Pilots stood down after mid-air drama

Two Air New Zealand pilots were stood down and their cabin crew offered counselling after a frightening mid-air incident on a packed transtasman flight.

The drama unfolded on flight NZ176 between Perth and Auckland on May 21, when the first officer was locked out of the cockpit for two minutes.

The captain did not respond to requests to open the locked door, alarming crew. The pair had apparently fallen out over a take-off delay.

One expert says two minutes is "an eternity" on a flight - and the incident, on a Boeing 777-200 carrying 303 people, has sparked calls for a third crew member to be added to flight decks so no one is ever alone in the cockpit.

Air NZ spokeswoman Marie Hosking said the first officer and crew became concerned after the captain did not respond to three requests over two minutes from a cabin crew member to open the cockpit door.

The first officer eventually used an alternative method to access the cockpit.

For security reasons, the airline would not say how.

"Naturally, cabin crew operating the flight were concerned about the inability to contact the captain and became quite anxious," said the national carrier's operational integrity and safety manager Errol Burtenshaw.

They were offered the support of the company's employee assistance programme after the flight.

Both pilots were stood down - the captain for two weeks and the first officer for a week, and given counselling and additional training.

There was "some tension" between the pilots after a 13-minute delay to the flight's departure after the first officer had to take part in a random drug and alcohol test.

"This departure delay frustrated the captain who prides himself on operational efficiency."

Safety and security were paramount and the incident was "unfortunate", Burtenshaw said.

"Both pilots have learned a valuable lesson around the need to communicate better with peers."

He said the captain did not respond or open the door because he was approaching a navigational waypoint and in his cockpit monitor saw a cabin crew member rather than the first officer ringing.

The airline provided a report on the incident to the Civil Aviation Authority. Spokesman Mike Richards said it was satisfied with Air NZ's actions.

But aviation commentator Peter Clark said the incident showed it was time all airlines put a third crew member in the cockpit. "After [the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight] MH370 there's definitely questions being asked about whether there should be more than two people on the flight deck."

The Beijing-bound Boeing 777 and its 239 passengers and crew vanished after the plane left Kuala Lumpur on March 8. A Malaysian investigation last month identified the captain as the chief suspect, if human intervention was to blame.

Clark said there was no excuse for the Air NZ captain to not immediately respond to calls, given the MH370 mystery and the fate of other flights, including an Ethiopian Airlines flight hijacked by its asylum-seeking co-pilot this year.

"You can push a button and say 'I'm busy' ... two minutes is an eternity when people reflect on MH370. The transponder can be turned off, the flight co-ordinates changed, the plane depressurised.

"It shouldn't have happened."

Shutting the door is not a good option

There are a lot of clear indications that in the case of the missing MH370 that a series of completely inexplicable events or actions took place at a crucial time of the flight when handing over from one controller to another. Those events include the turning off of a number of electronic systems and apparent huge excursions in altitude and course with tracked handshakes with INMARSAT satellites that showed a course into the southern Indian Ocean.

Indeed the aircraft appeared to be heading for an airfield in Antarctica although it didn't have enough fuel to go that distance. Until the black boxes can be found, recovered and analysed, no-one can say that this disappearance was not the actions of one or both of the pilots, but from all the information that has been released so far, this is by far the most logical explanation. There is a professional pilots forum called PPrune that has had almost 19 million views that contains some worthwhile discussions on the subject

Let us avoid knee-jerk reactions

Calling for more staff on the flight deck is not justified. There's no evidence that the pilot of flight MH370 was at fault and there are other plausible explanations for its disappearance.

In the local case, Air NZ's operational integrity and safety manager, Errol Burtenshaw, is quoted above as saying that the pilot, "in his cockpit monitor, saw a cabin crew member rather than the first officer
ringing." So it's not established that he excluded his co-pilot. In any case, from this evidence, he was busy, not angry. We don't need to panic.

Perhaps the airline needs simply to instruct crews to answer the phone when they're alone in the cockpit? That would stop everyone worrying and, so far, nobody except the 9/11 zealots have engineered a cockpit takeover. They weren't career pilots, and career pilots don't wait 25 years to destroy an aircraft.

Pilots stood down

The captain of this flight should have his licence cancelled for life.

No one who falls into a frame of mind that excludes the second pilot from the cabin, even for a single minute, should ever be allowed to be in charge of a passenger plane again. Two weeks suspension is pitiful.

 

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