May 102012

It’s one setback after another, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Last year it was Phobos-Grunt, Russia’s attempt to return to deep space beyond Earth orbit after a 15-year hiatus. Alas, Phobos-Grunt never managed to go too far… it failed to reach escape orbit and eventually fell back to the Earth.

And now, it’s the Sukhoi Superjet’s turn. After more than two decades, Russia is again trying to capture a small segment of the passenger jet market. Their demonstration model was on an Asian tour, trying to impress new customers. Well, they certainly created an impression… just not the impression they were hoping for. More tragically, 48 souls perished.

I suppose that from a Canadian (or Brazilian) perspective, this should be considered “good news”, since the Sukhoi Superjet 100 is intended to compete in a market that is dominated by Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer. But I don’t find this comforting. In fact, for the sake of the future of Russia’s commercial jet industry, I hope that this tragic accident will turn out to be a case of pilot error. Controlled flight into terrain.

 Posted by at 4:44 pm
Apr 172012

The Space Shuttle Discovery is on its way to its final resting place.

Many lament the end of the Shuttle program. They shouldn’t. Beautiful as these machines were, they really stifled the American space program. For decades, countless billions of dollars were spent… on going around, and around, and around, in low-Earth orbit, ultimately getting nowhere.

When Barack Obama opted for a variant of the Augustine Commission‘s “flexible path” approach, some pundits called it the end of America’s space dominance. I think the contrary is true. Instead of opting for an overly ambitious but ultimately unrealistic space program that would eventually die on the floors of Congress due to lack of funding, Obama chose a space program that places the emphasis on sustainable development: a long term vision of expanding human presence beyond Earth orbit in the solar system, not necessarily with spectacular landings on Mars (however desirable such a landing may be, it’s also insanely risky and expensive) but with building the infrastructure for a permanent human presence beyond the protective shield of the Earth’s radiation belts.

 Posted by at 7:53 am
Feb 032012

Hungary’s flagship airline is no more: after 66 years of operations, Malév unceremoniously stopped flying after two of its airplanes were grounded in Tel Aviv by a demand for advance payment for fuel and services.

Though the news is not unexpected (Malév has been in deep trouble ever since it was ordered to repay several hundred million dollars worth of state subsidies that were deemed illegal by the European Union), I am still saddened. My first ever professional contract in 1979 (yes, I was still in high school) was to write code to simulate the take-off of Malév-owned TU-134 aircraft at Budapest’s Ferihegy airport under various adverse conditions, calculating the maximum safe take-off weight. I also have other memories, such as nearly missing a Malév flight in Bucharest in 1983, as in Ceausescu’s capital by that time, fuel was scarce, public transport was unreliable, and taxicabs fueled by natural gas were not accepting passengers to the airport due to the chronic fuel shortage and rationing. (I hitchhiked and caught my flight with only seconds to spare.) Ferihegy Airport without Malév is just not the same.

 Posted by at 9:47 am
May 012011

It has been nearly two years since the catastrophic loss of an Air France airliner over the Atlantic. Our only information about the possible cause of the crash came from automated radio messages as the airplane’s flight data recorder has never been found… until now, that is. Astonishingly, after the empty (!) housing of the flight data recorder was located a few days ago, it appears now that its contents, namely its memory module, was also found in good condition.

My first thought was that if we’re capable of finding an item smaller than a briefcase under a couple of miles of ocean in an area larger than most countries, we truly own this planet. And now, perhaps, we’ll find out once and for all what happened to that poor airplane and the over 200 souls on board.

My initial guess was lightning (the possibility is real that a lightning strike could do significantly more damage to a carbon composite airplane than an all metal airframe) but that was before I learned about a possible failure of the airspeed indicator. At high altitude, this can be a problem: if the speed is too low, the airplane stalls, if it is too high, the airplane is overstressed, and the higher the altitude, the smaller the difference between these two speeds, and the more important it is to have an accurate airspeed reading.

 Posted by at 8:52 pm
Mar 242011

So you’re flying your airplane late at night and approach an obscure airport. You try to radio the tower, but there’s no response. The tower is unmanned. Not altogether unusual… pilots are able to land at uncontrolled airports, using the radio to inform one another of their progress if there’s more than one airplane about.

Oh, did I say obscure airport? Well, there’s the problem. The airport where this happened last night wasn’t some municipal airfield in Wyoming or the Yukon. It was Reagan National Airport, in Washington, D. C.

Reportedly, the lone controller in the airport’s control tower either managed to lock himself out or fell asleep.

 Posted by at 1:40 pm
Feb 152011

Here’s a useful unit of measure that I just found out about, thanks to Bruce Schneier’s security blog: it’s called a micromort, a one-in-a-million probability of death. Curiously, according to the Wikipedia, your chances of dying on a train due to an accident are the same as your chances of dying due to cosmic radiation received while flying on a jet: 1 micromort every six thousand miles.

 Posted by at 3:22 pm
Apr 152010

Just like after 9/11, the airspace of an entire region is closed today, grounding thousands of flights in the UK and Northern Europe.

