Ross Greenwood speaks to retired Emirates A380 Pilot, James Nixon, who says the Addis Ababa airport is “one of the trickiest airports in the world to fly in and out of” after 149 passengers and eight crew members onboard the Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for the Kenyan capital, Nairobi died.
Ross Greenwood: I want to start the program today by talking about that terrible airline crash in Ethiopia that’s making the news. The Boeing 737 max 8 aircraft. This is the second of these brand new variety of aircraft that have crashed after an Indonesian airliner crashed last year which has raised the safety alarm, because here in Australia Virgin has ordered 30 of these planes. China also has grounded these planes in its own nation as well. Now one person that we go to for aviation matters is the former Emirates A380 pilot, an Ex-Bhutanese James Nixon, now retired. He’s on the line right now. James, many thanks for your time.
Interview with: James Nixon, Former, A380 Pilot
James Nixon: My pleasure, Ross. I’m very sad to be speaking to you again under this circumstance.
Ross Greenwood: It is always a sad issue, but of course aircraft safety is paramount for people who take it for granted that they can get on and off aircraft on any day of the week. Just explain, in the event of a safety issue cropping up in terms of what takes place with that airline, with those particular aircraft. The types of vetting of these accidents we know is significant. Just explain the process.
James Nixon: Okay. Well, let me just say I used to fly in and out of Addis Ababa airport from Dubai with Emirates on A330 and also A340s. I’m fairly up to speed on this airport. Which is one of the trickiest airports in the world to fly in and out of, because it’s so high, it’s about 7,600 above sea level. Air molecules are fairly far apart. The planes don’t perform as they do at sea level and also you get very hot temperatures there. The density altitude of the aircraft is clearly high and makes it tricky flying. Also, they’ve got a big bird problem there at the airport and they’ve also got mountains nearby. Volcanic area, it’s very close to the Rift Valley. These Ethiopian pilots are really good. This is not a case of a Mickey Mouse airline with suspect pilots in command, we’re talking Ethiopian Airlines, is the largest airline in Africa. They were the launch customer for the 787 outside Japan. That was the third company to ever get the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and as launch customer in Africa of this 737 max. They are really up to speed and really good at their job. For these guys to get caught out has really shocked and stunned the piloting community. I know a guy who was talking to us. A 777 pilot who was lining up behind these guys when they took off. They took off normally and then he immediately heard them say on the radio that they were declaring an emergency, they had unreliable airspeed and they were having trouble controlling the aircraft. Then they transferred them over to the next frequency and that’s all my friends heard. We know they’ve got an unreliable airspeed problem and that similar to what happened to Lion Air. That’s all we can say at this time and it looks like it’s been replicated, the same sort of accident that happened in Indonesia, except this time instead of plunging into the sea, it has plunged into land and it’s gone in pretty much straight down. There’s a huge crater, the debris is available for investigators to quickly get hold of.
Ross Greenwood: I did know today that the Virgin Independent Pilots Association, they have 30 of these aircraft on order. Captain John Lyons, retired who is the president of the Virgin Independent Pilots Association has said that it continues to have the utmost confidence in the Boeing 737 and the rigorous training Virgin Australia provides its pilots. We look forward to its introduction at Virgin Australia as it brings outstanding commercial advantages to the airline and enhanced customer appeal. Just explain form of the outstanding commercial advantages that this particular aircraft brings to an airline such as Virgin Australia?
James Nixon: Well, it’s cheap and that’s the reason why all the airlines 5,110, I think, have been ordered already, 350 delivered. It’s new generation. Using all the latest technology. What Boeing have done is it got an aircraft that was certified in 1967 completely changed it, they keep changing it, keep changing it, but they keep making additions to the original design in effort to try and counter the Airbus, the new Airbus NEO A320. They came out with this Boeing 737 with large efficient engines. In so doing, this has meant that the engines have to be moved further forward to fit them under the wing. This is causing a problem with the airplane when it gets close to the stalling angle. Someone has come up with a nifty idea of putting some software in that automatically lowers than those of the aircraft and prevents a stall. Unlike the Airbus product where the philosophy of the company has always started with this slide by wire protection system, it appears that this is a bolt-on system. We’re going to hope that these guys get this right eventually. No doubt that they will. They certainly will be working as fast as they can to find a fix for it. The mistake they made was they told the engineering departments, because they had to because of the differences to this aircraft, but no one bothered to tell the pilots. The pilots were not aware of this new system being put in the airplane. That’s really bad news, because when pilots have troubles, they want to disconnect stuff and fly like a Cessna. On all the airbuses you press a red button on the side stick and you can fly it like a Cessna. All their buses can do that and so could all Boeings until this one has come along. It’s really shocked and stunned the industry. Yes, it looks like Virgin will be picking up there 30 aircraft, but there certainly will be fixed long before anyone from Virgin is to fly one.
Ross Greenwood: I tell you what’s interesting to note that James, because again going back to captain John Lyons from the Virgin Independent Pilots Association, he is also collaborated what you have said and said under similar circumstances the crewmen the Lion Air accident appear to have lost control of the aircraft and we’re allegedly not notified of updated flight control software during the introduction of the new type to the airline. Which you have described so concisely for us. It’s going to be an interesting, now, process as to what takes place at Boeing to make certain that not only a pilot is informed as to what’s taking place with his flight control software, but also that there is confidence in the passengers and the airlines to take these through to their fulfillment. James Nixon, as I said, former Emirates pilot with the A380, now retired. Absolutely brilliant in his time on these aviation matters. James, I do trust we’ll speak on much happier circumstances next time, but I do appreciate your time this evening.
James Nixon: My pleasure Ross and I hope so. Thank you very much.
Image source: AFP