Todd
0
All posts from Todd
Todd in Todd,

FLY THE DEADLY SKIES: GHOSTS OF DISASTERS PAST

2014 was not a very good year for aviation in terms of public relations. The kinds of disasters that have followed one upon the other, and the extremely unusual and improbable nature of these very public disasters have got many among the general public feeling jittery and uncomfortable about stepping onto your typical A320 or 737 aircraft.


Let’s start with the raw numbers. In terms of the number of crashes/disasters that struck the world of commercial aviation, the number actually—believe it or not--is the lowest ever since the number began to be tabulated annually in the modern era. A crash is so regarded when the aircraft in question is considered to be beyond repair and thus completely lost.

The numbers began to be tabulated annually in the year 1949, when the first commercial jet got off the ground to carry passengers around the globe. The number of aviation crashes this year/2014 comes in at 111-that’s the lowest number ever seen.

However, that doesn’t tell the full story. Counting crashes doesn’t count the number of deaths. Even though the 111 counted crashes—non-recoverable planes—is considered low for 12 months on Planet Earth, there is another quantifier that makes the year a little more eerie:

Number dead.

2014 witnessed 1,320 dead would-be flyers. When you take into account the fact that 2013 saw less than 500 dead for the whole year—459, the smallest number dead since tabulation began in 1949 and thus aviation’s true best year—2014 does not look very good at all. This is partly accounted for by the fact of the fact of the two Boeing 777-200’s lost: the Triple 7 is the largest twin-engine aircraft on the face of the planet today. Thus, the loss of the two Malaysia Airlines jets shoved the death toll for 2014 into the major leagues of bad years.

This is not unlike Sunday, March 27th 1977 on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries. Two packed Boeing 747’s (super wide body four engine jet larger than the 777) have been diverted from the Gran Canaria airport because of a bomb threat by Spanish separatists, and are routed into the small, single runway airport at Los Rodeos on nearby Tenerife. One clipper is from the Royal Dutch Airlines, KLM. The second is from the USA carrier that requested Boeing build the jumbo Queen of the Skies for them: Pan Am.

After a layover stuck in the airport with close to 700 people from both planes hungry and aching to get to their hotels, the planes finally get the news they’ve been wanting to hear: a go ahead from the tower owing to the fact that Gran Canaria airport has re-opened. The KLM is first asked to taxi up the runway, make the end, and turn 180 degrees and hold for takeoff clearance. Behind them the Pan Am clipper is told to taxi halfway up the runway, turn off one of the runway exits, and taxi the rest of the way on the side of the runway while the KLM takes off. By the time the KLM has taken to the skies, the Pan Am will have reached the threshold of the runway from driving up the side strip.

The problem is this: the KLM crew was in a mad rush. If the captain didn’t get his big bird in the air quickly, his “allowable work hours” clock will have run completely down, he would have been forbidden to fly, and would have been obligated to park his aircraft on the spot and have the airline carrier pay to billet the entire almost 300 passengers in a Tenerife hotel. These are the regulations that protect the flying public from over-tired pilots. This is the bind that the long delay and diversion to Tenerife put the Dutch crew in.

Making matters worse, just as the Pan Am jumbo turned onto the runway to taxi several hundred feet behind the KLM, a thick soupy fog rolled down the nearby mountainside into the valley that the airport constituted; the crew of the Pan Am jet, ferrying just shy of 400 passengers in their craft alone, soon lost sight of the Dutch bird completely.

Meanwhile, as the American jet is taxiing at 3 knots (barely 5 mph), slowly straining to see the upcoming turn-off at mid-runway, the KLM jet has reached the end of the runway and turned completely around.

Now, because of the thick fog—a cloud, really—the tower personnel cannot see anything happening on the runway . . . operating entirely by radio now.

Without receiving his mandatory ATC clearance, and then final Takeoff Clearance, the captain of the KLM pushed his throttles forward to start his takeoff roll. His shocked junior co-pilot/First Officer yanks the throttles back with bug eyes and says, “But we haven’t received our clearances..”

