What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry


The “fly” button is third from the left on the second row. The “land” button is cunningly hidden behind a removable panel in the rear lavatory. The rest control the in-flight-movie.

The aviation industry is one plagued with red tape and strict process, and not without good reason. With more than half of all plane crashes caused by pilot error, and the flying public unwilling to fly without pilots in the pointy end, aviation authorities are doing everything they can to turn the cockpit into a robotic, process-driven office.

Believe it or not, the problems that pilots face, and which cause aviation disasters, are often the same issues we face every day at the office. So the ways these have been solved and mitigated are worth a look, whether you’re flying a plane, or flying a desk…

Don’t distract me when I’m busy

Take-offs and landings are extremely busy times for pilots. Besides being the cool, calm head there to deal with emergencies when they happen, take-offs and landings are where they really earn their money.

Under 10,000-feet, airline pilots must obey a concept known as the “sterile cockpit”; that means they aren’t allowed to discuss anything except the job at hand. Checklists, departure or arrival routes, weather and radio communication with air traffic control, that’s all, nothing extraneous.

And you can tell when you’ve climbed to 10,000ft even as a passenger, it is usually signified by the pilots turning off the landing lights (the bright white lights in the wing roots) and turning off the fasten-safety-belt lights (as weather permits).

Applying this to the office: We all have busy times, I’ve seen several ways of signifying  that you don’t want to be disturbed and just want to get things done. Sometimes small flagpoles on desks can be have status flags hoisted up them, “do not disturb” or “only disturb me if it’s urgent”, for example. Other companies have employed simpler policies, business intelligence (BI) experts BusinessObjects, now part of German megacorp, SAP, uses headphones to indicate disturbability (a word I just made up). No headphones means the door is open. One headphone in means it needs to be pretty important. Both headphones means my head is down and the building had better be on fire…

Be specific when you tell me something

The language used by airline pilots has evolved over decades to become very strict and specific, and not without good reason. The deadliest aircraft accident in history (besides 9/11), where two fully-laden 747 collided on Tenerife’s Los Rodeos airport’s runway in fog in March 1977, has been put down to a misunderstanding of terminology.

Waiting to depart at one end of the runway, a KLM 747’s impatient Captain said on the radio that he was “ready for takeoff”. Meanwhile, a Pan Am 747 was still taxiing on the runway.  Read more

Bad Company: Plusnet

Incompetence-Incompetence-Everywhere“Hello, Mr. Stokoe, I’m afraid I have an apology to make – we spoke on Tuesday night but I forgot to save the comments onto your account, can you remind me what we were discussing?” said Mike from painfully incompetent ISP, Plusnet, a subsidiary of BT.


18 Months Earlier…

The adverts were full of it, Sky Unlimited broadband for as little as a fiver a month – so long as you had a Sky TV subscription – which we did. I gave Plusnet a call – reluctantly – I’ve been a Plusnet customer since 2001, I’ve had numerous home and business broadband connections through them and their service has been mostly good. I stayed with them through that nasty business of them giving their customer details to ACS:Law, the law firm whose owner was convicted three times of “conduct unbefitting a solicitor”, who has since been suspended from practising law and is now bankrupt. But on this occasion they just couldn’t compete with Sky’s unlimited package…

“We’ll match it,” Plusnet said. Oh, right, marvellous. “It saves you having to transfer everything over to Sky.”


Contractual Law

Many years ago I used to work for Orange Telecommunications PLC, at the time the UK’s 3rd largest mobile network, and this taught me lots of things about how organisations whose livelihood is build around monthly contracts operate. For example, everything is itemised on your account – from your line rental to your handset insurance, and everything has an ‘end date’. Perpetual items, such as your line rental, simply have an end date that is so far in the future that it unlikely to bother anyone alive today. But it’s there, sitting, ticking away waiting to expire.

And discounts have end dates too – especially those from the Disconnections department (“Retentions” as it was known when I worked there, but I think it’s now “Customer Options”). If you want to leave a phone network and they give you a great deal to stay then that deal will likely last for the length of your new contracted months and then drop off your account without warning.

