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Navigating The Skills To Successfully Land A Jet


And to help us understand more about what that cockpit crew may have been facing, we reached David Esser. He's an airline transport pilot and a professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Good morning.

DAVID ESSER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now even if as we just heard, accidents like this are a result of a chain of events, it's clear in this case that something did go wrong during the landing. Describe for us the difficulty of landing an aircraft like this.

ESSER: Well, the first thing is the speed involved. The aircraft is traveling much faster then obviously an automobile would be. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 miles an hour. The other thing is the inertia involved with the mass. It's a very heavy aircraft. So if you want to make a change in the direction or the trajectory of the flight path, it's going to take time for that to be accomplished.

The engines are very strong but they're not immediately responsive. They're something that's referred to as spool-up time, that when the pilot puts an input to add power or to add thrust, that the RPM of the engine because of the mass involved has to take a certain amount of time before it can respond to what the pilot is asking for.

So the aircraft has to be on a stabilized path so that you don't have to make last minute changes which may take some time to accomplish. So the aircraft itself has to be flown planning ahead for any possible changes so that those can be accomplished in a timely manner.

MONTAGNE: And this was a plane that was being manually controlled by the pilot when it was landing.

ESSER: That is correct. They had disengaged the autopilot which is not uncommon to do when you get close to the runway.

MONTAGNE: You know, there's also something else we've been hearing that the pilot in this case only had 43 hours of experience on the Boeing 777. Now, he had many more hours of experience flying. But how much training does a pilot usually receive before landing a particular model of a plane on his own?

ESSER: The amount of time that it takes to get the actual license itself, the credential - the airline transport pilot, at least the equivalent of that in the United States, is 1,5000 total flight hours and there's minimum age requirements and other things as well. When one transitions from a particular type aircraft to another type aircraft, they go through a classroom-type environment for about 10 weeks, and that would include somewhere, 20 or 30 hours in the simulator before the pilot is then certified passing all the required checks.

And then, they do some initial experience in the aircraft itself. And because they are low time, even as the captain might be low time in that particular type, there is a person who would be in the right seat, sometimes people would call the co-pilot or more appropriately the first officer. Even though that person is a first officer, they are captain-qualified, and so they are sitting in the right seat as I believe was the case with this particular accident.

MONTAGNE: So the co-pilot could be able to correct a pilot in the middle of a landing.

ESSER: That's correct. It's still very clear who indeed is the pilot in command, even though both pilots may be equally qualified and licensed to fly that particular aircraft. The person who occupies the right seat is also fully capable of landing the aircraft from that position as well.

MONTAGNE: And what do you make of criticism generally that pilots are too reliant on autopilot technology?

ESSER: That's been a discussion in the aviation industry for quite some time, is that one of the down sides of automation is the loss of the hand flying, as they refer to it, or the manual flying, that the fidelity in the manual phases has been diminished by our overreliance on automation similar to what parents of children were saying, you know, well, they're using calculators now. They don't know how to do multiplication tables.

It's the same kind of discussion, but very important in terms of automation and the change of the pilots role from being a stick-and-rotor pilot to basically being a systems monitor.

MONTAGNE: Sadly, two teenage girls died in this crash, but apparently the fire resistant seats saved many lives. They were installed, those seats, in new planes after other crashes were examined. Do you think new safety gear or procedures would come out of this accident?

ESSER: Always. The National Transportation Safety Board will do an exhaustive review of this and they'll make a series of recommendations and not all NTSB recommendations are adopted. You know, they have to be considered with the cost involved and that the cost benefit and other considerations. But the NTSB will indeed make recommendations from this as they have in the past. And as there have been recommendations made that were incorporated that have indeed saved lives.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

ESSER: You're quite welcome.

MONTAGNE: David Esser is an airline transport pilot and professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.