ANALYSIS: AirAsia 8501, Extreme Weather, and the Crash of Pulkovo 612

2014 is behind us now. Thank goodness, because it was a lousy year for public confidence in aviation. Our confidence was undermined substantially, not by engineering, but by aviation marketing spin.

Our engineering progress has been great. We are developing new technologies and learning how to fasten hundreds of people inside ‘flying jetfuel tanks’. These new aircraft are technical marvels: reliable, while also increasingly lighter, more powerful and more fuel-efficient.

But, our aviation marketing is a flop. Not the marketing that makes people feel they need to buy a ticket and fly off on a vacation or for business. No, I mean the marketing that protects people from what the airlines and the aviation regulators feel might diminish demand. 2014 was a flop in this area because of the miserable mishandling of information about three major air crashes. First Malaysia 370; then Malaysia 17; and closing out the year with Indonesia AirAsia 8501.

To be fair, there was some improvement, in that Indonesian authorities did release some detailed information much more quickly than had happened nine months earlier. But, it has now been eleven days since the crash of a radar-tracked Airbus 320 into relatively shallow seas, and we still have not located the ‘black box’. Plus, we are seeing over and over again: the airlines – and the regulators who serve us them – want to keep us in the dark. Classic spin control: he who controls the information controls the show. On top of that, we are saddled with an obsolete regulatory framework that perpetuates this informational inequity. Relatively primitive black box technologies that minimize transparency, maximize airline/regulator control of critical flight data, and frankly ensure that the revealed facts are kept as fuzzy as possible.

There are Always ‘Design Limits’

No matter how good our engineering is, and no matter how robust a system is designed and built, we cannot avoid the fact that there are limits. Design a roof to hold the huge weight of a two-foot snowfall in an area where nobody has ever seen that much snow, and the roof should work just fine. But, what if the weather suddenly produces three feet of snow? We design to expected extremes, but what if our expectations are wrong, or what if the measured extremes are intensifying over time?

It is entirely conceivable that the design for today’s airliners does not offer real protection from the most hazardous phenomena associated with today’s most intense thunderstorms, the ones that tower to 50,000 feet. The windshear and turbulence, or the rate of icing, may be too much. Then, too, our pilots may be becoming complacent, losing the fear of weather that, in the past, would have caused all pilots to simply stay on the ground until the thunderstorm was done.

If the aircraft seems invincible and the pressure from airline management to keep the whole day’s schedule ‘on time’ is more intense than the fear of a weather forecast, a commercial pilot will fly on, even into danger, unaware until it is too late that he has more than met his match. And, this appears to be exactly what happened eight years ago, with Pulkovo Flight 612.

The Crash of Pulkovo Flight 612

20060822.. Tu-154 picThe accident happened on August 22, 2006. All 170 onboard were killed. The aircraft was a Tupolev Tu-154 with three engines at the tail, a design quite similar to the Boeing 727. The flight data showed convincingly: the flight was cruising at FL380 (38,000 feet) near a strong storm cell, was suddenly lifted to near FL420, and then entered a flat spin, descending all the way to a terrain impact (near 1,000 feet MSL) in less than three minutes.

20141228pic initial_radar_QZ8501

Photo showing the QZ8501 datablock, just prior to disappearing.

The Pulkovo Flight 612 accident scenario is consistent with the reports that QZ8501 made a sudden extreme climb while losing airspeed, just prior to disappearing. This was covered in a few articles, including the BusinessInsider piece by Paul Colgan on January 2nd. A tweet posted hours after the QZ8501 disappearance included a photo of the radar display, showing (red ellipses, added) an altitude of FL363 and climbing, with an airspeed of 353 knots. The article includes a second photo with a leaked printout, indicating that seconds after the climb and dangerously slowed airspeed, QZ8501 was showing a descent rate of nearly 12,000 feet per minute – far in excess of even the steepest controlled descent. And, the printout showed the speed had decayed to just 61 knots – indicating the A320 was no longer flying, but was simply falling like a rock.

Below is a paragraph from the Pulkovo Flight-612 accident summary, as posted in the Aviation-Safety.net database.

Pulkovo flight 612 departed Anapa (AAQ) for St. Petersburg (LED) at 15:05. The Tu-154M climbed to the cruise altitude of 35,100 feet (10.700 m). Because of storm cells ahead, the pilot decided to change course laterally by 20 km and attempted to climb over the storm cells. However, the thunderstorm front was unusually high, extending up to 15 km (49,000 feet). The Tu-154 entered an area of severe turbulence, pushing up the airplane from 11.961 m to 12.794 m within just 10 seconds. The angle of attack increased to 46 degrees and the airspeed dropped to zero. It entered a deep stall from which the crew could not recover. The plane crashed and burned in a field.

A more thorough analysis has been compiled at this aiREFORM webpage: aiR-Link

What Might We Conclude?

Obviously, to be absolutely certain, we have to wait for the real flight data, once the black box is recovered. But, even without that, it is clear that the existing data shows the QZ8501 accident had many similarities to the Pulkovo 612 crash. While many people are looking closely at the Air France 447 accident in 2009, they should be paying as much – and perhaps even more – attention to what we know about the Pulkovo crash in 2006. And, both airlines and regulators need to take another look at what they are doing to keep pilots from getting too close to mega thunderstorms.

See also…

12/28/2014
Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 Missing, with 162 On Board
aiREFORM Post
12/30/2014
QZ8501: Debris Field and First Bodies Reportedly Found
aiREFORM Post
1/2/2015
The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash
aiREFORM Post

The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash

Geoffrey Thomas, at AirlineRatings.com in Western Australia, seems to have one of the best factual views of the QZ8501 tragedy. And he is doing a great job posting coverage since the Indonesia AirAsia flight disappeared nearly six days ago. One of his Posts on New Years Day re-declares the maxim that, when anything bad happens in aviation, facts are the first things to disappear.

He’s correct, but it should not be this way. Every nation has an aviation authority, such as FAA in the United States. These agencies are stuffed full of employees, theoretically there to serve the Public. In their early years, these agencies did very important safety and infrastructure development work. But, as these agencies have matured, they seem to have become less and less productive, more about quietly helping the airlines than about aggressively speaking up for safety. So, when an accident or incident occurs, they tend to say nothing. It is as if their speaking up might get in the way of how the accident airline needs/wants to manage the PR spin.

Given this, when an incident like QZ8501 happens, we end up with a deep informational vacuum. Neither airlines nor regulatory authorities take charge to clearly and timely articulate the known facts. And as we all know, where there is an informational vacuum, rumors and other garbage will quickly fill the void. This is happening (AGAIN!) with QZ8501, while victim’s families suffer, and while millions of others ponder just how safe aviation is.

It’s a new year.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if FAA’s leadership chose to set a new, higher standard for the world to follow, by aggressively working for maximized aviation safety? Wouldn’t it be great if, when a serious accident or incident happens, the relevant national authority would step forward and firmly assert the known facts, and then stay up front to keep us all urgently posted? This is kind of the way NTSB’s Deborah Hersman handled the investigation, in early 2013, when the B787 battery fires were happening.

Can we make that our new standard for aviation safety transparency?

“…someone ought to be asking some serious questions of the FAA”

LeehamNews is a Seattle-based blog that offers steady, thoughtful insight into Boeing, Airbus, other commercial aircraft manufacturers, and related topics. In a 8/19/2014 Post, LeehamNews points out FAA inconsistencies in imposing airspace bans, from Ukraine to Syria to Ferguson, MO. Here is a copy:

FAA overflights: It’s big news here in the USA, likely far less so in the rest of the world: the racial unrest in the small Missouri town of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, where an unarmed 18-year African-American male was shot six times by a white policeman. Police say the young man attacked a police office. Witnesses say he had his hands up to comply with the officer’s orders. A grand jury will attempt to sort out facts. In the meantime, demonstrations–some peaceful, some not, some with looting–have turned Ferguson into an armed camp of police looking like the Army, in Humvees, battle gear and automatic weapons.

The US Federal Aviation Administration quickly instituted a low-level flight ban over Ferguson.

Then yesterday, we received a call from the Voice of America asking us to comment on the FAA issuing a flight ban over Syria, a war zone, where combat has been underway for three years.

