The Spanair Pilots Probably Didn't Put the Flaps Down, But is it Their Fault?

09/23/2008 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am a pilot. I fly private jets. I am not a great pilot and, since I had to fly alone to obtain my license, I lack sufficient confidence in my abilities to do so again. Specifically, I do not fly alone because too much of what goes on in aviation is still in the hands of pilots, and we pilots almost always cause the accidents. With two pilots the possibility of having an accident is smaller, but even though commercial airplanes have two pilots, fatal plane crashes in the most developed countries are nowadays very rarely due to mechanical failure. Those who believe that Spanair has special mechanical problems are mistaken. All airlines have similar problems with their airplanes and they manage fine. The real problem is in how commercial aviation is designed, that it is not incorporating the necessary advances to remove some of the pilots' duties and create a safer situation. It is the industry and the aeronautic regulators that confide too much in pilots when they can make a mistake at any time.

Although I do not have any more information about the Spanair accident, from what I have read the cause of the disaster was human error. I imagine it happened like this: one pilot, while reading off the checklist, asked the other if he had extended the wing flaps, and the other said yes, but unfortunately he forgot to move the lever, and when they heard the warnings (actually it is not known if they heard them or not), they were unable to abort. So simple. So tragic. So quick. It all happened in seconds. I know that my analysis could be wrong, but due to the hot weather during takeoff (I took off from the same runway two hours earlier), the fact that the plane was completely full with passengers and fuel, and the behavior of the plane, which only flew for a few seconds, everything indicates that the plane tried to take off without fully extended flaps, and it crashed and burned, resulting in the horrible and unnecessary death of 153 passengers.

Now the incredible thing about this tragedy is that this accident could happen to any pilot. It is very unlikely, but it is not impossible. What's more, this type of accident has already happened to many pilots. You only need to google "airline accidents flaps" in order to read about the topic. Flaps are indispensable because without them a plane carrying a lot of weight does not take off. Thanks to the flaps, the wings have more support, and planes carrying a lot of weight can take off at slower speeds on hot days. But planes do not need flaps in order to go fast and climb high, and it is for this reason that they are extended for takeoff and subsequently retracted for flying. But what is absurd is that commercial airplanes filled with passengers and fuel can try to take off and end up crashing if the pilots forget to extend the flaps. If the same plane were equipped with accelerators that would not transfer fuel to the turbines for takeoff in the case that flaps are not extended, this accident would not have occurred. What commercial aviation needs are systems that protect pilots and passengers from human errors that sooner or later are going to be committed. This is a list of airplane accidents since 1998. Here is another.

As a pilot, I understand that the Spanair pilots forgot to extend the flaps. I believe that all pilots understand that this could happen to them; I would be surprised if a pilot were to read my blog and tell me that he or she could never forget to extend the flaps or lower the landing gear. It is not sad that pilots can forget, but what is pathetic is that planes allow the pilots to forget, by sounding alarms but not aborting takeoff. Besides, the alarm system in planes is complicated in and of itself. By their looks, the ridiculous consoles must have been designed by engineers who understood very little about human psychology, as they mix serious matters with nearly trivial ones. Airplanes have too many alarms, too many consoles and colors and they mix too many things that are not a matter of life and death with things that indeed are, sometimes forcing the pilots to make split-second decisions. Another example is the landing gear, which in general is not on the console but beneath it, and has an absurd system of three (one for each wheel) red or green lights without alarms. I do not know if an alarm goes off in the big commercial planes if one of the lights is red, but I know that such alarms do not exist in small commercial planes. But aside from this, there is also the attention factor. We cannot ask a pilot in the midst of landing to look down to almost where his feet are in order to see the three green lights. The pilots need to have a big console and only look at that console and outside. And that console should show the most important information at that moment. The three green lights should appear on the console, and not be hidden among so many other lights, because landing without the appropriate gear or with only part of the landing gear deployed is much more important than a red alarm that could be something like the depressurization of the luggage compartment while landing.

At this point what I am asking myself is this: if we all understand that people can fail more frequently than computer programs, why do we let airplanes take off without flaps? Or why do we not make the process of improving instruments simpler and obligatory? Many planes from the 70s and 80s are still flying today, yet this is not a danger given that the truth is that there has been very little progression in the actual field of flight since then, and old planes fly very well. But where we find enormous differences between old and new planes is in the instruments. And yet, save for a few exceptions, no one demands that they change their instruments. Besides, they make it very difficult to standardize new instruments for old planes. Why not let the planes improve their instrumentation easily? If, for example, Boeing 777 jets have far superior instrumentation than the 737 jets, why not make it necessary to improve the cockpit? The airlines do not want to do this because the certifications are extremely expensive. They made me remove an instrument from my plane (which generally flies commercially because it is charted) that could clearly save lives, an instrument that gives you an image of your surrounding terrain and is especially useful for landing in airports like those for Switzerland's Gstaad and Samedam, which are in valleys nestled between very high mountains, because they were not standardized. Aviation authorities do not give the pilots discretion concerning which instruments they want to use. As I understand it, they don't let you take out the instruments that are there, but they also don't allow you to install the new ones that the pilots themselves want. It doesn't make sense. The same thing occurs with instruments that have been developed in order to avoid collisions, or with simple GPS. I have seen how pilots from big airlines that have invited me to their cockpits use handheld Garmins while flying transoceanic routes because the gyroscope navigation systems yield a lot of error. What's more, there are routes that are flown with personnel whose only job is to take care of navigation, and these people carry Garmins and thus save themselves from having to use antiquated inertial gyroscopes. It is very illogical.

Another pathetic issue is the language one. The language of aviation is English. For example, if a pilot flies for Germany, he or she speaks English. But in Spain pilots speak in Spanish, and this makes Spanish skies more dangerous as a result of the mixture of languages between Iberia, Spanair and Air Europa pilots, who are speaking in Spanish, and all the rest, who are speaking in English. Allow me to explain. The idea of radio frequency is that every pilot in one particular zone can hear the communication between the tower and each pilot. This can be very useful for a pilot that is near another aircraft or avoiding bad weather. But if, for example, a Spanish pilot chances upon an area of high turbulence and asks to go off course 10 degrees in order to avoid the bad weather, the rest of the non-Spanish pilots that are there do not even find out about this. What's more, I have heard Spanish pilots ask for shortcuts in Spanish and be given them, and heard pilots ask for them in English and not be given them. This practice of speaking in Spanish is also bad for Spanish pilots when they leave Spain because in general they have gone through all of their training in Spanish. Thus, once they leave Spanish skies they don't understand very well what the controllers in the other countries are telling them. In general, I believe that it is bad that each European country controls "its" skies and that there are so many systems. There should be a single agency for the European skies, and the controllers should be people from different countries controlling different sectors. If it were like this there would be more air routes and these ridiculous delivery points would not exist in between, for example, Spain and France above the Pyrenees. In contrast, the solution of having RVSM altimeters and sticking the planes at every thousand feet without increasing the number of air routes seems much more dangerous to me. And aside from making things less dangerous, if Europe's air routes were redesigned it could save fuel and generate less pollution, since planes already fly ten percent further than the flight's true distance, since they can only follow the very few air routes that exist in each country.

I also fail to understand aviation's love affair with the old systems based on radio beacons. The whole red and green system for landing is simply archaic. Planes should have consoles based on GPS or radio-electric systems that draw the landing paths with much more precision. How can it be that the videogame industry has designed such intuitive interfaces and the aeronautic industry has not adopted them? The paradoxical thing is that when I talk to many pilots, they seem very content with the systems as they are. Since we hear from pilots with more than 5000 hours of experience in commercial planes, it is not strange that they, who have already flown for so many years, should be comfortable with the status quo. But this is like listening to a Chinese person tell you that learning 5000 characters is better than learning a few letters: it is only true when you already know all of them.

There are also specific problems in Madrid's airports. Cuatro Vientos, where I learned to fly, is truly dangerous because of the incredible amount of traffic that it has, and because light aircraft are not obliged to have systems for avoiding collisions among themselves. These systems can now be purchased for under 2000 euros. The Barajas/Torrejón junction is also awfully designed. When Barajas is in southern configuration, its and Torrejon's take offs should have the same system of controllers. Moveover, the operation of the system is unusual because although Torrejón operates as a principally civilian airport, it has military controllers. I understand that the military and civil controllers do not get along well due to salary differences.

So, returning to the beginning, here are my conclusions. Flying continues to be much safer than traveling by car. What's more, in the last five years in the United States, big commercial planes have not recorded a single accident, and 30 thousand flights take off daily. Air accident casualties are extremely rare, especially in the EU and the USA. But upon seeing the tragic Spanair accident I grieved greatly for the loss of human life, and I send my condolences to the families of the pilots and passengers who died. Although the direct fault for this accident was probably (I hope that the results of the investigation are known soon) due to the mistake of the pilot who stated that the flaps were down when they were not, and paid with his live, I do not blame this person. For me, those to blame are the reactionaries that manage the aviation system that, due to conservatism, prefer to not renovate airplane cockpits and create much more "robotic" planes. And this is how nowadays there are light, private aircraft worth 300,000 euros with better instrumentation than commercial jets that cost millions of euros and carry hundreds of passengers. We have to help the pilots more. They are incredibly well-trained people. But they are human beings.