Friday 28 May 2010

The mystery of Flight 522

In August 2005, Helios Airways Flight 522 took off from Larnaca, Cyprus, to fly to Athens. Although radio contact was lost minutes after departure, the Boeing 737 nevertheless flew along its flight plan route for 2 hours to Athens where it began to circle at 34,000 feet. Alarmed at the prospect of a 9/11 scenario, the Greek Air Force launched a fighter jet to intercept the airliner.

The fighter pilot came alongside and saw that the captain's seat was empty and that the co-pilot appeared slumped over the controls. Soon after, the 737 began to descend and a few minutes later crashed with the loss of all 121 on board.

It didn't take the investigators long to work out that the aircraft's pressurisation system had failed and that, as it had climbed out of Larnaca, the pilots had succumbed to oxygen starvation. The autopilot had nevertheless guided the aircraft along its programmed route to Athens. But lacking a human instruction to descend to the airport, the autopilot put the plane into the holding pattern where it circled until it ran out of fuel.

As the investigation developed two further key facts emerged: (1) the plane's pressurisation system had been tested immediately prior to the fatal flight but the engineer had failed to reset the system to "Auto" meaning that it did not automatically activate on the fatal flight; (2) a low pressure warning horn sounded in the cockpit of Flight 522 as it climbed out of Larnaca but the pilots didn't recognise the warning for what it was because it was the same sound as an alert to a situation much more familiar but which can only happen on the ground: the pilots believed they were dealing with a rogue warning but their attempts to troubleshoot were barking up the wrong tree and they succumbed to hypoxia before they realised their error.

So who was to blame? The engineer for failing to reset the pressurization switch to "Auto"? Boeing for designing the 737 with a pressurisation warning which could be mistaken for something else? Or the pilots for misdiagnosing the problem?

I was fairly certain the blame lay with the pilots until I fell into a similar trap last night involving a piece of equipment almost as complex to operate as a Boeing 737-300, namely a Hoover HNF6127-37S front loading washine machine.

Carol comes through yesterday evening and reports that the washing machine wasn't going on to its spin cycle. The last time the w/m didn't do what it was supposed to, I pulled out the filter and found a coin in it, the removal of which caused the machine to start working perfectly again. This time, I opened the filter and pulled out two coins and found a third jammed in the hose. I spent about 15 minutes before I managed to dislodge it with a pair of pliers as ingeniously suggested by Carol. But although that rendered us a total of €1.25 better off, it did not place us back in possession of a working washing machine.

Around about the elapsed time that would have seen us passing out from hypoxia had we been the crew of an unpressurised 737 climbing to cruising altitude on autopilot, the kitchen voice recorder at 5 Rua da Assomada picks up First Officer Duncan saying "Do you think the coins might be a red herring?". Captain King replies "Dunno, possibly, I can't think what else to try ..." And a few minutes later the voice of the F/O is heard saying "Oh look - the spin speed dial is at zero! I must have accidentally nudged it out of place when I was cleaning it yesterday ..." Problem solved.

 As can be seen, the Hoover HNF6127's control panel (with spin speed dial outlined) makes a 737's pressurisation control panel look the very model of simplicity by comparison (all you have to do is set it to "AUTO")

So whose fault was the machine machine incident, albeit happily resolved without so much as a lost sock? Carol's for accidentally setting the spin speed to zero? Hoover's for designing something as daft as a spin speed of zero (WTF?) Or mine for barking up the wrong tree of the coins in the filter and not scanning the instrument panel to look for another more obvious solution? Not so simple to answer, is it?

Pilots, operators and manufacturers of commercial airliners and lawyers representing the aforementioned please take note.  

