Another Flight to Nowhere: UAL28 off Heathrow, 12/17/2014

A Boeing 767 (United Flight 28) was airborne for nearly five hours over the English Channel, while burning off and dumping fuel to return for a landing at London’s Heathrow airport. The airline is not explaining yet what the issue was, but the flight tracking data indicates the flight diverted to the south after departure, then leveled off first at ten thousand feet, then at twelve thousand feet. It appears to have flown nineteen loops, mostly using up fifteen minutes per loop, and to the southwest of the Isle of Wight.

The low altitudes would suggest their was an aircraft pressurization issue. A passenger reported to the media that the captain had advised they needed to get rid of 20,000 pounds of fuel before they could return to land.

20141217.. UAL28 4hr fuel burnoff after EGLL departure, map

Heathrow was in a west flow. The faint dashed blue line to the west-northwest approximates the intended route to United’s hub airport at Newark, NJ.

20141217.. UAL28 4hr fuel burnoff after EGLL departure, chart

The yellow line shows altitude (mostly at 12,000′), and the gray line shows airspeed. The cyclical patterns on the gray line reflect airspeed variations due to winds aloft.

The incident was well covered in an article at One comment stands out:

“Why can’t airlines actually tell passengers what is happening? Its not like they’ll rip the door open mid flight and start jumping out.”

A good point. It seems plausible that, for aviation mechanical events such as this, airline transparency would be the best course. The current practice of opacity only causes people to wonder, what is the airline trying to hide. And certainly, the 227 passengers on board have a right to know what happened, on the flight they paid for.


“Unfit for Flight” news investigation wins the NPF ‘Feddie’ Award

National Press Foundation recognized Thomas Frank for his USA Today investigative series about aviation fatalities and regulatory capture.

A non-profit foundation, NPF cited Mr. Frank for his “extraordinary investigation” in his series, ‘Unfit for Flight’, which appeared in June. He was given the ‘Feddie’ award, recognizing that his writing helps to show how federal policy affects local government. Judges were also impressed with how the presentation of the  news series “…effectively uses the techniques of digital journalism: video, animation and responsive design. This is modern journalism at its best.”

The series revealed how design defects have been allowed to persist in private airplanes and helicopters for decades, often because of cover-ups by manufacturers. The stories also showed how National Transportation Safety Board crash investigations often overlook the causes of aircraft crashes and deaths, and how the Federal Aviation Administration allows brand-new aircraft to be manufactured under safety regulations that are decades old, thus perpetuating known design flaws.

Aerial Photography: A Valuable Tool for Environmental Assessment

The power of aerial images was first discovered with the earliest forms of manned flight, such as with surveillance balloons launched at Civil War battle sites. Since, we have seen the means of obtaining aerial images evolve, from balloon, to aircraft, to satellite, and most recently to tiny drones. But, we are also seeing a trend where the state, represented here by FAA as the agency intended to regulate all aviation issues, is in fact impeding the right to take aerial images.

The images we can collect offer huge benefits, such as the efficient identification of environmental damages, or even just the assessment of land use patterns. One artist who has focused on this is Mishka Henner. Born in 1976 in Brussels, Belgium and currently based in Manchester, England, Mr. Henner has done considerable work with satellite images, sometimes doing color enhancements and other edits to create images that encourage public understanding and discussion.

For example, a recent article at EcoWatch focuses on fracking.

20141215scp.. Surreal Aerial Photos re fracking impacts, EcoWatch 12-15-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner closeup pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas (detail). Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Another recent article at EcoWatch focuses on confined animal feedlots, common in many rural areas of the United States.

20141215scp.. Stunning Aerial Photos re factory fams, EcoWatch 11-28-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, Feedyard in Randall County TX

Randall County Feedyard, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Oddly, the trends have been against the right of individual citizens to use aerial imagery. For example, FAA has been aggressively threatening fines and sanctions against any individuals who might use drones for even trivial, hobby-like jobs. And, too, we are watching larger interests (such as ag corporations, police agencies, and energy companies) play their legislators to produce laws that make it illegal to photograph their activities, even when these same larger interests are clearly breaking the laws of the land.

Here is an excerpt from an article about Ag-Gag laws, Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms:

…Industrial farming, especially of animals, tends to be hidden from public view — and under so-called ag-gag laws, that secrecy could become law.

The laws, so far enacted by Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri, make it illegal to take undercover photos or videos on farms. Some proposed ag-gag laws would also cover zoos and puppy mills, and would officially label anyone who breaks them as a terrorist.

