The latest mystery to manifest in American skies: swarms of drones that fly by night over the Great Plains. Since the middle of December, residents within a 200-mile swath of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska have reported coordinated groups of unmanned aerial vehicles that fly between dusk and midnight. The craft have wingspans of about six feet and at times fly in synchronized grid patterns, dozens at a time, as if mapping the landscape below.
To state the obvious: It is ominous that so many robot planes can operate for so long, over so huge an area, without anyone — even the authorities — able to figure out who’s operating them or why.
“It’s definitely unusual activity,” James Brueggeman, the sheriff of Perkins County, Nebraska, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “That’s what we’re investigating and trying to get to bottom of: What is the origin of the flights or the purpose of the flights?”
In response to a query from New York, the Federal Aviation Administration said via email: “Multiple FAA divisions and government agencies are investigating these reports. We do not comment on the details of open investigations.”
Monday morning Boeing announced the ouster of CEO Dennis Muilenburg, nine months after the grounding of its best-selling 737 MAX jet threw the company into an ever-worsening crisis. In a press statement, the company announced that its board of directors had passed the CEO title to the currently serving chairman, David Calhoun.
Under Muilenburg’s leadership, Boeing had repeatedly reiterated its confidence in the plane and assured the public that any problems would soon be fixed and that the plane would be back in the air. It kept building the planes at an aggressive clip of 42 per month, crowding parking lots in Arizona and Washington State.
Yet the company repeatedly failed to make good on its promise to fix the flaws that led to a pair of deadly crashes. Regulators became frustrated by the company’s lack of transparency and airlines grew angry at its failure to deliver on its problems. Crash victims’ families felt that they were being lied to. As costs mounted into the billions, a series of leaks revealed a pattern of engineering sloppiness and cover-ups. Patience for Muilenburg’s tenure wore thin. In October, Boeing stripped him of his chairman of the board title, but kept him on as CEO.
Many viewed Muilenburg’s continued tenure as a sign that Boeing hadn’t grappled with the seriousness of the crisis. When he appeared before a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation in October, Democrat Jesús García of Illinois lit into him: “You padded your personal finances by putting profits over safety and now 346 people, including 8 Americans, are dead on your watch … I think it’s time that you submitted your resignation, don’t you?”
Instead, Muilenburg hung on. In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New YorkTimes, he insisted that since the two accidents “happened on my watch … I feel responsible to stay on.”
That position might have been tenable had Muilenburg been able to deliver some tangible sign of progress. Instead, things got worse. Matters came to a head last week, when the board of directors decided that the time had come to shutter the 737 MAX production line until a clear path forward could be found.
In its statement to the press today, Boeing signaled that it finally understood the fruitlessness of Muilenburg’s nothing-to-see-here approach and was ready to change tack: “Under the Company’s new leadership, Boeing will operate with a renewed commitment to full transparency, including effective and proactive communication with the FAA, other global regulators and its customers.”
That would certainly be a step in the right direction. An attitude of genuine contrition and transparency will be crucial to rebuilding the century-old reputation for reliability that the last nine months had done so much to squander. The question now is how nimbly a $100 billion–plus behemoth can change its ways.
This article ran on December 23, 2019 in New York magazine.
Yesterday’s news from Boeing was of a now-familiar variety: grim. The company announced that it would temporarily stop building the 737 Max, the troubled jet that has spent most of the year grounded in the wake of two fatal crashes. Even after a nine-month-long string of bad news, the decision registers as particularly dire, tantamount to an admission that the company sees no clear end to the Max’s troubles.
There is a great deal of ruin in a country, Adam Smith observed, and the same is true for a $200 billion globe-straddling conglomerate whose sprawl embraces space launch, satellites, and military aircraft, so at first even the grounding of the company’s best-selling passenger jet didn’t seem like an existential crisis. The company had some 5,000 orders on the books for the 737 Max alone, enough to keep the production line humming for years. It seemed obvious that Boeing would fix whatever was wrong with the planes, get them back in the air, and return to booking exorbitant profits.
