Fifteen years on – 9/11

Fifteen years on. 9/11 always seems to come around too quickly. The memories are still too vivid. The fear that the day created is still so real.

But extremism will never win. The day created bonds and connections that are stronger than any act of terrorism.

In post WW2 history no day has changed the world more than that day. The events of the day and its aftermath will be written about for decades and centuries to come.

There are those who deny the events of that day. I have had my run in with the so-called “truthers” – keyboard fantasists with more time than brains. Here is my take on  9/11 myths, fairytales and truthers – these people do a disservice to those who died or were injured on 9/11 and their friends and families.

I remember only too well where I was as the attacks on America took place. I was at 1,000 feet turning right to start a circuit at Kissimmee Airport in Florida on my first and as it turned out my only flying lesson until fourteen years later.

My lesson was booked for 9.00am on Tuesday 11 September. I walked out to the plane with my Norwegian instructor. We checked the plane. My mobile rang. I did not pick it up; I switched it off. Did not want the distraction. It turned out to be a friend calling form New York to warn me what was happening.

We taxi-ed to the end of Runway 15. Took off. Climbed and turned to stay in the traffic pattern. ATC tells all planes to land immediately as US airspace was now closed. My instructor took the controls. ATC says that a plane has hit the world trade center.

We landed. Tied the little Cessna down. And went to watch TV in the lounge at the FBO. The room was full with instructors and want to be pilots; people taking multi-engine and commercial licenses. Everyone knew that the industry they loved would never be the same again.

The school was closed all week. That weekend a hurricane blew through Orlando. It was time to go home.

As I flew back to HKG through Newark on another stunning Autumn day the fires were still burning and the smoke still hung over the city.

When I started to fly again, fourteen years later, I took my lessons at Sarasota. Air Force 1 was parked there on the morning of 9/11. This is the story of Air Force 1 – the only airplane left in the US skies that morning:

‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’ – Politico magazine writing on “Where was the president in the eight hours after the Sept. 11 attacks? The strange, harrowing journey of Air Force One, as told by the people who were on board.”

This is the website for the national 9/11 memorial

The 9/11 memorial

And a full listing of every event of that fateful day:

Complete 911 Timeline

R.I.P. Never forgotten.

As a footnote United Airlines captain Greg Lewis is flying a 757 from Newark to Edinburgh today. Greg owns the Cessna Skycatcher that I trained in and took my PPL checkride in on 2nd November last year.

Here are the names of the airline crew from those four fated lights.







Sully – losing sight of the facts

On January 15, 2009, the world witnessed the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger piloted his stricken US AIrways A320 for a water landing on New York’s Hudson River.

The plane had struck a flock of Canada geese on departure from La Guardia airport, losing thrust in both engines as just 2,900 feet.

Now almost eight years later the story of flight 1549 has been made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood with Tom Hanks as Capt Sullenberger. It is not a role that challenges him greatly but it is a role that fits – the portrait of a man who is decent, capable, and almost flamboyant in his humility.

Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles (the first officer on  1549) is also very solid.

“Sully” the movie focuses on two things – one real, one fictional; the real story is of unlikely, modest heroes who become reluctant celebrities.

The fictional story surrounds the NTSB’s investigation.

I liked the movie – but the portrayal of the NTSB investigation as adversarial is misleading. This was another team doing its job; just as Sullenberger’s team had done its job.

The film implies that the human factor was only brought into the simulations at Sullenberger’s request at the public hearing. Not accurate at all – yet it is a key moment in the movie.

The facts are simply that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation and public hearing that followed were anticlimactic—the crew, including the three flight attendants on board, had done the right thing, according to the board’s final report.

The film is based upon Sully’s best-selling book, Highest Duty. But his book barely mentions the NTSB’s investigation.

The only way Eastwood can think of to surprise us is by making up stuff that didn’t happen and then lodging it in Sully’s nightmares.

The NTSB appears as a swaggering tribunal of investigators who torment Sully and Skiles for days immediately after the accident, not just questioning their decisions, but contradicting their accounts. Their minds are made up – the airliner could have safely returned to either La Guardia or Teterborough.

Sully and Skiles are shocked, traumatized by the NTSB statements; Sully fears losing not just his reputation, but his whole livelihood: “I’ve got 40 years in the air, but in the end, I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.” And so it goes, for much of the movie’s 96-minute run.

In fact, the NTSB was never consulted or even contacted by anyone connected with the film; there is no one named Charles Porter at the agency (the chief investigator in the movie); and his two film colleagues, “Ben Edwards” and “Elizabeth Davis,” are also phony.

There is so much attention to detail in the movie – the US Air uniforms, the quick reference handbook; the wording used from the cockpit voice recorder.

Yet almost all the details surrounding the NTSB are simply wrong. In the movie there is a scene of the hearing where the pilots confront the cockpit voice recording of the flight for the very first time. In fact, pilots are always given a chance to listen to it privately, usually well before the hearing, and the audio is never played in any type of public forum. (Printed excerpts of the dialogue were displayed at the actual hearing to accompany a video recreating the flight.)

