Tag Archives: aviation

Letter to Lubitz

Liebe Herr Lubitz,

imageWe don’t know each other and have never met but apparently you wanted to introduce yourself to me and the world. I have seen your calling card and so will return your invitation with this reply.

imageI don’t know an awful lot about you. Actually scrub that. I do know an awful lot about you or at least your last awful 8 minutes of life. As I write, your calling card to the world on the Cockpit Voice Recorder is known and the air crash investigators are just opening up your further horrific actions from the Flight Data Recorder. From the little I know of you I’d imagine you could be looking on now and getting off on watching the media puzzlement and speculation as the investigators try to unravel the legacy of your last minutes of life to the rest of mankind that is still interested in wondering why.

I for the moment am one but not out of morbid fascination in your mass murder as let’s face it that is what it was. No, I’m interested in what drove you to that point and why you felt you had the right to take others with you.

imageLots of people suffer (suffered in your case) from depression. Most not as chronic as yours or so the media says. Lots of people suffer from the darkest of thoughts in their own lives. Lots of people, including me, been bullied – you perhaps for your introversion and your chosen route to the Cockpit via becoming a Flight Attendant. Me for my race and skin colour among other things. The difference ends here. The rest of us are all mostly still alive and have not taken our pain out on 149 others plus however many family and friends involved in that last flight.

You have added fuel to an existing debate on mental health by what you did and it can be argued by some – not me – that that is no bad thing. I’m less tolerant. Mental health in our society is a serious issue but very few mental health sufferers pre-meditate an act so diabolical as you did. Many have and will take their own lives but you…? What did you do?

imageYou may not have respected your Captain that day and that’s fair enough. Not all of us get on with our bosses but neither do we murder them. During the pre-flight briefing did you not look into the eyes of the 4 Cabin Crew, of whom you were one once, that you would later put through the ultimate stress of their professionalism trying to calm their terrified passengers we now know were screaming in the knowledge of their impending doom?

imageYou were probably seated in the Cockpit as the passengers boarded and so never actually saw the two mothers carrying their babies for whom you were stewarded to fly safely onward. Please dear God let that be true and not that you were there greeting those coming on board as some airlines will have their Flight Crew do. You probably never looked into the eyes of the 16 students on their way home to parents who missed them and with their whole lives ahead of them. You probably never knew that two Opera singers who raised human spirits were on board who would be included in the same media narrative as you whose lasting legacy would be to sicken human spirits.

You may or may not have thought of your parents, now refugees from their home. What legacy they left on you that may have caused you to do what you did we don’t know yet but now we speculate and there may be some blame there for which sympathy is due to you. But if not, they are already and forever tarnished and extended victims paying an on-going price while your own pain seems…just seems…to be over.


imageAnd then there is your girlfriend….or girlfriends as it turns out. One in whom you confided that you would one day do something that would cause the world know your name and hence why I know it. The other is carrying your child. Whether you knew that we don’t know, nor do we know how she feels carrying your offspring now that she knows what you did or how she is going to explain to that child who its father was when she is asked one day.

You locked your Captain out of the Cockpit. We know now you looked up on the Internet how to do that. We also know you looked up on how to kill yourself. You will have heard his desperate pleas to let him back in. You will have heard the forward Flight Attendants’ attempts to help him before they had to attend to screaming passengers. The aft Flight Attendants would also have been trying to calm and secure passengers – the same crew you sat with in pre-flight briefing. All of your crew but you were trying to save lives. From the early evidence of the Flight Data Recorder you sped up that plane deliberately on its descent in spurts presumably to make your passengers squeal in terror? Among them would have been the two mothers with infants in arms desperately trying to protect them.

image You wanted me to know your name and so I do. You never asked me for my opinion but you’re going to get it. From wherever you are I believe you can hear it so buckle up flyboy and shut the fuck up. There are innocent mental health sufferers all over the world who strive to cope with life without harming another soul. There are bullied people who make it through life without becoming bullies themselves and murderers.

There are also people in life whose actions and legacy defy all reason and who for me are no brainers in wishing the very worst possible on them. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ghadafi, leaders of Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Taliban, Al Shabbab. God will undoubtedly have greater grace on them than I. I’m not supposed to be judgemental but let’s just put it this way. Had you survived and I was on the jury at your trial I will have delivered my verdict on you in under 10 seconds. The Judge at that trial is the one who will do th judging so I’m off the hook I guess.