This comes, of course, after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.

Over the decades, the FAA has been criticized as being a “tombstone” agency: wait until people die before implementing a rule to save lives. While mostly hyperbole, the characterization, like most cliches, is rooted in basis of fact.

When VOA called, we were, to be frank, gobsmacked the FAA hadn’t previously banned Syrian overflights. Prior to Ukraine, can anyone think of any place on earth where there was a more dangerous combat zone where overflights might not be a good idea?

We’re loath to encourage a hack Congress to do much of anything these days, but someone ought to be asking some serious questions of the FAA.

ANALYSIS: High-Altitude Shoot-Downs in Ukraine Started Just 3-Days Before the MH17 Crash

20140717.. MH17 debris and investigators in wheat field 7-22-14For the past ten days, the world has witnessed an intensive propaganda war where both sides are trying to spin the story of how MH17 ended up widely scattered over wheatfields and farms in east Ukraine. The one known element of the story is that the Boeing 777 was shot down. The consensus is that the source was a ground-based Russian-made SA-11 missile, also known as a BUK or ‘gadfly’, but it is also conceivable that the aircraft was shot down air-to-air.

On the one side we see the Russians and pro-Russian rebels, who are seeking to separate from Ukraine. On the other side we see Ukraine. And there are other players, such as the U.S., whose top officials have satellite imagery and other advanced intelligence and certainly know far more than they are sharing with the Public.

One core element of the spin aims to create plausible deniability for the prospect of involvement by major states. Early news stories talked about Russian SA-11 missile launchers being moved into eastern Ukraine, then being seen moving back to Russia shortly after MH17 was shot down. There does not appear to be any substantial denial of these movements; instead, the early spin aims to claim that the SA-11 units were brought into Ukraine then used by separatist rebels who ‘accidentally’ shot down MH17 while aiming for a Ukrainian military aircraft. It seems hard to imagine that a complex system* would be delivered by anyone other than a trained crew, and even harder to imagine that they would then let others play with the system.*Experts note that the SA-11 has three separate vehicle units: a radar (for target acquisition), a control center, and tank-like launchers with four loaded 18-ft missiles. It seems far more plausible that the SA-11 was used by trained Russian soldiers, under a cover claiming the separatists pulled the trigger. Alternatively, there have been some charges that the Ukrainian military used their own BUK to intentionally shoot down MH17, with the intent of pinning the blame on the Russians. Given known world history, it is difficult to reject this as the possible true story.

In a world of spin-control, one strategy is to launch a diversionary story. Ukraine was shockingly quick to release a collection of alleged intercepted communications, first between rebel leaders and Russian military officials and then amongst rebel leaders. They reflect that the news story broke as a shoot-down of an An-26 military aircraft (as first happened three days earlier, in the first high-altitude shoot-down, on 7/14/14), but soon transitioned to a realization that a civilian aircraft had been hit. Some charge that this is all a fabrication to cover for what may have been an air-to-air missile shoot-down from a Ukrainian jet.

One key area where Ukraine is clearly blocking Public knowledge is their refusal to share ATC data. The airspace is managed by Ukrainian air traffic controllers, under an international agreement. Sadly, that agreement does not mandate each state to be transparent and produce data, even after a major incident such as MH17. Interestingly, Russian radar claims to have tracked portions of MH17, and in a Defense Ministry presentation on 7/21/14, Russian officials offered radar data which they interpret as showing a Ukrainian military Su-25**Ten days earlier, on 7/7/14, an Su-25 was reportedly captured by separatists. So, conceivably, the alleged shadow Su-25 may have been Ukraine, rebel, or even Russian. shadowing 3-5 kilometers from MH17. If this is true, perhaps Ukraine is trying to hide the important fact that they did have a military aircraft in close proximity to the downed airline. That same Russian Defense Ministry presentation had many other strong arguments questioning the veracity of western claims, many of which are laid out near the bottom of the lengthy 7/26/14 report by Andre Vltcheck, at Global Research.

