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

Russia moves to permanent winter time

We all think of cold and winter when we think of Russia anyway, right? So why not just have winter time all year round?

Spasskaya Tower clock tower at the Kremlin

Actually, the entire country has been on summer time since 2011. Back then, former President Dmitry Medvedev decided to stick to summer time to reduce the number of time zones in Russia. By eliminating winter time the number of zones went from 11 to 9. Eleven time zones is a lot for one country. But then again Russia isn’t just any slab of land, it’s the world’s largest country that stretches across 10,000 km (6,200 miles) with northernmost reaches which see less than an hour of sunlight a day during the winter months.

But the move to constant summer time proved to be an unpopular one. According to law makers, Medvedev’s permanent summer time policy caused stress and health issues for many Russians, especially those who lived in northern Russia. Medical studies showed an increase in morning road accidents in 2012 compared to previous years.

So a bill was introduced to revert the changes and move to permanent winter time. The votes were cast and the bill was approved. The actual change will happen in October. On the 26th to be precise, that’s when most European countries will end Daylight Saving Time. The country will move the clock back for 1 hour and go back to 11 time zones.

By doing this Moscow time will go from UTC+4 to UTC+3, moving it 1 hour closer to many western European countries. And that’s good for business.

For travellers this means that they should keep one eye at the clock on October the 26th 2014. If you have a bus, train, airline, or any other kind of ticket you best mind the time. Better be an hour early than an hour late, as the clocks will be moved back, not forward!

Have a nice trip, don’t be late!

Venezuela, flights to Caracas suspended. But why?

To start off with, it’s not because the airlines are trying to annoy you. They are protecting their business interest and possibly writing off millions of dollars. As usual, it’s all about the money …

US dollars and Venezuelan bolivars

US dollars and Venezuelan bolivars

It all started with former President Hugo Chávez. In 2003 he initiated currency control measures in order to prevent capital flight. Capital flight just means that a lot of money is flowing abroad, leaving less money inside the country itself. The reason why this was happening was devaluation of the Venezuelan Bolivar (VEF). Since the currency control measures have been put into place, the Bolivar was devalued 5 more times. Which is kind of sad, because the Bolivar has been the strongest currency in the region for a long time.

To put it blunt, the local currency isn’t worth much anymore now. Much like in Cambodia, the American Dollar, which is a lot more stable, is worth a lot more. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a problem because every currency has an exchange rate. But as any traveller will know, there are always multiple exchange rates. And the one that is very interesting for the Venezuelans now is the black market.

So let’s get to the core of the issue, and explain this in a very basic way:

Officially – 1 USD is worth 6.3VEF
Unofficially – 1 USD is worth 73VEF

So people are flooding to the black markets to sell their dollars. And how do they get those dollars? They buy flight tickets to the US, get as many dollars as they can and fly back to sell them on the black market. This maneuver is known as “el raspadito” or “the scrape”, because everyone is scraping to get a flight ticket/dollars. It’s even possible for Venezuelans to go on holiday for free this way, because they are able to sell the dollars for more Bolivar than they used to paid their trip.

Flights are booked full months in advance. Travel agents even advise people who really do need to travel to take a boat instead of a flight because there simply aren’t enough seats … at least not on paper. Because you don’t necessarily have to actually get on the plane! Venezuelans can buy “cheap” dollars at the official 6.3 rate, but there is a limit to how many they can buy. However there is a way around that. You can buy up to $3000 dollars at the 6.3 rate if you are a traveller. And you are a traveller if … you have a flight ticket. You can see where this is going, right?

Maiquetia airport

Caracas Maiquetia airport

Venezuelans have become very good at working this dual exchange rate system to squeeze as much money out of it. Some will just send credit cards abroad so they can be swiped for cash advances. Financially, there are tons of ways to abuse this system, and the Venezuelans know it.

But so do the airlines. Because all flights have been booked “full” months in advance, the prices have been soaring. Depending on the destination, a return flight to/from Caracas can now set you back between $2.000 and $5.000. Part of the reason is the increased “popularity” in the destination (economics says when the demand is high the price will go up). But the airlines have another reason for this, they are trying to discourage people to buy a seat which they’re not going to use anyway. Airlines are tired of “fully booked” planes leaving almost half empty while real passengers have been unable to get a seat. So airlines have started to overbook flights. Not just by a bit, but by a large margin.

When you put all this together on the scale you should look at it, the size of the country itself, you’ll see that this country is heading for large scale problems. The Venezuelan Bolivar is losing ground, the American Dollar is taking over and of course corruption is a big problem itself. The people can see what’s happening and there is civil unrest. Many Venezuelans have moved to Colombia. All this causes economical and political instability. The government tries to combat this situation before it all collapses. The easiest way to do this is to get more money into the system and prevent money from going back out.

The Venezuelan government has taken measures and placed currency restrictions on airlines. That means that airlines are unable to convert their Venezuelan earnings into Dollars. The figures go into the millions of dollars per airline that are now stuck in the country. It doesn’t need explaining how the airlines feel about all this. So in order to try and limit the amount of money that they will possibly lose due to it being stuck in an economically unstable country and currency, they have reduced the number of flights or suspended them altogether.

