Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dispatches from the global frontier

If you haven't read my friend Nathan's travel blog yet, you are missing not only some of the best blogging on the Internet, but some of the best travel writing anywhere.

Actually, to call it travel writing is an insult, given a lot of the shillery that passes for travel writing in publications like Outside, Conde Nast and even sometimes National Geographic Traveler. Nathan's a writer who happens to write about travel.

Far from the posh accommodations and glitzy getaways profiled in those mags, he blogs about his trips to a ramshackle African orphanage, a gritty dhow wharf in Dubai and Christmas in Djibouti, among other topics.

Through his words, you'll get glimpses of not only places you've only dreamed of visiting, but places you'd never want to visit. His posts are snapshots at everyday humanity beyond our cozy borders; they can be hopeful and inspiring, unsettling and heart-breaking.

Above all, they make me feel something.

Read his recent post entitled "Three eggs" and you'll know what I'm talking about.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Aviation thoughts on Sunday afternoon

Carlos Dardano

Sully, meet Carlos Dardano.

Long before we had the Hero of the Hudson, there was another cap who pulled off a miracle landing in a situation similar to the US Airways splash landing earlier this week.

Dardano was piloting TACA Airlines flight 110, a Boeing 737, on May 24, 1988 when it encountered heavy thunderstorms and hail on descent into New Orleans. Both engines flamed out upon absorbing an intense amount of the wet weather.

A flame-out is a little different than the bird strike encountered by US Airways 1549 -- the engine "fire" is essentially snuffed out as opposed to a structural failure -- but ultimately the results were the same.

The engines stopped working.

TACA 110 got its engines re-started while descending through 4,000 feet, but they would not spool past idle. So they weren't of much use. As the 737 glided through 3,000 feet, Dardano declared an emergency. Air traffic control advised 110 there was an interstate directly ahead, but Dardano didn't think they could reach it.

In fact, with more echoes of the US Airways splash, Dardano replied with these intentions, according to the NTSB report on the crash:
"I don't believe we're going to make it there, sir. We're at 2,000 and we're losing altitude. The only thing I can do right now is make a 360 and I'll land over the water."
What actually happened?

Dardano dead-sticked the 737 not into the water, but somehow landed on a levee next to Lake Borgne. Emergency chutes deployed; all aboard were saved. It was a heck of a feat, one that is just as incredible if not moreso than the landing US Airways accomplished the other day.

Especially considering that he switched plans from water to levee with less than 1,000 feet to spare while guiding a 50-ton anvil.

A few days later, mechanics came out to the plane on the levee and put new engines on it; they actually took off from the levee and the plane is still in service.

Much like the frozen turkey test described in my previous post, engines are also tested for water endurance. They basically open up the nozzles on giant fire hoses and flood the engine. As a result of this incident, though, the FAA rewrote engine water-intake standards.

Would love to be a fly on the wall if Sully and Dardano ever met up for a few beers.


A couple of aviation-related questions that I have:
  • TACA flight 110 departed Belize City for New Orleans. Who runs a nonstop from Belize City to New Orleans, even 20 years ago?
  • In regard to the US Airways crash the other day, I have yet to read where and how high 1549 was when it hit the flock of geese that led to its swim. I'm really looking forward to the voice recorder release and NTSB initial report and getting more intel on the point of impact.
  • US Airways 1549 came to rest a few hundred feet north of the Lincoln Tunnel. What would have happened if the Airbus and/or its engines sunk and came to rest on top of the tunnel?
  • Granted, there's a few bajillion pounds of water on top of the tunnel already. Would a few tons of aluminum make a big difference? I have no idea. But I'd love to hear a structural engineer answer the question of whether the tunnel would be compromised.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Heroes and villains

Less than two weeks ago, aviation experts proclaimed 2007 and 2008 the safest stretch in American aviation history. No fatalities were reported aboard transport-category flights in those two calendar years.

Miraculously, that streak continues today.

