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23 May 2014

Investigating Aircraft Accidents with David Corre

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


An interview with David Corre, aircrash investigator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, that would be very interesting.”

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

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

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

“Tell me about the accident.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s about the statement—” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But … I’m a tourist!”

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

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

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

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


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

Photos:
The Civil Aviation Historical Society: Lindsay Wise collection


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

16 May 2014

Flying through the Stars

So, this doesn’t usually come up on this blog but in addition to wasting every waking moment on writing about airplanes, I also write science fiction, especially short stories.

I’m super-excited because a short story that was published last year has been nominated for one of the top awards in the industry. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America nominated Alive, Alive Oh for the Nebula Award for best short story, along with four other really excellent stories (darn my luck!).

The Nebula Awards are given each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for the best science fiction or fantasy fiction published in the United States during the previous year. The winner receives a trophy but no cash prize; the trophy is a transparent block with an embedded glitter spiral nebula and gemstones cut to resemble planets.

So, I am flying to beautiful California for the 49th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend! By the time you read this, I will be hanging out with cool writerly types and discussing jetpacks and lasers and maybe even space ship crashes!

Meanwhile, here are a couple of amazing videos to tide you over. Please note that if you are subscribed to the mailing list, you will need to click through to the website to see all three videos.

Pilot’s view of a low pass over the Danube. Cpt David Morgan and Cpt András Árday made the first ever low altitude fly-by overhead the bridges of Budapest with an Airbus jetliner.

Developmental Testing phase II (DT-II) of the F-35B Lightning II jet is being conducted aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1). DT-II is a collaborative effort among the Navy, Marine Corps, and coalition partners to validate F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities for amphibious platforms (LHD, LHA).


I’m not really looking forward to an eleven hour flight but this video takes the sting out of it. And also made me vow to take plenty of photographs at the airport.

Next week, I have a wonderful guest post for you that I know you’ll enjoy. And then I’ll be back to tell you all about my trip!

If you’d like to read or listen to the story, it’s here: Alive, Alive Oh by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley | Lightspeed Magazine. Cross fingers and thumbs for me, please!

11 April 2014

Crosswind Landings at Birmingham Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 April 2014

Extreme ATC Scenarios

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

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

Items requiring immediate attention:

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

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

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

Call from Caravan Controller:

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

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

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

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

Turns out it was a very large hare.

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

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

On runway “obstructions”.

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

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

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

Ground: “You got what? ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TMA-SW: “Roger, was it a red one?”

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

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

Where to start?

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

There are some cracking ones in the log books!

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s a Boeing 707 coming from Africa”

“Yes, yes,” she said.

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

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

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

07 March 2014

Ten Things You Should Know Before Flying to Morocco

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

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


Cliff shoved my shoulder. “Wake up.”

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

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

I put the pillow over my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a single hop.”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. I considered the other half of the circle.

“Menorca?”

“Too windy.”

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

Marrakech Airport

Marrakesh.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Marrakesh Airport

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

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

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

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

Nap at Marrakesh Airport


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

27 December 2013

2013 In Review

Hard to believe another twelve months and fifty-two blog posts have gone past. One of my favourite things to do every year is to go over the statistics and see what the top posts were. I laughed a little bit to see that FAA Approved? is in the top ten again for the fifth year in a row.

Some other fun facts:

82,242 people visited the site over the year from 187 different countries for a total of 128,113 page views. One person visited from Vanuatu, which I had never heard of before reading the annual stats report but I now desperately want to visit. Chrome is the most popular browser. Least popular browser is the Playstation Vita Browser with just one single access. Fastest average page load time is Opera followed by Chrome with Internet Explorer in third place. Slowest is Safari. Most popular mobile device was the Apple iPad.

Most users come directly to the site. The most popular single referrer is Reddit. Users referred to the site from Stumbleupon spend the longest time exploring the site (9-12 pages).

