13 June 2014

Remote Control Boeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example of the conspiracist explanation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

06 June 2014

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

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

Passenger Lands Plane!

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

Local USAF pilot helps in airline emergency

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

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

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

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

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

Plane Lands on Sunbather

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

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

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

The pilot commented after the event:

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

Who Forgot to Set the Parking Brake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that’s this week’s headlines!

30 May 2014

Fly by Night

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


Fly by Night

Flying feels different in the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Correct again. Follow it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the accident report:

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know him,” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

23 May 2014

Investigating Aircraft Accidents with David Corre

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


An interview with David Corre, aircrash investigator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, that would be very interesting.”

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

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

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

“Tell me about the accident.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s about the statement—” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But … I’m a tourist!”

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

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

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

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


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

Photos:
The Civil Aviation Historical Society: Lindsay Wise collection


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

16 May 2014

Flying through the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

09 May 2014

Ejection 0.8 Seconds Before Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their standard demonstration is documented on Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunderbird crash photo (head-on)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This video shows the view from the crowd:

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

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

Release No. 0121045 – Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 May 2014

The Alien Abduction of Frederick Valentich

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

Valentich's father holds a photograph of his son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved – CSI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graveyard spiral – Wikipedia

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

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

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

Valentich and plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no further transmissions.

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

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

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

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


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

27 April 2014

So I just released this book about Malaysia Airlines flight 370

It was easy to get obsessed with Malaysia Airlines flight 370. I found myself reading news sites from all over the world trying to put together the pieces. As a part of that, I found myself explaining a lot of issues that weren’t clear in the popular press. And I also found myself investigating a lot of theories that I never expected to take seriously.

Pretty soon, I realised that I had a lot of information in my head that I was trying to share on a one-by-one basis. A random guy at the shop idly asked me what I thought about MH370. 30 minutes later I finally paused for breath and he escaped.

That’s when I started thinking I should write all this stuff down. It was the 1st of April.

In this age of constant surveillance, it shouldn’t be possible to lose a Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers. It’s inconceivable that the aircraft flew for seven hours without anyone noticing that it was up there, completely off track. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Sylvia Wrigley, pilot and aviation expert, explores the possibilities in the pages of The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

I took some time off work and did nothing but write for two weeks. Everything I knew. Everything I wondered about. Everything that could possibly be.

I got wonderful support. Three people were offering feedback on the first section while I was still writing the second. I worked with a brilliant editor who bounced back text four or five times a day while we tried to structure and revise it while I was still writing. My boyfriend made sure that I was fed and watered and generally got out of my way, other than to keep reading as fast as he could.

Though most of us will board an aircraft at some point in our lives, we know little about how they work and the procedures surrounding their operation. It is that mystery that makes the loss of MH370 so terrifying. Follow along step-by-step as Wrigley recreates the flight and its disappearance. Review the many varied theories as to how it could have happened — up to and including alien abduction. The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 also introduces a variety of related crashes and incidents, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

I’m incredibly excited about the book, which is called The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It covers the facts of the flight and the initial disappearance, of course. But that’s just the introduction. The bulk of the book is about the theories: alien abduction, pilot suicide, mechanical failure, military shoot-down, lithium-ion battery fire: you name it. If it’s been in the popular press, it’s in the book. I went through every theory and discussed the details. I found examples of the various scenarios so we could compare real-life incidents to what we know about the disappearance. Then I got into detail about the search and the aftermath and what happens now.

I’ll tell you honestly, there were a number of times when I thought, I just can’t cover everything. But damnit, I tried my best and I honestly feel that I did the subject justice.

It’s hard to talk generally about the speculation regarding Malaysia Airlines flight 370, as the scope is much broader than is usually the case for an accident investigation. As all of the simple theories regarding its fate became unlikely, the speculation as to what could have happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 became wilder and wilder.