Asked about the NTSB criticism, Warner Brothers have declined to answer questions, as have Sully himself and his co-pilot Skiles, who is back in the cockpit and now a captain for American Airlines.

What leaves me really uneasy is why Sullenberger has played along with this portrayal of the NTSB. Sully has talked and written about the stresses he experienced post-accident and the self-doubts he experienced, and his worries over the results of the NTSB probe are undoubtedly genuine.

Sully had, and has, his own safety consultancy. He was close with pilots union; who are well represented in the movie.

The NTSB does some remarkable work – often in appalling circumstances. They deserve rather more credit than this movie gives them. Sully owes them more than a sullied reputation.

13 September:

This is a pretty good review of the movie – noting its accurate depiction of the flight but the cinematic license taken with the investigation:

Sully and the Impossible Turn





Hong Kong’s umbrella movement becomes mainstream

The 4 September Hong Kong LegCo election results were notable in that supporters of greater independence for Hong Kong gained a foothold in the city’s legislature.

The results will not have pleased Beijing. In their highest turnout for any such poll in the territory’s history (58%), voters sent a clear signal of discontent with China’s attempts to stifle democracy.

Even more worryingly for Chinese officials, some of them supported radicals who believe Hong Kong should decide its own future regardless of China’s wishes. Several such “localists” gained seats for the first time.

Since the umbrella protests of two years ago separatism has emerged as a powerful new force in Hong Kong. It has grown out of a failed campaign in 2014 to press the Chinese government to allow the territory’s leader to be directly elected by voters, with no attempt to filter out candidates deemed unacceptable to China’s ruling Communist Party.

Leaders of that “Umbrella” movement are among six localists who were elected to the 70-member Legislative Council.

Hong Kong’s government had tried to prevent this by requiring candidates to declare their support for Hong Kong’s status as part of China; several localists failed the test.

China is already suppressing separatism in Xinjiang, Tibet and independently governed Taiwan. Now potentially in Hong Kong as well.

Interestingly as Hong Kong moves further away from 1997 it may be thta the country is becoming more distant from China rather than more Chinese.

Voting arrangements for Legco ensured that pro-democracy politicians, including localists, had very little chance of taking a majority of the seats. Only 40 of them are elected through universal suffrage. The rest are chosen by members of “functional constituencies” representing various professions, businesses and social groups. These tend to be pro-establishment.

But pro-government candidates did not do as well as they did in the previous elections for Legco in 2012. They kept their majority, but took only 40 seats, three fewer than last time. Of the 35 “geographical constituency” seats chosen by popular vote, 16 went to establishment candidates and 19 to a mixture of moderate democrats, localists, radicals of other stripes and independent candidates with pro-democracy leanings. With three other seats gained by universal suffrage, and eight in functional constituences, pro-democracy politicians retain their power to block some bills in Legco.

Hong Kong’s politicians had long been divided into two camps. One was usually described as “pro-government” or “pro-Beijing”. The other was called the “pan-democrats”, who wanted full democracy for Hong Kong but did not challenge China’s right to rule it. The elections have revealed a split in the pro-democracy camp between moderates prepared to work within the current system, and young, often highly educated, radicals.

Some of the localists gained their seats at the expense of veteran democrats. Nathan Law, of a party called Demosisto, was a student leader during the Umbrella movement, and has become the youngest ever person to win a Legco seat. He describes himself as a “23-year-old kid”.

Law was interviewed by BBC News today – he comes over as articulate and sensible. He does not advocate independence; he does advocate self-determination.

Another localist, Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, picked up some 84,000 votes, the most cast for any candidate in a geographic constituency.

Many in Hong Kong, however, still prefer candidates who do not challenge the status quo. Regina Ip won a seat in the constituency of Hong Kong Island, despite having served as the government’s security chief during its aborted attempt in 2003 to introduce a much-hated law against sedition. Among pro-establishment candidates fighting in geographic constituencies, Ms Ip gained the largest number of votes: around 60,000.

The high turnout, by Hong Kong’s standards, was probably helped by a growing political awareness among people in their late teens and early 20s, the generation that led the Umbrella protests.

Many young people believe China’s refusal to fulfil its promise to give the territory more democracy has left them little choice but to challenge China’s right to rule.

China’s simplistic view; anyone who promotes independence for Hong Kong should be punished. Positive engagement would win Beijing some goodwill. Carrots not sticks!

EK521 preliminary report issued by GCAA

The UAE GCAA today released its preliminary report into the crash of EK521.

Credit where due – ICAO rules allow the investigating authority to keep the preliminary report confidential. The GCAA have made the report public.

The preliminary report is a factual report of the events. It does not seek to comment on why the crash occurred. Nor does it seek to make any judgement on the actions of the crew that day.

There are no great surprises in the detail of the crash itself. Weather was a factor but was not untypical of the middle of a summer day in Dubai.

