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.
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.
No one knows the cause of the latest airline disaster, the Germanwings crash yesterday in Southern France. As is usually the case after crashes, most first-day speculation is wrong or implausible. Also as is usually the case, Patrick Smith of AskThePilot has debunked many of the most fanciful cable-news theories, for instance that the plane might somehow have been remotely controlled, like a drone, or victim of "hacking" of its flight software. Without getting into all the details, this is vanishingly unlikely to have been the cause, and is so far-fetched as to merit no on-air discussion time.
The main fact that is now established is that the airplane flew steadily along its course, descending at a faster-than-normal but not-necessarily-emergency rate of 4,000 feet per minute, until it flew right into a mountainside. This is the scenario known in aviation as Controlled Flight Into Terrain, or CFIT, and it usually occurs at night or in the clouds when a flight crew does not realize what it is about to hit. It is different from what you would expect if the plane had broken apart or suffered some other major structural or control failure while aloft.
The long, controlled flight path to disaster, combined with the reported absence of any radio transmission from the crew, would be consistent with the flight crew somehow being incapacitated and unable to control the plane. This scenario would involve:
a) something very bad happening very suddenly, like an explosive decompression or an electric fire that filled the cockpit with smoke;
b) the flight crew quickly dialing an expedited-descent rate into the autopilot (but not setting a minimum altitude at which to stop the descent); and then
c) the flight crew, for whatever reason, being disabled very soon afterwards, before they could level off at a safe altitude, adjust the autopilot's flight path to turn away from the mountains, or even make a radio call. This would also be consistent with their not switching the transponder, which emits a four-digit code identifying each flight, to the 7700 code for "Emergency." The flying world's mantra for priorities during an emergency is: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, in that order. So trying to get the plane down to a safer altitude would have come before bothering to make any radio calls.
Whether any of this happened, and why, is what a Cockpit Voice Recorder should eventually clarify, since the members of the crew would have been talking with each other even if they were not making radio calls. Until that is known, here is a dramatic illustration of how powerful and strangely undetectable the effects of hypoxia—lack of oxygen—can be.
Here is another disturbing one, "Four of Spades," which again conveys how limited oxygen can destroy reasoning power without the victim's being aware of it.
Back in the 1980s, I went through this pressure-chamber training before taking a flight (which I described in this magazine) in an Air Force F-15. The process was slightly different from what's shown in these videos: As the oxygen level went down, I was told to keep writing words and doing simple arithmetic problems on a little paper pad. When it was over, I looked at the pad and could barely understand any of the letters. I could, though, see that I had been unable to solve the math problem of 3 + 4.
Sympathies to all affected, and I hope at least the mystery of what happened can be solved soon.
It's obviously good news that no one appears to have been hurt when a Delta Air Lines flight skidded off a runway this morning at LaGuardia airport. Here's an aspect of the whole process I find enlightening:
Reader and aviation buff Ari Ofsevit sent a link to the LiveAtc.net recording of transmissions from the LaGuardia control tower while the episode was underway. It's not embeddable, but you can listen to an MP3 of the recording here. A listener's guide to what you'll hear:
• At about time 2:15, the tower controller clears a different Delta flight, number 1999, to land on Runway 13. The controller also reports that there is a noticeable but by no means hazardous 12-knot crosswind on landing, and that after a recent landing another airliner had reported "braking action good." Getting the wind report is a routine part of the landing process; the "braking action" information would be added only in slippery conditions like these.
Here's the FAA plate showing LaGuardia's layout, with arrows added by me. The red arrow shows the landing path to Runway 13. The blue arrow shows the approximate direction of the wind.
• At around time 2:40, the controller starts calling for the airliner that ran into trouble, Delta 1086, which presumably had just landed. He doesn't get any answer.
• About 30 seconds after that, the shift into emergency mode begins. A ground vehicle, "Car 100," checks in with the tower to say that there's a problem. By time 4:00, or barely one minute after the controller was calmly sequencing planes in for landing, one of the busiest airports in North America, with dozens of airplanes inbound for landing, is immediately ordered closed, as the ground crews try to assess how bad the problems are.
• Over the next few minutes, the tower controller first tells planes in the landing process to "go around," that is to abort their approach and climb away from the airport, and then sequences them to ... wherever else they will end up. The bad weather and flight cancellations today meant that the New York-area airspace was less jammed than normal. Even so, fitting extra traffic, at one minute's notice, into the flow for JFK and Newark (or airports farther away) is no simple feat.
This action continues with some intensity for the next few minutes. You can get a sample starting at 4:45, when another Delta crew checks in with everything-is-normal calmness only to hear that they are not allowed to land.
