-- Jan. 22, 1999 -- According to Philadelphia aviation attorney, Arthur Alan Wolk, analysis of the cockpit voice recorder of Swissair 111 reveals a disagreement between the captain and first officer on the appropriate procedures to be followed when smoke began filling the cockpit.
The first officer recommended that the aircraft be landed immediately, and the captain declined that recommendation. That decision was fatal to the crew and all the passengers aboard.
Fire in an aircraft cabin is one of the most serious emergencies that can affect an aircraft in-flight. An emergency descent and landing is the only procedure that can save the aircraft. There was nothing to prevent Swissair 111 from making a safe landing within minutes of the first discovery of smoke, and nothing would have presented any danger to the passengers or crew by landing slightly overweight on a runway that was more than ample.
It is sad that so many lost their lives, but hopefully this will remove any doubt from any airline and from any flight crew that smoke in an aircraft is not a time for a majority vote; it's the time for the fastest possible emergency landing at the nearest airport, regardless of the circumstances.
Although immediately following the crash Swissair denied that such a landing was possible, analysis of procedures in the MD-11 flight manual reveal that such a landing at Halifax could have been safely made within seven minutes of the discovery of smoke -- about half the time the aircraft remained airborne after that discovery.
Other parts of the investigation may reveal that electronic engine controls need to be isolated from electrical faults so that loss of engine power does not complicate the emergency landing process. There is much more to be learned from the investigation of this crash, but one thing is certain -- there is neither adequate means nor training currently available to fight a fire in an aircraft in-flight, in spite of the well-worn but true statement "where there's smoke there's fire".