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: Aviation

  • Fly'n'Drive Notes From All Over

    Look! Right here on the road! It's an ... airplane.

    Scene 1, from China this week. Thanks to many people there who sent me this news item and asked whether I had missed my historic chance:

    A mysterious and debonair foreigner lands a plane on a road in Sichuan province, taxis over to a gas station and fills up, and then heads on his way. The Youku video below is in Chinese, but you'll get the idea. [Update there seems to be an intermittent loading issue on the Chinese side. If you don't see anything below, you can check the Youku video out here.]

    More in English here and here. For me this is the path not taken. Background on China's aviation ambitions, and why they matter, here.

    Scene 2, Holland. Last summer I mentioned an intriguing flying-car concept from Holland, the PAL-V.  Now the company says the device is on sale in Europe.  

    When someone gets one (it retails for >$400,000), please give me a ride. Thanks to reader EG; more at OZYBloomberg TV, and the company's news site. For good measure, here is its video too:

     

    3) Scene 3, somewhere in U.S military-contractor land. I offer you this:

    Hey, it can drive, and it can fly. Official name: the Black Knight Transformer (seriously). More details here. Thanks again to EG.

    4) Scene 4, the small airport nearest you. A new company called OpenAirplane is trying to make itself the small-plane equivalent of the nation's car-rental network. The idea is that you get a "check-out" -- a test-flight with a company examiner to show that you can fly a certain kind of plane -- and then you are OKd to rent the company's planes around the country. This replaces the current system in which airplane renting is very rarely practical, since you have to get separately checked out at each airport where you might like to fly.  More info here and here. This fits today's fly'n'drive scheme in that you could drive to an airport where you happened to be and then fly on.

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  • 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. 

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  • Today's 777s-in-Peril Update: Asiana 214, MH 370

    Lawyers offer their contention of why a pilot is not to blame for one accident. A former NTSB investigator directs blame at the pilot in another.

    How a plane looks just before touchdown into a strong crosswind. This is hard. The Asiana landing at SFO should have been easy. ( YouTube )

    1) Asiana 214. If you'd like to see professional pilots landing big airplanes, under difficult circumstances, with hundreds of lives at stake, watch any 20-second portion of this video below, taken at Dusseldorf airport during a very strong crosswind. Even the first 15 seconds will give you the idea. Or the elegant maneuver by an Air Berlin crew from 1:40 to 1:55.

    What you'll see in all cases are pilots executing the familiar "crab-into-kick" procedure for crosswind landings. First the plane "crabs" -- it approaches at an angle, to keep its direction of flight aligned with the runway. Then, just as the plane is about to touch down, the pilot "kicks" the rudder to align the airplane itself with the runway. That allows the plane to land without putting impossible cross-stress loads on the landing gear.

    Some of the landings in this clip are more precise than others, and some of that variation is beyond the pilots' control, depending on last-minute gusts and shifts in wind. But all of them show the proficiency expected of professional flight crews. 

    Watch a little of that, including artful landings of Boeing 777s, and then consider the claim from Asiana airlines' lawyers, as reported yesterday in the NYT, that autopilot software was somehow to blame for the crash of an Asiana 777 at SFO last year.

    Remember that this crash -- which killed three people, injured many more, destroyed the airplane, and shut down the airport for a time -- happened on a clear day, with light winds, in what would be considered the very most benign flying conditions. Remember that according to cockpit recordings, other members of the flight crew were warning the captain that he was mis-flying the approach and letting the plane get too "low and slow." And consider that in the two decades of the 777's operation, with many hundreds of thousands of landings worldwide by the more than 1000-strong airplane fleet, there appear to have been zero reported incidents of autopilots causing the plane to land short of the runway. You can read a 777 accident/incident list here. The one other episode involving auto-throttles and landing problems, in 2008, was traced to ice that obstructed the fuel system and kept the engines from responding properly. This was not a factor for the Asiana at SFO.

    Of course we shouldn't prejudge the legal process. And if you were a lawyer for Asiana, you'd probably try to push this "the autopilot made me do it" argument too. But, c'mon.

    [For the record, I am an admirer of NYT reporter Matthew Wald, but -- as he knows -- I disagree with the implication of the lead of his story. It was this, with emphasis added:

    While the world has been fixated on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Korean carrier involved in the crash of a different Boeing 777, the Asiana flight into San Francisco last July, raised design issues on Monday that put another question mark over the model of jetliner.

    The Asiana and Malaysia episodes have absolutely nothing in common, and from my perspective nothing in the Asiana lawyers' filing "puts another question mark" over one of the world's most widely used and best-safety-record airplanes. To me, this connection is like saying that a car-jacking put "another question mark" over a certain model of car, if that car had also experienced carburetor problems.]

