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March 4, 2005

'Crossing the Atlantic With a Dead Engine' — Why I won't be flying British Airways

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The headline of this post (the part in quotes) is what appeared over this past Tuesday's (March 1) Wall Street story by Scott McCartney about the bizarre occurrences surrounding British Airways Flight 268 out of Los Angeles on February 19, bound nonstop for London's Heathrow Airport.

I believe the British Airways pilots believed a bit too strongly in the importance of the "nonstop" aspect of the flight, and I think that if you should happen to make it to the end of what — at least at this juncture – appears to be shaping up to be a long, long post, you will agree with me.

So let us go now, you and I, to where airplanes fill the sky....

BA Flight 268 with 351 passengers aboard departed Los Angeles just after 9:24 p.m. on that rainy Saturday evening.

Nothing special there: LA's had record rainfall this year, far exceeding that of Seattle.

Anyway, shortly after takeoff the Boeing 747-400 experienced an unusual power surge in its No. 2 engine, located on the left side closest to the cabin.

Passengers heard two loud pops as the plane took off, one passenger told the Times of London, which wrote about the incident on February 25.

Los Angeles area residents went so far as to call the airport to report seeing sparks flying out from beneath the wing of the plane and hearing a loud "popping of engines," according to the airport.

On board the plane the pilots decided to shut down the engine.

According to McCartney's Wall Street Journal story, "The captain announced to the passengers that the plane had lost an engine and the crew was considering whether to return to continue to the U.K."

Let's stop here for a moment, all right?

Now, I'm just a [near?] brain-dead blogging anesthesiologist, not a jet pilot, but I must say that if you asked me, sitting on that plane, or even sitting here at my computer, what should happen next I'd say bring the plane right back down at LAX after clearing the runways and preparing emergency crews.

Doh

But hey, that's why I pass gas and don't fly planes.

The plane headed southwest over Santa Monica Bay, climbed to 5,000 feet, and circled over the Pacific Ocean on its three working engines for more than 20 minutes while the pilots diagnosed the problem and consulted with airline engineers in the British Airways operations center London about what to do next.

According to aviation experts, as noted in Sara Kehaulani Goo's Washington Post story of March 1, "the pilots had several choices: they could return immediately to Los Angeles International, but they would need to dump fuel over the ocean first because the plane would have been too heavy to land."

"They could continue on to another major airport such as O'Hare International Airport in Chicago or New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the carrier has a major presence, so mechanics could look at the engine."

"Or the crew could continue on for 11 hours to Heathrow."

"British Airways said the flight crew, in close cooperation with the airline engineers in London, chose the last option."

The jet headed north over the U.S. and Canada, up near the North Pole, then down across the Atlantic.

Now, you might be interested to know that only two days prior to this ill-starred flight the European Union had instituted a new policy of making airlines compensate passengers for delays.

The airline would have had to pay travellers €210,000 ($280,000) — €600 ($788) apiece — if they got to London's Heathrow Airport more than five hours late.

For a company teetering on the financial brink of disaster — that would be almost every major carrier in the world — that's some serious cash.

On top of which they'd have had to absorb the cost of dumping tons of expensive jet fuel from the topped-up plane and the cost of putting up the passengers and crew in hotels.

But you know all that money stuff would never have entered into the thinking of anyone associated with British Airways — right?

I mean, British Airways said in the Wall Street Journal article that the plane was safe flying on three of its four engines, and it has done the same thing before — once in April 2003, for instance, on the same Los Angeles-London route.

"Had there been any kind of a question on safety, they would have turned back to Los Angeles or gone to another U.S. airport," said British Airways spokesman John Lampl in McCartney's story.

Now why doesn't that make me feel better?

Lampl went on to say that any suggestion that the plane continued because of financial pressure from the new EU rules was "total rubbish."

I'm still not feeling better.

I must be cynical or something.

Because there are others in the airline business with a somewhat different take on the situation.

For U.S. airlines, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require commercial airlines to land at the nearest suitable airport after an engine failure.

Gee, that's pretty straightforward: it even seems like common sense you'd expect from any fourth-grader.

Bernard Loeb, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said of British Airway's decision to fly on to the U.K., "I don't think it was an appropriate decision at all."

Barry Schiff, a retired 747 captain with TWA who has written books on proper flying procedures and is the recipient of a congressional commendation for his work on airline safety, told the Wall Street Journal, "Continuing on after an engine failure on take-off is nuts."

