What the Hell is Happening in the Sky?
From balloons to nose-dives, a round up of recent aviation news.
Here is comment on some recent aviation-related news. As with many aviation mishaps, crucial details are still to be explained and explored.
1) What can possibly be the deal with these Chinese balloons?
No one yet knows for sure. Here is one possibility we can dismiss:
—Is this the latest illustration of U.S. weakness / Chinese strength?
This was the MAGA/Fox News position while the balloon was going across Montana and the central U.S. A U.S. senator with senior positions on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees actually said:
China flew the balloon over US to send 'a message': They think America is 'in decline'
That was Marco Rubio.
For a while it was also the Chinese state-media position.
Interestingly, Chinese state media has been more agile in shifting its line than some in the U.S. Recently official Chinese organs have switched to the opposite argument: The big, mean United States is beating up on us! You can see samples here and here and here. A representative quote, from a column in the state-run China Daily:
Indubitably, the incident has revealed the dark purpose of Washington's shift from relative reticence in the early days of the episode to a hysterical pitch afterward…
Despite Beijing's consistent assertion that the balloon was a civilian research airship that inadvertently strayed and hovered over US airspace, US President Joe Biden went ahead with his decision to shoot it down…
There are many flaws in Washington's narrative that the airship was a "surveillance" balloon. If it was a spy balloon, which Beijing categorically denies, what value could it have offered beyond what could be gathered by satellites? If it had limited added value, why would China take the risk that it could easily have been spotted and destroyed by the US?..
The balloon episode has been exploited by hawkish elements in the US as a pretext to intensify moves against China, and they are demanding that the closest US allies follow suit.
And, from a senior Chinese academic, also in China Daily:
Although the Chinese balloon drifted into the airspace over the US, China cannot be held accountable for that, because the balloon had gone out of control much before that. China had no intention of flying that balloon into the airspace over the US territory.
According to an old dictum, no one should be liable for an act that is not attributable to him. Similarly, no liability should be attributed to China in this case, because it is not accountable for it.
I know enough about Chinese state media to know what not to believe. But it’s interesting that their “we blundered, and you over-reacted!” statements could stand up better than the hair-trigger “we look so weak!” from some U.S. officials.
Perhaps I missed it, but I haven’t yet seen a retraction or update from Marco Rubio.
—Who ordered this on the Chinese side, and what did they hope to gain from it?
We don’t know, and we don’t know.
—What, if any, are the under-reported aspects of this strange era?
Two of them. First, wind.
-Why the wind matters.
Everyone in the sailing world knows about wind. Everyone in the operational part of the flying world does too.
-Pilots of any aircraft know about the wind, because it’s the main thing you have in mind when landing.
-Pilots of small planes know about the wind, because it has such an effect on your progress over the ground. Two days ago I flew a little plane whose cruise speed is 170 knots—on a route where we switched from a headwind of 50 knots, to a comparable tailwind. It makes a difference!
-Airline passengers know this mainly as a frequent-flyer annoyance. Flying from, say, Dulles to SEATAC in Seattle can take two hours longer than the reverse trip, because prevailing winds and the jet stream blow so strongly west-to-east.
Now: Imagine that we’re not talking about propeller planes, like my Cirrus; or enormously powerful jets, like those voyaging between Washington, D.C. and Washington state. But instead about a balloon, which has no significant propulsion of its own, and can “steer” itself mainly by going up and down to different altitudes, with different prevailing winds. Imagine what jet-stream winds do to it.
As applied to the famous recent Chinese balloon:
—Why did it travel west-to-east across the U.S.? Because that is how the winds blow.
—Why can’t the U.S. as easily launch balloons across China? Because you’d have to launch them from Central Asia. Not Japan or South Korea or Taiwan or the Philippines or a U.S. carrier off China’s coast. The winds would take those out into the Pacific, not over Chinese sites.
—Why did the Chinese “steer” the balloon into the U.S.? Because there is only so much steering you can do with a balloon.
An extra detail on the wind.
I have received many emails from people who know more than the rest of us about wind and weather patterns.