    2) Malaysia 370. No theory of the plane's disappearance makes sense. But I've mentioned several times that I thought the "Chris Goodfellow scenario" required few logical leaps than most. Goodfellow, a Canadian who now lives in Florida, has hypothesized the following sequence: a sudden inflight emergency, followed by a turn back toward airports in Malaysia, followed by a still-unexplained incapacitation of the crew, and a still-unexplained flight out over the ocean.

    If you would like to see an argued-out (rather than merely speculative) version of a contrary hypothesis, check out this on Leeham News and Comment. The item is based on an interview with Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, who argues (a) that the wreckage might well never be found, and (b) that the most likely scenarios, in his view, involve one of the pilots deliberately bringing the plane down. Sample:

    Feith believes there will be several plausible theories that all will point to a deliberate act by someone with intimate knowledge of flying the Boeing 777, most likely one of the pilots.

    Too many deliberate actions maneuvering the airplane and turning off communications systems occurred to have any plausible mechanical failure explanation. He completely discounts theories that a fire, either in the electronics bay or involving lithium-ion batteries being transported in a cargo bay, disabled the airplane.

    He also discounts a theory that there was a depressurization that incapacitated the pilots and allowed the 777 to meander over the skies of the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia and the Strait of Malacca before turning south 3,000 miles over the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.

    No one knows what happened, and it's possible that we may never, or not for a very long time, get conclusive evidence one way or another. But this article is worth considering as a strong counter to the inflight-emergency view.

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  • Where to Get Your Next Fix of MH370 News

    Chris Goodfellow, who has offered the so-far least-unlikely explanation of what happened, does a 90-minute Q&A.

    Evolving search areas for Malaysia Air 370. ( via VOA )

    Executive summary of what you'll find below: If you're looking for more discussion of MH370, please swap the first 90-minutes of this "Google Plus Week" (embed below) for the next 90 minutes you would spend with cable news. It features the person who came up with the at-the-moment-least-implausible explanation of what happened, and its BS/insanity quotient is practically nil, in stark contrast to the normal cable level.

    Now the details.


    Yesterday I was on CNN's Reliable Sourceswith Brian Stelter (and Poynter's Andrew Beaujon), talking about the way CNN, in particular, has decided to go wall-to-wall in covering the missing airplane. Stelter pointed out that when CNN dealt with MH370, its ratings went up; when it didn't, the ratings went down. Therefore the network had quite rationally decided to make itself into the Missing Plane Channel for the foreseeable future, much as it became the Gulf War Channel in the early 1990s, in the period that first established its worldwide role.

    I replied: I understand this business logic, which fits the reality of the modern highly diversified news ecology. If you want to find out, right now, what's up with sports, or weather, or the stock market, or political trends, you know where to go. If you want to find out about the MH370 search, you know you can go to CNN.

    But my main complaint was that CNN had been so undiscriminating in filling these hours with nutso speculation -- black holes, "radar shadow," attack on Israel -- right alongside people who kept their discussion within the realm of the plausible. It's one thing to say that almost nothing is known about what happened with the plane. It's something else to have people gas on about things with no evidence to support them and with strong common-sense obstacles to being true.

    Political analogy: no one knows who will be elected president in 2016. But if we treated electoral handicapping the way cable news has often treated MH370, we'd have panelists speculating how Megyn Kelly might do against Stephen Colbert in the crucial swing states. ("Kelly will help the Republicans with the youth vote, and women, without in any way depressing interest from their traditional base of older white men. But Colbert, who is from South Carolina, could open new possibilities...") After all, you can't prove they won't be the nominees.

    Which brings us to Chris Goodfellow. Nearly three weeks ago, when most discussion concerned hijacking or pilot criminality, he offered on Google+ a different MH370 hypothesis. In essence it was: that some mid-flight emergency (probably a fire) had broken out on the plane; that the pilots had immediately turned back toward the nearest big airport, which was on an island off Malaysia; that for some still-unknown reason they had become incapacitated or disabled; that also for unknown reasons, possibly fire that disabled their radios, they had not been able to communicate; and that the plane, on autopilot, had flown on until it either ran out of fuel or crashed for another reason.

    Soon thereafter, I wrote that this was the first hypothesis that made face-value sense to me. Maybe things didn't play out this way --  but this scenario started out with the Occam's Razor advantage of requiring fewer assumptions or suspensions of probability than others.

    An item in Slate immediately and with great certainty declared that Goodfellow's scenario could not be true. Its author, Jeff Wise, became a regular on CNN making that same point -- and meanwhile promoting the hypothesis that the plane had landed in Central Asia. Eg, "the 777 is capable of landing on small airstrips and on relatively unimproved surfaces, such as packed dirt and dry lake beds. In such a scenario, the odds are good that, unless they were murdered, the passengers remain alive." (Also here. For the record, in his original anti-Goodfellow item Wise included me among people who he thought had been taken in by Goodfellow. He knows that I disagree with him.)

