Passengers Shouldn’t be Scared

By Robert Mark on March 26th, 2012

Should passengers ever be afraid on an airplane? Let me think on that a second. Ah … nope. I don’t think so.

I know it happens  sometimes when people fly on small airplanes piloted by some dumb-fool hot-rod aviator. We all pay the price for that goofiness through awful accident statistics. But on an airliner or a business airplane flown by professional pilot? There should never be a fear factor.

I pay attention to how an airplane’s flying when I’m in the cabin. Maybe I know TOO much as a biz jet pilot — the sounds, the feel and all that. But I also know when I’m uncomfortable flying. And in 40 years, it hasn’t happened often.

Returning from France last month on an Iberia A340 through Madrid was one of those few times though. And it was more about being frightened – yup, scared – as we approached ORD than the fact that my seat for the 9-hour ride home felt like it was made of wood (which it did) or that the service was lousy (which it was).

As we began the approach to ORD, I had a great vantage point … a starboard window seat near the tail. We joined the runway 27 Left localizer line that seriously must have been 75 miles long since I could see the eastern shore of Lake Michigan through breaks in the clouds. As the flying pilot pulled the power back to join the queue, what really bothered me was how slowly they allowed the big Airbus to fly on final … clean. Fly it a little dirty and slow all you want, because adding flaps helps maintain a solid safety margin above stall speed. But that didn’t happen here. We just kept getting slower. With all the talk about airplanes falling out of the sky because crews didn’t understand the relationship between relative wind and critical angle of attack, this is just something I watch more now than I used to … not that I can do much from it the tail of the airplane of course.

Slowing any airplane with no leading or trailing edge devices means the nose of the bird gets pretty high. I was surprised as I listened to the engines speed up that they just seemed to want to make this slow approach with no flaps at all.  “That’s interesting,” I thought. Like most of us, I put it off to a perception issue of miss queue from the back of the airplane because the nose was so high. Then, as I realized we had to be near the glideslope, I started getting nervous. Why are we flying a heavy airplane around slow and clean, I kept asking myself? I just didn’t like it. Finally, I heard the motors spin and watch the flaps begin to peel back from the trailing edge of the wing. About time. I was expecting a notch or so.

Then came the surprise. We went from zero flaps to probably 30 degrees all at the same time. The 340 started down the glideslope and never changed flap settings again to touchdown. That’s when I realized I’d been right.

The crew was flying around at a high angle of attack with no flaps for way too long. Zero flap to about 30-35 degrees in one fell swoop. My chief pilot would have whacked me longside the head for making such a major configuration change so quickly. Not simply because that would be admitting I hadn’t been paying attention in the first place and needed to add flaps to maintain a safe margin about stall, but because it makes for such an uncomfortable change to folks sitting in back.

Last time on Iberia for me … One World partner or not. And of course it’s after I return from France that some one tells me Iberia was named one of the 10 worst airlines around. On a 0-30 point scale, Iberia never even made it to 12 . Maybe they were just distracted by other things, like trying to launch their new airline, Iberia Express. Maybe they should fix the one they already have first.

Rob Mark, publisher

PS – And in case you think my review had anything to do with the fact that Iberia still refuses to credit me with miles flown on the leg to France, it didn’t … although that, alone would be enough to keep me off this airline a second time.


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11 Responses to “Passengers Shouldn’t be Scared”

  1. davidsflying Says:

    They should make “Stick & Rudder” by Wolfgang Langewiesche mandatory reading for any pilot, angle of attack is everything.

  2. Larry Says:

    I asked an old salt ex military/airline pilot about this post, he had a different thought on subject: As long as the pilot holds “bug” speed for no flaps he will safely fly slow and burn less fuel than dropping some flaps that increases drag. I do not believe that a passenger, pilot or not, can tell from the back of the airplane what the speed of the airplane is within 30 or 40 knots. In this age of high fuel costs we all keep the flaps up and the drag down as long as we safely can. I think this guy dosn’t have a really good point here, but, I’d have to be in the cockpit and see what airspeed the pilot was holding to know for sure. I often would ask for a descent speed that would allow me to keep the flaps safely up during approach, and as most pilots did this, the controllers were aware of our need to keep fuel use down as much as safety would allow. It is easy to critsize from the rear without really knowing what was going on in the cockpit.

  3. Bob Iverson Says:

    Not good, Rob!

    Do you have any idea how much airspeed margin there was between the A340s clean stall speed and your approach speed?


  4. Robert Mark Says:

    Of course it’s easy to criticize from the backseat Larry. I really do understand that.

    Your explanation to save fuel certainly could be plausible.

    But to say that a guy in the back really can’t tell what’s happening in the back? That’s a bunch of bull … at least to me.

    I never said these guys were unsafe. What I said was that after hanging around airplanes of all sizes for 40 years, what these guys did scared me.

    Of course, maybe I’m growing more chicken in my old age.

