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Top 5 Modern Improvements in Aviation Safety

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While the airline accident du jour continues to (annoyingly) grab the headlines and be overanalyzed ad nauseum by the media’s self-proclaimed yet often clueless “experts,” airline safety continues to improve by leaps and bounds. All this blathering tends to worry the public, giving them a false perspective on aviation safety.

In recent decades, however, improvements and inventions have transformed the cockpit—and thus the airline industry—from impressibly safe to incredibly safe.

Number 5: TCAS—Traffic Collision Avoidance System

Many improvements in aviation safety have come off the backs of airline tragedies. In fact, today’s modern Air Traffic Control system traces its roots to the tragic midair collision over the Grand Canyon, when a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 struck a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. All 128 on board both flights perished.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA, later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration,) which in turn greatly expanded the Air Route Traffic Control System, a series of ground-based radar controllers. Today, virtually every square inch of the contiguous 48 states enjoy radar control.

On-board, another wonderful advancement in technology has been TCAS. Using radar data from “Mode C” airplanes—which reply to ATC radar interrogation signals with data such as identification, speed and altitude—the on-board TCAS system warns of potential threats of other aircraft. If both planes have TCAS on board, in an emergency situation, the two boxes will coordinate with each other to come up with a vertical “solution,” commanding one plane to climb and the other to descend.

Number 4: EGPWS—Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System

Another wake up call for the industry came in the form of American Airlines Flight 965 into Cali, which suffered a catastrophic “CFIT”—Controlled Flight Into Terrain. In nighttime, “severe clear” conditions, the experienced crew flew a perfectly good airliner straight into a mountainside, killing all 159 passengers and eight crew members.

The airplane was equipped with the revolutionary new “GPWS,” Ground Proximity Warning System, which looks at radar altimeter data to predict a possible impact with terrain. However, the warning came too late, and the pilots were unable to out-climb the terrain.

Today’s “Enhanced” GPWS gives the modern airliner a worldwide terrain database which greatly improves the safety margin, and even displays the potential hazardous terrain on the pilots’ ND, or Nav Displays.

Along with TCAS, this has greatly aided the pilots’ situational awareness.

Number 3: LLWAS—Low Level Windshear Alert System

Another tragedy that led to great improvements in safety was the 1975 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 66. Flight 66 was a victim of “Windshear” caused by a thunderstorm microburst—that is, a rapid change in the direction and speed of the airmass in which it was flying, causing the Boeing 727 to stall shortly before landing, killing 113 of 124 on board.

A plane is simply a body moving through a fluid, much like a boat in a river. In any given configuration, there will be a minimum airspeed at which the plane can fly. The wind, like the river’s current, can change. If the wind changes in speed and/or direction fast enough, the plane may theoretically lose that airspeed for a few critical moments before adjusting. In extreme cases, it may be too much from which an airplane can recover.

In the aftermath of Eastern, NASA developed a new system called LLWS-1 to detect these rapid changes in windspeed and direction, most often associated with microbursts. Over the years, this system has been improved and refined, including the incorporation of Doppler radar. If convective activity (i.e. thunderstorms) are detected in the area, LLWS advisories are given to arriving and departing aircraft.

Another recent addition to the cockpit has been predictive windshear detection systems, which uses onboard Doppler weather radar to detect shears in precipitation ahead of the aircraft.

Number 2: RSWS—Runway Safety Warning System

The most deadly accident in aviation history remains 1977′s Tenerife collision between two B-747′s, in which 583 people lost their lives. The accident was the result of a “runway transgression” when, in foggy weather, one B-747 began the takeoff roll while another was still on the runway.

Runway transgressions remain a hazard. To alleviate this threat, one of the most recent and delightful additions to the U.S. aviation safety system has been the Runway Safety Warning System.

RSWS uses transponder data from all aircraft to detect movement of an arriving or departing aircraft on a runway. When one is detected, red lights illuminate at runway intersections to alert transiting aircraft. Conversely, when an airplane is lined up at the end of the runway, ready to takeoff, and another is cleared to cross downfield, a row of red bars light up in front of the departing aircraft as a warning.

Currently, RSWS has been installed at several airports, and is rapidly expanding in use.

Number 1: CRM—Crew Resource Management

In some ways, technology has advanced aviation safety to the point where the human pilots themselves have become the airplane’s greatest liability. This has prompted some nincompoops to suggest the safest cockpit may be the one with no pilots.

I vehemently disagree with this absurd statement.

While humans may be the airplane’s greatest liability, they also remain—head and shoulders above anything else—its greatest safety asset.

As we have tragically learned in the recent Germanwings crash, the human element can play a major role in aviation safety. Obviously, a homicidal pilot is exceedingly rare, but human factors still effect today’s airline pilot. While the FAA and the public tend to treat us pilots as automatons that can fly without human issues, airline pilots are constantly facing such factors as fatigue, stress, and, yes, the need to “tend to one’s physiological needs,” as the FAA dryly puts it, by using the lavatory inflight.

In short, sad to say, we are still mortal humans.

This being said—and I say again—the human pilot is by far the greatest safety “device” onboard your airplane. While drones and autopilots tend to grab the headlines (“Today’s planes practically fly themselves, right?”), the bottom line remains:

Continues at …. Top 5 Modern Improvements in Aviation Safety

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