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Posts Tagged ‘Boeing 747’

If you’ve done much reading here, you know I like airplanes.  So it might surprise you to learn that, as much as I like them, I don’t like to ride in them.  Flying an F-16 or maybe a P-51?…awesome!!…sign me up.  But a passenger in a jet?…no thank you please.  I’m guessing it has something to do with control.  If I’m the one doing the flying, that’s fine.  To just sit in a plane while someone else flies is an entirely different deal.

As I come to Today’s History Lesson, I’m reminded of the joke where Robert and William were flying in a small twin-engine plane when it stumbled a bit in flight.  The pilot came over the intercom and said, “I have to report that the plane has suffered an engine failure.  But don’t be concerned.  The plane was designed to fly on just one engine.  We’ll be fine, but it will take us a bit longer to reach our destination.  Relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.”  Robert turned to William and said, “That’s a relief.”  To which William replied with a roll of the eyes, “Just what I need…a longer flight.  I suppose if the other engine goes out, we’ll be up here all day!!”

Of course, that’s not exactly how it works, as the members of British Airways Flight 9 discovered in most unpleasant fashion on June 24, 1982.  Flying from London to Auckland, the Boeing 747 was carrying 263 passengers and crew over Indonesia when it flew into a volcanic ash cloud laid out by Mount Galunggung.  A long time ago, we discussed how volcanic ash wreaks havoc on engines.  Well, the 747 had four of them, and none were spared.  One by one they surged and flamed out.

Since aircraft are reasonably good unpowered gliders, the stunned pilots began doing quick glide calculations to see how far they could travel.  It became apparent that, with mountains in the area, they could only descend to 12,000′ before they’d have to turn away from potential airports and ditch in the Indian Ocean.  Captain Eric Moody’s announcement to the passengers was, in retrospect, pretty humorous.  But at the time, I doubt anyone laughed.  Over the intercom he announced (and I apologize in advance for the naughty word), “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Uh…sure…I’m not in distress.  Not the words I’d ever want to hear.  But unlike so many passenger jet stories, this one has a happy ending.  As the plane neared the 12,000′ threshold (and nearly 15 minutes after the last engine shut down), the crew were able to start one of the engines, which slowed the descent.  Then another restarted, which allowed a very slow climb.  And then the final two fired off.

It’s impossible to imagine the relief in the cabin.  Passengers, many of whom were scribbling out farewell notes to families and loved ones, well…again, I can’t begin to know what they were thinking.  Taken to the precipice and pulled back at final moment.  I bet there was a lot of cheering when the plane finally touched down.

And maybe more than a few said, “Never again.  I’ll ride a boat, I’ll ride a bike, I’ll walk.  But never a plane ride.” That would be me.

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It’s been a little more than a month since I wrote about Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed in the Potomac River back in 1982.  Coincidentally, it was just 2 days later when Flight 1549, under very different circumstances (bird strikes), landed in the Hudson River.  Of course, with no loss of life and only a few injuries, the outcome for the passengers of “The Miracle on the Hudson” was much different than for those of Flight 90, where only five survived.

Today we want to look back at another frightening incident in the world of flight.  It’s another one I remember vividly from the news and, because it’s pretty recent, maybe you do as well.

On February 24, 1989 (just a couple months before the events of Flight 232), UAL Flight 811, a Boeing 747-122, departed from Honolulu, headed for a stopover in Auckland, New Zealand.  Roughly 15 minutes into the flight, the forward cargo-door blew completely off the plane.  The cargo door, of course, sits below the cabin areas, but the plane was already above 22,000′.  That means there was very rapid decompression, which actually pulled the floor above the door down, and five rows of business-class seats were sucked from the airplane, taking nine helpless passengers with them.

It would later be determined that the cause of this accident was double-edged.  First, the door’s latching mechanism was too weak.  The flaw had been fixed in some 747s, but not in many others.  Second, this particular 747 was the victim of a short in an electrical switch.  That switch was supposed to cut power to the cargo door when it closed, but it didn’t.  Then a short circuit caused the latch to be essentially given an “open” command and, because the door was still powered, it simply obeyed the command, and the large pressure differential did the rest…at the cost of nine fatalities.

But, as we’ve so often seen, nearly every flight disaster has a hero.  Often times it’s the pilots and the case of Flight 811 was no exception.  They were able to maneuver the plane back to Honolulu and successfully land the plane with no additional loss of life and only a few injuries.  What’s so heroic about landing the plane, you might ask?  Well, after the fact, United Airlines ran a whole series of tests in their simulator involving the loss of the front cargo door.  And never once, despite all the attempts, was the plane able to be landed.

Aircraft are mammoth machines with millions of parts and thousands of miles of cable and wire…all designed and built by people.  Any human error can have disastrous consequences.  But on the other side, there is the super-human effort of people placed in these circumstances that can sometimes mitigate, or even prevent, the loss of life.

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It was March 27, 1970 when the Concorde made its first supersonic flight, but airplanes not yet off the ground are the subject of Today’s History Lesson and are what dominated the news for months following this date in 1977.  The Canary Islands are famous for tourism and vacation getaways, but the island of Tenerife is also known for the deadliest airline disaster not connected with September 11, 2001.

In the mid-afternoon hours, two Boeing 747’s collided on the runway, killing nearly 600 passengers and crew.  The two jumbo jets started at opposite ends of the airport’s only runway, one taxiing, one taking off.  They met near the middle and collided just as the one jet was lifting off.  I was eight years old at the time, but I still remember it to some degree.  I vividly recall the issue of “Time” magazine with the big “How Safe?” cover sitting on our attic steps and me looking through it over and over again.

Investigators would later uncover a myriad of causes that led to the horrific effect, including fog, misunderstood and squelched communications, an impatient pilot, and an airport forced to handle aircraft that it really wasn’t designed to take.

I think there’s a ton of garbage on TV, but amongst the trash are a couple gems.  One such nugget is on the National Geographic channel and is called “Seconds From Disaster“.  The show takes all kinds of incidents (the Mount St. Helens eruption, F1 legend Ayrton Senna’s death, the crash of the afore-mentioned Concorde, etc.) and meticulously dissects the events leading up to them.  One of the episodes I watched detailed the Tenerife disaster, and I found it to be very revealing.  Look for that episode and watch it.  I believe it’s also possible to order episodes from National Geographic, so that may be an option as well.

Also, on this day in 1965, my parents were married.  Happy 43rd anniversary!!!

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