The most popular search phrases were: boston john, tipsy nipper, fear of landing and red arrows. Most predictable search: do air hostesses have sex with pilots and variations there of. Most specific search: while you are flying to miami for spring break, the pilot announces that the altimeter on the plane indicates you are cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet. how does the pilot know your altitude? Most worrying search: why are there police airplanes at night sending some kind of laser light in my bedroom when im sleeping. Most intriguing search: reason for the crash of the dragon plane flying out of the scillies in the 60′s (I will look into this).

The most popular category is Incidents and Accidents followed by History.

And with that, let’s look at the most popular posts of the year.

Number Ten: FAA Approved?

I found this on an aviation forum and I just can’t stop staring at the photographs.

Number Nine: The Amazing Story of the B-17 Flying Fortress

The 398th was a B-17 bomb group in the 8th Air Force 1st Air Division during World War II. The US Eighth Air Force was the largest of the Army Air Forces, engaged in heavy bombing of enemy targets in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft which was heavily used in the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.

Number Eight: Boston John

Air Traffic Controller John Melecio, also known as “Boston John,” is one of the most famous ATC controllers today. When he was controlling from Boston Tower, he was always lively and humourous, gathering a following all over the world. Listeners on LiveATC.net posted to the forums whenever he was on air so fans could tune in and hear him live.

Number Seven: Loss of Control – Collision with Water

The first thing that struck me about this TSB Canada report was the title. Loss of control seemed an odd description and certainly isn’t a cause in itself. The title fits the report, though: loss of control was the key factor in this investigation because to start, that was all the investigators knew. How did the pilot lose control and why did he fly the aircraft into the water at a 45° angle? That took longer to work out.

Number Six: UPS Flight 6 Uncontained Cargo Fire

A few days ago, the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates has released its final report on the Boeing 747 which crashed on the 3rd of September in 2010 after an uncontained cargo fire.
The 326-page accident report is excellently written and deals with all the issues involved with this tragic flight and an analysis of the situation. Truth be told, it’s hard to think of a more hopeless situation that a modern pilot could find herself in. Here’s a summary of the main points.

Number Five: Six Exclamations You Never Want to Hear in the Cockpit

3. We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?
In 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades on approach to Miami. When they lowered the landing gear, the indicator didn’t come on for the nose wheel. The flight crew investigated the problem as the jet circled west over the Everglades at 2,000 feet. The Captain, First Officer, and Second Officer all focused on the problem, and a maintenance engineer on the flight joined them – and not a single one was watching the flight instruments. The Captain accidentally leaned against the yoke and the aircraft entered a slow descent.
There was nothing wrong with the nose gear. A $12 lightbulb in the control panel had burnt out. The First Officer’s final words were, “We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?” as the left wing hit the ground.
You can read the details of the accident here: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401

Number Four: The Story Behind an Unbelievable Photograph

Jim Meads is the man who took the picture. He was a professional photographer who lived near the airfield, next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray.

So, the story goes: Bob Sowray mentioned to Jim Meads that he was going to fly the Lightning that day. When Meads took his kids for a walk, he took his camera along, hoping to get a shot of the plane.

His plan was to take a photograph of the children with the airfield in the background as the Lightning came in to land. They found a good view of the final approach path and waited for the Lightning to return.

Number Three: How Not to Become a Police Pilot

Apparently, the man became friendly with some pilots at the East Midlands Police Air Support Unit. He told the staff that he was a freelance helicopter pilot and owned his own helicopter. He clearly loved helicopters and was interested in a ride-along with the Air Support Unit, but as no passengers are allowed on police operation flights, it wasn’t possible.

Then they received a brand new helicopter, The Eurocopter 135.

Number Two: How Far Did She Fall? The Amazing Story of Vesna Vulović

This blog post started, as so many do, over a general conversation at the pub. We were actually talking about Felix Baumbartner, the man who jumped from the edge of space last year and made numerous records, including the highest freefall ever.

I remembered there was a woman who held the record for the longest freefall without a parachute, who fell for 33,000 feet and survived. Funnily enough, I could remember the distance but not her name or how exactly she’d managed to survive this unbelievable fall from an aircraft. We had an amusing round of guesses (“She fell into jungle canopy which broke her fall in stages?” “She landed in very soft powdery snow?”) and when I got home, I looked it up.

