Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


The disaster that saved lives

March 27, 2009

Captain Jacob van Zanten was the epitome of an airline pilot.  He dressed sharply; his experience and respect positioned him as an instructor for pilots new to the Boeing 747, while his charm and good looks made him a natural choice to be featured in much of his company’s PR material and to be its de facto spokesperson.  In both the public’s eye and in the cockpit he was viewed as a God.

And that is precisely what caused the single worst aviation disaster in history.

On March 27th, 1977 Captain van Zanten crashed his KLM Airlines 747 into a Pan Am 747 on takeoff, killing 583 passengers and crew.  Though bad weather, bad judgment and even an act of terrorism contributed to the two jumbo jets being on a collision course that Sunday evening, the disaster’s ultimate cause lay in the way an airline captain’s authority was considered unquestionable and inerrant.

His was not simply the last word, it was the only word.

As airlines grew, so did their need for pilots.  Following World War II, there were thousands of trained young men ready to fill those positions created by the growing economy and its demand for fast travel around the country and the world.  It was only natural then, when the military’s culture of discipline and absolute adherence to the chain of command became the accepted norm.

While the unique demands of combat may require a strict, unquestioning reliance on such a system, it proved not to be the best fit for safe public transportation.  In war, there are times when a mission must be undertaken to ultimately save a few or even many thousands of lives.  In commercial aviation however, safety must be the primary consideration.  Flying people on vacation to Disneyworld or business travelers to Cincinnati is not obligatory.  There’s a saying that sums it up nicely:

Takeoffs are optional.  Landings aren’t.

But this lesson hadn’t been learned yet.  Captain van Zanten ultimately ignored the objections of his crew at Tenerife.  There was confusion over whether or not the tower had said they could take off yet.  The men working there had been using non-standard phrases and spoke poor English – the international standard for all aviation communication.

The small airport was pushed to the limit.  They simply were not equipped to handle the dozen or so large aircraft (carrying hundreds of passengers each) that were on the ground.  The planes were diverted to Tenerife after one bomb exploded and threats of another closed their destination, Las Palmas.  All day long, the jumbo jets sat on the ground, waiting at a facility that was neither equipped to handle them, nor their hundreds of passengers.

Once Las Palmas re-opened, fog and lack of space for taxing and takeoff meant there was a lot of radio chatter as controllers tried to get the delayed planes back into the air.  Since the airport wasn’t designed to handle so many large aircraft at the same time, it required more than one to be on the runway at the same time.

When the KLM flight reached the approach end of runway 30 (pronounced “three zero”) it turned around and waited for word from the tower that it could take off.

At this point the Pan Am 747 was still taxiing on the runway towards the other plane.

In the KLM cockpit, Captain van Zanten was watching the clock.  His crew was approaching the end of their legally mandated duty times and would not be able to continue past them.  He knew that if the flight did not leave soon, it would not leave at all.

Then controllers radioed an instruction for Pan Am to make a turn off the runway that didn’t make sense.  It would bring them back to the terminal instead of towards the end of the runway.  Several calls were made back and forth between the cockpit and the tower to clarify what exactly, the Pan Am crew were supposed to do.  The were told to take the next exit off of the runway.

Confusion ensued.

Hearing that the other 747 was supposed to clear the runway, but without an explicit clearance to take off, Captain van Zanten announced to his crew that he was taking off.  The First Officer (FO) spoke up, saying that they had not been cleared yet.  The obviously miffed and possibly embarrased van Zanten grudgingly brought the four hundred ton plane to a stop.

Communication between the tower and the Pan Am jet continued, as its crew tried to understand what the controllers wanted them to do.

Now Van Zanten had his FO query the tower for their take off clearance.  The tower repeated the aircraft’s instructions on what to do after departure, but didn’t issue a take off clearnce.   Inexplicably, the veteran pilot with over eleven thousand hours flight experience advanced the four thrust levers on the 747 and doomed the lives of almost six hundred people.  This time the FO said nothing.

In the Pan Am cockpit, the crew was unaware that KLM was accelerating towards them.  They were still trying to make sense of what the tower had told them.

There was however, still a chance to avoid the disaster.  The Flight Engineer (FE) had been listening to the radio and asked aloud if the other plane was clear of the runway.  Both van Zanten and the FO (now following the lead of his superior) responded “He’s clear”.  The FE stopped his objection.  He had no reason to question the two senior crew members.

The final moments of the flight are well described in this article:

The last recorded words from the crew of KLM was a familiar epithet to those who regularly hear cockpit voice recorder tapes. More than one pilot had uttered the same phrase when confronted with the possibly irreversible reality of impending disaster.  Captain van Zanten said simply:

“Oh, shit!”

The planes crashed.  Hundreds of people perished.

Though it would be easy to blame both crewmen in the cockpit for failing to continue their objections, it simply was not possible for them to do so.  It was not part of the culture.

This fact did not go unnoticed by the industry.  Reliance upon one person to make critical decisions has been replaced by a collaborative effort called Crew Resource Management or CRM.  A system where all members of the crew are utilized in decision making is now the standard for multi-pilot aircraft.  From day one, commercial pilots are taught the advantage of utilizing all of the resources available to them, to include fellow pilots, crewmembers, air traffic controller and even passengers.  While the captain does have the final decision in many, but not all matters, pre-employment screening weeds out those who are unable to work as a team.  Both initial training and continuing education emphasize reliance upon and the cultivation of a cooperative environment in the cockpit and cabin.

Alongside continued technological advances these changes in the way a Captain interacts with fellow pilots have proven successful.  Airlines have seen tremendous growth in safety due to reduction of not only human error, but in the ability of a crew to respond to rare, but inevitable mechanical failures.  The outcomes of the accidents at Sioux Falls and the Hudson river would not have been possible if it were not for their Captains’ involvement of the entire crew in dealing with the emergency.

In no small way, those lives that were lost on Tenerife thirty two years ago have directly led to the safe air travel we enjoy today.  To learn from their tragedy is to honor them.

List of passengers on Pan Am 1736

List of passengers on KLM 4805


You Never Forget Your First Time

March 16, 2009

Where were you?

I was on active duty in Wertheim, Germany the first time it happened.  I had just left the PX and was walking down some stairs when a buddy of mine yelled to me from across the street:

“Hey man, the Space Shuttle just blew up!”

Of course he was convinced that the Russians had done it.  It was the Cold War, you know.  Wonder what he would think of 9/11?  Later that night, I watched German television play that same clip the entire world saw over and over again.

The second time I was in an airplane over southern Oklahoma,  flying with a student.  I was listening to Fort Worth Center (Air traffic Control) when I heard several pilots report seeing some bright flashes in the sky.  “Must be meteors”, said one guy.  The frequency was filled with jokes about UFO’s and little green men for a few moments, but went silent after one pilot asked:

“Hey, isn’t the Shuttle supposed to be landing today?”

Everyone knew what had just happened without saying another word about it:  Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana.

(Interestingly enough, I was working at the flight school where Zacharias Moussaoui, often called the 20th Hijacker from 9/11, tried to learn to fly.  He never did.)

The era of re-usable space vehicles began at the end of my Freshman year of High School.  So did the first “real” return of Star Trek.  NASA had built and was going to launch its first winged spacecraft, The Space Shuttle.  They called it a Space Transportation System (STS).  Since I had also just heard about a second Star Trek movie being made, I called it a fourteen (and three quarters!) year-old space nerd’s dream.

I just hoped the movie wouldn’t suck this time.

I had been hooked on space exploration from a much earlier age.  In fact, I can’t recall not thinking about space.  I also can’t remember not watching Star Trek.  Though I’m not sure if I actually remember the moment humans touched down in the sea of tranquility , some of my earliest memories are of televsion images showing people going to the moon.  And Spock doing a mind-meld with the Horta.

Thanks to an uncle who supplied the military with high speed cameras (he got started filming captured V-2’s after WWII) I had every single spaceflight poster that NASA and JPL ever produced.  I built model rockets, read everything about Apollo that I could get my hands on (no Google back then, remember?), started learning about airplanes and of course, watched re-runs of Star Trek.  My parents were supportive, but weren’t quite as enthusiastic as me.  They didn’t neccesarily share my excitement when we went to some exhibit and saw a lunar module (LM), a lunar roving vehicle (LRV)…

and a guy dressed like Spock.

