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: Disasters

  • 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.

  • 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.  

  • The Tragic Airplane Crash in Gaithersburg, Maryland

    No answers, some possibilities

    Fire trucks on the scene of a fatal crash yesterday near Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland (Reuters)

    Yesterday afternoon, after flying with my wife in a small propeller airplane up through the Central Valley of California (for today's Atlantic Navigate conference in San Francisco), we heard the terrible news that a small jet airplane had crashed into a house near the Gaithersburg airport in the northwest suburbs of DC, killing all three people on the plane and a mother and two children inside the house. This is a disaster on a smaller scale than an airline crash but in a way, more horrible, with the deaths of young family members as they went about their normal lives at home.

    I am so sorry for everyone affected by this crash.

    Only because I have some relevant local knowledge about this site—having flown in and out of Gaithersburg airport over the past 16 years and having based my small Cirrus airplane there for more than ten years—I am writing this post to add some basic facts.

    1) Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, known as KGAI in aviation terminology, is a "small" airport but not small enough that its runway size or geographic position is likely to be a factor in this crash. Its runway is 4,200 feet long and 75 feet wide. For perspective, most big commercial airports have runways with lengths of 8,000 feet and longer. But small jets and turboprops go in and out of Gaithersburg all the time. On an average day, it has well over 100 takeoffs and landing. It is an active place.

    2) The neighborhood where the crash occurred is very close to the airport, by national standards. This shot, from Google Earth, shows the place where the crash occurred, on Drop Forge Lane. The red line, which I've added, is the final approach course for Runway 14 at Gaithersburg, which the airplane would have been following.

    Red arrow shows normal approach to Runway 14 at Gaithersburg. Blue arrow shows normal Runway 14 departure. Green arrow shows the recommended noise-reduction departure from Runway 32 at Gaithersburg (taking off on the same runway but in the opposite direction), to avoid flying over the neighborhood where the jet crashed yesterday.

    The area of the crash was less than a mile from the runway threshold, again close by national standards. On a normal approach airplanes would be somewhere between 500 and 1000 feet above the ground at that point in their descent.

    3) None of the subdivisions or commercial areas that now surround KGAI were there when the airport was built in the late 1950s. They have expanded as this part of the close-enough-to-be-commutable, far-enough-to-be-affordable part of the DC suburbs has grown. Technically, developers built there and purchasers bought there knowing an airport was nearby, but of course no one expects to have their home destroyed and their family killed by a plane.

    4) Airport operations show an awareness of this neighborhood's concerns and existence. The "preferred calm wind" runway is this same Runway 14, so that planes would whenever possible take off headed away from this neighborhood—as shown by the blue arrow in the graphic above. When winds favor takeoff in the opposite direction—on Runway 32—pilots are supposed to turn to the right as soon as possible precisely to avoid flying over the neighborhood in question. That is what the green arrow shows. (Every runway is known by two names, depending on the direction the plane is going. The names are based on their compass heading and always differ by 180 degrees. If a runway goes straight east-west, planes headed to the east will be flying heading 90 degrees and using Runway 9. When taking off or landing in the opposite direction, they will be flying on a 270-degree heading and using Runway 27.)

    5) The weather at the time of the accident was not perfect but was benign enough not to seem an obvious cause of a crash. The winds were light. The ceiling was around 3,000 feet—which means that the jet would have been flying under instrument flight rules through most of the flight and would have followed an instrument approach to the airport. (Rather than just picking it out visually.) But once it descended below 3,000 feet it would have had the runway in sight.

    6) The location of the crash is not a usual site for either mechanical failures or the most familiar type of loss-of-control crashes near an airport. As a plane slows and descends for a landing, the main mechanical problems would be if the landing gear did not come down or the flaps (which allow the plane to keep flying at a slower speed as it prepares to land) did not extend. But the pilot would have been aware of those problems and would have mentioned them in radio transmissions, which he did not.

    The usual loss-of-control accidents near an airport occur when a plane makes too tight a turn when flying the rectangular "traffic pattern" in preparation for landing. The FAA image at right shows the "base to final" turn before landing. If a pilot mismanages that turn, the plane can stall (lose lift) and fall to the ground.

