737 pilots trained to combat fatal spins

Automation leads to loss of flying skills, writes Randeep Ramesh
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The Independent Online
British airline pilots are being taught military manoeuvres in order to cope with unexpected rolls, abrupt movements of the nose and inexplicable sharp, steep bankings in one of the most widely used passenger jets.

The new training has come into force after the Federal Aviation Administration, the US safety regulator, ordered operators of Boeing 737s - the world's most popular jet - to teach pilots how to counter unpredictable rudder deflections that could quickly send a plane into a dive.

The change, introduced in February, is also aimed at helping pilots cope with "wake turbulence" - spinning streams of air generated by the passage of another aircraft which can flip a plane over.

The moves have been precipitated by the decline in "aerobatic" skills, which have now vanished from airline training programmes, and the increasing automation of cockpits which has led to pilots seldom touching the aircraft's controls when in the air.

More than 2,800 737s are in use, but the plane's spectacular commercial success has been marred by two unexplained accidents, in 1991 and 1994, when 737s crashed, killing 157 people. Errant rudder deflection is the suspected cause.

"We completed instructing all our captains in February," said Keith Jones, British Midland's flight crew training manager. "Most of our 400 pilots have been through it too."

Mr Jones, whose airline operates 26 737s, said: "Airline pilots do not generally have the experience of dealing with these situations, so it is important to teach them to be able to."

Training takes place in hi-tech flight simulators programmed to reproduce dangerous situations. "What most novices forget is to switch off the autopilot," one pilot said. "If your plane has its nose up, and has been set to fly that way, if you try to push it down with the stick it will just respond by pushing it up further and further until you stall."

British Airways, which has 66 737s in service, claims that "unusual- attitude events are rare".

"Unusual attitude" is defined by experts as when a plane suddenly banks at 40 degrees, the nose drops violently by 10 degrees or the nose rises suddenly by 25 degrees.

A spokesman said: "Simulator training at British Airways includes the recognition of these events."

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates air safety, there have been 55 reported incidents of "unusual attitude" reported by 737 jet pilots in the past five years. "Most of the problems have been due to wake turbulence," said a spokesman for the CAA.

More seriously, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which examines more grave incidents, has investigated a rudder hardover on a BA 737 in 1995 but could not explain why it had occurred.

Balpa, the airline pilots' union, welcomed the new training. "Pilots should be ready to react immediately. Our concern is that the training is clear and concise. We do not want pilots reaching down for a bit of paper with instructions on what to do next," said a spokesman.

Part of the new training manual used by British Midland and BA, entitled "non-normal checklist" and obtained by the Independent on Sunday, instructs flight crew on how to deal with "Uncommanded Yaw or Rolls", a "Jammed, Sticky or Faulty System" and a "restricted rudder".

Boeing has been keen to point out that it is developing a training programme that is not just dealing with the 737. "It is something we are looking to extend to all our complete range," said a spokesman.