Caught in the crossfire?

There’s no doubt the relative calm of the beginning of this century, yes, it seems extraordinary to say that has gone and a series of international events confront civil aviation’s way of working. It’s dramatic. In Europe, most countries, and their industries are shifting the way they operate.

Unfortunately, any reasonable observation shows that the situation for aviation is worse in the UK. Well, that is worse than the UK’s former partner States in the European Union (EU).

In times of difficulty partnerships, between counties and in industry help make the absolute most of economies of scale. It’s difficult to plan when constantly firefighting. It’s like that comic story about crocodiles and draining the swam. It’s difficult to think ahead when surrounded by crocodiles.

I agree with the article posted by David Learmount[1]. The massive efforts to achieve international harmonization in aviation regulation, over decades is of incalculable value. I have been lucky enough to work with exceptional people across the globe and played a small part in helping that move along.

In fact, I’d go further than David. I remember, quite a while ago, attending a lecture at the Brooklands Museum[2]. It was about the history of post-war UK Government involvement in aerospace manufacturing[3]. It wasn’t a happy story. It went a bit like a soap opera with technical excellence mixed with commercial incompetence and political interference. The overall lesson was that going it alone, piling on the world beating rhetoric and an inability to forge working alliances spells disaster. Whereas coming together, working cooperatively, and building multinational partnership pays dividends. Airbus being a prime example.

I joined the European Union Aviation Safety Organisation (EASA) as the start of its operation. It was a huge privilege. It was a rare opportunity. I mean, how many people get to set-up a new aviation authority, let alone one that works for so many States in Europe? I was proud that the UK took a leading role in making this venture happen. It was a progression that had been careful and thoughtfully developed and steered over decades.

What we built was a uniquely European solution. It isn’t a federal construction as we see in the United States (US). In Europe, National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) remain a key part of the system. The part that was new in September 2003 was to overcome a major deficiency of earlier cooperative working. That was the unfortunate habit nation States have for saying that’ll do the same thing but then not doing the same thing in practice.

David mentions the tricky subject of UK Additional Requirements for import. This is when the UK demanded a special difference between its aircraft and those of other countries. Often expensive and making it difficult to move aircraft around. I remember some UK Additional Requirements found their way into new European requirements and others were removed. That was a painful transition period. In aviation, technical requirements are often born of experience of accidents and incidents.

Today, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) works with a set of technical requirements that have been rolled over from the UK’s time as an EASA Member State (2003 – 2021). This presents opportunities to take a new path. Sounds tempting, if only you look at the subject superficially.

International technical standards never stand still. Big players invest resources influencing the direction that they take. Two of the biggest international players in respect of aerospace design and production are EASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

So, UK CAA is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Unless it can significantly influence the big players the only practical way forward is to adopt what they produce (rules, regulations, standards, guidance material). Now, the UK CAA has considerable technical experience and maintains a high reputation, but it does not sit at all the tables where the major decisions are made.

This is the concern that David mentions in his article. The unnecessary ideological exit from EASA membership, that came with Brexit places the UK in a third-party arrangement. Not good.

It’s not like the world has suddenly become dull. Frantic development efforts and huge sums of money are being pumped into greening aviation. Part of this is the new Advanced Air Mobility (AAM). Part of this is known as Urban Air Mobility (UAM). Aviation folk love acronyms. It’s almost as if we are back at the beginning of the jet-age[4]. We know how that went.

Not surprisingly, the UK wants to achieve successes in this new field of “green” aviation.

Flying is a heavily regulated industry. So, national, regional, and international rulemaking processes matter. They matter a lot. Harmonisation matters a lot. That’s having common rules and regulations to maximise the size of the marketplace while ensuring levels of safety and security are high.

The bureaucratic burden of Brexit costs. It’s not free. The UK duplicates rulemaking activities because it must independently update its laws, all the secondary legislation and guidance material that comes with aviation. When there’s a significant difference between UK, Europe, US, and the rest of the world it makes business more complex. Often that added complexity comes with no discernible benefits (economic, social, safety, security, or environmental).

The UK should become an EASA Member State once again. Why not? Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Lichtenstein are not in the EU but are EASA Member States. Across the globe countries follow EASA rules as they are known to deliver the best results.


[1] https://davidlearmount.com/2022/06/17/uk-aviation-caught-in-the-crossfire/

[2] https://www.brooklandsmuseum.com/

[3] https://www.aerosociety.com/media/8257/government-and-british-civil-aerospace-1945-64.pdf

[4] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/comets-tale-63573615/

Emerging Safety Issues

Of the 3 approaches to aviation safety the one that depends on expert opinion the most is that of trying to anticipate what’s over the horizon. Reactive safety is strongly supported by the historic data from accidents and incidents. A pro-active approach to safety leans heavily on the data of everyday operations. When it comes to the question of what’s going to emerge as a significant safety issue in the next 10-years then past, or current data may not be the best guide.

