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Fear of flying is like riding a roller coaster
I have received a lot of comments and messages on my blog about the fear of flying. I had been meaning to write about the topic for a long time, but I hadn’t found the right way to approach it. In her comment, a reader of mine compared flying to a roller-coaster; that’s where I got the idea for this article.
Fear is wisdom. If we didn’t have a sense of fear, our species would have gone extinct long ago. Evolution has made sure that fear – that powerful feeling we have learned from the experiences of our ancestors – is encoded in our genome. Many phobias are still inherited in their original form today. For example, some people are afraid of snakes, while others have a fear of spiders. Most people have a primitive reaction at the very least when a tarantula creeps along their arm. Evolution is an ongoing process, so it is only natural that individual experiences, in addition to inherited ones, also influence fear. These experiences can also be a tool for managing fear.
Fear is a feeling a person experiences subjectively. When asked about the reasons for fear, it may be difficult for someone to explain why they are afraid of snakes, for example, but not spiders. The same is true when it comes to the fear of flying. Often those who fear flying do not give a clear reason, but instead they begin to list different frightening scenarios or simply say that “the plane might fall out of the sky, or something”. A common factor is often the fear that something bad will happen to oneself or one’s child. For this reason, becoming a mother might trigger a fear of flying. (Please don’t stop here, new mothers, keep on reading!)
So, people have a natural need to feel safe.
On a roller-coaster and on a plane, people seek safety by white-knuckling the edge of the car or the arm rest, as though it were the tree branch one might fall from and become a predator’s meal. On a roller-coaster, then, the brave ones are the ones with their hands up in the air. It’s also a sign for others – body language – saying “I’m not afraaaaaaaaid!”.
People also turn to others for safety. The brakeman is wonderful – a teenage girl’s dream. Outside of the amusement park, it could be a police officer or firefighter. A person who is seen as brave and safe is attractive. On this man, even weathered coveralls look good. Add mating instinct into the mix and you’ve found an ideal candidate for a husband. With him, you will be guaranteed a life of security.
On a plane, those seeking a feeling of safety can turn to the cabin crew, as well as the pilot. Cabin crew members are very knowledgeable and know how to relate to the fear of flying. But the best person to turn to for safety may be your spouse or friend sitting next to you. One doesn’t need to know anything about flying if he/she knows how to emnolden others and to give them a sense of security.
Are brakemen, police officers and firefighters brave? Am I brave myself? Brave is usually a word we use to describe another person. He or she does something that I feel is brave. They most likely do not think of themselves as brave when doing their work. I think they are probably thinking that they are just doing their job.
So why do I go on roller-coasters? I think it would be foolhardy to go to an amusement park in the capital of a country where corruption puts ticket revenues right into the owners’ pockets, leaving the equipment rusty, the place dirty and some of the roller-coaster cars without wheels. But I do dare to go on the roller-coaster at Linnanmäki in Helsinki, even if it scares me a little. I’m not afraid to join the queue to be frightened, because I believe that the amusement park rides have been safely designed and inspected. And, after all, there’s still the brakeman! Subconsciously, I understand that it is safe. The attraction of contraptions like roller-coasters is, however, based on the idea that customers feel they are conquering their fear. I risk going on a ride in which the car creakingly climbs up to dizzying heights and dives down from there at a furious pace towards the ground, only to veer off after the next bend into a frighteningly dark tunnel. After the ride, I step out of the car with my legs shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush. I conquered my fear. I was brave.
After having gone on the ride another twenty-two times that evening, there is no longer that rush of adrenaline. Boring! The brakeman is probably bored too. Should I try going on the adults’ ride next? I realise then that the fear was relative, and my bravery questionable. I have gotten rid of my original fear.
When boarding a flight, you do not need to gather extra courage either. You have made the decision to leave and you recognise that air travel is one of the safest things you can do. In order to be brave, all you have to do is…
Let go of your fear and maybe put your hands up in the air as a sign to others – “I’m not afraid!”.