How might images like Henner’s be affected by ag-gag laws? It’s not clear, said Matthew Liebman, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy group. Texas has no such law, so Henner’s images are safe. In states that do, they could be protected by legal recognition of satellite-level altitudes as public space. Under some proposed laws, though, gathering any imagery without farmer consent is a crime. Taking a snapshot of a feedlot from a window seat in a commercial jetliner would technically be illegal.

Public opinion may be turning against ag-gag laws. Of 11 proposed in state legislatures this year, each was either defeated or tabled until the next legislative session. Utah’s law is being challenged as unconstitutional. “Something’s wrong in the Land of the Free when the act of looking is itself being condemned and punished,” said Henner.

As things stand now, other countries such as China are way ahead of the U.S. For example, a June 2014 Bloomberg article, China Catches Industrial Polluters With Drone Missions, notes how the state there is catching  environmental crimes, commonly by steelmakers.

See also:

Oceans Will Rise more Quickly as Antarctic Ice Melt Accelerates

Increasing levels of CO2 and other atmospheric greenhouse gasses will eventually melt all the ice on Earth and raise sea levels by more than 200 feet. If we cannot change our carbon habit, this is a virtual guarantee. In the past 55 million years, there has never been a time when large ice sheets existed under atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding 550 parts per million.

Here is an excerpt from a new RobertScribbler blog Post, Warm Water Rising From the Depths: Much of Antarctica Now Under Threat of Melt:

“…Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, may well seem impregnable to this warming. But like any other fortress, it has its vulnerable spots. In this case, a weak underbelly. For in study after study, we keep finding evidence that warm waters are rising up from the abyss surrounding the chill and frozen continent. And the impact and risk to Antarctica’s glacial ice mountains is significant and growing.

For a study this week confirmed that Antarctica is now seeing a yearly loss of ice equal to one half the volume of Mt Everest every single year. A rate of loss triple that seen just ten years ago. An acceleration that, should it continue, means a much more immediate threat to coastal regions from sea level rise than current IPCC projections now estimate….

See also:

Small Bizjet Crashes into Maryland House while on Approach at Gaithersburg

20141208.. [KGAI] bizjet crashsite pic

(Washington Post photo)

A small jet reportedly crashed into a house, roughly one mile northwest of the Montgomery County Airpark [KGAI], in Gaithersburg, MD. The aircraft appears to have been on final approach to land on Runway 14. The aircraft owner and apparent pilot was the 66-yr-old CEO of Health Decisions, a North Carolina-based pharmaceutical research company. He and his two passengers are confirmed dead. Three home occupants were also killed; a 36-yr-old mother and her 3-yr-old son and infant were initially missing but later found deceased in a bathroom of the house. Weather was likely not a factor. News reports indicate visibility was good and there were only light snow flurries.

A Washington Post article offers witness reports, of a low-flying jet with landing gear down, flying somewhat erratically, then rotating ninety degrees and falling from the sky. The plane, an Embraer Phenom 100 jet, was registered with Sage Aviation in Chapel Hill, NC. It was on final approach, about a mile northwest of the airport. One house was destroyed and two others were damaged. The ground fatalities occurred at the last house hit by aircraft debris – a wing that started a fire.

Here’s a satellite view of the area, with a yellow ellipse around the airport. Note the numerous residential areas, to the southwest, west, and northeast. Also, the large park between the northwest end of the runway and the crash area. For reference, the runway is 4,200-feet long.[KGAI] sat view showing surrounding residences, parks, commerce
Below is a briefing by NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, one day later. A preliminary review of flight data shows the aircraft was as slow as 88 knots airspeed while on approach; an online search indicates the VSO (minimum safe speed) may be much higher, around 100 knots. Sumwalt also confirmed a ‘stall warning’ was annunciated continuously during the entire final twenty seconds of flight.

See also:

UPDATED 12/9/2014


Pilot Fatigue: a Problem FAA Still Needs to Address

Flying Magazine published an article by Stephen Pope, Fighting Pilot Fatigue: New Views on Staying Alert.PDFThe article looks at the long history of fatigue-related accidents, and the insights collected in recent years.

The article refers to the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo on 2/12/09, as well as the crash of a Beech Baron in Teterboro at 3:05AM on 8/21/2009. Fifty died in Buffalo, in an accident that put HUGE political pressure on FAA about many commercial aviation issues:

  • FAA’s ongoing refusal to resolve pilot fatigue risks,
  • the apparent lower quality assurance standards at commuter/feeder airlines,
  • common long-distance commutes by underpaid pilots,
  • and the deceptive sales of tickets by major carriers, but for flights flown by commuter/feeder airline subcontractors.

