Sunday, December 28, 2014

Commercial Aircraft Air Asia QZ8501 Goes Missing: Evolving Flight Risks Call for Upgraded Safety Measures

Hello World,

Another commercial aircraft vanishes, this time it is Air Asia QZ8501, an Airbus 320. A320 is one of the widely used commercial aircraft across the globe. There are airlines whose entire fleet is comprised of A320's.

The news release, so far indicates that the pilot requested a path change, a possible change in altitude and direction. This indicates that the pilot foresaw some weather challenges possibly due to moderate or severe turbulence related to thunderstorm events crossing the designated flight paths. The usual 'altitude-clearance' for escaping potential thunderstorm cloud is 2000 feet but this can vary depending on how bad the weather is (as per the pilot based on his observation of the radar & other instruments). The fact that the pilot requested altitude change from (about) 32000 to 38000 feet indicates he wanted to clear the bad weather envelope by a safe margin.

I think, this aircraft faced anomalies including or related to outage of electrical system resulting in the malfunctioning of guidance, navigation and control system. It can be faulty system failing during flight or system failing due to natural events such as lightning strikes (or any other thunderstorm related activity). Either ways, if the pilots had access to information pertaining to where the aircraft is, where it is headed and how it is heading there, they could have achieved an emergency landing. As usual, there is always the possibility of instantaneous disintegration of the aircraft. Again, nothing can be concluded until the investigation is completed.

From the atmospheric sciences view, we can get hit by a lightning even when we are significantly far from the thunderstorm cloud. As long as there is sufficient temperature difference that can cause charge separation and we (aircraft) happen to present ourselves as a means of discharge, we have every chance of inducing the discharge. Now the platform is built to take such weather anomalies. However, we can never say for sure the 'limit' of such natural phenomena. One small overshoot can set off a sequence of smaller anomalies that can spiral into something major and eventually result in a catastrophic event. It all depends on that first anomaly and how long it took to spiral into a catastrophic event.

Global Aircraft Disappearances & Lightning Activity

Two incidents of 'aircraft disappearance' within 1 year in the same airspace indicates more than random coincidence. I don't see any reason to question technology anymore. may be we need to open our minds to the idea that the weather-based flight operation risks are evolving and existing technologies are not versatile/robust enough to meet the new breed of 'worst-case-scenarios.'

The cause of the QZ8051 accident will only be known after the findings of the accident investigation are released.

However, there is a distant correlation, which, in the larger scheme of things, seem to get my attention and I think we need to look into that and go full-force towards preventive measures.

Based on my recent research on global lightning events, I believe the south-east asia (asia pacific in general) is part of the high-risk-regions for intense lightning activity. Please find below the time lapse video of 30 days' lightning events (from June, 2014) plotted on a world map (30 days' data including about 60000 lightning events in each plot):

Here's one plot from the video as reference for our understanding of the region's vulnerability to lightning events:

The plot above has about 60000 events plotted on the world map. If you look at the Asia Pacific region, it is clear that the south east asia is a place for active lightning events. Now this plot includes only those lightning events that are 'significantly large in terms of magnitude' as detected by the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) as managed and operated by the University of Washington. The basic criteria for a lightning event to be included in the data is when the event is detected by at least 5 stations from the global spread of over 50 such stations, each of them located about thousands of kilometres from each other. 

For a detailed look into global lightning phenomenon, feel free to look up:

Here's something I just came across on the internet:


Key Lies in Comparison

If we look at the infographic given above closely and compare it to the global lightning plot above (right after the youtube video), it is almost as if the plots resemble each other in terms of concentration of occurrences, geographically. Those locations that have the greatest number of red dots (lightning activity) are the regions where most aircraft vanishes have happened.

 It is true that the image has just one day's plot in comparison. But the video has a month's data in time lapse which has the similar trend. That analysis has data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network, collected by over 50 stations spread across the globe. The trend that we see in one image or the month's data is pretty much the same. Again, my point is not to take any 'causation' from the correlation. I am of the view, in surprise, that most of the 'aircraft disappearances' have happened in 'high-lightning' zones. To me that means that those aircraft that went missing, 'might' have encountered unfavorable weather conditions as the starting point of the 'crisis situation' that eventually led to their disappearance.

Well, this resemblance cannot be used for any conclusions at this point of time but this definitely points us towards a new angle of investigation. May be the flight conditions are evolving, and the current systems are struggling to cope with it. The technology is not bad but is getting outdated as we speak. The flight conditions are getting worse and our protective measures should get equally robust. They have been robust for decades but is this decade the same as the one before? Will the next decade be the same as this decade? The answer is a plain no. Then why would we expect the technology to be time-independent in terms of effectiveness?

What Could Be Done

Going All-Out on Preventive Measures.

