Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The fall of a Mexican-American Star and her ill-fated aircraft

On December 9, 2012, Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera perished, along with her staff, in an air crash south of Monterrey, Mexico. This crash was sudden and impacted many people in the Latin American community because of her music and tragic circumstances. Because of the sudden and tragic circumstances of this accident, many news sites and individuals in social media were desperate for answers regarding her death. The rumours started swimming around over the aircraft being sabotaged or shot down by cartel leaders in Mexico. Others linked this accident to the politically charged incidents where two Mexican Secretaries of State died in air crashes during the regime of president Felipe Calderon. But two things did catch the attention of the individuals, the pilot and the aircraft’s age.
Many individuals started berating the age of Ms. Rivera’s aircraft. Many wondered why would anyone ride in an aircraft that is four decades old. There are bloggers, which I will not name, that went on a rant on the fact that Jenni's ill-fated aircraft was a 43 year old Learjet. And there are individuals within the aviation community concerned about the age of the aircraft. An article on CNN had an both sides of the story regarding the age of the aircraft. But John McGraw, ex-deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated, ‘However -- on its own -- age is not anindicator of an airplane's safety.’ I remember an adage stating that an aircraft can fly forever as long as you give it proper maintenance. Many Learjets, especially the Learjet 35, have a very long lifespan given by its manufacturer and can fly as long as it is airworthy under FAA standards. Here are some examples of old flyable aircraft:
 Clockwise from the left is a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver. This aircraft was one of the first to fly precious cargo out to the wilderness of Canada and Alaska. Lifelines relied on this aircraft to ferry cargo out to the isolated settlements in these regions. Next is the Antonov 2. This is another rugged aircraft that was used for everything, including, agricultural sprayer, bomber, and special forces transport. This aircraft entered production in 1947 in the USSR and continues to fly today. The last aircraft in these images is a DC-3. This aircraft was one of the first airliners (it was also the C-47, the more famous transport of World War II including inserting the 101st airborne into Northern Europe and flying cargo over the ‘hump’ in the Himalayas) in the world. This aircraft continues to fly today for charter cargo companies and air tours around the world. Here are a few military examples:
From clockwise on the left: the B-52 is one of the primary bombers of the United States Air Force and has served the United States for 57 years. The Tupolev Tu-95 bomber is the Russian counterpart to the B-52 and also survived many of its replacements in its 56 year of service. The problem with older aircraft is that it becomes more expensive to repair due to lack of parts (and rise of prices due to this) and more constant need for repairs. Most of the military aircraft here are old but many of its vital components have been replaced with newer parts. One cannot compare the age decay of an aircraft to that of an automobile.
The same thing goes for aircraft that survived an incident or crash. Many aircraft suffer incidents throughout their life spans (such as crumpled landing gear, damaged vertical stabilizer, uncontrollable exploding engine, etc.) but can be deemed airworthy and repaired to flying condition. This aircraft was involved in an incident in 2005. It is a vehicle like a car, and it can be repaired to work again. One thing to note is that the nations where popular aircraft reside have strict laws and standards in making an aircraft. Redundancies in vital systems, high quality construction material, and designs that are tried and true from experienced aircraft makers and, tragically, lessons from air accidents. This results in sturdy and sometimes rugged aircraft. The reason air crashes become prominent in the news is because of the quick way an aircraft crashes into the Earth and the devastating landscape of a crash site. And I cannot fathom how many times people would bat an eye to headlines similar to ‘CAR RUNS OFF ROAD, ENTIRE FAMILY KILLED.’
As for the crash itself, it is too early to tell what brought it down. A proper investigation required chemical analysis (to cross out possibility of explosive or anti-air missile), analysis of aircraft parts to look for possible metal fatigue, air traffic audio tapes and radar data (since the aircraft did not carry an onboard data recorder), and all available maintenance records and interviews of mechanics leading up to, at least, a year. Every accident starts with everything being a possible cause and it is a tedious detective work to sum it up to one or a few causes leading to the crash.
The preliminary data available suggests that the aircraft suffered a loss of control at 28,000 feet.  Now, an old aircraft works like any car. Each one has its flying twitches and unique characteristics (like it slowly rolling to the right as a car would slowly steer to the right in a straight road). This is why it is good to have the same pilot flying the same aircraft as the pilot is used to these characteristics and knows how to correct them in flight. The aircraft could have possibly rolled to the left or right. Perhaps a turbulent bump in the air exaggerated that flight characteristic, caught the pilot off guard, and caused the aircraft to dive uncontrollably into the ground. I honestly don’t know. I don’t have access to the flight records or investigation data.
Here is an article from the Smithsonian Institute regarding a plane’s age and how to check its airworthiness with nondestructive evaluation.
Here is a link (in Spanish) of a press release from the Secretary of Communications and Transportation regarding the crash.
Images obtained from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Jubilee for the Airbus' Workhorse: the A320

