I've started watching Air Crash Investigations again. You'd think these things would terrify me, but I find them fascinating. Given the sheer amount of flying people on this planet do, and how improbable the machines they do it in, I find it rather comforting that major incidents are so rare that I've already heard of most of the ones they dug up to put on TV.

If I didn't have such faith in airplanes, living anywhere near Boston would drive me bonkers. Depending on the wind, one of the standard departures doglegs from Logan goes right over Medford. They don't go over alarmingly low -- over populated areas, over FL100, I believe is the general rule set by the FAA, mostly for noise reasons -- but every so often someone executes a go-around in a heavy, and you can see the livery on the plane's underbelly.

I'm also given to understand that one of the reasons the locals are not impressed by Revere Beach is because jets keep whizzing by overhead. Logan has two runways long enough to land a loaded transoceanic 747-400 or A380; the glide slope from the north to 4R/22L goes right along the shoreline. You get a pretty good view of takeoffs and landings going the other way from Castle Island, to the south.

Nosing around on the internet, I'm surprised by how few accidents and incidents -- NTSB-speak for "plane wrecks" -- Logan has. (Two of the 9/11 planes took off from Boston, but I don't count that; that's a failure of humanity right there, not of piloting, ATC, or equipment.) I wondered if perhaps the reports were sparse because they listed anything that cleared the coastline as "crashed in the ocean", but they don't seem to. Several of the reports say the plane went into Massachusetts Bay, which is right off the end of the runway, in the very literal and mildly alarming sense that the only thing underneath the wheels of your arriving flight is water right up until the moment you thump onto the tarmac.

Every few years someone does something ill-advised and whacks into another plane while taxiing or busts their gear in an emergency landing, but I can't find a hull loss with fatalities since a DC-10 failed to take off and sluiced sideways into Boston Harbor in 1982. There was an alarming near-miss in 2005, where an Aer Lingus Airbus and a US Airways 737 had inadvertently been given clearance for takeoff on intersecting runways (the 737 pilot ducked, basically, and delayed his takeoff for another thousand meters or so to run under the Aer Lingus jet), but otherwise the nearest thing to a horrifying tragedy was EgyptAir 990 in 1999, which was neither departing from nor landing at Logan, but happened to go down in international waters somewhere off the coast of Nantucket.

That's pretty good, considering Logan is in the top 20 airports in the US for passengers, and top 10 for cargo. During peak hours, they have flights leaving only a couple minutes apart -- just long enough so that nobody is taking off into anyone else's wake. The giant roil of hot air you get behind a jumbo jet is called "wake turbulence", and it's a known hazard of crowded airspace. Trying to fly through it is uncomfortably bumpy at best; at worst, if you have dodgy rudder control for some reason, it might mean you hit the ground much sooner and much faster than you intended.

Some of the incidents they profile over the course of the series are just mind-boggling. Boeing airliners are particularly tough bastards -- you might have guessed that if I mentioned that all of their airliners through the 767 models share a basic frame design with an equivalent model produced for the US Air Force. (Most of them are troop transports and mid-air refueling tankers, although the 737 variant was used as a navigation trainer, and Air Force One is a heavily-refitted 747.) I would not be surprised if the issues they've had with the Triple Seven and the Dreamliner came about partly because they weren't required to bang on them until they met military spec. The USAF is not very patient with people who dither over seat pitch while failing to notice that their batteries are on fire.

A 747, as it turns out, has a glide profile of about 16:1, meaning that it'll go about 16 feet forward for every foot it falls, with all engines shut down. This is shit for a purpose-built unpowered craft, but fantastic for something that weighs 400,000 lbs when completely empty -- it's about equivalent to a hang glider. Lucky for British Airways 009, which ran into a cloud of fine volcanic ash south of Java and had all four engines flame out while the cabin filled with what they thought at the time was sulfurous smoke. They had to make an instrument landing in perfectly clear weather at Jakarta, as the cockpit windows had all been sandblasted into uselessness. The 767 now known as the Gimli Glider got about 12:1, but the pilot was intentionally sideslipping the plane in order to get himself down low enough for a landing.

(Actually, the plane isn't known as anything anymore; she's in the boneyard at Mojave, where old aircraft are sent away to die. Google Maps has a clear satellite photo here. You're looking for a 767-233, an almost perfectly square plane -- length 159ft, wingspan 156ft -- with a slender fuselage and one engine slung under each wing. If you want her, she's apparently still there, minus her Air Canada uniform, on sale for a cool $3 million.)

