Hero Qantas pilot pays tribute to Neil Armstrong as a master of the machine

by: Chris Griffith From: The Australian -September 13, 2012

WHEN does man override machine?

It was a pertinent question for Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and Qantas pilot Richard de Crespigny, who in 2010 captained a crippled Airbus A380 to safety after an engine exploded mid-air, extensively damaging the aircraft.

Captain De Crespigny paid tribute to Armstrong and his many achievements as he left to attend the late astronaut’s public memorial service — “A Celebration of the Life of Neil Armstrong” — at the Washington National Cathedral tonight.

Captain De Crespigny said he had become friends with Armstrong when the astronaut visited Australia in August last year. The Qantas pilot booked a private cruise on Sydney harbour and arranged for Armstrong to enjoy a two-hour session in the Qantas A380 simulator at Sydney Airport.

“He was 82 and I was worried he might feel intimidated by the latest generation A380 aircraft,” Captain De Crespigny said.

“Neil had not flown for a long time, so I took my father Peter de Crespigny along. At 86, dad still flies his own aircraft, and so I had Neil Armstrong in the left-hand seat and my father in the right. Together they would relax each other and that worked really well.”

The simulator visit was designed to show Armstrong the A380’s “fly-by-wire system”, a technology Armstrong had been instrumental in testing at NASA for the Apollo missions and later adapting them to the space shuttle.

With their friendship forged in Australia, Captain de Crespigny and Armstrong later swapped emails about technical aspects of flying and Armstrong wrote the foreword to the pilot’s account of flight QF32 over Singapore.

“I had questions about the aerodynamics of the airplane that I had on the day, and we’d discuss the technologies and wing design and other things,” Captain de Crespigny said.

“Neil really enjoyed discussing these technical subjects that took him back to his happy days when he test-flew many aircraft.

“I did not discuss Apollo with him at all, because he really didn’t want to discuss Apollo. Apollo was just part of his life.”

Captain De Crespigny said he and Armstrong shared a healthy scepticism of automation and both of them on occasions needed to override it.

“Neil had to abort the auto-land method (on the moon) and take manual control because the selected landing spot was compromised by big boulders.

“So he took over and manually flew his spacecraft to a safe landing and landed with only 20 seconds of fuel remaining. He was trained for this eventuality and the training paid dividends.”

Captain De Crespigny described the parallels during his QF32 incident.

“The A380 has 250,000 sensors and parameters and amazing systems to monitor the aircraft. But on our day there was still not enough sensors to assess what damage we had. We had about 14 fuel leaks in three fuel tanks.

“The computers were trying to give us advice, but sometimes that advice was not helpful and sometimes it even gave incorrect advice.”

In 2007, Captain De Crespigny provided a submission to Airbus requesting it adopt a “spiral descent” that Armstrong had designed in 1959 for the F5 and F15 rockets and that NASA had modified for the space shuttle.

“I asked Neil, ‘Do you mind if I called that spiral the Armstrong Spiral after you.’ He said ‘No’,” Captain de Crespigny said.

“Neil Armstrong did so much more than just land on the moon. The Apollo was only a seven-year project, so Neil should be remembered for his other substantial accomplishments as a test pilot.

“When we farewell Neil Armstrong at Washington on Thursday, we acknowledge the man, husband, father and test pilot who’s probably achieved more for aviation and aerospace than any other person on the planet.”

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