    But in this case, the jet would have been following an instrument approach (probably RNAV 14) to Gaithersburg, which would have given him essentially a 10-mile long straight-in approach to the runway, with no need for this last minute turn. Also, Runway 14 has a "VASI," a set of red and white lights to give an incoming pilot a guide to the proper descent slope to follow. If you see all red lights, you're too low; all white, you're too high. Both red and white, you're on the right path.

    7) To summarize #5 and #6: None of the usual weather-related, mechanical, or traffic-pattern problems that explain crashes seem to apply in this case.

    Update 7A) The recording of radio traffic on the KGAI frequency contains several references to large number of birds around the runway. In my experience that's not rare, but it is conceivable that a bird-strike could have disoriented, distracted, or even disabled the pilot; or that maneuvering to avoid birds could have led to a loss of control; or that a bird going into an engine could have been the beginning of the plane's problems. The recording is here. [Update-update: see NTSB briefing below, which finds no evidence of bird strike or "bird ingestion."]

    8) Gaithersburg is an "uncontrolled" airport, with no control tower. As the recent midair collision near Washington showed, control towers don't eliminate all traffic-conflict problems. But at Gaithersburg, pilots judge their position relative to one another through announcements on the CB-style common radio frequency. "Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus XXX is nine miles to the northwest, will make 45-degree entry to right-downwind for Runway 32." "Montgomery traffic, Cessna XXX is turning base to final for Runway 32." Etc.

    9) Gaithersburg is very active as a training airport. On good-weather days (and yesterday was good enough to qualify) its environs usually contain a number of planes doing takeoffs and landings as part of their drill. Often they fly "closed traffic": taking off, flying the rectangular traffic pattern, landing, and doing it again. By definition, many of these are less-experienced pilots. A lot of them are non-native speakers of English, which means that it can take them longer to report their position and plans on the frequency, and sometimes to be less accurate about it.

    10) The combination of points 8 & 9 can complicate the final stages of approach to landing at KGAI, in the following way: If you're coming in on an instrument approach, from ten miles out you're on a straight line for Runway 14. But the closer you get, the more you're alert for student (or other) pilots taking off, landing, or flying around in the pattern. I've kept count, and in recent months on about half the approaches I've made, I've had to make close-to-the-airport adjustments because of traffic in the pattern or whose location I wasn't 100 percent sure of. Sometimes this meant "going around," putting in power, climbing, and circling around for another landing attempt. Some times it means slowing down or making delaying maneuvers, usually "S-turns" to draw out the arrival process and sometimes full 360-degree turns. It's an expected rather than startling aspect of operations at this airport.

    On the probabilities, I can imagine something similar happening as the light jet neared the airport: traffic the pilot hadn't expected meaning he had to adjust his plans, and then something going wrong from that point onward. There is nothing inherent in a delaying turn that would make it dangerous—S-turns involve a shallower bank than right-angle turns in the traffic pattern. But obviously something, as yet unknown, made the pilot lose control of the plane. Traffic in this area is all carefully monitored, as part of the special security rules in the DC area. So it should become apparent which aircraft were where, and when.

    11) As a matter of public record, the pilot of the plane, who with his two passengers was killed, had been involved in a different loss-of-control landing accident in a different airplane four years ago at the same Gaithersburg airport.

    Sincere sympathies to all on this terrible event.


    News update 6:20pm EST The Aviation Safety Network has relayed this additional information, which bears on some of the possibilities mentioned above. I'll just post this now and do further explanations later:

    The following preliminary findings -all subject to be validated- were reported in an NTSB press briefing on December 9:

    - Flight time from Chapel Hill to Gaithersburg: 57 minutes
    - En route altitude: FL230 [approx 23,000 feet]
    - Captain (ATPL rated) seated in left hand seat [ATPL=Air Transport Pilot, an advanced-proficiency rating]
    - Passenger seated in right hand seat
    - Flight was cleared for RNAV GPS runway 14 approach
    - 46 Seconds before CVR [cockpit voice recorder] recording ended: Radio Altimeter callout of 500 feet
    - 20 Seconds before CVR recording ended: Audio stall callout, which continued to the end of the recording
    - Flaps were extended and gear was down
    - Lowest recorded airspeed by FDR [flight data recorder]: 88 knots
    - Large excursions in pitch and roll attitude were recorded by the FDR
    - 2 Seconds after lowest airspeed was recorded, the throttles were advanced
    - No evidence of engine fire or failure or bird ingestion
  • 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 »

  • The FAA's Notice Prohibiting Airline Flights Over Ukraine

    The U.S. government did its best to keep civilian airliners away from the region.

    FAA "Special Notices" section ( FAA )

    [Please see two updates 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!"

    A. APPLICABILITY. 
    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.

     

  • The Gaza Impasse, in 2 Notes

    "I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians." More from the American rabbi in Jerusalem.

    Last night I posted three reactions from people in Jerusalem to debates about the effectiveness of the "Iron Dome" air-defense system. The first, longest, and most detailed was from an American rabbi who has been in Israel during the latest exchanges of fire. He reported on the stoically tense mood inside a Jerusalem bomb shelter, which he likened to a scene from a WW II submarine movie in which the crew waited out depth charges without knowing when one might hit. He also described tender scenes of parents trying to protect their children.

    After quoting his message, I said that from past correspondence I knew the writer to be a person of broadly universalistic, rather than narrow, human sympathies. Although he had sent his note before the latest horror of the four Palestinian boys killed while playing on the beach, I said that I knew he must be aware of the fear and grief on both sides—with the great disproportion of the recent death and grieving occurring among the Palestinians.

    This morning I got two notes from Americans in the region. First, from the rabbi himself, who objected to my comments. I quote him in full:

    I was taken aback by your juxtaposition of my comment to your reporting of the deaths of the Palestinian children the next day. Those deaths were beyond horrible and tragic. But I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians on the other.

    The death of those innocents lies at the feet of Hamas who began this terror offensive and continued it despite the Israeli government's agreement to adhere to a cease fire.

    If Hamas had not begun to fire indiscriminately thousands of rockets at Israeli cities (and Palestinian ones like Bethlehem and Hebron, and even at its own power electric power station on the Strip), if it had not filled its hundred of underground tunnels with rockets and other munitions instead of using them to provide shelter to its citizens, if it had not encouraged it residents to remain in their homes and not to seek shelter after they received "knocks" text and cell calls from the IDF warning of an impending attack, if Hamas eschewed to the very same Jewish doctrine of the sanctity of life that Islam adopted from Judaism, then those precious, innocent lives and the other precious, Palestinian lives would not have been lost. But the loss of life will continue because of Hamas' warped death theology, and the more you and other commentators continue to perpetuate the "cycle of violence" narrative, the more they and other terrorists will believe that their approach is an effective one.

    The other note is from another American who has lived and worked outside the United States for many decades and in the Middle East for several years. He says:

    Thanks for your comment after the transcript of the rabbi's thoughts, that similar things are happening in Gaza and the Gaza folks don't enjoy the same weaponry as the Israelis.

    I have a few Israeli sympathizers among my friends who rant and rage about the "terror" from the Palestinians but don't acknowledge that there is "terror" also from Israel toward their subjects in Gaza and West Bank. It's nice to see when writers can show a balanced (but not "false equivalent") perspective on this mess.

    Draw your own conclusions. My thanks to both writers.

  • The Graciousness and Dignity of Richard B. Cheney

    "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many."  

    An expert on being wrong shares his thoughts. (Reuters)

    A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.

    I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.

    If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:

    Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. 

    You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:

    Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.

    Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.

    As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 

    "The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.

  • Richard Rockefeller, MD

    What would you do, if you could do anything? An inspiring answer to that question.

    Richard Rockefeller examining a child in Niger. (Doctors Without Borders)

    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.

  • The Cirrus Parachute, as Seen From HQ and From a Swamp

    A plane with a built-in parachute records another save.