If there was one caveat I would insist on it would be that you are constantly forced to watch your child grow up and get to that point of one day wanting to know who his or her father was. That’s assuming he or she won’t be the final casualty of your last flight.

Yours Insincerely.

Dawsons Field: Part 1

EL ALThe Pilot suddenly plunged the airliner into a steep nosedive throwing the two hijackers off their feet. Back in the passenger cabin, Flight Attendants grappled with the female on the floor. Also thrown, the male in desperation hurled his hand grenade down the aisle. By some miracle it failed to explode. As he pulled his gun and shot and wounded a Cabin Steward, he was hit over the head with a whisky bottle by a passenger. The last thing he heard was the bullet from the gun of the Sky Marshall that brought the heist to and end. With all passengers shaken but safe, the airliner made an emergency landing at London Heathrow and the hijack was over.

No, not snippet from a thriller novel or my first attempt at a short story but what really happened on EL AL Israel Airlines flight 219 from Tel Aviv to New York via Amsterdam with 148 on board in September 1970. If you have forgotten or are too young to know, 9/11 was not the world’s first spectacular multiple hijacking. Why September seems to be the optimum month for such events I do not know and how much a part the events of 1970 had to play on the timing and style of 9/11 can only be guessed at. As events unfolded, they threw the world at the time into chaos causing acrimony between the UK and the USA, leading an Arab state to implore Israel to strike other Arab states on its behalf, almost bringing the entire Middle East to war, superpowers to loggerheads and shaping the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it stands today.

imageEL AL 219 was one of three international flights originally targeted for hijack along with TWA 741 from Frankfurt to New York with 155 on and Swissair 100 also with 155 on heading from Zürich to New York. What is it about New York and hijacks? The Israeli plane was seized shortly after leaving Amsterdam and due the swift actions of the Flight and Cabin crews the male hijacker was killed in the air and the female, a Leila Khaled, was overcome and handed to the UK authorities where she was interned. What no-one knew, and again in a chilling similarity with 9/11, was that not all the hijackers had made it on board. Two were left at the gate in Amsterdam. Not to be thwarted, these two bought tickets to board Pan American 93 heading from Amsterdam to New York with 162 on board. Seems like hijacking planes was as easy as stealing cars in those days.

Dawsons field

Dawsons Field

With the EL AL jet safe on the ground in London, the TWA and Swissair flights headed to a little known former Royal Air Force Base in Jordan known then as Dawsons Field (Zarka today). The Pan American flight, a Boeing 747 and the largest of the 3 airliners captured, needed a longer runway to land on than Dawsons Field offered. The flight touched down in Beirut to pick up additional hijackers and explosives, and then headed for Cairo. All in a 1970’s hijackerman’s normal working day really.

The last and unexpected piece of the puzzle was the taking of British flight BOAC 775 heading to London from Bahrain with 114 on board. 775 joined the party with the Swiss and American flights at Dawsons Field while Pan Am 93 sat on its lonesome in Cairo.

And so the eyes of the world focused on the remote and little known former RAF base in the deserts of Jordan known as Dawsons Field from where ripples would spiral bringing superpowers and global allies to logger heads and the armies of the Middle East mobilising for war.

(to be continued…)


The Ghosts of Flight 401

When I used to live on the outskirts of Sheffield in the English county of South Yorkshire, I used to love driving my car.  It was the first car I ever owned – a white Ford Fiesta XR2, sports model complete with blue trim and rally racer front lights.   Living where I did, I was close to the wonderful countryside of Derbyshire and I could literally drive down the street outside my flat, turn left at the end and then next stop…the Derbyshire moors.   Friends say I have an in-built ‘satnav’ and I must admit that I do generally have a very good and reliable sense of direction.  Cocky in this belief, what I loved doing most was filling up the tank with petrol, jumping inside the car, rolling back the sun roof, turning the music on and then just pick a road…any road…..and drive.  Just venture off anywhere, picking any turn I fancied at any moment no matter how small or windy the road is.  OK, I did get in trouble a couple of times like the day I borrowed an estate car from work and got stuck in a pot hole half way up a hill or the time when just picking any road lead me to the heart of Telford – quite the most unremarkable town I’ve ever visited – near to the Welsh border.

