Ask the pilot

What do hydraulics, hedgehogs, the Paris Air Show and Bow Wow Wow have in common? Only the pilot can possibly tell you.

By Patrick Smith
Published June 24, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

As I thought it might, this column's June 17 installment on security solicited plenty of airport horror stories. To the man with the pierced penis -- he describes his particular metallic insert as "a three-quarter-inch curved barbell commonly referred to as the Prince Albert piercing," which I am loath to research further -- there are plenty of us who share your frustration, if not your taste in jewelry, and I commend your courageous letter to TSA headquarters. And I can only imagine the looks of bemusement from the TSA staff as the detector wands begin to sing at zipper level.

Such stories, combined with last week's odd confluence of subtopics -- namely, knitting needles and pets -- bring to mind an even stranger tale from the metal detector, which I forgot to share last time. This one involved yours truly and took place in 1997 at Boston's Logan International Airport. There, taking advantage of the deep pockets of a heavy winter overcoat, I managed to smuggle a live and very feisty hedgehog aboard a Continental Airlines flight bound for Cleveland.

He was a family pet. In those days coats and jackets weren't yet verboten in the security line, and with the critter safely ensconced I was able to waltz right through. Those who know their exotic mammals will understand the knitting needle connection and will have a sense of just how potentially dangerous an in-flight hedgehog could be. There's no mention yet of Atelerix albiventris on the TSA's list of prohibited items, but with box cutters out of the question, who knows what a clever evildoer might have in mind.

Meanwhile my gratitude, sort of, to those of you who helped solve the mystery of last week's bizarre Associated Press photograph.

Not that it took much sleuthing. Unlike my hometown Boston Globe, a number of other papers, including the Washington Post, had sense enough to run the full AP story and not just the image. "What the heck?" asked a reader. "Didn't you bother researching this incident?"

Honestly? Without the accompanying text, the photograph is so charmingly strange that I decided not to investigate further. A simple electronic query turns up a Google gold mine, but why spoil the opportunity to poke fun of that damn goofy picture? The purpose of the disposable Tyvek suits was obvious enough: The Bezner family had had an inadvertent encounter with hydraulic fluid, which can be irritating to the skin, and were given the protective outfits courtesy of the local hazmat squad.

A plane's hydraulics -- usually two or more independent systems whose plumbing is pressurized to thousands of pounds per square inch -- help raise and lower the landing gear and also power things like wing flaps, rudders, spoilers, ailerons and brakes. The specialized fluid, a nonpetroleum phosphate ester, is used because it's noncombustible and remains thermally stable when compressed. The most common type is a brand sold as Skydrol.

The Bezners had just arrived in Oklahoma City from Memphis aboard a Mesaba Airlines (Northwest Airlink) regional jet when a ruptured line began spraying inside the cabin, forcing an emergency evacuation. Here's where knowing the full story prompts more questions than it answers. Had they been doused when passing the landing gear or walking beneath the wing, I wouldn't be terribly surprised, but inside the cabin? Apparently that broken line resided somewhere inside the sidewalls or up under the ceiling (part of the piping that transmits fluid from the engine-driven pumps to points throughout the aircraft), and the liquid had spurted through.

The hydraulic systems of most civilian airliners are rated to a maximum force of 3,000 pounds per square inch. In a training class once, an instructor explained how a pinhole breach in a pressurized line -- very tough to spot if you are, say, a young pilot going about his preflight inspection -- was able to eject a razor-sharp, flesh-severing jet of high-velocity fluid. "Don't ever run your hands over those pipes or cables when you're looking for leaks," he warned. "Unless you want your fingers cut off." He might have been exaggerating (typically a leak will disperse into a cloud of aerosol after exiting from a small hole), but from that day on the most loathsome part of my job was that moment when I had to stick my head and shoulders into the landing gear bays during the walk-around safety check. I never quite reconciled to the task, expecting to be decapitated at any moment.

The hydraulics of the double-decker Airbus A380 feature a whopping 5,000 pounds per square inch, a value previously seen only on certain military aircraft. Its eight engine-driven pumps will deliver some 50 gallons of fluid per minute, producing a 1,120-horsepower system needed to articulate the plane's massive control surfaces. Please don't ask me how to convert pounds per square inch and fluid volumes into horsepower, but that's over three times the muster of the plane's closest sibling, the widebody A340.

All 1,100 of those horses, by the way, were on display last week at the 2005 Paris Air Show, which ran from June 13 to 19. To the delight of the press and onlookers, the show featured the first public demo flights of the bulbous 'Bus since its maiden voyage in April.

Did I say Paris Air Show? To be proper, that's the 46th Salon International de l'Aéronautique et de l'Espace, Paris Le Bourget. The biennial shindig, which dates back to 1909, is the industry's most important aerospace sales and schmooze fest, flaunting the latest and greatest of military and civilian flying machines. Last time around, in 2003, more than 350,000 people attended, including 94,000 industry professionals from over 140 countries.

