James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Airlines

  • A Pilot Treated for Depression, on Why and How He Flies

    "For a young pilot who is looking for a career in the industry, the low-cost market is not a viable long-term option. Many of us are burning out because our employers are treating us in the same way that they treat the aeroplanes." A European pilot on ramifications of the Germanwings crash.

    The cover of the online questionnaire for pilots taking medical exams ( Federal Aviation Administration )

    Previously on this topic, see "Could the Crash Have Been Avoided?", "Pilots on Germanwings," "More From Pilots and Doctors," and "Can We Learn Anything From This Disaster?" Herewith more responses from pilots, technologists, and others involved with aviation-safety issues.

    1) "They are treating us the way they treat the aeroplanes." A professional pilot originally from England writes:

    I am a Captain with a major European low-cost airline. Over the course of my airline career, I have had my medical suspended on three occasions because of various issues.

    The first was when, as a new first officer I developed a depression/anxiety disorder because of a combination of stress and fatigue. The second was [X years ago] when again I was suffering from chronic fatigue brought on by low-cost rostering and the third (which is still ongoing) most recently when I was diagnosed with mild sleep apnea.

    On each occasion, I had to deal with both run-of-the-mill aviation medical examiners as well as the UK CAA's [counterpart to FAA] own in-house consultants/specialists. Whilst the AME's [Aviation Medical Examiners] had little option but to throw the matter upstairs, the consultants (when I finally got to see them) could not have been more helpful. Their attitude seemed to be more along the lines of "let's see what we can do to get you back in the air." They provided guidance and advice on how best to get treated/ diagnosed effectively and showed a great deal of pragmatism when it came to evaluating the more subjective or grey areas in the data that was available to them.

    So whilst it is probably true that most pilots view many of the aviation medical professionals that they deal with as "looking for an excuse to ground them," at a regulatory level my experience so far has been exactly the opposite. Obviously I guess this would vary according to the nature of the illness.

    On a more general note, I would say that for a young pilot who is looking for a career in the industry, the low-cost market is not a viable long-term option. Many of us are burning out and permanently losing our medicals long before the age of retirement purely because of the way that our employers are treating us in the same way that they treat the aeroplanes. If we are not flying, we are not generating revenue. The attempts by pilots' unions to raise this issue have been met with contempt by the mainstream media.

    2) Not all depressed people are dangerous. From a reader who is not a pilot.

    The thing that is most upsetting, to me, is the media coverage immediately jumping on the "He's depressed! That's why he did it! Ban all depressed pilots!" wagon.

    I have depression, and with medication and therapy, I am pretty neurotypical. Depression is very treatable like that.

    A well-treated, well-supported individual is as dangerous to others as any neurotypical person.

    If a psychological diagnosis is what bans a pilot from his work, it's not going to stop depressed pilots from flying; it's just going to make pilots more likely to avoid seeking treatment at all.

    Moreover, what this pilot did isn't typical of depression--we tend to commit suicide, not mass homicide.

    Research tends to show suicidal impulses of depressed patients often comes from feelings of guilt: "I'm hurting people with my continued existence. Everyone would be better off without me." The thought is to end the suffering of others, not to cause it!

    It is very rare for someone with major depression to want to become a mass murderer, and in such cases, it's not the depression driving their impulse to kill but some other co-morbid disorder.

    But mental illness is so stigmatized, any diagnosis is used to comprehend an incomprehensible act—like people trying to blame autism spectrum disorder for Adam Lanza murdering small children at school. It's an easy answer to give [to] satisfy a complex question. But it's not correct, and it's quite damaging.

    The truth is, we will never know what was going through his mind when he decided to commit a mass murder-suicide. We can speculate, but pinning it on a psychological condition is only doing harm, driving away from help those who need it.

    3) Better screening is possible. From an American psychologist:

    I saw this in a BBC article:

    "All pilots must undergo regular medical checks that include a cursory psychological evaluation, according to Dr. Hans-Werner Teichmueller, the agency's [German Aviation Medical Practitioners Association] head. But such tests rely on patients being honest with their doctors, and even a seriously mentally unstable person would have been able to put a ‘mask' on for the investigation, he said.

    "You can't see anything beyond the face," Teichmueller said. "We have developed a very refined system in Europe and most of us are in agreement that this system is optimal. If we were to add more psychological tests or modify the way we test, then we can still not change a situation like this."

    Very German. Very arrogant. And very, very wrong. Using the best available psychological tests as part of a thorough psychological assessment is as much art as science—psychologists frequently disagree about how a certain score should be interpreted—but highly skilled psychologists who have extensive experience in this area do it every day.

    The process, which is labor-intensive, isn’t cheap, and except for extreme cases (of which Lubitz was apparently one) the results are usually probabilistic, which makes the question of what to do about a particular case a nasty one. But that’s very different than saying that “Even a seriously mentally unstable person would have been able to put a ‘mask’ on for the investigation” or that “if we were to add more psychological tests or modify the way we test, then we can still not change a situation like this.”

    4) Why European airlines work the way they do. From a reader who objects to American huffiness concerning European standards.

    There is a certain type of American transportation expert who falls into the posture of reproaching Europe for being geographically compact, and not adopting certain American systems of transportation which are justified by American distances.

    For example, Europe has a system of continuous canals connecting its many rivers, viz: the Rhone, Garrone, Loire, Seine, Meuse, Rhine, Ems, Elbe, Oder, Vistula (*), and Danube; and the associated ports, viz. Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Stettin, Danzig, Copenhagen, and Istanbul.

    Over Europe's restricted distances, barges of coal, grain, cement, and containers full of inexpensive Chinese exports, moving at, say fifteen miles per hour, nonetheless reach their destinations in a reasonable time. These are of course the kinds of cargoes which represent nearly all of the revenue of American railroads, and a certain type of American railroad expert simply cannot understand why the Europeans are not running drag freights, clogging  up the tracks and making it impossible to run fast trains.

    European railroads make their living by providing passenger service, and carrying the kind of high-speed priority freight which would be air freight in the United States. The implication is that there is much less scope in Europe for things like puddle-jumpers and local air freight.

    (*) There is also a canal across the Pripet Marshes, linking the Vistula with the Dneiper, and eventually with the Volga, but of course, by this time, one is getting into Russian distances which approximate North American distances.

    European airlines started Ab Initio [JF: training people with no previous flying experience as future airline pilots] programs precisely because they did not have large globally aggressive air forces feeding them experienced jet pilots, and they did not have large "barnstorming" general aviation sectors.

    I understand that low-cost European airlines tend to be dependent on "sun-tourism," that is, flying people who are fed up with winter to some place where there is sun ... This is a very cost-sensitive market, for which going somewhere by bus might often be a reasonable alternative. The tourists don't necessarily want warm weather—what they want is an escape from the depressing sleet, rain, and fog of winter in an oceanic climate. Quite possibly, they might accept a ski-trip in the Alps as a substitute.

    The unstable young man was the copilot of an airliner carrying a hundred and fifty sun-tourists, because that was the first economic niche in which he could be employed.

  • Can We Learn Anything From the Germanwings Disaster?

    A technologist says the day of airliners flown by remote control is closer than we think. Is that good news or bad? Plus, why it's better to be a co-pilot and other lessons from the latest crash.

    Predator drones being controlled remotely, in a USAF photo from Iraq. Might airliners ever be flown the same way? ( Wikimedia Commons )

    Previously on this topic, see "Could the Crash Have Been Avoided?", "Pilots on Germanwings," and "More From Pilots and Doctors." Here is the next crop:

    1) Bruce Holmes, a lifelong flyer and former career official at NASA, is one of the genuine pioneers of modern aviation. I described him and his work at length in my book Free Flight, and in the years since then, he's become a friend.  He sends a message about the technological implications of this disaster:

    Could this be avoided?: In certain statistical ways, the Germanwings suicide crash is a "Black Swan" event—imagined, but not anticipated (with a nod to Nassim Taleb). It is a little like forecasting earthquakes—not done on any practical timescales but done reasonably well on geologic time scales (as described in "The Signal and The Noise" by Nate Silver).  

    The fact of the matter is that we need to react on practical, not geologic, time scales. To that end, my remarks have to do with the emerging capabilities to turn the airplane into an equivalent of a node on the Internet. While this is scary and promising in the same breath, I will speak to the promising facet.

    The industry is within not too many months of having the first commercial deployment of true broadband air-to-ground WiFi capability (far beyond the performance of current purveyors of email in the sky), making the "connected airplane" a reality. In addition, the industry is not too many months from having the computational means for assessing flight path optimality and conformance (in both safety and economic terms) very rapidly (in "fast-time" as we like to say in the tech business).  

    We imagined such a capability back in the days of the AGATE program at NASA [JF note: a program to bring modern technology to civilian aviation, described in my book]; now these capabilities are becoming reality.  

    So here is the scenario: Pilot goes rogue, for whatever reason. Airplane is irrevocably connected on the Internet (actually Intranet, with necessary security features). Airplane begins to perform in ways not aligned with logic (plenty of modern engineering tools available, such as Bayesian Belief Networks, to compute this assessment). Ground-control systems recognize the deviation and under parameters that project "something bad appears to be happening," control is taken over by those ground systems.  

    Sidebar: After 9/11, NASA Langley conducted a successful flight demonstration at the behest of the White House of such a capability using our B-757 flight-test aircraft. Such a system was not previously implemented because the air-to-ground networked bandwidth systems and flight-path-management computational capabilities did not exist. Soon these systems will exist.  

    The benefits of solving this problem range from the obvious (eliminating the rogue-in-the-cockpit scenario), to the not so obvious—that is, obviating the need for secure doors on the cockpit and making it possible for every 10-year-old girl or boy who might be inspired by an opportunity to see what happens in the front of the airplane a chance to do so.

    2) Don't blame the $99 fare. A number of readers write in to protest an earlier comment, from Adam Shaw in this post, that the relentless drive to cut costs in air travel was shaving the margin in pilot qualifications. A sample dissent:

    I think there's some good points your correspondent makes here, but I think it exaggerates the importance of lower pilot salaries to low-cost airlines.

    Low-cost carriers base their business on using smaller regional airports, packing more passengers on board, avoiding money-losing routes, having simple low-maintenance fleets, and flying their planes for more hours of the day. A cheaper wage bill helps but those are the key factors.

    Staff costs clearly are a big part of airline costs—mostly around 20 percent-25 percent—but while pilots are the best-paid employees outside of head office they're a small part of the workforce. Qantas, the airline I know best, has nearly 30,000 employees but only a bit more than 2,000 pilots—and a number of those aren't even working for the airline, but on "leave" that allows them to work for rival carriers.

    I think as journalists we tend to think pilot pay is a really big deal for low-cost airlines because it's the battleground for a big political fight that plays out in the media. Airlines want to weaken regulation in the area because it's part of their cost base (unlike, say, oil prices) where their actions can make a difference. And unlike, say, route planning and reduced turn times, changes to the current status quo yield clear losers who will make their case to journalists. Losers who, in this case, are heroic figures in peaked caps.

    For what it's worth I think your correspondent is right to deplore any decline in standards for commercial pilots—the huge respect in which the industry is held derives in large part from a safety record that is born of its heavy regulation.

    But I think if he's seeking someone to blame, it shouldn't be the punters seeking $99 airfares—if those prices can survive $150 oil, they can certainly survive higher pilot pay—but the companies, lobbyists, and legislators allowing that regulation to be watered down.

    Similarly:

    I really need to take issue with your implicit (via highlighting) endorsement of the statement that "when people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A."...

    The simplistic idea that the market determines everything we get (and so, deserve) is easily challenged. While we might, in fact, "get what we pay for" (though even that trope is suspect), we frequently don't get the price-driven result we want. Otherwise, we would likely be reading equally simplistic statements about how the reason we have cars with no seat belts, no passive restraints, no pollution controls, etc. is because we insist on having a $5,000 car...

    In fact there is infinitely more desire for that $5k car than there is for the $99 flight, and eliminating or watering down all the government specs for safety and environmental impact would go a long way toward meeting that desire, but the reality is clearly going in the opposite direction...

    Joe-six-pack was never given the choice of getting that $99 ticket by accepting the risk of a minimally qualified pilot. Quite the contrary, the automotive equivalent of what Joe-six-pack ends up with is a car that appears to have all the safety and pollution-control features, but doesn't really, because the Department of Transportation colluded with the auto industry to quietly lower the standards, without drawing any undue attention from the public that was theoretically "demanding" (via price seeking) the change.

    3) The puzzling economics of pilot training. I won't bother to spell out all the aviation lingo in this one. The reader's point is that regulatory requirements and economic/practical realities are pushing in contradictory directions:

    I don't see how you're going to simultaneously eliminate P2F, up the hour requirement to 1500, and keep the pilots paid. You then have a much larger contingent of pilots (since each pilot has to complete another 1000 hours of non-ATP time) competing for the same number of instructor, jump school, and banner towing jobs, which will do nothing but further depress wages in those areas, and make being a pilot an even more non-viable career track for most people. To build time, the pilots will either be working for almost free, or back to P2F. Sure, it might make the actual ATPs have an easier time of it, but it would be a lot harder for pilots to get there in the first place.

    Also, unless they get a job flying a corporate jet, most of the hour building time will be in pistons or turboprops, not jets, so at some point they're better off just jumping into jets and learning what they're actually going to do, rather than shooting VFR approaches in a 172 for hundreds of hours.

    4) Co-pilot by choice. I've received a number of notes from professional pilots on why they prefer to remain in the right seat of the cockpit, in first-officer/"co-pilot" role, rather than becoming a left-seat captain. For instance:

    I’ve been a professional pilot for over 30 years, the first 14 or so as a flight instructor and the last 16 as an airline pilot. As a flight instructor, I spent almost five years at Airline Training Center Arizona, the Lufthansa owned school where I’m assuming Andreas Lubitz trained.

    1. All of the hand wringing over how to prevent another incident like this is wasted time, a solution looking for a problem. As you’ve pointed out, being on a commercial airliner is statistically one of the safest places you can be, safer even than your own home. The chances of a renegade pilot intentionally crashing an airplane are vanishingly small.

    That said, if a pilot wanted to do it, it would be next to impossible to stop them, regardless how many people are the in the cockpit. The primary reason the FAA requires a flight attendant or other crew member to be in the cockpit when one of the pilots is using the lavatory (which is the ONLY reason we are allowed to leave the cockpit) is to be there to check through the peephole in the cockpit door to ensure that when the other pilot notifies the flight deck via the interphone that he/she is ready to return THAT IT REALLY IS THE PILOT AND  NOT A BAD GUY.

    The "two people in the flight deck at all time" procedures were developed over some months after 9/11. One of the problems the security experts had with simply allowing the pilot in the cockpit to unlock the door (via an electronic switch located on the control pedestal) was that the cockpit interphone audio quality is not great, and pretty much anyone could use it to say, “Hey, it’s _____, I’m ready to come back in”.  Passwords were tried and quickly dismissed after some uncomfortable situations ensued from miscommunication and forgetting the password of the day. Why the rest of the airline world didn’t follow the U.S. procedure is beyond me.

    As a normal security precaution, this system works really well, but if the pilot in the cockpit IS the bad guy, the element of surprise/shock at being attacked would pretty much preclude the other person in the cockpit, be it a flight attendant or the other pilot, from putting up a effective defense ...

    2. Lubitz's experience or perceived lack thereof has NOTHING to do with his actions. Adam Shaw has some valid concerns regarding some of the regulations regarding pilot training and pay, but I don’t see any connection in Lubitz’s suicide to any of Shaw’s arguments. Back handedly attacking ab initio programs (“250-hr button twiddling geeks”) like the one Lufthansa has been operating for decades is ridiculous—Lufthansa’s safety record speaks for itself. [JF: Ab initio programs are ones in which candidates start out with no flying experience whatsoever and are trained from the start to fly big jet airliners.]

    Properly conducted ab initio training is MUCH SAFER for the pilot, the airlines and the traveling public than forcing aspiring airline pilots to fly “gritty, shitty and temperamental” equipment. Yep, that’s how I did it for the first couple of years, and no, I don’t look back on it fondly.

    Airline ab inito programs like Lufthansa’s are every bit as rigorous as the flight training conducted by the military (and let’s not forget that the U.S. military basically invented ab initio training. Active duty fighter pilots are put into combat, and C17 pilots fly missions around the world, with less flight time than Lubitz had). Quality of experience is every bit as important, if not more so, than quantity of experience.

    I'll argue all day that a pilot who has trained from day one to operate in an airline environment is much more suited for an ATPL at 250 hours than a flight instructor who spent 1500 hours doing airwork and traffic patterns in a C172 (not that there is anything wrong with this—I've given 6000 hours of dual instruction and though it made me a pretty good GA pilot it did not really prepare me for airline flying).

    The multi-crew license (MCL) is the future of commercial aviation, and if properly regulated and conducted will be the answer to the looming pilot shortage (it's for real this time) ... Pilot pay, especially at the commuter airline level, is a different issue and, unless it turns out Lubitz did this because he didn't feel his pay was adequate, way off subject ...

    3. Last, beating a dead horse, the whole co-pilot issue. In today’s world, there are always two pilots operating an airliner and they are referred to as the captain and first officer. They are ONE ANOTHER’S CO-PILOT. But yes, the first officer is often referred to as "the" co-pilot.

