Those magnificent men in their flying machines
It’s the last day of Septemblog, and I’ve failed to blog on three days out of the thirty. That’s a 10% failure rate, which is higher than I would have liked, but on the other hand it does mean that – this entry included – I have blogged for 27 days out of the last 30, which is a far higher rate of posting than I’ve ever achieved before.
I doubt I’ll keep it up, but if I can do two posts a month minimum that would be good.
On to the actual topic of this post – flying machines, and in particular, passenger airliners.
I’ve been interested in aviation right from the age of about 5 or 6 when I vividly remember congregating in the back garden of my house with my Mum, Dad, two of my brothers, my next door neighbours, and my visiting Aunt and Uncle (and their two children) to watch Concorde fly overhead.
The reason I vividly remember that event so well was because I was completely unprepared for the sound that Concorde would make when it broke the sound barrier directly over our house, and I literally wet my pants with fear. Not proud of it, but there you go.
It was a few years later at the age of 10 that I took a flight for the first time, and the intense feeling of acceleration when the plane started the take-off procedure was amazing – although somewhat muted by my adulthood and having been lucky enough to drive some ludicrously fast cars.
Look how far we have come
It amazes me that the human race has been able to develop powered flight, and not only that, but to such a degree that we can take an aircraft like the Boeing 747-400, which (at maximum take-off weight) clocks in at nearly 400,000 kilograms, and not only get that into the air but keep it there long enough to travel to the other side of the world. To put that into some kind of perspective, when Orville and Wilbur Wright developed the world’s first powered, manned flying machine, the Wright Flyer I, it weighed only 274 kilograms and stayed in the air for under a minute for all of it’s first few flights.
It is this amazement that fuels my morbid fascination with aircraft accidents and aviation disasters.
Flying is of course, statistically, the safest form of transport, with by far the lowest number of fatalities per passenger mile. But the flipside to this is that, when something goes wrong, it tends to go wrong big.
Bizarrely I always find myself reading about aviation disasters the night before I have to catch a plane myself, and the "worst" instance of this was shortly before the holiday I took to Tenerife in 2010. Up until that point I’d been blissfully unaware of the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, which remains the single largest aviation disaster (by number of fatalities, and excluding deliberate action such as the September 11 attacks)
In this particular case, a catalogue of human errors compounded by bad weather conditions resulted in one aircraft attempting to take off while another aircraft was taxiing across the runway. They collided, and 583 people lost their lives. A lasting legacy of this incident is that the language used by air crew and air traffic controllers changed significantly in an attempt to prevent repeat incidents – part of the problem in Tenerife was that the air crew on one plane thought they’d received permission to take off from the tower when in actual fact they’d been told to hold – patchy radio communications meant they essentially just heard the words "take off" and assumed all was clear.
Nowadays, the words "take off" are only said to give clearance. At all other times, "take off" is referred to as "departure."
It’s these little changes that occur that contribute to air travel’s safety record. Sure, things go wrong, and as above they tend to go wrong in a big way, but we learn from our mistakes and push onwards, as humans are so good at doing.
Back to Concorde
Some news came out recently that a group of aviation enthusiasts (and Concorde fans) had clubbed together and raised $120 million (or Â£120 million, can’t remember) in a bid to return Speedbird to the skies – all Concorde airframes were grounded in 2003, after a decidedly rocky start to the 21st Century with the 2000 Air France crash (the only crash Concorde ever had) and the "relaunch" flights taking place on the morning of September 11, 2001.
I personally can’t see it happening (Airbus withdrew support and maintenance agreements for the type around 2003 and I can’t see them being particularly keen to start it up again) but it would be nice to think that it could happen.
I was able to sit on board Concorde in 2008 on a holiday to Barbados – it wasn’t flying, obviously, it was stationed at the air museum at Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport.
My overriding impression of the plane was that it was much smaller inside than I’d imagined. There is only room for four-abreast seating (with the gangway down the middle) and headroom is much less than on other airliners, simply because the plane itself is so thin.
A truly incredible piece of engineering, and it’s a shame that we’re unlikely to see further developments in supersonic air travel any time soon – there’s not an awful lot of money in it, there never was (Concorde never really turned a profit for the two operating airlines, although British Airways apparently managed to make it profitable towards the end of it’s operational life) and from an airline’s perspective, there are more money-making opportunities on longer flights with more people than on a supersonic flight that lasts half the time.