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Slate: Why Inmarsat’s MH370 Report is a Smokescreen

Inmarsat chartFive weeks into the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, more than $30 million has been spent scouring great swatches of the southern Indian Ocean. Yet searchers have still not found a single piece of physical evidence such as wreckage or human remains. Last week, Australian authorities said they were confident that a series of acoustic pings detected 1,000 miles northwest of Perth had come from the aircraft’s black boxes, and that wreckage would soon be found. But repeated searches by a robotic submarine have so far failed to find the source of the pings, which experts say could have come from marine animals or even from the searching ships themselves. Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that if wreckage wasn’t located within a week or two “we stop, we regroup, we reconsider.”

There remains only one publically available piece of evidence linking the plane to the southern Indian Ocean: a report issued by the Malaysian government on March 25 that described a new analysis carried out by the U.K.-based satellite operator Inmarsat. The report said that Inmarsat had developed an “innovative technique” to establish that the plane had most likely taken a southerly heading after vanishing. Yet independent experts who have analyzed the report say that it is riddled with inconsistencies and that the data it presents to justify its conclusion appears to have been fudged.

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445

Why Did Australia Change the Search Area?

This is happening late at night and will bear further discussion in the morning, but I wanted to get something up online quickly to explain the basic gist of the situation. A little over an hour ago, at 9.30pm EDT here in the US, the Australian government announced that it was abandoning the current search area and moving to a new one 11oo km to the northeast. The reason, they said, is:

The search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been updated after a new credible lead was provided to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)… The new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost. It indicated that the aircraft was travelling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean.

This explanation really doesn’t make any sense. I want to quickly explain why, and give some context of where all this is happening geographically.

First, here’s a very crude chart I’ve made on Google Earth showing  the old search area and the new search area (very roughly estimated). You’ll recall that earlier this week Inmarsat released an analysis of its “ping” data that plotted different routes the aircraft might have taken. The upshot was that if the plane was flying at 450 knots, it would have wound up at a spot on the 8.11am ping arc marked “450.” If it had flown at 400 knots, it would have wound up around the spot marked “400.” (click to enlarge)

new search area

 

As you can see, it appears that the old search area assumed a flying speed of a bit more than 450 knots, and the new search area assumes a flying speed of a bit more than 400 knots, with prevailing currents causing debris to drift to the southeast.

The shifting of the search area to the northeast would seem to stand at odds with the assertion of the press release, which implies that new radar analysis finds the plane was flying faster then originally estimated. In fact, it was flying slower than originally estimated.

At any rate, the abandoning of the old search area, after such significant assets had been lavished upon it, raises the question of why they were so confident about it that speed estimate in the first place. And then raises the obvious sequela: Why are they so confident in this one?

BTW, here’s that graphic from the Inmarsat, showing the 450 and 400 knot plots:

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 10.48.57 PM

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310

The Path of the Missing Malaysian Airliner: What We Know, and How — UPDATED

MH370_GRAPHIC 4

UPDATED: See end for description of possible northern route

On Saturday, March 15, Malaysian authorities released an analysis of satellite data that dramatically narrowed the possibilities for where missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had gone after it disappeared from radar on March 8. Over the course of the following week, Inmarsat released further information that not only showed where the plane went, but also indicated how it got there. The results are shown on this chart. We still don’t know if the plane headed north or south, but if it went north, it made landfall near the western India-Bangladesh border and proceeded along the Himalayas to Central Asia. If it went south, it passed over western Indonesia and out over the southern Indian Ocean.

How are we able to determine this? The procedure requires a bit of explanation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Popular Mechanics: Piloting a Hovercraft

I’m 30 seconds into my first hovercraft solo when things start to go wrong. Zipping along near a sandbar in the middle of the Wisconsin River, I’m cranking around into my first turn and I find myself gradually losing speed.

Soon I’m dead in the water. I gun the throttle. The engine screams, and water sprays up over the gunwales in sheets. It’s like sitting in a car wash, one that’s getting carried away downstream. I turn the handlebars this way and that, but the only thing that changes is the direction of the drenching. All I can do is open the throttle all the way and aim toward the sandbar. Crawling along, I pay for each inch of progress with a bucketful of spray. At last, I reach terra firma. Never before have I been so soaked and so relieved.

“Okay,” says my instructor, Bill Zang, who’s been watching from land. “There’s something I need to tell you about how this works.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Katie: Are Some People Wired to be Brave?

On Monday, January 27, 2014, I appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show to discuss how ordinary people can be real-life heroes, a subject I’d covered in a Reader’s Digest cover story.

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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.