Wednesday 19 May 2010


Personally, I find texting (sending an SMS for any non-Anglo Saxon readers) about one of the daftest and most inconvenient methods of communication ever invented. God knows why it caught on but my thumb just can't work a phone key-pad - it would be easier etching hieroglyphs in a tablet of wet clay with a stylus of goose feather. And predictive texting doesn't really work for me either although it has given rise to one of the funniest comedy sketches ever:-

STOP PRESS - last time I tried to predictively text the word "shit" (on the rare occasions I do text, it tends to come up), I was indeed offered "shiv" (an improvised knife like object as in "I despatched the blackguard with my shiv") or "pigt" (the acronym for the phosphate thingy enzyme). But tonight, I tried it and it does offer "shit" first with "shiv" and "pigt" as second and third choices - annoying if you're wanting to text someone about a blackguard despatching or microbiology breakthrough, though ...


How did I get on to this? Oh yes! Text messages! We've suddenly become great fans of them. Well receiving them anyway. One of the websites our holiday apartment is advertised with sends you a text if anyone makes an enquiry. So as we're rather sad old people that no-one else texts, whenever the phone chirps we know it's an enquiry. Which is nice.

Unless, of course, it's bastard PT Communicações (the Portuguese equivalent of BT) with an unsolicited text (or worse, phone call) trying to sign me up to one of their deals which actually ends up costing you more. V tempted to pay a call to PTC armed with a shiv and drop a bag of pigt down their chimney.

Tuesday 11 May 2010


The Queen received the Right Honourable David Cameron this evening and requested him to form a new administration. The Right Honourable David Cameron accepted Her Majesty’s offer and Kissed Hands upon his appointment as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury.

Am I the only person to have noticed that it's alleged she asked him to form an "administration"?

Where did that creeping Americanism come from? Whether a sweeping Labour or Conservative majority or a rainbow alliance with the Raving Monster Loony Party (or even - perish the thought - a "Progressive Alliance" with the SNP), the United Kingdom doesn't have "administrations" - it has governments. The announcement must have been drafted by a trainee at Buck House and released before HM got to see it as she would never have sanctioned that. She'll be fit to be tied. You might as well talk about meetings of the Privy Council in the Oval Office.

On the subject of which, the phones have been ringing at Number 10 with congratulations from foreign leaders coming in thick and fast as disclosed by the BBC's election live coverage web-page (click below to see it properly)

You can picture that as well, can't you? A civil servant holding his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone whispering "Mr Salmon on Line 2 to talk about the Progressive Alliance, Prime Minister ..."

DC says "Look Barack, it's been great but I'm going to have to leave it ... yah ... Israel ... yah, yah, ... Middle East, yah ... Barack, sorry, ... yah ... Road Map ... I know, yah ... Barack, I'm going to have to go, OK? ... Ciao, Bye, Bye, Bye ... Alex!!!! New tram to Glasgow Airport - shoot ..."

Viagens Extraordinárias

The ash cloud has arrived overhead the Azores. No flights to or between the islands (or Madeira) yesterday (Monday) and none predicted until late afternoon today (Tuesday).

By the way - and those of you living in the UK and other parts of Northern Europe will already know this - there's absolutely nothing to see when an ash cloud is overhead buggering up air transport: the sky was as blue yesterday as it ever is (which is quite a lot bluer than it has been of late, the weather here having pretty dire so far this spring - there have not yet been two consecutive nice days. Today the sky has reverted to traditional rain cloud grey.)

Of course, on Flores we're used to flights being cancelled by the weather. There's an expression out here - and I've probably got this all wrong, Marisa can correct me - o avião cancelou meaning "the plane cancelled" implying it was the plane itself which took the decision to cancel the flight, the correct expression being o avião foi cancelado meaning it was cancelled. I suspect it's a joke you have to be a native Portuguese speaker to appreciate fully. And I've probably cocked it up anyway - o avião cancelou is probably the perfectly acceptable Porto equivalent of saying things like "the kettle boiled" (I can never remember - is that a homonym or an oxymoron?) Let's move on, shall we?

Anyway, the situation has become so dire that SATA-Air Açores have chartered the inter-island summer car ferry, the inappropriately named (for reasons too lengthy to mention here) MV Express Santorini, to do some extra sailings to pick up the slack and apparently it spent last night shuttling back and forth between Horta, Terceira and São Miguel on what Atlânticoline described as a viagem extraordinária. Not as much fun as being rescued off the beaches of Santander by a Royal Navy frigate crewed entirely by tabloid journalists but more fun than going on the plane, for sure.

