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

  • What an Autopilot Could Never Do

    Fun with flying, extreme crosswinds edition.

    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. 

    Previous post                                                                               Next post

  • 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.

    Previous post                                                                       Next post

  • 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.

    Previous post                                                                                 Next post 

  • 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.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    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.

  • NYT Mag Editor Responds on the 'Terror in the Skies' Article

    The editor of the New York Times Magazine gives further details about this controversial account.

    A few minutes ago Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine, sent me this official response to questions about the veracity of the back-page article it published two weeks ago, "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" Earlier today I explained why points both large and small in the account sounded phony to me; since then, I've received a flood of mail from aviation authorities with similar concerns.


    Lindgren answers the very important basic question of whether there ever was such a flight, whether the author (Noah Gallagher Shannon) was aboard it, and whether it actually got diverted to Philadelphia. That is very useful to know. As for other questions about Shannon's account -- I'll leave them for later. For now, and for the record, here is Lindgren's response on its own and in full:
    Some commenters have seized on certain details of "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" by Noah Gallagher Shannon in order to question whether this emergency landing happened (and perhaps even whether the author was on the flight). But there is simply no question. The author was on Frontier Airlines flight #727 on June 30, 2011, from Washington to Denver. It was an Airbus 320. The author sat in seat 12A. This flight was diverted to Philadelphia. The FAA reports that  the pilot declared an emergency due to a low hydraulics indicator light and that upon landing the plane needed to be towed to the gate. Frontier airlines confirms that an Airbus A320 experienced "a maintenance issue on departure from Washington DCA.  The flight diverted to Philadelphia due to easier access. The aircraft and all passengers landed safely."

    Did the author's personal recollection represent an accurate picture of what he experienced on that flight? Well, only he can attest to his own experience. But the author did provide receipts and took notes after the flight to back up his account. And his recollection, when run by an aviation specialist, did seem entirely plausible to him. While some of the author's language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. 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. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published. 

    The basic fact that no one can dispute is that the author of the column was on a flight to Denver that was diverted after the pilot reported a problem. Details like whether the crew followed standard procedure -- or varied from it -- or whether the lights were dimmed or how that looked to him, cannot be credibly contested by people who were not on the plane, even if their own experience of an emergency situation might have been different.

    The piece was fact-checked before publication, and after questions were raised, editors reviewed it again, with the full cooperation of the writer. All the key points appear to be corroborated, and we have not found any evidence to undercut any significant elements of the narrative.

    Hugo Lindgren
    Editor, New York Times Magazine

  • Could the NYT Mag 'My Plane Almost Crashed' Story Actually Be True?

    Maybe this all happened. But if so, it was an even stranger flight than it seemed.

    Two weeks ago I read the NYT Mag's back-page story on a harrowing brush-with-death encounter when pilots had to land an airliner while thinking that its wheels had not come down. I was about to head off on a trip so I didn't take the time to write what I was thinking, which was: this doesn't sound right.


    Now I see that questions about the veracity of the story have cropped up -- in Romenesko and Metafilter, in a Gene Weingarten's item for the Washington Post, and elsewhere. For the record, here are some things that seemed fishy to me.

    1) The whole scenario. The plot line of the essay is that the pilots discovered, on a trip from some unnamed city to Denver, that the plane's landing gear didn't work. Thus they "circled for two hours over Philadelphia" to burn off gas before attempting a wheels-up landing.

    Here's the problem: why would the pilots have discovered mid-flight that the landing gear had failed? Normally pilots would be paying attention to their landing gear exactly twice during the flight. One would be a few seconds after takeoff, when the flight crew would retract the gear into the plane's body so as to reduce drag as they climbed. If the wheels didn't retract then, the crew would know that right away -- and they could circle back (perhaps after burning off some fuel) for a normal wheels-and-all landing.

    The other time is not long before landing, when the crew would put the wheels back down. If the wheels didn't go down, that would be a problem -- with various possible counter-measures. (Manual gear-lowering systems; flying by the tower so controllers can look at the plane's belly with binoculars and see whether the gear are actually down; and so on.)

    The rest of the time, the wheels just sit there. They don't fail mid-flight. They're just in their bay inside the plane's fuselage. The pilots pay zero attention to the landing gear until they're going through the descent-and-landing checklists. So, maybe this happened. But it doesn't resemble any "failure mode" I have ever heard of. Unless the gear didn't retract after takeoff to begin with, and the pilots circled but didn't say anything to the passengers (who also didn't notice anything) for the next two hours.

