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Ask the Pilot Express is a Semi-Daily Mini-Blog Featuring News Blurbs, Photos, Updates, Random Musings and More.

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October 3, 2017.   Ryanair’s Woes.

Becoming an airline pilot takes a certain degree of self-sacrifice, and always has. Flying, it has been said, is much like acting, painting, or playing minor league baseball: it’s a pursuit born of passion, and with it comes a willingness to suffer for one’s art. What else can explain why so many young pilots are able to endure long years of low pay and stressful working conditions in a notoriously unstable industry before maybe, hopefully, if he or she is lucky, scoring a slot with a major airline? Along the way, we expect to be taken advantage of. But if there’s one airline that has exploited this dynamic to the extreme, it’s Ryanair, the low-cost European giant that is now the fourth-largest carrier in the world measured by passenger boardings. Ryanair pilots must pay for their own employment interview, their own training — even their own onboard bottled water. They effectively work as independent contractors, and must register themselves as “companies” under Irish law before joining with third-party staffing agencies who then contract them to Ryanair. The carrier’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, is notorious for making hostile and derogatory comments about his pilots. If you have a few minutes to spare, check out this radio interview with one of those pilots.

As you may have heard, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for Ryanair, after a “rostering” error caused the cancellation of thousands of flights that stranded nearly half a million passengers. More than just a scheduling snafu, this is a symptom of serious, underlying problems that Mr. O’Leary will have little choice but to finally reckon with. The media has been sniffing around, and some of what they’re discovering, while it’s common knowledge to many of us in the business, has left the flying public startled.

August 31, 2017.   End of Summer Update From the Author.

It’s been quiet here on the home page. Some of you have expressed disappointment over what’s been a dearth of new posts these past few weeks. I apologize for the lack of activity. Hang in there. Keep the faith, and all that. It’ll get fun again, I promise. In the meantime, here’s an explanation:

First, there hasn’t been much in the news for me to coattail on. No accidents, no scandals, no more passengers being dragged from planes or pilots trying to land on taxiways. We can see this as a good thing.

Also it’s summer. This is busiest period for me flying-wise; I’ve been working a lot, with little time to post. Luckily this coincides with the time of year when readership is at its lowest, so I suppose it works out. In the way that magazines will sometimes skip an issue in July or August, I’m taking a breather.

Third, and most critically, I’ve been devoting almost all of my time off to editing and preparing the new edition of my book. A second edition of Cockpit Confidential is scheduled to be published in early 2018, and my deadline is less than a week away. I got started late, and now I’m scrambling to get it finished, putting in twelve-hour days. It’s been harder work than I expected, with a considerable number of updates and revisions. Almost all of the text is being touched up in one way or another.

If it’s any consolation, a good deal of the book is drawn from the various essays, FAQs, and blog posts that appear on this website. As those sections are being updated and edited for the book, so are the online versions. So, while there haven’t been many all-new posts recently, poke around the website in the coming days and effectively you’ll be reading new material. Hopefully that can hold you over until the manuscript is finished and I can get back to regular posting.

Thanks.

Patrick Smith
August 30
Paris

July 27, 2017.   No, That’s Not a Runway. (Update)

On July 7th, an Air Canada jet nearly landed on a busy taxiway at San Francisco International Airport, apparently mistaking the taxiway for runway 28R. Taxiway C, as it’s designated (“Charlie,” pilots would call it, using the phonetic alphabet), runs parallel to the runway on its north side. At least four other planes were on the taxiway at the time. At the last minute, the pilots of flight AC759, an Airbus A320 with 140 people aboard, broke off the approach and climbed away.

This could could easily have been disastrous — something akin to the USAir crash in Los Angeles in 1991. Luckily the Air Canada crew, aided in part by startled pilots on the taxiway, realized in time that they were lined up incorrectly.

What happened in 1991 was an air traffic controller’s deadly mistake. What happened the other night in SFO appears to be straightforward crew error, the million-dollar question being how the pilots got into this situation in the first place. Runway 28R is equipped with the standard electronic landing aid (ILS) and fancy approach lighting found on most major runways. The aiming point should have been pretty obvious.

That said, San Francisco has its quirks. Only about three-hundred feet separate runway 28R from taxiway C, and approaches into SFO are often busy and very high-workload. Also, non-precision approaches to this runway are common, and sometimes the ILS isn’t used. I land on runway 28R all the time, and the most common approach is something called an “RNAV visual,” a hybrid procedure in which the final segment is flown visually, with no runway-specific guidance from the instruments. You can transition to the ILS in those final seconds, but this isn’t always done. And, it was midnight. Maybe fatigue played a role.

Another factor is that the parallel runway, 28L, was closed that evening, with its approach lights turned off. Pilots landing at SFO normally expect to see a pair of runways, laid more or less next to one another. Perhaps they mistook 28R for 28L, which would have been dark, and saw taxiway C as 28R.

I landed on runway 28R two nights ago, right about at dusk. Runway lighting and taxiway lighting are very different, and this, among other things, should have been a huge clue For Air Canada. They should have broken off the approach a lot sooner. But as we descended toward the threshold, I couldn’t help thinking: taxiway C does indeed resemble a runway!

Those aren’t excuses, but under the right set of circumstances, what happened isn’t totally beyond the pale. And there had to be some external contributing factors aside from pure recklessness on the part of the pilots.

How close a call was it? That would mostly depend how far out the A320 was — distance from the threshold, and altitude — when the crew began the go-around maneuver. Early on, reports said the plane didn’t get any lower than 350 feet above the ground. That’s the height of a 30-story building and would represent fairly adequate clearance. The voices on the recordings, meanwhile, show concern, as well they should, but remained measured and calm, suggesting a catastrophe was never imminent. However, investigators are now saying the Air Canada crew flew a full quarter of a mile along the taxiway before beginning a climb, and came within 55 feet of a taxiing United jet’s tail. If so, that’s downright alarming, and about as close a call as you can have. How and why the crew got to that point is unclear.

Also unclear is why air traffic control didn’t notice the pilots’ mistake and alert them sooner. In the controllers’ defense, however, the taxiway and the runway are close together, and they would’ve been watching from a considerable angle, throwing off the perspective. I’m not sure their radar would have shown anything too worrying either, at least until the final seconds. Planes sometimes zig and zag a bit on final approach. And, after a clearing a crew to land, you more or less take it for granted they will know the difference between a runway and a taxiway.

As they approached the airport, the pilots queried air traffic control about traffic on the runway. They saw something that concerned them. The tower’s reply, that the runway was clear, may have given them a false sense of security and encouraged them to continue. They should not have gotten as close as they did, but it can be very difficult to see other aircraft on the ground at night, even when those aircraft have all of their appropriate lighting on. Just ask the USAir crew than landed on top of that plane at LAX.

Runway numbers correspond to the strip’s magnetic orientation. Just add a zero. Runway 28 is aligned 280 degrees — just a smidgen north of due west. The opposite end would be runway 10, pointing 100 degrees. Runways laid in parallel also carry a left or right — “L” or “R” — suffix. SFO’s runway 28L was the one on which an Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed on July 6, 2013 — four years before Air Canada, almost to the day.



 

June 6 , 2017.   To Privatize or Not to Privatize?

Donald Trump has unveiled a plan to privatize our beleaguered, government-run air traffic control system. Such a scheme, he says, will result in a more modern and more smoothly run system like those in Canada or Europe. He’s not alone in pushing for this. Most of the country’s major airlines have called for privatization as well. So, is this a good idea?

I really don’t know. I’m the wrong person to ask. There’s too much about the issue that I don’t understand to have an informed-enough opinion.

