If you find yourself morbidly fascinated by the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-370, missing for five days as you read this column, it is not because there is something elemental or inherently risky about flying routinely at heights the human body was never meant to experience.
You are fascinated because modern commercial aircraft rarely crash. Taking a flight is far safer than taking a train or driving a car, particularly in India, and anyone with a fear of flying is either being silly or, like me, has had a cranial rewiring.
It was a pleasant February day in 1990 when, in horror, I walked slowly through a warehouse full of human beings reduced to charred, blackened stumps of flesh and bone. These were the remains of the passengers who died in a fiery crash when the pilots of an Indian Airlines Airbus A320 misjudged their descent, slamming the aircraft into a golf course just short of Bangalore airport. It was then I was imbued with something I had never experienced: A fear of flying.
The death of 89 passengers, pilots and cabin attendants (56 survived) in clear weather aboard an aircraft only two months old, suddenly made flying appear fragile to me. A year earlier, when the first Airbus was delivered to Indian Airlines (IA), its pilots went on strike, claiming it was too sophisticated for India’s dodgy maintenance facilities. Flying in India was a vexatious, risky proposition. “Delays and cancellations, along with the worst cabin service in Asia outside China and Vietnam, have become legendary,” The New York Times reported after the crash, pointing to India’s outdated equipment, the IA monopoly and careless ground staff. “Hardly anyone travelling in India is without stories of near-disaster in the skies and of unbelievable management on the ground.” On October 19, 1988, 133 passengers and crew died when pilot error caused the crash of a Boeing 737. The same day 34 people died in another crash involving a Fokker Friendship.
After the Bangalore crash, my fears gained fresh fuel. On a cool, November night in 1996, along a dark, rural road in Haryana, I reached a mustard field strewn with suitcases, bodies — some split-open, many intact — and airline seats with men and women still strapped in. Only five hours earlier, two giant aircraft, a Saudi Arabian Boeing 747 and a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin 76, had collided and fallen out of the skies, the result again of human error, in this case a misunderstood flight path by a Kazakh pilot.
How distant those not-so-distant days seem.
Aviation in India, and across the world, is exponentially safer than ever. Arnold Barnett, an MIT professor, calculates that there is one chance in 14 million that you will die taking a flight in the first world, one in 2 million in the emerging world. In a 2010 study in the journal ‘Transportation Science’, he said the distinction was “between safe and very safe, and not between safe and dangerous”.
Pilot error, always a major cause of accidents since commercial aviation began more than 90 years ago, has been dramatically reduced since the turn of the century by automated flight and ground systems. An obsessive approach to reliability and safety has produced airframes and engines built to withstand the most adverse conditions. A crash is so deeply investigated that it is almost certain that whatever failed once will not again. Training and maintenance — still somewhat slipshod in India — procedures are almost cult-like in their adherence to ideals. Writing in the Guardian this week, Christian Wolmar, a British commentator on transport issues, recalled how 20 years ago experts predicted that by 2010 a flight would go down every week, if safety did not grow in step with aviation.
But it did, and despite its recent disappearance in the form of flight MH-370 the Boeing 777 remains one of the most reliable airliners in history. Its only fatal crash came last year, when two passengers died during a crash-landing in San Francisco.
Despite the great reliability of modern, commercial aircraft, there are blanks that need to be filled inflight. Air traffic controllers track flights mainly over radar, which has a limited range. Aircraft also have transponders, which automatically relay their position to nearby radar screens, which is how the Malaysian air force believes MH-370 turned back at some point. But pilots still radio their locations to stay in touch, an anachronism in the satellite age. Indeed, the US aviation authorities now propose satellite-tracking of domestic flights in the future. Although the technology exists, the world must agree to fill in those blank spaces in the sky.
The jet age arrived no more than 50 years after the Wright brothers demonstrated the first powered flight. It has been about great unknowns, about death and, always, about blank spaces. The story of the world’s first commercial jet, the British De Havilland Comet illustrates how far we have come.
In 1954, the Comet, which drew breathless reviews as it flew faster and further than anything before, suffered a series of catastrophic crashes, often blowing apart midair, once while ascending into a monsoon storm from Dum Dum airport, Kolkata. Yet the Comet, a symbol of British pride, kept flying, as Sam Howe Verhovek chronicles in a fascinating 2010 book Jet Age. Such a risk would be unimaginable today. An Indian investigator, W Srinivasan, of Hindustan Aircraft (which later became Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) uncovered the first evidence of catastrophic airframe failure, later traced — in the course of an exhaustive investigation where in a giant water tank (to simulate stress) the pieces of a crashed Comet were painstakingly reassembled — to tiny fractures under a window, writes Verhovek. It was the first modern air-crash detection.
When the fate of MH-370 is uncovered, it will let us learn something we did not know before and make flying even safer.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal