Archive for July, 2009

Can You Hear Me, Walter?

July 20, 2009
Walter Conkite and Miles O'Brien covering STS-95 on October 29, 1998

Walter Conkite and Miles O

I am pretty sure I am the only man on the planet who could ever accurately claim Walter Cronkite was his co-anchor. A nice honor to be sure, but I was thrust into this role because of some sad circumstances (see my previous post) and truth be told, it was a wild ride on a high-wire.

Through it all I learned many lessons of humility, diplomacy and perseverance through sheer panic.

Walter (as I eventually got the gumption to call him) and I spent a fair amount of time together in advance of John Glenn’s shuttle mission – mostly, we were talking to other members of the media. There were dozens of them and I mostly just listened in as if I was a “minder” or something. Every now and then, a reporter would take pity upon me and ask me a courtesy question to be polite. But I was most certainly not the reason they were there.

We also had a chance to spend some time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston watching the crew doing some training. Discovery Commander Curt Brown met us at one of the full-motion shuttle landing simulators in Building 5. Walter was helped into the left (commander’s) seat – Curt sat in the right seat – and I was in the back row – unable to see very much.

Walter was of course well known for his love of sailing – but he also had a keen fascination with aviation. He told me he has always had a knack for making machines do his bidding.

During World War Two, he and his colleagues appealed for months to be allowed to fly aboard B-17 “Flying Fortresses” on bombing runs over Europe.
After months of persistent pestering, the Air Force relented. But for the privilege, Cronkite and seven others endured weeks of training as gunners. Geneva Convention notwithstanding, these airborne reporters would have to earn their seat aiming at the enemy.

His first story after one of these sorties began with this lead paragraph: “I have just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 17,000 feet, a hell of bursting flak and screaming fighter planes, of burning Forts and hurtling bombs,” he wrote.

[Later on I would use this example as some “precedent” for allowing a journalist (me) to strap in for a space shuttle ride to the International Space Station.]

But on this day in October of 1998, the old war correspondent was not able to bring the simulated orbiter for a smooth landing. He had a tough time seeing through the Head Up Display – but handled the subsequent crash with great aplomb – and some self-deprecating humor. I just watched and grew more fond of him as I watched him handle the vicissitudes of age.

After the ride was over, it was time for a photo op. We clambered down the ladder of the simulator and stood with some of the technicians who keep those simulators running – as well as the man in charge – Charlie Spencer. I stood “house” left – and put on my best picture face. But just as the NASA photographer was about to squeeze off a frame, he took his camera away from his face, looked right at me – scrunched his brow like a disapproving middle school principal – and then waved his hand to the left – clearly motioning me to get out of his picture. I did – metaphorically coming down a few more ladder rungs than the others.

Even though his age slowed him down – and diminished his senses, Walter still had a lot of anchor swagger in him. He always arrived for our live segments in the bare nick of time – clearly a holdover from his salad days as the Managing Editor of the “The CBS Evening News”.

This didn’t bother me a bit because I knew he would likely be there – and I knew I could cover for him if not.

But on November 2, 1998, five days into the mission at precisely 4:40pm ET, we had our “window” for an interview with the Senator and the Commander as they orbited Earth. NASA in-flight interviews are brief (this one was ten minutes as I recall) and they start on time. When they say 4:40 – they mean 4:40:00 (on the balls in NASA parlance – referring to the zeros).

Couple that fact with the tricky audio set-up required to pull of one of these interviews off – and add in Walter’s difficulty hearing and you will understand why we asked his set producer Sandy Socolow to make sure Walter was on the set a little earlier than usual.

I sat down on our makeshift set inside JSC’s Building 9 sooner than I normally would and ran though some voice checks with the NASA Audio Control Room. Everything checked out fine. Except Walter was nowhere to be found.

Things got tenser as the time ticked away. CNN had been promoting this live interview as if it were the Second Coming and the folks in the control room were anxious it go off without a hitch.

But still no Walter.

Finally, with precious little time to spare, he made his way up the steps onto the scaffolding to the seat on my left. He plugged in his earpiece – and the audio techs began counting in his ear to insure he was able to hear OK. But he heard nothing.

Pots were opened, dials spun and tests repeated – nada.

Time was now slowing down for me – as our heavily touted special report drew near.

At this point, I got a chance to see how many technical people CNN had sent to Houston. They were all crawling on – beside – and under the desk – frantically plugging in new cables, replacing amplifiers and changing out earpiece chords.

“Testing…testing…can you hear, Walter”


At this point, my anxiety level was already pretty high – but then came the panic.

