18 April 2014

The Disappearance of Aeronaut Walter Powell


I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

11 April 2014

Crosswind Landings at Birmingham Airport

It started with this video of an amazing crosswind landing at Birmingham Airport (formerly Birmingham International Airport). Birmingham Airport is 5.5 nautical miles (10 km, 6 miles) southeast of the city with a runway that runs north-west/south-east, which means that aircraft either take off or land directly over Birmingham.

What happens when 120 tonnes of landing Boeing 767 encounters severe turbulence just above the runway (15 at BHX).

The flexing wings are a good indication of the blustery conditions – crosswind gusting 35 knots perpendicular to runway.

Just watch the wheels bouncing in all directions under the shear forces. Very reassuring that the undercarriage can take this sort of punishment without blowing itself to pieces.

Keep an eye on the trees in the background at 0:25 and you can see how the wind is blowing.

I showed it to Anna, who is the one who posts all the amazing links to the Fear of Landing Facebook page, and she pointed out that there was an excellent compilation video of crosswind landings at Birmingham over the last winter, which was particularly harsh with gusty winds.

Some landing and take-off highlights in awkward wind conditions at BHX this winter (a record winter for stormy conditions in the UK). Note the frequent flexing of the planes’ wings in response to the turbulence.

Of the five “missed approaches” shown, three diverted to other airports, two were “go arounds” and landed successfully on second attempt.

Watching these made me feel quite relieved that I’m just a fair-weather pilot… and that I have no reason to fly into Birmingham!

04 April 2014

Extreme ATC Scenarios

A new user on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network posted to ask if there is any reference for uncommon, random and out of the blue scenarios that require ATC attention. He was apparently looking for input for an ATC game he’s writing. Typical PPRuNe, the answers are priceless.

The full thread is at ATC Scenarios – PPRuNe Forums but I’ve picked my favourites to share with you.

Items requiring immediate attention:

  • Coffee cup empty.
  • Relief late for work
  • Santa Claus requesting clearance
  • Horses at home have got out of their paddock

Not sure what I’d do if more than one of these occurred at the same time.

It would take a very large book indeed to list all the possibilities a trained controller might encounter. I have had dense smoke across the airfield from funeral pyres nearby! What a controller has to do is to use his training and experience to deal with routine or unusual occurrences.

Call from Caravan Controller:

“The North Shropshire Hunt is on the runway !!!”

In thirty odd years of ATC I have had an aircraft refuse takeoff because an aircraft was on final approach….that aircraft on approach was Venus…I have had people rescuing swans( apparently they belong to HM the Queen), full blown emergencies including unsafe gear (it wasn’t), a helicopter whose pilot had been incapacitated by a golf ball….seriously….a gentleman on a bike crossing the main runway and a RAF police dog which was on the runway and had decided to no longer accept orders from his handler. There is NOTHING that could be written down that included all the experiences that the people who inhabit this board have had.

How about a fox fast asleep curled up around a lit flush-fitting approach light?(Nice ‘n warm y’see)

Recently we had a report from a pilot that there was an antelope on the runway. There aren’t any antelopes in Toronto, we said.

Turns out it was a very large hare.

Amongst others on the runway unexpectedly, I’ve seen:

Foxes, Hares, Deer, Dogs, Man on bicycle, Drunks returning from a rave, unknown vehicle, kids, sweeper driver deciding to drive in circles and refuse any instruction to move etc etc

On runway “obstructions”.

Heathrow, one wet evening a constant stream was landing. The Captain of one flight rang with humble apologies: “Our First Officer insisted I rang to tell you that as we turned off the runway he saw a man laying on the centreline. I’m really sorry to have troubled you.”

Plenty more had landed but we got a checker vehicle to have a look and, sure enough, there was a bloke laying on the runway! He wasn’t injured but they took him to hospital, where he later died from pneumonia.

ACA DC8F: “Ground, we need assistance, we got chlorine (?) at the door!

Ground: “You got what? ”

ACA DC8F: “We got chlorine (?) at the door!”

Ground: “Chlorine? Gas? You want the fire service?”

ACA DC8F: “Ground, er…anybody who can help…we got clawing at the door…the tiger’s escaped!”

1982, when I was at Stornoway – A friend who was a smallholder asked me if anyone cut the grass in the triangle between the 3 runways. ‘No’ I replied, ‘Can I make some hay there?’, he asked, ‘Sure’ I replied.

‘OK, I’ll send Donnie up with a tractor and cutter’ says my chum. Knowing Donnie was not one of Stornoway’s brightest sons, I told him to make sure that Donnie came to see me and I would brief him on the runway crossing.

Next day Donnie duly reported to the tower, ‘You can cross the runway in front of the tower now, as there is nothing due for a while,’ I told him, ‘ When you have finished, face the tower and flash your headlights and if you see my green lamp flash at you, then you can cross – if it is red, wait and eventually you’ll see the green’.

Everything went as planned and then I went on leave. On my return the other ATCO says, ‘Did you tell a tractor driver that he could cut the grass?’.

‘Yes, you didn’t mind did you?’ I replied.

‘Er, when he came back with his baler he crossed the runway straight in front of Loganair’s Islander that was about to touchdown,so I chased after him in the Land Rover and asked him what the hell he was playing at?’.

He replied, ‘The other fellow said it would be alright.’

Favourite episode at “my” airfield was the summer of ’76 (hot and dry) when the firemen in their mini van managed to set the grass area alight whilst bird scaring….their attempts to extinguish the fire using the van’s floor mats having failed, they then failed to start the van in order to escape….a fiasco which took a while to write up in the log as I recall.

Red Devils paradropping under CAS, base 3500. Aircraft inbound to major international airport normally dropped to 4000. The Islander ‘lift-attendant’ made the occasional request for clearance up to FL120, in which case the aircraft inbound to that major international airport were cleared down to only FL130, naturally.

One day, a clearance cock-up: paradrop from FL120, BAC111 cleared down to 4000 ft. On the way down:

BAC 111: “Hey London, we’ve just passed close to an Islander paradropping.”

TMA-SW: “Roger, was it a red one?”

BAC-111: “Blimey, you’ve got good radar!”

TWA inbound to Heathrow from the west kept a little high due to paradropping at Farnborough. Given information on the Herc and TWA says: “Gee, we can see them, one guy’s boots are on fire.”

Where to start?

1. The only Welsh member of the ATC team trying to retrieve a sheep from the runway.
2. Runway blocked in “Britain in the Sun” due to
a. Bags of fruit all over the runway
b. 30+ pairs of shoes left on the runway from protesting Moroccans.
c. A German motorhome parked up alongside it.

There are some cracking ones in the log books!

A member of the travelling fraternity was found on the apron trying to find a way out, when asked how he had got there he advised that he came from the other side of the airfield but it was ok as he had crossed the runway on the big zebra crossing!

Eventually, someone noticed that the original poster had not responded in the thread.

Perhaps he’s run off screaming just like a lady news reporter in the approach room of a large airport back in the 70s.