High-Altitude Shoot-downs were New on 7/17/2014

The first high-altitude shoot-down was just three days earlier, on 7/14/14, when an An-26 was hit; eight parachuted out and two died. Then, on 7/16/14, two Ukrainian Air Force Su-25’s were downed, apparently at higher altitudes, producing no fatalities; one was claimed to have been a MANPADS hit, and the other was claimed to have been an air-to-air hit by a Russian fighter. Prior to 7/14/14, there had been numerous shoot-downs, but most were helicopters, and all were at low altitudes, generally during takeoff or approach. In other words, the SA-11 system appears to have been first used on 7/14/14, just three days prior to MH17. Given the higher altitudes, it is quite conceivable that the two Su-25’s on 7/16/14 were also shot down using the SA-11.

Certainly, the major world military powers know the precise date and time that the Russian SA-11’s were delivered into and became operational in eastern Ukraine … but we don’t know that, because the leaders are hiding this information. The spin-games will continue and all parties will ensure the Public is in the dark. This is a pattern we have all come to expect in recent decades … from the U.S., Russian, Ukraine, the agencies (e.g., FAA), the airlines, etc. It is said that power corrupts; here, it appears a key part of the corruption is to control the flow of even basic information. Where is a good Whistleblower when we need one?

We Have to Look Elsewhere for the Facts

An outstanding resource for information on aviation accidents and incidents is AviationSafetyNetwork (A-SN). It includes two databases: one that covers major aviation incidents, and another that allows user-inputs to compile data and news links for even minor GA incidents. The A-SN database was queried by aiREFORM.com, using a filter to show all recent Ukraine accidents. Nearly all ‘accidents’ are war-related; all shoot-downs are listed in the table below:

5/2/2014 (2) Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopters, shot down near Luvyansk, using MANPADS. 5 fatalities.
5/2/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-8 helicopter, damaged by gunfire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
5/5/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopter, shot down by ground-fire near Luvyansk, crew is rescued, then Ukrainian Su-25 fires to destroy the downed helicopter. No fatalities.
5/29/2014 Ukrainian National Guard Mi-8 helicopter, shot down by ground-fire near Slavyansk. 12 fatalities.
6/3/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopter, shot down by small-arms fire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
6/4/2014 (3) Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters were damaged/destroyed by MANPADS and ground-fire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
6/5/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Mi-8 helicopter, hit by small-arms fire near Slavyansk, forced to make emergency landing. No fatalities.
6/6/2014 Ukrainian Air Force An-30 jet with 8 on board, hit by ground-fire near Drobyshevo, catches fire and crashes. 5 fatalities.
6/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Il-76 jet, hit by MANPAD while on approach to Lugansk airport. 49 fatalities.
6/24/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-8 helicopter, hit by MANPAD while taking off near Slavyansk airport. 9 fatalities.
7/1/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet, on an attack mission and hit by defense forces but able to return to its base. No fatalities.
7/2/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-24 jet, on an attack mission and hit by defense forces but able to return to its base. No fatalities.
7/12/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Mi-24 helicopter, on an attack mission near Snezhny, shot down by MANPAD. No fatalities.
7/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet, destroyed by separatists (no other information available). No fatalities.
7/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force An-26 jet, shot down at higher altitude (6,500m) near Izvaryne. 2 fatalities.
7/16/2014 (2) Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jets, one shot down by MANPAD, the other allegedly shot down by Russian fighter, both at altitude around 20,000-ft, near Ukraine-Russian border. No fatalities.
7/17/2014 Multiple older aircraft damaged/destroyed by Ukraine forces while parked at Tarasovka Airfield, northwest of Crimea. No fatalities.
7/17/2014 MH17 shot down at FL330, flying east of Donetsk. 298 civilian fatalities.

Terrorism Comes Home

Both days were bright and sunny, and yet both mornings brought the darkest of news.

