14 May 2015

Why the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia is like a plane crash

The crash of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 in Philadelphia, PA on May 12, 2015 involved an Amtrak passenger train, but in many ways this train crash was like a plane crash, specifically in the ways that the major US media outlets responded to the event. It is extremely rare for train crashes to generate intense media interest, but this kind of attention is routine for airline crashes. Upon closer review, the media response to the Amtrak crash is not so surprising.

Although it has only been a couple of days since the crash, the NTSB accident investigation team has revealed key details of the events that led to the crash. In short, it looks like the train was traveling just over 100 mph (161 kph), and derailed after entering a curve that had a 50 mph speed limit.

There were five crew members and about 240 passengers on board. Seven of those passengers were killed, and several dozen passengers and crew members were injured.



NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt at crash site

Amtrak accidents are common
While this accident has received the kind of attention usually given a major plane crash (for example, continuous coverage from major news networks that includes having news anchors at the crash site), Amtrak accidents are actually quite common. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, over the last decade, Amtrak has been involved with accidents and incidents that have resulted in over 1,000 deaths.



(Click to enlarge)

In the last three years, Amtrak has been involved in over 50 accidents per year, with 21 in the first two months of 2015.



(Click to enlarge)

Why this crash stands out
The circumstances around the Philadelphia crash that have led to an intense amount of media attention include where it happened, who was on the train, and perhaps more importantly, who is likely to travel by train on that route.

The crash took place on not only the most heavily traveled route in the Amtrak system, with over 12 million riders in 2011, it is also a route that connects New York City with Washington, DC, two metropolitan areas where many members of the US financial, political, and media elite live and work.

Many of the elite members of US society, even if they don't live or work in New York or Washington, have either traveled on that route on many occasions, or know friends, colleagues, or family members who do. A quick review of some of those killed in the crash can give you an insight into the kinds of people who regularly travel on this route. The dead include:

  • A tech company CEO
  • A software architect for a major news media organization
  • A US Naval Academy midshipman
  • A university dean
  • A senior vice president of a Fortune 100 company

Given the ongoing media coverage, it is very likely that the most influential business, political, and media decision makers throughout the US are not only keenly aware of the accident, but can also imagine circumstances where they could have been on that train that night. If it had been a jet airliner traveling between major cities in the northeast US, the airliner's passenger list would have likely reflected the profile of the people on that Amtrak train.

These are the reasons why the traveling public, especially the more influential members of the traveling public, may feel about this train crash the same way they would perceive a plane crash, as something that could happen to them.

Additional resources
Amtrak Northeast Corridor overview 2011

Graphics:
Federal Railroad Administration
National Transportation Safety Board

07 May 2015

Ongoing Harvard health studies need input from pilots and flight attendants

Flight attendants and pilots face unique stresses and risks due to exposures that occur in the aircraft, as well as from issues outside of the aircraft such as fatigue brought on by disrupted sleep patterns. Understanding what those risks are, and what factors are associated with those risks, is a difficult and ongoing challenge that is being addressed in part by the following two studies from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

AirSafe.com has teamed up with Harvard to encourage pilots and flight attendants to participate in a pair of studies that will help improve the scientific understanding of health issues faced by airline professionals.

Flight Attendant Health Study
All US flight attendants are encouraged to participate in this flight attendant health study by taking the survey at fahealth.org.

Past studies have found that sleep disorders, fatigue, depression and heart disease were greatly increased in female flight attendants compared to the US population. Check out the survey today to help make it both larger and more comprehensive than previous studies.

Airline Pilot Health Survey
Past studies on flight attendants showed significantly higher prevalence for some types of health risk. This current study intends to collect similar information from pilots to see if their work environment is also associated with increased health risks. All current and former airline pilots, from any country, are encouraged to visit PilotHealthStudy.org to take this anonymous survey.

About your privacy
The researchers have taken steps to ensure that your surveys will be anonymous, and that it will not be possible to link any survey to a specific individual. In addition, you can skip any questions that you do not wish to answer, or withdraw from the survey at any time.

06 May 2015

French authorities release preliminary report on the Germanwings crash investigation

On 6 May 2015, the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile) released a preliminary report on the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 which highlighted the following findings:

  • At about three minutes after the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, the captain left the cockpit.

  • Within 30 seconds of the captain leaving the cockpit, the first officer commanded the aircraft to descend to 100 feet, which is well below ground level.