She was there to interview one of the ladies and whilst waiting A.M., who was No.1 south, called her across.

“See that?” he said, pointing at the radar, “that’s the Concorde going to New York…and see that?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s a Boeing 707 coming from Africa”

“Yes, yes,” she said.

And A.M. shouts hysterically: “And they’re going to hit each other and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

Oh my, the effect was dramatic. Funny, we never saw her again; she’s probably in a mental home.

Got a story for unusual ATC issues? The comments are all yours!

28 March 2014

MH370 Search: Beacons and Pingers and Locators

The press is continuing to speculate as to causes and criminals, but I think we’re all clear now that until we find the aircraft itself, we won’t know what happened. Of course what everyone is hoping for is that we find the “black box” and that it has useful information on it.

A black box is actually a bright-orange container designed for high visibility, which houses the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. The black box is housed at the rear of the aircraft, on the presumption that following the initial impact, the rear of the aircraft will be moving at a slower speed. The black box is engineered to survive a catastrophe, including crashing down to the bottom of the South Indian Ocean. It is extremely likely that if we find the black box, the contents will be safe and we will get at least some data on the final flight of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

However, finding the black box is proving difficult because we simply don’t know where the aircrash was.

Aircraft are fitted with distress radio beacons, often referred to in aviation as ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitter) or more colloquially as pingers. These beacons send out a distress signal every second in order to help search and rescue determine the location of a downed aircraft. Traditionally, a distress beacon would interface with the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, a search and rescue satellite system established in 1979 by Canada, France, the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, it isn’t possible for a distress radio beacon to broadcast to a satellite from underwater. The point of the distress beacon was to find survivors as quickly as possible. It was not intended to discover sunken wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

In 1961, the UK Ministry of Aviation focused on how to locate and recovery aircraft lost in deep water, with the result that commercial aircraft since 1988 carry mounted acoustic beacons for underwater use. All modern commercial jets now carry an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB). In the photograph above, the Underwater Locator Beacon is the small cylinder on the far right.

A ULB is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Once the beacon is immersed in water, the water closes an electric circuit and the beacon begins to transmit. The ULB will transmit a “ping” at an acoustic frequency of 37.5kHz every second at full power for 30 days. The detection range is 1-2 kilometres in normal conditions and 4-5 kilometers in good conditions. After the 30 days, the ULB will continue to transmit but the range will reduce day by day until it stops altogether. How long it will continue to transmit is based on various factors, including the environment it is in and the age of the beacon and the battery itself which is generally replaced every few years.

After the Air France Flight 447, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) recommended that the ULBs’ transmission period be increased to 90 days.

Honeywell Aerospace, the producers of the black box on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, have confirmed that the cockpit voice recorder will only have the final two hours of the flight on it. However, the flight data recorder will allow us to recreate the flight itself and the wreckage itself may help to unravel the mystery. The ULB will be attached to the black box and we’re hoping it will lead us to the wreckage of the aircraft in the South Indian Ocean.

Hydro International describes deep-water black box retrieval as “A game of hunt-the-pinger against the clock.”

Deep-water Black Box Retrieval – November 2009, Volume 13, Number 09 – Archive – Hydro International

Localising a pinger from the surface in shallow water is relatively easy, as described above. This task becomes increasingly difficult as water depth increases, however, because the direction is affected by both the horizontal bearing and the depression angle to the beacon (Figure 2). When trying to locate a pinger beacon in deep water, the detection equipment should be installed on a self-propelled underwater vehicle (either an ROV/AUV or a manned submersible). However, this presupposes that the position is already known to within the maximum 2-3km detection range. When aircraft debris is scattered over a large area, as with the recent Air France 447 accident off the Brazilian coast in depths up to 3.5km, a grid search must be conducted using underwater acoustic listening equipment. This equipment must be deployed as deep as possible to overcome the bearing/depression angle conflict (such as on the nuclear submarine described in a news feature in the July 2009 issue of Hydro International). The additional time required to mobilise and carry out this search highlights the second major limitation of fitting CAT aircraft with pinger beacons: that of their limited operational life.

Last week, two different search mechanisms were moved into place in the South Indian Ocean: a Towed Ping Locator 25 and a Bluefin-21, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle.

The Towed Pinger Locator 25 will be operated by a team on the Royal Australian Navy supply ship Seahorse Standard. The ray-shaped sensor searches for emergency relocation pingers on downed aircraft up to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet.

The US Navy Fact File: Towed Pinger Locator 25

The system consists of the tow fish, tow cable, winch, hydraulic power unit, generator, and topside control console, although not all of these components are required on every mission. Navigation is accomplished by using algorithms incorporating the amount of cable in the water, the depth indication from the pressure sensor and other parameters. The generator provides electrical power for the system or power from the support platform can be used if it is compatible. The tow fish carries a passive listening device for detecting pingers that automatically transmit an acoustic pulse.

The Pinger Locator is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, generally from 1 – 5 knots depending on the depth. The received acoustic signal of the pinger is transmitted up the cable and is presented audibly, and can be output to either a Oscilloscope, or Signal Processing Computer. The operator monitors the greatest signal strength and records the navigation coordinates. This procedure is repeated on multiple track lines until the final position is triangulated.

The Bluefin-21 automous underwater vehicle is a sonar-equipped robot used to search for transmissions from the Underwater Locator Beacon as well as detect debris on the ocean floor in an attempt to find the wreckage of MH370. The torpedo-shaped vehicle can operate almost up to three miles underneath sea-level and uses an acoustic camera to provide very high resolution sonar still imagery and video.

Diameter 53 cm / 21 in
Length 493 cm / 16.2 ft
Weight (Dry) 750 kg / 1,650 lb
Depth Rating 4,500 m / 14,763 ft
Endurance 25 hours at 3 knots
Communications RF, Iridium and acoustic;
Ethernet via shore power cable
Data Management 4 GB flash drive for vehicle data
Plus additional payload storage

Last week, I was a guest on a radio show where I explained that trying to find the aircraft wreckage underwater with these locators was looking for a needle in a haystack. “It’s worse than that,” interrupted an ex-NTSB investigator. “We don’t even know where the haystack is yet.” That’s a pretty perfect summary of the situation.

The limited range and speed of the Towed Pinger Locator 25 and the Bluefin-21 mean that they are of little use in a large area. A vessel towing a pinger can search about 15 square nautical miles per hour in depths less than 2 km. As the water gets deeper, the grid-search becomes slower.

The current search area, moved today to a zone about 1,850 km west of Perth, is approximately 319,000 km². Even with two ships searching to a depth of less than 2 km, we’d be talking about over a year of non-stop, uninterrupted searching in perfect weather. Unfortunately, the South Indian Ocean is quite a bit deeper with an average depth of 3.9 km, and the Underwater Locator Beacon will start getting weaker in ten days.

The reason that the TPL-25 and the Bluefin-21 are in place is so that if we do find debris, they are ready for action rather than losing more precious time transporting them to the scene.

Right now, though, all our hopes are pinned on the ocean surface search for debris. The photographic imagery captured today is being assessed overnight and weather conditions for Saturday are expected to be “reasonable”.