Number One: Sequence of Events in the Cockpit on Asiana Flight 214

The aircraft passed over the Dumbarton Bridge, descending through 4,800 feet on the extended centre-line of the runway. Indicated airspeed was about 210 knots, decent rate was 1,300 feet per minute. The autopilot was engaged and set to flight level change mode descending to a selected altitude of 1,800 feet. This was the normal Final Approach Fix (FAF) altitude. The autothrottle was engaged in hold mode with the thrust levers at idle.

All of this is an expected configuration for this descent to the Final Approach Fix at five miles out.

Shortly after passing the bridge, the flight crew switched the autopilot to vertical speed mode, with a commanded descent rate of 1,000 feet per minute and the autothrottle was switched to speed mode, with a selected airspeed of 172 knots.

That rate of descent was not fast enough to remain on the normal glidepath. The airplane was now above the normal angle of descent.


So there you have it, another year with Fear of Landing. I hope to see plenty more of you in 2014!

29 November 2013

Top Five Gifts for Pilots and Aviation Enthusiasts

It’s that time of year again and many of us are frantically starting to search for the perfect gift to give. I’m not fond of shopping but I do like browsing online for interesting items for myself. So this year, I thought I’d take advantage of my window-shopping and offer up some ideas for interesting aviation presents.

One

To start, I have to mention my book, right? But to sweeten the crass commercialism of it, I’ve just launched a special offer for all of you.

After receiving a number of emails asking about this, I have finally released the first book in the Why Planes Crash series in PDF format. So if you don’t have an e-reader or just prefer PDF readers to any other format, you can now buy it at Gumroad for the super-duper low cost of…

$1.99!

That’s only one hundred and ninety-nine pennies!

This is my first “cyber-friday” sale and it is also a test of the Gumroad shopping system, so let me know how well it works (or doesn’t).

Sadly, the second book won’t be out in time for Christmas, but the first book is also available in traditional ebook formats at a vendor near you for $3.99 US (£2.99 UK):

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/15vt87o
Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/12cNpJt
Nook: http://bit.ly/17JUVil
Kobo: http://bit.ly/1ikFWE4
iTunes: http://bit.ly/12wRuYW

Two

These clocks from TrinTec are gorgeous and they are 35% off all weekend. The Brass World Time Clock is gorgeous (although confusing) but my very favourite is the artificial horizon wall clock:

Three

Rise of Flight: Channel Battles Edition describes itself as the most realistic WWI PC flight sim. I haven’t played it yet but it sure is on my wishlist.

Take to the skies of war torn Europe and experience daring air combat at the dawn of aviation. Re-enact famous air battles fought by legendary aces such as Manfred von Richtofen, James McCudden, Georges Guynemer and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Four

This RAF Fine China Mug says a pilot’s favourite words: Clear For Take-off! And it comes with a lovely tin which can be used to hold teabags.

And if you are shopping there anyway, you can pick up this wrapping paper covered with Spitfires and Lancasters for the full effect. What’s not to love?

Five

And finally, I can’t tell you how much I love these desktop clocks: Lindbergh Aviation Clocks! Aren’t they gorgeous? Someone tell Cliff this is what I want for Christmas, please.

Runner Up

I’m of two minds on this one. The Otto Pilot Universal Tablet looks pretty dazzling but I think it’s possibly too exciting for a knee board?

Still Stuck? Make Your Own Bundle!

I like making gifts out of lots of little things, so for a pilot, I’d head over to Amazon and come up with something like this:

Pick up a not-too-expensive flight bag with some character and then fill it with goodies:

So, hopefully that’ll make it a bit easier to get presents this year – or point your nearest and dearest at this list and hope they buy the lot for you!

15 November 2013

Eight Reasons Why I Need an Espresso Machine on my Desk

This morning, I wasn’t feeling very awake and thought I’d read through my aviation links and news while I woke up gently. Somehow today, though, the entire world seemed full of WTF…

1) I was reading this report and made it on to the next paragraph before my brain caught up and said Wait, what?

ERA12FA265

During a telephone conversation with an employee at the maintenance facility, the pilot/owner reported that he was new to the airplane, which he had purchased about 6 weeks earlier, after it had not been flown for about 3 years.

The airplane departed from runway 23, a 4,301-foot-long, asphalt runway.

The passenger reported that there were no problems with the airplane’s takeoff roll and initial climb. As the pilot turned crosswind, the engine suddenly quit. His next recollection was rolling on the floor of a supermarket.

2) This FAA training video against hand-propping must made my head spin (no gore, although the pilot looks pretty beaten up by the end)

3) How depressing what gets sold at a garage sale these days…

Man Sells Old Cessna 140 at Garage Sale | Flying Magazine

While helping his father set up a garage sale last month, Robbie Love of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, decided to use the opportunity to put his 1946 Cessna 140 up for grabs. He put an ad in the local newspaper to draw attention to the event, listing “tools, household items and a Cessna 140 airplane,” among the products for sale.

4) I just don’t even have words for this one.

5) I thought it was a horror film thing but it turns out that Hummingbird Hawk-Moths are real. I really am not convinced that things like this should be allowed to exist (but I would totally fly a plane called a Hawk-Moth).

Find out more: Macroglossum stellatarum

6) Cliff diving, Alaska style.

This is just plain crazy.

7) This is also crazy. He appears to have simply decided to find out what it would be like to land on a cargo ship.

With footage of six cameras including inside the aircraft. Whilst filming how a small aircraft does aerial photography at sea, the “just in case something goes wrong” flat area for emergency landings just looks too good, so I cannot restrain myself and get away with landing on the moving ship.

Tom and Aalbert save the day by courageously helping me to take off. What is misleading is that control is perfect at several metres above the deck but as soon as you get a metre or two above the deck to land 1) there is curlover turbulence coming off the bow and sides 2) you have only some visual reference like the mast in front.

I won’t do it again.

8) And finally, in the most astounding display of bad taste ever, Motor Sich have used a video of a helicopter being shot down in Syria as an advertisment…

Helicopter Survives a Surface-to-Air Missile Hit


I’m sure you’ll forgive me for shutting down my web browser and spending the rest of the day staring out at the sky.

Let’s hope that next week is a little saner.

18 October 2013

Non-Stop to Havana: Better to be Lucky than Smart

Captain Dick Blizzard spent seven years as an aviator in the US Navy and a further 33 years as an airline pilot. I’m thrilled to have the chance to share one of his pieces with you.

Non-Stop to Havana!

Better to Be Lucky Than Smart

by Dick Blizzard

The airlines only put enough fuel on each airplane to reach the destination, plus a calculated reserve. If the weather is forecast to be bad when arriving at the destination, there is fuel enough to make an approach and then proceed to a suitable alternate airport.

Why not just fill it up…? The airlines are in business to make money. Fuel is heavy and it cost money to carry unneeded fuel. The airline dispatchers spend a lot of time evaluating the weather and adjusting the fuel load as necessary to save a buck. If the Captain disagrees with the dispatcher, he can request more fuel. In my 33 years with Delta, I can only remember a handful of times when the Captain asked for more fuel.

I was a captain for 25 of my 33 years. I only requested more fuel on one occasion. It was granted without any discussion; just an exchange of teletype messages.

International flights are different. It was common for the L-1011 aircraft to depart Portland, Oregon with full fuel tanks for our flights to Korea. Believe me, we needed it all.

Unbelievably, the only time I ever departed with full fuel tanks on a domestic flight was the day I was hijacked. On that day, it turned out; we had enough fuel to go nonstop from Chicago to Havana. Having full tanks probably saved the aircraft and all the lives on board. I think about it a lot. What are the odds of things coming together like that? The only conclusion; it had to be luck – incredible luck.

We were scheduled to go from Chicago to Nashville. Nashville had zero visibility in fog, with no forecast for improvement. The nearest suitable alternate airport was Dallas. Our “short” DC-9 carried 25,000 pounds (approximately 4200 gallons) of fuel. We left Chicago, headed for Nashville with full tanks. At departure, it looked like we would end up in Dallas, for sure.

