Great, My Plane's Crashing. Now What?

Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias. Like almost everyone, I suffer from a touch of it. Even though I know logically that I’m safer in a commercial airliner than I am in my own bathtub, I still feel a twist in my stomach when the plane hits a sudden jolt of turbulence. Hearing the news about yesterday’s crash in Libya, which killed everyone aboard except a single Dutch boy, is unlikely to soothe anyone’s nerves.

I’m sure that the next time I get jittery in flight, I’ll think about that boy and wonder: what could I do if this plane started to go down? If there’s only going to be one survivor, how can I increase the chances that it’s going to be me?

Everyone always tells you that the first rule of thumb is: Don’t Panic. As I explain in Extreme Fear, I find that advice ridiculous. When we’re in mortal danger, it’s simply impossible to shut down one’s panic response by sheer force of will. So here’s my alternative piece of advice: Take Action. That is, adopt a positive, pro-active frame of mind. Assume that you’re going to survive. (If you’re wrong, who cares?) Continue reading Great, My Plane's Crashing. Now What?

No, Sullenberger Did Not Screw Up

“Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger has been so lionized since his remarkable feat of airmanship last year that it was inevitable that some kind of backlash must somehow emerge. Today it seems that that chink in his facade has appeared.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the NTSB’s final report on the incident will include the fact that pilots who run through the accident in simulators have been able to return the stricken jet safely to LaGuardia:

…tucked inside thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits are hints that, in hindsight, the celebrated pilot could have made it back to La Guardia Airport. Pilots who used simulators to recreate the accident—including suddenly losing both engines after sucking in birds at 2,500 feet—repeatedly managed to safely land their virtual airliners at La Guardia.

The story immediately goes on to emphasize that officials are not slighting Sullenberger’s feat by suggesting that he should have turned back to the airport:

The results haven’t changed the conclusions of National Transportation Safety Board investigators or outside aviation-safety experts, who unanimously agree that Mr. Sullenberger made the right call to put his crippled jet down in the river. Neither he nor his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, had any assurance that the Airbus A320—which suddenly turned into a 70-ton glider—would be able to clear Manhattan’s skyline had they tried to return to the Queens airport they left minutes before.

And yet the fact that Sullenberger could have returned the plane to the airport must add a hint of tarnish to his reputation. Continue reading No, Sullenberger Did Not Screw Up

Blimps for the Everyman

A heap of rip-stop nylon, damp with dew, stretches 140 feet across a farmer’s hay field in Amherst, Massachusetts. The pre-dawn air is humid, still, and cool — “perfect weather for this kind of thing,” says one of the volunteers bustling around the lumpy shape. A large fan roars to life, drowning out the twittering of the birds and frogs, and the nylon gradually leavens toward the sky, growing into a blob 70 feet high. Inside its bobbing skin, experimental blimp-builder and pilot Mike Kuehlmuss stands in a makeshift cockpit of welded steel tubing. He hits a toggle, and with a roar a jet of burning gas shoots upward.

With aching slowness, the watermelon-shaped envelope lifts off the ground, its jaunty black and yellow stripes and red tail fins bringing to mind something of a carnival jester. Crew members hold the cockpit steady as Kuehlmuss straps himself into a bucket seat salvaged from an old Toyota Corolla. He checks the instruments fastened to the frame in front of him: envelope temperature, fuel levels, compass heading, engine rpm. With a remote switch he triggers another blast of hot gas, then checks the view of from the camera fastened near the near-mounted propellor. All systems are go. The burners roar, and the cockpit levitates off the ground. The 24-hp engine sputters into action, and with all the stateliness and grace of a passing cloud, the huge ship slowly rises and slides away into the sky. The Skyacht – the first of what its builders hope could be an entire industry of personal recreational blimps – is again on the prowl. Continue reading Blimps for the Everyman

More Red Bull Mishigas

I was going to go gliding today but the weather radar made it seem like Wurtsboro would be too overcast for good thermaling — plus I had work to do. So instead I stayed home and watched this:

If you ever go gliding with me, please do not open the cockpit and go sit on the wing, no matter how tempting this prospect may be.

Parenthetically, how do you stand on top of a fuselage with a relative wind of at least 50 mph without getting blown off?

