PM Khan’s plane ‘U-Turn’ was a ‘standard operating procedure’ in aviation

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flight takes a U-TURN while sensing a technical fault. There’s a lesson for us to learn; being preemptive is an act of bravery.

Rafiq Jan (Doha, Qatar)

Much has been said and written in blogs about what happened to Prime Minister’s plane. I personally believe that, ethically and under my professional obligation, I am not supposed to discuss such information which is not for a common person’s interest. But having said that I still feel that Pakistani media houses are keen on relating different concocted stories from foreign magazines to this incident which, in the aviation world, is not unique.

The Government of Pakistan’s emphatic denial of the fake news published in a magazine on the subject must be considered to end all gossip.

The plane, called BOEING 737-800NG, was parked at the highly secured parking zone designated only for the heads of states’ airplanes parking.  All the airports of the world have high definition video surveillance cameras monitoring the entire airport. Those cameras can accurately capture the face close-ups of the people working around the airplanes as well as entering or leaving them.

This plane, too, had been under a heavy guard all the time from the time of arrival until the departure.

As highlighted in the white squares in the pictures of Boeing 737 cockpit, let me give an overview of what those screens do:

These two screens, along with an integral alphanumeric keyboard, are called FMS CDUs (Flight Management System-Control and Display Units). The function of this system is to guide the plane right from the parking up to the destination airport, including the landing time, landing on the run way, and much more. Its major function is to get the input of the present position from the pilots at the time of the start of flight. So, the details of the departure airport, the departure runway data, outside temperature, in-flight weather conditions, total weight of the airplane, quantity of the uplifted fuel, are all displayed here etc.

The major data entry that makes it an important instrument for pilots’ assistance is called entry of “way points”. Those are the landmarks along the intended airplane route towards the selected destination.

The screen, FMS CDU, is coupled with various external sensors but the major input sensor of this is satellite data received from all the satellites and the ground stations to continuously compute the route progress and display the date to the pilots. This instrument, in fact, is the heart of the airplane’s flight navigation system because it carries all the intended route information, including the progress, remaining fuel, airports information along the intended route, all the emergency airport numbers, and the vital information data stored in the main FMS computer inside.

It is important to highlight the redundancy of all the modern-day airplanes’ systems that guide and control them. These days almost all the important information, communication, navigation, flight control systems, and the related caution and warning systems are not only duplicated, they are rather triplicated to give the flight crew an added peace of mind in case one system fails.

There are rare occasions that all the duplicated or triplicated systems fail simultaneously. I haven’t encountered any such incident in my personal experience so far. The failures are acceptable to continue the flights in commercial revenue flights but for Heads of States’ VVIP planes, not a single failure is acceptable in any case. There are no generic rules applicable to VIP flights all over the world.

That day on that Saudi Royal plane, the FMS CDU screens (both) started flickering after a few hours of takeoff. This, as I mentioned earlier, is not usual and even if related to the computer’s glitch, cannot be taken as casual on such high-profile flights. The navigation aids which this system receives from satellites and ground stations are of utmost importance over the Atlantic Ocean because there are no ground stations to provide en-route navigation information to the airplanes. So, this FMS CDU becomes the sole provider of all the route guidance to the pilots along the intended route.

Once the screens start developing fault, the pilots, as per their organization’s policies, don’t take any chances. So, this Royal airplane’s pilots did the same by sensing the fault as ominous and immediately decided to inform the Prime Minister to return to the departure airport; the JFK airport.

The reason for return to New York is obvious. High value dignitary on board must be taken back safely where the flight started. New York airport was already amid VIP movements in those days and there was absolutely no issue of managing such emergencies by the country’s authorities.

The faulty system was under a “high profile” investigation by Boeing Technical team in Seattle Washington and is reported to have been resolved now.

My professional advice to Pakistani journalist, politicians, and all the national stakeholders is that this is not the first time such an incident has happened. Let’s not vent our furies based on our political biases to make this landmark visit of Prime Minister a controversial one. I paraphrase the statement of Imran khan that U-TURNS are necessary at times. I fully endorse his views and, as an aviation expert, will say that the airplanes are designed to maneuver to avert the disasters to reach safely at the destinations.

The author is an Aviation Expert and Political Analyst

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