Crews Were Worried
About Tanker Safety


‘A huge step forward’

Interview with Capt. Ruedi Bornhauser   

Swissair MD-11 Technical Pilot

Interviewed July 17, 2001 at Swissair Headquarters,

Zurich International Airport


Question: Capt. Bornhauser, along with representatives of Boeing Engineering and in-house Swissair engineering, you are one of the ‘spiritual fathers’ of the Modification Plus program being applied to the entire Swissair MD-11 fleet. What are the major items of this project?

Bornhauser: First, we are going to install smoke detectors in areas where we think the aircraft is vulnerable. Since we still do not know the root cause of the Flight 111 accident, we looked at the aircraft from a wider perspective. So we looked at critical areas – and these are areas where of course we have a lot of wiring, where we have computers and other avionics – which could be prone to start or propagate a fire. We found that this is at least the cockpit overhead area, the forward galley and first class overhead area, and the avionics compartment underneath the cockpit.

            In regards to the avionics compartment, there already are aircraft which have smoke detection systems incorporated, but nothing like this exists in the cockpit or galley overhead area. We also know from experience that you may get false warnings by smoke sensors, and the operational impact of a smoke warning is tremendous. So, from this approach, we wanted to have a camera system to verify that there is really smoke…. We have built several cameras in all three compartments, and here in the cockpit we can select each of the eight cameras individually, and we can see if there is smoke or not. This is really a huge step forward, I believe, and the MD-11 will be the first transport-category passenger aircraft to have such a sophisticated system.

            Besides these changes, we now have as well for the first time a real fire-fighting capability, which does not exist on any other aircraft. We have Halon bottles in fixed installations in the cockpit and in the sidewalls of the first class galley. If we realize that the smoke is real, caused by a fire, we have a chance to fight it with the 5-lb. Halon bottles (that) we can discharge into the cockpit overhead area. We have two 10-lb. bottles for discharge into the galley overhead area. There is as well a ‘fixed tube’ system where we can distribute the Halon to the most important area in that compartment. This is a major improvement.


Q: In your study in the aftermath of the Flight 111 accident, you found the problems that occurred in the accident scenario were not unique to the MD-11.

Bornhauser: Absolutely true! It would be completely wrong to say, ‘This is only an MD-11 problem…if that is solved we are all happy again.’ That attitude would not be wise and it would not be fair for our crews and passengers. It is absolutely an airplane problem, whether it’s an Airbus, a Boeing or a former Douglas model. In every airplane you have wires, you have computers, and that is why we are going to study the problem in the other fleets after these modifications. And with the same critical point of view we are going to study our Airbus fleet. We will ask ourselves, ‘Do we have similar areas and points of possible vulnerability in this aircraft? Do we have to change something?’

            We believe we have to do better than what is done right now, and we already had a success with Airbus. They changed their smoke/fire checklist due to our input…. So it is very important to realize that it is a general aircraft problem, not a unique MD-11 problem.


Q: Skeptics claim that Swissair is spending money for measures that are not necessary, not mandatory or otherwise required.

Bornhauser: Actually, this is a stupid statement, because you’re increasing the safety of the aircraft. Of course, you have to think about it before you spend a lot of money. But, I’d say it is an investment in safety…. See, airlines are spending money for crazy things in the cabin, like for laptops, e-mail and Internet access – all kinds of things really not needed in an airplane from a pilot’s point of view. This is just marketing driven – you spend more money and it has nothing to do with safety…. You should invest the money rather in increased safety of the transport and not in the entertainment of the passengers.


Q: Does this modification program come out of lessons learned from the Flight 111 accident?

Bornhauser: That is for sure…. In light of the accident, we realized that decision-making is the most important thing for the crew. And we have to give them the means to make a good decision. The Modification Plus program goes in this direction, and it will not stop there. We will assess it for each of our other aircraft, and the philosophy behind the modifications has already been incorporated into our manuals and procedures. This is completely independent of the aircraft type. Decision-making in a critical situation like smoke or fire has been reviewed for all fleets…


Q: There seems to be some reluctance to follow Swissair’s example industry-wide.

Bornhauser: One of the major problems today is that all the companies, especially pilots having a job like mine, are all very busy and they do not have time to talk to each other…I believe this situation has to be improved. For example, for the MD-11 we have a seminar every two years…and we come together for two days and exchange our experiences. But there is nothing really established between different airlines…and I think that could be improved a lot.


