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Remembering September 11, 2011, Long May We Wave

This day we are threatened by nature. Yesterday, the winds of Hurricane Harvey hammered Texas, and tomorrow Irma will be slamming Florida. It is a storm we will weather. We know we will, because we have lived through worse. We must remember this, because today is September tenth. And September 11, 2011 is a date no American can forget, marked as it is by four scars that will never heal. Four hijacked airliners carved the names of nearly three thousand victims into our memories, names written in blood. Three thousand names with more than three thousand families—and that is not even adding the number of injured, the number of rescuers, all losses that destroyed the innocence of our country. We were initiated on that day into a sad new world, scarred by tragedy that turned the sky from blue to red. How could we understand what was going on? The mass murder of our people, the senseless destruction, the planes crashing, buildings burning before our eyes. I’m just an ordinary guy. When it happened, I was bewildered by it all.

On Sept 11, this day, in 2011, Flight 11 and Flight 175 hit the twin towers.

The tragedy was filmed as it happened. We were glued to our screens, helpless, terrorized, mesmerized along with the international audience, the terrible scenes of desperate people making impossible choices: die in the burning towers, or jump to the unforgiving pavement. We cried, but we did not cry alone. The world cried with us.

American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, 64 aboard the plane and 125 in the impact, all fatalities.

On Flight 93, we saw our people become heroes. We learned of Burnett, Beamer, and Bradshaw, of passengers fighting the hijackers. “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” They rolled into history as heroes. How many lives they saved by their actions—an incalculable number—and these were passengers who acted against the hijackers knowing they would lose their own.

Children of today who ride airplanes are accustomed to today’s security protocols. It must be impossible for them to believe that there was a time when we simply walked aboard. There was no threat. But these days are different. We live in a world that irrevocably changed that day. It is a day we can never forget.

We tightened our belts.
We sharpened our defenses.
And we are not alone in this. The whole world is a more vigilant place.

The twin towers were a symbol of our prosperity, a couple of the world’s greatest buildings in one of the world’s greatest cities; and though the towers stand no more, our cities and our country goes on. The Pentagon was rebuilt. A Pennsylvania park commemorates the heroes of Flight 93.

I certainly mourn those who were lost on September 11; and I feel for the families of the injured, as I believe we all do. I may mourn our loss of innocence, but I can also take pride that we stand now, scarred perhaps, but stronger because of what we have survived. We have taken measures to make our world safer, but we can never relax our vigilance. We can never such a thing to happen to us again. On the ashes of the towers, we rebuilt. Some of us are still rebuilding. On the ashes of history, we rise.

Getting Past Indifference

In George’s Point of View

When we are working on a case trying to get compensation for victims of a crash, we find that the court relies on friends and family to paint a picture of who the victim was, and how they used to fit in the world. Of course we all know that every human being is priceless; but it is the court’s duty oftentimes to put a numeric value on a person for the sake of compensation. Some courts can be remarkably indifferent to individuals. I was reminded of that truism when reading the word-pictures rendered by the boyfriend of one of the Kazan Airport Crash victims, Yana Baranova …” an incredibly focused and mature businesswoman. Her colleagues describe her as a “rising star” of their industry, and her drive would have doubtless carried her beyond her own expectations….” He barely glances over this description of her, but in his words, we do see the snapshot of a vital young woman lost in her prime.

Yana’s boyfriend is unaccustomed to dealing with the Russian bureaucracy, and refers to “indifference and a lack of surprise boarding on apathy” and officials who write off that attitude with “This is Russia.” As this young man notes, my experience too has been that Russian courts that can be apathetic.

It is true that the opposite of love is not hate; it is apathy. Elie Wiesel said that, and it is true. Apathy is the callus that has formed—like a healed blister over an injury— thickened, hardened, insensitive tissue formed over a wound to protect it. Over time, it may become expedient for an official not to stop and feel the pain, but it is a tragedy when that happens. Something of humanity is lost. When dealing with government and the courts, one has to remember that they have seen it all, not once but a hundred, a thousand times. Their souls are probably more blistered than your worst blistered feet in new shoes with no socks, worn day after day, in grueling conditions. No wonder they are calloused, insensitive, even hard. It is a grievous fact that too often robes of government, of jurisprudence, which should be worn to empower and embrace the rights of man and the rule of justice are often worn as shields and blades against the individual. For the law to work at its best, it should be objective, but never sacrifice sensitivity to the victims, or the families of the victims.

