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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.1
—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’?
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.