What I can tell you, though, almost for certain, is that even the most sophisticated ATC system is not going to solve the chronic delay problem that plagues much of the country. “It’s time to join the future,” says the President, “and make flights quicker, safer, more reliable.” A nice idea, but would privatization actually do that? As I see it, you can privatize, modernize, upgrade, and otherwise overhaul air traffic control all you want; while it will help in some respects, we’ll continue suffer delays and congestion. Why? Because ultimately this is not an airspace issue; it’s an airports issue. Our ATC infrastructure is sorely old-fashioned. Moving to a satellite-based system, be it privately or publicly funded, is a terrific idea that will improve efficiency and, to an extent, safety. However, a runway can only handle so many flights in a given amount of time, and many of our airports are simply too small and/or poorly designed for the amount of traffic we funnel into them.

The problem won’t be solved until two things happen: First, airlines need to be better rationalize their schedules. This means reducing frequencies in some markets, and consolidating flights with larger aircraft. Frequency is a huge selling point for airlines, but while fifteen flights a day from city A to city B looks great on paper, reliability collapses when the weather gets bad. And, second, we need more runways and larger, better-designed airports. That second one is a pipe dream, of course. It takes decades just to get a single new runway built in this country, never mind opening new airports or redesigning existing ones.



 

May 18, 2017.   Saving Saarinen.

Construction continues on Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA terminal at Kennedy airport, which is being turned into a hotel. This is maybe not the ideal fate for such a historic building, but it beats the alternative. (Demolition, that is. I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome,” which used to sit right next door, was knocked down about five years ago).

Saarinen’s “Flight Center,” as it was called, is the most architecturally significant air terminal ever built, and is one of aviation’s hallowed places. Regarded as a modernist masterpiece, it opened in 1962 (at the time JFK was still known as Idlewild Airport), and was the first major terminal built expressly for jet airliners. After the takeover of TWA by American Airlines, the structure’s fate was arbitrated between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats. As those things tend to go, few were optimistic, but the building was saved from demolition thanks mainly to the efforts of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society. The initial plan was for the terminal to serve as a lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue, whose terminal 5 sits directly behind it, enveloping Saarinen’s structure in a half circle. Terminal 5 is one of America’s ugliest, and it could have used the architectural panache. This plan fell through, however, and the terminal sat in a state of semi-dereliction until hotelier Andre Balaz stepped in, with plans to turn the building into a lobby for a 150-room boutique hotel.

We’re happy the building still stands, but this hotel idea strikes me as an aesthetically dangerous one. “It is a great honor to be entrusted with the preservation and revitalization of this masterpiece,” said Balaz. Here’s hoping he understands what makes the building special, and keeps it that way. The terminal’s beauty is, if nothing else, its continuity. That it’s not geometrically partitioned in the manner of most public buildings is precisely what makes it so brilliant. “All one thing,” is how Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the terminal at Washington-Dulles, once said of it. The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic; a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by a pair of cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings.

I was lucky enough to work in Saarinen’s terminal when I was a pilot for TWA Express in the mid-1990s, though by then it was overcrowded and forlorn. Clutches of sparrows lived in the yellowed rafters and would swoop around, grabbing up crumbs.

Photos by the author.

May 11, 2017.   Pets on a Plane.

RIP Simon, the Giant Rabbit.

The death a couple of weeks ago of Simon the giant rabbit (who knew there was such a thing?), on board a London-to-Chicago United flight, has a lot of people anxious about shipping their pets with the airlines.

How are pets treated below deck? A lot of people are under the impression they are kept in unheated, unpressurized sections of the plane.

Not true. At 35,000 feet the outside temperature is about 60 degrees below zero and there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe. That’s worse than economy, and transporting animals in these conditions would rightfully displease pet owners and animal rights groups. So, yes, the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated. On most planes there’s a particular zone designated for animals. This tends to be the zone with the warmest and most consistent temperature. Maintaining a steady, confortable temperature while aloft is relatively easy, but it can be tricky on the ground in hot weather, and for this reason some airlines embargo pets during the summer months.

Of the two million or so animals carried in the United States each year, a small number perish, whether due to stress or mishandling. How well a pet endures the experience depends a good deal on the individual animal’s health and temperament. If your dog or cat (or rabbit or macaw) is elderly, ill, or is easily stressed or spooked, perhaps sending him or her through multiple time zones in a noisy and confined space isn’t the smartest idea. My best advice is to consult with a veterinarian.

The flight crew is always told when animals are aboard. Passengers are known to send handwritten notes to the cockpit asking that we take special care, but this isn’t really necessary, and, in any case, there’s not a lot we can do. There’s no access between the main deck and the lower holds; so, no, we can’t carry treats to your friend below.

Someday, maybe, I will share the story about the time I carried a pet hedgehog onto a flight to Cleveland.



 

May 8, 2017.   Worst Headline Ever.

Aviation mishaps have a way of generating some pretty awful reporting. Here, in a story that I discovered in my mobile phone news feed, CNN’s headline writers have really outdone themselves. It’s hard to unpack this one. First, I’m unsure what we’re supposed to make of the fact that passengers were inside the plane, rather than somehow outside of it. Then we have the matter of the “crash landing,” which this most categorically was not.

What actually happened seems to be that a business jet — it looks like an old, Israeli-built Westwind jet — lost a portion of its left main landing gear, then made a somewhat telegenic, if not especially dangerous, touchdown (the kind of superficial nonevent that social media, and in depressing turn, the real media, can’t get enough of). “Landing gear,” though, was apparently too jargony a term for the editors, who opted to go with “wheel” instead, thus equating the components of a jet aircraft with those of, say, a child’s toy wagon. Beyond that, I’m not certain what happened. I confess that I never clicked on the story, and neither will I be researching it now, for the simple reason that it looks really boring and unimportant. A small plane has a landing gear snafu… some sparks… oh, the humanity.

People tend to get worked up over landing gear malfunctions. In fact, if something is going to go wrong with your plane, the landing gear is one of the least hazardous places for it to happen. Provided you aren’t blowing tires at 150 knots on takeoff, gear problems are pretty easy to manage. Worst case, there’s the possibility of a fuel tank rupture or loss of directional control, but anything disastrous is highly unlikely, even in the case of a totally collapsed gear.

April 7, 2017.   Things That Go Bump.

It stands to reason that as global warming intensifies certain weather patterns and creates stronger storms, inflight encounters with strong turbulence will increase. Until recently, however, there haven’t been any formal studies linking climate change with rougher flying. Now there are. A new paper published by atmospheric scientist Paul Williams from the University of Reading suggests that instances of strong, potentially dangerous turbulence will increase significantly by the middle of the century. The study is an expansion of an earlier, 2013 analysis of wind patterns in a busy section of North Atlantic airspace between the U.S. and Europe. That analysis showed a marked increase in both the severity and frequency of all grades of turbulence, from “light” through “severe.” You can read more details here.

I’ve been flying across the North Atlantic since 1997. My observations are just that, and are purely anecdotal, but what I’ve experienced more or less meshes with the research. It’s become bumpier and windier, on average, and storms seem to be larger and more widespread. Most notably, it’s no longer uncommon to encounter thunderstorms even in the colder months.

More extreme weather will have impacts both aloft and on the ground. Turbulence isn’t the only concern. Pilots will also face an increase in things like hail, low-level windshear and microbursts, while more frequent and powerful storms, both in summer and winter, will wreak logistical havoc at airports. The bottom line repercussions for airlines could be in the tens of billions annually. There is mounting concern that extreme temperatures could render major airports in parts of the Middle East, India and Africa unusable during certain summer periods.



April 2, 2017.   Department of Imaginary Nostalgia.

Retro liveries, in which an airline paints up one or more planes in a color scheme from decades past, are trendy nowadays. It’s a fun idea, at least when applied sparingly. Among the best are American’s “Astrojet” throwbacks, and Lufthansa’s gorgeous, 1970s livery redone on a brand-new 747-8. Some of them, like Lufthansa’s, make you wonder why they ever changed liveries in the first place. Others, like American’s revival of TWA’s clunky red-and-white scheme from the 1980s, were better off left in the dustbin.

American has a whole series of these tributes — shout-outs to the various carriers that, through a long series of mergers and acquisitions, were folded into today’s American Airlines: TWA, America West, Allegheny, PSA, and so on.

That TWA scheme isn’t something we needed to see again, but even worse, they’ve assigned it to a Boeing 737, a plane that TWA never flew. This is maybe getting too geeky, but if you’re going to do this, shouldn’t it be aircraft-appropriate, when possible? American has plenty of 767s that it could have offered up, or an old MD-80 series jet, both of which were flown by TWA.

The latest carrier on the bandwagon is JetBlue, who’ve decorated an Airbus A320 in an old-timey scheme featuring an ochre and blue cheatline and the titles “New York International.” It’s a nostalgic-looking uniform that screams late ’60s or early ’70s — though for some reason they’ve stayed with a modern tail, which sort of unbalances the whole thing. But what really makes it funny is that it’s completely made-up. JetBlue has only been in operation since 2000, and this livery never existed!

They do have a gift for self-promotion, that jetBlue, and this time they’ve been especially clever. For what it’s worth, had the company been around in, say, 1973, its planes probably would have looked like this.

March 27, 2017.   Tenerife at 40.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the deadliest aviation disaster of all time. On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, two Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway, killing 583 people. There’s a surreal, almost mythical aura that surrounds the accident, due in no small part to the almost unbelievable cascade of ironies and coincidences that led to it — beginning with the fact that neither plane was supposed to be at Tenerife in the first place. There was KLM, the oldest airline in the world, and Pan Am, the most famous and influential carrier of them all. Both aircraft were 747s, then and now the most iconic jetliners in existence. In the KLM cockpit sat Captain Jacob Van Zanten, the company’s exalted instructor pilot, whose face appeared in KLM’s magazine ads, and whose misunderstanding of an air traffic control clearance would result in a catastrophe. There was the terminal bombing at Las Palmas, the sudden fog bank, the crowded tarmac that blocked the normal taxi routes, and on and on the weirdness went. And if not for a single occluded radio transmission, the whole thing may have been avoided.

I was only ten years old, but I clearly remember the day it happened, watching the news in our downstairs living room — the choppy, black-and-white footage from a place I’d never heard of. See the full story here.

The photograph below is probably the eeriest aviation photo ever taken. It shows the two doomed aircraft — the KLM 747 in the foreground and Pan Am behind it — parked adjacent to one another on the Tenerife apron, shortly before the disaster that Sunday morning. Just last month, Bob Bragg, the last surviving pilot from the crash, passed away at age 79.



 

March 15, 2016.   Winglet Fatigue.

A happy winglet is an unadorned winglet. I’ve had it up to here with carriers that feel compelled to turn their little upturned fins into billboards, festooning them with stripes, logos, or text. The surface isn’t big enough, and the result is too often cluttered, tacky and contrived. Not to mention redundant. You’ve already got the fuselage and tail to work with; we don’t also need to see your name or trademark painted across the winglet.

There are scattered exceptions. Virgin Atlantic’s Union Jack motif is handsome, and Hawaiian Airlines has an unobtrusive floral pattern that makes for a pleasant accent. Turkish Airlines’ winglet logo is similarly understated and attractive, as is the oryx head used by Qatar Airways. Generally, though, the idea is to keep it as modest as possible — a solid color or, if you must, something with just a touch of highlighting. See Delta and United, respectively. Those are dignified winglets.

In case you missed it the first time.

There’s a special place in airline hell, meanwhile, for carriers that insist on using this space to advertise their Web addresses. I’m not sure it’s necessary to have this anywhere on the plane — as if there’s a person alive who doesn’t know that airlines have online sites, and that you can go there and purchase tickets — but it’s especially garish when it’s crammed onto a winglet. Have a look at VietJet Air, in the photo below. Never mind for a minute what a hideous name that is: VietJet Air. The simple “VietJet” would have been perfectly sufficient, but no, instead they have to shove the “Air” done our throat as well. (JetBlue does this too, insisting that we call them “JetBlue Airways,” in case maybe you thought it was a bank or a furniture company.) The bigger problem is that the carrier’s Web address appears no less than three times — most gratuitously, of course, on the winglet.

The true purpose of a winglet is aerodynamic, not promotional. At a wing’s tip, the higher pressure beneath the wing meets the lower pressure above it, sending out a turbulent discharge of air. Winglets help smooth this mixing, decreasing drag and, in turn, improving range and efficiency. Because planes have different aerodynamic fingerprints, winglets aren’t always necessary or cost-effective. For instance, the 747-400 and A340 have them, while the 777 does not, even though it too is a long-range widebody. Because fuel economy wasn’t always the priority that it is today, and because the advantages of winglets weren’t fully understood until fairly recently, older models were designed without them. For these planes — a list that includes the 757 and 767 — they are available as an option or retrofit. An airline considers whether the long-term fuel savings is worth the cost of installation, which can run millions per plane. It depends on the flying. Aesthetics are a personal thing. I find winglets attractive on some jets — I love the scimitar tips on the new A350 — and awkward on others, like those on the 767. You see them in different forms. Some are large and jaunty, while others are just a tweak. With a “blended winglet,” the wing tapers gradually with no harsh angles. Planes like the 787 and 747-8 use amore integrated style, sometimes referred to as a “raked wingtip.” I am especially un-fond of the curvy, steer-horn, top-and-bottom winglets that are becoming common now on 737s. They’re quite garish.

Airbus has nicknamed its next-generation winglet — a taller, thinner fin designed for the A320 series — a “sharklet.” This, we take it, is in reference to its dorsal-esque shape, but grammatically it makes no sense. “Winglet” means a small wing, or an appendage to one. A “sharklet” would be a small shark. No part of an airplane is called a shark.

March 5, 2017.   Air Canada’s New Colors.

At last, a livery to love. Rising above a tarmac jammed with meaningless swooshy things, pretentious patterns and too-fancy textures, comes the new Air Canada. Our friends to the north have done a smart thing, finally moving on from that strangely pixelated maple leaf and soapy blue fuselage — a hue that, at least to me, made every Air Canada jet evoke the tiling in an airport men’s room. On the tail, the maple leaf roundel is back to its old proud self, set strikingly in red against a glossy field of black. I’d have fattened the black underside just a touch, but still it gives the jet some nice horizontal definition. Up front, the raccoon-face windscreen is both a roguish flourish and a throwback to the liveries of old, when cockpit windows were often masked to reduce sun glare. Airline liveries almost never employ the color black, but this might change once designers get a gander at this one. All together, it’s a proud design that says one thing and says it nicely: Air Canada. That might seem redundant, but the trend over the past fifteen years, relying on hoary “in motion” themes and overly tangled motifs, has left many a carrier’s identity muted. Here is a brash, in-your-face refutation of these hackneyed themes, and it’ll hopefully inspire others to follow suit. It gets an A-grade. And I never give As.

Photos: Air Canada

Related stories:

THE NEW AMERICAN AIRLINES LOGO
THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES
ET TU, KLM?

February 22, 2017.   R.I.P. Bob Bragg.

Robert Lee Bragg, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, passed away on February 9th. He was 79. He was the last surviving pilot of history’s worst plane crash.

On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, he was the first officer on Pan Am flight 1736, a charter from New York, when it was struck on a runway in dense fog by a KLM 747 that had begun its takeoff roll without clearance. The collision killed 583 people, and remains the deadliest airline disaster of all time. Bragg was among the sixty-one people who survived, including the entire Pan Am cockpit crew (captain Victor Grubbs died in 1993; flight engineer George Warns died two years earlier). For his bravery in assisting survivors, Bragg received the President’s Award for Heroism.

He returned to flying shortly after the crash. In 1987, United Airlines purchased Pan Am’s Pacific routes and several of its aircraft, and Bragg moved to United, where eventually he retired as a 747 captain. He captained several of United’s inaugural international flights, including its Los Angeles-Beijing and Los Angeles-Frankfurt services.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Boyd-Bragg, Professor of History Emerita at James Madison University in Virginia.

In 2006, in California, I spent the better part of a day with Bob and Dorothy while working on a TV documentary about Tenerife. I remember when the producer called me at home, inviting me to help with the show. “Bob Bragg is going to be there as well,” he explained. “Bob is…”

He didn’t need to finish that sentence. I knew exactly who Bob Bragg was. I’d known who he was since the sixth grade. And getting to meet him would be one of the great thrills of my life. Not for his bravery or heroics. Unlike captain Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson,” for example, Bragg and his colleagues didn’t save the day. On the contrary, they were helpless. It was never about that. It was about the sheer momentousness of the event — the almost unbelievable chain of events that led to it, and its subsequent place in history. To have been a being witness to that — no, to have been part of it, right there in the cockpit! Bob Bragg was a giant.

An account of the Tenerife crash, and the story of my day with Bob on the film set, can be read here.

What happened at Tenerife is part of the greater story of the Boeing 747, history’s most influential jetliner. Sadly, we’ve now lost two of the most iconic characters from that story. Joe Sutter, the 747’s visionary creator, died last August at 95.

Mojave, California, 2006.   Bob Bragg talks about Tenerife.
Photo by the author.

February 9, 2017.   Boarding Blues.

It never ceases to amaze me, traveling in other parts of the world, how much quicker and smoother the boarding process seems to go. In Asia, for instance, I’ve seen them board 500 passengers onto an A380 in under thirty minutes. How do they do it? Here at home, it takes 45 minutes to get 70 people onto a damn regional jet, and it’s chaos the entire time.

Well, how they do it is, for one, by using bigger planes. In Asia, even a 45-minute hop is often aboard a widebody 777 or A330. Widebody planes, with multiple aisles and all-around greater spaciousness, are by their nature easier to get on and off. In the U.S., aircraft size has been steadily shrinking over the past two decades. More people are flying than ever before, it’s true, but we’re doing it on smaller planes: regional jets, A319s, 737s and the like. The reasons for this are a subject for another time, but the narrow aisles and limited bin space on these planes mean longer boarding and deplaning times.

Another thing is that most airports outside the U.S. will board and deplane a widebody jet through multiple doors using multiple boarding bridges — at least two, and sometimes even three. (In Amsterdam, KLM boards its 747s using two forward bridges, plus a unique, over-the-wing bridge that connects to the rear fuselage.) This makes a massive difference in how long it takes to move hundreds of people, and their hundreds of bags, between the terminal and the cabin. Dual-bridge boarding does exist in the United States, but it’s uncommon.

Photo by the author



January 9, 2017.   The Airport-Fortress.

Just a quick note on last week’s fatal shooting in Fort Lauderdale, in which a lone gunman killed five people. What’s bothering me is the temptation to analyze this incident through the crucible of airport security. We expect as much, of course, but still it’s frustrating.

How to deal with a proliferation of firearms? How to restrict mentally ill people from running amok with them? Regardless of your Second Amendment opinions, those are useful and reasonable arguments right now. What’s less useful are suggestions that we should be arming TSA guards or barricading airports entirely. We heard these ideas in the wake of the airport attacks in Istanbul and Brussels, and we’re hearing them again. What to do about the “soft targets” of the check-in counters and terminal lobbies? The New York Times described airport baggage claim as a “weak spot” in security. The implication is that our airports aren’t yet secure enough, and that only more barricades, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards will make them so. People are asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved onto the sidewalk.

As if, by moving the fences, we’re somehow safe. The only thing these “solutions” would actually do is shift the perimeter, and the busy choke point of passengers, to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose target has simply been relocated from one spot to a different, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else.

Airport terror attacks are nothing new, by the way. In 1972, the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people in the arrivals lounge at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv (today’s Ben Gurion International). In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 in a pair of coordinated ticket counter assaults in Vienna and Rome. In 2002, a gunman shot three people near the El Al ticket counter at LAX, and in 2011 a suicide bomber at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport killed 35 people. Plus last year’s attacks in Brussels and Istanbul.

The murders at FLL baggage claim do not seem to have been be politically motivated. And although we’re understandably twitchy when it comes to airports, this could have happened anywhere: at a mall, in a parking lot, in a theater, in a public park. Indeed mass killings have happened in exactly those places before, and in many others. The location in this instance strikes me as incidental, and is pushing the conversation in the wrong directions.



 

December 29, 2016.   Coincidence of the Macabre.

THE ANSWER TO THIS QUIZ IS NOW POSTED BELOW.

Commercial flying has never been as safe as it is right now, and usually I go out of my way to remind people of this. Every now and then, however, I get a little morbid. (If you’re a nervous flyer made uneasy by talk of crashes and disasters, you should immediately stop reading.) My post the other day about the anniversary of the Pan Am 103 bombing got me thinking about something, and I managed to put together the following list. Each of these was a historically significant air disaster of one type or another. The causes and circumstances run the gamut, from sabotage to pilot error. There is one thing, however, that all of them share. It’s not an especially meaningful thing, but it’s a peculiarly coincidental one. Can you tell me what it is?

The first reader with the correct answer wins an autographed copy of my book, or, if he or she prefers, an Emirates first class stationery kit identical to one you see below, held in the stumpy, Trumpian fingers of yours truly. Send your response to patricksmith@askthepilot.com.

In no special order…

Pan Am 103 (Blown up over Lockerbie in 1988)
Pan Am 1736 (Collides with KLM 747 at Tenerife in 1977. History’s worst air disaster)
KAL 007 (Korean Air Lines 747 shot down by the Soviets in 1983)
American 587 (Airbus A300 goes down seconds after takeoff from JFK airport in New York)
Swissair 111 (MD-11 crashes off Nova Scotia after an onboard fire)
TWA 800 (Fuel tank explosion destroys 747 headed from JFK to Paris)
Air France 4590 (A chartered Concorde crashes near Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris)
Avianca 52 (Boeing 707 crashes in Cove Neck, New York, in 1990, after running out of fuel)
EgyptAir 990 (Pilot intentionally crashes a 767 bound for Cairo, killing all aboard)
Eastern 66 (Watershed disaster in 1975 ushers in the study of windshear and microbursts)

 

And the answer is…

All of the crashes in the list involved flights that originated from, or were destined for, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Quite strange if you think about it. No other airport can be linked to so much infamy. Apparently some nefarious cosmic force has a grudge against JFK. Which worries me a bit since I’m based there.

Congrats to Andrea Georger of New York City for being first with the correct answer. She took the stationery.

December 21, 2016.   Lockerbie and the Solstice.

Wednesday, December 21st, is the winter solstice and either the shortest or longest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. It also marks the 28th anniversary of one of the most notorious terrorist bombings, the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of Seas, was bound from London to New York, when it blew up in the evening sky about a half-hour after takeoff. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, along with eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, where an entire neighborhood was virtually demolished. Debris was scattered for miles. Until 2001, this was the deadliest-ever terror attack against American civilians. A photograph of the decapitated cockpit and first class section of the 747, lying crushed on its side in a field, became an icon of the disaster, and is perhaps the saddest air crash photo of all time.

maid-of-the-seas

Two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were later tried in the Netherlands for the bombing. Fhimah was acquitted, but al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life.

The government of Mohammar Khaddafy would also be held responsible for the 1989 destruction of UTA flight 772. Few Americans remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France (UTA, a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris, was eventually absorbed by Air France). A hundred and seventy people were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the DC-10 on a flight from Congo. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. (Years later, a remarkable memorial, incorporating a section of the plane’s wing, was constructed in the desert where the wreckage landed.)

Khaddafy eventually agreed to blood money settlements for Libya’s hand in both the UTA and Pan Am attacks. The UTA agreement doled out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims.  More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin. 

The investigation into the Lockerbie bombing was one of the most fascinating and intensive in history. Much of the footwork took place on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the explosive device, hidden inside a Toshiba radio and packed into a suitcase, was assembled and sent on its way. The deadly suitcase traveled first from Malta to Frankfurt, and from there onward to London. Both Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah had been employees of Libyan Arab Airlines, and Fhimah was the station manager there in Malta. During my vacation to the island a couple of years ago, it was a little eerie when I found myself walking past the Libyan Airlines ticket office, which is still there, just inside the gate to the old city of Valletta.

In 2009, in a move that has startled the world, Scottish authorities struck a deal with the Libyan government, and al-Megrahi, terminally ill at the time, was allowed to return home, to be with his family in his final days. He was welcomed back as a hero by many.

There’s lots to read online about flight 103, including many ghastly day-after pictures from Lockerbie. But instead of focusing on the gorier aspects, check out the amazing story of Ken Dornstein, whose brother perished at Lockerbie, and his dogged pursuit of what really happened. (Dornstein, like me, is a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and he lives within walking distance. I’d like to meet him one of these days.)

November 30, 2016.   The Colombia Crash, and a Primer on Fuel.

A charter flight crashed yesterday near Medellin, Colombia, killing 71 people, including most members of a popular Brazilian soccer team. The aircraft was a British-built Avro RJ85, a variant of the British Aerospace BAe-146, a four-engined regional jet considered obsolete in most of the world. The jet was operated by a small company called LaMia Airlines, based in Bolivia, and was en route from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin. The distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin is about 1,845 miles, and the published range of the Avro RJ85 is, well, 1,845 miles. Indeed fuel exhaustion seems to have been be the culprit, but know that the aircraft range figures cited on websites — and which the media keep throwing around as hard facts — are estimates. Range is more accurately measured by time, not distance, though even that can vary. There is simply no fixed range for any aircraft type. It depends on wind, weather, and altitude.

Calculating the amount of required fuel is a somewhat scientific undertaking. Crews do not ballpark the load with a cursory glance at a gauge, as you might do in a car before a road trip. The regulations can be intricate, especially when flying internationally, and will vary from country to country (a plane is beholden to its nation of registry, plus any local requirements if they’re more stringent), but the U.S. domestic rule is a good indicator of how conservatively things work: There must always be enough to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), and then for at least another 45 minutes. The resulting minimum is nonnegotiable. Sometimes, if weather criteria so dictate, two or more alternates need to be filed in a flight plan, upping the total accordingly. If traffic delays are expected, even more will be added. At the bigger airlines, it’s licensed dispatchers and planners who devise the final figures, but the captain has the final say and can request more still. I’m unfamiliar with Bolivian or Colombian regulations, but some version of the U.S. rules are more or less universal.

So, if LaMia flight 2933 succumbed to empty tanks, was it gross negligence, a malfunction, or some combination of the two? Well, it’s worth noting that the captain of the flight was also the co-owner of the company, and Colombian media is speculating as to whether he refrained from declaring a low-fuel emergency to avoid potential penalties against both him and the carrier. Rushing to judgment so soon after a crash is usually a bad idea, but it’s not looking good for LaMia.

However, keep in mind that LaMia is a tiny company and not a commercial airline in the usual sense of the term. Regardless of what countries they are from, established carriers do not play fast and loose with fuel rules. They just don’t. Meanwhile, I know, the words “Bolivia” and “air safety” don’t necessarily feel right in the same sentence, but try to keep an open mind. The South American nation has a long and proud aviation heritage. The former national carrier, LAB, was one of the oldest airlines in the world.

November 15, 2016.   The New Roo.

qantas-new-livery-787

When I heard that Qantas was unveiling a new livery, to coincide with the launch of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner (shown above), it was all I could do to look. Over the past decade or so, the trend in airline branding has gone from bad to worse, and there was every reason to think Qantas was no doubt turning to yet another of the swirly-curly-curvy motifs that have become so nauseatingly common (and difficult to tell apart). Well, I finally took a peek, I’m happy to say the results aren’t bad. It’s more of an update than an overhaul, and it retains the basic template. Up on the tail, the famous kangaroo has been smoothed around the edges. The new ‘roo is a little too fluid and abstracted. It looks a bit like a scribble, and the poor thing has lost its arms in the process. I’m not sure why they felt this change was needed, as the current kangaroo hardly looks cumbersome or old-fashioned, and it’s every bit as streamlined, even with all its appendages. But it’s still the Qantas kangaroo, and is more less less instantly identifiable as such, which is the important thing. It could have been a lot worse. I’m take-it-or-leave-it on the gray accenting, and there’s a nakedness to the fuselage that cries out for a dash of red somewhere — maybe on the engine cowlings. The bolder and more stylish QANTAS typeface, however, is a handsome improvement. I’d have gone with the new lettering and left the tail alone. All in all, it’s a strong look.

New tail left; old tail right

New tail left; old tail right

October 20, 2016.   Miracle Over Baghdad, 2003.

I still haven’t mustered up the courage to see “Sully,” the new movie starring Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger, captain of the U.S. Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River in 2009. Those who’ve watched it say the technical aspects were usually well done, which is encouraging. But that’s not what’s keeping me away. As discussed already, my gripe with the movie — with the whole idea of the movie — is less about overplaying the “heroics” of Sullenberger than frustration over the fact that so many other pilots, who faced considerably more harrowing circumstances, never got their due. Sullenberger is a consummate professional who has handled his fame as deftly as he handled that Airbus, but with all due respect, I’m convinced that had flight 1549 not come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital in broad daylight, the event would be seen in a more reasonable and deserving context.

“Why don’t we have a John Testrake movie? Why don’t we have a Bernard Dhellemme movie?” I asked in my earlier critique, I wrote also about Donald Cameron and Claude Ouimet, the pilots of Air Canada flight 797, who managed — barely — to get their burning jet onto the runway in Cincinnati in 1987. It took so much effort to fly the plane that they passed out from exhaustion after touchdown. Also I brought up Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, after a disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane’s hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Well, if I was going to mention Haynes, who is fairly well-known because of that accident, at least in some circles, I probably should have included a similar incident that happened in 2003, involving an Airbus freighter flown on behalf of DHL, the global shipping company, by a Belgian-based outfit called European Air Transport. The flight was struck in the left wing by a shoulder-fired missile over Baghdad. Like the DC-10 that Haynes was flying, all of the wide body jet’s hydraulic systems failed, taking the flight controls with them. For all practical purposes, the plane, an older model Airbus A300, was uncontrollable. Yet astonishingly, using nothing but engine thrust to maintain altitude and direction, the three-man crew was able to land safely after 16 minutes. The pilots, none of whom you’ve heard of and none of whom will have a Hollywood movie made after them, were captain Éric Gennotte, first officer Steeve Michielsen, and second officer Mario Rofail. I’ll take a daylight ditching in the Hudson any day of the week over what they had to deal with. You can read more about this remarkable incident here.

DHL A300

DHL damage

October 5, 2016.   American Revisionism.

In 2013, when American Airlines announced its first livery makeover in forty years, nobody was more appalled than me. I have to say, three years on, the look has grown on me.