Several of them have pointed out:
—About a week ago, the East Coast of the United States endured the coldest temperatures in recorded history. That was when the jet stream took an unusual deviation to the south.
—It was at that very same time that the wind-directed Chinese balloon came south into U.S. territory, from Canada.
Coincidence? Causation? We’ll see. But pay attention to the wind, even more than national “weakness” and “strength.” (Update: I see that the WaPo has just run an article about the unusual southward path of the jet stream, during the balloon’s voyage.)
And second, radar.
-Why radar matters
Why didn’t U.S. surveillance radar notice these balloons before?
One answer may be that to work at all, radar operators need to decide what not to notice. Otherwise there’s just too much potential clutter, making it hard to see what you really care about. And until recently, North American air-defense radars probably screened out as “noise” most extremely low-velocity “targets” like balloons.
Here’s an example: Imagine you’re on a long cross-country drive, and you’re looking for radio stations. You press “Scan” or “Seek,” and the receiver skips around until it finds a strong-enough signal. In doing so it ignores signals too weak, distant, or static-filled to be worth listening to.
This is the concept of “signal” versus “noise.”
Radar operators require similar filters. To find what’s significant—weather, aircraft, other objects—they have to ignore what doesn’t matter. At low altitudes: Flocks of birds. Flocks of bats. Clouds of dust. At higher altitudes: other objects that could generate radar “returns” but probably aren’t what you’re looking for. Signal and noise.
There are lots of miscellaneous objects in the skies, starting with weather balloons. Most radar systems have been set to tune them out. Now they will recalibrate. And now we’re hearing more reports of shoot-downs of these newly noticeable objects.
What does this mean between the U.S. and China? For now no one can be sure. But pay attention to the wind, pay attention to the newly tuned radar, and don’t freak out if another such balloon is detected.
2) What is the deal with the continuing reports of airline ‘close calls’?
I reported on several of these recently: a potentially perilous runway-incursion at JFK last month, and a genuine near-disaster at Austin airport early this month.
Now we have the reported plunge of an United airliner that nearly crashed into the Pacific in December, after takeoff from Maui. Extensive details are in this story by Jon Ostrower from the invaluable The Air Current. That is the source of this image, in turn from the also-invaluable FlightRadar24:
How could this have happened?
Again, we don’t yet know—and again, I respect enormously the skill and competence of nearly all professional air crews.
But this kind of flight path is not explicable in normal circumstances. When you’re taking off, in good weather or bad, your normal obsession is with getting away from the ground as quickly as possible. And when you’re taking off into an overcast cloud layer, as this crew apparently was, your normal focus is entirely on your flight instruments, as they register your climb. When practicing a low-ceiling, low-visibility takeoff, I’ve been drilled countless times on watching the instruments to ensure a steady climb. This flight crew must have had vastly more training. But for some reason they headed straight down.
Was this disorientation in the clouds? Was it a mistaken early switch to autopilot, which somehow put the plane into a descent rather than a climb? Was the crew distracted in some way?
Presumably the FAA, United, or the NTSB will eventually let us know.
-Is this related to the dangerous recent situations at JFK and in Austin? Or is it all just a coincidence?
Let us hope it is the latter. And once more for perspective, around the world some 100,000 airline flights take off and land safely every day.
But no one knows. And please read the second part of this post, from a retired air traffic controller who says that we continue to get warning signs about a system being stretched past the breaking point.
Comments in a private message from a knowledgeable source:
Thirty and 60 degrees latitude are the boundaries between three fairly stable circulation systems, and that's where balloons that circle the earth, crossing over Canada and over Mexico would naturally go.
The short polar incursion that routed the Feb 2 balloon over most of the US is quite rare, and probably not predictable by even the 10-day or MOS algorithms. I don't think even a rogue Chinese general could have planned this so perfectly.
…On Feb 2-3, there was a jet stream collapse and a big mound of very cold polar air brought temperatures in the northeast down about 20 degrees C below normal for a day or two. That coincides with the time in which the Chinese balloon headed strongly south and exposed itself.
So many interesting ideas and comments... but for my part, I keep thinking the continental overflight was probably a coastal RF harvesting mission gone astray due to weather conditions, etc. I would bet, in fact, that the USAF (as well as the Canadians) monitor these matters discretely so as to avoid the hyperbolic treatment by the media and politicians alike.
That said, more discussion about the commercial aviation incidents is likely as short-hop platforms multiply whether with pilots in the cockpit, behind remote consoles, or not present at all if fully autonomous systems become technically viable. One article I saw recently suggested the USAF was studying large air transports without pilots onboard, but more complex issues arise in the civilian airspace (and the ground it relies upon for departures and arrivals...); for example, just this morning I discovered this article regarding the necessary reflection about medical emergencies in small VTOL aircraft shuttling people around urban areas:
Fwiw, I was most impressed by the sheer number of interventions and how many were inflight:
"In 2022, the MedAire assistance teams handled just under 61,000 cases, with about one-third of these involving direct inflight medical aid, on top of providing support for crew and assessing whether passengers were fit to fly. "
No one is talking about the earliest Chinese instrusion, Jan 23, 2023 :
" Chinese satellite beams green lasers over Hawaii "
HONOLULU (KHON) – Astronomers say a Chinese satellite has been caught on video beaming down green lasers over the Hawaiian Islands.
A National Astronomical Observatory of Japan livestream camera atop the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea recorded the footage in late January.
The lasers flashed for just a couple of seconds and were initially thought to be from a NASA altimeter satellite. The NAOJ put out a correction note on Monday, Feb. 6 that said NASA scientists “did a simulation of the trajectory of satellites that have a similar instrument and found a most likely candidate as the ACDL instrument by the Chinese Daqi-1/AEMS satellite.”
“It’s a Chinese satellite that is measuring pollutants, among other things,” said University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy’s Roy Gal. “It has many different instruments on it … Some kind of topographical mapping or they’re also used for measuring stuff in Earth’s atmosphere, and I think that’s what it is, environmental measurement satellite.”
- " Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Day the Earth Stood Still Turns 70"
"We chat with actor Billy Gray, who played young Bobby in this classic sci-fi film. He talks about his role as Bud on Father Knows Best, working with Patricia Neal, and being a child actor in 1950s Hollywood."
"The Day the Earth Stood Still was a plea for peace in the Cold War era of fear and paranoia. It may be best known for the robot Gort; low-tech by today’s CGI standards, and all the more terrifying for it."
- https://www.gradesaver.com/the-day-the-earth-stood-still-1951-film/study-guide/quotes :
“Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
"This is the ominous warning given to the people of the world by the first known visitor from another world. Important to realize is that he prefaces it in a way that lessen the ominous quality that is attached when taken out of context. Somewhat lessen it, at any rate. Here’s his story: his race has created a police force of pretty much omnipotent robots that have the power to destroy entire worlds who do not join with them in their universe of peaceful co-existence between all civilizations. He has arrived with his definitely menacing robot Gort to deliver an ultimatum: stop the madness or die.
“That’s the kind of man I would like to talk to.”
Klaatu’s experience with humans is not exactly what would call entirely satisfying. But Klaatu does find one earthling he considers worthy and expresses this admiration in his usual simple and gentle manner. Unfortunately for Klaatu, he is speaking of a man whom he has come to learn about by visiting him in the form of a gigantic statue of marble. The man is Abraham Lincoln and he’s nearly a century too late.
“I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”
Klaatu confesses that his civilization has not attained perfection, but surely they must be close. After all, what could be more perfect than a society not infested with stupid members? The world will likely never know.
“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto”
Without question, this is the most famous quote associated with the film. In fact, it is one of the most famous quotes in the entire canon of science fiction cinema, standing on a par with “Live long and prosper” and “May the force be with you.” Unlike those phrases, however, “Klaatu barada nikto” exists entirely within the sphere of its alien language. The meaning is never translated into English; it is merely passed along from Klaatu to another character as the only thing that can save mankind from the devastating power of the robot Gort should any harm befall him. And, indeed, when Klaatu is killed, the mysterious words do indeed preserve the future of the earth, for now"