Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 November, 2018

A stunning example of the Northern Lights over Iceland. See bottom article this week.

Good morning

A week until Thanksgiving and, of course, those other two events that many of us are equally thankful for – Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  Alas, I’m out of the country currently, so will be missing out on both the Thursday and Friday events, but return home in time for the last of the Monday specials.

My guess is that Amazon will probably be discounting some of their Alexa devices, Kindle eBook readers and Fire tablets.  We have “all of the above” currently and would recommend the Echo Dot (either second or third generation) as a great Alexa device (normal price either $50 or $40), the Paperwhite or standard Kindle eReader (currently $130 or $80), and either the Fire HD 10 or Fire HD 8 tablets (currently either $150 or $80).

Talking about special savings, we’ve just had a gentleman forced to cancel off our Christmas “Land Cruise” in early/mid December due to an unexpected medical issue.  So there is an incredible $1500 credit for some lucky person (or possibly couple).  If you can quickly open up a week or two in early/mid December, then the first person to respond positively and get payment in can have the tour with this $1500 credit.

Here is the main tour page.  We’ve a lovely group of people already coming, and it promises to be a great tour to some wonderful places in northern France and Belgium, and optionally on to Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland too.

Please urgently fill out the joining form most of the way down that page if you’d like to come.  I’ll quickly get back to you, but I’m in a different time zone currently (eight hours behind Pacific time).

Yes, I’m out of the country at present – enjoyed a couple of Japan Airlines flights, and with two more to follow, will end up experiencing their business class service on a 767, 777 and 787.  Will of course be writing/reviewing about that in a couple of weeks.

Below please find a review of a new backpack that I am trying out.  I like it because it is lighter than my present backpack, while the same size.  Oh yes, and almost exactly half the price.  Are there any trade-offs?  Read the review to find out if you should get one for yourself (or for someone else this Christmas season too).

Please keep reading for a couple of other items as well.

  • Update on Lion Air 737 Crash
  • Almost a Crash
  • Lies Pilots Tell Us
  • A Hyperloop That Might Happen
  • Marking the End of the “War to End All Wars”
  • And Lastly This Week….

Update on Lion Air 737 Crash

Some more news is slowly trickling out about the Lion Air crash.  The Indonesian transportation safety committee of crash investigators said that Indonesian regulators would tighten training requirements about what to do in situations such as appear to have occurred with this crash.

Now you might think that is an oblique way of saying ‘pilot error’ but there are suggestions that Boeing’s manual was insufficiently clear about what to do when automatic systems try to (incorrectly) force the plane’s nose down.  The big problem is that when the plane is only at 5,000 ft, there isn’t a lot of time to thumb through a manual, find the correct page and procedure, and then start going methodically through a check-list of steps to take.  In a very negative situation, there is less than a minute from the start of the problem until when the plane is at a point where nothing will save it, because it is in too steep a dive, at too high a speed, to be able to be pulled out before reaching the ground.

Apparently this issue is more severe in the new MAX series of 737s, and Boeing had not clearly advised of the possibility of its occurrence.  This is not just Indonesia trying to pass the blame.  Here are two very credible US reports (one two) of outraged pilots and their unions upon discovering that Boeing had not explained how some automatic systems remained activated, even when pilots thought they’d gone fully manual.

Sadly there isn’t something like a big red “Emergency Manual” switch in the cockpit that turns off all automatic systems (and, increasingly these days, there never can be, because there are no longer direct connections between the flight controls in the cockpit and the actual control services on the wings, elevators, etc.  Indeed, even the throttle lever isn’t connected to anything other than a computer, which then “interprets” the request for more/less power as it thinks best.

Turning off the obvious auto-pilot systems leaves some residual assistance systems still operating in the new MAX series 737s, and while Boeing says the pilots only need to push two buttons to defeat that secondary system, the training issue is whether pilots are familiar with which two buttons to push (even though they are clearly labeled and in a moderately logical place, and know they need to be pushed, as explained in this article).

Here’s a technical explanation that suggests Boeing – with the FAA’s approval – deliberately decided not to advise pilots of the new functionality of its trim system.  That sounds hard to believe, but clearly it is exactly what happened.

In a stunningly insensitive statement that also seems to be tragically contradicted by the reality of this crash, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg said on Tuesday that Boeing provides “all of the information that’s needed to safely fly our airplanes”.

Lawsuits against Boeing are already being filed.

Almost a Crash

Last week saw an Embraer E-190 almost crash in Europe.  The pilots on board reporting losing control, and flew in semi-random circles for over an hour before re-establishing control and, on the third attempt, safely landing the plane at a nearby airport.

This early article tells the story well, and has a fascinating transcript of the first hour of radio communications between the plane and Air Traffic Control.  Certainly, from the transcript, the pilots seem totally panicked and with a total loss of directional orientation – sure, we can understand the loss of control, but doing some classic panic type blunders like flying a reciprocal compass course to the one instructed speaks very poorly to the cockpit environment while the pilots battled with the mystery malfunction.

It has been suggested by pilots familiar with the E190 that the eventual solution to this was brought about by rebooting the plane’s electronics.  That’s never a nice thing to have to do, but fortunately the pilots had some altitude up their sleeve and a light aircraft, giving them a safety “cushion” such as the Lion Air 737 did not have.

Lies Pilots Tell Us

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking.  I’d like to add my welcome to that from your Lead Flight Attendant.  We’ve got a great crew on board today to provide you with excellent comfort and service.  We’re just finishing up the paperwork, and should be ready to push-back in a few minutes…..”

We hear announcements like that all the time, don’t we.  How many lies do you think have been uttered so far in that anodyne announcement?

Let’s see, the chances are that there are as many as six, so far, in the pilot’s announcement :  “I’d like to add my welcome”.  “We’ve got a great crew”  “excellent comfort”  “and service”  “finishing up the paperwork”  “ready to push-back in a few minutes”.

I was reminded of this when reading this amusing article about two flight attendants that came to physical blows on an AA flight.  In the article the writer mentions, in passing, it is common that some flight crew members have never met other flight crew members before, and in particular, very likely that the pilot hasn’t met most of them.

So how does the pilot know there’s a great crew on board?  In what specific way are they better than every other crew he has flown with, and how would he have a clue what sort of crew they are, being safely behind a locked door for almost the entire flight?

A Hyperloop That Might Happen

Elon Musk first publicly mentioned the idea of hyperloop transportation back in 2012.

Since that time, the concept has been developed further by a number of companies, all working independently of each other with slightly different visions and versions of the underlying concept, which is having “pods” shuttling through cylindrical pipes that have had almost all the air pumped out, allowing the pods to travel very quickly and with very little friction.  Most of the plans being developed anticipate that hyperloop travel would be cheaper to develop than regular high-speed rail, while being perhaps three times faster than high-speed rail and even faster than air travel.  An intoxicating concept and very appealing, for sure.

But while there have been a number of “agreements” announced between development companies and possible commercial operators, we’re still an unclear way away from either a working full-size prototype or an actual hyperloop service being inaugurated anywhere.

However, the last week saw exciting news, with the Chinese company Geely announcing an agreement with China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) to develop a hyperloop-type train system.  Although the announcement is very light on details, we feel that this is probably a project that will be pushed to completion.

You might be unfamiliar with the name Geely (official company name Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd) but you’ll surely be familiar with some of the wide-range of western transportation-related companies it now owns.  They own the company that makes the classic black London Cabs, and Volvo, for example, they have a majority share in Lotus (sports cars) and they own the “flying car” company Terrafugia, to name just a few.

So, stay tuned for more details on this new project.

Marking the End of the “War to End All Wars”

This year’s Memorial Day marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice signed on 11 Nov 1918 to end what had been called “The Great War” and was also described as “The War to End All Wars”.  Sadly, barely 20 years later, it was renamed as the First World War, due to the start of World War 2.

This event – the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 – has seen a renewed outpouring of invective against the Great Powers that fought the war, and for some reason, in particular, the ascerbic criticism that has caused the war to be viewed as a senseless slaughter, due to incompetent generals with obsolete tactics, and an unpopular war that never should have happened in the first place.

That view has perhaps largely escaped the US because the US had so little “skin in the game”, only joining in April 1917 and the first troops arriving, in France, in late June.  It has however been very common in New Zealand and Australia, where just about every family (including mine) lost someone at the disaster that was Churchill’s Gallipoli campaign.

But, in reality, these perceptions, while almost universally perceived as incontrovertible fact, are almost entirely wrong.

Here’s an article which hints at this surprising misunderstand by citing ten myths about the war.  Please do read it.

Ironically, the ensuing revulsion towards war and the pacificism and unilateral disarmament that occurred in the 1920s and early 1930s were a major contributor to the start of the Second World War in 1939.

If you’re seeking some interesting reading over the Thanksgiving weekend, there is a tremendously well-written book on this topic, either as an eBook (a mere $4) or regular paperback ($10), that is simultaneously scholarly and rigorous, while being very approachable and easy to read.  It is “Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities” by Professor Gary Sheffield.

Very highly recommended.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an amazing story – it was originally published a few years ago, but I’ve not seen it before, and more to the point, fear it may still be accurate.

Technology – ah, what a sharp double-edged sword it truly is.  I learned a new term this week – “cyber flashing”.  In case you also are currently unaware, here’s a story about this being done on a recent flight.

“Tower, this is flight 123, requesting clearance to land”.  Phrases like that are uttered all day every day, with a quick crisp response instantly echoing back “123, this is Tower, cleared to land on runway 31L” and so on through the rest of the details involved in orchestrating the landing (or take-off) of a flight.

But what happens when the pilot calls the tower and there’s no response?  Well, of course, some airfields never have air traffic control, but for a major airport such as Las Vegas, that would surely never happen.  Or would it?  (By the way, there are official procedures for unresponsive air traffic control centers, including these days having the pilot pull out his mobile phone and call them that way!)

I’m thinking of a possible new Travel Insider “gourmet dining” tour.  Traveling the world to sample the regional variations in cuisine, as exemplified by McDonald’s menus and the items they feature on them in some countries but not others.  In NZ and Australia, it is meat pies (and sometimes, some different burger fillings, too – in NZ some people like beetroot, egg, and pineapple among other unusual choices).

Well, okay, perhaps not.  But it is interesting to see some of the differences in featured menus.

A great travel experience to consider, but with caution, because there’s no guarantee you’ll see what you’re hoping for, is to see the Northern Lights.  This article suggests some places to go where you might see them.  A friend went and spent a cold dark miserable week in Reykjavik last winter to see them, and the entire week was marked by no Northern Lights.  That is not altogether surprising because we are at a low point in the sun’s activity cycle; better to wait four or so years.  So, choose a place where there are other things to do as well.

I hope you have a great Thanksgiving, and if you’re traveling, I hope the weather and traffic both smile favorably on you.  We might be silent next Friday, but will definitely be back the Friday after.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels (and much turkey)






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