They Mean It


I fly a lot. Back in the 90s, I flew nearly a million miles in one year (mostly round-trips to Singapore and Japan). Some of the flights I’ve been on nearly ended badly – there was a landing in Orlando where the plane jerked to the side violently in a cross-wind and it looked like the wing was going to hit the ground. Then, there was a landing in Pittsburgh where a tire blew on one side, and things got bumpy.

The legendary landing at Kai Tak airport (1997) really deserved its reputation; I think I nearly peed myself. And then there was the landing at John Wayne Airport (Orange County) where the pilot warned us all “this is the shortest runway in commercial use for jets of this size and we have to really stamp on the brakes when we come in. So hold on.” I could feel my eyeballs trying to escape their sockets and slam into the seat-back in front of me, he stopped so hard – and, when we turned to taxii off the runway we could all see that the plane stopped about 100 feet from the grass.

The most memorable was the time I was coming in to Worcester, Mass on my way to a meeting in Maynard, in a puddle-jumper. They had come through with the drink service and we hit an ‘air pocket’ and suddenly we were dropping like a stone; slight negative gees for several seconds. I was in the back of the plane (the 5-across bench) with some other nerdy types, and we all stared as the beer rose, fizzing oddly, and floated out of the cup that the guy in the middle seat was holding – all our mouths were open in surprise. Then the plane stopped dropping and the beer slammed into the guy’s lap and we were all soaked. Without missing a beat, one of the other passengers said, “you shouldn’t drink if you can’t hold your beer.”

Apparently the first rule of Vomit Comet Club is you call it a “reduced gravity flight.”

I told that story to a friend of mine who now flies for United, and his comment was: “you don’t want to know how far and fast you dropped for that to happen.” I still don’t.

And, that’s why I always wear my seatbelt when I am on an airplane. Sometimes I see people standing around in the aisles or wandering about, and all I can think is “if something goes wrong, that lady will be a projectile.” It’s one thing to get hit by a fellow passenger’s beer – having them collide with the back of your head is nothing like funny. I used to work with an executive who had been on a Concorde flight from London to New York, and they had just served the lunch (white tablecloths and whatnot, Concordes were 100% first class) one of their engines blipped and they dropped down through the sound barrier. All the food and one of the food service trolleys and the stewardess wound up against the bulkhead; fortunately nobody was injured but everyone was a mess.

I mention all of that because of some news today: [wp]

An American Airlines flight lurched violently over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, sending drinks and people flying – and putting 10 in the hospital after landing in Philadelphia.

I once asked my friend the pilot, seriously, if the wings ever come off. He said, “no, they’re really tough – after all, they can hold the entire weight of the aircraft.” I thought that was a great way of explaining it. Whenever I am in turbulence now I put the window blind down so I don’t stare at the wing-tip waiting for it to peel apart.

But the shaking got worse. Ehmke saw drinks spilling and sensed a faint panic in the aisles. Still, he wasn’t worried.

Then, suddenly, what he calls “the lurch.”

He would later tell NBC News that everything in his field of vision shot up four feet in the air, and he would tell WPVI that “it felt like the whole plane was in free fall.”

Other passengers would later report screaming and babies crying. Ehmke didn’t recall that but can relive the surreal experience of beverages suddenly being severed from gravity.

“The liquid catches your eye,” he told The Post. “I saw all the drinks fly up at once.”

“Everything in his field of vision shot up four feet in the air.” That can be a stunning impact. Especially if a drink cart smacks into you. Or your son lands on you:

But in the row behind him, Ehmke said, a man had flown up from his seat, hit the ceiling and landed on his father — hard.

Approaching Kai Tak [on landing in Kai Tak] “avoid checkerboard hill”

Anyway, I’d just like to amplify why they say “when you’re in your seat, please keep your seat-belt fastened loosely at all times.” And now you know why I like to sit at the rear of the plane. The idea of some unknown something screaming up from behind me and whacking me in the back of the head is just to much like riding horses for my taste.

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It is an amazing feat of safety engineering that commercial aviation has become so safe. Whenever I think about this topic, I realize that I was flying in the late 60s – planes weren’t quite as good, then, as they are now. But I had no idea to be scared, so I was just nauseous instead.

Another time, we were taking off out of Bakersfield heading to Denver, when there as a loud “BANG” in the back of the plane (on the other side from where I was sitting) and the back of the cabin began to fill with a dense white smoke. From the smell I realized pretty quickly that it was air conditioning refrigerant, and, while the cabin crew were yelling to the pilot, I got calm because at least it wasn’t fire. (I had heard of Air Canada flight 797) [Don’t read this if you fly]  The amazing part was that the pilot must have been a combat pilot in Vietnam, or something, because he yanked the plane up hard, banked it over, and brought us right back in to the airport and landed – very quickly. Maybe 120 seconds, total. By the time we were down and taxiing, the copilot had probably figured out what was going on from the control panel, so we didn’t emergency evacuate the plane. Everyone cheered for the pilot, then fell to complaining like crazy because of the delay while they obtained and replaced the conditioner coils. I had places to be and things to do so I rented a car and drove myself and 3 other passengers to LAX.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The rear of the plane experiences turbulence more than anywhere else; the cockpit secondmostly.

    If you want minimum shakeage, get window seats.

  2. says

    colinday@#1:
    So driving from Bakersfield to LAX is safer than flying?

    Not if I’m behind the wheel! It’s faster than waiting 16hr for a plane to be repaired, though.

  3. Johnny Vector says

    The following is third-hand, but from reliable sources, so probably mostly true.

    For Hubble’s Servicing Mission 4, we built a new all-composite carrier for the Space Shuttle. Lighter and stronger, but you can’t just go bolting things together or the bolts just tear out. You have to glue the parts together with appropriate interface structures. As part of the diligence in checking that we had done it right, a few people (sadly, not including me) went to Boeing to watch them testing the composite wing and fuselage of the 787 for flight certification.

    The first attempt at this test had been a failure. (If you fly, you will want to read this.) These were qualification tests, in which the requirement is to bend the wing until it breaks, then use that to verify the number of g’s the plane can withstand. The first attempt failed because they couldn’t break the wing. They had to build an entirely new test fixture to apply enough force over enough distance to complete the test. Despite being substantially stiffer than an aluminum wing and frame (you can feel it while taxiing), the composite material bends farther before it fails.

    Eventually all airliners will be composite, but for now I feel safest in a 787. Plus it has some fancy turbulence-cancelling algorithm that works pretty well. Not sure how much it would do against drinks-on-the-ceiling events, but it does reduce light to moderate turbulence. It also pushes the motion up above 1 Hz, which is a frequency range that tends not to induce motion sickness. I think Boeing (or maybe it was United) claimed an 8x reduction in puke by flying 787s.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    If you want minimum shakeage, get window seats.

    Right at the fulcrum, makes sense. But then I’d spend the whole flight staring at the wing-tip waiting for the wing to come off, see?

  5. says

    Your idea of a puddle jumper and mine vary greatly. In my experience, puddle jumpers don’t come with drinks service, or any other kind of service.

  6. Johnny Vector says

    Also, if you haven’t heard Eric the Pilot by Henry Rollins, I recommend it highly.

  7. Johnny Vector says

    Caine @ 6:

    Yeah, sounds like he’s talking about a Dash-8 series 100. To me, a puddle jumper is more like the 12-passenger Beechcraft that Cape Air flies. Or what Frontier used to fly between Phoenix and Flagstaff, say. I still remember going to “Gate 1” in Phoenix, and it was an honest-to-goodness gate, in a chain link fence. But we got a nice aerial tour of Oak Creek Canyon on the way up North, so that was nice. Plus, some lucky soul gets to fly shotgun!

  8. says

    Johnny Vector@#4:
    That’s amazing!
    I know that Rutan’s scaled composites team were doing some amazing stuff with aramid composites even as long ago as the 80s. Their Project Ares was the original “bulletproof” airplane.

    On the “if you fly you will want to read this” front – do not read Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents on a plane.

  9. says

    Johnny Vector@#7:
    Also, if you haven’t heard Eric the Pilot by Henry Rollins, I recommend it highly.

    Flying in a canoe piloted by a guy who’s in a cover band? Yeah. That was a favorite of mine for years.

  10. Raucous Indignation says

    12 seats?? Ha! I’ve flown in things as small as a minivan. And not much faster. They were traveling between islands in the Caribbean. First time I flew in one, the pilot moved the passengers around to balance out our weight. Their were four of us. Four. Fairly certain we never attained highway speed in that one.

  11. says

    Johnny Vector:

    To me, a puddle jumper is more like the 12-passenger Beechcraft that Cape Air flies.

    Yep. The last one I was on was a whole 16 seats, I think, Bismarck to Denver. The pilots had a curtain separating them from us. Hee, the gates at the Bismarck airport are chain link. It’s a small operation.

