22 August 2014

Flying Over the Alps in a Private Jet Simulator

One of the great things about aviation is that you get to meet the most amazing people. Take Murray Simpson: he’s a pilot with something close to a million trillion hours who learnt to fly in the Royal Air Force and later spent many years flying in East Africa before turning his eye towards corporate jets. He’s incredibly talented and one of the top (maybe the top!) examiner in the UK. And he’s my friend.

These days, he works for FlightSafety International, an aviation training company with some of the best simulation equipment in the world. FlightSafety International offer training for flight crew, maintenance: you name it, they’ll teach you how to do it. I bet you could take over an airport and staff it with their training alone.

And you want to know what’s really amazing about Murray? He invited me to pop over to FlightSafety’s facility in Farnborough to have a look around and find out what a training session in a simulator is really like. I have better friends than I deserve!

I’d never been in a simulator before, although I’d seen one when Cliff did his IFR training. That simulator was a bit disappointing, if I’m honest. I expected something less like a box and something more like an amusement park ride. There was nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong, but it simulated dials and settings, not flying a plane. The whole point was to test you on your use of instruments, which was fair enough, but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we arrived at their offices at Farnborough. The posters on the wall announced that they had “full flight” commercial aircraft simulators with high-resolution images and large field-of-view display systems built on motion platforms. So rather than just a heads-up display, the simulator was meant to recreate the motion: the platform moves in line with the visual cues to give the illusion of flight. But these weren’t for entertainment, they were for training, so I guessed it would be a minimal effect.

We started with a cup of coffee and a tour of the building to see the classrooms. It was clear that no expense was spared: there were 15-30 desks per class room with dual monitors and a large aircraft yoke on every desk. Murray showed me how the instructor could control the scenario from the front of the class and easily watch every move of the students. It looked like great fun: if I had monitors with interactive scenarios and my own yoke when I was at school, I would have paid a lot more attention to the teacher.

After a tour of the building, we reached the Flight Simulator halls. I won’t lie: it was a little bit of a dark and creepy place with large pods on black greasy mechanisms. Murray led down the stairs to see the machinery and then back up again to follow a platform along the long dark room. He stopped at a white pod that said Citation Sovereign across the side.

We crossed a narrow bridge into the pod. Inside was a small room with a trio of passenger seats and a wall of monitors on the right showing display settings and maps. Straight ahead was the cockpit. Murray chose LSGS, Sion airfield in Switzerland. He seemed to consider a couple of settings and then flicked a switch. The cockpit windows came to life, showing a long grey runway ahead and snowy hills on either side. It looked a bit like a fantasy game of a winter wonderland. Murray showed me the METAR for our flight which I pretended to be interested in. We weren’t really flying, after all, so I was unlikely to have to abort due to bad weather. Murray waved me forward. “Strap in.”

I sat down and looked around. There seemed to be straps everywhere. The dashboard was a huge collection of gauges and dials. I blinked. Could I fly this plane? It took a few minutes to start to make sense of all the gauges: there was the altimeter, and there the artificial horizon. As I spotted individual dials the dashboard began to come together. Still, it looked pretty complicated for a video of a take off.

“Strap in,” said Murray again. I confronted the most complicated seatbelt I have ever seen. There were straps everywhere. I found a shoulder belt and pulled it down. Between my legs I found a round buckle which no hint as to where I would slide in the tongue of the shoulder strap.

I’ve always rolled my eyes a bit at the cabin crew demonstration of how to use a lap belt but at that moment, I sure wished there was someone showing me how to put this thing on. Murray busied himself getting into the other seat. He didn’t say anything but I was pretty sure that, if I couldn’t even manage the seatbelt, I wasn’t going to be allowed to fly the plane, even if it wasn’t a real one.

I poked at the buckle until the tongue snapped into place. That’s when I realised that the round buckle had slots for over half a dozen straps and started making my way through the maze of them. Murray set us up for take-off configuration and politely managed not to laugh. I ended up with two slots in the buckle that were unfilled but I was clearly securely strapped in. Besides, we weren’t actually going anywhere. “Ready,” I said.

“Great. I started you on the runway. You have control.”

“I have control.” I felt silly. I mean, the display showed a lovely image of snow topped mountains and a runway stretched out before me but it was just a picture. The cockpit model was seriously detailed but it was just that, a model of a cockpit. It wasn’t real.