Our short DC-9 had a crew of four; two pilots and two flight attendants. We had twenty-six passengers onboard. While we were climbing to our planned cruising altitude (26,000 feet) for the relatively short flight to Nashville, a passenger in the rear of the aircraft was busy implementing an ill-advised plan to hijack the aircraft.

The hijacker was an educated black man. He was an ex-con and he had received a bad conduct discharge (BCD) from the U.S. Army. He boarded the aircraft in Chicago with the bomb materials in his brief case.

Security in 1971 was practically nonexistent. There was no body scan, no x-ray equipment, no metal detector and they were not required to look into your briefcase or your purse. There was no TSA.

Passengers were ‘profiled’. Our man fit the profile; he had paid cash for a one way ticket on a short flight and he did not check any luggage. He fit the profile, but they boarded him anyway. It was a common practice for station personnel to ignore the rules and put suspicious passengers and drunks on the aircraft. The station’s people were not equipped to deal with them.

In this case, the Chicago base personnel were fortunate. The hijacker had liquid nitro in his carry-on briefcase. A jolt of any kind would have set it off and people would have been killed or injured inside the terminal building.

The hijacker entered the aircraft and took a seat in the rear of the tourist cabin. He was educated, but he was not too smart. He had no control of the bomb he was about to put together; there was no need for a fuse, just shake it a little. After take-off, he opened his briefcase and began to tape three vials of the nitro onto his chest. He put one on each leg, just above the ankle. He was holding one in his hand.

When he taped the explosive to his body, he raised the temperature of the liquid from room temperature (72` F) toward body temperature (98.6` F). As the temperature rises nitro becomes more unstable and more unpredictable.

After he transformed himself into a human bomb, he wrote a note and gave it to the flight attendant for delivery to the cockpit. The flight attendant watched him write the note after he was seated in the rear cabin. It was well written with excellent grammar and clarity.

The female flight attendant entered the cockpit and said, “I think we have been hijacked. A man in tourist has something taped to his body and he wrote this note for you.”

I can’t remember the note verbatim, but this is basically what it said: I have a bomb. I want to go to Havana. I plan to join Castro’s people and work with the Cuban Revolutionaries in the sugar cane fields. I will follow the flight out the window. There will be no descending or refueling until we reach Cuba.

I turned his note over and wrote, “We are on the way.” That is what they teach today. It is a statement designed to calm things down and give the crew time to evaluate the situation and plan a strategy.

I handed the note to the flight attendant and said, “Give him this and ask him to come up here.”
That is not what they teach today, as every fifth grader knows. However, at that point, I was not convinced the liquid was indeed an explosive and we expected him to come bursting into the cockpit at any minute, anyway.

It was a mistake to invite him to the cockpit, but consider this: a bomb in the tail of an aircraft is just as dangerous as a bomb in the front of the aircraft. I really wanted to look him in the eye and have a talk with him.

Things were different in 1971. Airlines had already had several hijackings, but no one had ever demanded anything except transportation to a different destination.

Once we determined we had sufficient fuel to make the trip safely, there was no reason to take any other action. I knew we could drop him off in Cuba and get back to Miami in time for dinner.

We called ATC for a vector to Havana and switched the transponder to the hijack squawk. Air Traffic Control turned us 5 degrees to the right and answered with a simple, “Roger.” No big deal.

The cockpit door opened and I expected to see the bad guy. It was the flight attendant, “He says he is going to stay in his seat, and he wants you to stay in the cockpit.” I didn’t have a problem with that, and it gave me a better understanding of his intentions.

We asked for a climb to 31,000 feet. Jets use less fuel at higher altitudes. I made some quick calculations and determined we could make Havana and have 45 minutes fuel remaining.

We were on the radio with the company in Atlanta. Delta dispatchers confirmed my fuel calculation and suggested we continue our climb to 33,000 feet (FL 330) to extend our range.

