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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I saw this in a BBC article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Can We Learn Anything From the Germanwings Disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Similarly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Similarly:

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

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

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

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

  • More From Pilots and Doctors on the Germanwings Crash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One pilot quoted in your piece wrote:

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

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

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

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

    3) On the alcohol issue. From a doctor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What Hypoxia Could Do to Pilots

    Explaining a hazard of aviation, in the aftermath of the Germanwings crash

    A U.S. physiological technician on-board a C-17 Globemaster III ensures that crew members do not succumb to hypoxia. (Reuters)

    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.

  • How Air-Traffic Controllers Sound When They Have to Close the Airport

    Since most things about the modern airline experience are so unpleasant for most of the traveling public most of the time, it's worth noticing how smoothly these professionals do their work.

    The path of Delta 1086 this morning ( FlightAware )

    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.

    FlightAware's depiction of airline traffic shortly after LaGuardia was closed today. Compared with normal days, there are fewer planes overall, because of the bad weather—and none are headed into the usually very busy LGA airport in the center of the screen.

    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.

  • Ask and Ye Shall Be Told, Mystery Airplane Edition

    Sometimes crowdsourcing pays off.

    The Darth Vader-looking aircraft, in flight ( Brian Lockett for Air-and-Space.com )

    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:

    U-2 in flight, US Air Force via Wikipedia

    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:

    From StrategicAirCommand.com

    Now I know. Thanks to all.

    * * *

    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.

  • When I Grow Up ...

    Darth Vader vs. Casper the Friendly Ghost, on an airport tarmac

    The flight line this afternoon at KSBD, San Bernardino International Airport (James Fallows)

    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.

  • Updates: Airplane-Parachute Selfie, the Immortal Boiling Frog, Community College

    Ever wonder how it looks if you're inside a plane headed toward the ocean? Wonder no more. Plus: policy news, both bad and good.

    The view from inside a plane as it headed toward the Pacific ( ABC News, via The Flight Academy )

    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):


    World News Videos | ABC World News

    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.

    * * *

    On a less upbeat note, Andrew Jacobs of the NYT has 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.)

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    Good news from aviation, bad news from the most populous country, good news from our most populous state. We muddle ahead.

  • The Parachute That Saved a Plane

    Who says Pacific cruises aren't interesting?

    Cirrus SR-22 coming down under its parachute, near a cruise ship off Hawaii ( US Coast Guard video )

    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.

    The ferry flight's planned route, via Flight Aware; it ditched some 250 miles before reaching Maui.

    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.  

  • Fascinating New Ways of Depicting the Motions of the Air and the Seas

    Modern data-based graphics meet the timeless mysteries of the globe.

    If you'd like to see a moving version of these ocean currents, go to NASA's site. ( NASA )

    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.

    What this charts tells you is that clouds are likely starting at an altitude of about 10,000 feet—and that the temperature will be below freezing there, so airplanes between that altitude and around 20,000 feet are in danger of icing conditions.

    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.

    Windyty and meteoblue

    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:

    It might be worth mentioning that the data for that and (nearly) all other private weather outlets comes from government sources. Here's the one I use: https://www.fnmoc.navy.mil/wxmap_cgi/index.html. And here's the European consortium:

    The visualizations are cool, but they aren't possible without the data!

  • Envisioning a River of Air

    Prediction: If you spend a little time on these sites, you will start looking at weather forecasts in an entirely different way.

    Surface-level wind flow around the world this morning, color progression from magenta to green showing increasing speed. In case you can't make it out, that's the North American continent in the center of the view. ( WIndyty.com )

    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):

    Wind flows at 20,000 feet, also giving an idea of how the jet stream works. (Windyty.com)

    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:

    Windyty, wind forecast from Ivo on Vimeo.

    And one more: If you'd like to see a similar animation presented on a globe, try this site, from the Earth community. Here's a sample:

    Storm brewing right now in the northern Pacific, near Alaska (Windyty.com)

    Thanks to Mike McCoy, of UC Davis and the California Strategic Growth Council, for pointing these out.

  • How to Land an Airplane, If You're Blind

    People are capable of a lot.

    What you can "see," when you can't see (Vimeo)

    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.

    Blind Pilot Lands Plane from Creative Speakers Service on Vimeo.

  • What a Wandering Airliner Says About China's Prospects

    A Chinese plane was not allowed to land at some Chinese airports. Why that matters.

    The meandering path of China Eastern airlines flight 750 four days ago ( All maps from FlightAware )

    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.

    Highlights were:

    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.

  • Today's Mid-Air Collision Outside Washington

    "This reminds us how vulnerable we all are." Lessons from a tragedy

    Photos of 1990s tests of "ballistic parachute" for Cirrus aircraft, over the Mojave desert (Cirrus Aircraft)

    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.

    More »

  • Annals of the Security State, Presidential-Vacations Edition

    Protecting modern presidents is a legitimate and crucial goal. Here is some of what it ends up meaning in practice.

    The red circles show typical 30-mile-radius no-fly zones that accompany a president, in this case one centered on Martha's Vineyard and one over Otis Air National Guard base on Cape Cod. (FAA Sectional Chart)

    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.

    Some observations:

    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?

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