Today's Aviation Videos

By James Fallows

The image above, the aviation- & retro-California-themed label for one of Hangar 24's popular beers, is the slender-reed connection between where I am at the moment, reporting in Redlands, and the videos and items below. 

1) "Just stop!" What air traffic controllers do. The video below, via our friends at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), depicts an incident nearly 15 years old. It covers a near-disastrous misjudgment at the airport in Providence, RI back in 1999. It still seems very fresh in offering a vivid and gripping view of how aviation procedures (usually) work and how they might break down. 

The heroes of this episode are very clearly the members of the USAir crew who decide, at around time 3:30 of the video, to refuse a take-off clearance and instead stay put until they figure out which planes are where on the fog-obscured runways, which the tower controller simply can't see through the mist. A similar decision by any of the crews in Tenerife back in 1977 might have saved nearly 600 lives.

[UPDATE: as my wife has written, our respect for air traffic controllers has only increased as we've been flying around the country. But if you listen to the Providence event, you'll see that the controller doesn't come across as the "better safe than sorry" participant -- in clear contrast to the USAir crew. So the subhead of this item is meant two ways: usually they do a very good job, and occasionally they too err. This in response to some pilots who have written in to say that no one would use this episode as a model of ATC behavior. I agree.] 

2) "Will he make it?" The next endurance challenge. Over the months we've followed the achievements of Solar Impulse, the Swiss-made experimental airplane that has flown cross-country, round the clock, and through long hours of darkness without using any fossil fuel or external power at all. Previous updates from 2010, 2012, and 2013.

As the Solar Impulse team prepares for a trans-Atlantic flight (and eventual round-the-world journey), here is one of several videos about the preparation:

3) Silver Comet vs. the World. One of my big themes, from Free Flight onward, is that the most remarkable aspect of America's transportation patrimony is one most Americans ignore: Our landscape is dotted with 4,000+ small airports, probably more than the rest of the world combined. 

The WSJ (paywalled) has a report on one of the implications: the efforts of the small Silver Comet field (aka Paulding), outside Atlanta, to absorb a tiny share of Delta's flights into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airport. OK, this may be more about Delta's corporate strategies than larger transport questions, but it's an interesting story. While I'm at it, here is another WSJ item (also paywalled), on China's version of similar struggles.

I don't have a video for this third item, but instead here is an interactive map from our friends and partners at Esri, based on the FAA's "VFR Sectional" charts from the entire country. It starts with a view of the Atlanta area, with the main airport shown with a big red bulls-eye and the smaller one shown in blue. You can scroll around, zoom in or out, and search for any city. The map takes quite a while to refresh, as the very complex chart images load from the FAA's servers. But you'll be able to see the local small airport near almost any place you choose. The ones with control towers are shown in blue; the ones without (the great majority) are in magenta, a word I use only in this context.  

By the way, there is a great NASA guide to reading FAA charts here. Feel free to use it in connection with the maps above.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/todays-aviation-videos/282512/