Lessons from Jakarta – Time for Assisted Recovery?

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The combination of the best technology available and the most experienced pilots possible was not enough to overcome human frailties in the case of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 demonstrator that crashed into Mt. Salak in Indonesia on May 9 this year, killing all 45 on board, including many journalists. 

The Indonesian Transportation Safety Committee published its final report on the accident on Dec. 18. 

The report shows that though the ACSS terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) worked perfectly, the highly experienced pilot-in-command (PIC) likely had a flawed situational awareness picture that convinced him that the “pull up” and other warnings that came starting 38 sec. before the crash were in error, and he ignored them. Other safety nets failed that day as well, but as they say, the PIC has the final say over the safety of a flight. 

Interestingly enough, the PIC was the lead test pilot for the Superjet program and took part nine TAWS certification test flights that lasted more than 23 hr. in total.

That a PIC with more than 10,000 hr. of flight time, type ratings in 31 fighter jets and commercial aircraft, and who was an integral team member for the TAWS, would make such an error is understandable if not forgivable given how distractions, including a potential buyer in the jump seat, can derail the normal thought process for us humans. 

Computers don't have that problem, so perhaps the time is right to take another look at a safety concept developed and tested in the wake of the September 11, 2001 to prevent terrorists from flying aircraft into buildings. 

The so-called “assisted recovery” system uses an aircraft’s Flight Management System (FMS), autopilot and TAWS terrain and obstacle database to automatically fly the aircraft out of danger in these types of situations before giving the pilot control again, presumably after he or she regains composure and situational awareness. 

Honeywell in 2005 successfully tested an assisted recovery system on an Airbus A319, and before that, on its company King Air. 

While there are certainly complex issues surrounding the implementation of such a system, perhaps its time to dust off the results from those flight tests and see if the concept has merit for eliminating the growing number of needless controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents.

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