Regrettably, several aviation safety issues are as if they were constants. Given the nature of flying, it’s difficult to imagine that the number of Controlled Flight into Terran (CFIT) events will ever reach zero. Similarly, with Loss of Control (LOC) events. These events should continue to diminish worldwide but their elimination is the stuff of dreams.

Flight is always a balance between benefit and risk. There’s no possibility of operation of an aircraft without safety risk. The benefits of flight are wide ranging but often liked to economy and utility. So, in the quest for Emerging Safety Issues (ESIs) we need to consider what new factors might tip the balance between benefit and risk in at least three cases: existing, planned or entirely new or novel aircraft flight operations.

There may be global aviation ESIs needing evaluation related to:

  • the use of aircraft in new ways[1];
  • a new understanding of known phenomena[2];
  • futurists speculations;[3]
  • shifting societal values[4];
  • accelerated adoptions of technology[5].

It’s possible to become overly hypothetical. That’s the point where a reasonable time horizon needs to be drawn. A decade is a good measure in terms of identifying and acting upon an issue. It’s a realistic way of keeping our feet on the ground. If we are considering the safety regulatory world, a decade is a short period of time.

With the above in mind, it’s possible to brainstorm a list of ESIs. Subjects like, urban air mobility, electric and hydrogen propulsion and new materials are good candidates. These could be called large-scale issues since they are wide ranging and self-evidently applicable to aviation. Additionally, there are more murky issues like cybersecurity, quantum computing and blockchain methods that are issues for every part of society. Take your pick.


[1] Example: Higher speeds or altitudes or greatly extended range or traffic density increases

[2] Example: Solar activity, climate change, shifting human factors

[3] Example: New materials, advanced artificial intelligence, new propulsion systems

[4] Example: Risk aversity, liability, service expectations, adventurous sports

[5] Example: Smart phones have changed far more than was envisaged

It can happen

Theories are nice. Having a way of explaining an event or failure, or both is a nice comfort blanket. It can give us a way of trying to look ahead. The common notion that; if it has happened once, it can happen again, is part of our mental hard wiring. We store up memories and are constantly ordering and re-ordering them in our minds. Looking for patterns.

What cuts across is a simple factual recollection of an event. Examples can be illustrative of a theory. Also, they can stand alone as evidence that anyone of us can fall foul of the unthinkable. One of my favourite events, which has the ingredients of the unthinkable happened in the 1990s. It’s about exploration and the space industry. That said, a story on this theme could be written about any part of the aerospace world.

Safety assessments are scoped to consider about anything that’s not extremely improbable. Let’s be clear that’s an approach that consciously asks people to discount some events as absurd or never going to happen, just beyond what we would ever do. The lesson is that when considering how things go wrong it’s as well to be open minded.

Let’s go back to December 1998. A spacecraft called the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was intended to skim the upper atmosphere of the planet and return data to Earth. It had taken over 9 months to get to Mars. A journey like that one come with costs mounting in the tens of millions.

The spacecraft was about to go into orbit, it disappeared behind Mars but failed to re-emerge. Efforts to communicate with it were continued for a long-time but nothing came back. An investigation into the MCO’s loss concluded that it had crashed into the surface of the red planet. This was not the crux of the matter. Such projects have risks that can be unknown.

Investigation concluded that the MCO had been obliterated[1]. It was off course by 60 miles, so it plunged to destruction rather than entering orbit around Mars.

Now, I said that anyone of us can fall foul of the unthinkable. In this situation, that’s what happened. The managing organisation for spacecraft thruster data had been using imperial units. Thruster performance data was in “English” units. NASA’s navigation team had assumed the units used were metric. The trajectory modelers assumed the data was provided in metric units as per their requirements. Thus, the difference between miles and kilometres sealed the fate of the MCO.

Discovering that cause of the loss must have been excruciatingly embarrassing. One of the published recommendations; take steps to improve communication, seems modest. In addition to taking on-board all the investigations findings, my take on this event is two-fold.

  1. Think the unthinkable. Not all the time, but every so often it pays dividends and
  2. Question assumptions. Even the most cherished simple assumptions can be wrong.

These two are universally applicable.


[1] https://llis.nasa.gov/llis_lib/pdf/1009464main1_0641-mr.pdf

Certification

In the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX troubles the purpose of aircraft certification has come under fire. It was intense fire too, as the subject was taken into the political arena. Both informed, and not so informed public accusations had to be addressed in a comprehensive and systematic manner. The outcome is real change impacting the way organisations and administrations work.