    I think it's important in a story like this, however, for the public to understand how the airline hierarchy operates i.e. the seniority system.

    As a pilot, your date of hire (seniority) determines EVERYTHING about your airline career: Where you’re based, what equipment you fly, your schedule, vacations and yes, whether or not you’re a first officer or captain. Hoot Gibson, a test pilot and shuttle astronaut and in anyone’s estimation an outstanding aviator, started at Southwest Airlines as a “bottom of the list” first officer just like every other pilot at the airline.

    I’m almost 50 years old, have 20,000 flight hours and 14 years with my company and could upgrade to captain whenever I chose (yes, I'd have to go through upgrade training, but VERY few people fail to become captains solely because they can't pass).

    Upgrading now, however, would mean moving from being a relatively senior first officer, with my choice of base and schedules, to being a relatively junior captain, where I’d be on reserve (flying wherever the company sent me, often at the last minute) and a good chance of being moved to another base. Although it means giving up a bit of money (captains typically earn about 30% more than first officers) I’m not willing to make the lifestyle changes that upgrading to captain would ensue ...

    Waiting to upgrade means that, on a regular basis, I fly with captains who are ten or twenty years younger than me, have half my experience and who have only been with the company for eight or nine years, but who were willing to take an early upgrade in order to earn more money ...T he misconception that the captain is always older and more experienced (much less a better pilot, which is yet another topic) than the first officer needs to be put to rest.

    Similarly:

    I was chatting with a friend of a friend a few years back who, after graduating from a small, liberal arts school, began flying 19-seater Saabs for [a regional airline] ....

    He was several years in and I asked him which seat he sat in—he was a co-pilot. I asked why and he said that while the pay was lower, he was near the top of the seniority lists, so he basically got whatever trips he wanted, and worked the schedules he wanted to. As a guy in his 20s, the pay was less important than the lifestyle. He had a good record and could probably move up to a captain's seat had he wanted, but he'd be bumped down to the bottom of the seniority list, working oddball trips at the airline's discretion ...

    When you're flying internationally, it's generally assumed that you get a better product on a foreign carrier (especially Asian carriers and Gulf-based ones, and especially in higher classes of service). But it certainly sounds like US regulations are far more stringent for crews, and no matter how much free booze you get, I first want a competent flight crew. Of course, it's hard to put a price on safety, but easier, apparently, to put a price on legroom.

    Thanks to all. Will do another reader update when there are some significant new facts or views to offer.

  • More From Pilots and Doctors on the Germanwings Crash

    Cost pressures, alcohol as the only "approved" anti-mental-illness drug, and other ramifications of this murder/suicide

    The aftermath of a Colgan commuter airplane crash near Buffalo six years ago (Gary Wiepert/Reuters)

    Following this initial item on what could and could not have been foreseen about the Germanwings murder/suicide, and this follow-up in which professional pilots talked about shortcuts in modern training systems, more response from aviators and others:

    1) "If you had a mental issue, there's only one drug the FAA would allow you to take. That drug is alcohol." From a professional pilot:

    Add me to the extensive list of pilots you’ve heard from, regarding the Germanwings tragedy. I agree with the people saying we only can blame ourselves, wanting cheap airfare and safe airlines, all while paying pilots nothing. I personally have avoided working for the airlines, having figured out that the charter and medical flying seems to have a better quality of life, better pay over the life of the career, and more job security. ...

    When it comes to prevention of accidents like this, I honestly don’t know what can be done. I don’t believe having two people in the cockpit at all times would have prevented this specific instance; the guy was willing to take a lot of lives with him, what would the flight attendant standing in the doorway have been able to do to prevent that?

    Many of your writers have mentioned the new ATP rules ... [JF: higher flight-time requirements before pilots can be considered for first-officer/ "co-pilot" jobs] but I don’t see a solution in arbitrary flight times and educational achievement. The European model, where pilots are hired and trained by the airline from the very beginning, does seem more sustainable in my opinion, compared to the U.S. model where pilots end up in excess of $100,000 in debt before they can even think of getting a job.

    The person who pointed out the adversarial process of the FAA medical hit the issue right in the nose. Until recently, depression alone was enough to keep you out of the cockpit, stabilized treatment regimes and doctors' letters be damned.

    To put it bluntly, if you had a mental issue that could be helped with medication, the FAA would allow you to take one drug that didn’t require reporting and documentation. That drug is alcohol.

    2) On the tensions built into the medical-examination system. Another reader:

    One pilot quoted in your piece wrote:

    “The system gives pilots an incentive to cheat themselves out of the best quality of care. Any arrangement that promotes an adversarial relationship between doctor and patient compromises medicine.”

    I fail to see how the relationship between doctors and pilots can be inherently anything other than adversarial. There is no upside for the pilot when a pilot currently holding a health certificate sees a doctor. The best result for the pilot is the continuation of the status quo. The worst result is the suspension or ending of his career.

    I hope most pilots would face this periodic career peril with a moral sense of duty to passengers and therefore will be honest and forthright in any medical exam and would promptly disclose to their employers any relevant medical condition. However, human nature shows us that a meaningful percentage of pilots will conceal medical conditions or at least be very strategic in how they are examined (choosing a physician known to be lenient, seeking private diagnosis and treatment, etc.)

    Thus it seems to me that the solution to this unique situation is not a more treatment-oriented system, which doesn’t address the conflict inherent in the situation. Rather, the solution is to recognize that pilots are unique in that they must be highly skilled and physically and mentally healthy, while being entrusted daily with hundreds of lives. Thus pilots should be required to give up their medical privacy to the degree necessary to ensure that all relevant medical facts are available to regulators and to their employers.

    3) On the alcohol issue. From a doctor:

    This event occurred many years ago,  and, hopefully, the culture of aviation safety has caught up. Here’s what happened.

    I finished my residency at UC San Francisco and, not wanting to be tied down by the responsibilities of a family practice, began to practice emergency medicine. The group that I worked for assigned me to Alameda Hospital. Recall that Alameda is right next to Oakland, and is the closest facility to Oakland Airport. Therefore, it wasn’t unusual for our ER to see patients who were sent by the Oakland Airport.  

    At the time, [a charter airline] was running flights out of Oakland to the Far East. One night a pilot for [that airline] was brought into our ER by the police, as he was so drunk that he couldn’t stand without assistance. On speaking with him, I learned that he was due to fly as a pilot the following morning. I told him that this was absolutely impossible, that he was in no condition to do so, etc. He was insistent that he would do so. Not knowing what to do (yes, there should have been a written policy in the ER, but there wasn’t), but knowing that I had to do something, I did the only thing that I could think of: I called the FAA and reported him.

    To summarize the situation from that point on is simple: I became the villain in the eyes of everyone. The FAA was furious at me for creating paperwork for them. The airline was furious at me because I had ratted them to the FAA when they (the airline) “had the internal capability” to handle this matter “in house.” Not one person thanked me for keeping this incredibly drunk man from potentially endangering the lives of a plane full of passengers. It seemed to me that everyone was more concerned about how the bureaucracy would impact them than with true safety.

    I never forgot that episode, and never regretted what I had done. I hope that the situation is different all these years later.

    For what it's worth, in my own general-aviation experience over the past 20 years, I have not ever seen pilots who appeared to be drunk or impaired getting into airplanes. You can compare that with the world of driving, in which everyone knows of such cases. My observation doesn't prove anything larger, but it is my anecdotal experience.

    4) On other pressures affecting the medical-examination system. A reader with an elite record as a military aviator writes:

    As the TV talking heads make comments about FAA medical screening requirements, the public is getting the wrong idea about the quality of these annual and semi-annual exams.

    My experience may be unique, but the FAA doctors I have seen at various locations around the country for FAA medical check-ups (Class I mostly) [JF note: Class I is the most demanding physical, which airline pilots must pass] have been "long in the tooth" and often eccentric and quirky. The physical exam was more about "checking the block" and paying the fee than a bonafide assessment.

    Based on my experience, if the public thinks FAA medical exams have any sort of rigor they are mistaken.

    I wrote back to this person saying that my anecdotal experience differed. Of the five or six different doctors from whom I've received Class III FAA physicals over the years, only one matched this description. The others seemed interested in giving a "real" exam—including one last year, who noticed something he thought my normal doctor should check out. (It was nothing, but worth checking.) The difference between this reader's experience and mine, then, would support his point that there can be a lot of variation within the system.

    5) On the underlying financial pressures. A message I quoted yesterday argued that the "blame" for some aviation accidents ultimately rested with a public that insisted on ever-cheaper fares. A reader spells this out:

    It is implicit in your argument about airline cost-cutting (although it wasn’t explicitly stated) that flight-crew pay must also be an indirect factor. The Colgan Air flight 3407 crash in Buffalo in 2009 [source of the photo at top of this item] is a case in point. The co-pilot had an annual salary of $16,200.

    Tim Cook got a pay package worth $378 million to run Apple; if your iPhone doesn’t work, you send it back. But in some cases with commuter airlines, your life is literally in the hands of an overworked and undertrained flight crew member who makes McDonald's wages.

    A great illustration, à la Milton Friedman, of how the free-market infallibly puts the right monetary value on services (snark).

    6) Similarly on a "market equilibrium" price.  Another reader:

    I never cease to be amazed by the ease at which the rhetoric about manpower shortages (pilot shortages, programmer shortages. etc.) finds acceptance. No, in free-market society, there are no shortages, only a shortage of people willing to pay the appropriate price.

    Every day almost I get some email from some recruiter telling me what a great fit I would be and how I would love the company. When I tell them my price, that fit suddenly becomes not so great :)

  • Why the Latest Air-Scare Shows How Safe Airline Travel Is, Not How Dangerous

    The flying world's counterpart to your car's airbag and anti-skid brakes.

    Yesterday I mentioned a widely circulated web account from an author who felt he had narrowly avoided being part of what would have been history's worst airline disaster. Indeed, that was the headline on Kevin Townsend's post on Medium: "Two Weeks Ago I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever."

    While the episodea sudden if brief descent by a United air crew over the Pacific, to be sure it stayed out of the path of another planemight well have been frightening, the hundreds of passengers on the two planes never faced any danger of a mid-air crash. The quick descent indicated the safety of today's air-travel system, not its brink-of-disaster shoddiness.

    Think of the analogy of car airbags. When an airbag goes off in a car, I am sure it scares the bejeezus out of anyone on board (I've never experienced it), plus possibly bruising them and, for infants in the front seat, doing real damage. But that detonation, frightening as it is, is part of a system that has made car travel safer rather than more dangerous. Something similar is true with anti-skid braking systems—they can frighten you, but they help protect you. And the same goes for today's aircraft collision-avoidance technology.

    I mention this to introduce a note I have gotten from someone with first-hand experience with "TCAS," the automatic collision-avoidance system that ordered the descent on Kevin Townsend's flight:

    I work in the aviation industry as an engineer, and have gotten more and more familiar with FAA requirements for aircraft design. I wish the flying public understood how precisely-engineered each piece of critical avionics must be in order to satisfy FAA regulations for a "safety of life" application

    TCAS -- and its successor,TCAS-II -- is one such piece of avionics hardware. By all accounts in the Townsend post, TCAS did its job in resolving airspace issues between what is known in FAA jargon as two cooperative aircraft. And the pilots did what they were supposed to do in taking the correct action.

    It is vital that pilots trust their instruments because the avionics driving those instruments (and their design requirements) are engineered with that in mind.

    Believe me, I know. I've spent the bulk of my career designing, writing software for, and testing the integration of, avionics. If TCAS says "go up", there are thousands of hours of engineering behind that system making sure that "up" is the right decision.


    Let me clarify, too, that I am not picking a fight with Kevin Townsend, with whom I've had a pleasant and mutually respectful exchange of messages. He wrote a post on a genuinely frightening experience withoutas he has pointed out to me in emailthe benefit of subsequent info on how far apart the planes had actually been (at least five miles, probably eight) or other technical analyses of what was going on.

    I thought the original headline on his item was an enormous reach ("I almost died"), plus the idea that the planes were in "scraping distance" of each other. But, as he has also pointed out to me, if he had foreseen how widely this would be picked up in "peril in the skies" coverage, he would have been more statesmanlike in telling the story. (Plus, he is doing the Lord's work on the filibuster.) This is very different from a flat-out fake air-peril story last year in the NYT Magazine, and another over-hyped one in the same paper.

    Why am I going back to this story? The immediate reason is because Townsend's account has generated another flood of email from newly re-frightened fliers. The larger point is one that Patrick Smith has often emphasized at Ask the Pilot. Something deep and primal in human beings, namely the fear of unnaturally being up in the air, easily spills over into something with no rational basis behind it: namely, the belief that airline travel is riskier than normal life, when it fact it is vastly safer than driving, biking, or walking across the street.


    Update: Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate software (and one-time guest blogger here), writes about an unforgettable part of Kevin Townsend's account. That was during the zero-G descent when he was "weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me." Bernstein writes:

    ….back of the envelope suggests that a zero-g descent gets you down 600' in just about 6 sec.  And I expect that one would not pull negative G's in a passenger flight, especially without warning, given any alternative. Surely the writer would have remarked on the experience of negative G's with stuff (and people) flying everywhere.  So that's a boundary. 

    In fact, I believe we get to the normal descent rate, 1800'/min, with a second of zero g. 

    The point here, again, is not to nit-pick the original account but to underscore the difference between subjective experience of frightening events, and the objective reality of what is going on.

    A month or two ago, I was flying into a small airport in the South when, at about 500 feet up on the final approach for landing, there was a very strong wind gust from the right. At the time I "felt," and actually told another pilot I saw after I'd landed, that the gust had "almost upended" the plane. I'm sure if there had been a film it would shown nothing remotely close to that. Probably at most a momentary 45-degree bank to the left, which I'd offset within a second or two. So it is with anything involving the unnatural act of human beings up in the air: our senses tell us one thing, and our minds (when they can act calmly) tell us something else. The calm-mind view of air travel underscores its safety, whatever else our senses may tell us.

  • What an Autopilot Could Never Do

    Fun with flying, extreme crosswinds edition.

    YouTube

    Last week I posted a video of airliners whose pilots skillfully executed the "crab into kick" technique for landing in a crosswind. As a reminder: the airplane approaches the runway at a "crab" angle, to offset the wind and keep its heading lined up with the runway. Then, when the wheels are just a few feet above the ground, the pilot "kicks" the airplane's own axis into alignment with the runway (so sideways force doesn't shear off the wheels when they touch down), with pressure on the rudder.

    Now some illustrations of how things look if the wind is even stronger and gustier. These take-offs and landings, and numerous "go-arounds," were filmed this winter at Birmingham airport in England, under what were evidently extremely gusty conditions. The wind's strength is one challenge. The continual changes in strength -- the gusts -- are the real problem.

    Whoa. This is the kind of thing no autopilot could ever handle. Thanks to reader BB for the tip.

    And great camerawork, by the way. Also, I know that the camera angle foreshortens things, so it can look as if the planes are descending helicopter-style. Still, that runway is impressively hilly. For instance, as shown in the approach starting at time 6:00. 

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  • Malaysia 370, Day 10: One Fanciful Hypothesis, and Another That Begins to Make Sense

    Did the airplane hide in a "radar shadow"? Probably not. Did the flight crew act like heroes? Possibly so.

    Tintin and a disappearing airplane ( Tintin Wikia )

    I rejoin the Internet after a day away to find no additional hard evidence about the fate of Malaysia Air flight 370, but a number of new rumors and possibilities. To run through a few:

    1) The "Radar Shadow" Hypothesis. Many, many readers have sent in links to a post early today by Keith Ledgerwood. He suggests that the Malaysian plane might have avoided radar detection by sneaking up on and deliberately flying right next to another 777, so that radar operators would see only a single blip from this ad-hoc formation flight.

    You can read the intriguing details for yourself, but the crucial points are:

    • The other plane, a Singapore Airlines flight en route to Spain, would not have known the Malaysia flight was right behind it, because its onboard collision-warning system (called TCAS) senses other aircraft by their transponder signals. Since MH 370 had its transponders turned off, the Singapore TCAS system would have nothing to work with -- and would get no warning from ground-based radar operators, who would not realize they were looking at two planes.
    • Meanwhile, MH 370 could creep very close to the Singapore plane without crashing into it, because the Singapore transponders were still working, and would broadcast its position to the Malaysian plane. (Plus, in the night sky the Malaysia pilots could see the other plane's green, red, and white navigation lights as it flew along ahead of them.)
    • After going as far as it wanted in the Singapore airplane's shadow, MH 370 could peel off at some point and head toward its intended destination.  

    Is this possible? At this point, when no normal expectations have panned out, I suppose almost any conjecture must be entertained.

    Is it likely? Or even plausible? Neither, in my view.

    Apart from the general rococo-ness of the plotting, this interpretation rests on a piece of evidence that I view in a very different way from what's implied in the post. Keith Ledgerwood notes that the two planes followed exactly the same course across a series of aerial way points ("intersections" with 5-letter names like IGREX and VAMPI) at very close to the same time. Isn't this suggestive of something strange?

    Actually, not. On many heavily traveled air corridors, planes will be sent along exactly the same sequence of way points at intervals of a few minutes. (If you listening to Air Traffic Control near a major airport, you'll hear one plane after another receive the same routing instructions.) I view it as routine rather than exceptional that planes might have crossed the same sequence of intersections.