There's really no other way to describe today's crash of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River. Plane plunges into icy river? The last time that happened, in 1982, rescuers plucked 78 bodies from the Potomac after an Air Florida jet with ice on its wings crashed on takeoff. Five survived.

Everybody survived today's accident.

The pilot, who gently dipped the Airbus 320 into the chilly waters, is a hero. Not only for his aviation skills, but for twice walking the aisle of the plane after everyone else was aboard a ferry or raft to make sure no one was left behind.

As you probably know by now, a bird strike caused failures in both engines, which is just hard to comprehend. Engines are built to withstand strikes from an entire flock. They must pass strict tests, including simulated bird strikes which you can watch here as frozen turkeys are jettisoned into the engines, before they are put into service.

They're so strong that they can devour a human being, as this one unfortunate soul in El Paso learned, and keep on spooling like they didn't miss a beat.

So to have one engine fail in a bird-strike situation is rare, but not unheard of. To have both be hit and fail, I don't even know how you'd begin to calculate the odds.

If the early indications on the cause of the crash are correct, I'll be interested to see if the discussions turn to the Airbus 320's glide ratio. A glide ratio basically lays out that, for X feet of altitude, an airplane can horizontally travel Y number of feet in a no-wind situation.

(When I was flying Cessna 172s, the ratio was roughly 1:2. For every 1,000 feet of altitude, I could expect to glide two nautical miles. This sort of thing is useful for quickly calculating that, if I'm cruising at 7,000 feet above ground level, I know that if I lose my engine, I need to find a spot to land in approximately 14 nautical miles).

There's a great case from the 1980s where glide ratio came into play in an incident where disaster was averted. Air Canada flight 143 was cruising at 41,000 feet when it ran out of fuel -- the goofballs working the ground crew that day had topped off the Boeing 767 calculating the fuel weight in kilograms when they should have used pounds. But the glide ratio was about 1:12 and the "Gimli Glider," as it became known, landed at an abandoned air force base many miles from where the emergency began.

Back to New York today: Not sure what the glide ratio is for the Airbus 320, but flight 1549 was at about 3,000 feet when it encountered the flock of geese. Newark is ridiculously close to the spot in the Hudson where 1549 took its drink, so close that the captain could probably see the VASI lights at the end of EWR's runways as he landed.

Teterboro, the airport where I began my training in 1999, is just north of the Meadowlands and perhaps another after-the-fact option for the US Airways flight.

I don't mean in any way to suggest that the pilots of today's US Airways jet should have pursued the Newark or Teterboro options. I don't know. But I'll be interested to see what the glide ratio numbers are, how tantalizing those options may have appeared to the flight crew and the pilot's decision-making process on ultimately choosing to land in the Hudson River.

Any way you look at it, he made the right call.

Thanks to the flight crew, though, there are 155 people who can say that the worst part of their day was enduring La Guardia, an airport that I have panned as the worst in the United States.

While their actions were heroic -- a description I don't throw out lightly -- there was also a bit of cowardice this week in the aviation world.

You may have already read about the scumbag who crashed a plane in a brazen attempt to fake his own death somewhere in the skies over Alabama.

Marcus Schrenker called air traffic control and reported that he was badly injured after a bird strike penetrated his windshield. He then set his Piper on auto-pilot and parachuted out of the plane. We later learned that Mr. Schrenker was a financial adviser of sorts who had fleeced his clients, and amid a crumbling marriage, was attempting to escape.

It was total amateur hour for this guy, because his plan unraveled in less time than it took me to write this post. Authorities caught up with him just about the time he slid a razor through his wrists.

Schrenker's case conjured memories of another felon who started his run from the law by parachuting from an airplane. Only this one may have succeeded. If you don't know about the case of D.B. Cooper, you're missing out on one of the great American mysteries.

On November 24, 1971, the dapperly dressed Cooper hijacked a jet traveling from Portland to Seattle, telling a flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase. Upon arrival in Seattle, he released the passengers but kept the crew, then demanded $200,000 and four parachutes.