So what’s all this got to do with ghosts and the mysterious ‘Flight 401’? Nothing, except that my same sense of adventure in the car also applies to some interesting journeys I make some times on the Internet – just browsing to see what’s out there.  And so one link leads to another and another and soon I’m following a trail that leads me to the true story of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401.   It’s not a pretty story, quite harrowing in fact and as a spoiler here for any readers about to fly and of a nervous disposition switch away now.  Why I stuck with the story was because I discovered that the aftermath of this particular air disaster created some sweeping changes that revolutionised airliner Cockpit safety and procedure right across the airline industry that remains in place today.  The other curious legacy of Flight 401 is not proven but well documented which took place months and years after the incident – that of ghostly goings on in the air.

On a dark 29th December night in 1972, EAL Flight 401 was approaching its destination city of Miami, Florida.  On board were 163 passengers mostly travelling to be with family for the New Year celebrations.   Taking care of them were 13 crew – Captain Bob Loft, First Officer Albert Stockstill and Flight Engineer Don Repo – and 10 flight attendants.

The Lockheed L1011 ‘jumbo’ jet was a state-of-the-art airliner at the time.  401 had departed New York’s JFK airport earlier that evening and was preparing for landing in Miami, a route that took it deep over the famous Everglades swamplands.  While going through the procedures to prepare for landing, the flight crew lowered the undercarriage to deploy the wheels when they noticed that one of the lights on the instrument panel that should be lit indicating the nose wheel was deployed and locked – was off.  No nose wheel…no landing.   There was no other way to check the wheel had been deployed. Had it been daylight, Captain Loft could have requested a fly-by past Miami Control Tower so that the men on the ground could visually confirm the gear was in place.

At this point, all 3 of the flight crew became fixated and focussed on the stubbornly dark light switch.  While they tried to deal with the problem….even to try to pull the light out of the instrument panel to check the bulb was working, Captain Loft switched on the Auto-pilot and set it to fly the aircraft at a steady holding height of 2,000 feet.   Air crash investigators believe that it was at this point the key fatal mistakes were made that were subsequently addressed in the aftermath.   Nowadays and precisely because of what took place on board EAL 401, in a similar situation, the Captain’s first imperative is either to take control of the aircraft and secure its stability in the air or delegate it to his next in command.  Unbelievably, such very basic thinking was not part of airborne protocol and while it was absent, it allowed all 3 flight crew to focus on the smaller problem of the light panel….and miss a much bigger danger that would end in tragedy.   A second flaw in flight crew thinking right across the industry at the time was found to be pilots’ over confidence in the Auto-pilot.  What totally baffled the crash investigators was how an experienced flight crew of 3 had allowed the plane to drift from its preset holding height of 2,000 feet.  How could they not notice the plane was drifting downward when the Auto-pilot was meant to hold it in place?

When the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) was eventually located and analysed, incredibly to the investigation team listening back to what took place in the final moments…an automated voice warning of the dangerously low height of the Tristar was clearly and repeatedly audible when the tape was played back.  Why had Loft, Stockstill and Repo not heard it and responded?  This mystery was possibly answered when it was discovered that Captain Loft had on two occasions sent Engineer Repo down into what was called the ‘Hell Hole’ – a small ‘room’ below the Fight Deck near the avionics to physically look through a small peephole made to visually check on the landing gear. In the dark night, for some reason Repo was unableto verify.   The speaker that the automated warning was audible through was located at Repo’s work station.   While he was away in the ‘Hell Hole’ it appears Captain Loft and First Officer Stockstill became oblivious to the warnings as they were fixated on the light and what they thought was the non-deployment of the nose wheel.

That still doesn’t explain why the aircraft started losing height without the crew noticing.  It was only in the months after the crash that other Eastern pilots who flew the Tristar reported odd behaviour with the Auto-pilot if the flight steering column is accidentally nudged when the Auto-pilot has been set. A nudge might deactivate the part of the Auto-pilot that maintains the height.  It is thought that at some point while Captain Loft was working to solve the problem of the light with Stockstill and with Repo below in the Hell Hole, he probably nudged the steering column deactivating the Auto-pilot.  Rather than a severe nose-dive, the aircraft just gradually lost height. With it being dark outside, there was no visual indicator to the pilots such as the ground drawing ever closer through the windows. The last words caught on the CVR indicate that right to the last seconds, the flight crew had no idea they had drifted out of preset altitude so perilously:

Stockstill: We did something to the altitude.

Loft: What?

Stockstill: We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?