    Later this afternoon my wife Deb and I will be talking with, and to, a group of executives and employees of the Cirrus Aircraft company in Duluth, Minnesota. The Cirrus line of small planes—which now includes the original SR-20, the more powerful SR-22, and the still-in-development new jet, test models which we've seen flying around town—are the ones whose development I followed in the late 1990s and described in Free Flight. Cirrus's transition to ownership by CAIGA, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was also one of the plot lines in China Airborne

    It will be an interesting day to re-visit Cirrus, because of the latest instance of a Cirrus airplane being in the news. When the Cirrus line made its debut some 15 years ago, its most remarked-upon feature was its unprecedented built-in parachute for the entire airplane that came as standard equipment. This was at the insistence of the founders of the company, Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale. As I describe in Free Flight, Alan had been involved in a mid-air collision when he was a very young pilot and was lucky to survive. He vowed that when (not if) he and his brother started their own airplane company, he would build in "what if?" protection for emergencies like this. For more about why Cirrus and its parachute were so controversial in the aviation world, and yet why it has enjoyed such runaway popularity among purchasers (making Cirrus the best-selling plane in its category worldwide), please see this account after a parachute "save" in Australia last month, and this after a parachute save in Connecticut last year. (For more on Alan Klapmeier's latest aviation-innovation project, a new plane called the Kestrel, watch this site.)

    Yesterday there was another dramatic save, near the very busy suburban airport Hanscom Field in the western suburbs of Boston. As you can see in a TV news report here (not embeddable) the plane for some reason had an engine failure; the woman who was serving as flight instructor calmly reported the situation to the tower, directed the plane during its powerless glide away from the very crowded Burlington shopping mall area and toward a marsh, then pulled the parachute handle, and landed safely with the male flight student. The news station video shows flight instructor and passenger both walking out from the plane.

    The LiveATC capture of the air traffic control frequency conveys the drama of the event—and also the impressive calm of all involved. These include the flight instructor, starting with her first report that she is unable to make it back to the airport; the controller, who is juggling that plane's needs with the other normal flow of traffic into Hanscom field; and another pilot who is (it appears) from the same flight club and who immediately flies over to check the disabled plane's condition from above. 

    That LiveATC recording is also not embeddable, but I promise that if you start listening to the clip (again, it's here) you will find it a dramatic mini-saga. The tone in everyone's voices 5 minutes in, when the other pilot sees what has become of the plane, is remarkable, as you will hear. 

    This is my only moment for the next few hours, so I will stop now and get this posted rather than prowling around for more photos of the episode or follow-up explanations. They can come later, after I've talked with the Cirrus officials. Signing off now, but please check out the news story and the ATC clip.

  • Of Fear and Flying

    ... and terrorism too.

    Portion of the cover of Erica Jong's 1973 book Fear of Flying, which is linguistically but not conceptually related to the topics discussed here.

    Last night I mentioned the disconnect between things that are frightening, from sharks to airline flights, and things that are likely actually to do us harm. Several reactions worth noting:

    1) From a reader who understood the illustration I deliberately left out, to see if anyone would notice. Of course that illustration is terrorism and America's fearful response to it.

    As academics Ian Lustick and John Mueller have argued for years, along with Benjamin Friedman (formerly of MIT, now of Cato) and mere journalists, the fear of terrorist attacks, and the responses provoked by the attacks of 2001, have done far more damage to the country than even those original, devastating blows. Many more Americans died in the wholly needless Iraq war than were killed on 9/11; the multi-trillion-dollar cost of the war eclipses any domestic budgetary folly; the damage to civil liberties and American honor internationally has been profound; and so on. All this was all born of fear, often cynically inflamed, not realistic assessment of danger.

    This reader cited an online item, "You Are More Likely to Be Killed By Boring, Mundane Things than Terrorism" and added, "This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the disconnect between fear and danger." Yes, except for "perhaps."

    2) Back to airlines. From Jeremy Davis, of Seattle: 

    I suffer from panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which have put a bit of a damper on my love of aviation (I wrote about the clash of those two aspects in an Air & Space article last year). But I'm also an aeronautical engineer.

    The point I'd like to make is that, even with in-depth knowledge of the systems and structure of aircraft and aviation, fear can manipulate how we observe the world around us and skew how we interpret our senses.  