The tail, at least, has earned my hard-won appreciation. The piano-key flag motif is distinctive and handsome; even patriotic, without being jingoistic or in-your-face about it. Still, I can’t give the makeover an overall thumb-up. What’s that they say about the baby and the bathwater? Well, unfortunately, it’s that dastardly little logo — that weird, vapid, vertical banner with the curved nose — that continues to ruin the entire thing. Arguably the ugliest corporate trademark ever adopted by a major airline — I once described it as “a linoleum knife cutting through a shower curtain” — it gives American Airlines all the look and feel of a bank or a credit card company. The carrier can never be forgiven for trashing Massimo Vignelli’s timeless “AA” trademark, first unveiled in 1967. How close. If only they’d gone with Vignelli’s “AA” and the piano-key tail, the result would’ve been a winner:

AA Livery How It Should Be

aa-logo-combo

September 1, 2016.   Remembering Joe Sutter.

Joe Sutter, the visionary creator of the Boeing 747, died on August 30th. He was 95 years-old. I don’t have many heroes, but Joe Sutter is one of them. The sheer improbability of the 747 program is hard to fathom. Sutter led a team of more than four thousand engineers, and turned what began as a napkin doodle into the most important and most iconic jetliner ever built — in less than thirty months! When the 747 entered service with Pan Am in January, 1970, it was double the size of any existing plane, and its stupendous economies of scale ushered in the era of affordable long-range jet travel. And it did so in style. The 747 wasn’t just big, it was beautiful.

More than 1,500 747s have been sold over five decades — more than any other Boeing save for the much smaller 737. It was the largest jet in the sky for some forty years, until finally being eclipsed by the double-decked Airbus A380. The tragedy there is that the A380, for all of its size and technological prowess, was engineered without a shred of the 747’s grace. A sort of anti-747, it’s possibly the ugliest commercial plane ever conceived. The 747 remains in production, but for how long is anyone’s guess. The latest derivative, the 747-8, hasn’t sold very well and there’s talk of shutting down the line. More than four hundred are still in service, however, and the jet won’t be going extinct any time soon. The way I describe it, the 747 is the Empire State Building of airplanes: It’s no longer the biggest, or the flashiest. But it’s still the classiest, the most elegant and dignified.

Sutter

Joe Sutter and the prototype 747. Note the insignias of the jet’s first customers. We see the logos of Pan Am, TWA, American, United, Continental, Lufthansa, JAL, Air France, Aer Lingus and World Airways, among others. And a little-known fact: the 747 that made the inaugural commercial flight, from JFK to Heathrow on January 21st, 1970, was Pan Am’s Clipper Victor. As fate would have it, this was the same aircraft destroyed at Tenerife seven years later.

Sutter looks like Pat Buchanan’s long-lost twin.

August 24, 2016.   Time to Celebrate “National Aviation Day.”

Last Friday, August 19th, was National Aviation Day.

Who knew? Not me. I only found out because a reader asked me about it. I’d never heard of it before and had to look it up. Turns out National Aviation Day goes all the way back to 1939. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s idea. He chose August 19th because it’s Orville Wright’s birthday. According to Wikipedia, the idea is to “encourage citizens to observe the day with activities that promote interest in aviation.”

I’m unsure how much the average citizen can or should do to “promote interest in aviation.” Stand in a TSA line? Have lunch at Chick-Fil-A? Sorry, but I’m just not feeling it. I’m tired, jaded, frustrated. And if this summer is any indication, I think maybe we’ve stretched this aviation thing as far as it can go. Have you been to an airport lately? The crowds are overflowing, the noise levels are insane, the lines are endless and the delays are piling up. My flight the other day from Boston to New York — a 35-minute hop — was delayed for three hours because of “flow control” into JFK! And heaven forbid a thunderstorm roll in. Our airspace is so super-saturated with planes — half of them regional jets — that the slightest meteorological ripple tips the whole system into chaos. We’ve hit Maximum Aviation.

Yeah, flying sucks because we’ve made it that way, with inefficient use of airspace, mindless security rules, and so on. But one thing for sure, it hasn’t kept the people away. As I type this I’m sitting in a terminal at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. There are so many people here, surging through the concourses, that you can hardly see the floor — a great, streaming river of miserable-looking, stressed-out humanity. Where is everybody going?

“Final boarding for Kigali.” KLM has a nonstop flight — an Airbus A330 no less — to Kigali, Rwanda, among dozens of other far-flung places. I love traveling, and I wish that I was on that flight, right now. Just the same, I have to ask: are there really that many people who need to travel from Europe to Rwanda? Is all of this moving around really necessary? All of these people — the countless businesspeople; the throngs of college kids with their hoodies and backpacks; the soccer teams and the infants and the infirm — constantly on the move, across entire oceans and continents.

For me there’s a troubling paradox: The more I travel, the more I’m of the mind that people ought to be staying the heck home.

I know, what a buzz-kill, right? Shame on me. This is a flagrant dereliction of my duties and responsibilities as pilot-blogger and air travel advocate.

Here, maybe we should revisit this older post of mine.

That’s the spirit! In the meantime, I need a vacation, maybe. A trip somewhere.

August 4, 2016.   Long-Haul, Small Plane.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is the latest in a seemingly endless parade of carriers launching service from Boston-Logan to points overseas. What’s curious, though, is the choice of aircraft. Boston to Copenhagen in a little old 737! At around seven hours and thirty minutes flying time, the westbound leg of this service has to be one of the longest 737 routes anywhere in the world. There’s a wrinkle, though. The flight is actually operated on behalf of SAS, by a Swiss company called PrivatAir. And, the airplane is the small-bodied, long-range “BBJ” (Boeing Business Jet) variant of the 737, configured for only 86 passengers, with 20 business class seats and a spacious, 66-seat economy cabin. Still, that’s a long time to be sitting in a 737. This is yet another example of the venerable 737 being pushed into roles it was never intended for. This picture was taken at terminal E. SAS uses the gates at the eastern end of the building — those once used by Northwest, and Braniff before that.

SK 737

July 27, 2016.   What’s In a Name?

Photo of a KLM 747 — the “City of Melbourne” — at Kennedy Airport, taken a few weeks ago after a rain shower. I wish that more airlines named their planes. KLM is one of a small number of carriers who do this. (JetBlue is on that list as well, but their choices tend to be insufferably annoying.) Most memorable, of course, were the old Pan Am “Clipper” designations — a tradition tragically immortalized in 1988, in the famous photo of the crushed nose section of the “Clipper Maid of the Seas” lying in the grass in Lockerbie. There’s a segment about plane names in chapter seven of my book.

KLM was established in 1919, and is the oldest airline in the world. Three years from now it will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary! The letters stand for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, which translates to “Royal Aviation Company.” KLM is one of a handful of truly “global” carriers, flying just about everywhere from its hub at Amsterdam. It operates 24 Boeing 747s, plus a sizable fleet of 777s, A330s and 787s. Intra-Europe routes are flown by 737s. The carrier recently introduced its first Airbus A350.

KLM at JFK rainshower

July 12, 2016.   TWA 800 Redux.

Next week will Mark the 20th anniversary of the TWA 800 disaster. The Boeing 747 crashed after takeoff from Kennedy Airport when its empty center fuel tank exploded, killing 230 people. The investigation into the explosion was one of the most thorough and expensive in aviation history, but from the beginning there have been people who haven’t accepted the findings, convinced instead that the jet was downed by one or more missiles launched accidentally from a nearby U.S. Navy ship. Among the most vocal of the conspiracy mongers is Jack Cashill, who whose new book is called, The Crash, the Coverup and the Conspiracy. Those of you in the conspiracy camp might first want to read Christine Negroni’s take-down of Cashill before shelling out for his book.

