Saturday, January 07, 2012

oh no, not again

There are a number of things which are utterly fascinating about this riveting account of the last minutes of Air France flight 447 leading up to its crash into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, not least that it was a problem entirely caused by human error, bad team management, uncontrolled instinctive behaviour and unchecked assumptions, and not an engineering problem at all, beyond the brief (and hardly unprecedented) icing-up of the pitot tubes that sowed some of the initial seeds of the confusion which led eventually to catastrophe.

There seems to be some disagreement over how much the passengers knew about what was going on during the aircaft's uncontrolled descent. I'm quite prepared to believe that among all the intense turbulence that was going on no-one would have sensed that the aircraft was descending at 10,000 feet per minute - after all if experienced commercial pilots can be bewildered by the input of their own senses then I'm sure your average Jean-Claude can as well - but I do wonder what the in-flight information screens were showing during this time.

As I've said before I do find these irrationally reassuring as they provide some input into what's going on, the complete sensory vacuum and lack of control being one of the things that makes flying so uncomfortable. Even if things are getting a bit bumpy, the back-of-the-seat screen reading out a steady altitude and airspeed throughout is comforting. However, assuming the screens hadn't been switched off, anyone on the Air France flight would have presumably seen the airspeed slow to a crawl and the altitude figures start to scroll downwards in an increasingly rapid blur. Now I don't know about you, but I would have found this somewhat alarming, right up until the point whare I abruptly got turned into gristly strawberry jam.

The other thing that struck me about the article was this line:
At 2:02 am, the captain leaves the flight deck to take a nap. Within 15 minutes, everyone aboard the plane will be dead.
- and, later, this one:
Another of the pitot tubes begins to function once more. The cockpit's avionics are now all functioning normally. The flight crew has all the information that they need to fly safely, and all the systems are fully functional. The problems that occur from this point forward are entirely due to human error.
I was immediately reminded of the bit in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy where the protagonists are threatened by a missile attack from the automated defence system of the planet Magrathea:
The planet in question is, in fact, Magrathea. The missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defence system will merely result in the breakage of three coffee cups and a mouse cage, the bruising of someone's upper arm and the untimely creation and demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.
- and later on:
It is, of course, more or less at this point that one of our heroes sustains a slight bruise to the upper arm. This should be emphasised because, as has already been revealed, they escape otherwise completely unharmed, and the deadly nuclear missiles do not eventually hit the ship. Our heroes' safety is absolutely assured.
Of course that one was the other way round, in that that it all ended happily. I know where I would rather have been.


The Black Rabbit said...

Interesting post, particularly about the statistical probability of dying in a plane rather than a car etc...

I worked out some time ago that I was more likely to die twice by driving over a cliff in any reliant robin (that I ever bought & owned) than I was ever to win the lottery (or something).

Anyway... I digress.

On the subject of planes and fear and loathing etc...

By the time I've had to drag myself (and Anna) to the hell that is an airport a bloody week before the effing plane is due to leave the tarmac, I'm quite ready to die!

a) in a living (airport) hell,
b) surrounded by millions of mouth breathers and screaming kids.
c) Proving I am who I say I bloody well am
d) proving I am indeed not a terrorist and my bottle of cola is not a bomb
e) queuing to have my eyeballs / genitals / camera equipment scanned by disinterested epaulettes and
f) being denied a even a cigarette - which at least someone on death row may be able to request!

By the time the sodding plane takes off, and I realise that unless we've managed to procure extra leg room seats I will be HOLDING MY effing tray because my knees mean the seat tray won't even lie flat (6'3" is hardly freak show territory I might try to suggest), tried to "enjoy" some plastic-wrapped meal - a meal that I invariably cannot tell what meat it actually is that is passing my dried up lips, tried to ignore the shitty little kids with whooping cough that the plane is always full of, resigned myself to the fact that the in-flight film is fucking “Iron man two” AGAIN and I have to watch that because they take away the Indiana Jones in flight map (of which ye spake) - yep - plummet me at full speed into a mountain or the raging oceans any day.

You can imagine, Anna really REALLY enjoys flying with me!

On a serious note, I have not flown that much really (Singapore, Cyprus, Renfrew), well... since getting together with Anna I suppose I have a bit (Chicago, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Greece twice and Turkey) but I have (luckily I guess) never had a fear of flying, rational or irrational.

In fact, if I had to pick a flight I've taken which I enjoyed the most, it was a flight to Singapore, where me and Jonesy took great interest and much fascination in being buffeted around by huge electrical storms above northern India - the best firework show I'll ever see I'm sure.

I can imagine FAR worse ways to die.
In fact I don't even have to imagine far worse ways. I've witnessed people die in a far more long-winded, humiliating, painful, frustrating, horrible, agonising way than being slammed into a mountain or the sea.

Yep - Give me maybe a moment or two of panic (or a few minutes) and a quick, inevitable end for my death.
A plane crash would probably give me at least that dignity, as well as (dare I say) a heady delirium of acquiescence, should I be so fortunate…

electrichalibut said...

Crikey. Well, yes, OK, I concede that there are worse ways to die. This doesn't sound too clever, for instance.

My point is not so much THERE IS LITERALLY NO WORSE WAY TO DIE, though, more that I'm in no particular hurry to die AT ALL at this moment. That's why I had to give up the nude hang-gliding into live volcanoes.

The Black Rabbit said...

"literally" no worse way to die?

I'm not sure you actually mean "literally", but even if you did, you meant to write "quite lidddderally" I know...

electrichalibut said...

No, I did mean LITERALLY, nay indeed KWITE LIDDERALLY. Note that there's a "not" in front of it, though. This has got to smart a bit, for instance.

The Black Rabbit said...

My fault.
Your daintily constructed sentence ("...not so much THERE IS LITERALLY NO...") scorched my tired brain cells!

Just watched your youtube link by the way - I didnt really understand what was going on there either, but I liked one of the comments under the clip....

"When a man loves a woman very much, he pulls off her clothes, grabs her nipple and rips all her skin off"

I don't know whether you've been daft enough to watch the film "The human centipede II" (the most sick film ever?!). That's also gottae be a pretty piss-poor way to die.

The Black Rabbit said...

More on a fear of flying etc...

I guess I may not have a fear of flying, but I have accidentally cultured a growing fear of heights since my mid-twenties.

I have no idea what all that is about.

They wouldn't let me parachute these days (my morbid obesity means I'd be over the weight limit I think), but even if I was allowed to jump out of a plane for charidee again - I'd almost certainly turn the opportunity down these days.

I remember huge waves of exhilaration on my jumps when I was lucky enough to experience throwing myself out of a plane. It was a quite wonderful feeling (at the time). Not any more I fear.

On honeymoon, Anna and I visited the Kelani river in Sri Lanka (where "The bridge on the river Kwai" was shot) and started to walk over a seemingly benign, rickety rope and wooden "Indiana Jones bridge" over the river.
I thought I'd be just dandy over the river, but I quickly became aware that I really didn't want to be on that bridge at all. My legs were shaking - it would have been quite funny to watch I guess, but I was in no mood to start giggling.

Maybe over the years I have become more aware of my own mortality and if that is indeed the case, I look forward to soon becoming somewhat fearful of flying also.

Hmmmm...I think I'll suggest to Anna we'll holiday in good old Blighty this year!

electrichalibut said...

In my experience there's not that much correlation between fear of flying and a general fear of heights, certainly not in my case anyway as I am in general OK with heights.

That certainly does not mean I'll be queueing up for a parachute jump any time soon, though, nor indeed bungee jumping. I'll stick with queue jumping.

electrichalibut said...

and muff diving.

The Black Rabbit said...

Talking of bungee jumping.
In the news today...

electrichalibut said...

Back when I was in Africa in 2000 a couple of Americans in our tour party did that exact bungee jump off that exact bridge. Their cords didn't snap, luckily, but they apparently reckoned that the jump itself wasn't exciting enough so they dropped some acid before doing it. One of them later spent most of the evening talking to a small wooden hippopotamus under a table in the bar we all went to.

Just say no, kids. To bungee jumping and drugs.