Sunday, October 25, 2009

Northwest Airline's Dreamy Flight Includes Bed Time Fairytale

Graphic by Larry Ray

Last Wednesday, Oct. 21, Delta-Northwest Airlines flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis arrived an hour late after the plane's pilots somehow flew right over the Minneapolis airport and kept on flying eastward for another 150 miles, all the while failing to respond to repeated radio calls to them by air traffic controllers.

As of today the pilots are sticking with the story they gave the NTSB that they were "in a heated discussion about airline policy" and lost "situational awareness" when they flew past their destination at 37,000 feet. Earlier, over Denver, ATC got no reply from repeated radio calls on various frequencies to the Northwest pilots nor did other FAA centers till the plane finally turned around after overshooting Minneapolis. It looked enough like a possible hijacking that National Guard jets were put on standby by the White House.

Regardless of what the two pilots are claiming to the press, the logic of what happened would seem very clear to most pilots, even a non-commercial private pilot like me, and especially any pilot flying under Instrument Flight Rules. Let's consider a few things ...
  • Airline pilots fly in a very structured environment. Flight plans with headings and altitudes are issued by Air Traffic Control centers; the plane is "handed off" from one regional ATC center to another further along the path the plane is following. Pilots cannot decide not to talk to the ATC controllers.
  • There is a relatively continuous exchange of flight altitudes and headings that is heard and read back confirming the information along the route. Aircraft radios are tuned to several different frequencies. Just picture several "phones" that can ring and also be used to call the ground. Pilots must answer any of them when they "ring."
  • Every aircraft, private or commercial, must have a gizmo called a transponder that broadcasts a data string of four numbers which clearly identify the plane on radar. So while the Northwest airplane had "phones ringing" which they weren't answering, the ATC could see exactly where the plane was on their radar screens.
  • Some very basic things a pilot is supposed to do include never flying with less than 8 hours between drinking alcohol and takeoff time, "bottle to throttle" time, and never ignoring and always acknowledging radio instructions from ATC.
  • So, we have to ask. Why didn't anyone answer any of the several "phones ringing" in their headsets or over the cockpit radio speakers? Back on the ground, why would you not get an answer when you call a close friend whom you know is at home? Phone off the hook? Phone ring volume turned way down too low while friend is watching something really great on TV? Or, the TV show was too long and boring and your friend dozed off, not hearing the phone? Or they could have had an accident?
  • When would they finally hear the phone and answer it? If they finally wake up from their snooze having faintly heard the phone ringing? Or if the police and ambulance you sent are banging on the door, while the phone is ringing?
Airline pilots almost always only physically fly the airplane during takeoff, and landing. After climbing out to altitude the 'flight plan' is keyed into into the autopilot computer which does all the long course leg flying. If ATC changes their flight plan while they are up at assigned altitude they just key in the changes in heading and altitude and the plane's system flies the changes very smoothly and efficiently. They then usually only physically take control to land after being cleared to descend and land by ATC. Of course bad weather flying may require the pilot to take over to skirt thunderstorms and such.

Most of the descent is routinely programmed into the computer as well, with the pilot taking the controls when on final approach to land. Most passengers do not know that many of today's modern aircraft have automatic landing systems where the plane's flight controls and throttles are all computer controlled. This allows once impossible landings through thick soupy rain and fog right to touchdown. Many larger airliners even have a "full stop " landing capability that flies the plane to touchdown, steers it straight on the runway heading, slows it down and applies brakes to a full stop if that capability is ever necessary. Pilots are still in total command, but the new capabilities make life lots easier when needed.

So, with all this considered, an intense cockpit conversation about union rules and inequities that lasted from Denver to beyond Minneapolis, drowning out all the radio, email and data messages would have had to be compelling dialogue worthy of Shakespeare.

Airline bean counters in recent years have been combating increasing fuel and operational costs by tightening up flight schedules and pilot-crew pay. FAA-required rest and sleep times have been complied with only on paper in many instances. The real world includes airport-motel flight crew travel times, time to eat, getting restful sleep, waking up way too early, showering and dressing and making it to back the airport on time. Too frequently this stretches FAA requirements way too thinly. Not enough actual beneficial sleep, which is cumulative, can make pilots tired and less sharp. This reportedly is all too frequently becoming routine.

Imagine, a little before Flight 188 reached Denver, the Captain says to the First Officer in the right seat, "Charlie, I'm really beat and may be coming down with a damned cold. How about taking it while I get a couple of minutes sleep?" First Officer, Charlie, says, "Sure Skipper, I've got it. Great weather, smooth air, so catch a couple winks." This is prohibited by the FAA for U.S. airlines.

Then with the familiar crackle of radio chatter the only distraction in the cockpit, good old Charlie, who is more worn out than the Captain, starts to nod a little, then a little more and soon he is out cold, deeply asleep. And neither pilot wakes up till a flight attendant bangs on the door or repeatedly clangs the little intercom chime in the cockpit.