    HaysAirplane.jpg

    2) The pilots' Airplane! style behavior. According to this story, the pilots are opening the cockpit door and yelling encouragement and safety instructions to the terrified passengers, because they've turned off the cabin electric system (to avoid sparks on landing) and therefore can't use the public-address system.

    Really? Try to envision the scenario of the pilot yelling down the aisle, as "his cap dangled in one hand." I can't. Including the part about the cap, which pilots don't wear while sitting at the controls. 

    3) The mood of impending doom. The whole emotional tone of the essay turns on the pilots' preparing everyone for a brush with death. It's easy for me to believe that some passengers might be terrified. Not the pilots. Gear-up landings are bad for the airplane -- the belly of the plane obviously gets chewed up. But they are more common than other airline mishaps -- one happened just last week at Newark -- and they rarely kill people. The pilots would know that.

    4) The engines "spooling down." This passage caught my eye when I first saw the piece: "You can actually feel the air holding you up when a plane's engines power down. Like when you're riding a bike downhill and you stop pedaling, there's noiselessness in its speed." 

    Well, yes. The air holds you up the entire time the plane is flying. But let's concentrate on the engine. The author never explicitly says that the engines were turned off, but several times he talks about the "noiselessness" as they "power down." To which I say again, Really? 

    Any plane reduces power as it descends for a landing. An airliner would need to slow down from its 400+ knot cruising speed to the low-100-kt range for final approach -- and do so even as it is descending, which speeds the plane up. Pilots manage that transition through reduced power. But for a wheels-up landing the pilots might maintain more power than usual just before touchdown, not less, so as to make the final contact with the ground as gentle and gradual as possible.

    5) The Philadelphia disaster team. According to the story, the plane circled over Philadelphia because its airport had the best disaster-response team. Reportedly the author heard this judgment from another passenger who worked for FEMA rather than directly from the pilot. Still, it sounds odd. 

    All big airports have on-scene fire squads and equipment to spread fire-retardant foam over the  runway to protect an inbound wheels-up plane. It is 100% believable that pilots of a such a plane would be looking for a nearby airport that had the longest runways, or the ones best aligned with the wind. Choosing this airport on the basis of EMT teams sounds strange. No offense to Philly, but what would be wrong with Boston -- site of the miracle trauma-treatment scenes after the Marathon bombing? If the plane needed to burn fuel for two hours, it could easily have gotten there.

    6) When did this happen, anyway? Practically the only specific reference in the story was to Philadelphia. Otherwise there is no mention of: which airline this was, or when it occurred, or on what kind of plane, or where the trip began. Any of these, of course, would make the story easier to verify.

    So, maybe this all happened. I know, from experience, that the NYT Magazine has good fact checkers. But a lot of details sound very unlikely to me.
  • Kicking Passengers Off Planes: A United Captain Weighs In

    The struggle to find a modus vivendi in the skies

    Last month we went 15 rounds over the saga of the United flight from Denver to Baltimore that made an unscheduled stop in Chicago, so that a family could be taken off the plane by police. The parents' offense was to complain about a violent/sexy PG-13 movie that was being shown on the cabin's overhead screens in front of their two little boys. Even the movie's director wrote in to say that he never imagined that the film, Alex Cross, would be shown in general-viewing circumstances like this. You can get all the detail you want here or here.

    Two reasons to follow up. First, a parents' group that has been petitioning United to change its movie-choice policy claims victory. Here's a note I received from one of its organizers:
    We won! ...Our voice combined with other voices of journalists, traveling parents, and organizations like the Campaign for a Commericial Free Childhood made this happen.

    I hoped to get the full policy from United Airlines to share with you.  But I am satisfied with this for now:

    "From: "CustomerCare@united.com" <customercare@united.com>
    To: D... 
    Sent: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:57 AM
    Subject: United Airlines - 

    Dear Ms. xx:  
    The policy change is that the standards are in line with guidelines of  
    PG-rated movies.  More review may be underway, however this is internal 
    company information.
    Regards, 
    Cxxxx 
    Customer Care

    Now who wants to contact American Airlines and Delta?!?"

    Congratulations to the families that asked for the change. Apart from revising its movie policy, as best I can tell United has never apologized for or acknowledged the original over-reaction -- that of humiliating the family by turning them over to the police. I've had no followup beyond the opaque statement I quoted a month ago. 


