The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are reconsidering airline safety procedures. But flight simulators might be the best step toward training crews for crises.
Imagine an aircraft cockpit in which pilots can make an infinite number of mistakes without blame, retribution, guilt -- or fatal consequences. Flight simulators offer such an environment, and safety advocates tout these computerized virtual-reality cockpits as better pilot training than flying the real thing.
The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, long has recommended flight simulators as a method to improve air-travel safety. Simulators have evolved beyond the old-fashioned "scare box" of World War II films to become high-tech training devices that react physically to pilot commands, mimic weather and runway conditions and make "real" the emergencies that few pilots ever encounter.
But pilots, mechanics, airplane manufacturers and others gathered at a recent safety summit in Washington also are calling for protection from sanctions for revealing safety problems. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, convened the summit in January after seven major airline crashes and incidents killed 264 people last year -- including 132 casualties in the crash of USAir flight 737, which has stymied investigators.
One safety-reporting system developed by NASA guarantees that members of a flight crew who report any safety problem -- from a dangerous incident to unsafe procedures -- will be protected from reprisals by their employer or federal authorities. Immunity even could apply to airline executives who report faults or risks to the FAA, which has the authority not only to suspend or ground pilots, but can fine airlines -- in some cases millions of dollars -- for safety infractions.
But the FAA, like other organizations concerned with preventing accidents, is "moving away from the blame game," as Boeing Co. safety engineer Earl Weener calls the trend. There are too many ways to prevent accidents to focus on identifying a single cause, he notes.
Unfortunately, training pilots to fly safely and manage unexpected crises itself involves risk. Simulator training is "inherently safer" than training in real airplanes, the NTSB concluded in its most recent commuter-safety study in November. That's because "hazardous maneuvers that cannot be attempted in an airplane can be practiced safely in a simulator." Those maneuvers include recovery from wind shear and low-level stalls. Trainees can practice their responses to all kinds of engine, hydraulic and electrical troubles. …