My Journey: Richard de Crespigny, the pilot in command of the QF32
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My Journey: Richard de Crespigny, the pilot in command of the QF32
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Richard Champion de Crespigny AM is an Airbus A380 pilot at Qantas.  Exactly 10 years ago, on 4 November 2010, he was the pilot in command of Qantas Flight 32, an Airbus A380 that suffered an uncontained engine failure four minutes after departing Singapore. The crew’s exceptional teamwork ensured a successful emergency landing back at Changi 

You’ve written about how you were attracted to aviation at a young age. At what point did you say to yourself: “That’s what I want to do with my career.”? 

In my early teens, I initially wanted to join an airline. However, in the recession of the early 1970s, about 30% of pilots were unemployed. 

I was told aviation is a (10-15 year) cyclical industry, so I then decided to go to the Royal Australian Air Force and revisit my Qantas career decision 10 years later. 

I always wanted a backstop for protection, so I was only interested in joining the RAAF Academy (to obtain a bachelor of science degree first) and not just join the RAAF as a direct entry pilot. 

The thing that cemented in my mind that I wanted a RAAF career was a visit I had to the RAAF Academy when I was 14 years of age.  The sight of the highest tech computers, engineering, aerodynamics and astronomy at the Academy stirred my passions and left indelible memories of where I wanted to steer my life.  

You joined the RAAF aged 17. Looking back, how did the two careers compare? 

Airline jobs are just that. They are employment opportunities for people with satisfactory flying skills that are transferrable to other airlines worldwide. Airlines do not teach people to fly, they convert licensed pilots to specific aircraft then help them maintain those skills.   Once you join an airline, career development and resilience are your responsibilities. 

The air force is a lifestyle. The military owns you 24/7/365. The military trains its leaders to be resilient team leaders with discipline and impeccable personal qualities. It’s hard work, but with your military colleagues, you become a tight band of brothers. The bonds created in the air force are seldom broken. 

Don’t join the military to obtain a free flying licence – because the benefit is not worth the effort. Join the military if you want to fly exciting leading-edge aircraft and be trained throughout your career to become the best you can be (physically and mentally).  

Most people know you for that incident in 2010 on QF32, almost exactly 10 years ago. How did that day change your life? 

The QF32 event changed my (and my wife Coral’s) life forever.  Before 4 November 2010, I was a quiet and average A380 pilot who had completed 30% of my first-planned book about the design, certification and how to fly big jets. 

QF32 put me on a global platform where I can discuss and influence others in specific areas of aviation, but more generally to everyone about the elements of personal, corporate and national resilience. 

I wrote two best-selling books. 

QF32 (2012) was the first book that detailed my biography and then details (WHATs) of the QF32 event. When you read my biography, it becomes apparent that my past life training and experiences were pivotal in contributing (along with my team members) to the successful outcome of the QF32 event. 

My second book FLY! (2018) is about the elements of resilience – leaning how to absorb and grow from crises. Writing FLY! was a mammoth task, integrating all the knowledge I had acquired in my career with additional expansive research. Resilience is a massive topic, and I am pleased with FLY!, that is now a study reference in schools and universities for MBA, leadership and crisis management courses. 

Today, although temporally inhibited by Covid-19, Coral and I travel the world where I discuss the elements of resilience to governments, corporations and defence forces. 

After 10 years of exciting distractions, I still have three more books to write.  

In your book QF32 you spell out in detail how cooperation and pooling skills on the flight deck helped you avoid disaster. How important is crew resource management, and how can the industry get better at it? 

CRM was not just a critical determinant in the success of QF32, CRM is also a vital aspect of our personal behaviours we need to survive and thrive in life. 

It’s for these reasons that I think it’s time to advance from using the term CRM (captain/cockpit/crew resource management) to using the more encompassing term human factors. 

Human factors encompass all fields of human condition and performance and have four components:  

  • Human systems/characteristics, 

  • Human performance, 

  • External factors affecting humans, and 

  • Human interfaces (ergonomics). 

The good news is that human factors studies have relevance to every aspect of personal, corporate, national and even our existential resilience. 

Industries can improve their human factors skills by first understanding the basics of neuroscience that underpin all our human factors, then learning the elements of resilience. 

Finally, every person needs to understand post-traumatic stress, what it is, how it’s a vital component for our survival, and how to recover from it when it persists too long. Be assured – every one of you will experience PTS some time in your life.  When it happens to you, be prepared, know how to respond, and know that there can be growth from trauma. I cover all these topics in FLY! 

In the mid-1980s, you had a spell out of the industry after leaving Qantas because of the recession. How tough was that so early in your career? 

It was not tough, it was exciting! This is a truism in life – when your work is your hobby, you never have to work another day in your life.  And to succeed in something you need passion, discipline and execution. I directed my passion from flying into computers. 

I left the airline for two years because, after five years in Qantas, I needed another challenge. Just like I had normalised my RAAF lifestyle, my airline life was becoming normalised and I needed another challenge in my life. 

I thought of resigning from Qantas, but a good friend told me never to give up my day job to start a new company. That was exceptional advice, so I stayed in Qantas, took two years off, kept my 747-400 licence current in the Qantas simulator and together with Coral, built up our (Aeronaut Industries) computer business.  At the end of the two-year break, Coral took control of Aeronaut and I returned to flying and research.  

