best headline of the indeterminate-time-period

Ok, the story about the ghost plane is pretty weird:
The aircraft appears to have flown from Cyprus to Athens on autopilot -- a flight of about an hour and a half. Chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis told the AP an air traffic control diagram showed the plane had flown -- on automatic pilot -- to the Greek capital's international airport. But it was flying at 34,000 feet (10,360 meters) and turned south into its holding pattern over the island of Kea after passing over the airport.

"What troubles us is that the automatic pilot was functioning up to a certain point, and then it was disengaged, possibly by human action," Tsolakis said.

But the first paragraph is truly a gem of reporting. It's almost as if... it were written on autopilot... hey, wait a minute...

The Cypriot plane that crashed and killed all 121 people aboard flew on autopilot to its Athens destination -- but passed thousands of feet (meters) above the airport runway, the chief accident investigator told The Associated Press Thursday.

Dear CNN, please shoot your editors, thanks.

Also, what do you think the margin of error was on that "34,000 feet" figure? Because 34,000 feet is 10,363.2 meters, not 10,360 meters. Their rounding fu is the worst.

Tags: , ,

40 Responses:

  1. telecart says:

    Nobody values journalism nowadays.
    News is just another way of selling SUVs, weekend getaways and subway sandwiches.

  2. johnreen says:

    Shouldn't the subject of this post be "best headline of the indeterminate-time-period (years)?"

  3. Well, I kind of get the "thousands of feet (meters)" thing. If "thousands of feet" is accurate, then "thousands of meters" probably is too; are they supposed to write "thousands of feet (threehundreds of meters)" or "thousands of feet (thirdthousands of meters)" instead?

    Second, I believe that air-traffic-controlled flights are supposed to maintain particular altitudes to avoid separation, so a flight at a nominal 34,000 feet is almost certainly closer to 34,000 feet than to 34,250 or to 33,750, so there might be some justification for assuming a third or even fourth significant figure, unlike, say, the reported height of a mountain. I could be full of shit, though, and I also hate it when people assume significant figures for no good reason when doing editorial metric conversion.

    Finally, the weirdest thing in the article, to me, is that an investigator would think it strange that "the automatic pilot was functioning up to a certain point, and then it was disengaged". What else is an automatic pilot supposed to do when it gets to its last programmed waypoint? It's not like an automatic pilot can land the plane. Obviously there's not enough information in the article to tell if that's what happened, but reaching its destination and turning into a holding pattern seems to me like the autopilot doing all it was supposed to do without being manually disengaged.

    • jwz says:

      If "thousands of feet" is accurate, then "thousands of meters" probably is too;

      Sure, but who saw that and said, "oh, we said `thousands of feet', someone might be fucking confused by that if we don't put '(meters)' after it"! It's moronic. It's editorial policy at the expense of common sense and clarity. At that point, it's not writing, it's fucking mad-libs, which is why the style in most "news" articles makes my head explode.

      • billemon says:

        I read that as being a bad copy-paste-edit from the 34,000 feet (10,whatever meters). Like they forgot to actually delete the rest.

      • agentcooper says:

        I can't find it now, but I read that CNN has software which scrubs their articles, and automatically injects the "(x meters)" after "n feet". Obviously, the software wasn't expecting the null case.

        But, yes, they have horrible editors. I got sick of it and switched to The New York Times as my primary news source.

    • beschizza says:

      I was under the impression that there are no technical impediments to autopilots landing planes.

      This has been true of trains for decades, believe it or not. On the London Underground, at least, the drivers are there for cosmetic purposes only.

      • rosefox says:

        I don't believe the monorails at SFO or JFK airports are operated with any human intervention at all.

      • zonereyrie says:

        It depends on the aircraft and the airport - both need the right systems. But yes, auto-land is possible, and has been in place on some airliners for a while.

        There is work underway to develope EGPS systems to allow this at more airports, or at least automatic descent to a minimum point for the human to take over (for a start at least), as an alternative to installing expensive ILS systems.

        • Is that used routinely? Do flight crews program auto-land at the start of a flight?

          • zonereyrie says:

            To my knowledge, no, it isn't. Most landings are hand flown, it is really designed for landing in severe weather and generally would be set when nearing the destination.

        • lohphat says:

          The GPS non-precision with VNAV approaches starting to be rolled out do provide very good guidance without the need for an expensive ILS installation. But as mentioned in another response, autopilots must be commanded to intercept and decend along the pseudo-glideslope only after commanded to do so after the ATC clearance for the approach is given.

      • smackfu says:

        Of course trains are operating in one dimensional space so the problems a bit easier to solve.

      • ciphergoth says:

        On the London Underground, at least, the drivers are there for cosmetic purposes only.

