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Aircraft accidents

It has not been a good last few days in the airline industry. Today, a passenger jet crashed in Venezuela, killing its entire passenger muster of more than 160 people. A Cypriot airliner crashed in Greece at the weekend, killing its entire passenger list and crew. And a few days previously, an Air France plane had a crash near Toronto, but fortunately all the passengers survived.

There is probably no direct connection to all this but it is a harsh reminder that, even in an age of ever-improving safety standards, air travel carries its hazards (and of course that is even before we get to the terror issue). It is also makes me aware that the skies over southern Britain, for example, are crammed with aircraft and it is still amazing that not more accidents occur than is the case. The volume of aircraft now flying to and from Heathrow’s mega-airport is extraordinary and continues to grow. The margins for error when it comes to potential collisions must be razor-thin.

15 comments to Aircraft accidents

  • Jacob

    “air travel carries its hazards…”

    Ground travel too. I read somwhere that ground travel (by car, not horse) is more dangerous.

  • You could get the impression the air was crowded if you listened to the air traffic controllers union or others who make a living out of this.

    Stand in southern England on a clear day and look up. How many aircraft do you see? You might see one if you are near a nav beacon and another some minutes later.


  • 1327

    Its pretty amazing really. I looked up at the sky this morning and as usual saw the transatlantic flights heading north , under them the flights to and from Manchester were coming and going while below them fly the little Cessnas and whatever. It all relies on radio communication and navigation technology invented in the 1940’s and 50’s. If you ever get a chance listen to an airband radio and you will be amazed just how busy it is up there.

  • GCooper

    Mike Borgelt writes:

    “Stand in southern England on a clear day and look up. How many aircraft do you see? You might see one if you are near a nav beacon and another some minutes later.”

    Clearly, you don’t live in London, where the procession of aircraft of all types and sizes is more or less constant throughout the day.

    I can think of quite a few parts of Southern England where the situation, though not as congested, is still pretty bad.

  • J

    Crowding is a relative concept. I’ve a friend who is a commercial pilot, and he assures me that the airspace around London is very definitely crowded. There may be lots of gaps between the aircraft from the point of view of a car driver, but airliners go rather fast, and can’t turn corners very quickly.

    Likewise, when you cross the English channel, you may think it looks like a lovely empty expanse of sea, with a few distant container ships on the horizon. When you cross it at night in small boat, and you remember that those ships take a good half-mile to stop, and about the same to make any kind of change of direction, it all seems a bit different. Remember too, that those aircraft are unable to see anything for much of the time, too.

    It may seem unlikely when you look from the shore, but in about 12 channel crossings, I’ve ended up on a collision course with other boats at least twice. When the fog comes down, you really hope the people in the big boats are looking at their radar.

  • Julian Taylor

    Well, Johnathan does live in Southern England, in fact he lives on the main Heathrow approach, so I’m pretty sure he knows about volume of air traffic. The problem we still have in London is that because of the nighttime restrictions (Heathrow closes to all airtraffic between 11pm and 5.30am or thereabouts) we get a dense number of flights arriving back-to-back between 5.30 and 8.00 am, as in one flight every 30 seconds or so.

  • Daveon

    THe problem, as somebody else said, is the relative speed aircraft go and the limited approach vectors to airports.

    Another less often reported problem is that the turbulance left by the wake of another jet air liner is enough to bring down even a relatively large aircraft, This is a fairly serious constraint on the way controllers can use airspace around a given airport.

    Driving on the M4 in the middle of the day and you’ll see aircraft stacked in pretty tightly on approach and takeoff from LHR.

  • 1327

    There are gadgets out there that allow you to see exactly how busy it is up there.

  • It’s still much, much more dangerous to drive.

    The main difference is that most drivers see the risk of injury or death as something that can be avoided with due care, while flying in a passenger jet gives you a great sense of helplessness, since you are literally at the mercy of another individual who you have never met.

  • What about the old saw that airplane crashes always come in threes? Does the Air France non-fatal crash count? If so, we’re likely to have a couple of years with no fatalities at all in scheduled commercial air service. That, when you consider the volume, is a tribute to the effectiveness of the air safety systems.

  • Mike Borgelt

    Please note I said unless you live near a nav beacon.

    These concentrate air traffic wonderfully. Visual Flight Rules light aircraft pilots try to avoid them as we all use GPS and pretty much fly from point to point.

    If you listen to an airband radio you will quickly get the impression the sky is crowded. Radio has very low bandwidth for conveying position information. About 4 aircraft near a given location and you’ll hear nothing but the pilots talking to each other(in uncontrolled airspace).

    That 1940’s and 50’s equipment has now been supplemented by a wonderful device called TCAS(ACAS in Europe) in airliners to catch the not all that rare occasions when ATC screws up.


  • Air travel is, in fact, far safer than that automobile or other land transport. I will be surprised if the Venezuelan crash is not terrorism.

  • Daveon

    I will be surprised if the Venezuelan crash is not terrorism.

    Frankly I’d be astounded if it was.

    Pilot reported engine power out, then a second power out. MD aircraft have gone down like this in the past.

    I think it’s a slam dunk for a “typical” (if there is such a thing) crash.

    I’m far more interested in the Helios air 737 crash. Loss of cabin pressure like that is really rare on commercial aircraft, although it probably did for Paine Stewart.

  • Tedd McHenry

    The margins for error when it comes to potential collisions must be razor-thin.

    “Razor-thin” is subjective, but the flow of air traffic near major airports is very orderly, and provides margins for error that aren’t difficult to stay within. The density and proximity of traffic is regulated by rules that cover everything from the number of aircraft a given controller can handle to the spacing required to allow for wake turbulence, and too many other factors to list (even if I knew them all, which I don’t).

    I can’t speak for Heathrow, but in North America the traffic density is prevented from exceeding established limits by flow control, a system under which an aircraft isn’t allowed to leave its departure airport until there is an available time slot at its arrival airport. I would be very surprised if Heathrow didn’t operate under a similar system.

    A good example of how well-run the air traffic system in western countries is would be what happened on 9/11. In a few hours, all non-military aircraft in North America were on the ground, including a huge number of commercial jets diverted to Canada — far more than the system in Canada would ordinarily be required to handle. This was more-or-less improvised on the spot (but within limits imposed by the regulations) and went off without a hitch.

    I’m sure there is a greater chance of collision in busy airspace than in not-busy airspace, but it would be a mistake to think that the system is in any way chaotic or intolerant of errors.

  • vamvakos

    Good morning!
    Can you tell me please if there is autopilot set on an aircraft and the aircraft goes along the en route course, what happens when the aircraft ends its en route part and enters the phase of approach in case nobody is “available” to steer it?