Fuel tank explosions, uncommon as they are, are not unprecedented. According to Christine Negroni there have been at least 26 such explosions of one form or another, on both civilian and military aircraft. Most occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and they’ll be rarer still now that the FAA has mandated tougher wiring inspections and the installation of nitrogen inerting systems for empty tanks. A tank explosion once destroyed a Thai Airways 737 parked at the gate in Bangkok, killing a flight attendant.

crash Flight 800 plane crash  accidents aviation

The full report on flight 800 is long and daunting, but among the more compelling bits of evidence is this: according to the black boxes, there had been intermittent problems affecting the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and number four (the 747 has four engines) fuel-flow indicators just minutes before the crash. These anomalies would seem unrelated, but it so happens the wire bundle to both components passes just above the center fuel tank, and is the same wire bundle suspected of having caused the explosion (investigators found the wires crimped and cracked, and suspect they’d been damaged during repairs that had taken place two weeks prior). The problems with the gauge and the CVR were consistent with the wires short-circuiting, and this short-circuit would ignite the fuel vapors moments later. This is about at close to a smoking gun as you’ll get. Additionally, there had been water leaks reported in and around the center section galley in the days leading up to the crash. This galley sits directly on top of the wire bundle.

Meanwhile, numerous witnesses claim to have to seen what looked like a missile streaking toward the 747. Or, that’s what they think they saw. What they likely were looking at was the outward trajectory of the explosion — flaming pieces of the airplane moving rapidly away from the initial blast. It’s very common for people to misinterpret the relative motion and other details of fast-moving things in the air, particularly when their attention is drawn to them suddenly — missiles, meteorites, airplanes. Many of the TWA eyewitnesses who heard something and then looked up, were 50-60 seconds behind the event due to speed of sound. Moreover, as any crash expert will tell you, eyewitness accounts in general are notoriously unreliable.

And beyond the wreckage forensics and witness testimony, accepting the friendly fire missile theory means we have to accept the idea of a complete, utterly seamless coverup that has lasted two decades. When the Navy accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet in 1988, killing 290 people, it took approximately five minutes for the truth to come out. Isn’t the idea of such an airtight conspiracy just a little bit unrealistic?

July 6, 2016.   Terminal With a View.

Schiphol Observation Deck

I took these pictures in Europe recently. That first one is the observation deck at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (yet another of Schiphol’s numerous little conveniences). The second is a billboard for a similar deck at the airport in Zurich.

Once upon a time, every big airport had decks like these. Where they still exist, they remain popular. You don’t need to be an airplane geek to appreciate the view and a chance to escape the noise and in-your-face retail onslaught of the terminal. The ones at Schiphol and Zurich are outdoor decks, which is maybe not ideal considering the Dutch or Swiss weather, but in temperate months it’s refreshing to be outside. And, at Schiphol, it allowed them to install that old KLM Fokker 100 as part of the scenery.

The dearth of observation decks these days no doubt ties into our obsession with security — a conversation too aggravating to have at the moment, so let’s not have it.

The greatest observation deck of all was the old 16th-floor platform in the control tower at Boston-Logan. This was my home-away-from-home pretty much every weekend from sixth grade through high school. Sadly, it’s been closed for over two decades now, converted into an operations room for the Massachusetts Port Authority. Back in the day, it featured opposing sides of knee-to-ceiling windows and the best view in town. It’s a scant two miles from Logan’s perimeter seawall to the center of downtown, and you observed the city and its airport in a state of working symbiosis. Passengers relaxed on carpeted benches while kids and families came on the weekends, feeding coins into the mechanical binoculars and picnicking on the floor. It made the airport a destination unto itself, like a park or a museum, and encouraged a kind of civic togetherness rarely seen at airports.



 

June 24, 2016.   Clamping Down on the Pilot Threat.

TSA is having a bad summer, and I feel a little guilty piling on, but sometimes they deserve it. Yesterday at Kennedy airport there were five — count them, five — TSA guards stationed in front of the doorway to my carrier’s operations room, doing random baggage checks on… pilots. This was in full view of passengers, in the middle of the afternoon at one of the country’s busiest airports. The security lines were not short. You would think, with all of the bad press and controversy surrounding this summer’s interminable checkpoint lines, TSA would, if only for public relations purposes, avoid making a spectacle of its otherwise well-established lack of common sense. The pilot checks were random, and the five “officers” spent the vast majority of the time just standing there talking to each other.

June 23, 2016.   Back to Belgrade.

Air Serbia is the newest livery at New York’s Kennedy Airport. The carrier has begun nonstop service to Belgrade using an Airbus A330. This is the first New York-Belgrade flight in, well, ages. Back in the day, the former Yugoslavian carrier JAT flew the route using DC-10s. This picture was taken yesterday at Kennedy’s terminal four. The plane is named “Nikola Tesla,” in honor of the famous Serbian-American inventor. In the background, with the blue and yellow paint job, you can see an Uzbekistan Airways 767, preparing for that carrier’s departure to Riga, Latvia, with onward service to Tashkent. This flight is the only same-plane service between the United States and Central Asia, and the Riga portion is the only nonstop between the United States and the Baltics. JFK remains the most global of U.S. airports. It’s always a thrill, at least for dweebs like me, picking out the tails of the more exotic carriers.

Air Serbia

June 8, 2016.   Getting Freaky.

In what is sure to go down as one of the most historic moments in broadcast history, Patrick Smith is interviewed by Freakonomics guru Stephen J. Dubner in the most recent “Freakonomics Radio” podcast, produced with WNYC in New York City. The conversation includes his petulant responses to a series of listener-submitted questions.

To listen, click on the image below. As these things typically go, they edited the conversation and omitted one or two of what I thought were fun questions. Overall, though, the interview went pretty well.

Freakonomics Podcast

May 30, 2016.   DXB: The World’s Megahub.

DXB Departures

Each time that I pass through Dubai International Airport, it knocks my socks off. DXB is now the world’s biggest and busiest international transfer hub. Emirates’ massive Terminal 3 is the largest airline terminal in the world, and the lineup of aircraft is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Try to imagine the sight of 50 or more A380s, and dozens and dozens of 777s, all parked side-by-side. Here’s a shot of the DXB departure board that will give you some idea of what I mean. This shows just a three-hour window, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. And keep in mind that almost every one of these departures is an A380 or a 777-300. (My flight was EK 701, seen lower right, one of Emirates twice-daily A380 departures to Mauritius.) There are flights to six continents and across every ocean. Throughout the long history of commercial aviation, nothing like this has ever existed.

The growth of Emirates and the other Persian Gulf carriers, Qatar Airways and Etihad (together they are frequently referred to as the “Gulf 3” or “G3”) has been controversial. Lavish government subsidies, many argue, have permitted these airlines to take a huge and unfair advantage over our own carriers. Is this true? Sure. But it’s also true that these airlines’ hubs — Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi — are ideally situated, geographically, to connect the world’s biggest population centers. More critically, though, the governments of these countries understand that the commerce generated by air travel is something to be nurtured rather than hindered. This isn’t government subsidizing, it’s government investment in something that everybody benefits from. As a result, transferring at Dubai is a breeze: security takes about 25 seconds; everything leaves on time; everything is big and clean and fast and efficient. Here in the U.S., our airports are undersized and dirty, security screening has gone off the rails, and consider the misery we put international connecting passengers through. You ask if the complaint of government subsidies is valid. Yes, but it’s less a complaint against their governments than a complaint against ours. Once upon a time, we were commercial aviation’s global leader. That was then.

Emirates’ advertising slogan is “Hello Tomorrow,” which sounds to me like the slogan for a theme park. They should change it to “The Airline of Planet Earth.” Because it sounds better, and because it is. (In exchange for the use of this slogan, I ask for unlimited complimentary first class travel.)

May 3, 2016.   Memories of Widebodies Past.

