Wall Street Journal Article

Jan 21 1999

Swissair Pilots Differed On
How to Avoid Crash

In the old days flying was dangerous and sex was safe, now it's the other way around.

 

By WILLIAM M. CARLEY

Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Aviators around the world have been arguing for months about whether the

pilots of Swissair Flight 111 should have flown by the book or by instinct.

Now a summary of the cockpit voice recording shows that the flight's two

pilots were sharply at odds over that very issue. The co-pilot wanted to scrap

the rules and land quickly. The captain insisted they stick with convention.

The issue is important. Critics argue that a prompt landing could have saved

the jet, while Swissair officials have contended that such a touchdown wasn't possible.

As smoke seeped into the cockpit of the MD-11 the night of Sept. 2, the pilots

could have headed straight for the Halifax, Nova Scotia, airport rather than

follow a lengthy checklist and plan other time-consuming procedures, such as

dumping fuel. While the cockpit-recording summary doesn't provide any evidence

of an acrimonious argument, it does show the Swissair co-pilot repeatedly

suggesting steps aimed at a quick landing, and the captain rejecting or ignoring those proposals.

The co-pilot wanted a rapid descent. He suggested dumping fuel early so the

jet wouldn't be too heavy to land. And he talked of heading directly to the

airport rather than turning out to sea to dump fuel.

But the Swissair captain told the co-pilot, who was flying the plane, not to

descend too fast. The captain delayed a decision on dumping fuel. On the issue

of heading for the airport or turning toward the sea, the captain, apparently

preoccupied with the checklist, didn't give any definitive answer.

At another point, the captain brushed off a proposal by the co-pilot. "The

captain said, in effect, 'Don't bother me, I'm going through the checklist,' "

one person familiar with the cockpit-recording summary said.

Minutes later, the jet plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 229 on

board. The Canadian government is investigating the crash.

Differences between the captain and his co-pilot during the final minutes of

the flight haven't been revealed before because, under Canadian law, the

cockpit voice recording can't be released publicly. But a preliminary summary

of the recording, prepared by Canadian government investigators, was obtained

by The Wall Street Journal. The summary reveals the rare drama of two pilots

battling to save the plane -- and their own lives -- while at odds over how to do it.

David Austin, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said

he couldn't comment because he was prevented by Canadian law from discussing

the contents of the cockpit voice recording. Swissair also declined to

comment, saying the voice recording is confidential.

The captain of Flight 111 from New York to Geneva was 49-year-old Urs

Zimmermann. He was a veteran Swissair pilot, although he had been flying the

MD-11 for just over a year. The co-pilot was Stefan Lowe, 36, who had flown

for Swissair since 1990 but had been co-piloting the aircraft for just four

months. Conversations between the two, mostly in Swiss German, were described

in English in the summary.

The flight began smoothly enough. After the jet took off and climbed to 33,000

feet, the cockpit recording picked up the sounds of cutlery and a conversation

about food. The pilots were eating dinner.

But at 10:11 p.m. local time, there was a strange smell. At first the pilots

seemed confused about its nature, but within two minutes Capt. Zimmermann said

he could "definitely" smell smoke, according to the summary. Though

investigators are checking cockpit wiring, the cause of the smoke is still unknown.

The pilots discussed turning back to Boston, New York or Bangor, Maine. But

when Co-pilot Lowe radioed the "PAN, PAN, PAN" distress call to a Canadian

air-traffic controller, the controller suggested Halifax, nearly dead ahead, only 70 miles away.

At 10:16 p.m., Co-pilot Lowe, who was flying the jet through its autopilot,

turned toward Halifax. Just 14 minutes remained before the crash.

"Swissair One Eleven, you're cleared to ten thousand feet ... ," the Canadian

controller radioed. But when the co-pilot told Capt. Zimmermann the jet would

descend to 10,000, the captain ordered him "not to go too fast," the summary

says, apparently meaning "don't descend too fast."

The Swissair pilots, meanwhile, had donned their oxygen masks. Because

microphones in the masks picked up their breathing, respiration rates could be

measured. Capt. Zimmermann's had soared to nearly 25 breaths per minute,

indicating high stress. Co-pilot Lowe's was a more moderate 11 breaths per minute.

There were reasons for stress, beyond the central one. The pilots didn't have

landing charts for Halifax at hand, so they had to ask a flight attendant to

bring them forward. The chief flight attendant had to be informed about the

diversion to Halifax; he announced it to passengers in three languages. And

the pilots had to make more radio calls to the controller.

At 10:20 p.m., the controller radioed, "You've got thirty miles to fly to the

threshold" of the Halifax runway. By this time, Co-pilot Lowe, who may have

been heeding Capt. Zimmermann's admonition, had slowed the jet's rate of

descent to 3,100 feet per minute from 4,000 feet per minute.

The co-pilot was clearly worried about that. According to the summary, he told

the captain he wanted to descend "as fast as possible" so they could land if

the smoke got too dense. The jet was now at 19,800 feet.

Co-pilot Lowe also asked the captain about dumping fuel. The two talked about

whether to dump immediately or to wait awhile. Capt. Zimmermann, the summary

says, put off making the decision.

