Featured Archive


New York: How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?

The unsettling oddness was there from the first moment, on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines announced that a plane from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, Flight 370, had disappeared over the South China Sea in the middle of the night. There had been no bad weather, no distress call, no wreckage, no eyewitness accounts of a fireball in the sky—just a plane that said good-bye to one air-traffic controller and, two minutes later, failed to say hello to the next. And the crash, if it was a crash, got stranger from there.

My yearlong detour to Planet MH370 began two days later, when I got an email from an editor at Slate asking if I’d write about the incident. I’m a private pilot and science writer, and I wrote about the last big mysterious crash, of Air France 447 in 2009. My story ran on the 12th. The following morning, I was invited to go on CNN. Soon, I was on-air up to six times a day as part of its nonstop MH370 coverage.

There was no intro course on how to be a cable-news expert. The Town Car would show up to take me to the studio, I’d sign in with reception, a guest-greeter would take me to makeup, I’d hang out in the greenroom, the sound guy would rig me with a mike and an earpiece, a producer would lead me onto the set, I’d plug in and sit in the seat, a producer would tell me what camera to look at during the introduction, we’d come back from break, the anchor would read the introduction to the story and then ask me a question or maybe two, I’d answer, then we’d go to break, I would unplug, wipe off my makeup, and take the car 43 blocks back uptown. Then a couple of hours later, I’d do it again. I was spending 18 hours a day doing six minutes of talking.

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Businessweek: How Airbus Is Debugging the A350

Businessweek A350 wingtip smallA few times a month, Airbus Flight Test Engineer Patrick du Ché stands up from his desk, takes off his jacket and tie, walks to the coat rack in the corner of his office, and slips into a set of fire-resistant underwear, a bright-orange flight suit, and sturdy black boots. Then he walks down two flights of stairs and out onto the tarmac of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France. There, rising above a fleet of newly painted A320 short-haul jets, is an Airbus A350-XWB long-range widebody airliner—the very first of its kind. Sleek and nearly all white except for the lettering along its flank and the swirling blue-on-blue Airbus logo on the tail, it carries the official designation MSN001. Last May, in a modest employees-only ceremony, the final assembly line workers formally handed the plane over to the Flight Test Department. Or, as du Ché sees it, “They handed it to me.”

As a flight engineer and head of the department, du Ché gets first pick of the test flights. Although he describes himself as risk-averse, he tends to choose those he calls the most “interesting,” which means at the edge of the plane’s capabilities, where if something goes wrong, it could destroy the plane. Since June, du Ché and his colleagues have flown at the A350’s maximum design speed; conducted aerodynamic stalls; and taken off so slowly that the tail dragged on the ground.

Each test flight is operated by a crew of two pilots and three flight engineers, who monitor the stream of data flowing from a multitude of sensors into a bank of computers installed in the middle of the cabin. Du Ché’s station is behind the co-pilot’s on the right side of the cockpit. On the seat is a parachute. If things should go terribly awry and the crew needs to evacuate, a bright-orange railing leads them from the cockpit door to a hatch in the floor above the forward baggage compartment. By pulling a lever, the crew can trigger a set of explosive charges that will blow a hole in the right side of the fuselage. They can then leap down a slide, through the hole, and into the air. That’s the idea, anyway. Says test pilot Frank Chapman: “If the plane is tumbling out of control, would you really be able to get out?” He shrugs.

Read the rest of the article, from the February 13, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, here.


Popular Mechanics: How Panic Doomed an Airliner

On the evening of May 31, 2009, 216 passengers and 12 crew members boarded an Air France Airbus 330 at Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The flight, Air France 447, departed at 7.29pm local time for a scheduled 11-hour flight to Paris. It never arrived. At 7 o’clock the next morning, when the aircraft failed to appear on the radar screens of air traffic controllers in Europe, Air France began to worry, and contacted civil aviation authorities. By 11am, they concluded that their worst fears had been confirmed. AF447 had gone missing somewhere over the vast emptiness of the South Atlantic.

How, in the age of satellite navigation and instantaneous global communication, could a state-of-the art airliner simply vanish? It was a mystery that lasted for two years. Not until earlier this year, when autonomous submersibles located the airliner’s black boxes under more than two miles of water, were the last pieces of the puzzle put together. What doomed the 228 men, women and children aboard Air France 447 was neither weather nor technological failure, but simple human error. Under pressure, human beings can lose their ability to think clearly and to properly execute their training—a well-known failing that has proven all too difficult to eliminate.

Over at Popular Mechanics I’ve got a long piece offering a detailed blow-by-blow account of how one of the co-pilots of the Air France jetliner managed, in the course of just five minutes, to take a perfectly operational airplane from an altitude of nearly seven miles down to impact with the ocean. Here, I’d like to offer a nutshell summary of what happened, and what our understanding implies for the future of air safety. Read the rest of this entry »