The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture


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Since then, for birds the situation has grown dire. From through in the United States alone, civil aircraft struck birds on several hundred thousand occasions, often killing multiples at a time. The toll leveled around , apparently because of the decline in air traffic following the September 11 attacks, but this proved to be a temporary reprieve. By the slaughter had soared to record levels, and with it had come a tendency to blame the victims and persecute them on the ground.

There are some six billion birds in the United States, every one of them an easy target. In theory these are the purposes of goose formations.

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And nature is marvelous, of course. But sometime just before p. Canada geese used to have a better reputation. When they passed overhead in their majestic formations they seemed destined for faraway places. In the early s, however, the situation began to change, after state wildlife agencies came up with a bioengineering scheme whose purpose in part was to enhance state revenues by stimulating the purchase of bird-hunting licenses. The agencies captured breeding pairs of an endangered but supersize subspecies known as the giant Canada goose, and by clipping their wings forced them to settle permanently into authorized nesting grounds along the Eastern Seaboard and elsewhere in the United States.

The offspring of these clipped-wing geese imprinted to the new locations, and, having lost the collective memory of migration, became full-time resident populations. Simultaneously, it seems, other Canada geese may have given up on migration simply in response to changes in farming techniques, which left a new abundance of corn on the ground in the Midwest and the Middle Atlantic states.

The newly non-migratory giant Canada geese settled comfortably into a paradise with few predators, where hunting was frowned upon, where food was abundant, and where there were plenty of golf courses, corporate lawns, and protected wetlands to dominate. Nationwide their population grew from about , in to four million today. In New York they now vastly outnumber their migratory cousins. They are magnificent birds in flight, partly because of their size—with wingspans up to six feet.

But they are also insatiable overgrazers and prodigious defecators—territorial and overprotective of their young, traits they share with many of their human neighbors. So, in a shift of public emotion, they are no longer seen as honored visitors but as vermin and pests. Furthermore, it can be shown that giant Canada geese do actually threaten the flying public. Take their collision record in New York City alone. In June , for example, while landing at Kennedy Airport, a supersonic Concorde absorbed a Canada goose into the No.

Three months later, in September , an Airbus A landing at La Guardia struck more than a dozen Canada geese, including at least one that went into an engine, causing it to torch. In August a Boeing hit Canada geese at 10, feet while descending toward La Guardia: those birds smashed but did not penetrate a cockpit window, cutting the captain with broken glass, and caused him to depressurize the cabin to keep the window from blowing out. Then, in September , a Fokker lifting off from La Guardia ran into at least eight of the birds at feet.

The airplane was severely battered, and suffered the disintegration of the right engine, which penetrated the fuselage with blade shards and shrapnel, missing passengers only by chance. The crew did a magnificent job. With the airplane vibrating heavily and barely able to fly, they nursed it low across Queens to a safe landing at Kennedy.

But it was a very close call. Objective observers of the hazards do not fault geese alone. The experts at assigning blame are two employees of the U. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Their records from through indicate that aircraft in the United States and some U. The birds included loons, grebes, pelicans, cormorants, herons, storks, egrets, swans, ducks, vultures, hawks, eagles, cranes, sandpipers, seagulls, pigeons, cuckoos, owls, turkeys, blackbirds, crows, chickadees, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, parrots, and a single parakeet.

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Over the same period, airplanes officially collided with bats on occasions. Furthermore, they had official collisions with deer, with coyotes, with rabbits, with rodents including porcupines, 74 with turtles, 59 with opossums, 16 with armadillos, 14 with alligators, 7 with iguanas, 4 with moose, 2 with caribou, and one each with a wild pig and a donkey.

There was also an official collision with a fish, though the fish was in the grasp of an osprey at the time. In the murky realm of wildlife strikes, the Sandusky database helps to shed some light. It confirms, for instance, that all of the recorded aircraft collisions with terrestrial mammals have occurred on the ground. The same is true for recorded aircraft collisions with reptiles.

