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AF 447: All anyone is talking about June 2, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.

I’m spending a week at an ATLAS meeting here in Geneva. The day I flew was the day of the horrible Air France 447 crash. The plane just disappeared over the Atlantic on its way from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris, France. Just disappeared. It flew through heavy turbulence and a thunder storm. And just disappeared.

As I’m sure you’ve read by now modern airplanes (which this A330 is most certainly one of) are built to deal with these sorts of conditions. Being struck by lighting, flying through strong and gusty winds, etc. So what happened?

Of course, none of us know. But many of the group of people over here at CERN that I hang out with are from the USA. Which means we take these long distance flights all the time. In the past month I’ve taken the equivalent of two of these flights. The uncertainty is really getting to us. Most of us will be on one of these long distance flights (and some on a A330) in less than a week. So you can imagine…

There is another plane crash I remember – Swiss Air 111. This flight was going from JFK to Geneva in 1998. It happened during the CHEP 1998 conference. There were a bunch of people on that flight from the CHEP conference.

I guess one comforting thing for those of us that have to fly is that this is the first A330 crash ever (besides one initial test flight). Still, it is the main topic of conversation over beer and lunch right now. Which is probably just making it worse.

Regardless, our hearts go out to the folks that survived the passengers of 447. We are all connected to the people on that flight one way or the other.

UPDATE: Now that they have found the wreckage they are sending a submersible down there to search for the black boxes. Apparently, the submersible they are using is the same one that is used to repair the Antares experiment (a neutrino experiment on the floor of the ocean).

UPDATE II: I went to dinner last night with someone that was actively trying to get on that Swiss Air 111 flight. It was sold out, fortunately. He knew some people from BNL that were on that flight, on their way to CERN.



1. Ron - June 2, 2009

I thought of you when I read the news, given your facebook news that you were headed to Geneva, and given your recent post on the thunderstorms you flew through over Canada. Pretty spooky. Glad I’m on the ground.

2. gordonwatts - June 2, 2009

Me too. Only I have to get off the ground in a few days. 😦

Karl Zimmermann - October 3, 2009

In reading your little blurb about transatlantic (long distance) flying after AF447 crashed, I really can’t believe that such nonsense is coming out of the head of a supposedly educated person. I guess you have nothing better to do.

Presently there are over 100,000 commercial flights per day worldwide; with a significant percentage of these being long distance flights over water. Really, how many accidents occur? Basically none! I have flown between the States and Europe/Asia/Africa once or twice a month for 30 years, without even one problem.

If you want to spend your life worrying, you would be much better served if you worry about driving to work or to the corner grocery – you have a much higher probability of getting killed on one of these trips than flying across the ocean.

3. Lisa Smith - June 3, 2009

I hadn’t heard about this, but it only drives home my discomfort with flying even more (and I’m sorry for anyone who has to be on a plane at any point!). Secretly, I’m a nervous wreck when I fly, and I never can understand how people around me can be so blase the whole time, and take naps, etc.. People say “oh, you get used to it when you fly a lot, and besides, statistics show that… ” That logic doesn’t work for me; I just think, the more you fly, the more you toss your coin into the pot of statistics. Maybe it’s the all-or-nothing aspect of it. You can’t just get in a fender bender when a plane goes down. So I always emerge from a long flight dehydrated and wide-eyed, feeling like I’d been locked in a fight-or-flight response for 8 hours straight…

4. gordonwatts - June 3, 2009

When the plane is bouncing all over teh map and I look around I see some people fast asleep. I don’t get it. I wonder if there will be fewer like that if we hit real turbulence on the way back across the ocean.

5. gordonwatts - June 3, 2009

As far as statistics, I guess the thing to keep in mind is you are more likely to *die* in a car crash than a plane, even if you fly often. Flight attendents tell me they often go 10 years without anything scaring them – and they fly *a lot*.

6. Lucian - June 13, 2009
7. gordonwatts - June 15, 2009

well, that isn’t nervwracking!

8. Lynn K. - June 19, 2009

That is creepy. I am a scientist and I also fly a lot between Europe and the US due to conferences amongst other things (I am European living in the US). I was in the middle of a spate of country hopping where I had to fly from LA –> Europe, all over Europe and back to LA when AF 447 crashed. I tend to not fly for 2-3 months then suddenly fly 15 times or something like that in 2 weeks, so I am a fairly experienced traveller. I had a really really scary flight where the pilot was flying at comparatively low altitude (~7000m) in an A330 over Europe on the way from Paris to LAX and we hit turbulence like I have never had before. And guess what, it was Air France. I have never been so frightened on a flight. That was last november, now this happened. Lisa: ignore people who tell you it gets better the more you fly. I have been flying since I was 3 months old, and now at almost 30 I am more and more terrified each time I have to board a plane.

9. gordonwatts - June 19, 2009

Yikes, Lynn! Your timing is perfect. I hop on my next transatlantic flight on Monday! Thank you! 😉

Ironically, rigth after a bad flight I feel a lot better – becuase I know the plane can handle the little stuff… but then I forget over time, and so the stuff that was once ok is no longer ok.

10. Lynn K. - July 1, 2009

I know what you mean: I was in 3 flights a couple of weeks ago, in quick succession, that went something like this:

Flight 1: San Sebastian –> Madrid in a Dash 8 300 series, over the mountains, it shook sooo badly. I was belted tightly in and still had to hold on to the seat in front of me for dear life. (In severe turbulence, I recommend paying attention to the upward motion as well as the downward motion of the plane: you feel the down more than the up, but for each down there is also an up, and it calms you down about not falling out of the sky).

Flight 2: Madrid –> Frankfurt. There was a thunderstorm, and the pilot couldn’t land the plane, so we circled the airport at 4500m for 35 minutes with the pilot tilting left and right trying to find a safe approach angle. Man that was scary.

Flight 3: Frankfurt –> Vienna, taking off in the same thunderstorm, plane struck by lightning. But, here I am, quite fine, a few weeks later. Immediately after that I felt that no flight could scare me, and I took a few more “Normal” ones in between then and now. Of course, with time that fades and one gets nervous again.

How was your transatlantic flight? 🙂

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