    So maybe this will turn out to mean something -- and if so, all respect to Mr. Ledgerwood. My bet is that this will be another interesting-but-fanciful interpretation, and that the cause will prove to be something else. 

    2) The Pulau Langkawi possibility. Over the weekend Chris Goodfellow, an experienced pilot, offered via Google+ a very different sort of explanation. Far from carrying out an elaborate scheme, he says, the pilots may have been caught by surprise by an inflight fire, a major systems failure, or some other genuine emergency. At that point they called on the reflex nearly all pilots develop: the constantly updated awareness of where the nearest airport is, if they should suddenly need to get back to the ground. As he puts it:

    We old pilots were always drilled to always know the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us and airports ahead of us. Always in our head. Always. Because if something happens you don't want to be thinking what are you going to do - you already know what you are going to do.

    When trouble arose, Goodfellow says, the pilots tried to head for what they knew to be the nearest very long runway, with an unobstructed over-water approach, on the Malaysian island of Pulau Langkawi. (Pulau means "island.") Here's the Google Earth idea of how the Langkawi runway might look in daylight, although the plane was of course approaching at night. That runway is 13,000 feet long -- enormous.

    But they never made it. Before getting the plane down, Goodfellow suggests, the pilots could have been incapacitated -- and the plane would fly on until it ran out of fuel. This view is notable for the light it casts on the MH 370 flight crew. Far from being villains, schemers, or the objects of a hijacking plan, he says they were in fact heroes, struggling until the last to save their aircraft, themselves, and the 237 other souls on board. Referring to the senior pilot, he says: 

    This pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make that immediate turn back to the closest safe airport.... 

    Fire in an aircraft demands one thing - you get the machine on the ground as soon as possible....

    Smart pilot. Just didn't have the time.

    Goodfellow says he is certain this is what happened: "No doubt in my mind."  I think there's doubt about everything concerning this flight. But his explanation makes better sense than anything else I've heard so far. (And he has updated it in light of developments since his original post.) It's one of the few that make me think, Yes, I could see things happening that way.

    3) Flight 714. Many readers have written in to say that the best fictional reference for the mystery of this plane is not Thunderball, nor You Only Live Twice, nor any other part of the James Bond oeuvre. Instead it's Tintin, as a reader in Los Angeles explained:

    I can go the Thunderball reference one better…the comparison I make is to the plot of the Tintin story “Flight 714”, in which a rich man’s jet is hijacked by part of the crew and crash landed on a deserted island in the java sea. 

    The numerous parallels are quite interesting…it’s a crew takeover, they drop out of sight of radar, it all takes place in the same general part of the world…and the scene in which they show how the plane lands (on a hastily constructed airstrip, which is then dismantled) could explain a lot.  Frankly at this point, you’d be better off reading Flight 714 than watching the cable news reports.

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  • Why Malaysia Airlines 370 Remains So Profoundly Mysterious, and Why a Better Black Box Wouldn't Help

    The absence of data about this flight is itself a significant data point.

    Track of Malaysia Air 370 on March 7 ( Flight Aware )

    (Please see update with the March 14 news.) Here is the heart of the mystery over what has happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370:

    • If the airplane did keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that fact  -- at a minimum through "primary radar returns," blips on civilian or military radar screens showing that something was in the air even if the plane's transponder was not sending back specific identifying info.
    • If the airplane did not keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that -- through wreckage on the ground, oil slicks or debris in the sea, satellite detection of a flash or explosion at the relevant time. 

    As of now, six days later, there is no clear evidence of either type. Or other evidence to suggest difficulties with the weather (in contrast to Air France 447 -- and I'll have more on this soon), suspicious actions by passengers or attackers, problems with the flight crew, a pattern of failure with this kind of airframe, or any of the other usual components of the "accident chain" in aviation disasters. As I mentioned earlier, airline travel is now so amazingly safe that when something does go wrong, the cause usually turns out be some previously unforeseen triple-whammy combination of bad-luck factors. Air-safety experts refer to this as the "Swiss cheese" factor: the odd cases in which the holes in different slices of Swiss cheese happen to line up exactly, letting the improbable occur.

    But so far MAS 370 is in a category of its own, in the shortage of useful data and the mismatch of what is known with most imagined scenarios. This is a source of additional heartache for affected families, anxiety for some in the traveling public, and embarrassment for the Malaysian officials clumsily running the search. (As mentioned, I am a fan of Malaysia-the-country and of Malaysia Airlines, but Malaysian safety officials are looking bad.) Yet it is the frustrating reality. The closest comparison would be the crash of TWA flight 800 18 years ago. The absence of data is itself a surprising data point.


    Now, about one common pundit claim: If only we had better "black boxes," and more real-time streaming of black-box data, we'd be spared mysteries of this sort. Michael Planey, a Washington-area consultant who has worked for several airlines and did air-safety investigations for the Air Force, writes in to explain why this is a false hope. 

    I'm quoting his message in full detail, since in cases like this the details matter. If you don't want to deal with all the specifics, his main point is: the disappearance of this airplane remains profoundly mysterious, and would probably remain so even if one much-discussed "remedy" had been in place. I turn the floor over to Mr. Planey:

    Would realtime streaming of black box data end the mystery of what happened to MH370? Probably not.  Here’s why.

    As the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues in earnest, many have called for the implementation of realtime streaming of black-box data.  It is an understandable reaction to an inexplicable event:  that a modern airliner could simply vanish without a trace.  The thinking is that real-time black-box data would make it possible to locate the aircraft more quickly; to understand what had happened to the aircraft causing it to lose contact with air traffic control; to perhaps prevent an aircraft safety incident through monitoring of aircraft systems and highlighting suspect or anomalous data.  But is that really the case with this aircraft and this flight?  Unfortunately, I suspect not.

    The last loss of a commercial airliner in trans-oceanic flight was Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009.  In that case, some system failure reports and warnings were transmitted via ACARS [JF note: a data transmission system linking in-flight airplanes with ground stations] in the last moments before the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic.  This data was useful in the preliminary understanding of the event, but it was not enough data to paint the complete picture of the complex system failures and flight crew actions that led to the crash, nor prevent it from happening.

    In that case, the data transmission was of no particular use in locating the debris field.  Rather, traditional air traffic control and radar data was used to pinpoint the last known location of Flight 447 and the search began at that point.  The aircraft wreckage was located by the next day in the expected area.  In the current case of MH 370, the same type of location data is available, but the search has been fruitless.  This opens the up possibilities of the aircraft’s fate to scenarios where data-streaming would again be ineffective.

    Given that the Boeing 777-200 aircraft on this flight had been recently inspected and operated without incident over the prior ten days, there are no red flags leading to a likely cause of the disappearance.  Even though this aircraft was equipped with an ACARS system like the Air France flight, no relevant data transmissions were made.  This reasonably points to a thoroughly unforeseen, catastrophic event (such as TWA Flight 800) or perhaps a deliberate action such as hijacking, terrorist action or even flight crew suicide.  

    In the case of the immediate, catastrophic event, data streaming would likely cease at the moment of the event.  Either a complete loss of electrical power would disrupt the data stream or a mechanical break in the aircraft systems would prevent data transmission.  Further, if an aircraft was in an out-of-control attitude such as a steep dive, a spin or a hard roll, maintaining a direct link with a satellite would be nearly impossible, thus again breaking the data stream and rendering the system incapable.

    If the demise of MH370 is due to a deliberate action, realtime data-streaming is again unlikely to yield definitive answers.  If hijackers were sophisticated enough to completely cut-off all communications (radios, ACARS, transponder, ADS-B) then it would stand to reason that the data link would be cut off in the same manner.  Further, the detonation of a bomb would not show a prior indication of the event in the flight data-stream.  Perhaps, the very slight chance of aircraft depressurization or loss of fuel volume would be detected at the moment, but it is unlikely that such a signal could be successfully transmitted before the communications system was rendered useless.

    It is important to note that the “black-box” is actually a pair of boxes.  The Flight Data Recorder secures information from a host of flight systems and the flight management computer.  The Cockpit Voice Recorder captures the last 30 to 60 minutes of dialogue in the cockpit and adds significant context to the FDR data.  In the investigation of AF447, the CVR was critical to understanding why the flight crew took the actions they did, even as the data could show what those actions were.  Capture of both information streams would be necessary for a full picture of what was happening at the critical moment.

    If days of intensive air and sea search efforts have yielded no clues, it is hard to believe that the aircraft and its crew were capable of providing any more useful information at the time the aircraft disappeared.

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  • The Malaysian Airlines Flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing

    No firm news, but the indications are grim

    As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.

    The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.

