Sunday, November 08, 2015

If Our Satellites Saw Metrojet Explode, Why Didn't They See Malaysia Flight 17?

Did our satellites see the MH17 shootdown?

While I normally steer clear of geopolitics, I came across a blog post by Ron Unz asking this question. Unz, if you remember, is an entrepreneur who once ran for governor of California.

Writing in the comments section of an article on the Russian presence in Syria, Unz wonders:

But the real issue has been ignored by our worthless MSM. Within just a couple of days of the airliner’s destruction, America had already released satellite data showing a mid-air explosion, therefore strongly implying a bomb. However, after more than a year, the US has still failed to release any similar satellite data regarding the destruction of MH-17 in Ukraine, which occurred in a war-zone subject to far greater American surveillance.

Malaysia Flight 17 was the 777 which was shot down by a missile while flying over Ukraine. So do I have any idea about or opinion on the downing of MH17? Not in the slightest other than it was probably an unintentional launch by someone who thought they were shooting at a combatant aircraft. I'm not sure I buy the "false flag" theory of an intentional shootdown. That would be truly evil. But it's true that whoever did it, accidentally or not, certainly wanted to pin it on the other side. Here's where the satellites come in.

The US DoD has long been interested in space based intelligence and missile early warning. Dating back decades to the Cold War, satellites have been employed to try to detect missile launches. Given that the flight time for an ICBM is about a half hour or less, having a means to detect launches from space was an important priority.

Fast forwarding to the first Gulf War, the threat of Iraqi Scud missiles made clear the need for expanded theater missile detection in addition to strategic missile warning. The resulting system called the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) gives American intelligence agencies real time data on missile launches. The plume from any missile launch can be detected by infrared sensors and one would presume that the system is deployed over not only the entire middle east but also our old Cold War nemesis, Russia.

Of course the "sources and methods" of our intelligence capabilities are, or should be, highly classified for obvious reasons. If an enemy knows what we can see, they will take pains to avoid detection or to spoof those capabilities. For whatever reason, however, adherence to that principle seems to be in short supply these days. So by very quickly confirming that an explosion had been detected over the Sinai Peninsula, the inevitable questions about other events will surface as they have here.

Presumably, if current systems can see a smallish explosion on a jetliner then they would not only have seen the destruction of the much larger Malaysian 777, but also the location of the missile launch that took it down. There are also good reasons why our systems might not have been able to detect the MH17 shootdown as well. Perhaps there were gaps in coverage due to satellite geometry or there might have been interfering weather conditions. Either way, shouldn't the limits of this technology be kept secret?

All of this might make for a good Le Carré novel, but the spies in his novels including the governments they worked for were at least competent.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Falling Out of the Sky - The Mystery of the de Havilland Comet

de Havilland Comet
Square windows were the problem

This week's inflight breakup and crash of a Metrojet Airbus A-321 reminded me of the story of the first jet powered airliner of the postwar era, the de Havilland Comet. The Comet, first flown in 1949, was to be the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin to passengers. Remember that without pressurization or supplemental oxygen, most humans will suffer hypoxia symptoms above 10,000 ft. Pressurized and heated cabins are the one thing that makes flying long distances at altitude acceptable to the general public.

The mysterious inflight breakup of three Comets shortly after their introduction into commercial service served to highlight the importance of metal fatigue in aircraft design. While consideration was given to the issue in the design stage, it was the design of the windows, which were square, which proved to be the problem. It was at the corners of the windows where stress was concentrated and where metal fatigue caused structural failure which brought the airplanes down.

The full story, which is quite interesting, can be found here. It's a neat engineering whodunit.

Investigators have not as yet officially released the cause of the Metrojet crash, but it is believed that the aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure. An onboard bomb is now being suggested as the cause of the crash though consideration is also being given to structural failure due to an old repair. No matter the reason for the failure, any significant structural failure of an aircraft at altitude can sometimes but not always result in the loss of the aircraft.

Why So Much Damage?

So you may ask why does a hole in the fuselage whether caused by metal fatigue or a bomb cause so much damage?

Pressurization of an aircraft is achieved by pumping air under pressure into the fuselage while restricting the outflow. Think of the airplane as one of those large inflatable jump houses at a carnival. A fan blows air in while vents let only some of the air out. Airplanes work in the same way with compressed air coming from the engines acting to inflate the fuselage or "balloon" and an outflow valve to control the amount of pressurization.

Now think about what happens when you drop a shaken can of soda on the ground. Sometimes a small hole in the pop top just squirts out a bunch of soda, but at other times the whole can might rupture and spray everywhere. I've seen flight attendants drop a can of soda in the galley that explodes where soda covers just about everything instantly. You haven't seen mad until you see that.

The same principle applies to a pipe bomb. Burn a small pile of gunpowder in the open and it makes a brief poof. Put that same powder in a pipe and it expands explosively when the metal in the pipe bursts.

The point is, expanding gas when trapped in a pressure vessel can result in tremendous damage when the pressure vessel fails. This is why bombs aboard aircraft are so dangerous. Regardless of where the bomb is placed, it is the pressure shock wave which will find the weakest point in the structure. When the structure fails, the release can do tremendous damage. In the case of the Metrojet crash, the tail section was found separate from the rest of the wreckage. It may have separated due to the failure of the pressure bulkhead at the aft part of the cabin.

Barring 100% prevention of bombing attempts, which seems unlikely, future aircraft design may have to incorporate some sort of predesignated pressure relief panels. They might be designed to fail at a lower pressure than the rest of the fuselage pressure vessel. It's the world we now live in.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Will There Be an Airline Strike?

