Terrible News

By the darkest of dark coincidences, I have just learned that the very evening I happened to put up a post about John Graybill he died, along with his wife Dolly, in a crash in bad weather near McGrath, Alaska. As I write this I have just found out the news and am in a state of shock. John was a controversial figure in his day but friend and foe alike were in awe of his flying abilities. When I met him in 2000 his outlaw days were behind him, and even his old sparring partners at Fish and Game seemed to think of him as a favorite uncle. I found him to be a natural-born storyteller and a kind, gentle soul. He and Dolly welcomed me into their lives with the warmth of family.

And yes, John was an amazing pilot. Spending a week with him, zipping over the Alaskan landscape at 30 feet, inspired me to get my own pilot’s license, and that in turn has changed my life in ways I can’t begin to tally.

Welcome To New York, Suckaz!

Above is a map that passengers arriving at New York’s LaGuardia airport encounter upon first stepping out of the baggage claim area in the central terminal area. (I took it early this morning after arriving on a delayed flight from Toronto that had left me feeling dazed and unsure whether I might be mildly hallucinating.) Savvy airport users will recognize that it is in fact completely backwards — the correct map, from the Port Authority’s website, looks like this:

Presumably the Port Authority’s intention is to immediately disorient visitors, so that they can be more easily preyed upon by cunning locals. Or perhaps the maps were simply the work of the same people who designed the star map on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, which is also famously ass-backwards. Either way, it’s good to see that New York traditions are going strong.

At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit

The news out of Alaska over the last few days, about the air crash near Dillingham that killed former senator Ted Stevens, is sad but not entirely surprising. Flying bush planes in the north country is by far the most dangerous kind of aviation in the United States. The details of the crash have yet to emerge, but one thing is clear: the flight ended amid weather conditions that were marginal at best, with low clouds and rain obscuring rough terrain. These are all elements in a type of dangerous flying that has killed many, many Alaskan pilots over the years: scud running.

Scud running, simply put, is flying by visual flight rules through weather conditions that could close in around you at any time. A few years ago, I traveled to Alaska to spend a week with a legendary bush pilot named John Graybill. Every other bush pilot I spoke to was in awe of John’s stick-and-rudder skill. At the time, in 2000, he was 70 years old, and had survived no fewer than five potentially fatal crashes. He was quite blunt in assessing the reason for his repeated survival: he was, he said, simply very lucky.

Scud running is particularly dangerous in Alaska because it is so common. In the Lower 48, most pilots fly to destinations that have sophisticated radar navigation systems. In Alaska, a good percentage of flights are bound for airstrips that are little more than patches of dirt, or a strip of sand or quiet patch of river. The only way to get is by eyeballing it. So if you fly into a cloud, and find yourself unable to see the ground, you’re really screwed. Once you’re disoriented, you could easily fly into a mountain, or a tree, or what have you.

The problem is that flying in the Alaskan bush inevitably involves some kind of scud running. For one thing, you never know when the weather might change on you halfway through the flight. For another, bush pilots inevitably feel pressure from clients or their bosses to take their load where it needs to go. Ceiling low? Pass obscured by clouds? You’ll be able to pick your way through. With enough experience, pilots may begin to feel they have an intuitive understanding of when such gambits will work and when they won’t. In reality, they’re counting on luck, as Graybill said. Every flight into marginal weather conditions is a game of Russian Roulette.

Graybill told me that when he first arrived in Alaska in the 1950s, he took advice from an old-timer, Glenn Gregory, who drummed into him the first rule of bush flying: “He told me, ‘Don’t lose ground contact flying in Alaska. Don’t do it.’ I had grounds to remember those words later on.”

Later Graybill told me the full story, which provided a vivid understanding of how a pilot can be lured into scud running, and why it can be so dangerous: Continue reading At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit

Flying Cars, A Very Old Dream

I must confess, I have a soft spot for strange aircraft designs. Thus I was happy to see today’s Popular Mechanics post about the age-old quest for the flying car. The story says that the dream is “almost 70 years old,” but it’s even older than that. As the site Roadable Times points out, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss designed a flying car, the Curtiss Autoplane, back in 1917, and patented it in 1919. It was a crazy dream then, and it’s a crazy dream today.

Warning: Flying Cars May Appear Closer than They Are

Popular Mechanics has an opinion piece up on its website about why I don’t think the latest iteration of that long dreamed-of machine, the flying car, is all it’s cracked up to be:

We’ve covered the Terrafugia “Transition” flying car here before – as we wrote back in October, the two-seater aircraft has four wheels and four wheels that fold up so that it can be driven on the road. It also has a talent for attracting national publicity. The latest round came after the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) issued a decision that seemed a major milestone in Terrafugia’s march to the marketplace. As the Discovery Channel reported in its article “Flying Car Gets FAA Approval,”

The Federal Aviation Administration has just removed a major hurdle from the path of a vehicle that may well be the first commercially viable flying car. The agency has agreed to classify the Terrafugia Transition as a Light Sport Aircraft [LSA], even though the vehicle is 120 pounds too heavy to qualify for that class.

At first reading, this seemed to imply that the FAA had agreed to certify the “Transition.” This indeed would be a newsworthy accomplishment for Terrafugia, and a major milestone in making roadable airplanes a reality.  But it also sounded a bit unlikely to us. Continue reading Warning: Flying Cars May Appear Closer than They Are

I Want My Inflatable Airplane

From the good folks at AvWeb, a story about the Swiss ultralight design that’s something like a cross between a hang glider and a powered parachute — and also bears a family resemblance to my ultimate fantasy aircraft, the Goodyear Inflatoplane. This was an otherwise conventional airplane which happened to have wings and a fusalage made out of inflatable rubber. The idea was that if one of your pilots bailed out behind enemy lines you could drop this to him and he could blow it up and fly it to safety. (Then, presumably, use it as a pool toy once he’d gotten back home.) Like many of the coolest ideas in aviation, it was a long way from practical. Here’s what it looked like:

If nothing else, one imagines that the crashes would be less than catastrophic.

Is the TSA Fighting Terror, or Abetting It?

This week the ever-excellent aviation blogger (and commercial pilot) Patrick Smith posed the question: why haven’t Americans rebelled against the petty tyranny of the Transportation Safety Administration?

…one of the things that has always baffled and frustrated me is the lack of any organized protest against TSA by the airlines, the media or the traveling public. People complain, roll their eyes and maybe make a wisecrack or two, but there have been few formal calls for agency accountability. Groups like FlyersRights.org never miss a chance to exploit the latest tarmac stranding, but are mostly silent when it comes to the single biggest indignity of the air travel experience: concourse passenger screening.

I’d like to second Smith’s irritation, and go one further: are America’s transportation policies not fighting terrorism, but actually serving its ends?

There’s no question that the government’s intent is good. But as psychologists of fear know all too well, attempts to control fear are prone to what are known as “paradoxical effects.” Trying to quell anxiety can have the opposite result. Continue reading Is the TSA Fighting Terror, or Abetting It?

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