Say what you will of the numbers, it would seem the Paris extravaganza has lost some of its luster over the decades. On the civilian side, at least, there can't be a lot of competitive excitement in the air now that only two serious manufacturers of large commercial jets -- Boeing and Airbus -- are left on the scene. In years past, the tarmac would have been wing-to-wing with products from McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Fokker and Convair, not to mention those Tupolevs and Ilyushins. With the lack of variety threatening to bore attendees, I propose that in 2007 Boeing and Airbus duke it out in a dogfight over the Eiffel Tower.

Regional jets have become hot properties at the show, though nowadays it's not much different at this level, with the two chief RJ builders -- Brazil's Embraer and Canada's Bombardier -- squaring off like a mini-size Boeing and Airbus. Gone are rivals like Dornier, Fairchild, British Aerospace and de Havilland.

Riding into Paris, Boeing was feeling good about itself. Orders for the company's ultra-high-tech twin-engine 787 were breaking prelaunch sales records, while its main competitor, the Airbus A350, was struggling to find customers. Then, among the biggest news blurbs to emerge from the show, other than the A380's darkening of the Parisian skies, came a surprise request for up to 60 A350s by Qatar Airways. The $10.6 billion order comes in addition to a $4.6 billion invoice for as many as 20 Boeing 777s. All told, Airbus left town having firmed up commitments for an estimated $33 billion worth of planes, including 125 A350s, versus about $15 billion for Boeing.

Qatar Airways, by the way, as those numbers might suggest, is one of the fastest-growing airlines, and it hopes to soon inaugurate flights into North America. In the style of its successful Persian Gulf neighbor, Emirates, the carrier hopes to build its hub at Doha into a strategic east-west transfer point. Until the recent upheaval in Nepal, for instance, Qatar was one of the leading airlines carrying tourists into that country from Europe. It is also one of a mere four carriers in the world to earn a perfect five-star quality rating from Skytrax, joining Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Emirates.

But perhaps the most intriguing announcement out of Paris this summer is word of a deal signed by France and Japan to co-develop a new supersonic transport. Of course, history shows that SST projects have a way of fizzling out, and if I were either of the involved parties I'd be judicious in describing the proposed plane as a "successor to Concorde," as some have already taken to calling it. Our first Mach 2 superbird, we shouldn't forget, for all its romance and aerodynamic haughtiness, was an unmitigated commercial flop.

Correction, that was our second Mach 2 superbird. We often neglect the Soviet Union's supersonic ringer, the Tupolev Tu-144. Nicknamed "Concordski," the mantislike plane took to the air two months ahead of the more famous Anglo-French venture. Earlier Paris Air Shows were the site of some memorable moments, not the least of which was the tragic crash of a Tu-144 in 1973. The plane went down in front of spectators during a fly-by presentation, breaking up after a violent maneuver made while avoiding a collision with a Mirage III fighter jet. (The French Mirage was on an espionage mission to secretly photograph movements of the Tupolev's unique forward canard wings.)

The Paris salon isn't the only aerospace bonanza. Its closest rival is Britain's Farnborough Air Show, taking place on even-numbered years. The United Arab Emirates (Dubai Aerospace Exhibition) and Singapore (Asian Aerospace Air and Trade Show) also host popular expos. In America, the closest thing we offer is the yearly fest in Oshkosh, Wis. "The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration" draws three-quarters of a million visitors, but it's primarily a general aviation (private planes) spectacle.

I've never been to any of them, though if I had my druthers Paris would be the one. If you'd like a firsthand account two summers from now, head over to PayPal and be first to partake in the "Send Salon to the Salon in '07" fund drive.

Most people are familiar with Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, but the Paris Air Show is held at the lesser-known Bourget, a field slightly north of the French capital. Now closed to regular commercial traffic, Le Bourget is where Lindbergh touched down in 1927.

Oddly though, whenever I think of Le Bourget it's neither airplanes nor air shows that come to mind, exactly, but the crooning of a young Annabella Lwin, the Burma-born singer of the long-forgotten -- some would say for good reason -- alt-pop outfit Bow Wow Wow. Lwin immortalized the airport in the song "Mile High Club."

"...all the way to Le Bourget." (Not "Les Boucher," as is quoted on some lyrics sites.)

Lwin and her band were a Malcolm McLaren endeavor (he the prior manager and promoter of the Sex Pistols) and, surely some of you are old enough to remember, had a couple of quasi hits circa 1982. You could sometimes catch them on that weird new music channel, MTV. Best remembered for catchy sing-along numbers like its cover of "I Want Candy," some of the group's early songs were -- and here I go way, way out on a limb -- sophisticated. Laugh if you want, but I always dug their energy and intricate tribal rhythms.

But as so often seems to happen, I digress.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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