On February 22, 1987, a legend took to the air for the first time. It was not the fanciest western fighter jet with the fastest speed or newest gadgets. It was not the largest transport to defy gravity and lumber into the air. It was a homely looking airliner, which would place Europe on the pinnacle of commercial aviation, start up a new generation of pilots and passengers who prefer to fly with the comforts of the newest gadgets; such as mood lighting, and computer managing systems.

"What, no steering column? Fighter jet-like control sticks?! Awesome!"

It was one of the first airliners to take into consideration the ergonomics of the pilots themselves. It was also the first airliner to fly with digital fly-by-wire technology (meaning the controls in the cockpit are managed digitally to machines that control the surface of the aircraft rather than pulleys directly connected to the cockpit). This aircraft was developed with the technology and ideas that pushed the threshold of commercial aviation. And most importantly, it gave the American dynasty of airliners (built by McDonnell Douglas and the Boeing Company) a run for their money. European airlines finally had a reliable airliner that has proximate access to its engineers and parts.

At the time, there were only a few aircraft that were being built to transport passengers between short and medium routes: The Boeing 737 series, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series, the Fokker (quit snickering, I bet you also chuckle at a can of Heinz Spotted Dick). 70, the Fokker 100, and the Tupolev Tu-154M. Before anyone asks, I am solely including aircraft that can do short AND medium range routes built around the 1980s. The British Aerospace 146 series, the de Havilland Canada Dash 8 series, the Embraer 120, the Fokker 50, and the Antonov An-74.

For the record, I am a Boeing fan, just like I like Coca-Cola over Pepsi-Cola, or personal computers over Apple Inc. hardware. My preference has been for the Seattle, Washington based company. There are exceptions, however, as I believe that some Airbus aircraft a superbly brilliant. Their first aircraft, the A300, revolutionized the aviation industry by showing that medium and long range aircraft can run more efficiently on two engines. Or the Airbus A340-300, which showed that an airline can fly passengers on long range routes with the engines of smaller jetliners (the CFM-56 engines that power the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320), Or the A330, which show that beauty can go hand in hand with designing Spartan efficiency. 

But there is something to respect about the interesting design of the Airbus A320. It was the first airliner to rely more on the computer than the pilot. Before this specific aircraft, the priority of the airliner workload depended on the pilots with the electronics assisting them. But Airbus went the opposite direction, believing that technology was finally capable of commanding the majority of controls of the aircraft, with the pilot ensuring that all goes well. It revolutionized the commercial aviation industry but also polarized it as well. Many pilots and airline managers favored relying on the experience and capabilities of the pilot and hated this concept. This made them turn towards airliner manufacturers like the Boeing Company. Other pilots and airline managers, meanwhile, loved this concept and flew this aircraft. This polarization grew in strength when other airline companies, like Fokker and McDonnell Douglas, folded and left the medium range market with two workhorses, the Boeing 737 (with the New Generation series like the -600, -700, -800, and -900) and the Airbus A320 series (with a variety of sizes ranging from the smallest, the A318, the smaller, the A319, and the biggest of the series, the A321).

There were some problems with pilots embracing and working with the new technology. One of the finer examples was when a pilot miscalculated the capabilities of the A320 computer and crash landed it when it flew on autopilot into the trees during one of its first flights.

Air France flight 296...I have a blog post déjà vu sensation. As if I had already written about this before.

But the airliner worked. It flew with famous airlines, was the first airliner of a start-up company, or was the final aircraft on a doomed airline.
And yet, few people knew Braniff flew A320s. Or worse yet, few remember or know of the existence of Braniff International Airways

In fact, some make headline news:
Miracle on the Hudson River: US Airways flight 1549

Whatever the case, the Airbus A320 has had a marvelous 25 years of flight. Here is to another 25 years.

Image Credits:
Wikimedia Commons: