Ask the pilot

Where are all the artistic tributes to air disasters? Plus: Your in-flight cellphone questions answered.

Published December 24, 2004 11:04PM (EST)

"Only a Western wall of race and arms can hold back the infiltration of inferior blood and permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of yellow, black and brown ... We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races."

A week ago I challenged readers to identify the source of the preceding and quite distasteful commentary. Nearly 400 of you responded. Most numerous among the incorrect submissions were those citing Adolf Hitler. Seems logical, but remember I'd hinted that the answer involved some sort of aviation tie-in. Other botched guesses included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Patrick Buchanan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin.

Robert Gill, of Vancouver, B.C., was the first to accurately identify the speaker as none other than Charles Lindbergh -- American hero, eugenics enthusiast and recipient of Nazi Germany's prestigious Deutscher Adler medal, presented to Lindy by Hermann Goering, World War I fighter ace and commander of the Nazi Luftwaffe. The diatribe is excerpted from a Lindbergh essay titled "Aviation, Geography, and Race," appearing in the November 1939 issue of Reader's Digest.

Mr. Gill receives a signed copy of "Ask the Pilot" and my esteemed Fastest Googler of 2004 award. Onward in this column I've devised a slightly more Google-proof contest.

In the meantime, let's revisit another bizarre aerohistorical anecdote. Here again is a link to Cheri Cherin's "Catastrophe de Ndolo." Cherin is a well-known Congolese artist, and "Catastrophe" is his strange oil-on-canvas rendition of the 1996 air crash in Kinshasa, Zaire. Upwards of 300 people were killed when a Russian-made cargo plane went down after takeoff, barreling through a crowded marketplace. Although it was one of the worst-ever disasters in terms of fatalities, everybody on the airplane survived.

Ndolo is the name of Kinshasa's in-town airport, where the accident occurred. Not to be confused with the capital's larger international facility, Ndjili. I'm unsure what "Wapi mama" translates to, though it may be some kind of pained exclamation made as an Antonov turboprop comes roaring through your fruit stall.

I asked Sister Wendy Beckett what she thought of Cherin's non-masterpiece. You remember Sister Wendy -- art historian, critic and Catholic nun -- from the PBS series. I was eager to hear her thoughts on "Catastrophe" and its portrayal of flaming wreckage and partly eviscerated bodies.

"A splendidly gory re-creation," she tells us. "We see a bloody, devastated marketplace marked with the hulk of a burning fuselage. Yet the true fury of the event is captured not in the fire and gore but in the cries and gestures of the people. It's the apocalyptic landscape of a Bosch painting seen through the anguished psyche of modern African folk art."

In fact, who knows what Sister Wendy might say? I made that up and, if you can't tell, have no idea what I'm talking about.

What I know for sure, though, is that if Western culture lacks one thing, it's artistic tributes to air disasters. Considering all the unfortunate events we so incessantly and weirdly sentimentalize, why not plane crashes?

I'm not, necessarily, being facetious. Swissair 111 got a seaside memorial in Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, and American 587 is getting one in Rockaway. Next time, instead of a commemorative plaque, how about shards of metal welded onto something evocative and appropriately tangible? Or a statue cast from actual, crash-site aluminum? I did catch a fragment (cabin window and attached metal viscera) of American Airlines flight 11 on display at the USS Intrepid Museum in Manhattan, but that's not the same. Sculpture seems the obvious vessel -- wreckage as a kind of meta-minimalism, but there's fantastic creative potential using almost any medium.

Here's a sample from my very own portfolio, "Catastrophe Over Fenley Street," recovered from my parents' house this past Thanksgiving. Drawn here is the infamous -- we assume, since it was wholly imaginary -- three-way crash involving Swissair, American Airlines and TWA. Fenley Street is where I grew up, though I'll save the explanation about my last name for another time. The picture is typical of my mid-1970s "collisions period." Disillusioned with the uninspired, stridently orthodox sketches of my fourth-grade classmates ("stifled," as my art teacher put it), I went for something bolder and more provocative.

At the bottom, we see the severed foresection of a TWA 747. The rest of the jet is conspicuously missing, but judging from the three upper-deck windows, this is an old 100 variant. Note also the carrier's '70s-vintage livery with the interlocked twin globes. The other two aircraft types remain unidentifiable. You'll notice neither plane has wings or engines, a telltale trait of my earlier, more abstract work. Wings were such a modernist thing, and they required a degree of three-dimensional scaling I hadn't mastered yet.

"The amount of negative space really bothers me," remarks Sister Wendy, "There's a disconnect between the colliding planes at the top and the 747 at the bottom, as if we're seeing two different accidents, perhaps at different times. Yet the juxtaposition of the Swissair and American jets is quite lovely, and the artist has restrained himself admirably. It's rare to see a fourth-grade disaster rendering free of bodies or gratuitous violence."

She didn't stop there. The good sister always got a little giddy when discussing racy or controversial artwork, and "Fenley" proves to be more revealing than expected:

"I also see a preconscious sexual awareness -- a fear of castration and a fascination with airplanes combining to form a troubling psychosexual portrait of our young friend. The vaguely vaginal TWA fuselage portion in the foreground would likely have been pierced by the nosediving American phallus, had it not been intercepted by the meddlesome, somewhat larger Swissair craft.