The BBC did a thing about how you pronounce Eyjafjallajökull and they got along an Icelander to say it - it sounds like Bjork doing a cover of "Hey Jude" to the accompanyment of the Brighouse & Rastrick brass band except it lasts a bit longer than "Hey Jude". There's also some smashing pics of Eyja-whatsname at this link to the Boston Globe. In particular, this picture caught my eye:-

The lava flow reminded me a lot of the coast line of Flores ...

Which is no coincidence, of course, because Iceland and Flores are both volcanic islands and this explains why the surface of Flores is pockmarked with these:-

I believe the last eruption here was about 20,000 years ago. Which means the next one's due ... any day now. What's that rumbling sound? And that sulphrous smell ...? Flores is pronounced "FLOW-rish" (with a real roll to the "r" and you hardly pronounce the "i" at all.)  

Sunday 9 May 2010

Game on

Today we read the funniest comment on the whole election saga. It's a "tweet" (whatever that means) by Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator (a right-ish wing British weekly news mag that mayor of London, Boris Johnson used to be the editor of). This is it:-

"SNP negotiating team heading to London. Hope they have got some theatre tickets and dinner plans: Tories are not that desperate."

Seems I was wrong about the Gnats not wanting to join any coalitions. Turns out they're hot for it and have cooked up a deal with their partners in crime Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Gnats: it's pronounced "Plied" as in past tense of "ply" and "Cumrie" as in, er, "cumrie"), done some sums and worked out that, with some of the less obstreperous Irish bits and pieces on side, they could achieve a majority with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. SNP leader Alex "Fat Eck" Salmon has gone so far as to "call on" the Lib Dems to join his soi disant "Progressive Alliance".  I'm not making this up (you couldn't) - check it here if you don't believe me.

But the notion that they've gone down to London to gate crash the negotiations between the main players has had us in stitches all afternoon. Picture it - the elastic band of Adhar Feachd Aon is wound up outside its garage on the edge of Robert the Bruce International (until recently known as Edinburgh Airport) and Eck and his deputy, Nicola "Nasty Nick" Sturgeon, clamber aboard. Eck performs the miracle of the banishment of the volcanic ash cloud (yes, it's back again) and AF1 struggles aloft, it's rate of climb retarded by the weight of the bag of pies Eck's brought along to sustain him on his epic voyage.

But that's not a pie, Eck! That's the third member of your team, Stewart Stevenson! You can't eat him because his megalomaniac ambitions of getting the world to follow Scotland's climate change lead mean he's just the man to bang the heads of Messrs Brown, Cameron & Clegg (not to mention the crowned head of HM the Q) together and make them see sense.

There's just been another sensational "tweet" from Fraser Nelson:-

"Just bumped into leader of SNP coalition negotiating team: they have just "met the civil service". Full of optimism. Bless."

You can picture that too, can't you? Some harassed official is called down to the front door by security and says "I'm sorry but we're rather busy today - who are you exactly and who is it you think is expecting you?"

Gorgeous pouting Nick in a previous life

So having left their mobile numbers, our heroes repair to meet up with their Welsh chums in a grubby Bayswater B&B where they spend the afternoon carving up the great offices of state while waiting for the phone to ring. On Monday morning, an official at Number 10 finds the following message on the answering machine.

"Eh, this is a message for Gordon. This is Nicola from the SNP. Me an' Eck and Stewart have came tae engage wi yiz as a key stakeholder in forming a new government. Anyway, we've got tae go oot noo because Mamma Mia's starting soon. So we'll maybe hear fae yiz the morn. OK? Oh and if Eck kids oan he's gonnae be the Foreign Secretary, then that's pure rubbish because I bagged that first. Ages ago. Awright? OK. Bye." 

I think another Nick is being referred to here but you can see how confusion can arise ...

