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The cold, hard facts about Flight BA38



In my many years of flying, I have noticed that in the western hemisphere, winter weather is usually worse after the New Year than before. Perhaps the sting is in the tail.

On January 16, 2008, I was operating a Boeing 747-400 flight from Singapore to London-Heathrow. Our night-time departure from Singapore gave us an expected arrival time (ETA) of a few minutes before 6 am on the 17th. The flight was uneventful except for when, somewhere over Austria, we encountered a spell of cold weather at high altitude which made our fuel temperatures drop well below acceptable levels. In my 30-something years as a pilot, this was the first time I experienced such a phenomenon, in this part of the world. Our indication of fuel temperature in the wing tanks (where fuel is mostly carried) turned from the colour green to amber, prompting us to exercise caution. The very low temperatures persisted all the way to London.

When this happens, pilots have two options: either descend to lower altitudes where there is warmer air; or increase the cruising speed, which in turn will increase air compressibility because of a phenomenon called the ‘ram effect’, thereby warming the surrounding air and, as a consequence, the fuel in the wings.

A few months before that incident, while flying a 747-400 cargo (freighter) aircraft from O’Hare Airport, Chicago, USA to Shanghai, China, on a route close to the North Pole, we experienced low fuel temperatures and decided to take the second option of increasing our cruising speed. It took a long time to raise our fuel temperatures to an acceptable level. So, in this latest instance, en route to London, I decided to descend to warmer air. It should be noted that both methods consume more fuel. Being winter, the tail winds were strong and we had made up some time and consumed less fuel than expected, so we could afford to burn extra fuel on the descent to a ‘warmer’ altitude. Apart from that, the flight was uneventful, and we touched down at London Heathrow only about a minute before our 6 am ETA.

After entry formalities were completed, followed by a short ride to our London hotel, I was in bed soon after 8.30 am. I slept soundly until approximately 1 pm. After waking up, as usual I switched on the TV and discovered that there had been a crash of a British Airways Boeing 777 at around midday, near the approach end of Heathrow’s Runway 27L (Left). The aircraft had undershot the runway badly and landed ‘short’, narrowly missing the Hatton Cross Tube Station. It was the first major accident at Heathrow Airport in 30 years.

What could have gone wrong? Were the pilots at fault? I suspected that the unusual low temperatures we experienced that morning may have been a contributory factor in the crash. Anyway, it was too early to tell, and one had to wait until the preliminary report of the Aircraft Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the UK’s Department of Transport to be published. This is their story.

The British Airways (BA) Boeing 777-263 ER (Extended Range), Registration G-YMMM, departed Beijing, China about 6 hours behind our flight. The BA Flight Dispatchers had known that there was a forecast of unusually cold air masses that morning and therefore planned the flight at lower than normal heights to prevent the fuel from being affected by low temperatures. Being not too heavy, for the sake of passenger comfort, throughout the flight high power settings were not used even for climb to intermediate levels. The descent to London had also involved minimum power for a long period. Then, at the last moment of the landing approach (at a height of 720 feet), the two engines which were on automatic thrust lost power (ran down),but did not totally quit. When the First Officer, who was the ‘pilot flying’ (PF) on that sector, opened the throttles to increase power to the required setting, the engines didn’t respond. As a result, the aircraft could not remain on the required glide path and went into a high rate of descent to maintain flying speed, consequently undershooting and touching down heavily on the grass, 330 metres short of the runway’s paved area.

For the more technically minded, the landing approach of an aircraft involves a balance of Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy, and Chemical (Fuel) Energy. While the total of Potential Energy and Kinetic Energy is a constant, Chemical Energy in variable amounts has to be used to overcome the drag created by wheels and flaps when they are extended to maintain safe flight at slow speeds (e.g. on descent and approach before landing). In fact, when it became apparent that the situation was hopeless and the aircraft was undershooting, the captain, watching helplessly in horror, quickly reduced the flap setting to reduce the drag.

