January, 1990 Colombian Airline Avianca Flight 052
“The weather that night was harsh. At the helm was Captain Laureano Caviedes, a capable and experienced pilot. His equally proficient first officer was Maurino Klotz. Their flight took them from Columbia to Kennedy airport in New York City. It is not uncommon to have airport delays under the terrible weather conditions of that night. 203 flights were delayed at Newark, 200 at LaGuardia, 161 at Philadelphia, 53 at Boston’s Logan airport, and 99 at Kennedy.
“They were flying a 707 jumbo jet, which meant they would be required to use more physical strength than is needed for the classic 747. But these men were highly adept and had flown thousands of hours. This was not going to be a problem for them.”
The man who spoke paused for a moment. He wore a slim white shirt with black buttons all the way up to the dark skin at his neck, and a black tie draped all the way down to the buckle of his belt. He had draped his black jacket beside him. His finger pushed a switch in front of him and the sound of a man’s voice echoed all around him.
Captain Caviedes: The runway. Where is it? I don’t see it. I don’t see it.
“Air Traffic Control instructs the Avianca 052 to abort their first landing attempt and circle New York before the next attempt. Routine.”
Ten seconds of silence.
Caviedes: [to himself] we don’t have fuel…
Seventeen seconds of silence.
“Some technical instructions are given in the cockpit.”
Caviedes: I don’t know what happened with the runway. I didn’t see it.
First officer Maurino Klotz: I didn’t see it.
[ATC]: Avianca Zero-Five-Two make a left turn.
Caviedes: Tell them we are in an emergency!
Klotz: [TO ATC] That’s right to One-Eight-Zero on the heading and, ah, we’ll try once again. We’re running out of fuel.”
“Make a note of that last sentence,” said the man in white. “We’re running out of fuel.” Pencils scratching on notepads replace the sound of his voice. “They are turning away from Kennedy as instructed. Standard. Meanwhile, ATC is finding a landing strip for them.” Then he pushed the button again.
Caviedes: What did he say?
Klotz: I already advise him that we are going to attempt again because we now we can’t…
Four seconds of silence.
Caviedes: Advise him we are in an emergency.
Captain Caviedes: Did you tell him?
Klotz: Yes, Sir. I already advise him.
Klotz: [TO ATC] One-Five-Zero maintaining two thousand Avianca Zero-Five-Two heavy.
“Listen to the tinge of panic in the captain’s voice here.”
Caviedes: Advise him we don’t have fuel!
Klotz: [TO ATC] Climb and maintain three thousand and, ah, we’re running out of fuel, sir.
“Remember, ATC hears the term in passing ‘we’re running out of fuel’ on a daily basis. By definition, a plane reaching its destination would be running out of fuel. Note there is no real urgency in First Officer Klotz’s voice.”
Caviedes: Did you already advise that we don’t have fuel?
Klotz: Yes, sir. I already advise him.
[ATC]: And Avianca Zero-Five-Two heavy, ah, I’m gonna bring you about fifteen miles northeast and then turn you back onto the approach. Is that okay with you and your fuel?
Klotz: I guess so. Thank you very much.
“I guess so? His plane’s fuel tank is empty. He’s a highly experienced first officer. His captain told him they are in an emergency.”
Caviedes: What did he say?
Klotz: The guy is angry.
“First officer Klotz’s feelings are hurt. His plane is out of fuel. At this point the flight attendant enters the cockpit to investigate the situation. According to her testimony later, she claims that the flight engineer makes a throat cutting gesture. And then—astonishingly—there is five minutes of total, complete silence.”
Flight engineer [crying out]: Flameout on engine number four!
Caviedes: Show me the runaway!
“It’s sixteen miles away.”
Thirty six seconds of silence.
[ATC]: You have, ah, you have enough fuel to make it to the airport?
Although the audience was well aware of the outcome to the recording of Colombian Airline Avianca flight 052, there is a moment of eerie silence as the dry crackle from the black box lingers in the hall.
On stage, Ratwatte, a 40-year old Sri Lankan pilot, and a student of plane crashes waits patiently for the men and women to have a moment of respect for the tragic crash.
“73 of the 158 passengers died that night," Ratwatte exclaims, “as they crashed into the home of John McEnroe, the famous father of the tennis legend. The pilots were not drunk. They were experienced. The plane was not damaged. It was in perfect working condition. The controls were not malfunctioning. They were reading correctly. There was no sabotage. There was no incompetence. The Avianca plane simply ran out of fuel and fell from the sky.”
Ratwatte spoke before a crowd of pilots and crew. “For years, this made no sense to me. What bothered me the most was those long stretches of silence.
“Recently, I had a situation occur on a flight I was piloting. A woman was seizing. We figured she was having a stroke. Her husband spoke no English or even Hindu. She was an Indian lady. They looked as though they had just walked off a Punjabi village. At the time I was over Moscow, but I didn’t know what would happen to these people if I landed there. I turned to my first officer and told him to take over the plane. We’ve got to go to Helsinki.
“It was a long flight, so our plane was heavier than planned—60 tons over the max landing weight. There were so many variables—taking care of the lady, talking to the doctor on our direct line to a hospital in the U.S., talking about whether to dump the fuel or land heavy, getting instructions from Helsinki, which was an airport I’d never been to. I had to figure out the performance parameters were I to land heavy, which could cause structural damage. I had to decide whether to dump the fuel over a lake, which would take time that the woman didn’t have. My piloting skills and decision making skills are no different or better than Caviedes. The only difference was this. if you were to listen to a recording of my flight you would have heard absolutely no silence. For forty minutes straight there was constant communication between all my crew, the doctors and ATC in Helsinki.
“I would like to end by making a last point. This is the reason you all are here. Over the next few weeks you will all be trained to speak up in these situations. And to captains, I give you this advice. Belittle yourself. Yes. Belittle yourself.”
There are a few confused looks on the faces of the audience members. “Most of all we train our copilots to speak in an escalating manner, if they are not feeling heard. You see, a captain is the first officer’s boss. And, in a sense, so is Air Traffic Control. Remember how Klotz simply agrees with ATC but never asserts the magnitude of his peril? In his mind he did relay his captain's orders that they were in an emergency. But he did it in a very obsequious manner—the manner of a timid subordinate to a superior, much in the manner that an office worker might nicely ask their boss to review a report over the weekend. They would never say—’Review this now!’ That’s why at our airline our captains belittle themselves to first officers. ‘I’ve never flown this route before. Please point out my mistakes,’ and such.
“We have found in studying plane crashes over the past forty years that a plane is less likely to crash with the first officer at the controls. Why?”
A young first officer with wavy brown hair stands up and says “because the captain would never fear speaking up to his first officer.”
“Precisely. That is why we have developed a linguistic training program. Over your training we are going to teach you to escalate the situation if you even suspect something is amiss. Whether talking to ATC or your captain, we are training all members of the crew to take charge and demand that they are heard. This is a five stage procedure beginning with a suggestion, and ending with a first officer taking over the plane. Captains are not always right. ATC cannot read your minds.
“Since the implementation of this training program, unintentional plane crashes are almost a thing of the past.
“Welcome to Empowerment Training.”