AVmail: January 21, 2013
Letter of the Week: Safety in Plain Language
I am writing with some thoughts about the Agusta 109 helicopter crash in London last week. One has to fly this particular heliroute (H4) below 1,000 feet due to Heathrow approach traffic and "above the high/low waterline."
I've flown it several times, though not for a few years. The actual location of this crane (nearly 800 feet high) is right on the edge of the river and presents little margin for safety for a pilot constrained to fly below 1,000 feet and over the same edge of the river. The location is featured in a NOTAM, though it is possible that the pilot never read it, as this was an in-flight diversion, not a planned excursion into the London Heliroutes.
The weather was foggy that day with low cloud and seems unlikely to have complied with the mandatory SVFR conditions for the routes. Looking at the NOTAM got me thinking: It specifies the obstacle using the usual Lat/Long:
HIGH RISE JIB CRANE (LIT AT NIGHT) OPR WI 1NM 5129N 00007W, HGT 770FT AMSL
I don't know any human who can interpret such a location unaided. As this obstacle is bang in the line of a published route, with little vertical margin of safety, wouldn't such a notice be much more effective if instead it read something like:
On the south bank of the River Thames at Vauxhall Bridge on Heliroute H4
Then pilots could immediately visualise the threat.
One has to wonder why it isn't marked on a map — it is nearly 800 feet high! — and pilots told to fly to the north of the river to avoid it?
Regarding your "Question of the Week": Although some may argue the grounding is unnecessary, it could be a blessing in disguise for Boeing. (Conspiracy theorists might go so far as to argue that Boeing requested it.)
Imagine the aircraft was allowed to keep flying while the issue was being addressed. A skeptical public (and reporters digging for a story) wouldn't trust Boeing's word, and every little hiccup with the aircraft would be scrutinized. The issue and bad PR for Boeing would linger on.
But with the FAA grounding, Boeing's eventual fix will have the agency's blessing. That helps bring closure and buys public/media trust.
Ground the airplane! The issues with lithium ion have been known for years. This is just another example of economics overriding sound certification procedures.
It's lucky a crash didn't occur. Then the standard "pilot error" scenario could have been used to cover up the sloppy certification process.
I agree with unequivocally yes, but not for the reason stated. My reason is the nature of the problem, as an inflight fire is about the worst thing that can happen in an airplane and can easily bring it down.
I don't have enough information to make a decision on grounding the Dreamliner. I would need detailed engineering drawings of the plane and details of the failures. I have neither, just what I have heard in the media, which is notoriously unreliable.
You are second-guessing the agency that has all the info and whose job is to make commercial aviation safe? Why would you even be asking such a silly question? There are many, many experts that have a hand in this process. Most of your readers have not even touched a Dreamliner, much less have an expertise on it!
Jim K. Walton