Both accidents were fatigue-related, but in a decision that reveals how NTSB can be pressured to help FAA accommodate the financial interests of the airlines, the actual reports were drafted to direct attention at other, non-fatigue issues. This finally caused a minor rebellion by two NTSB members in 2011, when the Teterboro [KTEB] crash report was finalized. Both Chair Deborah Hersman and member Mark Rosekind submitted dissenting opinions. “Despite substantial indications of fatigue effects,” Rosekind wrote in his dissenting brief on the Teterboro crash, “the present accident report fails to acknowledge fatigue’s role in the accident. Based on the factors identified, fatigue was a likely contributory cause.”

In the years since, some minor rule changes have been implemented, but they exclude the sector of pilots most susceptible to fatigue issues: cargo pilots, who commonly work overnight shifts. One such example was the UPS Flight 1354 crash at Birmingham, AL on 8/14/13, which killed two.

So, that’s some of the background. Here are three short excerpts from an article well worth studying, about an aviation risk FAA still needs to address…


EXCERPT “In the last decade alone researchers have made tremendous strides in sleep research, noting in studies, for example, that getting even 30 minutes less rest in a single night can impair performance and memory the next day, and that the effects of sleep loss are cumulative, meaning that the sleep we get is like money we deposit in the bank. If we continually draw down our “sleep accounts” for several nights, the effects can be cumulative — and lethal.”

EXCERPT “GA pilots who fly for transportation are at high risk of flying while fatigued. The same factors that go into becoming a pilot/owner of a high-performance airplane, an attractive income and high-achieving attitude, are often associated with a lifestyle that lends itself to fatigue. Typical GA pilots have crazy work schedules, many family commitments, and hobbies about which they’re passionate but which further impact their schedule. The lifestyle of high-achieving individuals puts them at constant risk of flying while fatigued.”

EXCERPT “The NTSB put pilot fatigue on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements and kept it there for 22 straight years, but it wasn’t until the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, in February 2009, in which 50 people died, that the FAA rewrote airline pilot rest and duty-time rules.

Martin Litton: 1917-2014

20090912pic.. Martin Litton speaking at Palo AltoHe was an environmentalist as well as a general aviation pilot. His efforts helped save the Grand Canyon where he ran with his dories, and his writing and other work helped preserve the tallest trees in California.

(click on image to view HCN article)

(click on image to view HCN article)

After a long life filled with adventure and passion, he died on November 30, 2014 at his Bay Area home in Portola Valley, California.

He was 97.

Mr. Litton understood that unimpassioned bureaucrats will generally do no good, especially if operating from a long distance and pressured to please those they are supposed to regulate. “People always tell me not to be extreme. ‘Be reasonable!’ they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation, because what you give away will never come back—ever.”

While being interviewed for A Fierce Green Fire, he described his fight to halt dams in the Grand Canyon with this classic line: “My attitude was always, be unreasonable. I mean, let’s not be nice. If you don’t have any hatred in your heart, what are you living on?

(click on the image to read his LA Times obituary)

(click on the image to read his LA Times obituary)

20141205cpy.. Cessna 195 N195JJ ramp pic, Martin LittonIn another interview, fellow Sierra Club director William Siri nioted: “Martin was never the environmental statesman, but he was fascinating as a speaker. He used colorful phrases, analogies and metaphors and they were often cutting, sometimes irresponsible. He never pulled his punches. He was never inhibited; if he felt something, he just said it.”

Bettina Boxall created a wonderful obituary at LA Times, including this paragraph: Litton’s big hands were most comfortable wrapped around dory oars or the controls of a small plane. He had piloted gliders loaded with troops and equipment during Allied invasions in Europe. Decades later he would fly politicians and journalists in his vintage Cessna 195 (pictured), skimming over redwoods or landscapes that needed saving, expounding on the glories of nature untamed.

“Nature has its rights,” he once said. “It has a right to be here untrammeled, unfettered. Man doesn’t have to screw everything up.