Friday 7 May 2010

Election Result

Here it is:-

Labour, the centre left party of incumbent prime minister Gordon Brown, has lost its overall majority. The centre right Conservative ("Tory") Party of David Cameron (small mouth man) has the most seats but not an overall majority. The centre-centre Liberal Democrats, who are always third, had a disappointing night losing 5 seats despite the "Clegg Effect" of their short-eyebrowed leader's stellar performance in the opening leaders' debate.

Although common and/or the norm in many European countries (notably Germany) a "hung parliament" with no party having an overall majority is rare in Britain, the last one having been in 1974.

As well as the Big 3, there are what I call "the Bits and Pieces" - a rag bag of 28 Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, Irish Unionists, an Irish neither Unionist nor Nationalist, an Irish Independent (Ireland never votes for the Big 3) and one Green (a novelty in the British parliament).

Now do the arithmetic. A majority is 326 seats. Tory + Lib Dem = 361. Labour + LD = 315. To build a majority, Labour needs to get not only the LD's on side but 11 of the Bits and Pieces as well.

Clegg is the King Maker but you have to understand that a central plank of Lib Dem policy is electoral reform to remove the situation whereby, under the British voting system, the LDs score 23% of the vote but only 9% of the seats in Parliament. Labour and Conservative, of course, are reluctant to give up their in-built advantage but Labour have recently had a bit of deathbed conversion to electoral reform - cynics believe this is because they predicted losing their majority and wanted to have something to be able to attract the LDs on board. The Tories remain wedded to the present system.

Clegg said he would speak first to the party with the most seats. The Tories and the Lib Dems are unlikely bedfellows but is an alliance between the second and third placed parties (plus some of the Bits and Pieces) to shut the first placed party out of power credible? The political pundits are saying the most likely outcome will be a Conservative minority government (as there is in Canada, Portugal and Scotland to name but three: it means the government has to try and rule by consensus).     

Where we are just now (Friday night, day after the election) is that the Tories and LDs are closeted in talks. Brown, meanwhile, remains the Prime Minister. Only if/when the Tories and LDs succeed in forging an alliance will Brown have ceased to "command the confidence of a majority in Parliament", as the sonorous phrase has it, and have to go Buckingham Palace and tender his resignation to the Queen.

And if (when?) the Tories and LD's don't form an alliance? Well Brown announced outside No. 10 Downing Street (office and official residence of the PM in London) this afternoon that he is open to talks with Clegg and promising an early referendum on electoral reform. This would be a huge prize for the LDs but dare they be associated in a "grubby backroom deal" with a party which has lost its mandate?

And what of the Bits and Pieces? If you can't scrape enough of them together, it'd be a minority government of the 2nd and 3rd placed parties instead of a minority government of the winning party - is that credible? Horrid little Salmon of the Scot Nats (6 seats) has said no to any deals with Tory or Labour but you're probably better off without his sort anyway. You'd be permanently looking over your shoulder, getting in to bed with that sort of crowd of gnats, taffs and bogtrotters. At least you know where you stand with Sinn Feinn (ultra Irish Nationalist) - they never take their 5 seats in Parliament because it involves swearing an oath of allegiance to the Crown which is anathema to Fenians.

And on the subject of the Crown, she was at Windsor Castle today but apparently her private secretary has taken up almost permanent residence at No 10 so as to be aware of what's going on and report back. If none of the Big 3 parties can do a deal with each other, then it will be her decision who is asked to form the next government: the job is more than just hosting garden parties and trooping the colour.

She would almost certainly appoint Cameron as leader of the biggest party. That's what she did at the last hung parliament in 1974 when the Tories under Edward Heath lost their majority and couldn't form an alliance with the Liberal Party (as they were called then). She appointed the leader of the largest party, Harold Wilson of Labour, as Prime Minister of a minority government. There was another election 8 months later (when Labour won a majority albeit a slim one) so don't assume the next British general election will be 5 years hence.

Fascinating stuff.

Is it just me, or does Clegg's hair look the brush on one of these shoe cleaning machines you see at airports?