    During my first panic attack (on board a flight from LAX), my brain invented half a dozen explanations for why I was suddenly vertiginous and fighting to breathe. Some of those explanations were medical, but most were bizarre inventions about the cabin pressure supply lines being blocked or the aft pressure bulkhead succumbing to cracks.  None of these were plausible from an engineering standpoint, but the bond between my fear at that moment and the act of flying on a commercial airline was forged so well that even now (a decade later), I still can't board a commercial flight.

    So while I agree that writers tend to play on the public's unfounded fears about flying, we shouldn't discount the ways that fear can warp how we view, and subsequently recount, our experiences. Ultimately, I think it's an editor's duty to balance a writer's artistic license and honest belief in the experiences he or she felt with the publication's integrity and adherence to verifiable facts. I can only hope that my editor and I toed that line better than the NY Times.

    Of course Mr. Davis is right. Our emotions and fears are beyond rational control. That's why we call them "emotions." And his Air & Space article is very good, including its climax when a pilot-colleague helps him escape his panic attacks with a comforting ride in a small airplane.

    As I read Jeremy Davis's article, I naturally thought of Scott Stossel's memorable cover story for our magazine, drawn from his memorable book. All of these are precisely about the logical mind's inability to contain pre-logical fears. That is a big enough problem when it affects individuals. It's something else—and something that should be easier to recognize and curb—when it affects whole institutions, from journalism to national government. I know that the "should" shows me to be a quaint meliorist.

    3) Back to cars. From another reader:

    I liked the note re being scared in a normal car ride. I have often given a little monologue that goes something like this.

    Imagine for a moment that the personal automobile had never been invented. We are all riding around in trains, trolleys, busses, etc.

    Now, along comes an inventor who invents the personal automobile. He lobbies the U.S. Senate to get the government to build roads. They have a hearing. At some point, we get the following interchange.

    Senator: So, how fast will these "cars" go?
    Inventor: Oh, maybe 70 or 80 mph.
    Senator: And, how are you going to keep them from running into each other?
    Inventor: We're going to paint lines on the road.

    We would still be riding in busses. 

    4) On to the planet as a whole.

    I realize that this question is more profound than the questions related to air safety, though I've had that same thought many times myself while barreling down the highway.

    I also would apply it to the distinction between the Cold War [with its dangerous nuclear standoffs] versus the Global War on Terror with its [fear-inducing] apocalyptic imagery in the messianic sense (and that goes for the jihadists as well as our own homegrown evangelicals who are Rapture Ready.

    Is that the core conundrum facing humanity when it comes to global warming as the driver of catastrophic climate change?   Is there ANY real world experience that would shift the "fear" of an ecological disaster on a global scale into a universal acknowledgment of the clear and present "danger"?
  • Telling the Difference Between Danger and Fear

    Bathtubs should be 365 times more frightening than sharks. So why aren't they?

    A shark alleged to have attacked four people in Egypt. He was an exception that supports an unfortunate anti-shark stereotype. (Reuters)

    A few days ago I pointed out that yet another popular news item had described how frightened an airline passenger was, about a situation that was objectively not dangerous at all."Yet another" because stories like this -- there we were, about to die! -- are journalistic staples, now as much as ever. (Two examples from the NYT, here and here.)

    In part this reflects the bone-deep suspicion that people shouldn't be sitting and reading in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground. In part, it's the famous human difficulty of distinguishing things we're scared of from things that really threaten us. On average, one American dies each day in a bathtub accident -- and one American dies each year from a shark attack. Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks, but it's the reverse. We don't have "Bathtub Week" on the Discovery Channel.

    David Ryan, who under his previous pseudonym Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here, talks about this fear-versus-danger confusion, as it shows up in his work as a charter-boat captain. After reading about airplanes that (allegedly) came within "scraping distance" of each other (actually 5+ miles), Ryan wrote:

    We use an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identification of nearby traffic and collision avoidance. Here's my "scraping distance" story. [And a recent photo of his craft, crew, and passengers en route.]

