25 July 2014

Aviation Disasters in 2014: Is It Safe to Fly?

This week, another two fatal aviation accidents made international news. TransAsia Airways flight 222 crashed in heavy rain while attempting an emergency landing at Magong, Penghu Island, Taiwan. Air Algérie flight AH-5017 crashed near Mali after twice changing course in an attempt to avoid thunderstorms covering the region.

Both of these accidents appear to have been the result of aircraft unable to cope with the serious bad weather in which they found themselves. It is too early to know what decisions might have been made in order to avoid the fatal weather conditions.

This news is especially disturbing after last week’s loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 which was shot down by a missile. “It’s a bad week for those frightened of flying,” said one media outlet.

It’s true, the past seven days have seen a shocking loss of life owing to fatal aircraft disasters. The front pages of newspapers around the world are covered with the aftermath of these tragic flights: MH17 Ukraine Crisis! Mali Air Crash! Taiwan Crash Details! Each one another death toll. But why now? Why are all these planes crashing around us?

Here’s the thing: The pace of the crashes right now is shocking. But looking at 2014 as a whole, the numbers aren’t extreme. It will be some time before we can sensibly think about long-term trends or whether 2014 itself was a bad year.

I’m reading (and writing) about crashes all the time. Terrible crashes, pointless crashes, crashes where everyone on board died. The difference is not that flying is a lot more dangerous than we thought it was. The difference is Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 gripped the world, and rightly so. It’s been over four months and we still have no answers. We simply have no idea what happened that day. CNN covered the search and investigation 24×7 in the weeks following the investigation and I still regularly get asked as to my opinion on the crash as a conversation starter when I mention that I write about aviation. It’s a high-profile, horrendous case and worse, completely unsolved.

In May, coverage tailed off a little bit but every scrap of news still made the front page. In June, details of the Australian search parties were the only news that offered any insight into this unbelievable mystery. It seems incredible that an aircraft could just disappear like that. It is incredible and I find it hard to accept that we might never know what happened.

Last week, the first thing I heard about MH17 was that Malaysia Airlines had “lost contact with another plane”. I’ll tell the truth: my stomach lurched. My thoughts were barely coherent: my god, it really is a plot, there’s someone stealing planes, who would do this, how are they doing this, what the hell is happening?. However, it almost immediately became clear that the aircraft was not “lost” in the sense of an aircraft flying without radar contact and other communications. As the horrifying truth came out, it also became obvious that the fact that it was Malaysia Airlines was a horrific coincidence: it could have been any one of a number of different airliners in the area at that time.

The silence from TransAsia Airways flight 222, a domestic flight, was immediately identifiable as a crash however, news reports refer to the control tower losing contact with the aircraft. And then yesterday, I was inundated with reports of an aircraft that was lost: disappeared off radar, no communications. Of course, Air Algérie flight 501was lost, as it had possibly broken up in the air and certainly crashed with no survivors. But I was struck in both instances by the media focus on the loss of contact, almost as if the aircraft were possibly still out there and flying. And I was intrigued by the press coverage: quite frankly a lot more than I would expect for foreign aircraft disasters.

I put together some figures to try to get a handle on whether the number of accidents this year (as opposed to this week) was typical or if we are seeing a spike in air crash disasters.

I started by going through the Aviation Safety Network’s database and analysed through the occurrences per year, that is, including all aviation accidents and incidents that were reported. There have been a total of 85 occurrences so far in 2014 so I looked at the previous four years to see if this was unexpectedly high. I also checked the information for 1994 just for a quick comparison: over the same time period, there were 115 occurrences in 1994, by far the most per year. 1984, in comparison, dropped to 90 – still more than 2014 for the same time period but well within recent averages.

The result shows that 2014 is not (yet) a particularly bad year for aviation issues. But the numbers above include all kinds of incidents, whereas what we’ve been seeing this year are fatal air craft disasters. So I decided to focus on fatalities. Aviation Safety Network have a list of the worst 100 accidents which they have ranked based on the number of fatalities. Of the fatal accidents in 2014, only two made the list: the loss of MH17 over Ukraine with 298 fatalities and Malaysia Airlines flight 370 with 239 fatalities.

I half-expected to see that the worst crashes were recent as aviation becomes more of a mass transit option: we’re squeezing in more passengers per square metre than ever before and planes are getting bigger. But actually, the worst accidents broken down by year is trending downwards (see the dotted line).

Finally, I looked at the Aviation Safety Network fatality rates. Here’s where we can see a worrying trend. In 2014 so far, there have been twelve accidents with a total of 761 fatalities. Over a ten-year period, Aviation Safety Network reports an average 17 accidents with 376 fatalities between January and July. The average for the full twelve months over the last ten years is 676 fatalities, so we can see that we’ve already bypassed the annual average for fatalities… and 2014 still has another five months to go. Based on these figures, fewer planes are crashing but there are more fatalities. That’s not hard to analyse. This is a direct result of the two Malaysia Airlines disasters both of which individually count among the 100 highest fatalities ever. Those two flights account for 537 fatalities between them, just over 70% of the 761 fatalities for the year. The two most recent crashes this week would not have caused a blip on these stats.

That’s not to say that the past seven days haven’t been an extremely bad week for aviation, nor to imply that some crashes and loss of life are more serious than others. But the big reason that I think flying suddenly seems so dangerous is that the recent two crashes were reported as international news and in other years, they wouldn’t have been.

I would expect to talk about these crashes at an airfield or on an aviation forum. I would certainly read up on them myself and consider whether to analyse them for the Why Planes Crash series. There are hundreds of aviation accidents every year that I don’t write about, which was part of the point of Why Planes Crash. It gives me the opportunity to cover interesting aviation accidents which didn’t involve a large number of fatalities and/or happened in foreign countries and/or didn’t have someone famous on board. These accidents are under-represented on the aircraft disaster television shows and even on Wikipedia, with the result that most people have never even heard of them.

In the West, we tend to talk about 9/11 as the tragic accident that changed aviation security forever. However, in China, the date that connects to aviation history happened half a year later on the 7th of May 2002. The events of that day, now simply referred to as 5.7, changed airport security for ever. And yet, outside of aviation communities, that flight number and date are rarely recognised as important.

The point is that I wouldn’t expect to see these week’s crashes, as tragic as they may be, on the front page of newspapers around the world.

Now, obviously I’m heavily in favour of aviation being covered in the mainstream news. And the media supply the news that people are interested in; I’m certainly not trying to imply some kind of media conspiracy. But what scares me is the comments: aviation is getting more dangerous, so many planes have crashed this year, I’m never flying again, something is going horrifyingly wrong.

And I think it comes down to this: this year, the most unbelievable aviation disaster happened: we lost a commercial aircraft, a Boeing 777 with 239 souls on board, and we don’t know what happened to it nor where it went. The idea of losing contact with an aircraft has become an emotional trigger and so now these crashes — devastating to the survivors of those poor souls but not usually at the centre of attention — attract our immediate attention.

The phrase “contact was lost” has become an emotional trigger. The crashes this week are front page news because the entire idea that we could lose an airliner is in our conciousness and on our minds. These sad crashes are isolated events in the aviation community. They all have different causes. They are tragic, of course they are, but they aren’t a sign of the apocalypse.

If I could talk to everyone reading these articles and feeling full of fear, I would take their hands and say just this: Flying isn’t more dangerous this year than it was last year. You’re just paying more attention.

18 July 2014

The Information So Far: Malaysia Airlines flight 17

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was a passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The aircraft was a B777-200ER, registration 9M-MRD, manufactured in July 1997 and with a total of 75,322 hours. In a sad coincidence, the first flight of the aircraft was 17 July 1997.

There were 283 passengers (including three infants) and fifteen Malaysian crew members.

MH17 departed normally from Amsterdam at 10:14 UTC (just past noon local time) and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 22:00 UTC. The expected flight time was 11 hours 45 minutes.

The planned route for the flight took the aircraft directly over the Ukraine and Russia. The flight plan requested a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet but when MH17 entered Ukrainian airspace, they were given an altitude of 33,000 feet.

At 14:15 UTC, four hours into the flight, Ukrainian Air Traffic Control lost contact with the flight. At the moment of lost contact, the Boeing 777 was 30 km (20 miles) from the TAMAK waypoint, which is about 50 km (30 miles) from the Russian-Ukraine border. There was no distress call.

The aircraft wreckage was scattered over a two kilometre area at the village of Hrabove near the Russian border. The state of the wreckage made it clear that it had broken up before impact with the ground. The news was quickly released: the commercial aircraft full of civilians had been shot down.

Two key questions arose very quickly: Why was an aircraft flying over a war zone and who shot it down?

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has become focused on the question of the Ukraine entering trade agreements with the EU rather than maintaining closer ties with Russia. In November 2013 the then-president of the Ukraine rejected a much anticipated EU economic proposal which was criticised as setting up Ukraine for long-term economic disaster by taking away the Russian export market whilst tying it to markets from which it can only import. Instead, the then-president accepted a new deal from Russia offering $15 billion in aid and other economic benefits. The conflict reached a crisis point in February when Ukraine ousted their pro-Russian president and the new government refocused on a closer relationship with the European Union. Russia argued that a relatively small group of anti-Russian extremists in Ukraine had staged the coup and that they were a threat to the Russian-speaking people who live in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

In March, the Russians took control of Crimea. However, Ukrainian government continues to claim Crimea as a part of Ukraine. As a result, airline operators and aircraft were recommended to avoid the area over Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Asov. This was, however, not because of fears that civilian aircraft would be shot down but because there were two different services (Russian and Ukrainian) both managing the airspace at the same time.

Europe safety agency urges airlines to avoid Crimean airspace | Reuters

“It is unsafe if more than one Air Traffic Service provider is in charge of one single Flight Information Region (FIR); no compromise can be made with the safety of the flying passengers,” Patrick Ky, executive director at EASA, said.

Eurocontrol, the European air traffic management agency, said it strongly advised carriers against flying through the region, known as Simferopol FIR, and published a map of alternative routes.

