New York: 5G Will Not Make Your Plane Fall Out of the Sky

The U.S. aviation industry has been in a tizzy this week over fears that Wednesday’s launch of national 5G cellular service would create chaos by interfering with aircraft sensors. Ten major airlines wrote to the Biden administration predicting that the “nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” Sure enough, come Wednesday, a number of airline flights were canceled, including all of Emirates’ U.S. flights. Emirates president Tim Clark called the 5G rollout “delinquent, utterly irresponsible.”

But by Thursday, the story had already fizzled. As commerce trundled along unfazed, several airlines un-canceled their flights and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that at least 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet would be unaffected in any way by the 5G rollout. Some observers went so far as to label the issue “incredibly dumb.” The main remaining question was why it had even turned into a thing in the first place. Continue reading New York: 5G Will Not Make Your Plane Fall Out of the Sky

New York: How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report

In the early 1960s, Cuban radar operators witnessed a strange phenomenon: Peering at their screens, they could see targets screaming toward their airspace at tremendous velocity. But when fighter planes were launched to intercept them, the targets simply vanished. The elusive craft showing up on their screens appeared to be the product of hyperadvanced technology — perhaps, even, an advanced civilization from another planet.

But what the Cubans were seeing was not alien technology. It was the result of human, and specifically American, technology — something called electromagnetic warfare, or EW. Knowing what EW is all about is crucial for putting into context the report released last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” the document had been eagerly anticipated by those who hoped it would finally provide definitive official evidence that UFOs are real. While those hopes didn’t pan out, the report was nevertheless revealing, if given a close reading. Continue reading New York: How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report

New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Belarus’s use of deception and military threat to waylay a Ryanair flight Sunday and detain a prominent journalist critical of the country’s dictator was a clear-cut violation of international aviation law, legal experts say. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair flight 4978 was transiting Belarus airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when, according to the airline, air-traffic controllers told the flight crew that there was a bomb aboard and asked them to land in the capital, Minsk. A MiG-29 fighter jet dispatched to intercept the flight added weight to the request. Upon landing, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, was removed from the plane and taken into custody.

“International law obviously prohibits the use of armed force against commercial aircraft,” says aviation attorney Arthur Rosenberg. The International Civil Aviation Organization “has standards governing the interception of commercial aircraft by the military.”

ICAO, an agency of the U.N., was established by an international agreement called the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944. The Chicago Convention is the foundational document of international aviation law and has been ratified by virtually every country on Earth, including Belarus. It specifically prohibits the use of military force against passenger flights, stating: “The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.” There are situations in which a state can use force against a civil aircraft, such as self-defense, or if a plane violates its airspace without permission, but neither applies in this case. Continue reading New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

New York: How to Make Carbon-Neutral Gasoline Out of Thin Air

In a clearing on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany, a modified shipping container painted an immaculate white sits near a field of solar panels. Inside, ducts wrapped in insulating foil elbow between racks filled with cabinet tanks. Everything is motionless and silent, except for a soft whirring and humming. Michael Klumpp, a postdoc at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, turns a spigot and a clear liquid flows into a glass flask. The substance smells faintly of warm wax. Though it resembles oils derived from plants or petroleum, it does not come from any familiar source, but has literally been pulled from the thin air, transubstantiated from gas to liquid with the help of renewably generated electricity. On a mass scale, it could be used to fly airplanes or power heavy machinery, replacing petroleum in some situations. It even has a catchy name: eFuel.

The idea of turning air into liquid fuel may sound fantastical, but the underlying principle is as mundane as a head of lettuce. “It’s the same thing that plants do with photosynthesis,” says Roland Dittmeyer, leader of the project and director of the Institute for Micro Process Engineering at KIT.

While the machine that I watched produce that energy-dense liquid in the forest clearing is just the first stage of a pilot program, the underlying technology could help reshape the battle against climate change. Continue reading New York: How to Make Carbon-Neutral Gasoline Out of Thin Air

Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

Within a few months of the disappearance of MH370 I began investigating why a Russian and two Ukrainians were on the plane, as I’ve previously described here and here.

