Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Barely qualified pilots were a combination that turned out to be lethal

by Gerry Byrne

When 10 people boarded Manx2 flight 7100, a Fairchild Metro III, at Belfast Airport on the morning of February 11, 2011, they probably did so under the comforting assumption that responsible people in high places were making sure that they would arrive safely at their destination, Cork Airport.

They had bought their tickets from a company in the Isle of Man, which has the reassuring image of the UK's Queen Elizabeth II on its stamps. Their flight originated in the UK which in turn boasts one of the most highly regarded aviation safety regulators in the world, the Civil Aviation Authority. They were flying to Cork where aviation was regulated by another respected body, the Irish Aviation Authority, which in turn is responsible for the safety oversight of one of Europe's largest airlines, Ryanair.

So, no worries then? Wrong. By the time they reached Cork four passengers, and the two pilots, were dead, the aircraft was upside down and on fire, and the survivors were lucky to escape with their lives.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say this was an accident waiting to happen. There were technical problems with the aircraft but these were relatively minor compared with the rest of the operation.

The pilots were barely qualified, indeed the young co-pilot had never been properly validated in the aircraft he was flying.

The captain had only been promoted to that role days earlier and displayed very poor judgement in the way the aircraft was flown (not the least of which was allowing an inexperienced novice co-pilot attempt to land the plane at Cork in fog). Put together in the same cockpit they made what turned out to be a lethal combination.

Both were probably seriously fatigued owing to their workload of the previous few days, tired pilots can be up to five times more likely to have an accident than if properly rested. Instead of cutting their losses and diverting to another airport they loitered in the skies over Cork hoping for the fog to clear, and becoming even more fatigued. Their aircraft was not licensed to land in such poor visibility and so each of their three attempts was technically illegal.

They had each breached aviation law in other ways in the days leading up to the crash. The captain had not taken his full legally mandated rest period the night before, and the young co-pilot had remained on duty longer than he should two days earlier.

But this seems to have been par for the course at Manx2. This was what is often called a virtual airline, where the company rents pilots, planes, even regulatory permissions (known as AOCs), from other companies. 

A few years earlier one of the companies which flew for them, Eurocontinental, had been the subject of a serious air safety complaint by the UK Civil Aviation Authority and was later grounded by the Spanish authorities owing largely to the incompetence of its pilots. Manx solved that problem by transferring the aircraft (which were leased from Lada Air) to the AOC of another company, Flightline.
Because both Lada Air (the aircraft owner) and Flightline (the AOC holder) were registered in Spain, that country's aviation authority was effectively Manx2's air safety supervisor, not, as many imagined, the UK Civil Aviation Authority. Because it is (surprisingly) not an EU member, the Isle of Man doesn't even fall under the otherwise wide remit of the European Aviation Safety Agency, the umbrella body for all EU aviation authorities.

The official crash report into the Cork crash effectively faults the Spanish aviation authorities for the failure to properly regulate Max2/Flightline/Air Lada but an airline is partly responsible for its own supervision. It appears that Manx2/Air Lada/Flightline did not inform the Spanish that it was conducting scheduled passenger operations in the British Isles.

So, bit by bit, Manx2/Air Lada/Flightline appears to have disappeared through cracks in the safety supervision system.

Published in the Irish Independent, 29 January, 2014

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