    This weekend Chris Goodfellow did a Q-and-A session on the "Google Plus Week" channel on YouTube. The next time you're looking for 90 minutes' worth of discussion of what could have happened, what we know and don't, and why the plane's reported cargo of lithium ion batteries deserves attention, I'd recommend this over any comparable time with cable news.

    It could turn out that Goodfellow's view is entirely wrong, but his pattern of thinking about the puzzle is systematic and worth hearing.

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  • As the Search Goes On for the Plane That Disappeared, How Can So Many Flights Take Off and Land Safely Each Day?

    More on the details of designing for 1-in-a-billion accident rates.

    Representation of flights underway at any given moment. ( Flixxy.com )

    Earlier today, I quoted the longtime aviation writer J. Mac McClellan on the one-in-a-billion risk factor to which modern aircraft design is held. Someone familiar with such standards writes in:

    I'm a system safety engineer for a small-ish system supplier, so I'm pretty familiar with the 10^-9 standard. There are a number of issues with probabilistic risk assessment, but I think the history of the 1 in a billion standard is pretty interesting. This is an excerpt from the proposed rule change to FAA regulations regarding system design, referred to as the ARSENAL draft of 25.1309. [Excerpt begins:]

    The British Civil Airworthiness Requirements (BCAR) were the first to establish acceptable quantitative probability values for transport airplane systems.  The primary objective in establishing these guidelines was to ensure that the proliferation of critical systems would not increase the probability of a serious accident.  Historical evidence at the time indicated that the probability of a serious accident due to operational and airframe-related causes was approximately one (accident) per one million hours of flight.  Further, about 10 percent of the total accidents were attributed to failure conditions caused by the airplane’s systems. Consequently, it was determined that the probability of a serious accident from all such failure conditions should not be greater than one per 10 million flight hours, or “1 x 10 -7  per flight hour,” for a newly designed airplane.  Commensurately greater acceptable probabilities were established for less severe outcomes. 

    The difficulty with the 1 x 10 -7  per flight hour probability of a serious accident, as stipulated by the BCAR guideline, was that all the systems on the airplane must be collectively analyzed numerically before it was possible to determine whether the target had been met.   For this reason, the  (somewhat arbitrary) assumption that there would be no more than 100 failure conditions contributing to a catastrophe within any given transport category airplane type design was made. It apparently was also assumed that, by by regulating the frequency of less severe outcomes: 

     * only 'catastrophic failure conditions' would significantly contribute to the probability of catastrophe, and  

     * all contributing failure conditions could be foreseen. 

    Therefore, the targeted allowable average probability per flight hour of 1 x 10 -7  was apportioned equally among 100 catastrophic failure conditions, resulting in an allocation of not greater than 1 x 10 -9   to each.  The upper limit for the average probability per flight hour for catastrophic failure conditions became the familiar “1 x 10 -9 .”  Failure conditions having less severe effects could be relatively more likely to occur." [Excerpt ends.]   

    They basically worked backwards from the existing accident rate, made a few assumptions about contributions from complex systems and got us this number. There are a few questionable assumptions such as the number of catastrophic failure conditions. Thankfully, more goes into safety now than estimating probabilities such as human factors and common cause assessments. But it does point out that the standard was arbitrary to begin with, so changes in public perception may eventually change the standard.

    One minor correction on Mr McClellan's note. The 10^-9 standard is referred to as "extremely improbable" rather than just "improbable" and it is in terms of average probability per flight hour, not per average flight. See section 7c(1) of the arsenal draft of 25.1309 under "Probability Ranges."

    (1) Probability Ranges. 

          (i) Probable Failure Conditions are those having an Average Probability Per Flight Hour greater than of the order of 1 x 10-5 .  

          (ii) Remote Failure Conditions are those having an Average Probability Per Flight Hour of the order of 1x 10-5 or less, but greater than of the order of 1 x 10-7 . 

          (iii) Extremely Remote Failure Conditions are those having an Average Probability Per Flight Hour of the order of 1x 10-7 or less, but greater than of the order of 1 x 10-9. 

          (iv) Extremely Improbable Failure Conditions are those having an Average Probability Per Flight Hour of the order of 1x 10-9 or less. 

    I sent this to Mac McClellan, and he replies as shown below. (We added the photo, which is of a different engine failure from the one he mentions):

    Yes, the standard evolved over time and has some interesting twists. For example, passengers can be seated in a turbine engine rotor burst zone and would presumably be killed by a burst. A rotor burst energy is now treated as infinite and debris will pass through anything or anybody in the zone. However, no required crew can be located in the burst zone. The 10-9 standard doesn't necessarily apply to a passenger or passengers staying alive, but to the airplane and it's ability to reach a runway.