• At about 5:40, another air crew reports that the disabled Delta 1086 is leaking fuel. The tower controller passes on that info. After that come long periods of radio silence, when the controllers are on the telephones or talking with people other than air crews, and then bursts of instructions to airplanes that were about to take off but can't (for instance, around time 15:00 and 20:45), sending inbound airplanes somewhere else (and out of one another's way), and managing the turn-on-a-dime closure of this normally very busy terminal.
Why do I mention this? One reason is that real-time responses to crisis are just plain interesting—and you can enjoy the drama with clear conscience in a case like this, in which (apparently) no one was hurt. But the major reason is to emphasize a point that my wife Deb wrote about here, and that most air travelers never get a chance to witness. That is the remarkable unflappability of air-traffic controllers in circumstances that would leave most people very flapped.
When this LaGuardia controller first hears that the active runway is closed, and then that the entire airport has been closed, his voice rises in pitch. But at that moment he has no way of knowing whether this was a minor mishap or whether a planeload of people had just died on impact. He goes on to juggle a complete re-ordering of plans very quickly and in relative calm. Compared with the way most people in most roles handle the unexpected, air-traffic controllers are amazingly steady—as are the flight crews too. Since most things about modern airline travel are unpleasant for most of the traveling public in most circumstances, it's worth being reminded of how these professionals do their work.
Update: here is further relevant info from Ofsevit, which explains what you see below in the FlightAware track of Delta 1999, the plane just about to land when the airport is closed. The loops in its flight path are holding patterns and other delaying turns it had been instructed to make.
One other thing to note: disaster was averted by under a minute.
DL1999 reported an altitude of 700 feet when it was told to go around. It's possible it went even lower. At that time, it was going 139 knots (160 mph), and located at 40.8000, -73.9167. (And, no, the lack of more decimal places here is irrelevant, a plane's length and wingspan is 0.0003 degrees.) It was about 2.25 miles from the threshold of runway 13, and would have touched down 50 seconds later. Had it landed, it would have been a very close call whether it would have clipped the skidded plane, or the evacuees, or rescue equipment, which given the visibility it would not have seen until close in. And that's why we have specific landing slots at airports like LGA.
The pilots must have executed the operation cleanly, too; it's impressive how quickly they responded and changed course (they may have heard the previous chatter on the channel and been prepared). Considering that DL1999 had made four loops circling west of LGA, the passengers probably weren't happy about a go around at the time. But it certainly was the only option.
Yesterday I mentioned that I had innocently rolled up in a benign-looking puffy little white airplane and found myself sitting next to what looked like Darth Vader's personal jet. This was on the ramp outside the elegant Luxivair terminal at San Bernardino airport in California. Here was the scene yesterday:
What was this all-black airplane? Which even though it had Air Force insignia on the side didn't look like anything I was used to seeing?
Thank you, Internet! Readers pour in with answers. For instance, from a former Air Force officer:
The picture you posted of the black T-38 is a companion trainer from Beale AFB. U-2 pilots don't get enough flight hours to keep all their currencies up, so they fly around in those black T-38s to stay proficient.
And from another Air Force veteran who looked at the photo very closely:
The BB tail code on the bad-ass looking T-38 you parked on the ramp next to signifies Beale AFB. The U-2 squadron up there uses them to keep the pilots that are still flying the U-2 current for basic airmanship, since U-2 sorties are relatively few and far between and a pilot needs to fly a certain number of hours each month to be safe in the air, as you know.
Here's what the U-2 itself looks like, so you can see the similarity in paint scheme if little else:
And, from a fellow small-plane pilot:
A little googling (search on: black T-38) suggests that the black-with-red-trim T-38's are unique to Beale AFB and are flown by the U-2 pilots based there for currency. Given where you met one, that fits.
For good measure, here is one of the U-2s shown coming in over Beale itself, which is north of Sacramento:
Now I know. Thanks to all.
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Update From another pilot:
The aircraft you posted a picture of is a T-38, and the BB on the tail flash denotes it is from Beale Air Force base. The U-2 pilots stationed there use the T-38s to maintain some of their flying currencies, I assume due to lower operating costs. The black color and lettering is the same scheme as their primary aircraft. They probably have requirements for off-station instrument approaches and landings, which may be why you saw one at San Bernardino. The B-2 pilots from Whiteman Air Force base also fly matching colored T-38s for the same reasons.
The T-38 is a great aircraft. I flew more than 1200 hours in it, but in many ways I would rather have the means to own a Cirrus (yours looks great, by the way). I have shared several moments of mutual admiration at FBOs like the photo you posted. Different shades of grass, I suppose.
