06 February 2008

Heathrow crash - "Um, yes. We're still waiting!"

OK, hands up everybody who remembers that a British Airways jet crash-landed at Heathrow earlier this year.

You do? Well so you should! After all it was only 20 days ago.

So I think it is rather surprising that the event has disappeared off the news radar completely when the cause of the accident remains a mystery. Since the Air Accident Investigations Board update on 23 Jan there has been silence.

Actually, call me cynical, but I don't really find it 'surprising' that everyone is being so tight-lipped, I find it slightly 'suspicious'.

I have a track record for being able to get to the core of events like this, pretty much instantly. (I'm not proud that within an hour of the collapse of both World Trade Centre towers my quick estimate of the death toll - based on likely Monday morning work attendance and the number of floors above & below the impact points - turned out to be less than 50 corpses out on the official number released months later) So, within minutes of seeing the TV news reports of the BA039 crash it was clear to me the cause could only be engine control related (not fuel, not bird-strike, unlikely to be pilot error) and that the implications were deadly serious.

The Boeing 777 , if you recall, was the revolutionary new aircraft which would shake up long-haul aviation once extensively trialled, tested and certified for ETOPS-180 allowing it to replace three & four engined aircraft on transatlantic routes operating up to 180 minutes away from an emergency airfield.

ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standard) is an aviation rule allowing airliners to fly routes that in places are further away from a diversionary airfield than the traditional maximum of 60 minutes flying time on one engine. See Wikipedia on ETOPS

As we know, the B777 achieved its performance targets and has gone on to fly successfully for twelve years.

However, though statistically insignificant measured against the number of flights the model has made, and not significant enough to compromise its ETOPS rating, the triple seven's service history hasn't been entirely fault-free when it comes to engine reliability. There have been a handful of incidents.

Lester Haines refers to them in his latest article on the crash of BA039 in The Register. He also notes concerns about the vulnerability of the B777's FADEC system (full authority digital engine control), a point picked up by pilots in the Professional Pilots Rumour Network forums.


If there is any doubt at all about the engine management system on the B777 then it is critically serious, because it fundementally undermines the whole design concept of the aircraft. It was designed to fly long distances safely over the ocean on two reliable engines. If the two engines could be prone to simultaneous loss of power wouldn't that make it 'unfit for purpose"?

Aside from passengers, there are a lot of people who might feel uncomfy with that. Not least all those airlines who operate the B777, the engine manufacturers (Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney & GE), and of course Boeing itself. In fact, pretty much the whole aviation industry.


Could that have anything to do with the way this matter has gone strangely quiet?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alastair...spot on..I'm uncomfortable too and I would expect all crew of 777

Until the cause is determined..there must be stress all rond the 777 operations

My feeling is if another engine no-response occurs ..Boeing is obliged to ground the fleet

onliner said...

Thanks Anon...

I think the continuing silence speaks volumes.

Those AAIB guys are seriously sharp, expecially when they team up with the manufacturers. Normally they are sifting through small bits of wreckage at the tops of mountains or bottom of the ocean to find answers.

This aeroplane ends up virtually intact, in the most accessible place in the world with all the passengers & crew alive to tell their tales and with black boxes instantly recoverable.

Under the circumstances, do we really believe they haven't yet been able to find the cause of the crash...?