    In May of 2010 after 13 days at sea, during which time we rarely saw more than one vessel a day, on AIS or visually, we found ourselves just south of the Nantucket traffic separation zone (shipping lane) running east and west out of New York Harbor. Now, rather than one or no targets of interest, we had a dozen vessels, some very large and moving very fast, to keep on eye on.

    It was dusk and the light was fading when we ID'd a west-bound freighter on a course that would make a close pass with us as we headed north towards Montauk. 

    This is what we did:

    Using the AIS we ascertained the vessel's name, course, and speed.

    Using our VHF radio we made contact with the bridge of the other vessel and inquired whether or not they could see us. The replied they had us on radar, AIS, and visually.

    I communicated our concern that our courses might bring us closer than comfortable. Being a sailing vessel, we were the stand-on vessel, but the Law of Gross Tonnage ultimately rules. We asked the freighter if he would like us to adjust our course to ensure we took his stern.

    The freighter replied that we should stand-on and he would increase his speed to pass in front of us well before we were anywhere near each other.

    We thanked him, stood by on #16 and then watch the freighter pick up it's pace and pass in front of us about three miles ahead.

    The entire encounter was, for us, tense. We wanted to be sure there were no misunderstandings, or if there were, that we would be ready to respond sufficiently to get out the way of the much larger vessel.

    The next day I was in the front passenger seat of our family minivan taking crew to various airports and train stations so they could find their way home and I was TERRIFIED!!!

    Just 12 hours earlier I had been in a tense situation where my boat was going about 5kts, the other vessel was going about 20kts, and the distance between us was measured in 1000s of yards.

    Now I was barreling down the highway, at closings speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, sometimes with mere inches to spare. In other words, we were driving down a two land country highway at 55mph with on coming traffic. I resolved my terror by closing my eyes and going to sleep.

    In case my point is not clear, we are more comfortable with familiar sensations and risks than unfamiliar ones. Two weeks on a nearly empty ocean made the shipping lanes seem like rush hour traffic, and the "rush-hour" traffic of the shipping lanes made a drive down a country highway pure terror (I really did close my eyes and go to sleep because I couldn't just sit there flinching in horror every time we closed with another car). No doubt the  author of "I almost died" felt as scared during the plane's descent as I did as we barreled down Route 27 at 10am. The fear is real. The danger not so much. 

    We all know what he means. For me, it's the contrast I feel at the end of every trip in my small airplane. Over the previous few hours, I've been in the middle of an activity that is objectively dangerous -- but from which I could safely turn my attention for 30 seconds at a time to look at a chart or check the weather, except during the couple of minutes of approach and landing. (Or on an instrument procedure, or inside the clouds, or on takeoff, or in other "high-workload" phases of a flight.) Then when I get in the car to drive home, other vehicles are whizzing past me with very small clearance, and if anyone stops paying attention for even a few seconds, the results can be dire. Yet we all treat this as routine.

    Main lesson for writers and editors: If you want to talk about an experience that was frightening, talk about how scared you were. That's real. Not about how close you came to dying, because that probably had no relationship with how you felt.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

  • After the Latest Peril-in-the-Skies Saga, Should You Be Afraid to Fly?

    No.

    Peril in the skies, from Airplane. (Wikipedia)

    [Please see update here.] I don't know Kevin Townsend, though I suspect I'd like him if I did. He's been fighting the good fight against the filibuster, and we have tech and other interests in common. Today he put up a riveting post about a frightening and, in his telling, extremely dangerous episode aboard a recent United flight. The headline gives you the idea:

    And he has gotten a lot of pickup for his tale. Eg:

    Recently I got my one-zillionth email of the day from a friend or reader asking: What with this, and the Malaysian flight, I'm getting worried. Is something going wrong with our air-safety system?

    So in case you're wondering:

    • The episode Kevin Townsend describes sounds as if it could have been genuinely frightening, especially to passengers who had no idea what was happening, and he describes it quite vividly.
    • On the facts he presents, even though this was frightening, it was nowhere close to as dangerous as it could have seemed. There was no sense whatsoever in which he "almost died." 
    • Commercial air travel remains remarkable for how extremely safe it is. Even this episode illustrates that reality, since one of many overlapping parts of the air-safety system worked rather than failed. 