“We’re blocking the runway,” said Murray. “Power on?”

Right. I pushed the throttle forward and the aircraft lunged forward and to the left. Shit, rudders. I struggled to straighten out the aircraft as we pummeled down the runway. What did he say my take-off speed was? Where was the damn speedometer anyway?

“92 knots,” said Murray with a knowing look. I had no idea if that was take-off speed or how fast I was already going. I searched for the right gauge as we hurtled too fast along the runway that the plane threatened to veer off of at any moment. Finally, there we were at 92 knots and I pulled back on the yoke just to get off the ground so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by running off onto the grass at the side. Luckily, the aircraft handled like a dream and we rose into the air like a feather. My stomach sank: my rate of climb was insane, we were going to stall if I didn’t get it under control. I pushed the nose down and find the vertical speed indicator, 500 feet per minute. I unclenched the yoke and tried to breathe.

That wasn’t just some picture of a runway. I was there.

I had no time to think about it. Murray called out navigation instructions for Geneva as we rushed down the valley towards mountains that were unquestionably higher than us. I increased the rate of climb and it finally sunk in that I was nowhere near the heading he’d told me to turn onto on climb out. I could control either the rate of climb or I could stay on the heading bug but it was quite obvious I couldn’t do both, let alone watch the speed. “Trim, trim, TRIM,” shouted Murray. I couldn’t even work out which way I needed to trim and I just shook my head. No sane person on earth should have allowed me to be in charge of this aircraft.

But Murray smiled. “Over, there, see?” There was what might have been an airfield in the distance except that at that moment, the bright blue sunlit sky turned ominously grey. I glanced over, ready to cede control. Murray muttered under his breath and seemed to be searching for something on the dashboard. “Must be here somewhere,” he grumbled as I flew straight into cloud.

“Do you know I’m not instrument rated?” My voice came out as a squeak.

“You’re fine. Oh, sorry, lets get rid of this weather.” The outside flickered and it felt like a pinch to the arm. “Just a simulation,” I told myself, over and over. But it didn’t feel like a game. I was clearly in the aircraft, flying. Even when the sky flashed back to blue, there was no doubt in my mind that this was real.

“Right, got it?” I stared at the dials but Murray pointed at the airfield to our left – Geneva – and I set myself up on final approach for a straight in. We were perfectly visual. I was *finally* in trim. It should have been easy. But the aircraft was too fast and I had descended too far. “Go around,” said Murray and I pushed the power back on. A deep breath escaped as I pulled away from the runway. “I’ve got this,” I told him, in case he was wondering if I could do this at all, in case he wanted to break off the trial and take control.

Murray just tapped at the power. “You need a bit more.”

We came around again. This time I had plenty of time in the circuit to get set up. I watched the PAPI and aimed for the numbers as Murray talked me through the speed and altitude. “Don’t over-correct, keep your eyes out there, you’re fine. ”

I pulled the power off as we crossed the threshold of Geneva runway 05. My heart skipped a beat. The wheels touched the runway and I held the nose up for as long as I could. Gently and slowly the nose sank to the ground and as the aircraft began to slow, Murray looked at me and said, with utter shock in his voice, “That was perfect.”

I breathed in for the first time since we took off and look around at Geneva airfield. Here on the ground, I could see the video game quality of the landscape around me again but as I pulled onto the apron, in the pit of my stomach, I wasn’t actually sure it was an illusion. I half expected a follow-me to come out and lead me to my parking space.

Beaming from ear to ear, I started to chatter at Murray. The flight was fantastic, every movement so real. Could I do it again?

Murray flipped a switch and the world shifted. We were back at Sion, on the runway, ready to take off again, as if we’d never made that flight. “Come on then. This time, get it in trim.”

Retracing the flight for the second time, I coped a little bit better with the various demands. I had enough time to look out the window and wonder at my own reactions. The fact that we flashed back to the start and were flying to Geneva again did nothing to convince my brain that I was in a chamber in a dark room: I continued to believe that I was flying this aircraft, on track of a beautiful if somewhat unreal snowbound landscape. I started chattering again about how real it felt.

