I’ve spent many hours in the recent few days immersing myself in Langewiesche’s excellent aviation essays.
I have a soft spot for anyone who can walk a fine line of explaining complicated issues or technologies without leaning towards impenetrable, academic writing… and, at same time, without oversimplification and arrogance. Modern flight and the industries that surround it are definitely complicated, and Langewiesche deftly (and, often, surprisingly warmly) maneuvers around anything from the mechanics of flight to the politics of accident review boards.
This is a list of seven articles that I read and profoundly enjoyed, each with a few choice quotes. All are available online for free. Many of them might be difficult to read, since they deal with fatal aviation accidents — but they are worth it.
This first article is from late 1993 and timeless, although the fascinating frozen-in-time version of The Atlantic online (sic) that’s serving it might make you feel otherwise:
At the very heart of winged flight lies the banked turn, a procedure that by now seems so routine and familiar that airline passengers appreciate neither its elegance and mystery nor its dangerously delusive character.
“The inner ear, and with it the sense of balance, is neutralized by the motion of flight. The airplane could be momentarily upside down and passengers would not know. (…) During such a maneuver San Francisco Bay would momentarily appear above you, and the Golden Gate Bridge would seem to hang from the water. This is fine if you are prepared for it. Full rolls are the purest expression of flight. They are normally flown only in fighters and other acrobatic airplanes, but if you ignore convention, you can fly them in any airplane, including a Boeing 737.”
“Bob Hoover, a stunt pilot, mounted a video camera in his cockpit, set an empty glass on the instrument panel, and poured himself a soft drink while flying full rolls.” (Actually, I found the video of this!)
A little-known collision in the Amazon in 2006 is described here with a terrific build-up. Here’s a story of how more precision actually made flying less safe:
The Devil at 37,000 Feet
There were so many opportunities for the accident *not* to happen — the collision between a private jet and a 737 carrying 154 people. But in 2006, high above the Amazon, a long, thin thread of acts and omissions brought the two airplanes together.
“These were the same pilots later pilloried in the press for having dropped off the radar to stunt-fly over the Amazon — an accusation that was ridiculous from the start and was soon disproved by the records of their flight. Lepore and Paladino were not the joyriding type.”
“Back home in the United States they might have pushed the issue, alerted the controller to the poor quality of his transmissions, and tried to get him to switch to a better frequency or a closer antenna. They did none of that here. Was it cultural arrogance? Probably not. Was it linguistic timidity? Possibly, and perhaps compounded by the mental inertia that can lull pilots in flight. All was well for now, but in retrospect the crew’s lack of follow-up was not a good sign.”
“He said, ‘Oh shit!’ On the same device, the communications frequency had suddenly disappeared. But Paladino knew the number. He said, ‘Twenty-five-oh-five. That’s why I write it down.’ It was a good practice. Despite what engineers may think, there is no cockpit tool as solid as a pen. Paladino reset the frequency. Lepore said, ‘Yeah.’ Between the two men a subtle change was under way, and Paladino was ascending.”
Another harrowing tale of automation, power dynamics, and communication failures within the cockpit:
The Human Factor
Airline pilots were once the heroes of the skies. Today, in the quest for safety, airplanes are meant to largely fly themselves. Which is why the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which killed 228 people, remains so perplexing and significant.
“Some of the pilots are superb, but most are average, and a few are simply bad. To make matters worse, with the exception of the best, all of them think they are better than they are.”
And another one-of-a-kind story of random chance, language confusion, and bureaucracy:
The Lessons of ValuJet 592
As a reconstruction of this terrible crash suggests, in complex systems some accidents may be “normal” — and trying to prevent them all could even make operations more dangerous.
“The ValuJet accident is different. I would argue that it represents the third and most elusive kind of disaster, a ‘system accident.’”
“We know anyway that flying is almost always safe. After years as a working pilot, I have a poetic idea of why: airplanes are fundamentally at home in the sky.”
“The Wright brothers were products of the Enlightenment. Our science will prevail.”
And here, for a change, a well-known accident that ended up without losing anyone… thanks to both good flying, and good technology:
Anatomy of a Miracle
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last January, was justly celebrated for his skill and courage. Less has been revealed about other players in the drama.
“The cannons are known as chicken guns, turkey guns, or rooster boosters. The tests are filmed with high-speed cameras. (…) Animal advocates have objected to this. A researcher in England is trying to accommodate their concerns by creating an artificial standard-density bird — a Jello Bird — that will spare the test birds for some other fate.”
Another article talks about the complicated and political world of traffic control:
Slam and Jam
For all the reports of equipment failures and “close calls” and controller burnout, the nation's air-traffic-control is in fact far less precarious, in terms of safety, than people imagine it to be.
“The surrounding sky is so large that even when another airplane passes nearby, it remains by comparison very small. I talked to a controller involved in research with radar simulations, who said, ‘You’d be amazed how hard it is to vector two airplanes into each other.’”
“The real history is less tidy, because nationwide in 1981 most of those valiant controllers went on strike and lost their jobs, and it was then the turn of the managers and headquarters types, emerging from the back offices and reviving old skills, to stand up to the traffic for the year that followed.”
And I saved this for last, not just because the stakes were, literally, higher — we’re talking orbital flight — but also because the brutal ending of this article was my favourite:
Columbia’s Last Flight
The inside story of the investigation — and the catastrophe it laid bare
“Weightlessness is bad for the bones, but good for the soul.”
“The orbital part of the trick is that though the shuttle is dropping like a stone, it is also progressing across Earth’s surface so fast (17,500 mph) that its path matches (roughly) the curvature of the globe. In other words, as it plummets toward the ground, the ground keeps getting out of its way. Like the orbits of all other satellites, and of the Space Station, and of the Moon as well, its flight is nothing but an unrestricted free fall around and around the world.”