    I wrote to Kevin Townsend a few hours ago to ask some questions but haven't yet heard back.  and have just heard back. Here are the main points to bear in mind.

    1) The plane got an anti-collision warning that caused it to descend suddenly, by 600 feet. This is the part that was genuinely frightening to Townsend and other passengers. While in cruise, the United flight crew got a warning from its TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, with which airliners and other large planes are in constant automated contact with other aircraft in the vicinity. 

    If the paths of two airplanes seem likely to intersect, the TCAS in each plane gives each crew a warning. If they are getting too close for comfort, the TCAS gives each of them a "Resolution Advisory" to steer them out of the other's way. One plane will be told to climb, and the other to descend. In keeping with the instrument-flying maxim that you must trust your instruments rather than going by your seat-of-the-pants sense, flight crews are told to trust and follow those TCAS/RA warnings, immediately. The United plane was told to descend right now, and its crew did. 

    2) How far is a 600-foot descent? This is what Townsend describes as the terror-filled part of the flight:

    Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning. 

    Again I am sure this was appalling, especially to people who start out with a fear of being up in the sky. But how far is a 600-foot descent? It is not very far at all. For one thing, it's about equivalent to four plane-lengths of the Boeing 757 that was flying. (That plane is a little over 150 feet long.) If an airliner descended at 600 feet per minute, passengers would probably not even notice it was headed down. If it were descending at what one manual calls a normal rate of 1,800 feet per minute, covering this vertical distance would take 20 seconds. I don't know what the 757's emergency-descent rate is, but if we say it's twice the normal rate that would mean about 10 seconds for getting down 600 feet. 

    Townsend includes a FlightAware chart of the course of that flight. Records from that date (April 25) are now behind FlightAware's pay wall, but here is the version Townsend published:

    The blue line, which is airspeed, shows a sudden reduction at the point he is describing, with the vertical red line. This could be consistent with either a sudden reduction in power or (unlikely in the circumstances) a climb. The mustard-colored line, for altitude, seems more or less steady. Flight Aware is highly fallible, but at face value this indicates the plane rock-steady at a certain altitude. (Townsend wrote to say the chart actually records the 600-foot drop. OK) 

    3) How close were the planes, anyway? The premise of this story was a hair's-breadth escape from death. Eg "Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss." And "the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history."

    To put this in perspective, the closest the planes appeared to have come to each other is at least 5 miles, and perhaps 8 miles (which is what CNN told Townsend when he appeared). If airplanes are headed directly head-to-head, distances can close fast. If each was going at top speed of 600 mph, or 10 miles per minute, then a head-to-head closing speed would be 20 miles per minute, or only 15 to 20 seconds of direct head-on flight. Still, the point is that the traffic systems in both planes warned both crews when detecting a danger, and sent them in diverging directions. A five-mile margin between planes is not "scraping distance."

    (The simpler traffic-warning system I have in my propeller plane sends alerts when planes are within 6 miles' distance. That is far enough away that usually it is very hard even to see the plane causing the alert.) 

    4) How close to the brink is the whole system? The post mentions the amazing safety record of commercial aviation, and also the irrational nature of fears involving flight:

    Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines. 

    All that is true.  But I don't agree, as the piece goes on to claim, that "the [safety] system appears broken" or that airlines are left to "self-police" for safety regulations. Anyone who has dealt with the FAA can report otherwise. And to judge by the record, when was the last time two airliners collided in the United States? Hint: it was 49 years ago, and four people of the 122 aboard died. When was the last airliner-collision large-scale catastrophe in the US? It was when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and everything about technology was different.

    Again, I think I'd agree with this author on most things, and I am meaning to be respectful about the article he wrote and the scare he endured. But people who think: first MH370, now this??? should think again. Several million  commercial airline flights have taken off and landed safely worldwide since that Malaysian flight disappeared. Including the one Kevin Townsend describes. 

    Life is full of danger, including aboard aircraft. But if other aspects of life had even half the safety-consciousness of today's commercial air travel system, we'd live in a remarkably less perilous society.

