Airline pilots have their say on safety

They say that a good flight is defined by what doesn’t happen – no turbulence, no delays, no lost luggage, no accident and no hijacking. Much has changed since December 1903, when Orville Wright flew 37 meters in 12 seconds in North Carolina in the first motor-driven airplane. But while plane construction, automation and new technologies have made life easier for passengers and pilots, they have not refuted Wright’s famous comment: «You can fly without engines but not without knowledge and ability.» «The human factor is what controls automation and intervenes when something goes wrong,» explains retired Olympic Airways pilot Yiannis Kalathas. «You have to be there all the time, otherwise we’d go and sit with the passengers in the cabin.» With 15,000 flying hours to his credit, Kalathas has enough experience to separate hasty interpretations of the recent crash of a Helios plane from what he calls the «essence» of the matter. «An accident affects every pilot, some more than others,» comments retired brigadier Spyros Kikeris. «The interesting thing is that when it is due to human error, since everyone sees themselves as a model, we say, ‘I wouldn’t have handled the situation like that.’» Wherever the investigation into the causes of the Helios crash leads, discussions among pilots won’t die down for a while. As time passes, interest is shifting to «the basic point that concerns the aviation industry: Why, given the situation they were facing, did those specific people misunderstood the evidence they had at hand,» says Giorgos Fasoulas, flight security manager for Olympic Airlines and a Boeing 737 pilot. «The mind doesn’t always react as you expect it to,» he says. «You must have had the experience of getting up in the morning and putting the coffee machine on without putting coffee in it, or having said that you would turn left and then absentmindedly turned right. Human error is responsible for 90 percent of aviation accidents. The fact that a plane’s hydraulic system breaks down is not enough to cause an accident. When other factors intervene, it sets up a chain reaction that results in an accident. If, at some point, the pilot, mechanic or air-traffic controller is in a position to break that chain and doesn’t do so, that is what we call human error.» Quick thinking Fasoulas recalls an incident on an OA flight from Athens to Budapest six years ago when the tires of the plane’s left wheel burst shortly before takeoff but the pilot managed to land the plane safely. «In hindsight, my decision not to abort the takeoff proved to be correct. So I went into the passenger cabin where the oxygen masks had been released due to the vibration and I told them that there was good news and bad news. We weren’t going to Budapest but the airplane was fully under control and we just had to delay for two hours while we used up the fuel. The cabin was prepared for evacuation and everything went smoothly.» When you have just a few seconds to make crucial decisions that may prove fatal or you have to deal with harsh weather conditions, how can you keep calm and not be influenced by things that have happened to your colleagues and that have gone down in aviation history? «Anyone who says they’re not afraid is dangerous,» says Fasoulas. «When you aren’t afraid you have no respect. And when you don’t respect your aircraft, you cannot operate it as you should.» Neither Fasoulas nor Costas Vardakis, flight operation manager at Olympic Airlines and an Airbus 340 pilot, connect flight security with cheap tickets. «There are large companies that sell cheap tickets to attract passengers. That doesn’t mean that all the passengers have paid the same price,» says Fasoulas. «Security is a matter of inspection, ongoing training for crews, and many complex factors. When a company like Olympic has been in the field for so long, it naturally has a strong technical basis and pilots who have grown up in the company with certain standards, and they are constantly being trained and monitored. We prefer not to fly if we think they aren’t safe. When something happens that we haven’t predicted, we see what caused it and try to correct it.» The next step is for pilot trainers to go into the cockpit and observe the crew’s non-technical skills, such as team spirit, cooperation and open communication to deal with whatever crops up. «The aim is to build up a database for all flights,» said Fasoulas. «This system is mainly used by American airlines. It is not common in Europe because of the different culture and mentality, but there is always a way of adapting it to Greek or European conditions.» For experienced pilots, there is no such thing as an easy or a difficult flight, but some conditions require extra attention. «The weather usually complicates things,» says Vardakis. «There are airports that may refuse permission to land due to high winds or that have very short landing strips where the pilot has to meet certain standards before the company will send planes there. But pilots like demanding airports such as JFK, London and Frankfurt; busy airports are more interesting.»