And enjoy it this time, the next time it might already be boring.
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Rajmund Kozma was worried about what would happen if a Total Glass Cockpit Blackout, i.e. a simultaneous blackout of all electronic display units (CRT or LCD displays), were to occur during a flight. This is an understandable concern as there have been some such incidents.
Airbus, the supplier of Finnair’s fleet, has recorded 50 incidents in which three or more of the six main display units (DUs) have blacked out simultaneously durintg the last 25 years. The blackout of all six display units has occurred only seven times.
In an aircraft, the likelihood of a major electronic defect is in the range of 10-5, or one failure per 100,000 flight hours. In most incidents where all display units have blacked out, the reason has been a double defect – two defects happening at the same time. As the likelihood of such a defect should be extremely small, the electric system needed modification. The conclusion was that the main reason was the fault tolerance of one of the main buses (AC 1). In May 2007, Airbus published Service Bulletin SB A320-24-1120,9 which included a request to make a modification (37317). The modification improved the ability of the aircraft’s electric system to adjust to any failures in the AC 1 bus coupler.
Another significant point is that none of these 50 incidents led to a disaster. In most blackout cases, only half of the display units have blacked out. In this case, one of the pilots has all display units available. If all display units black out, the plane can be flown to the closest airport by using the so-called standby instruments on the captain’s side of the cockpit. The standby instruments consists of an artificial horizon, airspeed and altitude indicators as well as a fluid compass. The instruments get its data from different sensors than the main displays do and the required electricity comes directly from batteries.
An aircraft could depart to a commercial flight even if one of the six display units did not function. With the cockpit switches, data related to the current flight phase can be fed to the remaining display units.
The cause of the blackout of several display units is likely related to power supply. In a two-engine aircraft, both engines have generators which can supply power independently to all systems in the aircraft. The electric system is roughly divided into two separate systems. In case of a defect, one generator can feed power to both sides. However, if there is a short-circuit or a similar situation, the other side (or at least the single defective bus) must be kept separated. In this case, some monitoring instruments are left without power. Nevertheless, as for their power supply, all devices using AC and DC current have been divided logically so that the flight can be continued safely. For this reason, an aircraft always has at least two of all essential devices. If there is a defect in both generators, power supply can be ensured with the so-called APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), which is located in the tail cone of the aircraft. Even if the APU was out of order, there is still two options: a generator can be extended from the fuselage, generating energy in a windmill-like manner. In addition, some devices can be powered directly by batteries. Depending on the type of the aircraft, there are two or three sets of main batteries.
Consequently, the likelihood of being a passenger in an aircraft experiencing a total cockpit blackout is very, very small. And even if such blackout occurred, it would hardly cause a disaster.
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Airplane: another technical gadget
Airplanes, like all technical gadgets, face bugs, faults and defects from time to time. When preparing for a flight, the crew is notified of any defects on the airplane and the defects are compared to the so-called minimum equipment list which includes all the devices and equipment that must be functional. For example, of the three VHF radios used to communicate with air traffic control, the so-called “radio number two” (VHF-2) can be out of order in our Airbus planes for three days provided that the VHF-1 and VHF-3 are fully functional (usually just one radio is used at a time).
Some defects require technical and/or operational procedures, and the captain is responsible for overseeing that these procedures are carried out. The list is quite conservative. For example, if the light of the emergency exit in the cabin is not working, only as many passengers will be allowed on the aircraft as would be approved by authorities when the whole emergency exit is out of order. Even though, in case of an emergency, the door would function just as it should.
Naturally, a defect can appear during flight. In order for the defects not to risk flight safety, every important device has a back-up system and the most vital ones even have back-up systems for the back-up systems.
Here’s an example: landing gear. Landing gear always has two sets of tyres so it won’t be a disaster even if a tyre deflates or there is a problem with a brake. The landing gear also has two detector systems showing the position of the gear. This means that a light or sensor defect will not cause unnecessary emergency preparations in the cabin.
