The early A320s had a tendency to make firm landings seem rougher. The gear legs were very stiff. Later mods improved this a little. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
Log Entry 1990 - A320 FO - KORD - Arrival Rwy 22R
Arriving in Chicago from the east we often land on runway 22R. It’s a quick arrival and the only hassle can be the ‘go-down, slow-down’ problem. Jet airplanes are so streamlined that once we intercept the glide slope it is difficult to lose airspeed in a hurry.
So today we’ve been struggling with getting down and slowing down and setting the automation to capture the instrument approach signals, and meanwhile our hands are reaching around the flight deck extending speed-brakes, and flaps and landing gear in a scramble to stay bang-on our assigned speed. The arrival controller slipped us into a tight slot, as usual, and we need to stay here.
Meanwhile a B757 ahead is arcing from the south into final. We have the proper separation for wake turbulence which is important because the fifty-seven is notorious for its strong wake vortices. And meanwhile we can hear the traffic on frequency only 3 miles behind us so we dare not slow below our assigned 180 knots until we get to the FAF.
And there are frequency changes to select and tower communications to establish as we cross over the FAF and I’m flying and the check-captain is PNF-ing and watching me because this is my route indoctrination flight. The training center said I’m “good to go” - now I have to prove it.
To make the day a little more interesting, there’s a gusty crosswind blowing from the west and the ideal taxiway into our ramp is only two-thirds down the 7,500 foot runway, so I don’t want any extra airspeed except what I need to account for the gusts, but the airbus automation keeps our approach speed artificially fast to cover for perceived wind-shear and today I wish it wouldn’t because the Boeing 757 doesn’t have this system and we’re starting to get a little too close for comfort.
I can tell this not because my eyes are so sharp that when I glance out at the airplane-shaped dot ahead I can discern the difference between 4 miles and 3.5 miles. But the tone of the controller’s voice says it clearly when he asks us a second time to confirm that we’ve slowed to our final approach speed. He’s about as unfamiliar with the Airbus as I am and he’s surprised by our higher-than-everyone-else approach speed. What he’s implying is: “Stay back from the five-seven or I’ll have to tag you with a missed approach which none of us wants. We’re all busy enough as it is.”
So I take another 'notch' of flaps earlier than normal to shave five knots more off the approach speed, and feel relief as I see the upper wind shearing out now to match the wind on the airport. The auto-thrust pulls back the speed some more. I quickly look around the flight deck ensuring the wheels are down and all the checklists are completed and I try to recall if the controller ever said “cleared to land” - and I confirm with the captain that yes, I did hear that when we checked onto tower frequency.
And a 737 is rolling through the intersection with runway 32R as we come bouncing and rocking a little over the taller buildings near the airport and the 757 is just clearing his tail off the runway at the next exit past my intended turnoff so it’s closer than I like for runway separation but do-able.
And the captain calls “Minimum, runway in sight.” and I respond “Landing”. Not that visual references are an issue today, but this call and response confirms that I’m alive and hopefully still aware enough to land the plane and I haven’t quietly suffered a brain aneurysm. So he won’t need to fight me for the controls at 200 feet above the runway - at least not today.
And the altimeter calls “Fifty” and I start thinking about the de-crab maneuver coming up. I like to do it during the flare because doing it higher than that just seems awkward, and besides most of the time the wind changes right over the runway anyhow requiring further corrections.
The auto-voice calls, “Thirty, Ten..” and we’re rocking around a bit as I’m closing the thrust levers and thinking, now’s a good time to flare and decrab and just before I begin easing the nose up and pressing the left rudder pedal and tipping the right wing down a tad, I think I hear the sound like the captain sucking air between his teeth and then KABOOM! The airplane judders as the earth reaches up and strikes us on the wheels — way before I'm expecting it.
And the airframe shudders again as the wheels grab the pavement and the nose jerks around to the left and the airplane threatens to tip up on the right side wheel, but the spoilers spring out producing another sinking lurch as whole weight of the craft drops onto the gear legs.
And the medium brakes cut in and the nose wheel drops before I’m expecting it and just as it bangs onto the pavement my reflex to prevent this kicks in and it floats momentarily back up as I realize that I’m behind the airplane and release the stick and the nose-wheel drops heavily onto the pavement a second time.
And I fumble for the reversers, but it really doesn’t matter because by the time they’re deployed the auto brakes are threatening to stop us before we’ve even reached the turnoff.
“Better kick the autobrakes off,” the captain warns. As we slow they seem to grab harder throwing me against my shoulder straps and now I have to slide my feet up to the brakes which are at the top of each rudder pedal, but feet don’t slide easily on the non-skid coating. I also have pressure on the left pedal preventing us from swinging into the westerly wind. So I quickly release the rudders for a moment, to lift my feet into the stirrups and tap the pedals which tells “Otto-Brake” to take the rest of the flight ‘off’.
The airplane swerves to the right while I get my feet re-arranged, and the brakes release and suddenly all the deceleration disappears, which makes if feel like we’re surging ahead again.
And the controller is telling us, “No delay clearing at Charlie. Traffic on short final…” And so I add a shot of power to keep the speed up, and move my right hand from the joy-stick to the nose-wheel steering and lurch us around into the taxiway.
The captain calls, “I have control,” and I gladly release these instruments of mayhem that I’ve been flailing with, and get onto the radios to negotiate clearances across the taxiways and into the ramp area.
The captain calls for the after ‘crash’ check with a bit of a chuckle in his voice - which I am truly grateful to hear, and while I work my way over the various panels reconfiguring things, the flight deck door opens and in staggers our purser Razzer Randy, both hands grasping his neck like a brace.
“Take that, Chicago!” he shouts, then breaks into a big laugh and punches me on the shoulder. We’ve flown together many times before and he knows this is my check flight and it was my landing. “Don’t worry chief,” he adds. “I told the passengers you’re a great pilot, just a lousy driver!” He laughs again. “And you owe us lunch in Chicago, we had to restow a half-dozen masks.”
Then he leaves, still laughing.
I turn to the captain and ask if I should log the landing as “heavy” which would require a maintenance inspection before the next flight. He shakes his head, “No. I won’t mention any names, but that wasn’t even the roughest landing I’ve seen on the Bus. You’ll have to drop more masks than that to scare me.”
“But of course you — as in not me,” he continues, “will be saying goodbye to the passengers.” Which of course I did with as big a “Heck, weren’t nothing bad about that” smile I could muster. And I only had to endure a few comments about how I should work on that ‘driving’ technique. And there’s always some who know a bad-landing joke and aren’t afraid to use it.
“Was that a landing or were we shot down?”. Oh, yes. That’s a good one. Never tire of that one. Ha, ha. Thanks for flying with us. You'all come back again as soon as you've recovered. There's more where that came from.
Mar 29, 2007
The early A320s had a tendency to make firm landings seem rougher. The gear legs were very stiff. Later mods improved this a little. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
Mar 27, 2007
While I was searching the net, here are some references I found for
Movies and T.V. shows about flying and aviation:
A good one. Often it's the war-oriented stories that make the best aviation movies:
Baa Baa Black Sheep
I vaguely recall this 'turkey'... after reading the plot summary I'm not surprised it didn't last:
Plot summary for
San Francisco International (1970) (TV)
Pilot for the TV series, stars Pernell Roberts as Jim Conred, who runs an airport, much to the chagrin of his boss, "his way." In this, two plots run - a kid whose parents are splitting up decides to take off in a little red prop plane (and Conrad talks him down), and thieves played by the handsome Tab Hunter and his truly ugly sidekicks try to steal a money shipment. Roberts was replaced by Lloyd Bridges when the show went to series.
