Letters to the Editor

Subject: Swissair 111 accident
From: Victor Herkoian

As an ATP pilot, do you think if the MD-11 aircraft had been a three-member cockpit crew, the outcome would have been different? It is my opinion that all commercial heavy airliners should have a 3-member crew as a cushion for safety, in case of an emergency.


 No. I cannot see, in light of the limited knowledge we now have, that a third pilot/engineer would have made any difference. It didn't help in eight of those past in-flight fire accidents recently posted (Inflight Fires), that had three-pilot crews. To the contrary, four of those which had only two-pilot crews managed to land safely (the Air Canada DC-9 had fatalities after landing). When an in-flight fire is so bad that it will burn thru critical controls/structures or asphyxiate the crew, the thing that counts is how fast you can get it on the ground. The plane can descend as fast with two pilots as it can with three. Historically, the accident rate has continued to decline despite the transition from 3-pilot to 2-pilot crews. That makes it very difficult to argue that costs associated with a 3rd pilot/engineer would be a wise expenditure.

As to workload in an emergency, it does get pretty high. However, the state of technology and automation has made it much less than it was in the old DC-6 days. I think my workload was much higher, with 3 pilots on a DC-6, than it is today with two on a B-777 or B-747, because so many former tasks are now automated.


The B-777 has one key on its FMC/CDU labeled "alternate." If you punch that key, it will show you the four closest alternate airports, what time you would arrive at each and how much fuel will be left (without dumping). Then, when you select one, it will put in a direct course and the autopilot will take you there.

We used to have to put a lot of time into controlling the pressurization system. Now, it is fully automated. The computer knows the altitude of whatever airport you select and will automatically program and control the cabin rate of descent to arrive at the right altitude and at the right time. You don't have to touch anything other than to set a new destination.

Safety Dollars

The amount of dollars that can be spent on improving safety is limited and finite. To make significant improvements in airlines safety, it is imperative that those finite expenditures be made in areas that will produce the most "bang for the buck," i. e., the most lives saved per dollar spent. Currently, the airlines are spending hundreds of millions for the installation of enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS) and improved wind shear warning systems, that give better notice than in the past. Those two improvements address the year-after-year cause of the majority of worldwide airline fatalities and, in my opinion, will save the most lives per dollar spent.

If we were to spend enormous sums on a third cockpit crewmember (pilot/engineer – additional salary, fringe benefits and retirement costs), because it may provide a slight potential increase in safety, we would be doing so at the expense of other safety improvements that we know will save many lives.

October, 1998

Robert J. Boser    

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