    Destroyed turbine engine from a Delta MD-88 with P&W engine, in 1996. (Wikipedia photo)

    Also, much of the historic data floating around is historic. Rules change constantly, and there was a big change after the DC-10 in Iowa where the center engine exploded. Douglas had installed triple hydraulic lines to the tail control surfaces but the lines were routed close together. The engine burst took out all three systems. Up to that time triplex was enough. After that triplex was only good enough when you could demonstrate that no single foreseeable event would take out all three.

    The 777 was certified under pretty current rules, as was its FBW which does meet the 10-9 through triple redundancy and several levels of computer participation. The final level is direct law where the cockpit controls command direct movement of a surface with no enhancement or protection for speed or CG [Center of Gravity] or other considerations.

    This is way more technical detail than most people will want to follow. But so much of this story, which continues to command interests, turns on precise technical details; and for those who are interested in the safety and redundant-design criteria of modern aircraft, this will be instructive.

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  • When a 1-in-a-Billion Chance of Accident May Not Seem 'Safe Enough'

    The very safety of modern air travel makes accidents both intellectually more difficult and emotionally more disturbing.

    Navy pilots fly a P-8A Poseidon during a mission to assist in search and rescue operations for MH370. (US Navy)
    As the mystery about the fate and location of MH370 continues, and as theories come and go about what might have happened, here is a note from J. Mac McClellan, long-time editor of Flying magazine, about a phenomenon I've mentioned frequently. First-world commercial air travel has become so extremely safe that when something does go wrong, figuring it out can be a huge challenge -- which heightens the mystery and, for many people, the terror of these episodes, by making them seem so random. You're sitting there grumbling about the discomforts of modern flight -- and then, for no apparent reason, your plane is the one headed into the sea. McClellan writes: 

    As you probably know the FAA standard, and pretty much the global standard, for certifying critical components and systems is one in a billion probability of failure, or 10 to the minus 9th. The FAA calls this standard "improbable."

    That means in a transport category airplane [JF note: this includes airliners] the certification standard for a failure, or combination of failures, that would prevent the airplane from successfully landing on a runway must be one in a billion flights. Not hours, flights.

    I remember that when the 777 was introduced it was such a sales success and was expected to live such a long service life that some people speculated the fleet could actually make a billion flights. Of course, you don't need to make a billion flights to draw the magic short one-in-a-billion straw. But it is something to think about. Transport flying is now so safe that the long time standard of 10 to the minus 9th may not satisfy the public.

    I'm sure you are also tired of hearing about all of the things a transponder does that it really can't. Every comment on a transponder says it reports course and speed, but we know a transponder, even a Mode S as you have and the 777 has, reports only an identification code and Mode C pressure altitude. Course and speed all must be calculated by observation by radar. I guess the media and experts have mixed up what ADS-B does with what a transponder does. [For more on transponders, here; on for ADS-B, here.]

    Also odd that the 777 FBW [fly-by-wire, or electronic system for directing the airplane's control surfaces] system has escaped almost all speculation. It was the first for Boeing. And it was failure of the pitot input that put the FBW system into "direct law." [That is, it disabled the normal automated limits on "control inputs" the pilots could give to the airplane. In "normal law," which prevails within normal flight circumstances, the autopilot impedes or buffers any control input thought to be unsafe, for instance too sharp a turn or too steep a climb at too low an airspeed.] This handed the Air France crew an airplane that the computer could no longer control while expecting the humans to quickly diagnose a problem the computers couldn't. I'm not saying FBW has anything to do with 370 but it must be on the list of considerations.

    This is not speculation, simply some basic info that I haven't seen touched on during the endless TV interviews and such.

    The sobering point here is again that the very safety of modern air travel makes these episodes both intellectually and emotionally even more difficult.

    One other aspect of the drama is the national reactions and tensions it has highlighted -- of course in Malaysia and China, also in Australia, even in Israel. Thanks to many people writing in with on-scene reports of reactions in China and Malaysia. Will sort them out and report as I can.

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  • The Freedom and Risk of Wingsuit Flying: Sean Leary

    When a man is tired of wingsuit videos ... 

    The "exit" of a flight ( Great Book of Base )

    I mentioned last week that I was admiringly fascinated by wingsuit videos but could never imagine leaping off those cliffs myself.

    In the video below, Sean "Stanley" Leary, a very well-known figure in the field, describes the exhilaration and freedom he has found in this pursuit. "The best part -- well, there's a lot of best parts, but the first best part..." he says late in this clip.

    Sean's Freedom from Chad Copeland on Vimeo.

    What he is describing sounds dangerous, and is. Earlier this month Sean Leary was killed, at age 38, during a wingsuit flight at Zion National Park in Utah. You can read more about his story here and here.


    The video above is of course all the more poignant in light of how his deliberate embrace of risk ended. But it is also very eloquent, just on its own. For instance, compare Leary's description, during the first minute of this clip, of the "exit" or moment of leaping off and beginning flight, with what you see starting at time 1:40 in the well-known clip below.

    Or with what you see starting at time 0:15 of this terrifying one, from Italy.

    This is posted to close the loop after previous wingsuit mentions, and to note the outlook with which Leary and his colleagues approach these risks, and with great sympathies for his wife, who is now pregnant with their first child.

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  • When a Man Is Tired of Wingsuit Videos, He Is Tired of Life ...

    The world is big and interesting, chapter 438.

    ... as Samuel Johnson might have sayeth, if he had gotten a look at these things.

    We've previously explored the wonders of wingsuit-flying in China and assorted sites in Europe (plus underwater). Now I give you Switzerland, via Epic TV* and our friends at AOPA:

     

    And in case you missed the flying-and-diving video the first time around, here it is again.

    Plus, for some terrifying/riveting wingsuit video. check out this.

    I love flying airplanes but would never dare try one of these wingsuit stunts. I also never get tired of seeing them. They have a dream/nightmare quality that is immediately recognizable though hard to define.


    * Tech note: Sometimes this video displays an annoying Epic TV banner announcement across its upper half through its whole duration. If that happens, try refreshing the page and viewing the video again. That seems to thwart it.

  • 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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  • Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More

    Has the plane landed at a secret site? Probably not; here's why.

    Dr. No, who had a hidden island command center ( via Glamstruck )

    Update: See previous articles at the bottom of this post.

    The ongoing Malaysia 370 investigation coincides with my being in transit, with family, and away from the Internet most of each day. (Writing this from the passenger seat of a car on a four-hour drive, hoping that my TMobile hotspot via Samsung Galaxy III holds up.) Here is a quick update on some of the developments since the inflight dispatch yesterday:

    1) Derek Thompson sums up recent news for the Atlantic. You can see it here.

    2) Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What's most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight -- whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.

    It's possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word "confirms," before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful "journalistic" figure in the world is ... well, it "confirms" a lot of judgments about Murdoch.

    3) What about those cellphones?  We all know that cellphones can minutely track our movements as we walk or bike through cities or drive through the countryside. So why aren't they being used to track this flight?

    One answer: We don't know whether all the phones were seized and disabled, if this was a hijacking. Another: phones can track us in our normal life because we're operating right at ground level, and in places designed to offer phone coverage. At airliner-flight levels, 35,000 feet in the case of this plane, and at airliner speeds, there usually is no coverage. (Try to make a call from 30,000+ feet on your next cross-country flight.) At any altitude there is usually no coverage over open water or in remote, jungle, mountain, or desert areas, which describes most of the path of this flight. More in a good AP explainer here

    4) What about some other runway? Buried in our collective memory is the image from You Only Live Twice, or even Dr. No** (which I mention as an excuse to use the poster above),  or other fantasy movies of a hidden, secret runway that magically opens up just long enough for an airplane to land, and then disappears or is covered over again. Sadly I do not see such an image on the Internet right now.

    Based on the facts as now understood, it is conceivable that the plane, rather than crashing, was deliberately flown to some remote side. (In another Tweet, Rupert Murdoch said it would be somewhere similar to Osama bin Laden's Af-Pak hideout.) 

    The main challenge here is that a Boeing 777 is a big airplane, which needs a big, flat space on which to safely land. This Boeing technical manual suggests that in normal circumstances, you'd want 7,000 feet or more to land a plane full of passengers and have margin for error. Slate quoted a 777 pilot who said that if the plane was on fire (ie, the worst kind of in-flight emergency), he would try to put it down on anything above 5,000 feet. 

    WNYC has produced a map showing the 5,000-foot runways within conceivable flight range of the plane. Sample here:

    Theoretically possible landing sites, via WNYC

    Congrats for the work that went into this  -- and I mean to sound supportive rather than churlish in hoping that the next version of the map will have popups giving the names of the relevant airports, plus elevation and runway length. My guess is that only a small fraction of those shown would be suitable -- by terrain, location, elevation, and other factors -- as a deliberate diversion site. And even if all of them were feasible, it's a finite list. Most airports that big would have control towers; in that part of the world, many would be military-run; and spy satellites can easily pick out mile-long runways from above.

    My claim: if the plane had landed at a runway big enough to handle it, we would know that by now.