Loft: Hey — what’s happening here?

After that there were what sounded like a desperate attempt to lift the plane but the recording ends about here.

Loft and Stockstill perished at the scene along with 2 of the 10 flight attendants. 69 of the 163 passengers survived. Flight Engineer Don Repo survived the initial crash being down in the ‘Hell Hole’ but later died of his injuries. It is thought more could have survived but for the crash site being virtually inaccessible in the heart of the Everglades.  A protracted and very difficult investigation eventually blamed the crash on pilot error at the hands of the flight crew.  Across the world, Cockpit procedures were tightened up to make sure it could never happen again that all the flight crew are diverted away from being in control of the aircraft at all times.  Auto-pilots everywhere were also reevaluated.    The lasting legacy from the fate of Flight 401 has been these changes to inflight procedures but there was another more eerie fall-out that catapulted the incident into aviation and urban legend.

Following the crash and the close of the investigation, Eastern Air Lines gathered up the parts from 401 that were salvageable and still in working order. These joined their spare parts inventory and soon made their way onto other Tristars in Eastern’s fleet.   It was shortly after this time that reports began to come in slowly at first but then ever increasingly from passengers and crew on-board Eastern Tristars of sightings of ghostly figures dressed wearing flight crew uniforms.  Crew who knew the men and saw the alleged apparitions claimed persistently that they recognised Loft and Repo in ghostly form. It was claimed that the aircraft on which these manifestations took place were found to be aircraft that were using spare parts from 401. It was also claimed at the time that the passengers and crew witnessing these sightings had no knowledge about what spare parts came from where on their flights.    As word of the sightings leaked into the media, the legend of the ‘Ghosts of Flight 401’ was born spawning books, movies, documentaries and heaps of speculation.  In an attempt to stem the rumours that were driving nervous potential customers away, Eastern issued an all-staff bulletin that any more reports of ghosts on their aircraft could be a sackable offence.

Interestingly that while doing this, the airline also decommissioned and destroyed all components from Flight 401 either in use or stockpiled.

In a final, cruel irony when the crash investigators combed through what remained of the Cockpit, they discovered the troublesome light that had so enrapt the flight crew. They found that the light bulb itself – a piece of equipment costing around $25 (£12) – was faulty. The nose wheel landing gear had in fact deployed and locked and Flight 401 had always been perfectly able to land.



“Alaska Airlines Ends Prayer Cards on Flights”

Prayer cards? Not normally something I’ve come across when going through the usual pre-flight routine we all do when about to fly: stow hand luggage, un-cross the seat-belt so you can sit down, buckle up, discard foam pillow and rummage through the back-seat pocket in front of you.  Dog eared in-flight mag, equally dog-eared Duty Free catalogue, sick bag, earphones and safety instruction card.  Never ever found a prayer card.

The only times I’ve had to reference faith/religion with flying have been on a return flight to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airlines who play an obligatory Muslim prayer over the Public Address before take off.  I can’t even recall anything similar on all of the 28 flights I have taken between London and Tel Aviv on EL AL  and probably the most obvious place for such an occurance you might think. Other than that I have only ever had need to exercise my faith is when flying EasyJet and I don’t have faith strong enough to even consider Ryanair an option.

I spotted this headline in a re-Tweet from a contact on Twitter so I opened the attached link and found a fascinating new story – well, fascinating for me at least having an interest both in faith and the airline industry stemming back to my childhood dreams of one day being a Flight Attendant for EL AL.    The link lead to a Blog by CNN correspondent Aaron Cooper who posted his thoughts on the impending demise of a 30-year-old tradition by Alaska Airlines to hand out complimentary prayer cards with verses from the Bible with all in-flight meals.   The tradition seems to have been started in the 1970’s by a Marketing Executive (who else) who stole the idea from rival Continental Airlines. The hope was to make Alaska’s passengers feel more at ease in the air with words of comfort in contrast to Continental who presumably used their cards to warn of the chances of Purgatory should their planes suddenly tumble out of the sky.    However it started, next week from 1st Feb the tradition ends.

Readers of my blog know I am a practising Christian but from a look at the content tags on my home page they can see that I write on a number of topics as fancy takes me. What caught my eye about this one was not so much the thought of ‘oh here we go…yet more Christian-bashing’. It was more to do with the reasons the airline gave for ending the tradition.

