Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tragic Flights

Two opinions inevitably expressed following Saturday's tragic aircrash in Russia which killed the Polish president and many of his top military staff are:

a) There may have been a Russian conspiracy behind it. Or a NATO one.


b) This isn't surprising given that Poland's version of Air Force One happened to use the Soviet relic, Tupolev Tu-154.

Actually the first opinion is inevitable because of the spookily grim coincidence that the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, was flying to Russia to commemorate the Katyn Massacre, in which the Soviet secret police killed 22,000 Polish officers. Many of the victims on board the Soviet-era plane were themselves senior officers in the Polish military. And because of its parallels with a previous aircrash of Wladyslaw Sikorski, itself the subject of a conspiracy theory.

Well, grim coincidences do happen and Russia has been more in the business of forgetting rather than highlighting such atrocities as the Katyn Massacre so I don't see any "cui bono" motive.

The second point also seems to be a bit wide of the mark as the accident currently looks to be due to a combination of bad weather and pilot error. Nevertheless most news reports seem keen to point out the safety record of the Tu-154 such as here in the Telegraph.

The Tu-154 has a fatal accident every 431,200 flights, according to London-based aviation consultant Ascend. The Boeing 737, the world’s best-selling passenger plane, crashes every 2.68 million flights.

After doing some quick mental calculations I found the Tu-154 has a fatal accident rate of 2.31910946196 per million flights while the 737 has a fatal accident rate of 0.37313432835 per million flights. Here are some statistics of other airliners to give a comparison.

The comparisons show that although the fatality rate is higher than most commercial airliners it isn't extraordinarily high and the figures may well be skewed by the fact that these aircraft are usually operated in ex-Soviet countries with lower airport safety standards and designed to fly in the worst conditions. Just as an example, I flew to Pyongyang on a Tu-154 operated by Air Koryo - the DPRK's national carrier.

Perhaps in order to conserve on fuel when we boarded the plane the engines weren't running and so there was no air conditioner. All the passengers were given these hand-held fans to cool themselves down manually:

The plane was pretty cramped and wouldn't be my choice of chief executive jet but the in-flight meal of a half-danish and half-hamsandwich hybrid washed down with a bottle of dark homebrew-like beer wasn't (as) bad (as it sounds).

And, as a final tangent, while looking through this list of previous fatal air accidents, I happened to notice one that was caused by a murder-suicide in 1987.

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crashed after a former employee, David Burke, first shot his superviser, Raymond Thomson, then the pilots and finally himself. The plane descended almost completely vertically at over 700 miles per hour - breaking the sound barrier - before crashing into a field in California. Because of the force of the impact investigators arriving on the scene found it hard to believe that a plane as large as a BAe 146 could possibly have crashed there. Although all 44 passengers and crew were presumed dead (it not being possible to survive such a crash), 27 bodies could never be identified. But the crash also shows that some unlikely objects do survive crashes. A flight sickness bag was discovered bearing a message, apparently written by Burke to his superviser:

Hi Ray. I think it's sort of ironical that we ended up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family. Remember? Well, I got none and you'll get none.

Another grisly find was a revolver used to kill Thomson and the pilots which was discovered with Burke's thumb jammed in the trigger guard.

The crash was the subject of this episode of "Blackbox". Please listen to the detective who first arrives at the scene explain that nothing identifiable as part of a plane could be found, that pieces of paper seemed to be blowing gently in the wind, stuck in trees, etc...

This should put to rest arguments that on September 11th 2001, the crash site of United 93 in Shanksville was inconsistent with a plane crash meaning it was either shot down by a missile or never existed. The crash site of Flight 1771 was remarkably similar to that of United 93 and furthermore demonstrates that documents such as passports or driving licenses may very well survive such crashes while other things simply don't.

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