        IIRC only the Victoria and Jubilee lines have the automated mechanisms you refer to. And the drivers still have responsibility for opening and closing the doors (ie shouting "will the idiot in the blue jacket please let the doors close, thank you!") and checking that it's safe to pull out, as well as being very handy to have around in emergencies.

    • cirollo says:

      air-traffic-controlled flights are supposed to maintain particular altitudes to avoid separation

      Actually, ATC tries to maintain separation... avoiding separation would lead to a lot more dead people.

      ATP (airline transport pilot) certified pilots are required to demonstrate the ability to hold altitude within +/- 100 ft during level flight. Also, the maximum allowed altimeter error for an instrument flight (all airline flights are technically instrument flights) is +/- 75 ft. So a 3 meter rounding error is well within the noise.

      It sounds like a lot of slop, but the minimum allowed separation between aircraft is 3 nautical miles horizontally and 1000 ft vertically, so there's a reasonable margin for error.

    • ydna says:

      air-traffic-controlled flights are supposed to maintain particular altitudes to avoid separation

      Oh dear. I shall rethink my upcoming travel plans.

    • strspn says:

      The weirdest thing in the article, to me, is that an investigator would think it strange that "the automatic pilot was functioning up to a certain point, and then it was disengaged". What else is an automatic pilot supposed to do when it gets to its last programmed waypoint?

      From the article: "Helios Airways Flight ZU522 then turned toward the sea, flying in a holding pattern for more than an hour before changing course again crashing into a mountain north of Athens."

      It's not like an automatic pilot can land the plane.

      Actually the 737-300 does have CATIII autoland support for dual beacon channel landings only, but that has to be manually engaged by 50 feet (20 meters) after rough alignment with the runway.

      The fact that it was going into a holding pattern when it arrived at the destination airport indicates that it was programmed on the LNAV autopilot mode, which is the most complicated and of course with the least intuitive user interface. The 737-300/400 has two autopilots, one for each pilot's side, but they are simply labeled "A" and "B" -- the word "autopilot" does not appear on the UI (Just "A/P" on one button.) The autopilots are controlled with illuminated buttons and paddle switches, inside the glareshield (overhead at the top of the windscreen) in the Mode Control Panel (MCP) which looks like this:

      When in FNAV mode, the autopilot is controlled by the Flight Management Computer (FMC) which is essentially 40 buttons and a 1-line display near the pilots' inside knees. When LNAV is activated, there is no display for course/airspeed/heading/altitude/vert.speed indicators, so it might appear as if autopilot is off.

      The fighter pilots said they saw people in the cockpit trying to get control of the plane. I'm guessing that said people never actually figured out how to disengage the autopilot, which even an experienced general aviation pilot isn't necessarily going to be able to do.

      I bet they never disengaged the autopilot, but finally got around to taking it out of LNAV mode and at which point it selected the most recently selected course and altidude, which happened to correspond with a mountain. Either that or they dounf the "disengage" switch hidden recessed in the control columns.

      • strspn says:

        Eratta:

        s/overhead at the top/eye-level at the bottom/

        s/one-line/20x40 character/ (on the 737-300s after 1989)

        s/dounf/found/

        Some of the -300s do have very prominent autopilot disengage buttons, and those that don't probably have better (up front) labeling for the disengage on the control yoke. There is apparently a lot of variation here because the autopilots seem to have been developing independently of the model number sequence, with newer autopilots in the -200s, and older autopilots in the -400s, apparently.

        Whatever the situation with the autopilot and the last 20 minutes of flight, the real question is how were the non-pilot people in the cockpit unable to figure out the radio? The push-to-talk buttons are right up there next to the thumbs.

        • strspn says:

          How about this: The pilots passed out while trying to radio a distress call, leaving the radio on an unmonitored frequency?

      • martling says:

        The fighter pilots said they saw people in the cockpit trying to get control of the plane. I'm guessing that said people never actually figured out how to disengage the autopilot, which even an experienced general aviation pilot isn't necessarily going to be able to do.

        You'd have expected anyone with a clue to be able to tune 121.5, though.

        • lohphat says:

          It's not easy.

          Radio interfaces are not standardized other than in functional concept and the buttons on the yoke are not obvious -- e.g. the radio PTT switch on a Hawker is on the back side of the yoke.

          Some planes use twist knobs while some jets allow the freq. to be entered into the FMS UI. On top of that, which radio is currently selected and active is non-obvious as that panel is often not near the radio.

          Flight attendants need to be trained on how to use the radio for each type of aircraft. I'd start asking why a FA didn't get on the radio.

          • martling says:

            It's not easy.

            Fair enough; the most sophisticated radio I use regularly is an ICOM A22E tacked onto the panel with a bit of velcro (and the least sophisticated is currently disassembled on my desk, alongside its hand-drawn official schematic).

            It does strike me as a basic user interface issue though, that there are not clearly marked big red buttons in every airliner cockpit for enable/disable autopilot, squawk 7700, tune 121.5, transmit. It's not like flight crew incapacitation is unheard of.

