Experts believe that the chances of an aircrash are down to minimal. In 2019, a publication estimated that there was a 1 in 11 million chance of an aircrash. Causes of aircrash vary from engine malfunctions to terrible weather conditions but what about anger issues?
On the 1st of January 1993, North-west flight 5719 departed from Minneapolis and was scheduled to arrive at international falls, after making a quick stop at Hibbings, along the route.
The commuter flight in a Jet Stream 31turbo prop twin engine did not make it to the airport, and instead crashed into terrain, some two miles away from the Hibbings airport. There were 18 people on board the flight that day, including two crew members Captain Marvin Falitz(42) and first officer Chad Erickson (25). There were sadly no survivors from the ghastly accident.
Flight investigators had to piece things together through old fashioned means because there was no flight data recorder and ground proximity device in this small aircraft. In fact, this aircraft was scheduled for grounding by may of that year, so it was basically on its last lap.
The lack of automation and fly by wire devices would have made this flight difficult for beginner pilots, but a skilled pilot like Captain Falitz had no issues with the control.
In fact, based on the information gathered on that day, it was a pretty normal flight. There was no mayday calls during the event and not even a sound of panic, until the aircraft incident. So how does a whole aircraft crash so clandestinely?
The truth of the story lies in the hands of the pilots in charge. The cause of the unfortunate incident is documented as "pilot error leading to controlled crash in terrain". However, the error was something unexpected and embedded in the personality of the pilots.
First officer Erickson was a 25 year old fresh out of flight school talented trainee, who was just learning the ropes in the business. Graduating top of his class is one thing, actual flight experience is a completely different ball game.
Unlike Transcolorado flight 2286, the first officer was in charge of flight observation that day, while the pilot handled controls.
Commercial aircraft operate with two pilots for many reasons. One of the most important reasons is the need for precision and multiple opinions. However, having two opinions is not supposed to amount to arguments, it only ensures that the best possible decision is taken.
On approach to landing at Hibbings, the Northwest flight 5719, unfortunately, crashed into the woods, killing everyone on board. Initial suspicion from aircraft investigators was that there was a problem with the altimeter.
An altimeter is basically an instrument used to measure the altitude between an object and a fixed reference point. In this case, the reference point is the earth and the aircraft is the object. In the absence of a ground proximity device, altimeters play an important role during landing operation and the pilot in charge of instrumentation(first officer Erickson) is supposed to be the one doing the notifying.
The FAA stipulates that a decent rate of above 1000Feet per minute is considered unsafe. However, this wasn't any normal landing procedure.
Distance required for descent: (3 x height) + (1nm per 10kts of speed loss) + (1nm per 10kts of Tailwind Component)
First of all, unlike the Transcolorado flight 2286, the pilot opted for the non-precision approach, which basically means the plane circles the airport and then lands through the opposite end. The downside of using this method at Hibbings at the time is that there will be no communication between the pilot and the ground station, so it is all up to the men in the cockpit.
The Slam Dunk
Captain Falitz opted for a non-precision approach to the runway while using the slam dunk approach for landing. The slam dunk approach is an unofficial method of landing where the aircraft hovers above the clouds for a bit longer than usual and then descends rapidly to the runway.
The slam dunk approach is used in special circumstances where weather conditions could be a factor. In this case, the fear was icing on the wing, a simple but frequently fatal problem for this particular type of aircraft.
However, there were two critical reasons why things went completely wrong and disaster struck. The first reason was the poor cockpit resource management of the captain and the second was the timidity due to the lack of experience of the first officer.
Cockpit resource management is a special training giving to pilots to handle situations when a human error can lead to devastating error. CRM focuses on interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making in the cockpit of an airliner.
Investigators did some digging into the kind of person that Captain Falitz was, and the information garnered was anything but pleasant. Different reports suggested that he was a short-tempered, foul-mouthed and difficult individual to fly with. Several people accounted for how he had verbally abused them and one even mentioned physical assault while being berated by the captain.
There was even an incident where Captain fritz would intentionally perform rough manoeuvres in flight to scare passengers. The logic behind this erratic and reckless behaviour was related to his dissatisfaction with his job.
For the young first officer Erickson, who had never experienced the slam dunk approach and was still new in the game, can you imagine how difficult things might have been for him? There was an account of someone prior to the flight about overhearing the captain sternly berating the poor first officer over some takeoff procedure.
Investigators believe that due to the captain's nature, combined with the lack of experience, timidity and fear from the first officer, readings on the altimeter must have been neglected and that led to the crash.
The suspicion is that after constantly being berated and demeaned by the captain's offensive remarks, the first officer retreated into his shell and didn't speak up. When you put it all together, you get a grim image of a scared man just watching on as his pissed off superior run the aeroplane to the ground. It was a clash of personalities of sorts and that led to the unfortunate incident.
On the backdrop of this unfortunate incident, there were new rules included to checkmate these issues and one of them was more emphasis on crew resource management training on pilots.
The changes lead to requirements for pilots and copilots to have a better interpersonal relationship. It also gave pilots the freedom to pick between cockpit mates, in certain situations.
It is rather sad that one man's bad behaviour led to the death of all those people. It is an accident that really could have been avoided but instead, all those lives were lost and the world of aviation learned a valuable lesson afterwards.
However, outside aviation, there's also an important lesson to learn about the importance of interpersonal relationship in the workplace and how they can affect yours and the lives of many people directly and indirectly.