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

  • 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.

    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.

  • The Man Who Thinks He Has Solved the MH370 Mystery

    ... but hasn't.

    Dr. M has not lost his edge. (Reuters)

    Anyone familiar with modern Malaysia—and hey, that should include almost everybody in this era of MH370 coverage—knows the name "Dr. Mahathir." For more than two decades, Mahathir Mohamad, originally trained as a medical doctor, was prime minister of Malaysia. To put it in perspective for Americans, this was a span that included all of Ronald Reagan's time in office, plus that of the first George Bush, plus all of Bill Clinton's, plus much of George W. Bush's first term.

    "Dr. M" first came to political prominence with a famous/notorious book called The Malay Dilemma, which argued that the country's more-numerous, less-prosperous ethnic Malays deserved special favors from the government, because eons of life in their lush tropical paradise had made them less fit for economic competition than the hard-driving Chinese minority. (Mahathir was head of the dominant ethnic-Malay political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.)

    To say that Dr. M is prickly undervalues that term. While serving as prime minister, he once got into what we'd now call a flame war with a 10-year-old schoolboy in England.* When Mahathir had a heart operation in the late 1980s, the local joke was that the point of the operation was to give him one (a heart). For decades Dr. M governed with a giant chip on his shoulder, and even out of office he's retained his trademark style, as he shows with his views on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

    Are most people puzzled by what happened to the plane? Do nearly all fault the Malaysian government's handling of the situation? They should shut up, Dr. M has explained. It's actually Boeing's fault. As he put it on his personal blog, picked up yesterday by the Malay Mail online:

    I am very upset over MAS [Malaysia Airline System] employees being held hostage in Beijing by the relatives of the passengers of MH 370. I am upset because they are blaming the wrong people. The loss of the plane is due to the makers Boeing.

    How can Boeing produce a plane that is so easily disabled? [And so on.] ...

    MAS is not at fault, lax security or not. MAS flew a plane fully expecting it to perform the task. But the plane has somehow behaved differently. Who is responsible? Not MAS but certainly the makers of the plane — Boeing Aircraft Corporation.

    The perfidy of the West knows no bounds. Meanwhile, even as Dr. M is solving the mystery, airline pilot Patrick Smith, of the Ask the Pilot blog, says that it is farther than ever from explanation:

    Count me among those who feel that this is how ends: a mystery. The plane is out there somewhere, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and in all likelihood we’re not going to find it....

    While I am not ruling anything out, my hunch is that a malfunction, rather than foul play or a pilot suicide mission, brought the plane down. A poorly handled decompression, for example, caused by a structural problem or windscreen failure. Or a catastrophic electrical failure combined with smoke, fire or fumes that rendered the crew unconscious. Granted that doesn’t totally jive with the evidence, but none of the theories do.

    That's what makes the situation an enduring and perhaps permanent mystery. No explanation makes sense. Except, of course, Dr. Mahathir's. 


    * While we were living in Malaysia in the 1980s, a British schoolboy wrote to Mahathir lamenting the destruction of the rain forest, mainly for conversion to palm-oil plantations. Dr. M took the time to write a blistering personal note back to the boy, lambasting the hypocrisy of Western hand-wringers and their late discovery of environmental concerns. "They should expel all those people all the people living in the British countryside and allow secondary forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears etc., before studying tropical angles." The man had an edge. I described this episode and the general Malaysian situation in Looking at the Sun.

    The more consequential side of his approach was his long legal persecution of his one-time protege, Anwar Ibrahim. For background see this. We loved living in Malaysia, but a notable item on the minus side of the ledger was the Mahathir-era governing style.

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  • I've Got the Next Great Story Lead for CNN

    Maybe a former finance minister of an African nation was also on the flight?

    Black hole? Bermuda Triangle? Now another possibility for Team CNN. ( Mediaite )

    If you're anything like me, you're already worried about how CNN will keep going, once even they recognize that there is no conceivable extra angle to wring out of the sad mystery of MH370. What new questions will Don Lemon have for his daily six-expert panel of analysts? What will those panelists do with their evenings? What will "breaking news" and "developing story" refer to at the bottom of CNN's screens? This air disaster really is sad, and it really is mysterious, but even the saddest, most puzzling, and most dramatic sagas eventually drift from the center of attention.  (For instance: the 1980s "dingo baby" tragedy in Australia. Now there was a dramatic and mysterious story, and while it gave rise to many good books plus one of Meryl Streep's Oscar nominations, nowadays entire years can go by without it being mentioned on the news.)

    Therefore I perked up when I saw this item in the morning's mailbag. I pass it on gratis to CNN's bookers and producers. It's from a very nice-sounding young woman in China, and I see lots of possibilities for CNN here.

    Dear new friend,

    I am a Chinese, 20 years old girl and will like to need your advice over my parents’ property. My father is Chinese as well as my mother. They own two big businesses, one is an electronics warehouse in China and another one is a garment factory in Cambodia. 

    Recently, my parents are still missing in Malaysian airplane because they were flying back to Beijing to celebrate their 28thanniversary of marriage. 

    Now I am studying business management in Cambodia and I hope I will be helping my father’s business after my studies. But after hearing this big shock for me about the missing airplane so I want to sell my father’s garment factory in Cambodia. Because of instability in garment business in Cambodia, I decided to sell this factory $23,000,000.00 but the government agreed to pay me US$17,000,000.00 out of money after deducting salaries for factory workers, environmental damages and other costs. 

    I really need a guardian to help me to manage this big amount of money and the warehouse in China as I am just a university student. I want to move out of this country and start refresh in a new country with you. Please reply me back out of pity on me and help. 

    After I receive your caring and supportive reply, we will talk more in details to make things work faster for both of us. 

    Sincerely, 

    I'm looking forward to hearing the panelists's views—or a one-on-one with Richard Quest, as the bereaved young lady guides him on a tour of her family's factory in Cambodia. Her contact details available if you ask.

    ___

    To answer the obvious question: If I think this coverage is so nutty, why do I watch it? I don't really. But several times per day I want to click over to CNN to make sure they're still on the story. And they still are!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Where to Get Your Next Fix of MH370 News

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

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

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

    Now the details.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     * all contributing failure conditions could be foreseen. 

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

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

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

    (1) Probability Ranges. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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