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15 August 2014

The Runaway Runway Van

I often talk about how an accident is caused by many small things that have gone wrong as opposed to one big mistake. This incident which was reported by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada last month is a perfect example of this.

The 11th of March in 2013 was a rainy night at Toronto International Airport in Ontario. Sunwing Airlines, a Canadian aviation company based in Etobicoke, offer scheduled and chartered airline services out of Toronto and routinely do their maintenance and grooming during the evenings, while the aircraft are parked at gates at the east side of Terminal One.

That evening, an engineer and a technician went to fix C-FTLK, a Boeing 737-800. The technician drove them there in a Sunwing maintenance van: a 2007 Chevrolet Express Cargo 2500 with a 4.8 L engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission.

The van was painted white with a large Sunwing logo on both sides. On the roof was a large aluminum platform with a ladder running down the left side. On the front left corner of the platform as an orange beacon light.

The engineer completed his work at 23:00. The groomers were still onboard cleaning up the cabin and flight deck.

The technician drove the engineer back to the company facility and then returned to the 737 to finish off. He parked the van left of the nose of the aircraft waited for the groomers to finish.

It was about half an hour later when the groomers finished and exited the aircraft using the left-hand main door.

The last of the groomers tried to close the aircraft door behind him but struggled with the weight of the door in the rain. The technician pulled forward and got out of the van, signalling to the groomer to leave the door, that he would take care of it. The groomers left.

The technician checked the ground power unit on the right side of the aircraft before boarding the Boeing 737 through the left-hand main door and checking the the cockpit.

When he came out, he realised that his van was gone.

Up in the airport control tower, it was a quiet night. Night operations are not very busy at Toronto International and multiple ATC roles during the day are regularly combined at night.

That night, there were three air traffic controllers. One was working as the tower controller, one was working combined north and south ground and the third was there for post-handover monitoring.

Meanwhile, the little-van-that-could made its break for freedom. The technician had left it idling and in drive. Once he disappeared into the cockpit of the aircraft, the van began to move.

It rolled forward, grazing the outer cowling of the Boeing 737′s left engine. Undeterred, it rolled under the wing and continued forward, heading straight for runway 24R, the active runway.

The van’s speed varied between one and five miles per hour as it drove across the apron and into the manoeuvering area.

Ground controllers at Toronto watch the traffic from the window and have a radar display for the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE). The surface detection equipment is a safety system which monitors the manoeuvering area of the airport in order to help controllers detect potential runway conflicts. It provides detailed coverage of movement on runways and taxiways.

However, it doesn’t cover the aprons or the gate area, in order to reduce the clutter on the display. The first seven hundred feet of the little van’s epic journey were not monitored by the surface detection equipment. It reached intersection DV.

The ground controller saw the movement on his display, a slow-moving target just past the gate area. He thought it might be a false target. He spent two minutes on other duties before checking his display again.

The van continued.

The tower controller was standing and moving around as he kept watched over both the departure and arrival runways.

The ground controller looked back at the display and saw that his slow-moving target was now coming up to the threshold of Runway 24R. He showed the tower controller the blip on the display. Neither could think what the display might mean as they scanned their electronic flight progress strips and looked outside. They had no idea what the blip might be.

The third controller scanned the area with binoculars but the van was over a mile from the tower and in shadows near the brightly lit Terminal 1. The controller never saw the van; there seemed to be nothing there.

Air Canada flight 178 was an Embraer EMB190 registration C-FLWH. It was inbound to Toronto from Edmonton International with five crew and sixty-seven passengers on board. They’d been cleared for an instrument approach to Runway 24R. It was a quiet night and Air Canada 178 was number two, after Air Canada flight 1126 which was seven nautical miles ahead of them.

Air Canada flight 1126 landed without incident.

The crew could see the airfield clearly and saw the preceding aircraft vacate the runway from five nautical miles out. The approach was stable and the crew continued.

The tower controller had an unknown something entering the active runway and Air Canada flight 178 on late finals. He still didn’t know what it was out there but he urgently needed to abort the incoming landing. Because he was asking an aircraft less than 4,000 feet from the runway threshold to pull up and go around, the controller spoke quickly and as a result, his words were elided. “Air Canada” became “ercana” in his rush. In addition, the aircraft’s Extended Ground Proximity Warning System sounded at the exact same moment.

Time (UTC) Source of message Cockpit audio Meaning Aircraft position
03:39:04 EGPWS–automated “Minimums” Descent below the decision height 250 feet radar altitude (796 feet asl), 4,500 feet from the threshold
03:39:07 Pilot monitoring “Runway in sight” The runway is in sight visually approx. 230 feet radar altitude
03:39:08 Pilot flying “Landing” Continuing the landing approx. 220 feet radar altitude
03:39:12 EGPWS–automated “Two hundred” Radio altimeter callout for descent below 200 feet 200 feet radar altitude, 2,550 feet from the threshold
03:39:12 ATC “ɛrkænə 178, pull up and go around, sir” Instruction to Air Canada 178 to go-around 200 feet radar altitude, 2,550 feet from the threshold

The controller waited a few seconds and when he didn’t get a response, he called again.

Time (UTC) Source of message Cockpit audio Meaning Aircraft position
03:39:19 ATC “178, pull up and go around” Second instruction to Air Canada 178 to go around 125 feet radar altitude, 1,100 feet from the threshold
03:39:23 EGPWS–automated “Fifty” Radio altimeter callout for descent below 50 feet 50 feet radar altitude, approximately overhead the displaced threshold

The controller did not get any response to his calls. He could clearly see the radar blip blocking the runway and the Air Canada flight heading right for it.

During a normal approach, such as the one flown by Air Canada 178, the EGPWS makes several standard automated aural call outs, which are broadcast simultaneously over the cockpit speakers and the pilots’ headsets. During post-incident simulation, it was noted by TSB investigators that the callouts were significantly louder than the radio or intercom audio, which is delivered solely to the pilots’ headsets. The volume of the intercom and radio is adjustable by the flight crew, whereas the EGPWS audio is not.

The flight crew had clear sight of the runway and were seconds away from landing. That, combined with the dodgy acoustics, led them to believe that although they clearly heard the words “go around”, the instruction must be meant for another aircraft. They continued.

The controllers stared at the runway. They must have been holding their breath.

Air Canada flight 178 cruised directly over the top of the van and touched down. The separation between the van and the aircraft was less than thirty-five feet.

As Air Canada 178 cruised down the runway, the tower controller called them a third time and asked if they’d seen anything on the runway. This time the crew responded. They hadn’t seen a thing.

The van trundled across the runway and continued straight across taxiway D7.

The controllers reported the incident and the airport authority sent staff out to search the area.

The van drove into the grass. It got stuck when it struck a taxiway reflector sign and stopped, once again out of sight of the radar display, where it waited patiently for someone to rescue it.

Fourteen minutes later, airport staff discovered the missing white van. The engine was running and the headlights, taillights and beacon were all on. The automatic transmission was set to drive.

The Air Canada flight continued on to Ottawa. Air Canada Operations, by now aware of the near-miss, instructed the crew to disconnect the power to the digital voice-data recorders upon their arrival. These DVDRs record two hours of the conversation in the cockpit (as opposed to on the radio) and then over-write the data.

At Ottawa, the flight crew was met by company maintenance staff who said that they would disconnect the DVDRs. However, they didn’t get around to doing so until an hour later, and the cockpit voice data from the landing at Toronto was overwritten.

The investigators discovered that the beacon on top of the van, which was designed to use a 37.5 watt bulb, actually only had a 7 watt bulb installed.

Although visibility was good, a seven watt bulb was not enough to draw attention to the vehicle. The flight crew expected an uneventful landing and could not see any obstacles on the runway. Although the cockpit voice data was lost, the crew stated that they discussed the transmission to go around and agreed that it couldn’t be meant for them. As the report put it, the communication was insufficient to challenge the flight crew’s mental model of the situation.

From the incident report:

Following the occurrence, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) issued directives to the Toronto Pearson aviation community reiterating the prohibition against leaving vehicles idling and unsecured on the airside. The GTAA also published and disseminated information on the luminosity requirements for vehicle roof beacons and did spot checks to inspect beacons and require inoperative or inadequate beacons to be repaired or replaced. Sunwing Airlines reported to Transport Canada that it has inspected all of its airside vehicles and ensured that their roof beacons meet specified luminosity standards.

The van was returned to service with a new beacon bulb installed.

So, another happy ending… but more by luck than good management on this occasion!

01 August 2014

Congo Crocodile Plane Crash

The incredible story of the crocodile that crashed a plane is quickly becoming a piece of aviation folklore. The details have been published in mainstream newspapers all over the world and is now listed under incredible accidents on otherwise respectable aviation websites. There’s only one problem: there’s no official reason to believe it ever happened.

Let’s start by looking at the crash.

On August 25th in 2010, a Filair flight flying from Kinshasa Ndolo crashed into a house while attempting to land at Bandundu. The aircraft, a Let L-410, is a Czech turboprop which is a popular small passenger aircraft. The Captain was Danny Philemotte, the Belgian owner of the airline. The First Officer was British pilot Chris Wilson.

That day there were three crew members and sixteen passengers on the flight. They were flying into Bandundu but the aircraft executed a go-around – that is, they circled around to attempt the landing again.

On the second attempt, something went terribly wrong. Apparently after the aircraft went around, it turned and then crashed. A witness on the ground reported that it “fell out of the sky like a leaf” while in its final descent. The aircraft crashed into an empty mud-and-brick house about 2 kilometres (1¼ miles) from the airport. No one on the ground was hurt. The crew and fourteen passengers were dead on impact. Two passengers survived the initial crash but one died soon afterwards in hospital.

Initially, Radio Okapi reported that the turboprop ran out of fuel as a result of breaking off the first approach. However, 150 litres of “kerosene” were recovered from the wreckage, so although a fuel malfunction is possible, the aircraft had more than enough fuel to continue the flight.

Two days later, the surviving passenger gave an unclear statement about the moments leading up to the crash. She was still in critical condition but made a statement, in which she said that the passengers panicked and stampeded the cockpit because the aircraft was landing at a reserve strip instead of runway 11/29.

There’s no evidence of a reserve strip at that airfield that I can find, although it is poorly documented. More importantly, how would the passengers know?

This is the only official statement collected from the surviving passenger.

Normally there would be a full scale investigation into the crash but unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to have been the case. Part of this is the region: Filair and all airlines based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are banned from flying in the European Union specifically because the DRC aviation authority does not maintain the regulatory oversight standards required by the European Union. It’s not particularly surprising that the investigation itself has not proceeded as one might hope.

This mean that there’s not a lot of information about the crash and no real hope of ever getting more. The black boxes were recovered from the aircraft but no further information has been forthcoming. The British AAIB has asked for access to them but after four years, there seems little hope that the recordings or transcripts of their contents will ever be released. As a result, there’s a lot of speculation as to why a functional aircraft with 150 litres of fuel and competent pilots could just fall out of the sky.

There is no further official information or investigation results regarding this crash.

However, two months after the event, a Congolese tabloid ran with an astounding story: the plane crashed because there was a crocodile on board which panicked the passengers. The surviving passenger told Jeune Afrique how the crocodile had escaped from someone’s bag and caused the passengers to run for the cockpit. There was no clear explanation as to why the passengers might all decide on that course of action.

She had never mentioned a crocodile in her initial statement, only the reserve strip. There were no other reports of a crocodile at the scene of the crash. The article had a noticeable lack of detail and verifiable information in the article and no follow-up with the passenger or the aviation authority was ever done. On the Aviation Safety Network, one commenter summed it up quite bluntly:

[I] believe the newspaper who broke that story paid a lot of money for that story (and got what they wanted).

The crocodile tale got picked up by various other tabloids with ever more witty headlines. The story was embellished with unverifiable details which were never part of the initial reports nor in the first article: the crocodile was illegal, hidden in a hold-all by a passenger hoping to smuggle it out for sale. The crocodile escaped from the crash unharmed but one of the rescuers killed it with a machete. There was a video of the crocodile on YouTube (which has never been found). The crocodile scared the cabin crew member and it was she who ran to the cockpit in fear.

