Flying naked

Body scanners debut in U.S. Plus: Kids control traffic, and the pilot takes on Der Spiegel on Air France crash

Published March 5, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

A security official (2nd R) prepares to scan a man posing inside a full-body scanner being trialled by Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport during a photocall at the departure gate in Roissy near Paris February 22, 2010. France will use body scanners at some of its airports, initially to search passengers heading to the United States.  REUTERS/Benoit Tessier  (FRANCE - Tags: TRAVEL TRANSPORT CRIME LAW)    (Reuters)
A security official (2nd R) prepares to scan a man posing inside a full-body scanner being trialled by Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport during a photocall at the departure gate in Roissy near Paris February 22, 2010. France will use body scanners at some of its airports, initially to search passengers heading to the United States. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (FRANCE - Tags: TRAVEL TRANSPORT CRIME LAW) (Reuters)

First up, everybody wants to know how I feel about the story out of New York this week about the air traffic controller who allowed his kid to give instructions to aircraft. There's a lot of buzz from this story, which is not unexpected. It's one of those perfect made-for-media scandals.

My feelings are mixed. First, was there a public safety issue? Were passengers put in any sort of jeopardy? The answer is no. Obviously the kid was being told exactly what to say, with qualified controllers right there next to him. That, however, does not make it an acceptable thing to do. Just because a doctor might be able to talk a youngster through sewing up a suture doesn't mean a patient would be OK with it. It was at best unprofessional.

What should happen to the controllers who allowed this to happen? That's not for me to say, but I do have one question for them: What were you thinking? Archived air-to-ground communications are easily accessible on the Web, and the media adores any sort of aviation controversy, whether or not lives are ever in actual danger. Yes, this is a much bigger story than it ought to be, but I'm not surprised that we're dealing with it. 

Now, as for more weighty matters ...

Here at my hometown airport, Boston Logan, the first of Transportation Security Administration's new full-body scanners was wheeled into place earlier this week. More will follow. In Europe, several of the machines are up and running.

This is the latest and one of the more disheartening developments in our long war on the abstract noun called "terrorism." What's next, I have to ask, in this unwinnable arms race/shell game? Richard Reid hides a makeshift bomb in his sneakers, and from now until the end of time we all have to take our shoes off; radicals in London come up with a supposed liquid explosives scheme, and we're forever forced to sequester our toiletries into tiny containers; a guy puts a bomb in his underwear, and sure enough we're required to parade naked before getting on a plane. Where will it end? Or is this the end?

If, a decade ago, we were told that people would soon have to appear naked in order to board an airplane, the claim would have been met by peals of laughter and/or howls of outrage. But here it has come to pass, and what's our reaction? One or two muffled complaints and quiet acquiescence.

"Well, if it means we're safer ..."

That's what people say. Except -- never mind for a minute the perils of swapping away rights for false security -- they don't even mean it, in the first place. Safety? Is that what this is about? Obviously not. After all, you're far more likely to be killed in a highway crash than be blown up on an airliner, so why aren't we out there spending billions and stripping away our liberties in the name of highway safety? We still hear righteous cries of fascism any time the cops set up DWI roadblocks -- heaven forbid "the man" make me blow into a tube -- but sure, I'll doff my boxers if it protects me from "terror."

And somewhere, beneath all of this, rests the uncomfortable, seldom acknowledged reality that, no matter how hard we try, we're never going to make our airports and airplanes completely safe by means of  banning, confiscating and X-raying. There will always be a way to skirt the system. And as I've said before, the real job of keeping terrorists and criminals away from planes belongs to law enforcement and intelligence -- to the FBI, CIA, Interpol -- not to TSA screeners on the concourse.

Is anybody listening? I didn't think so.

Anyway, onto something more fun ...

I'm excited, I think, to announce that Ask the Pilot now has its own Facebook page. I say "I think" because the idea wasn't mine and the page remains, shall we say, unauthorized. It's the work of Steve Hartman, one of my more devout apostles. Steve says the page is great, but truth be told I've never been to Facebook in my life, and I'm afraid to look. Let me know if he needs to be reined in. 

Though, actually, neither security nor Facebook were on my to-do list for this week. What I really wanted to talk about was a recent article in Der Speigel. Last week, the online unit of the highly respected German magazine ran a splashy (terrible pun, I know), 2,800-word analysis of last year's yet-unsolved Air France disaster. Many of my readers have been curious to know if Spiegel's reporter, Gerald Traufetter, had the facts right.

On May 31, 2009, Flight 447, an Airbus A330 headed to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, crashed into the ocean off northeast Brazil after an apparent encounter with powerful storms. The accident was covered in this column in four separate installments, here, here, here and here.