The air controller, meanwhile, had guided the jet due north, pointing it

slightly to the left of the airport so the plane could cut enough altitude to

make a direct approach to Halifax runway 06.

At 10:22 p.m., the crew had to make a crucial decision. Swissair officials

contend the jet was too high and heavy with fuel to make a direct approach to

runway 06. The jet was 25 miles from the airport and, at 11,900 feet, still

too high for a normal approach. But a number of pilots have said it was low

enough for a steeper, emergency approach. Should the jet turn right toward the

airport or circle left, back out to sea?

As for dumping fuel, in the five minutes or so it would take to fly directly

to the airport, the MD-11 could have cut its weight to its maximum overweight-

landing limit of 218,000 metric tons from 230,000 tons. But jettisoned fuel

might have spattered people and property below.

"Are you able to take a turn back to the south, or do you want to stay closer

to the airport?" the controller asked. Co-pilot Lowe asked the captain whether

to turn south for dumping or land the plane. But Capt. Zimmermann, the

cockpit-recording summary says, didn't give any definite answer.

"OK, we are able for a left or a right turn toward the south to dump," Co-

pilot Lowe radioed the controller. As he began circling left to head out to

sea, however, he apparently was worried that the jet would get too far from

the airport. He would reduce speed if the captain agreed, he told Capt. Zimmermann.

The captain, according to the summary, replied that he was in the midst of a

checklist and "didn't want to be interrupted" so often. Do what was

appropriate, he told the co-pilot.

A minute later, at 10:23 p.m., the jet's autopilot stopped functioning and Co-

pilot Lowe radioed that he had to fly the plane manually. Then,in overlapping

transmissions, both Capt. Zimmermann and Co-pilot Lowe radioed that the jet

was declaring a full-blown emergency, with the co-pilot adding, "We have to

land immediate."

At this point, the summary says, respiration rates of the captain and co-pilot

were both at 25 breaths per minute, showing both under high stress. The

summary adds that their words became rushed, their voices urgent.

At 10:25 p.m., perhaps because of the thickening smoke, Co-pilot Lowe told the

captain it was all he could do just to fly the plane. Seconds later, his

instruments -- bright video displays -- went dark, and he spoke of flying on a

few standby instruments.

The cockpit voice recording stopped. Five minutes later, Swissair 111 went down.

HALIFAX (AP) - Reports of a disagreement between the pilot and co-pilot of Swissair Flight 111 minutes before the jetliner crashed are ``misleading and not accurate,'' said a federal investigator said.

Vic Gerden of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said a cockpit conversation between co-pilot Stephan Loew and Urs Zimmerman was ``professional,'' meaning they didn't argue in the minutes before the Sept. 2 crash off Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a confidential cockpit-voice summary shows the co-pilot wanted to scrap procedure and land quickly. The newspaper said the captain wanted to go by the book as the jet suffered progressively worse electrical problems.

While he didn't deny the existence of a cockpit summary, Gerden said the interpretation was flawed. ``The conclusion and interpretation reported concerning events in the cockpit are misleading and not accurate.''

The federal investigator also revealed that Loew was in his seat when the crippled jet crashed, refuting speculation that intense heat may have forced the crew to abandon the cockpit.

The U.S. newspaper said the co-pilot favored a quick descent and proposed dumping fuel early to lighten their landing load.

Friday, January 22, 1999 The Halifax Herald Limited

Doomed pilots at odds. Cockpit recording shows co-pilot 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

Saturday, January 23, 1999

Swissair pilot rejects clash-in-cockpit theory

ZURICH (AP) - A top Swissair pilot described as "unthinkable" yesterday a newspaper report crew members of Swissair Flight 111 clashed on emergency procedures minutes before the plane crashed off the Nova Scotia coast last year.

Christian Stussi, Swissair's chief MD-11 pilot, said to the best of his knowledge the cabin crew of the plane behaved "absolutely quickly and professionally."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Swissair Flight 111 co-pilot Stephen Loew wanted to ignore the rules and land swiftly, but pilot Urs Zimmermann insisted on following standard - and slower - procedure for dumping fuel.

Smoke in cockpit

The Journal said the reported disagreement occurred as smoke filled the cockpit of Flight 111 as it flew from New York to Geneva.

The newspaper said it based its information on a preliminary summary of the cockpit voice recording.

"I was completely surprised when I saw the report in The Wall Street Journal about a row in the cockpit," Stussi said.

"Knowing both the pilots, I'd say that's unthinkable," Stussi told journalists.

The Journal said the summary showed Loew repeatedly suggested steps aimed at a quick landing, while the captain, Urs Zimmermann, rejected or ignored those proposals.

Some experts have contended a prompt landing at Halifax International Airport could have saved the jet.

Almost fully loaded

But Stussi reiterated Swissair's insistence such a landing wasn't feasible while the plane was almost fully loaded with fuel.

Zimmermann told Loew, who was flying the plane, not to descend too fast and became preoccupied with following a checklist of emergency procedures, the newspaper said.

Stussi said it was standard procedure for the pilot to go through the checklist in an emergency situation and leave the navigation to his co-pilot.

Investigators still have not identified the cause of the fire that sent smoke into the cockpit, although attention has focused on possible electrical-wiring problems.


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