Monday, June 8, 2009

Like Flying Into Dikembe Mutumbo In The Paint

While the NBA Finals are providing entertaining fodder for why it's a bad idea to "throw things on the wall" like Stan Van Gundy is doing with his lineup, I can't help but follow with a macabre fascination the details of Air France Flight 447.

As I have said before, I can't get enough of documentaries on doomed airline accidents. I'm not sure why. But the combination of science, aviation, and the constant stalking by the grim reaper is a potent combination.

Some people dig horror movies. I'm into plane crashes. Just so long as I'm not in one, or anybody I know and care about.

That being said, most of the mainstream media coverage of the crash is overly simple, not technically oriented, and a constant re-hash of known events and news.

If you want a good jumping off point for more interesting technical issues that might fascinate you, read this Miles O'Brien post on True/ that gets into the nitty gritty of what had to be a horrific final 14 minutes of modern air travel.

Not only did those pilots end up trying to thread a thunderstorm needle, they were also trying to thread an airspeed "needle" too...

Excerpt #1

So you see the squeeze play as a plane flies toward the Coffin Corner: the margin between the between the high and low speed limits gets thinner and thinner (along with the air).

Matter of fact, given its estimated weight, altitude and the outside air temperature (which also affects air density), AF 447 was flying through the eye of a speed needle only about 25 knots (28 mph) wide.

So should you feel better or worse about flying "across the pond" in a big, modern, technology laden airliner? Well...

Excerpt #2

Precisely because big thunderstorms are common there, airliners are constantly threading their way through the nastiest cells – deviating at the pilot’s discretion. But no professional pilot would knowingly auger into the heart of a thunderstorm this potent. A pro knows no airplane is designed to survive those conditions - no matter how advanced it is technologically and structurally.

Hard to believe in this day and age, but when you are flying over the pond, you are pretty much on your own. You are not talking to air traffic controllers or being painted by their radar - and of course there are no weather reporting stations beneath you. By definition, thunderstorms are unstable, dynamic and fast-moving. So by the time they reached the storms – more than four hours into the flight - what they learned in the pre-flight briefing was yesterday’s news.

Again, this is not to trivialize the human tragedy of the event, but the overall complexity and miracle of air travel continues to blow my mind.

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    If you are interested in aviation I would highly recommend the Flight Level 390 blog ( which is written by a commercial pilot. Excellent analysis and commentary following incidents like AF447 or US1549, but also general insight into the day-to-day life of a pilot which is witty and thoughful.