Two years ago, an excellent article was published at High Country News. You can also learn more at Wikipedia, or by watching the clips from the movie, ‘The Good Fight’, and, embedded below. Challenging FAA’s Tone-Deafness on UAS ‘Privacy’

On December 2nd, posted an article, Why the FAA Isn’t Worried About Drones Invading Your Privacy Right Now. This article was triggered by a post the day before at, FAA Grounds Drone Privacy Safeguards. Here’s the background… is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent non-profit research center based in Washington, DC. According to their website ‘about EPIC page’, EPIC is all about fundamental democratic values. EPIC works to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. EPIC maintains two of the most popular privacy web sites in the world – and

Aviation activities are rapidly transitioning from manned vehicles (fixed-wing and helicopters) to unmanned aircraft systems (aka UAS, or ‘drones’). This transition can provide great benefits, such as reduced energy use and reduced air and noise pollution. But, this transition also has the potential to lead us to a new world where the skies become crowded with silent drones monitoring all our activities, and even being used to ‘take out’ arbitrarily defined threats. is one of the leading NGO’s working to ensure that the needs of the larger Public are being properly considered, during the development of these new technologies and regulations.

In early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). This legislation was a big package, covering airport projects, expansion of NextGen technologies, etc. It also directed FAA to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,” providing for this integration “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

In the weeks following President Obama’s signing of FMRA, a petition was filed with FAA, asking the agency to “”conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on the impact of privacy and civil liberties related to the use of drones in the United States.” EPIC was joined by over 100 other organizations, experts, and members of the public in presenting the petition.

FAA already had a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the works, and it was published in the Federal Register on March 9, 2012. Given the short notice, it was reasonable that FAA did not include the privacy issues in this NPRM. Instead, FAA added a solicitation for privacy-issue comments to a later NPRM, published in February 2013. Consequently, the entire issue of drone privacy impacts has been inadequately addressed by FAA. So, a full 31-months after the February 2012 petition, FAA finally got around to sending a weak ‘reply’ letter to

How can we do Better?

All of this suggests we would be far better served, if FAA would relinquish regulatory authority over the low-altitude airspace. A more flexible – and more responsive – authority should be handling low-altitude drone regulations … perhaps even local or state officials. And, their regulations should be required to conform with reasonable (and legislated) privacy protections.

Here is a chronology with links to the documents:

2/24/12’s Petition, filed with FAA
 3/8/12 FAA’s NPRM, requesting comments for the UAS Test Sites
5/8/12 comments, filed with FAA’s NPRM
 2/22/13  FAA’s NPRM, presenting the process by which FAA will select UAS Test Sites, and also soliciting comments about UAS Test Site privacy concerns
 4/23/13 comments submitted to NPRM
 11/14/13  FAA’s final draft of Privacy Requirements for UAS Test Site Program
 11/26/14  FAA’s letter to, responding to the Petition (31-months later! … and signed by Lirio Liu, recently promoted to Director, Office of Rulemaking)

See also:

Climate Change Evidence: Northern Hemisphere Temperature Anomalies for 12-1-2014

Below are two images mapping surface air temperature across the Northern Hemisphere.

This first image shows temperatures based on actual readings and computer-generated interpolations; it also shows the North Pole, identified with a red box. Look closely and you will see that the two green areas are the northern Pacific (upper-left) and northern Atlantic (center-right). The smaller magenta areas (intense cold) are over Siberia (top) and Greenland (just above center).
20141201.. northern Hemisphere temp at 2m (ClimateReanalyzer screencap)This second image is a model showing the average temperatures based on measured data from 1979 to 2000.20141201.. 1979-2000 baseline for Northern Hemisphere temp at 2m (ClimateReanalyzer screencap)

Comparing the two images allows us to identify anomalies, which include:

  • Air temperatures at the North Pole region are substantially elevated in 2014. In fact, on 12/1/2014, the North Pole temperature is roughly identical to that at St. Louis, MO, at 39-degrees north latitude. In contrast, according to the historical data, the average temperature at the North Pole is normally colder than all points in North America south of 70-degrees north latitude.
  • Energy flowing into the north Atlantic region via the Gulf Stream is substantially enhanced, and now pushes non-freezing temperatures all the way to the northern tip of Greenland.
  • On the south edge of the image, at lower latitudes, the temperatures are noticeably hotter (more orange and red), especially over water. See for example the Amazon basin and African nations around Ghana.
  • While the North Pole and Arctic Ocean areas are considerably warmer, the cold air that sets in during the dark of each northern winter appears to be regularly splitting into two intense cold cores, which then define weather patterns across nations to the south. One core tethers over Greenland, Baffin Bay and islands to the west; the other core tethers over central Siberia. Thus, it appears we are seeing the start of an enormous change in weather-creating architecture. The traditional single cold air core spinning over the pole (and generally maintained by strong Jetstream flows) has become two smaller cores that are each more prone to both drifting and periodic disintegration.

See also:

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?