Monday, June 27, 2016

Speaking of Airplanes...

If there's one thing the Bear loves better than horse meat, it's airplanes. Few parts of an airplane are edible (the Bear has tried most of them), but they go much faster and higher than horses.

Nothing is more fun than flying an airplane. Be jealous. Believe it or not, the Bear even flew one backwards. This is not one of the Bear's tall tales. It's easily possible in a Skyhawk on a windy day. The airplane doesn't know forwards from backwards, it just knows air flow. So fly into a wind blowing at a greater speed than your airplane is going, and you can look down and watch the world creep underneath you the wrong way.

Anyway, Pete had a great link to some marvelous pictures from the Golden Age of Aviation. In the Bear's enthusiasm he wrote a too-long comment, so is going to expand it here.

Death Traps of the Golden Age of Aviation

Boeing B377 Stratocruiser (Great airplane if the propellors stayed on.)

Romantic yes, safe, no. In the 50s and 60s commercial airliners were deathtraps by today's standards. The most glamorous of them all was the four-engine propeller driven Boeing B377 Stratocruiser, which boasted two levels, like today's 747. It had numerous fatal incidents, some due to problems with the propellors, like coming off and going "runaway," a very bad thing.

B377 Stratocruiser ditching near weather ship. Everyone survived.

In one case, a B377 orbited a weather ship with only two working engines until daylight, then ditched, making for a dramatic photograph. Everyone survived.

One of Aviation's Greatest Mysteries: Pan Am Clipper Romance of the Skies

The B377 Pan Am Clipper Romance of the Skies (Pan Am always had the greatest names for each of their aircraft) went down on November 9, 1957 between San Francisco and Hawaii. Some wreckage and few bodies were found. Some recovered bodies showed trauma; others had apparently drowned. Most had lifejackets on and were without shoes.  Clearly, the flight crew knew they were going down and people had time to prepare. Toxicology showed elevated carbon monoxide levels, but today that is not believed to be significant.

There were three plausible theories, not one, but two of which included foul play. A disgruntled purser who blew up the plane, a ex-Navy demolition expert who took out several insurances polices on himself and blew up the plane, but possibly never boarded it.

The third theory was mechanical: a "runaway propellor"- a pilot's nightmare in those days. Imagine a propellor magically turning into a solid disk. That's not what happens, but it illustrates the effect.  It is very difficult to fly an airplane whose aerodynamics have been so deranged. To this day it remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation. See more of this fascinating story at here.

British Death Trap: The Comet

"BOAC: Better On A Camel."  Beautiful airplane, but fatal design flaw.

The British began the jet age with the de Havilland Comet.  In 1954, two separate Comets mysteriously broke up and fell into the sea with no survivors.  Unfortunately, it was another deathtrap due to bad design, The square windows developed microscopic cracks at the corners due to pressurization and depressurization.  The area around the windows had been punch-riveted instead of drill riveted, as designed. The British commercial aviation industry never recovered (although Rolls Royce continues to make engines).

Commercial Aviation Today

The industry learned from every crash, though, and today airplanes are amazingly safe, but much, much less glamorous. The Europeans even gave us the name "Airbus." Today's "glass cockpits" have done away with dials, and everything is presented to the pilot in easily digestible form on a bank of screens. Modern jetliners literally fly themselves, and can even land.

However, pilots sometimes take the automation for granted. The Asiana 777 that crash landed in San Francisco in 2013 was a mess. The crew came in too high on approach, then tried to get back on the glide path by changing the autopilot setting. However, the selected setting did not control airspeed, something the captain apparently didn't know.  The flight crew, incredibly, did not monitor airspeed on final! Nobody was controlling or even watching airspeed until it was too late. They went to full throttles and attempted to climb, but they were too low and too slow. Asiana's policy discouraged pilots from landing aircraft themselves, by the way, which may have led to over-reliance on automation and degraded airmanship. (This is not an unusual policy. Airlines prefer not to have ham-handed human pilots abusing their airplanes . That was sarcastic, by the way.)

The Connie, and the Kansas City Airline Museum

Lockheed Constellation: Graceful and Distinctive.

The Lockheed Constellation is arguably one of the most beautiful airliners ever made. It has four piston engines and three tails (technically, three vertical stabilizers on the empennage). Some of them had a glass dome so the navigator could use a sextant. (Which could be very dangerous.)

Aviation was still not mature, and the Connie was involved in many fatal accidents, including two famous mid-air collisions, one over the Grand Canyon.

The Golden Age was not the Age of Airline safety.  Many lessons had to be learned the hard way.  Procedures were changed, and safety technology had to be developed.  To put things in perspective, there are thousands of Boeing 737s in use.  Boeing estimates that, on average, 2.2 737s take off every second!  Crashes are extremely rare these days.

They have a Connie at the wonderful little aviation museum in Kansas City. Well worth a tour to get a feel for those days. She was flying on the airshow circuit, where the Bear first saw her, but has been grounded for some time.  She is reportedly progressing on her inspections and they hope to get her in the air again. Still nice to visit ,though, and walk through. (They also have a static Lockheed L1011, a great old "three-holer" from the 70s that set new technical standards. One of the nicest jet airliners ever made.)

A lot of people died in the Golden Age of Aviation, but commercial aviation is exceedingly safe today from the lessons learned.


  1. A book recommend for you, "35 Miles From Shore".

    It is written by Emilio Corsetti, a former TWA pilot. It is about the only open-water ditching in the history of commercial aviation. It is a fascinating account, by a professional pilot, from a pilot's perspective on the sequence of errors and happenstance that led to the ultimate dead-end decision of a controlled ditching in stormy seas of a DC-9 passenger flight from NY to a Caribbean island.

    I love the idea that small little innocuous decisions, unrelated mistakes, sloppiness, personality conflicts, chance, all combine sometimes in a most terrible way and lock you into the "coffin corner" where there are few, if any, successful ways out. It is the primary job of a professional pilot to see departures from the "safe center" toward something less; and especially approaches to anything resembling a (shudder) " coffin corner".

    This fellow didn't see it; and what he did see, hubris and pride blinded him from caring and responding as he should.

    A great read, on its own merits; taking you from pre-flight, to crash landing and on to its aftermath. Lessons for pilots, but also, like any good disaster yarn, lessons for the broader public that can be applied to us all.

    Interesting topic. I'll pass it on to others who might be interested.

    1. Yes, I love those programs that take you through a crash and investigation you can catch on Youtube. Crashes are indeed so often the result of an accumulation of details.

      The Asiana 777 at KSFO was a perfect example. First, why are you coming in above the glidepath in a modern jetliner? Second, why don't you know how your automation works forwards and backwards? Third, why are you correcting a bad approach by fiddling with the damned autopilot instead of being an aviator? How does a flight crew manage to forget to monitor the freaking airspeed? Even as a student pilot, you better believe I knew exactly what my airspeed was every second in the landing pattern, especially base to final, and final. Quaintly, in MPH in a Cessna :-)

      Of course, I didn't imagine I was flying an airplane that would automagically make up for my own boneheadedness.

      One nit to pick, the B377 did indeed ditch in open water, to wit: the Pacific Ocean in 1958. So there might be two. I will definitely pick up the book. Thank you very much.

    2. It's been a while since that event, but from my recollection that Asiana crash was a classic confluence of events. So many aircraft incidents / accidents are the result of multiple factors lining up just right.

      Let me see if I can recall this properly in brief:

      Overall cause of the crash was pilot neglect to monitor power and airspeed.

      Contributing causes
      1: Brand new Captain in training under supervision.
      2: Captain was struggling with his required skills and knowledge. He specifically complained in training about his knowledge of the automation system. Not the best student.
      3: SFO is one of the busiest, most complex airports in America, possibly the world. There are many instrument approach options; sequence issues; aircraft "energy" issues (causing too high, too fast); high volume, rapid language radio transmissions, simultaneous approaches, intersecting takeoffs, tricky winds and weather. This particular crew also had a language barrier; and then to top it off, they were informed late that their planned instrument approach was inop forcing them to re-work their plan at a late (and busy) point in the approach sequence. Lots of brain power was being expended on things not related to basic airmanship in a short, critical span of time, in other words.
      4: Asian culture and airline training programs and new aircraft technology emphasize reliance on automation far more than U.S. Pilot culture (which is getting worse) to the detriment of basic pilot airmanship skills. The last line of defense, airmanship, was deferred to excess trust in automation.

      I believe all of these issues combined to make the actual mistake possible.

      So what happened? The crew got busy during a critical phase of flight, all three crew (including a jumpseat occupant) focusing together on the navigation problem, caused by SFO complexity and volume, and the flying pilot, Captain trainee, allowed the automated systems to do his job of flying the airplane for him .... Without monitoring its performance! His eyes and brain were with the other pilots on the comm and nav issues. " George", the auto system, was flying solo. And it was programmed INCORRECTLY!

      THE KEY PIECE: The crew did not have the auto-throttles engaged correctly. They assumed the throttles would regulate and maintain speed as they changed pitch to follow glide path during the approach. The throttle mode they selected, however, drove the throttles to idle and stayed there until reaching selected altitude (which was 0' / field elevation, the end). They needed lots of power during their approach. They had NONE. Since POWER was not available to maintain proper approach angle, they gradually, subtly, unthinkingly increased pitch to unsustainable levels in order to stay on desired glide path while the lift generating airflow over the wings rapidly decreased with speed. Until they had no more pitch, no more speed left. The wings gave up, and stalled.

      A seemingly simple mistake: they pushed the wrong throttle control button. Catastrophic consequences: they thought they had automatic throttles, but they did not. They essentially turned their engines off without knowing it.

      Fascinating and important aviation human factors study.

      A brief commentary in a great aviation mag: Three paragraphs from the bottom. That describes the key moment; the confused, conflicting automation changes, 2.5 minutes before the end.

    3. In Canada we have a program called "Mayday" on the Discovery Channel. In the US I think it's called "Air Crash Investigation". I must have 10 of them stacked up on the PVR, waiting to watch, even though I've seen a lot of them several times already. Except in cases of outright malicious sabotage or attack, it appears to be a bit hard to crash a modern plane. You don't just bump a switch with your elbow and the whole thing drops from the sky. There are lots and lots of safety features, some of them self-correcting, to keep the plane in the air. It's the accumulation of lots of little errors that builds up to a catastrophe.

    4. Yes, that's the show I think I mentioned. Fascinating. However, sometimes you do bump something with your elbow. There was a famous case of an L1011 that crashed into the Florida Everglades because the flight crew became preoccupied with changing a light bulb! Nobody noticed that the airplane was in a shallow dive until it crashed.

      That was a while ago, though. And you're right It is usually a cascade of events. But even the most modern airplanes can have that "perfect storm." We almost lost an Airbus A380 monster plane due to an uncontained explosion. As luck would have it, there were several experienced type rated senior pilots on board.

    5. Brian, how many crashes could be prevented if pilots declared a missed approach and told the passengers there was a truck on the runway?

      I know it is not a trivial thing, and it impacts the carrier's on-time stat and customer satisfaction, but pilots should know when they're getting behind events. You don't want to be redesigning an approach on final. I still think you are better off flying your airplane in, or going around.

      How does one get type rated on a 777 without knowing how all the different automation configurations work? So they selected the one that controls descent by pitch?

      KSFO is a big, busy airpot (I would guess 4th after KATL, KORD and KLAX.) But the runway has a clean approach and sticks out into the bay. Clearly, CRM had been thrown to the four winds by the Asiana crew.

      I am put in mind of another crash in New York. Avianca 707 (beautiful old airplane that defined the 'jet age") had to hold due to weather. Comms with controller were normal up to the end. Flight Crew's command of English was marginal.

      They never declared a fuel emergency. They literally just flew their airplane and never explicitly demanded 'we are going to lan the airplane NOW! Deal with it!"

    6. That Avianca crash of 1990 is actually a really good analogy.

      All your points are really good.

      A needed reminder,though, is how safe commercial travel is today. We are in one of the safest spans of flying in aviation history. There are roughly 100,000 world wide commercial flights a day, so 36,500,000 flights in a year. According to wiki, there are roughly 10 - 15 accidents with fatalities every year of the 21st century. Less than half are caused by pilot error. So, some perspective on that.