In Smolensk Air Crash, Blame People, Not Machines

Horrific news this weekend from Smolensk, Russia, where a plane crash killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski. I’ve got a blog post up this morning on Popular Mechanics about the psychological factors that may have caused the pilot to fly a perfectly functioning aircraft into the ground:

Sometimes… a pilot is highly motivated to get on the ground, a state of mind known colloquially in aviation circles as “get-there-itis.” He might be suffering mechanical problems, a fuel shortage or simply be impatient to get where he’s going. Instead of abandoning his approach, he continues lower, hoping that by pressing on a little longer he’ll emerge from the clouds, spot the runway and accomplish his landing. He might figure that, since there’s a certain amount of safety margin built into the descent protocol, there’s no harm in pushing it a little bit. But “busting minimums” as this behavior is called, can be an insidiously dangerous pastime.

Continue reading In Smolensk Air Crash, Blame People, Not Machines

When to Listen to Your Fears, and When to Ignore Them

In response to an earlier post here on what part of a frightening experience is the most scary, Mark Phelps of Flying magazine has written an interesting article about his own fears — specifically, to the jitters he feels when he’s getting ready to make a flight. As anyone who flies knows, fear is a crucial part of the experience of flying. I think that no other factor leads people to abandon their training, or give up flying after they’ve gotten their license, than the sheer psychic difficulty of constantly having to battle against one’s sense of trepidation. As Phelps acknowledges, our fear is often a useful indicator that we’re about to engage in behavior that might not be in our best interest, and sometimes we just have to listen to it. But if we listen to it too often, we’ll never break through to that state of exhilaration that we can find swooping above the clouds. The key he writes, is to rationally assess the actual dangers involved, asking: what really is the danger here? And then: Continue reading When to Listen to Your Fears, and When to Ignore Them

The Riddle of Creativity in the Face of Danger

One of the most troubling aspects of intense fear is that it powerfully suppresses the parts of the brain that deal with complex problem-solving and self-control. That can make it hard to get ourselves out of trouble. On rare occasion, however, we fear stories of men and women who are somehow able to extricate themselves from life-or-death predicaments through remarkable feats of inventiveness. One of the most remarkable cases I came across while reporting the book was the story of aerobatic Neil Williams, and how he found a creative solution when one of the wings started to come off his plane. I liked it so much that I used it as the core of the book’s introduction, which you can read in its entirety here.

The Only Thing Crazier Than a Wingsuit

[youtube=] Dan Johnson runs a very entertaining website over at, where he covers all things related to Light Sport Aircraft (the relatively new FAA category of small planes that are easier to get licensed for than regular planes).  He recently posted this rather incredible footage of a Russian man flying what basically amounts to the misbegotten offspring of a hang glider and a gyroplane. I would love to know more about this contraption and the daredevil who flew it — if he’s still alive I would consider it definitive proof of a Higher Power, and one who has  a decided appreciation for aeronautical nut jobs.

Parenthetically, I really want one of these. I wonder if the folks at Wallaby Ranch would be willing to tow me into the air?

World's Scariest Airstrip

[youtube=] I love finding features about the world’s scariest, dangerous looking airports — like this one at Travel + Leisure. The fact is, if a major carrier is running commercial service into it, it’s got to be pretty safe, no matter how scary it may look to the layman. Hell, if it’s paved it’s better than the vast majority of the bush airstrips you’ll find dotted all over the globe. And as a glider pilot, I’m used to the idea of landing in places where there aren’t any airstrips at all. So I think I’m relatively unflappable when it comes to runways.
Recently, though, I flew out of a small airstrip in Belize that had me thinking: “Holy crap!” As you’ll see in the video above, we barely made it off the ground before we ran out of runway, and as we cleared the line of trees at the end the stall horn briefly sounded, meaning we barely had enough speed to stay airborne. We were flying a small Australian bush plane from the dirt runway at Lamanai, in Belize. The good news: the runway is slated to be replaced by a new one that will be paved. The bad news: the new one will only be 1500 feet long. Yee-haw!

Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll

Which is safer: flying, or driving? Rationally speaking, it’s no contest. Commercial air travel in the United States is incredibly risk-free. In 2008, the U. S. fatality rate was less than 1 per billion passenger trips. In comparison, America’s roads are a veritable slaughterfest, prematurely ending some 50,000 lives every year.

Unfortunately, people don’t make decisions based on pure reason. To the brain’s subconscious fear centers, flying looks like a very bad bet indeed. Trapped in a narrow metal tube, dangling at precipitous heights with no apparent mechanism to keep us there — it’s no wonder that 20 percent of the public suffers from fear of flying.

So here’s the paradox. If we allow our emotion of fear to overcome our rational decision-making, we actually put ourselves at a vastly greater risk of having those fears come true. Continue reading Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll