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Not even a trip to El Salvador could break the spell of crashes. Meanwhile, can a flight attendant land a 737, and why can't I hold my breath at 37,000 feet?

Published September 2, 2005 7:29PM (EDT)

Those checking in over the past couple of weeks no doubt detected a certain tension and irritability permeating my columns -- the aftermath of addressing three successive plane crashes and the avalanche of media madness that followed. Needing a break, I decided to go volcano hiking in El Salvador. With a trio of tragedies having already befallen us, the probability of additional disasters was all but nil, and I was free to relax (or as much as one can while scrambling down the cinder cone of an angrily hissing mountain). While the gods of chance had been crazy of late, they couldn't possibly be that crazy.

Or could they? Imagine my shock when I ambled into a cybercafe in the quiet cobblestoned town of Suchitoto to check my e-mail. At the top of the pile was a anguished cry from my editor: "Dammit, don't tell me you're out of contact! There's been another crash!"

Another what? A fourth accident? My mind raced, imagining every conceivable catastrophe: a 747 smashing into the Empire State Building; an MD-11 gone missing over the Pacific. Finally, after a tedious Internet search (there is no other kind when you're stuck with a Spanish keyboard and a 14 Kbps dial-up, believe me), I discovered the latest mishap was "only" the crash of a Peruvian 737 on a domestic run. The flight, between Lima and the Amazon town of Pucallpa, went down short of the runway after a possible encounter with windshear -- a phenomenon discussed here on the heels of the Air France incident in early August.

Details were and remain sketchy. Trying to make sense of the crash was no easy task, thanks to the wildly scatterbrained news reports emanating from the scene. It was painful, if not quite sickening, listening to hapless reporters attempt to explain how microbursts affect a landing jetliner.

My media critique miniseries was, or so I had assumed, finished. The topic was closed the minute I lifted off for San Salvador, mission accomplished in the nick of time, sparing me from any more darts like this one:

"Mr. Smith: Over the past few months your column has become an airborne 'On the Media.' Yea, yea, the media sucks. Get over it! Enough already!"

I hadn't encountered that kind of aggravation since installment number 5 of last year's Annie Jacobsen saga (she has a book coming out, by the way). In my own defense, "the past few months" is a gross exaggeration (though frankly I'm flattered to be placed in the same sentence with NPR's esteemed weekly program, albeit sarcastically). And I like to think my skewering of the press, however long it's been going on, has been richer and more instructive than a selfish cathartic pout. The idea was to use the barrage of inaccuracies and distortions as launching points for informative discussions about misunderstood phenomenon such as windshear, pressurization, and the nitty-gritty of how a plane lands.

Nonetheless, point taken, and this time around I'm reluctant to commence any bullet-point analysis of how yet again our august disseminators of information have managed to hideously bungle their coverage -- partly because it's a losing battle, and partly because I wouldn't know where to begin. Some of the Associated Press dispatches from Peru -- such as this awful rendering from correspondent Rick Vecchio, picked up by Web and print outlets worldwide -- are so ill-informed as to be, from a pilot's perspective, completely incoherent.

To this juncture I've been holding grudges against specific reporters. After anguishing my way through pieces like the one above, however, I'm beginning to understand this is neither fair nor kind. A correspondent with no organized knowledge of aviation, thrust onto the scene of a tragedy, is only as good as the material -- quotes and statements, many of them from parties with opposing interests -- he or she has to work with. It's difficult to penalize Vecchio for serving up the alleged expertise of Victor Girao, for instance, the former president of Peru's Association of Pilots, even if Girao's comments are, in the context of what likely occurred in Pucallpa, sheer and utter nonsense.

As we've seen, it's between the quotation marks where these stories tend to really fall apart -- too many interviews with people whose impressive-sounding titles lend an air of credibility, only to vector an otherwise consistent report into absurdity. Not to make this annoyingly self-serving, but I'm out there, and so are many eager and knowledgeable sources, should any of these professionals need fresh blood for the Rolodex.