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Popular Mechanics: The Improbable Pedal-Powered Flying Machines

Icarus Cup by Reed Young

David Barford takes to the air. Photo by Reed Young

“Dad! Hold the tail down!” David Barford shouts to his 73-year-old father, Paul, who shuffles along the grass while supporting a slender spar that connects the rear stabilizers to the cockpit and wings of Betterfly, a fragile aircraft that balances on two inline wheels. David’s 20-year-old daughter, Charlotte, supports the starboard-wing spar with his best friend, Paul Wales. David’s 17-year-old son, Chris, marches alongside the port wing, while David, 44, coordinates the action from the nose of the plane.

Team Betterfly’s sense of urgency grows as the summer daylight fades and the sky west of Sywell Aerodrome, a rural airstrip 75 miles north of London, darkens prematurely with thunderclouds. It’s the second day of the weeklong Icarus Cup, the world’s most challenging human-powered-aircraft competition, and Barford wants to make a first attempt at the speed-course event. Two dozen spectators also anxiously monitor the weather, hoping the threatening rain doesn’t ground the pilots.

The team gently sets Betterfly on the centerline at the end of Sywell’s lone paved runway. To shed weight, Barford strips down to his underwear and bike shoes, and then eases into a red fabric pilot’s seat made from two aluminum folding chairs. The only controls in the transparent cockpit are bike pedals and a handle for the rudder.

Barford calls out, “Three, two, one—rolling!” and begins to pedal furiously. The front-mounted propeller claws the air, and Betterfly starts gathering speed as it rolls down the runway. The crew supporting the aircraft walk, then jog, then sprint as the wings rise from their hands. Betterfly floats off the runway, 1 foot, 2 feet, a yard. Barford’s legs churn. “Go, go!” Wales shouts.

Read the rest of my story about the 2013 Icarus Cup online here at Popular Mechanics.

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Success: The Impossibles

The Impossibles ARTAlli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness. The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.

Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Success magazine, available online here.

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Reader’s Digest: What Makes Someone Brave?

Rhonda CrosswhiteOn a cool November afternoon in Fleming Island, Florida, Melissa Hawkinson, then 41, was driving her five-year-old twins home from school when she saw a sudden splash in Doctors Lake just ahead. What was that? she thought. As she drove up to the scene, she saw a half-submerged car sinking about 30 yards offshore. “It was going down pretty quickly,” Hawkinson recalls. She stopped the car near the boat ramp and ran toward the water. This is going to be cold, she thought.

She took off her vest and leather boots, waded into the icy water, and swam out to the car, where she found Cameron Dorsey, five, strapped into his car seat as the swirling waters rose around him.

Hawkinson tried to yank open the door, but it was locked. So she pushed and tugged on the partially open window until she could reach through and unlock the door. She pulled the boy free, swam to shore, and handed him off to bystanders on a dock. The driver, the boy’s suicidal father, swam back to land on his own. Afterward, Hawkinson sat on the shore wrapped in a blanket. “For ten or 15 minutes, I couldn’t stop shaking,” she says.

There’s nothing visibly extraordinary about Melissa Hawkinson, an energetic stay-at-home mom with brown hair and a dimpled smile. Yet something set her apart from the dockside onlookers that day. Why do some people act quickly, willing to take a risk for a stranger? What makes them run toward danger rather than away from it? Hawkinson, the Granite Mountain Hotshots­—19 of whom perished this past summer in Arizona—every hero who puts his or her life on the line to save another: What makes them brave?

Moreover, can bravery be learned, or is it a quality with which you are born? The answer is nuanced and complex. Bravery taps the mind, brain, and heart. It issues from instinct, training, and empathy. Today, neurologists, psychologists, and other researchers are studying bravery, trying to unravel the mystery.

Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Reader’s Digest, available online now.

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New York: Coding Kids

coding131202_katie_wenger_250The doorbell rings, and Katie Wenger, 13, leaps up from the family dinner table and throws open the front door. On the stoop of her family’s building in Chelsea stands a 26-year-old Yale graduate named Allison Kaptur. Formerly a financial analyst, Kaptur quit to teach herself how to program and now works as a facilitator at Hacker School, a “writers’ retreat for programmers,” with a sideline as a coding tutor. The two descend the stairs to a basement study, and Katie shuts the door. “I’ve got exciting news,” she says. “I’m going to launch a start-up! It’s called Let Us.”

“What will it do?”

“It’ll be like Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook.” Katie describes her concept for an online environment in which strangers can randomly meet and either just chat or interact educationally as student and teacher. Kaptur nods. “Okay,” she says. “A little later, we can talk about the pieces we would need to make that work.”

For most people, software programming’s social cachet falls somewhere between that of tax preparation and autism. But it’s catching fire among forward-thinking New York parents like Katie’s, who see it as endowing their children both with a strategically valuable skill and a habit for IQ-multiplying intellectual rigor. According to WyzAnt, an online tutoring marketplace, demand for computer-science tutors in New York City has doubled each of the past two years. And if one Silicon Alley–backed initiative pans out, within a decade every public-school kid in the city will have access to coding, up from a couple of thousand.

Read the rest in this week’s issue of New York magazine.

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