What advice would you give a young pilot today, either hoping to enter the industry or finding him or herself without a job in the current crisis? 

Every pilot must have an alternate career in case they lose their medical, flying licence or their airline becomes insolvent. 

The act of creating an alternate career is an act of mitigating threats, an act we call managing risk. If you are a pilot without an alternate career, then you have an unmitigated threat, that we then call a gamble. Rule number one in resilience is to: “Never take a gamble that can kill you”. 

I have empathy and feel sad for everyone who is out of a job due to Covid-19. 

If your training is delayed due to Covid-19, then fear not.   Pandemics, like the aviation industry, are cyclical things, so a full industry recovery from Covid, is from a few to 10 years away. Use this down-time constructively – don’t waste it.  Join the military, start a university course, or obtain a trade. 

If you are young, unemployed and a pilot, then this is a lesson in threat and error management (resilience) that you should act upon to mitigate in future (see above). 

If you are older and unemployed, then you must commit to constructive destruction and a lifetime of continual learning.  Adapt and develop your skills to ensure you remain relevant and employable. Welcome disruption! When the winds of change blow, build windmills to harness them, not walls to resist them. 

All of these lessons, and more, are contained in the FLY! – the Elements of Resilience. 

As of October 2020, the Australian commercial passenger aviation industry has been crushed down to less than 5% aircraft utility.  I and most of my colleagues have been stood down with no airline income since April.   Our 747 and A380 aircraft have been disposed/hibernated in storage at Victorville, USA. 

Covid has terminated my professional flying career. 

I have always advised people to develop their elements of resilience.  Two years ago in FLY! I wrote: 

“Younger pilots, who worked hard to become junior pilots on the A380 also risk being left behind.   Their careers, which started with piston engines, will transition through jets, rockets, composites, new fuels, unstable designs and hypersonic and space travel/ Within 50 years they will have to accommodate the introduction of pilotless commercial passenger aircraft.  Those who resist change will end up in a Victorville of their own making.” 

Finally, aviation has doubled every 15 years since 1975.  So in the back of your minds, consider aviation returning to normal once we have a Covid vaccine, the boarders open and we trust others to remain healthy. 

Finally, you’ve flown both the A380 and the 747 for Qantas. How do the two queens of the sky compare? 

The 747 and A380 are both wonderful aircraft. 

The 747 was a phenomenal success in engines, airframes, size and technology.  The 747-400 was optimised for 11 hour flights. 

Every product has a lifecycle. So it is with the 747, that has a very high (37.5 degree) wing sweep, conventional materials, and conventional flight controls. The B747 would never match up against the newer passenger fly by wire competitors. 

The A380 is a phenomenal aircraft optimised for 12 hour flights between major hubs.   It has extraordinary aerodynamics (33.5 degree wing sweep), exceptional FBW systems, and is still the quietest big commercial passenger jet aircraft in the sky. 

The A380 has 60% more wing area than the 747 wing.  But the flow and CG controls on the A380 means that the wave (shock) drag and trim (stabiliser) drags are fractions of the same on the B747. 

After flying the 747s/A330s/A380s for 18/4/12 years respectively, my views on the controversial questions are: 

FBW is cheaper and nine times safer than non-FBW. 

I prefer the sidestick to the legacy yoke (feedback would make the sidestick even better). 

I prefer fixed-throttles (to moving thrust levers) in aircraft (such as the A380) that have highly responsive auto thrust systems. The 747 does not have a highly responsive auto thrust system. 

Automation makes aircraft harder to fly, not easier.  Every pilot must be confident to recover their aircraft from any state, whether it’s stalled, inverted, spinning or on fire.  The problem is that more effort is needed to dissect and learn the newer more complex electronic jets than the older and more simple designs.  And our resilience reduces when we become complacent and fail to know our aircraft down to their most basic parts.  The increasing proportion of inflight accidents due to loss of control, highlights this sad state of safety. Except for the cases in a most unlikely event, a pilot can never blame his machine. 

Why did the A380 programme fail, in your opinion? 

The A380 failed commercially for three reasons: 

It was disrupted by the lighter and more modern 787 and A350 twins that are more economical. These aircraft exhibit better materials, airframes, aerodynamics, engines, purchase and maintenance costs. EROPs is no longer an effective restriction for modern big jets. 

The A380’s hub-busting capability was countered by the increasing frequency of point-to-point flights using lighter twins. In this regard, the benefit of the A380’s 853 seating capability arrived 15 years too early. 

Finally, and this is a very technical concept, the A380 is overwinged.  The A380 is too heavy to be efficient in the gasses (with their corresponding speed of sound) in our atmosphere.   Every flying thing, from mosquitoes to pelicans, to jumbos and A380s have wings, with a corresponding wing loading that ideally should increase with weight.  Suffice to summarise that the A380 optimum cruise was slowed down to 0.86 to reduce the Mach-drag increase. So the A380 has a wing that is too large, with a corresponding too-low wing loading) when compared to the optimum values.   This low wing loading puts the A380 as an outlier on the ideal wing-loading vs weight graph. 

QF32, Pan MacMillan, 2012 (The WHATs of QF32)   Order signed copies from QF32.com 

FLY! - The Elements of Resilience, Penguin, 2018, (The HOWs and WHYs of Resilience). Order signed copies from  FLY-theBook.com 

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