His request was granted. Cooper ordered the plane back into the air and bound for Reno. Somewhere over southwest Washington, he sent the flight attendants into the cockpit, lowered the aft stairs on the Boeing 727 and jumped into the cloudy skies. Two F-16s trailing the hijacked jet lost him in the haze.

Cooper vanished without a trace.

None of the money, tracked by serial number, was ever spent. No body was ever recovered. Neither was a parachute. To this day, no one knows what happened to D.B. Cooper. He remains one of the most wanted fugitives in American history.

The parachutes, though, are about the only similarities between Schrenker and Cooper. Their respective stories remind me of the line toward the end of Die Hard when Holly McClean says to Hans Gruber, almost with disbelief, "After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief!"

Hans turns to her in a fit of intensity and retorts, "I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClean."

That's one difference between Schrenker and Cooper. But more importantly, I think this is the major diference: Schrenker was a coward who was running away and leaving others to clean up the mess he created.

D.B.? We'll never know for sure, but I think he did it just to show that it could be done.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Some thoughts on Mike Shanahan's demise in Denver

I never thought Pat Bowlen had the guts to do it.

That was my reaction last week when the news arrived that Mike Shanahan was out in Denver.

Bowlen, the Broncos owner, had endured so many mediocre seasons similar to the one that just concluded. After the others, Shanahan was rewarded with contract extensions that made him among the league's highest-paid coaches, if not the highest. At one point, Bowlen called Shanahan his "coach for life."

Why would this one be any different?

But after blowing a three-game division lead with three games to play, Bowlen severed ties with his coach of 14 seasons.

It was a difficult call. It was the right call.

Sometimes change just for the sake of change is a good thing.

That's the case for both Shanahan and the Broncos.

In the years following the back-to-back Super Bowls, Shanahan became a maniac about winning a third. He walked around Dove Valley every day with bug-up-his-ass irritation and created a sense of constant urgency about fulfilling that goal. That's to his credit.

Out of all the coaches I have covered, I've never seen anyone better about instilling that mindset in his players on a day-to-day basis through the grinds of a long season.

But as the years wore on and the goal remained elusive, I think the missing third ring got to him in a way that clouded his judgment and made him pay a price for his impatience. The coaching staff and roster, especially on defense, was constantly being overhauled.

Shanahan went through defensive coordinators like Kleenex:

Greg Robinson was fired at the end of the 2000 season. Ray Rhodes' defense finished sixth overall, but he was gone after one year. Larry Coyer lasted two seasons, but became the scapegoat after a late-season collapse. Jim Bates came in highly touted from Green Bay, but lasted only one season. Bob Slowik is leaving now.

And when it came to assembling the roster, above anything, Shanahan believed in potential. He became enamored with it to a point where it became detrimental.

He drafted high-risk players like Maurice Clarett and injury-prone players like Willie Middlebrooks and George Foster. He brought in big-name free agents like Courtney Brown and Dewayne Robertson believing he could resurrect their careers.

More often than not, he couldn't.

As much as it drives him insane, he couldn't win a Super Bowl without John Elway and especially without Terrell Davis.

Shanahan never seemed comfortable with the fact that those guys helped him get those rings, and I think he wanted that third in part to show everyone he could get there on his own. Because he was so uncomfortable about that, his legacy in Denver will not only be that he won two Super Bowls, but also that he didn't win the third.

And while there's been a lot of talk in the wake of his firing that he spread himself too thin between his coaching duties and making personnel decisions, I'd like to claim first dibs on this line of thinking.

In fact, it was me who was calling for changes just like this one many years ago. I'm pasting in two columns I wrote on that subject over the years, both of which now seem prescient.


This one ran on April 23, 2004, and dealt primarily with Shanahan's lust for gambling on draft day:

ENGLEWOOD - Predicting the outcome of the NFL Draft is an annual headache, a complex journey through a maze of arcane statistics and an exercise destined to end in failure.

