AviationWeek is reporting that the latest trial of the X-51 hypersonic experimental aircraft has failed again. This news has been confirmed by a number of sources. Apparently one of the fins stabilizing the craft failed to function correctly, and the vehicle was lost over the Pacific. The sad thing is that they were never able to even start the scramjet. The USAF apparently has one prototype left, but they’re unsure whether they’ll fly it yet. The test was an attempt to remedy the failure of last year which received much publicity. It looks again like jetsetting American hamsters will have to wait longer for their x-51 enabled short hop to Tokyo.
The New York Times is optimistic, but other reports are mixed and the question remains: how is the Sukhoi Superjet 100 program really faring after the terrible May crash of the SSJ in Jakarta? Although the final conclusion has not been issued as to the cause, there has been much speculation surrounding the incident (and even some very strange theories which have been floated). Of course a root cause of the accident matters greatly because if it is determined that the loss of the plane and all aboard was due to a technical or design flaw, Sukhoi will have to spend a lot more time and money investigating, repairing, and trying to regain the trust of the international aviation community.
While it’s not likely that there was a single root cause of failure (usually commercial aviation accidents are due to a calamity of errors), the future of this aircraft depends on which way the public perception leans. So far, it seems like it’s kind of a mixed bag of opinions.
While we’re not fans of the certain pomp-and-circumstance ‘scoreboard-style’ sales tally that comes out of Paris and Farnborough airshows each year, we are currently in the midst of one at exactly the two month point following the Jakarta crash. So it’s a decent gauge to measure near-term customer attitudes around this jet.
So how are sales faring? As noted above, the NYT appears to be relatively optimistic by quoting company spokespeople and not digging too deep (I even had to verify that story was an article, and not a blog post). They even headline that the crash ‘hasn’t hurt orders’.
But there have indeed been a few set backs. First, it was reported by TTRWeekly that Russian airline and SSJ customer Aeroflot was having technical issues with their Superjets and was scaling back usage. However it was later ‘revealed’ by the Aeroflot that most problems were with the innocuous air conditioning system. This article also indicated that the SSJ would not make an appearance at Farnborough, but that was incorrect (it’s there, just not flying), so the validity of this report is probably in question.
Next was an article from Ria reporting that the very first SSJ-100 customer Armavia, the Armenian national carrier, was canceling its order for a second SuperJet. While not a huge impact in quantity, they were a first customer and presumably a big supporter of the program.
On the flip side, there is also some good news for Sukhoi. Bloomberg reports that discount Mexican airline Interjet has solidified an order for five more SuperJets, bringing the carrier’s total SSJ orders to 20 jets, at an estimated value of $700 million USD. That article also quotes Vladimir S. Prisyazhnyuk, president of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, where he said: “In terms of impact on the program, I’d say that not one of them has refused or canceled agreements. They’re still working with us.”
Of course Farnborough performance on its own does not carve one’s future in stone, but in this case it’s an interesting bellwether into the future of this program so soon after a major tragedy. While all eyes are on the final investigation report out of Indonesia, expected within a few months, in the meantime it seems that the accident hasn’t yet destroyed the SuperJet-100 program, but it did not make things any easier for its maker.
(Opinion) The final accident report on the crash of Air France flight 447 in 2009 was released this week, and no new ‘shockers’ were presented as part of the official conclusion. Yes, the pitot tubes were faulted which was highly probable (as those in particular were the error prone Thales AA type). And yes, the pilots were faulted, as we assumed they would be. What wasn’t faulted was a probable third factor that might further implicate the manufacturers flawed philosophy on automated controls.
Low Face Value
In my previous article, I first discussed Clive Irving’s opinion on TheDailyBeast.com, and how I believe his view might be an oversimplification of the crash. His current post on the final report is more critical, but he still takes the report mostly at face value (his latest here), and his primary concern (as with other commentators) is the continued use by Airbus of the known fallible pitot tubes.
While of course it is highly plausible that the airspeed measurement error caused a problem (and there’s hard data to prove it), which then forced the substitute pilots who were at the controls but not trained adequately, to mis-correct for this problem. However nearly every aviation commentator on the Internet who has reviewed the current data seems skeptical of the report in some way, and justifiably so because not everything adds up.