Somehow this is reassuring. Other patterns also become apparent. Although some birds fly above 20, feet, and bird strikes have been reported as high as 32, feet in the United States, and 37, feet in Africa, the density of bird traffic decreases exponentially with altitude. Dolbeer refers to this pattern as the Dolbeer Rule. By his calculation, more than 90 percent of bird strikes occur at less than 3, feet. There is variation, however, in the outcome of the strikes. Eighty-six percent of those reported cause no damage at all, in part because so many occur just above the ground, where most birds are small and impact forces are less because airplane speeds there are slow.

At the slightly higher altitudes, between and 3, feet, the strikes that do occur—some 20 percent of the total—are on average more dangerous, because airplanes are flying faster, and the birds involved are more likely to be large and arrayed in horizontal formation. Which brings us back to supersize, self-satisfied, resident geese. The database shows that waterfowl are the most frequently struck birds above feet, and that among them the most frequently struck are Canada geese. Aside from their sheer numbers, and their year-round presence in busy airspace, no one quite knows why.

Dolbeer himself could not explain it to me. He speculated that Canada geese, unlike crows, are simply too dumb or too ornery to get out of the way. Actually, he seems to have it in for these birds. He respects crows to some degree. He respects ducks, though he hunts them. He made it clear, however, that he does not respect resident Canada geese. He implied that he is just waiting for public perceptions to mature in preparation for an all-out mitigation campaign.

The events of last January 15 were helpful to his view. The geese over the Bronx were flying with their feet tucked up flat under their tails, and their necks and heads extended straight ahead in elegantly streamlined style. Their speed was maybe 50 miles an hour. At 3, feet, they were above the altitude at which bird strikes most frequently occur, but at a level where in their position, about five miles north of the airport, their flight path happened to intersect with the climb slope of jets on standard departures from La Guardia.

It is likely that a few airplanes had passed them in the distance, while coming in or going out, and it is possible that pilots had spotted them, but if so they did not report their presence on the radio, nor could they have in any useful way. They might delay takeoff for an unusually large flock on the runway. If they see birds ahead in flight, they might maneuver gently to avoid them, but within the constraints of a smooth ride. Basically, though, they have to rely on the resilience of airplanes, on luck, and on the sheer size of the sky. It was a busy afternoon at La Guardia, with intersecting runways in use, one for departures, one for arrivals, and snowplows at work on the high-speed exits.

Birds in the vicinity of the airport? At p. US Airways is a typically unhappy airline that has cycled through bankruptcies and mergers for years, and is troubled by pay cuts, union fights, and internecine seniority struggles. The airplane was a European-made Airbus A, about 10 years old, powered by twin turbofan engines, carrying a full load of passengers and five crew.


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It was under the command of Chesley Sully Sullenberger, a quintessential pilot who, at age 57, had accumulated 19, flight hours. The co-pilot was Jeffrey Skiles, aged 49, who in his own right was an experienced pilot. In the cabin were three female flight attendants who were quintessential also, and not in the Singapore Airlines style. One, Doreen Welsh, had joined US Airways when it was Allegheny Airlines, in , and had been working as a flight attendant for more than 38 years.

The other two, Sheila Dail and Donna Dent, had been working for more than 28 and 26 years, respectively. You get the picture. It was a formidable crew. But, anyway, the trip turned out to be short. First Officer Skiles was in the right seat, flying the airplane. Captain Sullenberger was in the left seat, working the radio and tending to chores.


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Climbing out of feet, and accelerating to about miles an hour, they checked in with New York departure control, and were identified on radar and cleared to 15, feet. About a minute later, some seconds past p. Skiles saw them first. An Airbus A on departure weighs more than , pounds. It is agile for its size, and an extremely smart design, but it can no more defy physics than any other airplane can.

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Skiles had no chance to maneuver. The geese struck with thumps captured by the cockpit voice recorder. It is likely that in their last flash of life, when the airplane came upon them, they reacted in panic, as birds do, by folding their wings and dropping. Almost certainly these were the geese that died, falling into the Airbus from above even as it climbed through their ranks. Their numbers are unknown.

Some hit the leading edges—of the wings, the tail, and the curvature of the fuselage around the nose. Others went directly into the engines on each side. The engines reacted with loud bangs and blossoms of fire, in what are known as surges and compressor stalls. Jet engines are air compressors. They compress air with fans and heat, and shove it out the back at high speed.