I quickly learned that the two men jointly owned a furniture company in Odessa, Ukraine called Nika Mebel. The company started a website around June, 2013, that retailed furniture it made in its own factory. Within a few months it added furniture imported from China and Malaysia. On the site the company described itself like this: “Continuous improvement of technological equipment and staff training helped us grow into a large furniture manufacturing company in Ukraine….  Over a 15-year period of time, we managed to make ourselves known on most of the territory of Ukraine, as well as beyond its borders.”

In an affadavit filed in 2017 as part of her effort to have her husband declared legally dead, Tatiana Chustrak stated that:

“In the court session it was established that the applicant’s husband was engaged in private business, namely, with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, had a shop for furniture production.
March 02, 2014, a man, along with a partner, went on a business trip abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit the international furniture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and on March 8, it was planned to fly to Beijing Airport, China, and then fly to Guangzhou, China, where an international furniture exhibition was also planned. According to this plan, the relevant tickets were purchased.”

I hired researchers in Ukraine and asked them to reach out to Dmitriy Kozlov, the manager of Nika Mebel. I figured that he’d have detailed knowledge of the trip, because according to Nika Mebel’s filings he was the only person authorized to operate the company apart from Chustrak and Deineka — in effect, for years after their disappearance, he was Nika Mebel.

My investigators reported back to me: Continue reading Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

New York: Why Do Boeing 777 Engines Keep Exploding?

The engines on elderly Boeing 777 airliners are blowing up with worrisome frequency.

In 2018, the No. 11 fan blade on the right engine of a United Airlines 777 broke as the plane approached its destination, Honolulu. Its pieces, traveling at high speed, caused a cascade of failures within the engine’s intricate machinery such that within less than a second, the engine’s cover had blown off, leaving the naked core wobbling as it spun. Flying debris caused two punctures in the fuselage but the plane was able to land safely under the power of its remaining engine.

Last December, a Japan Airlines 777 suffered a similar engine failure after the No. 16 fan blade of its No. 1 engine broke en route between Naha, Japan, and Tokyo. That flight, too, landed safely.

And then on Saturday, another United Airlines 777 suffered an uncontained engine failure as it climbed out of Denver en route to Honolulu. Witnesses on the ground reported hearing an explosion before debris rained down on the town of Broomfield, Colorado. The pilot declared mayday and returned to Denver without further incident.

In all three cases, the aircraft were among the oldest in the worldwide 777 fleet, having been delivered in the first two years after the model was introduced in 1995. While the Pratt & Whitney PW-4000 engines in each case were likely not original to each plane — engines are regularly removed from planes for routine maintenance, then installed on different aircraft — the engines are generally of similar vintage to the aircraft on which they fly. In the 2018 incident, the engine that failed had been built in 1996 and had accumulated 77,593 hours flight hours and 13,921 cycles (combined takeoffs and landings). The blade that failed in the 2020 incident had experienced 43,060 flight hours and 33,518 cycles.

Patterns in aircraft accidents can be a sign of trouble. While one-off failures might be attributable to a freak coincidence or just bad luck, patterns suggest that a previously unsuspected danger is lurking. Continue reading New York: Why Do Boeing 777 Engines Keep Exploding?

New York: Ancient 777 Strews Debris Over Colorado

The United Airlines 777 that suffered an uncontained engine failure this afternoon over Broomfield, Colorado, was the third oldest 777 in operation. The aircraft, tail number N772UA, first flew in 1994 and was delivered to United in September, 1995, three months after the 777 made its first commercial flight for the airline that June.

United Airlines Flight 328 took off from Denver International Airport at 1 p.m. bound for Honolulu and was climbing through 12,000 feet altitude when its right engine suffered an uncontained engine failure, with internal parts breaking through the external casing and sending pieces of it flying.

The pilot immediately made a mayday call and returned for a safe landing at 1:29 p.m. No injuries have been reported on the ground or among the 231 passengers or ten crew.

One Broomfield homeowner got a close call, however, when the ten-foot-wide circular section of engine cowling came within feet of crushing either the house or the pickup truck and RV parked next to it. Other large pieces landed on an athletic field in a nearby park.

UA328’s engines were Pratt & Whitney PW4000s, each 16 feet long, weighing 16,000 pounds, and capable of generating more than 90,000 foot-pounds of thrust. Turbofan engines rarely fail in flight, and even when they do, they are designed such that pieces of the engine will be contained within the surrounding cowling. But the stacks of fan blades that heat and compress air to generate thrust must handle extremely high energies, and if one comes apart due to accumulated mechanical stress it can shatter, spewing a shotgun-like blast of metal fragments that in turn can destroy neighboring blades in a cascading fashion.