Walter turned to me and said: “whatever you do, do not include me in this segment if I cannot hear. Don’t mention that I am even here on the set. Just do the interview without me.”

Just as he finished that thought, the executive producer in the control room barked into my earpiece.

“Whatever you do, make sure you include Walter in this interview – we have been promoting it like crazy and he needs to be on camera – even if you have to relay the questions and answers.”

Panic. Sheer panic. Career-ending kinda panic. I am sure I was sweating as much Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw one of those newspaper montage scenes from a vintage movie – you know where the front page spins around, stops and reveals a series of banner headlines to keep the narrative going.

The headlines I saw read something like this “Young Cable Correspondent Humiliates National Icon”…”America’s Most Trusted Man Embarrassed by Rude Reporter”…”Space Cadet: Uncle Walter Dissed by TV Dolt.”

The vision passed with the ominous reminder from the control room to “bring Walter in no matter what.”

With less than thirty seconds to air, Walter still could not hear anything in his earpiece. He turned to me and reminded me not to introduce him – and then said he would tap me on my left forearm if the problem rectified itself.

The time came, the theme music played, the red light came on and I cowboyed up -deciding there was no way in hell I was going to do anything that Walter did not want to do. If it was my last day on the job, so be it.

So I started talking – filibustering really. I talked about the mission progress, the science Senator Glenn was conducting, his firs mission in space – even the amazing technology that made the interview possible in the first place.

Actually it is really hard to remember what I said since I could not hear myself think. The producer was screaming in my ear incessantly to “Bring in Walter!! Introduce Walter!!!! Where’s Walter???”

Just as I thought smoke might start billowing out of my ears, I began introducing John Glenn and Curt Brown. I began asking the first question – ready to do an interview wherein I would likely hear nothing else but angry producers in a control room. And then, it happened. One of the dozens of people at my feet…in the control room…at NASA…or maybe my guardian angel…put some audio…some sweet, wonderful, intelligible, live-from-space audio…into Walter Cronkite’s ear canal.

He gently tapped me on the arm…I refrained from giving him a hug and a kiss…and instead shifted gears from my question – to his introduction.
And so, Walter Cronkite interviewed John Glenn – as promised. Viewers knew the story – but not the backstory. And I probably lost a few years on this planet.

Part 1
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Part 2
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Part 3
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Next installment: Walter and CBS. He was not feeling the love.


How I almost blew it with Walter Cronkite

July 18, 2009

When I first met Walter Cronkite I was under great duress. It was September of 1998 and my boss had dispatched me to CBS Headquarters – Black Rock – to convince the iconic broadcasting legend to work with a 39-year old journeyman TV reporter toiling in the cable vineyards covering the science and technology beat – namely me.


It was not a mission to savor for a lot of reasons. The story began several months prior when NASA Administrator Dan Goldin announced Senator John Glenn would get another chance to orbit the earth – this time on a space shuttle. Naturally, this generated a DEFCON-1 media frenzy and at CNN we got busy with a plan that would rival the D-Day invasion.

In the midst of this, my predecessor on the space beat – and an icon in his own right – John Holliman got the crazy idea to call up Walter Cronkite’s office to see if he would be interested in working with us to tell this story of Glenn’s mission nearly 37 years after he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Holliman’s idea was as brilliant as it was bold: the perfect alignment of two of the most famous people of that era – the quintessential Right Stuff Hero and the man who everyone knew and trusted – and who covered the moon race from JFK’s “we choose the moon…”speech at Rice University to “we’re turning blue…” landing at Tranquility Base forty years ago Monday.

But the most amazing thing was Walter had said “yes”. No one was sure why at the time, but I got an inkling later…


Steve Fossett and the Killer Wave

July 10, 2009
Portrait of {{w|Steve Fossett}}

Image via Wikipedia

Nearly two years ago, I flew my small plane to the Minden, Nevada, airport to pursue a story on the search for Steve Fossett. I taxied my plane up to the terminal, walked into the service desk at the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) and found myself smack dab in the middle of a planning session for the search team. Wreckage of Steve Fossett’s plane, found in the California mountains.

They wondered how I got in there (the rest of the media was cordoned off in the parking lot). “I flew…and boy, are my arms tired,” said I. The room broke up, and next thing I knew I was talking with Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol. I asked her if she would be willing to fly with me over the search area and within an hour or so we were airborne, with a shooter in the back seat flying low and slow over rugged mountains.

It was quickly evident how big and daunting that haystack is out there. When most people think about the desert, they think of the Sahara –- you know, an endless sandbox. The desert on the Nevada-California border is not nearly as blank a slate. The hills are rugged and covered with sagebrush — except near the occasional river, which supports thirstier flora. On top of that, Nevada’s mining heritage has left the ground littered with all kinds of detritus – old jalopies, mattresses, rail cars and the like. Their glints in the sunshine were constant, distracting red herrings. And in fact, the searchers discovered a few old plane wrecks that had been missing for many years.

For the year between Fossett’s disappearance and the discovery of the wreckage of the Bellanca Super Decathlon he was flying that morning,  the whispers and rumors grew that he might have made himself “disappear.” I  looked into this for a long time and could never find a plausible motive for him to bow out, get some surgery and retreat to Argentina.

The “grassy knoll” crowd was finally silenced when DNA testing of the fragments of human remains found near the wreckage proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Fosett reached the end of the line on that mountain near Mammoth Lakes that Sunday morning September 3, 2007.

The mystery was solved when hikers found some of Fossett’s personal effects. The remains of the airplane were about a half mile away -did he surviv the initial impact and succumb to injuries later – or were his remains dragged away by animals? No way to know. Federal crash investigators say the plane hit the ground at a high rate of speed – and then burned. If he survived, Fossett left probably this world terrified and in terrible pain.

Most of us had a hunch at the outset that Fossett flew into a box canyon and smacked a mountain at a high rate of speed, leaving little for searchers to spot from the air. They say you should always go with your first gut instinct on these things –- and so it goes in this case. The National Transportation Safety Board says he was heading north at the time of the crash – the opposite direction he was flying when radar contact was lost. So he clearly realized he was headed for trouble and made a 180 (a u-turn). [You can read the full narrative here.]

One of the cardinal rules of mountain flying is to always be in a position that you can turn toward lowering terrain. The experts say it is a good idea to approach a ridge at a 45 degree angle so you can preserve your escape route.

Diagram of Mountain Wave

Diagram of Mountain Wave

The wind that morning near the crash site was blowing from the south-southwest between 20 and 30 mph. So before he made his turn, Fossett would have been flying up a hill and into the wind. This is the most dangerous place to be if you are flying in mountains. Imagine the wind acting as water does. On the windward side of a ridge, it flows upward – creating strong updrafts (which glider pilots covet). But on the leeward side of a ridge, the wind can create strong downdrafts. Anytime, the wind exceeds 20 knots (23 mph), pilots are advised to put a little more space between them and the “cumulous granite” below (2,000 feet above the terrain is considered a prudent place to be).

But Fossett was out on a “Sunday drive” as his widow described it. When he was last seen, he was about 150-200 feet above the ground taking in the sites. At the altitude where he crashed (10,000 feet above sea level), his airplane was only able to climb at a rate of 300 feet per minute. The experts say the downdrafts Fossett encountered pushed him to the ground at 400 feet per minute. He had flown himself into a dead end.

We are left with the sad irony that a man who took so many risks and survived so many close calls in perilous situations fell victim to an sightseeing tour in a docile plane close to its home on a holiday weekend. In his book, Fossett writes at length about his meticulous planning and careful attention to detail. He was very precise in calculating the risk –- and was really not a daredevil. But aviation is very unforgiving of complacency, and that airplane and that canyon were not impressed with Fossett’s record of amazing accomplishments.

No one is bulletproof –- not even Steve Fossett.

A Dark and Windy Night…

July 1, 2009
7O-ADJ - the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni -
7O-ADJ – the A310 that crashed on approach to Moroni –

A lot of travelers boarding an Airbus today might be thinking twice. After all, yet another Bus is at the bottom of yet another ocean – and another 153 souls have gone west.

Could the European airliners be a latter-day DC-10? – That is, a flawed design – and thus a (relatively) dangerous way to fly?

For the entire Airbus airliner fleet (more than 5400 of them are in service globally), the numbers do not support the conclusion. In July 2008, Airbus’ bitter rival Boeing released a “Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents” from the dawn of the jet age in 1959 through 2007.

At the time of the study, the A330 still had a flawless record: no fatal accidents in the course of a million departures. A month ago, Air France 447 changed that record – but the airliner remains very safe statistically.

Over the years Airbus A300’s have had three crashes that caused deaths. That equates to a rate of .47 airplanes lost per million departures. The A320 series has had eight fatal crashes – or .23 hulls per million departures. And the A340 has never had a fatal crash.