Here is the basic timeline:

8.37.07 start flare IAS 159kts
8.37.17 right hand main gear touches down IAS 162
8.37.19 aural message – long landing, long landing
8.37.20 left hand main gear touches down
8.37.23 aircraft airborne/go-around
8.37.28 ATC clearance – straight ahead – climb to 4,000.
8.37.29 flaps from 30deg to 20deg
8.37.31 landing gear lever – UP
8.37.35 thrust levers from idle to full thrust IAS 134
8.37.38 aft fuselage impacts runway – rate of descent 900ft/minute IAS 125
8.38.10 aircraft comes to a rest
8.39.36 two fire tenders commence streaming foam

Approx 8.47 centre wing fuel tank explodes:

“As the ARFFS crew were fighting the fire, an explosion occurred approximately nine minutes after the Aircraft had come to rest.

After fuel tank explodes Commander and Purser evacuate the airplane.” (9 minutes after airplane comes to a stop).

“The Commander and senior cabin crewmember were the last to exit the Aircraft. They stated that they were still searching the cabin for any remaining passengers. When the center fuel tank exploded, causing intense smoke to fill the cabin, they attempted to evacuate from the cockpit emergency windows. However, as the cockpit was filled with smoke, they were unable to locate the evacuation ropes. Consequently, both evacuated by jumping from the L1 door onto the slide laying on the ground.”

There is some alarming detail in Section 1.15.2 and the discussion of the evacuation. Only five exits could be used – and each of those had problems – wind, water, smoke, slide deflation.

It is also unclear how long it took to complete the evacuation from the time that the airliner slid to a halt.

The report really does emphasise what an outstanding job the cabin crew did to get everyone out of the airliner.

Have a read of the GCAA’s report: Runway Impact during attempted go-around

Here is flightglobal on the chaotic evacuation:

“Investigators have detailed the extraordinary evacuation of the crashed Emirates Boeing 777-300 at Dubai, disclosing that cabin crew had to cope with problems at all 10 exits.

The General Civil Aviation Authority has also revealed that passengers were already unbuckling seat-belts and leaving their seats as the aircraft was still sliding along the runway.

Investigators have determined that the 777 came down on its engines and fuselage, with its undercarriage retracted, after failing to climb away during a go-around on 3 August.

The aircraft shed its right-hand engine at it came to a halt, resulting in an intense fuel-fed fire.

While the aircraft had five exits on each side, the evacuation slides for those on the left were badly affected by the wind.

The inquiry also notes that cabin crew assigned to the two forward left-hand doors were initially unable to open them – possibly because the aircraft was listing to the right – and required assistance.

Four of the left-hand doors were ultimately opened – the central door was left shut owing to smoke outside – but their slides were either blown up against the aircraft or, in one case, detached before it could be used.

Passengers could only evacuate from the rearmost left-hand exit before the wind made its slide unusable.

Four of the right-hand exits – on the side facing the fire – were opened. The forward slide was initially wind-blown and subsequently deflated after some occupants had escaped, while the second exit was temporarily barred from use due to smoke.

Passengers evacuating down one of the slides on the aft right-hand doors “became stuck”, says the inquiry, because it filled with water during the firefighting effort. Cabin crew redirected passengers to the rearmost right-hand door slide, which had to be held down by firefighters owing to the wind.

While cabin crew had instructed passengers to leave belongings behind, the inquiry states that “several passengers” evacuated the aircraft carrying their baggage.

The aircraft’s captain and senior flight attendant were the last to leave the aircraft. They were forced to jump from the forward left-hand door – the slide for which had detached – because the aircraft had filled with smoke as a fuel tank exploded, and they could not locate the cockpit evacuation ropes.

Flight EK521 had been transporting 282 passengers, of which 269 had been seated in the economy-class cabin and the other 13 in business-class. None was in the first-class section.

Despite the chaotic situation, all the passengers, as well as the 18 crew members, survived the accident, although a firefighter attending the crash was fatally injured during a wing tank explosion about 9min after the jet had come to rest.”

Meanwhile this one post on PPRUNE says all you need to know about the issues faced by pilots around the world:

“There are some basic skills that you need to master in order to be called a professional pilot, for example, being able to take off and or carry out an RTO within the confines of the runway, also you need to be able to land an aircraft and or carry out simple missed approach.

What is being missed by all of the posts seemingly blaming the unnecessary auto call out for a GA, is simply this; regardless of whether or not the GA was done or not, the basic skill of being able to carry out a bog standard missed approach was for some reason beyond this crew. This is a very basic skill that should be in every pilots toolbox. To put it another way, if the crew had of ignored the call out to do a GA, and instead continued with the landing, the gap in their skill set would not have been exposed this time but would still have existed.

This loss of basic skills seems to be becoming a common theme as more and more crew have not had any experience on anything other than modern late generation airliners. By way of recent examples, AF447, Asiana @ SFO, Air Asia X off Sumatra, and the ATR72 in Taiwan.

There is a very strong emphasis in our company for crew to use automatics in all phases of flight to the maximum extent, and manual flying is actively discouraged. This, I believe is a very flawed approach to both training and normal operations. The net result is, I believe, a very substantial eroding of basic hand flying skills in our company, and it would appear from recent industry accident history, that this insidious global reduction in basic skills is a very extensive problem.