The landing gear also has at least two operating systems. If the gear cannot be lowered with the normal hydraulic system, it can also be dropped down manually. On the other hand, there is only one nose gear steering system as it is not a necessity for flight safety. Landing can be done in an absolutely normal manner even if the nose gear steering system is defective. The only thing is that the plane cannot taxi to the parking spot without assistance. If the way from the runway to the taxiway is a gentle turn (so called high speed exit), the aircraft can be steered away from the runway used by other aircraft using aerodynamic controls (rudder) and asymmetrical braking.
In case something fails when the plane is in the air, the flight crew will go through an electronic or paper check list. With the help of the list, they will try to reset the system. If resetting does not help, the crew will go through the list so that every influential matter will be taken into account. In sudden situations, the checking of the lists will start only after the “known by heart” items. All these are practised annually in a simulator. Also, the cabin crew go through yearly training regarding what to do in case of an emergency.
One of the challenges of being a pilot when something is not working as it should, is that you cannot just park your plane on a cloud for further investigations and democratic decision-making. Decisions have to be made in a changing environment where the pilot must take into account the type of the defect, weather, sufficiency of fuel, the lengths of the runways at alternate airports, direction of the wind and many other things. Sometimes the passengers must just accept the pilot’s decisions, for example landing in an alternate airport. Of course, when the situation is over, the goal is to get every passenger to their destination with minimum delay.
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On spherical navigation
Juhani Suntioinen was looking for a story about long-distance navigation, so here it comes.
Commercial aircraft are normally equipped with two GPS receivers, so on a long-distance flight we mainly navigate with the aid of GPS. Although we would able to fly the shortest and most direct route to the destination, the route still needs to be planned so that it follows airways. This is done mainly because of air traffic control reasons. Airways consist partly of navigation beacons, such as VOR- and ND- beacons. By beacon I refer to a group of antennas – not to a beacon of a traditional marine lighthouse. These ground-based navigation beacons ensure safety when a GPS signal is not available for one reason or another (that is: there is a malfunction in the GPS system or the aircraft).
Most of the waypoints are beaconless points, normally with a five-letter name. Typically they are located at the intersection of two airways or at the boundary of air traffic control areas. Consequently, it is possible to use names instead of coordinates. This makes planning and radio traffic faster and decreases the possibility of human error. While en route, we try to find short cuts from one waypoint to another in order to save time and fuel and reduce emissions.
GPS navigation devices always follow a great-circle route. For many of our readers, this concept may be a bit unfamiliar so a little summary is probably in order.
As we know, the Earth is a sphere. A spherical surface cannot be presented on a two-dimensional map without errors. Depending on the map projection, the map of the Earth distorts angles, shapes, distances or surfaces. The map that is perhaps most generally used at school and in press is based on the Mercator projection where all meridians and parallels are perpendicular to each other. However, this projection exaggerates the size of circumpolar areas: Finland is nearly the size of India and Antarctica is bigger than all the other continents combined. On a Mercator map, the shortest distance, i.e. the great circle line, becomes distorted and bends towards the poles as the spherical surface is “stretched” at the poles when drawing the map. For this reason, in aviation we use gnomonic maps in circumpolar areas and for other areas Lambert conformal conic projections where a great circle is nearly straight. If you have a round globe map at home, it is easy to determine a great circle between two points by using a piece of thread, for instance. So, the word “great circle” is not very descriptive as it refers to the shortest distance – not the greatest: if one were able to drive along it with a car, one would not need to turn the steering wheel. Consequently, it is not a circle (except when thinking of it as a circle around the centre of the sphere). I wonder who came up with such a monstrous word. I suggest that it be replaced with “shortline”!