A summary of some main aviation movie milestones:
A recent 'reality' t.v. show attempt - Adventures with Southwest Airlines:
Is there anyone who hasn't landed an airliner on T.V.!!?? from Hannibal to the Incredible Hulk ... It must be a lot easier than I realized! (p.s. on most airliners you can't get from the cargo hold to the passenger cabin - details, details...)
The Beast from the Belly of a Boeing (1983)
The A-Team is called in to help out an airline when one of their planes is hijacked by a terrorist group. Hannibal and Face masquerade as airline executives to bargain for the release of the passengers in a prisoner exchange. Meanwhile Murdock and B.A. sneak aboard the plane through the cargo hold in an effort to help neutralize the hijackers. Things get dicey though when the plane takes off unexpectedly and B.A. becomes catatonic, thanks to his fear of flying. To make matters worse, Murdock is accidentally blinded when a gun discharges in his face and it's up to Hannibal to land the jet even though he has no flying experience. Written by R. Bernard Ment
Here's a comprehensive listing of T.V. shows with aviation connections or themes:
The One that Should Have Made It: Flying High
Does anyone remember this last one? I still recall a couple of scenes from the t.v. series that lasted only a few episodes. It had potential. Some of the funniest sequences I still remember:
1/ A flight attendant accidentally gets a batch of brownies made with 'special' ingredients... (can you spell marijuana?) and feeds them to the pilots in flight. Guess who has to land the plane!? See previous comments - hint: it's not Bill Bixby in either persona.
2/ The flight attendant accidentally spills something on the captain's shirt-front. He's protesting "that's okay, that's okay," while daubing at the mess. She's insisting she can clean it up and return it to him asap - if he'll just take it off and give it to her. Next scene: he's sitting shirtless in the flight deck. Cut to: She's holding up scorched remnant of shirt after leaving it in the hi-temp oven too long to dry it.... I think the concurrent story-line (it may have been this same episode) involved the shirtless captain having to go back to deal with a rowdy passenger...
3/ (same episode as above?) The captain has to leave the flight deck (to deal with pax problem?). The first officer is busy reading a comic book, foot up on the panel. The second officer is busy pretending to fiddle with knobs and buttons. The captain tries to delegate one of them to go back to deal with this, but the s/o whines out - saying something like "I've got no training for this - send the first officer - he was in Vietnam... The first officer just grunts and hides his face deeper in the comic book.
Finally the captain gets up to leave and says: "You have control." The first officer looks up from the comic, stunned and surprised and eagerly starts to sit up straighter to take control. The the captain adds: "but don't touch anything." The first officer shrugs, and slumps back down with the comic as the plane flies on with the auto-pilot...
As you can tell, I enjoyed these snippets, but these were the high spots. Overall the show was un-even and had potential but didn't carry it through. Too bad. I always LOVED that line: "You have control... but don't touch anything!"
Okay - 'Ouch Zone' landings next - as promised. This posting is just an extra and doesn't count.
Soaring Student wrote:
When I'm flying in seat 27H, boring is good. Though I just experienced an Easyjet landing in Lisbon that made me wonder if the co-pilot has a serious depth-perception problem - I half-expected seeing the landing gear to punch up through the floorboards.
I often say that my worst landing could be the next… although it would have to be something special to outdo some of my Blasts From the Past.
When I first checked out on the DC-9 it took me a while to find where the wheels were. The ‘9’ was my first jet-liner and making matters worse I and my course-mates were finally moving up the seniority list after five years in the back seat of the 727. Now that I think of it, this was the year that many Captains bid off the base. Probably just coincidence.
My previous experience had been with smaller airplanes where my backside was co-located with the center of rotation of the fuselage. As I moved, so moved the plane. But on an airliner we sit at the forward end of a very long lever. It requires some mental adjustments to “fly the wing” (as one well-respected pilot manual says). That is to keep our mental focus back on the wing near that invisible point around which the airplane rotates - and where the wheels are dangled.
Over the years I developed the habit, once aligned on final approach, of taking a quick glance around, including out the side window towards the wing-tip. This reminds me that there's a entire aircraft behind the flight deck door - details, details. After a long flight and just before re-locating earth with the wheels it's good to remember which model Airbus I’m currently strapped to.
The ‘319’ is like a sports car. It’s short-coupled, agile and responsive and so more susceptible to gusts of wind. At the other end of the scale the 321 is more stable and so more susceptible to wind-shear. We have to be careful not to pull the nose too high during the flare and striking the tail against the runway.
This is also a good time to check myself for fatigue or disorientation or inappropriate intensity level.
Speaking of intensity level, I once read a study of how we perform complex tasks. One key bit of information stayed planted in my memory banks. Apparently we should aim for a moderate level of intensity. If we become too tense we develop tunnel-vision and one part of the task mesmerizes us while we forget the rest. And of course if we are too relaxed we don’t achieve maximum accuracy. It requires a fine balance.
One way I detect when I or my co-pilot may be too wound too tightly is by how we grip the controls. Sometimes it’s not just the passengers who are ‘white-knuckled-flyers.’ When I find myself gripping too tightly or over-controlling the airplane, I sit back, breath deeply and flex my hand to loosen my death-grip. Then it’s back-to-work but hopefully with a little better perspective.
Now, you may suspect that I’m avoiding the embarrassment of describing my worst landing (so far). But there are so many factors that work into a good or bad landing. Am I merely preparing my excuses? Hey, I always like to stay ahead of the airplane. As I tell my co-pilots -- all official excuses for less-than-stellar landings must be duly recorded during the top-of-descent briefing.
For example there’s depth perception which SoaringStudent brings up. Humans are not very good at it. At least not as good as we need to be for flying. It’s just not in our genes. For one thing, our eyes are not far enough apart to provide the stereo vision that say a bird must have. So our minds learn to make calculations to create the illusion of greater depth perception. And that’s part of the problem. Our senses are so easily fooled. I love this description expressed by Ebenezer Scrooge to Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol:
“…said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!''.
Which makes me want to attribute bad landings to remnants of “underdone potato” - or more likely late-night pizza. But that’s just wishful thinking.
I now will continue describing my worst landing. Oh - wait - I just remembered one more thing I should mention. An unavoidable indicator that you’ve crossed from a firm landing to the ‘Ouch-Zone!’ is when an explosion of plastic and rubber rains down on startled passengers as the oxygen mask doors spring open. If you’ve been nice to the flight attendants they’ll pretend this is no big deal and calmly re-stow them for you. Otherwise upon reaching the gate, they may rib you mercilessly until you go back, red-faced, to replace them yourself.
So, I was about to tell you about my worst landing. Oh - look! This blog-entry is already too long. I’ll have to wait until my next posting -- I promise.
Mar 26, 2007
I don't understand why there are so many movies and t.v. shows about doctors and lawyers and police officers and even firemen, but virtually none about pilots. Yet "Pilot" is still one of those high-profile occupations that turn up on the lists of things kids want to do when they grow up.
I also noticed something while reviewing transcripts from flight-deck voice recorders. When things start to go bad, the flight deck gets very quiet. Now, this I do understand. When I need to concentrate during critical flight conditions, I don't have much extra computing power left on my 8-bit brain.
I first experienced this phenomenon while training to become a flight instructor. We had to give explanations of flight exercises to a student as we performed them. We called it "patter." It was surprisingly difficult. Especially during more dynamic maneuvers like stalls and spins. My explanations would start out fine, but as soon as the aircraft whirled off into the spin I would trail off into silence.
