It’s been three days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777, disappeared en route to Beijing, China, and still no trace of the aircraft has been found. Adding to the mystery is that no distress calls were made from the aircraft, and searchers haven’t even been able to narrow the search area where the aircraft could have possibly come down. Though all large commercial aircraft are equipped with sophisticated crash recorders that retain large amounts of data, including cockpit voice conversations, they aren’t any use in locating a missing plane. They are only useful when the wreckage is found, and that can sometimes takes years, as in the case of Air France Flight 447, which crashed over the mid-Atlantic ocean in 2009. At least investigators on the Air France mishap were able to discern early on that there may have been some mechanical problems due to data sent from the aircraft to the ground before all contact was lost with the aircraft. The Air France Airbus aircraft was using ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) to send periodic transmissions to a ground station concerning the health of various systems on the Airbus. The primary purpose of this data is to highlight potential minor maintenance issues that can be addressed when the aircraft lands. Though limited in the amount of data that can be transmitted due to bandwidth limitations, it may still be possible to use ACARS as a “Black Box in the Cloud” that periodically sends vital aircraft data (airspeed, altitude, GPS location, engine parameters, etc.) to a receiving ground station where it is stored until the completion of each flight. Even with a catastrophic aircraft failure with no warning or distress call from the cockpit, at least investigators and searchers would have a pretty accurate starting point for rescue operations and accident investigation. The tragic case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may initiate an effort to upgrade ACARS for more data transmission capability, and also to require it’s use by all commercial aircraft flying over water.
Media coverage is peaking today over online mega-retailer Amazon’s reveal that they are investigating using aerial drones to deliver packages to your doorstep within 30 minutes. The plans were presented last night in a “60 Minutes” TV segment on Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. Drones are all the rage right now, from small hand-launched ones all the way up to military-grade drones the size of a large aircraft, and this latest plan by Amazon seems to be taking advantage of the current interest in drones for all types of commercial applications. While the TV segment showed a slick video of a 4-rotor electric drone delivering a small package to a house in the suburbs, Bezos cautioned that he didn’t think we could expect to get packages this way until at least 2015. While I admire Bezos and company for putting R&D money into the development of small, sophisticated aerial drones, I think telling the world about it at this early stage is just a smart marketing ploy for Amazon, especially since this was broadcast the night before “Cyber Monday”, the largest online shopping day of the year. When I think of all the technical and regulatory hurdles that accompany flying any type of drone in U.S. airspace, I think even 2025 (if ever) would be optimistic for this type of package delivery. Some other obstacles I can think of to this type of service: light-weight drones such as presented in the video would be susceptible to any type of wind; delivery to city and apartment dwellers who don’t have “landing zones” for the drones; collision avoidance capability would have to be incorporated to avoid flying into trees, power lines, towers, tall buildings, not to mention mixing with small planes and commercial air traffic; reliability, reliability, reliability….having one these drones crash into an innocent bystander would not be good for Amazon public relations; and, finally, anti-spoofing capability so thieves couldn’t electronically hijack these drones to steal the packages. So I’m not so sure how serious this Amazon drone research program really is, but it probably has already paid for itself in free press – I heard on the evening news that Amazon was processing over 300 orders a second today, Cyber Monday. Jeff Bezos certainly didn’t become a billionaire by being a bad marketer.
Initial reports from San Francisco airport (SFO) seem to indicate that the Asiana Airlines 777 that crashed yesterday landed short of Runway 28L, hitting the seawall hard enough to sever the entire tail section of the aircraft, wipe out the landing gear and tear both engines loose. Fortunately, early reports have only two fatalities, with most of the passengers able to escape the mishap uninjured. The only video I’ve seen so far are post-crash, from overhead news helicopters or from further away. Of course speculation has begun on the cause of the mishap, from pilot error to aircraft mechanical failure. Air Traffic Control (ATC) from the SFO tower makes it sound as if the landing approach was routine until the point of impact, with no distress calls from the Flight 214 cockpit, which would indicate that any aircraft problem was unknown to the crew. If airport video is available, it would certainly aid in the investigation and confirm or deny eyewitness accounts that the Asiana 777 approach appeared to be slower, and with a higher nose attitude, than normal. If no airport video is available, it raises the issue that I’ve mentioned in previous posts here and here: airport video cameras should be standard at all major airports handling commercial traffic. I’ll repeat what I said in some of my posts from several years ago: “Even though airline travel is still very safe, the majority of
commercial aircraft mishaps occur during the takeoff or landing phase of
flight. With relatively inexpensive digital video cameras and recorders
available these days, it shouldn’t be too expensive to have several
cameras positioned to give varying views of the active runways. If
nothing happens, which is 99.99% of the time, no big deal, you just
erase the digital video at the end of each day. However, if there is a
mishap, the ability to quickly look at video from different angles would
greatly aid in determining what went wrong.”
