The Aviation Lesson of 28 December For The Pandemic Stricken World

This is not a time that the world can hide behind confusion or pretension.  We must follow regulation.  We must recognize that our own fallibility must not stem from pretension or contumacious ignorance. 

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground ~  Anon

Whenever December 28th rolls by, we in the aviation community cannot help but remember the monumental stupidity that humans are capable of.  On this day in 2014,  Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Karimata Strait en route from Surabaya to Singapore, killing all 162 people aboard. The profession of aeronautics is known for the  high intelligence and precision it bestows on its members, offering standardized and harmonious global laws, rules, regulations, and guidance.  On that day, none of this was seemingly of the slightest consequence.

File photo

It was later reported that the flight did not have authorization to be operated on the route on Sundays since authorization had been withdrawn by the Indonesian authorities. Later, on 2 January 2015, the Indonesian authorities suspended Air Asia flights departing from Indonesian airport and brought in strict regulations and even stricter monitoring and supervision controls in its air transport system. Another factor that was brought to bear in the accident report on the crash was that the accident which occurred on 28 December 2014 was caused by  the pilots, who, following faulty computer information, mishandled the aircraft, relying on automated systems.    The Accident Report highlighted the danger of an exaggerated reliance by the technical crew on automation which effectively precluded their reliance on human professional skills to manipulate the aircraft.  The human tendency to consider anything a computer spews as inviolate truth portends danger, particularly in day-to-day life.

The final analysis by the Indonesian Transport Safety Committee had showed that bad weather had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was a non-critical equipment failure that set off a chain of events that ultimately doomed flight QZ8501. John Goglia, former member of the National Transportation Safety Board is reported to have said that the details of the report made it clear that the tragedy was "utterly preventable."  The journal Flight Mechanics quotes Goglia as saying: “Here we have pilots who think they can troubleshoot in flight,  they're playing around with the flight controls, of all things. It's as basic rule of aviation: You don't pull circuit breakers in-flight unless the manual tells you to…intermittent problems are the most difficult ones to fix and intermittent electrical problems are even more difficult. Just because he saw a mechanic do it on the ground, doesn't mean you can do that in the air."

Leaving all that aside, the fundamental issue seems to have been that the flight did not have clearance to operate on Sundays and that if it did not take off as regulatory directive required, all those lives would have been saved. Peter Holley writing for The Washington Post said: “AirAsia was not authorized to fly from Surabaya to Singapore the day that one of its passenger jets attempted the route and crashed into the Java Sea amid poor weather conditions, according to Indonesian officials”. A Transportation Ministry Spokesman is reported to have  said that  the air carrier was only allowed to make the flight four days of the week, but not on Sunday. The spokesman had continued: “So AirAsia has committed a violation of the route that has been given to them”, noting that the company’s flights from Surabaya to Singapore were suspended as a result subsequently.

Flight QZ 8501 carries a dual message in the context of the present calamitous state we are in with the COVID-9 pandemic.  The first is that we should not do what we are prohibited from doing when such prohibition is enforced in our own interest.  If we are asked to confine ourselves indoors as analogically the flight was required not to take off that Sunday,  and we comply, we would ensure that we are doing everything to save our lives as well as the lives of our fellow beings.  The second lesson is that we should not labour under the presumption that we know better than those who are qualified to give us guidance on how to avoid disaster.

With 31st December approaching, most of us may tend to herald the New Year in the usual style, hoping for the best.  That would be a foolish thing to do, not only because of the threat to life it will pose but also because the pandemic has far reaching consequences if left uncontrolled and untrammelled.  The last thing the virus would need   is human encouragement to ravage the global community with unprecedented disaster on a continuing basis. In early 2020 The UN’s Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to the COVID 19 Crisis warned that “The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis: it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale, making achievement of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)  even more urgent”.

There is yet another dimension that COVID-19, if unchecked, would unleash.  It will threaten global security, as TIME of 18 May 2020 reported, that  ISIS militants on May 1 carried out an attack on Iraqi paramilitary forces killing 10.  TIME said: “ Amid the COVID 19 pandemic, the US troop drawdown, and Iraq’s internal political crisis, experts say ISIS is exploiting security gaps – and shifting its tactics from intimidation and assassinations to more sophisticated techniques”.  It is incontrovertible that we have reached the point where we have to consider the legal nuances of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has, unlike other outbreaks such as SARS or H1N1,  affected the entire world: all the Continents including Antarctica; on 23 December 2020, the BBC reported that the virus had spread among a scientific team conducting experiments in the Continent.

This is not a time that the world can hide behind confusion or pretension.  We must follow regulation.  We must recognize that our own fallibility must not stem from pretension or contumacious ignorance. Just as those in Flight QZ8501, are the characters in Albert Camus “The Plague”:  Camus, who was an atheist, brings to bear the indifference of a self-serving world to human suffering and the meaningless pursuit of ascribing to life a precise meaning and purpose through consequentialism and materialistic values. The people in Oran – the city featured in the novel - are incredulous – that the plague could hit them - they who are enjoying their comfortable lives. This could only happen to others: not to them. But they die in their hundreds. After some months, the disease goes away, and everything is forgotten. The gates of the city open and people proudly exclaim that they have conquered the pestilence.

Camus’ message is both literal and metaphorical – that any disaster should not be treated as an irritation but as a serious existential threat. Liesl Schillinger, who is quoted in a literary Hub article titled What We Can Learn (and Should Unlearn) From Albert Camus’s The Plague says: “he addresses any contagion that might overtake any society; from a disease like cholera, the Spanish Influenza, AIDS, SARS, or, yes, COVID-19; to a corrosive ideology, like Fascism, or Totalitarianism, which can infect a whole population”.

We should approach the New Year with cautious optimism: that a crash of the aircraft of life we have flown high until now should be navigated safely at all cost.  As the saying goes: “never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn't get to five minutes earlier”.

Dr. Abeyratne is an aviation consultant in Montreal.