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Why Do Planes Crash? A Frequent Flyer Ruminates

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The awfully tragic crash of PIA flight 8303 on the Friday two days before Eid has rekindled interest in the question which nags every flyer: why do planes crash? The Airbus 320 crashed in broad daylight under clear skies without having reported any problems prior to hitting the runway with the landing gear not in the down position. The plane hit the runway, apparently damaging the engines, and took off. He went around to attempt a second landing. But luck had run out for all but two people of board the aircraft. It crashed into Model Colony.

Something went terribly in the last few minutes of the flight. What was it? An investigation has begun and hopefully will yield conclusive results. Sometimes these investigations are able to identify the cause. In other cases, the crash remains a mystery.

As someone who has flown more than three million to some three dozen countries on six continents over five decades, I remain an avid reader of news items and analyses pertaining to air crashes. As I understand it, the most probably culprits are the weather, or a mechanical problem, or pilot error. Once in a while, an act of terror takes place – with 9/11 being the ultimate manifestation but there have been others. Very rarely, a plane is shot down – as happened recently in Iran.

In 2013, an Asiana Boeing 777 crashed in broad daylight at the San Francisco airport. It was flown by a veteran South Korean plot who was new to the aircraft. The captain misjudged the approached and came in too low, hitting the runway at the wrong angle. His co-pilot said nothing. Why? The investigation into the crash concluded that cockpit culture, in which the senior pilot is viewed as supreme, played a major role.

Several months later I happened to be sitting next to a captain on a domestic flight in the US. He was in uniform. I asked him what aircrafts he flew. He said Boeing 737s. I asked if he knew what happened to the Asiana flight. He said the airport landing system was not fully functional that afternoon and that meant the captain had to land the 777 manually. However, he had only flown fully automated aircraft and was unable to perform the manual landing. His co-pilot did not intervene because he was junior and reluctant to correct his senior.

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My mind flashed back to the 1986 PIA 747 incident at the Islamabad airport. The captain did not realize the landing gear was not down. He discovered it too late and had to perform a belly landing without the runway being sprayed with carbon dioxide foam. He pulled off a miracle and no one was hurt. The co-pilot did not correct his superior because of Asian culture. Both pilots lost their jobs.

I asked the US captain if culture was an issue on American flights. He said we are trained once a month to pay attention to the advice of our co-pilot and to treat him or her as an equal. But once in a while something fails. He said ex-military captains have a really hard time listening to the junior pilot sitting next to them.

He pointed out that the man sitting behind us was an ex-military captain. In hushed tones, he told me that in military culture, the four stripes on the shoulders of a captain are taken to mean: “I am the captain.” And the three stripes on the shoulders of the co-pilot are taken to mean: “You are not.” I am the boss, I can do no wrong, so keep your mouth shut.

In 2014 a Malaysian airliner bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared. To this day, that disappearance remains a mystery. A few weeks after that incident, I was on a flight from San Francisco to Washington, DC. A man boarded at the last minute and sat next to me. He immediately took his computer out and started working on it until the flight attendance appeared and asked him to turn it off since we were about to push back from the gate.

I was seated right next to the window in the exit row. He was seated in the middle seat. He looked at me and asked, “What happened to the Malaysian airliner?” All the other passengers in our vicinity turned their eyes on me. I said, “How would I know?” He said, “Are you not Malaysian?” I said, “No.”

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I asked him if he knew what had happened. He said he was an engineering professor at UC Berkeley and was heading to a high-level aviation meeting to investigate the crash. He said we know the plane crashed into the Pacific in the other direction from China. But it what was not clear why it changed direction and why life rafts were not pinging electronically.

The mystery refused to unravel. A few years later, I was sitting next to a captain in uniform on a flight from San Francisco to Denver. He was dozing most of the time. As we landed, I asked him where he had flown in from. He said from Shanghai on a Boeing 777. So I asked him about the fate of the disappeared Malaysian aircraft. He did not respond.

I said I had just read an article in the Atlantic monthly about the crash. It concluded there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane or the weather. It did not think terrorism had occurred. It was probably the case that the captain had deliberately crashed the aircraft.

At that point, the captain next to me opened up. He said that based on what he had read and heard, every other cause has been ruled out. So, by inference, that seemed to be a logical conclusion. There was evidence that the Malaysian captain had been leading a troubled life and had decided to end his life, taking along with him all the passengers. I said, it that was indeed the case, that would be a terrible reflection on the human nature of pilots.  At that point, the captain sitting next to me put on his headphones.

Since February, the pandemic has caused me to cancel ten trips. But once it is medically safe to fly again, I will be flying again. And, yes, I do think of what I am risking when I step into a plane. But despite the risks, flying in a plane is safer than driving a car.

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