Boeing planes are also fairly nimble for their size. The general consensus is that you could barrel roll all of them without stalling -- although I don't think anyone has tried it since Tex Johnston rolled a prototype 707 in 1955 during a sales demo, twice, and was most emphatically told to never do that again -- and probably loop all but the biggest ones. Pilots tend to avoid banking steeply mostly because drink carts and carry-on luggage don't respond well to being turned over sideways. The most extreme survivable incident I know of for a loaded 747 is China Airlines 006, which, due to a panoply of cumulative fuck-ups and sleep deprivation, ended up briefly flying at a 90° bank and pulled about 5g off the coast of California before the pilots woke up enough to right her and land rightthefucknow in San Francisco. They broke the landing gear, lost big chunks of the tail, and bent the wings several inches out of true, but after repairs the airframe went on to fly for more than a decade afterwards.

It's also possible, though distinctly not fun, to bring an airliner in for a deadstick landing, which is the kindest possible term for a landing in which your airplane is so broken you have lost all available control surfaces, and no longer have any way to steer. I don't know if it's true with the newer models, but I'm given to understand that the Boeings are less abominable than the Airbuses for this -- Airbus planes in the past have been heavy on the beeping gizmos end of the spectrum, whereas Boeing hung onto physical linkage systems as long as they could. Deadstick landings often result in what are called "hull-loss incidents" (i.e., plane is in so many crumpled pieces it's written off as scrap) but the odd one has gone miraculously well. TACA 110 lost all engines to rain and hail far in excess of design specs, and the pilot managed to not only put her down on a wet, grassy levee in Louisiana with no loss of life, but also with no major injuries, no damage to the airframe, and in such excellent shape that, after some engine work, the investigation team was able to taxi out and take off again from a nearby roadway. Amusingly, the makeshift runway was there in the first place because the pilot had managed to land on a plot of land belonging to the Michoud Assembly Facility, near New Orleans -- it belongs to NASA, and the paved roads were used for getting external fuel tanks for the Space Shuttles out of the plant and on their way to the Kennedy Space Center.


  1. If you're interested in plane crashes, this is a decent documentary about the Sioux City plane crash. They were considered dead in the air because they had lost all hydraulic power and therefore had almost no control over the aircraft. The man who helped pilot, land, and save almost everyone narrates it.


  2. My understanding of Airbus planes is that they are entirely fly-by-wire, meaning there is a computer between the pilot and all the control surfaces. The older Boeing planes retained some fly-by-cable capabilities, so it took more things going wrong to remove all steering capability. We certainly avoided the Airbus planes for as long as we could (another reason to be fond of Southwest, with their all ancient Boeing fleet).

    It was actually that unwanted computer interface that made me decide against a Prius when I needed a new car this spring - I could feel the computer deciding how to interpret my accelerator and brake instructions in ways the various Hondas I tried did not.

    1. Airbus made a big deal of their A320 because it was one of the first entirely fly-by-wire planes out there, but to be honest, you're not going to find anything less than fully electronic-ized today. Boeing has gone over, too. It is possible to bring an Airbus in for a deadstick landing, and people have done it; aerodynamically, there's nothing wrong with them that isn't also wrong with a Boeing in that same situation, but Airbus planes are generally flown with a "sidestick" (i.e., a joystick off to the side) rather than a traditional yoke sitting right ahead of you, and so the feel and the feedback you get are less direct. Boeings are easier to control in that situation in large part because you can physically wrestle with them a lot more -- which most people would be apt to do, I think, in an emergency -- before you completely cocked up what you were doing.

      My main complaint about A320s and A330s is that everyone has one, and everyone has crammed them so full of seats that normal humans don't fit. I had more leg room the time United announced we'd had an equipment change, and I was going from Chicago to Albany on a Canadair commuter jet about the size of a Greyhound bus. JetBlue's A330 was fairly nice, but they're just about the only ones I've heard of.

      If you really want something with an outstanding safety record, fly a Tupolev Tu-154. They are extremely Russian by nature. They are plain things, loud, and guzzle fuel like water, but virtually impossible to break. They have had so few fatal hull-loss incidents relative to their extensive use in both normal and batshit insane conditions (if you have a mile and a half of a flat surface solid enough to get the airstairs out for boarding, you have a runway for a Tu-154) that nearly a fifth of them boil down to "flew through a war zone, shot down by rebels". Aeroflot has just now started retiring them after 40 years, and Tu-154s carried a good half of their passenger load.


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