Pitot’s Bad, Pilot’s Bad, Yes. But…
Yes, the pitot tubes played a role. I don’t dispute that (and again, there’s data). However in my (unqualified) assessment, to cause the complete loss of plane and life, there were only two other conditions in the realm of possibility which could have turned this fixable error into a tragedy.
Either: 1) modern airliners are no longer aerodynamic because they can (apparently) stall at 38k feet and fall to the ocean tail first without being able to recover, or 2) the apparently child-like ineptitude of the pilots who were purportedly at the controls, were not simply untrained, they were vastly unqualified and not competent to fly this plane.
Neither scenario seems like it could be true, but what led to the crash seems impossible otherwise. So the simple question remains: how in the heck could the pilots, even as bad as these supposedly were, have maintained the extreme nose-up attitude after the stall (presumably doing everything wrong) yet have plenty of altitude and time to recover but not be able to?
A better (more critical) summary of the final report was written by Wil Hylton on the Huffington Post. (His article here.) He gives a much more prickly perspective, and at the end summarizes his view by saying:
One hopes that the BEA’s emphasis on pilot error does not distract from other important questions about the faulty parts on Flight 447. -Wil Hylton, The Sniff of Politics on Flight 447
Hylton is also referring to the Thales AA pitot, but I still believe that some other force was at least partially responsible for the crash of Air France #447. And I believe the most likely culprit was the autopilot.
I’m Afraid I Can’t Allow You to Do That
Dave Marc (Dubois, Captain)
It seems only logical, that the illogical behavior of the airplane had to have some other cause. The only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that the French-built autopilot which is known for it’s built-in superiority complex, may have played a significant factor in the crash. As revealed wonderfully by Pat Flannigan here, the design philosophy surrounding the Airbus autopilot is one of arrogance and over-confidence. Here’s an excerpt from Flannigan’s report:
…(we wanted to) build a plane that would actively protect the passengers from pilots. (From Pat Flannigan’s article: Does Airbus Fly-by-Wire Technology “Protect Passengers From Pilots?”
The article above is worth a read, and if true, then why this probable cause wasn’t more fully investigated is tough to know. There were in fact many other related incidents (noted here) that were the result of pitot tube or other sensor problems, which led to a flight control interruption and then a drop in altitude.
If the investigation was truly unbiased, one may guess that perhaps autopilot code is terribly difficult to troubleshoot, but another likelihood is that the autopilot code design might be used to more easily implicate the manufacturer.
Regardless, to echo Wil Hylton above, hopefully politics in the competitive and cut-throat airliner market had nothing to do with it. We may never know.
The investigation into the crash of a Russian Sukhoi Superjet last month in Indonesia that killed all on board is getting strange. Amid the good news that both black boxes have been found, there have been headlines with unsupported speculation that’s so outlandish, it’s crazy to print.
What’s weirder is that these accusations would be bad for a minor opinion-oriented aviation blog (such as this one) to claim without proof. But blogs aren’t starting these rumors. The latest outlandish crash causes are being reported by major news organizations like the Telegraph, AFP, and Jakarta Post. Here are the latest two seeemingly ridiculous theories of the SSJ-100 crash (I say ‘seemingly’ because who knows… if someone provides good proof, sure, I’ll try to believe it.)
It’s The United States’ Fault (Or Was It…?)
First is a story in the Moscow Times citing anonymous officials with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, that the SSJ-100 was brought down by the United States military.
The theory is that a nearby U.S. air base has the capability to disrupt aircraft avionics from the ground, causing on-board equipment to “go haywire” and give the pilots false information. The article goes further to imply there may have been an even wider conspiracy involving the local air traffic controller who authorized a final descent for the aircraft of 1,800 meters (knowing there were mountains nearby).
The paper quotes a source, who quotes a source (that’s correct), that says: ”"Maybe he [the air traffic controller] didn’t see that the plane was heading straight at the mountain. On the other hand, we don’t rule out the possibility that this was deliberate industrial sabotage to drive our aircraft from the market.”
Well, that’s impeccable logic. Without some sort of proof or even a plausible scenario (i.e. if it was a military plane, or an unknown EMF blip was detected, or an across-the-board radar outage happened, etc.), that’s just as valid as saying it could have been…anything.