It is a system that I am au fait with and I did not want to be stung by. To be fair to Orange, this is how practically all networks operate (or at least they did in the mid 2000s).


Plusnet “Unlimited”

I’m a very busy person, I work upwards of 60 hours per week (sometimes a lot more) and I don’t have time micromanage my utilities, so if this discount was simply going to fall off my account and double the cost of my broadband in 12 months it wouldn’t make sense – and I’d just go with Sky broadband instead and save myself the headache (and expense) in 12 months.

But no, they reassured me: this is a Retentions plan, it’s only available to “loyal customers like you”. I was further reassured that it was not going to drop off after 12 months, but the Retentions agent would put my name in “the diary” to call me in 12 months anyhow to discuss the package and see if there was anything else he could do.

Naturally, I signed up. Read more

Where is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? Here’s one theory…


Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was operated by this Boeing 777-200ER, reg 9M-MRO

I know as soon as I post this the wreckage will be found and I’ll look like a mug, but I had a theory bubble to the top of my brain which might explain where Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is, and why it disappeared.

The Facts

So we know the following:

  • The aircraft took off at 00:41 Malaysian Standard Time (MST) on 8th March, which is 16:41 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
  • The Subang Air Traffic Control Centre lost contact with the aircraft around 01:22 local time.
  • The aircraft hasn’t been heard from or seen since.
  • No mayday call went out. 
  • Both ADS-B and secondary radar returns stopped at the same time.
  • Primary radar returns from a nearby military radar station reportedly shows the aircraft turning back for land before vanishing.

Theories in the bin

The Boeing 777 is a aircraft with a remarkable safety record. A technical failure is highly unlikely to have happened because the 777 has multiple, redundant systems. A fuel-tank explosion like that of TWA800 is now impossible due to a process of “inerting” where nitrogen is pumped into the empty space left behind when fuel is used up – meaning you can’t get enough of an “air-fuel vapour” to reach flashpoint.

A missile strike would have caused a primary radar return, and also a flash in the sky. The US National Reconnaissance Office admitted it has full-globe capabilities for watching for flashes – typically used to identify the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles. They say they didn’t record any flash.

The aircraft didn’t fly into a thunderstorm, in fact the weather in the area was relatively calm.  Read more

Google’s Project Loon

Google Project Loon. Probably not evil. Probably.

Google Project Loon. Probably not evil. Probably.

Google are doing a lot of “10X innovation” right now. That is innovation that isn’t just incrementally better than the competition (like a 10% improvement) but a moon-shot, 10-times improvement. One of these initiatives is called Project Loon:

You can sometimes see these balloons being tested off the coast of Christchurch, New Zealand, on FlightRadar, which means these craft are equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) systems:


Read more

Answering Some Common Questions About Flying

Added to Aviation by on

That’s what you want in a pilot. Someone trustworthy-looking.

Flying is such a common occurrence these days that it’s almost a non-event. We’re pre-programmed to sit upright on take-off and landing, keep our arm-rests down, seatbelts on, but why? Time and time again, everyone asks the same questions about flying.

It’s a sad fact that most of the procedures we go through, and the weird rituals we must follow on board an aircraft, are in direct response to fatal accidents that have happened. So in this article I hope to dispel some myths and explain exactly why it’s important to follow the instructions given by your flight attendants (FAs).

It might just save your life.

Why does my window shade need to be up on take-off and landing?

This is the question I get asked most often and there are many assumptions, commonly: it’s so accident investigators can see the bodies in the plane if there’s a crash.

Not true, in fact, quite the reverse. Take-off and landing are historically the two most dangerous phases of flight, statistics back this up comprehensively. So if you’re going to be in a plane crash that’s when it’s most likely to happen. But most aviation accidents are survivable, in fact most are as much of a non-event as the flight in the first place.

One of the most terrifying things to occur on an aircraft is a fire. Whether that is a galley fire or an engine bursting into flames, it’s not a comforting experience. You’re on a craft filled with potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds of Jet-A and the lowest number of exits the manufacturer and airline could get away with (doors are relatively heavy increasing fuel consumption, and you can’t sell Sprite and peanuts to emergency exits…). So with that in mind, if you have a crash, you’ll really want to know where the big pools of flaming jet fuel are so you can leave the big metal bird from the exits on the other side.

