Ask the pilot

Death by flying lawn mower -- just one of history's most embarrassing aviation disasters.


Patrick Smith
December 11, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

A segue for the ages. Last week's look at remote-controlled flying lawn mowers was all good fun -- a humorously instructive look at the exotic potentials of aerodynamics. I even cracked a joke that "somebody might get hurt." But never in my wildest flights of fancy did I expect to hear that somebody had actually been killed by one of the damn things.

True story. In 1979 at Shea Stadium, in a football game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, the halftime show featured an aerial circus of remote-control airplanes. One of those craft was our flying mower. The mower was the star attraction, zipping the length of the field and buzzing around the flagpole to the applause of thousands of Jets fans. Until, that is, the machine went into a dive from which it never recovered, slamming into the bleachers and striking two people, one of whom later died.

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David (last name withheld), who today lives in Colorado, was there and saw it happen. "The last demonstration was the flying lawn mower," he remembers. "It was painted red. Until this point in the program, all the planes had been kept over the field. The mower was much faster than the others, however, and the pilot brought it back across the crowd. It passed above my head, then out for a second run toward the flagpole. Over the crowd, it began to lose altitude, crashing into the stands at about the 50-yard line. The pilot was standing near me. He was a barber by profession, I remember hearing."

"Jets and NFL front office have hushed this up over the years," writes Ken Fratto, on a football page called Jets Insider.com. It's interesting to learn that conspiracy theories follow not only high-profile crashes of wide-body jetliners but also those of remote-control novelty toys. TWA 800, KAL 007 ... and the '79 halftime show at Shea.

It's debatable that "crash" is really the appropriate term here. Use of the word "pilot" seems a similar stretch. And don't bother scouring the home pages of the Federal Aviation Administration or the National Transportation Safety Board for transcripts or conclusions of "probable cause." No black boxes on the mower. Meanwhile, you really have to feel for the victim. I'm uncertain where death by remote-control flying lawn mower fits into the hierarchy of ignominious demise, but it has to be somewhere near the top.

The temptation now is to launch into a catalog of history's most bizarre and embarrassing aviation crashes. But even for a wiseass like me certain things are sacred, and constructing a list of air disaster bloopers just isn't funny.

Well, it is and it isn't. I'll keep this brief, but if I had to choose a favorite, for lack of a better term, it'd probably be the crash in Kinshasa, Zaire -- as it was then called -- of a Russian turboprop in 1996. The plane went down seconds after takeoff, plowing into a crowded market. The kicker: more than 300 people killed, none of whom were on the plane. Notice the vague "more than," for nobody knows the exact number of victims. Estimates of the death toll range from 250 to more than 400.

See, isn't that a riot? In Zaire, it was a riot, literally. Angry survivors from the marketplace apprehended the pilots, who'd escaped the wreckage with minor injuries, beating and threatening to kill them.

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The catastrophe can be seen here, in a rendering by Congolese painter Cheri Cherin, one of Kinshasa's best known artists.

Another contender would be the crash two years earlier of an Aeroflot Airbus A310 over south-central Russia. A synopsis of this accident at Airsafe.com includes the following: "March 1994: Lost control and crashed after the captain had allowed at least one child to manipulate the flight controls."

En route between Moscow and Hong Kong, the captain invited his 13-year-old son to sit at the controls of the twin-engine wide body. As the captain demonstrated the turn functions of the plane's autopilot system, his son began rotating the control wheel in the opposite direction of the captain's inputs. The boy's applied force caused sudden disconnect of the autopilot, immediately sending the plane into a severe turn. The boy panicked, and before the crew could recover, the aircraft stalled, spun and crashed near the city of Novokuznetsk, killing all 12 crew and 63 passengers. The captain's daughter had been in the seat moments earlier, and apparently had done a better job.

Contrary to lurid mishaps like that of Aeroflot, what do you think represents the most impressive feat of piloting in the face of disaster?

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This is a question with no real answer. (And one, also, that appears on Page 137 of my book. A plug, if you don't mind, for the season's most ideal stocking stuffer.)

When things go bad, pilots do more or less what they have to do, so there isn't too much room for talent to save the day. Luck is a bigger factor. Which isn't a knock on, for example, Captain Al Haynes, who, nobly assisted by three other pilots, gallantly crash-landed that United DC-10 in Iowa in 1989. (The plane's control systems had been rendered useless thanks to an engine that became a giant fragmentation grenade, bleeding the aircraft of its vital hydraulics.) It's just that most pilots in his position would have done the same thing with, give or take, the same results. I'll get shouted down for saying that, as everyone loves a hero, but it's true.

At heart, this is a question about pilot error, and diametric to successes like those of Haynes are some disgracefully infamous blunders. Among many, including the aforementioned Aeroflot fiasco, were the Saudia crew that delayed evacuation of a burning L-1011 at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the KLM crew at Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) that commenced a takeoff without permission, among many. But the quantity of negligence -- the act alone -- usually isn't relative to the amount of subsequent carnage. For instance, Captain Van Zanten and his colleagues at Tenerife misunderstood a takeoff clearance and 583 people died. But botching a clearance, in and of itself, is hardly the rarest sin in the aviation world. Do we judge the crime by body count or the nature of the infraction?

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I just flew from Tashkent to Saigon on a once-a-week service by Uzbekistan Airways. It's is a six-hour flight that takes off again for Tashkent an hour after it lands. Clearly one crew can't do both legs? Neither does it sound logical that a crew would sit in Saigon for an entire week, waiting to fly home. How does this work?

