On Saturday I wrote a post entitled “My Royal Jordanian flight from hell,” about my first flight where I actually thought I was good as dead. Some criticized me for writing the post literally an hour after getting off the flight. While that’s a fair criticism, the intent wasn’t for me to provide my NTSB-esque findings, but rather to share the (somewhat) raw emotions you go through when you literally think you’re seconds from dying on a plane. Anyway, now that a few days have passed I just wanted to share some more thoughts, because in a way I may not have done justice to all parties involved.
First of all I found it interesting that reader Michelle J wrote the following:
We just left HK today on Cathy (thank goodness), but the craziest thing is that yesterday we met a couple from Florida in HK and they were on the same RJ flight as you. They told us all about it and said they realy thought they were going to die! Everything you mentioned is exactly what they told us too. They were so upset that no announcements were ever made. What a small world. No exaggerating on your part, we heard it first hand. Crazy!
I’d certainly be curious if anyone else was on the flight, and to hear their impressions!
Let me say once again that the extent of my “credentials” are that I’ve flown about 2.5 million miles on commercial aircraft, am a private pilot, and take great interest in watching every episode of “Air Crash Investigation” and reading NTSB reports on accidents when I can. In other words, I have no credentials. 😉
Take what I say merely as my observations, thoughts, and open ended questions based on having experienced what I did; this isn’t my attempt at an NTSB report.
Before I get too deep into this, I’ve been asked by a few people whether I still have the same “emotional” feelings a few days later. Flying is what I love, and prior to this flight I’ve never actually thought my life was in danger while flying, and I’ve encountered my fair share of mishaps in the air, but I know enough about aviation to know that none of them were actually life threatening. A few days later I’m still feeling pretty hopeless about the situation. When you think you’re going to crash, the most challenging part of being a passenger is accepting that your fate isn’t in your hands. Now to clarify, I don’t want my fate to be in my control when I’m on an A330 that I have no clue in hell how to fly, though I do want my fate to be in the hands of someone that’s competent, someone that realizes there are ~200 people aboard depending on their actions, and most importantly someone that feels empowered to err on the side of caution rather than just following instructions (Avianca 52 comes to mind, where the pilots were more or less letting the air traffic controllers fly their plane for them, without expressing the urgency of the situation to a proper degree).
When it comes to aviation safety, culture also seems to play a big part, whether it’s “traditional” culture or more commonly corporate culture. On a flight I once sat next to a 747 training captain for a major US airline that was recalling how Korean Air would train their pilots in their simulators, and he would have to supervise them. He talked about what an absolute disaster it was training with them, given that the captains and first officers had to be “checked” separately, since he couldn’t “shame” a captain by correcting him in front of a first officer.
While that’s just one small example, I think the overlying culture of an airline does impact safety. You want to fly with an airline that has a corporate culture that allows their pilots to take liberties in diverting and deviating from plans as they exercise their best judgment, without the fear of retaliation by the company. And you also want an airline where the pilots are basically trained as “co-captains,” meaning they’re both allowed to exercise their best judgment and jump in as they see fit. A countless number of accidents could have been prevented over the years, because they occured due to senior captains making mistakes without the first officers jumping in, given that they assumed the captain must have known what was going on due to their experience.
Reader CJ summed it up in the comments section of my last post as follows:
I emailed you a while ago about NOT taking Ethiopian airlines.
This is a similar situation. The fact of the matter is that pilots are trained very differently around the world, and the culture of certain airlines play a major role in safety.
Lots of Asian and Middle eastern Airlines do not give the level of captains authority to their pilots that’s needed to allow them to make the proper safety decisions. They must do what they are told by the company and ATC or risk their job. They have no pilot union to back them. If a pilot from Delta or United was told to hold for 45 mins in a red cell he would laugh and divert. The culture of Royal Jordanian and other third world airlines doesn’t allow their pilots to make such a decision.
How do I know?
10 years in the Air Force, flying in AFSOC working with pilots from all over the world. Start my commercial job next month.
My father flew USAF / Airlines for 30 years and is now and Safety Program manager at the FAA in DC.
Granddad flew for Pan Am for 30 years, United for 5 and Cathay for 5. He also advised Royal Jordanian on training procedures in the late 80′s.
With that in mind, back to the actual flight. I have so many more questions than answers, and I realize that probably no one actually has the answers, but that won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts.
Was I being unfair to the pilots for not making announcements?
My major frustration with the entire situation was that the pilots didn’t make a single announcement during the entire situation. Before it got bumpy it was the flight attendant that announced we’d be circling for 30 minutes, and not one of the pilots. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt on this to the pilots and assume they didn’t know it was going to be so bumpy. This also raises the question as to whether or not they weren’t paying attention to the weather forecast for Hong Kong, but I’ll also give them the benefit of the doubt on that and just assume they didn’t know the degree to which it would be bad.
And then things got bad. Really bad. There was lightning and turbulence like I’ve never experienced before. Over and over. There’s no doubt in my mind we were holding in a “red cell” for around 30 minutes, with extreme changes in altitude, and got struck by lightning at least once, if not twice.
How bad were things really?
This is the part that really confuses me.
Let’s assume we were just flying in a red cell and there was no “real” danger, and everything was under control. If that’s the case, I have to wonder why in an over 30 minute, hellish hold, neither of the pilots once made an announcement. I realize their top priority is to safely fly the aircraft, though if everything was fine there’s nothing actively difficult about flying in turbulence or bad weather, and certainly a 30 second announcement wouldn’t have killed them.
And while I originally wanted to fault them for that, I don’t think I was doing them justice. Maybe they were literally scared $&^%less as well, weren’t maintaining their composure and therefore couldn’t make a calming announcement, and were actively trying to prevent the plane from crashing. The more I consider the situation, the more likely I think that scenario is. After all, when the flight attendant emerged from the cockpit she said “the pilots are retiring after this flight.” While I doubt she was being serious, it does sound like the situation really disturbed the pilots as well.
The big question this raises is why was the flight attendant in the cockpit for landing? She said they needed her help, though pilots are trained in such a way that this really wouldn’t make any sense, and it’s probably more likely she need their help to calm her down. If that’s the case, then it seems really irresponsible to have a hysterical person in the cockpit adding to the stress, no? Seems it would only make the situation more dangerous by distracting the pilots. And if they had enough time to calm her, certainly they had enough time to calm the passengers with a short PA.
I’m sorry, in a way this post is a bit therapeutic, and I’m realizing I could go on and on all day about this, and it wouldn’t really matter or be of interest to y’all. I’m sure I’ve bored you guys enough by now and I feel like I should just hit “Move to Trash” on this post as I draft it, but it wouldn’t have the same therapeutic effect.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be alive. Some are calling me an ungrateful bastard and saying I should be eternally grateful to the pilots. While I’m delighted to be alive, I can’t help but feel like the entire situation could’ve been prevented. I’m not saying the pilots caused the situation, per se, though I also can’t help but feel like they were letting air traffic control fly the plane rather than flying it themselves and showing some initiative in avoiding the situation.
Were we safe all along and was everything under control the entire time? If so, why was no announcement made? Or was the situation really as bad as it seems to be, and the pilots were struggling to keep the plane up? If so, why would they let a hysterical flight attendant in the cockpit to probably only add stress to the situation?