Unfortunately the blame for this accident will be sheeted home to the crew, and the real culprits, the middle management of airlines around the world responsible for running training departments, and setting SOP’s will come out unscathed.”


New on 25 September – David Learmount of Flight Global on Lessons from Dubai

Fate and fortune: the state of Reuters (The Baron)

Darren Schuettler (I believe) with the scoop from the Toronto newsroom – 1994.

Editorial from The Baron – and sad reading for anyone who worked in Reuters during the years of rapid growth after 1984, and who found inspiration in the trust principles of independence, integrity and freedom from bias – principles that went far beyond the editorial operations.

“The pages of The Baron have seen much concern recently about the state of Reuters. The fate of a storied institution worries those who worked there in the past and who remain passionately interested in its fortunes as well as those who still do and so care more urgently about its prosperity.

News from the trenches makes depressing reading.

Fierce cost cutting has undermined news gathering and editing in many areas of both visuals and text journalism. The Olympics team was cut to less than half the size at the previous Games with only a handful of sports specialists – part of an ominous shrinking of a once authoritative Sports Desk; weekend desk strength in London has been slashed; and television staffing has been hit badly. A bizarre scheme to move the London desking hub to a provincial English city with no known links to international financial markets or centres of geo-political news was unveiled. Editorial management claimed it would improve global perspective – an assertion met by derisive laughter tinged with tears. Significant content production has been moved to Bangalore and elsewhere and the introduction of sponsored, i.e. paid, content has caused concern about the keystone Reuters commitment to independence and freedom from bias.

Budget cuts are not new. Year after year of ever reduced editorial budgets pre-date the 2008 take-over of Reuters by the Thomson organisation. But since then, there has been a relentless stream of cuts, with insiders saying this year has seen the most brutal editorial cost saving in memory.

As has been pointed out in these pages, the management of Reuters failed to exploit the huge windfall it received after flotation in 1984, making it desperate for money by 2007 when a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer, by then CEO, negotiated the Thomson takeover. The Reuters trustees appear to have ignored Thomson’s reputation for ruthless cost cutting and closing down newspapers when they rubber stamped the deal, apparently without regard for whether the new owners were the best candidates to preserve the Trust Principles.

Nonetheless, what has happened since is surprising. The hard-headed Thomson family, majority owners of the merged business, appear to have pursued a news strategy likely to reduce revenue rather than add to it.

Bloomberg has steadily increased its market share to 33 per cent at the expense of Thomson Reuters which has fallen to 24 per cent, according to the latest industry survey.

Three years after the take-over, a former Wall Street Journal editor was appointed to run the news agency. In turn, the new editor-in-chief hired many of his old colleagues. This “new guard” hubristically seemed hell bent on making Reuters more like the WSJ rather than more likely to make money through selling terminals. The new editors introduced a major emphasis on long-form, magazine-style articles that could take months to create, without providing commensurate additional resources to produce them. The strategy seemed transparently aimed at winning prizes, especially the Pulitzer, and increasing Thomson’s prestige in Washington. But it meant hard-pressed, understaffed bureaux were expected to tie down staff on these projects while still competing with Bloomberg on breaking news – the sine qua non of selling terminals.

After howls of anguish by the sales force, there has been some retreat from this strategy. Yet it still exists, causing frustration and loss of morale among ever more stretched journalists facing constant cost cutting and unable to serve two masters at once. While there has been some outstanding and revelatory investigative journalism, much of the time-consuming long-form output has been judged by old hands to be mediocre, digging into news events in great detail long after interest has moved on. The practice has made an institution out of the dropped lead.

Equal frustration was caused by the hiring of big money columnists who blurred the line between facts and opinion at a time when front-line staff devoted to breaking news were being cut back in regions of traditional strength like the Middle East. Reuters’ historic supremacy there is now under threat.

The changes also weakened Reuters’ central culture of delivering reliable news across the board faster than its competitors. So-called Top News desks have been created in the main editing centres where it is deemed acceptable to take several hours, or in some cases days, to “perfect” updates or sidebars on major news events. These units, dubbed “Stop News” by frustrated correspondents in the Americas, have the right to cherry pick each day’s stories, even if more experienced and qualified colleagues are available on the rump editing desks. This has demoralised both correspondents in the field and sub-editors reduced to handling crumbs from the Top News table, some of whose staff are considered by their peers to be less than elite. A cumbersome and morale-sapping system for pitching stand-back stories in detail before they can be written has introduced more delay, while feuding among senior editorial staff in London has further confused journalists.

Traditional media is in difficulty across the globe and cost cutting is by no means confined to Reuters.

Reuters’ excellence still exists, as top coverage of several recent world stories demonstrates. But what frustrates many talented journalists is how shrinking resources are spread thinner by being divided among different tasks and different masters. Pulitzers may look good and are a justifiable source of pride, but they don’t sell terminals and do not pay the wages.

The fear of some of those who value Reuters, its global reach and its extraordinary reputation for accurate, fast and unbiased news, is that the Thomson organisation will dump the agency once it has got what it wants in terms of influence and prestige and seeks once again to maximise its profits.

If that happens and a new buyer cannot be found, those who allowed it to happen will bear a heavy responsibility for destroying a much respected 165-year-old institution through hubris and mistaken strategy.”

More: J’Accuse: Thomson cuts imperil Reuter news



It’s life Jim – maybe not as we know it

One day long from now a person from earth will meet a life form from another planet. It will happen. Not in my lifetime. and when it does – we can only hope to goodness that curiosity matters more than hostility.

A new phase in the search for life elsewhere is about to begin
The Economist 24 August 2016

“We’ve been wondering what planet we’re first going to look for life on. Now we know.” Rory Barnes, of the University of Washington, puts it nicely. Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the sun, has a planet. That planet weighs more or less the same as Earth and is therefore presumably rocky. And it orbits within its parent star’s habitable zone—meaning that its surface temperature is likely to be between 0°C and 100°C, the freezing and boiling points of water at sea level on Earth.

A prize discovery, then, for astrobiologists such as Dr Barnes. And the discoverers are a transnational team of astronomers who have been using telescopes at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the Atacama desert, in Chile, for planet-hunting. Though they have not seen the new planet directly (they have inferred its existence from its effect on its parent star’s light), their paper in Nature describes what they have been able to deduce about it.

Proxima Centauri b, as it is known, probably weighs between 1.3 and three times as much as Earth and orbits its parent star once every 11 days. This puts its distance from Proxima Centauri itself at 7m kilometres, which is less than a twentieth of the distance between Earth and the sun. But because Proxima is a red dwarf, and thus much cooler than the sun, the newly discovered planet will experience a similar temperature to Earth’s. It is not the only Earth-sized extrasolar planet known to orbit in a star’s habitable zone. There are about a dozen others. But it is the closest to Earth—so close, at four light-years, that it is merely outrageous, not utterly absurd, to believe a spaceship (admittedly a tiny one) might actually be sent to visit it. Before this happens, though, it will be subjected to intense scrutiny from Earth itself.

That scrutiny will probably be led by ESO. The data which led to Proxima Centauri b’s discovery came from the observatory’s 3.6 metre telescope at La Silla, in Chile. But ESO is also building a much bigger device, the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), at another site in Chile. Since the late 2000s Markus Kasper has led a team at ESO which is designing a specialised planet-spotting instrument, the Exoplanet Imaging Camera and Spectrograph (EPICS), to fit on this telescope. Dr Kasper’s camera has a price tag of €50m, and there have always been questions in the past about whether it is worth the money. But EPICS stands a better chance of producing actual pictures of Proxima Centauri b than any other camera in the world (or off it). Its future can now scarcely be in doubt.

The problem for astronomers trying to catch a glimpse of Proxima Centauri b is that, though close to the Earth by interstellar standards, it is even closer to its parent star by more or less every other standard short of that of walking down the road to the chemist. Seen from Earth, star and planet are 35 thousandths of an arc second apart (an arc second is a 3,600th of a degree). Producing a picture that separates the two objects thus requires a telescope with a resolution good enough to distinguish between the left and right headlights of an oncoming car in Denver from the distance of Berlin.

Things get worse. Dim as it is, Proxima Centauri (pictured above, as seen by the Hubble space telescope) is still more than 10m times brighter than its planet is expected to be. It is as though one of those headlights in Denver was actually the open door to a furnace, while the other was a tea light. This is what makes the E-ELT and EPICS crucial. EPICS contains a coronagraph—a tiny shield that blocks out a star’s light so that adjacent planets can be seen. Unfortunately, a coronagraph reduces a telescope’s resolution, meaning you need an even bigger one to see the target in the first place. To observe Proxima Centauri b using a coronagraph, and looking in the infrared wavelengths that are likely to provide the best information about its atmosphere, you need a telescope at least 20 metres across; 30 metres would be better.

Two other large telescopes besides E-ELT, of 27 metres and 30 metres diameter, are under construction and planned. But some suggest the first of these, the Giant Magellan Telescope, also in Chile, is not well suited to the use of a coronagraph, and the second, the Thirty Metre Telescope, is planned at the moment for Hawaii, which is in the northern hemisphere. Proxima Centauri is in the southern skies, and therefore not so easy to study from north of the equator.

There may, just possibly, be a short cut. Though Proxima Centauri b was discovered by the radial-velocity technique, there is about a 1.5% chance that it might also be detectable by the transit technique. This would require Earth to sit in the same plane as the planet and its star, so that, seen from Earth, it crosses the face of its parent and thus slightly dims it. Various southern-hemisphere telescopes are already looking for the 0.5% dimmings of Proxima Centauri’s brightness which would be observed if Proxima Centauri b were transiting. If it is, then it will be possible to study its spectrum by subtracting the star’s spectrum when the planet is hidden behind it from the spectrum measured during a transit. That would reveal the chemical composition of its atmosphere, if it has one—which might, in turn, give a clue as to whether it harbours life.