I was traveling by small airplane in Southern California today, in preparation for an upcoming series of reports in our American Futures project. I was feeling like Mr. Cool as I brought in my beloved Cirrus SR-22, after a landing, toward the elegant Luxivair terminal at the former Norton Air Force Base, now San Bernardino International.
And then I pulled up next to ... this craft, the Darth Vader-looking thing above. (Next to which mine looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I will have to paint some shark teeth on it.) This ominous other plane said "U.S. Air Force" on the side, yet in hipster black-on-black lettering that made me wonder.
That is all. Tomorrow back to "Chickenhawk" updates from the news and from reader mail.
Over the weekend a Cirrus SR-22 airplane, the same kind that Deb and I have been flying around the country on our American Futures travels, made an unplanned descent into the Pacific. The extra fuel tanks for the long ferry flight from California to Hawaii developed some kind of valve problem; the pilot realized that without that extra gas he couldn't make it all the way; so in coordination with the Coast Guard, he picked out a site in the vicinity of a cruise ship. Then he used the Cirrus's unique whole-airplane parachute to lower the plane to the water and crawl into his rescue raft. I told the story here.
Now the pilot, 25-year-old Lue Morton, has gone on Good Morning America to describe the experience—and share a GoPro video he shot from inside the plane as it was coming down. You can see the remarkable footage here or below (after pre-roll ad):
Good for Cirrus, the Coast Guard, Lue Morton and his colleagues at The Flight Academy, the Holland America cruise ship Veendam, and all others involved.
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On a less upbeat note, Andrew Jacobs of the NYThas an update on the darkening saga of Chinese authorities intensifying their effort to cut China's people off from the international Internet. I also had a note about this over the weekend.
One of Jacobs's ways of making the point:
“I need to stay tuned into the rest of the world,” said Henry Yang, 25, the international news editor of a state-owned media company who uses Facebook to follow broadcasters like Diane Sawyer, Ann Curry and Anderson Cooper. “I feel like we’re like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot.”
Sigh. Seriously, the Chinese internal squeeze-down is bad news. And among its less-serious consequences is that people in China are walled off from the knowledge that they need to add "apocryphal" before "boiled frog." Or else "decerebrated," since frogs only behave this way if their brains have been removed. (You can check it out.)
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In San Francisco today I gave a speech at a League of California Cities convention, telling city managers from across the state what we'd discovered about "successful" cities and regions in our travels through the past year-plus. I had a list of ten markers of places-on-the-rise—not counting, of course, the presence of start-up craft breweries. No. 7 on the real list was an active, creative, and effective community college system. This report from Mississippi will give an idea why, plus this one from Georgia on high school counterparts.
California, at one time a leader in public higher education, has in recent years been a laggard on the community-college front. We'll be saying more on this front. Thus I was glad to see in this morning's news that Jerry Brown, beginning his fourth and final term as governor, has proposed a boost in state efforts here. According to EdSource:
The governor’s budget proposal for 2015-16 includes $876 million for career technical education and other job training initiatives at K-12 schools and community colleges – welcome news for programs that saw course offerings cut and enrollments decrease over the past several years.
The governor identifies the programs as a key part of a larger, $1.2 billion statewide effort aimed at “reinvesting and reshaping California’s workforce preparation systems.” The effort aims to get students into training programs that are more closely linked to regional workforce needs and to better coordinate job training programs at colleges and schools.
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Good news from aviation, bad news from the most populous country, good news from our most populous state. We muddle ahead.
Yesterday afternoon a small Cirrus SR-22 airplane—yes, the same kind of airplane my wife and I have been flying around the country for our reporting—was being ferried across the Pacific to a customer in Australia.
This is obviously a very long journey. The first leg of this trip, from the SF Bay area to a refueling stop in Hawaii, would have taken about 14 hours. Since the Cirrus can normally fly at most five-plus hours on a full load of fuel, ferry planes are rigged with temporary extra gas tanks inside the cockpit and allowed to take off (because of the added fuel) at much more than the usual "maximum gross weight" limit.
On yesterday's flight, the pilot discovered that a valve from the extra fuel tanks was jammed or broken. So he was fated to run out of gas before reaching Hawaii. After several hours of debugging and discussion with his flight-managers by radio, as the fuel level dwindled he decided to fly as close as possible to a cruise ship (which was alerted) and then pull the Cirrus's unique whole-airplane parachute and come down to the sea for rescue by the ship.
This incredible video, shot from a Coast Guard C-130 that was monitoring the whole process, shows what happened next. Further notes after the video.