  12. AndrewD says

    As the joke has it: I sit at the back of airplanes, it’s safer-planes rarely back into mountains

  13. Dunc says

    Worst turbulence I ever experienced was in a little unpressurised thing about the size of bus, flying up from Edinburgh (Scotland) to Kirkwall in the Orkney islands… Going up over the Cairngorms at about 5000 feet (ASL – given that Cairn Gorm itself is 4084 ft, we didn’t have a lot of clearance) a rotor wind blowing up off the mountains hit us, and my breakfast tray lifted off and cleared the aisle before landing upside-down in the lap of the guy in the next seat.

    I wasn’t too bothered about losing the breakfast – somehow I wasn’t’ really in the mood any more.

    And now you know why I like to sit at the rear of the plane.

    You know what pilots call the first class section? “The crumple zone”.

    The amazing part was that the pilot must have been a combat pilot in Vietnam, or something, because he yanked the plane up hard, banked it over, and brought us right back in to the airport and landed – very quickly. Maybe 120 seconds, total.

    Standard procedure for an engine failure on take-off. They practice the hell out of that one.

  14. EigenSprocketUK says

    Dunc, does that mean circling the runway and landing in the same orientation? (vs turning so hard you land downwind and use runway in reverse?)

  15. Dunc says

    It’s always preferred to land in the same direction as take-off, and it’s extremely difficult to turn even a small aircraft tightly enough to be able to land in reverse, so you pretty much always have to go-around, AFAIK. (I am not a pilot, but I used to do a lot of flight-simming.)

  16. komarov says

    We’ll see a lot more reports about dangerous turbulence in the future. Apparently one of the less-often mentioned effects of global warming is more turbulence, and worse turbulence. So there are very good reasons to stay put in your seat during a flight, beside being stuck in a thin metal tube moving through the air at high velocity, where there is nowhere to go anyway. I’m baffled why people wouldn’t wear their seat bealt, anyhow. They rarely get in the way and it’s no different than a car, where most people seem to accept that sudden acceleration in unexpected directions may turn out badly without one.

    I told that story to a friend of mine who now flies for United, and his comment was: “you don’t want to know how far and fast you dropped for that to happen.” I still don’t.

    Weeeeell, in principle you have to be in freefall, so that’s roughly 9.81 m/s^2 acceleration. However, for unfixed items such as drinks to naturally tend to float upwards you’d have to accelerate downwards a little faster – I’m guessing the plane goes nose-down during the event, giving you that little bit extra. If we assume a modest acceleration of 11 m/s^2 downwards that would still result in altitude drop of 550m in just the first ten seconds, or 2200m in twenty, which is around a fifth of normal cruising altitude for passenger jets. You’re welcome. (All numbers based on dusty memory and google)

    And now you know why I like to sit at the rear of the plane. The idea of some unknown something screaming up from behind me and whacking me in the back of the head is just to much like riding horses for my taste.

    Yes, I can definitely see the advantages:
    – whatever smushes you will be the last thing you’ll ever see*
    – there’ll be a nice, unyielding bulkhead behind you to smush against

    My solution would be to turn each passenger seat into a self-contained, sealed unit that can be jettisoned in case of emergency. I’ll concede that this may not be entirely practical but there you are. (Patent pending.)

    *The bliss of an unexpected death is not for everybody.

  17. jazzlet says

    When I worked in Road Safety, which was before wearing rear seat belts became compulsory in the UK, we used the incident of the acident two retired couples on holiday together had to push home the importance of being belted up in the back. The husbands in the front wore their seatbelts, the wives in the back did not and when the car crashed each broke her husband’s neck on the way through the car before exiting the windsceen. The wives both survived knowing they had killed their husbands. obviously the forces involved were not as great, but yes belt up and stay belted up, not just for your own sake, but for that of your fellow passengers too.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Holms @ # 17 – Yup, I came here looking to make that correction, but you nailed me first!

    Funny how our esteemed host @ # 5 got my meaning but missed my error.

  19. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#21:
    Funny how our esteemed host @ # 5 got my meaning but missed my error.

    Interesting!! I read it and my brain immediately patched it up because I understood the physics and worked backwards – it was entirely subliminal. Your error was completely invisible to me.

    And good timing! I have a posting dropping soon about how our brains do inline edits on language… Is there a term for that, I now wonder?

  20. says

    I did a lot of Kai Tak in the early 80’s. I was always looking for laundry on the wing tips after the steep bank over the rooftops just before the sudden drop.
    You had to be there……
    My worst flight experience was NOT flying. I had a seat on a plane from Manilla the day Aquino was assassinated. Took me five days to finally get out with all the monied locals buying up us poor white folk’s reservations so they could escape.
    Ah, the good ole days.
    David

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