Aviation Attorney and Pilot Expert Arthur Alan Wolk weighs in

Aviation attorney and pilot expert, Arthur Alan Wolk, says that if Swissair’s simulator studies, which claim that the crew could not have descended from 33,000′ to land at Halifax in 70 miles, nor landed overweight on the more than 8,000′ of runway available are correct, Swissair needs to change its emergency procedures because that’s why this airplane crashed.

The MD-11, which operated as Swissair Flight 111, was nowhere near maximum takeoff weight at the time it left John F. Kennedy Airport with its relatively short 6-1/2 hour flight. The MD-11 has a range of over 8,000 miles and was making a flight of about half of that to Geneva. Therefore, its weight at the time of takeoff was more on the order of 500,000 pounds than the over 700,000 pounds for a maximum range flight.

At the time the crew first reported an urgent situation, approximately 70 miles from Halifax and at 33,000′, this airplane was only about 50,000 pounds above maximum landing weight, essentially a non-event for that model airplane. The runway requirement for maximum landing weight for an MD-11 is only 6,500′, leaving ample room for any excess distance required for the slight additional weight that Swissair 111 was at the time of the first urgent call to air traffic control. Swissair says in its simulator studies, the airplane could not have been stopped in 8,000′. That is impossible if the simulator was being operated properly, says Wolk.

Swissair also claims that the airplane could not have descended from 33,000′ in time to land at the airport. Wolk says that this statement is absolutely false. The emergency procedure that exists for the MD-11 would bring the airplane down from 33,000′ to sea level in less than 5 minutes, a descent rate that would be adequate even to land the airplane at Halifax if it started such a descent a 30 miles out, says Wolk.

If Swissair’s emergency procedures are such that the crew thought they could not have descended from altitude, nor landed on the runway at the weight Swissair 111 was at the time it reported smoke in the cockpit, then Swissair’s emergency procedures and training need to be changed at once.

Every U.S. MD-11 flight crew Wolk has spoken to has confirmed his opinion and calculations that there would have been no impediment whatsoever for the aircraft to have landed at Halifax in less than 10 minutes from the time the crew first reported smoke. Therefore, Swissair’s flight crew could very well have been a victim of Swissair’s own inadequate emergency procedures training, if Swissair is to be believed.

Investigators need to examine the emergency procedures established by Swissair in its procedures manual to see if adequate provision has been made for dealing with the very real emergency of smoke in the cockpit.


Kapton a hazardous wiring for use in aircraft

Aviation attorney, Arthur Alan Wolk, who has done substantial research in the field of aircraft fires, notes that the United States Navy refused to allow the continued use of Kapton in Navy fighters because of its poor performance, specifically its propensity for arcing and the propagation of dangerous fire-producing sparks. The FAA was made aware long before this crash that Kapton was a hazardous wiring for use in aircraft, yet did not mandate more stringent inspections of aircraft in which Kapton was used as electrical insulation.

Kapton was described by DuPont, its manufacturer, as having “outstanding thermal, mechanical, chemical and electrical properties.” In fact, Boeing engineers concluded that Kapton was completely unsuitable because when wires arced within the Kapton insulation, Kapton became a carbon track, allowing further propagation of the electrical arcing, much like a dynamite fuse.

This clearly made Kapton a bomb waiting to go off in any aircraft in which it was utilized.

It is indefensible that both the FAA and the manufacturer of this aircraft would permit the use of electrical wiring in a civilian, passenger carrying airliner, knowing that in an aircraft in which the crew is equipped with an ejection seat, the material was found to be unsuitable because of its fire and arcing propagation characteristics, says Wolk.

This will be undoubtedly a very ugly and embarrassing investigation for the industry and a further embarrassment to the FAA, which already has thousands of lives etched on its tombstone of ineptitude, says Wolk.


Analyis of voice recorder reveals disagreement regarding procedures to be followed

PHILADELPHIA – (01/22/1999) According to Philadelphia aviation attorney, Arthur Alan Wolk, analysis of the cockpit voice recorder of Swissair 111 reveals a disagreement between the captain and first officer on the appropriate procedures to be followed when smoke began filling the cockpit.

The first officer recommended that the aircraft be landed immediately, and the captain declined that recommendation. That decision was fatal to the crew and all the passengers aboard.

Fire in an aircraft cabin is one of the most serious emergencies that can affect an aircraft in-flight. An emergency descent and landing is the only procedure that can save the aircraft. There was nothing to prevent Swissair 111 from making a safe landing within minutes of the first discovery of smoke, and nothing would have presented any danger to the passengers or crew by landing slightly overweight on a runway that was more than ample.

It is sad that so many lost their lives, but hopefully this will remove any doubt from any airline and from any flight crew that smoke in an aircraft is not a time for a majority vote; it’s the time for the fastest possible emergency landing at the nearest airport, regardless of the circumstances.

Although immediately following the crash Swissair denied that such a landing was possible, analysis of procedures in the MD-11 flight manual reveal that such a landing at Halifax could have been safely made within seven minutes of the discovery of smoke — about half the time the aircraft remained airborne after that discovery.

Other parts of the investigation may reveal that electronic engine controls need to be isolated from electrical faults so that loss of engine power does not complicate the emergency landing process. There is much more to be learned from the investigation of this crash, but one thing is certain — there is neither adequate means nor training currently available to fight a fire in an aircraft in-flight, in spite of the well-worn but true statement “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”