Unlike on 9/11, this time around the closure is not the result of the panicked, knee-jerk reaction of clueless politicians and officials. It is the result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland:

The plume, clearly visible in this Eumetsat image, is a grave threat to aviation. 28 years ago, volcanic ash almost brought down a British Airways 747 full of passengers, and since then, numerous airliners have been damaged as they flew through similar plumes. Grounding all flights in the affected areas seems like a dramatic, but justified response to a very real threat.

Now the question is this: how long? According to news reports, the eruption shows no signs of abating. Will they keep flights grounded for days, even weeks if necessary?

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Feb 182010

Imagine… a person leaves behind a politically charged manifesto, and then flies an airplane into a crowded office building with the intent of killing himself along with many other people. A terrorist?

Not according to the United States government, who promptly assured us that the incident that occurred today in Austin, Texas, is not terrorism-related.

So what exactly defines terrorism? Does the perpetrator have to be, in addition to a politically motivated suicidal murderer, also brown-skinned and of the Muslim persuasion?

 Posted by at 10:23 pm
Jan 072010

No, I’m not referring to the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight carrying that hapless Nigerian youth with the not-so-exploding underwear. I’m talking about another flight, this one from Slovakia to Ireland, on which a passenger carried some 90 grams of high explosive… courtesy of the Slovak government, whose agents were using real explosives, hidden in real passengers’ luggage, to train dogs, but then forgot to take the explosive out.

And it’s these people who ask us to give up all expectations of privacy, because ostensibly they are here to “protect” us.

 Posted by at 9:09 pm
Dec 272009

The terrorists have won. We might as well all change religion right now, pledge our faith in Allah and His Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), denounce reason, clad our women in burkas, and start learning all the Suras of the Koran.

All it takes is one disruptive passenger to keep a planeload of people stuffed in an airplane for hours, while idiotic security officers lay out all their luggage on the tarmac and do whatever else it is that they do, all the while treating free citizens as potential enemies. Meanwhile, 24-hour news channels provide uninterrupted coverage of the poor airplane sitting at a remote corner of an airfield as if this was the most important event happening on this planet.

The terrorists wanted to frighten me and they succeeded… I am terrified, actually. But no, I’m not terrified of madmen trying to blow up my plane (it might happen, but the probability remains extremely low), what I am terrified of is uniformed guardians of our collective  safety and security taking away my rights and my liberty, a threat I have to face every time I go near an airplane.

Twenty-three years ago, I escaped from Communism. I thought I was seeking political asylum. I didn’t realize that I’d end up in an insane asylum. What can I say… the Commies tried to warn me, I just didn’t listen.

 Posted by at 9:23 pm
Jun 132009

My bet was on lightning, but perhaps I was wrong: it appears that there is good reason to believe that the in-flight breakup of Air France 447 was due to the pilots’ struggle to stay in control of an airplane with a faulty speed sensor.

 Posted by at 12:20 pm
Jun 012009

AF447 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris has not arrived this morning; contact was lost some four hours into the flight, after the airplane flew through what was described by French officials as stormy weather. The last signal from the airplane, if news reports can be believed, was an indication of some electrical fault. A journalist mentioned lightning. At cruising altitude? Yet if it was lightning, I cannot help but be reminded of the fact that the Airbus 330 uses composite materials, carbon composites in particular, extensively; these have a higher electrical resistance than metal, and thus would be heated greatly by a lightning strike; and that experts I heard interviewed over the years said it’s just a matter of time before this will cause a major accident.

 Posted by at 12:40 pm
Mar 232009

Yes, they do teach this in flight school. But even professionals make mistakes… and when those professionals happen to be pilots, they often pay with their lives:

Fortunately (?) in this case only the pilots had to pay, as the airplane in question was a FedEx cargo plane.

 Posted by at 1:43 pm
Mar 182009

In 2002, a tragic accident occurred over the skies of Europe, as a Russian passenger liner and a DHL cargo plane collided, causing the deaths of some 70 people, including the family of a certain Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian architect working in Barcelona at the time.

Two years later Kaloyev killed Peter Nielsen, the air traffic controller that he believed was responsible for the death of his daughter. He was duly convicted and spent some time in prison. He was eventually released in late 2007 after winning an appeal on the grounds that his mental state at the time of the killing was not taken properly into account. He returned to Russia where many greeted him as a hero.

This is where things turn bizarre. Not long after Kaloyev’s return, Russia went to war with Georgia. One outcome of this war was the declaration of independence by the state of South Ossetia. Nationalists feelings were high on both sides of the intra-Ossetian border. And Vitaly Kaloyev was named deputy minister of housing in North Ossetia.

I can understand Kaloyev’s feelings. I can even understand why he killed Nielsen, even though Nielsen was himself a victim of incompetent management and bad organization. What I don’t understand is how a convicted killer can be named to such a high-profile public position. I think it speaks volumes about the politics of the region.

 Posted by at 6:55 pm