Saturday, March 22, 2014

Aviation/Airline Prep for the Layman

Okay, this whole Malaysian Airlines thing has driven me to the point of insanity with all of the talking heads and so-called experts pontificating about what they know (and a lot about what they don’t IMHO). Although I don’t claim to be a virtual fount of information about the industry, I am one of the “insiders” who can at the very least give you a primer on what these folks on television are chattering on about.

MH 307. This is airline speak for Malaysian Airlines Flight 307. The MH is a two letter code identifying a particular carrier. UA would be United, DL is Delta, WN is Southwest, AA is American, and FL is AirTran (but not for long since they’re being absorbed into Southwest).

ACARS. This is the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. This system, once initialized on the ground by the pilots, is an “always on” system that allows them to keep in communications with their respective carrier’s operations center. It additionally allows the aircraft to obtain performance data for takeoff and landing. Things like aircraft weight and balance, engine power settings, landing flap and autobrake (automatic braking) settings can be obtained through the ACARS. Local weather at departure and destination airports, as well as preflight departure clearances, are also available features that can be transmitted via ACARS. There are other features, including aircraft health monitoring that can be transmitted, but a lot of that depends on what the carrier is willing to pay for through its subscription service.

Departure Clearance. This is how ATC or Air Traffic Control communicates to the flight crew whether their requested flight routing has been approved or if there have been modifications to it. An initial climb altitude is normally specified in the clearance unless the there is a published departure route that has an initial altitude specified on it as well as any other limitations (for example interim altitudes and/or airspeeds). A four digit transponder code is normally assigned at this time which enables ATC to identify the flight while airborne or on the ground since most major airports have the capability to monitor ground movement of aircraft via their transponders (a safety measure).

ATC. We’ve already defined what this means, but this has been morphing over time into a concept called Air Traffic Management. From the time an aircraft begins taxiing from its departure airport until it taxis into the gate at its destination airport, it will normally be under the watchful eye of several controlling entities, this is part of what we call the National Airspace System. Depending on the size of the airport, there may be a ramp controller that controls departures and arrivals at airport terminal gates. There is a “handoff” (or change of control) to and from the ground controllers who are in charge of all taxi routes to and from the active runway(s). The tower controls all of the airborne traffic within the airport traffic area as well as all traffic on or crossing any runway. Departure and approach control facilities are transitional services that bridge the gap between airport and enroute traffic controllers. If enroute traffic schemes are like highways in the sky, then departure and arrival routes are like on and off ramps.

Enroute Air Traffic Management.  When you hear people talk about ATC, this is normally what they’re referring to. The enroute portions of our national airspace system are divided into various centers. Here in the lower 48, they would be: New York, Atlanta, Cleveland, Washington, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Boston, Indianapolis, Fort Worth, Houston, Memphis, Seattle, Oakland, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver. Each of these centers is composed of various sectors and each sector is manned by an air traffic controller who keeps a watchful eye on those aircraft transiting their area of responsibility. The transponder or “squawk” codes are how the controller identifies and keeps track of those flights. Each time an aircraft flies into or out of a specific sector or center airspace, there is a handoff process that takes place between the respective controllers.

Aircraft Navigation. How aircraft follow these highways in the sky is through the use of navigation equipment. There are two types of navigation systems that can be used: Those that are self-contained aboard the aircraft like the INS or Inertial Navigation System or those that utilize external signals like ground based radio navigation aids or satellite based navigation (i.e. GPS). Most commercial aircraft have a combination of all three systems at their disposal. These are all tied in together via a flight management system or FMS. Depending on the needs of the carrier (foreign or domestic routes, or both), the FMS will have a database of navigational waypoints, airports and their associated arrival and departure routes, as well as any instrument approaches applicable to runways serving those airports.

FMS and Automation. The flight management computer is the heart, soul, and brains of the aircraft. Any and all information that is applicable to the flight is entered via a control unit (also known as the box) with an alphanumeric keypad, multifunction buttons and a display screen. ACARS information is sent, received, and displayed through the box as well. Performance information received via ACARS can be used to control various aspects of the aircraft’s flight envelope. Engine power settings for climb and cruise are tied into the autothrottle system while waypoints for departure, enroute and arrival procedures can be sent to the autopilot through the FMS. There is a flight mode control panel on the glareshield that allows the pilots to control the vertical and horizontal flight modes of the aircraft with the autopilot engaged.  In certain cases the aircraft is capable of flying itself from shortly after takeoff all the way to a safe landing, depending on an airport’s navigation facilities. The level of automation can be tailored to whatever the needs of the flight crew are at any time.