The video compresses a long stretch of action into four-plus minutes. There's a time counter in the upper left corner of the video. Some points to note:
At around time 02:40.25 on the counter, you'll see that the pilot has pulled the parachute handle. A rocket blasts out of the back of the cockpit and the parachute begins to deploy. In previous tests (and experience) the chute fully deploys, and holds the plane level, in well under ten seconds. This time takes nearly 20 seconds, for reasons I assume the company will look into.
Although you can't really see it from this film, apparently the Pacific seas at the time were very high and rough, with winds above 25 knots and swells of 9 to 12 feet. Thus not very long after the plane hits the water, the plane starts taking on water. Within a minute it has turned over. That requires the pilot to get out promptly. Still, it's a lot better crash-into-the-sea option than otherwise.
Even though the plane was aiming for the cruise ship, and the cruise ship knew it was coming, the pilot is in the water for much more than 20 minutes before the ship's launch can get to him. This is why pilots are required to take water-survival gear, including rafts like the one you see this pilot using, on overwater flights. (If this had not been the warmish mid-Pacific but the frigid North Atlantic ... )
Main point: When the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, made the parachute mandatory equipment in the first Cirrus SR-20 airplanes they brought to market in the late 1990s, many grizzled veterans in the aviation world scoffed at them. ("A good pilot doesn't need these training wheels" etc.) [This is part of the story I told in my book Free Flight.] Now the Klapmeiers are in the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Cirrus SR-22 is the most popular small plane of its kind in the world, because of the step they took. Plus, this ferry pilot is alive.
Here are the Klapmeier brothers when they were mere kids starting the company—Alan on the left, Dale on the right—in a photo I saw at Cirrus's Duluth headquarters in the 1990s when I was writing about them.
Update: A few months ago I reported on a similar parachute "save" after a mid-air collision at a small airport near Washington DC.
Yesterday I mentioned a fabulous site for envisioning the swirl and flow of winds around the world. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, and if you have any interest in the geophysical world, take a minute now to check out the Czech-originated site Windyty.
Okay, glad to have you back. Here are several followups:
1) Oceans have currents, too. From a professor at a major state university who specializes in fluid dynamics:
As a working scientist whose curiosity was sparked by the New York Times science section in high school, I greatly appreciate seeing more science-related content in venues read by “laypersons."
NASA has done a similar thing with the ocean currents that is truly amazing. It may be worthwhile to share with your readers.
Indeed it is! This NASA project is the source of the image at the top of this post. I don't see a way to embed its videos, but if you go to the NASA site here, you'll be able to see a range of fascinating high-res, high-amazement representations of ocean flows.
2) Flows go up and down, not just side to side. From a Ph.D. meteorologist with NOAA:
With respect to those visuals of rivers of air, it's worth being aware that there is one dramatic simplification at work in such figures, namely that the motion is portrayed as only horizontal. It is, of course, not just horizontal, and not just because of the flow over mountains.
At any given time, there is probably 1 cm/sec large-scale vertical motion on average a few thousand feet above the ground. While that may not seem like a large quantity, suppose the typical wind a few thousand feet up is order 10 m/sec. This means that for every 1000 m (1 km) traveled, that air will change in height by 1 m, and thus for every 1000 km the air will change in height by 1 km, if the vertical motion is consistent along the trajectory of that air.
So, on a diagram like the ones you showed, in actuality an air "parcel" that you might be tracking from Hawaii may end up whisked away at 10 km altitude, with a very different speed and direction than at the surface, by the time it reaches the west coast of the U.S. And similarly, the surface air along the West Coast may have come from somewhere very different than implied by such a diagram.
And thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for those vertical motions, for that's what brings us the rains and snows (on ascent) or what clears out the smog after the passage of a cold front (the descent of clean air from high aloft).
3) Envisioning the layers of the atmosphere. The weather is way more interesting to me now than it was before I was spending time planning flights through it. Not weather as in, "Nice day today," or, "Hot enough for you?" But weather as in, "How low will the ceiling be?" Or in the wintertime, "Where is the icing risk?" Or in the summer, "Where are the thunderstorms?"
A radically useful tool for answering these questions is something known as a Skew-T Log(p) chart, a sample of which you see below. It represents soundings from weather balloons, which measure changing temperature, dew point, wind speed etc. as they ascend toward the stratosphere. As I say, these charts are very useful, but to put it mildly they take some getting used to. You can find introductory material here and more advanced material here The Skew-T chart below basically tells you: If you fly between altitudes of about 10,000 and 20,000 feet, you're likely to be inside a cloud at temperatures just below freezing, and therefore in danger of airframe icing.