I waited for the day when space travel would become commonplace.  And for the Enterprise to return.

Image courtesy of NASA

Groovy Pants, Man! Image courtesy of NASA

In the following years, things started off pretty good.  Viking landers landed on Mars and the Voyager missions voyaged towards the outskirts of the Solar System.  I and about 10 gazillion other trekkers felt real excitement when NASA announced they would listen to us and name the first STS orbiter Enterprise.  We watched this winged spacecraft release from the back of a 747 and then glide to a landing.

Then things began to fall apart.  Because of late design changes, Enterprise would never fly to space.  We’d been ripped off!  The re-launch of Star Trek, gave us those horrible uniforms, an unfamiliar bridge and an embarrassingly long shot of NCC-1701 in space dock.  Sure, I missed seeing her, but geez!  Worst of all was the plot, which basically revolved around some practical joker aliens who had done their version of “Pimp my Ride” to one of our Voyager spacecraft.


Where were the real people in space?

It had been about 20 years since humans had first orbited the earth and the good old US of A had no capability to put a crew “up there”.  In contrast, 20 Years after the Wright Brothers’ success at  Kill Devil Hill we had not only fought a war with airplanes, we were doing Astronomy with them!

When you’re a kid, time goes by very, very slowly.  Every delay in the program was agonizing, worse than waiting for summer vacation.  But on April 12th, 1981 I got my wish.  I watched the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built hurtle towards space.  I was so excited by the whole thing that my mom let me stay home from school to see the landing.  I remember thinking John Young, who had already walked on the moon was the coolest guy ever.  After touchdown and rollout, the first thing he did was to do a walk-around (post-flight inspection) of his aircraft.  I knew how to do one of those!  I could connect with it.  It was familiar.

From that day on I dreamed of spaceflight and traveling to Florida to see a launch.  Over the years there were plans to go, but between launch scrubs, work and just Life in general I wasn’t able to see one until almost 28 years later.

Click to see my video

Click to see my video

Looking south towards Cape Canaveral, I watched as Discovery’s main engines and then the solid rocket boosters roared to life.  Climbing higher and higher, I was amazed at just how bright the business end of this flying machine was.  I could see the telltale white plume of exhaust, so familiar, trailing down from the shuttle, down to the cape.  It marked the exact spot where Discovery had just left from.

About a minute into the flight, something began to change.

I must admit I was hoping, irrationally of course, for the shuttle to get past the point where Challenger did.  I wanted the crew to get past max Q (the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure) and “Go at throttle up”.  Silly, I know, but I was thinking it nonetheless.  Right about the time I heard Houston say those words, it seemed like the fire streaming from behind Discovery started growing…and growing, until it was impossibly long and bright.  Then I realized what had happened.  Off to my right, the setting sun had begun to illuminate the exhaust plume in brilliant shades of red and orange.

From the cockpit I have witnessed some gorgeous sights: sunrise over the Rockies; San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; all from thousands of feet in the air.  Even without the fact that humans were riding aboard its source, none of those compared to the colors and awe of the sun reflecting on and painting this man made cloud.

It was truly, truly awesome.

Of course, after seeing this gorgeous sight I was more than a little disappointed when I thought of how many other sunset launches I had missed.  But I was pleased to hear Launch Director Mike Leinbach say in his post launch briefing:

“I’ve seen a lot of launches, either as a test director or the launch director, and this was the most visually beautiful launch I’ve ever seen…It was just spectacular”

Boy did I pick a good one.


The Lord Giveth?

March 10, 2009

courtesy of

Evidently, the HIV virus evolves so fast that scientists might not be able to develop a vaccine.  The findings were published in Nature a few days ago.

I can’t wait until Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps hear about this one.  Their collective heads are going to explode as soon as they start thinking about how to spin it!!


Will they say AIDS is God’s rapidly evolving punishment for homosexuality or that Satan is so evil because he made the virus good at being subject to natural selection?

Oh wait, viruses aren’t alive.  Does that mean they don’t have souls?