Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Torture Box

I had my yearly recurrent sim training yesterday up at FlightSafety in Seattle. At my airline, we do proficiency checks ("pro-checks") on every other trip to the sim; other times, including yesterday, we do "training-in-lieu." Pro-checks are pretty straight forward, but every item you do is pass/fail, and you need to pass them all. TIL, on the other hand, is not really failable. If you screw a maneuver up, you do it over. If you do it over so many times that you run out of time, it's merely an incomplete. Although TIL would seem to be easier, it's usually much more involved than a pro check. Yesterday was no exception.

"Among fatal accidents at major airlines, 80% of the systems failures accidents involved a scenario the crew had never trained for because nobody realized it could happen, or the chances were so remote, or multiple failures compounded each other," began our instructor in the ground briefing. "Pilots really are not prepared for these types of scenarios, because we've taught you to be so procedure oriented. When these types of things happen & there's no checklist to help, or you need to ignore the checklist, pilots find it difficult to be throw out the rulebook and be creative in their solutions." In the sim, my training partner and I would be presented with two of these scenarios, he said, things that no checklist could help us deal with. About 3/4 of crews ended up getting a red screen (crashing) on these scenarios. Craig and I exchanged "great, this is gonna be interesting" glances.

On the first takeoff, we got a #1 Fuel Filter Bypass caution light, followed by #1 FADEC caution and warning lights, then complete failure of that engine. Before I was finished running the appropriate checklists, we got a #2 Fuel Filter Bypass caution. We'd just taken off from Seattle, where it was 300 RVR. The nearest airport above landing minimums was across the Cascades. We declared an emergency and requested immediate vectors for a Cat III approach.

We hadn't got very far on the downwind before our remaining engine started losing power fast. Our airspeed was well below Vse and nearing stall speed about 4 miles before we could turn base. This was the point at which we realized we were in such trouble that the checklist & procedures had to go out the window; I dropped the single engine landing checklist & started the #1 engine, which we'd secured earlier. Fortunately, it started & produced enough power to gain some airspeed and get us to the final approach fix.

We ended up intercepting the ILS inside of the FAF, but fortunately the HGS armed itself for Cat III properly. Just then, the #1 engine died. The #2 engine was only producing about 5% torque. The captain didn't realize it and called for Flaps 15, as is the usual procedure on a Cat III approach. "No, you don't wanna do that, your #1 just died," I said. He didn't hear what I said & rather insistently requested Flaps 15. "Craig!" I exclaimed, "You're going to end up deadsticking this. You won't make it on Flaps 15!" At this point he realized the remaining engine was dead: "Oh, S**t!" With Flaps 5, however, we had enough airspeed to make it to the runway, where he made a gorgeous landing in 300 feet visibility.

We were soaked with sweat even though it'd only taken 25 minutes. The instructor congratulated us on a job well done, reviewed a few points, and then revealed what the scenario had been: terrorists had gained access to the Seattle fuel supply and contaminated it; we were the first to take off on the bad fuel.

My scenario was a little more involved on aircraft systems. I won't go to the length required to describe exactly what happened, but lets just say that on my airplane, losing a #2 AC generator and a #1 engine in icing conditions is a very bad thing. I ended up flying a single-engine ILS to minimums while iced up with flaps 0, a 800 lb fuel imbalance, while flying the plane only by reference to a 2" standby instrument. We survived that one, too.

It was a good, eye-opening experience. It showed me that as pilots, there are times that we have to recognize that a problem is so severe we need to stop doing the "proper" thing and use our brains to figure out the one solution that'll let us survive. The trick, of course, is in recognizing that point, because in aviation, improvisation has put a lot of people in very bad situations.


Vince said...

Geez, It sounds almonst criminal for them to put you through that! Hopefully they don't ask you to take your medical right after the sim ride because your blood-pressure must have been boiling! Excellent Blog. I'll be reading frequently.