Flash! FAA Requires More Data Points on Airbus A330. Volunteers, Anyone?

I remember many happy times in First Class. I remember when they used to print your name on matchbooks and they'd be miraculously waiting at your seat when you sat down. I remember First Class on Air Canada when they rolled a huge slab of gravlax down the aisle and slice you off a little, accompanied by a shot of cold vodka. And I remember when the FAA was the real cop of airline safety. They didn't let anybody get away with anything.

Everyone who cares about zero tolerance for error pays extremely close attention when an airliner goes down. Every accident is the result of someone failing to imagine or anticipate a combination of circumstances that should have been anticipated by someone. And I'll be you dollars to donuts that someone, or maybe even a whole lot of someones that worked on the design of the Airbus A330 has a pretty good idea of what went wrong. Hint: Right now they're swapping out the old pitot tubes as fast as they can. And yes, you do know what a pitot tube is. Next time you board an airplane, just before you get off the jetway and step across the transom into the plane, look to your left along the side of the aircraft. A few feet under the pilot's left window a little tube is pointed forward, like a dog's nose stuck out a car window, sniffing the air. That's the pitot tube, and it will be sniffing your windspeed when your plane starts flying.

How important it is to know how fast you're flying? Fly too slow and the wings can't lift the plane. That's called a stall, and the plane tries to fall out of the sky. Young training pilots practice stalling their planes and pulling out of them over and over again, but it helps if you don't stall too close to the ground, or in bad weather where you can't see the horizon and your instruments are not working. Then it's really hard to pull out of a stall.

Fly too fast and parts of the airplane start to come off. Important bits, like wings and tails. So you can see that the pitot tube is a really important part of the airplane, and has been since the early days of powered manned flight.

Which brings us back to the good old days when first class really had class and the FAA didn't let anybody get away with any shortcuts. Every aircraft failure was carefully studied so that the number of defects, both mechanical and human, could be reduced.

How about today's FAA? When that Dash 8 Q440 dropped out of the sky on approach in Buffalo, people were suddenly interested in an FAA inspector, a courageous individual named Christopher J. Monteleon, who had reported to the FAA that Colgan Air "was having difficulty flying the plane." He was moved to a desk job. (And you thought you were buying a seat on Continental, but your pilot was okayed by Colgan. If you're reading this somewhere at 35,000 feet, sorry, but no, you cannot get off for a few more hours.)

Onward to the waters of the horse latitudes. Now, I realize that a "spokesperson" is just that. A spokesperson is someone just doing their job. Shouldn't make a leap from spokesperson to the whole institution, right? Well, I hope not, because this is what the FAA's spokesperson Betsey Talton was quoted in the NY Times today as saying about the Air France Flight 447 that still hasn't landed in Paris, and which a whole lot of people have given up expecting to see land:

"We don't have data to indicate an unsafe condition exists."

When I read that 228 souls have disappeared, 22 bodies found so far, the tail of the aircraft fished out of the Atlantic, I don't think it's too hasty to say that we have a lot of data. And we have even more data: something went terribly wrong on that aircraft, and no reasonable person thinks it was a meteorite or a terrorist. The plane itself reported back a stream of data that told the tale of a cascade of failures, including the computers and the backup computers. The pilots no longer had enough information to fly the aircraft, or the controls to fly the aircraft, even though they had the skills. They were helpless to save the ship. The pitot tubes may or may not have failed, but it appears overwhelmingly clear that the flight control systems were not robust enough to survive whatever happened. And if you want even more data about those frozen pitot tubes, take a look at this story about Air Caraibes A330 and their pitot tubes.

When will the FAA decide it has enough data? When the flight recorders are recovered? And what if they aren't? End of story? Nothing to see here? Move on?

That reminds me. Why has the FAA delayed mandating that flight recorders in flights over water must float? Don't tell me that this is one more instance of, "No one could have imagined." I thought we had left that behind us.

In the meantime, anybody want to be a data point? You can buy your ticket over here. Just asking.