I won’t speculate about the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8. For the sake of the families I hope there is a resolution soon. What I do know is that MH370 will re-write the book on air traffic control, tracking airplanes and possibly piloting airplanes. Aviation as we know it, typically 2 pilots, physically inside an airplane, using mostly voice communications to an air traffic controller, will be history one day. MH370 will likely make that demise come sooner rather than later.
Outside looking in, it must be baffling to the general public that a large airliner can just disappear off the face of the planet, especially in today’s wired world where we can reach just about anybody anytime at the touch of a touchscreen. In reality, airplanes over oceans and in remote areas can easily disappear because there is no continuous, real-time tracking in most remote or oceanic areas (the North Atlantic being the exception). There is no civilian radar beyond a couple hundred miles off shore so air traffic controllers rely on periodic position reports, either by voice communication or satellite data link. Position reports are made at pre-determined points such as every 10 degrees of longitude, every hour, or at specified navigation fixes. If a plane for some reason deviates or changes course, nobody on the ground would know until the pilots or the airplane’s data link reported the new course. Many sophisticated military surveillance systems exist around the world but those are looking for threats, not tracking any and every civilian airplane.
There are many systems to make sure pilots and controllers can stay in touch at all times: VHF and HF radio, SELCAL, data links, radar, and various emergency systems. However, in today’s aircraft most of these systems depend to some extent on the pilot’s interaction with them.
Certain accidents in the history of aviation were a catalyst for industry-wide changes: the crash of ValuJet 592 led the FAA to overhaul how it certifies new airlines, Air Florida flight 90 led to more stringent de-icing procedures and a new emphasis on CRM (cockpit resource management). More recently the crash of Colgan Air 3407 compelled the FAA to change experience and certification requirements for airline pilots.
I’m sure the Malasia Airlines MH370 tragedy will have a similar if not greater impact on aviation. MH370 will greatly accelerate the implementation of real-time satellite data links, implementation of communication and navigation systems that are independent of pilot action, and possibly in the future remotely piloted aircraft. If you look at the military use of drones, airline pilots could soon be sitting in a secure ground location, “flying” their airplanes through remote data entry and monitoring – with automation or supervisors overriding any problematic inputs. Autopilots have long been able to do the physical work anyway.
I imagine most of us would be reluctant to fly in the back of a remotely-controlled airliner, those pilots in their sharp uniforms smiling at the gate always gave us that confidence, that they would be there if all else failed. Now we may not be so sure. If MH370 in the end proves that the pilots can be compromised, may willfully cause a tragedy, or can be overtaken even in the post 9-11 era, pilots may soon go the way of telegraph operators – replaced by technology.
I know the counter-argument would be that technology can be compromised as well. If a datalink to a remotely controlled airliner was compromised we’d have the same problem. However, that has never happened yet. On the other hand hijackings have happened and pilot suicides are largely believed to have caused the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 and SilkAir flight 185. If there is a knee-jerk reaction we only make it by looking back, not looking forward.
None of this are new ideas. I submit that the greatest obstacle has not been cost or technological challenge but rather a psychological reluctance on our part. A reluctance that may be about to change.
Groundspeed, that is. Between the Independence factory and Shreveport Louisiana, during the airplane’s very first flight after delivery, we saw groundspeeds over 180kts. I don’t remember the actual top speed I saw on that flight but I remember 182kts and 188kts. I’m not sure but it seems to me either 188kts or 192kts was the top groundspeed during the flight. If you’re not a pilot or not familiar with the Cessna 172, the airplane’s typical cruise speed is about 125kts (~140mph).
The flight was our first leg on a delivery from the factory to South America, middle of winter a couple of years ago. We departed the factory a day after a storm system moved through and our route of flight to Shreveport was directly along the direction of the winds on the back side of the storm. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the winds circle the low pressure system in a counter-clockwise manner. Not very often do you see winds that strong (in excess of 50kts) at the altitudes a C172 flies and usually when the winds are that strong at 10,000 feet the weather would be too bad to fly in. In this case the storm was well ahead of us, we barely hit a few thin layers of clouds and had VFR with reasonable winds at the surface.