Huh — that's just how that fourth-grader put it. But I digress.

Unable to climb as high as planned because of the loss of the engine, the plane flew at a lower altitude across the Atlantic, increasing drag and fuel burn.

In addition, with two engines on one side of the plane but only one on the other, the plane's rudder had to be used to keep the aircraft flying straight, which increased drag as well.

The plane failed to get as much of a tail wind as the pilots expected at the lower altitude, due to strong headwinds: this too increased fuel consumption.

Hey, I'll make you a bet: the pilots didn't engage the autopilot on this flight.

At least, I hope not.

Long story longer, the plane ran low on fuel short of London and was forced to put out a Mayday distress call and divert to Manchester airport so as not to run out of fuel.

The plane was met by several firetrucks and emergency response teams and managed to make a safe emergency landing in Manchester.

Lampl, the British Airways spokesman, told the Washington Post that the decision to continue with a flight despite the loss of one of the four engines "happens infrequently."

Gee, I'm still not comforted by what I'm reading — how about you?

Well, now comes the really good part.

Today's Wall Street Journal ran another story by Scott McCartney, this one describing an eerily similar second occurrence involving the very same airplane: it was headlined, "High Anxiety, Part II: Same 747 Flies Again On Three Engines."

At first I thought maybe I was confused, and it was April Fool's Day but no, it's only March 4, so I guess it's for real.

But it's really hard to believe what transpired.

That very same British Airways Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet, registered as G-BNLG, had a repeat occurrence on its next round trip after the Februrary 19 engine failure: it lost an engine en route from Singapore to London but once again the crew continued, flying 11 hours with a dead engine.

Huh?

Same crew, I wonder?

After all, by now they should be experts at carting giant planes with hundreds of passengers and a dead engine around the world.

British Airways said Flight 18 left Singapore with 356 passengers shortly after 11:35 p.m. local time and suffered an engine failure three-and-a-half hours into the flight.

As in the Los Angeles incident on February 19, the crew communicated with the airline's operations center in London and decided to continue.

About 11 hours later, the flight landed uneventfully at London's Heathrow Airport.

British Airways spokeswoman Diana Fung said, "It's perfectly safe to fly with three engines."

The FAA said it had continued to have "concerns" about the first flight, the one emanating from Los Angeles on February 19.

Backtracking for a moment, here's what happened to the plane after its emergency landing at Manchester at the conclusion of the first episode in this ongoing saga.

1) British Airways flew the empty plane from Manchester to London.

2) Mechanics replaced the No. 2 engine.

3) The plane was returned to regular service and flew from London to Singapore.

4) On the return flight from Singapore to London the replacement No. 2 engine signaled an oil pressure warning and the pilots shut it down.

5) The flight continued as noted above, landing at London's Heathrow.

6) The replacement No. 2 engine was itself replaced and the plane was returned to service.

Fung, the British Airways spokeswoman, told the Wall Street Journal that the airline doesn't believe the engine failures are in any way related.

"It's just a strange coincidence that it was the same aircraft," she said.

The FAA said it believed the initial flight from Los Angeles to London on three engines would have violated U.S. aviation regulations but the British crew was flying a British plane under British regulations, which allowed the flight to continue.

Huh.

Maybe the crew and the FAA should have looked out the window to see if that was Missoula or Manchester out the port window. But I digress.

My thoughts on the above?

1) I can't speak for you but if I'd been seated on the left side of Flight 268 that rainy Saturday evening in Los Angeles and heard loud popping sounds and saw sparks flying from the engine right next to me, I'd sure have been anxious.

In fact, I'd have been scared, and certain there was serious danger.

So when, after flying around in circles over the Pacific Ocean for a while, the captain's voice came on and announced we were continuing to London as planned, no problema, I'd probably not have shrugged and gone to sleep.

And then, after 11 hours of anxiety that probably seemed much longer than that, when the captain came on the intercom over England and said we were running low on fuel, and were diverting to Manchester for an emergency landing, well, I'd have been just a bit less than thrilled.

You?

2) Why has there not been a single word in the New York Times, the supposed "paper of record," about the events recounted above?

3) Why is the Wall Street Journal leading the coverage of what, at least to this prospective passenger, smacks of so-called "production pressure" gone mad?

I must say that every now and then a surgeon climbs all over me about my having cancelled a case because of a very slight increased risk to the patient.

He asks, couldn't we still do it if this, that and the other?

I reply, sure we could — but I won't.

Ooh, they don't like that.

But you know what?

1) I don't care one whit about what the surgeon thinks.

2) There may be a relationship, however tenuous, to my almost pathological pursuit of the lowest risk possible for my patients and the fact that I have yet to have been sued in many, many years of very high-risk practice in tertiary-care teaching hospitals.

Ya think?

I hate to repeat hackneyed cliches, you know that, but I must say that there is one that really best sums up the British Airways adventure flights:

"When someone says it's not about the money — it's about the money."

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And that's all I have to say about that.

March 4, 2005 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Margaret Atwood invents the virtual autograph

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Sometimes you find the most interesting things in the most unlikely places.

The New Yorker arrived today, and I was idly paging through it when, in the Talk of the Town section, I came upon a short item about Margaret Atwood's new invention.

Who knew the great Canadian author (above), whose most recent book, "Oryx and Crake,"

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is a masterpiece of dystopian fiction, was also a tinkerer?

She has created a machine that allows an author to remain at home while autographing books in faraway bookstores, anywhere on the planet.

It's a two-way video hookup with a robotic pen arm at the bookstore end.

The author sits at the kitchen table in pajamas and makes a personalized inscription for the book buyer by writing on an electronic screen; in a distant mall, the robotic pen replicates the message on the title page of the fan's propped-up book.

Atwood came up with the idea last spring during an expensive and exhausting three-week publicity tour for "Oryx and Crake."

She says the invention will be manufactured by a new company called Unotchit ("You no touch it").

The author believes the device will increase both the safety of the writer-reader interaction — "My germs and my bio-material won't be in the same place as your germs and your bio-material" — and its profundity: "I'm more likely to be gazing deeply into your eyes as I'm signing on the screen."

From the article:

    And she insists that there will be no appreciable lessening of an autograph's authenticity, because writing is already only a distant cousin of thought.

    "The mind is a device that is thinking out the signature," she said.

    "The hand is the extension of the mind, and the pen is the extension of the hand — so the pen is at two removes from the author's mind already. This thing is just another remove."

Atwood plans to launch her invention this fall.

"We've just built a clunky, Model A prototype of the machine, and we don't have a name for it yet," she said.

Well.

She's come to the right place for marketing advice.

Call it the RightAway.

Atwood

Not bad, eh?

[via Tad Friend and the New Yorker]

March 4, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Chronic Serial Painting (CSP) — a new psychiatric diagnosis?

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Annie Groer, for the February 24 Washington Post Home section, wrote a revelatory front page story about a behavioral constellation she termed "Chronic Serial Painting" (CSP).

From the article:

    They are generally an industrious lot, toiling before dawn, past midnight, on weekends, when they should be at work, while the kids are asleep or in school.

    They paint alone, with spouses or friends.

    Some are willing to pay professionals.

    Colors1

    For many CSPs, riding the color wheel is a joyous exercise, and they have no intention of getting off.

    To them painting, like life itself, is about the journey, not the destination.

    It's about hopeful beginnings that are well worth having the furniture piled in the center of a room, rugs rolled up in the hallway, gummy brushes in the sink and the coffee maker buried under a tarp.

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    For others, it is the result of agonizing choices gone awry: colors that look one way on a paint chip and quite another on the wall, or turn out to be way too dark after dusk, or nowhere near the leafy green in the carpet.

    According to paint professionals, CSPs tend to be female.

    [One woman] has her decorator change the whole interior of her home, including paint colors, every six to eight months.

Look for Chronic Serial Painting as a new diagnosis

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in the next edition of the DSM.

March 4, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Edwina Ings-Chambers on the Oakley 'Thump'

Girl

Edwina Ings-Chambers is the deputy fashion editor for The Financial Times.

With a great name like hers, could there ever have been any doubt about her ultimate destination?

She usually writes about clothes, designers and things fabulous.

A self-described technophobe and "classic kind of girl," she tried out Oakley's new self-contained, wireless audio sunglasses recently, then wrote a rave review which appeared in the February 19 paper.

Now, it should be noted that the Thump has been pilloried by many of those who've reviewed it.

Perhaps we need to take a second look, as our favorite now-disgraced Wall Street cheerleader, Jack Grubman, was urged to do with by Sandy Weill as a condition of Weill's picking up the phone to get Grubman's kids into an exclusive pre-school program.

Here's the review.

    A Sound System For Looking Cool

    Walkmans, Discmans, iPods - we've known for decades that we all love plugging into our own personal soundtrack to add melodrama to the humdrum.

    The Tube's just the Tube until you're listening to Carly Simon belting out "Let the River Run": then, suddenly, you're Melanie Griffith on an upward career trajectory.

    Still, personally, I've only ever dipped in and out of this type of daydreaming: I prefer my own imagination - even my own humming - for a soundtrack as I commute through life.

    Who needs an electronic umbilical cord to add to all the other ties that bind?

    But lately I've felt the need for a little escapism to - as Sister Sledge would say - get lost in music.

    So when the folks at Oakley told me about their new Thump sunglasses they sounded like the answers to my prayers.

    Cool design, state of the art sunglass technology, and an incorporated digital music system.

    In truth, though, I'm a bit of a technophobe.

    Downloading, uploading, any kind of loading leaves me in fear.

    I feel I should check the household insurance before I do anything - I might hit the wrong button and fuse the entire apartment.

    I imagine taking down the whole national grid by some ridiculous techno misdemeanour.

    So once I'd borrowed the glasses, I was initially crippled by fear about doing anything but simply wearing them until I begged my flatmate for help.

    Turned out my non-stop musical interlude was just a few mouse clicks away; the programs required were already right there on my laptop waiting to assist me.

    And the downloading of songs took less time than boiling an egg.

    OK, maybe a couple of eggs, consecutively.

    So what about wearing them?

    Well, I was afraid the stark black colour and groovy design (they look as though they should only be worn by snowboarders) would be too strong for me - I'm more of a classic kind of girl.

    But they worked surprisingly well on my face.

    And the lenses give a clear peripheral view - none of that almost getting run over because of blind spot nonsense.

    They even flip up, though I admit, I prefer to just take the things off.

    As for the music, well it's bliss.

    There are two small earplugs attached to the arms of the glasses that are completely moveable and swivel around so they fit perfectly inside your ears.

    The only problem with this is that as soon as you take the glasses off and chuck them in a bag the earplugs move again, so you must re-adjust them for each use, and this can't be done as you walk (I've tried and the things just don't sit properly on the bridge of your nose).

    Back on the plus side, the best bit of all is the lack of wires.

    All controls are attached to the arms, which means nothing gets tangled up in clothes.

    I had really thought these glasses would be for boys but it turned out not to be the case: the lack of things getting caught up in my hair and the ease of just picking up and walking were qualities I'd underestimated.

    For technos, the musical memory is 128MB or 256MB.

    That doesn't mean much to me, but I already have four albums stored on them and there's room left.

    In the world of iPods that may not seem much but it's more than enough for me.

    Now I can watch and go.

March 4, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Rogue Waves

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Not being a sailor or in any way, shape or form nautically inclined, this subject is of only academic — and philosophical — interest to me.

I first heard of rogue waves — those more than twice the height of surrounding ones — in the flood of articles following the recent Indian Ocean tsunami.

I learned that though sailors over the centuries have attested to the existence of giant, 100-foot-high waves rising up out of nowhere on calm days in otherwise calm seas, most scientists considered them a practical impossibility.

A few days ago I was sitting doing something close to nothing (but different from the day before) when I came across Jeffrey Kastner's short essay on the subject in the current issue (#16) of Cabinet magazine.

I wouldn't have read it except for the arresting full-page photo on page 91 opposite his piece, reproduced at the top of this post.

It was taken by Philippe Lijour, first mate on the supertanker Esso Languedoc, in 1980 during a storm off Durban, South Africa.

It shows a wall of water the size of an eight-story building crashing over the deck of the ship.

Graham Lawton, in his 2001 New Scientist magazine story "Monsters of the Deep," noted that ships often don't survive such waves and that many sink before anyone on board knows what hit them.

Roguewave

According to a longstanding method of wave forecasting known as the Linear Model, such monster waves should emerge from calm waters only once every 10,000 years.

A scientific project called MaxWave was carried out by the European Union in December 2000 to try to quantitate the occurrence of rogue waves using satellite imagery.

During the three-week period of data collection more than 10 rogue waves, each over 80 feet high, were seen.