But that’s not what happened. As Boeing struggled to fix the Max’s flaws, more turned up. The grounding dragged on, and despite Boeing’s repeated assurances that all would soon be set right, the end never seemed to draw any closer. Stakeholders got increasingly fed up. Customers dropped their orders. Regulators expressed frustration and dissatisfaction. The press piled on, dubbing the Max a “death machine.”
Though it didn’t signal an immediate hit to revenue, the widespread loss of faith represents tremendous long-term damage to Boeing. Air travel requires an exceptional degree of trust. A century of reliable engineering had given Boeing a rock-solid reputation. This not only allowed Boeing to profitably feed the world’s fast-growing demand for passenger jets, it helped them bring out new models swiftly and inexpensively, with minimum oversight from regulators.
Paul Cline will never forget the day he almost didn’t make it home.
It was winter, and a heavy snowstorm had wrapped itself around the mountains north of Phoenix, Arizona. Cline was working as an aviation nurse aboard an air ambulance — Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS), in the parlance —based in the town of Safford, on the eastern edge of Arizona. A boy had fallen while skiing in the mountains and had broken his femur. He needed to get to a hospital, stat.
The weather blocked all the Phoenix-based choppers, and it looked pretty iffy to the east, too, but it might be possible to get through from Safford, 165 miles away. Cline and his partner, the helicopter’s pilot, faced the kind of life-or-death-decision that HEMS crews face all the time. Do we launch and put our own lives at risk — or stay safe and leave a patient to his fate? “We were a long way away, and the storm was closing in,” Cline recalls.
They decided to give it a shot. “We said, ‘We’ll just launch and take a look when we get there.’ You can’t do that. That’s how people die.” The danger is that when a pilot who is flying by visual reference to the ground flies into a cloud or fog, it becomes incredibly difficult to tell which way is up. “You turn it upside down and you die,” Cline says.
They launched and headed northwest, up into the mountains, threading between storm clouds. When they touched down at the accident site, “there was snow and zero visibility on three sides of us. There was only one way out, over the top of a mountain. We had 20 minutes, or we were going to be grounded for 2 days. My partner reconfigured the helicopter in NASCAR-pitstop time so we could fit this kid with his splint in. We launched. The ride back was the bumpiest I’d ever taken. We were really getting our butt kicked in turbulence. We looked at other, like, ‘Why are we here? What the hell are we doing?’ This is how things go bad in a heartbeat.”
Cline was lucky that day. The way through the clouds stayed open, and they made it home safe. But not all HEMS crews have been so lucky. Between 1972 and 2018, 339 people have died in 127 fatal crashes in the United States, according to data compiled by Ira J. Blumen, MD, medical director of the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network.
Despite recent efforts by operators and regulators to stem the tide, the risk remains significantly higher than in other forms of commercial aviation. Air ambulances have a fatal accident rate 800 times greater than commercial jets in the last decade.
Some of the danger springs from the nature of the flying itself; patients may need to be picked up at remote sites that are unfamiliar to the pilot, with unknown potential hazards like power lines or steep terrain. But critics say the way the industry is set up makes HEMS even more dangerous and expensive than it needs to be. “It’s the poster child for healthcare market failure,” says Ge Bai, PhD, a professor of accounting at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland, who studies health care economics. Congress is taking note.
Read the rest of the article at Medscape, where it first ran on November 20, 2019.
Six months and billions in losses after two of its 737 MAX airliners suffered deadly crashes, Boeing is still working on a fix for the troubled aircraft model. What’s clear by now is that the problem isn’t just, as originally suspected, a faulty sensor. Like a homeowner whose attempt to repair a soft spot in the molding reveals a rotten joist and then a whole rotten wall, the facts behind 737 MAX fiasco reveal a corporate culture that has been quietly deteriorating for decades. While the proximate cause of the accident was a piece of hardware you can fit in your hand, solving the problem might require tearing the company down to its foundation.
