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How safe are modern airplanes today ?

When I first started flying, airplanes were very basic.  How safe was flying was basically dependant on the skill of the pilots.  Lets face it.  Every individual are born differently.  Some are born with the innate talent of handling the aircraft very well whilst others just do not measure up to scratch.  Nevertheless, to be qualified as a pilot, one must achieve at least an average ability to fly safely. Unlike driving a car, a pilot cannot afford to make a critical mistake in the air for to do so would most likely be his last fatal error.

Even skillful pilots make mistakes sometimes.  In the past, aircraft were designed with less safety backups and hence air accidents were often fatal.  One example involved a wide-body airliner in the US which had a minor problem with landing gears indication inside the cockpit.  The  crew were trying to determine whether the landing gears were physically down since one of the lights was faulty.  It was at night and all of them were trying to fix the light without monitoring that the auto pilot wasn't flying the aircraft as it should be.  As the aircraft was quite low, the slow descent of the airplane was not apparent and it eventually crashed, killing all on board.

Today, modern aircraft have been installed with many safety features and the above accident should not have happened at all if some of the safety systems were inside that aircraft.

Crashing into Terrain?

The aircraft that I am flying, the Boeing 777, is one of the latest and most modern airplane in the world today.  It has some of the safest features which would virtually eliminate any uncontrolled flight into terrain.  It is known as the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System or EGPWS.

The EGPWS is capable of providing at least 9 warnings to the pilot so that remedial actions can be taken to prevent any event from developing into something disastrous. This can save a lot of lives, especially to a pilot who may have the misfortune of not being particularly alert on that day.  Pilots are human and they can make mistakes but mistakes are costly.  The warnings come in the form of aural and visual messages.  Therefore, when a mistake will eventually end into something disastrous, the warnings against such an event can certainly save lives. 

Today's modern aircraft  fly at a very high speed. At the cruising speed, the aircraft flies at 9 miles a minute or about 800 feet a second. During the landing phase, the speed is much lower at around 170 mph or about 250 feet a second. Thus, even a few seconds delay in recognizing a potential mistake can be very costly.  With the EGPWS installed, when a tired pilot  (he should not be flying!) is slow in recognizing that his aircraft is encountering a high descent rate into terrain, he would be reminded with an aural alert, " Sink Rate!" from the computer telling him that he should do something to correct the excessive sink rate. This would have averted an accident like the one described above.

What happened if the tired pilot did nothing? At about 50 seconds before crashing, another warning, "Caution, Terrain!",  will come through the overhead speaker telling the tired pilot to be careful, terrain is ahead!  If no action is taken by about 25 seconds to impact with the terrain or ground, another final warning "Terrain, Terrain, Pull Up!" will be issued.  The tired pilot must wake up now and pull up the flight controls to avert the crash into terrain!

Landing Gears, Flaps and Over-Banking reminder

Amongst the other warnings, the EGPWS also alert the pilot if he forgets to select the landing gears or flaps when he is about to make a landing.  

Many aircraft have crashed because the pilot was disorientated in bad weather.   A disorientation arises when a pilot does not know if he was flying level or inverted. This is mainly due to loss of visual reference to the horizon. John Kennedy Junior was probably disorientated before he crashed into the sea. 

What is the most likely cause of the disorientation? Usually it is caused by the pilot over banking (lifting one of the wings in order to turn) his aircraft. He was not aware he was turning because of no visual reference to the horizon or he was too engrossed with other emergencies. An over-banked aircraft will develop into a spiral dive.  If not handled correctly, the aircraft would crash.  The EGPWS has an alert to warn the pilot when the aircraft is over-banking excessively.  

Avoiding Wind-Shear

Many years back, a Boeing 727 crashed before landing in an US airport due to wind-shear.  Could that accident be averted?  Yes, if only the EGPWS was developed then! In the Boeing 777 today, if wind-shear is encountered on the approach to land, there would be visual and aural warnings to the pilot.  Firstly, the pilot would be told to look at his radar display when wind-shear is predicted 3 miles ahead. When the airplane is 1.5 miles to the predicted wind-shear and if the pilot did nothing, he would be told by the computer in the form of a aural warning to take action by aborting the landing and go around!

These are some of the major warnings that are available in the EGPWS and they do certainly save lives. Today, as more aircraft are equipped with this system, flying will become safer.  It helps the pilots to detect errors that were not available in the older aircraft before. 

Is this information sufficient for your knowledge?    


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