The copilot and I discussed the fact that the hijacker was atypical. The typical hijacker wants to enter the cockpit and take control. Our man was hesitant to walk, because he did not want to jolt the nitro and blow himself into the hereafter. He wanted to live long enough to get to Cuba. He thought he would be welcomed in Havana as a hero. That did not happen – he went straight to jail.

There was no commotion on the plane, so the other 25 passengers had no idea what was taking place. I intended to keep it that way; I did not want anyone to scuffle with our human bomb. We eventually made an announcement saying we were going to an alternate airport because of the dense fog in Nashville. We gave our passengers an estimated time of arrival and opened the bar. I authorized a free drink, compliments of Delta Airline. The booze was offered as compensation for passing Nashville; it was company policy.

As we winged our way south, things were calm and relatively quiet. Finally, the flight attendant suggested we quit serving alcohol – the passengers were starting to party down.

We were out over the Gulf of Mexico, west of Tampa, when we encountered turbulence. It was similar to driving your car over a corduroy road. It is referred to by pilots as a chop.

The moderate chop caused our hijacker to pale and perspire. The liquid was shaking around in the vials. The flight attendant came to the cockpit and reported. “It is really cool back there and he is very tense and he is sweating like crazy.”

We were on the verge of a disaster, but I did not want to believe there was any immediate danger. The copilot and I laughed, but the flight attendant wanted her captain to turn off the turbulence. She gave us a disgusted look and left.

About 110 miles north of Havana we started our descent for landing. Miami ATC handed us off to Havana Air Traffic Control just like it was a common occurrence. The controllers in Cuba spoke good English; it was a smooth transition.

The air was smooth during the descent, but there was a gusty crosswind reported at Jose Marti Airport. It was the copilot’s leg. He made a good landing.*

During taxi to the terminal building, the hijacker stood up and walked to the rear lavatory. He removed the explosives from his body and wrapped them carefully in crumpled up newspaper.

We made an announcement: “We are in Havana. Everyone please stay seated.” Some of the passengers were surprised, but most had already figured out what was happening.

The DC-9 had exit stairs built into the aircraft. Usually the stairs were extended by the agent on the ground. The tower called us and requested that we extend the stairs and open the door from the inside. I had never done that before, but the instructions were on the control panel near the front exit door.

When I left the cockpit to open the door, the hijacker was standing in the aisle with the package containing the explosives held carefully in both hands. He was smiling and apparently very pleased with himself.

I opened the passenger exit door and spoke to him politely. “Are you our ________ passenger?”

“Yes, I am. I hope you are not in trouble.” He answered pleasantly.

I could not help but notice that he had an abnormally narrow head and face. I have thought about it, and I feel sure his appearance may have contributed to the fact that he had lived a troubled life.

Four uniformed Cubans came up the steps and approached the hijacker.

“Where is it?” They asked in English.

He handed them the package and they left the aircraft in single file with our man sandwiched in between. The Cuban’s were all wearing side arms. They marched into the building and we did not see him again.

The crew and the passengers were directed to separate rooms inside the terminal building. There were two sailors in uniform in one room, the civilian passengers in another room, and the two flight attendants, my copilot and myself in another room.

We waited; soon two armed young men in uniform came into the room. They helped each of us fill out a form. It was a simple immigration form. We did it quickly and they left.

After about 30 minutes a man opened our door and commanded. “Follow me.” We followed him to an upstairs restaurant and joined our passengers for lunch.

Our passengers were finishing their free lunch when we arrived. Bobby Goldsboro and his band were among our passengers. Bobby was at the heights of his popularity. He sang and played the guitar and he had some big songs. You might remember his two biggest hits, “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow”.

Each table had a white table cloth with nice china and silverware. The only choice was steak cooked medium rare with all the trimmings. It was good, but my copilot advised me it was probably horsemeat, and he would not eat his. It was a good idea for one of us to not eat, just in case. The food was delicious and no one got sick. We expected a Cuban cigar for a keepsake, but they gave us a pack of Cuban cigarettes. That was a disappointment.

The U.S. did not have relations with the Castro government then, and they still don’t today. There was a representative from the Swiss Embassy at the airport. He was there to meet our flight, he paid for our lunch and he paid for the fuel. Delta Airlines eventually got the bill.