Surges and compressor stalls result from interruptions of the normal smooth flow, and are usually harmless in themselves, but may be symptoms of serious underlying problems. In this case the underlying problem was that both engines had just been trashed. They responded by winding down. The cabin filled with the stench of incinerated birds. For the purposes of engine certification they divide into small, medium, and large. The small ones are officially allowed to weigh up to 3. Because of the density of their flocks they are the birds most likely to strike multiple engines, and to strike each engine multiple times.

Engine manufacturers have to demonstrate that their designs will continue to produce climb thrust even after being hit by a group of them—one little bird for every 49 square inches of engine inlet, up to 16 little birds in rapid succession. The demonstrations are carried out on engines attached to rigid stands and spooled up to climb thrust. The birds are commercial farm-raised stock, purchased from suppliers.

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They are slaughtered just before the tests, then wrapped in lightweight Styrofoam sabots, loaded into nitrogen-powered pneumatic cannons, and fired into the engines at about miles an hour. The cannons are known as chicken guns, turkey guns, or rooster boosters. The tests are filmed with high-speed cameras, and can be viewed on the Internet in slow-motion videos, some set dramatically to music. In real time the birds pass almost instantaneously through the test engines.

They go in whole and emerge as spray. Animal advocates have objected to this. A researcher in England is trying to accommodate their concerns by creating an artificial standard-density bird—a Jello Bird—that will spare the test birds for some other fate. This turns out to be difficult to do, because real birds, though gelatinous, have bones, muscles, and sinews.

Indeed, there is a concern among some engine specialists that the farm-raised test birds being used today are themselves unrealistic, because they are flabby compared with their wild brethren, who seem to cause more damage than test birds of the same weight. In practice, the industry has come a long way in producing engines that can swallow small birds, and even medium-size ones officially up to 2. The reasons are not difficult to understand.

Modern airline engines are hybrids, called turbofans, each of which contains an old-fashioned jet engine in its core but develops most of its thrust not by shooting high-speed exhaust out the back as in pure jet designs but by reaching forward through itself with a central shaft and spinning a propulsion fan. That fan is what you see when you look into the front of an engine. On the engines that powered the US Airways A, it has a six-foot diameter.

It is really just an air pump, similar to an ordinary window fan, but many-bladed, jet-powered, and enormously more forceful. Even when throttled back to minimum speed on the ground, it is capable of sucking in airport workers who stray closer than about six feet to the engine inlet. More usefully, when it is throttled up to takeoff, climb, or cruise settings, it ingests huge masses of outside air, which it accelerates rearward through the engine casing. A portion of the accelerated air feeds directly into the jet core, where it is compressed, burned in kerosene-fueled fires, and used to spin turbines primarily to power the compressors and fan before being shot as a hot gas out the back.

The blown air is known as bypass air. On the A it provides as much as 80 percent of the engine thrust. The fan, in other words, is the ultimate focus of jet-engine design. Its blades overlap, and are made of strong, flexible, lightweight titanium. These are what birds hit first on the way in. For the birds the encounter is traumatic. In fact, the birds are liquefied. The effect varies little according to their size. Small, medium, or large, they become an instant soup—a bloody sludge that is known in the business as bird slurry, and is said to leave engines with a telltale smell, sometimes enhanced with fishiness after the liquefaction of fish-eating fowl.

This is the stuff you learn only in the field, after airplanes have crashed, or bird strikes have been reported. It requires dedication to discovering truth in such cases, and a certain investment in the idea that accuracy matters. In any case, turbofan engines are self-protective to some extent, because when hit by birds the fan blades may bend without breaking, and sling the bird slurry outward, forcing it to blow harmlessly through the bypass ducts, perhaps splattering against protrusions, but never entering the power source—the critical high-speed components that constitute the jet core.

Furthermore, this is not just brave talk. The Sandusky database indicates that, of the 12, engines reported to have been struck by birds between and , roughly two-thirds emerged unscathed from the encounters. Of the remaining third—the engines reported as damaged—more than 90 percent continued to produce useful thrust in some manner, and only were totally destroyed in flight.

