Airline Acts to Make Edge of Disaster Safe

By 1995, The Washington Post | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Airline Acts to Make Edge of Disaster Safe


1995, The Washington Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When the stars suddenly seem to spin, the aircraft shakes and debris starts flying around the cockpit, a startled pilot has seconds to analyze the problem and fix it.

But first the pilot - like a doctor - must do no harm.

Few pilots ever face such chaos while flying airliners. But within the next year, every United Airlines pilot will experience this scene - and others - in a flight simulator as part of United Airlines' new "advanced maneuvers" training program.

It is designed to teach pilots how to survive when their planes reach what aviators call "the edge of the envelope" - the point beyond which the plane is hopelessly out of control.

United began planning this program years ago, long before the crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh Sept. 8 with the loss of 132 lives. But the sudden, unexplained roll and dive of Flight 427 have helped persuade many in the airline industry that United's philosophy is right: Pilots are sometimes handed such severe, sudden emergencies that they do not have time to think, and, if they are not trained to have the appropriate instinctive reactions, they may lose the plane.

Pilots routinely are trained to handle predictable emergencies such as engine fires. They are trained to avoid - rather than survive - situations that may not be survivable.

The National Transportation Safety Board calls this philosophy a mistake. In a report on the Feb. 15, 1992, crash at Toledo, Ohio, of a DC-8 freighter, the board observed that "airline pilots are not periodically trained to recover from unusual attitudes as are military pilots or civilian acrobatic pilots. …

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