Severe turbulence, a midair collision and the latest stuck-on-a-plane horror story

Published August 14, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

The wreckage of a helicopter is lifted by crane from the Hudson River and placed on a boat as seen from Hoboken, N.J.,  Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009. Divers recovered a piece of a submerged helicopter and a fifth body Sunday as investigators searched the Hudson River for wreckage from the helicopter and a small plane that collided in midair, killing nine people.
The wreckage of a helicopter is lifted by crane from the Hudson River and placed on a boat as seen from Hoboken, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009. Divers recovered a piece of a submerged helicopter and a fifth body Sunday as investigators searched the Hudson River for wreckage from the helicopter and a small plane that collided in midair, killing nine people.

Plenty of front-page fodder these past couple of weeks.

We'll start with a look at last Saturday's midair collision in New York. Nine people were killed when a sightseeing helicopter was struck by a single-engine Piper at 1,100 feet over the Hudson River.

The accident occurred in one of the two famous "VFR corridors" that bracket the island of Manhattan. These low-altitude flyways -- one along the Hudson, the other along the East River -- are very popular with recreational fliers, helicopters and other small aircraft. Saturday's crash has rekindled the debate over whether the corridors ought to be closed or restricted, or their flight patterns modified. The last major procedural changes were made in 2006, after New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and a companion were killed when their four-seat Cirrus SR-20 struck a building along the East River -- an accident I analyzed here.

An estimated 50,000 aircraft and helicopters ply the river each year. On the weekends, corridor traffic swells with amateur leisure fliers. Pilots adhere to speed restrictions and right-of-way protocols to help maintain separation, but there are risks. While the corridor isn't quite the free-for-all described by the media and city politicians, flights are conducted exclusively under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), meaning there is no requirement for radar tracking, flight plans or even radio contact with air traffic control. Pilots rely chiefly on old-fashioned see-and-avoid tactics to stay clear of each other.

Remember, though, this is not the environment in which commercial airliners operate. Media reports haven't emphasized this enough, in my opinion, leaving people to believe their flights out of Newark or La Guardia are subject to the same level of hazard. Not true. VFR flying is by no means dangerous, but it's a realm best suited for low-altitude, lower-performance aircraft.

As a regional airline pilot in the early 1990s, I would occasionally follow the corridor on flights out of Newark -- albeit at a slightly higher altitude and duly coordinated with air traffic control -- treating passengers to some of the most spectacular views to be seen from an airplane anywhere on earth -- such as this one. Those flights are described here.

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Up next is the Continental Airlines incident that occurred on Aug. 3. More than two dozen passengers were injured after Flight 128, a Boeing 767 bound from Rio de Janeiro to Houston, encountered severe turbulence at 38,000 feet over the Caribbean. The jet diverted to Miami and made a safe emergency landing. Fourteen people were sent to the hospital.

There isn't too much I can say about this that wasn't said in my November 2006 column covering the facts and fallacies of turbulence. To recap: Contrary to the fearful flier's every expectation, an airliner cannot be knocked upside down or flung from the sky by rough air; there are no vacuum-like air pockets through which a plane will plummet to its doom, and as a rule, pilots do not view turbulence as a safety issue so much as a comfort issue. But yes, every once in a while, very strong turbulence does damage aircraft and injure passengers. This was one of those times.

Notice, however, that the 767 did not come flailing out of the air. It did not flip upside down, and the wings did not break off. Reportedly, those who were badly hurt had been standing or walking in the aisles at the time of the encounter. No surprise there: The vast majority of turbulence injuries occur not because the plane is falling apart but because people are not wearing seat belts. The most common ailments are sprains, breaks and back injuries. There is also the danger of being struck by luggage should the overhead bins be jostled open.

About 60 people, two-thirds of them flight attendants, are injured by turbulence annually in the United States. That works out to about 20 passengers. Twenty out of the 800 million or so who fly each year in this country. Repeat: 20 out of 800 million. (Despite such numbers, turbulence remains the No. 1 concern of anxious fliers.)