On touching down with a high sink rate, the undercarriage collapsed, and the aircraft slid forward a short distance before stopping. After it stopped there was considerable leakage of fuel from both engines, but fortunately no fire. The 16 crew members and nearly all 135 passengers suffered either minor injuries or none at all. However, one passenger did incur serious injuries when a wheel mounting pierced the cabin floor as a result of the heavy ground impact. One minute and 42 seconds after the crash alarm was sounded by the control tower, emergency crews were at the crash site. (See picture 2)

Subsequently, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) UK took over the accident investigation. With the use of the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) (collectively called, inaccurately, the ‘black box’ – they are actually contained in Day-Glo orange casings to facilitate location and retrieval amongst the wreckage) they were able to reconstruct the flight, including the last few moments before the crash. As engine power was not available when demanded by the throttle inputs, it was suspected that there was some obstruction to the fuel flow into the engines. The AAIB had to simulate low temperatures and fuel flows while conducting the research.

Research done on both sides of the Atlantic more than 50 years ago showed that jet fuel (a form of kerosene), when subjected to temperatures below freezing, becomes waxy and sticky. Furthermore, it is near impossible to drain all the naturally occurring water in the fuel tanks. After flying for a while in sub-zero temperatures, the fuel becomes ‘cold soaked’. Then, upon landing at the next airport, warm, humid air enters the relatively empty tanks through the air vents, and because of the presence of cold fuel, condensation occurs inside the fuel tanks, forming water droplets. Being of higher density, water will then drip and pool at the bottom of the tanks, where most of it could be physically drained by the ground engineers. However, some of the water inevitably remains and turns into ice crystals at low temperature on the next flight. It was determined by the AAIB that these were the two most likely ‘culprits’.

During the Board’s extensive investigation, it was observed that all aircraft fuel systems were designed based on this outdated research. Today’s aircraft engines, such as the Rolls-Royce Trent 800 series, which power the Boeing 777, are much larger and expected to operate for longer hours in sub-zero temperatures.

In its final report the AAIB made 18 safety-related recommendations. After which, the main component whose design was changed was the Fuel Oil Heat Exchanger (FOHE). Before entering the engine, cold fuel was heated with hot engine oil in the FOHE. (See picture 3)

In the FOHE, cold fuel was sent through tubes with hot oil from the engine circulating around them. The design of the tubes was such that they were protruding by about 4mm, not flush with face of the FOHE. When tested in the lab, it was found that this trapped and accumulated the waxy fuel, along with ice crystals in the fuel, on top of the tubes, thereby effectively blocking them. (See picture 4)

The AAIB investigation identified the following probable causal factors that led to the fuel flow restrictions:

1) Accreted ice from within the fuel system was released, causing a restriction to the engine fuel flow at the face of the FOHE on both engines.

2) Ice had formed within the fuel system, from water that occurred naturally in the fuel, whilst the aircraft operated with low fuel flows over a long period and the localised fuel temperatures were in an area described as the ‘sticky range’.

3) The FOHE, although compliant with the applicable certification requirements, was shown to be susceptible to restriction when presented with soft ice in a high concentration, with a fuel temperature that is below -10°C and a fuel flow above flight idle.

4) Certification requirements, with which the aircraft and engine fuel systems had to comply, did not take account of this phenomenon as the risk was unrecognised at that time.

“A chain is as strong as its weakest link.” The FOHE certainly was a weak link, which was accepted by Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

An intercontinental jet aircraft has thousands of components certified by the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and must be proved to be fail-safe: a practically impossible task. Therefore, a given component is introduced to service when the authorities feel it is basically safe, and carry out rectification/modification of components when problems occur during service.

Many years ago Ralph Nader highlighted in his book ‘Collision Course’ the truth about air safety, that human life is quantified at $1,000,000/- each by the aircraft manufacturers. If a modification costs more in dollar terms than the amount of people it is meant to save, then such a modification is considered not viable. But that’s another story!

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Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka



By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.


The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.


At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!



Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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