I think it is time the ICAO and regional regulators (from Asia Pacific region) get together and draft a set of mandatory requirements that includes :

1. SATCOM Implementation (Cockpit & Cabin)
2. Upgrade of Lightning Protection Solutions

It doesn't stop with drafting new rules. In fact, it just begins with that. The implementation is the key here. Regulators in this region already have a tough time monitoring the operators. Every little compromise happening with procedures related to air-safety, both at the regulator and operator level renders the aircraft unsafe. Just because the probability of occurrence is very low, doesn't mean nothing bad will happen. Again, the potential impact is of importance and not the probability of occurrence.

For 'satcom implementation' I am not referring to the airlines using them for their communications. Satcom is considered expensive (subscription charges) and the airlines most often use them only when their aircraft is out-of-range from their line-of-sight communications. What I wish to suggest is a collaborative-satcom-implementation where along with the airlines, the regulators/ATC have visibility of the aircraft and more importantly, there is a real-time systems data streaming so any health deterioration can be detected and possibly predicted by an effective data-analysis regime. The objective of the collaborative effort should, in my view, focus on cost-sharing. The regulators can waive the % of annual cost for satcom implementation (enforced this way) in the duties/taxes that airlines pay. This will help the airlines achieve compliance without too much cost burden. Again, there are so many ways this could be achieved. All we need is a comprehensive satcom implementation for enhanced situational awareness, irrespective of how rarely these unfavorable situations occur.

I believe, both these upgrades will take the existing commercial aircraft safety one level above, into what may be a 'situationally aware' state of air-safety where the airlines, air-traffic controllers (civil/military) and satellite operators have real-time 'eyes-on-the-plane.' Also the aircraft will have a broader range of lightning protection in them.

I wish the plane is safe somewhere but my hopes are a mere reflection of what is human desperation for survival. If this aircraft is lost at sea, then we should stop talking about how advanced the platforms are and how great the procedures are.

The current capabilities and any capability for that matter will be in accordance with the concerned regulatory framework. However, we need to study evolving weather patterns and update our region wise 'worst-case-scenarios.' In practical terms, regulatory compliance is all about pre-written standards and the equipment checking out on the standards during their testing. I have great respect for the scientific community that develops the methods and regulator community that enforces the standards, but in rather blunt layman terms, a group of humans signing off on any technology will not guarantee safety during flight. It only asserts our confidence on the equipment for uptake. Our confidence has so far been proven right but this past year the aviation accidents have attempted to remind us that, standards and regulations have to get more customized, based on region-specific conditions. This to me means that, we need an evolutionary process for constantly measuring the weather patterns and have an ongoing flight-risk assessment feed into the regional framework of regulations. Now it will cost resources but we need to invest in that to be able to avoid aircraft disappearances. Again, by agreeing to constantly revisit flight risk-assessment, we will not doubt or undermine any technology or any entity's capacity to provide safe equipment/service. We have paid over 350 human lives this past year in 'aircraft disappearances' alone. We cannot go on anymore with the 'On what basis/capacity are you questioning our capability?' attitude. Even from a strict business sense, airlines need passengers to trust their 'air-safety' before they enjoy the 'enhanced passenger experience' through wi-fi and IFE. We will be questioned and we will be blamed but that is a price we must pay to enhance safety in commercial aviation. Just my thought.

Let's face it, whether we agree or not, weather-pattern is always variable and things can always go bad. In this case, it went bad twice within a year, in the same airspace. It is a waste of time identifying who went wrong and who failed to monitor them. We must focus on eliminating all potential possibilities of such an occurrence in future. The times are desperate and we need tough decisions and follow-up with implementation. Lives are more important than Return-On-Investment and budget constraints. This is the time for collaborative effort. We have already paid with human lives in hundreds. The objective is to prevent planes from vanishing. I can't believe, I just wrote that but sadly, it makes all the sense.

Continuing to hope for increasing air-safety in commercial aviation.

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  1. Hi, i'm just curious. What are the possible avionics failure for QZ8501? Could the weather radar on QZ8501 not effective in
    identifying the weather ahead? or anything like that

    1. Hi Anonymous friend,
      Thanks for taking time to read my blog. That's a big question. There are so many ways/modes of failure the avionics systems can face during flight. I am not sure of the exact failure mode because it can vary from mere 'wrong-readings' to dangerous 'total system failure.'

      However, on the other hand, the fact that the pilot requested an altitude change indicates that the flight crew might have had the knowledge of bad weather ahead.

      The fact that the aircraft crashed indicates there was a 'control' failure. Whether it was a result of guidance/navigation system failure/anomaly cannot be ascertained as the details are not being revealed.

      Here is my view on how the investigation is looking at this moment:


Thanks for the comment!!! Have a good one!!!!