Thanks to reporting by many superb journalists, the genesis of the tragedy is now understood in detail. The tale begins in the 2000s, when Boeing decided against investing in a clean-sheet replacement for its hugely popular but aging 737 narrow-body jet. It continued in the 2010s, when the company decided to make massive payouts to investors through dividends and stock buybacks rather than invest in engineers or technology. And it reached its culmination with the decision to hastily update the 737 by slapping together a Frankenplane whose powerful new engines caused it to be dynamically unstable. To paper over the plane’s flaws, Boeing fitted it with an ill-conceived automated system that would spring into action at unexpected times, and farmed out the software that ran it to coders in India. Worst of all, it didn’t even tell pilots that the system existed.
To be sure, the 737 MAX that started to roll off the production line in Renton, Washington in February 2018 was mostly fine. It was sleek, efficient, and solidly constructed. And it worked as intended almost all the time. But in modern aviation, 99.99% reliable is not reliable enough. Tens of thousands of planes take off every day, and in order to preserve public confidence, all of them have to land in one piece. A plane that crashes once every hundred thousand times isn’t good enough. And there’s no reason today for anyone to build a plane that is less than perfect.
Read the rest of the story onMedium, where it originally appeared on September 23, 2019.
William Langewiesche is a titan among aviation journalists. He has covered, in depth, some of the most important air disasters of our time for outlets such as the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He also has extensive experience as a professional pilot. His credibility on the subject of aviation is, in a word, unmatched. So when he turned his hand to the greatest aviation mystery of our time — the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — there was every reason to hope that he would bring some clarity, at last, to a story fogbound in confusion.
The 10,000 word Atlantic cover story posted on June 17, however, did not accomplish that. Langewiesche writes evocatively, and he wrangles a mountain of information, but he falls victim to a siren temptress: the yearning for a concise and reasonable solution to a deep mystery.
“The simple story is usually the right one,” Langewiesche told me, during one of the many conversations we had while he researched the project. Having immersed myself in the technical arcana of this story for more than five years — first as a CNN contributor, then as a freelancer for New York, Popular Mechanics, and other outlets — I tried to show him that no simple answer can be made to fit the thicket of contradictory evidence that has grown since MH370 vanished on March 8, 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. As the saying goes, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In the case of MH370, Langewiesche arrives at a solution that requires ignoring or dismissing whole categories of evidence.
It’s not a new solution. Langewiesche hitches his wagon to what has become the default, commonsense explanation, the one which the international authorities responsible for the search have implicitly held — the captain did it. This is a reasonable first pass at a theory of MH370. Since the plane was clearly taken by someone who knew what they were doing, and the only other person locked in the cockpit was the inexperienced first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, then it must have been Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah who purposefully turned the plane around and flew it off into the darkness until it ran out of fuel and crashed in the remote ocean. Case closed.
In the immediate aftermath of the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, Western observers quickly reached a consensus. Rogue separatists in eastern Ukraine, they concluded, had gotten their hands on a stolen Buk missile launcher and had fired at what they erroneously believed to be a Ukrainian military transport.
A press conference was held this afternoon by the US office of the director of national intelligence (ODNI), at which select reporters were briefed on US intelligence with regard to MH17, …The briefing underlined the theory espoused by most of a senior official at the briefing, and by most analysts since plane first crashed: rebels “most likely shot down the plane by mistake”.
But as new investigativereports make clear, that narrative was false. The Buk missile launcher that downed MH17 was not in the possession of rebel militiamen but belonged to a regular Russian Army unit. The operation was overseen by Russian military intelligence, the GRU. It was not “blind,” as many assumed from the fact that it was dispatched alone to Ukraine, but was operating within the air defense umbrella of the Russian army. It was manned with a trained Russian crew.