Airlines that have reduced or suspended their flights do plan on resuming regular operations when they are satisfied that the situation has been stabilized. If you have a ticket but your flight has been suspended, contact the airline. They will refund you. Or if you are in Venezuela already, they will rebook you to another airline or help you in any way to get you back.

As always, enjoy!

In Düsseldorf a robot parks your car

At the Düsseldorf airport they have a new assitant: Ray the car parking robot. Looking at the video it seems that there are multiple Rays for the job. The service itself is called PremiumPLUS parking.

Passengers leave the car in a desginated spot.

Passengers leave the car in a desginated spot.

The idea is for passengers (who may be in a hurry) to leave their cars in a designated place where the robots are meant to pick them up. Ray then uses sensors and a laser scanner to photograph and measure the car so it can safely pick it up and park it in one of the 249 designated parking spaces.

The car gets photographed and measured

The car gets photographed and measured

And then lifted off the ground to be taken to a parking spot

And then lifted off the ground to be taken to a parking spot

On a touch screen located closeby passengers have to confirm that there is nobody left in the car and enter the details of their return flight. That way Ray can monitor flight schedules and calculate when a car should be retrieved for it to be picked up. In case a passenger changes flights or general itinerary, Ray can be notified using an app. In case you need it, you can download the app for iOS and Android. There doesn’t appear to be a Windows Phone version yet.

Of course, very few things in this life are free. The same goes for PremiumPLUS parking. Leaving your car in the Düsseldorf airport car park already costs at least €24.50/$33 per day. Making use of PremiumPLUS adds an extra €4/$6 per day to that amount. Of course, you get something in return. The new parking is very near to the terminals, so you don’t have to walk far. The car is waiting for you when you walk out of the airport, parked facing the right direction. And all the while your car is parked it is insured.

The following videos explaining PremiumPLUS parking are in German. If you don’t speak German, looking at them will be enough to give you the general idea 🙂

Premium PLUS Parken am Düsseldorf Airport — So funktioniert es

Premium PLUS Parken am Düsseldorf Airport

 

As always, enjoy your trip … and parking!

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!

American tested for ebola in Ghana

A United States citizen has been tested for the ebola virus. Though most news outlets still seem to report that he’s being tested and writing how bad that is, the test already came back negative.

The unnamed man had been to Sierra Leone and Guinea in the past weeks.Those regions are infected with the ebola virus, especially Guinea. The Reuters infographic details the affected areas

Ebola outbreak

After having been to Sierra Leone and Guinea, the man fell ill. He was quarantined and held in the Nyaho private facility in Accra while his blood was being tested in the Noguchi Memorial Institute of Medical Research. The head of disease surveillance at the Ghana Health Service, Badu Sarkodie, said that the result was negative but that further testing will be done. While the blood was being tested, the staff from the Nyaho clinic that handled or had been close to the man was kept in quarantine as well.

According to Bart Janssens, who is the director of operations for France’s Médecins Sans Frontières, the outbreak is now in it’s second wave and in his own words: “totally out of control”. And unless there is real political action, it will spread to more countries. That’s pretty bad news, because anyone who contracts the ebola virus has just a slim 10% chance of survival. But also because political action is lacking, as Janssens laments. Local authorities mistrust the organizations attempting to help, and without them announcing to the public that caring for infected people at home does more bad than good this pratice will continue to happen. This undermines the efforts to stop the outbreak.

Ebola has an incubation period of about 3 weeks. Sings of being infected are (high) fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea. But they don’t show up right away, so it is possible for an infected person to travel and infect others. This poses a huge threat if the virus reaches large cities with many people on the move. The biggest city hit so far is Conakry which has an international airport.

Even if you don’t have any cancellation insurance for your trip and if you don’t need to be there for professional healthcare reasons, cancel your trip. I think you’ll agree that this is not the time for a visit!

London toursist take note … but don’t pay with them

At least not on the London buses. Because they don’t accept cash anymore, neither do they carry cash so even if they wanted to, they can’t give you any change back.

A modern London bus

A modern London bus

Transport for London (TfL) who run the buses, say that there won’t be a problem, surely not a big one, for the London people and tourists. Numbers show that most of them already use Oyster (Visitor Oyster for tourists), prepaid tickets, contactless payment cards or concessionary tickets. Only a small amount of people still pay using cash. That would be 1%, the other 99% use the previously mentioned payment methods.

For people who have an Oyster card but ran out of money on it, this is good news. Because as they can’t pay with cash, they are allowed to take a free ride. Just the one though 😉

A tourist version of the Oyster card, the "Oyster Visitor card"

A tourist version of the Oyster card, the “Oyster Visitor card”

The way people pay for things is evolving, more and more people are paying using cards or other wireless methods (paying with phone) and carrying less cash around. Transport for London believes that by eliminating the cash part it can deliver a smoother and more efficient service to the passengers but also that they can save £24 million per year. That money can be reinvested in the transport network.

So if you get to London and want to take the bus, remember to get some form of prepaid payment method as paying in cash is no longer an option!

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? 🙂