Previous articles on MH370:

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

21 March 2014

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

So, this has been an interesting week! I have been speaking to various journalists around the world, trying to help them make sense of the facts and wild rumours flying around the MH370 mystery.

I’ve put links to the various articles at the bottom of this post for you to read, if you are interested. I’m happy to say that in every instance, the journalists were bright, interested and very focused on sticking to verifiable information. They all spoke to me for an hour or more and asked intelligent questions.

After answering many questions and narrowly avoiding stating assumptions of fact, I quite liked this post on Reddit which discusses this type of analysis: Defining three terms: Occam’s Razor, The Principle of Total Evidence, and The Dog That Didn’t Bark : MH370.

With the news over the past week, it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities somewhat. However, all of this is still based on assumptions and until we find the Boeing 777, we honestly just can’t make conclusions with any confidence.

First, a recap of what we know:

The aircraft departed from Kuala Lumpur airport at 00:41 local time en route to Beijing. The take-off was normal.

01:07 The last ACARS data transmission was received.

01:19 The First Officer signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control. He should next have contacted Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control as they entered Vietnamese airspace.

01:21 Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control noted that they had not checked in and began asking questions.

01:30 The transponder was disabled or turned off, resulting in a loss of secondary radar information regarding the flight.

02:14 The aircraft appeared on military radar in the Strait of Malacca.

08:11 A satellite over the Indian Ocean registers the last ping from the ACARS on MH370. The series of pings confirmed that the aircraft was still moving.

This is not a lot of information to be going on.

Inmarsat and Rolls Royce have been appointed as technical advisors to the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch which is assisting the investigation by the Malaysian authorities. Inmarsat have confirmed that they are “absolutely certain” that the satellites picked up pings from the aircraft for hours after it vanished. This means that the aircraft had power and continued flying until at least 08:11 – at least six and a half hours after it lost contact.

I like this graphic by @_antialias_ because it very clearly shows the “two corridors” which have been narrowed down as possible flight corridors in which the aircraft must have ended up as a result of the (minimal) satellite data.

For more information on this data, I recommend this article:

TMF Associates MSS blog » Understanding “satellite pings”…

Firstly, it needs to be made clear that the radar transponder “squawks” and the satellite communications “pings” are from completely separate systems (just because its talking about a transponder, that is nothing to do with satellite transponders). The radar transponder sends an amplified signal in response to reception an incoming radar transmission, which has much more power than a simple reflection from the metal skin of the plane, and has additional information about the plane’s ID. If turned off, less sensitive civilian radar will struggle to pick up the plane’s reflection, though military (air defense) radar should still be able to see the plane. But military radar systems are looking for hostile forces and have missed civilian aircraft in the past.

Quite frankly, I don’t think we should even think about trying to solve the mystery with so little to go on, but in Sherlock mode, we can look at probabilities.

An aircraft disaster is never simple: there’s a cascade of failures which combine in such a way to lead inevitably to the incident. Thus, when I refer to something as coincidental, that isn’t proof that it didn’t happen that way. I just prefer simple theories to complicated ones.

So, let’s start with the basic premise: MH370 was either the victim of a deliberate diversion or a series of mechanical failures or a combination thereof.

Diverted to Unknown Location to Kidnap Passengers

It’s been thirteen days since we lost contact with the aircraft and no sign of the passengers has been found. The aircraft managed to land without anyone reporting an unexpected low-flying Boeing 777. No one has made a ransom demand. Not a single mobile phone has managed to connect. 227 passengers and 12 crew have been hidden and fed with no one noticing. Sadly, I think this theory is more a question of hope that they might be alive rather than a likely possibility.

Pilot Suicide

The profiles of the pilots are interesting and I recommend this article on the subject: MH370: profile of missing Malaysian Airline plane’s pilots starts to emerge. Both of them were stable and did not have any signs of extremist views or terrorist connections. The Captain was a family man and the First Officer engaged to be married.

But more importantly, I can’t work out any reason whatsover that a suicidal pilot would disable the plane in such a way to leave it flying for seven hours before crashing due to fuel starvation. It makes no sense: a competent pilot would just crash the aircraft immediately, on the spot. In the heat of the moment, he has the element of surprise, so it’s possible to kill yourself using a commercial jetliner, but there’s no possible advantage to dragging it out like this.

The same applies to the “assassination by aircraft” theory, in which the aircraft was crashed in order to murder one of the passengers. This seems like the most complicated way ever to murder someone, to be frank, and again, I can’t see any reason why you would want to take your time about it.

Stolen Cargo

I’d originally mentioned cargo theft as a possible motive. Take the aircraft, dispose of the passengers and unnecessary flight crew and land in a completely isolated area such as in the desert. There, you meet someone who has agreed to help you transport the gold bullions away with from the plane to sell.

However, the cargo has been confirmed to be lithium ion batteries and not gold bullions or some other item worth its weight in, well, gold, it’s very unlikely that the aircraft was stolen with the intent of landing in a remote area to make off with the cargo. Considering the bad press regarding lithium ion batteries recently, it also explains why the Malaysian government was loathe to release the information, although there is no reason to believe at this stage that the cargo was dangerous.

Mechanical Failure

We still don’t know for sure that there was definitely a deliberate diversion by someone onboard the aircraft. It could have been a purely mechanical failure with no devious intentions whatsoever.

I recommend the article on Wired: A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet.

There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning. Yes, this happens with underinflated tires. Remember: Heavy plane, hot night, sea level, long-run takeoff. There was a well known accident in Nigeria of a DC8 that had a landing gear fire on takeoff. Once going, a tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks, but this is a no-no with fire. Most have access to a smoke hood with a filter, but this will last only a few minutes depending on the smoke level. (I used to carry one in my flight bag, and I still carry one in my briefcase when I fly.)

It’s a good piece and it fits in with the routing – a left turn at the initial point of failure followed by another left turn at the Straight of Malacca, ready to head back to their home airport.

However, I’m not convinced. MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur normally and signed off with the air traffic controller as they left Malaysian airspace and entered Vietnamese airspace. This is extra-ordinarily convenient timing for turning off communication devices and disappearing, so it seems a large coincidence that the ACARS and the transponder coincidentally died as a result of fire just as the crew were changing airspace and switching frequencies. In addition, the fact that the fire took out the ACARS, the transponder and the radio and the flight crew but left the aircraft in a flyable condition for seven hours seems quite unlikely to me.

Aircraft Hid in the Shadow of Another Aircraft

Flying in close formation with another plane large enough to provide a shield is extremely difficult. I find it highly improbable that MH370 managed to catch up to a plane and hide in its shadow without being detected. It’s not impossible and as it has been thirteen days without finding the aircraft, I certainly am not ruling out, but it does feel more like a Bond film than reality.

Once you got into position, it be difficult but not impossible to keep up the formation: the pilots just have to listen to the radio communications for any changes in heading and altitude. I just can’t quite imagine how they got into position in the first place.