As meridians converge at the poles and consequently are not parallel as in the Mercator projection, the direction in relation to the great circle changes accordingly. The closer to the poles one is flying, the greater the change in the actual direction. When flying to the north and the south, there naturally is no change – and the same applies to flying to the east or the west on the equator. When looking from Helsinki, the great circle network is rather surprising. For instance, the great-circle route from Frankfurt to Tokyo goes over Helsinki. Finnair’s long-haul traffic strategy is based on this fact. We hold a key position between Central Europe and Asia. You can draw different great circles here, for instance.
When measuring on a Mercator map, the first thought might be that the fastest route to Tokyo is to take the direction of St. Petersburg (108o) and then fly over Russia, northern Kazakhstan, Mongolia, north-eastern China and North Korea, altogether 8,782 kilometres to the destination. However, Finnair heads for Joensuu (051o ) and flies the entire route over Russia directly to Tokyo. The distance is “only” 7,849 kilometres. The difference is 933 kilometres! What do you think, which route gets you there fastest?
The longer the distance in the east-west direction, the more surprising the great circle. For instance, the great circle from Singapore to New York goes to the north (357o) over Cambodia towards Chongqing in China, from there through Mongolia and Russia, near the North Pole to Canada, arriving to New York from the north. A less knowledgeable person would head towards the southern tip of India, over Yemen, across Sahara and over the Canary Islands and the Atlantic Ocean to New York. Via this route the distance would be 3,160 kilometres longer. You can see the differences between routes for yourself here, for instance.
In reality, a flight is carried out along airways following a great-circle route as closely as possible and optimising the route and the en-route altitude according to winds and temperatures at that moment.
Wishing everyone short long-haul flights,
HEL: N 60° 19.0′ E 024° 57.8′
NRT: N 35° 46.0′ E 140° 23.3′ (Tokyo)
NYC: N 40° 38.4′ W 073° 46.7′ (New York)
SIN: N 01° 21.6′ E 103° 59.4′ (Singapore)
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If you want to practice aviation in Finland, there is one thing you need to master – winter operations.
Finnair has always been a trailblazer for winter flying. At the very beginning, this involved operating on sea ice with planes that had been fitted with skis, as this photo from 1928 demonstrates.
It shows Finland’s first ever commercial airline pilot, Gunnar Lihr, demonstrating a coal-burner steam boiler he had devised to Aero’s (later Finnair) founder and first ever director Bruno Lucander, seen on the right. The ingenious device acted as a heater for the Junkers 13’s L-5Z engine, circulating hot water through pipeworks that acted, in a complete role reversal, as a water cooling system during flights.
Since those days, Finnair has distinguished itself as an expert in on-ground icing and as a developer of sensors and de-icing fluids.
Despite immense technological advances, Mother Nature does not make things easy during the winter season. Even today, jet engine compressor vanes must be checked carefully for ice prior to ignition. If ice has formed, it is removed using blowers. Aircraft wings must also be cleared of snow, ice and frost prior to take off. Today, this is done using water and propylene glycol-based detergents. The glycol is used to prevent the water from freezing but many readers may be surprised to discover that the solution is up to 50% water. The first step is to spray hot type I fluid at high pressure. This breaks down the ice mechanically and clears any snow and frost that may also be present. If there is a risk that snow or frost may re-form on the wings, thickened type II or type IV fluid is then applied to the wings, again at high pressure. The fluid is designed to melt any fresh snow and prevent it from adhering to the wing.
The pilot is then responsible for assessing the holdover time, or the time the treatment can be expected to continue to offer protection to the wings, using a series of tables. Relevant factors include the temperature of the wings, the amount of precipitation, wind speed and, naturally, the type of fluid used and amount of glycol it contains. The viscosity must be such that the fluid flows off the wings during the acceleration prior to take off. If the holdover time is exceeded while the aircraft remains on the tarmac, retreatment is required. Fortunately, this is extremely rare.
