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.  Continue Reading “What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry”

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.  Continue Reading “Where is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? Here’s one theory…”

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:


Continue Reading “Google’s Project Loon”

Answering Some Common Questions About Flying

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:

Continue Reading “Answering Some Common Questions About Flying”

Boeing 777 Crash Lands at San Francisco Airport Killing 2

Boeing 777 Crash Lands at SFO
Boeing 777 Crash Lands at SFO

On Saturday morning Asiana Airlines flight 214, flying from Seoul-Incheon in South Korea, crash landed killing two passengers. This marks the first fatal Boeing 777 crash in its 20 years in service.

Eyewitnesses say the aircraft was low on approach and had a very nose-high attitude right before the tail struck the sea wall at the end of runway 28-Left (28L). The tail section sheared off along with at least one strut from the main landing gear, which is visible in the pictures from the beach.

Similarities to British Airways flight 38

Immediately this resembles the British Airways flight 38 crash landing where a similar Boeing 777 crashed at the end of the runway at Heathrow, however there are several factors that suggest the causes here are different.

The BA038 incident occurred after the aircraft had flown through some unusually cold air causing water in the fuel to turn to ice. As the aircraft approached Heathrow, the relatively warmer temperatures closer to sea level caused some of the ice to be released into the fuel pipes. This ice hit a system known as the fuel-oil-heat-exchanger (FOHE for short) and solidified. This caused a dramatic reduction in fuel flow to the engines and a lack of thrust. The rest is history – the aircraft hit the ground with so little forward momentum that it stopped almost immediately but hard enough to drive the landing gear through the wings. That’s how they are designed – you want your landing gear to fail before the wing fails! BA038 bellied onto the end of the runway and everyone escaped unharmed (except for some minor injuries picked up by sliding down the escape slides).

But this appears to be a totally different problem for one critical reason: the engines on the Asiana Airlines, and associated fuel systems, are different. The FOHE issues that hit the BA flight are specific to the Rolls Royce Trent 800 while the Asiana is equipped with Pratt and Whitney PW4090 powerplants.

Initial Speculation and Conjecture

Personally, I think it’s fairly obvious what has happened here. But I may be wrong.

The key factors to bear in mind are:

  • The reports that the aircraft was very low on approach
  • Eyewitnesses saying the aircraft had a very nose-high attitude before the accident
  • Understanding the override-able nature of the flight-envelope protection on the Boeing 777 (compared to Airbus’s envelope protection philosphy)
  • The reports of a tailstrike
  • The visible damage to the underside of the aircraft, and the collapsed/missing landing gear

These items indicate, to me, a “low energy state” at the latter stages of the approach. What pilots call “low and slow”. Low energy states in aircraft can result in aerodynamic stalls, especially when performing manoeuvres such as turns.   Continue Reading “Boeing 777 Crash Lands at San Francisco Airport Killing 2”

Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit

Fly, Bessie, Fly!!!

It can often be disconcerting for new people who meet me when they realise I’m a massive, anorak-wearing aviation geek. But aviation is something that unites us all. We all board those giant metal tubes with wings with a sense of excited trepidation. We all know the joys of miniature packets of peanuts and/or pretzels. We all hold our breaths as we barrel down the runway at 180mph before escaping the bonds of our mother planet to spend hours suspended at 39,000ft by nothing more than hope and complex equations. And we’ve all felt that interminable wait while a loved one blasts through the troposphere to distant climes praying for that text message to come in saying they “got down safely”. Flying is great and amazing and awesome. So, if you feel the same way, here is the Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit…


FlightRadar24: LIVE Flight Tracking

The two sites I use for flight tracking are FlightRadar24.com and FlightAware.com. They each take a slightly different tack to flight tracking.

FlightRadar24 uses a visually-engaging embedded Google Map with aircraft icons floating over it. This information is live and is provided by a digital signal broadcast by (most) modern aircraft called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (or ADS-B for short). This signal can be picked up by ground-based receivers connected to the Internet and contains information about an aircraft’s location, heading, altitude, callsign, airframe registration, etc.



The data is provided by amateur enthusiasts (and a few commercial ones too) but anyone can buy an ADS-B receiver and plug it into the FlightRadar24 system. In fact, FR24 are keen to get greater coverage so are offering free receiver equipment to anyone living in certain areas of the globe. More information on that here.

Some aircraft don’t have ADS-B on-board. In particular, I’ve noticed that FlyBe don’t operate the equipment.

The reason ADS-B came about is to stop Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) from having to rely solely on their ground-based radars. Radar (or RADAR to use its proper name because it’s an acronym, for RAdio Detection And Ranging) is affected by things like weather, distance and electrical faults. So some smart alec decided if you’ve got a $150m flying computer cruising around the atmosphere, why not get it to tell you where it is?

Where FlightRadar24’s coverage stops, I switch over to FlightAware.comContinue Reading “Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit”

American Airlines’ New Livery


Today, after months of speculation and guesswork, the world finally got to see American Airlines’ new livery. Doing away with the bare-metal, full-length stripes and the “AA” with an eagle in the middle, the new paint scheme will work on the new all-composite aircraft coming out of Boeing and Airbus, which simply don’t allow for that “bare metal” look. (They’re not metal for a start!) The new livery is getting a mixed reaction, some love the new, modern style, while others think it is sacrilege to play around with such an iconic brand. The last time American got a new look was back in 1968, so this is an historic day in aviation. Its timing is telling of just how the company wants to leave its old image behind as it claws its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The new Logo

Also joining the new livery is a new logo for the brand:


Retaining the eagle, although in a very stylised form, the logo is a lot more contemporary than its predecessor. However, its abstract design could make it less impactful. Some commenters are saying it looks too much like other logos, such as the one Air France recently adopted:

Continue Reading “American Airlines’ New Livery”

FlightLevel390 has Vanished! Hello, Dave?

Not Captain Dave.

Have you seen him? He’s vanished off the interwebz! The mysterious, greying Captain, fond of Japanese superbikes and perfect landings, only known as “Dave” has removed his blog, “flightlevel390”. And I’m not the only one who is missing this paragon of aviation blogging awesomeness…

In fact, you don’t have to look very far to find a plethora of people calling out for the venerable flyboy:


The Disappearance of FlightLevel390 – The Greatest Mystery Since ‘Who Shot Mr Burns’?

This is turning out to be a big Internet mystery – and there aren’t too many of those around these days.

To avid fans of the blog, Dave dropped enough hints to let us know he flew for Phoenix, Arizona-based US Airways. He was also type rated and current on the Airbus A32x family (A319, A320, A321). So when Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III decided to land his US Airways A320 on a particularly wet runway in New York in January 2009, many of us faithful readers suspected our beloved Cap’n might have been at the controls.

Continue Reading “FlightLevel390 has Vanished! Hello, Dave?”