After we got to Lima a few days later I scrolled through the history on the G1000 and saw the top recorded groundspeed. I was in a hurry to get back home but I should have thought to stop and take a picture of the display. At any rate it struck me how this airplane – given the life expectancy of your typical C172 – may fly the world over for the next 40+ years and possibly never see groundspeeds in that magnitude again. Never come close to the speed it reached on its very first flight out of the factory. No matter how many C172s I may or may not fly again in the future, I doubt that I’ll ever see groundspeeds that high in a C172 again.
I’m a very lucky guy in many ways. I have my family, my health, a good career. I’ve been very blessed.
One unusual way that I’ve been blessed is that coming up on middle-age – OK, if you ask my wife I’m already there – I now have the best eyesight that I have ever had. I look at things like mountains in the distance and marvel at the detail that I see. Without glasses I see much better than I ever did when I used glasses. And I didn’t have eye surgery either, my eyes just got better.
I never used glasses as a kid but I sort of knew that my eye sight was a bit less than that of other kids. When I got my first medical I got the dreaded “holder shall wear correcting lenses” limitation and my first pair of eye glasses. Over the years I changed my prescription once and got another set of glasses. I always got the self-tinting kind, the kind that gets darker or clearer depending on the light, no sunglasses needed. I thought that was cool. About 4 years ago my flight physicians started to notice my eyesight had gotten about the same without glasses as with my glasses. I get 2 medicals a year now and after about 3 or 4 times getting my medical without the glasses, I tossed those puppies and started flying without.
All this to say that I’m still barely getting used to having sunglasses in the cockpit. Before I didn’t need them, my self-tinting glasses (I think there must be a real word for that) did the trick.
Below is a video we shot of our night landing at Djibouti last September, during a ferry flight to Nairobi. Very uneventful, the way things should be. The eventful part happened about 15 minutes before the landing, when we started our descent to Djibouti. We’d been flying over the Red Sea and the Sahara desert most of the day (coming from Jeddah) and I had donned my cool pilot-style sunglasses.
As we started our descent to Djibouti I had the worst time seeing the instrument panel. I’m flying from the right seat and could barely read the airspeed indicator on the other side. To make things worse I remembered reading a note on the Djibouti approach plate about using extreme caution because the runway can easily be confused with a city highway at night. I’m fussing at Ted: “turn up the panel lights, turn up the lights”. I fussed about the panel lighting in the older Cessnas that just isn’t very good but something in the back of my mind kept telling me this had happened before and the solution was real easy. But what the heck was it?
Then I remembered: my night landing checklist got a new item since I don’t wear those self-tinting glasses anymore:
“SUNGLASSES – REMOVE”
Then I saw the runway from miles away :)
NOTE: “Iceman” is not the person in this story’s real call sign. Everything else in the story is true to the best of my knowledge. “Iceman” asked me not to use his real FAP call sign so in honor of the “Top Gun” movie re-release I replaced the actual FAP call sign with “Iceman”.
We turned final for landing in Piura, Perú (SPUR). I had been doing most of the radio work since we left Independence but my copilot now called Piura tower using his old Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) call sign:
“Piura tower, Iceman turning final Rwy ONE-NINE.”
The runway shook and the dust blew away.
Sleepy airport hangars jumped to attention.
Saggy roof lines straightened out.
Iceman is back!
* * *
That morning we had departed from Cali and stopped for fuel in Guayaquil. We had run into some issues in Colombia and after a few stressful days in Colombia we were happy to be back in the air for the last remaining legs of our flight to Lima, Peru.
The airspace boundary between Colombia and Ecuador along the route we were flying is a navigation point called “ANGEL”. As we approached “ANGEL” my copilot asked if the Galapagos Islands would display on the Garmin G1000 map. I expanded the range on the G1000.