And finally the flight deck gets quietest of all when disorientation sets in. I immediately think of some stress-filled approaches to minimums late at night in severe turbulence and moderate rain at St. John's Newfoundland. Sometimes I have been barely able to keep the little cross-hairs centered in the instrument face as it became my entire world. My focus tunneled in until just that one task existed. Meanwhile all around, my head was spinning and out of touch with reality. I had no time to talk about what I was doing.
I would illustrate this feeling in a movie with edgy music, bouncing rapid-cut camera images flipping from one to another and the camera sometimes going right out of focus, continually moving.
There we go - we have the opening scene for a movie. We'll call it: The Approach - a normal night landing on "The Rock" .... sounds dramatic enough.
"Quiet on the set! Roll cameras! Action!"
Mar 25, 2007
Due to system redundancy, it is permissible to operate an airliner with some items not working. The Minimum Equipment List (MEL) designates when and how this can be accomplished. Engineers try to envisage all the possible ramifications caused by the un-serviceable component. Sometimes they don't think of everything. For example the following accident report says:
"... At the time, a battery powered back-up source for instruments was not required on commercial aircraft...."
I suspect that a battery back-up source for the flight instruments was thought to be unnecessary because the 727 has three engine-driven generators. How could all three fail at once? Unfortunately, the B727's normal electrical loads exceed the capacity of two generators, let alone one. The Second Officer's most important duty in the event of generator problems is to protect the source of power to the Essential Bus which feeds the crucial flight instruments. He than must immediately reduce electrical loads by turning off a specific array of high-load items.
In this accident, the flight began with a handicap. When the last remaining generator went off-line, the pilots lost control of the aircraft before the Flight Engineer could re-establish power.
United Airlines Flight 266
Aircraft type Boeing 727-22C
Operator United Airlines
Tail number N7434U
United Airlines Flight 266 was a scheduled flight from Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, California to General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee, Wisconsin via Stapleton International Airport, Denver, Colorado with 38 on board. On January 18, 1969 at approximately 18:21 PST it crashed into Santa Monica Bay, Pacific Ocean approximately 11.5 miles west of Los Angeles International Airport four minutes after takeoff.
Two minutes into its flight, the pilots reported a fire warning in the No. 1 engine and shut it down. The aircraft had departed LAX with one of its three generators inoperable, and shutting down the suspect engine took a second generator offline. The remaining generator became overloaded and shut down, resulting in the loss of all electrical power.
The pilots began flying in total darkness with less than 3 miles visibility due to fog and rain, with no lights or instruments, and consequently lost complete control of the aircraft due to disorientation and crashed killing all 38.
At the time, a battery powered back-up source for instruments was not required on commercial aircraft. The accident prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to require all transport category aircraft to have new backup instrumentation installed, and powered by a source independent of the generators.
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Now for something related but a little more light-hearted:
Mar 23, 2007
After five long years I advanced in seniority from second officer on the B727 managing aircraft systems and began my next assignment as first officer on the DC-9. Finally I had “my” very own control column and window (although for the first six months if I actually had time to look outside it meant either that we were on final approach or that I’d forgotten something I should be doing). The FO’s job on the DC9 was the busiest post in the airline. Basically we did everything that the first and second officers did together on the two-seven.
Our average flight leg was around an hour or less on the inter-city “milk runs” and this is where I really learned the art of all-weather instrument flying. We routinely flew to isolated northern and maritime airports in the morning and then the world’s busiest terminals in the afternoon. And we pulled out every tool in our IFR arsenal from “contact” into an uncontrolled airport like Val D’Or, (“You’re cleared for an approach. Call the flight service station and tell him which runway you’ll be using,) to a fully-vectored CAT2 ILS into O’hare, (Turn left to such-and-such a heading; descend to this altitude; reduce speed to so-many knots; arrange to cross this intersection at this speed and altitude). Two extremes of IFR flying.
While I concentrated on developing my piloting skills under the tutelage of some master aviators, I also became more aware of the captain’s role as a decision maker. Whenever the mechanic, or anyone else came into the flight deck with a tough problem requiring a “captainly” decision, my head could simply rotate to the left to watch these experienced captains “earn the big bucks.”
Then one day, after I’d been on the airplane for a while, Captain Ren Fortine surprised me. It was a typical day with a typical problem that had just been dumped in his lap - something to do with an serviceable piece of equipment that wasn’t clearly covered by the operations manual — one of those decisions that are difficult simply because there are no clear-cut guidelines. The decisions that require a healthy dose of common sense and good technical knowledge to come up with a sound ruling. Captain Ren surprised me when he turned and asked, “So what do you think? Should we go like this?”
“What?” I felt my brain slowly engaging another of its limited channels. “You’re asking me what I think about this…?” I don’t recall my response; probably something profound like, “Aaaah, wow, that’s a tough one…” I soon realized that one of the reasons I enjoyed flying with captain Ren and others like him, was that they expected me to contribute more than just flying ability to the operation. And this was in the days before Crew Resource Management (CRM) training. Some guys were just naturals.
Then the day came when I found myself on the line in command of my own airliner. And soon came the inevitable day that a mechanic or someone else entered the flight deck with another conundrum, looking for the Final Answer. My head may have reflexively snapped around to the left, but if it did then of course all I saw was the insubstantial reflection of my own face in the windshield.
“D’Oh! Now what?” I probably asked myself. I snapped my head back around to the right and addressed my first officer in my most Captainly Manner; “So, Number One. What are your thoughts on this?” Wow. What a great stalling tactic. It not only made me look like one of those ‘cool’ CRM-captains who values the first officer’s opinion, it gave me time to think the problem through in more detail. And of course I’m being humorous, because I really do believe in the concepts of CRM.
The best realization I ever had as an aircraft commander is that I am not expected to be a One-Man-Band. In fact just the opposite. The word captain implies that there are other team members and I am merely at the head of this group leading and co-ordinating their contributions toward a common goal. And of course I’m responsible for forming that final verdict.
Our team includes a first officer with valuable flying skills. She may have insight into things beyond my experience. And she probably knows the rules and SOPs better than I do. The FO also has the freedom to analyse situations apart from the pressure of carrying that final responsibility.
Our team also includes experienced pursers and flight attendants who are masters with people-issues and who know the ins and outs of cabin service and what is needed for that end of the job. Our team includes highly motivated and professional mechanics who understand the details of the aircraft and how to fix it. Our team includes well-trained and conscientious lead station attendants who know how to properly load the cargo holds.
Our team includes professional flight dispatchers, and weight and balance technicians and even expands to include air traffic controllers, and flight service specialists and company gate agents and many others who provide resources I need to safely and efficiently accomplish each flight.
I am not alone. I am not a one-man-band by any stretch of the imagination.
Knowing this took a lot of weight off my shoulders and allowed me to confidently seek and incorporate ideas from the whole team. Like the fictional Captain Picard on Star Trek TNG (yes, Trekkies - I did say ‘fictional’ — sorry), I can just picture myself assertively saying, “Ready room!” and leading my team off to a quiet conference chamber where we will come up with the absolute best response for any difficult situation.
But our flight decks have no “Ready Room.” So I make do with cramped quarters and often-frustrating two-way radios, and unreliable data-links as I gather expert opinions to help form good decisions. And of course I rely on that all-important tactic of turning to the first officer or other team member and asking, “So, what do you think we need to do here?”
Hey, it works for me.
And now for your weekend viewing pleasure, a Real One Man Band:
Log Entry 1980 - DC9 F/O. - Winnipeg - Taxiing out
“You know, this job isn’t fun any more. It’s so routine. And I’m flying with some captains who are driving me crazy with their idiosyncrasies and inefficient practices. When I try to show them a better idea, they don’t listen. In fact they get ticked off with me.” I could hear the discontent loud and clear when first officer Tommy Turrel first expressed his frustrations. “It’ll be better when I get promoted,” he continued. “Then I’ll be able to run things my way and it’ll be fun again.”
