Modern Times

The Wrong Day To Travel

KLM Asia Asia is big business for airlines.
KLM Asia
Asia is big business for airlines.

It was just another routine flight to Asia. Not uncommon at Schiphol airport, twenty minutes drive from the heart of Amsterdam. KLM has a fleet of aircraft with ‘Asia’ written on their tails: Asia is big business. Flights to Hong Kong and Taibei with Cathay Pacific – my own choice – Shanghai, Beijing with China Airways, Singapore and Bangkok with Singapore airlines. Usually once a day.

When I was a kid, you had one flight a week and that served Zürich, Cairo, Tehran, Delhi, and Bangkok. The flight would then continue via Singapore to refuel and head for points south. That with a DC8 or Boeing 707 with far fewer seats than the modern wide-bodied jets. Air traffic has seen explosive growth in the last thirty years.

The role of the air-traffic controller has increased, too. From standing in a field and waving flags, they use radar and the international language of English to let aircraft know what speed, direction, altitude they should be, and at what time. Anything less than a mile is considered ‘close’ in terms of modern aviation. Bumping into another plane is not something you want to do; even a scratch means long legal processes. When there’s a fatal accident, it’s an even longer process that can take years.

Considering that there are thirty thousand flights in Europe and fifty thousand in America – not including intercontinental flights – the job of the air traffic controller has become extremely complex. Thankfully, much of this is routine and since everybody knows what they’re doing, it means that it all functions correctly. If a pilot makes a mistake, there’s the co-pilot, not to mention the autopilot to help. All in all it’s as safe and as secure a system as you can get.

Given that you’re ten kilometres in the air.

A Boeing 707 in BOAC livery. How many times did I fly on one of these?
A Boeing 707 in BOAC livery.
How many times did I fly on one of these?

We left the age of the mile high club in the 1940s with the introduction of pressurized aircraft. Above a certain height the air’s too thin to breathe, and pressurized cabins mean you can pump the air into the aircraft so that it’s breathable. As a kid I remember the time when I couldn’t write with my fountain pen. It might have been this that led me to study the sciences: I simply couldn’t grasp why the ink flowed out of it to make a large blob on the page. Fountain pens only work properly at normal air pressure.

How could I know?

Fountain pens were around a long time before the advent of the pressurized cabin, and writing with pens on board an aircraft is not something that is considered necessary. Not that this was explained to me at the time of boarding: flight attandants assume that youngsters just get bored. How were they to know that there were those who wanted to write stories to keep themselves from the tedium of international travel.

Leaking fountain pens are hardly the stuff for adventure movies, are they? Nor was the time we were diverted from Tehran to Bahrain because of an unexpected snow fall. Or the time we had to spend the night at Bahrain because of a fire in one of the jet engines. You can’t plan this kind of thing: the weather services can do their best, and the maintenance crews too, but things do go wrong. It’s in the nature of the beast, so to speak. But then, when a system is working well, there’s always a backup and thus we were able to put down at Bahrain on both occasions.

Systems do break down, and maintenance of a system is important for this reason. What’s more, if you’re not looking, how are you going to know that it’s not working properly? That’s the worst case scenario; ten kilometres up in the air, you really are on your own. If you’re a pilot, you’ll have hundreds if not thousands of flying hours that have ingrained the sense of when all is right with an aircraft and when it isn’t.

Because you cannot expect the unexpected.

Inside the airliner of the 1960s and 70s. This is a 707. The DC 8 had three seats to one side. That was luxury!
Inside the airliner of the 1960s and 70s. This is a 707.
The DC 8 had three seats to one side. That was luxury!

So, an aircraft is away from its flightpath. That is allowable, after all. It does happen, but it is rare – like the time we were diverted away from Tehran because of unexpected snowfall. It’s the only time I can recall from my extensive flying career, and airports far better equipped for winter weather. Still, it can happen.

So we have a jet airliner that is away from its flightpath. Unexpected at the best of times, even more so given that there’s no reason for the diversion. Flight controllers in Kiev might have pricked their ears as the plane was ten nautical miles off course. What’s more, it’s near a war zone – that’s okay, I flew over Viet-Nam on several occasions and lived to tell the tale. Nothing for the flight traffic controllers to be alarmed about. As the aircraft reached its maximum divergence of twenty miles, it made to turn.

Now there just happens to be a Russian missile launcher waiting for this particular aircraft to fly overhead. What’s more, it was moved there the day before.

How could the Russians know that an aircraft would be flying off course? It’s not as if you can predict this kind of thing.

Well, that’s the official version for the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. We know it better as MH 17.

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