Catering, A Russian Sharm El-Sheikh Catastrophe & MH17

Have you ever sat in seat 33 A/B/C on a commercial airline flight?  Or D/E/F?  As far as I’m concerned, those are the best aviation seats on most local airlines.  If they allow you there in the first place.  Yes its close to the toilets at the back.  No, you can’t book these online or using the self-check at the airport.  Yes sometimes Kulula or SAA don’t open the back to allow you off first which means waiting until the slow moving pax drag their bodies out through the front door.  At times the noise increases as the crew work on preparing meals with a crash or slam of one of the metal boxes.  But I’ve found despite all of the above,  they’re the best seats, particularly the window.  And if you’re going to survive an accident, its more likely that you’re going to be sitting in the back rather than Business Class.

The trajectory of the accident with the bottom yellow stars indicating the position of the tail section.
The trajectory of the accident with the bottom yellow stars indicating the position of the tail section.

That may change with the latest revelations from the Russian airliner that went down over the Sinai with 224 people on board.  It’s known that the rear of the plane separated from the fuselage – that wreckage was found a few kilometres away from the main body at the weekend.  Now its being reported that Egyptian investigators are probing the company that provided on-board meals.   The food is stored just forward of the main rear bulkhead – and the main rear bulkhead sheared.

TASS reports that “A driver and employees who brought meals for the passengers of flight 9268 in the morning on October 31 are being interrogated.”  We all know that TASS has turned back into one of Moscow’s favourite propaganda engines,  but that doesn’t mean the Egyptians aren’t actually investigating this angle.

Initially a whole bunch of speculation broke out. That it was pilot error.  That one of the pitot tubes was iced and the plane speed dropped.  Or that the plane broke up when the bulkhead collapsed due to poor maintenance or a fix from a tail strike a decade ago.  The Cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder are being scrutinised at this time.

Meanwhile, the British and Irish have cancelled all flights to and from Sharm El-Sheikh.   Cairo is muttering about how this is unfair,  but they would because the military junta that now rules Egypt is set to lose more cash as tourists flee their country.   A third of Egypt’s GDP is based on tourism.

And this from the British Cabinet Office Briefing Room is most telling:

“While the investigation is still ongoing we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed. But as more information has come to light we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”

May well?  That’s diplomat speak for its the probably cause.

The Daily Express in the UK reports that :

“.. cockpit recordings from the Russian jet emerged last night, with Russian reports suggested “uncharacteristic noises” had been recorded, although the pilots had failed to issue a mayday call.”

Well when you’re trying to save your life, you tend to communicate last.  Aviate Navigate Communicate is our mantra for a reason.  As pilots we’ve all been in intense situations and the last thing you do is start yapping away to ATC when you’re trying to live.  You’re hanging onto the controls and talking without using the push-to-talk, in other words,  through the on-board intercom.

And Daesh or the so-called Islamic State claimed it was responsible for bringing down the plane.  But their propaganda video showed radicals allegedly using some kind of missile which is highly improbable.  It’s more likely that they just jumped on the bandwagon.

US radar shows a flash at the point at which the plane began breaking apart which could be from fuel exploding, but also could be from a small device on board which blew up, shearing off the tail and leading to the catastrophe.  It’s too early to tell.  One thing is for sure.  Could it be that the Russians would rather see the real facts emerge from an airliner that crashed?  Unlike their prevarication over the MH17 disaster where the Eastern Ukrainian rebels appear to have mis-identified a Malaysian commercial airliner as a Ukrainian bomber and shot it down.   There Moscow has bent over backwards defending the actions of its Eastern Ukrainian allies.

It’s one of life’s cruel ironies.  In my last blog I indicated that if I was a Russian Intelligence officer,  I would be very concerned about my citizens and my officials after the recent revelations about MH17 and the Ukrainian rebels.  Then if I had relatives who went down on board MH17 and was feeling motivated by revenge,  the target of my hatred would probably be either Russian,  or Eastern Ukrainian.   Or both.

Did a Malaysian or someone else get even with the Russians by bringing down the Airliner over the Sinai? Security at Sharm El-Sheikh is notoriously lax.  Particularly apron security.

Please, what a conspiracy theory!

Stupid even to suggest, no?





The Black Dog, Aviation & Andreas Lubitz

The recriminations have begun after the Germanwings disaster.  Lufthansa may be in a spot of bother here,  but they’re not alone.  This terrible accident has brought a few things into relief, including how the aviation industry is governed and the rules and regulations that absorb our time as we think about flying.  But what are some of the other facts in this macabre and terrifying story?