Emergency Equipment. There are rafts, slides and other pieces of emergency equipment too numerous to get into here, so we’ll just focus on the two items that seem to be getting the most attention, the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) and the passenger oxygen masks. There are two types of ELTs that can be onboard an aircraft, both of which transmit a radio signal that can be picked up by aircraft and ships. The fixed version, which is mounted in the tail area may either be armed or activated from the flight deck. In the armed mode, the ELT activates once it experiences a sudden deceleration or G force on it. The portable ELT has similar features, but in the armed mode is activated by salt water. The passenger oxygen system is controlled from the flight deck and is either placed in the armed or on position. In the armed position, the masks will deploy from their storage positions once the cabin altitude reaches a predetermined point. Once activated, passengers are breathing a mixture of cabin air and pure oxygen. Normally this system is operational for approximately 15 to 20 minutes. It is designed to allow for an orderly descent from high altitudes to a safe altitude where the masks are no longer required.

Black Boxes. This term is a misnomer since these items are actually orange in color. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder are systems designed to record information on a continuous loop.  The loop is interrupted once an event occurs of significant magnitude to cause a break in the recording of data. The boxes are located far enough in the aft fuselage of the aircraft that they will survive most “crashes”. In the case of an overwater incident, the boxes have an underwater acoustic locator beacon to aid in their recovery. According to the aircraft manufacturer (in this case Boeing), the beacon is capable of operation for approximately 30 days.

I have my own ideas as to what happened with this aircraft, but rather than add to all of the noise already out there, I figured that giving everyone an expanded view into what’s been going on, should help to clarify things.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I’m not one to fall for or put out conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder whether the attacks at the Consulate and annex in Benghazi weren’t cover for the alleged disappearance of several hundred anti-aircraft missiles more affectionately known as MANPADS (man portable air defense systems).

We know that Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi at the request of the Secretary of State to oversee a special project. That project, per various media sources, turned out to be the buyback of weapons used during the civil war in Libya. The idea behind the program was to keep those weapons out of the hands of the more radical elements involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, lest they migrate to other parts of Africa, the Middle East, or even further afield.

The Administration has been slow in bringing the perpetrators of these attacks to justice. After having identified one of the planners, and knowing that this individual had been conducting interviews with the international press, I find it difficult to believe that we cannot gain access to this terrorist or his cohorts. The administration is blaming the Libyan government for being obstructionists and keeping us from putting either law enforcement or military personnel on the ground in Benghazi. Why?

The 2012 election cycle has come and gone. The President is still in office, so there’s no longer any reason to maintain the fa├žade of being a tough guy on foreign policy. Is he protecting Hillary Clinton and her possible bid for the presidency in 2016? Had she come clean about what really happened that night, her chances of gaining her party’s nomination would have not taken much of a hit since almost four years would have passed between Benghazi and the 2016 election season. I keep coming to the conclusion that something bigger is going on here, something so big that its coming to light would add even more fuel to the fire and embroil the administration in an even larger scandal.

I alluded earlier to the attacks being cover for the theft of anti-aircraft weapons. Here’s why I think this a plausible scenario:

  •  We know that Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi to oversee the progress of a weapons buyback program. It was deemed important enough for him to be in a part of the country where the Brits and a slew of NGOs had pulled out due to how dangerous things had become.
  • Requests for additional security were denied at the highest levels of the State Department chain of command. Why? Possibly because they didn’t want to draw any unwarranted scrutiny from outside sources, especially if this program was supposed to be one that flew under the radar. There are reports that a number of locally hired security personnel either walked off the job the day of the attacks or just failed to show up for work. I find that extremely interesting, even more so when you couple that with reports of these facilities being under surveillance by unknown individuals in the days leading up to the attacks. 
  •   The witnesses who were on the ground in Libya and personnel manning crisis rooms and command posts at Foggy Bottom and Langley had been conspicuously absent in the halls of Congress when it came to testifying about what happened that night. The Administration has been dragging its feet in allowing these folks to go before House and Senate committees and tell them what they knew and when they knew it. Why?
The loss of four American lives in Benghazi, including the first U.S. Ambassador since the 1980s, opened another wound in the American psyche that has yet to be closed. Had this just been another attack by a group of jihadis looking for payback on a day they felt held some sort of symbolism for this nation, I might be able to understand it. But this was more. I have a sneaking suspicion that they knew those weapons were there and they had a plan in place to acquire them. I’m reminded of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies where the villains contrived some sort of crises where the attention of the authorities and public were diverted elsewhere while they carried out attacks on their true objectives. Rather than boil this down to life imitating art and an implausible scenario, it would be prudent to keep in mind that diversionary tactics have been an essential part of military campaigns since men first learned how to make spears.