    5) What about the 45,000-foot altitude claim, and the 40,000-feet-per-minute descent? Reports since last night speculated that the plane had climbed very high, and then descended very fast, perhaps indicating: an incompetent/amateur pilot; a professional pilot bent on disorienting the passengers or destroying the plane; or something else strange. 

    To put this in perspective: in normal airline flights, you have rarely if ever been above 40,000 feet. Most airliners operate in the high-20s through the high-30s, in thousands of feet. Assuming that pressurization systems still worked, passengers wouldn't necessarily have noticed a difference at 45,000.

    They certainly would have noticed a 40,000-fpm descent. In normal airline flights, you've rarely if ever felt a descent of more than 2,000-fpm. Most of the time, airliners go down by 1,000 - 1,500 fpm. Descending 20 or 30 times that fast would mean that the plane was pointed more or less straight down, with engines running. 

    So if this happened, it would have been remarkable, and terrifying. And among the problems would be pulling out of the dive without subjecting the plane (and crew and passengers) to G-forces beyond what any of them were designed to tolerate.

    6) What about the Chinese role? There will be a lot more here, but for now, before we head into an area where my little hotspot will give out, here is a note from a reader making good points:

    Since you're one of the few people left who think of aviation as part and parcel of a national identity, the Chinese reaction has been fascinating as well.   

    1.  The highly responsible and flexible response by the Chinese leadership

    2.  The obvious panic by the public and family members who are not being kept in the loop and may (or may not) have easy access to information.

    3.  The inability of said Chinese leadership to 100% control their own people (the satellite leak,etc).

    The now default American security response (Terrorists!  Coming to get us!) is pretty weak as well.  Although one would hope the NSA can get away from Yahoo Chat for a few minutes to do something useful.

    Signal is flickering out. More when back on line.

    Previous posts on Malaysia 370:

    1. The first grim indications

    2. Why cable news should be on a 24-hour news delay

    3. How airplanes report their data while flying and more

    4. Why a better black box won't help and more


    ** My Atlantic colleague and movie guru Christopher Orr writes in to set the record straight:

    This is Thunderball, where the pilot's twin brother takes his place, hijacks the plane, and lands it on the bottom of the ocean. 

    Though the purpose is less clear in this case, given that MA 370 presumably wasn't carrying nukes.

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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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  • Ukraine and Malaysia Airlines: Why Cable News Should Be on a 24-Hour Delay

    The best reactions to breaking news are rarely the first ones.

    Malaysia Airlines 777, at Kuala Lumpur airport ( Wikipedia photo )

    I have been offline most of these past few days and thus not weighing in on daily developments. But let me mention three items whose similarity concerns cast of mind.

    1) Adam Gopnik on Crimea. This is several days old in The New Yorker but very much worth reading if you have missed it. For instance:

    With Ukraine and Crimea suddenly looming as potential [WW I-style] Sarajevos, the usual rhetoric of credibility and the horrors of appeasement comes blaring from the usual quarters. People who, a week ago, could not have told you if Crimea belonged to Ukraine—who maybe thought, based on a vague memory of reading Chekhov, that it was Russian all along—are now acting as though the integrity of a Ukrainian Crimea is an old and obvious American interest. What they find worse than our credibility actually being at stake is that we might not act as though it always is.  

    As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we "have" to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay. Maybe there has been a case in which immediate reflex-response to big news has seemed wise in the long run. Right now I can't think of any.

    Naturally this reminds me of an adage from the piloting world: In most emergencies, the crucial first thing to do is ... nothing. Take a deep breath, calm down, steady your nerves, count to 10, and then "fly the airplane" as you begin applying knowledge rather than panicked instincts to the options at hand. Which brings us to:

    2) Patrick Smith on Malaysia Airlines. At Ask The Pilot, airline pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith makes the frustrating but unavoidable point about the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight: We have no idea what happened, and it may be a long time (if ever) before we do.

    Here are the tactical points involved in this argument:

    • Commercial airline flight is now statistically so safe that when something does go wrong, the causes are often mysterious by definition. That is because the non-mysterious risks for airlines have been buffed away. The most famous recent exception was the Asiana crash at SFO last year. It looked from the start like a simple case of pilot error, and that is where all subsequent evidence points. But many other tragedies have taken months or years to sleuth out. 
       
    • The first reports after a crash should be viewed with great suspicion, because experience shows they're probably wrong. What the NYT says in its current headline about Malaysia Airlines applies to most disaster coverage:

      For this reason it  would be great to have a 24-hour tape-delay on most disaster coverage as well. 

      This goes in spades for any coverage on the lines of, "This latest tragedy proves that [theory X] is true." Most instant-analyses of this sort I can think of were grossly wrong; when they're right, that's often due to luck rather than insight. This principle applies not only to air crashes but also to mass shootings, bombings, episodes of suspected terrorism, and similar tragedies for which people crave an explanation.
       
