An Airline Pilot on Those "Old" Tupolevs

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It seems that every time an aviation accident occurs involving an airplane more than about fifteen years old, media reports focus on the airplane's age, when in fact this has little or nothing to do with the accident. (Witness the headlines breathlessly announcing that the Tu-154 was -- gasp -- TWENTY YEARS OLD!)
 
As a retired American Airlines Captain, I just have to roll my eyes and shake my head a bit. I have an informal affiliation with a fearful flier program, so I'm familiar with peoples' concerns; a common one is that the airplane might be old, and therefore about to fall apart. I have to repeatedly assure them that a) they're probably assuming, incorrectly, that because an automobile of a given age can be considered "old," the same applies to an airplane of the same age, and b) an airplane can be maintained in airworthy condition for many decades, so its age is immaterial, anyway.
 
Many of the MD-80s I flew at AA, by the time I retired, were over twenty years old. (And before I was hired by AA, I rarely flew an airplane that was newer than twenty.) [JF note: Until I got a small Cirrus-SR20 airplane in 2000, I had flown only rented Cessnas and Pipers built from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.] 
 
You commented that Category III approaches and landings are automatic. That is mostly true, but there are exceptions. I also flew the Boeing 737-800 for a few years, and it uses a Head-Up Display (HUD), for hand-flown Cat III approaches and landings. Personally, I prefer that to autoland. (The -800, of course, is autoland-capable, but AA elected to use the HUD instead.)
I mentioned earlier today that while the heartbreaking Polish aircraft tragedy might take a long time to be fully explained, initial worried speculation about the "aging" Russian Tupolev-154 aircraft was probably beside the point. Reader Steve Fisher, a long-time professional pilot, writes to say:
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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.
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