Now here we were a year later taxiing the long distance towards the button of runway 18 at CYWG and we had a couple of moments to chat. Tommy had his promotion to the left seat, and I had moved up to first 'O' on the DC-9. It was our first trip together on the new airplane.
“How are you enjoying the left seat?” I asked.
“You know, it’s still the same job," he replied. "I thought that once I upgraded to Captain I’d enjoy it more, but it’s still the same.”
I learned something important from Tommy that day. No matter how much I enjoy flying, I decided I’d better look for something deeper than a mere job on which to center my life.
This is a realization that some airline pilots get, but others never do. Some remain continually focused on moving up the seniority ladder always certain that the next promotion will bring the 'fun' back into life. It’s easy to spot these folks when the airline industry takes a nose-dive, which it always does at regular intervals. During the down-times as careers actually slide backwards, and pilots are layed off, those for whom ‘the career’ is the end-all and be-all are understandably shaken. They become morose, angry and generally sullen. Meanwhile the pilots who have centered themselves elsewhere, recognize the current troubles, but still manage to enjoy the wonders of life.
Another colleague put it this way one day during our initial training days at GooseAir.
“I just realized my whole life is now mapped out! I’ll be a Boeing 727 second officer, then a DC-9 first officer, then a B-767 first officer, then a DC-9 Captain, then a 727 captain, then a 767 captain — I’ll never make it to the left seat of the Boeing 747 because I’m too old. The only pilots who’ll ever gain enough seniority to fly the left seat of the B747 are the ones who are hired when they’re eighteen…. So I’ll remain a B-767 captain until I retire. Then I’ll die.”
He was obviously a little discontented by this prospect. He began looking for excitement beyond his career. It wasn’t long before stories emerged of huge debts he had piled up from stock market losses. And these were soon followed by stories of gambling problems.
Long before his career played out the way he’d pictured it that day back in training school, he lost his job through a combination of personal problems and attendant medical woes.
When we realize the need to center ourselves beyond the career, it's wise to look for the right way to do that. It's critical that we zero in on the true source of the discontentment.
Here’s something from a book I'm reading that talks about this:
“A discontented person won’t find contentment through any outward change. Put her in a new and bigger house, and she’ll still complain. A discontented man can change wives, but if he doesn’t address the spiritual cancer within, he’ll grow just as weary with the new one. Trying to find contentment in this world without addressing the inner person is no more drastic a change than simply changing cubicles while continuing to work for the same company. Your location may change but the overall environment is exactly the same.” pg. 188; Authentic Faith — Gary Thomas
Mar 21, 2007
Maybe it's spring fever? Or whatever, but my mind has been "Lost in Space" lately. Until the mind warp is over, let me share this bit of frivolity I found while surfing... And it even has a relevant message:
Sometimes communicating with automation is the most frustrating part of the job...
In the news this week -- an item about a passenger who died in flight and how the crew dealt with the body -- they 'stored' it in an empty seat in the first class section.
Thankfully passengers don't often become seriously ill or die during flight (and it's rarer since the airlines stopped serving meals - I'm not joking...). But when it happens, airline crews have to deal with it as best they can... (Fill in your own jokes about posthumous first class upgrades. I know you're thinking them.)
One night while cruising at flight level 370 over northwest Ontario, we heard a GooseAir B767 inform ATC that they had a passenger on-board experiencing a probable heart attack and they may need to divert to Sault Ste. Marie. Then they made an unusual request. They already had a willing G.P. attending to their sick passenger but now their 'doc' needed help. The captain asked all the other flights on the frequency to see if anyone had a heart specialist on board who would provide consultation.
We quickly canvassed our passengers but no luck. Then a few minutes later rival SpamCan Airlines reported they had a cardiac doc standing by in the flight deck ready to help out.
Apparently the sick passenger was stable and 'doc' wanted a second opinion regarding the best course of action. Should they get the passenger to the nearest hospital or would it be suitable to wait another hour our more until landing in Toronto? Would the passenger be better off at a small city hospital far from his home, or could he wait for the (presumably) better facilities in Toronto? Was the situation serious enough to warrant diverting the B767 into a less-than-ideal alternate airport at great expense and inconvenience to the airline and the other passengers?
After a few minutes of discussion the heart specialist expressed a clear preference for getting the passenger to any hospital as soon as practicable. Apparently there is a very high likelihood of subsequent attacks after the initial symptoms of a heart attack have eased.
As soon as the captain heard this he declared the diversion and received his clearance. He'd already warned the flight dispatcher to have the station personnel in CYAM ready. Though it was an unusual operation bringing the jumbo jet into the little regional airport everyone involved worked very hard to make it happen. By the time the passenger arrived on the ramp, the ambulance was there to meet him.
This passenger didn't get the the free first class upgrade -- but I suspect he was ok with that.
Mar 20, 2007
Mar 19, 2007
Can you guess the 5 busiest airports in the world last year in terms of passenger movements? They're listed at the bottom of this news item:
A news story about growing congestion in the skies.
And here is the Flight Aware view of the current air traffic situation over JFK in New York.
Pioneer Canadian aviator, Wilfrid R. "Wop" May
Time was I used to read every aviation book I could find, including some about Canadian aviation history. Those were the days before internet boys and girls. Can we spell L-I-B-R-A-R-Y?
Here is today's history lesson:
Tribute to a Canadian Aviation hero.
Mar 17, 2007
A little light-hearted, weekend humor which you may have already seen floating around the internet:
1. At lunch time, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars. See if they slow down.
2. Page yourself over the PA. Don't disguise your voice.
3. Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.
4. Put your garbage can on your desk and label it "IN".
5. Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks. Once everyone has gotten over their caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.
6. In the memo field of all your checks, write "for smuggling diamonds".
7. Finish all your sentences with "in accordance with the prophecy".
8 Dont use any punctuation
9. As often as possible, skip rather than walk.
10. Order a Diet Water whenever you go out to eat - with a serious face.
11. Specify that your drive-through order is, "to go!"
12. Sing along at the opera.
13. Put mosquito netting around your work area and play tropical music all day.
14. Go to a poetry recital and ask why the poems don't rhyme.
15. Have your coworkers address you by your wrestling name, Rock Bottom.
16. When the money comes out the ATM, scream "I won! I won!"
17. When leaving the zoo, start running towards the parking lot yelling, "run for your lives, they're loose!!"
18. Tell your children over dinner "due to the economy, we are going to have to let one of you go."
19. Post a list of TWENTY WAYS TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY LEVEL OF INSANITY but only list nineteen items.
20. Why are you still reading...?
Often in aviation it's the potential for disaster that keeps pilots alert, though thankfully the chances of actually experiencing that disaster remain small. When I encounter folks who are afraid to fly I usually congratulate them for being aware enough to realize what's happening. Despite all the statistics that airlines like to throw at them to calm them down and keep them coming back for more, these individuals have figured out that blazing across the sky at almost the speed of sound in a frail aluminum tube is not inherently safe.
Sitting in your living room - that's safe. But flying -- definitely not safe. Unless, that is, a lot of highly motivated people work very hard to make it safe. I try to console nervous passengers that the pilots and other airline personnel are acutely aware of the dangers and work very hard to identify hazards and head them off before they create problems.
So, one more posting on Rejected Takeoffs (RTOs) and then I'll move on. I want to get a handle on how much energy is involved in high speed RTOs. If things get out of control just how badly can stuff get damaged? To do this I created my own measuring units because the scientific ones don’t mean much to me. I know my light bulbs are 60 watts, but I don’t really care how many crashing Jumbo jets it takes to light up Las Vegas for an hour. As for joules or ergs, well forget it. So I invented something I can relate to.
