Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mentally Unstable Flight Crew: The Bane of the Airline Industry?

Given the recent tragic Germanwinds Flight 4U9525 crash, has mentally unstable flight crew become the greatest threat of the airline industry?

By: Ringo Bones

Forget religious extremists undertaking brazen 9/11 like attacks using airliners it seems that mentally unstable pilots and flight crew now represent the greatest threat to the complacency of the airline industry. Although air travel is still the safest form of travel on an accident per miles traveled basis, rare flukes like mentally unstable flight crew that the preliminary investigation uncovered was the cause of the recent tragic Germanwinds Flight 4U9525 crash back in Tuesday, March 24, 2015 where the co-pilot with alleged mental health issues named Andreas Lubitz was the ongoing suspect as the cause of the crash when he deliberately locked out the pilot from the cockpit and deliberately crashed the plane on a steep mountainside near Seyne-les-Alpes, France that resulted in the death of 150 people. As a 25 year old plane, the Germanwings plane that crashed was an Airbus A320 – the model that’s been a workhorse of the civilian aviation industry known for its exemplary safety record and reliability.

The only other comparable high-profile pilot suicide / deliberate crash incident was the findings of the tragic October 31, 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 when the plane’s remains was found 0 miles east of Nantucket Island in the Atlantic Ocean that resulted in the tragic loss of 217 lives. Relief first officer Gameel Al Batouti – a veteran pilot of the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War was the prime suspect of the cause of the crash of the EgyptAir Flight 990. 

Rigorous screening of prospective pilots and flight crew may be the solution but the powers that be at IATA had been warning of a pilot shortage as early as next year, given that the airline industry had been expanding at its fastest rate since the 1980s despite of 9/11 and the 2008 global credit crunch. Could the safest form of travel poised to become less safe? With the tragic deaths of German children coming back from a field trip in Spain, the greatest impact of the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 tragedy is probably the Bayreuth Wagner Opera where the lost of bass baritone Oleg Bryjak and contralto Maria Radner could put a damper to opera fans lining up to an opera venue with a global prestige where the waiting period for tickets could be as long as ten years. This is indeed a tragedy of epic proportions.      

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Are Vintage Piston-Engine Planes Still Airworthy To Operate?

Are vintage piston-engine aircraft still airworthy to operate this day and age given that the gasoline used to power them is no longer manufactured? 

By: Ringo Bones 

When Hollywood actor Harrison Ford crash landed his World War II era vintage trainer Ryan PT-22 Recruit on a Los Angeles golf course back in Thursday, March 5, 2015, though he suffered gashes on his head and was described in fair to moderate condition when brought to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Given the situation could have easily turned tragic, I know wonder if vintage piston-engine planes are still airworthy to operate given that the gasoline that was used to fuel them are no longer currently manufactured by oil companies? 

After Clair Cameron Patterson managed to raise awareness of the dangers of tetraethyl lead in gasoline and the subsequent phase-out of such fuel additives by the mid 1970s, it meant the death knell of piston engine planes that are not economically viable enough to be fueled by aviation gasoline whose octane ratings are boosted by non-lead based additives. This is the primary reason why the first piston engine plane to become commercially viable enough to operate by ferrying paying passengers alone – i.e. the Douglas DC-3 – virtually vanished and was considered extinct by the mid 1980s. 

At about the same time of the golden age of aviation – i.e. civilian barnstorming – during the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was mixed with gasoline as a patented octane booster that allowed piston engine compression to be increased substantially which in turn resulted in increased vehicle performance and fuel efficiency. Sadly, the lead free aviation gasoline developed after the tetraethyl lead ban – even though good for everyone’s health - proved to be too corrosive to the piston and combustion chambers of the piston engines used in the Douglas DC-3 had resulted in the slow death of these iconic planes that by the mid 1980s, their engines are operated into destruction with lead free aviation gasoline. Unlike gas turbine engines that can be fueled with anything that burns – like fake Chanel No. 5 – and will still run. 

Can One Fly A Plane With Their Thoughts Alone?

Even though the technology is still at its proof of concept stage, can Tekever’s Brainflight someday allow pilots to fly aircraft via their thoughts alone? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Ricardo Mendes, COO of Portugal based drone specialists Tekever has now become the latest cause célèbre in the tech and aviation world for demonstrating a system that allows a pilot to control an unmanned drone in flight via their thoughts alone. Even though the technology is still at its proof of concept stage, Tekever’s Brainflight has practical implications that go beyond the drone and aviation world – it could make fully paralyzed individuals control their wheelchairs using their thoughts alone. But in the short-term, Tekever is eyeing to market their system that allows individuals with restricted movement to pilot a plane with the same ease as an able-bodied individual. 

In the long term, the firm said piloting of larger jets, such as cargo planes, could be controlled this way without the need of crew on board. However, one aviation expert – John Strickland, an independent aviation consultant based in London – recently told the BBC that the largely conservative civil aviation industry would be unlikely to adopt such technology due to the current perception of Tekever’s Brainflight that the civil aviation industry sees as potentially unsafe. Mr. Strickland said the airline industry was instead currently focusing its innovation efforts towards things like better aircraft construction materials and more economical engines. 

Drone specialists Tekever, which works with security firms, police forces and the military, adopted existing electroencephalography (EEG) technology so it could issue instructions to the software used to give the unmanned drone instructions reminiscent of those “neural interface control networks” featured in late 1990s era episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. EEG works by detecting activity in specific parts of the brain. After several months of training, “pilots” are said to be able to teach their brain how to think about moving a small circle on a computer screen either up or down, which in turn steers the drone left or right.  

“We believe that Brainflight represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products.”- says Ricardo Mendes, chief operating officer of Tekever. However, similar neural interface control systems have origins that go back to the early 1970s. Back in 1974, a computer was hooked up to the human brain via an electroencephalography (EEG) electrode studded skull-cap as an interface by Lawrence Pinneo of Stanford Research Institute.