Sometimes it is up to our lawyers to remind the courts that the best and brightest of the legal profession went into the field because they were idealists who love the law; who stepped into their professions because they wanted to spearhead change for good, rights of man; who probably had specific agendas where they wanted to affect change; who believed they would be more effective than they are; who ran into barrier after barrier and who may have given up; who may have substituted apathy for the appearance of objectivity.

After consulting for forty years on a huge variety of cases, maybe I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve come pretty close. I can’t claim to have a crystal ball, but there’s not a whole lot that surprises me. I’ve developed a pretty good instinct about where and when courts go left instead of right.

In the US, our “rights-based” ethics system means that we all have the right to be treated as equal to others. Other countries may have “utilitarian ethics based on “good outcomes” vs “bad outcomes”, often with the rights of the individual getting crunched somewhere under the wheels of the system.

We can only hope to do our best to represent the individuals who were lost. We can only do our best to remind those who sit in judgement that underneath the armor and callouses we all wear to protect ourselves from being fragile in the face of all the storms of life, that we are all human, all deserving of hope, concern, and ethical treatment.

Maintenance is Key to Aviation Safety

In George’s Point of View

Inevitably into my business life flows discussion of (aviation-oriented) sequestration, the closing of traffic control towers, and how this will inevitably lead to more aviation accidents.

Yes, I agree with Harrison Ford’s comment that accidents are going to happen. But that prediction leaves a lot unsaid.

Cutbacks in other places, cutbacks in maintenance budgets, in the number and quality of inspections and maintenance personnel are going to be just as lethal.

Turn on your mind’s eye and picture the air traffic situation as you would on the ground in your car. Suspended towers are like suspended traffic lights. Picture what would happen if intersections were eliminated, forcing traffic from smaller streets to the larger intersections that are already overburdened with traffic. Into this already overburdened traffic situation, maintenance shortfalls make the problem even worse.

You have older, poorly maintained vehicles in the flow of traffic, and they’re falling apart, causing crashes and pileups. On the ground, they cause disaster. More so, falling from the sky.

Maintenance is a complicated thing, because even the perfect man-made thing is subject to the laws of physics.

The most perfect plane would decay over time even if it were not flown. So of course, even the best maintained vehicles are subject to fatigue. And not everything is maintained to “perfect” standards. Believe me, I see this first-hand, as I fly.

When the first commercial planes were built, who would have guessed planes would be required to fly for so long, so continuously and over such distances. It’s miracle enough that a machine can get people off the ground at all, much less doing it continuously for twenty years.

As fleets age, you have rivets flying all over the place when there is metal fatigue. Especially with older planes, metal fatigue will be increasingly the cause of future plane crashes. There are two choices: 1) old planes will be automatically junked (unlikely to happen in our increasingly green society) or 2) extreme comprehensive and manditory testing must be put in to place. This testing-maintenance can not be cut back.

I don’t mean put in to place after an event. I mean in place to prevent an event. To be able to get the plane in the air in the first place, most components of plane have been studied to the breaking point already. That is the kind of knowledge that must be applied to maintenance schedules. Get those parts replaced well before they become the weakest link.

MAINTENANCE is where it is. You can see the decay on the inside, on the parts that don’t matter much for flight safety. The seats on a plane break apart. Window shades won’t close. They are stuck up there somewhere, and if you try and force them, they break. (Just think of what frailties develop in crucial components that the passenger can’t see.)

The metal on a plane degrades in the same way. (Engineers have a name and formula for it: Paris-Erdogan law.) If you sit on the wing of an airliner that you know is 20+ years old—such as the plane I was on yesterday from New York—and you encounter turbulence—as we did—any passenger stuck on that plane can’t help but look in disbelief at wings that are bobbling up and down and flexing like a preschooler’s teeter totter. Here’s the question you don’t want to ask yourself at 20,000 feet: are the wings going to stay put? Are they going to flex and flex and flex like a metal clothes hanger bending till it breaks? How do wings not come off the aging plane?

I’m not accepting of the fact that crashes will happen. That’s too easy to say. It is pure negligence to accept oncoming disaster and do nothing to avert it. We can’t just let it ride. The aviation industry must remain proactive, no matter the cost.

It’s like the poor horse in Central Park. The older he is, the more maintenance he requires to keep from collapsing as he pulls the buggies and sometimes heavy bodies of those in the carriage. He needs to be fed better, to have water more often, to have a pasture to enjoy, and other horses available where he can socialize. Though the needs of a living creature differ from those of a machine, it goes without saying that both will thrive better with love and care than without.

