One sometimes hears, “The only thing faster than a company truck is a rental!” The Canadair Regional Jet 200 (CRJ200) can carry up to 50 passengers and is capable of altitudes greater than 41,000 feet (12,497 metres). Capable of 41,000 feet in the same sense as the average pickup truck is capable of 96 mph (155 km/h) – you can do it, but there’s no valid reason to.
A “repositioning flight” is when a passenger aircraft is moved from one airport to another without passengers. Some pilots see this as an opportunity to fly aggressively and enjoy testing the limits of the airplane. Several accidents prove that sometimes they end up exceeding their own limits.
Having just reached 41,000 feet, the captain told air traffic control, “We don’t have any passengers on board so we decided to have a little fun and come on up here.” The plane impacted the ground less than 25 minutes later.
Long story short, the pilots had made an error by climbing too quickly. They fell behind the energy curve: as the plane slowed, induced drag increased, slowing the plane further. At 41,000 feet, the engines couldn’t produce enough thrust to power the plane out of trouble. Eventually the plane was going so slowly that the engines stopped. They made further errors in following the restart procedure and couldn’t get the engines going again.
The captain had a B.Sc. in aeronautical sciences, had worked as a flight instructor, and had 6,900 hours of flying time, including 5,055 as pilot-in-command. Leaving aside poor judgment, he made fundamental piloting errors and failed to detect those made by his less experienced first officer. It’s difficult to have a true understanding of our own knowledge and abilities, and we usually overestimate them. We need to actively maintain a margin of safety to keep from inadvertently straying over the edge.
The captain initially tried to downplay the seriousness of their predicament by informing air traffic control that only one engine had failed. The situation was therefore misinterpreted as an emergency rather than an EMERGENCY by air traffic control, who could have offered greater assistance. The pilots used up their altitude trying to restart the engines rather than attempting to glide to an airport. How often do we make a situation worse by trying to cover it up so nobody finds out how bad it really is?
As a result of this and several other accidents, repositioning flights are now recognized as a risk and airlines routinely review flight recorder data to look for evidence of improper behaviour (but this only works for those planes legally required to carry flight data recorders). Some trucking fleet operators have installed data recorders on their vehicles in order to perform the same kind of monitoring. This is a reactive approach that may prevent repeat occurrences, but will only deter those who are fearful of being caught. Prisons are full of people who didn’t think they’d get caught.
Thrill seekers often require an audience to witness the incident or to be told about it after. The airline’s pilots had an unofficial club for those who had flown at 41,000 feet. I think this is where we can have the greatest impact, because peer pressure is a powerful motivator. Show your disapproval for unsafe behaviour!