MH17 is not alone. Commercial flights that got shot down

The world was shocked to learn that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.  A big enough plane crash always makes the headlines. However the violent method involved in MH17’s crash is what people talk about most now and will remember for a long time. But how long will the world remember?

Not the first time

Do you remember any other commercial flights that have been shot down? Because, unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. The good news is that it doesn’t happen often. Including MH17 I’ve found 6 flights that have been shot down. And one of them is a very special case that the world seems to have forgotten …

4 October 2001 – Siberia Airlines Flight 1812

The plane left from Tel Aviv and was heading to Novosibirsk. It crashed in the Black Sea, not that far from where MH17 crashed. Because it happened just a month after the 9/11 attacks it was suspected to be a terrorist attack by Chechen rebels. The following investigation showed that this was not the case. It found that the flight was shot down by accident during a Ukrainian military training exercise.

A drone had been launched and the point of the exercise was to shoot it down using an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM). However, at the same time of launching the S-200 an S-300 SAM had been launched. The S-300 destroyed the drone, so the S-200 continued it’s flight. Instead of self destructing, the S-200 locked on to flight 1812 and ultimately destroyed it. All 66 passengers and 12 crew members perished.

29 September 1998 – Lionair Flight LN 602

You may remember Lionair from the previous post. It was a Lionair flight that ended up in the water while attempting to land in Bali. Luckily nobody died during that crash.

The 48 passengers and 7 crew on board LN602 weren’t so lucky. The plane left Jaffna Airport in the North of Sri Lanka and was heading to Ratmalana Airport in the South West of the same country. Sri Lanka is a small country and the Antonov AN-24 wasn’t a huge plane. So it didn’t need to climb to great heights.

Since the beginning it was suspected that Tamil rebels had shot down the flight. Initial reports also state this, however technically this event is still under investigation. The rebels had sent a letter to the airline office at Jaffna airport saying that if the airline did not stop carrying military personnel they would shoot down a plane. The letter was ignored, as it was believed to have come from a competitor.

Sadly the rebels kept their word and the plane was shot down using a shoulder-launched SAM (MANPADS). This is not a hugely powerful rocket with a long reach. But as it was a smaller plane that didn’t fly very high, it was sufficient.

Example of a MANPAD system

Example of a MANPAD system

Even though this event occurred in 1998, the wreckage of the plane was only discovered in 2012.

1 September 1983 – Korean Air Lines Flight 007

A Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers from New York to Seoul was shot down by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15. Russians? Yes, the flight had a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. After leaving Anchorage it’s incorrect flight path put had put the plane in Soviet air space. Prohibited airspace as it turns out. As this was in the cold war era it didn’t help that the U.S. was doing a reconnaissance mission in the area at the time or that the Soviets were performing missile tests on the same day as the flight.

The official flight path was correct and outside of Soviet air spave. But the plane was far off course due to pilot error or because of incorrect use of the autopilot system. It was spotted by the Soviet Union but because of some problems it wasn’t caught before it got back over neutral waters. The Soviets however decided that because the flight had crossed into the prohibited zone it should be shot down. Even if it was back over neutral waters, and worse, without checking if it was a civilian plane.

Korean Air flight 007 – planned and actual flight path

Like with MH17 there was much politics involved. The Soviet Union first denied they had anything to do with the shooting. Then they stated that they shot down the plane, but that they were provoked by the U.S. deliberately to test their defenses and preparedness, and that the plane was a spy plane. The U.S. from their side blamed the Soviet Union of obstructing the investigation and hiding evidence, mainly the black boxes. The black boxes were finally handed over in 1993!

In a 1991 interview the Sukhoi SU-15 pilot said “I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use…”

27 June 1980 – Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

This one was an internal flight in Italy and a bit of a mystery. The Italians say it was shot down by a missile launched from a French navy airplane. But this was never really proven. There was no final report of the investigation and so all the Italians have is a claim.

Aside from some conspiracy theories there are also a few real theories that the investigators came up with. One of them was a terrorist bombing, another was a missile strike during training exercise and lastly a missile strike during a military operation.

In 1994 the British and Italians performed a joint investigation and found serious evidence that a bomb had exploded in the rear lavatory. They also found some evidence for an outside explosion. So, all in all, the case has been archived with no real conclusive report. As with all the incidents, none of the 77 passengers and 4 crew survived.

24 March 1968 – Aer Lingus Flight 712

Flight 712 may not belong in this list because the final reports concluded that the Vickers Viscount carrying 57 passengers and 4 crew crashed due to structural failure or a bird strike. Though initially it was suspected that the flight from Cork to London was shot down by a British experimental missile.

Over the years different people have come forward with different stories. Some claim to have evidence that it was in fact shot down by a missile. Another person claims that the plane was hit by another plane which was sent to check the landing gear which failed to lock into position.

3 July 1988 – Iran Air Flight 655

So far we’ve been going from more recent to old incidents. But this one was worth keeping for last. This flight from Tehran to Dubai carrying 275 passengers and 15 crew was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf.

The USS Vincennes

The USS Vincennes

This time it was the Americans who did the shooting. What makes this one different is that they made an ugly mess of things. The U.S. tried to cover it up, lied in reports, lied in statements, lied about the flight transponder frequencies (military vs civilian mode), lied about the plane’s actions and tried to blame the pilot. The truth came out in the form of a 53 page report which found that nearly all the initial details about the incident to put all the blame on Iran Air’s pilot were wrong. To make things worse, the Vincennes was in Iranian waters when they fired the missile. When asked at the time they lied about that as well and stated the ship was in international waters.

Nevertheless, two years after the incident the captain of the Vincennes received the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service”. An apology from the U.S. never came. Even worse, George Bush senior who was Vice President at the time, and trying to run for president, said in his campaign “I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are.”

It was only in 1996 that president Bill Clinton’s office expressed deep regret for what happened, but still not an apology. They said “…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…”.  Furthermore the United States did not admit legal liability but did pay $131.8 million in compensation, of which $61.8 million went to the victims’ families. In exchange, Tehran agreed to drop its case against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

And others …

While researching I found 25 flights that fall into the category of commercial flights having been shot down. The earliest one being in 1940 which was a flight from Tallinn to Helsinki. Almost all of the incidents have in common that they happened during war time or over a conflict zone. And they all got shot down by the military by accident, or by rebels on purpose.

If there is anything to learn from this unfortunate history it’s that it’s a bad idea for civilian flights to be anywhere near a conflict zone. When the two collide, lives tend to get lost.

Still no reason to be afraid of flying!

In Belgium the number of calls to help lines for fear of flying have doubled due to the recent incidents. But as mentioned in the previous article, flying is still the safest way to travel. Airlines generally avoid flying over conflict areas.

MH17 did fly over a conflict area, but outside (above) restricted air space. In the previous days more than 70 flights flew the same path as MH17 did. On the same day a Singapore Airlines plane was at the same spot just two minutes before MH17 was attacked and six Heathrow flights were among 55 planes over Donetsk on same day. Any of those flights could have been the one that got shot down. It’s sad to say, MH17 was very unlucky.

It should be noted that most of the 25 incidents that came up happened somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. These areas have more conflict zones and uncontrolled rebels, militia or just military. This increases the chances of something bad happening.

But by far most flights go just as planned, taking off and landing without issue. Getting people to their vacation spots, business places and families unharmed, perhaps just slightly annoyed by the long flight or neighbour passenger 🙂

So book that flight, go and as always, enjoy!

Is 2014 the year of the plane crashes?

What’s going on?

I can’t answer that question. I’m not part of the Air Crash Investigation team. But I can tell you that this will not be an article detailing what happened to the MH370, MH17, GE222 or AH5017 flights. There are enough articles, ongoing stories, speculations and conspiracy theories about those four incidents all over the internet which you can easily find should you be interested. With this article I will attempt to shed some light on why 2014 seems to be such a bad year when it comes to commercial airline incidents.

This article handles commercial airline incidents. In 2013 a total of 138 plane crashes happened, but just 12 of those were commercial flights.

So, is 2014 the year of the plane crashes?

It certainly seems to feel that way. First Malaysian Airlines MH370 disappears, then Malaysian Airlines MH17 gets shot down, shortly after TransAsia flight GE222 crashed due to bad weather and the very next day AH5017 crashes, also believed due to bad weather though this is still being investigated.

However, the short answer to the question is: no. Continue reading

Airbnb fined $40,900 in Spain. What are the alternatives?

Everyone loves to travel and even more so if the price tag for the trip is as low as possible. People spend a lot of time finding the cheapest or best value flights, tours, rentals, hotels, hostels or other places to spend the night.

For decades there have been cheap or even free alternatives to staying in hotels. People have been opening up their homes because they enjoy meeting other people or simply because they want to earn a little extra money. One of the more recent options is Airbnb.

airbnb_logo

As many others, Airbnb is a website where you can find a low cost place to spend the night as an alternative to a hotel. So it’s not free, but often much cheaper. It has the added benefit that you are in direct contact with a local who can tell you about the area you’re staying in, take you to nice places not mentioned in the guide, direct you to good places to eat or even share a meal.

This of course is not to the liking of the hotel industry. Over the past years websites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing have become very well known, popular even. The hotel industry has picked up on that and sees these alternatives as direct competition. This in itself is not news, many articles have been written about it.

However, this is the first time Airbnb has gotten such a fine in Europe. In Spain to more exact. And it’s not alone, eight other companies have been fined for similar practices. Users of Airbnb may be interested to know that it has handed its user list over to New York state officials investigating illegal short-term renting.

I have personally enjoyed alternatives like CouchSurfing. However, with the rise in popularity the spirit of the organization has gone down. More and more people learned about CouchSurfing, but unfortunately most of them have the wrong idea. They see it as “a free place to stay”, not as a cultural exchange. This wrong idea has lead to a huge increase of new members who don’t host others, haven’t created a decent profile, don’t reply or simply haven’t even logged in for a long time. This makes it a tedious task to find a good host between the overload of results you can get when searching for one. The increased difficulty and mistrust that may have come from this could been the cause of the rise in popularity for websites like Airbnb.

The new CouchSurfing logo

The new CouchSurfing logo

CouchSurfing has had and continues to have it’s own problems, internal power struggles in the company among other things. This lead to the creation of OpenCouchSurfing in 2007. OpenCS wasn’t able to make any changes and the founders ended it after CouchSurfing became a for profit organisation in 2012. This move was rather unpopular with the members, and it didn’t help improve the hospitality spirit.

As previously mentioned, Airbnb and CouchSurfing are not the only options you have. There are literally (yes, literally) thousands of websites where you can find free or (mostly) paid accommodation. I have compiled a list of the most known ones with a decent amount of users. It is categorized into free, rentals, exchange and special interest. Sometimes you need to pay a membership fee for the free ones.

Free

Exchanges

Rentals

Special interest

Whatever option you choose keep in mind that people are letting you into their homes. It never hurts to bring a small gift, cook a meal, share some ideas, teach them something or learn from them.

And as always, enjoy!

Would you fly in this?

With “this” I mean an airplane ‘without’ a cockpit. Would you?

Maybe you will have to in the future. Airbus filed a patent titled “Aircraft with a cockpit including a viewing surface for piloting which is at least partially virtual”.

What does that even mean? Is it with or without a cockpit? Well, the truth is, it’s something inbetween. Everybody is used to the cockpit being in the front/top of the plane. That’s where people more or less expect the “driver” to be. Subway, train, bus and even though the driver seat in a car is more or less in the middle, we still feel as it being in the front because we see out of the big front window.

But there are some down sides to having the cockpit where it currently is. Most importantly, having the cockpit there is aerodynamically flawed. A cockpit like that needs windows, very strong ones. Those windows are heavy and need to be reinforced, which means even more weight. On top of that, the cockpit is room where passengers cannot e seated.

So what Airbus suggests is to relocate the cockpit somewhere else in the plane. The two suggested locations are underneath the floor, or in the vertical stabilizer as shown in this image taken from the patent document:

Airbus_new_cockpit_locations

But then how will the pilots see where they’re going?! A pretty good question if you ask me. So technology comes to the rescue. The pilots will have a “partially virtual” cockpit, which really just comes down to them having a big display to look at. Much like a flight simulator, just better. Instead of comparing a plane to a bus, you can now compare it with a submaring. Submarine operators also have no front window and rely on charts and technology to get to where they want to be.

Cameras mounted at various locations on the plane will provide the images that will be used on the display. The advantage is that the pilots will be able to see much more than with their own eyes from the small windows in the current cockpit. If you’ve ever been inside a cockpit, you know that visibility is actually rather limited. Here’s a sketch of what such a cockpit with a display may look like:

Airbus_new_cockpit

I’ve seen people commenting that cameras and the display can fail. But to be honest, that’s a bit silly. There is no reason why there wouldn’t be at least a few backup cameras and other systems in place, powered by multiple independent power sources.

As for me, I wouldn’t mind flying in a plane with this new type of cockpit. Let’s face it, you don’t get to see the cockpit now anyway. You just know it’s there but that’s pretty much it.

