Global airline fatal accident figures for the first half of 2011 are remarkably consistent with those for the years of the preceding decade. There is no meaningful trend toward safety performance improvement or the opposite.
This year to 30 June saw 11 fatal airline accidents compared with nine for the same period in 2010 (see graph). Six months provides only a snapshot of safety performance, so is not a statistically significant change, but the half-year comparisons over the whole decade do indeed tell a consistent story, which is confirmed by the full-year trend as well. Those who hope for continuous improvement continue to be disappointed. The number of fatalities dropped last year to 242, compared with 415 in 2010, which may sound good, but the lower figure is not a decade-best.
© Rex Features
Six people died when a Swearingen Metro III crashed at Cork, Ireland, after its third attempted approach
If there are some indicators in this snapshot that are worth highlighting, they include the large proportion of Eastern-built aircraft among the fatal accident statistics this year so far: not only Antonovs, Tupolevs and Yakovlevs, but also Let L-410s and a Chinese Xian MA60. Indonesia continues to feature disproportionately frequently in global accident figures, as does Iran, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally, it was not a good year for airlines in the CIS states.
The two Congos are notorious for accidents involving ancient Antonov freighters. In the past, some of these had been used for United Nations charters. This year the UN chartered a Bombardier CRJ100ER for DR Congo operations hoping for better. But the aircraft, operated by Georgian Airways, crashed at Kinshasa Ndjili with 33 people on board, and only one passenger survived (see accident list).
Indonesia knows it has a problem, and in early May it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Netherlands-based European Joint Aviation Authorities Training Organisation (JAA TO) to set up a major training centre to produce aviation safety-management skills for its own needs and those of other nations in the region. Ironically, this agreement was signed the day before the fatal crash involving Indonesian regional carrier Merpati Nusantara in which all 27 people on board died. Earlier in the year another domestic carrier, Sabang Merauke Raya, had lost a Casa Nurtanio NC212 freighter and its crew.
The JAA TO described the aims: "The objective is to establish a framework within which the organisations will co-operate in delivering a curriculum for aviation professionals in Indonesia and other ASEAN countries, with competency-based courses conforming to JAA TO's worldwide quality standards. This will enable training and qualifying local trainers to become certified JAA TO instructors. The focus on a strong and long-lasting cooperation envisages the establishment of a solid training capacity able to meet the demands of the growing aviation industry in Asia."
In February a Swearingen Metro III crashed at Cork, Ireland, killing six of the 12 people on board and raising questions that are more usual after an accident in the US on-demand charter market than one involving what is ostensibly a scheduled regional airline in Europe. Manx2, which marketed the flights and sold the tickets, was a "virtual" airline based in the Isle of Man, a UK offshore tax haven. The crash flight, a published scheduled service, was operated by Barcelona-based Flightline BCN, which provided the crew and leased the aircraft from Seville-based Airlada. According to the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit, the captain was new to command, and the co-pilot new to the type, and the aircraft had no autopilot, autothrottle or flight director.
The Manx2 flight arrival at Cork was affected by sea fog, a common local problem. The aircraft crashed on its third attempted approach, having descended well below its decision height on the ILS approach for runway 17, before starting what appears to have been a belated attempt to go around, according to the AAIU. The Unit's interim report says that 7s before impact a warning horn sounded, "believed to be the stall warning". The AAIU refers to a subsequent loss of control that led to a wingtip hitting the ground, after which the aircraft came to rest inverted beside the runway. The final report is awaited.
In the accidents listed here, 10 are runway events. There are no runway incursions, but one runway-confusion event (misidentified runway), and nine runway excursions, most of them non-fatal but with serious damage incurred. The attempt by the Flight Safety Foundation, the International Air Transport Association and others to raise awareness of the high risk of runway accidents is not yet having a noticeable effect. They remain the most common of all airline accidents.
ACCIDENT REPORTS RELEASED JANUARY-JUNE 2011
This is a summary of interim or final accident investigation reports published in the first six months of 2011, even if the event occurred before 1 January.
- On 4 November 2010, a Qantas Airbus A380 (VH-OQA) suffered an uncontained engine failure that caused extensive damage to the airframe. The crew returned to Singapore airport where the aircraft landed safely. The aircraft is still being repaired in Singapore. Qantas estimates it will return to service in September. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's interim report says the intermediate pressure turbine disc in the No 2 engine had been weakened by an oil fire. As a result, the disc separated from its shaft, increased its rotation speed and broke into several parts. Sections of the fractured disc and other engine components penetrated the left wing and other areas on the aircraft, resulting in significant structural and systems damage. The oil fire was caused by a manufacturing defect in an oil feed pipe that resulted in fatigue cracking so oil sprayed into an engine cavity where it ignited. The ATSB says its ongoing study aims to look at manufacturing quality control, damage to the aircraft and its consequences, and the way the crew worked, to learn "valuable lessons" for the future.
- The General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates is studying a Sudanese Azza Air Transport Boeing 707-300 freighter that crashed just after take-off from Sharjah on 21 October 2009. The aircraft's recorders yielded nothing so investigators are relying on radar data, simulation and wreckage for evidence. At this point they say they believe the No 4 engine thrust reverser deployed in flight.
- The US National Transportation Safety Board says an Empire Airlines ATR42 twin turboprop crash at Lubbock, Texas on 27 January was the result of an aerodynamic stall following poor control of the airspeed by the crew during final approach. Both crew were injured. Contributory factors were poor crew resource management, crew fatigue, and light airframe icing. However, the Board notes the latter would not have been an issue if the speed had been managed well. The crew noticed early in the approach the flaps had not deployed as they should because of a fault, but they failed to make allowance for it. Finally, when stall warnings were delivered, the crew's response was slow and came too late to prevent a full stall.
- India has reported on the Air India Express Boeing 737-800 fatal runway overrun at Mangalore on 22 May 2010. It attributes the accident to the captain's sleep inertia and overbearing character. The report says the Serbian captain was deep asleep for 1h 40min on the flight from Dubai, and was woken shortly before descent to Mangalore, which he was to fly. The approach was high and fast, generating "sink rate" and "pull up" warnings from the terrain awareness warning system. The copilot called three times for a go-around but the captain ignored him. The aircraft touched down 1,600m beyond the threshold and overran the end, crashing down a steep slope. Only eight of the 166 people on board survived, none of them crew.
- The US Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randolph Babbitt has said the ongoing investigation into the local fuselage skin failure in a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 on 1 April (see accident list) is checking not only for fatigue but for manufacturing technique.