No one in the aviation industry was able to find any means of verifying this tale and the Aviation Safety Network went so far as to ban any comments claiming the crocodile was the cause of the crash. The bizarre explanation was on the road to being forgotten.

However, four years later, at the UK inquest of the British First Officer, the crocodile crash theory came into the public eye again.

As a part of the inquest, the Assistant Coroner read out an email which was written by the First Officer’s father to the Congolese officials. In this email, the First Officer’s father said that there was this story he’d been told, that it was a crocodile who caused a panic and that the resulting weight shift may have caused the plane to go into a nose dive.

That was enough for the mainstream press to run with the story. Again, there was no official statement, no follow-up to the initial article with any verifiable facts, nothing but a single tabloid piece claiming to have inside information from the only surviving passenger, with no reason given as to why she wouldn’t go to the police. And the scenario as explained at the inquest was not the result of any investigation, as implied by some media, but a single statement made by the grieving father about a story that he had been told.

The inquest also heard that the aircraft might have been sabotaged by a rival company competing for business: an accusation which was equally lacking in any verifiable details.

An air accident investigator at the inquest stated that he believed the aircraft stalled. This is one of the most common causes of a crash on approach, especially on a turn. However, it’s impossible to tell without more details of the accident.

Panic over escaped crocodile could have crashed plane, inquest hears – Telegraph

Timothy Atkinson, an air accident investigator, said he had reviewed the evidence given to him by Congolese authorities but was unable to draw any definitive conclusions because they were not handed over the black box.

He said: “To date we have no information from the black box reader, it has been almost four years since the accident.

“The aircraft struck a mud and brick building with a straw roof, and it came to a rest against another one on the ground.

“The most likely explanation I can find is that the aircraft stalled and, or was in a spin prior to impact.

“There is no evidence suggesting an engine failure, or a nose dive, although I cannot be sure without looking at the plane.

“It would reinforce the idea that the accident appears to have the hallmarks of a stall and spin, which may have been from a variety of causes.

“Essentially, it fell out of the sky.”

The Assistant Coroner recorded an open conclusion, stating that there were only vague guesses as to what happened with this crash.

Is it possible that the passengers stampeded the cockpit? It is, but I can find no other record of a plane crash caused by the passengers rushing to the front (or any other direction).

If that is what happened, it’s technically possible that a crocodile was in the aircraft and caused the stampede. But realistically, I think this version of events are more to do with an irresistible headline than truth.

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.

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.

09 May 2014

Ejection 0.8 Seconds Before Impact

The incident happened in 2003 but I only just saw the photograph and video on /r/aviation last week.

Thunderbird no. 6 ejection at Mountain Home airshow in 2003. Photo by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III – Still Photographer, USAF

This looks like a photoshopped picture or a stunt still from of a Hollywood movie but it is 100% legitimate.

The photograph was taken at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where the Thunderbirds were putting on an aerial display. The photographer snapped this photograph of 31-year-old Captain Chris Stricklin from the tower, capturing the exact moment when Captain Stricklin ejected from the F-16. Stricklin ejected less than a second before the F16 hit the ground.

The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the United States Airforce, the equivalent of the Red Arrows of the UK Royal Air Force or the Blue Angels of the US Navy.

The Thunderbirds were formed in 1917 as an operational squadron. In 1953 they became the aerobatic display team in 1953, taking the name Thunderbirds from the southwestern US folklore around Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. They became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team in 1956 but had to stop after the FAA banned all supersonic flight at air shows.

They tour the US and the world to perform air demonstrations but they apparently are able to rapidly integrate into an operational fighter unit. They fly F16 Fighting Falcons.

Their standard demonstration is documented on Wikipedia:

From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off roll with the words “Thunderbirds, let’s run em up!” being retransmitted from the team leader’s mic through the PA system for the crowd to hear.

