News Colum Kenny

Wednesday 24 September 2014

The awful silence of doomed Flight 447

Extreme turbulence combined with human weakness can prove catastrophic, writes Colum Kenny

Published 07/06/2009 | 00:00

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Mystery: French army crewmen patrol for the missing plane

It was a nightmare crash. Planes do not just drop out of the sky in mid-flight. But this one did, and last week's sudden loss of Air France Flight 447 will have heightened the anxiety of people going abroad.

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Try telling people afraid of flying that it is the safest form of transport. Statistics do not stop that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. They do not dry sweaty palms.

There is nothing normal about being strapped into a tin can and hurled through the air 10,000 metres up, at hundreds of kilometres per hour. That is why we should be concerned about airlines cutting corners. If flying really is safer than other forms of transport, as they claim, it is only because crews have been so well-trained and planes not over-stretched.

Modern aircraft are a lot better in many respects than earlier models. But nature can still be violent, and some of the problems that pilots discuss on their websites are not for the faint-hearted.

Fear of flying affects people of all ages and types. It can become totally disabling, and lead to great inconvenience and financial loss. It may grip people suddenly, even after they have flown many times. But it may also be managed or overcome.

Some people pay for special help. This week at Dublin Airport one company is asking €340 for a one-day course that includes pilot presentations, pre-course counselling, relaxation exercises, a 45-minute flight and FREE (capital letters!) coffee.

The company quotes one happy customer from Wakefield. A business man, he had flown all over the world but then started to have panic attacks and could not go into lifts, car washes or airplanes. He lost a lot of work but now flies again after getting help.

So what do people fear? Crashing and dying mostly. It is that simple. Psychological explanations for the fear of flying are partly valid, but they often sound like blaming the passenger. It is rational for us to feel anxious when sitting passively and out of control in a high-speed metal box surrounded by subzero, unbreathable air.

Psychological factors make that rational fear worse. But they are just factors and not personal weaknesses. Some of the strongest and most imaginative people are among the worst affected by fear of flying.

Boarding an aircraft heightens the fear of pain and death and confinement. Particular worries about height or crowds or control over our immediate environment or air quality also kick in, not least when so many flights now have passengers jammed tightly into small spaces.

Night flights are especially hard. In darkness, suspended far above a deep and lonely sea, no in-flight entertainment is even going to distract nervous flyers quite enough from that alternative movie in their minds.

That is why the sudden and silent disappearance of the flight from Rio to Paris is so dreadful. Few accidents happen when planes are cruising and, if something does go wrong, there is usually time at least for a frantic Mayday emergency call by the pilot. Last week there were only vague automated signals from the doomed aircraft. They indicated an electrical failure, but such failure could have been the result rather than the cause of whatever went wrong.

Lightning or turbulence has rarely downed a plane, especially in recent times. This one was flown by experienced pilots from a reputable airline, in charge of an aircraft type that has carried hundreds of millions of passengers without a serious crash. While even slight turbulence greatly worries many passengers, it is rarely a big problem for senior pilots.

But that word "rarely" is important. Extreme turbulence, combined with human weakness, can prove catastrophic. One pilot who last week contributed to an online forum noted radar evidence of an enormous mature storm cell along the flightpath of Air France 447.

He said, "All of us who have penetrated them can tell you they are full of lightening, St Elmo's Fire, extreme turbulence, massive up/down drafts, ice beyond normal design limits . . . and when you exit a big one don't just punch out (the aircraft) at 90 degrees or you might break the wings off. It is my humble opinion, as a guy who flew before wind shear was even a word, that you should exit at a 45 angle to the cell wall."

He wondered if airline crews are getting too used to easy cruising in modern aircraft: "Riding around on autopilot all the time pushing buttons does nothing to sharpen your hand-flying skills for a possible situation like this when you will need it the most. I am simply appalled by the autopilot-dependent culture in many flight departments." Could even extreme lightning have knocked out communications from the flight deck quite so completely, especially given the height from which the aircraft had to descend?

If compression failed or a wing broke off, would somebody somehow not have managed to send out a message? Possibly not.

The silence that rose up and swallowed three young Irish doctors, along with their travelling companions, is awful. It reminds us of a bigger silence that surrounds us all, out of which we have been born and into which each of us will go alone again one day.

Every time we step onto an aircraft we come face to face with out vulnerability and our mortality.

Even quite bad air turbulence may bump us around far less than the number 46A bus or a train to Cork. But, high above the clouds, it quickly saps our confidence precisely because we are dangling in the middle of nowhere over a vast ocean.

"Caesar had to suffer Caesar's fate" was Appian's observation when people said "if only" the Roman leader had not gone to the Senate on the day that he was assassinated.

Whether we fly or not, we each suffer our particular fate and cannot avoid it. Last week, 228 people met theirs on a flight from Rio. May they rest in peace.

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