“The aircraft doesn’t handle exactly like this,” said Murray with a shrug. “I mean, it’s close, just not perfect. The flight-deck is an exact replica of a Citation Sovereign. The performance and handling is programmed using data from test flying of the actual aircraft. It’s close enough to satisfy the governing bodies that you can do Type-Rating training in the sim. Once you’ve checked out here, you can walk straight across the apron and get in the plane and fly away.” He grinned. “We’re airside. They trust us.”

It must be amazing to work there. Flight Safety International cover 135 aircraft models and have over 300 full flight simulators. Murray and the rest of the staff at FlightSafety International could fly a different plane into a different part of the world every day and it would take them years to get through all the configurations.

Of course there’s a cost to all this and a joy-ride in one of the simulators is more than a simple little PPL like me could ever dream of. “Sure, it’s expensive,” said Murray. “But the plane costs millions. You send your zero-hour pilot here and for a tiny percentage of the overall cost of the aircraft, you’ve got a type-qualified commercial pilot trained for your aircraft in two weeks.” He made it sound like a bargain.

Pilots usually come together to be trained as a two-man flight crew and get to spend 32 hours in the sims – 16 in control and 16 in a supporting role in the right seat. And if a pilot comes on his own? “Well, then an instructor needs to sit in for 32 hours – half the money and twice the man hours.” He shrugged. “It’s not a problem, but we prefer them in pairs.”

So, if I can get together a few thousand quid and find a rich friend to join me, we could spend 32 hours in the simulator, 16 of them in control. I’ve already got £183.30 saved up so it shouldn’t take long. Maybe Murray will get me a discount if I promise to ask for someone else to instruct me.

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!

08 August 2014

The Day I Almost Flew a Tiger Moth Single-Handed

What’s it like flying a Tiger Moth? Absolutely AMAZING! I don’t think I can do the experience justice, but I have to try.

You can imagine my excitement when Into the Blue asked if I’d be interested in trying out one of their summer aircraft experiences and I saw Tiger Moth Flights – Classic Biplane and Tiger Moth Experiences. YES PLEASE!

I chose the Tiger Moth flight at Old Sarum Airfield. The Into the Blue flight experience is 30 minutes and offers a choice between a training flight or half an hour of aerobatics. The aerobatics offer was verrrry tempting, I have to admit. However, I was already jumping around about ME IN A TIGER MOTH, I decided that flying upside down might be more excitement than I could handle. I went for the training flight.

Signing up was simple. I booked it online but followed up by phone because I was just that excited I wanted to be sure of the details. GoFly at Old Sarum confirmed it was a REAL LIVE Tiger Moth and that yes, I really would be allowed to fly it. I told her I had my PPL but I didn’t mind if it was just a scenic flight. But no, I didn’t need to bring any paperwork but she confirmed that I would be going out with a qualified instructor who would tailor the flight to my experience level. So not just a joy ride! I chose a day at the end of July, hoping that the British summer would be kind to me.

It was: the day dawned bright and beautiful with brilliant blue skies and little puffy clouds floating past as if they were auditioning for a children’s picture book. I packed the essentials: log book, sun glasses, camera, hair band. There was a major sky-diving event at the airfield so the place was crawling with young people in red jumpsuits strapping on parachutes. I avoided them as best I could (“No, thank you very much, I’m here to fly not to fall.”) and was greeted at the GoFly office. There were two of us flying the Tiger Moth that day, me and an 80-year-old gentleman who if at all possible looked even more excited than I did. We were both almost an hour early for our flights. The gentleman had also trained to be a private pilot when he was 17… in 1951 in a Tiger Moth. I was enthralled. He was really looking forward to flying in one again and the time waiting for our instructor flew past as I listened to his stories of the aircraft he’d flown in the UK and the US.

We were both chattering excitedly as we were led inside for our briefing. He smiled and stepped to the side as we reached the training room, letting me go first. Our instructor was David Wood, a tall, dapper fellow who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wartime poster posing with his bi-plane. The Tiger Moth, he told us, was G-ACDI, still the same registration as when built by de Havilland in 1933. “A year before me,” said my new gentleman friend with a grin.