Also, I’m just considering kinetic energy, the energy due to motion, because this seems to be the key measurement of how much trouble I can get into if an RTO (or landing) turns sour. If other forms of energy, like kerosene, get out of control, that’s a whole different calculation and I wouldn’t know where to begin. So, for kinetic energy the formula says this:
Kinetic Energy = 1/2*mass*velocity squared
Which means Kinetic Energy rises in relation to the mass of the aircraft and rises even more sharply as a function of the speed of the aircraft. Using the calculator at this website, let’s run some numbers. As I said, all the typical units for energy are pretty meaningless here so consider this:
If a big man - about 90 KG rides a bicycle smack into a brick wall at 30 kph I know he’s going to get badly hurt. He’d better be wearing a helmut because there’s enough energy being suddenly dissipated throughout his body to kill him or at least break a bone or two.
If I run those numbers I get 1 watt hour of kinetic energy. Let’s make it the basic unit for comparison. I'll call it one “Owieee!”
By comparison, a sub-compact car like the venerable Pinto, driving into that brick wall at 100 KPH generates 100 Owieees!
900 KG Pinto at 100 KPH = 100 watt hours or 100 Owiees!
That’s enough to demolish the car and seriously injure the crash test dummies on board if they’re not wearing their seat belts and their Pinto doesn’t have airbags. Again, I’ll ignore the infamous cases where the gas tank explodes — because that would include all sorts of other energy. I’ll call this much kinetic energy 1 KABOOM. One Kabooom equals 100 Owieees!
Interesting. For a 10 fold increase in mass and a two-fold increase in speed I get a hundred times increase in Kinetic Energy.
Now lets take it up a few orders of magnitude with some typical aircraft examples:
A320/B737 at 60,000 KG & 160 KPH = 164 KABOOMS or 16,460 Owiees!
A321/B727 at 90,000 KG & 300 KPH = 868 KABOOMS or 86,800 Owiees!
B747-400 at 400,000 KG & 300 KPH = 3,858 KABOOMS or 385,800 Owiees!
Any way you measure it — that’s a lot of hurt.
I’m wrestling with various unit conversions and my head is starting to spin from all these calculations so if you find some mistakes please point them out and I’ll correct them.
Here’s a conversion chart:
90 KG = 200 LB
900 KG = 2,000 LB
60,000 KG = 130,000 LB
90,000 KG = 198,000 LB
400,000 KG = 880,000 LB
30 KPH = 20 MPH
100 KPH = 60 MPH
160 KPH = 100 MPH = 85 KTS
300 KPH = 180 MPH = 160 KTS
So, the point I’m making is that RTOs can vary from a non-event to something pretty serious and the main factor is the speed at which the rejected takeoff begins. Enough said. Now I can better understand why the brakes of the B777 caught fire during the RTO test and why that little fighter jet basically vanished into dust.
Here's an 'Ode to Kinetic Energy' to sign off (warning: Loud Music and lots of stuff crashing):
Mar 15, 2007
Before any nervous passenger gets freaked out by RTO hazards, I'll point out that after thirty years of airline flying, with something like 8,000 takeoffs, I’ve experienced a grand total of zero such events. In one case I aborted a takeoff at 80 knots which is the arbitrary speed defining an RTO as serious-enough to warrant a “mayday” and a full incident report. In a few other cases, we powered up the engines for takeoff, but immediately discovered a problem and discontinued the roll. In those cases the RTO is a non-event. There just isn’t enough kinetic energy embedded in the aircraft to cause problems.
Below is a video showing a passenger’s point of view of a more typical RTO - if there is such a thing. The commentator includes inaccurate technical jargon so ignore most of his remarks and sub-titles. (Although this does illustrate how large the disconnect can be between the view from the passenger ranks and the flight deck.)
Advance the video to 5:00 minutes and pick up the event as they enter the runway.
At about 5:35 the engines rev up to takeoff power.
AT 6:10 the engines suddenly decelerate as the Captain aborts the takeoff. There seems to be a few seconds of shakiness in the camera just before the RTO and I wonder if it reflects actual shaking in the airframe. We are never told the reason for the abort, and I haven’t been able to find any other information about it. The RTO speed looks to be in the range of 100+ knots (120 mph/190kph), but I’m just guessing.
(Ignore the videographer’s remarks about V1 etc. because they’re completely wrong.)
Whatever the reason for the abort, the Captain taxis the airplane off the runway and back to the ramp area. Obviously he's not overly concerned.
At 10:05, we see the fire chief using a hand-held sensor to check the brake temperatures before letting anyone near the airplane.
At 10:20 we see another pilot taking photos of something… which turns out to be the result of fuse-plugs doing what they’re meant to do.
At 10:30 we see the four tires on the right side bogie gone flat from melted fuse plugs.
If the RTO happened at a relatively low speed, why did these brakes and tires get hot enough to melt the plugs? Good question - I’m glad you asked. I’m going to speculate that the camera shakiness really was significant and there may have been a grabbing brake or under-inflated tire on the right main gear. This could explain the sudden vibration as the associated disc began overheating and distorting or a tire suddenly went flat as its fuse plug melted....
There are certainly other possibilities to explain this RTO, so I repeat, I’m only presenting one possibility. Take it with a large dose of salt.
Here's the video:
High-speed rejected takeoffs (RTOs) can be hazardous for a lot of reasons. Here are some that immediately come to mind:
1. Speed - contributes to the energy that must be dissipated. Also control issues at high speeds can have devastating consequences, as I discovered during my first RTO mishap (see previous posting).
2. Weight (mass) - also contributes to the energy that must be dissipated. Generally the heavier we are for any given takeoff the faster we’ll need to roll to get airborne. For long-range aircraft almost half of the total mass at takeoff consists of fuel.
3. Tire & Brake issues - this is a book in itself. Tire problems commonly cause RTOs or arise as post-RTO complications. All tires have a maximum speed-limit for which they are designed. When they are in good condition and properly inflated, they are reliable. But tires often sustain damage that can go undetected. They can even become damaged during the takeoff itself if there is debris on the runway.
The load-bearing ability of tires is also an issue. For example on multiple-tire ‘bogies’ the failure of one tire can suddenly cause multiple blow-outs as this load limit is exceeded. When tires are not properly inflated they will develop excessive heat while taxiing. This can lead to a tire bursting from excessive heat during the takeoff roll. Also a dragging brake can cause heat-related tire failures.
After a successful RTO, tires can become an issue if the fusible plugs melt. Fusible plugs are designed to melt and release tire pressure before the tire explodes and injures someone or causes further damage. Of course this immobilizes the airplane right where it happens to be - like in the middle of the main runway.
The capacity of the brakes to absorb and dissipate heat energy is a critical factor. Once stopped the super-heated brake shoes may also fuse onto the brake discs immobilizing the aircraft. And probably the worst case scenario involves a fire in the wheel wells after an RTO. This is especially likely if there are any residues of hydraulic fluids in the wells or if a hydraulic line is damaged, due say, to a failed tire.
4. Control and stopping issues: Stopping the aircraft may be complicated by weather related factors like crosswinds. Runway contamination from moisture or snow and ice can produce significant stopping problems. Also any asymmetry issues caused by engine failures or tire failures will complicate directional control of the aircraft.