A basic framework is set by international agreement. The standards and recommended practices of ICAO Annex 8 sets a framework within which aircraft certification work is undertaken. Across the globe Administrations/ Agencies/Authorities cooperate to set common minimum standards.

We can talk about process, procedures and standards until the cows come home. These are ever evolving to cope with technical challenges and the experience of operation. What’s more fundamental, and almost never mentioned is what practitioners do day-to-day. Ultimately, despite the subject being highly technical it is people that are at the core of the activity.

Practical necessity mean that an aircraft project has an ambition and a time scale. Although projects are often known to overrun there’s no infinite pot of resources to carry on regardless. Good project management can be the make or break in realising an ambition.

What that means is that there is a constraint on aircraft certification. There is a window of opportunity to undertake the work in a comprehensive and systematic manner.

The true art becomes asking the right question at the right time. Yes, there is an intricate structure within which questions are asked but it is the nature of those questions that makes the diffidence. Ask a bland and easily answered question and the value added is negligible. Ask a probing and pertinent question and it can lead to a better and safer product.

The importance of the act of asking questions is underestimated. It’s not well taught. For the most part technical experts learn to do this on the job. From one project to the next they develop a set of approaches based on experience. Members of Administrations/ Agencies/Authorities have a great privilege in that they can expect their questions to be answered in full.

There’s a peer-to-peer relationship. To ask an effective question, technical experts on either side of the table don’t have to know everything the other knows. What is needed is a mutual respect and a sufficiency of command of a subject. Being able to pinpoint a gap or omission or inadequate coverage of a subject, or even waffle and evasion requires an intelligent and determined person.

FR4978

So, what’s the problem? A civil aircraft with passengers on-board, on a scheduled flight, flying over a sovereign State was diverted because of an alleged terrorist threat. Aircraft lands safely and in the end most of the passengers continue to their intended destinations.

Well, the case of the forced diversion of Ryanair flight #FR4978, a commercial passenger aircraft over Belarus on Sunday, 23 May 2021, is a matter for grave concern. The aircraft was carrying European citizens and residents between two European Union (EU) capitals.

The track of the Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens (ATH) to Vilnius (VNO) was posted on Twitter[1]. The Boeing 737-800 was diverted to Minsk in Belarus whilst it was about to start its approach to Vilnius airport in Lithuania.  The Ryanair flight maintained 39,000 ft toward Lithuania before beginning a diversion about 73km from VNO and only 30 km from border.  The Polish registered Boeing passenger aircraft (SP-RSM) was forced to land in Belarus.  

More than 5 hours after the landing of flight FR4978, the aircraft remained on the ground in Minsk.  Whilst the aircraft was on the ground the Belarusian authorities detained opposition activists, Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.

Was the aircraft hijacked to go to Minsk? Well, there’s no report of force being used on-board the aircraft, so strictly speaking this may not be a hijacking.  The mystery deepens when considering that if the alleged terrorist threat was credible, it would have been far safer to continuing into Lithuanian airspace and land at the intended destination. 

Also, there’s the Belarusian military fast-jet aircraft (MIG 29) that accompanied flight FR4978. This could be considered aggressive intimidation of the Ryanair flight crew.  It certainly limited their flight’s options in respect of the situation.  The military interception of a civil aircraft for political reasons is a serious act and one that can put the safety of passengers in peril. So, whether it’s called a “forced diversion” or a “State Hijacking” it could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. That’s the basis on which international civil aviation is normally conducted. 

It’s now clear that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)[2] will carry out an independent investigation into this Ryanair flight[3].   Strong condemnation has come from the European Union (EU)[4]. The aircraft operator, the State of Registry, and many of the passengers were from EU Member States. 

If the investigation concludes that officials in Belarus faked a bomb threat to divert this Ryanair flight for political purposes, then this is a gravely troubling act that has horrendous implications for international civil aviation.  No other authorities had knowledge of a bomb threat to this Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight. The Greek Civil Aviation Authority, as the aircraft took-off from Athens, has stated that it received no bomb warning.

This event is an attack on European democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and safety. The Belarus authorities need to immediately release Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.

Update 1: EASA issues Safety Directive calling on Member States to mandate avoidance of Belarus airspace.

Update 2: Simillar thoughts: The interception of #Ryanair Flight #FR4978 – legal or not, carriers have been put on notice.


[1] https://www.flightradar24.com/

[2] https://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/ICAO-Council-agrees-to-pursue-fact-finding-investigation-into-Belarus-incident.aspx

[3] https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/05/1092812?123

[4] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/05/24/belarus-declaration-by-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-eu-on-the-forced-diversion-of-ryanair-flight-fr4978-to-minsk-on-23-may-2021/