Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Law of Unintended Consequences And Suicidal Pilots

The Law has been on vivid display with the suicide plunge of the Germanwings A320 into a French mountainside.  It has been possible to see the heads of some of media types bulging under the pressure of trying to understand that there are no perfect decisions; that every decision involves compromise and needs to be based on trying to optimize conflicting outcomes.  "We reinforced cockpit doors and now we can't break them down when we need to!!"  "Someone has to DO something!!"  As always, when you the hear that, at a minimum put your hand on your wallet.  At worst, prepare to be railroaded "for safety". 

I don't know that it has reached its peak, but the insanity certainly cranked up to 11 today on Fox News' "Bulls and Bears" business program with the first segment debating whether or not every cockpit in every plane, should live stream video of what's going on in the cockpit to the ground.  The common argument was "it's cheap". 

No. It's. Not.  A single webcam is cheap.  The infrastructure they're suggesting to minimize the occurrence of an incredibly rare act is absolutely not. 

At any given moment, there are thousands of airplanes in the air.  I just grabbed this screen grab from Plane Finder, showing that at this moment, almost 12:30 EDT on a Saturday, there are over 8300 planes in the air. 
Actually, more than that; these are just flight positions reported by FAA, ground radars, which rely on aircraft transponder systems, and reports by ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast) systems on planes (shown in red).   Not every aircraft carries these systems, although all commercial Air Transport aircraft carry them.  The amount of video bandwidth required depends on the resolution and frame rate, but full motion low definition video (such as the old broadcast NTSC video) requires just over 4 MHz bandwidth.  There are no systems currently on an aircraft with this bandwidth freely available so that "all you gotta do" is add a webcam.  It would require new electronics installed on tens of thousands of aircraft.  Let's be generous and say for an Air Transport class avionics package, we can get new frequencies allocated, add an antenna and transceiver for $10,000 per plane onto 50,000 existing airplanes.  There's roughly $50 billion dollars in electronics to be made and installed (and I think I'm low-balling that); I'm sure my employer would love to take in a nice $50B, or some portion thereof. 

If there are 8300 aircraft in the airspace now, let's assume 10,000 during peak travel times - probably weekdays for business travel - sending video down, how many people need to be watching that video to see if something bad is happening?  10,000?  How much do you pay them?  It will be an exceptionally boring job, watching people who are typically just sitting and doing nothing actively for hours on end, so what kind of people will you get to work there?  How do you hire them? Where do they work?   Just for fun, let's figure in the course of a day you'll have 25,000 people working 24 hours.  At $15/hr, that's just over $13 Billion in pay.  How many more billions for the infrastructure? 

Even all of these questions are just the start.  Air Transport flights have what's called a Minimum Equipment List or MEL that details what equipment must be operating before it's allowed to take off.  Does the pilot monitor video cam need to be on the MEL?  Does the aircraft need redundant systems? If so double that $50B.  Systems don't just get put on airplanes; there are industry standardization forums that are created, and specifications agreed on by the airlines, the aircraft manufacturers and the electronics manufacturers. 

For perspective, FlightAware (another service that provides real time flight information) links to the Aviation Safety Network list of the total number of incidents tracked to "whack job" pilots.  There have been 12.  Most of them did not involve planes full of passengers; three incidents involved more than 100 casualties since 1976. 

And yet all of this begs the question, "so what?"  So what if we spend this few hundred billion dollars worldwide and put monitors in every cockpit?  What do we do with the information?  The video shows a fight in the cockpit, or just the copilot, so do we shoot the plane down?  Could we even reach the plane to shoot it down if we knew we had to?  We don't know the plane is a problem for itself or anyone on the ground, but let's kill everyone on board with an Air to Air Missile.  Or is it for postmortem; to try and figure out what happened when the plane went down? 

What a waste. 


  1. I am always sadly amazed at the concept among the so-called intelligentsia that complete safety is possible if we just spend enough money on the increasingly Rube Goldberg ideas they come up with.

