Turbulence can kill

Investigators are suggesting that Flight 587 may have become fatally entwined in the jet wake of another plane. Stranger things have happened.


Turbulence can kill

More than five years after TWA Flight 800 blew up in the twilight off Long Island, the result of exploding vapors in an empty fuel tank, the conspiracy mongers remain undaunted. They’re willing to oppose any version of the truth that is publicly propagated: Theres even a Web site devoted to the idea that Pan Am 103 did not fall on Lockerbie, Scotland, because of terrorists’ Semtex-laden bomb, but thanks to a malfunctioning cargo door. In a kind of equal-and-opposite, Newtonian Third Law way, the information age has become a sort of Dark Ages-style incubator of strange suspicions and mistrust, pseudo-truth so easily spread with merely the tap of a Send key.

In the past 24 hours no fewer than four times have I fielded questions about whether the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 might involve some kind of government coverup. The scenario goes like this: A bomb destroyed the plane, and the government, along with the airlines, fearing paralysis of the economy and our collective psyche in the wake of recent events, has decided to play off the crash as an accident. “Turbulence,” they are saying. And while no, those men in dark suits and sunglasses (I know because I saw them on “The X-Files”) dont have screenwriting credentials, cant they do better than that? I mean, come on, after all, turbulence cant bring down a 150-ton airliner.

Except that it can.

There are, in fact, different causes and kinds of turbulence, a phenomenon that is no less inherent a part of the sky than, say, clouds or a balmy summer breeze. Collectively speaking, turbulence is no more or less dangerous than the wind itself. As a pilot, I worry about “turbulence” the way a sailor might worry about “the waves.” But when we talk turbulence with respect to Mondays crash, put away your notions about that “Please fasten your seatbelt, theres some rough air ahead” kind of chop-chop-chop that whirlpools your coffee or causes you to miss a stroke or two on your laptop. This is something different.

Investigators are now focusing on something known to pilots as “wake turbulence.” When a plane is heavy and traveling at a relatively slow speed, as would normally be the case just after takeoff, the steep deck angle required to maintain lift helps propagate a kind of twin-forking roil of air that trails behind the aircraft like an invisible wake from a ship. Two vortexes, one from each wingtip, are spun away like sideways tornadoes. The vortexes then begin a slow descent, and their counterrotations cause them to diverge slightly. Picture, if you will, two long, violent fingers of air protruding from the back of an airliner like a forked, downward-sloping tail. When moisture levels are high enough, the cores of these spinning currents, which can reach velocities of 300 feet per second, become visible, shooting from the wings as thin strands of condensed vapor.

Whether taking off, landing or cruising straight ahead, the vortexes are always there, but their strength becomes exacerbated under certain combinations of aircraft speed, weight and deck angle. Atmospheric conditions, meanwhile, particularly wind, can alter, break apart or dissipate a vortex before its ever encountered. Thus, flying in windy, bumpy (yes, turbulent) air, can actually be one of the best conditions for avoiding this kind of trouble. There also are procedures, rules and recommendations that all commercial pilots are familiar with. Air Traffic Control, for example, is required to separate aircraft in accordance with parameters of both distance and time, and pilots are trained to use climb and descent gradients that put them out of harms way.

But every pilot has, at one time or another, had a run-in with a wake, whether it be the short bump-and-roll from a dying, vestigial vortex, or a grab-your-armrest, full-force wrestling match. They usually last, at the most, a few seconds. I remember once, on a calm foggy night, standing along a seawall in South Boston less than a mile from where the tires of approaching planes screech against the asphalt of Logan Internationals Runway 04R. Each passing jet was followed about 30 seconds later by an eerie snapping of air that sounded as if a giant leather whip was being struck over the harbor. These were the sideways tornadoes, touching down around me. And once, as the captain of a 19-seat commuter plane landing at Philadelphia, my aircraft was knocked and rolled wildly just a few hundred feet above the ground. It felt like wed hit some Grade 6 whitewater in a rubber raft. The culprit: a Boeing 757 that arrived a few minutes earlier. The 757, owing to aerodynamic idiosyncrasy, is suspected of producing a particularly virile brand of wake.

But it wasnt a Boeing 757 that American 587 followed out of JFK on Monday morning, it was its much bigger brother, the 747, the largest commercial plane ever built, in the livery of Japan Airlines and bound nonstop for Tokyo with a full load of fuel. It weighed about 800,000 pounds. It was heavy, slow and climbing. The American A300, about half its size, was following closely behind and beneath. Ahead of it, the JAL 747 was spinning its invisible tornadoes like a huge, red-and-white spider. Did American somehow creep too close?

Maybe. Nobody knows for sure. And if so, still, could the wake have been powerful enough to destroy the tail of Flight 587, or snap off those truck-size GE turbofans? Smaller — much smaller — aircraft have crashed as the result of wake turbulence. Only this past summer a 10-passenger Cessna in the colors of Cape Air skidded across a runway at Boston after, it is believed, being kicked upside down by just such an encounter. But never a large jet. Never an A300.

When it all shakes out, though, it seems there are never any nevers when it comes to aviation disasters. From lightning strikes to wings falling off — yes its happened, even if only once. Its worth noting, too, that in 1994 this very same plane, which wore the tail registration N10453, made an unscheduled landing in the Caribbean after an inflight knock-around when it struck some rather rough air at 35,000 feet. Could this incident have resulted in a structural weakness, cracks or fatigue, that was heretofore undetected, and needed only the right set of circumstances to manifest itself tragically? Its possible. In 1985, in the second-worst air disaster in history, a JAL 747, ironically enough, crashed near Mt. Fuji when an aft pressure bulkhead ruptured. A rush of air from the passenger compartment surged into the unpressurized tail, knocking away part of the rudder and severing hydraulic lines. It was later discovered that a hard landing and faulty repairs, made some seven years earlier, had left the bulkhead vulnerable.

But if the big American Airbus fell victim to an unusual and unprecedented event, I suspect it found its way, as so many crashed planes have, to that one-in-a-million convergence of “ifs.” Two hundred and sixty-five people suddenly won the lottery they never wanted to win.

Flying is inherently dangerous, and will always be so. But also, as the statistics show, it is the least dangerous of all our tried-and-true ways of getting around. The unfortunate end of American 587 will not skew the numbers. In fact, neither Mohammed Atta and his henchman, nor all the wake turbulence and bad luck in the world, will likely change a thing.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>