Diamond: Historically, as Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off, the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation. Thanks to the 2009 upgrade to the Block 52, the Diamond now has more than enough thrust to continue to climb straight up into their first maneuver, the Diamond Loop.

Solos: Thunderbird 5 takes to the air next performing a clean low altitude aileron roll followed by 6 who performs a split S climbing in a near vertical maneuver rolling over and diving back toward show center pulling up just above the runway and exiting in the opposite direction.

Much of the Thunderbirds’ display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of 8 different formations: The Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and the Five Card. The arrowhead performs maneuvers in tight formation as close as 18 inches Fuselage to Canopy separation. They perform formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. All maneuvers are done at speeds of 450-500+ mph.

Stricklin was flying Thunderbird 6, performing the Split S manoeuvre as a part of his solo performance with the Thunderbirds.

The Split S (known in the RAF as the Half Roll and in the Luftwaffe as the Abschwung) is a dog-fighting technique used to disengage from combat. The pilot half-rolls his aircraft so that he’s flying upside down and then dives away in a descending half-loop, pulling out so that he’s flying straight and level in the opposite direction.

At the Mountain Home airshow as that Captain Stricklin did not have enough vertical space to pull out of the half-loop, leading to his last-second ejection. He had performed the Split S manoeuvre over two hundred times.

The astounding photograph was taken by a professional photographer at the control tower and was swiftly leaked to the public despite the fact that the military immediately locked down into an investigation. The photographer posted on the f-16.net message boards.

Thunderbird crash photo (head-on)

I have noticed all over the internet the shot I had taken of the Thunderbird crash at Mountain Home AFB, ID and though I am not at liberty to share the photo; it is out there. I would like to end some speculation and let you know the photo is real.

I’m a Still Photographer for the USAF and I was stationed at MHAFB during the air show. I was on the catwalk of the tower at Mtn Home along with another photog (video) and about seven other (military) spectators. I have shot the T-birds from the tower before and I was pretty excited to do it again (the sky was perfect blue). I followed Thunderbird 6 from takeoff and watched as he pulled into his maneuver. I then noticed something seemed to be wrong, his direction was a little off; he was pulling out and heading right towards the tower. At this point I figured two things: 1. He’s either going to fly past this tower and we’ll feel the heat or 2. This is going to be ugly… I waited for the aircraft to level and clicked the shutter, what I saw through the lens will never go away…

At the same time as I shot I seen a flash of light and horrific sound. I was shooting on high speed continuous and the next couple frames were a ball of fire and my feet, right before I ran. We all ran to the other side of the tower, I tried to get everyone in along with my partner and finally made it in myself. By the time we got inside the 16 had stopped sliding and rested about 100 ft in front of the tower. I then continued documenting the work of our base firefighters as they put out the flames. It was an experience and though I can’t officially make any comments to the matter, I would like to say Capt Stricklin saved lives… enough said.

For those who are wondering the image is not cleared for public release.

Also for those fellow photogs I was shooting with a D1x with a 300mm, 2.8 @ 1000 and 2000

Thanks,
SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
Still Photographer, USAF

The photograph was officially released a few days later, along with the video from the cockpit just before the crash.

Redditors have pointed out that his left arm twitches twice towards the eject lever before committing to the action.

Captain Stricklin sustained only minor injuries. The $20.4 million F16 was destroyed.

This video shows the view from the crowd:

The investigation results were released as a press release a year later:

PRESS RELEASE — Secretary of the Air Force, Directorate of Public Affairs

Release No. 0121045 – Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – Pilot error caused a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft to crash shortly after takeoff at an air show Sept. 14 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

According to the accident investigation board report released today, the pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” manoeuvre. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S manoeuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground — just eight –tenths of a second prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

Also, the board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement for demonstration pilots to convert mean sea level and above ground level altitudes and performing a manoeuvre with a limited margin of error.

For more information, contact the ACC Public Affairs office at (757) 764-5007 or e-mail acc.pam@langley.af.mil.

The QNH (sea-level altitude) vs QFE (altitude above the ground) is thus seen as a contributing factor.