20010911.. twin towers pic, second impactIn September 2001, I awoke to yet another beautiful day in Fremont, CA, and prepared to run before heading to my afternoon shift, working as an oceanic air traffic controller at FAA’s Oakland Center. I was renting a room in a house where an 89-yr-old former merchant marine was being cared for by his niece, with extra care provided by a cheerful Filipina who arrived each day. He lived in a reclining medical chair/bed next to the kitchen, adjacent to a phone and a breathing machine, and his TV was often on. I came out ready to run and walked by just to say ‘good morning’. I stopped when I saw his TV showing the images of the first tower strike, and minutes later I watched as the network showed images of the second tower strike. I watched a bit more, in shock, then went for my run. Not a quarter mile later I stopped and I bent over and I cried.

In July 2014, I awoke in my rural Oregon home, with plans to harvest more blueberries and finish building planter boxes for my Fall garden. I was having some coffee and checking the news online when I learned that a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed, and was possibly shot down by a missile. I spent the next few hours learning as much as I could about Ukraine, Russia, the history of the area, and the emerging details of what soon was confirmed to be a terrorist attack that killed all 298 aboard.

Thirteen Years Later, Things are Just Slightly Different

In 2001 I cried, but in 2014 I did not. Was it that they were different, in Ukraine, not American? No, not at all. In fact, as I hurriedly searched for information about the crash/attack, I was frankly stunned when I saw the local videos on YouTube. I was stunned, not by the black smoke and falling debris, but by the peripheral image: the rustic farm buildings, the vibrant mid-summer garden, the young walnut tree — it all looked just like my home, here in rural Oregon. 20140717.. MH17 screen-cap showing black cloud and gardenAs I studied the images, I heard the muffled crying of Ukrainians, also shared by YouTube. These Ukrainians were witnessing this event with debris and bodies raining upon their homes, and I felt they were just like me and my neighbors here in Oregon. God, this debris could have fallen here today. It has been a week, yet I still cannot help but to wonder: the way things appear to be trending, how many years will it be before domestic terrorists bring down U.S. airliners upon sleepy agricultural areas in the American heartland? Really, just how sick is humanity?

I cried in 2001 because this terrorist act was new and ramped up; and, it indicated how the world was changing in the wrong direction. I cried for my kids, and for our future. But, in 2014, I did not cry. At least not yet. I think it was the numbing effect, of a horrific human tragedy repeated. It makes us stoic; it destroys our humanity.

2014-07-17: Malaysia Flight #17, EHAM-WMKK, Shot Down Over Ukraine at FL330

According to numerous news articles, a Malaysia Boeing 777 has been shot down over Ukraine. The flight reportedly had 295 on board. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets. “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”

20140717.. MH17 route, FlightAware flight info viewA quick analysis of data viewable at FlightAware.com shows the flight departed Amsterdam a half hour late, at 12:30PM local time (Central European Summer Time, CEST). The flight was planned for 11 hours and 28 minutes flying time, to arrive at Kuala Lumpur  at 5:59AM local time. No route plan is available at FlightAware, but the total direct distance is noted at 6,368 statute miles.

The flight on the day before (7/16/2014) appears to have flown through the same location, slightly south of the incident route, crossing the length of Ukraine and over the Sea of Azov.20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view for previous day

The flight profile shows a normal climb, a long cruise at FL310, then a climb to FL330 and a level off for less than ten minutes. The FlightAware data viewed with the earliest news reports showed a long series of positions, without altitude encoding. Later data presentations showed a 68-minute gap, from the position in northwest Ukraine where tracking first appeared to end, to a single lat/long position near Donetsk, at what appears to be the vicinity of the debris.20140717.. MH17 route, FlightAware alt-spd profile

Here are a few maps and satellite views, from FlightAware: 20140717.. MH17 full route, FW classic view20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view of Ukraine, showing FlightAware route projection
This picture of a portion of the fuselage is said to have landed near Donetsk which is in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, and hundreds of miles east of where the flight data ended in northwest Ukraine. An online video shows streaming and fluttering debris in front of a background of black smoke.20140717.. MH17 fuselage piece near Donetsk
NOTE: in the first hours while this news story was breaking, the flight data depicted on FlightAware ended in western Ukraine, at approximately latitude 51.20N and longitude 25E. The flight data was eventually updated, to show one more position more than an hour later, in the vicinity of the debris field. Here is a portion of the World VFR chart, with an orange circle at the Lat/Long.20140717.. UKR-311 airspace on World VFR Chart