The NTSB makes many recommendations at the conclusion of a major airline mishap investigation, covering subjects such as crew training, airport factors, aircraft design, survivability factors, and the type of flight data recorders on aircraft. Maybe it is time for the NTSB to recommend video cameras at airports to help squelch rampant speculation in the immediate aftermath of an aircraft mishap, and also to hasten the factual findings of the investigation. I anxiously wait to see if any airport video surfaces in the coming days that may provide concrete information on the cause of the Asiana Flight 214 mishap at SFO.
If you want to see a creative take on one of the most famous repositories of old aircraft, check out this new new video of former warbirds stored at David-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ. Using time-lapse photos taken throughout the boneyard, it shows haunting views of some classic aircraft stored in the dry desert landscape. Especially beautiful are some of the photos taken at night under the clear, star-filled Arizona skies. In some of the photos, colored lights are placed inside the empty aircraft hulks to give the appearance that the old birds still have some life left in them, even though most of them will never fly again. You can take a tour of the boneyard through a visit to the Pima Air Musuem, which I covered in a previous blog post. Unfortunately, you can’t get up close and personal with the aircraft like you could before 9/11. An article accompanying the video, along with more pictures, can be found at Airman Online.
I was filled with shock and sadness yesterday when I heard of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Shock, because I hadn’t heard of any recent health issues with Armstrong, and sadness for the passing of a real American hero who inspired me to pursue a career in aerospace. While still undecided where to study aerospace engineering in the mid-70’s, I read a book about the Apollo program and the first landing on the moon. In the book, it mentioned how Neil Armstrong had received his aeronautical degree (aerospace engineering was not an option back in the 50’s) from Purdue University in 1955. That got me curious about Purdue, and the more I researched the college, the more I discovered its outstanding reputation for aerospace engineering and graduating numerous astronauts (Grissom, Chaffee, Cernan, etc.). I applied, was accepted and received my aerospace engineering degree that set me on my long career in this industry. While at Purdue, I felt honored to take classes from some of the same Professors who taught Armstrong back in the 50’s. I remember asking one of my professors who also had instructed Armstrong what he was like as a student. The professor said he was not what you would call an outstanding, “brainiac” student, but instead a hard-working, average and humble student who one would not have predicted would be the first to walk on the moon. Actually it was good for me to hear this about Armstrong, since I was basically an average engineering student myself. It made me realize that you don’t always have to be at the top of your class to have a rewarding and successful career.
Being a fellow Purdue graduate, I followed with interest Armstrong’s career after he left NASA, and I was always impressed that he remained modest about his accomplishments in the space program and shunned the public limelight. He continued to fly small planes and gliders, two of my hobbies, and returned to the classroom to teach science and engineering. He could have easily cashed in on his fame, but he chose quieter, more personally rewarding pursuits. He also never forgot Purdue, and donated money and many of his papers to the University. His generous donations allowed Purdue to build a new classroom building that houses the school of Aerospace Engineering, among others, and has been named in his honor. If you want to find out more about the life of Neil Armstrong, I highly recommend his authorized autobiography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”, by James R. Hansen, which was published in 2006.
The word “hero” is used loosely these days, and oft times is connected with sports persons, entertainers and politicians. To me the word should be used very selectively, and only applied to persons who truly deserve it. By achieving the extra-ordinary, inspiring others to great accomplishments, all the while not seeking platitudes or money, the true hero is a very rare individual indeed. By my definition of a hero, Neil Armstrong qualifies on all counts. Reading the Armstrong family announcement of his death, the last paragraph provides a lasting tribute to this real American hero:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple
request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and
the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling
down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”