Q: Should similar concepts like your Modification Plus apply to future new aircraft designs?

Bornhauser: Absolutely. I’m convinced that it will work. We have analyzed such ideas as well for cargo compartments and now they have to be brought up to this standard. In the avionics compartment, it is a bit more difficult because of the (cooling) airflow. The problem is to seal the compartment, but I believe we have to face this task. By the way, this is one of the issues the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada is pressing upon.


Q: The first steps to modify the MD-11 cockpit and to increase the redundancy of essential system wiring date back to January 2000. Why did it take so long?

Bornhauser: It is not that simple. From our initial assessments, we knew what we would like to improve. We agreed that we would like to accomplish this together with the aircraft manufacturer, Boeing. Further, we wished to get these modifications certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We wanted to follow the ‘official path’ – a joint venture between the manufacturer, the regulatory agency and us. It took time, and the beginning was a bit ‘resinous.’ Today, it has developed into outstanding cooperation…. Probably there was some politics involved, but that doesn’t interest me as a pilot. We wanted to step ahead and now we are happy with the achievement.


Q: What are the major advantages of the Modification Plus for you and your pilot colleagues?

Bornhauser: The major advantage is the option of early recognition of a critical situation. Time is the most important factor, as all accidents associated with smoke and fire clearly show. To gain 5, 10 or 15 minutes can be life saving. So, Modification Plus gives us a higher level of safety. Psychologically, you are aware of having a sophisticated surveillance system in place that will warn earlier than in any other aircraft if something goes wrong. This is definitely a good feeling for pilots, besides the new standby instrument, which will work on its own battery power if the main or the emergency power supplies are affected (lost) or damaged. We go much further than required for certification, but it is our obligation, as we want to learn from the Flight 111 accident and to take corrective measures. I believe it would be a fatal mistake if we would not do it. n


Modification Plus ‘A moral obligation’

Interview with Mr. Willi Schurter

Q: As head of Swissair’s Post-Emergency Organization, could you describe your work in the last three years?

Schurter: The Post-Emergency Committee was established right after the accident and is the successor to the Emergency Commission, which actually was a crisis management organization. The Post-Emergency Committee was established by Swissair to insure that…the attention required by an accident is given full priority.

Head, Swissair Post-Emergency Organization, Flight 111

Interviewed July 17, 2001, at Swissair Headquarters,

Zurich International Airport

Q: What are the major findings of your team?

Schurter: They are not much different from what the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada has found so far…. But, obviously, we have tried to establish much faster than the TSB some conclusions that we could draw and to initiate actions. It was quite clear early in the investigation that it will go on for a long time, because it is a very complex accident. We considered the time to be too long to wait for the report and only then to initiate corrective actions. That would take something like five years in the end, between the report, which…will come out sometime next year and if you then start to initiate actions it will be the year 2005!

            We had to assume…that a major fire was the initial cause for the catastrophic failure of the airplane…. So we were looking at things that in the short time period the crew has in case of a fire on board to assure the safe landing of the airplane.

We equipped the aircraft with fire detecting sensors and fire extinguishing systems, in addition to those already on the airplane. We are installing an improved version of the standby instruments and, thirdly, we are making sure that we have proper segregation of critical wires. Of course, at the same time we also are doing all the Airworthiness Directives from the FAA, which were caused or accelerated by the TSB findings.


Q: Looking at the re-routing of essential power bus feeders, does this mean the aircraft did not have adequate redundancy before?

Schurter: Obviously, you may improve any design. It is our obligation to learn from what happened. Nobody, me included, claims that the aircraft was not up to specification or the certification level.


Q: So the new wire separation is a result of your analysis of the contributing factors that may have played a role in the SR 111 accident?

Schurter: We still don’t know exactly if this was the case, but we wanted to make sure it will not play a role in a future accident or incident.


Q: Critics say it is just the ‘pleasure of Swissair’ to make these modifications.

Schurter: I don’t think it is the ‘pleasure of Swissair.’ It is merely a need that we have identified. We believe our modifications are worthwhile. We believe we have a responsibility and a moral obligation to do this for the Flight 111 victims and their families, and certainly for our customers and crews. n



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