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Fear of Flying

Nall Report: Accident Trends and Factors for 1996

by 1997 Air Safety Foundation, Airline Owners and Pilots Association

Just before dawn on Wednesday, October 13, 1998, a small single-engine plane took off from Montgomery County Airpark, twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The plane was a Cessna 172 “Skyhawk”—an old-fashioned-looking craft, with its Spirit of St. Louis-style high-wing design. The Skyhawk is the most widely used training airplane because it is so stable and hard to mis-fly. This particular plane had a registration code on its tail ending with the letters “KL,” and was called “Kilo Lima,” for short, based on the words used by pilots to stand for letters of the alphabet. It was an adapted model with an extra-powerful engine and was used mainly to fly traffic reporters over the Washington Beltway for morning, midday, and evening “drive-time” radio broadcasts on the congestion below.

On a typical weekday morning, Kilo Lima would be one of four or five airplanes, plus one or more helicopters, used by traffic-reporting services to observe Washington roads. But this morning, Kilo Lima was alone; the pilots of the other airplanes decided not to fly. A bank of fog was moving over the city, and while conditions were clear at Montgomery Airpark at 6 AM when Kilo Lima departed, the ominous forecasts persuaded the other pilots not to chance a flight. (The most disturbing indication was that the air temperature had dropped to match the dew point exactly, meaning that the air was about to become saturated and fill with fog.)

The usual procedure was for traffic planes to fly south toward Washington along Interstate 270, then make a counterclockwise semicircle along the Beltway to the east side of town, then follow traffic back into the city, toward National Airport. For the first hour after takeoff, Kilo Lima apparently followed this pattern. But its traffic reporter filed few updates in that time, as clouds and fog obscured the roads.

Half an hour after takeoff, the plane had flown its semicircle and was over the Beltway a dozen miles east of downtown. With conditions steadily worsening, the pilot decided to land. He approached the airport at College Park, Maryland, where the fog was too thick for him even to attempt a landing. Next he tried a small airport called Freeway, whose runway is unusually short and narrow. (Montgomery’s runway, by no means large, is 4,200 feet long and 75 feet wide. Freeway’s is only 2,425 feet by 30.) With fog reaching nearly to the ground, the pilot could not see the runway as he descended for approach and landing. He tried to land once but had to abort the approach and roar up into the clouds again at the last moment. He tried a second time and apparently misjudged the runway’s position by 100 yards to the side. Around 7 AM, his plane slammed into the rear bedroom of a house next to the airport, killing the pilot, critically injuring the reporter, and terrifying the mother and daughter who had been in that room only moments before.

Through the day, the story of the crash dominated the local TV news reports. (Ahelicopter from a local Fox TV station—the only other traffic aircraft to go up that morning—had landed safely at Freeway several minutes before, and was on hand for instant coverage of the crash. Helicopters can cope with fog more easily than airplanes, since they can cut their forward speed virtually to zero as they try to find the field.) The next morning, a photo of the blackened wreckage was on the front page of The Washington Post. The prominence of the coverage (as opposed to stories of the several people killed in local car traffic that day, which ran on inside pages) implicitly underscored the riskiness of flight in little planes. A typical reader, seeing the horror of the crash, might be expected to react: Another one has gone down. Why would anyone go up in these deathtraps?

At Montgomery County Airpark, where many people knew the pilot, the reaction was different. Flags went to half-staff, memorial funds were collected, tears were shed. But the other commercial pilots seemed not to act as if they felt a premonitory chill: this time him, next time me. Instead they acted as if the disaster were a puzzle to be solved. What, they wondered, could the pilot have been thinking when he decided to go up that day? Why, once the fog rolled in, did he even try to land—when he had enough fuel aboard to fly to Philadelphia, New York, anywhere that was clear? If he had to land, why on this tiny, perilous Freeway—when so many larger, safer airports were just minutes away? Why no radio contact with air traffic controllers, who might have located him on radar and guided him safely somewhere else? I had trained for a pilot’s license that summer at Montgomery Airpark and had once flown in Kilo Lima. The day after the crash Ifound myself asking the instructors and traffic pilots not “Why keep doing something so risky?” but rather “What went wrong in this case?”

The reaction at the Airpark may sound like simple denial, but I think it included something subtler—and connected to the distinctive View from Above that is the main theme of William Langewiesche’s book, Inside the Sky. At the simplest level, the difference of view involves expectations of safety. The general public assumes the safety of big airliners but views little planes as disasters waiting to happen. But people who fly small planes come to see them as devices with a phenomenal willingness to stay aloft, to right themselves, to swim through the air (in Langewiesche’s wonderful term)—unless a compounding series of mistakes, or a stroke of genuine bad luck that might just as well lead to a bus crash or a fall on a stairway, manages to bring them down. When they do come down and someone dies, as happens on average once a day in the United States, the flying world’s reaction is not to say “Oh God, not again,” but to display an engineer-style curiosity about the chain of missteps and misjudgments (a single failure very rarely causes a crash) that made a presumptively safe system fail.