The record is not as good for the A310 – the model of airplane that plunged into the sea trying to land at the capital of the Comoros Islands – Moroni. It has crashed and killed people eight times now (six times on the event horizon of the Boeing study). That equates to a fatal accident rate of 1.42 airplanes for every million departures.

The infamous – and much maligned – DC-10 crashed with fatalities a dozen times for a rate of 1.36 fatal crashes per million departures. Pretty much  a dead heat (if you will pardon the expression).

[It is worth noting that these fatal accident rates have come a long way (baby). Back in the day, the early jet airliners – the 707 and DC-8 – logged fatal accident rates of 4.21 and 4.03 per million departures respectively.]

But take a look at the accident reports for the A310 crashes. There are two common threads. First, they are all attributed to pilot error – trying to land in a thunderstorm, botched use of thrust reversers on rollout, improper stall recovery, spatial disorientation on a dark stormy night, a botched missed approach, and the most infamous of all, the captain who allowed his son to take the controls – leading to a stall and spin.

The second is the airlines were all flagged in third world/emerging nations [Maybe the Russians might quibble with that characterization, but over the years Aeroflot has logged a third world quality record.]

This is why you are hearing so much talk about the so called “blacklist” of airlines that are banned from flying to Europe or the US.

Airlines have to be pretty sloppy (and scary) to get on this roster.  It means they lack:

•    the regulations to properly certify airplanes
•    the technical expertise and resources to oversee them
•    adequately trained technical personnel
•    adequate inspectors to insure they comply with minimum international standards
•    and insufficient record keeping to document what they are doing (or not).

All that said, Yemenia Airlines is not on the European blacklist (now 194 airlines long). But the crashed 19-year-old/17,300 cycle airplane  (7O-ADJ) apparently was – at least in France. In 2007, it was banned because inspectors there found long list of squawks.

So why so many pilot error crashes by crews flying the A310 for third world airlines? Is it shoddy training? Is it simply that the A310 is a cheap, widely used aircraft for thinly endowed airlines? Is it the flying environment in the countries where these planes fly  – with fewer, less sophisticated navigational aids and less air traffic control coverage and expertise?

Could the highly automated Airbus design be ill-suited for these crews/airlines/airports? Or has it saved untold lives in accidents that never happened? These are hard questions to answer.

But unlike Air France 447, we should know the answer to the riddle of this crash fairly soon – as searchers have already found the black boxes.

But the man in charge of the airline claims he knows what happened.

“We never had problems with the plane,” Yemenia Chairman Abdulkalek Saleh Al-Kadi told Bloomberg. “It was purely weather.”

What about the weather? Here is the weather picture (in pilot parlance, a METAR) for MORONI/Prince SAID IBRAHIM (FMCH) airport:

FMCH 292300Z 21025G35KT 9999 FEW020 25/16 Q1017 TEMPO 18015G30KT

Translated – it means the wind was coming out of the southwest (210 degrees) at 25 knots (28 mph) gusting to 35 knots (40 mph). There were a few clouds 2,000 feet. So it was windy and the sky was nearly clear – albeit totally dark  – the crash occurred just before 2 AM local time – and moonset that night was 12:23 AM.

With that in mind, let’s try to imagine ourselves on that Yemenia flight deck. The Moroni airport has one runway that allows planes to land either toward the northeast (20 degrees) or the southwest (200 degrees). Airplanes nearly always land into the wind, especially when it is blowing as strong as it was at FMCH that night.

But there is only one precision instrument approach to the airport – and it is for the opposite runway. The crew was forced to fly a visual approach to runway 20 on a dark night over water – approaching an island that probably does not have many lights blazing at that hour.

PAPI Lights - Wikipedia
PAPI Lights – Wikipedia

To add to the challenge, runway 20 does not have a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI). This is an array of focused light beams that sit beside a runway  and give a pilot a visual indication of where his craft is relative to the ideal glide path.  A four light PAPI – as you see here will show the pilot two red and two white lights when he/she is at the correct altitude for a safe approach. More red – and you are too low…more white and you are too high. It is truly pilot-proof.

But without those lights on that dark night over the water, the crew would have had a hard time judging how close they were to the ground (or the surface of the sea). It is called “spatial disorientation” and it kills a lot of pilots and passengers (including John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law).

They apparently tried to land once – but aborted the approach – turning around in a “black hole” – itself a perilous maneuver – especially for a crew that would be a bit rattled and distracted by their predicament – and were, no doubt, dog tired after a long day of flying.

It is the perfect recipe for losing focus on your gauges – and forgetting which way is up – and how far is down.