3 Alarming Aviation Items

By James Fallows

Yes, I try to keep these downer items to a minimum, but I mention the three that follow because so many people have written to ask if I have noticed.

1) Inside-the-cockpit video of a small plane crash, in Idaho. It's here and is quite tough to watch. Fortunately everyone survived. The first two minutes or so show the plane struggling to get off the ground. The impact occurs a little after time 2:30.

Anyone involved in aviation will understand the basic plot line here. (And yes, of course, any conclusion is provisional until the NTSB completes its investigation.) Airplanes perform worse, the more "H"s they encounter: High, Hot, Heavy, even Humid. High altitude means the air is thinner, so there is less for the plane's wings (and its engine) to work with. Hotter air is thinner too -- and so, perhaps surprisingly, is humid air. The heavier the load the plane is carrying, the harder it has to work to get off the ground.

I don't know whether it was humid on this day in Idaho, but the other high, hot, and heavy circumstances all seem to apply. You'll see that the airplane took an exceptionally long time even to get off the ground and that it never gained much altitude over the trees into which it eventually crashed. This is frightening -- and, again, it is miraculous that everyone survived.

2) This is why some airports have their name written on the terminal's roof. Last month, a giant Air Force cargo plane landed by mistake at a little commuter airport rather than similarly giant MacDill Air Force Base. This week, a turboprop operated by a regional airline landed by mistake at the wrong airport in West Virginia. Info here and here, including this illustrated version:


The airport the plane was looking for, in Clarksburg, has a runway that is twice as long and twice as wide as the one where it actually landed, in Fairmont. On the other hand, it was late at night; the regional airline had started flying this route only a few days before; it was an extremely short commuter hop; and the runways of the two airports were laid out in the similar directions. Still, this is embarrassing. No one was hurt, and the passengers were sent to their destination in taxis.

3) 'Stay in the airplane and keep your hands up.' Sometime I will explain more fully the phenomenon of "VIP TFRs." VIPs are VIPs, usually the president but sometimes other officials or dignitaries. TFRs are Temporary Flight Restrictions, which forbid most kinds of flight within a radius (often 30 nautical miles, or about 35 "normal" miles) of the important person. When the president travels, the TFRs travel with him. Right at this moment, here are some of the TFRs shown on the FAA's warning map. These tell you that POTUS will be spending the weekend in Chicago. (The one in Milwaukee is for an airshow.)


What happens to pilots who don't get the word, or ignore it? Here via the Audioboo site are two fairly chilling (to me) audio records of the transmissions between the tower at MacArthur Airport, on Long Island, and the pilot of a small, homebuilt Kitfox airplane shown below.


The Kitfox's pilot, who was alone in the airplane, had apparently "busted the TFR" -- the 30-nm no-fly zone that surrounded President Obama during a fundraising visit on Long Island on Monday night. Two F-15 fighter planes reportedly intercepted him and directed him to land at MacArthur airport. You'll hear what happened after he landed, when the tower controller, with admirable matter-of-factness, instructs him to stay in the plane until the Secret Service arrives to take over. The call sign of plane in question is "seven two five charlie echo." After a while local police join in and tell the pilot to raise his hands (meanwhile the controller is wondering why the pilot is no longer answering the radio, which he needs his hands to operate).

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I'm not making any larger point right now -- except, for my fellow pilots, this is why you have to be so obsessed about these frequently proliferating and very sternly enforced TFRs. For the moment these recordings provide a window into yet another aspect of the modern security state.

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