Recovery position


Garnet Ridgway: When analyzing historical examples of aerospace testing/early-service disasters, there is certainly no shortage of data. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first operational jet airliner. Despite being a product of some of the finest engineering minds of the time, five aircraft were lost within its first four years of service, resulting in 110 fatalities.

Clearly, a catastrophic event will cause a delay in the program while answers are sought and rectifying action taken. However, it should be noted that competitors, while not necessarily consciously seeking to benefit from the misfortune of others, may well gain an advantage that would otherwise not have existed. Indeed, Boeing’s ability to learn from the Comet incidents is widely credited as being a key factor in the success of the 707. For programs of national importance, this can have massive political implications, as understood by Winston Churchill when commenting, “The cost of solving the Comet mystery must be reckoned neither in money nor in manpower.” Indeed, the cost was ultimately to be the decline of the UK’s position as an independent producer of large civil aircraft, and a corresponding shift to the USA.

A catastrophic incident during the development of an aircraft can also have a long-term impact on the technical direction of a program. There can be a tendency to shy away from the more innovative aspects of the design, even if it transpires that they were not related to the incident. For example, the main contributory factor to the ‘Comet mystery’ was the square cabin windows – a design feature inherited from pre-jet, unpressurized airliners. In spite of this, 60 unrelated modifications were made during the redesign process, many of which reverted novel features to more conservative designs. This was often done at the cost of additional mass, resulting in a reduction in performance and capability to compound the previously discussed loss of competitive advantage. In the case of the Comet, by the time the lost capability was unlocked in the much-improved Mk4, Boeing had already gained an unassailable advantage with the 707. The aircraft that should have ushered in the jet age instead became a footnote in history.

This column has focused on a single example, but it is evident that such events can be found throughout history. To those who say that catastrophic incidents in testing are irrelevant in the long term, a question: How do you measure the success of your product – against its competitors at the time, or against its rightful place in aviation history?

Garnet Ridgway has a PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has designed cockpit instruments for Airbus and currently works for a leading UK-based aircraft test and evaluation organization. 

Sophie Robinson: While aircraft like the Comet suffered, and ultimately failed, as a result of a catastrophic accident, other platforms have fared better. It is possible to overcome, and even to prosper, after disaster strikes.

Prior to entering UK military service in 1999, the Merlin helicopter suffered three serious accidents, two of which resulted in complete loss of aircraft and loss of life. At the time of the first accident, the high cost of the program, and questions about the rationale behind the procurement of a multirole aircraft, prompted politicians to press the UK government into holding a public inquiry into the program. The Merlin risked being ousted by a competitor, such as the Sikorsky Seahawk, or being replaced by an upgrade program for the existing fleet of aging Sea Kings. Luckily, things had changed since the time of the Comet, and with nothing able to compete with the capability offered by the new Merlin helicopter, the program survived. The aircraft has gone on to become an important asset for the air forces and navies of 11 countries around the world. While capability is often the savior in the military world, perceived safety is always the priority in the civilian world.

So how do aircraft manufacturers and airline operators recover when they encounter incidents during testing or, perhaps more devastatingly, during operations? Some don’t recover; Malaysia Airlines reportedly suffered losses of US$140m after the loss of Flight MH370 and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, and it seems it will take more than a tweak of the company logo or a redesigned livery to save the brand. Yet others, like Virgin Galactic, seem to survive, not totally unscathed, but still with heads above water.

In the immediate aftermath of the Virgin Galactic crash in October 2014, founder Richard Branson was incredibly vocal in his response to the disaster. He was widely praised for responding quickly to the crash, setting a tone that indicated he was serious about finding the cause by traveling to the crash site and discussing the progress of the investigation openly with the media. This helped to limit speculation surrounding the cause of the crash, and limit reputational damage to the company.

While not all aircraft can, or indeed should, recover from catastrophes in testing, with careful management of the media and demonstrable superior capability, it is not an insurmountable task. 

Sophie Robinson works at the front line of aerospace testing as a rotary-wing performance and flying qualities engineer for a leading UK-based aircraft test organization. She also holds a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Liverpool, UK.

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