  • Within five minutes of the commanded altitude change, the airspeed was changed at least ten times, reaching a maximum of 350 knots (402 mph, 648 kph).

  • The descent rate reached a maximum of 5,000 feet per minute, and averaged about 3,500 feet per minute.

  • The descent was continuous, and controlled by the autopilot.

  • Air traffic controllers and the French military attempted to contact the aircraft several times, but received no response.

  • Before the collision with the terrain, there were multiple aural warnings heard on the CVR.

  • The aircraft impacted the ground about 10 minutes and 13 seconds after the aircraft started its descent.

  • Autopilot and autothrust remained engaged until impact.

  • On the previous flight, while the captain was out of the cockpit, the first officer twice commanded the aircraft to descend to 100 feet for short periods of time.

The role of the first officer in the crash
The preliminary report did not state a definitive cause of the crash, but it did state that during the cruise phase, the first officer was alone in the cockpit and intentionally modified the autopilot instructions to order the aircraft to descend until it collided with the ground. The report also stated that the first officer did not open the cockpit door during the descent, despite requests for access made via the keypad, with cabin interphone, and by knocking on the door.

Aircraft trajectory

(click to enlarge)

First officer training history
The preliminary report provided an outline of the first officer's training history, including the fact that he started his flight training at the Lufthansa Flight Training Pilot School in Germany on 1 September 2008, but that his training was suspended for medical reasons for over eight months, from 5 November 2008 to 26 August 2009. It was during this period, specifically from April to July 2009, that the first officer did not have a valid medical certificate due to depression and his medical treatment for his condition.

From October 2010 to March 2011, he continued his flight training in the US, but was under contract as a flight attendant with Lufthansa for over two years before beginning his training to become an A320 first officer. He was appointed as an A320 copilot in June 2014.

Related information
Germanwings crash details from AirSafe.com
Lufthansa plane crashes
Other A320 crashes
Germanwings Wikipedia page
Flight 9525 Wikipedia entry

24 April 2015

The suprising chemicals that may be in your emergency oxygen system

A recent article in i09.com described a reality that may surprise some passengers. In short, the passenger emergency oxygen system used in some airliners may generate small amounts of toxic chemicals in addition to oxygen. While that may sound a bit scary, the risks to passenger is rather low.

Two types of systems
Passenger emergency oxygen systems provide oxygen from either a centralized oxygen supply system that supplies the oxygen to every passenger, or it is supplied by a chemical oxygen generator that provides oxygen for a small number of masks. Depending on the generator, it may contain a combination of chemicals, which may include sodium chlorate, potassium perchlorate, barium peroxide, or iron powder, that when activated give off oxygen as a byproduct of a chemical reaction.

Chemical oxygen generator hazards
The greatest risks from chemical oxygen generators is the heat that they may generate. However, airliners are designed to take this into account. The other basic risk is exposure to some of the byproducts from the chemical reaction. While the oxygen is filtered before reaching a passenger, is it possible that the trace amounts of chemical byproducts that remain may affect a passenger.

Hypoxia basics
Hypoxia is a condition where the human body is deprived of sufficient oxygen needed for normal bodily function. Hypoxia affects the central nervous system, and those effects may range from impaired judgment and decision making capability, to unconsciousness and death. In an aircraft that has lost cabin pressure while flying at high altitudes, the easiest way to prevent hypoxia is to breathe oxygen from the emergency oxygen system until the aircraft can descend to a lower altitude.

More on hypoxia
You can find an overview of hypoxia risks on AirSafe.com. If you are interested in the effects of hypoxia on pilots and passengers, you may want to check out this hypoxia overview from the FAA.

Resources
i09.com article about the chemicals in aircraft emergency oxygen systems
Hypoxia overview
Get your first Uber ride for free


Try out Uber and get your first trip free
If you travel frequently, you probably have to use a taxi at least once in a while. If you have head of Uber, but have hesitated to try it out, sign up here and get a $20 discount on your first ride..


Photo credit - David Monniaux

03 April 2015

Are people with a history of depression or suicide attempts allowed to fly? - Yes they are!

The unfolding investigation of March 2015 crash of Germanwings flight 9525 has revealed that it is very likely that the first officer locked the captain out of the cockpit, and proceeded to deliberately crash the aircraft into the French Alps. Reports by French and German authorities, as well as by Lufthansa, the parent organization of Germanwings, suggest that not only did the first officer have a history of depression, but that Lufthansa was aware of the first officer's condition. Reportedly, German investigators stated that the first officer had been recently treated for suicidal tendencies, but it was not clear if Lufthansa or Germanwings were aware of those recent treatments.

One basic question that many air travelers have is how can anyone with a documented mental illness have become a pilot for a major airline. While the answer in the case of the Germanwings crash may not be revealed until the investigation is complete, it is possible to address that question for US airlines.

The role of medical certificates
In the US, in order to fly, a person holding an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate, which is the type of certification that any US airline pilot must have, must possess an FAA medical certificate. The specific regulatory requirements regarding mental conditions for those holding an ATP certificate holder are spelled out in the US Code of Federal Regulations (Title 14, Part 67.107). The FAA allows physicians with specialized training to be an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), who is responsible for evaluating a pilots medical fitness. If a pilot does not pass the examination, that pilot is not legally allowed to fly.

FAA Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners
The FAA provides AMEs with detailed guidance in a number of ways, including publications like the 2015 Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners, which had an update on 19 March 2015, just five days before the Germanwings crash. The document clearly states that a pilot has to respond to a detailed medical questionnaire, and must reveal a history of mental disorders, including depression or suicide attempts. While such a revelation would lead to further investigation, it would not automatically lead to a denial of a medical certificate.

The pilot who is suspected to have deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525 conducted part of his airline flight training in the United States several years ago, and would have been subject to FAA regulations during that period.

What do the airlines do?
While it is clear that the FAA allows people with a history of depression or suicide attempts to fly, it is unclear what the policy of individual airlines may be with regards to a pilot with this kind of medical history. What and airline knows about a pilot's medical history will depend on what that pilot would voluntarily reveal, as well as what the airline may legally be allowed to know. Because this would largely depend on where that airline is located, it is possible that what an airline in one country can know about their pilot's medical history may be radically different from what an airline in another country may know.

Resources FAA medical certificate questions and answers
Germanwings flight 9525 crash information
Lufthansa plane crashes
Other A320 crashes
Germanwings Wikipedia page
Flight 9525 Wikipedia entry

27 March 2015

At least seven deliberate crashes by airline pilots since 1980

24 March 2015; Germanwings A320-200; D-AIPX; flight 4U9525; near Barcelonnette, France: The aircraft was on a scheduled international flight from Barcelona, Spain to Düsseldorf, Germany. About a half hour after takeoff, while at a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, the aircraft began losing altitude, and crashed about ten minutes later. The investigative authorities suspect that the first officer deliberately crashed the aircraft. All six crew members and 144 passengers were killed.

A review of the cockpit voice recorder made the authorities suspect that the first officer locked the cockpit door while the captain was outside of the cockpit. The online flight tracking service FlightRadar24 reported than an analysis of their data showed that the autopilot was set to the minimum altitude of 100 feet, which is well below the ground level where the crash took place.

These recent revelations of the suspected cause of the Germanwings crash highlight the reality that despite all of the changes that the airline industry has made since 9/11 to prevent passengers or other outsiders from threatening aircraft, there is still a risk that crew members have the opportunity and the ability to deliberately crash airliners.

At least seven events since 1980
Since 1980, there have been at least seven occasions where an airline pilot is suspected to have deliberately crashed an airliner. One one occasion in 1994, a FedEx DC10 crew had to fight off an off duty pilot who had intended to crash the aircraft, and were barely able to survive the attack. For more details on these eight events, please visit http://t.co/XbqXIThVjB

Related information
Lufthansa plane crashes
A320 plane crashes
Airliners deliberately crashed by a flight crew member

24 March 2015

Germanwings A320 crashes in France with the loss of all on board

24 March 2015; Germanwings A320-200; D-AIPX; flight 4U9525; near Barcelonnette, France: The aircraft was on a scheduled international flight from Barcelona, Spain to Düsseldorf, Germany. About a half hour after takeoff, while at a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, the aircraft began losing altitude, and crashed about ten minutes later. All six crew members and 142 passengers were killed.

Germanwings is owned by Lufthansa, and this crash was the fourth Lufthansa or Lufthansa-related crash since 1970

Related information
A320 plane crashes
Flight 4U9525 Wikipedia entry

Below is the flight track of flight 4U9525 showing the flight track ending in southeastern France


Source: FlightAware.com