So how about you, would you? 🙂

Google Maps and borders

You know how Google Maps draws a border around the thing you’re looking for? You type in something and it takes you to the right place and if it’s a town, city, province, country or any kind of area that has a boder, it will show that border in red. Open Google Maps and search for Belgium. You’ll see Belgium with a red border. Now do the same but type Vietnam … no border. This is due to the conflict between Vietnam and China about the borders. Google has been shying away from confontation on that level for years now. I noticed this long time ago already. In some cases Google seems to side with the country that it has the biggest financial interest in. It designates the sea to the EAst of Vietnam as the “South China sea”. Many Vietnamese aren’t very happy with that though. But as China is a bigger financial interest for Google … I guess “South China Sea” it is. In areas where the borders are disputed, Google seems to opt for just not marking it at all. Vietnam and China aren’t alone in this case. Here’s a list of countries that will not have a marked border when you look them up:

  1. Albania
  2. Bhutan
  3. China
  4. Cyprus
  5. North Korea
  6. Egypt
  7. Georgia
  8. India
  9. Israel
  10. Japan
  11. Kenya
  12. Malawi
  13. Mauritania
  14. Mauritius
  15. Montenegro
  16. Morocco
  17. Nauru
  18. Pakistan
  19. Palestine
  20. Philippines
  21. South Korea
  22. Russia
  23. Serbia
  24. South Sudan
  25. Sudan
  26. Syria
  27. Macedonia
  28. Ukraine
  29. Tanzania
  30. Vanuatu
  31. Venezuela
  32. Vietnam

The image below shows Laos with a red border when looking it up, but Vietnam receiving no such border : Google_no_border Luckily, for you as a tourist this doesn’t spell trouble. You’ll still be able to find your way and likely still be able to look things up. But be aware that this may indicate other things. For example – no access to street view. There are countries, among which Vietnam, where street view is not an option. So if you find yourself looking up a country that you may want to visit, and no red border show up … that country may well be in a political dispute with a neighbouring one. Be aware that if you plan on crossing the border (wherever it may be) between the countries you may have to endure some more checks, delays, serious staff and less smiles in general.

For more and detailed information on all of the disputes countries seem to have with each other over borders etc you can go to the CIA site for the World Fact Book

Top travel destinations for 2014

TripAdvisor anounced the list of the top 25 travel destinations in the world for 2014. The numbers in front are the current ranking. The numbers at the back in between brackets are the ranking for that city last year. If there is no number, the city is new on the list.

Have you been to any of the places on the list? Do you agree with it, or do you feel some place is missing? 🙂

1. Istanbul, Turkey (12)
2. Rome, Italy (4)
3. London, United Kingdom (3)
4. Beijing, China (21)
5. Prague, Czech Republic (9)
6. Marrakech, Morocco (19)
7. Paris, France (1)
8. Hanoi, Vietnam (-)
9. Siem Reap, Cambodia (25)
10. Shanghai, China (22)
11. Berlin, Germany (11)
12. New York City, New York (2)
13. Florence, Italy (8)
14. Buenos Aires, Argentina (18)
15. Barcelona, Spain (5)
16. St. Petersburg, Russia (20)
17. Dubai, United Arab Emirates (-)
18. Chicago, Illinois (14)
19. Cape Town Central, South Africa (16)
20. Bangkok, Thailand (13)
21. Budapest, Hungary (-)
22. Sydney, Australia (10)
23. Lisbon, Portugal (-)
24. Chiang Mai, Thailand (24)
25. San Francisco, California (7)

Travel outside of Europe cheaper for Belgians

Vakanties_buiten_Europa_goedkoper

Good news for Belgians who want to travel outside of the European Union. Soon they will not need to pay the almost 4% travel taxes involved. Which makes travel cheaper for the people, but can also generate more income for the sector.

Since December 1977 Belgians pay 3.85% taxes when travelling to destinations outside of the European Union. No other country in the Union has such a tax. Because of that people book trips on line through agencies outside of Belgium, which in turn means losses for the Belgian tourism sector.

Travel by tuk-tuk

Who among you has had the pleasure of riding along in a tuk-tuk? I think many of us have. But I’m sure none of us have drive as far as these two British teachers who broke the world record tuk-tuk driving. And they did it for a good reason too: grassroots education projects in Africa, Asia and South America. Follow the link for more information and a movie!

British teachers break tuk-tuk record

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Responsible tourism

Responsible tourism is something to think about. Tourism can provide the local economy a boost. But if it’s not handled well, it can also end badly. “Death by tourism” is a well known term among travellers. Hopefully Myanmar (Burma) can avoid this scenario. With the decision to ban further hotel construction in Bagan, one of the tourist hot spots in the country, the government seems to be taking a step in the right direction.

Myanmar Bans Further Hotel Construction in Bagan to Protect Temples

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