    • Might the Malaysian plane have broken up in flight? Yes. Might it have been hijacked? Perhaps. Might both pilots have conked out? Maybe. Could there have been an on-board bomb? Perhaps. Does this show a problem with the Boeing 777? Likely not. Does it have anything to do with the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco? Hard to imagine how it could. Did the stolen passports matter? Conceivably. Might the plane have been hit by a meteor? Or undone by pilot suicide? I suppose anything is possible. But these are all in the realm of "would King Kong beat Godzilla?" until there is more evidence, which can take a long time.

    The strategic point is: We do crave explanations, especially for bad news. Pilots are more prone to this tendency than anyone else. If you pick up an aviation magazine, you'll see that half the stories concern disasters, usually with the theme: Here is why bad things happened, and how to keep them from happening to you. But sometimes bad things happen for reasons no one can explain. Let's hope there is at least an instructive explanation, eventually, for this one. 

    Update: I am sorry to see that the usually excellent Foreign Policy has gone in for speculation-ahead-of-facts in a big way, e.g. here and, with the caveat that it is reporting on speculation, here.

    3) Jim Sleeper on the New Cold War. In an item about Leon Wieseltier for The Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper gives another instance of what I'm suggesting is a larger point: that rushing, quickly, to larger self-confident, self-righteous stands is usually a source of error. He reminds us of what a group of "strategists" told the public a few days after the 9/11 attacks:

    [E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.

    People who react this way have the right temperament for cable talk shows but the wrong one for decisions about the national interest. Cable pundits are in business to say, "The evidence is not yet in, but we know this means [xxx]." Give us leaders (and accident investigators) willing to say, Calm down. Breathe. Let's wait a minute, and think.

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  • Today in Security Theater, Air Force One Edition

    Thank you, Secret Service. But ... at airports?

    Wikimedia Commons
    Flight Aware, via Ari Ofsevit

    Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.

    WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there. 

    It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:

    Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?

    I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?

    Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?

    I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?

    On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.

    But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...

    In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.

  • Now This Is Team Spirit

    What the Wright Brothers have wrought. 

    I am taking no sides in The Big Game this weekend. I don't care.* 

    But I have to admire the combination of team spirit, precision flight planning, and disregard for practicality shown by the group at Boeing that produced this flight yesterday in solidarity with the Seahawks' "Twelfth Man" concept. Here is the radar record of the flight track, via Flight Aware.

     If you'd like to replicate the route, here are the waypoints, also courtesy of Flight Aware:

    SEA SEA146051 KS06G 4625N 12000W 4625N 11945W 4725N 11945W 4725N 12000W 4743N 12000W 4800N 11945W 4800N 11925W 4625N 11925W 4625N 11910W 4600N 11910W 4600N 11850W 4653N 11850W 4712N 11830W 4712N 11800W 4737N 11800W 4737N 11825W 4725N 11825W 4725N 11850W 4743N 11850W 4800N 11830W 4800N 11753W 4743N 11733W 4707N 11733W 4649N 11753W 4649N 11825W 4625N 11825W 4625N 11800W 4635N 11800W 4635N 11730W 4600N 11730W 4600N 11850W 4600N 11910W KS06G SUMMA SEA 

    It's up to you to find your own 747 to match** what Boeing flew.

    Update Here's the plane itself! Thanks to many readers in the Hawks diaspora who pointed me to stories about it (and this company photo).

    Update-update A reader who examined the Flight Aware charts adds this:

    Check the detailed flight data. They flew the 747 at 15,000 ft at 200 kts. In a way, that impresses me even more. Imagine flying your SR-22 at 1,500 ft and 80 kts for six hours straight.

    Yes, for an airliner this is quite low and slow -- comparable to early stages of an arrival/approach as an airliner is getting near an airport. For some other installment, what would be easier and harder about flying this way.


    * I grew up with the LA Rams: no más. My kids grew up with the DC NFL team: at this point, its continued flailing is not even interesting, the 15-year achievement of the league's worst ownership and management. So I decided that henceforth the community-owned Packers would be my team. For them, maybe next year.

    ** You'll probably also need to line up an RNP-style navigation system to plot out and follow this exact track, despite the powerful and variable jetstream winds blowing at those flight altitudes. I described the way some American-designed RNP systems were used for a different national-pride purpose, getting Chinese airliners into remote valley airports in Tibet, in China Airborne.  

  • In Which I Develop New Respect for the Wedding-Industrial Complex

    We know that football players are brave. But spare a thought as well for bride-magazine models.