    Flight log, from Flight Aware

    [Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.] 

    It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.

    The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.


    12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.

  • 'Springbok, Cleared for Landing': More on the Language of the Skies

    By Deborah Fallows.

    Real Time Flight Tracking via Flightradar24. Sunday 10:30 AM ET, Dec. 8, 2013

    By Deborah Fallows.

    [See update* below.] On our recent flight home in our small plane from Eastport ME, to Washington DC, we were listening, as we often do, to the air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking back and forth with various aircraft in the usual manner:

           Pilot: New York Center. American 935. fifteen thousand feet.

    And the air traffic controller’s response is: Acknowledgment. Altimeter reading (necessary gauge for determining altitude)

           ATC: American 935. New York Center. New York altimeter  30.14.

    Then a little while later, we heard a callsign I had never heard before: Brickyard. It was an exchange something like this:

            Pilot: Washington Center. Brickyard 215. nine thousand.

            ATC: Brickyard 215. Washington Center. Washington altimeter  30.10.

    I wondered about Brickyard, and learned that it belongs to Republic Airlines, a regional supplier that operates flights for major national brands. I know that airline as one that sometimes flies the daily nonstop as US Airways Express between Washington DC, where I live, and Sarasota FL, where my mom lives. Republic also operates service for a number of other airlines, like American Eagle and Frontier.

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    But Brickyard? Well, according to Funtrivia.com, Republic is the regional airline out of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nicknamed The Brickyard.

    A few weeks later, I read my husband, Jim’s, post about the enormous 747 “dreamlifter” cargo airplane that landed at the wrong -- and much too small -- airport in Kansas.  I heard on the recording between the ATC and the pilot that the big plane had the callsign Giant. Fitting, I thought, when I learned that Giant is the callsign for Atlas Air.

    Many of the major airlines use callsigns of  their standard company names, like American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Delta. But then there are the other creative and curious ones, which we hear regularly along the east coast through New England and MidAtlantic states. Ones like Citrus, Cactus, and Waterski.

    Cactus? US Airways merged with America West Airlines, and based out of Tempe AZ, home to so many saguaro cacti.

    Citrus? AirTran Airways, headquartered now in Dallas, but at one time in Orlando.

    Waterski? Trans States Airlines, another regional airline which operates for United Express and US Airways Express. It was originally Resort Air, which ferried vacationers (and presumably waterskiiers) to Lake of the Ozarks.

    So that got me wondering about all the callsigns. Who are they? What are their etymologies? Do they fall into categories? I did some digging and here’s what I discovered:

    First, this can get overwhelming very quickly! As I look right now, I see live tracking of every airplane in the air. Delta has 388 planes flying. United has 351. Southwest has 345, and American 205, and on down the list of hundreds of individual airlines. Their callsigns are right there, too. And if that isn’t enough for you, go here to see a complete list of airlines, beyond those that have planes in the air right now. I can’t even count the total.

    As a way to get a handle on this, I decided to see if I could find any interesting categories or patterns among the callsigns. Here is a makeshift taxonomy:

    Animal names: Of course, bird names are well represented, but there are lots of other land creatures as well.

    Speedbird, British Airways

    Eagle Flight, American Eagle

    Flying Eagle, Eagle Air from Tanzania

    White Eagle, White Eagle Aviation from Poland

    Twin-Goose, Air-taxi from Europe

    Kingfisher, Kingfisher Airlines from India

    Rooster, Hahn Air from Germany (Hahn is German for rooster!)

    Jetbird, Primera Air from Iceland

    Bird Express, Aero Services Executive from France

    Polish Bird, Air Poland

    Bluebird, Virgin Samoa

    Songbird, Sky King from the US

    Nile Bird, Nile Air from Egypt

    Nilecat, Delta Connection Kenya

    Flying Dolphin, Dolphin Air from UAE

    Deer Jet, Beijing Capital Airlines

    Dragon, Tianjin Airlines from China

    Longhorn, Express One International from the US (Texas, I suppose)

    Springbok, South African Airways

    Bambi, Allied Air Cargo from Nigeria (At least I like to think it references Bambi)

    Simba, African International Airlines

    Go Cat, Tiger Airways, Singapore

    Polar Tiger, Polar Air Cargo, Long Beach

    Sky Themes, with many evocative references to space flight and fantasy:

    Flagship, Endeavor Air from Minneapolis

    Blue Streak, PSA Airlines from Ohio

    Star Check, Air Net from Ohio

    Air Thunder, Thunder from Canada

    Sky Challenge, Challenge Aero from Ukraine

    White Star, Star Air from Denmark

    Mercury, Shuttle America from Indiana

    Archangelsk, Nordavia from Russia

    Something about the Country of Origin:

    Glacier, Central Mountain from Canada

    Shamrock, Aer Lingus

    Iceair, Icelandair

    Bearskin, Bearskin Lake Air Service Ltd. from Canada

    Sandbar, Mega Maldives

    Gotham, Meridian Air Charter from Teterboro NJ

    Vegas Heat, Corporate Flight International

    Lucky Air, Lucky Air from China

    Viking, Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia

    Great Wall, Great Wall Airlines

    Fuji Dream, Fuji Dream Airlines

    Jade Cargo, Jade Cargo International from China

    SpiceJet, SpiceJet from India

    Salsa, SALSA D’Haiti

    Delphi, Fly Hellas from Greece

    And just for fun:

    Lindbergh, GoJet from Missouri

    Wild Onion, Chicago Air

    Rex, Regional Express from Australia

    Suckling, Scot Airways from the UK*

    Yellow, DHL Aero Express from Panama

    There are many, many more. But these alone are reason enough for passengers on commercial planes to request listening in on the chatter between the ATCs and the pilots.


    To contact the author, write DebFallows @ gmail.

    * UPDATE A reader fills in the background of the callsign Suckling:

    ScotAir's mom-and-pop parent firm, before a lot of corporate chopping and changing, was a couple named Suckling. It's a common name in East Anglia. Sir John Suckling, poet and inventor of cribbage, came from those parts.

    They ran off of a grass strip in Ipswich, to Edinburgh and Manchester. The in-flight meals were cooked in their kitchen and driven to the plane. A wonderful story, and a BBC documentary. But 9/11 and a bunch of mergers ended that. In Apri1 2013 the entity disappeared and its call sign went with it.
  • In Honor of the Chinese ADIZ, Today's Novelty Aviation Footage

    The people who drive on China's roads may soon be able to fly in its skies!

    This is not part of the Chinese ADIZ. 

    [See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.

    Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?

    No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.

    And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing. 

    Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.

    1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China AirborneThat is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.

    This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:

    On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.” 

    2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.

    World's shortest commercial flight? from IndoPilot on Vimeo.

    Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.

    Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)

    A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.

    3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.

    Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.


    * Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.


    Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:

    The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.

    I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.

    In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part. 

  • My Surprising Email of the Day

    A major airline dares say, Look at our new feature! Will have a chance to see for myself very soon.

    Going on a trip tomorrow. Of the countless United flights I've taken over the aeons, for many millions of miles all around the world, not one has ever had Wi-Fi coverage. Unlike Alaska, Delta, American, much of US Air, etc. Just now the message above arrives. There is something I would actually be working on, online, during the daytime long-haul flight tomorrow if this actually functions. Will do an update on this post some time tomorrow to register results -- in flight, between noon and 6pm EDT if it is functional, sometime after that if not.

    Here is United's chart about how Wi-Fi progress is going. To be clear, most of the time I welcome the opportunity to be dis-connected -- to read a book, to watch a movie, to think -- during a long flight. But there are times, like tomorrow, when it would be a plus. We'll see.


    Update from aloft: To my surprise, I am sitting at 34,000 feet in a United A320 that has both Wi-Fi and one of those "EmPower" power outlets. Our modern world.

    Update-update: At least on this flight, unfortunately the service doesn't work well enough to be to worth the $13 price. For about one hour of a five-hour flight, the United Wi-Fi worked at high speed. The rest of the time it was off line or so overloaded/troubled that most pages timed out before they loaded. For the record.

  • Asiana 214: Airplane as Hero, and Other Analyses

    The role of engineers, pilots, coaches, and God in the path toward disaster -- or safety.

    Three weeks after the crash, I hear from several travelers that debris from Asiana 214 is still visible at SFO, apparently as investigators keep working through the clues. I am entering my last day-plus in my current Internet-impaired environment, so a few text-only updates.

    1) The landing gear succeeded; they failed. From a reader in the Seattle area:
    One factor not mentioned in your posting was the "failure" of the landing gear. That is, in an impact beyond the strength of the LG, they are supposed to detach from the wing without breaking the wing off or ripping open the fuel tanks.
     