The Buk is a powerful weapon that is capable of singehandedly starting a war, as we’ve seen recently in the Persian Gulf. In the course of their training it is drilled into crews’ heads that above all else they are not to fire it without an order from a superior officer. Hence, the Russian mililtary heirarchy bears chain-of-command responsibility for the shootdown, and this responsibility reaches all the way to the Kremlin. The “rogue militiaman” narrative is a fiction peddled by the Russian military, and its near-universal uptake by Western pundits is a case study of Russian skill in controlling the world media narrative.
There were two main reasons why experts believed that rogue militiamen had made a mistake. The first is that the rebel commander, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, had made a statement on social media to the effect that “we” had shot down a military transport—and once it became widely understood that what had been shot down had in fact been a commercial airliner, the post looked hastily removed. It looked very much like Girkin had removed the post because it was embarrassed. The idea that someone would deliberately post something incriminating, for the sake of obscuring an even more incriminating reality, implied a level of cunning that few at that time were willing to credit—never mind that Strelkov was not really a rebel commander but a GRU officer.
The second reason that people were bamboozled by the “rogue militiamen” story was that truth did not match their conception of how the world was supposed to work. Surely, they imagined, a major nuclear power would not simply blow up a jet carrying hundreds of foreign civilians. What would the motive be? What benefit accrued to them? The fact is, sometimes people do things that are hard to understand. To this day, we don’t really know why Russia would deliberately destroy MH17, or what possible connection it might have to the hijacking of MH370.
But thanks to the work of the JIT and Bellingcat, we now know in great detail exactly how they pulled of the former act, and the circumstantial evidence for the former will only continue to grow.
The upshot for me isn’t that the West is facing an adversary who is willing to kill large numbers of civilians in the pursuit of unknown ends. It is that this adversary has shown itself capable of utterly baffling the Western intelligentsia who under normal circumstances would be responsible for organizing the societal response to this threat.
Last November a small seabed-exploration company out of Houston called Ocean Infinity made the discovery of a lifetime–or so it seemed, until it made another three months later. First, Ocean Infinity successfully located the remains of the San Juan, an Argentine navy sub that had vanished while on patrol. Then it found the wreck of the Stellar Daisy, a South Korean bulk ore carrier. Both vessels had been missing for more than a year, which often means a wreck won’t ever be found. The two-year-old company’s secret was teamwork: a set of eight drone subs working in tandem to scan a much larger area in record time.
These successes could be part of a broader shift in how humanity understands the sea. We know far more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean, but seabed-scanning technology is growing sophisticated enough to render the inky depths much more transparent. Seabed 2030, a joint project of two nonprofits, aims to map the entire ocean floor by its namesake year. Key to that effort is Kongsberg Maritime AS, the Norwegian company that made Ocean Infinity’s subs.
Bjorn Jalving, senior vice president of Kongsberg’s subsea division, says the Hugin, its flagship drone, is a testament to advances in robotic strength and stamina. Hugins can dive as deep as 20,000 feet and stay underwater for 72 hours at a stretch. Costing $5 million to $10 million apiece depending on the onboard instruments they have and the depths they can handle, the drones are hardy enough, Jalving says, that “you let them out in the ocean, and you know that they’ll come back.” They’re also packed with sensors, including sonar that can cover five times the area of models from a decade ago, with 10 times the detail.
The subs can also transfer, process, and share much larger amounts of data with distant control centers than was possible before. Five years ago, Fugro NV, the Dutch survey and geosciences company responsible for searching the Indian Ocean for the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, relied on crewed survey boats that towed sonar gear on long cables up and down the seafloor as shipboard analysts monitored incoming data. Today the company streams field data to command centers onshore and plans to do away with some crews entirely.