The US and the UK both released a Notice To AirMen (NOTAM) advising that this area be avoided, but the area specified was south of the crash site.

In the aftermath, many airlines announced that they had previously taken the decision to reroute to avoid flying over the conflict zone. FlightRadar24, however, have pointed out that their logs show that some of these airlines were in fact still routing over Ukraine in the days previous. Many airlines certainly continued to route over the 32,000 foot no-fly zone. The most frequent flyers over Donetsk last week were Aeroflot (86 flights), Singapore Airlines (75), Ukraine International Airlines (62), Lufthansa (56) and Malaysia Airlines (48).

On the 14th of July, a new NOTAM was issued which covered the Dnipropetrovsk region. This NOTAM did include the airspace over Eastern Ukraine but only up to FL320, that is to say, the airspace up to a flight level of 32,000 feet. This was apparently in response to a Ukrainian cargo plane which was shot down at 21,000 feet.

The airspace over 33,000 feet was not controlled and was not closed. Malaysia Airlines have come under fire for routing over a war zone but have countered that the flight plan was approved by Eurcontrol, who are responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace.

In April, the International Civil Aviation Organization identified an area over the Crimean peninsula as risky. At no point did MH17 fly into, or request to fly into, this area. At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO.

Eurocontrol’s response is quite clear:

According to our information, the aircraft was flying at Flight Level 330 (approximately 10,000 metres/33,000 feet) when it disappeared from the radar. This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.
Since the crash, the Ukrainian authorities have informed EUROCONTROL of the closure of routes from the ground to unlimited in Eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk Flight Information Region). All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected by EUROCONTROL. The routes will remain closed until further notice.

On that day, a number of commercial aircraft flew over the area, including Aeroflot, Air India, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic and of course, Malaysian Airlines MH17.
The New York Times reported that the missile was detected by military satellite.

Jetliner Explodes Over Ukraine; Struck by Missile, Officials Say – NYTimes.com

GRABOVO, Ukraine — A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 people aboard exploded, crashed and burned on a flowered wheat field Thursday in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists, blown out of the sky at 33,000 feet by what Ukrainian and American officials described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile.

Ukraine accused the separatists of carrying out what it called a terrorist attack. American intelligence and military officials said the plane had been destroyed by a Russian SA-series missile, based on surveillance satellite data that showed the final trajectory and impact of the missile but not its point of origin.

The Ukraine’s Interior Ministry specifically stated that MH17 was hit by a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM), specifically the SA-11 Buk missile system. The Soviet-designed Buk missile launcher has a maximum range of 13 nautical miles and can fire up to a ceiling of 39,400 feet, so the Malaysian Boeing 777 was easily in range of it — and still would have been if they’d been given their requested altitude of 35,000 feet. It has a radar guidance system and a 70 kilogram warhead. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have these high-end missile systems.

At this stage, it seems very likely that the aircraft was shot down by a power SAM but no one has taken responsibility for the shot. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claim that the separatists carried out the attack with Russian support. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make any statement on who shot the missile, focusing instead on the political aspect. “The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Up until now, the pro-Russia separatists in the Ukraine were known to have portable surface-to-air missiles but there was not any hard information that they had access to high-end missile systems with that high of a range. However, on Twitter there was apparently a photograph posted by separatists, now deleted, showed a photograph of a Buk missile system. In addition, Associated Press journalists stated that they saw what looked like a Buk missile launcher in Snizhne, an eastern town which is held by the separatists. It is possible that they captured a Ukrainian Buk missile launcher or that they were supplied the technology by the Russians along with the training of how to use it.

There was also the question of a post on a social networking service by a military commander of the rebels, in which he ported that the rebels had shot down an aircraft at approximately the same time as MH17 disappeared, in the same area. The post was deleted shortly after the news of the MH17 crash was released, however it is still visible on the Wayback Machine (an Internet archive) and can be translated using online services such as Google Translate: Wall | VK. The poster appears to have believed that the aircraft was a Ukrainian military cargo plane and stated, “We did warn you – do not fly in our sky.”

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities released recordings of phone conversations which they claim are between the separatists and Russian military officedrs. The BBC has published the recordings of the three phone calls with translations.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Ukraine releases alleged intercepts

Malaysia Airlines appear to have learned a lot about crisis management this year and have released information as information has become confirmed but without the missteps seen after the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

As of this posting, the US has stated that the SAM missile was fired from an area controlled by the Russian-separatists in eastern Ukraine. The US and UK aviation authorities are deploying teams to Ukraine to assist in the investigation. I’m sure more news will be released over the next few days.

The tragic human loss can get side-lined in such a crash, especially with the political issues and the question of blame. I am heartsick but glad to see that the BBC has made an effort to tell the stories of some of those who were lost on the flight.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Passengers on Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine

Cor Pan joked on Facebook about his plane disappearing shortly before it took off…

Yuli Hastini and John Paulisen and their two young children were on their way to pay their respects at Yuli’s mother’s grave…

Australian teacher Francesca Davison and her husband Liam were returning home from a holiday in Europe…

Glenn Thomas, a former journalist and WHO media relations coordinator, was travelling to the Aids conference…

Flight Attendant Nur Shazana Mohd Salleh was a happy person who had a feeling this month was special…

This, and the photographs of the luggage and personal items strewn on the fields, are heartbreaking. This is not just about politics and warfare, it’s about people.

11 July 2014

Near Miss at Barcelona

Last week, a plane spotter named Miguel Angel was filming flights coming into Barcelona airport when he captured this video:

Five days later, that video has had over 20 million views.

The aircraft on the taxi-way is Aerolíneas Argentinas flight AR-1163, an Airbus A340 which was departing Barcelona for a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Coming into land was UTair flight UT5187, a Boeing 767-300 inbound to Barcelona from Moscow.

It is hard to see from the video just how close the two aircraft were to each other but it is clear that the Aerolíneas Argentinas flight is entering the active runway much too late for a safe crossing. The UTair was on short final and descended through to about 200 feet above ground level when the flight crew initiated a go-around.

The distance from the runway threshold (where the UTair Boeing would have touched down) and the taxiway Mike intersection (where the Argentinas Airbus was crossing) was 1,166 meters (3,826 feet).

Initial reports said that the Argentinas flight had been told to hold at the active runway and then crossed anyway. In fact, the UTair flight crew specifically said that they heard air traffic control instruct the Argentinas Airbus to wait for the UTair aircraft to land before crossing the order. Siberian Times quoted First Officer Kirill Kuzmin:

‘Before getting close to the runway we heard the air traffic controller’s command allowing Argentinians to cross the runway after we had landed.

‘The Argentinians repeated the comment which meant that they heard and accepted it.

‘But then suddenly – and without a clear reason – the Argentinians got onto the runway just as our altitude was going below 100 metres.’

AENA (Aeropuertos Españoles y Navegación Aérea) who operate the airport and the air traffic control at Barcelona, initially stated that there was sufficient separation and that UTair could have continued the landing without issue.

However at less than 20 seconds from touchdown and apparently about 40 seconds laterally from the Argentinas Airbus, it seems pretty obvious that aborting the landing was the only sane decision.

AENA stated that no safety report was filed and that both aircraft were where they should have been. A go-around doesn’t necessarily rate a safety report. At London Heathrow in 2010, there were 551 go-arounds, 0.24% of the total arrivals, often because the previously landing aircraft has not vacated the runway in the expected time.

The following day, CIAIAC (Comisión de Investigación de Accidentes e Incidentes de Aviación Civil), Spain’s aviation authority, announced that an investigation into the occurrence had been opened. The provisional information is on their website.

AENA’s statement that both aircraft were where they should be implies that UTair was cleared for landing and Argentinas were cleared to cross the active runway. A look at the Barcelona chart shows that the route that the Argentinas Airbus was taking would lead it to cross Runway 02 three times in order to get to Runway 25R.

An unverified account of the sequence of events has been posted to aviation forums and is supposedly an explanation as given by a Barcelona air traffic controller.

Airport was about to change from night configuration to day configuration. At night, runway 02 is used for landing and 07R for take-off, while during the day 25L becomes the take-off runway and 25R is used for landing (unless winds favor runways 07L/R).

Two of the three ground Air Traffic Controllers work in a smaller Tower located near the main Terminal (frequencies 121.65 and 122.225) while the other ground frequency (121.7), delivery and the two tower frequencies (118.1 and 119.1) are located in the main Tower. 121.65 (122.225 not used at night) cleared the Aerolineas Argentinas A340 to cross runway 02, which he thought was not active as he expected the airport to be in day configuration. Meanwhile, the UT Air Boeing 767 was cleared to land on the same runway by Tower (118.1).

Crossing the active runway usually requires some coordination between the two towers but this is not necessary in night configuration.

That is, this poster believes that the air traffic controller who cleared the Argentinas Airbus thought that Runway 02 was already inactive and thus didn’t need Tower clearance to cross. It’s certainly the case that Runway 02 is generally inactive during the day and thus can be crossed by the various taxi-ways without aircraft needing to hold. At night, specifically from 23:00 to 07:00 local time, Barcelona prefers to use Runway 02 for noise abatement reasons. The UTair flight landed 15 minutes after the go-around, at 07:06 local time.

Under normal circumstances, an aircraft would always speak to the tower before crossing an active runway, as Tower is responsible for coordinating the landing and departing traffic. Having listened to the Tower frequency at LiveATC, UTAir flight 5187 is clearly on the channel (and told clear to land) but Argentinas flight 1163 is not.

So the anonymous posting sounds feasible, although we will need to wait for a final report from the Spanish aviation authority to find out exactly what happened.

04 July 2014

Reconsidering the Cause of TWA Flight 800

TWA flight 800, a Boeing 747 that exploded shortly after take-off, was one of the most expensive investigations ever.

On the 17th of July in 1996, TWA flight 800 had just departed New York for a scheduled passenger flight to Paris when tragedy struck.