Anyway, two of the three depicted carriers are no longer in existence, I'll point out -- TWA and Swissair -- making my picture markedly exotic and valuable. I have no inkling why I chose those three particular airlines, or what in my 8-year-old brain may have precipitated the disaster. Perhaps the Swissair pilots were blinded by a laser beam.

We keep hearing how the rules prohibiting in-flight cellphone use will soon be relaxed. What are your thoughts on this, and does it not prove that the rules have been unnecessary all along?

Remember when smoking was permitted on airplanes and one could be relegated to those rearmost, lung-blackening quarters simply by virtue of checking in late? Which is the greater torture, I have to wonder, sitting in the middle of a row of chain smokers, or enduring the mad chatter of 200 simultaneous cellphone conversations? Certainly there are many who fail to see the wisdom here, but according to industry surveys, this is what flyers want.

On the typical air travel journey, the existing sensory bombardment is overwhelming enough, a cacophony that begins the moment we step into the terminal: public address admonishments to report suspicious packages; airline staff squawking unintelligibly of late arrivals and weather delays; those over-volumed gateside televisions blaring CNN Airport News. For me at least, colic-stricken infants and the safety demo notwithstanding, the airplane cabin is a refuge of relative silence. Enjoy it while it lasts, for the restrictions on cellphones will indeed be lifted; exactly when, though, and how fully, is not yet known. Expect two to three years of testing, development and legal wrangling.

Pending any official changes, bear in mind that the onboard technology needed to ensure safe and reliable phone service is not presently in place. Until it is, the prohibition is neither one of convenience nor a scam to make you splurge on pricey onboard satellite phones. "The day after USA Today ran a front page story on the proposed changes," laments a flight attendant, "I witnessed coworkers receiving tremendous resistance from many passengers when asked to switch off their phones. Please let the public know that just because the media says it will happen doesn't mean the regulations have already changed, or aren't necessary."

To review from an earlier column: Cockpit hardware and software use radio transmissions for a number of tasks. Even if not actively connected, a cellphone's power-on mode dispatches bursts of data able to garble signals. One report cites a regional jet forced to make an emergency landing after a fire warning sounded. Investigation revealed the alarm had been triggered by a ringing phone in the luggage compartment. Interference is also suspected in the unsolved crash of a Crossair commuter plane near Zurich in 2000. Some believe the autopilot system, under the influence of a spurious cell signal, sent the plane into a dive just after takeoff.

There's little evidence that laptops pose much threat, though a poorly shielded computer can, in theory, transmit harmful energy. Like any other carry-on, computers have to be stowed for takeoff and landing not solely to preclude signal trouble, but to prevent them from becoming 200-mile-per-hour projectiles.)

Having said all that, interference is rare and is liable to be subtle and minor, brewing within the electronic mélange of flight-deck paraphernalia and not overtly noticeable even to the crew. For the most part we've been erring on the safe side. In America, the restrictions were originally laid out by the FCC (in 1991), not the FAA. From the high altitude and near-Mach speed of a jetliner, cell calls jump from antenna tower to antenna tower on the ground, resulting in all sorts of problems for the communications companies.

Currently under trial is an onboard system able to collect and send cellular signals by way of a laptop-size server and a series of small base stations, called "picocells," spaced about the passenger cabin. A picocell -- weighing about 20 pounds -- automatically commands your phone to operate at greatly reduced power, eliminating the tower-to-tower confusion caused by its normal-strength RF emissions. Calls are then routed, via satellite, to ground stations.

Although useful during long-haul overwater flights, satellite linkups are expensive and call capacity is limited. At least one company, AirCell, is proposing a service for the U.S. domestic market that bypasses the satellite link. Taking advantage of the FCC's recent auction of a spectrum of air-to-ground frequencies, AirCell's version will transmit calls directly from the in-cabin picocells to special towers using a dedicated frequency band. The company claims the cost of an in-flight call will approach that of a normal ground-based call.

With the linkage issues solvable, the FCC is prepared and willing to liberalize its policies. How the safety concerns will be addressed, however, is not fully determined. One almost certain caveat will be an FAA prohibition on calls below 10,000 feet or during any safety-sensitive mode of flight.

The newly allotted frequency spectrum will also allow full and inexpensive Web-surfing capability from 35,000 feet. Existing data connections rely on satellites and are accordingly pricey. Now, broadband access could be priced at $10 or less per flight, though on long hauls, where perhaps it's most desirable, connection will continue to require a satellite link.

Lufthansa inaugurated satellite Wi-Fi on its widebody fleet last spring, charging a flat $30 per flight over six hours' duration, $20 for flights between three and six hours, and $15 for those under three. Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Scandinavian and All Nippon were fast on Lufthansa's heels. Here, as with prior in-flight innovations, the foreign carriers lead the way.

Now, put on your thinking goggles and try to solve this week's quiz. First correct e-mailer wins, as usual, an autographed copy of "Ask the Pilot." It's a bit too late for a stocking stuffer, but Kwanzaa runs until January.

Earlier, I mentioned a pair of African tongue-twister airports, Ndolo and Ndjili. Somewhere in the world is an international airport with even stranger spelling. In this case, three of the very same letter -- consonant or vowel, I'm not saying -- are repeated in succession. Where is this airport, and what is its name? (Hint to Googlers: Start from the back of the alphabet.)

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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.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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