He didn’t tell us the full history of G-ACDI but of course I looked it up. In 1940, it was taken over by the RAF where it was reregistered as BB742. A year later, the aircraft collided on the ground with another Tiger Moth – a bit of bad taxi-ing, that! – and had to be transported by road to be repaired: an indignity for any aircraft. It stayed in the RAF until November 1947 when it was flown to Little Rissington “for disposal,” which is not quite as final as it sounds. The aircraft was sold in 1948 and regained its civilian registration of G-ACDI. In 1954, the Tiger Moth suffered an engine failure and crashed on take-off.

The aeroplane was deemed beyond repair but someone collected all the parts and stored them in the corner a hangar for fifty years. It was 1995 before G-ACDI was rescued from the scrap heap, when it was restored at Old Sarum. David, our instructor, bought the Tiger Moth after the restoration and helps with the maintenance and care (under supervision) and it showed. I was quite intrigued by the bi-plane but David was clearly deeply in love.

“Here’s a list,” said David, “of all the things the Tiger Moth does not have.” It seemed to be quite a long list. The Tiger Moth has no starter, no nose wheel, no stall warners, no flaps, no roof, no brakes. I had vaguely understood that the Tiger Moth was a relatively simple plane but it was a bit disconcerting to see all those pieces of equipment that I relied on for flight to be missing. This was unlike any plane I’d flown before.

“This is why the Tiger Moth is one of the very finest basic trainers ever produced. It requires real skill to fly it well. It may seem ludicrously hands-on but as a trainer, it teaches skills not knowledge.” The gentleman next to me nodded. “Seat of the pants flying,” he said knowingly.

That was all fine but I’m not all that good at flying. I mean, no one has ever looked at my dumpling-shaped 5’0 frame and said “Hey, you are a natural pilot.” And here was an aircraft that was specifically designed to show me up.

On top of everything, I’d never flown a tail dragger: an aircraft which has what is confusingly called “conventional landing gear”. There’s no nose wheel, just the two main wheels under the wings and a skid at the back to keep the tail off the ground. Taxiing, take-off and landing were all very different and tail draggers were notoriously easy to tip over. I’d seen plenty of photographs of vintage aircraft with their noses digging into the grass as a result of bad handing.

I took a deep breath and we went over the emergency procedures. David asked each of us about our experience. The 80-year-old had vastly more hours than I did. Once he was finished, they both turned to me. “I’ve done about as many hours in total as he has in the Tiger Moth alone,” I admitted. “And I’ve never flown a vintage plane.” My gentleman co-student threw me a look and I considered that possibly referring to his trainer as “vintage” was not my most tactful comment of the day.

David just smiled. “So, who wants to go first?”

“I will,” said the gentleman who up until then had been very courteously stepping aside to let me go first. It appeared that first access to the Tiger Moth was a bit different. I grinned at his obvious excitement and walked out to the Tiger Moth to watch him get set up.

It was a beautiful aircraft — she, corrected David. And of course it was a she: glossy red lacquer with leather straps and brass rings. It seemed incredible that we were going to just hop in and fly this thing.

The gentleman beamed like it was Christmas day as they looked over the aircraft. “Can I sit in the back?”

David paused and then nodded. “I’ll just need you to do the radio.” The old man pulled on his helmet and started climbing in, leaving David rushing to the other side to steady him. I was disappointed to see that they were motor-cycle style helmets. I’d been hoping for leather ones with sheep’s wool earflaps and aviator goggles.

“I’ll sit in the front when it’s my turn,” I said. The front dashboard was not quite so well kitted out and was clearly the passenger seat. But no one heard me, they were intent on their flight. David swung the propeller around and the engine started with a roar.

The half-hour dragged, although I suspected it flew past (no pun intended) for the pair in the cockpit. It was a hot summer’s day and I only survived the wait at all because the GoFly operations guy brought out glasses of water (and friendly conversation). But finally, the aircraft returned home. It had barely stopped rolling before David waved at me to come on over. It was my turn.

I kept my sunglasses, as they’d be protected by the helmet, but David recommended that I leave the camera behind; advice I was grateful for when we turned upside-down. But that was later.

Physically getting into the cockpit was more complicated than I expected. I clambered onto the wing trying to remember all the places he had warned me not to touch the aircraft (“It’s all just wood and fabric, remember.”). Finally, I stood on the seat and slid into place. I was in. Now I had to try to make sense of the seatbelt/harness thing. There were four leather straps with brass rings and a pin and a metal triangle that looked like a children’s puzzle game.