The moments before the crash were recovered from the cockpit voice recorder. The air traffic controller asked the pilots to maintain FL130 (13,000 feet). The Captain said, “Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four … see that?” The air traffic controller then cleared the flight to climb to and maintain FL150 (15,000 feet). A crew member selected climb thrust and a loud sound was recorded before the CVR stopped.

Forty seconds later, the captain of a Boeing 737 reported that he had just seen an explosion up ahead.

The aircraft had disintegrated fourteen minutes into the flight at 13,800 feet. The wreckage crashed into the sea off the coast of Long Island.

Initially, it was believed that the aircraft was the target of a terrorist attack which meant that there was both an FBI investigation and an NTSB investigation. There were 19 teams in the NTSB investigation, making it the largest air-crash investigation in U.S. history.

The debris was scattered across 150 square miles of ocean. US Navy salvage divers retrieved hundreds of thousands of aircraft fragments and the wreckage recovery alone took nine months. Despite the difficulties, 95% of the aircraft and its contents were salvaged from the ocean, including pieces as small as a coin. Investigators were now faced with a the incredible task of assembling these fragments into the original fuselage, a monumentally difficult but critically important jigsaw puzzle.

It was this reconstruction and the detailed analysis that led to the eventual investigation conclusion, as it showed that investigators needed to focus on the centre of the aircraft, especially the centre fuel tank. This small section of the aircraft had broken into 700 pieces and these fragments, as well as the locations where they been found, pointed towards an explosion inside the tank. The locations where the pieces of the aircraft had been found bore out this conclusion: the centre section was found closest to the flight path as the fuel tank and the area around it disintegrated. The nose then fell into the ocean while the rear half of the aircraft with the wings continued forward with the momentum of the flight.

The key question then was how it happened, as fuel-tanks don’t normally explode. The NTSB asked for help from Caltech’s explosion-dynamics lab to investigate this.

Now, in order to have a flame, you’ve got to have three things. One, you need fuel—in this case, the little bit of aviation-grade kerosene, called Jet A, that was left over when the flight arrived at JFK from Athens. The 747 is a marvelous airplane that can fly all the way from New York to Paris, with just the fuel in its wings. Airliners don’t like to carry around extra fuel, which is weight that could be used for more passengers, so they didn’t refill the center tank when they refueled at JFK. Two, you’ve got to have air. Well, the tank was full of air, except for about 50 gallons of kerosene lying on the floor of this 13,000 gallon tank—a layer maybe three-sixteenths of an inch deep. And three, you need some source of ignition.

But to get an explosion, you need fuel vapor. If you set liquid fuel on fire, you’ll just get a puddle of burning fuel. This is not something you want in an aircraft, but it’s not going to cause an explosion. So how do we get vaporized fuel? Well, July 17 was a hot day, and there’s a set of air-conditioning units that sit underneath the tank. As the air conditioners run, the heat from the machinery could have seeped upward and heated the fuel, causing some of it to evaporate. So now we have fuel vapor and air, and if we have ignition, we can possibly have an explosion.

Learning from a Tragedy: Explosions and Flight 800—Engineering & Science no. 2 1998

Caltech did research tests that showed that at 13,800 feet, with the dropping air pressure increasing the amount of vapour in the tank, the amount of energy needed to ignite the Jet A fuel was much less and that the temperature itself would rise more quickly in an almost empty tank. This meant that a very small spark would be enough to ignite the fuel tank. The next mystery was what had caused the spark. The cockpit voice recorder showed two “dropouts of background power harmonics” in the second before the recording ended, which were consistent with an arc on cockpit wiring. This, in combination with the Captain’s comment on the “crazy readings”, mean that a short circuit from damaged wiring was extremely likely. The Fuel Quantity Indication System is in the tank and although the voltages and currents used by the system are kept very low, the wiring is located within the centre tank.

Four years after the accident, the most extensive NTSB investigation ever held in the US was concluded with a final report in August, 2000. The report stated that the most likely cause of the explosion was a short circuit involving the Fuel Quantity Indication System which allowed a very small electrical spark to ignite the fuel in the centre tank. The low amount of fuel in the tank and the low air pressure affected the vapour-to-air ratio in the tank and the temperature of the tank was provably higher than expected as a result of the air conditioning and again the lack of fuel in the tank to soak up the heat. After years of costly investigation, they concluded that the flammable fuel vapours ignited and exploded, taking TWA flight 800 with it.

But the documentary group TWA 800 Project think that they are wrong.

In 2013, TWA 800 Project launched a website and documentary to argue that that the official investigation had been handled incorrectly seventeen years before.

According to the website, an investigator on the case was extremely unhappy with the investigation. He attempted to report this to his superiors, but was threatened with being kicked off the investigation and worse. The website says that the whistleblowers from the NTSB, TWA and the Air Line Pilots Association who submitted evidence for the documentary could not come forward until they had retired and were able to avoid retaliation.

In “TWA Flight 800” whistleblower and senior aviation accident investigator at the time Hank Hughes talks about bringing serious problems with the investigation to the attention of then-Investigator in Charge, Mr. Al Dickinson of the NTSB, with no results. Finally, on May 10, 1999 Hank Hughes, under whistleblower protection, appeared before a senate judiciary committee to detail a long list of serious problems with the TWA Flight 800 investigation, including informing the committee that “chemical swabbing wasn’t done on an ongoing basis,…ERT [Evidence Recovery Team (FBI)] qualification in basic forensics [was] very limited.” Hughes also informed the Senate of an incident where he caught an FBI agent hammering on a piece of wreckage in an attempt to flatten it.

The petition was submitted amidst the publicity of the documentary and alleges that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a proximity fused missile, a possibility they claim was not considered by the NTSB in their investigation.

Where an accident warrants an investigation and report, the NTSB is mandated to offer detailed narrative accident report, which includes the facts, conditions and circumstances of the accident as well as probable cause and appropriate recommendations.

A petition for reconsideration or modification of the NTSB’s findings, especially when it comes to the probable cause, can be filed by a party to the investigation or a person with a direct interest. The petition must be based on new evidence or be able to show that the Board’s findings were not correct.

The petition claims that new analyses and evidence demonstrate that a detonation or high-velocity explosion caused the crash.

The new evidence put forward included:

  • Two new analyses of FAA radar data
  • Twenty FBI eyewitness interview summaries apparently not previously available
  • Analysis of “spike-tooth” fractures found in multiple locations
  • Evidence of explosive residue

The petitioners claim that the radar evidence shows that there was a powerful and sideways projected explosion which occurred simultaneously with the loss of electrical power, which is not accounted for in the NTSB analysis. The petitioners also claim that the witness statements describe a firework or streak of light which they believe is more consistent with a high-velocity explosion, rather than the low-velocity fuel-air explosion that the NTSB determined.

The primary interest here is of course that a senior investigator on the case is a part of the petition to re-open the investigation. Hank Hughes was assigned as the Survival Factors Specialist on the NTSB’s Go-Team responding to the crash.

He claims that the investigation was “egregiously conducted” because of the FBI involvement. The FBI took control of the investigation at the start because based on eyewitness accounts, they believed that the aircraft may have been shot down by a missile strike: intriguingly exactly what the petition is trying to prove.

The NTSB allowed the FBI to virtually commandeer the NTSB’s investigation, permitting the FBI to determine who would and who would not have access to the evidence. As a result, from the beginning of the wreckage/evidence recovery effort, the FBI, an agency with virtually no aviation accident investigation expertise, with an Evidence Recovery Team so inexperienced that I was asked to give them a crash course on the subject several weeks into the investigation, had virtually complete control of the critical initial evidence handling phase, even to the point of refusing NTSB investigators access to key wreckage and other hard evidence. The FBI, critically, also refused to allow NTSB investigators to interview eyewitnesses for months after the crash. FBI interviews and recording methods were, per the NTSB’s standards, neither thorough nor reliable.

The cost to the investigation in terms of preserving evidence and getting thorough eyewitness accounts was incalculable. From the beginning to the end of the FBI’s participation in the Flight 800 investigation, the NTSB consistently violated previously mentioned regulations pertaining to continuing its own investigation according to normal NTSB procedures and working with the FBI to ensure that “evidence of the criminal act” was properly preserved.

It’s difficult to understand how the FBI’s interference in trying to prove a criminal act directly led to the investigation concluding — according to Hank Hughes, wrongly — that no criminal act occurred.

The NTSB assembled a team of investigators not previously associated with the original investigation to consider the petition. This week, the NTSB put forward an official response as a result of this investigation.

They determined that the petition advanced two claims which the NTSB could consider under to reopen the case. One was the radar evidence, which the NTSB says included no new data but simply a different analysis focused on the petitioners’ alternative explanation of the crash.

The petitioners apply various calculations to primary radar returns recorded by one facility after the time of the explosion. However, they overestimated the accuracy with which the radar could determine the position of the airborne object.

As a result, they tried to make calculations of speed and distance that were not meaningful, and the conclusions they drew were unsupported.

In addition, the NTSB notes that no radar data from any site showed an object, such as a missile, traveling toward or intercepting the airplane’s track.

The second was the twenty witness summaries obtained from the FBI, which the NTSB treated as new evidence. Project TWA 800 claimed that the summaries did not match the conclusions drawn by the NTSB in their final report and that the NTSB must revise finding 8 in the report which stated that the streaks of light which witnesses reported seeing were not related to a missile. The NTSB considered the witness summaries but stated that they contained no new unique vantage points nor information.

Of the 20 summaries, 8 include mention of a light ascending in the sky, and 3 of those 8 indicated that the light came from the ground, horizon, or ocean (5 of the 8 did not provide a point of origin). The NTSB’s final report discusses statements from 736 witnesses, 258 of whom saw a streak of light. Of those 258 witnesses, 25 indicated that the streak of light originated from the surface or the horizon. When the 20 new summaries (8 of which described a streak of light ascending, 3 of those 8 described a surface or horizon point of origin) are considered as new, unique witnesses, the percentage of witnesses who saw a streak becomes 35.2 percent (originally 35 percent) and the percentage who saw the streak originate at the surface or horizon becomes 10.5 percent (originally 9.7 percent).

As a result of their investigation, yesterday the NTSB officially denied the petition for reconsideration in its entirety.

The original investigation looked for evidence of fragments from a missile warhead and found none. Further, the damage patterns within the airplane were consistent with a center wing tank explosion. Lastly, the distribution of debris was also consistent with an in-flight breakup started by a fuel-air explosion within the center wing tank.

Ultimately, the petitioners did not show that the NTSB’s conclusion or determination of probable cause were wrong.

You can read the entire response from the NTSB here: Response to Petition for Reconsideration.

It’s difficult for me to understand why the FBI and the NTSB would enter a conspiracy to cover up the very theory that the FBI set out to prove from the onset. Having read through the Project TWA 800 website as well as the NTSB TWA 800 website, I’m inclined to believe that the most expensive investigation of its time was focused on determining the truth, although some (most?) of them believed from the start that it was a criminal act. After four years, the investigation discovered the truth, which was more convoluted and complicated than the simplistic terrorist theory. It’s hardly surprising that some of those involved with the investigation at the time are still disappointed that they were wrong.

27 June 2014

Project Habu: Thirty SR-71 Blackbirds in Photographs

The Lockheed SR-71 has broken every speed and altitude record held by aircraft: faster than a speeding bullet and able to fly in the top 1% of our atmosphere.

The jet was designed in the 1960s, at the peak of the Cold War, as a reconnaissance jet that could operate at high speeds (Mach 3.5+) and altitudes (80,000 feet) which would allow it to out-race any other aircraft and even out-fly surface-to-air missiles.

The pilots have to wear pressurised flight suits to maintain consciousness at the high altitudes. At full velocity, the SR71′s surface temperature can exceed 260°C (500 °F). The fuselages were originally painted dark blue to increase internal heat emission and to act as camouflage against the night sky, leading to the nickname Blackbird.

This special paint, along with the slender shape of the jet, gave the aircraft an incredibly low radar signature. When the SR-71 was deployed in Okinawa, they called it Habu after an indigenous pit viper of the same narrow shape.

Lockheed built a total of thirty-two SR-71s: an amazing but expensive military fleet which was initially retired in 1989. The SR-71 program was reactivated in 1993 but the cost of maintaining the fleet was untenable and the aircraft were again retired in 1998, this time for good.

There are now thirty SR-71s left…and Curt Mason aims to photograph every single one of them.

Since before I can remember, my parents and grandparents bombarded my life with passion for aircraft, space travel and the beauty in science as a whole. And before I can remember, the Blackbird, above all else, was my favorite aircraft. My childhood was constantly filled with trips to air museums, airshows and airports. I took my first orientation flight lesson at the age of nine, or as my grandfather said “as soon as I could reach the pedals”. I went to flight school in my late teens, and flew my first solo flight at the age of seventeen.

Another lifelong passion of mine is photography. All I’ve ever wanted to do is take pictures, so much so that 100% of my income now derives from photography. I spend nearly all of my free time practicing and studying photography. Through my studies, I stumbled upon the work of QT Luong, a photographer who captured all 58 American National Parks with a large format film camera, a feat which no one else has yet performed. I was amazed at his project, and after a little organization, I discovered that I’ve visited eight of the thirty A-12 and SR-71 aircraft around the world, and photographed five of them. Instantly, it became a goal of mine to photograph all of these beautiful aircraft. Here, I will chronicle my thoughts and stories along this journey, as well as share the photographs I take of these beautiful birds.

I immediately fell in love with the project. I have a soft-spot for the SR-71 anyway (doesn’t everyone?) but Curt’s excellent photography of the displayed aircraft gives angles and perspectives that are new.

As a young child, my father would point toward the Moon and tell me “That’s the Moon. It’s a place. You can go there.” This shaped the way I view the visible universe today. Growing up in rural Idaho, in a town with a population of 250 people, I was blessed with minimal light pollution. Every night, I came home from work, parked in my driveway, and walked to the doorstep of my small, one-room log cabin nestled in the heart of the Teton Mountain range. As I walked, if I wasn’t distracted by dodging a rogue elk or grizzly bear, I would up to see the Milky Way, the Moon, planets and stars. I became as familiar with that view as my back yard.

When some people look at a star they think, “That’s way over there, and I’m over here.” Not me. Remember, when you view a star, that’s what we, our solar system, looks like from over there.

When I contacted Curt, he had photographed eight SR-71s for the project and was heading to Barksdale Air Force Base to photograph his ninth: SR71A#17967 on display at the 8th Air Force Museum. I asked him about how easy it was to gain access to the aircraft and the control centres that he photographs.

I am extremely proud of NASA. One of the big reasons is their accessibility to the public! When they have an opportunity to share something historic, they do it! I recently spent a week at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. My main focus was photographing for the project, but it was actually just an excuse to visit one of the coolest places on the planet, in my biased opinion. I wanted to thoroughly photograph every inch of what was accessible to the public, so I took their three bus tours, which take you to various historic sites. You’re currently allowed to visit Shuttle Launch Control and Mercury-Redstone Launch Control via bus tour. Apollo Launch Control and Mercury Mission Control have been relocated inside the museum portion of the facility, so you don’t even have to take a special tour to see them! There are railings and glass in the way of most of these displays, but I try to immerse my viewer reducing distracting reflections or barriers from the photographs. I want people to feel like they were there. I also photographed the International Space Station Payload Operations Center at Marshall Space Flight Center, which was constructed with these tours in mind. The control room has one wall made entirely made of glass so the tour group can view the controllers on the job. This is why I love NASA. We get to see lots of their cool stuff, and I get a lot of good practice photographing through glass! Most of my Kennedy Space Center coverage has not been shared yet, so look for that coming down the barrel soon!

I asked if he’d told them his plan to photograph every surviving SR-71.

I don’t believe NASA is yet aware of my project. When I visit their facilities, I often meet museum guides who share my enthusiasm for space flight. I always take the time to talk to them and learn their stories. The majority of these individuals are former NASA employees/engineers. I do my best to share the blog with these individuals. So, I know that some NASA folks have seen the blog, but I haven’t officially approached them about anything. I really should. They’re very supportive of anyone who spreads their message through social media.

I have exchanged emails with a few Blackbird pilots, but I have not met any in person; however, I have a dear friend who got many hours of back-seat time as a passenger in many different versions of the aircraft. I’ve also met several members of the Roadrunners Organization, who are dedicated to keeping the legacy of the aircraft alive. Most of them worked directly with the aircraft during its operational days. My closest personal connection to the Blackbird would be my Grandfather, who was a Skunk Works Engineer for 40 years. He told me that he was busy with another project during the creation of the Blackbird, but some small pieces of his engineering were included in the design.

Curt comes from an aviation family and is also an avid pilot. Most recently, he’s explored soaring in the Blanik L-23, aerobatics in an Extra 300l and kitboarding using a ram-air parafoil kite. “Kiteboarding is less pressure,” he told me, “but the view isn’t nearly as good.”

I asked him about his first solo flight:

I was 17. I traveled to my local airport, KDIJ in Driggs, Idaho for what I thought would be a normal flight lesson. I met with my instructor, pre-flighted the aircraft, and started a typical lesson with my instructor in the right-hand seat. We flew several patterns. I was really on my game that day, making some nice smooth landings. And it was a good thing, too, because my instructor had a very serious, almost militant attitude in the aircraft. This was not typical. He was normally a pretty relaxed guy. I continued to fly as precisely as possible. At one point, after our fourth or fifth go-around, we were rolling on the runway. I began to push the throttle in to perform another touch-and-go when my instructor reached over, grabbed the throttle, pulled it to idle and roughly said, “Park the aircraft. I’m done.”

My heart sank. I looked at my wristwatch, which showed that we were only half way through our lesson time. I thought I had done something wrong. I silently taxied the aircraft to its parking spot, stopped, and shut her down. We disembarked the aircraft, and at that point I learned that I was about to solo. I don’t remember exactly how this was communicated to me, probably because I was so shocked and excited. I remember a pep talk. He told me to stay ahead of the aircraft, “because whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” With that weighing on my mind, I powered my 172 back up. Suddenly, I realized that this was my bird. For the first time, I was all alone. I was pilot in command. As I taxied to the runway I’d never felt more invigorated. I was ready. I made my radio call, “Driggs traffic, Skyhawk Eight-Zero-Eight-Niner-Echo, taking off, Two-One, Driggs.” I don’t recall much until my first climb-out. I was climbing fast without the extra weight of the flight instructor. I took off, did two touch-and-goes, and finally landed, all while excitedly shouting my various checklists procedures at the top of my lungs as I performed them. Of course, every time I keyed the mic to make radio calls, my excited voice swapped to that calm, cool, collected pilot voice that we know all too well. My flight may not have exceeded more than 1,000 AGL, but I was higher than a Blackbird pilot at 95,000 feet. I’ve never been more excited in my life. And nobody knew it but me, all alone in my little plane overflying our sleepy mountain town.

He’s always had a camera in his pocket but didn’t start studying photography until a few years ago. He has a separate Tumblr dedicated to photographs taken with his phone: Lookit This Photograph. He used the limitations of the cell phone camera to focus his learning on composition, perspective and framing.

I devoted all of my free time to studying and practicing photography. During this period, I was going through a bout of working dead-end jobs. I decided that I wanted to try to make money with a camera in my hands. I started applying at different portrait studios, and was eventually hired! This helped me build confidence in working communicating with customers with regards to photography. Since then, I’ve started some freelance work, and I’m about to relocate to California to start a serious photography business with a close friend who just got out of film school. It’s all very scary and exciting, but if I never take the risk, I’ll never get anywhere. I’m packing for my move as I write this text!

Last week, Curt photographed his ninth aircraft at Barksdale Air Force Base and then went on to Dallas, Texas to photograph the SR-71 simulator at the Frontiers of Flight Museum there.