Andreas Lubitz, who is thought to have flown 150 people to their deaths aboard Germanwings Flight 9525, would not have been allowed to fly as an airline pilot in the US or South Africa for that matter.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 11.23.44 AM

His total hours (pilot in control) at the time of death were slightly more than one third the minimum needed for a US Airline Transport Rating.  PIC its called.  Instead he was loaded with PICUS – Pilot In Control Under Supervision.  That’s where you’re in the left seat (where the Captain sits) with an instructor in the right who may not touch the controls.  As soon as they do – the PICUS time is “demoted” to DUAL time.   Guess what.  Most of these PICUS hours really do have moments where the instructor helps the PICUS.  It’s a bit of a grey area…

Looking through the culture of pilots over at least 50 years there’s on distinct trait that emerges that you really want from your Captain flying Kulula through the tail of a thunderstorm.

Survival Instinct.  Built on real-time experience and thousands of hours as a pilot. Alone.  Or honing their skills as an instructor for five years, watching others make mistakes and improving their own knowledge constantly.

Using his/her basic brainpower and thinking to outwit fate and survive.

And that should include the First Officer.  There’s such a dirth of this sort of pilot,  that airline companies have instituted that experience/youth combo over the last 15 years.  It’s also accelerating, along with a dreadful Pay-to-Fly.  It’s PTF.  Aviation is full of acronyms. But this is one of the weirdest.  Young pilots are inducted into airlines by actually paying the airline to fly in the F/O seat in order to build hours.

Many of the world’s airlines use this nefarious employment technique.  Airlines like Ryan,  Easy and Wiz and a host of others hire really junior pilots with  only a few hundred hours. I have no idea if Germanwings was one.


You’ll all be pleased to know that SAExpress and SAA only employe pilots with 2000 hours plus and PTF hasn’t made its odious little appearance here.  Yet.

99.9% of the time, nothing bad happens in flying.  But when you hit that 0.1%, you want 10 000 hours or so combined sitting up front.  Preferably shared,  not 9500 hours and 500 for the kid.

You also DO NOT  want a First Officer who is recovering from depression after popping those suicide inducing pills and who has a measly 100 hours in supervised time on an Airbus. Like Andreas.

It may not be politically incorrect to say this,  but its just true.

One of the side effects of anti-depressants (which I have never taken mind you, I’m just reliably informed), is enduring a weaning process.  The longer you pop ’em, the worse it gets.  Why the FDA has allowed this dependency to spiral is beyond me.  The stories I’ve been hearing about what happens to your head after a year of throwing these evil ellipses down your throat are dark.

Treating mental illness is not like setting a broken bone then jumping back in the plane after six months.  The side effects of treatment can be worse than the disease.  I’ve heard a few stories of depressed pilots marriages breaking down, taking a few days off, then climbing aboard and continuing their aviation lives without a blip.   This is not the same as someone who’s being treated for chronic depression.

It’s actually mentioned over and over in training – are you mentally fit?  As pilots we’re constantly asking ourselves are we fit to fly.

  • How was the drive to the airport?
  • Did you have road rage?
  • Have you settled down?
  • How’s things at home?
  • Are you stressed about something you can’t deal with?
  • Have you had sleep?
  • Have you eaten enough?
  • Are you feeling good?
  • Is your stomach working properly?
  • Are you concentrating 100% on the job at hand?
  • Slow down, you’re moving too fast.
  • Think.
  • Have you done everything correctly?

Imagine you’re imbued with the darkness of the Black Dog.  These questions above are like a fluffy layer of impertinence when your soul is grappling with issues like

  • Should I kill myself?


  • Is this all there is to life?

We’re so babied as humans these days,  someone has to tell you how to be an adult. We gamble with the devil and hope that our sensitive little lives aren’t reported by our aviation doctor.  Or our fellow pilots.

We’re not in a war.  During WWII pilots who displayed this sort of dark edge were called mysterious, “having a death wish” and were ultimately lauded for being purveyors of the true spirit of courage.

The modern narcissistic cult of the individual has exacerbated the dangers – anonymous little twerps can somehow leap into our popular consciousness with the effortless click of a Smartphone app.

Some say aviators have the characteristics of Rottweilers obsessed with speed, sports cars, flashy partners and loads of dosh.  Others believe its possible for pilots to be kindler, gentler, nice guys and gals who are sensitive.  And can have a mental disorder, as long as its treated.

It’s a simple thing, this aviation business.  Cock it up and die.  Simple.  That’s why loads of PIC hours are needed.  So if you have a propensity for weakness,  its outed at some point in your 1200 hours before you sit in the right seat.   600 hours is not enough.

So you need to be constantly scrutinised by those who do the managing – its invasive yet  totally acceptable.  But I’ve heard from people who say it’s their private business.  Well its not. It’s not even their private business if they’re flying in some isolated area alone.

