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Archives for March 2014

MH370 – How do you LOSE a Boeing 777?

Malaysia 777

A Boeing 777 is not exactly a small aircraft.  I've been known to forget where I parked my car in the lot when I leave the grocery store and walk around like a fool until I find it.  I could somewhat understand that situation with a Cessna 172, as it is not much bigger than a car.

But a 777 is.  This kind of aircraft seats from 301 to 440 people (my car seats 5). So by that statistic alone, a 777 is equivalent to between 60 and 88 Volvo V70XCs.  A 777 holds 45,220 gallons of fuel - I regularly put 15 gallons of gas in the Volvo, so a 777 is equal to more than 3000 of them by that metric.  Last but not least, a 777 weighs up to 656,000 lbs. My Volvo, well, actually, sometimes I think my Volvo weighs that much, too, so this is probably not the best comparison.

I'd say that it ought to be impossible to "misplace" a Boeing 777, but I have seen firsthand that it is absolutely possible to "lose" large business jets. In the six years I worked at [large business jet company], I personally received calls from FBOs telling us one of our jets was "in the back of the hangar" and had been there for weeks (or months).  At a completely different airport than our top-of-the-line, proprietary software told us it was. So I know it is possible to lose a jet - probably even a 777.  But eventually they are found.

But let's get down to the meat of the MH370 mystery, shall we? A 777 on a filed flight plan and in fine weather suddenly turns off the planned route, then disappears off radar. All about 40 minutes into the flight. This is pretty much all we really know.

But what we know and what we speculate are mutually exclusive, aren't they?

Unfortunately, since the horrors that occurred on September 11, 2001, the first thing on everyone's mind is "terrorism." And that is not necessarily the worst thing.  The world changed on September 11, 2001, and we all have to look at events through that new frame. Karlene Petitt wrote an incredibly popular blog post about her speculation that the crew was compromised, possibly by the travelers using stolen passports, and that the captain or co-pilot heroically pushed the nose over and sacrificed the aircraft and all on board to the depths rather than allow MH370 to be used as a weapon.

This is not an uncommon thought, and very well might be the case.  But if, indeed, that were the case, why haven't we found the remains yet?  Wouldn't the pilot have done so as soon as he knew the terrorists were onboard and attempting to take control of the airplane? That would have been right around the time of the turn off course, and that area has been scoured already, hasn't it?

Another theory is Mark L. Berry's - who says he is "worried that the first terrorist-controlled weapon of mass destruction (maybe biological, maybe chemical, maybe nuclear) is now being married with the Boeing 777 in some remote airfield."  His theory is that the terrorists were successful in comandeering the aircraft, and that they flew it somewhere within seven hours or so to allow it to be loaded up with weapons of some sort so that the plane can be used as a weapon itself, a la 9/11/01, only with explosives on board instead of unwitting passengers, causing potentially much more destruction.

Eric Auxier (Cap'n Aux) uses Occam's Razor to come to another, less paranoid and more likely explanation: Lithium batteries now known to be on board being shipped overheat and catch fire in the forward cargo bay, burning the avionics bay and causing a mass communication/electronics failure, and possibly an explosive decompression and explaining the turn off course. In the end, he believes the plane flew on autopilot (until autopilot failed along the rest of the avionics), and the plane simply continued on that heading (approximately) until it ran out of fuel and ultimately crashed in the ocean.

I tend to lean toward the more likely mechanical failure, such as Cap'n Aux describes.  Some sort of fire engulfes the avionics and cockpit, incapacitating the pilots, who were able to start emergency procedures and turn toward the nearest safe haven (Palau Langkawi - a 13,000 foot runway with an approach over water and no significant obstacles) before being overcome with smoke or fire or both.  Regardless of the cause or source of the fire, the results are the same: electronic/avionics failures, and an airplane essentially flying itself until fuel ran out and it crashed.

Similar crashes, while not common, are certainly not unheard of.  The fairly recent (in aviation terms) crash of Payne Stewart's Learjet in October of 1999 comes to mind - the plane lost cabin pressurization, the crew was incapacitated due to hypoxia (for some reason, they did not - or were not able to - don their oxygen masks), and the plane flew on its last heading until running out of fuel and crashing.  In the case of the Lear in 1999, there was no fire so avionics remained functional, but think if there was a fire first - the first thing you do as a pilot if electrical fire is even suspected is TURN OFF ALL ELECTRICAL EQUIPMENT!  Yes, this means comm, transponder, etc.  If, subsequently, cabin pressure is lost, now you really have two emergencies on your hands, with different checklists and different priorities, but neither more or less dangerous in your situation.  What do you do? With smoke, fire, or depressurization, you have a precious few seconds to get those masks on before you might not be functional - and with multiple emergencies, that slight confusion or pause to prioritize might have been all that was necessary to bring this situation to fruition.