Will there be an airline strike?
Florida News Journal

The pilots of Southwest Airlines are the latest airline labor group to reject a proposed labor contract. By a vote of 62% against, the 8000 pilots at Southwest recently voted to turn down a tentative agreement which was forged after three years of negotiations with the low cost carrier. Earlier this year the pilots at Delta Airlines and flight attendants at Southwest also rejected proposed contracts.

Does this mean that there will be an airline strike soon?

While the future is impossible to predict, the answer is probably not. To understand why, it is important to understand how the negotiation process works at airlines. It is somewhat different than at other unionized industries.

Railway Labor Act

Collective bargaining at most unionized industries in the US is governed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. This law provides for the formation of labor unions and the right to bargain collectively for wages and work rules. The law also sets down the requirements for the conduct of strikes and/or lockouts. Airlines, however, are not included under the provisions of the Wagner Act but rather are governed under a law known as the Railway Labor Act or RLA.

Passed in 1926 as a result of negotiations between the railroads and their unions, the RLA was an effort to balance the rights of workers with the realization that a strike against a railroad could be acutely disruptive to the national economy as a whole. Airlines were included under the jurisdiction of the RLA in 1936.

Under the RLA, contracts never "expire", but rather they become "amendable". Should an agreement not be reached by the amendable date of a contract, both workers and management are obligated to continue on as before while a new agreement is crafted.

Should an agreement not be reached, the RLA provides for specific requirements to be met before either management or labor is "released" to "pursue self help" otherwise known as a strike or lockout. One of these requirements is for an impasse to be declared by a mediator after which a mandatory 30 day cooling off period is observed. Only then would a strike be authorized.

No airline today is anywhere near this happening.

Presidential Emergency Board

And even when it does happen, it might not happen. The RLA contains a provision wherein if a labor action  threatens to "substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service," the National Mediation Board (NMB) may notify the President of an imminent threat to commerce. The President may then appoint a three member board to make recommendations for a resolution. This delays a strike even further.

This last happened in 2001 when President George Bush intervened in a labor dispute between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics by invoking a PEB. Before that, Bill Clinton used a PEB to head off a strike by pilots at American Airlines in 1997. With only four major airlines controlling a majority of air travel, it is possible that airline strikes may be a thing of the past. No president wishes to be seen doing nothing in the face of packed terminals and irate flyers.

But as I mentioned above, no current airline is anywhere near an impasse in negotiations. In fact, due to the ongoing pilot shortage, airline managements may wish to get labor troubles behind them quickly as the competition heats up for a dwindling number of pilots needing to be hired to replace the tsunami of retiring pilots. 

This happened recently at Republic Airlines where management threatened to declare bankruptcy in order to increase pilot wages to attract applicants. Republic had been cancelling flights due to a lack of pilots.

It's nice to be wanted.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Russian Metrojet A-321 Crash in Sinai (Update)

A Russion Metrojet A321 crashed in the Sinai

A Russian Metrojet A-321 with 224 passengers and crew crashed in the Sinai Peninsula Saturday after being lost on radar. The aircraft was enroute to St. Petersburg from Sharm El Sheikh and was climbing through about 31,000 ft when radar contact was lost. There were no survivors found. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders have been found in good condition.

There were preliminary reports of the pilots having made distress calls but those were later rescinded. The wreckage was found in two major pieces spread over an area of about 8 km. Such a dispersal of debris suggests that the aircraft may have suffered an inflight breakup.

This has led to speculation concerning either a terrorist missile, MANPAD or structural failure. A terrorist group claimed credit for downing the aircraft but these reports have been dismissed as not being credible as has a video that the group released.

Intelligence reports claim that the terrorist organizations known to be operating in the area did not have missiles capable of reaching the altitude at which the aircraft was flying. A notice to airmen (NOTAM) had been released advising aircraft in that area to not operate below 26,000 feet due to terrorist activity. Likewise, analysis of the wreckage will confirm whether or not a bomb had been placed on board.

The aircraft itself, an Airbus A-321, was one of the oldest of the type in operation having been delivered in 1997. While the age of the aircraft should not be a factor in the crash, the aircraft had suffered a tailstrike in 2001 which resulted in significant damage while it was owned by Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The aircraft was repaired and returned to service.

There have been several instances of airliners suffering structural failure which was due in part to repairs done after tail strikes. The most notable of these was Japan Airlines 123, a Boeing 747, which crashed in 1985 after a faulty tail strike repair failed resulting in a rupture of the pressure bulkhead.

Speculation and conspiracy theories are as usual expected to run rampant. Cutting the wheat from the chaff when an airplane goes down amid geopolitical unrest is always a challenge. Hopefully the truth behind this tragedy emerges unscathed.

UPDATE: The crash area is now being reported as 350 x 500 meters, smaller than initially reported.

UPDATE 2: Analysis of the cockpit data recorder now suggests that the crew had no warning before a catastrophic event brought down the aircraft. Further analysis of the wreckage should be able to discern the nature of the failure and whether it was a bomb or structural failure possibly due to an old tailstrike repair or undiscovered corrosion.

UPDATE 3: While no evidence of a bomb on board the downed Metrojet airliner has yet been publicly produced, David Cameron, PM of the U.K. has  gone on record stating that a bomb was the likely cause of the crash. US officials have also said that they suspect a bomb was the cause. The U.K and now the Netherlands have suspended flights to the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the announcement.

New Post: You may also be interested in how a bomb can bring down an airliner: Falling Out of the Sky