Fast and Furious dealt with a gun walking scheme involving Mexican drug cartels that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mexican nationals and a U.S. Border Patrol agent. The Administration, specifically the DEA and the Attorney General have been excoriated by Congress over this failed attempt to track where these guns were supposedly going in the wider War on Drugs. Imagine what would happen if these anti-aircraft weapons wound up in the hands of jihadis or other unsavory groups who used them to damage or bring down military, law enforcement, or commercial aircraft in Africa, the Middle East, or even Europe. Not a pretty picture, is it? So one can imagine the Administration’s reluctance to be forthright and candid about what really happened in Benghazi, especially if those weapons can be traced back to that State Department buyback program.

Just a little food for thought.

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  -Sherlock Holmes-

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hostages of the Boomer Brain Trust

Why is it that our modern society is being held hostage by the peccadillos of a single generation? I’m not just talking about a few things here and there. I’m talking about wholesale failures that affect our culture and country, things that have been occurring over the course of this generation’s adult lives.

I alluded to the fact that the Baby Boom generation (see Boomers) was at fault for a lot of what we’ve been subjected to over the course of the past 45 years.  I’m now going to make the claim that they, not unlike big government types (they’re nearly synonymous, since they’re now in charge, for the most part), have been trying to undo everything that they may have caused, only to create even worse problems in the process.

Let’s look at the individual versus the collective good, for starters. The phrase “it’s your thing, do what you wanna do” was emblematic of how Boomers came to think in the mid to late sixties and onwards. Prior to that, society reigned in the sort of self-centered, hedonistic, deviant behavior that this generation became known for. Societal mores/values and norms, the very things that helped police a society and keep it from decay, were being challenged on a continual basis. Now we hear that the individual needs to become subservient to the demands of the group.  Initiative, self-sufficiency, boot-strapping, and acting in one’s own self-interests have become virtually taboo concepts because they supposedly promote the same kind of behavior that boomers were synonymous with, and we can’t have that, can we?

What if I said that sexual promiscuity, out of wedlock births, and the crime rate are all interrelated? Sexual promiscuity is, by its very nature, a risky behavior, and there are consequences for any behavior (good, bad, or indifferent). In this case, one of those would be an unwanted/unexpected pregnancy. When it happens to individuals in at-risk groups, such as poor, uneducated teens who are unable or unwilling to care for those children, then it becomes problematic. Those children run the risk of a troubled childhood, one that may eventually lead to a life of crime. Rather than address the root cause (sexual promiscuity), the Boomer brain trust went after the unwanted pregnancy aspect of things, which is why contraception, abortion, and a woman’s right to choose have become political third rails.

The number of high profile mass shootings by deranged individuals over the past 18 months (especially the shootings of elementary school children and their teachers in Connecticut) has renewed the debate over gun control. I’m going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that the two high profile deaths in the NY subways were also the handiwork of the same type of individual, but you won’t hear much about those cases because they don’t add to the gun control narrative. Those who advocate more stringent gun control measures at the state and federal level continually overlook the fact that this sort of event is infinitesimally small when compared to the deaths that occur on the streets of our major cities on a daily basis. Anyhow, back to the mass shootings. In just about every case, the assailant has been someone who was known to have some sort of psychological issue/defect that would have in days past, kept them isolated from the general public. Nowadays, the mentally ill roam our streets with nowhere to go. You see them in parks, on street corners, and in my case, riding the local transit system here in Chicago. Again, rather than looking at the pathology driving these individuals and what can be done to help them, the Boomer brain trust focused on the weapons used as the root cause of the problem. Sort of like the carpenter blaming his tools for shoddy workmanship.

We now shift to education, the third of the four horsemen of the Boomer apocalypse. It wasn’t that long ago that we turned out some of the best minds anywhere. From kindergarten through grad school, our educational system was the envy of the world. But something happened at the elementary and secondary school levels to change all of that. More folks from the Boomer brain trust got the idea that they could change how kids learned and that certain curricula they were studying were superfluous to where they were trying to take things. Physical Education (gym class), music, and art became relics of a bygone era. New math, whole word reading systems, and the wholesale abandonment of the skill of cursive writing supplanted the traditional mainstays of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. Recently, sedentary lifestyles, ever expanding waistlines, and plummeting test scores have forced quite a few of the so-called experts to jump on the “getting back to basics” bandwagon and bring back some or all of the programs that had been previously cut. But all of that seems to have come with a hefty price tag. There will be a need to increase the funding of already bloated budgets to make it happen, despite the fact that before everything went away, it was all done without anywhere near the monetary outlays we see that are either planned or taking place today. Worst of all is the fact that given our current economic malaise, there are going to be very few of these programs that see the light of day.

