Tuesday, June 14, 2005

ABC News' Hatchet Job

Between the networks' slanted news coverage of anything Bush-related and their overall tendancy to sensationalize, I generally don't consider their news programs to be worth much more than a bucket of warm spit. Dawn watches TV news but I usually tune out and get my news from newspapers and the internet. I do, however, perk up when the news programs cover aviation. More times than not, they get it outragously wrong, and tonight ABC's World News Tonight made me stomping mad in the process.

The segment was regarding Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701, a CRJ-200 that crashed on a repositioning flight after apparently flaming out and stalling at it's maximum certified altitude. I'm can't say I'm a huge fan of Pinnacle. Their low pay and hard crew usage tend to attract very low-time applicants, who then upgrade to Captain in a short length of time due to the airline's rapid growth. Still, the ABC news segment was a pure hatchet job, bordering on libelous in it's treatment of the deceased crew members.

First off, they made a mountain out of a molehill regarding the crew's transmission to ATC that they were "just having a little fun" by climbing to FL410. It was in response to a curious controller who was surprised to see them that high; the crew was just giving an informal reply when they said "Yeah, we don't have any passengers on board so we decided to have a little fun up here." It's fun in the same sense as you might take a different route to work tomorrow for "a little fun." The plane was certified to FL410 and had the published performance to cruise there for the weight they were at; it's pretty hard to call that reckless, although that's exactly what ABC news was implying.

While they were playing the ATC tapes, they showed a "simulation" of a CRJ climbing at an improbably high angle, like 60 degrees up, then flames shooting from the engines, sending it into an equally steep dive. Were I a member of the general public, at this point I'd be wondering just what kind of cowboys are flying those little planes. I'd be even more convinced after the anchorman said that "the crew lied" by transmitting that they had an engine failure when they infact had a dual flameout. Yeah, don't suppose they could've merely been confused or unsure, or paying a little more attention to getting their engines back than exactly what they said to ATC.

Cue the anchorman's most sincere look and concerned voice as he wonders outloud whether "pilots flying small jets, which are becoming increasingly common, are getting enough training." Yeah, thanks, dude. Nevermind that the CRJ has a better safety record than the B737. Or that FAA training requirements for "small jets" are essentially identical to the "big jets" they replaced (ie DC-9's).

I'm not trying to hold the crew blameless here. It sounds like it probably was crew error, rather than mechanical failure, that lead to this accident, and the NTSB will eventually tell us what those errors were. But the ABC news report clearly sensationalized the negligence aspect in dubious areas, making the crew seem carefree and reckless. Worse yet, they implyed that all the other crews of "small jets" are similarly inclined, admirable safety record notwithstanding. My estimation of ABC News just went down a few more notches.

Update: Yellowbird has linked me to the CVR transcript, which sheds some more light on this accident. You can find my response in the comments for this thread. A correction: ABC appears to have been correct regarding the crew fibbing to ATC about the nature of their emergency. I still believe, however, that the segment was fundamentally misleading.

Further update: Glenn Calvin, who has a lot of experience on the CRJ-200 at Skywest, has posted his thoughts on Flagship 3701. Go check it out.


GC said...

I'm kind of glad I didn't see that ABC News deal. I think I might have ended up paying for a new TV here in my hotel room.

Yellowbird said...

Sam, have you read the CVR transcript? I'd be interested in your impressions.

I'm no expert, and I know nothing of the cockpit culture of the airline world, but the tone of the conversation prior to the flamout seems a bit less than professional. It's almost teenagerish, and to my ear, it does give the impression that they were having a bit too much fun and not focusing on flying the airplane.

From 2153 to 2154, even as it appears that the flight attitude was deteriorating, the crew was still laughing and cutting up. Their now infamous remark to KC center comes at a time when they were observing what looks to me like the onset of a stall, and they were still laughing about it.

Once they realize that they have a problem, they seem to sober up, but it seems to me that they were far behind the airplane at that point and that they never really got on top of the situation.

Granted, these are the impressions of a low time (<250 hrs) single engine bug smasher driver, and I would probably have been crying in my Pepsi all the way down had I been in their shoes.

Your thoughts?

Sam said...

Thanks for the link Yellowbird. I hadn't realized the CVR transcript had been released yet, I'd only seen the ATC tape transcripts, and it is a bit more damning. I'd be interested in having Glenn read this transcript, since he has considerable time in this airplane.

Regarding cockpit culture...the tone can vary a lot, depending on the people flying together. I once sat in a 767 jumpseat from Cairo to New York, and the captain barely said two words to the first officer for the whole 13 hours. On the other end of the spectrum, you get two young guys with a sense of humor together, and the conversation will seem pretty loosey-goosey. When above 10,000 feet, I don't see a problem with that so long as ATC gets answered and other duties aren't neglected. Of course, when this comes out on a CVR transcript that starts at altitude, you get the impression of two juvenile delinquents out for a joyride - no matter how professionally they conducted the departure and initial climbout.

So that said...it did strike me that they were being awful cavalier in what they should've recognized as a potentially hazardous situation. The crew was obviously aware that they were close to a stall - they discussed the significance of the green bug, said don't let it get below 170, etc (any comments, Glenn?). Their behavior just didn't seem to indicate that they harboured much concern about it. They were too giddy at the prospect of being at FL410 (which, by the way, is ultimate pilot dorkdom).

A high-altitude upset in a swept-wing jet is deadly serious even without engine flameouts. Because true airspeed & mach is so much higher than indicated airspeed at high altitude, it is often a small margin from stall to the transonic regime with attendant high-speed buffet, mach tuck, etc. Recovering from a high-alt stall can lead to overspeed problems, and viceversa. If the crew knew all this, their behavior didn't seem to indicate the attendant concern. Maybe it was there and they didn't vocalize it so the CVR gives the wrong impression.

The other thing the news report said - that they lied to ATC by saying only one engine failed - appears to be correct when seen in the context of the CVR transcript.

My original contention that simply going to FL410 when they had the published performance wasn't by itself reckless still stands. I suspect the issue that the NTSB will have is that the captain didn't do the conservative thing and descend as soon as he realized performance wasn't what he expected.

Pretty sobering CVR transcript. Things went to hell really quickly. Thanks for the link, Yellowbird.

Sam said...

Heh, Glenn, that's assuming that the hotel didn't tell SWA about the TV-trashing! Totally reminds me of a few years back, prior to 9/11, a group of UND instructors went to Mesaba for an interview. The night before the interview, they were partying and trashed their Mesaba-provided hotel room. The next morning when they showed up for the interviews, Mesaba threw them out...and UND grads were essentially persona-non-grata at Mesaba interviews for sometime afterwards.

Sam said...

Oops, I shoulda visited Glenn's blog this morning before commenting here. Go check out his take on Flagship 3701.

GC said...

After reading the CVR transcripts for the first time, I can say that there was little (if any) CRM exercised by the Captain. It appears that both of them are trying to do everything instead of one of them aviating and navigating, and the other running the QRH procedure.


Anonymous said...

So basically, what you initially were so sure was bias, turned out to be the truth. A valuable lesson, hopefully taken to heart.

Sam said...

Wow, old post. Yep, my initial take was 100% wrong and actually in going back and rereading what I wrote, a great deal of what I thought about regional airline training etc back then has markedly changed in the last six years. And yeah, when discussing PCL3701 I've often thought back to how strident my initial defense of the crewmembers was, it's a good reminder to be more circumspect - certainly until all the facts are in.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I only read about this recently, so I guess it was easy for me to have 20-20 hindsight. Sorry if I sounded like a jerk.