It is not reasonable that pilots, knowing they really screwed up, are going to tell authorities or the press right off the bat that they went to sleep with 144 passengers on board. They will stonewall it, futilely hoping their Airline Pilots Association lawyers can intervene with the NTSB and FAA and possibly get them off with a suspension from flying for a few months instead of losing their licenses and hard earned "type ratings" certifying them to pilot multiple models of airliners. A life's worth of training and experience snoozed away is too tough to accept.

The pilots' attorneys know this story will quickly fall off the TV news radar screen and be replaced with some other bizarre event. Just a few days before this latest Delta-Northwest Airlines bizarre story, one of Delta's airliners landed in Atlanta at 6:o3 AM on a taxiway instead of the runway. Fortunately no one was taxiing as they landed. Because of dominating political news, that equally incredible story didn't get the big play this mystery pilot story is getting.

Perhaps my oft-mentioned 'two-headed mule,' will appear on CNN with each head actually making speech-like utterances as if they were talking, one head delivering one sentence with the other head picking up the next mulish garble. But on second thought, that may not be novel enough even for CNN . . . that kind of thing is seen constantly on cable newscasts. But with two human "co-anchor" talking heads which have nicer hair and sometime even speak intelligibly as they divide the news commentary, one line for him, then next for her.

Nothing would delight me more than to be completely blindsided with some astounding revelation from the NTSB and FAA investigations of the errant Northwest Airlines flight that exonerates the Captain and Charlie. Interestingly, Northwest is supposed to be the first North American carrier operating the new 787 Boeing 'Dreamliner' ... maybe this was a secret test flight?

If the pilots are exonerated, I will certainly post a new article on such findings … unless I get completely distracted with news of a real live two headed mule somewhere.

UPDATE: MONDAY OCT. 26, 5:00 PM *********
Breaking news now tells us that Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole are telling investigators that instead of having had a "heated discussion" they had broken out their laptop computers and the junior officer was showing the Captain how to use a new computerized crew-scheduling system being introduced by Delta-Northwest where pilots now put in "bids" by computer for the flights they prefer.

At this point would you rather have had pilots sleeping, or pilots totally unaware of radio communication or their location while they were fully awake? Talk about people using their cell phones and texting while driving!

There still remains the question as to whether they really were, in fact, asleep or now have hatched a new, still hard to believe cover story about being totally absorbed in their laptop computers, which is also against regulations. Stay tuned ...

UPDATE OCT. 27th 5:00 PM************
The FAA didn't buy any of the the pilots' explanations, and certainly not their telling them that they ". . . heard voices on their radio but ignored them," and in a rarely done, severe move, the FAA revoked both pilot's licenses. They have 10 days to appeal but also remain suspended by parent company Delta, pending results of an ongoing NTSB investigation.

Looks like they will now be using their computers for job hunting along with millions of other unemployed Americans. And as for piloting paying passengers again any time soon, or ever, that looks remote. Below is a view of a nighttime airliner cockpit. Note the two color weather radar flight position indicator displays and numerous radio and data displays. It would seem that even using a laptop, one could hardly miss seeing the radars when looking up. Seems to boil down to asking if there is any excuse at all for putting their minds as well as an Airbus A-320 on autopilot while air traffic control was desperately trying to contact them? Have these pilots forgotten what the last airliner that didn't reply to urgent ATC calls, and was flying in the wrong place did on September 11th 2001?

Graphics by Larry Ray

Monday, October 19, 2009

Halloween Bible-Burning Bash : Amazing Grace in North Carolina

Pastor Marc Grizzard

The Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina has big plans for Halloween and just might win the 'Old-South Small Town Flaming Fundamentalist Award.' The church is planning a really big bible burning, or as they see it, "Burning Perversions of God's Word." And as long as the flames are roaring, "We will also be burning Satan's music such as country, pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, contemporary Christian, jazz, soul, oldies but goldies, etc."

Bluegrass seems to have survived along with classical music, but I bet Pastor Marc Grizzard would toss Offenbach's "Orpheus in Hades" on his pyre if someone told him about classical.

All this is being done in an attempt to rid the immediate area of all those other bibles that "are not the word of God" and Grizzard has it honed down to anything that is not "based on the TR." And he is not referring to Teddy Roosevelt or Tryannosaurus Rex.

The single abbreviation, TR, is for "Textus Receptus, or "Received Text," the great recitation straight from the mouth of God, AKA the King James Version, as defined by Pastor Grizzard who may or may not cohere to Erasmus's original Greek Testament. Any other biblical interpretations are flawed and not the word of God according to the Pastor and his 14 church members.