Maybe it's my overriding hope and faith in humanity that makes me lean toward to the mechanical failure / fire possibility before I seriously consider terrorism - or maybe it's my fear of the latter as a possibility - but I hope it was simply a failure of systems in what is an incredibly, almost impossibly complex piece of equipment that is a Boeing 777, and not a conspiracy to hijack one of the largest airliners of the current day for use as a weapon (successfully or not), even though I know full well there are people in the world whose mission in life is to sow and breed fear in others.

Just the fact that our minds immediately consider that as a likely option means that the terrorists on September 11, 2001 have won in instilling that fear in our lives. At least a little. And that is not okay.

Tailwinds,

Andrew

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My Most Memorable Passenger – A Blogging in Formation Post

This month's Blogging in Formation topic is "Dealing with Passengers."

As a flight instructor, most of my "passengers" are not passengers, at least not as that is normally defined. My passengers are actively learning to fly, and to - over time - become NOT passengers but pilots.

So I don't have as much experience with passengers as many of the other formation bloggers, but I do have a very memorable passenger who I would like to talk about in today's post: my daughter, Wynnie!

Airplane Kids

Wynnie is two and a half years old, and I was recently able to take her (and her two cousins) up for their first flight.

Her cousins are five and three, and all three of them really enjoyed their first flight!

It was a very simple flight - we took off from KOSU (The Ohio State University Airport), turned north, and flew circles low over the Columbus Zoo (one of the places all the kids love to visit).

All three of the kids loved the flight!

What was most interesting to me was that getting them in the plane was not just about their first flight and whether they would like it, but their reactions and behavior during the flight was eye-opening for me, as well!

Wynnie In Plane

It was very interesting to see Wynnie's personality emerge (or amplify) in her carseat in the back of the C172.

At first, on the way to the zoo, Wynnie was stoic. Looking straight ahead, there was no emotion on her face. When I turned around and asked her if she was having fun, her face lit up! "Yes!" she said, beaming.

Then her face went right back to the poker-face she had on before.

She looked out the window as we banked around the zoo and over the river, as did her cousins, whose reactions were no less telling then hers.  You could see the logic and passion and curiosity come alive in all three of them, in differing degrees.

Notwithstanding her stoicism, my wife and I joke that Wynnie is definitely my daughter, since the flying bug has bitten her as early and as strongly as it did me. She has the "pilot's curse" of having to look up and locate every aircraft we hear as it flies above.

Andrew and Kids

When we visited my father-in-law in Raleigh, North Carolina, we also went to visit a nearby airport in the hopes that we would fly in (in a couple hours) instead of driving in (about 10-hours on the road). When we got near the airport, a plane was holding short of the runway for takeoff, and Wynnie said "That's Daddy's airplane! I'm so excited!"

We talked to a few people and looked around at the amenities.  Wynnie and Granddad watched airplanes for a bit, and then we started to get in the car to go.

Wynnie didn't want to go, because she thought we were going to go for an airplane ride. And when I say she didn't want to go, I mean she REALLY didn't want to go.  We're talking TOTAL MELTDOWN.  It took both my wife and me holding her down in her carseat to get her strapped in so we could finally leave, while I promised her that we would take lots more airplane rides, just not today.

I know how she feels. A girl after my own heart!

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Don't miss the rest of the Blogging in Formation posts:

BlogFormation_WingsMarch 1: Saturday:
Brent Owens -  iFLYblog
Mark L Berry - marklberry.com/blog

March 2: Sunday:
Andrew Hartley - Smart Flight Training
Rob Burgon - http://tallyone.com

March 3: Monday:
Karlene Petitt - Flight to Success
Chip Shanle - www.project7alpha.com

March 4: Tuesday:
Eric Auxier - Adventures of Cap’n Aux
Ron Rapp - House of Rapp

If you like what you see, share us with your friends: #blogformation

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