The Aviationist » “I’m sure: MH370 escaped in the shadow of another plane” retired Air Force Colonel says

The former radar navigator instructor and tactics officer backs this theory.
“When you fly over water or from point to point, pilots are frequently directed to change frequencies, told to turn, climb, descend, you name it. This is all “in the clear” and not privileged communications, anyone with the right radio on the right frequency would hear it. So, this pilot has planned this out to the nth degree and as he’s coming back across the Malay peninsula, he’s looking to fall in behind another airliner and shadow that airplanes flight path.”

Deliberate Diversion Gone Wrong

It seems likely that any deliberate diversion was not with the intention of crashing the aircraft but to take it to a new location. Without more data, we really can’t begin to guess what that motive might have been.

Any modern aircraft disaster consists of a sequence of failures, which within risk analysis is referred to as the Swiss Cheese model.

Swiss cheese model – Wikipedia

The Swiss Cheese model of accident causation is a model used in risk analysis and risk management. It likens human systems to multiple slices of swiss cheese, stacked side by side. It is sometimes called the cumulative act effect.

In the Swiss Cheese model, an organization’s defenses against failure are modeled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices. The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting (in Reason’s words) “a trajectory of accident opportunity”, so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the slices, leading to a failure.

So considering the data so far, I believe that the disaster that struck MH370 is likely to be combination of the two possibilities: a deliberate diversion followed by a mechanical failure.

By this, I mean that MH370 was intentionally “disappeared” as it left Malaysian airspace but before entering Vietnamese airspace, in hopes of delaying search and rescue missions. If so, this was successful: the Boeing 777 was recognised as not responding as expected very early on but was not in fact reported as missing until after its scheduled landing time in Beijing, even though Vietnamese and Chinese controllers knew it had not followed the route to its declared destination.

But then at some later point, something else went wrong, possibly as a result of a struggle for control of the cockpit. Now the aircraft behaviour is no longer in line with the motives for the deviation, which is why it is so impossible to make sense of what was planned.

I had previously considered a simple decompression event like Helios Airways Flight 522 to be unlikely. This was because the aircraft would continue to transmit ACARS and the transponder would continue to supply secondary radar information even though there was no one controlling the aircraft.

However, if the decompression happened after the deliberate diversion, perhaps as the direct result of a weapon (gun, bomb) going off, then it is possible that the aircraft was flying as a ghost plane for the latter part of the flight.

But this is all second guessing, trying to fit the sparse facts we have into some sort of sensible narrative. Have I mentioned that I also write science fiction? It’s a weakness.

Latest News on the Search Operation

Meanwhile, the most important thing is the search operation, to help us to find more.

Here’s the last update from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Missing Malaysia Airline search: ‘We’ve got a lot of hope’ says pilot

Favourable conditions were encountered in the area of ocean being searched for debris that might be related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

But Royal Australian Air Force pilot Russell Adams’ squadron could not locate the two objects spotted on satellite images that sparked the ocean search on Thursday.


A hat-tip to the journalists who were interested in learning more:

Finlo Rohrer: BBC News – Mechanical v human: Why do planes crash?

Tom de Castella: BBC News – Missing Malaysia plane: 10 theories examined

Laura Villadiego: Cinco preguntas (y sus respuestas) sobre la misteriosa desaparición del vuelo MH370 – Noticias de Mundo

Ειρήνη Ψυχάρη: Ειδήσεις – νέα – Το Βήμα Online

14 March 2014

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

I’ll be honest: I was really, really hoping that the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would be solved by today and I wouldn’t have to write about all the second-guessing.

Unfortunately, that’s still (hang on, checking the news one more time) that’s still not happened.

So, let’s go over what we know. All times are Malaysian local time.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, codeshare China Southern Airlines Flight 748, was a scheduled passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China.

On the 8th of March 2014, at Flight Level 350, the Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 souls on board less than an hour after take-off.

Unlike Air France Flight 447, there were no known system failures. The last engine data transmission was received at 01:07.

(Yes, I know about the Wall Street Journal piece. Those were not engine data transmissions. We’ll get to that.)

The flight crew ended communications with Kuala Lumpur air traffic control and should have contacted controllers in Vietnam but never did.

The aircraft disappeared from radar at 01:30.

This was the search and rescue forces as of the 12th and 13th:

Now the guessing games begin. The problem is, this is a mystery and we love mysteries. So everyone wants to try to solve it, to figure out what happened. And right now, we simply don’t have enough data.

One of my favourite articles so far on the subject is this parody in the Onion:

Malaysia Airlines Expands Investigation To Include General Scope Of Space, Time | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA—Following a host of conflicting reports in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last Saturday, representatives from the Kuala Lumpur–based carrier acknowledged they had widened their investigation into the vanished Boeing 777 aircraft today to encompass not only the possibilities of mechanical failure, pilot error, terrorist activity, or a botched hijacking, but also the overarching scope of space, time, and humankind’s place in the universe.

I’m seeing a lot of speculation, second-guessing and even anger that “they” have not yet found the plane, thus “they” are clearly not trying hard enough. Frustration is building because we haven’t been able to solve the mystery and find the plane. Communication has been bad, there’s no question, but this is partially because it is very hard to hold press conferences and updates when there is nothing new to say.

In addition, we are looking at different types of facts.

  • facts from governments
  • facts from those apparently close to the investigation
  • facts from media
  • facts from data that is freely available on the internet

Note I’ve neglected to mention facts from arm-chair investigators like me. We don’t have any facts, only possibilities. It’s important to remember that.

Let’s debunk some information first. We’ll start with the “last-minute turn” on the Flightradar 24 data.

You can replay the actual flight on their website:

Bear in mind times on Flightradar are in UTC, not local time to the flight.

Much has been made of the turn the aircraft made shortly before disappearing, which can be seen on the Flightradar 24 data. The implication is that this was the aircraft turning back or heading to an unexpected location. Here’s Flight Radar’s statement on this:

Here is a #MH370 situation update from Flightradar24 because of the many questions we get.

The ADS-B transponder of an aircraft is transmitting data twice per second. FR24 saves data every 10-60 second depending on altitude. On cruising altitude data is normally saved once per 60 seconds. By analyzing all our databases and logs we have managed to recover about 2 signals per minute for the last 10 minutes.

The last location tracked by Flightradar24 is
Time UTC: 17:21:03
Lat: 6.97
Lon: 103.63
Alt: 35000
Speed: 471 knots
Heading: 40

Between 17:19 and 17:20 the aircraft was changing heading from 25 to 40 degrees, which is probably completely according to flight plan as MH370 on both 4 March and 8 March did the same at the same position. Last 2 signals are both showing that the aircraft is heading in direction 40 degrees.

Today there are reports in media that MH370 may have turned around. FR24 have not tracked this. This could have happened if the aircraft suddenly lost altitude as FR24 coverage in that area is limited to about 30000 feet.

FR24 have not tracked any emergency squawk alerts for flight MH370 before we lost coverage of the aircraft.