In short, complete engine failures following bird strikes are rare. Canada geese have become fat and fecund. Above feet, they are the waterfowl that airplanes are most likely to strike. Some, however, will inevitably occur. The reason is that, within the constraints of materials science and practical design, it is simply not yet possible to build turbofan engines that can reliably withstand mile-an-hour collisions with birds heavier than the official medium size.

In recognition of these realities, certification standards for the official big-bird test do not require the engine to keep producing thrust, but merely to accommodate its own destruction without running angrily out of control, throwing dangerous shrapnel through the engine casing, or catching fire.

The maximum weight of the big birds used is eight pounds. That is lighter than many birds that populate North American skies, including typical pound Canada geese, but it is heavy enough to ensure the death of the very expensive test engines. These are single-shot tests. Usually a chicken is volunteered for the job.

The destruction starts when the bird hits the fan. Some of the debris exits harmlessly with the bypass air, but as the fan slows and deforms, other debris finds its way into the spinning compressors at the entrance to the jet core, where it sets off a cascade of successive failures, with shattered compressor blades and vanes adding to the destructive hail. In response to the disruption, temperatures inside the combustion chambers may rise so high that the debris passing through is turned to molten metal, which splatters against the downstream turbines, even as they themselves are being warped and destroyed by the heat.

Needless to say, any part of the bird that has made it this far is vaporized. Meanwhile, overall, the engine will likely be throwing tantrums. They banged and flamed and lost thrust—entirely on the right, and almost entirely on the left. But given that they had just swallowed Canada geese, probably by multiples, without exploding or throwing shrapnel into the fuselage, they performed beyond expectation, as it can realistically be defined. The situation was nonetheless inconvenient. Sullenberger tried to relight the engines using the standard clicking igniters, but very quickly it became obvious that this was not working, and that the damage to both engines was severe.

With a near-total loss of thrust, some airplanes would have descended more rapidly from the sky. The old F-4 Phantom comes to mind. It was the heavy supersonic fighter flown by American forces in Vietnam and beyond—a twin-engine, two-member-crew, tandem-seated brute that seemed to rely entirely on muscle to stay in the air, with mere afterthoughts for its wings and its downturned tail. Aerodynamically it was actually an excellent design for the s, but compared with fighters since, it was still something of a pig. This was the airplane Chesley Sullenberger flew in the air force in the late s.

He flew it largely in Nevada, never in combat. Recently he told me that it gave him the best flying of his life, low and fast across the wastelands, or high, very high, and even faster. It is now obvious that Sullenberger was always a superb pilot, however the definition has changed across time, and however many other professional pilots share the same distinction. He grew up as the son of a dentist in Denison, Texas, with an air base nearby. He learned to fly in high school, on a local grass runway in an ancient Aeronca without radios, electrical system, or starter.

He soloed at age 16, earned a private license at 17, and went off to the Air Force Academy, in Colorado, where he was one of the few licensed pilots among the cadets. His enthusiasm for flying became the defining passion in his life. Now, at age 58, he still grows tender about the grace of aerial motion and the fluidity of control.

It is what he really knows. He speaks about it as pilots do, sweeping his hand into a carving bank, or a flat forward acceleration, or, the sure giveaway, a mushing palm-down fingers-raised descent. A mushing palm-down fingers-raised descent is the most beautiful expression of wings. It is why the purest landings are done with no flaps or leading-edge slats, allowing the wings to speak entirely for themselves.

It is also how a Phantom flies after both engines have quit and the airplane has been trimmed up to the recommended miles an hour for the glide. In that configuration, without thrust, the Phantom loses at least 3, feet a minute—a high rate at which to be closing on the ground. There are other problems with dual engine failure in the F-4, including the loss of the hydraulic power that is necessary to maintain control if the airplane is slowed below speeds which keep the turbines briskly windmilling. Nonetheless, though the situation is critical, it is not impossible.

In theory you could shoot across a runway about 10, feet high in your flamed-out Phantom, then bring the airplane around through a series of steep banks to line up on a well-assessed final approach, then make a few little S-turns to tweak the angle, then temporarily slow the descent rate by raising the nose on short final approach into a pre-flare, a descending zoom similar to the one the Space Shuttle performs, and then, just above the runway, flare a second time, maintaining sufficient speed for the hydraulic controls, but trading some of that speed for descent-stopping energy to keep from driving the landing gear through the wings on touchdown.