#17967 flew for NASA, performing experimental research flights, along with four remaining Blackbirds, until 1999, when those four aircraft were transferred to museums. Of that group, this bird was the first to retire, with a total of 2765.5 hours of flight time. But, she didn’t move to the museum immediately. Instead, she sat in a hangar at Dryden until 2003, while the museum raised money for transportation of the aircraft. She was the last Blackbird aircraft to be transported from her base to a museum, finally resting here on December 17, 2003. She wears the paint scheme that was current when the Air Force last flew the Blackbird aircraft.

Head straight over to Curt’s Project Habu website to see the latest photographs including shots inside the engine nacelle: Project Habu Jun. 23 2014

You can also follow him on his new Twitter account to make sure you get notified when he updates the project website: Project Habu on Twitter

Project Habu a great mixture of photography, history, personal stories and random diversions. I’m sure you’ll find his site as fascinating as I did.

20 June 2014

Landing in a Corn Field

I’ve been browsing old photographs again, and found an amazing pair of a Lockheed Constellation from 1951.

The Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the “Connie” is an easy aircraft to recognise. The propeller-driven aircraft with four 18-cylinder engines was described by Popular Mechanics Magazine in 1943 as resembling a great winged shark:

Popular Mechanics , June 1943, The Flying Shark

The civilian aircraft warning observer wore a puzzled frown as he reached for the telephone. “Army Flash!” he barked, “One big four-motored plane bound east. Looks like a shark with a P-38 wing and a triple tail, and is going like sixty! Not on my identification chart!” The observer had spotted the first flight of Lockheed’s big “Constellation” and his description was pretty accurate. The plane’s fuselage is cambered like an airfoil section, giving it a shark-like appearance. Its down-dipping nose caused Lockheed employees to name it unofficially “Old Loop Snoot.”

Lockheed were working on a four-engined pressurised aircraft when TWA requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner. Their requirements led to the L-049 Constellation and, at the start of World War II, the TWA aircraft were converted to military transport aircraft. In 1952, Eisenhower fell in love with the “smooth-sailing” of the Constellation and used it for his campaign and presidential travel. A year later, the aircraft’s call sign was officially changed to Air Force One, the first aircraft to ever use that call-sign. Its cabin, with a desk and long sofa-beds, became the design template for all future Air Force One interiors.

A total of 856 Lockheed Constellations were produced. Today, only nine Constellations and Super Constellations are still considered airworthy.

This is N548GF when it was flown in to Chino Airport in 2012 for display at the Yanks Air Museum:

But today I’m interested in N119A, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation that landed in a cornfield.

On the 19th of July in 1951 at 14:15, Eastern Airlines flight 601 departed Newark, NJ for a scheduled flight to Miami. It was overhead Philadelphia at the cruising altitude of 18,000 feet when the flight encountered turbulence.

ASN Aircraft accident Lockheed L-749A Constellation N119A Curles Neck Farm, VA

For the next 25 to 30 minutes violent turbulence accompanied by intermittent periods of hail was encountered. The flight continued past Philadelphia for a few minutes toward Dover and then made a turn to the west in an attempt to avoid as much of the storm area as possible. The flight broke out in a clear area at about 15:17. The flight was able to continue VFR and descended to 8,000 feet. A second squall was encountered in the vicinity of Lynchburg at 15:50. The aircraft was slowed to 185 mph IAS, light turbulence and buffeting were experienced.

Although they were now clear of the storm, the buffeting became so severe that the flight crew was concerned that the aircraft was going to break up. They reduced the airspeed again and then the Captain declared an emergency as the aircraft descended. The Captain must have known the area, because he recognised Curles Neck Farm, a plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He selected the largest field and flew straight in with flaps up and the landing gear retracted: He didn’t dare change the flight configuration as he wasn’t sure what was causing the severe buffeting.

The First Officer and the flight engineer turned off everything as the nose of the aircraft touched the highest corn in the field. The right wing struck a power line pole at the edge of the corn field as the Connie flew under the wires. They then tore down a fence as the aircraft touched down. They skidded 1,100 feet through the field and through another fence and finally came to rest in a pasture.

There, they discovered that an access door had opened during the flight through the storm and was the cause of the violent buffeting.

Amazingly, the aircraft was fully repaired and put back into service with no ill effects. Sadly, a few years later it crashed after take-off from New York-Idlewild with 22 passengers on board. The Captain of that flight took off into drifting fog and lost perspective. The aircraft descended into the ground, killing everyone on board. The Lockheed L-794A Constellation was written off.

The photographs were taken by Adolph Rice who opened a commercial photography studio in Richmond in 1949. He and his son did commercial work ranging from studio portrait photography to aerial landscape shots. The studio closed down in 1961 and over 16,000 negatives were donated to the Library of Virginia. You can see highlights on Flickr: Adolph B. Rice Studio Collection and the full collection is searchable on the Library of Virginia’s website.

13 June 2014

Remote Control Boeing

In the aftermath of a mystery such as the disappearance of MH370, conspiracy theories always thrive. This one is a big one, as it involves multiple governments, corporate America and the US State Department. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was not diverted by anyone on board, according to this theory, but was taken over remotely. There are two primary variations. First, that the US Military interfered with the flight, jamming the frequencies as remote controls were used to turn the aircraft away from Vietnamese airspace to land in an unknown location. Second, that criminals have gained control of this technology which is pre-installed into aircraft all over the world. This group of unknown terrorists was able to hack into the secret system to gain control of the aircraft and divert it from its path, without anyone on board able to stop them.

A problem with this theory is that any theoretical remote control of the aircraft would not include the ability to turn off the ACARS, the transponder and the radio. There are fighter jets that carry the ability to jam military radar, such as the EA-18G Growler. However, it would take multiple Growlers to jam the Boeing 777′s signal as it continued on its diversion. This means that it wouldn’t have been terrorist hijackers, who would struggle to get a single military jet from the US Navy, let alone a contingent of them. This narrows the possibility to government military interventions by someone who has the technology but doesn’t have access to Boeing 777s, which doesn’t seem likely. Finally, air traffic controllers on the ground would at least be aware that there was interference, even if they didn’t recognise that the signal was being jammed. The Boeing would not simply vanish from the secondary radar systems.

Scientific American put it best:
How Do You Hide a Boeing 777? – Scientific American

Other theories imply that electronic warfare techniques—jamming, spoofing or degrading signals—might be involved in MH370’s disappearance. Such technologies can prevent enemy fire control radars from getting a fatal lock on aircraft, but they are not a David Copperfield magic trick. They don’t make planes disappear, especially not large commercial airliners, from the screens of air traffic control systems.

I have not yet found a verifiable description of how the assailants could have made the aircraft disappear before the diversion began. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll ignore this issue and focus on the idea of the remote control Boeing.

Obviously, it is possible to fly planes by remote control. Unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, are remotely piloted aircraft with no humans on board. The first known military usage of the UAV was 1849. The Austrians besieged Venice and then launched the first air raid in history. The Austrians filled hot air balloons with bombs set to go off in twenty-three minutes. They were then launched from a war steamer where the prevailing wind blew them over Venice. UAVs are used all around the world but they are generally custom designed. Boeing have designed twelve models for use as unmanned aircraft and have two high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs under development: the solar-electric Solar Eagle and the hydrogen powered Phantom Eye.

But that’s not the same thing as taking over a commercial aircraft meant to be controlled by an aircrew with assistance from a Flight Management System. In April 2013, Business Week published an expose to state that it was possible to hack into the flight management system of an aircraft using only an android. However, the FAA were swift to deny that there was any danger. The hacking technique described did not work on certified flight hardware and would not pose a flight safety concern. No aircraft has ever actually been hacked in such a way that it could be used to divert the aircraft without complicity from the flight crew. If someone were to attempt this, it would almost certainly be on the computer-intensive Airbus, not the Boeing with its higher reliance on manual inputs. Besides, if someone were to hack into the Flight Management System to take control of an aircraft, all the flight crew would need to do is turn it off and continue the flight without it. Right now, the technology to remotely take over some random flight management system against the will of the flight crew does not exist.

However, Boeing are definitely interested in developing the ability to take control of their aircraft remotely. In 2006, Boeing applied for the following patent:

Patent US7142971 – System and method for automatically controlling a path of travel of a vehicle

The method and system for automatically controlling a path of travel of a vehicle include engaging an automatic control system when the security of the onboard controls is jeopardized. Engagement may be automatic or manual from inside the vehicle or remotely via a communication link. Any onboard capability to supersede the automatic control system may then be disabled by disconnecting the onboard controls and/or providing uninterruptible power to the automatic control system via a path that does not include the onboard accessible power control element(s).

This system is specifically designed to protect the aircraft against a hijack. Since 9/11, the security of the flight deck has been much improved but the patent documentation explains that people are the weakest factor. The security door leading to the cockpit is still under human control and if one of the flight crew is tricked or threatened, a terrorist can still gain access. Armed guards or air marshals on flights may be overpowered or threatened. The pilot may allow access to the cockpit out of fear of harm to the passengers or crew.

[There is a need for] a technique that conclusively prevents unauthorized persons from gaining access to the controls of a vehicle and therefore threatening the safety of the passengers onboard the vehicle, and/or other people in the path of travel of the vehicle, thereby decreasing the amount of destruction individuals onboard the vehicle would be capable of causing. In particular, there is a need for a technique that ensures the continuation of the desired path of travel of a vehicle by removing any type of human decision process that may be influenced by the circumstances of the situation, including threats or further violence onboard the vehicle.

Here’s a key point: this patent is to protect the entire aircraft against trickery, coercion or threats of violence. It relies on being able to control the aircraft without human intervention of any kind. For example, under predetermined conditions such as an unexplained diversion from the flight plan, a signal is sent which sets an uninterruptable autopilot mode on the aircraft. The aircraft then follows pre-determined control commands to navigate away from populated areas and to a designated landing site where the aircraft would attempt an automatic landing. As described in the patent, the system would not allow someone on the ground or in another aircraft to take control of the aircraft and send it to a new location – the most they could do is set off the emergency evasive manoeuvre to follow the preset pattern.