    They worked!  (before the frisbee pirouette )
     
    Likewise the engines.  Unfortunately, one of them came to rest snuggled up to the fuselage, and was the ignition source for the post-evacuation fire....

    I work for a certain aeronautical enterprise, and actually sent a congratulatory e-mail to the 777 designers...
    2) Credit to the airplane as a whole. From another reader in the industry:
    I agree that fatigue & a little bit of culture are the broken links in this chain of events. 

    I have worked as an aircraft mechanic for United Airlines for [more than 25 years] at [a major US hub], and most of us at work believe the 777 is one of Boeing's finest achievements. The talk around the hanger has always been  the 777 "is so smart it's a very difficult aircraft to have an accident in," and unfortunately without that technology engaged on the aircraft that  is exactly what happened to flight 214. 

    3) Other airplanes are strong too. A reader says the crash is a good occasion to remember a previous unusual landing with a happier overall outcome. This was the flight of the "Gimli Glider," whose 30th anniversary occurred last week:
    It's a shame that more people in the US aren't aware of that remarkable feat. I live outside of Detroit and was able to watch a short documentary about it on CBC the other night.  Admittedly, I had never heard about this until watching it. The stories of the pilot, crew, and passengers on that flight was far more interesting than the perceived impending crash of Noah Gallagher Shannon's flight.

    I'm including a link to the piece, it's about 20 minutes. You might need to use a proxy server in Canada to actually watch it.
    Short version of this saga: because of various fuel-management miscalculations, an Air Canada Boeing 767 ran entirely out of gas over Ontario. The crew and passengers all escaped alive only because the crew glided the plane down safely, with no engine power at all, from an altitude of 35,000 feet. Eg:
    Captain [Robert] Pearson was an experienced glider pilot, which gave him familiarity with flying techniques almost never used by commercial pilots. To have the maximum range and therefore the largest choice of possible landing sites, he needed to fly the 767 at the "best glide speed". Making his best guess as to this speed for the 767, he flew the aircraft at 220 knots (410 km/h; 250 mph). First Officer Maurice Quintal began to calculate whether they could reach Winnipeg. He used the altitude from one of the mechanical backup instruments, while the distance traveled was supplied by the air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, measuring the distance the aircraft's echo moved on their radar screens.
    Lots more in the Wikipedia account and on the video.

    4) Previous Asiana landing problems. A report on the SF Gate web site contends that even before the crash Asiana flights had a much higher-than-normal rate of "go-arounds," or aborted landing attempts, at San Francisco Airport. The sources for this claim aren't named, and FAA officials decline comment, although the Airport Director for SFO does go on-record as saying he had been concerned about Asiana's performance. 

    In itself, a decision to "go around" on any given landing can be a sign of a competent and safety-conscious flight crew rather than the reverse. When learning to land a plane, you're taught to be ready to go around at any moment before touchdown, rather than trying to save a landing that is shaping up the wrong way. But a pattern of frequently needing to go around can obviously be a bad sign.

    5) More on Confucius in the Cockpit. A Western reader who has worked for years in China previously sent in an account of a Dutch soccer coach who greatly improved the Korean national team by (in this reader's view) shaking up some Confucian concepts of hierarchy and group effort. Another reader disagrees:
    I'd like to send a brief note in response to your post - specifically, the anecdote about Hiddink [Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach.] It is usually the case, in a situation in which a new authority changes the fortunes of a team (whether in sports or in business or wherever these inspirational movie theses appear), that some nugget of aphoristic truth can be gleaned from the turnaround, like so much dropping pitch. So it is with this one, in which Hiddink reverses the team's entire trajectory via an elemental ceremony that just so happens to represent the insertion of Western values into a team ruled by Eastern culture.

    What instead turns out often to be the case is that this turnaround was actually managed through an intensive process of redesigning the team's (or department, or business, or what have you) strategy and tactical objectives, followed by an even-more intensive process of working with the team to relearn this new method of approaching competitors and the world at large. I'm sure one of the things you realize in these situations is that they rarely make for good cinema until they're condensed into the crystalline pitch-wisdom that we see in your anecdote.

    Apologies for the soccer pun.

    While I am loathe to claim that a practice of giving up shots on goal didn't doom the Korean squad pre-Hiddink (as a player myself once upon a time, I know how precious SOG are), I regrettably cannot bring myself to believe that a) this practice was the only problem the squad had, or that b) the problem was solved in a single ceremonial display of Hiddink's authority.
    6) The 'Asoh Defense.' Back in 1968, a Japan Airlines plane bound for landing at SFO had a problem somewhat like Asiana 214's. The crew guided it through a properly stabilized approach --  but "landed" two miles short of the runway, right in San Francisco Bay. The circumstances were worse than in the Asiana case -- bad weather, and a ceiling of only 300 feet (versus clear skies three weeks ago). The outcome was better, in that no one was killed. The episode is famous in aviation lore for the "Asoh defense," the explanation offered by captain Kohei Asoh: "As you Americans say, I fucked up."

    7) It's a "cockpit management" problem, not a national-culture problem. Another reader writes: 
    On whether the crew's failure was a product of Korean "culture" or simply poor crew culture: Take a look at the NTSB report from the United Airlines DC-8 crash in Portland [Oregon] in 1978.  One of the safety recommendations stemming from that accident was to direct all air carriers to indoctrinate flight crews in principles of flight deck resource management.  It's my understanding that United took this recommendation to heart, and pilot Al Haynes credits that change with saving so many lives in the United DC-10 crash at Sioux City.

    As Haynes later said:
    "As for the crew, there was no training procedure for hydraulic failure. Complete hydraulic failure. We've all been through one failure or double failures, but never a complete hydraulic failure. 

    "But the preparation that paid off for the crew was something that United started in 1980 called Cockpit Resource Management, or Command Leadership Resource Training ...All the other airlines are now using it. 

    "Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was THE authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn't as smart as we thought he was. And we would listen to him, and do what he said, and we wouldn't know what he's talking about. And we had 103 years of flying experience there in the cockpit, trying to get that airplane on the ground, not one minute of which we had actually practiced, any one of us. So why would I know more about getting that airplane on the ground under those conditions than the other three. So if I hadn't used CLR, if we had not let everybody put their input in, it's a cinch we wouldn't have made it. 

    "I don't know if any of you remember the old movie Marty, I kind of refer to that, it was Ernest Borgnine, and a group of his cronies, trying to find something to do on a Saturday night, and they said, what do you want to do Marty, and he said, i don't know, what do you want to do Joe, and that's kind of the way we flew the airplane now."
    8) A final thought from Nevil Shute. A reader who is an active pilot says the episode reminds him of this line from Nevil Shute's autobiography, Slide Rule:
    "Aircraft do not crash of themselves. They come to grief because men are foolish, or vain, or lazy, or irresolute or reckless. One crash in a thousand may be unavoidable because God wills it so - not more than that."
  • Back to Asiana 214

    On a light-wind, clear-skies day, a team of professional pilots flew a normally functioning airplane smack into the runway. What have we learned about the cause?

    Let me try to work through a few of the leads, responses, red herrings, and insights that readers have sent in since the crash two weeks ago.


    1) An illuminating video recreation. Here is a useful animation of the difference between a normal "stabilized" approach to San Francisco's runway 28L, and what can be deduced about flight 214's path. 
     

    A professional pilot added this commentary about the clip:
    This is the best video I've seen so far demonstrating the cost of a flat approach. The only misleading element is the airspeed differential, probably to keep the two images in close proximity. The dramatically slower approach speed of the aircraft would have better highlighted the flaw, not just in altitude above the ground but the equally dangerous decreasing airspeed. The properly positioned "ghost" aircraft would have left the doomed Asiana far behind - running out of altitude, airspeed, and options.

    If your own flight instructor never told you - get on the proper descent profile as soon as possible. Being high or low is a formula for a more challenging landing. Waiting to correct for being high, low, slow, fast, or off center means "going to school" much too late - no rodeos required. With this international route, a good crew has been efficient for the last 12 to 14 hours and nine time zones of circadian shift, so a stabilized approach is the primary consideration during the final minutes of flight.

    2) What's wrong with "Confucius in the cockpit" / "this is how Asians fly" hypotheses. If you've been following this topic, you've seen countless circulated emails from Western pilots alarmed at what they have seen at Asian, and especially Korean and Chinese, flight schools and airlines. I don't have time to fish these all out at the moment. I will say that if you'd like a bracing retort, the place to start is with the "Ask a Korean" site, notably this post (which goes right at Malcolm Gladwell-ism) and then this omnibus followup, including a reply from Gladwell. 