Neither the copilot nor I had ever refueled a DC-9. I was asked which grade of fuel we required. I saw an Iberian DC-8 on the ramp and said, “Whatever you put in that DC-8 will be just fine for us.” We found the refueling door under the wing and the instructions were on a placard inside the compartment. The fuel truck pumped slowly, so it took about 45 minutes. We got it done.

The Delta dispatcher in Atlanta had sent a ‘fuel load’ and a flight plan to Jose Marti operations, so it was just a matter of following instructions. We were flying to Miami with a light fuel load. Miami weather was excellent and it was just 100 miles away.

There were military vehicles lining the runway when we took off. All of our passengers, except one, had full bellies and ready to head home. We were met in Miami by the FBI and the FAA and our crew was taken immediately into a room for debriefing. A new crew was waiting to take the aircraft and the passengers to Nashville.

The next day we were ordered to appear at Delta headquarters in Atlanta for another debriefing. This one was for the company. By that time, I was hoarse from telling the same story over and over. Each debriefing started like this: “Start at the beginning and tell us what happened.” It wasn’t difficult, but it was a long process.

The hijacker was held in a Cuban jail for almost five years. He was finally released and allowed to fly over to Barbados. He was met and arrested by U.S. Marshalls. The Marshalls took him back to Chicago where he was jailed awaiting trial.

I was called to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago to deliver a deposition. I was very impressed by the government attorneys. They were efficient and polite with an emphasis on following the law. I sensed they were being extremely careful to avoid technical mistakes that might cause a mistrial.

I was not called to testify at the trial. He was given 30 years, even though he had already served over five years in Cuba and Chicago. I never learned his name.

During the time he was still in jail in Cuba, a man came to our home in Atlanta with photographs. He laid out the pictures of several men on our living room coffee table and asked if I could identify the man who hijacked the flight. All the men in the photos were beaten and their faces swollen. I did not see anyone who looked familiar.

As he was leaving, I asked. “What was that liquid he brought on board?”

“It was nitro.” I was a little surprised; he answered frankly and without hesitation.

“What would it take to set it off?” I was digging.

“Hold it about waist high and drop it on a tile floor.” He said.

I wasn’t surprised, but until that point, I didn’t know for sure. I felt lucky. I still feel lucky.

*I dedicate this story to my copilot, Jerry Alcini. Jerry passed away several years ago and I miss him. He was a good pilot and a great guy.


If you’d like to read more of Dick Blizzard’s experiences on planes and boats, please visit his site at http://dickblizzard.blogspot.co.uk. Tell him that Sylvia said hello!

13 September 2013

Unexpected Uses of Drones

I’ve become mildly obsessed with drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) after watching the excellent quadcopter demonstration on Ted.

Raffaello D’Andrea: The astounding athletic power of quadcopters

In a robot lab at TEDGlobal, Raffaello D’Andrea demos his flying quadcopters: robots that think like athletes, solving physical problems with algorithms that help them learn. In a series of nifty demos, D’Andrea show drones that play catch, balance and make decisions together — and watch out for an I-want-this-now demo of Kinect-controlled quads.

This got me thinking about uses for drones. I’ve always thought of them as military equipment. Although I’m intrigued by some of the possibilities, like these disguising surveillance drones to look like eagles, I didn’t really consider how they might fit into day-to-day life. Once I had a look around, though, I found a whole assortment of unexpected uses for drones.


Hurricane Spotting

NASA have weather drones to study tropical storms and understand how hurricanes intensify.

NASA Launches Weather Drones to Monitor Tropical Storm Gabrielle in the Atlantic | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Two of the original Global Hawks originally built for the military have been put into action for the job. These drones can fly for much longer periods than traditional research aircraft and at much greater altitudes – Global Hawks can spend up to 28 hours in the air at a time and reach altitudes twice that of a typical commercial airliner. The NASA research mission takes them over the Atlantic to study storms as they form and build, monitoring how they intensify.


Pizza Delivery

Domino’s is already experimenting with drone delivery of pizzas, which I’m sorry, would just be amazing. Did I mention I live on the 22nd floor? Flying drone bringing my double pepperoni pizza through the kitchen window? Absolutely amazing!


Agriculture

In Kansas, they are using drones to monitor great expanses of crops, spotting infestations and disease early, some of which can be detected by drone better than with the naked eye.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Kansas State

K-State Salina’s proximity to accessible restricted airspace creates an ideal setting for learning to fly unmanned aircraft. The Smoky Hills Weapons Range gives students the ability to gain hands-on flight experience. K-State Salina is also one of only a few universities with authorization to fly UAVs in the National Airspace System.

The mission of the K-State at Salina Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (UASPO) is to facilitate and promote the safe incorporation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System above Kansas and beyond.

There’s also a project in the UK collecting photographs and thermal imaging to look at the soil in vineyards and work out the optimum areas for grape growing. One the data is collected, it’s processed by a Geographical Information System (GIS).

BBC News – Cheers! How drones are helping the wine industry

“Apps have grown quite a lot,” said Prof Green.
“I tested some [GIS apps] recently on a Samsung Galaxy tablet and mobile – they worked well. You can walk around with a GIS on a handheld device and monitor air temperature, wind direction, put a soil moisture probe in the soil and upload the results.”

He also says that as the technology increases, there won’t be any need for soil sampling at all.


Beat the Traffic

Delivering anything in a big city can be a nightmare during rush hour. Manayunk Cleaners have started using a drone for urgent deliveries.

Philadelphia dry cleaners using drones to deliver clothes to customers

Laundered garments are being delivered directly to customers front doors in Philadelphia via an unmanned drone.


Grab Things and Take Them Away

I’m not altogether convinced that making drones with talons is altogether a good idea for the future of humanity, but I have to admit this video of one in action is breathtaking.

Clawed drone grabs prey on the fly just like an eagle – tech – 14 March 2013 – New Scientist

His aim is to allow a quad-rotor UAV to help out with tasks like bridge repair, pruning trees, fetching medication, using hand tools or even changing a light bulb. “A UAV with arms could perform the same tasks as a ground robot, but with a three-dimensional workspace,” Korpela told New Scientist.


Counting Orangutan Nests

A simple photography job for conservation that can save millions. The drones are programmed using a Google Maps interface and sent out to photograph nests.

Conservation drones in the field: Lian Pin Koh at TEDGlobal 2013

Koh’s drones are now used in remote parts of the Indonesian rainforest to track orangutan nests and monitor the species population. Traditionally, orangutan monitoring happens on foot with binoculars, and in the past it has cost up to a quarter of a million dollars to estimate the size of the population in this region.

Koh and his team are also experimenting with thermal imaging cameras to detect poachers.


Deliveries at Music Festivals

These clever drones use GPS tracking to deliver to festival goers who have smart phones. The drone will fly to the correct coordinates and eject a beer within a square meter of the person who holding the phone.

Are Beer Drones the Future of Music Festivals? | Billboard

Basically the OppiKoppi Festival is launching an app and when festival goers activate the app, they get the opportunity to order a free beer, which we will drop off by parachute using GPS coordinates and a drone.

Apparently the reason that they are dropping them from up high with parachutes is to avoid damage to the drone by drunken festival goers throwing beer bottles at it. That’s gratitude for you!


Finally, if all this has you feeling paranoid, there’s shiny and fashionable anti-drone wear on the market, designed to block drones from spying on you.

Stealth Wear | Adam Harvey

The ‘Anti-Drone’ garments are designed with a metallized fabric that protects against thermal imaging surveillance, a technology used widely by UAVs/drones. The enhanced garments are lightweight, breathable, and safe to wear. They work by using highly metallized fibers to reflect heat, thereby masking the wearer’s thermal signature.
Of the three ‘Anti-Drone’ pieces, two are inspired by Muslim dress: the burqa and the scarf. Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as “the veil which separates man or the world from God,” replacing God with drone.


Do you know of other, non-military uses of drones? Do drones entrance you or frighten you? Tell me in the comments!