Life on Earth leaves a sign of its existence in the atmosphere, in the form of oxygen. This is produced by plants and it is such a reactive chemical that if their photosynthesis stopped it would disappear rapidly from the air. Free oxygen in Proxima Centauri b’s atmosphere would therefore get a lot of people excited—but possibly without justification, for there are ways (such as the dissociation of water by ultraviolet light) to put oxygen into atmospheres abiotically. A stronger indicator of life would be finding both oxygen and molecules associated with biology that cannot long persist in its presence, and must thus be produced continuously.

On Earth nitrous oxide and methane fit this bill, though these molecules are present in amounts much too low to be seen light-years away. But David Catling, a colleague of Dr Barnes at the University of Washington, points out that there are models of planetary atmospheres which allow methane to build up quite a lot on a planet like Proxima Centauri b. If spectra showed methane and oxygen together, the likelihood of life on Proxima Centauri b would rise dramatically.

Another way to look for life on Proxima Centauri b would be to search for radio signals. Life in general does not generate radiation at radio frequencies. But intelligent life does—at least it does on Earth. And that Earth-bound life also puts a tiny bit of effort into looking for such emissions from elsewhere, an endeavour known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. There have been SETI studies of Proxima Centauri in past decades, but they have not been particularly sensitive. If the inhabitants of Proxima Centauri b were beaming powerful transmissions at Earth all day and night they would have been heard; if they were merely using radio for their own ends, in the way that broadcasters and radar systems do on Earth, they would not.

Now, though, a big new SETI project bankrolled by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire with a taste for things interstellar, is collaborating with the Parkes radio telescope in Australia and the Meerkat radio array in South Africa. According to Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley, who works on Mr Milner’s programme, Proxima Centauri will now be getting a lot more attention.

That there is intelligent life in the nearest planetary system to Earth’s is surely the longest of shots. And despite its nice-sounding location in the “habitable zone”, the existence of life itself on Proxima Centauri b is far from a foregone conclusion. For one thing, there are doubts about how easy it is for planets around red dwarfs to develop and retain atmospheres. Though such stars are cool for most of their lives, in their earliest stages they burn bright. A planet close enough to one to stay warm in later life might have seen its atmosphere burned off in the star’s brief blazing youth. Even if it avoids this problem, it will still be whipped persistently by the star’s magnetic field and lashed by its flares. Though they are dim, red dwarfs are given to all sorts of eruptive activity and pump out X-rays at a prodigious rate. These are both things which might make an atmosphere hard to hold on to and life itself a bit tricky.

Such doubts will not stop people looking. Indeed, the discovery of Proxima Centauri b may accelerate plans to construct space telescopes designed especially to look directly at exoplanets by employing what is known as a starshade, instead of a coronograph, to block the light from parent stars. A starshade is a second spacecraft, flown in formation with the telescope, that eclipses the parent while leaving the planet visible. Sara Seager, a planet hunter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a fan. She wants all future space telescopes to be designed with the use of starshades in mind.

The most radical form of follow-up, though, is an idea for interstellar flight that Mr Milner is working on in parallel with his SETI project. Light beams exert pressure. A powerful laser focused on a low-mass spacecraft could in principle accelerate it to a significant fraction of the speed of light. This would be awesomely difficult in practice. It would require hundreds of thousand of lasers yoked together to make a single coherent beam of 100 gigawatts or so. That is about the maximum electrical-power consumption of France. It would also require a spacecraft weighing just a few grams that could sit at the beam’s pinnacle without getting fried; a way of coping with high-speed collisions with dust particles that the craft would inevitably encounter en route; and a method of getting data back to Earth once the probe reached its destination. But it might not be impossible. Over the next six years Mr Milner’s “Starshot” programme plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to test the idea. If encouraged by the results, he may try to build a test rig in which a laser zaps a tiny object to the highest speed ever achieved outside a particle accelerator.

Meanwhile, Dr Kasper will get on with his camera for the E-ELT. Others will look for evidence of other nearby planets—including around Proxima’s bigger, more sunlike companions, Alpha Centauri A and B. The discovery of Proxima Centauri b is a huge step forward in the search for life elsewhere. But the journey is nowhere near over yet.

A mall too far?


Dubai Holding (aka Dubai Properties) is a company that is easy to dislike. They were the developer of Executive Towers. You can read more about that fiasco here: Executive Towers – the reality.

But their PR department is in full flight as they try to make sense of the decision to relocate Mall of the World to a site on Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Road.

The Mall of the World (silly name by the way) was first announced in mid-2014 as the world’s biggest shopping mall.

The mall would have been a centrepiece in the new Mohammed bin Rashid City.

Now the project will be located somewhere (no one has said where) at a new location on Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Road.

The original Mall of the World project encompasses 8 million square feet (745,000 square metre) of shopping space connected to a theme park, 100 hotels and serviced apartment buildings with 20,000 rooms. It is not clear whether the project will be downsized.

It will be.

Dubai Properties says that the first phase will be just one quarter of the orginal project’s size> It is scheduled be completed before Dubai hosts the Expo 2020 exhibition.