Stricklin’s home base at Nellis is at 2,000 feet whereas Mountain Home is at 3,000 feet, so the altitude he selected would have been correct at his home base.

The contributing factor of requiring pilots to convert sea-level altitude information to altitude above ground for radio calls was immediately dealt with by the Air Force. Thunderbird pilots now call out MSL (Mean Sea Level) altitudes rather than AGL (Above Ground Level) altitudes and must climb an additional one thousand feet before performing the Split S manoeuvre.

A bystander reported that after the ejection, Stricklin stood silently by the canopy of the aircraft. Then he threw his helmet at the ground and stomped over to the wreckage. He knew that his time as a Thunderbird pilot was over.

However, I was pleased to see that in 2009, Stricklin was commended for his work on safety programmes in the USAF:

2009: CSAF Individual Safety Award – Lt. Col. Christopher Stricklin, 14th Flying Training Wing, Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.
Colonel Stricklin led and managed flight, ground, and weapon safety programs for 3,000 personnel, including 20 essential safety personnel who provided over 3,120 annual hours of on-call service. As a direct result of his efforts, flight mishaps were reduced in nearly every category; down 50 percent in Class A, 70 percent in Class C, 44 percent in Class E, and 50 percent in Controlled Movement Area Violations.

It makes sense to me; if I’d been that close to smashing into the ground, I’d be pretty thoughtful about flight safety too!

02 May 2014

The Alien Abduction of Frederick Valentich

Frederick Valentich was 20 years old when he disappeared. His father believed that one day, the aliens would bring him back. Australia’s most famous case of alien abduction, Valentich’s lost flight is how the Bass Strait Triangle got its nickname.

Valentich's father holds a photograph of his son

Valentich was a pretty average Australian kid. His dream was to become a professional pilot: he applied to the Royal Australian Air Force twice and then settled for the Air Training Corps. He was studying part-time to become a commercial pilot but struggled with the examinations. He had a private pilot’s licence with about 150 total hours flying time and had completed his night rating.

The boy was enthralled with UFOs and the idea of an alien invasion. Shortly before he disappeared, Valentich claimed that he had seen a flying saucer, moving away very fast. His father said that his son was very worried about what would happen if the extraterrestrials attacked.

It was a sunny evening on the 21st of October in 1978, when Valentich booked a training flight in VH-DSJ, a rental Cessna 182 light aircraft at Moorabbin Airport near Melbourne. The weather forecast was good. He filed a flight plan for a trip to King Island, one of the islands of Tasmania.

The Bass Strait lies between Victoria and Tasmania. Pilots always try to reduce the amount of time flying over water, so rather than fly straight across the strait from Melbourne, Valentich’s routing would have taken him southwest along the coast to Cape Otway to then cross the strait to King Island, making it an 85-kilometre (50-mile) stretch across the water. Following this standard route from Moorabbin Airport to King Island Airport, it is a 90-min flight.

It’s not clear why Valentich was going to King Island. He told his family and his girlfriend that he was going there to pick up some crayfish. At Moorabbin he said that he was going to bring some friends back and took four life jackets with him for the return flight. He’d mentioned to his girlfriend that he’d be back by 19:30, clearly not possible with a 18:00 departure.

Another odd detail was that he didn’t phone King Island airport to tell them that he was inbound to them. The small airfield is uncontrolled and there would be no one there after sunset; he couldn’t land there unless he called to ask them to turn the runway lights on. He had the fuel to go there and back without stopping: the round-trip journey is about 235 kilometres (145 miles) and would take about three hours in the Cessna, well within its range. There was no danger, just that he was embarking on a pointless journey. It was simply odd, especially in combination with his unclear plans, and could imply that he had no intention of going to King Island that evening. He might have been up to something nefarious, smuggling along the coast. Maybe he wanted to be alone in the dark looking for UFOs and didn’t want to admit it on a flight plan. Or, it could have been a simple oversight, one that he would have been embarrassed about when he drew near the airport and realised there was no one there. All we know for sure is that he never made that phone call.

18:10 VH-DSJ was refuelled to capacity, giving it 300 minutes flight time.