Earlier in the week, much was made of the fact that two passengers on the jet had boarded with false passports. In the meantime, the two people who had been using the passports have been identified by Malaysian police and dismissed as unlikely to be terrorists.

The popular idea that this flight suffered the same fate as Helios Flight 522 in which the pilots lost cabin pressure and did not put on their oxygen masks seems unlikely. We never lost contact with Helios Flight 522 and in fact tracked it until the final crash. It was a ghost plane with all systems functioning.

In contrast, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. If it were the same scenario, the pilots of Flight 370 would have had to turn off the comms and transponder as a final act before submitting to hypoxia. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem very likely.

For the aircraft to disappear from radar like that, it would have been a case of explosive decompression, where the differential pressure at 35,000 feet actually broke up the aircraft. If this were the case, there would be no peaceful drifting of the aircraft until it ran out of fuel.

A bomb on the aircraft would have a similar effect. I’m leaning against terrorist activity because there’s been no verifiable claim of responsibility and for a terrorist action to hold weight, people need to know that it happened. That leaves assassination and I just can’t help but think there are easier ways to get rid of someone than to sneak onto a plane with a bomb and blow yourself up.

Hijack gets complicated fast because not only do you have to overwhelm the cabin crew and get control of the cockpit, you also have to deal with 227 passengers all of whom have mobile phones. Silencing the aircraft and all the passengers is technically possible but again, the ability to disappear without a trace is complicated and seems unlikely. That would also mean that the hijackers not only managed to disappear an aircraft without a trace, but also landing a Boeing 777 without anyone noticing. It seems unlikely unless there’s a conspiracy of the hugest kind.

OK, so now we get to the WSJ article.

Satellite Data Reveal Route of Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – WSJ.com

Malaysia Airlines MH370 missing jet transmitted its location repeatedly to satellites over the course of five hours after it disappeared from radar, people briefed on the matter said, as searchers zeroed in on new target areas hundreds of miles west of the plane’s original course.
The satellites also received speed and altitude information about the plane from its intermittent “pings,” the people said. The final ping was sent from over water, at what one of these people called a normal cruising altitude.

The data transmission they are talking about is the Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS).

ACARS is a continuous data monitoring system which transmits data automatically. It is what alerted us to the icing situation on Air France 447. And it is that last data received from the engines at 01:07 as the Malaysia Airlines 370 was in the climb for a cruise at 35,000 feet.

ACARS data is event driven, so the silence from 01:07 to 01:30 when the aircraft disappeared is not meaningful. There was simply nothing to report. The last transmission indicated that the aircraft was operating normally.

So when the Malaysian officials insist that there was no further data transmission from the engines after 01:07, that is completely correct.

However, apparently US sources have found that satellites received “faint pings” from the ACARS system, which appear to be the standard “are you there” broadcast which an ACARS system puts out every thirty minutes.

The Boeing’s ACARS communications connected through VHF. There is an additional fee for an ACARS satellite communication link, which Malaysia Airlines did not pay for. So no data would ever have been transferred from the aircraft to the satellite.

Now, if the aircraft was functional but out of VHF coverage, the ACARS system would automatically try to connect through the satellite communications. However, as that was not a service that the aircraft was signed up for, the satellite would not accept the connection.

This can be compared to going out of coverage with your mobile phone. The phone will continue to try to connect and every network which is not your network will reject those connections.

Now, what the Wall Street Journal is reporting is that eight such connection attempts (pings) were found on the log of the satellite. As those pings happen every 30 minutes, that implies that the aircraft had power four another four hours after it disappeared.

If this is correct (and it has not been verified by anyone actually involved in the investigation, so it might not be), then presumably the aircraft continued to fly for some time after the disappearance. If so, this absolutely implies a manual disabling of the comms system, rather than a systems failure.

Recent reports have jumped on this and come up with theories fit for a Dan Brown novel as to how the aircraft was stolen for nefarious purposes.

Today, various newspapers have claimed that the aircraft may have turned towards the Andamans islands and landed there in secrecy; however that still leaves the slight plot-hole that no one has seen an unexpected Boeing 777.

The editor of the Andaman Chronicle says there is no aircraft there.

“There are no chances that such a big aircraft coming to the Andaman islands can be missed.” And yet the headlines continue.

As long as there is no hard news, speculation and guessing will remain in the forefront. Everyone has a pet theory, ranging from pilot suicide to government plots. My favourite crazy ending to this tragedy so far is the only one that would give us a happy ending: that the disappearance is part of a viral advertisement for a new season of Lost.

I hope that the search parties find some evidence of the aircraft soon. My personal opinion is that the aircraft suffered some catastrophic failure at the beginning of the cruise and is now at the bottom of the ocean. But honestly, until we actually have more data, actual verifiable facts, there’s no real point in guessing.

07 March 2014

Ten Things You Should Know Before Flying to Morocco

It’s my birthday today! So I’m going to take the day off and sit in the sun and do absolutely nothing for the first time in what seems like forever.

I’ve pulled these posts out of the archives for you. A few years back, Cliff gave me the most wonderful surprise for my 40th birthday.


Cliff shoved my shoulder. “Wake up.”

I squinted and realised it was still dark. The automatic shutters act as my alarm clock but they weren’t due to rise for another half an hour. I ignored him and rolled over.

“Get up,” he said. “It’s your birthday.”

I put the pillow over my head.

“Wake up! Come on, you have to get packed.”

“You aren’t really sending me away because I’m old, are you?”

“Yes,” he said and then grinned when my eyes opened. “It’s a do-it-yourself birthday present. Get packed.”

I admit I was relieved when I saw that he was packing a bag as well. Suddenly I understood why he’d turned down a drink the night before. I’ve been on a diet and he said to wait to have a drink until my birthday – but of course he knew he’d be flying. Still, he wouldn’t tell me where we were going.

“Take three days worth. Expect warm days and cool nights. Make sure you have walking shoes and evening wear.”

That didn’t narrow it down much. “Give me a hint?”

“It’s a single hop.”

That narrowed it down considerably. I drew a circle in my head. “Portugal, France, Northern Africa,” I said.

“All of Spain,” he added. “And Gibraltar.”

“You’d be bored to tears if we spent three days in Gibraltar. And I wouldn’t need evening dress.”

I packed for Paris. I didn’t like to tell him how obvious it was, so I pretended that I was still thinking about it. A weekend of good food and expensive wine sounded quite nice and I could catch up on anything I missed at the hotel.

I admitted I’d worked it out on the way to the airfield. “Oh no,” he told me. “Too cold.”

Oh. I considered the other half of the circle.

“Menorca?”

“Too windy.”

Suddenly it clicked. A place I’d said repeatedly I wanted to go to. The sights of the souks, the comfort of the riads, the taste of chicken with preserved lemons and olives followed by mint tea, the sounds of the mosques calling the Muslims to prayer. The land of the Arabs and the Berbers.

Marrakech Airport

Marrakesh.

I’ve talked about going there for years and even got so far as to investigate places to stay once, but always something got in the way and Cliff was never that bothered. Now I was finally going to go to this place I’d heard so much about. I was going to Marrakesh!

As we arrived at Málaga General Aviation, it dawned on me. “It’s a Muslim country. What about my birthday drink?”

“I suppose you’ll have to wait until next year.” He grinned as he got out of the car. “Happy Birthday!”


“Head towards the mosque,” seems to be the start of all directions in Marrakesh. Even if you don’t ask for directions, they point you that way, telling you that you should go to the square. The Koutoubia mosque and the Djemaa el Fna square are the centre of the world.

During the day, the centre of the square is open and the dancers and snake charmers and henna artists do their best to talk you into handing over your wallet, the seedy underside of tourism. At night the square changes completely. The centre fills with tented stalls. As the sun goes down, the place turns into a huge restaurant with a different delicacy in every direction. Uncovered light bulbs combine to light up the square. At the edges flames rise from large grills covered with sausages and kebabs. Further in there are smaller stalls offering a single dish: Sheep’s head, snails, soup. I’m intrigued by a man at a tiny little counter who is offering egg sandwiches, literally smashing a hard-boiled egg into a piece of flatbread for his customers. Young men speak to us incessantly, eat here, eat with us. One zeroes in on me, separating me from Cliff, perhaps assuming that once Cliff has paused to find me, he’ll choose that stall for our dinner. I push forward, annoyed. The others are less aggressive, an inconvenience that one puts up with, like the flies buzzing around us. They entreat us in French and English and German, trying to spot which language we speak. “Your eyes are beautiful,” says one to me and my blush gives me away. Cliff looks longingly at a stall offering only the sheep’s head but I am too cowardly. I drag him towards one of the larger places with a make-shift kitchen set up, food stacked high. They have real tables and a laminated menu.

The guys from the stall stand around us, pushing menus into our hands and hustling us to a table, Cliff has no chance to object. As we sit down, a big bowl of bread appears with two small bowls for dipping. A small bowl of olives. A large bottle of water. These all show on the menu as an extra charge, it’s quickly obvious that the meal will not be as cheap as it had originally seemed. We aren’t bothered. We dip our bread into our respective bowls: mine is filled with crushed tomato and paprika and onion, Cliff’s is red peppers and spicy, some form of harissa. We dip into each other’s bowl and, content, begin to order in earnest. Moroccan salad (tomato and onions) and grilled peppers and some more bread to share. Cliff blindly orders something called Tanjia, without bothering to ask what it is. I play it safe and ask for lamb and chicken skewers. No alcohol here, we get cans of diet coke and keep the large bottle of water to share.

After the delicate appetisers, I’m disappointed when my skewers arrive, piled onto a plate with a bit of plain couscous. The meat is dry and to be honest, the flavour is rather boring. Cliff gets the better dish, as usual, the scent of lemon and garlic pushing its way to my side of the table. He smiles as he reaches into the small bowl, pulling out a small joint of mutton stained yellow with saffron.

A woman and toddler walk past us, she is selling items to tourists but we are mid-meal and she is gracious enough not to bother us. Her toddler takes one look at Cliff and stops. He grabs a packet of tissues from his mothers box and hands it towards Cliff, who has broth and grease all over his fingers. Cliff gratefully accepts the tissues, the restaurant doesn’t offer napkins and his Tanjia is not very easy to eat. Once he’s wiped himself down he gives the child a two euro coin. The mother accepts it and flashes us a smile before working her way to the next food stall.

We’re surrounded by movement and laughter and shouting, my food goes cold as I stare. The smoke blows in circles, wisping different scents across my nose every few seconds. Tourists weave their way through the stalls, the Moroccans circling them, insisting that their food or tea or air conditioning (a menu waved in your face) is the best in the square. “You look at the others but you come back to eat here, yes? You promise? Promise me!” Children dash around in packs.

A small boy, five or six, comes up to me and looks longingly. I give him a half-smile and he points at my can of diet coke. “It’s empty,” I tell him and turn the can over so that he can see. He stays where he is, not a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes. I keep half an eye on him as he plays with the pole next to me, two pieces of plastic in his hands that he’s flipping against it. He flips one harder and it lands on my handbag. He stands too close to me. I hand him the piece of plastic back and zip up my handbag. He watches me with lifeless eyes. I move the handbag onto my lap and turn away.

Half an hour later, after we’ve finished the meal, I see a man shouting and chasing a crowd of boys out of the restaurant area. He is kicking out – one foot connects with a boy’s bottom, causing an extra burst of speed in the little one. The tourists sitting next to us tut unhappily but I recognise my little friend in their midst. “I don’t know what they were trying to nick but they got caught,” says Cliff. We pay for our meal, less than a McDonald’s lunch would cost, and make our way back home.


This was also our first time taking the Saratoga outside of Europe. Despite the last minute nature of the flight, I thought I was prepared – Morocco is described as the most European of the African countries and I’d read up on it before. But that didn’t save us from a healthy dose of culture shock.

Marrakesh Airport

Upon our return, I wrote this list of ten important facts that Wikipedia neglects to mention:

  1. Casablanca Controllers don’t think it’s funny if you respond to a call with “Play it again, Sam.” Not even a little bit.
  2. Although Marrakesh is an international airport, they don’t have radar, so you will continue speaking to Casablanca long after it seems like you should have spoken to Marrakesh about your imminent arrival in their circuit.
  3. The taxiways are not marked so it is vital that you keep count so that you know where to turn off. Coming in on runway 10, it’s the second right. The follow-me will not appear until you are almost at your parking spot.
  4. The nice man who comes out of the follow-me van will offer to “stop you wasting your money on a handling agent” by escorting you to the terminal. He will not mention that that it is a half mile trek in the African mid-afternoon sun to the terminal building and that he has no intention of helping you with your luggage. As you drag your suitcases across the tarmac he will shout at you to watch out as the service agents whiz past in their vans. He’ll expect a hefty tip for doing so (although, to be fair, less than the handling agent would have charged).
  5. You need a Shell card to buy fuel on credit in Marrakesh. The fuel man will tell you they take all sorts of different credit cards. He has a stack of paperwork to prove it – photocopies of all the different cards they accept. He will make you look at every one to confirm that you don’t have it. They are all variants of Shell.
  6. Tannery

  7. The old city is only about 15 minutes away by car. Your taxi will stop at random places en route to your hotel. The driver may lean out to speak to friends or even jump out of the car and dash into someone’s house. It’s not a set-up – he’s simply getting directions.
  8. Once in the old town of Marrakesh, do not buy orange juice from market stalls that don’t show pricing. The price jumped from 3DH (40 cents) to 50DH (almost seven dollars) at neighbouring shops.
  9. Bargaining is expected in the souks and described as a national sport. If you are polite and give reasons why you think the price should be less whilst being flattering about the product, you will generally find you can purchase things for 50% of the price originally demanded.
  10. You can not replace your borrowed maps with up-to-date VFR maps in Marrakesh. They will tell you that you need to go to Casablanca to purchase local maps. When you point out that it would be nice to have them here to follow the VFR routing out of Marrakesh, they will agree and explain that they were told they had to stop selling them because they didn’t sell enough.
  11. Remember the fuel man who told you that you could purchase your AVGAS with cash? What he meant was “cash with a receipt from the bank” as opposed to the cash you drew out of the ATM specifically to pay him with. He will refuse to sell you gas without a bank receipt. You now can’t get MORE cash because it is illegal to take Dirham out of the country. Bring a Shell card.

