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=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mO099D_Do2M] Dan Johnson runs a very entertaining website over at ByDanJohnson.com, 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=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZPxL3mhTPo] 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

Some Call Them Deathtraps

I’ve got a piece in the February issue of Popular Mechanics about gyroplanes, which were the exciting cutting edge of aviation back in the ’30s but have been languishing in obscurity ever since, having been upstaged by the helicopter. I first became aware of them thanks to the movie Max Max 2: The Road Warrior, which featured one of these strangely retro-futuristic craft and made it seem like the coolest thing ever. I later found out that some people consider gyroplanes fundamentally dangerous, but I decided not to let prejudice stop me from investigating deeper. Here’s a bit of video about what I found:

"All I Could Do Was Pray"

Praying HandsIt’s a horrific story: a man looks on as the car carrying his wife and son sinks beneath the surface of a flood-swollen river. He jumps into the water and is able to pull his wife free but can’t reach his son. What to do — keep struggling and try to reach his son, or use his energy to ensure his wife”s survival? A recent AP story described the dilemma:

[New Zealander Stacy] Horton said he arrived at the crash scene less than two minutes after the accident to hear his wife screaming in the darkness and to see his son’s friend and the family dog scrambling up the bank. His son Silva was trapped inside the submerged station wagon.

He tried to dive down to the vehicle, which was nose down but with the tail lights burning more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface, he told the Dominion Post newspaper.

“I tried to get down and get him but I couldn’t – it was just too deep. And Vanessa was going under,” Horton told the newspaper.

“I made a call to pull my wife to safety. I looked back and I could see the tail lights but it was too far and I couldn’t get him,” he said.

“Instead of going down and risking my life as well as my wife and son’s, I chose to take V(anessa) back and sat on the shore praying. It was all I could do,” a distraught Horton said.

Recourse to prayer is a common theme in stories of life-or-death peril. Time and again, people struggling to survive find that they’ve run out of options and turn to hope of divine intervention. But is praying something that can actually help to materially improve one’s odds?

Continue reading "All I Could Do Was Pray"

How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0DdpC7GV3A]

At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track.  While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.

The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Continue reading How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

Panic Over the Hudson

Hudson River midairOn August 8, 2009, a light airplane collided with a helicopter carrying tourists near the Statue of Liberty. Both aircraft crashed, and nine people were killed. The catastrophe was witnessed firsthand by hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, and it became a major news story, much like the earlier fatal crash of Cory Lidle, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics. In both cases, public alarm and outrage led to calls for flight rules to be tightened. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, went so far as to demand that tourist helicopters be banned from Manhattan.

The FAA said they would study the problem — and two days ago, they finally began implementing the new rules for the flight-seeing route over the Hudson River. The biggest change? Now, pilots passing through the area have to stay between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, and local traffic (such as tourist helicopters) have to stay below 1,000 feet.

At first glance, it seems like the FAA has responded to the public’s concerns by implementing a substantive initiative. But has anything really changed? As someone who loves flying over the river, and hopes to continue doing so, I have to say that the answer is no. And that’s a good thing. Continue reading Panic Over the Hudson