So scholars beware! Check the list, "We are burning Satan's bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT, Good News for Modern Man, The Evidence Bible, The Message Bible, The Green Bible, ect.(sic)"

However, there are some exceptions, again straight from their web site, "We are not burning Bibles written in other languages that are based on the TR. We are not burning the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva or other translations that are based on the TR. We will be serving Bar-b-Que Chicken, fried chicken, and all the sides."

To make sure Halloween is clean fun for all, Grizzard's web site promises a raging fire from other blazing blasphemy penned by the likes of everyone from The Pope to Oral Roberts:
  • "We will also be burning Satan's popular books written by heretics like Westcott & Hort, Bruce Metzger, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, John McArthur, James Dobson, Charles Swindoll, John Piper, Chuck Colson, Tony Evans, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swagart, Mark Driskol, Franklin Graham, Bill Bright, Tim Lahaye, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joyce Myers, Brian McLaren, Robert Schuller, Mother Teresa, The Pope, Rob Bell, Erwin McManus, Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, Brennan Manning, William Young, etc."
Canton, North Carolina is in the shadow of Cold Mountain, which inspired the 1997 NY Times bestseller of the same name about a post Civil War romance and it seems like a nice enough place. I hope the Amazing Grace Baptist Church makes sure to get a special burning permit, otherwise the fire department might be called out, and fines levied. Or at least that is what Article B, Fire Prevention and Hazards of the Town of Canton, NC Code of Ordinances seems to say in Section 3-2011 'Open fires prohibited in fire limits. It shall be unlawful for any person to ignite, use or maintain any open or unenclosed fire within the fire limits of the Town.' (Code 1963, Sec. 8-1)

It would just take all the fun out of Halloween not to be able to burn the writings of Mother Teresa and Jimmy Swagart.

Graphic composite by Larry Ray

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Echoes from Vietnam: Dying again in Afghanistan

Forty three years ago as a young civilian correspondent and documentary film maker, I stepped off the plane in Saigon knowing nothing about the history of that country or its people, and little or nothing about why Americans were fighting and dying there. I had come to see the war of my time.

As a US Navy veteran and young news anchor for a South Texas regional TV station it seemed a given that we were there to fight godless communism and that we were the good guys.

It was 1966 and WWII had been over for 21 years and hostilities in Korea had ceased in 1953. But Americans still saw our military and patriotism as Johnny marching home again to ticker tape parades. We had whipped the Nazis and the Japs, and fought the North Koreans and commie Chinese to a draw. Clearly American might was not to be messed with.

But by 1966 America's claim of winning an honorable peace in South Vietnam was being seriously challenged by seasoned journalists in both Saigon and Washington D.C.. About the time I arrived, Morley Safer filed his story showing our Marines using a zippo lighter to set fire to thatch roofed homes in a rural village on a "search and destroy" mission. His was perhaps the first story that Americans saw that suggested America was facing bleak prospects of victory. We damn sure were not winning hearts and minds.

After a few months of sitting through bogus US military press briefings which we called the "five o'clock follies," and working with seasoned reporters from around the world, my Boy Scout naiveté disappeared. After a year of the outright lies and misrepresentations in Pentagon and White House press releases about things I had seen with my own eyes, my naiveté turned to a frustrated, simmering anger. An anger that was ultimately taken to the streets across America just a few years later. Since the Vietnam war, accredited correspondents have no longer been allowed to freely move about and report on our wars. Reporters are now "embedded" within military units under their control and influence.

The parallels between America's disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia and our costly and ill-advised involvement in the Middle East have fired up that frustration and anger anew. This time opposition by the average American to requests for more troops in Afghanistan is getting louder before the new call for 40,000 more troops has even been approved.

Our involvement
in Vietnam started in 1950. General Eisenhower's decision to send military advisers to help the South Vietnamese army was the start of a massive buildup of American troop strength which reached a high of 543,482 in 1969. In the early years in Vietnam the Pentagon was still using a set-piece, WWII battle mentality, and Communism was our new political devil. And this was a hot, sweaty jungle war with no front lines.

Very few Americans spoke or understood the sing-songy monosyllabic Vietnamese language. The history and dynamics of a very old country that had been at war in some form or another for more than a thousand years was lost on those tasked with guiding America's efforts there.

The fiercest battles were being secretly waged between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of State. The State Department's political and diplomatic findings were muzzled and marginalized. We bombed Hanoi while increasing numbers of young draftees and regular American troops were being slaughtered as they fought fiercely in unforgiving conditions for a cause they did not understand. Almost twice as many Vietnamese, insurgents as well as civilians, died from our bombs and bullets.

America's strong belief in the efficacy of power reasoned that if bombing our way to peace was not working, there was no need to consider diplomacy or a new approach. Clearly we only needed to drop more bombs, send in more troops and the enemy would finally give up. And that is just what we did. The generals called for increasing the enemy body count to achieve peace and allow us to return home with honor. And our politicians went right along with that reasoning.