I’m hoping to return to Marrakesh this summer – I’m longing for another dinner in Djeema and I need to restock my stash of spices and Moroccan tea. This time I shall hopefully be a little bit better prepared!

Nap at Marrakesh Airport


PS: One of the photographs I took for the Dinner in Djeema post was chosen as Photo of the Day by Gadling last year: Photo Of The Day: Djemaa El Fna Market, Marrakesh | Gadling.com.

28 February 2014

B-1B with its Nose to the Ground

On the 5th of October in 1989, a B-1B Lancer departed Dyess Air Force Base with four crew on a routine training flight. Three hours later, the flight crew discovered that the aircraft had a hydraulics fault. As they came in to land at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, the front landing gearhttp://fearoflanding.com/?p=7373&preview=true failed to lower.

Ex-28th BW Rockwell B-1B Lancer 85-0070

They circled the airfield for four hours, twice being refuelled by an airborne tanker, as they struggled to lower the nose wheel. Supporting the crew on the ground were military personal and mechanics for the aircraft manufacturer; however they were unable to resolve the issue.

The Air Force had the flight crew fly a further three hours and over 1,000 miles to Edwards Air Force Base, where they circled for another two hours. Air Force officials decided to land the plane on Rogers Dry Lake. Rogers Dry Lake bed is a natural clay runway and is the site of most of the Space Shuttle landings (see Brent’s comment below – it looks like I got this wrong).

The $280 million B-1B Lancer is a four-engine supersonic bomber which is 146 ft (44.5 m) long and a wingspan of 137 ft (41.8m). This is almost the size of a DC-10.

The B-1B has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25 (721 knots, 830 mpg, 1,340 km/h) at 50,000 feet and a range of 6,500 nautical miles. A total of 100 B-1Bs were produced.

The bomber made several low-level passes, which confirmed that the landing gear was still partially retracted. They attempted to jar the nosewheel loose with a touch and go. When that failed, they made a final approach onto the lake at 18:15 local time.

This newly released video of the landing was emailed to me by a reader and it is simply amazing.

None of the crew was hurt and the aircraft unbelievably only suffered minimal damage.

Once on the ground, one of the pilots told the press, “It’s been a great day for flying, except for a few glitches.”

21 February 2014

Hijack by the Pilot – Ethiopia Airlines

On the 17th of February, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702, a Boeing 767-300, departed Addis Ababa at 00:30 local time on a scheduled flight to Rome, with an estimated time of arrival of 04:40 local time.

Somewhere over Sudan, the aircraft transponder, which transmits a signal which is used to identify the aircraft, was changed to broadcast 7500. That is the code used to identify an aircraft as having been hijacked.

At around this time, the Captain was locked out of the cockpit.

Ethiopian co-pilot hijacks plane to Geneva to seek Swiss asylum; passengers scared but safe

One passenger, Francesco Cuomo, told the Italian news agency ANSA that he and other passengers woke up shortly after midnight when the plane started to “bounce.”

“The pilot was threatening (the hijacker) to open the cockpit door and tried to knock it down without succeeding,” said Cuomo, a 25-year-old economist from Italy.

“At this point, a message was transmitted by the loudspeakers in poor English, but the threat to crash the airplane was clearly understood,” he added.

Reddit user OK3n was on the flight.

IamA passenger on yesterday’s Hijacked plane from Ethiopian Airlines to Geneva. AMA!

After entering the plane, I went to my seat: economy class, window-side and next to the right wing. As it was around midnight, I quickly fell asleep during take-off.

I was waken up an hour later due to the sound of all the oxygen mask going down. I immediately thought « what the… »

I looked at my neighbor, she seemed as confused at me. The plane was not behaving oddly so I thought it was a simple technical glitch or somebody pressed the wrong button. Everybody looked at each other, thinking what’s going on. Suddenly, a deep and angry voice talked through the cabin radio: “SIT DOWN, PUT YOUR MASKS ON, I’M CUTTING THE OXYGEN”, three times.

At this point, I realized that the situation is serious: someone is in the pilot cabin and has hijacked the plane. Within a few seconds, the oxygen went down in the cabin: I felt very lightheaded and quickly decided to put on the oxygen mask like the rest of the passengers. Quickly after that, the plane suddenly started dropping down for about 8 seconds then went fast back up, then finally stabilized. People were crying, yelling, praying. I was in complete panic.

I’m not clear what actually happened on the aircraft here and neither was OK3n, who said he wasn’t sure if the pressurisation changed or he was simply light-headed with fear. Certainly, it worked to get the passengers to remain in their seats.

The Italians scrambled to intercept the aircraft when it entered Italian airspace. The co-pilot spoke to the Italian Air Force while two Eurofighter Typhoons followed from behind, out of sight of the cockpit.

The co-pilot declared his intention to divert to Geneva to seek asylum. The Italians were joined by French military jets, who followed the aircraft into Switzerland to ensure the aircraft didn’t deviate from its flight path to Geneva.

Usually I try to insert a bit of witty commentary but sometimes I just can’t improve on reality.

Swiss fighters grounded during hijacking as outside office hours – Yahoo News

Geneva (AFP) – No Swiss fighter jets were scrambled Monday when an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked his own plane and forced it to land in Geneva, because it happened outside business hours, the Swiss airforce said.

But although the co-pilot-turned-hijacker quickly announced he wanted to land the plane in Switzerland, where he later said he aimed to seek asylum, Switzerland’s fleet of F-18s and F-5 Tigers remained on the ground, Swiss airforce spokesman Laurent Savary told AFP.

This, he explained, was because the Swiss airforce is only available during office hours. These are reported to be from 8am until noon, then 1:30 to 5pm.

“Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” he said, adding: “It’s a question of budget and staffing.”

He explained that French fighters can escort a suspicious aircraft into Swiss airspace, “but there is no question of shooting it down. It’s a question of national sovereignty”.

Meanwhile, on Airliners.net, the Civil Aviation Forum watched the events unfold in real-time.

ET702 ADD-FCO ET-AMF Squawking 7500 (Confirmed Hijack)

It has just overflown its destination, FCO, at 36,000ft.. Hope things are ok onboard..

Aeroporto di Roma website says the flight hasn’t arrived yet, and it should have arrived at 4:40am local time. Hope everything’s okay…

Made a turn for Geneva.

I’m listening to LiveATC Geneva and I think I just heard the word “Asylum”!!

If I heard right they just said they have 35 min of fuel left.

Looks like they are doing another loop while waiting for authorities.

Still waiting for response from Swiss authorities?? Holding at 7000 with only 35 mins on board. The pilots are so calm yet.

