Thursday, September 23, 1999


Transcripts just released between the pilots of SwissAir Flight 111, and Air Traffic Controllers, reveal a lack of urgency that consumed precious minutes, which could have avoided the crash, says Arthur Alan Wolk, pilot, aviation lawyer, and crash expert.

The transcripts show that the aircraft was at 30,000 feet, and only thirty miles from the airport, when the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit. Instead of commencing an emergency descent, and heading directly for the runway, the SwissAir pilots made several, time consuming, turns, and dumped fuel, spending nearly ten more minutes in the air than they had too.

The MD-11 could have been landed overweight without difficulty, and given the lack of any adequate means, while airborne, to fight a fire. Declaration of an emergency, at once, and a landing, at the closest airport, at any weight, was the only appropriate procedure.

We have learned, from aircraft fires, historically, that the only procedure that has a prayer of avoiding an accident, is the quickest possible descent and landing.

Wolk has calculated the shortest time possible, from report of smoke, by the flight crew, and the crash, and has concluded that landing could have taken place seven minutes after the first communication. Radar contact was lost, with the flight, 16 minutes after the crew radioed Pan an urgent, but not distress, radio call.

It's easy to second guess this crew, Wolk cautions, but perhaps this accident points up the need to revisit cockpit procedures when smoke is reported in the cockpit or cabin. The capabilities of the MD-11 to descend safely and swiftly, and land overweight, without risk, makes this crash wholly preventable.

We should not lose sight of the fact that since it was introduced, in 1991, the MD-11 has had no less than nine FAA mandated airworthiness directives concerning potential fires and smoke from wiring bundles and connectors. Not only should a directed safety investigation be ordered, at once, on MD-11 wiring, but decisions on whether to treat smoke as a life threatening emergency, aboard an aircraft, should no longer be a judgment call by the flight deck crew, Wolk suggests.

We'll never know if the pilots were concerned how they would be viewed by the chief pilot if they had declared an emergency, right away, and landed overweight, and the smoke was found to be inconsequential. Eliminating their choice in the matter may avoid such concerns, in the future, delaying safety-of-flight critical decisions.