    Next, a very interesting dispatch from another United pilot. This note is actually in response to an incident reported by someone else: Matthew Klint, who was kicked off a flight from Newark to Istanbul after a flight attendant (falsely) told the captain that he was disobeying orders to stop taking photos. The whole tale is almost too bizarre to be believed, but you can scroll through the follow-up accounts here. The essential point is that a number of other passengers later confirmed that the flight attendant had over-reacted and misled the captain about what Mr. Klint was doing, but the captain nonetheless made him leave the plane (and miss connecting flights and meetings) before it took off.

    I know the real name of the pilot who sent in the note below, but he (or she) has understandably asked me not to use it. Worth reading:
    I am a Captain with United Airlines. I have been with UA for over 25 years. There is no excuse for the way you [actually Matthew Klint] were treated on your Newark Istanbul flight.

    Let me tell you how the incident should have been handled. I had a very similar incident on a Las Vegas-Dulles flight. A flight attendant told me of a disruptive passenger that would not move his underage son out of the exit row. I went out of the cockpit to see what was going on. I went to Customer Service and had them come back to the airplane. I spoke with the man. I wanted to hear his side of the story. He began to tell me how UA had put his special needs son in a different row than him. He had moved the child to the row because the FA had not listened to him, but ordered him to move the boy. While he was telling me his side the FA immediately tried to interrupt. I told her to let the man speak. When he was through I told him not to worry the Customer Service person would re-seat them so that we could get on our way.

    I wanted to point out the difference in approach to the situation. The flight attendant had told me what she thought was going on. She told me how they had to move or be thrown off the airplane. As a professional I wanted to get all the facts before just arbitrarily removing someone from the airplane. The situation was defused and we went on our way.

    I did not come out of the cockpit with the preconceived notion that I was going to throw someone off the ac. In your situation I would not have overreacted over pictures. I did not know such a rule even existed. I am confused about the picture thing anyway. I would have listened to you before I made a determination whether you had to leave.

    You need to know that United was not always so anti passenger in the past. Since continental took over our management they have brought in all kinds of rather strange and illogical rules.

    1. You cannot take pictures, I assume because of security, but they are paying to have the secondary barriers that protect the cockpit removed from our aircraft.

    2. You cannot pay cash for your food or drinks in coach.

    3. You can order special meals such as Hindu, but you will most likely get a burger because management is from Texas and everyone likes beef right? (Didn't work out so well with a group of Indian Hindu engineers in First Class coming from London. You know the sacred cow and all. I apologized to them, but the damage was done.)

    We are supposed to speak to our CEO like he is a close friend or something. If you don't call him Jeff he becomes upset. [JF note: This is Jeff Smisek, well known to all United travelers because of the video ads featuring him that precede the safety instructions on each flight.] They call everyone co-workers. They setup a human resource complaint system so that anyone can file formal complaints against their fellow workers for the littlest thing. You can be terminated. We have over 200 complaints being investigated just for the pilots so far.

    My point is the new UA management is anti-employee as well as anti-passenger. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone. Some people handle it differently than others. I think your case is a perfect example.

    I on behalf of all United Airlines employees would like to apologize to you to your ordeal. Management might think they are too important to apologize, but I think you would find the people that make the airline work don't think that way.

    I appreciate the care that went into this note, and want to take the chance to say again that when there is a troubled corporate culture, the tone is almost always set at the top. I'm also grateful to the other United employees with whom I've had interesting and revealing talks in the (many) trips I've taken in the past month.

  • The Glamour Has Always Been There: David Broder Edition

    Of floors and shoes

    Recently I posted a couple of pictures illustrating the role that airport-terminal floors play in the Atlantic's article-production process.


    My friend Matt Broder, son of the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, reminded me that floors have long played an important role in journalism. He said that the LAX photo made him think of the one below, showing his father at work. From various clues in the photo I would guess it was taken in the mid-to-late 1970s or the early-to-mid 1980s.

    DavidBroder.png

    Matt Broder adds:
    The category, I guess, is "It Was Ever Thus for Journalists, Even Before The Internet."

    This is, by the way, my all-time favorite photo of my dad.  How happy I am to find it on The Atlantic's own website! [In an item about David Broder by Ron Brownstein.]

    In turn, one lovely detail in this photo made me think of a famous shot from the historical archives. It's of Adlai Stevenson, during his 1952 presidential campaign:

    AdlaiShoes.jpg

    There is a related great picture of Obama-and-shoes, from the 2008 campaign, that I'll let you find. Working hypothesis: three striking photos of politically involved figures who are too busy to tend to their shoes all involve people from Illinois. Discuss.

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author