Now that I’ve survived writing the thing, my biggest problem is obscurity. I need to get the word out and you can help. If you think it sounds interesting, I would be thrilled if you would pick up a copy and give it a read. It’s in all the popular formats: Kindle, ePub, PDF.


The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Buy Now!

If you do read The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the most amazing thing you can do for me is to leave a quick review. Just one or two lines about the book on your online bookstore or on Goodreads can make a huge difference to how often they display my book to others.

If you know someone who might like it, please send them the link: http://mh370.fearoflanding.com/

I’ve posted on Facebook:

and on Twitter:

So if you use them and wouldn’t mind sharing or retweeting, that’s a huge help to getting seen.

The other thing I want to say is: I’m really so glad that you all have given me the chance to write about the subject I love. When I started writing Friday articles for you all, I had no idea how big a part of my life it would become …let alone now much fun it would be!

Now I’m going to go sleep for a week.

25 April 2014

Viral Super Hornet Video from VFA-27

The Royal Maces are having altogether too much fun in their jets. Strike Fighter Squadron 27 is a US Navy Super Hornet fighter squadron based in Japan. Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in the Kanagawa Prefecture, is the largest US Navy air base in the Pacific.

1968 – Introducing the VA-27 Royal Maces.

The attack squadron was established in 1967. The squadron’s insignia, designed by the first members of the squadron, includes a gloved hand holding a large mace and they are known as the Royal Maces. The spikes on the tail were also designed by the squadron members and are meant to represent the spike tips on a mace.

“The design of the Royal Mace and the name came from the Senior Chief that was the plank owner QA Chief in the squadron and also quite an artist. I don’t recall his name right now, but will get out a cruise book and look it up. He was a heavy smoker and was medically retired with emphysema after our first cruise.

The “saw tooth” rudder tail markings that were on the original aircraft, were the brain child of the line division officer, Bill Matto. He had a plane painted with them and showed the skipper. The skipper reamed him out for painting the planes without his permission and made Bill remove them. Then he told Bill to repaint them(now with his permission).

….Bud Biery

However one might feel about the American politics, there’s no denying that these young pilots are risking their lives in some of the most dangerous arenas of the world. They have the best pilots in the Navy and repeatedly have been awarded the Battle Efficiency and Safety awards in the past decade. In 2009 they reached a new milestone: 100,000 hours without a Class “A” mishap.

The Royal Mace mission is to be prepared to conduct sustained combat operations from sea on short notice in support of national policy. We will be ready to provide fused ordnance on target, on time, anytime, anywhere.

In February, the squadron were upgraded to the latest Super Hornets with better systems. They were given heavy training at Air-to-Ground and Air-to-Air events before flying the new Super Hornets back to Atsugi.

On 11 March 2013, CDR Braden “Jimmy” Briller, Commanding Officer of the VFA-27 Royal Maces stationed in Atsugi, Japan, flew the squadron’s brand new 200 jet in loose formation on an Air Force DC-10 tanker prior to receiving fuel. The squadron had completed their transition to new F/A-18E Lot 34/35 Super Hornets, and was en route to Hickam AFB, HI from NAS Fallon, NV on their way back to Japan. (Photo: LCDR Justin “Jugs” Halligan)

I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of giving them GoPro personal video cameras while they train and patrol there but the results are simply amazing. The 5-minute teaser was released on YouTube last week and swiftly gone viral:

The high-definition video from recent patrols includes trips along the Australian and Japanese coasts and incredible footage of an aircraft maneuvering through the Japanese Alps.

“It’s a low-level route we fly all the time — it just happened to be a pretty day,” Matson said.

The full video, Shoot ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, promises 27-minutes fast action, with more low-level flying, carrier operations and footage from the Philippines. It’ll be launched at the NAF Atsugi Spring Festival next weekend and I sure hope there will be a copy online for us all to watch!

18 April 2014

The Disappearance of Aeronaut Walter Powell


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

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

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

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

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

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

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

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

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

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

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