Maintenance is key. First-class maintenance. Constant, consistent, perpetual maintenance. It is not adequate to rely on the pilot alone to do his walk around of the aircraft prior to take off. Sure, the pilot should do his visual, but his walk should be preceded by the maintenance specialist. The experts must scrutinize, inspect, examine, and put the plane through its paces.

Especially the aging plane.

American Airlines Emergency Landing in Dallas, Engine alert, Tire Pop

What: American Airlines Boeing 777 en route from Dallas to Sao Paolo, Brazil
Where: Dallas
When: July 31, 2011
Who: 264 passengers, 14 crew
Why: Indicators convinced the pilots of Flight 963 that an engine caught on fire. The pilots returned to Dallas and landed the 777 safely. The brakes locked up and a tire blew out, but that kind of thing is not unusual for an overweight landing.

Onlookers saw the flight dumping fuel, described as fuel streaming from its jets. If they were alarmed, just think how the passengers felt.

In George’s Point of View

At least they survived. For what they put the passengers through, what will the airline operator do? Will they hand out to the passengers a free drink voucher? A hundred dollar voucher for future use?
I want to know.

Never Forget

Lives have been shattered by the events I record.

I know you could drive a mid-seventies Cadillac Fleetwood through the gaps in these records, but that is partly because I generally write about an event only once, partly because my content is based on a couple of randomly gathered secondhand observations, partly because I do not follow up, and partly because I am not an expert. (I never claim to be an expert in anything but my own life experience.) How could I be? The actual investigations take years, and are based on combined expert opinions of a whole boatload of bona fide experts. I am only a bystander, a bystander of second-hand bystanders, in fact. The reporters who inform me frequently misstate, interpret or misinterpret the facts, or add little imaginary flourishes. I still do my best to get the facts out as accurately as I can.

Official final reports are the result of the combined knowledge and experience of experts (some of whom have agendas and bias) in “air traffic control, operations, meteorology, human performance, structures, systems, powerplants, maintenance records, survival factors, aircraft performance, cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder, and material factors,” interviewers, rescue observers and specialists as needed. Sometimes the reports are obfuscated by agenda, bias or politics.

I am just another pair of eyes, and untrained eyes, at that.

I never, or hardly ever, write about what happens in the seats. Ironically, this is what I write now as I sit in one of those seats myself. Picture me in the cabin of a flight to Argentina. A young family is also on this flight, with hyperactive children running up and down the aisle whenever possible. Picture an infant or two, their safety seats empty as their mothers rock them to still their tears, to the relief of the couple across the aisle, and the irritation of one of the flight attendants. Picture a couple of newlyweds off on their honeymoon, and another couple of newlyweds returning from their honeymoon. Students flying home for the holidays, others returning after. Vacationers in Hawaiianwear. Nearer to me, an assortment of business people in summer suits appropriate for Argentina in July. This accidental ensemble of humankind is engaged in various activities: thumbing through magazines, cloud gazing through the windows, watching movies, listening to music, reading, studying paperwork, connecting intimately in intense whispers (or avoiding) a seatmate, sleeping.

Just as all around me are engaged in making it through the flight, in a moment precisely like this one, other lives were interrupted. Maybe it was an instant, maybe a four minute fall. Maybe there was no time to process what was happening, or enough time to feel horrible bone-deep terror, and to endure for long moments the fight-flight reflex while belted into a seat. The detail of each event through individual eyes is simultaneously unique and identical.

I don’t write about these moments. It is too horrible to contemplate except in cases like when Chesley Burnett Sullenberger is making a miracle happen.

Out of the generous experiences of the decades of a whole, full life, families want to remember their loved ones in their entirety. They don’t want or need to be haunted by the torment of that single moment of horror, a final dark exclamation point.

So when I write about these terrible crashes, I talk about system failures, or spatial disorientation, ATC schedules, fumes, pressurization, sleepy pilots, malfunctioning radar, stick shakers or a couple hundred other possible causes I have seen frequently enough for them to become familiar even to a layman like me.
But it is not about the machine. It is about those who boarded that flight in perfect trust, expecting to disembark and fill more decades with passion and life. It is always and only about the passenger.

I don’t mention them.

But not an article is written, not a character is typed that I forget that the only matter is the passenger and the family.