NationalTimetable

This old National Airlines timetable from 1973 — part of my timetable collection — makes me nostalgic for the days when widebody planes were the norm on U.S. domestic flights. When I was a kid in the late 1970s and into the 80s, coast-to-coast flights were always on DC-10s, L-1011s, or, in many cases, 747s, with seating for up to 500 people. Even on shorter trips widebodies were common. I grew up in Boston (where I live still), and American Airlines flew DC-10s between here and Chicago, and even to Bermuda; Eastern flew L-1011s to Orlando and San Juan; Delta L-1011s would take you to Bermuda, Atlanta, and Miami. Northwest used DC-10s between Boston and Minneapolis, Detroit, and at one point even to Washington, D.C. I once flew from Boston to JFK on a TWA L-1011. Eastern operated its famous Shuttle between BOS and LGA using Airbus A300s with more than 250 seats! And so on. Nowadays, on pretty much all of these routes, you’ll find yourself on a much smaller 737, an A320, or even a regional jet. A 757 if you’re lucky. More people are flying than ever before, it’s true, but the average aircraft size has been steadily shrinking. What’s happened is that the U.S. airline industry has fragmented. There are more airlines flying between more cities. Also, starting in 1979, Deregulation meant that carriers could no longer fly around huge planes with only half of the seats taken and still make money. And nowadays, frequency has become the name of the game. Why offer three daily nonstops to LAX using 300-seat planes, when you can offer six flights using 150-seat planes? Among the downsides of this evolution is that it’s clogged up our airspace and airports. Sure, there are more flights to more cities. There also are more delays.

April 25, 2016.   Route Map Envy.

It’s depressing that America has no such thing as a truly “global” airline. Once upon a time there was Pan Am, but nowadays our biggest carriers seem content to pull back and let their code-share partners do much of the heavy lifting. Not that “global” has any specific definition, but it’s the likes of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and, of course, Emirates, that although they don’t carry as many people overall, have the most expansive route networks. Or how about Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than anybody in the world. United Airlines is, maybe, the closest thing we’ve got. United’s Pacific network, most of it inherited from Pan Am and Continental, is bigger than that of some Asian carriers. The airline is huge across Europe, and flies to a solid number of South American cities as well. United has a single destination in Africa, but it’s also the only U.S. airline to maintain a presence in India, operating nonstops to both Delhi and Mumbai from its Newark hub. But these routes aside, there’s an enormous swath of real estate extending from, essentially, Eastern Europe all the way across to China, that is pretty much untouched by the American “big three” of United, American, or Delta. For example, aside from Tel Aviv, there is not a single city in the Middle East served by any of these airlines. Pan Am has been gone for 25 years, but TWA was operating to Riyadh and Cairo until 2001. As recently as 2009, Delta was flying to Cairo, Amman, Dubai, Istanbul and Kuwait (yes, IST is more Europe than the Middle East, but still). All of these routes are gone. Sure, geopolitics has something to do with it, as does simple geography and the relative isolation of our continent, with huge oceans on either side. But that can’t be the whole story. After all, the big European airlines fly to as many cities in South America as United or Delta do. With our carriers as profitable as they are, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more expansion. United is opening up markets in Xian, Auckland, and Athens, but its competitors have mostly been quiet. I’m sure that it’s naively romantic to say so, but what I wish our industry had was a modern day Juan Trippe — a visionary airline leader eager to put our country back on the map, so to speak. The red areas in the graphic below show the regions not served by an American carrier (the borders are an approximation, so don’t get too picky). The circular cutouts are for Tel Aviv and United’s two Indian cities.

Missing

March 29, 2016.   Blowin’ in the Wind.

This just in: passengers survive crosswind landing! Oh the humanity. At least one TV news station decided to devote several minutes of air time to an otherwise routine crosswind landing the other day in Oklahoma City. Well, okay, that’s a bit disingenuous; this was maybe rougher and gustier than normal, and the touchdown of the United Express Embraer regional jet wasn’t the most graceful. Still it was well within the capabilities of the airplane and its pilots. Watch it here. Videos like this one always make things look more dramatic than they actually are. It’s a perspective thing. The typical viewer sees a plane that looks to be in distress. What I see are the pilots using proper technique for dealing with an unusually strong crosswind — hardly an “epic” landing, as one source hilariously describes it. The correct technique in a crosswind is a skewed alignment. The pilots will “crab” during the approach, with the jet pointed into the wind, in order to maintain a straight track. Then, on touch down, a combination of rudder and aileron control is used to align the plane with the runway’s centerline, ideally with one set of tires (left or right landing gear) hitting the ground before the other. As to how much of a crosswind you can correct for, this isn’t subjective. Every plane has a maximum allowable crosswind component. If the winds are beyond this value, you aren’t allowed to land. The takeaway here is to ever, ever, underestimate the media’s ability to to turn a nonevent into a spectacle. What would we do without YouTube, right?

March 23, 2016.   Inaugural Controversy.

Qatar Airways began Boston-Doha flights last week using the brand-new Airbus A350. Qatar joins Emirates, Turkish, Cathay Pacific, El Al, Copa, JAL, Hainan Airlines and whichever other names I’m forgetting, all of whom have added long-haul routes out of Boston-Logan in the past few years. The new service is not without controversy, however. A group called the Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE) has been running full and half-page ads in the Boston Globe, accusing Qatar Airways of exploiting its workforce — particularly its female employees. Such accusations are not new for the Persian Gulf carrier, and have dogged airlines like Emirates and Etihad as well. Hostile conditions faced by their employees, some argue, is one of the reasons these airlines are able to offer such affordable fares. AWARE lays out its case here.

QR Boycott

March 15, 2016.   Security Mania.

A plug, if I may, for a new and important book, Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession With Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk, by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon. The publisher, Sourcebooks, is also the publisher of Cockpit Confidential, and I’m quoted a few times in the text, which I hope doesn’t taint my praise. My biases notwithstanding, it’s a book that simply needed to be written. Security mania has invaded almost every aspect of life, from air travel to parenthood. Brown and Hanlon artfully expose a fixation that has become wasteful and, ultimately, self-defeating. 

Rules

It’s not for the squeamish, exploring an obsession at times so illogical that it leaves the reader bewildered and deeply concerned about our collective sanity. This includes a sobering teardown of the foolishness and overreach of airport security. The stop-you-in-your-tracks moment is this line on page 21: “Remember, for example, that not a single one of the restrictions that have been put in place for travelers since 9/11 would have prevented those atrocities.”

March 2, 2016.   Aviophonics.

“Aviation music” is maybe one of the stranger musical non-genres. I’m not talking about lyrics that happen to reference airplanes — of which there is no shortage, from the Steve Miller Band to Brian Eno to Husker Du — but music in which flying, be it planes, airports, or the act of flight itself, is the very theme (is theme the right word?) around which the composition (is composition the right word?) is built. Of the artists who attempt this, one of the most interesting is Bruno Misonne, a Belgian composer of classical-influenced techno odes to airplanes and airports. Misonne manages to be simultaneously cliched — most of his beats and melodies are standard techno/trance — and pleasingly ambitious. His incorporation of actual jet and propeller noises, air-to-ground communications, and in-flight mechanical sounds, help lift his music beyond its own stylistic limitations. His newest piece, and maybe my favorite of his efforts so far, is The Sound of Flaps. Listen to it here.



 

February 24, 2016.   The Iranian Griffin.

Man, deadheading Iran Air crews really have it tough. It must get claustrophobic in there. (Photo taken at Amsterdam-Schiphol, where Iran Air operates an Airbus A310 on flights to Tehran.) Seriously, though… I’m old enough to remember when Iran Air’s 747s still flew to the U.S. I remember taking pictures of one at Kennedy in 1979, from top of the old Pan Am terminal, when I was in seventh grade. Iran Air’s peculiar logo is inspired by the character of Homa, a kind of bird-horse-cow griffin, seen carved on the columns at the ancient Persian site of Persepolis. The symbol was designed 1961 by a 22 year-old Iranian art student named Edward Zohrabian, and has been used ever since. It’s just a matter of time, I worry, before this enduring mark is dustbinned for some stupid swooshy thing.

Iran Air LD-3

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