After the Helios Airways disaster in Greece, your article about the facts and fallacies of in-flight decompression included the following: "The time of useful consciousness after a full decompression at 37,000 feet can be less than 10 seconds." Why so short a time? Sitting here, even without inhaling first, I can hold my breath for a good 60 seconds with no danger of passing out, as can most people. Why should it be any different in an airplane?

At sea level, where the ambient pressure is about 14 pounds per square inch, a typical breath of air has enough oxygen to last you a minute or more (your body is still getting oxygen from your lungs). At 37,000 feet, or about a quarter of that ambient pressure, a rapid or explosive decompression results in all air exiting your lungs -- sucked out by the resulting vacuum -- leaving you, nearly instantaneously, only with the oxygen in your bloodstream. That's not enough to sustain you for very long. Time of useful consciousness will vary with individual physiology, but will always be a matter of seconds. Trying to hold your breath in this situation, not that you'd be able to, would be deadly, bringing on an embolic explosion of your lungs.

Interestingly, a sudden high-altitude decompression not only pulls the wind out of your lungs, but also -- and this is personally confirmed by somebody who experienced one -- out of your bowels.

Scary, and perhaps disgusting as well, but remember these descriptions pertain to the worst case. As pointed out in the original column, the vast majority of pressurization snafus aren't nearly as severe.

There have been stories in the papers claiming that a member of the Helios cabin staff was seated at the controls before the plane crashed. According to reports, the flight attendant had "received flight training in the past." Given the right conditions, could a nonpilot with a bit of basic know-how, or for that matter a pure novice, safely land a jet?

A scenario whereby the entire airliner cockpit crew becomes incapacitated, leaving fate in the hands of passengers and cabin staff, has been covered in at least one earlier column, and appears in the book too, where I write: "As far as I know this has never occurred, except in a couple of Hollywood examples, including 'Airport '75.' That means either it never will happen or is bound to happen soon, depending how sardonic a statistical analyst you are."

The cynics win. Based on what's known of the Helios incident, we now have our first-ever case study. No surprise to me -- and not to sound crass and disrespectful to those who perished -- the debris-strewn hillside near Athens pretty much answers the question.

That being said, a great deal would depend on exactly what level of training or knowledge a person possesses. Allegedly, Helios flight attendant Andreas Prodromou had some primary instruction under his belt. But while all airplanes share the same basic principles of operation, one glance at the cockpit of a 737 as compared to, say, that of a lightweight Cessna trainer, reveals how those fundamental levers, switches and dials have evolved into an intimidating array of high-tech instrumentation. I shudder at the thought of a low-time student pilot seated at the dashboard of a Boeing, or even a regional turboprop. He or she might recognize certain gauges and devices, but properly using and interpreting them, advanced as they are at the airliner level, would be intensely challenging. It'd be difficult enough to figure out how to use the microphone, let alone organize and fly an approach.

For that matter, a qualified Boeing captain would have a tough time at the helm of an Airbus. It's doubtful he'd crash, but things would hardly be routine. Cross-type commonality only goes so far when dealing with cutting-edge onboard systems -- just as an Apple user can find himself lost, if not disastrously so, on a PC (I'm not the only one, right?).

Often we hear how contemporary flight decks are designed for simplicity and reduced workload. A common refrain is how "easy" it is to fly the most sophisticated aircraft. This is true, provided one has the requisite knowledge and experience to manage the state-of-the-art flight management systems (FMS) and onboard gadgetry of high-performance aircraft, large or small. (In a simulator experiment held in Scandinavia, one desktop simulator enthusiast was able to safely land an Airbus A320. Importantly, he was already savvy about many of the plane's onboard systems, courtesy of the advanced level of today's gameware.)

Sure, most airliners are equipped with "autoland" technology, allowing hands-off touchdowns in zero visibility. The tendency here is to envision that poor Helios steward, sweat streaming down his face, hitting a button marked "Land," then rolling to a stop amid flashbulbs and the cheers of firemen. In reality, the fine print of how to set up and monitor even the most automatic procedure is quite complex and subject to a limitless number of contingent details that demand a fairly advanced level of experience.

Next week: The do's and don'ts of choosing a safe airline, and more than you wanted to know about exploding tires.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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