Hualien Air Force Base was originally scheduled to open its doors to the public this month, with an air show as the main event. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was canceled. Air show fans are up in arms, but this might actually be a good thing.
The air force base lies on the slope of a mountain and faces the sea. This means that a mountain range forms the backdrop to air shows held at the base, rather than blue skies. In humid weather, the emerald green of the mountains is the perfect foil for the white vapor trails, and the scene allows for fantastic photographs. The majestic backdrop is also why air show enthusiasts scramble to buy tickets and secure accommodation well in advance of the show.
However, the low-altitude, high-risk flying maneuvers are mostly just for entertaining the crowds and have little to no real-world application in relation to combat preparation. Aside from making high g-force turns, all the elements of an aerobatic display are useless when encountering enemy aircraft.
However, as the public’s appetite increases, the pilots fly lower and lower, the afterburners become louder and louder, and the official commentary becomes over the top. Any slight hesitation or misjudgement on the part of the pilot and it would only take about two seconds for the aircraft to crash into the ground. If an accident were to occur, would the public yet again blame the air force?
The regular openings of Hualien Air Force Base to the public should be abolished. The fuel burned during an air show would be much better used for intercepting China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft.
How dangerous is low-altitude flying? The crash of a Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter at Hsinchu Air Force Base on July 16 during the Han Kuang military exercises is an illustrative example.
Initial reports in Chinese-language media said that the crash occurred as a result of a “hard landing.” The use of this particular wording implies that minor damage was suffered as a result of improper piloting. In reality, the helicopter was destroyed, and both the pilot and copilot lost their lives.
Video footage of the incident showed that the aircraft was in free fall as the pilots were unable to make a controlled descent.
Anyone with a basic understanding of air safety management knows that a hard landing or a crash caused by a stall are entirely different.
In international air accident investigation parlance, a “controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)” refers to an unintentional collision with terrain while the pilot still has control of the aircraft.
There has been much debate about the precise definition of a CFIT incident, but the main difference between a CFIT and a loss-of-control accident is that when a CFIT occurs, the pilot still has control of the aircraft, but has lost control of the terrain and overall situation.
This could be due to a number of reasons, including a failure to detect an obstacle, a loss of perception or failing to take corrective measures in a timely manner, resulting in a crash into terrain, such as a mountain, a body of water or another obstacle.
I have personally been involved in a number of search and rescue missions and accident investigations in mountainous areas. Especially accident investigations are extremely complex and tedious.
The required team comprises the flight mission team, flight managers, maintenance and repair specialists, medical officers and meteorologists. The team starts by analyzing audio transcripts, looking for clues from prompts by ground control and drawing an aeronautical chart of the aircraft’s route from takeoff up until the crash, measuring angles and simulating maneuvers.
The team also collects witness statements, pours through the aircraft’s maintenance history and ascertains whether the pilot was flying on an empty stomach or had recently been taking any medication. All of these elements must be laboriously pieced together, and it might take several months to compile a conclusive investigation report.
The principles pilots follow during an emergency response are: maintain control of the aircraft, determine the cause of failure, take corrective measures and land as quickly as possible.
Whether pilots are able to stay calm and adaptable during a life-or-death situation is the final stage of assessment during an aspiring pilot’s basic training: It is a simple pass or fail.
Fighter pilot training is preparation for battle. The authenticity of the training means that, like in battle, casualties are inevitable.
Opening the doors of Hualien Air Force Base to the public as a way to promote and showcase the military’s work is understandable. The public has high expectations for its military, but it should provide moderate encouragement instead of harsh criticism when things go wrong.
The media should also stop describing an “out of control” crash as a “hard landing” — that is no different from talking about “overbuying” instead of “smuggling.”
Chang Chien-chang is a retired colonel of the Republic of China Air Force Reserve.
Translated by Edward Jones
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