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

The FAA’s Computers Are on the Fritz. Should I Worry?

Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayed early this morning by a glitch in an FAA computer system that helps manage air traffic. The snafu resulted in no accidents, but it raises an obvious question: could future such problems  put passengers in danger?

The short answer, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, is no. “Radar coverage and communication with aircraft were never affected,” he told me. “So it’s not a safety problem at all.”

What happened was that the system that automatically generates flight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually, and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronic documents that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft is going, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercial flights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simply has to sit on the ground.

Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problem occurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible, the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and another occurred in August 2008. After that episode, the FAA declared that it would fix the problem for good, CNET reported:

FAA representatives said that by September, it plans to add more computer memory to its data communications network known as National Data Interchange Network (NADIN). And by early next year, the FAA plans to completely upgrade the decades-old data communication network with new hardware and software. “The big difference is that (the new system) has a lot more memory, so what happened yesterday could never happen again,” said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere.

Obviously that didn’t happen. At the moment, the FAA still hasn’t said what has caused the problem, and reports have conflicted which of the two NADIN centers failed. Presumably, in the aftermath, they’ll promise that the system will be upgraded, and that the problem won’t repeat again in the future. Hopefully, this time they’ll mean it.

Sullenberger Redux

I was in the thick of writing Extreme Fear when Chesley Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 in New York City’s East River. I was instantly struck by how perfectly his feat embodied the central paradox of the book: how is that certain people can respond creatively to intense, life-threatening crisis? I wound up exploring his story in Chapter 12, “Mastery,” in which I  recreated the incident in some detail. This recently released computer simulation, however, gives a far more vivid sense of what Sullenberger was going through.

Kudos to Kas Osterbuhr, the engineer at K3 Resources who created the video, and to Jason Paur at Wired.com for his posting it.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger