Flight Engineer, in memoriam

Once upon a time, all the planes had 4 people in the flightdeck: Captain, first officer, flight engineer and radio. We can go beyond in history to find the navigator but this can be enough to go to the point. Once pilots started to be proficient enough in English, radio-operator could be redundant. Actually, the operator was making transcriptions from pilots to ATC and from ATC to pilots and every transcription is an opportunity for a mistake. With all my professional respect for radio-operators, their absence in the flight-deck should not be a big issue…assuming that the pilots were proficient enough in the language used to communicate with ATC.

The situation of Flight Engineer was not the same. All the long-haul planes had one and his missions were very well-defined. The surveillance of the engines, fuel consumption, change of fuel tanks to keep center of gravity in the right values and, of course, the analysis of any technical problem in flight were the tasks of the flight engineer.  The first big plane without a flight-engineer was the Airbus A310. Boeing complained heavily but, once they saw that it should be hard to modify this practice, they launched their 757/767 without a flight engineer too.  From that moment, every single plane, whatever the size and range, coming from Airbus or Boeing came without a place for a flight engineer.

Of course, both manufacturers promised that it was not against safety because all of the functions of the flight engineer should be performed by automatic systems and warnings under any abnormal situation. Everyone takes for granted that flight-deck are designed for two people and, if an accident happens, nobody is going to trace it back to the absence of a flight engineer. Proofs?

Let’s speak about Swissair 111: An uncontrolled fire in the flight-deck finished with the crash of a MD-11 full loaded of passengers. The MD11 was the successor of DC10 and, except for the winglets of the first one, they were not easy to distinguish at a first glance. However, it was an important difference between them: The DC10 had a flight engineer and the MD11 did not have one. At the beginning, in flight SW111, the pilots had to look for radio-frequences, runway orientation and lenght and all the information that they needed to land the plane in a fully unknown airport. Of course, at the same time, they had to keep an eye over the emergency and the development of the fire onboard.

Had the same situation happened in a DC10, one of the pilots could fly the plane, the other one could navigate and communicate and the flight engineer could be in charge of the emergency. Nobody can be sure that it should have been enough to save the plane  but it seems to be a much more rational way to manage the emergency and the plane. However, it is surprising that nobody addressed this issue in the investigation of the accident; the absence of a flight engineer was considered as a part of the environment that passed unquestionned…even though a few years before the standard crew was composed of three people in the flight-deck.

It’s not the only case even though it can be the clearest. Another plane, an Airbus A330 of Air Transatt, landed in Azores Islands without fuel onboard and with both engines stopped. We can speak about human error from the pilots but if, instead of an automatic system throwing out fuel to keep the center of gravity in the right place, they should have a flight engineer…should the outcome be the same? Again, nobody tried to trace back this accident to the absence of a flight engineer.

Of course, the present designs should make a flight engineer fully useless, hence nobody can think that the situation can be solved including a flight engineer in modern planes. Simply, there is not place for him, not a physical one and more important, the design does not give a role to him. Probably, that is why nobody tried to raise the issue of the flight engineer; giving the flight engineer a place -a useful one- should mean a radical change of the design in modern planes. It seems that nobody is willing to take that step for the sake of safety and, when an accident happens, it seems better to look to other place instead of raising uncomfortable issues.

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