Of flights and men

“Woah!” he chortled.
“I look different, I guess.”
“You look like a writer.”

I hadn’t seen Ashish for quite some time. We went to the same school, but only struck up a friendship towards the end of high school. We lived awfully close (less than a km away from each other), but it was only by the eleventh grade that my parents deemed I could walk a kilometer safely by myself. Not soon after, school ended, and we went our separate ways to college. Now, nine years on, a shaped beard hugged his formerly chubby face.

“So, what have you been up to?” I said. Ruffling through the sheaves of my memory, I seemed to faintly recall a post on Facebook about Ashish undergoing pilot training. “Are you a pilot or something now?”

He explained that he had just returned from Australia, after joining a training program with a domestic airline in India.

“How did you get into that?” I probed.
“Well, I used to work as ground staff at the Bengaluru airport. And I had built up a social circle involving captains and first officers. And at one point they asked me: Why don’t you try to become a pilot? We think you’ll enjoy it.”

“So, did you have to apply for a program?” It wasn’t every day that I got to talk to a pilot in training.
“I had to give an exam. I got through on the second try.”
“Oh, what are the exams like?”
“Well, there are lots of components. There are a bunch of papers you have to write. They have a simulator session too where they assess how you perform under stress, and another with a psychologist present. In fact, I’m back here now to give another exam.”
“Wait, a psychologist?”
“Yeah, ever since they had that…”
“Ah, the plane that crashed off the coast of Nice,” I interrupted. As a closet aviophobe, I had spent some time reading about incidents in aviation. The crash we were talking about happened due to a pilot intentionally crashing the flight as he was suffering from depression.
“Yes, so they have to make sure you’re not depressed or suffering from some other condition.”
“Yeah, I like how the aviation industry always takes measures after a tragedy to make flights even safer. Although, somehow - like in this instance - it can lead to new loopholes being found.”
“Well, you can never discount the human factor” Ashish said and then went on to point out that as part of his training, he had an exam on human factors.
“In fact, an article I was reading the other day. It said that when different parts of an industry run so well most times (like they do in the aviation industry), a lot of things have to go wrong in alignment for a tragedy to..”
“It’s called the Swiss cheese model.” he interrupted.
“Ah, yes, that’s what the article said” I mentally noted that a professional in the field (even one in training) always seemed to know more than a casual hobbyist.
“The article talked about what happened to Air France 440 (sic)…”
“Ah that was horrible.” I sensed a tone tinged with despondency.
“Yeah looks like that was a bunch of things that went wrong that could have been avoided easily, huh?" I tried to turn the tone dial to positive. “All that pilot had to do was ’not pull the stick back’.”
“Yeah, that was horrible. It’s all well and good when you are training in controlled conditions, but in real flight ” No change in tone - it was time to move to a new topic.
“While I have you here, what really went wrong with Lion Air? I’ve read a lot of stuff but nothing seems to pinpoint what happened exactly.” Okay, not a new topic, maybe just a new incident.
“We have to wait for the official investigation to be completed to know exactly what happened.”
“That didn’t yield much”, I thought. But then, he continued, “Between us, Boeing has been cutting costs for some time now. Ever since the…”
“Ever since the what?” I had zoned out.
“Ever since the 787, Boeing has been cutting costs.” I could see he was implying that this had continued to the new plane - the 737 Max 8, which was involved in the accident.
“So, when they released the 737 Max 8, they told airlines that pilots wouldn’t need to be re-trained to be type-rated (pilot speak for “allowed to fly”) for this aircraft as long as they were type-rated for the 737. Instead, they would send out a ground module - a simulator of sorts. The thinking there was that as there weren’t many significant changes, training on the simulator would save costs, which in turn would make selling aircrafts to airlines easier.”
“Then, what went wrong?”
“The 737 Max 8 had installed some new features, like a mechanism to recover from a stall. There is this thing called the angle of attack, and if it is too high, the plane begins to stall. To recover from that, they installed an automated system that would…”
“Cause the plane to dive and gain speed.” I interjected, eager to put on display what little I knew.
“Yes, and the pilots weren’t informed of this.”
“But, why would it dive unnecessarily?” I then answered my own question, “Oh. Faulty sensors.”
“Yeah. Have you noticed there are these vanes on the side of the wing? They measure the angle of attack.”
“Pitot tubes?”
“No, not Pitot tubes…”
“Oh, sorry they measure airspeed.” I corrected myself.
“Yes, so if the pilots were aware of this new automatic system, they could have taken action. But, so soon after takeoff…” “So, the plane was automatically diving due to faulty angle of attack sensors and the pilots were trying to bring the nose up wondering why this was happening and this just continued till the plane crashed. Could the pilots have overridden the automatic system?”
“Yes. But, in those conditions, it gets tricky. Sometimes they have to deal with storms as well.”
I couldn’t recollect reading about any storms in this incident.
“There was a storm too during take off?”
“No, not here.”