We failed to appreciate that we were in the middle of a very old private fight between North and South. Intelligence showed early on that a majority in the South was ready for peace, even a communist style of peace and most of all wanted the "long noses" who they saw as raining destruction down upon them to be driven out of their country. In Vietnam there ultimately was no victory and no honor for America. Today Vietnam is peaceful and prosperous and an important trading partner with the USA, just like our top trading partner, communist China.

The military might mentality was challenged early on by president John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 bucked extreme pressure from the Pentagon and within his own White House, and refused to order combat troops into Vietnam, limiting our presence there to military advisers. JFK listened not only to his top military brass, but also to his State Department, particularly undersecretary George Ball who predicted pretty much what eventually happened, except reality was worse than what he envisioned. After JFK's death his order halting combat troops was reversed by President Johnson driven more by domestic politics than military necessity.

In Vietnam 58,000 American troops were killed, 155,192 were wounded or missing. The touted "domino effect" where all Southeast Asia would topple country after country to communism if we didn't win in Vietnam now is easy to see as so much expedient political hysteria.

The story is, of course, much more complex than this, but the bare bones are that politicians and military leaders refused to listen to the State Department and other foreign service experts who laid bare the corrupt leadership of South Vietnam, and pointed out that this was a long simmering internal war of insurgency with strong nationalistic roots. The actual communist Chinese or Soviet Russian interest in and backing of the war was extremely limited.

Our desire to strike back after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 combined the totally inept leadership of the George W. Bush administration with, once again, expedient political hysteria. First we launched an inadequately planned and then insufficiently supported attack upon al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda top officials escaped to protective sheltering by tribal supporters who had seen their country invaded by the British, the Soviet union, and now American and NATO troops.

Then, with political misinformation, outright lies, a cowed press and a Congress that asked few questions, our government launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9-11 attacks on the USA. This mad neo-conservative misadventure has had a massively destabilizing effect upon the Middle East and has bred more hatred for the USA and our military in the Arab world.

It has also unnecessarily stressed our military's ready troop strength and equipment readiness with 4,300 US troops killed and more than 30,000 wounded and injured as of September 2009. Cost of the Iraq war is expected to surpass the $686 billion present day dollar value cost of the Vietnam war by year's end.

One of President Obama's first actions after taking office was to make good on his promise to get us out of Iraq, and that is now underway. Though the dynamics, politics, religion and leadership are totally different from Vietnam, Iraq, like Vietnam, will ultimately reach its own destiny without the forceful imposition of American ideas and politics upon its ancient culture. We eliminated its despotic leader, but its people still must sort through complex religious and ideological differences on its own and they may or may not decide to remain some sort of democracy.

Afghanistan is an even older and thornier problem. And one that cannot be bombed into submission. Afghanistan was first invaded by
Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The tribal warlords have never been successfully subdued. No "surge" of military troops will somehow completely overpower the zealotry of religious belief. Imagine foreign troops invading America trying to subdue and forcibly control ultra-orthodox elements of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church, because they saw them as bad for the American people.

Afghanistan has never had organized, cohesive governance and is today just a fragile step away from becoming a failed state like Somalia. That is why it was an ideal location for Bin Laden to train his al Qaeda fighters. The American figurehead Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has become a real problem for the U.S. as well as NATO. We had hoped, with our backing, he could somehow unify the disparate tribes flung through the mountains and badlands into a proud democracy. But such dreams have been jarred by the reality of a Karzai-rigged national election with rampant vote tampering and voter intimidation. Karzai is no better than the warlords we want him to pull together. Karzai has now distanced himself from his American minders and has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.

Now we want to send in a massive number of new troops and equipment to somehow again "win hearts and minds" and
drive out the Taliban with brute force. While the Taliban have no designs upon terror against America or any of the other NATO nations now with troops in the country, they operate as brutal criminals in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. An increased armed American presence there is a daily irritant to Afghans, as well as neighboring rogue areas of Pakistan caught between foreign troops who often cannot tell the difference between peaceful civilians and the Taliban. Once more we are fighting a war where troops do not speak the language or understand the people and are tasked with fighting often in 130º heat. The goal of preventing Afghanistan from again becoming an al Qaeda terrorist training ground again cannot be accomplished by bombing the country into submission. This is a complicated political, diplomatic and sociological challenge.

President Obama, in office less than a year, just like JFK, must soon make a decision regarding the politically charged prospect of approving or disapproving more troops being called for by a top military general. I hope he is aware of the assessment of others who have tried to subdue this ragged country:
  • “Afghanistan taught us an invaluable lesson . . . It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force. We should have helped the people of Afghanistan in improving their life, but it was a gross mistake to send troops into the country.”
– Retired Red Army General Boris Gromov.

Photo - Larry Ray in Cu Chi Vietnam, late summer 1966