Controller said everyone was sleeping so the delay…

20 min fuel left, definitely something about asylum

“We have negotiators on the phone” as reported by GVA ATC.

think I heard: will give an answer on short final

Phew, it’s down.

landed apparently. On fumes!

Captain is leaving by the window. Does not looks like hijackers are in the cockpit

For a 767, 30 minutes worth of holding fuel is about 2000kgs. Looking at the timeline, they must have landed with less than 100 kilos in the tanks. Insane.

OK3n describes the situation on board:

IamA passenger on yesterday’s Hijacked plane from Ethiopian Airlines to Geneva. AMA!

I was thinking : that’s it, we’re crashing into something. Looking down to the window I see a light, two, three, I can’t see what’s ahead. It’s still dark. We’re going fast, we’re flying over many houses now. And suddenly, under us, the airport. Just thinking again about this moment makes me shiver. We are landing. WE, are LANDING. Is this true ? Is this a miracle ? We touched the ground, and the plane eventually stopped completely in a bit away from the plane entrance to the terminal. I remember crying, while most of the people (Italians) were applauding. At this point, for the first time in 6 hours, we got an update from the steward telling us about the copilot, that we are in Geneva and that soon the Swiss police will enter and evacuate the plane.

Here’s the tracking of the last ten minutes of flight with ATC conversation overlaid:

The co-pilot was identified as Hailemedhin Abera, a 31-year old pilot who had worked for Ethiopia Airlines for five years and had no criminal record.

Exclusive: Who’s Ethiopian hijacker Hailemedhin Abera? » Horn Affairs – English

Hailemedhin was raised in Bahirdar city, at the center of city called “kebel zero sost”. He attended school at Megabit haya sement elementary school, then Bahirdar Secondary School in 2000/01.

Subsequently, he joined Addis Ababa University Architecture department, which he quit to join the state-monopoly Ethiopian Airlines.

He was raised by a devotee Orthodox Christians family. Both of his parents are alive and residents of Bahirdar city.

There was nothing to suggest that Hailemedhin had any prior plan of creating an international incident – according to the conversations he had with his close friends a day before he left Addis Ababa.

BBC News – Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacks plane to seek Geneva asylum

The Boeing 767-300 eventually made its unscheduled landing at 06:00 local time.
The initial assumption that a hijacker had gained control over the flight crew proved to be false. The hijacker was the co-pilot, who had locked his Captain out of the cockpit.
“He parked the plane on the taxiway, he cut the engines then opened the cockpit window, threw out a rope and used it to descend to the tarmac,” said Swiss police spokesman Eric Grandjean.
“He ran towards the police and immediately identified himself as the co-pilot and hijacker.”

Over an hour later, the passengers disembarked.

IamA passenger on yesterday’s Hijacked plane from Ethiopian Airlines to Geneva. AMA!

The Swiss entered, released business class, released the crew, released the economy class. By released I mean go outside, hands in the air, and get checked by a bunch of policemen.

We were checked and accompanied very kindly by the Swiss. There were sandwiches, hot chocolate, and free wifi.

The Swiss police spokesman pointed out that it was the first time in Swiss history that a co-pilot had hijacked an aircraft.

hijack

/ˈhʌɪdʒak/
verb
illegally seize (an aircraft, ship, or vehicle) while in transit and force it to go to a different destination or use it for one’s own purposes.
“a man armed with grenades hijacked the jet yesterday”

I immediately balked at the term. The co-pilot was Pilot Flying and in control, so he can hardly be said to have illegally seized the aircraft. He diverted the flight, which he is totally authorised to do as the person in command of the plane. He also locked the Captain out of the cockpit and terrified the passengers but that’s not what defines a hijack.

After much pondering I decided that the best I could come up with was mutiny, as in open rebellion against a ship’s captain. But is that still a legal crime?

Luckily, the Swiss are more serious than I am and swiftly came up with charges. They have described the incident as an unlawful interference with an aircraft and 200 counts of kidnapping, under sections 183-185 which cover false imprisonment and abduction.

Geneva prosecutor did not discuss details of case. “Technically there is no connection between asylum and the fact he committed a crime to come here,” he said.

“But I think his chances are not very high.”

14 February 2014

Hijack, Low Flying, Airport Stress and more…

Today, a selection of fun and interesting links that I found on the Web just for you! I recommend all of these articles and videos as interesting and informative.

Please note that videos and other embedded items won’t work on the mailing list, so if you’ve received this post in your inbox, you may need to click through to see everything.


File this one under “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”

Drunk Ukrainian fails in Kharkov-Istanbul hijack bid – News – World – The Voice of Russia

Ukrainian authorities have reported an attempt to hijack a passenger airliner flying from Kharkov-Istanbul and specified that the plane made a scheduled landing in Istanbul. The suspect turned out to be drunk. The “Passenger was in a state of extreme intoxication and tried to go into the crew cabin shouting “Let’s all go to Sochi”, Ukrainian Security Service stated.


I’m not even sure that I should post these, for fear of encouraging stunts like this. The guy came too damn close to that wing, that’s for sure.

LiveLeak.com – Airplane Fly By!!!!

Alternate Headline:

3 Suicidal Assholes Nearly Ruin Perfectly Good Airplane


The story is a little too pat but it did make me smile.

To the Ticket Agent at the Delta Counter | Josh Misner, Ph.D.

I began to feel enraged at seeing this outpouring of selfishness and willful ignorance. My determination to make the connection was growing by the millisecond, though, and as soon as we were out of the gate, the three of us sprinted — or at least, as fast as a 6-year-old’s legs can run.


The 2014 Singapore Airshow is happening right now and Airbus have posted a great clip of the best of the show so far, even if it does understandably have a bit of an Airbus bias. :)


I’d never heard of training flights involving taking off from the roads, but it makes sense to reduce the dependency on (easily bombed) airfields.

Watch a Fighter Jet Take Off From a Freeway | Autopia | Wired.com

Finland’s air force, mindful of the fact motorists might be just a bit freaked out by a warplane approaching, cleared the road of traffic, but other nations aren’t as considerate. A commander in the Swedish Armed Forces told SVT (Swedish) that the Russians are particularly cavalier about their exercises. As this dash-cam video shows, a pilot had no problem making his approach directly above civilian drivers during a training exercise in Belarus, who collaborates with Russia’s military.


A very good post on wake turbulence and how to avoid it.

How To Avoid Wake Turbulence | Boldmethod


It’s one of those easy-to-make mistakes: I have to admit, I did it once.

Shame the headline doesn’t understand the difference between a landing and an approach, though…

Planes landed at wrong airports 150 times over 2 decades – NY Daily News

You’ve got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they’re saying: `Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.’ They’re like the sirens of the ocean,” Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, told AP.
According to the AP tally released Monday, there’s been 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.


This is sure to raise some eyebrows.

TSA Agent Confession – POLITICO Magazine

I hated it from the beginning. It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.


And finally, I’d hate for anyone to miss the currently viral video of a go-pro camera filming as it fell out of an aircraft.