The generation gap was something that played out across the cultural landscape of this country back in the late sixties and early seventies. The mistrust that existed between the Boomers and previous generations (i.e. the establishment), was the result of a lack of clear communications channels (misunderstandings), as well as the influence of certain sources within and outside of this country’s borders. Today it’s the boomers, who instead of trying to make genuine, constructive connections with the younger generations, have sold them a bill of goods since they became the establishment. Late stage Gen-Xers and Millenials have expressed the feeling in poll after poll that the American dream seems to be slipping through their grasp, why? They’ve been bombarded by academia, the media, and politicians with the message that things are the worst they have been since the Great Depression. The situation is hopeless, the system is broken, and no amount of effort or initiatives on the part of anyone will change that. Just like the depression era proposals put forth to pull America out of its malaise, government is being touted as the only solution that’s going to work. Yet this is the very same government/establishment that the boomers railed against.

The Boomer brain trust has an Achilles heel, hubris. They decided that previous generations, when they held the reins of power, had no clue as to what they were doing. Now that they’re in power, things are going to be different. They know what needs to happen and will brook no dissent when it comes to accomplishing their agenda. The previous mistakes that they made were part of the learning curve and are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Remember the no consequences part because that plays a big part in their philosophy (or rather pathology). Someone or something else is at fault for why you are in your current predicament, but have no fear, they can extricate you from your situation if you will only entrust them with the keys to the kingdom.

So, if arrogance is stupidity taken to new heights and hubris is arrogance run wild, just what does this tell us about the Boomer brain trust and their ability to muck things up for the rest of us? You can draw your own conclusions.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Immigration Reform Now?

 I’ve been watching the immigration reform debate taking place in the halls of Congress, the media, and amongst the public and I’m struck by one thing. Why another piece of sweeping legislation and why now?

We all know that illegal immigration has been a longtime problem that keeps getting pushed off for another day, but do we really need to address this issue now, given all of the problems we have with laws being passed that we’ve come to regret?

The Patriot Act was enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It was supposed to give law enforcement agencies and the national security establishment new tools to be able to go after those who would do us harm. We’ve come to find out in the wake of a former federal contractor leaking details of specific programs to certain press outlets (after he hightailed it to Hong Kong) that our privacy was one of the first casualties in the Global War on Terror.

The Internal Revenue Service is supposed to be the Federal Government’s enforcement arm for the Affordable Care Act (more “affectionately” dubbed Obama Care). This law was rammed through Congress without much in the way of debate, introspection, or inspection. We now have a monstrosity on our hands that will do very little of what had been touted by its supporters and cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars. It recently came to light that the IRS targeted conservative groups in the run-up to the 2012 election cycle, was responsible for leaking confidential info on one organization’s tax records to a rival group, and has been embroiled in additional scandals ranging from extravagant conferences to employees behaving badly when it came to taking care of their financial obligations. So the question that comes to mind is: do we really want to put the fox in charge of the hen house?

The financial crisis that put us in the worst recession since the Great Depression was the impetus for the banking and finance reform law known as Dodd-Frank. The problem here is that it really does nothing to keep the very same big banks and investment houses from going down the same road that got us into trouble in the first place. The folks who will suffer the most are the small banks that can’t possibly comply with the mandates of this law (many of which have yet to be written) which by default, means not much competition for the big banks and the legions of compliance folks they have at their beck and call.

Regardless of your politics or party affiliation, as far as any pending legislation on immigration reform goes, ask yourselves these questions:

  • Are the immigration laws that are currently on the books being enforced? If not, why not?  
  • Do the reforms being planned address loopholes in current immigration law? If not, why not?
  • Do the reforms being planned impose additional costs on an already strained federal budget?

My guess is that not much good will come out of any new legislation, since the push to get this out seems more geared towards a lead-in to the 2014 mid-term elections. So here we go again, rushing to pass more legislation that doesn’t look like it’ll stand any chance of genuine debate or scrutiny because one side feels that they could gain political advantage with its passage and the other fearful about what passing or not passing it will do to their chances in future elections.

Here’s my advice to Congress. Quit thinking about your job prospects and start thinking about doing your jobs. You might actually figure out that taking care of the latter enhances your chances at the former.