nearly 37,000 gallons of fuel and glided without power for nearly half an hour before making an emergency landing in the Azores. None of the passengers was hurt but 12 tyres burst.

Investigators said that pilot error and a lack of automated computer checks meant that the crew did not realise that fuel was leaking from a broken pipe.

And in 2003 an engine on a flight from Miami by Swiss carrier Edelweiss Air exploded after take-off. None of the aircraft’s 175 passengers was hurt when the craft made an emergency landing.

In one bizarre incident, a six-year-old Malaysia Airlines A330-300 had to be written off after highly corrosive liquids which had been wrongly labelled as a more harmless substance leaked in the hold during a flight.

The plane landed safely but the fuselage, wing box structure and landing gear were found to be badly corroded and five baggage handlers at Kuala Lumpur fell ill from the fumes. In 2007 China National Chemical Construction Corp was ordered to pay $65 million compensation.

Alf isn’t willing to risk being involved in such “incidents”, let alone those of the fatal variety.

Mind you, he does reckon it could be fun to test a judge’s instincts by telling him your car’s speedo was registering incoherent data when the cops stopped you doing 130km on the straight between Greytown and Featherson.

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