One of the features of the great Czech Windyty site mentioned earlier is that it presents some of the same underlying information on a local basis (with analysis from meteoblue in Switzerland). For instance, here's the way it shows likely cloud layers over Chicago this week. The middle row, which I've highlighted, shows likely altitudes of cloudy and clear layers, as the week wears on. The Skew-T has its function, but so does this.
4) Your tax dollars at work. David Ryan, who under his nom de blog Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here back in 2011 and who in his role as charter-boat captain pays attention to the weather, writes:
By the classification rules of the world of physics, we all know that the Earth's atmosphere is made of gas (rather than liquid, solid, or plasma). But in the world of flying it's often useful to think of air as a fluid.* Landing with crosswinds in an aircraft has some similarities to tacking in a sailboat. The turbulence created by high winds over rough terrain is easiest to understand if you think of it as the counterpart to the whitewater rapids created when water flows over stones. [*Thanks to physics-world friends who have written in to emphasize that both gases and liquids can be fluids. I'm meaning to emphasize the visible-flow nature of air streams that these sites highlight.]
This is my way of introducing an absolutely fascinating site that depicts wind flows around the world as visible currents. It's called Windyty, it is a non-commercial project by an avid kite-skier and pilot in the Czech Republic, and the link is here.
The image at the top of this item is a static screenshot. If you play around with the site, as I predict you'll want to, you will see that you can pan and zoom all over the place, you can choose different color overlays to show different values—wind speed, moisture etc.—and you can see how things look at different altitudes. For instance, the opening image shows surface-level winds. Here is the view at 20,000 feet, dramatizing the increase in wind speed as you go up (with North America still at the center of the shot):
The real breakthrough of this site, for non-weather-professional viewers like me, is depicting atmospheric flows as if they were movements of liquids. Once you see the movement and currents depicted here, you'll think of the big H's and L's on weather maps in a new way. You can also click on specific locations on the map to get very interesting-looking local forecasts. Here is a video from Ivo, the adventurer and programmer in Prague who has created Windyty:
I spent much of this afternoon flying a small airplane, with my wife Deb. The idea (after closing an article) was to get off the East Coast, toward our destinations in the west, before the latest winter storm immured people in the east for Thanksgiving.
Our landing at Huntington airport on the West Virginia - Kentucky - Ohio border was right at dusk, so I was grateful for the big, wide runway and the absence of any problematic wind. On the other hand, I can see pretty well ... which is why I noted this video about what it is like to land the same kind of airplane I've been flying, if you can't see at all. Watch and admire. People are capable of a lot. Early happy Thanksgiving.
The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.
The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.
• The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;
• It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.
• If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.
• Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.
• Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.
• At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."
Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:
This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.
Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.
There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.
There was a tragic mid-air collision this afternoon near Frederick airport, KFDK in aviation talk, about 40 miles north of Washington DC. A helicopter, initially reported as a four-seat Robinson R44, collided with a four-seat Cirrus SR-22 airplane as the Cirrus was preparing to land. Three people aboard the helicopter are all reported to have died. The two aboard the airplane were (at current reports) released from the hospital with minor injuries.
Frederick Airport is well known in the aviation world, as the home base of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, AOPA. This accident is obviously a tragedy for all involved, and one close to home for me. I took my private-pilot exam at Frederick Airport; I've landed there maybe a hundred times, on training exercises or to get my plane repaired or to meet people at AOPA. Also, the plane involved is the same year and model (a 2006 SR-22) as the one we have been flying for our travels.
Points about this episode, starting and ending with sympathies for those involved.
1) Although the most famous airline mid-air collision happened in the middle of nowhere, over the Grand Canyon, nearly 60 years ago, in non-airline flying the main place where this is a risk is right around airports. Flying cross country, you can go for very long periods without coming within a dozen miles of another airplane. But since airplane flights need to wind up at airports, the closer you get to one, the more likely you are to see other planes.
I believe I am the only amateur pilot who’s a Democrat. Okay, I'm exaggerating. I can think of four others. No, five! Therefore when people in the aviation community talk about the effect of “Presidential TFRs”—the 30-mile-radius no-fly zones, known as Temporary Flight Restrictions, that travel with a president wherever he is—they often begin by saying, “Welcome to Obama's America ...” or “That idiot Obama has done it again...” The complaints started some other way between 2001 and 2009.
Politics apart, I give you this account from someone who flies the same kind of small propeller airplane as I do, but who happens to live in the vicinity of the Clinton-and-Obama-preferred summer vacation site of Martha’s Vineyard. He originally posted this on a pilots’ private-discussion board but agreed to its reposting here. I've added a few explanations of aviation lingo in brackets, [like this]. This person, who uses his plane to fly himself on business trips, writes:
I just spent the last two weeks living with the presidential TFR on Martha’s Vineyard. I flew through the TFR nearly every day, commuting to work and with other activities. Unlike past years, I did it mostly VFR, IFR days excepting, of course. [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, the clear-sky conditions in which pilots set their own courses. Under IFR, Instrument Flight Rules, pilots file flight plans in advance and must follow controllers' instructions on course, altitude, etc.]
