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Ask The Pilot

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Fri, 19 Oct 2007 18:36:39 -0400
Archived: Fri, 19 Oct 2007 18:36:39 -0400
Subject: Ask The Pilot

Source: Salon Internet - San Francisco, California


Oct. 19, 2007

Ask The Pilot

The worst thing about hotel rooms? It's not the ugly carpeting.
Plus: Why don't planes carry parachutes for passengers?

By Patrick Smith

There are lots of things to dislike about hotel rooms:
temperamental air conditioning, ugly carpeting, toe-breaking
doorjambs. Here's another one: cardboard brochures. Nowadays,
every hotel amenity, from room service to Wi-Fi, is hawked
through one or more annoying cardboard advertisements displayed
throughout the room. You can hardly put your bag down without
knocking over a pile of them. They're everywhere - on the
dresser, in the closet, on your pillow. To be perfectly honest,
I'm a bit compulsive when it comes to clutter, but a dozen or
more of these things in the typical single room is ridiculous. I
resent having to spend five minutes, checking in after an
exhausting red-eye, gathering up these diabolical doodads and
heaving them into a corner where they belong. The photograph
that accompanies this column was taken a couple of weeks ago at
the Hilton in Athens, Greece. It shows a particularly bountiful
harvest of at least 15 laminated cards, signs, menus and
assorted promotional materials. About the only useful item is
the notepad. (This in a hotel that charges 6 euros for a Coke
from the minibar and 26 euros for Internet access.)

I wouldn't mind if this litter was placed unobtrusively, but it
tends to be exactly in the way - plastered across the desk, for
instance, or hogging up what limited shelf space exists in the
bathroom. My favorites are the signs boasting of the hotel's
dedication to the environment. It has become trendy to offer
guests the option of reusing their sheets and towels instead of
receiving a freshly laundered stack every morning. To request a
new, water-hogging set laden with caustic detergents, throw your
barely used towels on the bathroom floor. Placing them over the
back of a chair or hanging them on the rack, on the other hand,
is a gesture of earthly stewardship to be respected and
appreciated by the underpaid housekeepers. Notice Hilton's "We
care!" card in the photo. That one is pretty basic compared with
Holiday Inn's oversize, three-panel triptych, which is half the
size of the television set. Never mind the waste of paper and
ink; I've yet to stay in a hotel that actually honored my
attempts to reuse a towel. Try it sometime. Unless one hides the
towels in a drawer, the housekeepers inevitably hunt them down
and wash them, placard or no placard.

But I digress...

After landing, the rule to remain seated with belts fastened
until the plane has come to a complete stop seems antiquated and
petulant. How about allowing people to stand sooner?

I'd be somewhat open to the idea of relaxing the seat belt rule,
but allowing passengers to stand during taxi-in would be chaotic
and unsafe. Currently, the familiar "ding" of the seat belt sign
after docking results in clogged aisles and a frenzied grab for
luggage. This same chaos during taxi would greatly impede an
emergency evacuation. Taxiing might seem to be the lowest-risk
portion of any flight, but there have been several incidents and
accidents involving slow-moving aircraft on aprons and taxiways.
(Consider the recent fire that broke out aboard a Chinese 737
after landing in Okinawa.) The risk of a full-blown emergency is
extremely slight when maneuvering close to the gate, but sudden
stops are very common thanks to the proximity of airplanes,
vehicles, workers and equipment. True, the aircraft isn't moving
very quickly, but jamming on the brakes at even a few miles per
hour will send passengers toppling, bags falling, ankles
breaking. Moreover, letting people stand would offer no real
advantage other than providing a few extra seconds to get your
things together. People have nowhere to go, obviously, until the
door is opened.

Maybe this will sound like a crazy question, but why don't
commercial planes carry parachutes for each passenger? Life
jackets are pointless, but wouldn't parachutes occasionally save
the day? Granted, a novice skydiver would be risking life and
limb, but it's a better option than hitting the ground at 400
miles per hour.