Predicting the draft of the Denver Broncos is a little simpler.

Scan the college prospects. Look for players who have minimal experience playing football, guys who have outlandish injuries or the hardest of the hard-luck stories out there. Find those players, and you've found future Broncos.

Mike Shanahan apparently borrows his draft philosophy from Lady Liberty. Instead of taking the hungry, tired and poor, the coach chooses from the injured, overlooked and unstable.

While watching endless hours of coverage devoted to the NFL Draft this weekend, expect Denver to pick a project. The rest of the league may use tangible results, statistics and scouting as criteria for their selections.

Shanahan has one. Potential.

It has been the tenet governing Denver's drafting in recent years. Last year, team officials tabbed George Foster with the 20th overall pick.

They could have avoided a player who dislocated a wrist in an auto accident and only started once his senior season. At the least, the Broncos could have traded down and grabbed Foster eight picks lower. But Shanahan held firm. He wanted the project.

"I really believe he would have been one of the top five picks," he said afterward.

Foster played in one game last season - he earned scrub duty in the regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers.

Drafting damaged goods has been Shanahan's favorite hobby in recent years. He selected Willie Middlebrooks in the first round of the 2001 draft, despite concerns over a badly broken left fibula.

Middlebrooks hobbled through two injury-plagued seasons. Last year, he saw sparing action as a defensive reserve. As unproductive has he became, he looks like a steal compared to Denver's second-round pick that same year.

Paul Toviessi never even reached the football field.

Denver moved ahead seven spots in the second round to draft the Marshall defensive end knowing full well he had a damaged right knee that would keep him out for the season. As it turned out, the injury kept him out forever. Toviessi retired prior to the 2002 season.

Injured players are not the only ones who prove too tempting to pass.

In 2000, Denver picked Deltha O'Neal with the 15th overall selection. Although listed as a cornerback, the Broncos coveted O'Neal's potential as a kick and punt returner.

He never developed into the special-teams star officials envisioned, and the Broncos gave up on him weeks ago, dumping the disgruntled veteran in a trade with the Bengals.

Recent drafts are littered with examples of players drafted on potential alone, while mitigating factors were ignored.

At 5-foot-5, Quentin Griffin is a shrub playing among Sequoias. Tailback Ahmaad Galloway arrived with two broken legs. (To be fair, at least the Broncos had good sense to wait until the seventh round to draft him). Nick Eason brought baggage of a different kind - personal problems that caused him to flee training camp without notifying a soul last year.

What's wrong with a normal, healthy player who has excelled at his position for a couple of years in college?

Logic dictates that the Broncos will draft a defensive tackle, wide receiver or running back with their first-round choice tomorrow. History says it will be a player with a physical defect or some other blemish on his resume.

There is nothing inherently wrong with drafting based on potential. Surely, reporters would go bonkers if Shanahan walked out of his draft room and announced he drafted a player he believed had no potential.

But potential cannot exist in a vacuum. It must be complemented by other attributes, like a proven track record, gaudy statistics or physical intangibles.

Until the Broncos work some of those qualifications into their draft formula, potential will continue to be Shanahan's siren song.


And here's a better one dealing with Shanahan's failure to win a playoff game in the six years following the Elway Era, where I declared his free pass over. It originally ran Jan. 12, 2005.

Later this offseason, the Denver Broncos must decide whether to pay quarterback Jake Plummer a $6 million roster bonus that would extend his tenure. Logic would suggest it would be a major question, considering his inconsistent play this season.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, however, suggested Monday only a ‘moron’ would doubt the wisdom in extending Plummer’s contract.

Call me stupid.

The infatuation with Plummer is understandable. He provides the team’s offense with the flash and moxie it lacked under predecessor Brian Griese. Yet Plummer offers weekly apologies for his poor decisions at crucial moments in the game.

None of this should come as a surprise. It was his m.o. with the Arizona Cardinals for six seasons before he arrived in Denver. For two years, he has delivered the Broncos a dose of exactly what everybody expected. So can you blame him for the team’s woes?