Such uncontained engine failures can be extremely dangerous, as flying pieces can hit fuel tanks, shred control surfaces, sever hydraulic lines, pierce an aircraft’s pressure hull, or hit passengers or crew. In 2018, a passenger aboard a Southwest 737 was killed when one of the plane’s engines exploded and a piece of debris shattered her window; the resulting depressurization caused the top half of her body to be sucked out through the breach.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will collect as many pieces as possible from the ground as well as examine the portion of the engine that remained attached and study flight data recorders in order to determine what caused the catastrophic failure. It’s not currently known if the engine that failed was the original delivered with the plane to United in 1995, but if so its maintenance history will receive special scrutiny. Repeated stresses over time can cause microscopic fractures within metal that will eventually propagate and ultimately break if not detected in time.

Three years ago, an eerily similar event happened to a sister aircraft of the 777 involved in Saturday’s accident. An aircraft with the tail number N773UA, operating as United flight 1175, was also en route to Honolulu when it suffered an uncontained failure of its right engine that resulted in its cowling getting ripped off.

In that accident, the plane was 40 minutes from the end of its flight, and landed safely in Honolulu. The NTSB later determined that one of the fan blades had suffered a fatigue crack that had grown over time despite repeated inspections. Built in 1996, the engine had been installed on the plane in 2015 and had 77,593 hours in operation since new.

That plane was the fourth 777 off Boeing’s production line; N772UA was the fifth. Both aircraft were delivered to United on the same day: September 29, 1995.

This article originally ran on February 20, 2021 in New York magazine.

New York: Transportation Authority Finds Pilot at Fault in Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant

The National Transportation Safety Board today made its final determination in the January 26, 2020, helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, finding that the mostly likely cause was that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, became disorientated after flying into clouds, at which point he lost control and flew into a hillside.

A contributing factor, the board declared, was that Zobayan likely felt self-imposed pressure to successfully complete his mission, which was to deliver Bryant and members of his daughter’s basketball team to a tournament taking place in Calabasas, California.

The findings dinged Zobayan’s employer, Island Express Helicopters Inc., for “inadequate review and oversight of the safety management processes.” The conclusions provided on Tuesday were largely consistent with analysis previously published in New York magazine and elsewhere.

The fatal flight had taken off 40 minutes before from an airport in Orange County and traveled north under a low overcast before turning west in an attempt to cross over a mountain pass in order to reach Calabasas, 17 miles to the west. But the pass was shrouded in clouds. Island Express helicopters are only legally allowed to fly under visual flight rules, meaning that its pilots could orient themselves by seeing the ground below them.

At the public hearing held before the NTSB board voted to approve the findings, members noted that Zobayan had ignored his own pilot training. Once he found himself in whiteout conditions, he should have leveled the helicopter, kept flying straight ahead, and slowed down. Instead he maintained high speed and attempted to climb twice as fast as recommended.

He might nonetheless have succeeded in punching up through the thousand-foot-thick cloud layer if he had managed to keep the helicopter flying straight ahead. To do this, he would have had to maintain intent focus on the flight instrument panel in front of him, lest he succumb to “the leans,” an illusion caused by the vestibular sensation that one is in a turn when one is not. However, a few seconds after he entered the clouds, an air-traffic controller asked him to press a button that would signal the helicopter’s location on the controller’s radar screen. This required him to move and shift his attention in a way that “could adversely affect his ability to effectively interpret the instruments and maintain control of the helicopter,” according to NTSB investigator Dujuan Sevillian.

Seconds later, he radioed to the controller that he was climbing to 4,000 feet. But he was already in a steep dive that would cause him to impact the ground at 184 mph.

Far from being an unusual type of accident, crashes resulting from pilots flying into clouds and becoming disoriented are a persistent problem. On average, there have been one of these fatal crashes every six months for the past decade.

The board noted that the fatal crash didn’t mean that Zobayan was a bad pilot, noting that he was generally held in high regard by colleagues and clients. As lead investigator Bill English put it, “Good people can make a bad decision, and we really want to get to the bottom of why.”

This article first ran on February 9, 2021 in New York magazine.