A perfect pilot with perfect luck on a perfect day could do it all. It would be a glorious occasion. Certainly no perfect pilot would walk away without looking back. But procedures in flight are designed for average pilots with no luck involved. In the case of dual engine failure, F-4 crews were given no chance to be creative. They were required without exception to eject from the cockpit, to punch out and let the airplane go to hell.

Sullenberger never had to. For five years he flew F-4s without drama, until in he left the air force and joined the airlines, where punching out was no longer possible but the airplanes naturally provided for more gradual descents to the ground. Indeed, jet airliners over time have become so reluctant to lose altitude that workaday descents require significant advance planning, and often cannot be performed as decisively as Air Traffic Control desires, particularly when speed reductions are also required.

Sullenberger made the parallel point to me that the latest generations of airliners have grown significantly cheaper to fly per passenger-mile. This is due largely to improvements in aerodynamics, and most fundamentally to the introduction of long, thin, sophisticated wings meant to lift well at high altitude, with minimal drag, and to milk the maximum range from the fuel aboard. Sullenberger flew gliders years ago as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and he worked as a glider instructor for a few summers before becoming a fighter pilot.

But the sailplane experience was less useful than it might appear to have been. More relevant is the fact that modern airliners have become good gliders in their own right, and they prove it daily during routine descents with passengers aboard. Of course, the mark of a true glider is that it has no engine at all, and therefore has no power to apply at the end of a descent. The solution in high-performance sailplanes is to find atmospheric lift, and to ride the rising currents to gain altitude and stay aloft.

Because such sailplanes are capable of losing as little as feet a minute, the merest lift suffices. It is routine after an initial tow to a low-altitude release position to fly full days and hundreds of miles before coming in for a landing.

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Indeed, sailplane endurance attempts were canceled after a Frenchman stayed aloft for 56 hours in , and it was decided that this was getting to be unsafe and ridiculous. The current distance record for sailplanes is 1, miles, flown in Argentina through mountain waves by a German pilot named Klaus Ohlmann in It is obvious that no one will set soaring records in an airliner without power, but experience shows that a total loss of thrust is not necessarily catastrophic. There was the case, for instance, of a British Airways Boeing that flew through a volcanic plume one night over Indonesia and suffered compressor stalls, surges, and the loss of all four engines at 37, feet.

The pilots were hardly relaxed. They were issuing Mayday calls to Jakarta Control, flying the airplane, handling the depressurization of the cabin, and struggling with procedures to re-start the engines. This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are all doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress. One, an aging British woman traveling with her aged mother, turned back to a Jane Austen novel at the first sign of trouble. Apparently, she just was not going to stand for this nonsense. And sure enough, as the airplane descended below 12, feet, the crew was able to re-start the engines.

Engines-out airline gliding is not a sanctioned category, but records exist nonetheless. In August he was flying as the captain of a wide-bodied, twin-engine Airbus A at night over the Atlantic, and was a thousand miles from Europe when he ran out of fuel and lost all thrust in both engines. The airplane belonged to a Canadian charter company called Air Transat, and was carrying people overnight from Toronto to Lisbon. Disapprove if you will, but a run like that took nerve because it was solo and risky.

He served 16 months of a year sentence in a Georgia prison. Afterward he returned to Canada and a checkered flying career, until in , at the age of 43, he managed to hire on with Air Transat, an outfit with the decency not to hold his transgressions against him. He rose rapidly from co-pilot to captain on Lockheed Ls, and transitioned to the Airbus A in the spring of , after four weeks of simulator training at the factory in France.

He liked the airplane—who would not? It was in the morning, local time. They were at 39, feet on a clear black night, with stars overhead but nothing more in sight. He made the turn, and advised Oceanic Control of the situation. It was a. Around this time the senior flight attendant entered the cockpit to discuss the passenger services that would be required in Lisbon.

She left to inform the cabin crew and secure the galleys. A ditching is a water landing. In a jet airliner, a ditching at night in the Atlantic means near-certain death, no matter how good the airplane is or who is flying it.

The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture
The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture The Aisle Seat: Life on the Edge of Popular Culture

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