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Martin Varsavsky

Martin Varsavsky

Posted: June 1, 2009 01:23 PM

I am a pilot and I believe aviation could be much safer


I am a pilot. Not a professional pilot, as in real life I am a CEO of Fon a tech company. But in my spare time I became a pilot and fly a small jet, a Citation Jet. During my training as a pilot I was shocked to find out how poorly equipped modern planes are. Planes are all about radios, VOR, DME, ILS and other systems invented over 50 years ago and still running the cockpit today. Many of the most modern systems are not fully certified in most of the world as in the case of GPS guided landings for example. When I was briefly involved in the airline business, I could not believe how badly equipped planes are, especially when they cross the oceans away from radar coverage. What just happened to the Air France airliner is a proof of everything that can wrong in aviation. A tragedy that may have been avoided with better technology on airplanes, especially if it was weather related as it now seems.

Would you believe if I told you that many planes that cross the Atlantic do not even have GPS systems and, instead, use, highly inaccurate, archaic positioning systems that would be useless to report a crash position? I don't know what happened to that Air France flight, but there's a reason neither I, nor anyone knows. It's because planes don't report where they are and what is happening to them in detail on their own over satellite. This is what AP says as to how inaccurate our knowledge of the position of the accident is:

The area where the plane could have gone down was vast. Brazil's military searched for the plane off its northeast coast, while the French military scoured the Atlantic off the West African coast near the Cape Verde Islands.

If this were land it would be equivalent of trying to find the remains of a 200ft plane in the land mass between Colorado and New York State.

Aviation today is only slightly better than it was 30 years ago. Planes do not carry GPS geolocators. Even if that Air France pilot was as good as the pilot who landed in the Hudson, and even if people could get out of the plane after it water landed, passengers would probably be dead by the time we found the plane. Presently, in the aviation world we only know where planes are when they fly near or over land. And that is because the only way to know where a plane is, is to see the plane with a radar. Planes in the Atlantic do not themselves say where they are and controllers can't see them.

To know where they are you need a pilot talking over a lousy quality HF radio to report where he/she sometimes using inaccurate equipment You would also be astonished to find out that even though satellite telephony has existed for over a decade many planes that cross the Atlantic do not carry satellite phones in case the pilot's radios fail. Flying today is still all about radars and radios and most signals don't make it to the mid Atlantic, Pacific or many areas over which we fly today. Moreover, many parts of the land mass are not covered by radars and planes have to tell each other more or less where they are or choose primitive methods such as flying at different levels not to crash into each other. Satellite technology has not made it to planes. GPS are there, in some but not all commercial planes. TCAS and other collision avoidance systems are also not in all planes.

Why are things this way? I really don't know. It's a miracle that there are no more accidents. Yes, planes are safer than cars, but they would be much safer if their functioning combined elements of radio communications as now with elements of satellite communications and many, many more technologies available today. Indeed, sometimes new piston planes have better instruments than 747s.

As we know pilots can only handle so much information, but planes could have many more instruments. If planes were in permanent contact via satellite they could be reporting the most minute details of what is happening with them to say a global Airbus or Boeing maintenance center. And even though this information would be impossible for the pilot to digest, people and/or computers at Airbus or Boeing could be monitoring a lot more information every second a fly is on its way. They could alert the airline and the pilots of minor yet possibly fatal flaws if not attended. Some planes have systems like this but not all. The Airbus 330 was passing some information as to what was happening to it but not where it was.

While that Air France plane that vanished a few hours ago was crossing the ocean, Airbus could have been receiving tons of information from the engines, tanks, instruments, and all critical parts of the plane. Instead, we know very little. We do not even have the information of where the accident actually happened. Yes, the plane has a radio that should float or be somewhere and should tell rescuers more or less where it is but is that all we can do for airline safety? Why do we need a black box? All the info in a black box should be on the ground the moment it is created.

Think about this, even a passenger with a geolocator as the one used for anti car theft would have been able to send more information than the whole plane before the crash. Nowadays a person carrying an iPhone or a Nokia E71 pointed at the window could have better positioning information and software than the pilots of the plane. For 1000 euros a plane or less we could at least know precisely where each aircraft. Why we don't it? And then there's weather information. Planes that cross the Atlantic sometimes face ferocious CBs that go up to 40,000 ft. There is now instrumentation available over satellite that gives even small aircraft real time weather information. But this instruments are not available yet to most large commercial aircraft that cross the Atlantic. And a CB could bring down a plane and maybe that's what brought the AF flight down.

If anything our collective lack of action is a conspiracy of people trained in the past scared of change. Many pilots surprisingly actually fear modern instruments. But I am not advocating the end of the pilot. I am advocating support for pilots who have too much in their hands and could receive much more help while flying if their planes were in constant contact with the ground but not always through them. If what brought down the AF flight was a high hurricane like cloud known as CB avoiding that cloud would have been incredibly easy with a combination of the information that is available to a pilot through his own radar and ground information as to where all the CBs maybe located. We know have extremely accurate 2 hour forecasts. It is negligence that those are not in the hands of all pilots.