We had reached our destination - Tonico Cafe in Cochin. After exiting the car and taking a few minutes to stretch his legs, Ashish resumed, “I think Air Asia had some incidents where they had to deal with a storm as well. When you fly over this region, close to the equator, there are a lot of storms and unpredictable weather patterns.”
He paused.
“If you look up, you’ll see cumulus clou…”, the sentence lay incomplete with Ashish unable to spot the clouds he wanted. “Where are they? They’re usually everywhere in the sky here” He seemed slightly miffed that some clouds had spoiled his lovely anecdote. “Anyway, as pilots we always try to fly at least 10 nautical miles wide of a storm. The captain of this Air Asia flight had requested clearance from the ATC to take a different flight path, but was denied. This meant he had to go around the storm. We have a display on the panel that shows how high the storm is, but not how wide. In the storm cloud, there are huge updrafts and downdrafts that pull you in and throw you around. They tried to go around, but couldn’t. And once you get caught…” He didn’t need to say the last few words: you were finished.

The cafe served a variety of snacks and drinks - from sandwiches and coffee to pasta and smoothies. As we settled into our seats in Tonico Cafe, I restarted a conversation we began outside.
“What airlines would you say are safe?” I rattled off some names of airlines I would be flying soon.
“These Indonesian airlines are infamous for their maintenance. Indian airlines are much better. DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) does a good job - it is a pain to get certified. Captains have the power to make a no-go call though.”
“Do pilots get to see all the details about the aircraft?”
“Yes, of course.” He said, and I realized this was supposed to be obvious.
“Have you ever exercised that? Have you ever decided not to take off?”
He thought for a second.
“Once. There was a screw missing.” His face indicated that this was a minor issue. “But, I pointed it out, and they understood and sent it to maintenance. The engineers had it fixed and the plane was back in an hour.”
“And the flight completed without issues?”
“Of course. There was this other time where I was flying using VFR.”
“So, you can fly in one of two ways - either visually or using instruments. The flights I use don’t have autopilot and other features.” I understood that even “with instruments” the flights being flown in training were much more bare bone compared to commercial carriers’ flights. “This particular time, I was flying visually. I had ensured that the weather forecast was clear - no clouds. And then once I had passed the critical point - do you know what that is?”
“That’s the point in a flight before which you have to make a decision whether to turn back if any issues are found. After that point, it’s usually better to continue till your destination.”
“The midpoint, I guess?”
“Well, almost. It also depends on the windspeed and how much fuel you have left, et cetera. Anyway, I had passed the critical point, and I see a blanket of clouds.”
“Why is that bad?” I wondered aloud.
“Well, I’m flying visually, right? It’s kind of like following a road to get to your destination. Now, if I can’t see the road, I don’t know where I am.”
“Oh…! So the blanket of clouds was beneath you, preventing you from seeing what you were flying over. What did you do?”
“You can drop below cloud cover. You can drop to around 500 ft above unpopulated areas, and around 1000 ft above populated areas. So, I dropped to 500 ft. I was skimming the clouds (from the bottom)”. I could see that this was possibly his scariest flight to date. “And when I landed, I told them I wasn’t flying back until the clouds had cleared out. They understood - even though the plan initially was to fly in, refuel and fly out immediately.”
My hunger for a good story had been satiated. My hunger for food had just begun.
“So, what do you want to eat?”

Epilogue: A pattern to the chaos

An hour later, we were back on the road - on the way home. As Ashish (who was doing the driving) steered in and out of traffic, I steered the conversation with it.
“Do you find traffic to be worse in Bangalore or Kerala?”
“Bangalore, definitely!”
“Really? Isn’t it just chaos everywhere?”
“In Bangalore it is. In Kerala, there is a pattern to the chaos.”
I tried observing the traffic for a few seconds. It did feel a bit like a game. A weird, unnerving, extreme sport of kinds. “It is a bit like rally driving.” I remarked.
“How come Indians aren’t better at rally driving, then?”
“We aren’t able to keep this up at high speeds.”

Looking at the road, I could almost jokingly say that India has superseded self-driving cars. If you look at it closely, and with a different lens, you see that driving here is optimized beyond belief. Everything, from traffic lights to one-way signs are solely advisory. Traffic expands to occupy lanes going the other way, and shrinks to where a single car rides over the lane markers in a two lane road. The former increases throughput when you have vehicles of different speeds (autos, cars, bikes) sharing the road and the latter increases safety. 4-way intersections have cars moving in all four directions at the same time. It’s almost as if this is the future, now.