The Callous Abandonment of Air France Flight 447

It’s difficult for me to comprehend why we cancelled earlier searches. I’m certain we do not have any new technology now that we didn’t already have 2 years ago. The subs used have been gradually fine-tuned, but not significantly in the past two years.

It is common knowledge now that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute team, running a couple of AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) Remus 6000’s were barely a week into the fourth search when they discovered the location of pieces of the wreckage of the fallen Airbus, flight 447 in an area thought of as an underwater “Himalayas”. Mike Purcell, Senior Engineer of the Woods Hole team, has attributed the discovery to the ability of the Remus being able to submerge to 6000 meters (which means being able to follow the underwater mountain range cliffs, ravines, and slopes); and to the decision to start close to the last known position of the plane.

I do wonder why this was the fourth search; there should have been only one— a single search that continued until the wreckage was found.

Maybe there is no correct time to be critical, and if I am critical, it is not of the search team who did a splendid, if not all but impossible job, in finding the wreckage. It is entirely the human effort that made the difference, because although the AUVs are autonomous, they are not truly intelligent. They had to be daily programmed, and with three units running, this means three times the (sonar) data had to be daily downloaded, processed and analyzed. The team learned how to deal with managing the challenging demersal topography, and reading the visual output which were sonar abstractions that look like etch-a-sketch scribbles. The expert on board analysts had 15 years of experience in interpreting this data.

For the search team, I have only praise.

My point of criticism is for the decision makers, and it is founded on behalf of concern for the families.

We are hearing how well preserved the remains were, due to the temperature and water pressure. We are hearing about how only some of the remains were retrieved.

Why only some?

All the bereaved families should have the right to retrieve their loved ones. All of the families should have the right to place their loved ones in a known and tangible resting place.

It is a chilling callousness on behalf of the planners to advise their team to knowingly leave behind even so much as a single hair, if that hair was known to be that of one of the victims. The decision betrays a chilling callousness; an act of deliberate abandonment. It reminds me of those all fallen into a “deep place…where the sun is silent”, in Dante’s hell. “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”

And now, we’re back to where we started, only worse. Many bodies were not recovered. Are they lost forever?

I can all but guarantee you that the future holds some grisly Titanic/Disney-esque treasure-seeking macarbre (or sugared) revisitation of the tragic ground, private touring expeditions seeking out the latitude and longitude, with camera, wallet, and catching net in hand. Movie rights and treasure hunters-a marriage made in hell, or Hollywood.

This is no Dante’s tale. For the bereaved families there will be no poetic justice. They will live knowing forever that their loved ones were found…came this close to being returned…and left behind, if not in the nine circles of hell, then across the oceans in that “deep place…where the sun is silent” and all hope abandoned.

Anniversary of Air France 447-Personal Consequences of Death on the Flying Brick

Elie Wiesal said “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

It is not time to despair. It is time to remember. We are remembering Air France 447, and the families whose lives have forever changed. Families left behind have to deal with carrying on.

Experts say that there are five steps (called the Kubler-Ross model) of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

After a year, or two, or three one might be able to say that families with tragedies to process have come to acceptance; but the model is not a hard truth. Those suffering grief may hopscotch between stages, or get stuck at any of them. And just as smells tend to refresh memory, so too can dates. And June 1 for Air France 447 families is one of those dates.

Maybe it is a blessing that everything changes. Maybe it is a blessing that the first moment of finding you have lost a loved one in a plane crash is not frozen in amber, to be felt always at the original intensity. It is inevitable that the depth of grief will fluctuate.

In the beginning, the deaths of those aboard the plane were shrouded in mystery. A black hole of mystery, in fact, one that swallowed up the craziest theories, from abductions, to terrorism, to aliens. The investigation marched on, to the tune of millions of dollars, and hundreds of investigators and professionals marched to that tune, working to uncover the puzzle pieces and put them together to shed light on what really happened. At least now, with the black boxes recovered, there are facts to deal with rather than crazy speculation.

But even facts will not change the reality. Those gone are still gone. At whatever stage you are experiencing it, the grief you feel is real. I have no advice for you. Anyway, advice comes across as condescending. But we all have suffered pain and grief and loss, and I can only hope for the families that you remember.

Remember the good things.

Remember mornings across your breakfast tables, the rush to begin the day, the slow times after the day is done.

Remember the moments spent together. Remember the depths as well as the peaks. Remember the places you went together, and when you revisit the places, you will revisit your loved ones.

The heart is not buried along with the victim. The heart goes on.