Langewiesche is known to most readers for elegant books of nonfiction, close in spirit to Bruce Chatwin’s, about exotic places. He has published articles in The Atlantic Monthly and two previous books, Sahara Unveiled, about his travels in and above North Africa, and Cutting for Sign, about the US-Mexican border. He has another identity relevant to this book, which lies in a name that within aviation circles is about as resonant as Lindbergh or Doolittle.

William Langewiesche’s father, Wolfgang Langewiesche, was born in Germany but came to the United States as a teenager in the 1920s. He was a test pilot before World War II, and in 1944—ten years before William was born—he published Stick and Rudder. The book has sold more than 200,000 copies, has never gone out of print, and remains the most influential single volume about handling an airplane. It is written with the gusto of a polemic, whose beginning-to-end theme is that normal, ground-based intuitions are dangerous when carried over to flying a plane. Stick and Rudder begins:

At this very moment, thousands of men, trying to learn to fly, are wasting tens of thousands of air hours because they don’t really understand how an airplane flies; because they don’t see the one fact that explains just about every single thing they are doing; because they lack the one key that with one click unlocks most of the secrets of the art of flying.

The “one key” turns out to be constant awareness of “angle of attack,” the angle at which the wing meets the air.

The book continues in just that spirit. Being the son of such a writer seems to have marked William Langewiesche in several ways. He says that he grew up in airplanes and whiled away his childhood hours studying the ground from the air. He first soloed as a young teenager and paid his way through college at Stanford flying air-taxi routes. When writing about aviation—especially the parts of it he says the groundling does not understand—he shows the same desire to root out wrong thinking that makes his father’s book so lively to read.

Inside the Sky is a collection of essays more than a concerted argument, but the attempt to explain two mysteries of aviation runs through the book. One is why an activity that is intrinsically so marvelous—nearly every child has dreamed about soaring above his hometown streets—should now have come to seem almost unendurable and mundane. The other is why an activity that is statistically so safe should attract such attention when things go wrong. The chance of dying while on a US airline is less than one per million flights. (On small planes, the risk is some ten times higher—but surprisingly close to that of traffic accidents. Each year, roughly one small-plane pilot per 2,000 is killed in flight, compared with one death per 5,000 male car drivers each year. Limiting it to males makes a fair comparison, since nearly 95 percent of small-plane pilots are males. The death rate among female drivers is one third as high as for males.)

The death rate for airlines has fallen by 95 percent since the late 1950s, as reliable jets have replaced piston-driven propeller planes. ^1 More people were killed on US roads in the forty-eight hours after the Swissair 111 crash off Nova Scotia this fall than died on that plane—plus all other commercial crashes in the US in the preceding year. Yet the deaths when Swissair’s MD-11 plunged into the cold sea or when TWA’s 747 exploded in a ball of flame off Long Island in 1996 remain vivid, imaginable, and highly publicized, as road deaths (except Diana’s) rarely are.

The main explanation for both mysteries—the tedium of modern travel and the disproportionate attention to its risks—lies, Langewiesche suggests, with the conversion of air travel to a fully modern industry. Forty years ago, the Boeing 707 became the first jet to enter commercial service, leading the way to much faster and safer travel. Twenty years ago, sweeping deregulation of the airlines began making travel cheaper, too. But air travel has also become more cramped and uncomfortable, with more roundabout routes and stingier amenities and meals—unless you’re flying first class. Overall, the plane has become a bus.

This is much of what dismays Langewiesche. Today’s typical United Airlines flight may seem like Greyhound or Continental Trailways—but for him the vehicle should seem more magical because it’s going up in the air. The magic has disappeared, he believes, partly because modern planes are too modern. For safety and efficiency, big jetliners fly six to eight miles above the earth’s surface. (The planes are safer at high altitude, because they are up above the thunderstorms and freezing-rain layers that are the bane of small aircraft. Their flight is also more efficient, because they can go much farther on a pound of fuel through the thin air at 35,000 feet than at 5,000 feet.) It might seem that the higher the perspective, the greater the drama. In fact, the big planes fly too high to offer interesting views—even when clouds aren’t in the way. One of the very few natural features of the earth’s surface large-scale enough to be dramatic from 35,000 feet is the southern coast of Greenland, with fjords so colossal that passengers stare out the window rapt. (Seeing them requires a daytime, clear-weather flight via Iceland—with a seat on the north side of the plane.) The first glimpse of Manhattan from the air, or of the lit-up sweep of the Los Angeles basin at night, can be breathtaking—but this underscores the point, since passengers see them from planes at 10,000 feet and below, when they are preparing to land. Langewiesche says that his long childhood experience with low-altitude views from his father’s plane taught him to take for granted the “pilot’s integrated sense of the earth’s geometry”:

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