5. Evacuation issues - Immediately upon completing the RTO, we’ll be facing the decision to stay onboard or evacuate the airplane. Again there are a lot of things to consider before deciding to abandon ship. What’s the outside temperature? Minus 40 in a blizzard might make exiting more hazardous than staying. For thirty years I’ve asked various folks in charge about the contingency plans airports have to rescue evacuated passengers, and all I’ve ever received is a shrug. Bigger jets have another serious consideration. Evacuees get the ride of their lives going down the escape slides and the second story slides on the jumbos must be a thrill. These longer slides are also susceptible to being blown around by strong winds. Once out of the aircraft there are other hazards such as fire to consider. And the need to avoid any final stroke of irony, such as being run over by a fire engine.…
All these issues and more are addressed during aircraft certification. Here’s video of one such test of the B777:
Mar 14, 2007
Log Entry 1976 - B727 Second Officer - KLAX - RWY 24 L
“GooseAir One, abort the takeoff, there’s a truck on the runway. Abort the takeoff!” We didn’t need to hear it twice. At the word, ‘abort,' Captain Gregg slammed the B727 thrust levers closed, yanked the ground spoiler lever back and began stomping on both brakes as hard as he could. First Officer Erwing yanked the reverse thrust levers to the vertical detents. Amber lights illuminated on the panel and he called “Reverse deployed.” Then Captain Gregg took over the levers and hauled fully back on all three. Or at least he tried.
Maybe it was because he was accustomed to just two reversers on the DC-9. Maybe he hadn’t adequately adjusted his grip to the longer throw of these Boeing levers. Or maybe in the darkness of the late night his hand just slipped. For whatever reason, engine three reverser stayed at idle while one and two suddenly flared to full negative thrust. I watched helplessly from the Second Oficer’s seat as FO Erwing fumbled along with Captain Gregg, to re-establish symmetrical thrust.
Meanwhile with Captain Gregg distracted, the imbalanced thrust tugged the ponderous ‘twenty-seven’ into a swerve towards the left side runway lights which were blurring past our windows. We heard a sickening screech from our nosewheel as the captain tried to compensate with the rudder pedals. Books and flight bags and everything else not tied down began tumbling and crashing to the floor. We felt more than heard the rumbling and shaking as our left main wheels wandered off the concrete.
Our landing light beams swept over the dark gray pavement revealing scattered tire marks and painted runway lines. They seemed to swirl past the first officer’s window now as the aircraft yawed wildly to the right while we kept skidding off the left edge of the pavement further into the "grass". An old driving school lesson arose from side B of that eight-track in my head; "steer into the skid." Too late.
The airplane finally shuddered to a halt off the left side of the runway heading ninety degrees across it. We all sat there in stunned silence.
All of us that is except the instructor. “Well, that was a heck of a ride,” he chuckled as he reached forward and began pushing levers and controls back into the neutral position then quickly tapped commands into his control box.
“Thank God for flight simulators.”
The visual system flashed blank for a moment, then swooped us back into our original takeoff starting point at the button of the runway.
“Set the parking brake for a second Captain. We'll reconfigure and try that again.”
So went my introduction to rejected takeoffs in an airliner. The instructor was right. It was a heck of a ride. I was shocked by the deceleration rate of this 200,000 lb. (90,000 kg.) aircraft. Albeit, simulated, but the point of simulation after all, is to give an accurate representation of the event. I had literally been hanging by my seatbelt as my shoes scrabbled to find grip on the metal floor. My pen and fuel log and other items had skidded off the work table and now we retrieved them from behind the rudder pedals. Even my headset had almost fallen off but I'd just managed to grab it. It all happened so fast.
We went on to perfect the rejected takeoff maneuver for the Boeing 727. The rest of our conversion training course was thankfully much more routine.
Sometimes rejected (i.e. aborted) takeoffs go wrong in reality as well:
Mar 13, 2007
The air traffic control system is designed with many checks and cross-checks to prevent accidents. But, like pilots, air traffic controllers sometimes make mistakes. An old aviation adage says: I'd rather be lucky than good. This day, everyone was very very lucky:
Animation of a Close Call!
NTSB prelim report
Aerial photos, charts, and improvement plans for ORD:
Mar 12, 2007
Set in Europe in the early stages of World War II, spirited archaeology student Kate Bowen experiences within two weeks both the thrilling rush of love and the devastating grief of death. The love is Alex Wolfe, a military pilot fighting not only the Germans but also his past. The death is of those who are dear to Kate. But she soon learns the deaths are not an accident but an act of murder related to an incident from her childhood. With the help of smugglers, French Resistance fighters and, unexpectedly, Alex, Kate faces a war-torn country, submarine-infested waters and an unnamed killer to discover the truth. It’s a story of self-realization, of adventure, strength and, above all, love. It is a story that takes you through Scotland’s moors, London’s back alleys and France’s landmines in a harrowing adventure of one woman’s search for truth. But, can she face the truth once she discovers it?
Mar 9, 2007
What's the big bump thing on the A380 center pedestal? It certainly looks like some sort of track-ball or mouse-like device. I also notice that the keyboard uses a QWERTY layout. That seems more reasonable to me compared to the layout used on the original A320 MCDU - which was merely a quadrant of alpha-numeric characters in sequential order But this raises a question. In the original A320 FMS, some complex approaches utilizing DME arcs were coded in such a way that an alphabet character would represent mileage. So we'd sometimes use the keypad characters to confirm we were about to program the correct procedure (5 characters/line on the keypad). Archaic for sure. It stems from the fact that the screens and software have limited room for characters. Can you say DOS* boys and girls? So now A380 pilots will have to find some other way to count sequentially through the alphabet.
Maybe someone will provide them with gloves that have the ABCs embroidered on the finger tips?
*If you have no idea what DOS is/was, Google it. And yes, this is being typed on a Mac! ;-)
Mar 8, 2007
A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).
Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - CYUL - Main Ramp
Elapsed Time: plus nine minutes… and counting…
I gently push the thrust levers forward — it’s a very small amount compared to other aircraft I’ve flown. This morning with our fully-loaded A320 I set the donuts to 32% N1*. There’s a slight pause as the engines rev up and the N1 needles rise to match the donuts and then ever so gently the aircraft begins to roll. The journey begins.
The Airbus thrust levers are not actually connected to anything in the classical sense. That is, there are no stainless steel cables running over pulleys and through raceways and bulkheads and around corners all connected together with nuts and bolts and cotter pins that need careful lubricating and tensioning to finally produce the required movement in the fuel control unit over a dozen meters away. Instead our A320 levers are electronic sensors which each transmit dual digital signals over individual electrical wires to each engine receiver where these signals are decoded then translated into precise adjustment to the fuel control unit. This makes some people nervous. Knowing the relative reliability of digital technology vs. mechanical systems, and the amount of research that went into “fly-by-wire” before it appeared on airliners, I’m perfectly happy with it.
The morning’s hassles, chaos and procedural constraints fade away and I revel in the sensation of controlling the aircraft. With nothing more than my will expressed through feet and finger tips, I nudge along this finely-constructed marvel of science, art and technology. It’s a sweet sensation
The Airbus A320 is an excellent aircraft in all its derivatives. Whether I’m flying the sporty 319, the family sedan 320, or the cadillac 321 I love the fact that it’s a finger-tip aircraft. No brute force required — in fact it’s a hindrance. This machine responds to gentleness and finesse and demands a deeper understanding of its auto-technical nuances than many other predecessors. Some pilots never become fully comfortable with the Airbus. Others come to know it well and enjoy it. But that’s like most airplanes. For every model of aircraft there’s some pilots that love ‘em, and some that don’t.
We gradually gain speed and I pull the levers back to idle. The less thrust I use in these confined ramp areas, the safer it is for the crews and equipment outside. Once the aircraft has gained some momentum I carefully apply pressure to first one then the other brake pedal.