Burin

Douglas Faulkner, a marine consultant and former professor of naval architecture at Glasgow University, estimates that of 60 super carriers (huge cargo ships more than 650 feet long) lost to sudden flooding between 1969 and 1994, 22 of them went down as a result of being struck by rogue waves.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that rogue waves were of philosophical interest to me.

This is because they represent a phenomenon — the belief long considered fanciful that proves to be all too real — that has long fascinated me.

If most legends turn out to be based on truth, then where does that leave fabulists and spinners of fantasy?

Or is it possible that creating a myth precedes the reality?

[via Jeffrey Kastner and Cabinet magazine]

March 4, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Making Bacon

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Last Sunday's shout-out to Bacontarian.com resulted in a lardbucket full of email.

Among the many interesting ones were several that asked how to cook bacon in such a way that it didn't curl up into a little ball.

There is a way, friends: it is only passed on from me to you as it was from wherever I read it to me.

Odd that something so important was neglected by our parents and teachers while we were growing up, don't you think?

Perhaps it's because they didn't know the answer.

But here, the readers become the pushers — at least of bacon-flattening lore.

It's quite simple, actually, and works whether you microwave it (as I do with Nueske's, three minutes on paper-towel-covered paper plates) or fry it or broil it.

You must ventilate the bacon before cooking it.

Yes, I know, you don't usually associate ventilation of the pork with the preparation of bacon, but that's OK.

It's gonna be all good once you learn the secret.

The reason bacon curls up when it cooks is because the fat and the meat respond differently to heat.

Just as a bimetallic strip bends depending on temperature (the basis for many industrial applications), so does a bacon strip.

Because the fat shrinks more rapidly than the meat, it pulls the meat fibers together in one direction or another, and begins a process which, if left unchecked, will result in a bunch of crispy bacon balls when all is said and done.

To avert this inevitable outcome, you must perforate your bacon before cooking.

This allows the fat that stays solid to remain flat along with the meaty portions of each strip.

My current tool of choice is a 2"-wide spiked wheel attached to a handle: I roll it back and forth over the bacon strips before cooking.

Doing one side suffices quite nicely as the device, if sufficient pressure is exerted, goes through and through.

Roll it over the entire strip, fat and meat.

I have recently ordered a 48-blade Jaccard meat tenderizer (below) with an eye toward even greater ease of perforation.

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Anything with points or sharp tips that makes an impression in the bacon will do: a hammer-type meat tenderizer (below),

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as long as it makes holes in the fat, works quite nicely.

March 4, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

British Jigsaw Puzzle Library

Bjplmem2

This is a lending library for real, old-fashioned wooden jigsaw puzzles.

"Puzzles are exchanged mainly by post."

How wonderful, and how very British, so reminiscent of the Raj.

From the website:

    All the puzzles are wooden without picture guides and our team of cutters keeps adding to our collection of about 4,000 puzzles.

    The variety of style and degree of difficulty are wide and we take considerable care to suit each member.

    Members may keep their puzzles for any length of time within their subscription period and always have some at home whilst the others are being exchanged.

The library began in 1933 when Lord Craigavon, an addicted solver of puzzles, wished to lend his puzzles to friends and introduced a subscription charge to cover costs.

The library is currently on its seventh owner.

Her Majesty the Queen is a member.

This is as close as you're likely to ever get to her, doing a puzzle she's done.

An annual membership is £84; six months costs £46, and three months £33.

Try it, you might like it.

Puzzles are very soothing things.

They are always, without exception, found in psychiatric wards, where residents are encouraged to work on them.

Any synapse not occupied in rumination is a synapse moving toward recovery.

March 4, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Supercar Throwdown — Saleen v McLaren

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In this corner, from Irvine, California, the new Saleen S7 (above and below).

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Details: 100 cars a year are hand-built in former Indy car driver Steve Saleen's factory, far fewer than Ferrari's 4,000.

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The S7 has 750 horsepower, does 0-60 in under 4 seconds, is capable of 200 mph+ speeds, and costs $550,000.

The defending champion: the Mercedes McLaren SLR (below).

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Production is approximately the same as the Saleen, around 100 cars a year.

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It's got 617 horsepower, does 0-60 in under 3.8 seconds, hits 207 mph, and costs $455,000.

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Me, I find it hard to choose.

Just take me for a ride.

March 4, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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