18:19 Valentich departed Moorabbin Airport and flew southwest as per his flight plan.

18:43 The sun set. Valentich was flying in the dusk over water. Night flying requires a separate rating for visual flights in Australia because it can be disorienting. Flying at night over water is especially so, as the lack of lights means that there is no way of orientating yourself to the ground. So as the sunlight faded, Valentich would have seen a sky full of stars above and darkness below.

19:00 Valentich contacted Melbourne Air Traffic Control and gave his location as over Cape Otway on the south coast of Victoria. Cape Otway has a light-house, which makes it an easy visual reference point. He confirmed that he was proceeding to King Island. His flight plan showed that he would remain below 5,000 feet and that he had estimated it would take him 41 minutes to fly to Cape Otway and then a further 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. He was right on schedule.

Valentich identifies himself by the final letters of the call sign of the aircraft, VH-DSJ. Melbourne Flight Service Unit use this callsign to make it clear who they are speaking to or, when used on its own, simply to acknowledge that the controller has understood what the pilot said.

19:06:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?

19:06:23 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

19:06:26 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I am… seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.

19:06:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?

19:06:50 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I cannot affirm. It is four bright… it seems to me like landing lights.

The obvious first question is: what did Valentich see out there in the dark?

After the event, some people believed that there was nothing there at all. There were rumours that the whole whole thing was simply a hoax and Valentich was having a laugh before purposefully disappearing. But he had no reason to go and all of the evidence points to the fact that Valentich truly believed in extra-terrestial space craft. The air traffic controller said afterwards that he was convinced that it wasn’t a joke. He was sure that Valentich saw something.

19:07:32 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

19:07:43 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, Roger. And it is a large aircraft? Confirm.

19:07:47 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Er, unknown, due to the speed it’s travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?

19:07:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.

It’s possible that the lights were another aircraft small enough not to show up on Melbourne’s radar but it seems to be travelling too fast for that, unless it was military. There were no reports of military aircraft in the area.

Meanwhile, there were a number of reports of UFOs that night. Mt Stromlo Observatory advised that the night of the 21st was the peak of a meteorite storm and they recorded 10-15 meteorite sightings per hour. The uptick in UFO sightings was expected: studies show that 29% of UFO reports are the result of bright stars and planets and a further 9% are explained by meteors. The UFO sightings that night were almost certainly reactions to the meteorite storm. A meteorite might also explain a fast moving craft in the sky. However the meteorite storm doesn’t explain the four clear lights that Valentich reported over him.

19:08:18 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east, towards me.

19:08:28 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:08:42 —: [open microphone for two seconds]

19:08:49 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game. He’s flying over me two, three times at a time, at speeds I could not identify.

19:09:02 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What is your actual level?

19:09:06 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My level is four and a half thousand. Four Five Zero Zero.

19:09:11 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.

19:09:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Affirmative.

19:09:18 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. Standby.

19:09:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet. It’s not an aircraft, it is… [open microphone for five seconds]

19:09:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the, er, aircraft?

19:09:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. As it’s flying past it’s a long shape. [open microphone for three seconds] Cannot identify more than that it has such speed. [open microphone for three seconds] Before me right now, Melbourne.

Some of what he saw could be explained by fast-moving meteorites out of the corner of his eye. However, that doesn’t account for a hovering aircraft directly above him. James McGaha and Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry believe that they know what he saw.

The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved – CSI

As it happens, a computer search of the sky for the day, time, and place of Valentich’s flight reveals that the four points of bright light he would almost certainly have seen were the following: Venus (which was at its very brightest), Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares. These four lights would have represented a diamond shape, given the well-known tendency of viewers to “connect the dots,” and so could well have been perceived as an aircraft or UFO. In fact, the striking conjunction was shaped as a vertically elongated diamond, thus explaining Valentich’s saying of the UFO that “it’s a long shape.”

19:10:07 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. And how large would the, er, object be?

19:10:20 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. It seems like it’s a stationary. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me. Also it’s got a green light and sort of metallic-like. It’s all shiny on the outside.