When the Galapagos came into view on the map Iceman said “I flew there.”
I sort of shrugged. Many people visit the Galapagos nowadays. Patricia and I have been wanting to take a vacation there ourselves.
“I flew to the Galapagos in the Mirage during the war with Ecuador.”
I looked at Iceman in disbelief. Then he told me the story of the FAP Mirages that flew to the Galapagos during the Paquisha War in 1981:
There had been a long running territorial dispute between Peru and Ecuador. The dispute was not formally resolved until 1998. The Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) had historically been one of the strongest air forces in Latin America. When the Paquisha War broke out, Peru received intelligence that the Fuerza Aérea Ecuatoriana (FAE) had moved many of its aircraft to the Galapagos as a defensive maneuver. To verify the intelligence received, the FAP decided to send a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft (a variant of the venerable English Electric Canberra bomber) to the Galapagos. The unarmed reconnaissance aircraft was to be escorted by 2 of the FAP’s Mirage 5P fighters.
At the time the FAP had moved most of its aircraft from airbases near the Ecuadorian border back to Chiclayo, further away from the border. The 2 Mirages were to take off from Chiclayo, fly to the Galapagos and return to Chiclayo. Due to the long distance of the flight and fuel weight, the Mirages carried no weapons other than ammunition in their guns.
When the aircraft reached the Galapagos the reconnaissance Canberra quickly took its pictures and turned back to Peru. The Mirages lingered over the Galapagos to provide protection for the departing Canberra. The FAE sent up 6 interceptor aircraft, 3 FAE aircraft pursued each of the FAP Mirages.
Iceman briefly engaged the FAE aircraft but outnumbered, with no armament and precious little fuel there was nothing the Mirages could do. Iceman dove down to “the deck”, zigzagging just above the Pacific Ocean to shake the FAE aircraft. The FAE aircraft gave up pursuit.
The FAP Canberra had now reached a reasonably safe distance from the target and the FAP Mirages turned back to Chiclayo. When reaching Chiclayo the Mirages were desperately low on fuel but due to the war time traffic they were forced to hold before landing at Chiclayo.
By the time the Mirages were finally cleared to land they were so desperately low on fuel that Iceman and his wingman executed their break and landed simultaneously, in opposite directions, on Chiclayo’s only runway. On the runway both aircraft ran out of fuel and had to be towed back to the hangars.
This is the story as told to me by Iceman himself. I believe every word he said.
I asked Iceman if he realized how dangerous the mission was beforehand. He replied that it was a volunteer mission, when you really believe in something you are willing to give everything for it.
Iceman shook his head.
“Man, I was only 24 at the time.”
Fascinated though I was, I wanted to break the serious mood so I said “Just be sure not to tell anybody in Guayaquil about this, ok?”
Guayaquil is a nice place, I’ve stopped there several times now. The service is great, the people are friendly. Peru and Ecuador are like Portugal and Spain nowadays, or Ontario and Quebec. It’s practically unimaginable now they fought wars as recently as 1995. But I’m sure some of the people we ran into at Guayaquil airport had to be on the opposite side of the conflict. Maybe the weather briefers we shook hands with, the marshallers, the fuel truck drivers, who knows?
I never got to ask Iceman, what would he do if he ran into one of the guys who was sent up to shoot him down? Maybe some AeroGal pilot, or one of the LAN Ecuador crew who were parked next to us? Would you shake their hand and have a beer?
What could you do?
Iceman left the FAP 20 or so years ago and I don’t think he’d flown any aircraft from the time he left the FAP until he accompanied me on this flight to Peru. But once we got to Piura, tower controllers who probably weren’t even born when the Paquisha War happened, they knew the name Iceman with great respect.
Iceman spent most of the time since he left the FAP in the US, he has a family, a job, a business. I wonder how many people never knew what an extraordinary thing he did. How many guys at work shook his hand not having the faintest idea?