This includes being assessed for mental stability.  ANY signs of being suicidal and you HAVE to be hoiked off the flight deck.  It’s a place for curious people concentrating exclusively on allowing everyone to live by being really really motivated and utterly obsessed with safety.  Constantly.  Almost boring. You’re so good, you’re like the amazing wicket keeper who no-one notices because you’re a metronome of efficiency.

Andreas Lubitz. Source: Facebook.
Andreas Lubitz. Source: Facebook.

Don’t forget it’s the pointy end of a missile in which families are sitting.  Hundreds of people with thousands of loved ones.  The cult of the “individual is always right” and that fuzzy little idea, Outcomes Based Education, has begun to collide with reality

Sometimes your individual rights have to be put aside for the rights of the majority.

If you can’t cut it, you lose your knife.  Or everyone loses their life.

Glorious Sweet Lightning Illuminated Night Rating

It was a moonless night.  The lightning flickered south of Johannesburg and revealed the outline of cumulonimbus which had formed 100 kilometres away, silhouetted and menacing.  But even more menacing was the job at hand.  Pass my night rating test.  It was going to be a sweaty affair.  And before your dark little imaginations run wild at the combination of sweaty & affair, let’s just say it would be 1.3 hours of intense concentration, swooping vertigo and un-tried glide approaches from overhead Lanseria airfield.

Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.
Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.

In a nutshell,  I passed but you need to understand in this business, its not a boast.

It’s like surviving a marathon. Your body aches.  Your mind races.

There were moments where things weren’t as accurate as I would have liked,  and others where I had to repeat an intersection of a radio beacon.  But all-in-all, things progressed well.  Peter Armitage,  the Grade II instructor, was conducting the test after Steve Wide had spent a few hours coaching me on the intricacies of flying an aeroplane at night.

From tight 45º turns,  full panel failure in the dark (when all  instruments are switched off and you fly listening to the sound of the engine and watching the position of the horizon), electric fire simulation and failure of all systems,  stalls, dives, recovery from unusual attitude (close eyes, instructor puts plane into some kind of position wings down or up – open eyes and recover quickly), to landing without lights and PAPI switched off at Lanseria, it was tough folks.

Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4
Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4

The best moment by far was the glide approach from 2000 feet above Lanseria.  It was around 21h30 local and a Kulula flight was approaching runway 07.  We were overhead the airfield and Peter said “How do you feel about a glide approach from here?”

Being able to glide a plane at night from that position to safety on an airfield would be one of the big tests of the evening.  “I would like to try.”

After clearing the exercise with the ATC,  Peter pulled the power.  We were now gliding 2000 Above Ground Level or AGL and I couldn’t see Lanseria.  It was directly below.   What I could see was the Kulula Airbus pass below on final approach.  More lights twinkled across Joburg, and in the distance to the South East a commercial flight could be seen heading to OR Tambo at around 10 000 feet.  Lightning continued to brighten the clouds to our South, a real attention grabber in the dark.  I turned to the West and the airfield appeared off the right wing.

The plane was gliding at the best glide speed, 99 knots.    As the vastly experienced pilot Russell Donaldson used to snort in derision,  just glide at 100, its easier to read.  Cirrus SR 20 registration ZS-JAB was descending at around 500 feet a minute.  In around 4 minutes we’d be on the ground.  I turned base leg,  the threshold was now off the right wing. In other words,  the runway was 90º to the plane to our right.  Turning further I noticed the wind had shifted.  It was all over the place last night.  19 knots from the North, then 10 knots from the South West as I began the descent.  But as we sank it reversed!  Nine knots from the north again.  I had to change course and there the runway appeared off the nose.  Directly in line.


We were perfectly set up.  Descending smack-bang on 97 knots.  I had taken 50º of flaps, and waited to be sure we’d make the airfield before applying full flap.   As soon as you go full, the drag is massive and air speed bleeds off.  So I wanted to make sure we’d glide all the way to the airfield.

Full flaps, over the threshold at the specified 78 knots and landed.

But there’s no time to pat yourself on the back in aviation.   We hadn’t finished in the circuit yet.

Immediately up flaps 50º, wait for speed to reach rotate at 70 knots and off we went to conduct 3 more landings in different configurations, including full panel failure, all landing lights off,  and the PAPI guidance off on request to ATC.

Peter debriefed me later clearing up a few bits of detail.  He signed my log book and stamped the paperwork.

I was tired but happy.  Sweaty, tough, beautiful.  Nothing makes you more happy to be aviating than an evening almost alone in the air with the flash-bang might of a storm far enough away to merely be a fireworks display than a life threatening event.

Now I trot off to the CAA and hand in the test, along with my license and logbook.  If they’re happy,  the night rating comes into being for all planes I’m rated to fly.  The Maule MX7, Rapid Sabre, Cessna 172 and Cirrus SR20.