It’s not clear what Valentich might have meant when he said that was orbiting, possibly that he was flying in a holding pattern in order to get a better look at the “object”. What’s absolutely clear is that his entire attention is taken by the unidentified flying object. The mention of the green light is new.

19:10:48 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet…[open microphone for five seconds] It’s just vanished.

19:10:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:11:03 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it a military aircraft?

This wasn’t really a conversation that he needed to be holding right at that moment. But Valentich’s curiosity was peaked.

19:11:08 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, confirm that the, er, aircraft just vanished?

19:11:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Say again?

19:11:17 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?

19:11:23 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet it’s ah no…[open microphone for two seconds] Now approaching from the south west.

There’s a dangerous configuration that has killed many pilots, especially visual pilots who have not been trained to fly by instruments. It’s known as the graveyard spiral or suicide spiral and is common in poor weather conditions…and at night. The spiral is caused by well-known sensory illusions that affect us in aircraft. The pilot becomes disoriented and loses the ability to judge the orientation of the plane. He believes he is flying straight, with the wings level but in fact, he is pulling the yoke slightly, leading the aircraft into a bank. The aircraft starts to to fly a large circle and, if the pilot does not recognise the situation, the plane will begin a gentle spiral towards the ground.

Graveyard spiral – Wikipedia

For example, a pilot who enters a banking turn to the left will initially have a sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the left turn continues (~20 seconds or more), the pilot will experience the sensation that the airplane is no longer turning to the left. At this point, if the pilot attempts to level the wings this action will produce a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction (to the right). If the pilot believes the illusion of a right turn (which can be very compelling), he/she will re-enter the original left turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of a right turn. If the pilot fails to recognize the illusion and does not level the wings, the airplane will continue turning left and losing altitude.

The graveyard spiral is initiated by an unintentional turn or a return to level flight after an intentional prolonged turn.

Basically, you get disoriented and put the plane into a slight bank. Now that feels straight and level to you, so if you correct the turn, you feel like you are turning. So you don’t. And the plane very slowly and gently flies in circles that get increasingly tighter as the aircraft descends

Valentich and plane

Valentich said that he was orbiting and “the thing” was just orbiting on top of him, so he was probably in a low, slow turn. He did not have much experience with night flights and only had the most basic instrument training. It was dark and he was flying over water, with no horizon to help him to orient himself. He initially saw four white lights but then mentions a green light. His right wing-tip has a green light on it, a navigation light. What he’s seeing points to an aircraft that is not flying straight and level, it’s slowly spiralling down.

19:11:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three/twenty four and the thing is coughing.

19:12:04 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What are your intentions?

19:12:09 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My intentions are ah to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. [two seconds open microphone] It’s hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

His engine is running rough but instead of wondering why this is, he’s still staring out the window at the UFO. Even when asked directly what his intentions are, he doesn’t consider breaking off the water crossing as a result of his engine trouble.

The rough engine coughing certainly sounds like a fuel issue. If he’s flying in a tightening spiral or even upside down, that will decrease the fuel flow, leading to exactly those symptoms. What Valentich needs to do right now is stop watching his UFO and fly the plane.

19:12:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. [17 seconds open microphone]

There were no further transmissions.

Melbourne declared a Search and Rescue alert immediately and at 19:33, when Valentich did not arrive at King Island, an intensive air, sea and land search started. They scoured the area for four days but were unable to find any trace of the aircraft.

Five years later, an engine cowl flap was discovered on Flinders Island, washed in from the sea. It was positively identified as coming from a Cessna 182 of the same batch as the rental aircraft that Valentich was flying. No other trace was ever found.

Frederick Valentich’s father joined the Victoria UFO Research Centre and continued to hope that his son was alive and abducted by aliens until his death in 2000.

And yet, there’s strong evidence that the young man’s belief in the extra-terrestrial led to his death. It appears that what should have been a brief distraction became a tragic event.


If you found this post interesting, you should pick up my new book, a detailed analysis of MH370: The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

28 March 2014

MH370 Search: Beacons and Pingers and Locators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US Navy Fact File: Towed Pinger Locator 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous articles on MH370:

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370