    When I can I will try to give a Solomonic pronouncement on winners and losers in this dispute. Two-sentence preview: Of course Asian-style education and culture can lead to distinctive dynamics in the workplace or in an airline cockpit. But I'm skeptical of moving directly to  civilizational interpretations of events with more modest potential explanations. (OK, a third sentence: At face value it appears that for some reason there was a failure of basic flying skills here, but just the same appeared to be true in the 2009 Colgan crash in Buffalo, whose two home-grown American pilots had no known connection to Confucianism.)

    3) The NASA view of culture in the cockpit. One of the seminal papers in this discipline, by a NASA official back in 2000, is available in a grainy but legible scanned version of the original printed pages, here. Worth reading in light of the Asiana discussions.

    4) 'Children of Magenta.' In the piloting world, this crash has revived a perennial debate on whether pilots are becoming so dependent on automation that they have lost basic "stick and rudder" flying skills. This is the aviation analogy of the old debates about whether 1960s-era calculators were destroying people's ability to do math, or whether today's GPS systems are destroying a sense of direction. The difference is that pilots in most cases still actually have to land the plane. 

    A classic discourse on perils of automation is enjoying new popularity now. It's a 25-minute lecture called "Children of Magenta" (with autopilot and GPS systems, the plane is often programmed to follow a magenta-colored line). Here you go:


    There's more in the queue, but that is what I have time for now. 

    Essay-question topic for bonus credit: precisely because commercial airline accidents have become so rare, with the "normal" causes of accidents being eliminated one by one, the accidents that do occur almost always involve improbable, complex, surprising, or puzzling combinations of circumstances. In much of life, the medical-diagnostic nostrum that "when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras" makes sense. Accidents on major airlines these days are nearly all zebras.

  • The Perilous Shoals of Memory: Back to that Dicey NYT Mag Story

    Memory is unreliable. But there's a difference between misremembering and making things up.

    HaysAirplane.jpg

    [TL;DR Executive summary of what's below: Patrick Smith, of Ask the Pilot, has seen maintenance records from the flight described in a controversial NYT Magazine piece. These records show no evidence of the "landing gear failure" on which the entire story was based.]

    Let's step away from NSA and Edward Snowden, and even from Pooh and Tigger, for a moment. Earlier I said I would not re-prosecute the case against the recent, fantasized NYT Magazine "Lives" story on what a writer felt when an airliner was (supposedly) about to plunge to its doom. For a refresher on the story, see this -- plus later details from Patrick "Ask the Pilot" Smith, from Clive Irving, from the Economist's Gulliver site, and from John Warner at Inside Higher Ed.

    I have two new reasons to go back into this article. One makes me think more gently of the story and the author. The other, much more harshly.
    ___

    1. I'll start with Mr. Nice Guy. The controversy over the story involved whether what was recounted by the author, Noah Gallagher Shannon, could have happened as described. To choose one notorious example:
    The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand. "All electricity will remain off," he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word. "I'll yell the rest of my commands from the cockpit." I could see sweat stains under his arms. "Not going to sugarcoat it," he said. "We're just going to try to land it."

    I was not on that plane, but I can tell you: This. Did. Not. Occur. The dangling cap-in-hand; the sweat stains; the captain coming out of the cockpit and saying he would "yell" his commands; the "not going to sugarcoat it" and "just going to try to land it." No. But the explanation from the magazine's editor, Hugo Lindgren, was that the story aspired to describe what one writer "felt and heard," what he remembered, rather than what anyone else might recall. ("Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently.")

    At first, I thought this explanation was mainly artful in rendering the story un-falsifiable. I thought about it differently and more sympathetically after hearing, this weekend, a remarkable episode of the the TED Radio Hour, hosted by my former All Things Considered comrade Guy Raz.

    The subject of the show was the unreliability of even the "strongest" and clearest memories. The first segment, with a legal authority named Scott Fraser, went into the very great likelihood of error, false certainty, and wishful filling-in of facts that accompanied most eyewitness recollections. The second segment, with the sociologist and economist  psychologist (who won a Nobel prize in economics) Daniel Kahneman, was even more directly applicable to the NYT Mag case. It dealt with extremely "vivid" memories that might never have happened, or with details very different from what the rememberer became "sure" had occurred. Kahneman described one of the most powerful episodes from his childhood as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. And then he explained why he couldn't be sure the event had ever happened the way he "recalled." (The final segment was the writer Joshua Foer describing how he won the national trained-memory championship.)

    By chance, immediately after that show I listened to a recent episode of Radiolab, which in one chilling segment reinforced the Memento / Inception / Matrix- like point that we can very rarely be sure what is "really" going on. So maybe that was the story with the New York Times. Something happened on an airplane; a passenger on that plane imagined and then remembered something else; and that something-else is what he, in all sincerity, described to us.

    And then I saw an update on Patrick Smith's site.
    __

    BookWithMap1.jpg2. Smith, an airline pilot, has for many years written the celebrated Ask the Pilot chronicles, along with his excellent new book Cockpit Confidential. (Seriously: If there is anything you don't like, or do like, about air travel, you'll find this book fascinating.) Smith has ample reason to be believed on this topic, and no reason to risk his reputation by inventing facts. And today he says that he has come across maintenance records for that "doomed" flight that made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. What he has found is not convenient for the story Noah Gallagher Shannon told.

    You can get all the details from from Smith, but here's the heart of it. Smith says that the flight crew's logbooks from the flight show this crucial notation:
               "ECAM HYD Y RSVR LO LVL

    Let's break this down. ECAM is the monitoring service for system-functions on an Airbus. HYD stands for the hydraulic systems for controlling the plane; Y stands for "Yellow," to identify one of the three color-coded hydraulic systems. RSVR LO LVL means "reservoir at low level" [see, you too can be a pilot], a warning signal about potential problems with that hydraulic system.

    This was the "emergency." It was not a "problem with the landing gear," which was the entire premise of the NYT Magazine article. (The yellow hydraulic system does not control the plane's landing gear, as the pilots would beyond any question have known -- you're always drilled and tested on which systems control which functions, and what happens if they fail.) There is nothing in this circumstance that would have made a professional flight crew panic or try to prepare passengers for the worst. Moreover, after the plane landed in Philadelphia, a maintenance crew found (according to Smith) that this was purely a faulty-indicator problem. The hydraulic level had been fine all along. Let Smith spell it out:

    An A320 captain I spoke to says that a shut-down of the yellow system would have meant, at worst, a slightly longer-than-normal landing roll (due to loss of the right engine thrust reverser and some of the wing spoiler panels), and, in newer A320s, loss of the nose-gear steering system, requiring a tow to the gate.

    There were enough red flags [in Shannon's story] to begin with, but this puts it over the top, tilting the entire account from one of eye-rolling embellishment toward one of outright fabrication.

    There was never a problem with the landing gear. There was never a reason for the pilots to come out, sweat-drenched, and say brave words to the possibly doomed souls aboard. Based on what Patrick Smith has learned, there was never a reason to shut off all the lights and electricity in the plane. Memory is unreliable. But the Times Magazine story appears to be something more than that, and worth another look by the paper.

  • Finale on the NYT Mag Airplane-in-Peril Story

    The writer was telling us "what he heard and felt." Not necessarily what occurred.

    I am grateful to Hugo Lindgren for his response, as editor of the New York Times Magazine, to questions and doubts about Noah Gallagher Shannon's story, "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" The response included time, date, and routing information for the author's flight, which had not appeared in the original story.

    Before I heard from Lindgren, I was about to put up a large number ( > 20) of messages from pilots, flight attendants, engineers, etc on why they viewed details in the story as mistakes at best, technically implausible fabrications at worst.

    In light of Lindgren's response, I don't think it's worth doing so -- though, thanks to those who wrote in. Here's how it settles out for me:

          - I do believe that the author was aboard a flight two years ago that had an unexpected diversion to Philadelphia, and that this frightened him.

          - I do not believe most of the detail, color, and sequence-of-events in the story. And it strikes me that Hugo Lindgren is not trying to convince me that I should. Look again at this central and extremely artful passage from his statement:

    Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment....He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.

    So if you went to the trouble (as I have not done) of finding other passengers on that plane and asking them whether, in fact, a rattled-sounding pilot had left the cockpit during the emergency to yell instructions down the aisle, meanwhile dangling a cap in his hand; or if you found the radar tracks to see whether an airliner had actually circled for two hours over Philadelphia; or if you heard from an Airbus electrical engineer (as I have) that it would have been impossible for the cabin lighting or public-address system to have behaved in the way the story claims; or if you went to the FAA or NTSB and found that their records for that date didn't match this story; or if you did anything else of the sort --  it wouldn't matter. The writer was telling us "what he heard and felt," not necessarily what "happened."

    OK. To me this is closed. I appreciate the quick response from Hugo Lindgren. Noah Gallagher Shannon is clearly a very talented young writer -- no one would have wondered about the story if it hadn't been so grippingly told. I  assume he will think carefully about his choice of genre for future work.

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