The dash was a thin wooden panel like I’d expect to see in my grandfather’s old work room in the cellar. It didn’t look it should be on a real plane. The whole experience was somewhat unreal. I pinned the straps together and gave the harness a tug. It seemed safe enough.

“Hold back the stick while I start up the engine,” said David. “Otherwise the nose will tip forward.” I clenched that stick like my life depended on it and flipped the magneto switches up at his signal.

Finally, we were surrounded by the familiar sound of the Tiger Moth engine. He climbed in and we were moving.

I smiled and sat back. I was in a beautiful vintage plane about to take off and fly over the Salisbury plains in the sunshine. Could life get any better than this? David interrupted my day dreaming. “Now you too can experience the joy of taxiing a tail dragger. You have control.”

I choked and then rapidly grabbed the stick and looked for the rudder pedals. Memories of my first-ever training flight came back to me: I couldn’t reach the pedals. Weren’t they all a lot shorter in 1933? Clearly still not as short as me, though. David agreed to do the rudders. I increased the power and we trundled down the taxi-way.

“Here’s the thing,” said David. “We have no brakes. We’re following another aircraft. And we’re about to start rolling downhill.”

I twisted for a better look as the bi-plane picked up speed. We were coasting straight towards a small gyrocopter which was paused ready to enter the runway. How the heck was I supposed to taxi with no brakes?

“I think you should taxi,” I said. He laughed and pulled the power right back. “It’s all about thinking ahead.” David turned the aircraft right then left, zigzagging his way along the grass taxiway at a slow speed. I breathed a sigh of relief when the gyrocopter entered the runway.

Next it was our turn. David pulled us onto the runway. “You need to be very careful to ensure your nose doesn’t go forward on take-off,” David explained. “I’ll do this, but follow me through on the controls.”

I barely had time to find the controls before we were climbing away from the airfield. “That…. what did we need the runway for?”

He laughed. “I have a 400 metre farm strip at home. I’ve never even needed to use half of it.”

That’s not me in the aircraft but we looked just like that! Except it was louder and windier and a million times more awesome.

We flew. I remember it now with the wind blowing through my hair although of course I had the helmet on. But it felt like the wind blew through my hair and the sun shone on my face and I was out there, in an open top plane flying into the blue unknown.

We climbed and made a slow right turn. I was content to just watch, with the breeze flowing over us and the beautiful Wiltshire countryside green and languid below. But David wasn’t going to give me the easy way out. “Look out, see how the horizon is positioned here? That’s straight and level.” It didn’t look straight nor level to me but I didn’t get time to think about it. “You have control.”

I nervously gripped the stick and the aircraft tilted. “You have to be gentle,” said David. “She’s in trim, just let her fly.”

I patted the Tiger Moth’s dashboard and hoped that it she knew what she was doing. I tried to make sense of the compass but it was horizontal and bouncing. Every gust of wind seemed to make the aircraft sway. I gripped the stick again and the aeroplane tilted again.

“Let’s climb. I’ll show you how to use the trim.”

Now you have to understand, my understanding of a trim is the electric buttons on my beloved Piper Saratoga. I vaguely remember using a trim wheel when I was training and I figured I would still be able to do that. But that’s not what this was. The cables and rods were disconcerting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be this close to the inner workings of the aircraft. It seemed unbecoming, like looking at the innards of a loved one. David talked me through it as I pulled a knob towards me, slid it towards the rear and then locked it back into place.

Of course, while I was concentrating on that, I stopped paying any attention to the flight or even the stick. I wasn’t confident that I was tugging on the right bit and had visions of the entire aircraft unravelling like an over-worn cardigan. I eventually understood that I had to actually be flying the plane in the right configuration in order to set the trim, for some value of “setting a trim”. In theory, I know this to be true but other planes would let me set the trim despite myself. I wasn’t used to having to get it right.

On the fifth try, David took pity on me. “Are you looking out?”

Of course not; I was staring at my feet wondering if I’d ever get this trim thing into the right place. I gave up and looked out.

It was a stunningly beautiful day and we had the entire countryside unfolding below us. The Solent was a glittering ribbon of light in the distance. Beyond that, the dark smudge of the Isle of Wight.

But of course the moment I started sight-seeing, the aircraft tilted and swayed again. It seemed like the slightest breath would set it her off. I began to understand why the Tiger Moth has such a reputation as able to separate the good pilots from the great ones. It may not be too difficult to fly (David certainly made it look easy) but even the smallest deviations were immediately noticeable.

I was helplessly confused. I wanted to lean back and just take it all in. I also wanted to fly the plane, of course I did, but that took concentration and at the same time I didn’t want to miss a single second of this experience.

David sensed my change of mood, or maybe I just finally relaxed my grip on the stick. He took control and regained the height I had lost. “Would you like to try aerobatics?

Would I! “Oh my god yes.”

He grinned and stepped me through the HASELL check. I belatedly remembered that the sky was full of sky divers. I really wasn’t competent to do a look-out, could barely see beyond my own excitement. Everything about the flight was so amazing and interesting, it was impossible to concentrate.

“Watch the wingtip,” he told me. I was a bit surprised, I thought I would watch above and see Wiltshire come into view above me but I dutifully turned my head. I always imagined a roll would be like a loop on a roller coaster but it was much more intense than that. My jaw dropped open as the world turned sideways.

I laughed in excitement as the horizon swung around us. Then we were properly upside down and I looked down in horror at my harness. I mean, it seemed stable enough down on the ground but I hadn’t tested it for holding me into the plane as we flew upside down. Besides, it was just a bit of leather after all, and probably 80-year-old leather at that, depending on how obsessive the restoration was about keeping the original aircraft intact. But before I even had time to finish the thought we were straight and level again. I was still laughing.

“Was that all right?”

I squeaked in delight and tugged again at my harness. It was definitely still all connected.

“Was it? Want to try a barrel roll?”

I needed to regain the power of speech. “That was amazing! Yes, please!”

David took the Tiger Moth through its her paces. We climbed and fell and spun and recovered. “We’re going straight down now, ” he said as we dive bombed a flock of sheep, as if I couldn’t tell. It was somewhat reassuring to hear that he was doing this intentionally. David filled me in on the details. “That’s us hitting our own slipstream. Here’s where the rudder control becomes critical. Feel that adverse yaw? Here’s another roll. Not bad for a 81-year-old, huh?” Through out it all, I giggled like a mad woman.

All too soon, I saw the airfield in the distance. We were heading back. “Watch the nose as we come in. It’s a different viewpoint than what you are used to.” In a tail dragger, you typically land by touching down nose-high in what’s called a three point landing, with both main-wheels and the skid touching the ground at the same instant. This allows for a super-short landing distance. “There’s also a wheel landing where you keep the tail off the ground until the aircraft is slowed down,” said David. “It’s useful if you have a long taxi ahead of you. I’ll do this bit.”

I laughed; it hadn’t even occurred to me to try. I was not under any circumstances risking breaking this beautiful plane. We touched down like a feather and turned off the runway. I was pretty sure the skid on the back was probably still touching the numbers, the landing was so short.

“Not quite right,” David said. “But close. Close enough.”

On the ground again, I found I’d gained a new respect for this crochety old Tiger Moth. I thought she was interesting before, but now she was beautiful. David let me have another look around. I discovered all kinds of bits and pieces to the plane that I was just too distracted to notice in the sky. I ran a finger down her fuselage. The glossy red finish and quaint brass fixtures were not just for show. She might not be high-tech but every piece of the Tiger Moth was beautiful and efficient and utterly complicated.

It’s one hell of an aircraft, it really is. The truth is, I don’t think I’d want to fly one full time. I’m distractable enough as it is without the poor visibility and special handling that a little aeroplane like that requires. I would want a bit more range and I’d like to feel secure that when I went someplace, my plane could handle it.

But if wishes were horses, I’d love a Tiger Moth for hopping around the UK in – visiting friends and attending every air show in the country. I certainly would be more than happy to recommend intotheblue.co.uk to anyone who loves planes, especially vintage planes, regardless of their skill level and experience.


A huge thank you to Into the Blue for providing me with a unique experience and a special day out.

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.

27 June 2014

Project Habu: Thirty SR-71 Blackbirds in Photographs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked him about his first solo flight:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 June 2014

Landing in a Corn Field

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

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

Popular Mechanics , June 1943, The Flying Shark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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