Performance values are calculated for each takeoff. The gross weight, wind speed, atmospheric temperature, air pressure and, importantly, the friction coefficients recorded on the runway are used to calculate flap positions and speeds, the so-called decision speed V1, rotation speed, the speed at which the aircraft takes off and the minimum safe speed airborne V2. If there is major disruption prior to decision speed, such as engine failure, the aircraft can be brought to a halt on the remaining stretch of runway. If the disruption occurs after decision speed has been reached, the takeoff will be concluded and all obstacles are calculated to be cleared, even with one failed engine.
When operating on icy and slippery runways, particular care is taken to account for the width of the cleared runway in the event of engine failure. The friction coefficients must be such that, in the prevailing wind in an asymmetrical thrust situation, the aircraft can be maintained within the cleared section of the runway. If the coefficients are not sufficient and the cleared area is not wide enough, the aircraft will not be able to take off.
In thick cloud, temperatures may often dip below zero, even in summer. The precipitation in the cloud can form ice on the leading edges of the aircraft wings and engines, which are still cool following time spent at higher altitudes. These edges are kept free from ice thanks to so-called hot engine bleed air. In addition, all external sensors and cockpit windows are electrically heated.
The aircraft’s altitude is calculated using air pressure. As the air thickens in colder conditions, the actual altitude can be lower than that indicated, i.e. the altimeters can “lie”. To account for this, the so-called obstacle clearance must be included in all minimum altitude calculations.
As with takeoff, performance value calculations are repeated for landing. The prevailing runway and weather conditions are used to ensure that the aircraft will come to a halt on the correct runway. In icy conditions, the crosswinds must be sufficiently low to allow directional control even though rudder control is reduced as the aircraft decelerates. The directional control is possible in large part due to the anti-skid system on the breaks, which, as many readers will know, has also been adopted by car manufacturers over the years.
Taxiing the aircraft in icy weather can prove challenging, as is demonstrated on this video.
The most significant risk factor for winter aviation is posed by airports which rarely experience true winter conditions. In recent years a number of key international airports, including Amsterdam, Paris and especially London and Frankfurt, have been caught off-guard by significant snowfall and been forced to close runways following minor snow cover amounting to just 10cm. In the past decade, Helsinki-Vantaa Airport has closed for only a matter of hours due to weather.
A snowfall of 10cm may not sound like much, but for an airport the size of Helsinki-Vantaa, it equates to 7,000 lorry loads of snow. So far this year, we have had a total of 180cm of snow, equivalent to 126,000 loads of the white stuff. The snow is never cleared completely from the area, but is instead transferred from one area to another. In my opinion, both Finnair and Finavia, the service provider, have managed this side of the operations impeccably. Finnair has a good fleet of de-icer vehicles and thanks to Finavia’s 120 strong staff and 50 specialist vehicles, the runways are closed for just 10 minutes out of every full hour, even in heavy snowstorms.
Delays are often calculated in minutes, not in hours. Usually, a dozen or so vehicles are dispatched to clear the runway in a single run. The vehicles are fitted with snowploughs, brushes, blowers and friction meters as well as a range of other equipment. Driving in formation at 60kmph, it does not take them long to clear a runway. The largest vehicles are manufactured by the Finnish Patria-Vammas.
One should not forget, however, that the hardware alone will not guarantee success. To run an airport smoothly through a winter season takes seamless cooperation and careful planning by the airport service provider, air traffic control, airlines, handling companies and all other operators.
The insufficient resources available at the central European airports in recent years have led to the airports and airlines affected suffering financial losses amounting to millions. In my opinion, it is simply not right that airlines and their passengers, who are charged significant navigation and landing fees, should bear the brunt of badly maintained airport facilities. An airport like Helsinki-Vantaa, where safety is considered of paramount importance, is also highly efficient and, as a result, pilot-friendly. I suspect I am not far off in suspecting that the passengers, too, appreciate prompt service.
Already looking forward to the arrival of spring,