  • How a Small Plane Crash Looks When Passengers Are About to Survive Rather Than About to Die

    Seventeen seconds of video that explain why one brand of small aircraft has become the most popular in the world.

    Cirrus Aircraft

    Let me explain the background of the amazing video below, shot two days ago in Australia.

    It's been 15 years since the Cirrus SR20 made its debut as "the plane with the parachute." At the time of its introduction, and in some grizzled-aviator circles even now, the idea of a parachute for the entire airplane met hoots of derision. After all, "real" pilots should always be ready to glide an airplane to a landing if its engine failed or something else went wrong. Handling a "power-off approach" is part of regular pilot training. So isn't a parachute like a crutch, or training wheels, for flyers who really need to up their game?* 

    But people other than those grizzled aviators generally had an "Are you crazy???? Of course you'd want a parachute!" reaction. What if the pilot passed out? Or it was nighttime and you couldn't see where you were going? Or you were over mountains or forests will no smooth landing site? Or the pilot hadn't practiced power-off landings for a while? Or any of a dozen other concerns.

    Because of questions like these, the original SR20 and later, higher-powered SR22 have become the best-selling aircraft of their type worldwide. My book Free Flight, and this Atlantic article taken from it, describe the modern-day-Wright-brothers saga of the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, who created Cirrus and made it a very successful business in Duluth, Minnesota. The cover, at right, showed a Cirrus under parachute during one of its pre-certification tests. My book China Airborne describes, inter alia, how and why the Cirrus plant, still in Duluth, is now owned by the Chinese government via one of its aerospace ministries. 

    The first Cirrus parachute-pull came nearly 12 years ago, under circumstances in which Charles Lindbergh, Patty Wagstaff, and Bob Hoover together would have had trouble gliding the plane safely down. (Because of a maintenance error, one aileron came loose, making the plane essentially uncontrollable.) Since then the ~6000 Cirrus planes around the world have been involved in about 50+ parachute descents. You can see the full list here, at a site  maintained by Rick Beach for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, COPA. After nearly all the episodes, the pilot and passengers have walked away unhurt.

    The latest parachute pull happened this past weekend, in Australia, over a suburb west of Sydney. Someone was on hand to capture its descent for an enlightening YouTube video, as shown below. 

    This video is only 32 seconds long, and if you watch the section starting at time 0:15 you will have a dramatically clearer idea of the difference these parachutes can make. As a story in the Australian paper The Age put it, 

    The Cirrus planes are the only light planes in the world to come with their own parachute system, something that has helped it become the most popular piston engine plane in the world.

    “If they [the passengers] had been in any other aircraft they wouldn’t be going home tonight to their families,“ said a staff member at Regal Air, which sells and does maintenance on the aircraft from its headquarters at Bankstown Airport.


    For more details of the episode and pictures of the plane and passengers on the ground see reports from Australian Broadcasting, Sky News Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, plus The Age

    The YouTube video also dramatizes why, during the ~1200 flying hours I have spent in Cirruses since buying a very early-model SR20 in 2000, it has been a back-of-the-mind reassurance to know the parachute is there, even though I've never come remotely close to circumstances where I felt I should consider using it. Also you will see why for non-pilot passengers, starting with my wife, its presence makes such a difference in peace of mind. In many small airplanes, there really is no reassuring answer to the question: OK, what if the pilot passes out? I've never come remotely close to passing out, either, but that's not a fully convincing answer. The parachute creates a very important Plan B option.


    For the record: I have no relationship with the Cirrus company other than as a two-time customer and a journalistic chronicler. I'm on friendly terms with many of the company's current and previous officials. I bought an early SR20 in 2000 and flew it for six years until we moved to China, at which point I sold it. On return four years ago I bought a new-to-me 2006-model SR22. We're traveling in that for our American Futures journeys.


    * Reader A.H. in Texas writes about this attitude:

    That sounds very much like British RAF in the last months of World War I, when German pilots began using the first early parachutes. The British supposedly refused to adopt them because they were convinced that pilots in a crippled machine would "lose their nerve" and jump, rather remain fully committed to saving the aircraft. Appalling, in retrospect.

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