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 (The death rate for small planes has fallen by two thirds in the same time.) 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”:
It wasn’t until college, when I took an air-taxi job and began carrying passengers for hire, people unaccustomed to flight, that I realized that there was anything unusual about the view…. For me it was like witnessing Stone Age people seeing photographs for the first time, getting used to the scale, then turning with growing excitement from the magic to the content of the picture.
These passengers had ridden on the airlines but had been herded into their cabin seats, distracted by magazines, and given shoulder-height, triple-pane windows at right angles to the direction of flight…. And now suddenly they found themselves in a cockpit wrapped in glass, awash in brilliant light, in a small airplane lingering near the ground.
The big surprise of the low aerial view is how much more connected various terrain features seem than from ground level or from five miles up. Downtowns peter out into suburbs, the good and bad parts of a city run seamlessly into each other, rivers and roads make surprising links. The effect is to make neighborhoods of a city seem more cozily conjoined than they do from the ground—and to make all human settlements seem punier and more limited than they inevitably do when viewed from their own streets and sidewalks. Two predictable surprises for the novice pilot are how enormous the sky seems—you spend all your time looking for other planes, and except around airports you rarely see them—and how little the cities seem, compared to the land all around. Even on the East Coast, towns look like islands in a sea of forest and farms. From above, the most interesting parts of the scenery are the isolated parts made by man. As Langewiesche says,
The aerial view is something entirely new. We need to admit that it flattens the world and mutes it in a rush of air and engines, and that it suppresses beauty. But it also strips the façades from our constructions, and by raising us above the constraints of the treeline and the highway it imposes a brutal honesty on our perceptions. It lets us see ourselves in context, as creatures struggling through life on the face of a planet, not separate from nature but its most expressive agents. It lets us see that our struggles form patterns on the land, that these patterns repeat to an extent which before we had not known, and that there is a sense to them.
Langewiesche is too far into his lifetime’s flying experience to sound euphoric about the act of flight. He says that after one takeoff above a Nebraska prairie years ago, after he had had some four thousand hours in the air, he realized that he felt just as much at home in the sky as on the ground. “As I looked back over the leading edge of the wing slicing stiffly above the frozen prairie, I realized that no difference existed for me between the earth and the sky; it was as if with these wings I could walk in the air.”
The strongest emotional note in the book—apart from its general impatience with those who don’t understand—is the sense of doomed melancholy with which Langewiesche de-scribes one winter season of night-cargo flights. Frustrated with his writing during the day, preparing for perilous bad-weather takeoffs at night, he felt “cold and tired and underpaid, and I could not help resenting my cargos of last-minute gifts and unimportant documents, the casual spinoffs of smarter or more certain lives than mine.”
The best recent book that conveys what Langewiesche doesn’t, the thrill of the air, is Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck, a comic masterpiece published early last year.2 As teenagers in the mid-1960s, Buck and his brother Kernahan flew coast to coast in a tiny Piper airplane with no radio. They were then the youngest people to have flown cross-country; the joy of the book, however, is the hilarious tension with their father, a barnstorming pilot of the 1930s who had become a desk-bound publishing executive in Manhattan.
For most readers the real news in Langewiesche’s book will be its clear-headed analysis of flight safety. An early chapter in the book, called “The Turn” and based on a widely discussed Atlantic Monthly article from 1993, explains the aspect of flight safety hardest for most people to believe. Training and licensing for flight is divided into two very different categories: “visual flight rules” and “instrument flight rules.” The main reason for the division, as Langewiesche makes marvelously comprehensible, is that everything about flying an airplane is different if you can’t see the ground. It’s not that the airplane itself behaves differently, or even that you don’t know where you’re going; simple magnetic compasses could deal with that. The fundamental problem is that in a cloud you cannot tell, through normal bodily senses, whether you’re turning, falling, climbing, or flying upside down.
In part this problem reflects an achievement in aircraft design. If turns are flown in a proper “coordinated” fashion, the floor of the plane will always feel to passengers and pilot like “down,” even if it is at ninety degrees to the earth’s surface. The effect is similar to a car turning on a banked racetrack: the centrifugal force of the turn is offset by the angle of bank. The prove-it-to-yourself illustration that Langewiesche offers is that while a passenger plane is maneuvering and banking, attendants nonchalantly pour coffee that goes “down” into the cup, not down toward the earth. Moreover, the balance-sensing mechanism in the inner ear is very easily confused in flight—after a few seconds, for instance, a sustained turn can begin to feel like straight-and-level flight. The result is that “seat of the pants” flying, in which one relies on bodily sensations to maintain the proper flight attitude, is almost invariably fatal in the clouds. Without realizing it, pilots sooner or later aim the plane right toward the ground.
Forty pilots were hired to carry US air mail in the 1920s; thirty-one died in crashes, mainly because they became disoriented in the clouds. That was before William Ocker, James Doolittle, and Roger Sperry developed the gyroscopic “artificial horizons” that allow instrument-trained pilots to maintain their bearings when they can’t see the horizon. Even now, at least half of all fatal small plane crashes are classified as “controlled flight into terrain”—that is, a pilot unintentionally cruising his plane into a hillside or level ground. I understood this problem in one way after reading Langewiesche’s chapter—and more vividly after my first experience in “under the hood” instrument-flight training. In this exercise the pilot wears a “hood” or mask that blocks the view of everything except the instrument panel. (Meanwhile, a “safety pilot” in the other seat is looking out the window for other planes.) The first time I did this, every signal from my body told me that the plane was flying straight and level—but when I looked at the dials, they showed unmistakably that it was falling off to the left. Only by doing what felt like continual “climbing” and “turning” to the right could I avoid flying it into the ground.
This kind of disorientation accounts for one of the two airline disasters Langewiesche examines at length in the book. Twenty years ago, a Boeing 747 operated by Air India took off at night from the Bombay airport and promptly flew a graceful leftward arc into the Arabian Sea. Its final descent into the ocean was flown in smoothly “coordinated” fashion, so the more than two hundred passengers on board probably sensed nothing amiss until the instant they hit. But the pilot, a highly experienced veteran with 18,000 flight hours, for some reason violated the fundamental rule of instrument flying and trusted his bodily senses rather than the instruments. Both his gyroscope and the copilot’s apparently showed the extreme bank to the left that was the plane’s actual course, but (as the plane’s cockpit recorder showed) they wondered through their final seconds, as the plane plunged toward the sea, why both instruments should have “failed” at the same time.
Disorientation accounts for only exceptional disasters in airlines—Langewiesche presents the Air India case as an instructive anomaly—but is a very serious hazard for small-plane pilots. Indeed, its relative importance in general aviation accidents helps to explain the otherwise puzzling reaction to tragedies like the Kilo Lima crash in Washington.
“General aviation” is the catchall term for the roughly 180,000 airplanes in United States that belong neither to commercial airlines nor to the military. (Commercial airline fleets total roughly 5,000 planes.) The more closely these general aviation planes resemble big airliners, the safer they are. Private jets make up about 5 percent of the general aviation fleet (just under 10,000 planes) but account for only 2 percent of fatal accidents. This, as has been said, is because jets are more reliable than piston-driven propeller planes; because they are more likely to be owned by corporations and flown by professional pilots; and because, like their airline counterparts, they’re able to fly over rather than through hazardous weather. Yet despite their higher actuarial risk, the pilots of flimsier, more vulnerable, and much more numerous propeller planes can tell themselves that the peril of their activity is largely within their control.
Each year the Air Safety Foundation, an arm of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Maryland, publishes the Nall Report, an analysis of accident trends. Each year the report shows that most accidents arise either from weather problems (33 percent of all fatalities) or from “maneuvering” (26 percent), which generally means gratuitous activities like buzzing someone’s house. These incidents may or may not involve “pilot error,” but they fundamentally reflect pilot choice—especially, the choice to go ahead and fly when the weather is threatening, as in Kilo Lima’s case. (Accidents arising from outright equipment failure are much less frequent. Crashing on takeoff, usually because of engine failure, accounts for 13 percent of fatalities—but many of these crashes involve the pilot’s failure to check for condensed water in the fuel lines.) “An assessment of ‘pilot error’…tells us little more than that ‘the airplane crashed,”‘ the most recent Nall report says. Rather, the fatal incidents involved “decision errors” about when and why to fly the plane:
Skill problems were responsible for a large proportion of minor accidents, and decision-making problems predominated [in] more serious accidents.
General aviation pilots can, therefore, tell themselves that their own cautious behavior will eliminate much of the risk, leaving a residuum explained by mechanical failure and bad luck. But as Langewiesche points out, normal airline passengers lack even that degree of control. Choosing among “safer” and “riskier” airlines is no comfort. Recent studies have indicated that there is no statistically significant difference in death rates among US and European carriers, from the cut-rate ValuJet to the super-cautious Swissair. This may partly account for the attention given to air disasters: precisely the fact that they’re so removed from individual control. A small plane is riskier on average, but a pilot tells himself that the crucial choices are his. Many say that normal driving is even more worrisome, since one is vulnerable to the drunk who veers across the center line. A commercial flight poses far less risk than either a highway trip or getting into a small plane, but what risk there is lies utterly beyond the passenger’s ability to influence.
From his analysis of the 1996 ValuJet disaster, in which 110 people died as flight 592 plunged into the Florida Everglades, Langewiesche concludes that the risks of commercial flight will, if anything, become more uncontrollably random in the future. Airline crashes of the past were mainly caused either by “procedural” or “engineering” problems. A procedural accident occurs after an obvious mistake, as in the Air India disaster; an engineering accident occurs when a wing, engine, navigation system, or other crucial part of the airplane has failed. These problems are in theory correctable; as they have in fact been reduced, the accident rate has declined.
The crash of the future, Langewiesche says, will be the “systems” accident, like the one that brought down ValuJet 592. In such cases the very complexity of the modern air-industrial complex means that things unforeseeably go wrong.
The layman imagines that “systems” disasters might center on the beleaguered human beings who run the air traffic control system. If the stress becomes too great or the controllers glance up from their radar screens for a second, they will lose track of the planes whizzing through the air and allow them to run into each other—or so the layman might fear. In fact, Langewiesche says, air controllers exist primarily for economic rather than air-safety reasons. They help pilots keep track of each other, but pilots would do most of that on their own anyway. What controllers primarily do is to maximize an extremely scarce resource—landing slots at the nation’s busiest airports—by sequencing flights in and out as quickly as possible. The source of pride for sophisticated controllers, he says, is not “in the collisions they avoid—an issue that almost never comes up in the manner the public imagines—but in the pressure they keep on the runways.”
The controllers—like the pilots—fundamentally did what they should as ValuJet 592 was heading toward the earth. The disaster could be traced back to confusing instructions for handling the oxygen canisters being transported on the plane. The crew of several mechanics working on the plane between flights—and doing so in a hurry, because of ValuJet’s rapid expansion in the cut-price flight era—had to make a subtle distinction. Among the thousands of items to check on the plane were the canisters that produce breathable oxygen if the plane’s normal pressure system should fail. The canisters generate oxygen by means of a chemical reaction, triggered by a small explosion, that also releases tremendous heat. The surface temperature of a canister may reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit during this process. As normally mounted in a plane, the canisters are separated from each other—and from any flammable material.
The maintenance workers checking the plane had to distinguish among canisters that were still safely usable and those that had “expired”—that is, were past their official service life—and had to be taken out of their normal mountings, stored someplace, and eventually shipped to a depot for reprocessing. But just because a canister was “expired” did not necessarily mean that it was “expended.” To be “expended,” a canister had to have fired off its detonator and no longer be able to produce oxygen—or heat. Therefore, while all “expired” canisters had to be taken off the plane, the ones not yet “expended” needed to be handled with extreme care. In principle, every “expired but not expended” canister should have been equipped with a safety cap before being placed in storage, lest it go off and create a conflagration by chain reaction.
Not surprisingly, some mechanics failed to make this distinction. The difference between expired and expended canisters would have been confusing enough for anyone; and it was all the worse at the Miami airport, where large numbers of the mechanics were non-native speakers of English. Not surprisingly, ValuJet flight 592 ended up with a number of expired-but-not-expended canisters in its hold. One or more apparently detonated, creating a fire that brought the plane down.
Regulations will be written to keep this precise problem from recurring in this exact form, but they can’t foresee every problem (including those that may someday be shown to have caused the Swissair crash and even that of TWA flight 8003 ). This uncertainty, Langewiesche says,
explained our continuing discomfort with the [ValuJet] accident. Flight 592 burned because of its cargo of oxygen generators, yes, but more fundamentally because of a tangle of confusions which the next time will take some entirely different form. It is frustrating to fight such a phenomenon. At each succeeding level of inquiry we seize upon the evidence of wrongdoing, only to find after reflection that our outrage has slipped away.
After tragedies like the Kilo Lima crash, small-plane pilots know they face risks—but tell themselves that the degree of risk is within their own control. After disasters like those of ValuJet 592, TWA 800, and Swissair 111—rarer, yet more disturbing—passengers are reminded of how little control they have.
January 14, 1999
The commercial and technical forces that created the industry now dominated by Boeing are analyzed in Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry by Donald Pattillo (University of Michigan Press, 1998). This account emphasizes the crucial but complicated role of government in the aircraft industry. Military contracts were the main advantage for early US manufacturers, but they also created a “cost-plus” mentality that has been difficult to shed as the military’s aircraft purchase budgets have gone down. ↩
Flight of Passage: A True Story (Hyperion, 1998). This is not to be confused with Flights of Passage by Samuel Hynes, published ten years ago, an eloquent memoir of how teenagers learned to become aerial warriors during World War II. Where Buck’s book is built around comic mishaps, Hynes writes with an elegiac tone reminiscent of Robert Graves. He had become a professor of literature at Princeton by the time he wrote this book. ↩
Current evidence suggests that TWA 800 crashed after an explosion in a fuel tank, apparently caused when an electric spark ignited gas fumes. In “The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference” (The New York Review, April 9, 1998), Elaine Scarry presented the hypothesis that the ultimate cause of the spark could have been electronic interference from outside the plane, perhaps from military operations in the region. The Joint Spectrum Center, an official organization based in Annapolis, is now studying evidence about the electrical field strength that may have surrounded TWA 800, and will soon present its findings to the National Transportation Safety Board. ↩