Air France 358 overshot the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in Canada on 2nd August 2005, it slid into a creek at the end of the runway and burst into flames. The aircraft, or “equipment”, was an Airbus A340-313X and there were 309 people on board. This is the result:

Read more

Swatch Internet Time on Your Desktop

Geekery and Santaness. You're welcome.

Geekery and Santaness. You’re welcome.

I’ve spoken before about Swatch Internet Time as an option for solving the horrible problems of cross-timezone collaboration. But nobody is adopting it.

There are good reasons for this: it’s not overly difficult to work out timezone differences, there are more intuitive alternatives such as using Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), and ultimately nobody is betting the farm on an esoteric way of telling the time.

Until now.


God loves a trier

As the first in a series of utilities to incorporate Swatch Internet Time as a first-class timing component, my gift to you at this celebratory time of year, dear reader, is a Swatch Internet Time clock for your desktop.

You can download it by clicking here.

As an additional gift, I will be releasing the source code onto Github this week.

Happy holidays!


Update 1

Added drag and drop. Saves window position on drop.


Update 2

The gifts keep on coming. The source code is now available at https://github.com/richstokoe/InternetTime


How to Take a Good Photo

Christmas is almost upon us and pretty soon the flood of pictures of Uncle Bob in his reindeer jumper will reach its peak. Photography is a very simple thing, you just point and click, right? And with the proliferation of camera-equipped smartphones and other devices you’d have thought that learning how to take a good photo would solve itself, but it really hasn’t. There are some easy rules about photography which nobody seems to know, so here’s how you take a good photograph…


The portrait

Most people make the mistake of putting the auto-focus square (which appears in the middle of the screen on digital cameras and smartphones to show where the device is trying to focus) on the person’s face that you’re trying to capture.


A few years ago I loaned a camera from a professional videographer for a project I was working on. I asked for some tips and tricks of the trade and he said something incredibly profound and technical, which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “if you’re taking a picture of a person, make sure their eyes are in the top third of the viewfinder.” And that changed everything.

It’s weird at first, because it feels like you’re taking a picture of someone’s chin, neck or cleavage. But the difference is clear:




(Apologies for inflicting Jeremy Clarkson’s fizzog on the interwebs.)

You’ll struggle to find a professional picture that doesn’t follow this simple rule. Just search Google images to see. And if you have an auto-focussing camera (like most smartphones have on them), you can choose to focus on the face by tapping the screen! Amazing how many people don’t know that.


Read more

Natural Disaster Magnet

Hurricane Irene heads for New York

Hurricane Irene heads for New York

I’m no dare devil, in fact, I’m pretty risk averse, and yet I’ve managed to be in the wrong place at the right time to experience some of nature’s most destructive forces first-hand. I’m a natural disaster magnet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not your average storm-chaser. I don’t have a souped up pick up truck, I don’t live in Tornado Alley, and I don’t look like Helen Hunt. In fact, I don’t chase storms – they chase me. Oh, and earthquakes do too.


15th October, 1987

In the UK we don’t worry too much about hurricanes. That’s something we allow the people of the tropics to stress about. We like our overcast skies, summer snow, winter heat-waves, and Autumns which fall sometime between August and July. Sure, we get strong winds sometimes, but that’s rare. So, in October 1987, when the southern coast of the UK started to get battered by very strong winds, famous British weatherman, Michael Fish, put all our minds at ease:



Phew! However, my family and I weren’t in the UK at the time. We were just finishing up a nice holiday in Majorca. And we were about to fly back home. That night. Yikes.

We were the last aircraft allowed through the airspace between France and the UK before it closed for safety reasons. Fortunately, I was only 3 years old at the time and managed to sleep through the entire flight. My mum and dad, meanwhile, were unable to sleep – mostly due to the terrifying lurching, shaking and dropping of the aircraft.

But that was my first meeting with the infinite power of the hurricane.  Read more

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