Not if you listen to his former teammate, Hall of Fame-bound tight end Shannon Sharpe.

“I don’t even fault Jake,” Sharpe said in December. “I fault Mike, because he puts the ball in his hands. … If you’re on a boat and you know this guy is punching holes in your boat and you still allow him to have a hammer and a nail to keep doing it, I don’t feel bad for you.”

And that’s what it’s about.

Six full seasons have passed since Shanahan sniffed a postseason victory, and it’s time to stop genuflecting in front of the coach just because he wears two Super Bowl rings.

Questions regarding his choice of quarterback are worthy topics of debate, and deserve consideration instead than smug replies. Shanahan has received and deserves credit for the triumphs of yesteryear.

Now, the Teflon is wearing off his sterling reputation. People wonder if John Elway and Terrell Davis brought the Broncos to those two championships and not Mastermind mystique. It’s a fair question. Shanahan has accomplished little without those stars.

Look at the track record since those Super Bowls.

Shanahan hand-picked Griese and Plummer as Elway’s replacements and lavished them with fat contracts. They should be the poster children for his alleged offensive genius. But neither brought the Broncos anywhere near a playoff win.

Draft-day errors left the franchise with albatrosses like Deltha O’Neal, Willie Middlebrooks, Paul Toviessi, Dorsett Davis and Quentin Griffin. In fairness, Shanahan succeeded with selections like Clinton Portis, D.J Williams and Tatum Bell over the last two years.

His record on personnel decisions is checkered, at best.

Add free-agent busts like Dale Carter, Lester Archambeau, Kavika Pittman, Leon Lett, Eddie Kennison and Daryl Gardener into his record and one must wonder why owner Pat Bowlen lets his coach waste so much money.

On the field, Shanahan’s teams have recently fizzled after strong starts. In 2002, the Broncos started with a 6-2 record and missed the playoffs. The last two seasons, they have opened with 5-1 records before midseason collapses ruined a chance at a high playoff seed.

During the season that concluded with Sunday’s humiliating 49-24 playoff defeat, Denver defeated only two teams that finished with a .500 record or better – one of those came against an Indianapolis Colts team resting its starters.

The Broncos, who constantly touted themselves as one of the elite teams in the league, suffered home losses against the Atlanta Falcons and woeful Oakland Raiders.

How does Shanahan explain all the turmoil? Every year, he trots out a different excuse.

Terrell Davis’ knee injury ruined the 1999 campaign. Gus Frerotte played an awful AFC Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Ed McCaffrey’s grotesque broken leg struck a definitive blow into the hopes of the ’01 season.

Brian Griese took the blame for the problems in 2002. Last year, Denver’s defensive backs bore responsibility for a playoff collapse against those pesky Colts. And now?

“Well, we got beat by a good football team at Indy,” Shanahan said Monday. “Playing in that environment is not the ideal situation.”

That’s the best excuse he could muster. The Indianapolis Colts are a good team. And the Denver Broncos are not.

The free pass is over.

After six years of mediocrity, Shanahan must be held accountable. Only Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has lasted as long with the same employer as Shanahan without delivering a playoff victory, and Holmgren is under considerably more scrutiny.

There is plenty for Shanahan to be proud of during his 10 seasons in Denver. He’s captured two Super Bowl titles with the help of Elway and Davis. His team’s offenses rank consistently among the best in the league and his running game is admired around the league.

It would be difficult for the Broncos to find another coach as accomplished as Shanahan. Yet they need a jolt to shake them out of a six-year rut. Sometimes change, only for the sake of change, can be a good thing.

Pathetic playoff losses call for desperate measures.

Bowlen may deride those who suggest a coaching change and Shanahan may label those who disagree with his quarterback choice as morons.

But it doesn’t take a genius to deduce the Broncos have been worthless for six consecutive seasons, and they appear content to enter next year with the same protagonists in place.