A reasonable idea on the surface, but fraught with
complications. Ignoring for a moment the issues of cost and
weight and the extreme danger the average passenger would face
while leaping from a plane with no prior experience, the nature
of aviation disasters - they tend to happen suddenly, with
little warning, and usually during takeoff or landing - means
that chutes would seldom be helpful. In the majority of crashes,
elapsed time from awareness of an impending accident to the
impact itself is a measure of seconds. And as those who've done
it can attest (I am not one of them), normal skydiving takes
place under tightly controlled parameters. To even entertain the
idea of jumpers making it safely to the ground, a plane would
need to be in stable flight, and at a low enough speed and
altitude - yet high enough for a chute to properly deploy. How
many times, in the whole history of civil aviation, has a crew
known for certain that a serious crash was imminent, yet still
had time, in theory, to prepare for a coordinated mass
evacuation? Very few. One that comes to mind, maybe, is the 1985
Japan Airlines catastrophe. After a bulkhead rupture and rudder
failure, the Boeing 747 floundered about for several minutes
before going down near Mount Fuji. (With 520 fatalities, the
disaster still stands as the second worst on record.) Had chutes
been aboard, we can speculate that at least some of the
passengers might have survived. Many would have been killed in
the process of jumping, including those who'd slammed into the
747's wings, engines and empennage, making a bad situation
worse. It'd be an awfully risky proposition unless a crew feels
for certain that a problem is nonsurvivable, and has the time to
prepare. That rarely, if ever, is the case.

A few single-engine private planes have built-in parachutes for
use in certain emergencies - an engine failure over rough
terrain, etc. I know what you're thinking - imagine that
crippled JAL 747 floating to the ground under a giant chute.
Unfortunately, the size and weight of jetliners make any
commercial application extraordinarily difficult (a fully laden
747 weighs nearly a million pounds), in addition to the factors
discussed above. The four-seater piloted by New York Yankees
pitcher Cory Lidle was equipped with such a parachute. Lidle and
his flight instructor never had time to deploy it before
slamming into a Manhattan apartment building in 2006.

As for the pointlessness of life jackets, yours is a widely held
opinion, though not an accurate one. The facts and fallacy of
the proverbial "water landing" were covered in this column

Looking out the window on a flight from Helsinki, Finland, to
New York's JFK, I noticed a long, dark streak trailing across
the surface of the cloud bank below - the shadow of the jet's
contrail. But there was no shadow of the plane itself. Instead,
a giant optical bloom appeared where the shadow should have
been. It was a circular halo with two concentric colored rings,
like a lens flare.

(Special thanks to Gregory Dicum's enjoyable book "Window Seat"
for help with this one.) The phenomenon described is called a
"glory." As those (few) passengers who still look out the window
have probably noticed, glories are quite common under the right
conditions of cloud cover and sunlight angle. The aura of
colored bands is caused by sunlight diffracted and reflected
back toward its source by water droplets inside a cloud.
Sometimes you do see the airplane's shadow directly in the
halo's center; other times, as seemed to be the case during your
flight from Helsinki, one sees only the rings.

I have heard that pilots often see strange things in the sky,
i.e., UFOs, but through tacit agreement will not openly discuss
these sightings out of fear of embarrassment and possible career
suicide. True or false?

I have to laugh at the notion of there being a tacit agreement
among pilots over anything, let alone UFO sightings. And
although plenty of things in aviation are tantamount to "career
suicide," withholding information about UFOs isn't one of them.
For the record, I have never met a pilot who claims to have had
a UFO sighting, and the topic is one that almost never comes up
- even during those long, dark flights across the ocean.

A friend of mine was waiting for a flight at LAX and noticed an
El Al plane taxiing for takeoff, flanked by a firetruck that was
spraying the plane with water. Any idea what they were doing?
This was midsummer in Los Angeles, so deicing fluid it wasn't.
Neither was there a fire, since the airplane kept taxiing, and
promptly departed.

It sounds to me as if the El Al captain was retiring. Often,
when a crew member is making his or her final flight, the fire
department comes out and sprays the airplane with water - much
the way firefighting boats spray incoming ships during special

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