Alaska Airlines is America’s 7th largest carrier servicing 16.5 million passengers a year.  Since 2006, they decided not to offer a meal service on flights under 4 hours long and when meals were on offer, they were only to First Class, served with the traditional prayer card. On any given Alaska flight there are only a max of 16 First Class seats.  So, you can appreciate that purely from a marketing perspective, the costs of designing, printing, storing and distributing the prayer cards is highly questionable, particularly more so in the current economic climate.  Alaska’s CEO, Bill Ayer,  cites a sharp rise in the number of complaints from passengers who receive the cards over the years and the fact that modern American society is multi-cultural, multi-faith and increasingly secular for the reason to jettison the prayer cards along with the marketing costs.

I can understand and accept all the above.  But it’s not any of that which caused me to ponder and so spend time and thought on this blog.   It was what was said in an email CNN’s Aaron Cooper quoted in his Blog that the airline issued to its registered clientele explaining their stance: “At the same time, we’ve heard from many of you who believe religion is inappropriate on an airplane, and some are offended when we hand out the cards.”   ‘Religion is inappropriate on an airplane’.  Oh really?

There is an urban legend that has been going around for years following the tragedy of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 which crashed into the Pacific Ocean ironically 12 years ago to the day before the airline bans the prayer cards. All 83 passengers and 5 crew were killed despite the heroic battle put up by the Captain and Co-Pilot to wrestle for control of the MD-80 airliner after a catastrophic mid-air systems failure.  The urban legend that emerged after the disaster, which I recall the radio station I work for reporting in our news bulletins, was that after retrieval of the Cockpit voice recorder from the Ocean floor, it was claimed that in the final moments of the flight a woman’s voice could be heard leading terrified and screaming passengers in prayer to belief in God and His son Jesus Christ and therefore as we Christians believe into eternal life after death.  The truth or not of this rumour has been hotly disputed ever since and you can look up for yourselves the claims and counter claims around Flight 261 and the prayer incident just by Googling.

Whether or not the ‘prayer incident’ happened on Flight 261 is not really the point.  I’m addressing Alaska’s email that stated ‘Religion is inappropriate on an airplane’. Maybe if he was still around, the managing Executives of Alaska Airlines should ask a guy called Todd Beamer whether he thought it inappropriate.  You may not recall his name, but everyone reading this will know his story. Todd was one of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 – the 4th plane hijacked on 9/11 and the one on which the passengers fought back.  Todd was a devout Christian. Unlike the rumours of prayer on Alaskan 261, the events on United 93 are well documented and even recorded via various means.  One such event that is on record and subsequently incorporated in all the films and documentaries on United 93, is the moment when Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers finally understood the fate awaiting them.  In between calling his wife on his cell phone and plotting with fellow conspirators on the fight back, Todd was being informed and comforted over the phone by United Airline’s ground staff employee, Lisa Jefferson. In one of the final moments of his life before the famous ‘Let’s roll’ call that started the mid-air fight back, Todd asked Lisa to pray through the Lord’s Prayer with him, which she did.  Those were the last words she heard him say.  Which one of the brave Alaska Airlines Executives has the balls to go round to his grieving widow and kids and tell them that his religion was inappropriate on that airplane?   No, I didn’t think so.

Religion, or faith as I call mine, is never inappropriate anywhere. It is a basic human right to believe and to not believe.  My morbid interest in disasters of all kinds has revealed a recurring theme that is as basic as our human nature that when faced with the realisation of imminent death it is in the very core being of men and women to cry out to a higher power than themselves for rescue or comfort.   It was not  ‘Auld Lang’s Syne’ the string quartet were playing as the Titanic shivered her way to the ocean floor.  It was ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.

I’m never likely to fly Alaska Airlines as I can’t ever see myself travelling all that way to be cold and come back stinking of fish, but I can’t say I’d boycott the airline just as I was nonplussed about compulsory Muslim prayers on Etihad (the best airline I have ever flown with).    I’m nonplussed about the withdrawal or their prayer cards, which has even engaged the big guns of Richard Dawkins and Sarah Palin to make comment.

But in their assertion that ‘religion is inappropriate on an airplane’ or anywhere else? In my view they are stupidly and spectacularly wrong.

There has been some speculation about the timing of the prayer card ban following close on the heels of a new frequent-flyer agreement between Alaskan and Dubai-based Emirates Airlines. Alaska’s senior management deny there being any link between the two.