“I know it,” the stoical captain says, humiliated. “Go ahead.”

A to and fro ensues for a moment as the plane calls for and is granted its preliminary clearance, called “ATC clearance”: this tells the pilots and tower the agreed upon climbout altitude, what waypoint flown to, any turns, and what initial flight level to be flown to before being passed off to another controller handling general traffic and not airport takeoffs and landings. It is not a clearance to take off, however; that is a “takeoff clearance.” That is a second thing altogether and it is granted separately. The first is trip planning-confirmation; the second is approval to embark on said trip.

Having received the preliminary ATC clearance, the captain again shoves his throttles forward, saying “We go.”

His panicked first officer and flight engineer look bug eyed at one another. The co-pilot challenged his senior and highly respected captain once—he doesn’t have the guts to do it again. The engineer speaks up:

“Are they not on the runway then, the Pan Am?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Captain van Zanten, waving the idea off as utter absurdity.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Pan Am crew is still slowly crawling up the runway looking for their turn off in the dense fog—hearing van Zanten say “We go,” the Pan Am first officer proclaims on the radio the fact that they are still taxiing and thus no takeoff should initiate yet. But fatefully, at this precise moment, the tower speaks as well on the same time, causing nothing but a scream of analog radio noise.

Just as the turn off begins to come in to view of the Pan Am crew, they hear and see, coming through the soupy cloud that has swallowed the whole runway, the sound of an oncoming nightmare—another jumbo jet, the KLM, barreling towards them at over 120 mph. Both planes bursting to the rim with passengers and fuel.

The co-pilot of the Pan Am yells “TURN OFF!” to his captain who throws his throttles all the way up to try and get out of the way; the KLM captain, seeing what his haste has wrought, horrified, tries to rotate the extremely heavy plane early, to get it off the ground before it makes contact with the Pan Am.

It was, of course, hopeless. The KLM wasn’t far enough down the runway whereby it would have generated enough speed to produce the needed lift to get the hulking jet into the air. All he manages to do is lift the nose of the craft and drag the tail bottom along the runway, back wheels still firmly on the ground, leaving a screaming trail of tail sparks and burnt paint. The resulting collision was the worst aviation disaster in history: 335 of the Pan Am’s 380 passengers were incinerated, obliterated; all 248 passengers and crew of the KLM perished.

Cause of the crash, although at the end of a long list of factors contributing to an unfortunate situation, was clear: notwithstanding the diversion, the clock ticking on the Dutch team, the fog, the radio overlap—the KLM captain took off without permission, not waiting (or even asking) for takeoff clearance.

583 people perished in total, making it the worst aviation disaster in history.

Thus, when two packed jumbos go down with much of their capacity booked, the fatality numbers go through the roof—just like the two 777’s that went down this year.

Returning to the present year, just the incident of MH370 by itself is incredibly improbable: that one of the most advanced ultra-modern liners of the day, observed by satellites, primary radar, watched by military and intelligence assets . . . that this airliner could subtly wink off of the dashboards of all radars of civilian traffic controllers, military radars, commercial and military/covert satellites, to supposedly meander its way down to the south Indian Ocean to finally run out of gas, falling out of the sky like a dropped paperweight . . . the odds of this alone happening are astronomical and tough to believe.

That a second Boeing 777 from the precise same air carrier could go down within months of the first . . . it just staggers the mind. 777’s are mind-bendingly safe, one of the most reliable man made devices ever assembled for commerce. Probably the most elite, effective, most successful carrier in history, Emirates Airlines, specifically chose the 777 as the workhorse and backbone of their fleet.

That a third craft should go down—without a word from the crew, with no clue where it went, leading to another group of mystified and distraught families and more rescue missions unclear where to look exactly . . . and this craft (despite being an Airbus a320—the European equivalent of the small Boeing 737, a regional narrow body jet for smaller hops) was from the same country of origin as the aforementioned two, it just makes one shudder. The odds are mind bending.

Here’s to the hope that 2015 is a much better year for aviation. The skies are seeming very deadly in some parts of the world nowadays.