    I have no world-changing point to make, but the scene below, this weekend, was quite amazing. Here is the back story:

    Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I came back to DC after a productive initial visit to Greenville and its environs in "the upstate" of South Carolina. We'll go there again, with a lot more to report.

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

    As always, I'd been obsessively studying the aviation weather forecasts to figure out the right time to make a shortish (two-hour) flight. We couldn't start too late in the day, to avoid worries about racing sunset. We wouldn't go at all if there was a prospect of icing.* I was looking for surface winds within the comfort zone, and so on.

    The result was that early afternoon yesterday looked like the sweet spot. The same jet-stream "clipper" pattern that has brought yet another polar freeze to the eastern United States had pushed away most of the clouds -- both the low-level clouds that complicate the process of landing, and the ones that, at altitude, would make you worry about airframe icing. The winds would be strong but would diminish through the day, and were lined up directly with the runway at our destination. And if, as we were traveling, they turned out to be worse than expected, we could land somewhere else with bigger runways, better aligned with the wind, and wait them out.

    It was cold enough yesterday morning in Greenville to ice up a fountain in front of the landmark Poinsett Hotel.** After taking off we encountered, as foreseen, very cold and fairly bumpy conditions.  At 7,000 feet, the winds aloft were blowing at 50 to 60 knots, or almost 70 miles per hour -- similar to when I flew with the Marketplace crew into Eastport, Maine. This makes for a kind of jostling that isn't dangerous but can be unpleasant. Through most of this flight it wasn't bad at all.***

    Here is the FlightAware track of the journey, more accurate than Flight Aware sometimes is. The dotted blue shows the Victor-airways based initially cleared route; the green, the route we actually flew, including shortcuts we were given along the way.

    As we made the fishhook turn toward Montgomery County airport, in Gaithersburg outside Washington, the reported surface winds were strong -- 16 knots, gusting to 23 -- but still directly down the runway. Recall that in the jet crash in Aspen early this month, the wind was even stronger -- but was a tailwind, which makes it difficult and dangerous to land. A gusty headwind requires concentration on landing, because the plane can speed up and slow down unexpectedly. But a strong down-the-runway headwind can add a slow-mo effect to the landing process, which gives extra time for landing adjustments.**** 

    So we landed; and got out of the plane; and were instantly blown halfway over by the strong Arctic wind. I was wearing a sweater and quickly pulled on a leather jacket, and still I felt within five seconds as if all the heat had left my body and my ears and fingers were crystallizing. The temperature was in the low 20s, and so was the wind, with a resulting wind chill in the Green Bay-like single digits.

    Then -- we saw the models! A debonair young guy wearing a light shirt and a tuxedo jacket draped over his shoulder, a beautiful young woman in a shoulderless white gown. And they were standing there, calm and smiling and, far from shivering uncontrollably, not even displaying goose flesh, in conditions that made me want to cry or run for shelter. 

    Through chilblains I finally asked them a version of, What the hell? It turns out that this was a photo shoot for a high-end bridal magazine, which when it comes out in a few months will look like some springtime idyll. We had unloaded bags from our plane while shivering and moaning, and the photo crew asked if we'd leave them there as background for a serendipitous white car / white gown / white shirt / white airplane look. You can see the bags underneath the plane in the shot at top. So we stood and watched while, with incredible stoicism, the young couple gave an impeccable impression of people enjoying a clement early-summer day. 

    What's the uplifting moral? 

    Lots of things have gotten way bigger during my time as an American. People themselves. Houses. Everything about pro football, which for some reason is on my mind today. And of course the wedding industry. ​Usually I mock or marvel at it. For now, I offer it my respect. 


    * The danger you must avoid in the summer: thunderstorms. In the winter: being inside a cloud in below-freezing temperatures, which can cover the wings with ice and turn an airplane into a non-flying brick.

    ** The Poinsett's transformation from a lawless crack house to a local-landmark status is a featured part of the downtown-renaissance saga in Greenville. And, yes, it is that Poinsett -- Joel Robert Poinsett, for whom the famous seasonal plant is named. That's the the hotel at right, also conveying an idea of the gelid-blue skies. Below we see Mr. Poinsett commemorated in front of his hotel -> crack house -> hotel.

    *** The blue line in the Flight Aware graph below shows speed across the ground, in the second half of the flight. Until the big slowdown at the end in preparation for landing, the plane's airspeed through this whole journey was constant. The fluctuations up and down in groundspeed were all about shifts in the wind's speed and direction. (The tan line is altitude; the spike on the left side is some anomaly.)

    **** Why am I going into such detail? If you read the journalism of the 1920s and 1930s, you see that the practicalities of aviation were a part of normal discourse, they way descriptions of computer or smart phone use is today. So, ever a traditionalist, I am reaching back to the finest part of our heritage. 

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