These brake pedals are not actually connected to anything in the classical sense. That is there are not stainless steel cables… oh wait, I’m repeating myself (see the thrust lever explanation above). There is a short hesitation between pedal movement and the initial reaction at the wheel, so I’ve learned to push just a tad, then wait a second. Shuttle valves in the braking system must switch over from the parking system to the normal system. If they’re not working, it’s better to discover it at two knots, and not twenty.
Each pedal produces a perceptible drag on the airframe. “Brakes check,” I call aloud. FO Paula scans the appropriate gauge readings and responds, “pressures zero.”
That’s a strange call to anyone who doesn’t know the Airbus. Similar checks on other aircraft would result in calls like "three thousand," confirming the hydraulic pressure available to drive the brakes. But on the Airbus we’re ensuring the normal system has taken over from the parking system by observing that the residual brake pressure has fallen to zero. Our actual hydraulic pressure is being monitored by ECAM and he’ll let us know if he doesn’t like it.
I add just a touch more power to slowly accelerate to full taxi speed.
Elapsed Time: plus ten minutes… and counting…
Random engine footnotes:
* A320s are powered by either the CFM-56 engine which uses N1 to set power or the V2500 which uses EPR (Engine Pressure Ratio). This link discusses the relative merits of the two methods.
*Donuts: A small circle on the rim of the main power indicator shows the power being commanded by the thrust lever angle (TLA). I can usually guestimate pretty closely how much power it will take based upon the particular airplane and the weight.
For some strange reason I’ve found that the smaller, lighter A319 needs just a little more N1 to get rolling than its big brother A320. I have no real idea why, but I suspect it may just be some difference in the indicator system. The maximum we’re supposed to use is 40%. I’ve only had to use that much during an outbound ground delay at Lagurdia on a hot summer day while taxiing with just one engine running. Parts of LGA are soft asphalt probably built on re-claimed swamp/shoreline. The tires seem to settle into a self-made low spot after just a few minutes.
Jet blast hazards:
United Airlines training video:
NASA discussion paper:
Aviatrix's Cockpit Conversations recently had an interesting discussion about the mathematics of engine failures. But when it happens suddenly all the theory in the world becomes mute. Such as in this incident. Thankfully the timing was propitious
Aviation Investigation Report
Engine Power Loss
Report Number A01C0217
Flight BLS363, a Pilatus PC-12/45, single-engine, turbine-powered aircraft was ready for take-off on Runway 26 at the Red Lake, Ontario, Airport. Two pilots and three passengers were on board. When the condition lever was selected from ground idle to flight idle, the engine (Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67B) flamed out. An attempt to restart the engine was unsuccessful, and the aircraft was towed off the runway.
Canadian Aviation Regulations, section 703.22(2), require that single-engine, turbine-powered aircraft used to transport passengers in instrument-flight-rule or visual-flight-rule conditions be equipped with an engine type that has a proven mean time between failure (MTBF) of .01/1000 or less over 100 000 hours in service (that is, less than one engine failure every 100 000 hours of operation). Engine power losses resulting from fuel supply interruptions are not considered engine failures for the purpose of the MTBF standard.
Mar 7, 2007
Would a bunch of CCD cameras pointing at the hard to see bits make any difference, i.e. would you stop immediately and evacuate the first time you heard of trouble from the back if you had a picture of it?
Garrett raises the issue of installing cameras around an aircraft so the pilot could assess the status of the aircraft cabin and exterior. This idea has been proposed and I have seen photos of a system installed in the T-tail of a B727 that would give a good view of the wings and upper fuselage. As Garrett also mentions, maybe the need for such a camera is too infrequent to justify the expense and complexity.
However, with cabin security issues and the size of aircraft increasing, this may be an idea who's time has come...
This company makes cameras for monitoring the aircraft exterior, the cabin and the cockpit security zone
A feature unique to the 777-300ER and 777-300 flight deck is the Ground Maneuver Camera System (GMCS), designed to assist the pilot in ground maneuvering of the 777-300 with camera views of the nose gear and main gear areas. The cameras are on the leading edge of the left and right horizontal stabilizers and the underside of the fuselage and are used during ground maneuvering. The images are displayed at the Multi-Functional Display positions in the flight deck in a three-way split format.
And here's the "ultimate" exterior view camera system - on the space shuttle.
Today I woke up thinking about monkeys. Specifically the monkeys some don’t like to talk about. Call them the ‘d-monkeys’ - where ‘d’ stands for disorder.
This article at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem) explains an analogy that is often used regarding chance processes and the rise of complexity. You’ve probably heard some version of it. If an infinite number of monkeys tapped on an infinite number of typewriters, they’d soon reproduce a copy of - “fill in the blank” - some great literary work like Hamlet or War and Peace. (and if they managed to produce an airplane this way would you want to fly it?...)
That article covers the fallacies in the under-lying logic so I won’t ‘go there.' What I want to point out is how the analogy itself is flawed as a descriptor of random processes.
Now I understand what analogies are and I use them all the time:
1 : inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others
They give us a way to move from what we understand to something we don't fully understand. But any analogy contains pre-suppostitions that we should be aware of so we can determine when it is useful, what its limitations are and where it inevitably breaks down. An inaccurate, but convincing analogy can be very misleading.
When the typing monkey analogy is used to describe randomness we should see that it already includes some very highly-ordered components which are already way way up on the ladder of complexity. But it gives a slewed perception at quick-glance. We tend to immediately accept whatever proposition the analogy is being used to justify because 'everyone knows' infinity is a r-e-a-l-l-y b-i-g number!
I suggest that the better analogy of random processes is this:
Instead of an infinite number of monkeys typing, we should posit an infinite number of meteorites striking the earth. Instead of hitting complex, functioning typewriter keys, each meteor strikes a pool of black substance - inky water, coal dust, oil, or something like that. Then instead of the keys striking a nicely produced sheet of paper, the splashes of this dark liquid fly out in all directions and land on bare ground and against rocks and so on. Some of this surface might actually be uniform and smooth enough to allow the splashed globules to make coherent marks. Then some of the globules might cause marks that are actually recognizable as letters in the English language. And then some of them might actually align themselves with other intelligible marks, and then and only then might we get our ‘targeted’ output - a copy of Hamlet, War and Peace or heck, I’d be satisfied with Hickory Dickory Dock.
I think this meteorite analogy better conveys how big infinity is and how small the odds of random complexity are.
The second problem I have with the monkey-typewriter scenario is that it ignores the other monkeys in the room. Other monkeys? Yes, those ‘d-monkeys’ I mentioned earlier. Disorder is related to entropy which is related to the second law of thermodynamics. I’m not a scientist, so I’ve linked some articles below which examine entropy more closely and one seems to contradict the other (what else is new). But as I experience reality on this planet there exists a background state which dictates that as fast as anything complex arises, another force (call it disorder) begins to wear this complexity down again. That’s why the sand castle I built on Parksville beach last July is no longer there (and I don’t have to go see to believe this.) I am completely confident that the tendency towards disorder has already reduced my artistic and engineering masterpiece to a mere pile of sand. In fact not even a pile because by now all the individual sand-grains are thoroughly mixed back into the beach and I won’t find even a small trace that it was there. And that is also why the house I'm sitting in won't be here a thousand years from now.
So getting back to those infinite monkeys and typewriters, reality as I experience it says that the capricious d-monkeys are just as busy as the typing monkeys. And just as fast as the typing monkeys produce lines of text, the d-monkeys pull out the pages and eat them or tear them up. In fact the d-monkeys also pull at the keys themselves, bending the mechanisms and rendering the typewriters defective, and the little imps also jump and play and distract the typing monkeys until the whole infinite room becomes a big wrestling match of monkeys going back to what monkeys love to do most - monkeying around.
