While on the road since Tuesday night have missed the blizzard and other events in DC -- my wife is also on the road, so I can't watch her do the shoveling unlike last time -- but have also missed time near a computer for intended updates on politics, US-China friction, and other topics. Herewith a catchup process begins with two sad items, concerning a small-plane collision today and the aftermath of a airline crash a year ago.

The small plane crash occurred this afternoon, just north of the Boulder, Colorado airport, when a Cirrus SR-20* SR-22 apparently hit the rope or wire connecting a powered airplane to the glider it was pulling up to its gliding altitude. The glider was apparently far enough away from the impact that it could free itself from the tow line and glide safely to a landing. The tow plane crashed to the ground and those aboard were killed. The Cirrus did not crash, but its occupants nonetheless died. A local video captured the Cirrus descending underneath the parachute that is a trademark part of Cirrus' safety system. Over the past decade, many people have been saved by this "ballistic recovery" parachute system that allows the whole airplane to float down to a survivable landing. In this case, the cockpit appears to be on fire as the plane comes down, so that the parachute cannot help the people inside. (This video is four minutes long, but the aviation part of the footage is the same several seconds repeated over and over.)


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Initial surmises about plane crashes are often misleading. Still, here is what seems to be known at this point: Hitting a taut rope or wire at nearly 200 mph could be enough to rip a wing from a plane, as appears to have happened to the Cirrus under the parachute. The wings are where the plane's gas is stored, so damage there could account for a fire. I have flown a Cirrus airplane several times from and around this airport and know that in good weather (especially on weekends) it is a busy center for glider activity. Operating near glider airports is tricky, because you have to watch for both the tow plane and the glider some distance behind it. Many modern small airplanes have traffic-detecting anti-collision warning systems, but they probably wouldn't register the thin line connecting the glider and its tow plane. Condolences to all affected by this tragedy.

[*UPDATE: A later photo showing the tail of the plane that crashed makes clear that it was a Cirrus SR-20 rather than a SR-22 airplane. The planes look practically identical, but the SR-22 is a faster, more powerful, and in other ways more advanced model. The photo, here, is gruesome but clearly shows the airplane's model number.]

A year ago, 50 people were killed when a Colgan regional flight crashed as it prepared for a landing in bad weather near Buffalo, NY. This week the National Transportation Safety Board released its report about the crash. Consistent with much previous discussion of the case (eg here and here), the NTSB found that the flight crew's basic errors of judgment and airmanship led to the crash. More striking was its warning about air crew standards more generally, and the reliance of big-name national carriers on worse-funded regional lines like Colgan:

"This accident was one in a series of incidents investigated by the Board in recent years - including a mid-air collision over the Hudson River that raised questions of air traffic control vigilance, and the Northwest Airlines incident last year where the airliner overflew its destination airport in Minneapolis because the pilots were distracted by non-flying activities - that have involved air transportation professionals deviating from expected levels of performance. In addition, this Fall the Board will hold a public forum on code sharing, the practice of airlines marketing their services to the public while using other companies to actually perform the transportation.  For example, this accident occurred on a Continental Connection flight, although the transportation was provided by Colgan Air."

For the record, Colgan's reply is here. Consistent with my previous mention of impressive works of reportage that deserve more attention than they might have received, the reporters and writers of the Buffalo News have done an outstanding job of investigation, analysis, and explanation about this tragic occurrence. For instance, this story about the training errors that might have led to the crash and this large collection of reports. I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce.