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Southwest Flight 1248

This is your Captain speaking…

Another incident with a cut rate airline. Hmmm. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

All right. I will not get on my soapbox; I’ll talk about the accident and if I remember I’ll talk about flight safety.

For those of you who do not have access to the ubiquitous, Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 overran the runway at Midway Airport in Chicago this evening while landing in a snowstorm. I have not been able to tell which runway they were trying to land on, but Midway doesn’t have that many, and the ones they use for jet traffic are about the same size, so it really doesn’t matter. As the jet left the grounds of the airport, it penetrated a surface road and trapped two cars underneath the jet. There were no major injuries to the passengers or crew in the plane, but there were severe injuries to the occupants of the cars, at least one of whom is in critical condition tonight in a Chicago area hospital. (This was the 6 year old boy who has since died.)

Those are the facts. Now to the why. (Brief statement about me. I have been a pilot for over 40 years, first with the US Air Force, and then with two commercial airlines, Northwest Airlink and United Air Lines. I flew into Midway as a captain with NW Airlink but with a smaller airplane, a turboprop, and as a 727 captain with UAL, a larger jet than the 737 involved in the incident tonight.)

Airport first. Back in the ’50s, Midway was the busiest airport in the country. It is built on a section of land in southwestern Chicago and is now surrounded by older homes and commercial buildings. It has not aged well. The runways go crossways on the property and are very short for jets, (A square 5280′ on a side has a diagonal of less than 7500′, but the longest runway there is only 6059′ long after the a displaced threshold is taken into account.) None of the runways are certified for automatic landings, so jets have to use much higher weather minimums than a modern airport.

The weather was a fairly hard snowstorm with rapid accumulation. When this happens the airport authority will land jets on a runway, pause for plowing, and then resume landings on that runway. With multiple runways, and Midway has only 2 that are routinely used for transport category jets, most airports can keep landing operations going on at least one runway as they plow the other. This doesn’t work well when the runways intersect, and it is worst when the runways intersect near the centers of the intersecting runways. Midway is the worst case.

As the snow accumulates in low temperatures, a couple of things happen. When a jet first touches down, it has no real effect on the runway other than just packing down the snow. Down the runway and near the turnoff point, it is a different story. In older jets, the engines in reverse blow down hot exhust gasses on the packed snow, causing the top layer to melt and refreeze into ice. In all our jets, the brakes get hot and the heat of the brakes and the heat of compression as the tires stop the jet also cause an ice layer to build. So the turnoff point of a runway, especially one that is short to begin with, is normally slicker than first part. A pilot will get a false impression of the stopping power available to him if he just considers his initial brake application. Another factor is the stopping effect of the engine in reverse. You get a lot more slowing power from the engine the faster you are going, so as soon as you touch down you can slow quickly. But when you are about to turn off there is no reverse effect (actually we are trained to come out of reverse at 60 knots or so. If it is slick out I have been known to keep the engines in full reverse all the way off the runway and be grateful for what little slowing I got from them, because the brakes weren’t giving me much at all.) So the longer it has been since the runway has been plowed, the slicker it is, and the more pilots can be suprised by just how little effect the brakes have at the turn-off point.

Now the airline. Southwest, long a darling of Wall Street, is well known to offer flights at extremely low costs. In the aviation community, they have also been known as an airline who is willing to cut corners. They have only one type of jet, and require their applicants for pilot jobs to already be qualified in that type. Because of this, their training costs are very low. As new cockpit aids became available, Southwest did not buy them until Boeing no longer offered the older navigational aids in their new jets. Their pilots are well known to taxi faster than other airlines, and they are agressive in requesting short cuts in the air. (So was I.) They had an incident at Burbank, California, a few years ago when one of their pilots, high and fast on final, refused to go around, landed long and hot and slid off the runway, out of the airport property, and into a gas station across the street. There was a night when all the United jets had to execute automatic landings at Los Angeles and noticed that all the Southwest jets were also landing, even though they did not have automatic landing systems which were, as far as we knew, the only system with low enough minimums to even start the approaches. This went on until a United pilot asked LA approach about it, and all of a sudden the SWA jets started to divert. Southwest also ran a jet off the end of the runway at Teertobourogh, New Jersey a couple of years ago. All airlines are mostly safe. Making the airline as safe as you can is expensive, and it is an expense that I am not sure Southwest has been willing to pay. And you get what you pay for. If you fly Southwest, that is why your ticket is cheaper. Are you worth it?

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10,000 visitors

At 1:24 EST sitemeter recorded the 10,000 visitor to this website in the near 8 months since I put the meter up. In that time I have been quite humbled to see my daily traffic quintiple. I don’t do this blog for the readers, I do it for myself, but I thank all of you for your willingness to read and revisit to read again a young conservative that hasn’t quite figured everything out yet.

As for the 10,000th visitor, he/she found the website by Googling “Dave Barry Gift Guide” and he/she stayed on the website for less than a second. Jerk. You should be more like visitor 9,994. That person stayed four and a half minutes, and had viewed the site three times.

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