Okay, I’m being capricious myself. I’m probably a closet d-monkey at heart though you wouldn’t know it watching me type away in my own efforts to defy disorder. But I’m trying to make the point that the concept of the very complex structures and fragile building blocks of life coming into being by random chance is an inadequate explanation. And it bothers me that this has been the prevailing paradigm (some would say dogma) for our society for most of my adult life - though this may be changing. But that’s another article for another day, entropy and disorder permitting.
Postscript: I realize that including this quote from Wiki may undermine any attempt to appear unbiased, but I can’t resist. I’m still laughing!
“…In 2003 an experiment was performed on six Sulawesi crested macaques, but their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter S before they chose to attack and defecate on the typewriter.”
1) The article I like most because it supports what I’ve written ;-)
2) This one may totally undermine what I’ve just written!?
Christian Physicist explains Entropy more rigourously
3) A discussion of order/disorder:
Mar 6, 2007
The problem began when an engine exploded sending a piece of shrapnel into the fuel tank. The captain performed a rejected takeoff drill and unaware that a fire had erupted in the wing, continued to taxi the aircraft clear of the runway. Meanwhile, passengers were caught between the obvious need to get out, and announcements from the flight attendants to remain seated.
The subsequent investigation (html version) (pdf version) revealed shortcomings in communication procedures between the pilots, flight attendants and passengers. As often happens in the industry, this accident triggered improvements in emergency procedures at other airlines, including my own.
Here is an excerpt from the report:
Passengers who were on the left side of the aircraft near the
wing were almost immediately aware of the existence of fire. As
the aircraft slowed, several passengers left their seats, and, as they
more became aware of the fire, a general level of agitation
developed. The number two flight attendant seated in the rear of
the aircraft heard a passenger yell "fire" within ten seconds of
the occurrence; the purser and number three flight attendant
both seated at the front of the aircraft, were aware of the fire
within twenty-five seconds of its occurrence.
In accordance with published procedures for a rejected take-off,
the three flight attendants remained in their seats awaiting
instruction from the captain. Al l assumed that, because the
aircraft continued to taxi, the captain was aware of the
situation and that it was under control. As the fire continued
to increase in size, the flight attendants attempted to contact
the flight crew. The number two flight attendant, seated in the
rear of the aircraft, attempted to notify the flight deck of the
fire by using the aircraft interphone system. Although the
signal tone was heard on the flight deck, it went unanswered
because the first officer mistook the tone for that associated
with the passenger flight attendant call button.
The number two flight attendant continued
in his attempts to contact the flight
deck and also began to call the front cabin flight attendant
station. The purser attempted to enter the flight deck but was
unable to do so because the door was locked in accordance with
standard company procedures. The door was unlocked in response
to her knocks, and, about 45 seconds after the take-off was
rejected, she entered the flight deck and, after first asking if
they had blown a tire, informed the captain of a fire at the
back. In the meantime, the number three flight attendant made a
brief public address (PA) announcement for the passengers to
remain seated and calm. After having been informed by the
captain to prepare for an evacuation, the purser then returned to
the cabin. Upon returning, she answered the interphone and was
informed by the number two flight attendant that there was a fire
at the back and that the aircraft should be stopped. Throughout
this period, the aircraft continued to taxi slowly up C-4.
The purser then returned to the flight deck, advised the captain
of the deteriorating situation, and was again directed to prepare
for evacuation. The purser then left the flight deck and
directed the two flight attendants to prepare for evacuation.
When the aircraft stopped, the three flight attendants initiated
an evacuation by opening their doors and inflating the escape
There was no general announcement of the evacuation made by
either the captain or the flight attendants. Evacuation commands
were given to passengers as they exited the aircraft. The
passengers' decisions to leave their seats and evacuate were
based on their perceptions of the emergency situation and their
observations of the flight attendants opening the exits.
Passengers were at the doors awaiting the inflation of the escape
Four exits were used during the evacuation; these were as
follows: main entrance door (left front); galley service door
(right front); right over-wing exit; and right rear service door.
The main entrance door was opened by the number three flight
attendant and the galley service door by the purser. The right
over-wing exit was opened by the passenger seated next to it at
the urging of several passengers seated nearby. The first few
passengers out this exit reported that the escape slide at the
galley service door had not yet deployed when they exited the
aircraft. The right rear service door was opened by the number
two flight attendant.
Shortly after the evacuation commenced, fire melted windows along
the left side of the aircraft. When the windows melted through,
heat and smoke entered the aircraft, and the cabin environment
quickly deteriorated. Substantial quantities of smoke also
entered through the right over-wing exit and right rear service
Conditions within the aircraft cabin were significantly worse in
the aft section. Heat was felt as the windows melted through.
Those passengers who had been seated beside the windows nearest
the fire experienced some singeing of hair and clothing. Smoke
obscured visibility almost totally during the latter stages of
Passenger perceptions in the forward part of the cabin differed
markedly from those in the aft. It took much longer for them to
be aware of the existence of fire, and, even then, some did not
perceive the seriousness of the situation.
Most passengers chose the closest exit for evacuation. Many
stopped to retrieve handbaggage before they left. Those
passengers who exited through the main entrance door and galley
service door were seated primarily in rows one through seven.
Most initially chose to use the main entrance door until the
number three flight attendant began directing alternate
passengers to the galley service door. The passengers who exited
through the right over-wing exit were almost all seated in rows 8
through 16. With only a few exceptions, the rear exit was used
by all passengers seated aft of row 16.
The evacuation was without panic; however, a sense of urgency
prevailed. There was some pushing, and several people went over
seat backs to get to the exit ahead of others already in the
aisle. There was no noticeable yelling or screaming.
As the evacuation progressed, smoke began to thicken and obscure
vision. Smoke conditions were worse in the aft section of the
cabin. Passengers who exited via the rear exit reported that
they were unable to see the exit and were required to follow the
person ahead to locate it. By the time most had reached this
exit, the smoke had lowered to about knee height. The bottom
portion of the door and the slide were all that was visible. The
passenger who was the last one to exit via the over-wing exit
reported he had to drop to his knees to breathe fresh air before
he was able to reach the exit. Only when he neared the exit, did
it become visible through the smoke.
AI1 passengers who exited via the over-wing exit jumped off the
leading edge of the wing. The vertical drop from the wing to the
ground is in excess of six feet, and this distance increases as
one moves outward from the wing root. Smoke and flames near the
trailing edge influenced the passengers to go forward after they
bad left the aircraft. Most jumped down from the wing inboard of
the engine, although several proceeded out the wing before
dropping to the ground.
The rear slide was observed to deflate, because of fire damage,
immediately after the number two flight attendant exited the
A precise determination of the time taken to evacuate the
aircraft could not be made; however, it is estimated that the
evacuation took between two and three minutes .
Four passengers sustained serious injuries during the evacuation.
All four exited the aircraft via the right over-wing exit. Three
of these passengers sustained bone fractures of varying severity
when they jumped to the ground from the leading edge of the wing.
The fourth passenger, who was apparently the last person to exit
the aircraft, sustained pelvis and rib fractures when he fell to
the ground, after slipping on foam on the wing.
Mumerous other passengers sustained minor bruises, cuts,
abrasions, and sprains during the evacuation. Some singeing of
hair and mild blushing of the skin from heat were also reported.
Blood samples were taken from the 29 passengers who reported to
hospital. Carbon monoxide levels were minimal when measured, and
there were no reports of other toxic substances.
Following the evacuation, the passengers and crew gathered in
groups a short distance from the aircraft and observed the
fire- fighting activities.