Halifax Story Follows-----
Friday, January 22, 1999 The Halifax Herald Limited
Doomed pilots at odds.
Cockpit recording shows
urged quick landing
By Stephen Thorne / The Canadian Press
Ottawa - A debate between pilots aboard a doomed Swissair jet might never
have happened had the captain known what the U.S. Federal Aviation
Administration knew at least seven years ago, says an agency member.
A summary of the cockpit voice recording from Swissair Flight 111 shows
the two pilots were at odds over how to respond to the emergency that forced
the jet to plunge into the sea, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
The newspaper said the confidential cockpit-voice summary shows the
co-pilot wanted to scrap the rules and land quickly, while the captain
wanted to go by the book as the jet suffered progressively worse electrical problems.
Swissair's checklist procedure included turning the plane's three main
circuits off and on, one at a time, effectively resetting circuit breakers
as pilot Urs Zimmermann tried to locate the source of the plane's cockpit smoke.
But in a 1992 letter to the U.S. General Accounting Office, a non-profit
watchdog agency, the FAA said such procedures can be dangerous in situations
like those faced by the Swissair crew in their critical final minutes.
"Resetting circuit breakers can result in increasingly severe failures of
the wire bundle due to the additional arcing," said a 1992 letter from
Ronald Wojnar, manager of the regulator's aircraft certification service.
All 229 people aboard the MD-11 were killed when it plummeted into the
sea off Peggys Cove on Sept. 2.
Investigators have focused largely on wiring, citing evidence of
electrical arcing - short circuiting -and heat damage.
The cockpit talk, much of it in Swiss German, in some ways mirrors a
debate that has taken place since the crash. Critics have said a quick
landing could have saved the jet, but Swissair has said the plane was too heavy.
When smoke was spotted in the plane's cockpit, the pilots might have
immediately set what was virtually a straight-ahead course for Halifax
International Airport rather than go through the checklist and plan other measures.
The Journal said the cockpit-recording summary shows co-pilot Stefan Loew
proposing steps for a quick landing, and the captain not going along with
them. There was no evidence of a heated argument.
The Journal said the co-pilot wanted a quick descent and proposed dumping
fuel early to lighten their landing load. And he talked of heading directly
to the airport rather than turning out to sea to dump fuel.
But Zimmermann, Swissair's chief instructor, told Loew, who was flying
the plane, not to descend too fast. He delayed a decision on dumping fuel
and didn't give an answer on where to fly, said the Journal.
Zimmermann, whose respiration rate as detected by an oxygen mask
microphone was more than twice Loew's, told his co-pilot he was in the midst
of a checklist and "didn't want to be interrupted" so often.
Ed Block, Pennsylvania-based member of an FAA wiring committee, said its
predictable Zimmermann would have wanted to go by the book.
"The mindset of the pilot would be that he has to protect the company's
liability," Block said. "Unfortunately, the procedure is remiss."
Block says aviation's senior regulator should have been more forthcoming
about the shortcomings of Kapton, the sensitive wire insulation used aboard
Swissair Flight 111.
"If the FAA had shared its knowledge of the problems with Kapton wiring
and the inherent danger of resetting circuit breakers, that pilot would not
have had a debate with his co-pilot," he said.
"He would have taken that plane down as quickly as possible without going
through the checklist."
Differences between the captain and his co-pilot during the final minutes
of the flight haven't been revealed before. The summary obtained by the
newspaper hasn't been officially released.
David Austin, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada,
would not confirm or deny the Journal report.
Bill Casey, MP for Cumberland-Colchester, has asked the board to stop
leaks from the cockpit voice recordings, which are not supposed to be disclosed in Canada.
Swissair declined comment.
Copyright © 1999 The Halifax Herald Limited