Media coverage of the mishap was about as expected, with lots of talk about "plunging." Kudos to the Florida Sun-Sentinel for this story, which is one of the better analyses I've seen, though it too contained one or two gaffes. For example, in a list of turbulence-related accidents, the writers include the 1985 Dallas crash of Delta Flight 191. In fact that accident had nothing to do with turbulence. It was the result of errant flight into a microburst -- a rare, localized, extremely powerful wind shear core, the characteristics of which weren't fully understood at the time. Wind shear is described here.

The article also states that "pilots rarely have advance warning that turbulence is about to hit, other than radio reports." That struck me as a fairly reckless quote from a former Laker Airways pilot. Certain kinds of turbulence are difficult to predict and can strike suddenly, which is why you should always keep your seat belt on, even when the air is smooth. But pilots do have several tools at their disposal:

  1. On-board radar
  2. Weather charts depicting various turbulence indicators (storms, locations and intensities of jet streams, location of the tropopause)
  3. Reports from other traffic
  4. Real-time updates and advisories from air traffic control and company dispatchers

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There was more bad press for Continental on Aug. 8, when 47 people were stuck overnight aboard a grounded Continental Express regional jet in Rochester, Minn. The plane sat for more than six hours after diverting due to thunderstorms near Minneapolis, its intended destination. Overflowing toilets, screaming babies, the whole bit.

The flight was operated by Houston-based ExpressJet, Continental's primary affiliate contractor and the third-largest regional airline in the world. ExpressJet blamed a security issue -- passengers could not deplane, the carrier claimed, because TSA staff had all gone home. TSA says that a secure area was still available inside the terminal and blames the airline.

Either way, what happened is unfortunate and unacceptable. This is the latest in a long string of similar events, and it remains baffling, if not infuriating, that the simple act of letting people off an airplane needs to be so damn complicated.

However, I have to agree with industry advocates who point out that a so-called passenger bill of rights, in which maximum tarmac times are mandated, is liable to cause more trouble than it saves. As for why and how, you can revisit my columns about the 2007 Valentine's Day debacle at JFK: "JetBlue Fiasco: The Art and Science of Weather Delays," and "JetBlue Fiasco, Part 2, and the 'Passenger Bill of Rights.'"

I have received several e-mails wondering why passengers in such situations don't rebel and initiate their own evacuation via the doors or emergency exits. My answer is that it would take a critical mass of extreme emotion for such a thing to happen, and despite the well-publicized misery of these stuck-on-a-plane sagas, it just isn't there. You'd also be arrested and hauled off to jail, and you'd risk serious injury hurtling down the escape slide (it can be two stories down, and those slides are very steep). Lawsuits, on the other hand, are possibly fair game, depending on the circumstances.

Initially, Continental denied culpability for the Rochester stranding, referring queries and complaints to ExpressJet.

If I may say so, how rich. The majors love to peddle the illusion of "seamless service" with their code-share partners, but when things go wrong they are fast in passing the buck. Half of all flights in this country are now operated by regionals flying in the colors of major carrier partners. If the majors are going to rely so heavily on these arrangements, they need to take better and faster responsibility for any airplanes that wear their paint and fly on their behalf.

One step in that direction is a new congressional proposal that calls for requiring travel agents, online ticket sellers and carriers themselves to more clearly identify exactly which entity is operating a given flight. More on that next week.

Eventually, ExpressJet and Continental both issued apologies. Continental described the incident as "completely unacceptable," offering refunds and travel vouchers in consolation.


Re: 1980s cover songs

"I know what the best cover song is!" writes pgando99 in the letters section of my July 31 column, in which I declared Hüsker Dü's rendition of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" to be the greatest cover song of all time. "'Pablo Picasso' by the Burning Sensations was a pretty good song," pgando says. "But David Bowie's version off his last album is much better."

Sorry, but I can't let this one go, especially being from Boston.

The song "Pablo Picasso" was of course written and performed by the great Jonathan Richman. Before embarking on a decades-long solo career, Richman was the singer of the Boston-based Modern Lovers, on whose 1976 album "Pablo Picasso" first appears.

Richman's "Roadrunner" is the more famous song from that LP -- itself heavily covered (Sex Pistols, Joan Jett and, if you can find it, check out the Jazz Butcher's rowdy version, which is easily the best of them).

Richman's Modern Lovers band mates included Jerry Harrison and David Robinson, who later became members of the Talking Heads and the Cars, respectively.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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