Another point: this is a patent. The theory goes that the technology not only exists but that Boeing have secretly been putting this system into place in aircraft all over the world. Could this remote-control technology be included in every aircraft? Well, from a commercial point of view, it seems a bit spurious. I can certainly imagine the US military wanting these controls put into aircraft, making it impossible to take control of an aircraft through threats of violence. And yes, I am absolutely convinced that there are aspects of the War on Terror which are not publicly known.

And yet, I find it hard to believe a conspiracy of this magnitude. Boeing’s financial situation is based on the fact that they are selling aircraft to airlines all over the world. Would they really risk ceding the entire international market to Airbus by inserting this technology against the will of their customers? And is it reasonable to believe that not a single engineer or maintenance company would have noticed these additional systems in place which were undeclared and undocumented?

The main argument in favour of this on websites which are presenting the remote control Boeing scenario as likely is the Boeing controversy over the QRS-11 chip.

Here’s an example of the conspiracist explanation:

Are Boeing fitting their aircraft with illegal devices that could enable terrorists to remotely hijack airliners and crash them into high profile targets? In light of what happened on 9/11, Boeing’s blanket denial that this practice has taken place is both highly suspicious and a threat to national security . . .

According to the Seattle Times, “The QRS-11 chip, made by a unit of BEI Technologies in Concord, Calif., is just over 1-½ inches in diameter and weighs about 2 ounces. It sells for between $1,000 and $2,000. Described as “a gyro on a chip,” it is used to help control the flight of missiles and aircraft.” . . .

Recent newspaper reports discussing these devices and the policy to have them in all airliners within three years assure us that they would prevent another 9/11 style outrage – but because anysuch system is vulnerable to hacking allied with the fact that pilots have no way of overriding the autopilot, not even with secure access codes, this only increases the chances of another 9/11 style attack.

One frustrating aspect of these types of theories is that bizarre conclusions are twisted into half-truths in such a way that it isn’t immediately obvious what is true and what is not. Quoted in the Seattle Times, and every other reputable source about the QRS-11 chip controversy, is that the US State Department wanted to stop the aircraft being installed with this chip, as opposed to having a policy to secretly install them into all airliners.

So the factual part of this explanation is that the QRS-11 Gyrochip exists, it is well-documented, it is not a secret and that there was controversy. But it was quite the opposite of “secretly installing it into aircraft sold overseas”.

The QRS-11 is a coin-sized guidance chip used as a part of a commercial navigation system made by French company, Thales. These navigation systems are used by Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and other aircraft makers.

The US state department fears that the QRS-11 chip could be used in Chinese guided missiles, although the chip was not developed for military applications but was designed as a commercial product. It has been used within some military missile systems because the technology is extremely affordable. Thus, the QRS-11 chip was determined a munitions item, which require a specific presidential waiver from the White House for commercial export to China.

US State department then brought charges that Boeing had embedded the chip in 96 planes sold to Beijing, without the permission of the US State Department. Boeing fought back. “[The gyrochip] is a low-value card that they could find other ways to buy,” he said. “If they want to buy a 737 to pull that part out, I’d love them to buy more 737s.”

Boeing and Airbus continue to sell the chip as a part of their instrument boxes – there’s no secret about it – and Boeing argues that the fines and sanctions in this instant are the overzealous application export controls that threatened to derail overseas sales. That is to say, they rank their position in the global marketplace over US State department sanctions. There’s no question that this chip is being secretly installed in order to gain remote control of aircraft to avoid another 9/11 scenario. The QRS-11 chip is a complete red herring.

If the system exists at all, it is undocumented. Then we still have to presume either that a terrorist group has access to top secret US technology and military aircraft (and yet wants control of a Boeing 777 for nefarious purposes) or that the US has taken the aircraft for unknown reasons, willing to brave an international scandal in order for secret reasons. Without any sort of identifiable motive, I find both of these scenarios hard to believe.

Finally, there’s a question of timing. The Boeing patent for this system was put forward in 2006. The Boeing 777 in question, NM-MRO, was delivered new to Malaysia Airlines in May 2002. Even if one believes the theory that after 9/11, the US State Department started an initiative to install remote control capabilities into every commercial aircraft, the aircraft predates the patent by four years. Even if the technology were a reality, it would not yet have been installed to NM-MRO.

Effectively, in order to believe that remote control abduction of the Boeing 777 explains the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, you must accept multiple conspiracies and accept that most everything we know about commercial airliner technology is wrong. It’s not impossible but I find it highly improbable.


This is an update to my book The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which offers a detailed analysis of the flight and disappearance of MH370. If you are interested in reading more, you can buy it here.

06 June 2014

In the News – The Facts Behind This Week’s Headlines

This has been an odd week in aviation news. Here’s some of the background on the headlines.

Passenger Lands Plane!

The First Officer landed the plane, not the passenger. Still, she must have been thrilled that there was a qualified pilot on board to help her with the checklists and the radio.

Local USAF pilot helps in airline emergency

Gongol, his wife and daughter were on the way from Des Moines International Airport Dec. 30, with 151 other passengers and six crewmembers, after spending the holidays with his family. To him and his family, the day was just like any other, except for a short flight delay due to weather.

Approximately 30 minutes into the flight, Gongol, a B-1B Lancer pilot, noticed the engines power down to idle. The thoughts immediately started jumping through his head; there were a variety of reasons why the engines would shut down to idle, none of them categorized as normal. Slowly, the aircraft began to descend and turn right.

“Over the public address system; a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane,” said Gongol. “A few more calls went out for medical professionals and the flight attendants were all hurrying to first class with their beverage carts and a first-aid kit.”

At that moment, Gongol thought it was a medical emergency with a first class passenger, his instincts told him to stay seated and stay out of the way. A fourth call went out, “are there any non-revenue pilots on board, please ring your call button.” Immediately, Gongol realized the pilot was the patient. He looked to his wife; as she gave him a nod, Gongol pressed his button and headed toward the flight deck.

Apparently the most stressful issue was taxi-ing: It was her first time at Omaha airport and she had never taxied a 737 before.

Plane Lands on Sunbather

This was published by German tabloid Bild with a video clip of a low approach over the beach coming into Helgoland, a popular German tourist resort. To be fair, the original piece does not mention sunbathing.

Breathtaking video – Plane at Helgoland almost lands on Holiday Maker!

The Piper Archer (lovely plane!) is shown on final approach coming in way too low. The man in the video wasn’t sunbathing, he was walking along the beach. He flung himself onto the sand when he saw it flying at him. You can see that he makes himself as flat as possible before the aircraft flies over him and takes out the fence.

The pilot commented after the event:

In my defence I can say that I didn’t see him because he was lying down and I’m just very grateful it worked out well and I didn’t land on him. I don’t want to say any more than that. I fear I will be in for a fine from the Federal Aviation Office but I hope I will be able to keep my licence.

Who Forgot to Set the Parking Brake?

A Ryanair Boeing 737 rolled into the garage of the fire station at Rome-Ciampino Airport on Thursday.

Ryanair Boeing 738 suffers severe damage hours ago at CIA (Rome-Ciampino Airport) | Ryanair News

Ryanair B737 damaged is registration EI-DLI The details are still unclear but according to Italian news the aircraft rolled into an adjacent building causing significant damage to the horizontal stabiliser. It is understood that there was no one onboard at the time and no injuries have been reported. Yesterday all ground handling staff at CIA airport were on strike and all flights into and out of CIA airport were cancelled therefore it is unlikely any Pilots were on or near the aircraft.

Ryanair had cancelled forty flights as a result of the unexpected strike by staff at their ground handling agent at Rome-Ciampino and Rome-Fiumicino, Groundcare, offering a refund or a rebooking to their customers.

Someone at the airport anonymously described the event for the Daily Mail.

It was surreal to watch. This big heavy jet just started to roll backwards gathering speed until it crashed into the garage of the airport fire station.

The whole thing only lasted a matter of seconds but the noise as it smashed into the building was terrific. It was grinding metal and the damage was quite severe.

The guttering on the building was ripped off and wires and bits of metal were hanging off the plane.

The Daily Mail goes on to state that a criminal investigation is underway at Rome-Ciampino airport to discover what happened.

According to a poster on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, the chocks were not in place. No comment was made as to the state of the parking brake. It seems likely that some heads are going to roll.

So, that’s this week’s headlines!

30 May 2014

Fly by Night

I’m back from California (I didn’t win) and still trying to get into the swing of things, let alone sleeping on the right timezone. So for this week, here’s a piece I wrote some years ago. A version of this piece was published in Piper Flyer.


Fly by Night

Flying feels different in the dark.

Sitting in a commercial plane, looking at the black outside the window, the viewpoint strikes me as so completely alien. During the day, I look out at cities and farmland and lakes and railway lines: they are real, they look normal. At night, it all changes: the twinkly lights almost mirror a desert night sky. There’s a sheen of unreality, an otherworldliness. It is harder to imagine the commuter and the tractor and the holiday makers and the train engineers when I look down at the lights below. The dimply-lit air conditioned world inside the jet is a distinct place, a separate world suspended between ground and sky. As I sip my gin and tonic, I imagine we are in orbit rather than just flying from Luton to Málaga on the late night flight.

Or maybe I shouldn’t read science fiction novels while I wait for boarding to start.

The first time Cliff flew the Saratoga at night I was at home, pacing. I was a wreck. Would he find the airport? If he accidentally flew out to sea, how would he notice? What if he flew into a mountain? How can you tell the difference between the black of the mountain and the black of the sea, anyway? It seemed terribly dangerous, flying at night.

It wasn’t until he got his IFR licence that I relaxed … until the day came which my regular readers will already have anticipated: he asked me why I didn’t go and get my night rating as well.

In the UK, if you wish to fly at night you have to have a separate rating. Unlike the US, the training for the Private Pilot Licence carries no requirement at all for flying on instruments. You can’t complete a night rating as a part of your PPL: first you must have a minimum of 50 flying hours. 20 of those hours must be as Pilot in Command and 10 must be post-qualification. It’s not a particularly onerous requirement. They simply wish you to be comfortable with basic flying before learning a new viewpoint.

I had just reached 100 hours as Pilot of Command so my hours was not an issue. Getting the night rating wasn’t a priority for me: my home airfield of Málaga doesn’t allow VFR at night. Most of my flying is in the summer and the UK is far enough north that even South East England has sunsets around 9pm, long after I’ve left the airfield and gone out for a beer.

I had considered doing some instrument training but at a very basic level, I was resisting actually doing it. The amount of theory was intimidating. I didn’t like the idea of trying to land with a hood on. Also, flying by instruments felt a bit like cheating, looking inside instead of out, relying on machines to tell me what to do. I was afraid it might be difficult to tell the difference between the cockpit and Microsoft Flight Simulator. And my biggest fear: If I knew the plane could fly better than me, then why was I flying at all? It seemed better to avoid the existential questions along with the instrument rating.

On the other hand, I had pushed a lot of limits recently and it seemed time to move onto the next step. The night rating doesn’t need a heavy time/training commitment and could come in useful at some point. Flying with an instructor again would also catch some of the lazy habits I had no doubt fallen into. I had recently been made uncomfortably aware of how difficult I found it to fly the plane without relying on the auto-pilot, so a refresher was definitely in order. I decided I would get the rating.

I started with home study. Well, I watched out the window on late-night British Airways flights to Málaga, trying to identify the runway from the distance. This isn’t particularly a challenge: the runway is perpendicular to the coast and all 10,500 metres of it is surrounded by bright lights. Honestly, if you can’t find Málaga airfield at night, you may as well throw in the towel right now.

But it was interesting to think of it as a navigation exercise, trying to recognize the cities along the route that I knew from my own flying in the area, without the ridges and rivers and lakes that I was used to. The simple route that I flew often as a passenger and fairly regularly as a pilot looked completely cold and foreign. My map was useless. Why, I wondered, don’t they do separate night maps, showing the clusters of city lighting and the blackouts of the uninhabited areas, like a light box toy or the maps of the heavens. Approximate blobs for concentrated lights and dotted lines for the highways with the blackest of blacks for the water would make navigation much easier.

Still, fear of the ground hadn’t stopped me yet, this was just ground that I couldn’t see. Perhaps better not to think about that.

A major issue when planning lessons is the timing. The weather in the winter is prohibitive for VFR flying and the sunsets in the main flying months are after the majority of airfields have shut for the day. In July and August, it is light until 9pm, long after the flying instructors have all been tucked into their beds.

November in England isn’t known for its clear starry nights, but with sunset before dinner it meant I should get a decent amount of flying whenever the evening was clear. I got in touch with Albert, a helpful and patient instructor who I had flown with before, and booked five evenings to allow for a couple of nights of cancellations.

Albert chose to train me in a plane he knew well, a darling TB10. I immediately fell in love with the two seater. It was a friendly, light plane that seemed eager to please; not something I’d ever say about the Saratoga!

We started with basic day-time handling and getting used to the plane. Then as the light grew dim we returned to Oxford for circuits. Albert stepped me through exercises meant to help me recognize how close to the ground I was. Watch for the runway lights to look like a string of pearls. When the lights are at shoulder height, flare, gently.

I struggled with the gentle flares. The TB10 bounced right back up, it wanted to fly, more than any other plane I’ve been in. But eventually I got the hang of both the plane and the viewpoint and we landed. The ATC controller watched us taxi to the apron and made one last call: At twenty hundred hours, this airfield is now closed.

As we got out of the plane, everything was dark and silent. Albert pointed his torch around the plane — the chocks, the lock, the cover. We tidied it all up and then he pointed the torch at the ground so we could pick our way to the gate. I felt like a burglar.

The next evening we did navigation, looking out at lights with a map on my lap:

“What’s that up there?” Albert pointed out.

“Er, Oxford? No, no, give me a second. Banbury?”

“Yep, what’s that road up there then?”

It was a solid stripe of light and had to be a major freeway. “Um, the M4?”

“Correct again. Follow it.”

“OK.” I lined the plane up with the pretty twinkly red lights of stationary traffic and hoped that Albert wouldn’t make me turn off onto a roundabout.

My perspective of distance was totally out as cities which were miles away suddenly became visible from low level as a glow of light. I learned to forget about rivers and railway lines and watch for roads instead. I scanned all around me, watching for black-outs: cloud or worse, a mountain. Albert stepped me through an engine failure but admitted that it was more for form. If the engine failed, we needed to land. But there was no way to locate safe fields for landing on and it would be impossible to see the power cables. The chances of landing safely, he told me, were minimal.

We turned back towards Oxford. Albert was nervous about going too far afield as the airfield was specifically staying open for us. He told the story of another instructor who returned back to the airfield to find that the air traffic controller had forgotten about the night flight and simply shut down and gone home. It was with relief that I heard the cheerful response from Oxford. He was waiting for us, no problem. Albert talked me through the landing. As we turned off the runway, the lights turned off behind us. It felt so final.

The third night I was doing a flapless landing in the dark, looking for my string of pearls, only half watching the PAPI.

“Two reds, that’s right. Don’t get too low. I mean it, Sylvia! Don’t lose that height.” There was an edge to Albert’s voice that was out of character. I did the touch and go and when we were back on downwind he took a deep breath. “Ben had some trouble here. I’ll tell you on the ground. Just remember to maintain that height.”

I met Albert through a very competent instructor named Ben. Ben got a job flying a Citation and although he was still doing a bit of teaching on the side, his schedule and mine rarely meshed so I didn’t see much of him. He’s one of those instructors that makes me want to fly better than I do: he’s good with the plane, patient with the training, and likes to have a laugh.

Once we were on the ground, Albert told me about Ben’s last training flight.

“He was doing night flying, like this, and somehow they ended up a low on the approach. Flew straight into cables, right where you were dipping low.” I shook my head in disbelief. I’d seen Ben briefly at the airfield that afternoon. I had no idea there were cables on the approach at all; I could have flown straight into them. I found it hard to believe that Ben had.

From the accident report:

An aircraft ahead in the circuit caused the trainee to extend the downwind leg before turning onto base leg and commencing the approach. The instructor stated that when the aircraft was approximately 400 meters from the threshold, he became aware of some power cables ahead which the aircraft then struck in the area of the nose-wheel. The instructor immediately took control of the aircraft and commenced a go-around whilst declaring a “mayday” to ATC.

After conducting a handling check overhead the airfield to check for normal control response and handling qualities, the instructor flew a circuit and low go-around to allow the AFRS an attempt at visually inspecting the aircraft using spotlights. They could not see any damage and the instructor rejoined the circuit. He then briefed the trainee for an emergency landing before commencing a final approach to the runway.

They landed just fine, despite damage to the nose landing gear and the wing. It sounds terrible, but I’m always cheered to hear success stories like this: proof of the resilience both of pilots and planes. The plane flew straight into power cables fifty feet above the ground and didn’t turn into a flaming fireball of death. I was also amused at the dryness of “became aware of some power cables,” as if it were comparable to becoming aware that it’s lunchtime.

It was a few weeks later when I ran into Tom, the man I blame for tricking me into doing my Private Pilot’s Licence. We were talking about what made for good instruction. I mentioned instructors I’d flown with, including Ben.

“I don’t know him,” said Tom.

“He’s a good guy. I met him through Louise.”

“Yeah… I’ve heard of him, I think. I think he’s the guy who wrote off my plane on a night training.”

Ah, er, yes. That would be him. A change of subject might be in order.

Meanwhile, back in Oxford, I flew in the dark for one further evening, finishing my five take-off and landings. Oxford insist on full-stop landings at night which made this a time intensive process as the TB10 put-putted its way around the airfield to take off once more. Albert stayed on the ground, watching me from the warmth of the control tower. As I finished the fifth landing, I was struck again by the eery solitude of the airfield at night, the lights turned off. I used the torch to lock down the plane and then made my way to the parking lot where Albert was waiting to sign my log book.

The night breeze was icy, snow was forecast for the following evening. We had finished just in time but it was done: I had my night rating and I can now fly on instruments … but only if it’s dark.

23 May 2014

Investigating Aircraft Accidents with David Corre

This excellent guest post is by Adam Wilcox who kindly allowed me to share it with you here.


An interview with David Corre, aircrash investigator.

“An aircraft accident is a very traumatic thing … the violence alone is something to be seen to be believed.” David Corre, his hands shaking from Parkinsons, looked me straight in the eye as he said this.

It was June 2002. We were sitting in the lobby of BAE Systems, Farnborough. David had short, wispy salt and pepper hair, and spoke with a soft West Country accent that broke as his hand shook. He was 71 but still working, and regularly flew Tiger Moths and Cessnas.

In his 46 years with the aircraft industry he had worked on the designs for the iconic Concorde, and the TSR-2, a British Cold War strike and reconnaissance aircraft that was cancelled before ever going into service. “It was probably the most advanced aircraft ever built in this country,” David told me with absolute conviction. “Had it been built in numbers and gone into service, it would undoubtedly have still been in service. It was one of the most beautiful aircraft I have had the pleasure of working on.”

After David crashed two aircraft, he decided he should interest himself in flight safety, and became Head of Flight Safety for Vickers. In the 1970s Vickers was one of the most famous names in British engineering, and made the Vickers Viscount, a turboprop airliner that was ground-breaking for its time, becoming one of the most successful and profitable post-war aircraft.

As Head of Flight Safety, David was sent out to the crash sites to investigate the cause of accidents and how to prevent them in the future.

“If you don’t have the right sort of attitude, the shock and horror very often stops you from proceeding. But you can say to yourself that this is all for the safety of the community.”

In June 1974, David set out on his first accident investigation, which had taken place near a little town called Cúcuta, in Colombia, South America.

Now here’s one of the problems with investigating Flight Safety. When you first set off from London to the country involved, you invariably fly to the capital city with a reputable airline like British Airways, TWA, Virgin or whoever, so you have some sort of standard you can put up with as you make your way across the world. However, when you land at the capital city, (which in this case was Bogotá, the capital, and largest city, of Colombia), you’ve got another 250 miles to go and the outfit that are going to fly you there are invariably the outfit that have had the accident. So you have—how can I put it—mixed feelings.