  2. As stated streaming video does nothing to address the problem in real time. But installing cameras to record AV instead of the current audio only is quite feasible. And the cost to store a full 24 hours of video would be minimal. A third 'black box' added to planes to safeguard video in the cockpit AND in the cabin would do a lot to help answer questions that are hard to answer.

    The people who ALWAYS insist that government 'DO SOMETHING' every time a bad event happens simply cannot grasp that no system is foolproof as the next generation of fools will evolve to defeat new safeguards.

  3. With digital media having become as small and as cheap as it currently is, an extra "black box" is unnecessary. Simply add cameras.

    Why is it these whackos need to take so many other people with them? I wonder if this _apparently_ caucasian German spent any time in his local mosque? Wouldn't be the first white boy to convert to that pedophiliac death cult. Although he never yelled out "Allahu snackbar", so maybe he was simply a depressed sociopath.

  4. Let's, for a moment, disregard the fiscal and technical impacts of this particular wet dream, its personnel issues, and assume that All Has Come To Pass.

    Every airplane, from 747s and A380s down to Norbert's Piper Cub, is video equipped, the video and audio is transmitted to the appropriate ground terminal in 1080p with zero pixilation and latency, each ground terminal is monitored 24X7 by an unblinking and severely trained expert in Piloting Variance Detection, and supervisory personnel with Unlimited Magical Communications are hovering at his or her elbow to provide additional assistance.

    The PVD expert glued to the monitor observes cockpit irregularities in a particular Boeing 777 with 290 passengers which is flying at 34,000 feet and 480 knots over northern Peru.

    Then what?

    In other news, shit happens, film at eleven.

  5. The same fallacious "it's cheap" argument was made for the fad of a few months ago, hanging a camera on every cop in the U.S. Individual cameras are cheap, but the costs associated with storing the data for years are astronomical. (Not to mention the privacy concerns of victims and witnesses.)

  6. Sounds like a great way for ISIS to make some recruiting videos:

    "Allahu Akbar!"

  7. I watched that segment and have to add some balance to this. FOX always tries to bring in the left and the right and other sides to do their shows. Sure enough there was a wild eyed liberal or two on the show making wild eyed suggestions. Not quite the same as thoughtful ideas from intelligent people in the industry.

    I do have a question though related to airline safety. The media is saying that just before the crash the pilot was trying to break into the cockpit using an axe. AN AXE!! Where do they keep this AXE on commercial planes?

  8. Anon 1222 - probably in the flight attendant's storage area. It might have been thought of for this and might be a fire axe, like you see in a lot of buildings.

    And for sure it was the crazy liberal ideas segment of that program and there were a couple of sane people there, but they didn't wage intelligent arguments against it.

  9. That must have been a sight: Chief pilot having at the cockpit door with an axe. Might have diverted one or two of the first class passengers from their in-fight entertainments.

  10. The fire axe is strapped to the cockpit bulkhead INSIDE the flight deck. At least on every plane I was ever around. And that list is long. DC everything jet, B everything jet, several L, and several scarebus.
    Maybe things have changed since I retired.

  11. I've seen a lot of commentators saying that this couldn't happen in the US because there always have to be 2 people in the cockpit. When the pilot or copilot go to the john a steward or stewardess have to take their place.

    But...what's to keep the remaining pilot from saying, "Hey, come here and look at this" while pointing out the window. When he/she bends over to look, bam, something just heavy enough to the back of the head to knock them out. Then lock the door and away we go...

    Even keeping both pilots in the cockpit wouldn't help. One of them could stand up to "stretch"...and take the other pilot out.

    On other words there is NO POSSIBLE WAY to keep this from happening again.

    Hmmm...I may just give up flying.

  12. I haven't felt the urge to fly since prior to That Event under W. If I can't drive, I'm probably better off staying at home, for my wallet's sake.

  13. Well, I like to travel and my only fear in flying is blood clots in my legs. Shit happens sometimes but for the most part flying is pretty damned safe. So I take my coumadin and wear my compression socks and either watch the inflight movie or sleep. The pilot has his job and mine is to enjoy the flight.