To what extent weather and/or mechanical failure may have played a role remains a mystery, and may never be fully understood. Traufetter gives it a try, and does a reasonable job when it comes to the overall scenario; there's nothing blatantly inaccurate or misleading in the piece. However, it definitely spits and sputters when it comes to the small stuff. I couldn't help wincing on several occasions. Let me pick my way through and show you a few examples which are instructive not only in the context of this particular story, but are typical of the oversimplifications and inaccuracies that infect almost all mass-media aviation reportage. I hope my clarifications will provide some how-it's-done insights that you'll find interesting:

I began to get nervous with the very first line…

"The crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio to Paris last year is one of the most mysterious accidents in the history of aviation. After months of investigation, a clear picture has emerged of what went wrong."

The second sentence seems to directly contradict the first, which itself isn't really true. One of the most mysterious accidents in the history of aviation? The recent history of aviation perhaps, but going back over the decades one finds any number of unsolved crashes, some of them a lot more mysterious than this one. Crashes might be few and far between, but they do occur and we don't always determine a cause. Planes have disappeared without a trace. With this one we at least have physical evidence and can bracket what went wrong.

"Many frequent flyers have since opted for daytime flights across the Atlantic because pilots can recognize storm fronts more easily during the day."

Many frequent flyers? Have they? I'm suspicious, and in any case there are very few daytime, east-to-west transatlantic crossings. Most flights go at night -- to allow for connections and for optimum aircraft utilization.

"A half moon lit up the Atlantic Ocean on the night of May 31, offering reasonably favorable conditions for a flight through the dangerous intertropical convergence zone."

Major foul on this one. I'm hoping it was a gaffe in the translation from German to English. "Dangerous," he says. The intertropical convergence zone is an area of latitude on either side of the equator in which tall and fierce thunderstorms sometimes erupt. On moonless nights these storms -- and smaller turbulent buildups as well -- can be difficult to pick out, visually. But that's what on-board radar, datalink weather updates, and real-time pilot reports are for. And although storms in the ITCZ can be powerful, they tend to be isolated and comparatively easy to circumnavigate. Commercial aircraft do not fly in "dangerous" areas; meanwhile, thousands of flights navigate through the ITCZ every day. Unpredictable? Sure. Challenging? It can be. But dangerous? Absolutely not. A terrible choice of words.

"Captain Marc Dubois ... has more than 70 tons of kerosene pumped into the fuel tanks."

Here the author is discussing preflight preparations on the ground in Rio. This is getting nitpicky, but people might find it interesting: The captain does not, as a rule, determine or supervise fuel loading. The required amount of fuel is set in advance by an airline's dispatchers and flight planners, in strict accordance with a long list of regulations. A captain has the final say and can always request extra, but initial fuel planning is not part of his job.

The applicable regulations are intricate and can vary country to country (an aircraft is beholden to its nation of registry, plus any local requirements if they're more stringent). The U.S. rule is a good indicator of how conservatively things work: For flights going overseas, there must always be at least enough fuel to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), plus another 30 minutes buffer,  plus yet another buffer representing 10 percent of total flight time. Sometimes two or more alternates have to be filed in a flight plan (another batch of rules), upping the total accordingly. The preflight paperwork includes a detailed breakdown of anticipated burn. En route, the remaining total is cross-checked against the predicted total as waypoints are passed.

"It's only by means of a trick that the captain can even reach Paris without going under the legally required minimum reserves of kerosene that must still be in the plane's tanks upon arrival in the French capital. A loophole allows him to enter Bordeaux -- which lies several hundred kilometers closer than Paris -- as the fictitious destination for his fuel calculations."

Ooh, a loophole, and a "fictitious destination." Must be scandalous. Except that it's not. Inflight redispatching is common and does not change the fact that an aircraft must, at its redispatch point, still have enough remaining fuel to reach its destination and any required alternates, plus a buffer. The author is setting up a scenario that suggests the crew may have been shy about diverting around storms due to worries about fuel or a possible diversion.

"'Major deviation would therefore no longer have been possible anymore,' says Gerhard Hüttig, an Airbus pilot and professor at the Berlin Technical University's Aerospace Institute. If worse came to worst, the pilot would have to stop and refuel in Bordeaux, or maybe even in Lisbon. 'But pilots are very reluctant to do something like that,' Hüttig adds. After all, it makes the flight more expensive, causes delays and is frowned upon by airline bosses."

The insinuation here is complete bull. Obviously an unplanned fuel stop is not an ideal situation, and sure, pilots are reluctant to embark on a major deviation to avoid en route storms. But, believe me, they'll do it if it's the proper thing to do. The idea that pilots would press on through a dangerous storm to save time or money, or in fear of reprimand, is highly offensive. "Airline bosses" aren't fond of diversions, you're right. Neither are they fond of accidents that kill hundreds of people, and no respectable carrier would ever call any crew onto the carpet who'd made an unplanned fuel stop because they opted to give powerful thunderstorms a wide berth.

Although we'll never know for sure what the pilots were looking at on their radar, the weather encountered by Flight 447 may not have been all that severe. Failure of the plane's airspeed probes and subsequent loss of its control systems was probably the critical factor, and could have occurred in weather that, by itself, wasn't dangerous.

And who is Gerhard Hüttig, and was he taken out of context? His being an "Airbus pilot" does not mean that he flies for an airline, and as I've pointed out in past columns, aviation academics (professors, researchers, etc.,) are often terrible sources, possessing limited knowledge of the day-to-day realities of commercial flying.

"The Sensors Fail. It's hard to imagine a more precarious situation, even for pilots with nerves of steel: Flying through a violent thunderstorm that shakes the entire plane as the master warning lamp starts blinking on the instrument panel in front of you. An earsplitting alarm rings out, and a whole series of error messages suddenly flash up on the flight motor."

I'll give you that, though presumably he means "monitor" not "motor," which I think is a reference to one of the cockpit display screens.

"Did the pilots on flight AF 447 know about the airspeed indicator failures experienced by colleagues on nine other aircraft belonging to their own airline? Air France had indeed distributed a note about this to all its pilots, albeit as part of several hundred pages of information that pilots find in their inbox every week."

I can't speak for Air France, and "several hundred pages" strikes me as a real stretch, but he makes a fair point. Pilots are routinely inundated with reams of technical arcana: manual changes and updates, memos, bulletins, alerts. This material is dull and often impenetrably dense. Determining what's important can be difficult.

"… it's unclear who was controlling the Air France plane in its final minutes. Was it the experienced flight captain, Dubois, or one of his two first officers? Typically, a captain retreats to his cabin to rest a while after takeoff."

Not exactly. Flights longer than eight hours' duration typically carry at least one extra pilot -- normally an extra first officer -- which allows for a series of rotating breaks. Essentially each pilot spends a third or so of the flight off-duty, as it were, relaxing or sleeping. As for who gets the first break, beginning shortly after takeoff, well that depends. And what's this about "his cabin"? The size and luxuriousness of on-board rest facilities varies with airline and aircraft type -- it might be just a cordoned-off seat in business class, or it might be a spacious room with comfortable bunks and a changing area -- but always they are shared. This is a jetliner, not a cruise ship. The captain does not have a cabin of his own.

Also there's the implication that the first officer is, by definition, less experienced than the captain. Without getting into the nuances of airline seniority bidding, this is usually the case but not always. Either way, all three crew members are fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, including emergencies.

"In contrast to many other airlines, it is standard practice at Air France for the less experienced of the two copilots to take the captain's seat when the latter is not there. The experienced copilot remains in his seat on the right-hand side of the cockpit. Under normal circumstances, that is not a problem, but in emergencies it can increase the likelihood of a crash."

Another major foul, and using terms like "less experienced" gives a totally wrong impression. It's tempting to prefer that the most "experienced" pilot be in the captain's seat as an emergency is unfolding. I would prefer the best pilot to be there. Experience and skill are not necessarily one in the same. As it happened, both first officers were present, both were fully qualified to operate the aircraft, and on which side of the cockpit they were sitting really didn't matter. A plane can be flown, and all of its systems operated, from either seat.

"Not long after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane went out of control and stalled … According to this scenario, the pilots would have been forced to watch helplessly as their plane lost its lift. That theory is supported by the fact that the airplane remained intact to the very end."

You lost me here. I don't understand this conclusion at all. If the plane goes out of control and stalls, you would expect it to not remain intact to the very end. But it was intact, apparently, rapidly descending and striking the water belly-first, in a right-side-up, mostly flat attitude.

Did the airspeed sensors fail? How did they fail? How did the plane's complex computerized flight control system react? And how, in turn, did the pilots react? Did their errors compound a serious but survivable emergency, or were they doomed from the beginning? It's likely we'll never know for sure.

Another pressing questions is whether Airbus was already aware of potentially faulty speed sensors on some of its aircraft, and whether it should have done more to alert airlines and crews. Prior to the Air France disaster, other A330s suffered failures similar to the one suspected to have been a factor in the crash of Flight 447.

The more comforting news is that operators and pilots are now well aware of this potential problem, and are better prepared to respond should it happen. Airbus has designed an improved warning system for sensor malfunctions. Granted, some open questions remain, but in the meantime, should passengers be wary of these planes? The practical answer is no. There are upward of 600 A330s in service around the world, plus another 350 of its almost-identical twin, the A340. Together they have flown tens of millions of air miles, with only one fatal accident. That's not to brush controversies or responsibilities under the rug; it's to remind you of the extraordinary rarity at which accidents like this occur. 

Next time: The babble of the takeoff safety briefing

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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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