Since 2017, Seabed 2030 has single-handedly increased the percentage of the seabed that’s been surveyed from 6% to 15%, mostly by compiling data from the likes of Fugro and Ocean Infinity. Fugro keeps mapping even when it’s moving ships between jobs. Beyond potential benefits such as finding clearer routes for undersea internet cables or energy pipelines, the extra intel will help answer big scientific questions related to climate change, says Larry Mayer, who contributes to Seabed 2030 as director of the Center for Coastal & Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. “How heat is distributed has to do with currents, and where those currents go is determined by where there are ridges and valleys and things,” he says. “It’s the most fundamental information that we can get.”
Just as the first sequencing of the human genome led to businesses sequencing many other people’s genomes, seabed mapping could one day become routine, or even just an ongoing process, helping to track things such as pollution, ocean warming, and fish stocks. “It will enable the world’s decision-makers to sustainably manage the oceans,” Jalving says.
For now, though, the oceans are keeping a great many secrets. After Fugro failed to find MH370, Ocean Infinity gave the search a shot last year, scanning 43,000 miles in five months—about 15 times the pace in 2014. That team, like Fugro’s, found nothing.
After reading my book a journalist with the UK’s Daily Star newspaper, David Rivers, reached out to the daughter of passenger Sergei Deineka, Liza Deineka, whose social media postings I quoted. He published her response in a story today.
As you may recall, just 11 day after her father and all the other passengers aboard MH370 had effectively been declared dead by the Malaysian prime minister, Liza posted a photo of herself with her father on Instagram with the comment, “Happy Birthday, Daddy.” Several friends added comments with their own well-wishes. One wrote, “With the birthday boy! Let everything always be good for him,” followed by a string of emojis: a blushing, smiling face; a gift wrapped with a bow; a noisemaker; confetti; a toy balloon; a bow. “Thank you,” Liza responded, with a kissy-face emoji.
I found this exchange startling because signals transmitted from MH370 suggested that the plane was hijacked to Russia. Since Deineka and Chustrak were former Soviet Army veterans who happened to be sitting right under the SDU, they seemed top suspects as potential hijackers. Of course, if they took the plane and flew it to Kazakhstan, they would not be dead as commonly assumed, but alive. And Liza’s social media posts (both here and elsewhere) seemed to be saying just that.
I long ago reached out directly to Chustrak and Deineka’s families but had been told they didn’t wish to speak to me. Rivers, however, had better luck. After he contacted her and asked about my theory she responded with a statement. The translation reads:
Since March 8, 2014, I have not seen or heard (from) my dad. The evidence is that he is not dead, so all I can do is hope for the best.
I am very sorry people want to discuss and condemn the emotions of people who have a missing person missing. I don’t agree with many in this article.
Starting with answers, ending the reasons why my dad flew this way. They flew to Beijing to get a visa.
No plane wreckage was found, so I can’t be sure that they crashed. All I can do is hope that people could be saved.
Unfortunately, so far no one has given us reliable information about what happened to the plane and the people in it.”
An Aeroflot passenger jet burst into flames during an emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport yesterday, resulting in a conflagration that left 41 of 78 people aboard the plane dead. The plane, a Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100 operating as Aeroflot Flight 1492, had taken off at 6:03 p.m. local time bound for the Arctic Ocean port of Murmansk. Approximately five minutes after takeoff, the pilot began a spiraling descent to return to the runway. Amateur video footage of the landing shows the plane bouncing several times before flames erupt in the tail of the aircraft. A video shot by a passenger from inside the plane shows flames engulfing the wings as panic set in inside the cabin.
While the plane was not a Boeing and did not involve a control system like the one implicated in the recent crashes of Lionair Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the overall circumstances eerily echo the conditions that led to the loss of the two 737 Max jets. In all three cases, pilots suffered a dangerous and unexpected emergency during takeoff, lost the automation that they were used to relying on, and lacked the necessary skills to adequately handle the ensuing crisis. As such, these crashes illustrate the dangers of poorly integrating human and automatic control, a problem that will only worsen as automation becomes more ubiquitous. Continue reading New York: How Yesterday’s Aeroflot Disaster Echoes the 737 Max Crashes