In the past years when the president was on the Vineyard, I filed IFR every day to go through the outer ring. [The farther-out part of the the 30-mile-radius space, where you need prior approval to fly. The inner ring, usually with 10-mile radius, is much more tightly controlled.] That’s a major PITA, especially when it’s clear skies.
This year, on the first day of the TFR, I phoned Cape Approach [local Air Traffic Controllers, or ATC] and talked to one of the controllers and asked him what was the best way from their perspective and he said just to call Cape Clearance from Chatham on the ground (CQX [Chatham airport] is untowered) and get a squawk code and that would be fine. [Squawk code is a four-digit code you enter in the plane's transponder, which lets controllers watching radar screens know which plane is which.] Cape Approach’s perspective was that if you are squawking a code and talking to them, you are fine in the outer ring ...
In the interest of caution and even though I had been given the guidance from Cape Approach, I diligently followed the NOTAM [Notice to Airmen, the equivalent of "now hear this" bulletins] and filed and activated a VFR flight plan every day from Foreflight [a popular and excellent iPad-based flight planning program] when flying VFR.
1. VFR flight plans are useless for the TFR. [A VFR flight plan is mainly useful as a search-and-rescue safeguard, so people know where you were intending to go and when, if you don't show up.] Boston Approach stated as much when he alluded to “entering you in the system” as I was picking up flight following on the way home one day. I told him I had a VFR flight plan open, if that saved him some work and he responded to the effect that it wasn’t enough. You need to be in “the system” [in the system = filing identifying info for the plane and pilot, along with intended route and timing for this specific flight, in the ATC system] and added “you don’t want to mess with them”....
2. Controllers get as nervous as we do. I wonder if there are Secret Service or others sitting in the ATC facility? ATC gets extremely nervous when the president is on the move. At one point, he left the Vineyard and went back to D.C. for a day and this started another TFR centered on Otis (FMH), and creates lots of uncertainty, since he is rarely on time and the TFR times drift. [The image at the top shows airspace when both TFRs are in effect.] I knew this was happening and planned to avoid the FMH inner 10 mile ring already. The controller was very jumpy, asked me my heading and told me he would advise. I let him know I was “direct GAILS [a GPS navigation point], if that helps” which kept me outside the ring. He said “Thank you” and never bothered me again, after an audible exhale.
3. Lots of pilots are clueless. At one point, ATC asked me if I had a visual on somebody low and slow, squawking 1200. [1200 is the transponder code for planes flying visually and not necessarily talking with controllers. Planes inside the TFR should not be using this code.] I never saw him, but I did see the flash of sunlight off the wings of the orbiting F-16’s from miles out as they turned to investigate. I never heard what happened. Lots of pilots stumble into the area unaware of the TFR. How can this be? There were too many forehead-smacking moments as I listened to the daily dance. We as pilots have to do better.
4. Actually going to the Vineyard (MVY) [MVY is Vineyard Haven airport, on the island] inside the inner ring is a “whole 'nuther thing”. Yesterday, we went to visit friends who were staying on the Vineyard, and rather than take the ferry for 90 minutes, I decided we would just fly. Made the reservation at Hyannis with the TSA, per the NOTAM and made the 4-minute flight to HYA from CQX [Chatham to Hyannis] for our “check.”
Wow, what an employment spectacle that was. We were directed to a holding area and a bus was sent to pick us up, after waiting in the plane for some time. The plane was fully unloaded of luggage and we and our bags were taken to a temporary screening area where the bags were searched by hand. We were all frisked/wanded. My plane was inspected by another person. I gave pertinent information to others seated with laptops, who were talking to ATC and passing the approvals on. Eventually, they determined that the duffel bags of lunches, sweatshirts, frisbees, and suntan lotion posed a low security risk.
An hour after landing, we were loaded back on the bus and dropped at the plane to repack it, and get started again for the 10-minute flight from HYA to MVY. [Hyannis to Vineyard Haven.] How to make a 15-minute flight into 2 hours? With the TSA, anything is possible. In the end, the screening experience left me disappointed that I had to go to such great lengths to fly my airplane within 10 miles of another fellow citizen on my way to the beach. We, as a nation, are very afraid of airplanes. Sigh.
5. ATC were great to work with throughout. They were absolute professionals.
6. The amount of hardware and manpower mobilized to support this vacation are incredible. I flew out of the Vineyard last night at 10pm after the TFR had been lifted and saw the exodus of all the supporting cast. Multiple C-5’s taking off for Andrews, two Ospreys, four F-16’s, Coast Guard and State Police helicopters, and more. It was breathtaking and concerning.
There are multiple businesses that are effectively shut down during the vacation TFR. There is a skydiving outfit at Marston Mills that is in the outer ring, along with some banner towing that stops operations. More impacted are the businesses on the Vineyard. The usual weekend line of planes landing for breakfast on the Vineyard are gone, for sure, but the biggest hit is the grass airfield at Katama. There is a great breakfast place there, bi-plane rides and across the road is the open beach of the Atlantic. Katama hosts dozens of planes on any given summer day. That entire thing shuts down. I wonder if the restaurant owners, bi-plane operator, skydiving businesses, FBO's etc. are compensated? It's a huge hit for these businesses at what is basically prime time of the summer vacation on Cape Cod.
Life on the Cape has returned to normal. Until next year.
There is a larger, stricter, and permanent version of these controls sitting over Washington, D.C. airspace all the time. Presidential campaign season is a nightmare for the air-traffic system, because rolling no-fly zones accompany the incumbent president (and sometimes smaller ones for challengers) during campaign travels. Here is what an Obama bus trip in the industrial Midwest did to airspace two years ago:
The big red circles in Michigan and Ohio were for currently active TFRs. The yellow circles were for ones about to go into effect. The big red one over D.C. is the permanent zone there. The little yellow one just above it is Camp David. Here is a post from a pilot who was flying at the time of that TFR.
I am not making a sweeping policy point here. As far as policy points go, anyone who knows the history of the 1960s understands that it is genuinely important to protect presidents from threat of mortal harm. (How would the history of that era differed if John F. Kennedy had stayed in office? Or a century earlier, if Abraham Lincoln had?) Anyone who knows America understands why Barack Obama has required even more protection than most of his predecessors. I am very glad the Secret Service has done its job as effectively as it has.
Instead this is offered as a specimen of the operating realities of our security state—many of which persist precisely because they don't come to public attention. Are these 60-mile-wide shutdowns the least obtrusive way of realizing the legitimate national goal of protecting a president? They seem excessive to me, though of course I'm biased. But the next time some president asks me for advice on where to summer, I'll suggest: Look for a place that won't snarl life and shut down business for millions of people who happen to live there. Maybe even a place like ... the outskirts of Waco?
The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.
Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.
Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and others—but all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)
Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.
China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.
All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat.
But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.
Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily(above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.
Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.
[Please see twoupdates below.] Many crucial questions about the tragic/disastrous apparent shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight in Ukraine are still unanswerable. Who did it? Why? With what warning? Or repercussions?
But at this point one question can be answered: Did aviation authorities know that this was a dangerous area?
Yes, they most certainly did. Nearly three months ago, on the "Special Rules" section of its site, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out an order prohibiting American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and everyone else over whom the FAA has direct jurisdiction, from flying over southern parts of Ukraine.
Here is how the "who this applies to" part of FAA NOTAM 4/7677 looked, in the ALL-CAPS typeface of many FAA communications and in the language the FAA uses to say "this means YOU!"
THIS SPECIAL FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATION (SFAR) APPLIES TO THE FOLLOWING PERSONS:
1) ALL U.S. AIR CARRIERS AND U.S. COMMERCIAL OPERATORS;
(2) ALL PERSONS EXERCISING THE PRIVILEGES OF AN AIRMAN CERTIFICATE ISSUED BY THE FAA, EXCEPT SUCH PERSONS OPERATING U.S. REGISTERED AIRCRAFT FOR A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER; AND
(3) ALL OPERATORS OF U.S. REGISTERED CIVIL AIRCRAFT, EXCEPT WHERE THE OPERATOR OF SUCH AIRCRAFT IS A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER.
And here is how the "these are the areas to stay out of" part of the order was written, everything specified as Longitude/Latitude coordinates:
(D), NO PERSON DESCRIBED IN PARAGRAPH (A) MAY CONDUCT FLIGHT OPERATIONS IN THE PORTION OF THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) FIR WITHIN THE FOLLOWING LATERAL LIMITS: 454500N 0345800E-460900N 0360000E-460000N 0370000E-452700N 0364100E-452242N 0364100E-451824N 0363524E-451442N 0363542E-451218N END PART 1 OF 4. 23 APR 22:30 2014 UNTIL 1504270001. CREATED: 23 APR 22:16 2014
FDC 4/7667 (A0012/14) - null AIRSPACE SPECIAL NOTICE UKRAINE 0363200E-450418N 0363418E-445600N 0363700E-443100N 0364000E-424400N 0361600E-424700N 0340000E-424800N 0304500E-434100N 0303200E-441500N 0302400E-444600N 0300900E-455400N 0322500E-454900N 0324700E-455400N 0330600E-455600N 0332700E-455900N 0332900E-THEN ALONG THE CRIMEA BORDER TO 454500N 0345800E.
Until only a few years ago, most FAA notices—of restricted air space, of special weather hazards, of other areas-of-concern—were promulgated in this same indecipherable Long/Lat form. Now the FAA distributes most information on U.S. airspace via easily understandable graphical overlays. For instance, its Special Use Airspace site, which you are supposed to check before every flight, gives you a color-coded illustration of all active military airspace, restricted zones, etc, at any given time. Here is how part of it looks right now, mainly showing active "Military Operations Areas" in the South. This is a screen shot, but on the real map you can click on each one to see its vertical limits. For instance, those large ones over northeastern Mississippi go from 8,000 feet upward, so we were able to fly under them in our recent visits to the "Golden Triangle" cities in the same area.
I have not yet seen a map that plots the Long/Lat points of the Ukraine no-fly order onto the route the Malaysian plane flew, and where it was apparently shot down. When I learn of one, I will provide an update. (Credit to Jad Mouawad of NYT for seeing this notice before I did.)
UPDATE This FAA notice appears to apply mainly to Crimea and the areas immediately to its north, all of which are south of the reported crash zone. So this rule would apparently not have prevented flights over the exact area of the crash, but it certainly was a sign of a general trouble zone. Thanks to Joel Koepp and other readers for plotting out the Long/Lat readings.
The point for the moment: the FAA "Special Rules" section tells U.S. pilots and aircraft not to fly over trouble spots ranging from North Korea to Yemen to Syria to Iraq. And since last April it has told them not to fly over certain parts of Ukraine.
Update-update Thanks to readers who have pointed me to another, later NOTAM, which warned planes about hazards in broader areas of Ukraine, apparently including those the Malaysian airliner flew across. The hazard this NOTAM warned against was possibly conflicting Air Traffic Control instructions from Russian and Ukrainian controllers. A sample of that NOTAM is shown below, with text here. For more information, try this site.
My wife Deb and I were shocked and heartbroken to learn that our friend Richard Rockefeller had died this morning in an airplane crash. He is in the news because he is a Rockefeller, and because of the tragically dramatic way in which he died. He should be remembered for the kind of person he was and the example he set.
We met Richard decades ago in college, I because I'd learned about his photography via mutual friends on the student paper, Deb because at the same time she and I were getting to know each other Richard was dating (and later married) one of her dorm mates and best friends. Then and now there is no avoiding the pluses and minuses of the name Rockefeller, obviously mostly plus. Richard coped then in a minor way by having his photo credits list his middle name rather than his last name, to avoid possible distraction. In a much deeper and lifelong way he exemplified how we would like to think that people of privilege would use their advantages.
He was personally unassuming, modest, and gracious; professionally accomplished and respected, as a local doctor in Maine and later a health-care strategist and analyst; and intellectually inventive and omni-curious. When we visited him at his house in Maine, he would explain the fisheries and coastal geography and patterns of arrowheads we might find. When he visited us in Washington and elsewhere he would talk increasingly about his work around the world with Doctors Without Borders and at home with victims of PTSD, and the difference that small investments in public health or preventive care could make. I don't know his cousin, longtime West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, as well as I knew Richard. But I will say that Jay Rockefeller's reputation as someone who works steadfastly without claiming the limelight is the better known public-affairs counterpart of the life we saw Richard Rockefeller live.
People often speculate about what they would do "if they could do anything." Richard could have done anything, or nothing—such were his resources and options—and what he chose to do was be of service, to his friends and family and community and eventually his country and the world.
A topic I loved discussing with Richard was aviation. He took up flying very young, he advised me when I was first doing my training, and he took Deb and me with him in his plane for a tour of the coast of Maine. He also recommended to me a very valuable book called The Killing Zone, about the highly perilous first 200+ hours of most pilots' flying experience, before a tragic imagination evolves of how many things can go wrong and the consequences of rashness or miscalculation. Richard was highly experienced with airplanes, conscientious about his recurrent training, and cautious in his approach to an activity that he also loved.
What exactly happened this morning, when the weather near the White Plains airport was very bad but evidently not more than Richard thought he could deal with (and likely had before), is for sorting-out later on. For now I offer sincerest sympathies to his family and friends, and hopes that the reputation of Richard G. Rockefeller, MD, lives on not for the advantages he began with but for the use he made of them.