For instance, it probably was a meteor that hit the plane; because it’s certainly possible that if a meteor hits a plane, it can bring down that plane. Therefore, it probably was a meteor. Or better yet, it may have been something a bit more nefarious….(see the ‘Alternate Hypothesis’ photo). It would certainly be plausible that if aliens exist, they have the capability to bring down an airliner. Therefore: aliens.
But If Not Aliens…
This kind of jamming capability might certainly exist in the U.S. military. But I ask: why would the U.S. use it for this purpose? Why would the United States do any of the following things: A) try to crash a civilian aircraft (with an American on board)? B) ‘Jam’ the SSJ-100′s instruments, but do such a poor job of it that they then have to jam the Jakarta radar as well. And then for good measure, they have to conspire with the ATC on duty. And finally, C) why would they do this in the name of a little friendly competition (which is the Russian-provided possible motive), when the U.S. has no company with a direct competitor to the SuperJet? (Looking at you now, Brazil.) Also I must say that if ‘B’ is correct, that’s some weak technology.
The Pilot Liked Crazy Fun!
Another theory that the UK Telegraph reports is that “leaked’ information revealed to a Russian newspaper indicates the pilot was perhaps showboating, or doing some type of aerobatic maneuver. The report says that the co-pilot can be heard saying: ”commander, we can’t go there, there’s a mountain”.
Again there is no proof, (although this is more plausible than the first assumption), and the truth comes down to pilot character and information sources. There are three considerations we must make here:
First, we must question the source. The report in the paper above explains further that the quote given is “not a direct quotation” and even that the precise words of the crew member “remain unknown”.
Second, this data would have been derived only from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (to date), so we don’t know what the plane was actually doing at the time.
Third, the Pilot In Command was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Yablonstev (pictured). According to TheWorldBiography.Blogspot.com, Mr. Yablonstev was 57 years old, and was a very, very, experienced pilot. He had over 14,000 hours of flight time in 221 types of aircraft. He had been an Air Force test pilot, and he had been chosen to be a Cosmonaut (although he never flew in space). And then, he flew for an airline.
In good weather, in familiar terrain, at an airshow with only a few people on board, could this have happened? Certainly. Stupid things have been done in aviation to show off. But those circumstances aside, (and assuming Mr. Yablonstev had not literally lost his mind), it would be immensely out of character for someone with his reputation and experience level to take such a chance.
Even if he was overly confident in his aircraft and had performed similar drastic types of maneuvers before, it’s possible. But in the low ceiling weather conditions that existed then, in mountainous and unfamiliar terrain, and with a press contingent aboard, there’s almost no way this type of risk would have been taken by such a man. Yes, apparently an ill-fated altitude reduction was requested by the pilot and approved, but was that showboating, or bad timing? While pilot error of course cannot be ruled out, claiming he was doing aerobatics is quite a stretch.
Other Reporting Silliness: Flying Low
Neither of these theories should have even been reported without proof. And the fact that major news organizations are running them without investigation is incredible. Even more bizzare is that this is happening by publications that should know better. All of the ‘black box’ data available to date has come solely from the Cockpit Voice Recorder. But that didn’t stop the acclaimed Flying Magazine from running a story called “SuperJet Blackbox Shows No System Malfunctions“. Again, this is based entirely on the voice recorder. Apparently as far as Flying is concerned, the absence of audible alarms means there were no malfunctions (or they accepted that if they were told). No thought is given that perhaps the absence of any audible alarms might actually indicate a system malfunction.
Yes, also stated in many publications (even some noted above), is the fact that Russia has a huge stake in the outcome of this investigation. They will probably go to some lengths to ensure that the cause of the crash was not due to technical issues (officially).
And given that the SSJ-100 is somehow the Obi Wan Kenobi of the former Soviet’s commercial aircraft business (it’s their only hope), there may be a serious conflict of interest. However, proposing and then perpetuating ill-conceived theories is just cruel and unusual for all those involved. From the families of the victims who want answers, to the possible defamation of a dead pilot, (and to say nothing of international relations), premature conclusions benefit no one.
Indonesia finds crashed Sukhoi’s second black box (via AFP)
Indonesian searchers have found the second “black box” of a new Russian passenger jet three weeks after it crashed into a mountain, killing all 45 people on board, an official said Thursday. “We found the flight data recorder (FDR) on Wednesday. It seems to be intact,” search operation chief Ketut…