“We are too low! We are too low! We are too low! “
The frantic warnings from the Boeing Co. 737 co-pilot of September 28, 2018 came too late. Within seconds, the passenger flight of Air Niugini Ltd crashed in the waters of the western Pacific, half a kilometer from the Chuuk runway, in the Federated States of Micronesia.
One of the 47 people on board, without a belt and thrown forward on impact, was killed before the plane sank.
But the investigators were lucky. Sitting at the back of the cockpit, a maintenance technician was recording the last minutes of the flight on his iPhone, just for fun. The footage laid bare the sequence of events almost immediately. It showed the pilot heading towards a storm cell that illuminated his navigation screen.
He went out blindly in the rain and clouds, his windshield wipers flapping and ignored the flight display order to stop. Six other passengers were seriously injured in the impact, although there were no other casualties.
Several disasters later, including two Boeing 737 Max tragedies and the fatal dive into a hill in March by a China Eastern Airlines Corp. jet – requests are renewed for aircraft to be equipped with cockpit images or video recorders.
The push is reigniting a stalemate between pilots protecting their privacy and accident specialists and bodies like the US National Transportation Safety Board who are under pressure to solve mysterious incidents and prevent them from happening again.
Among those advocating the image recorders is aviation safety pioneer Mike Poole, who has worked for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada for more than 20 years and led its flight recorder lab. Poole produced the first three-dimensional animation nearly four decades ago using data from a pair of flight recorders after two planes nearly collided over the Atlantic Ocean.
Poole leads Plane Sciences Inc., which specializes in flight data analysis and assists countries in creating accident sheets. 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 could image or video recorders help aviation safety?
You’re trying to find out what happened. In the vast, vast mass of cases, it would make a huge difference. At the very least, get rid of images or drastically reduce disputes. And this is not to be underestimated because the controversies cause all kinds of roadblocks for safety.
If you disagree on the facts as a world community, you will not come to safety action. It will also make surveys a lot less expensive because it’s no longer a puzzle.
What do the pilots say about the image recording?
“It wouldn’t help,” says Uwe Harter, a former A380 captain who is executive vice president of technical and safety standards for the Montreal-based International Federation of Airline Pilot Associations. “There is so much downside. We see a lot of privacy issues. There is no way to protect the data.
Videos can be tampered with. And see someone die? What does it do with us emotionally? Do we really want to find out what’s going on or do we want to blame it? It is very personal. We are simply not convinced. “IFALPA represents more than 100,000 pilots worldwide.
What would the images show that you fail to grasp from data and voice recorders?
We log a lot of data, but we still don’t log enough to replicate that cockpit, not from afar. The typical camera would be just behind the crew, looking forward. You want to know what they can see and what they can’t see. What is the cockpit environment? Is there any smoke? How is the workload in the cockpit?
You would see who is flying, the general cockpit displays, and any non-verbal cues, like a thumbs up.
Cockpit voice recorders are very cryptic. If you’ve ever listened to one, you’d see how frustrating it is. It’s like, “I’d give my right eye just to see what they’re looking at right now and what they’re referring to.”
What difference did the cockpit video make to the Air Niugini investigation?
You could see the weather radar, you could see the big red spot coming up. The windshield wipers could be seen rising, they hit a great storm of clouds and nothing could be seen. I can guarantee that without the recording of the image, that incident would have been very controversial because people would have said, ‘There must have been something else.
They couldn’t have moved on if they couldn’t see anything. ‘ It was the last piece of the puzzle. So for me that was the gold star of the investigation. The shortest time, exquisite detail, zero controversy, and a problem we really need to solve through behavioral changes.
What about the East China disaster? The dive 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 entered the controls to activate a dive.
You are alluding to cases where perhaps there is deliberate action by the flight crew and clearly an image recorder will go a long way. In those rare cases, an image would tell you which crew member or if a third party entered the cockpit.
Historically, it tends to be pretty obvious, because even without a voice recorder, one of the first things investigators look for is, did the plane do what it was ordered to do? If you have a deliberate act, you see it in the data. The rumor will usually confirm this. But the video or the picture would eliminate the controversy.
What about the major safety and regulatory bodies? What is their opinion?
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in an email that it is involved in international work to define types of image recorders, such as screen capture systems, that record information displayed to pilots, as well as location and selection. of buttons, knobs and switches. It also encourages the voluntary use of cockpit image recorders.
The NTSB, which first required cockpit image recorders more than 20 years ago, says the devices would improve safety. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau says voice, data or video recorders can play a vital role in explaining air crashes. “The ATSB welcomes their equipment on all passenger aircraft,” Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said in a statement.
What about privacy issues?
I have a great deal of respect for privacy concerns and am not arguing for a moment that they are not legitimate. But the value of those images outweighs potential concerns. Making it difficult to understand what happened, when we can know what happened, is simply an obstacle to security improvements.
Join the modern world: Many employers always have pictures of their employees. The cockpit is not your personal space. It really isn’t. You’re paid to do a job up there.
Audio is much more sensitive than a camera pointed forward from the back of the head. So why is adding the image a problem? If you only have four frames per second and there’s an image showing the cockpit instruments and the back of your head, it’s not as bad as you think.
The people watching it are the authorities, not the world. The images are protected, just like the cockpit voice recording.
What needs to happen before image recorders become standard?
The United States must do this. This is the obvious place. Until a leading state actually does that, it will never be standard. So if the United States, Canada and Australia did that, then you would see ICAO starting to adopt it. (ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization.)