Anyway, we got out there, and it was not exactly jungle but scrub—very thickly grown with thorn bushes, and stuff growing up to about 30 or 40 feet. The accident itself had occurred on Monte San Isidro, a ridge about 140 feet high, and was about 2 and a half miles from the nearest track.

We followed the members of the Colombian Accident investigation branch, and some guys from Aerolineas TAO (the airline involved). The first thing that was amazing was the quantity of water we were carrying with us, I soon found out that you got dehydrated so quickly in that part of the world that it is essential that you carry loads and loads of water. We had about four and a half gallons of water with us, and we drank the lot.

We picked our way across the flat valley base, and then climbed a 140 foot high embankment. We got to the top of the ridge, and there before us was the accident site, and when I tell you there was not a single nut, bolt, split pin or washer to be found of that aeroplane.

Not disappeared in a conflagration, there are certain things like magnesium castings and aluminium that will burn and disappear but there are some things that will not burn mostly stainless steel, nimonic alloys, all bits of pieces in the engines. These things are pretty massive as you might imagine, and they had all vanished.

In the 36 hours it took for me to get there, the Colombian authorities reckoned there were eight thousand people on the site, salvaging, and they took the lot. This was no mean feat when you think about it, how do you transport an engine weighing about half a ton down a hundred foot slope, through a jungle? The only thing left for me to find was a couple of old cans with a crucifix stuck out of the top.

My task was to find out what went wrong so that corrections can be made if necessary, changes made in the original design to improve the safety of the aircraft. Here I was on my first trip, in the middle of the South American jungle, with nothing but a piece of furnishing that must have been dropped by a scavenger. So, with nothing really to work with, I made a map of the area, and from the damage to the trees I worked out roughly the direction of the aircraft had arrived in.

Flight 514 had been on approach to Camilo Daza Airport, Cúcuta, when it crashed onto Monte San Isidro at 14:30 local time. All 6 crew and 38 passengers were killed.

We eventually made our way back down the slope, and by the side of the road was a taverna, a little cantina. We’d drunk all the water by this time, so we decided to stop here and plan our next move. It was a shack; it had a mud floor with one lady running it. I’ve no idea how many customers she got in a day, because I can’t believe many people used this little track.

Sitting on the floor, drinking papaya juice with all the others, I suddenly spotted this beautiful light blue lizard by the doorway. It looked in, unperturbed by our presence and wandered off. “What a beautiful creature”, I said to the woman behind the counter through an interpreter.

“Oh,” she said. “Would you like to see his new home?”

“Yes, that would be very interesting.”

She lead me round the back of the taverna, and there sitting in a piece of the air conditioning duct of my aeroplane was the lizard.

I turned to the woman and asked, “Did you see the accident?”

“Yes of course, this aeroplane comes past every morning at the same time.”

“Tell me about the accident.”

“Well, the aircraft turned toward the airfield, when suddenly there was a loud bang, an explosion and something silver fell from the aircraft. The aircraft itself continued for a little way and then rolled over and dived into the ground where it all burned.”

“The piece that you saw, the silver piece? Could you tell me exactly where it happened? Or where it is located?”

“Oh yes,” she said. You should always remember that people are cleverer than you think they are. She had taken a line of sight from where she had seen the engine, (the ‘something silver’), come down to an electricity pole and the corner of her cantina. We got a large scale map of the area, and drew on a centre line of the runway and we put the cantina on, and took a bearing with a compass from the corner of the cantina and the electricity pole. Later, we took a helicopter and there, where the lines had crossed, was the complete tailplane and elevator from this aeroplane. We landed, salvaged it, and eventually we were able to get it from Cúcuta to Bogotá.

The tailplane is the stabiliser at the back of the aircraft, in this case the spar cap of had failed in fatigue. A fatigue crack has the appearance of an oyster shell which is in effect the way the crack proceeds, like a little tide mark in front of it each time. Each little oyster shell mark represented a flight, a lowering of the flaps because that is when the greatest strain comes on the tail plane. About 80% the machining had fractured, it was amazing that it was still hanging on.

The findings of this accident resulted in the history of the aircraft coming out, (including many things that were illegal), and in January 1975 all of the Aerolineas TAO Viscount fleet were grounded and an inspection of the tailplane spar on all the Viscounts worldwide took place.

Two months later, in August 1974, David flew to Isla de Margarita, an island off the North-Eastern coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea. He was investigating the accident of a Viscount belonging to Aeropostal, the formerly state-owned airline of Venezuela.

The accident had occurred about three miles from touchdown at Porlamar-del Caribe Mariño International Airport, but it crashed 8 m below the summit of La Gloria mountain, killing all 49 people on board.

As soon as we got there, I wanted to find out if it was a repeat of the damage of the first accident, as it was the same aircraft. Thankfully it wasn’t, the tailplane was very firmly still attached in the wreckage. You could see that the aircraft had come in straight and level because it was covered with tower cactus and the aircraft had literally cut its way through the cactus and you could see the ‘shape’ of the aircraft. The aircraft was level and everything was in place and nothing had fallen off.

I was looking at this wreckage, and suddenly thought to myself that some of the pieces didn’t add up. This isn’t the aircraft I am supposed to be looking at, this is an entirely different aircraft. In this case I was looking at the wreckage of an Fokker F27 Friendship, not the Vickers Viscount I was expecting. I turned to the Chief Inspector of Accidents, a man with the wonderful name of José Antonio Salas Parra, and asked ‘What am I looking at?’ Because immediately you think two aircraft about the same size had a mid-air collision.

“Oh,” he said, “that was an accident that occurred here twelve years ago.”

The earlier accident, in February 1962, had coincidentally been traveling the same route but in the opposite direction, when it crashed 10 minutes after leaving Caribe Mariño Airport. At the time it was the 4th worst accident ever in Venezuela.

So here we had too much wreckage, two planes when we thought we’d have one, and it hadn’t been pinched. This is probably because the people of Venezuela are a lot better off than the people of Colombia.

When researching this article I found a record of the flight at a Vickers Viscount enthusiast website, which includes the following narrative as the probable cause of the accident; “The accident was thought to have been caused by bad weather as tropical storm Alma was in the area at the time off the coast of Trinidad.” David tells a different story.

The radio stations that the pilots were using were unreliable. So instead, the pilots of the airlines flying out to these places were using the local commercial radio station and it was just an unfortunate coincidence that the tuner for the ADF, (which locks onto a non-directional beacon on the ground), was in the same frequency position on one of the four bands on the tuner as the local radio station.

The pilot must have mistaken his position in the sky, and hit the mountain, somersaulting over it.

We then all went back to Caracas for a big meeting with the meteorologist, the legislator, and the accident investigation people. Everyone was saying it wasn’t my fault; that it wasn’t a problem with the aircraft. At this point, the head of the Pilot Union stood up and he said; ‘It’s all very well for you people, but the pilot is dead and you are persuading people and saying it is his fault? And yet we have Señor Corre here from British Aircraft Corporation who has shown some very lamentable shortfall of the radio aids of this place which possibly could have led to the accident.’

“The secretary of Don José came to me and said ‘David, you must come with me’, and I said ‘Oh, OK—’ and we went out of the room.

“It’s about the statement—” she said.

“Well, they’ve got my report,” David replied.

“Oh no no, you don’t understand. They have prepared a report which they want you to sign.”

“What? No, I couldn’t possibly do that.”

“If they get hold of you, they will beat it out of you.”

“Oh.” David replied. “Well, it looks like I have to part company with Venezuela very quickly.”

“David, there’s a limousine cruising around the block right now looking for you.”

I followed her down the stairs at the back into an alleyway, and just then we saw the limousine glide past at the end of the alley, with these terrible hoods in it. I was really frightened, I’m not James Bond, but we went into another building, up a staircase across the roof, down another fire escape, and across the rooftops until we eventually made our way out of the central area. I made a break for the Hotel Avila where I was staying. From my room I phoned British Airways and thankfully there was a flight leaving in a couple of hours.

I packed very hurriedly, and checked out but there was a problem. The airfield at Caracas is situated on the coast itself, between the two is the last of the Andes mountains. You either travel twenty miles out of town by car, down through a tunnel and then back up to the airfield, or you took a cable car, an aerial tramway if you’re American, over the mountains straight down into the airport. There was no way I could go on that because I had all the technical manuals, maintenance manuals, and operational manuals of the aircraft with me so I had to go by taxi—big delay. I got to the airport, and there was a guy with his hands stuck into his waistbands; military.

“I’m sorry Señor. You cannot leave Venezuela.”

“Why not?” I panicked, the hoods must have phoned up expecting me to try and escape the country.

“You have not made the declaration of Income Tax.”

“Income Tax? What the—what are you talking about? I pay income tax at home in England.”

“No Señor. The money since you have been here. The money you have earned here must be declared for the Income Tax.”

“But … I’m a tourist!”

“Ahh, but you are not a tourist. I have seen you on the television. You are Señor Corre from the British Aircraft Corporation, and you are here to investigate the Isla de Margarita accident.”

So then I did something I have never done in my life before, or since for that matter. I looked at him hard and I said, “Fifty Bolívares says that I don’t have to make the Income Tax declaration.

He looked at me and I thought, this is where he pulls his gun out. He stared at me, and then broke unto a huge smile. He drummed the table with his fingertips and said “One hundred Bolívares”.

So I paid up the hundred Bolívares and I was through. When I walked onto the plane and the man said “Welcome to British Airways,” I could’ve kissed his boots.


David died in in June 2006, aged 75. He was a chartered engineer, member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and International Society Of Air Safety Investigators.

Photos:
The Civil Aviation Historical Society: Lindsay Wise collection


If you enjoyed this post, then I recommend you visit Adam’s blog at adamwilcox.org. It’s a wonderful collection of reports, stories and photographs.