Crew member flight and duty time limitations vary from country to country, governing agency to governing agency -- America's FAA, Europe's JAA, etc. Since all nations have a vested interest in their pilots staying awake and their planes not crashing, all are roughly on par. Not privy to the rules of Uzbek civil aviation -- or how to find them -- I can't speak for the exact procedures of that carrier, but the example is a good one and allows some insight into the weirdness and complexity of aircrew rotations:

Total round-trip duration between Tashkent and Saigon -- or Ho Chi Minh City, if you insist -- is about 12 hours. Assuming a little more for pre- and post-flight obligations, that's about 15 hours total. There are plenty of crews that endure 15 consecutive hours onboard a plane. Flights from the United States to Singapore now exceed 17 hours, for example. The caveat being that long-haul crews are split between primary and secondary shifts, with relief pilots taking over at designated junctures. So it's at least conceivable that "one" crew indeed operates both legs, provided a relief shift is included for a portion -- even half -- of the ride.

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More likely, however, the crew does sit around in Saigon for a week. Such arrangements are not unprecedented, and having experienced multiday layovers in Belgium, Mexico and elsewhere, I can speak to their status as a top choice among the ranks. I can envision the Uzbeks lazily savoring a few cold Tigers out on the veranda of the local Sofitel, not minding it one bit. Alternately, they may be positioned in Saigon via some other airline a day or two ahead of time. They'll lay over for a night, then work the trip home to Tashkent.

Glamorous, maybe, but this is the high end of airline flying. How does Newark - Houston - Omaha sound? Or Pittsburgh - Columbus - Philadelphia - Manchester - Pittsburgh - Buffalo, followed by 11 hours of rest and a 6 a.m. wake-up at the La Quinta (and a twice-monthly paycheck of $784)?

For airline crews in America, there's no quick answer to how many hours a pilot can remain aloft or on duty. Domestic or international; supplemental or flag? A rule of thumb for domestic operations: eight hours of actual stick time and up to 16 hours of duty time, subject to numerous asterisks. The stipulations laid forth by the FAA are about as easily decipherable as the Rosetta stone, and pilots manuals contain more charts and graphs covering flight and duty regs than those used for instrument approaches and high-altitude navigation. Making things more complicated, bargaining agreements and in-house work rules usually add language above and beyond the government's basic strictures.

If you're really curious and you're the type who enjoys excruciating tedium, have at it with the Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 121, Subparts Q, R and S, an unnavigable warren of paragraphs, subparagraphs and references to obscure federal dockets, detailing for how long, and under what incomprehensible sets of conditions, a pilot may stay on the clock.

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I'd like to hear your take on the following Internet video. What are we seeing here? An emergency landing? Drunken pilots?

The video in question portrays an otherwise unidentified Airbus in the throes of a very unstable approach and badly bollixed landing. The 12-second clip has been making the cyberspace circuit for some time, accompanied by varyingly inaccurate analyses.

Fact check: The aircraft is either an Airbus A318 or A319 -- variants of the popular A320 -- and not a Boeing 737 as many claim. The airline is one I cannot recognize, though it is not Air China, China Air (there's no such thing) or any of the others frequently cited. There's invariably a reference to China, so possibly the clip originated there. Lettering on the fuselage seems to say "Taiwan" or "Taiwair," though a search of the world's airlines reveals no such carrier. (If you ask me, any company calling itself "Taiwair" deserves to be out of business.)

The repeated bouncing isn't nearly as drastic as it appears. Look carefully and you'll notice the video is rapidly sped up from just after the moment of touchdown, to make the porpoising sequence more violent. The plane is not crashing. Neither is it "out of control" or on its way to becoming a flaming heap at the end of the runway.

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Causes might include just about anything from severe weather to pilot error to a technical malfunction -- though almost certainly not, as one source suggests, an intoxicated crew. "It may have been some sort of test flight," comments Doug (last name withheld), who flies the A319/A320 for a major airline. "Getting the nose to bounce like that wouldn't be easy. It's the kind of thing a pilot has to make happen." An abnormally hard or too-fast landing, for instance, would be prone to cause a bounce of the entire airplane, not the lateral axis pivot seen in the recording.

Intentional or otherwise, the answer might lie somewhere in the A320's high-tech flight control system. Partly to prevent crews from commanding overly aggressive maneuvers at very low altitudes, parameters of pitch, roll and bank are computer-adjusted as the plane nears a runway. One of these control mode shifts occurs after the point of touchdown, automatically changing the resultant forces of a pilot's inputs. Conceivably, a glitch could find a pilot inadvertently inducing the type of oscillations shown.

Make sense? Don't worry about it. At one point Doug started talking about "alternate law." I thought he was quoting Heidegger or somebody until I realized he was referencing one of the backup modes of the A320's electronic flight control repertoire.

Long and short, the video isn't all that compelling. For a bigger thrill, and while I don't intend to sensationalize a tragedy, try this:

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Here you see the 1996 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 767, off a beach in the Comoros Islands. The plane has been hijacked and is out of fuel, trying to ditch off a beach in the Comoros, while dozens of startled tourists look on (at least one, naturally, with a camcorder). Hijackers and crew are wrestling for control, and the airplane flips after a wing catches the surf.

For those who doubt the survivability of water landings, or the value of those life vest demos, 45 of the 172 passengers and crew escaped this accident alive. Had the plane not tumbled, many more would have survived.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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