Notes on Air France Flight 447: Thoughts on the CVR Facts

So there you have it: the short version of the investigation’s reading of the Cockpit Voice recorder.
If you missed it, we have posted it here in this blog in it’s entirety:


If you don’t like the visual rendition, you can click at the bottom for the .pdf.

The problems seem to begin at 2 h 08 min 07; then at 2 h 10 min 05 autopilot & auto thrust disengages. The pilots note that the speeds do not agree,( which means the speeds are incorrect, and it is an indication that pitot tubes are malfunctioning. Around this time, ACARS sent a PITOT error message, which was not mentioned in the CVR summary.) The PIC (captain) re-enters at 2 h 11 min 40 and it is all downhill from there.

As far as we can tell, everything in the cockpit voice recorder still indicates that the main cause for this crash is Thales defective pitot tubes which froze over and sent incorrect data back. How could anyone make correct decisions without knowing the speed at which the plane was traveling? How would the pilots have discerned when the incoming data was faulty and which of it—if any—was correct?

Based on the pilots’ response to the stall, we can also reiterate points made at the February 24 hearing, where Justice Zimmerman pointed out a lack of training for pilots on how to respond to a catastrophic failure. Shouldn’t pilots (and not just the PIC) be trained in this procedure to the point that the correct corrective response is second nature? The time to try to figure out how to respond is not during the catastrophe, with 228 lives hanging in the balance.

There does not appear to be an emergency procedure from the manufacturer. (This was also noted in the February hearing by Justice Zimmerman.)

It appears that the plane stalled, and that could not be corrected in time to prevent the catastrophe.

So now, all eyes will turn to the DVR, which will hopefully help decode what happened mechanically in the stall.

And I do have questions about the notation, which seems to imply that even if autopilot is not online, some (background?) processes continue to be determined by digital input, which may be faulty.
When the measured speeds are below 60 kt, the measured angle of attack values are considered invalid and are not taken into account by the systems. When they are below 30 kt, the speed values themselves are considered invalid. (Or I am misreading the data and the fact of unrecoverability is due to other system factors. It does appear that the Flight Control System is unwieldy or badly conceived.)

It seems to me as a layman, that this is a fly-by-wire conundrum. If the plane is in crisis, but it is logically disregarding the correct input when it is beyond a “safe or logical” range, then how can it be corrected, if there are no manual controls? (Not to mention no emergency procedures to fall back on.)

The Airbus “No Major Malfunction” Malfunction

Rumors are multiplying. Now there is an unconfirmed rumor that the captain was absent from the cockpit at the time of the event.

In NOT a Flight of Imagination , we did not go into depth about the false-rumor buzz initially created by the French publication “Le Figaro” which is owned by Dassault Group. (i.e. vested interest.) It has already been released that an Airbus rep who is in on the AF 447 black box decoding had obtained permission to send out a telex indicating:

…no immediate action is required as a result of preliminary data from the Air France Airbus A330 accident.

Of course this is what Airbus is going to say. For all we know, they had that statement ready before they even looked at the tapes. Airbus is laying the groundwork. Don’t forget that this is a criminal case in the French court. One does not need a crystal ball to see that this is going to be very expensive for Thales and Airbus and Air France. And of course, the size of compensation payouts for the victim’s families be determined by the extent of blame of the involved parties.

From this quote, a thousand rumors sprang, based on every possible interpretation of that one statement. Although the initial Airbus statement was approved by the BEA, the interpretations were disapproved of by the BEA who followed up saying that Sensationalist publication of non-validated information, whilst the analysis of the data from the flight recorders has only just started, is a violation of the respect due to the passengers and the crew members that died and disturbs the families of the victims, who have already suffered as a result of many hyped-up stories.

The telex does not rule out pitot tube icing, currently a suspected factor in the crash. But Airbus is positioning itself already to blame dead pilots who cannot defend themselves. They want to take the court of public opinion as far as possible away from potential design flaws, manufacturing shortcuts, etc. However, this is not a wise move if they really consider it. The entire bastion of Airbus Fly By Wire theory is that they make “pilot proof” planes.

So, how in the same breath, can they say their planes are pilot-proof and that they crashed due to pilot error? According to their own hype, If the plane itself is pilot-proof, then it can not crash due to pilot error. It HAD to crash due to “other than pilot” error.

As I understand it, no matter what happens on this fly-by-wire model, if there is a problem, the pilots are shut out of being able to fix it anyway.

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