            What do you fly, OOI? :-)

            • lohphat says:

              I have a PPL+IFR, fly PA28s (Warriors, Archer II/III) and C152/172s. I'm working on my commercial MEL now. Only have 250 hours in my logbook alas.

              But I have more jumpseat time in a G4/5/500/550 and a Hawker 800A than I do in my logbook. I'm very fortunate to work alongside people with 25,000+ hours in their logbooks and learn a great deal in CRM and good habits.

              One day I hope to join their ranks...once the insurance company allows it.

      • lohphat says:

        It's typical to program VNAV (Vertical NAVigation) decent altitudes for a short flight early in the game /if/ they are published -- decent altitudes are part of the arrival and approach procedures and not usually given as part of your departure clearance. They are not specified until airborne because they are highly dependant on prevailing wind and traffic flow conditions at the time of arrival and the departure controller has no visibility into conditions at your arrival point. e.g. you'll get your full route clearance before departure which specifies your destination airport and cruise altitude, but *not* the arrival and approach as those are issued by the approach controller near your destination.

        Even when VNAV altitudes are programmed into the autopilot (actually the FMS), decending is *not* automatic until the human pilot commands a decent near the calculated TOD (Top Of Decent) *after* getting clearance to decend from ATC...only then will the autopilot obey the altitudes given it by the FMS. (Note the irony that TOD means "death" in German.)

        So, if the pilots passed out at their cruise altitude, the plane would just follow the programmed route and not change altitude and then hold at the last waypoint (the airport) -- but this may be dependant on the FMS model used -- it may just continue flying at the last heading.

        Appendix A: The initial departure clearace is issued in a standard format with a fancy acronym C.R.A.F.T.:

        Cleared to == usually the desination airport (vs. a mid-air fix somewhere along the flight path). "Cleared to the KXYZ airport via..."

        Route == specific directions on what to do after leaving the runway; it usually includes a published departure procedure (vs. simple radar vectors to your en route portion) e.g. "Runway heading until 800 feet, BELLOWS3 departure, Lake Pissant transition, Victor-233 (an airway number), Victor-44, Direct Van Nuys (a radio beacon), Direct KXYZ airport." Note: Unless it's a very short flight, there will no arriaval or approach given as the local controller has no visibility into the conditions at the arrival airport.

        Altitude == Initial climb instructions to keep you from hitting things in case you lose radio contact. Your en route altitude clearance will come later in the flight. e.g. "Climb and maintain 3K, expect 15K 10 minutes after departure." If you lose contact with ATC, your timer (which you started on takeoff roll) will alert you in 10 minutes to climb to 15K feet without a verbal clearance. But by then, you've started lost-com procedures anyway.

        Frequency == departure control frequency. The next freq. after the departure tower freq you'll be on when you took off. This allows you to pre-program the radio so that you'll just have to hit one button to switch freqs so that you'll not be distracted trying to get the plane away from the hard, unforgiving ground. e.g. "Departure Frequency 135.65" (You'll be told to contact departure within 60 seconds of take off by the tower.)

        Transponder == The 4 digit 0000..7777 code which will uniquely ID you in the local radar environment. e.g. "Squawk 3541".

  4. khephra says:

    It's just a freaky thought. A plane full of the dead flying for hours. Apparently it's the the first time it's happened.

      • denshi says:

        Is that from the comic adaptation of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"?

        • korgmeister says:

          Nah, it's Alan Moore's 'Watchmen'.

          Pirate comics are where it's at now

          • belgand says:

            I wish. Sadly they canceled "El Cazador" because, well, CrossGen died. "Dead Men Tell No Tales" looks promising though. I've also heard some decent press about "Sea of Blood", but honestly vampire pirates just doesn't do it for me.

    • waider says:

      Except for the Payne Stewart incident a few years back. Apparently Sky News (effectively Fox News with a British Accent) forgot that incident, too, because they were all agog at F16s being launched to observe the Cypriot plane (also happened during the Payne Stewart Flight Of Doom).

      • khephra says:

        my typo, the the, was supposed to say, not the...as in not the first time. I read the Payne Stewart one. That was even freakier. Windows were frosted over.

  5. "This is, unfortunately, the consequence sometimes of the impact of a plane crash," he said.

    Wow. The article is just full of these editorial turds^H^H^H^H^H gems.

  6. nrr says:

    Also, what do you think the margin of error was on that "34,000 feet" figure? Because 34,000 feet is 10,363.2 meters, not 10,360 meters. Their rounding fu is the worst.

    Oh, please. They totally got the whole mach and warp thing way wrong a little more than two years ago. This is an improvement.

  7. pavel_lishin says:

    Music related question.

    What CD is "The Loneliest Sound" on? I thought I had them all, but this doesn't sound familiar.