  5. Darren Howie Says:

    As an A330 pilot I find the basics of this entire article flawed. Even if the crew “wanted” to stall an A340 they couldn’t unless the aircraft had suffered several failures..this is not a Boeing and they will not stall unless in a reduced Tate of redundancy caused by system failures.
    The 340 like the 330!has an amazing wing where at light weights minimum speeds are very low indeed. Also and more importantly flap 1 only deploys slats and zero flap so the crew where probably at flap 1 for some time.
    If you biz jet doesn’t have them you would not know the slats are the sinle biggest reducer in minimum speed in an approach and would not be visible from the back.
    Airbus sop’s have lap 2 not being taken till 2000′ with three and four very shortley there after.
    It seems your article is written from the back seat driver mode with little knowledge of Airbus flight protections or sop’s or the architecture of the wing and the deployment schedule of the aerodynamic surfaces.
    Next time before you put pen to paper having a go at the crew of an aircraft far larger and far different from a biz jet you may want to remember the only thing similar is the method of propulsion…

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    Well Darren, if I had never been in he front seat either I might agree with everything you say here. But I have.

    I know full well that the A340 won’t stall while in “Direct Law.”

    The point of the story though — which I think you missed — was to tell folks that there are times when even people who understand aerodynamics can become uncomfortable in the back.

    So let me throw one back at you. Stop looking at the world from the cockpit and realize there are people in the back too.

    I didn’t say these people were idiots. I simply said that from my experience, they made me damned uncomfortable.

    Talking to another Airbus pilot perhaps would have explained the science of the entire event the way you did, but science and emotion seldom mix.

  7. Leslie Storie-Pugh Says:

    Hello Rob

    I read your Jetwhine post about the IB A340 yesterday and it resonated. Thus the link to an event which took place in Boston and was thoroughly aired on PPrune which I remember reading at the time.

    I live in France and, One World or not, no IB for me. And I’m even feeling a little dicey about AF although my flying instructor is an AF line pilot with 11,000 hours and an outstandingly intelligent head on his shoulders.

    However, he did most of his training in the UK so not sure what that tells one!

    Thanks for your excellent postings. I always look forward to your new content.

    Leslie Storie-Pugh

  8. Darren Howie Says:

    Hi Rob
    I think the resounding feeling within your article was that you felt the crew had mishandled the approach.
    You clearly state the crew had been flying around “way to long” in the clean config yet for all you know sitting in the back flap one would of been selected very early in the approach.
    Also when the flap did come down quickly you also said you knew you had been right..mmm.
    I’m not sure if that’s the case..Similarly slats on a Bus have only a very minor impact on pitch attitude.
    Yes sitting in the back can be uncomfortable particularly as most of us make terrible back seat drivers something I’m just as guilty of as well.
    Again feeling uncomfortable is one thing and expressing why that is is fine by me. My point is it was a perfectly normal approach and because YOU expected to see flap out at low speed made you uncomfortable but it was FAR from unsafe. It was a normal approach and the inference in your article that the Iberian crew had mishandled the aircraft is pretty clear.
    How you feel is one thing inferring a mishandling an approach ie “I was right” is another.

  9. Robert Mark Says:

    OK, probably time to respond to Darren and Larry both here.

    I just went back and reread the story, and honestly I think we are possibly both — or would that be all three of us — guilty of not having the entire picture.

    If, as you both claim, the Bus could have indeed had leading edge slats down and been perfectly safe at what looked to me like a really uncomfortable attitude, I’ll cede on that point because I don’t know the state of the front end of the wing. That’s my overstatement and I should know better.

    HOWEVER gents … that being said, you weren’t in the front of the airplane either so you really have no idea how the aircraft was being flown. I was there you were not.

    If I am to be whacked for missing a cue, you need to step up and admit that there is certainly a chance that you’re wrong as well.

    After writing about aviation here for five years, and another … I forget how many in other places … I doubt anyone would could consider me an alarmist when I sit in the cabin.

    I’ll even admit that mentioning Iberia is one of the 10 worst airlines in thew world was more about creature comforts than safety. And, I did try to give the pilots the benefit of the doubt by admitting right off that maybe I was misinterpreting what I saw and felt.

    So thanks for your comments even though right now, I’m still not convinced I was that far off base.

    But shouldn’t we all be asking what seemed so different about this flight than the thousands of others I’ve taken? I certainly have been.


  10. Martin Says:

    I know nothing about the Airbus, I’m a Boeing driver myself, but isn’t it becoming a standard to fly CDA’s? If this was in fact a CDA, then the clean config (wether it was or not) would make sense to me. Just thinking…..

  11. john Says:

    I am not a pilot but your experience rings bells with me. I have flown Iberia twice, both times on the Madrid – Johannesburg line using A340s.
    Once they bounced three times on landing at Jhb, bang, bang, bang, up 3 metres high each time.
    Then leaving Johannesburg ahead of a storm they went screaming down the taxiway at what must have been 100 kph and were braking and turning for the runway at the same time to the point where the aircraft started to skid sideways, and nearly went on the grass. I was in a window seat and the grass was under the outside engine before the skid stopped.
    As pilots, I rate Iberia as in the Italian cruise ship captain category….

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