      And compared to driving a car, truly, it is FAR safer to fly. There is a sense of order and decorum and professionalism that governs the flying world. Driving does not share that with the vast array of humanity on the roads in their various unpredictable states of competence and possible insobriety.

    7. Nothing to make you feel old than to realize you've ridden in state-of-the-art aircraft like DC-8s (707 wannabe from the same period) and DC-9s (which Northwest still had flying until recently). I watched my older brother go off to Navy boot camp on a commercial DC-3... Ozark! My favorite was the C-130. Not much on creature comforts, but boy, there's something reassuring about those four loud propellor engines The last one I ever flew on was named "Ghost Rider," from Manama, Bahrain, to Sigonella, Sicily. Takes guts to name your airplane that. Also rode a A300.

      It was not very long ago that taking a twin jet across the atlantic (let alone the pacific) was considered a dangerous stunt. Now ETOPs (engines turn or people swim) has changed al that.

      And, yes, commercial aviation is amazingly safe now. And a lot of that safety has happened in the last two or three decades. And yet, we have an Air France go down over the south atlantic and can only guess what happened. Probably fooling around with wx they had no business being near. I am sure you know what you're talking about with pilot error being less than 50%. But is that by fatality or hull loss incident? I would be surprised if pilot error were less than 50% in hull loss. Every time somebody shoots down or blows up an airplane, you get a spectacularly high number of fatalities. The Asiana was a hull loss, caused by pilot error, but only few people were killed (on possibly run over by emergency vehicle after being covered with flame retardant.

      So you are a controller, right? Could I pass as an ex 737 driver? And lawyer? :-)

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  3. They know what caused Air France to go down. It was a faulty Pitot Static heater malfunction which caused erroneous airspeed indications and multiple warnings to go off, which is a very bad thing in a flying computer Airbus over the Atlantic on a dark and stormy night.

    In regards to safety, just think about all the flights every day, (100,000) and the near zero accident rate. Given the complexity of airline travel, all the things that have to work properly to get an airplane to its destination; it's remarkable.

    Yes, I'm a controller. But as to my chosen profession I've been a pilot for many years.

    1. I know that was the early speculation, but was not aware that was the official finding.

      I no longer fly, some new FAA rule about Bears. Whenever I can find an unattended jetliner, however (which, oddly enough is any time I want to) I enjoy going on joyrides.

    2. As with so many accidents, there was more than one cause of this crash as well.

      I have talked to numerous Airbus pilots who tell me the ultimate reason the pilots did not recover from the condition of multiple conflicting airspeed indications and warnings was that, due to the Airbus computer-centric design the pilots did not realize the other pilot was also on the "stick". The Captain was trying to recover correctly. The co-pilot was trying to recover incorrectly. The Captain was overridden by the co-pilot and there was no sensory input to tell them that they were "fighting each other" for control. On a Boeing, that conflict would have been immediately obvious and a short verbal command would have cleaned up opposing actions.

      Here is a great summary from Flying Magazine on what happened. It details the control conflict toward the end. Just remember, that the information presented to the pilots in this computer-centric airplane in the middle of the night, dark and stormy turbulent weather made no sense, since the central data input was providing erroneous nonsense to the pilots due to its mechanical failure.

      Again, as with so many things in life, it is best to understand the vast array of factors leading to a failed outcome. A proper safety program acknowledges failure is natural and expected and sets up barriers to trap them, then mitigate them.

    3. Oops, forgot the Flying mag link.

  4. You might like this. This is what it's all about.

  5. One last offering. Inside a Blue Angel air show.

    Flying as it was meant to be.

  6. I was outside at NAS2 in Sigonella, Sicily and looked up to see a man's sunglasses through the canopy of a inverted F-18. It was the Blue Angels. This is how I remember it anyway, although I was startled.

    I flew in a aerobatic trainer during a recruiting visit for the JAG Corps. It was a blast.

    My flying is simulated these days. True, I don't go anywhere but the third-party add-ons are pretty realistic. I like the steam gauge airplanes.


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