Plans for the remainder “will be dependent on market dynamics.”

In a statement, Dubai Holding said that the decision to move the site was taken so that it can be based in an area where its “positive tourism contribution can be fully realised”.

It is hardly a vote of confidence in Mohammed bin Rashid City.

Dubai Holding did not say where on Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road the site is being relocated to, nor did it give any indication on when work is likely to start.

Meanwhile on the East side of Mohammed bin Rashid City Nakheel Properties has announced that it will be building a 1.2 million square feet of shopping, dining and entertainment outlets at Nad Al Sheba. The mall will have approximately 200 shops, restaurants and entertainment outlets including a supermarket, department stores, multi-screen cinema, medical and fitness centres.

So many malls.

Flying into frustration

I have just finished two weeks in Bedford, Massachusetts, that was supposed to be the next stage of my flying adventures.

Despite my advance planning and requests to the flying school I logged just one hour of flying in the first week and just four in total. I am feeling more than a little frustrated.

With Alex about to start his second year at Olin College we thought we would spend two weeks flying from KBED; Hanscom Airfield, in Bedford, Massachusetts.

KBED, although only Class D, is the second busiest airfield in New England based upon aircraft movements. Only about 15 miles west of Boston, there is plenty of corporate traffic as well as flight training.

We both signed up with Executive Flyers;

Why these guys? Their emails to us were efficient and for Alex they have a Piper Seneca twin.

So I flew from Dubai to Frankfurt on Friday 12 August and onwards on a Lufthansa 747-800 from to Boston on Saturday 13 August.

Alex and I were staying out in Burlington – five miles or so from the airfield.

We visited the airport on Saturday evening. To say hello, collect the local ifr and vfr maps and an airports/facilities directory. But we also found that no flight lessons had been scheduled. The issue appears to be a lack of instructors; and plenty of student demand.

Sunday we drove out to Rockport for lunch, a self-consciously pretty down on the coast northeast of Boston.

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It was Tuesday before I flew for just one hour and Wednesday before Alex had his first flight.

My flight was not scheduled in a 172 with a Garmin 1000 glass cockpit but in a round gauge traditional cockpit. Not exactly what I had not asked for. And it almost feels like starting all over again. I have about one hour in a 172 round gauge. I only have about 6 hours in a 172. But at least from my Skycatcher I am more familiar with using and scanning the screens in a glass cockpit.

My instructor was Ralph Mangianello. Nice guy. A builder by trade who flight instructs three days a week. He is fairly new as a CFII.

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In misty and overcast weather we checked the airplane and flew for an hour. Leaving from and returning to Runway 11. As class Delta the procedures are a little different from Sarasota. No need to ask for a vfr clearance; just announce that you are ready to taxi. No squawk code assigned. Taxi, run-up. Tell tower that you are holding short and ready to depart and where you want to go. And leave. No calling big airport approach or departures as long as you do not bust their airspace. So we can just fly with a vfr squawk of 1200.

It was a murky day – close to marginal vfr. So we just flea out to their west practice area and got used to flying again. That and spotting a few local landmarks for future reference.

Back to KBED for a Runway 11 arrival after a very long straight in approach.

And that was it until Monday 22nd when I had a second flight with Ralph in much better weather. So we did the basics of VFR PPL practice – power on and power off stalls, emergency procedures, slow flight and a touch and go and second landing at KBED on runway 29 with a very sporty wind gusting to 222 knots.

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One more flight – this time with Rob Dumovic; the chief pilot at Executive Flyers. Rob is a top notch instructor, aerobatic pilot and know how planes fly; he understands the systems; the dynamics; the sound and the feel.

Alarmingly he left me feeling like I have not learned anything. We flew four short sectors with a touch and go at each of the intermediate stops – Beverley, Lawrence and Nashua before returning to Bedford. All the airports are towered to lots of radio work – and setting up in the pattern to approach and land. But Rob is much more rigorous than Ralph.

I learned a lot – but that is in part because I felt I knew nothing.

This evening I am wondering whether it is really worth the cost and effort of continuing to fly.

I came here thinking that I could fly every day – maybe twice a day – get current; get signed off to rent the flying school’s C172s and make a decent start on my instrument rating.

I have only done the first. I am current. But just three instructor flights in my two weeks here is really disappointing. All I have learned is how much I either do not know, have forgotten, or am unable to effectively execute.

My total instructor hours in two weeks here – just 4.1hrs.

One last note from yesterday’s flight with Rob. We were coming back into Bedford and Rob was selling me on the view – so I gave him the controls and took a couple of pictures.

He then asks if I would mind if he flies the landing – you have already flown three landings and I don’t often get to fly one he says. I did not think much but said sure – and it was good to watch how a good pilot flies a short approach and a crosswind landing…left wheel, right wheel, nose wheel. It was that good that I could almost hear him purr!

Did I learn from watching him land? Yes. But it was my lesson. And it was also the last lesson that I have scheduled with Executive Flyers and my last landing. I guess I did fly decent landings at Lawrence and Nashua. But thinking about it afterwards the last landing back at KBED really should have been mine.

Thinking about the three flights some more the first two were basically a waste of time. Ralph is a nice guy. But he was far to easy going on someone who had not flown for five months. All he really confirmed was that I was safe and that I could fly the basics. His reassurances that I was making his life easy made me complacent.

Flying with Rob was actually harder than my private checkride. I felt under pressure; his questions added to my frustration.

Had I flown with Rob from the outset the few lessons might have gone very differently.

So onto Thursday and Alex, who has had a good week, and I had N224TA to ourselves from 10am until 3pm.

Now I am not checked out to rent on my own so we can fly together but with Alex as PIC. Honestly, this is a bit dispiriting. Yes, he has been flying a year longer than me; and all his experience is with round gauge airplanes. But sitting in the right seat feels strange. And I cannot do much other than monitor the radio and work with Alex through the checklists. And watch and learn.

That said, he is an excellent and sensible pilot; he understands the physics of flying; his radio work is good. His short approach and landing when we returned to KBED were first class.

So we flew from KBED to New Bedford, KEWB, and onto Martha’s Vineyard, KMVY. Then back to KBED.

Lunch was at the Airport Grille in the terminal at New Bedford. Excellent aviation-themed restaurant with good, reasonably priced food, and nice people.

KEWB is Class D; but quiet. ATC were welcoming and helpful, advising us to park by the playground!

KMVY is much busier Class D. It is where the Obamas have their summer holiday. They were there last week. We just stopped for twenty minutes for a quick hello and coffee.

Martha’s Vineyard
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New Bedford



Holding short of 23 at Hanscom Field

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Captain Alex – he is a very capable pilot.

Pilatus country at Marthas Vineyard

Lunch at New Bedford


New airfields on this trip:

Hanscom Field – Bedford. KBED
New Bedford Municipal KEWB
Marthas Vineyard KMVY
Beverly Municipal KBVY
Lawrence Municipal KLWM
Nashua Boire Field KASH




Multiple bombings across Thailand’s southern tourism centres

A series of bombings struck Thailand at a variety of locations, including sites popular with tourists, on Thursday night and Friday morning, in what a senior Thai official called a coordinated wave of attacks.

Two bombs went off at the Hua Hin resort in Thailand late Thursday evening, killing one woman and wounding at least 19 people, a local official said.

On Friday morning, more explosions struck in Hua Hin, as well as at the Patong beach at a popular resort island, Phuket, where several people were reported to have been wounded.

At roughly the same time as the Phuket explosions, two explosions were reported near a police station in the province of Surat Thani. Initial reports said one person had been killed there and several wounded.

There was also a bomb in Trang on Thursday.

Totals so far are four dead in nine separate attacks in five provinces. Dozens have been wounded.

Inevitably there are concerns of additional bombs and Hua Hin is effectively on lockdown for the day – which is a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday in Thailand.

Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy prime minister in Thailand’s military-run government, said Friday that the attacks were “absolutely conducted by the same network. I believe so. But the investigation is unclear on who actually did it, what are the reasons behind it.’’

Bombings are not uncommon in Thailand’s deep south, where an insurgency has raged, but they are rare in areas frequented by tourists, like Hua Hin and Phuket.

The explosions Thursday night in Hua Hin, which occurred about a half-hour apart, were in an area of bars and nightclubs popular with foreign tourists.

At least nine foreigners were wounded in the second explosion, which went off at a crowded intersection, according to Suthipong Klai-udom, a Hua Hin district official.

Mr. Suthipong said that Germans, Swiss and Italians were among the wounded foreigners, and that the woman who died was a Thai street vendor whose cart was near one of the explosions.

He said the bombs had been hidden in plant pots and detonated by cellphone.


The referendum has made their coup permanent

From the Economist (other than adding a note about the source of statement from the PM’s office and also the statement from the EU.)

The people have spoken, albeit in a muted and contrived fashion. In a closely-controlled constitutional referendum held in Thailand on August 7th, 61% of voters endorsed a charter promoted by the army (which has held power since a coup in 2014). Turnout was low, at 55%. The constitution will keep the armed forces in power long into the future.

The results stunned pro-democracy campaigners, who had believed that the charter (Thailand’s most regressive yet, drawn up without public participation) would face fierce opposition in the polls. But the main political parties, who had recommended rejecting the constitution, have accepted the result.

The charter introduces new electoral rules designed to produce weak coalition governments, which will be chaperoned by “independent” commissions (stacked with the junta’s allies) who are to monitor politicians’ policies and moral conduct. The army will fully select the senate; assuming its support, the generals will need to persuade only a quarter of legislators in the lower house to back their choice of prime minister, who need not be an MP. The hurdles to amending the constitution are prohibitive.

The junta celebrated pompously. It released a statement (see above) calling the vote a “pinnacle” reached through many years of “great toil”, and expressing contempt for foreigners (such as America, the UN and the European Union) who had criticised the process.

AFP  noted that the statement came from the Thai PM’s spokesman on a Line group for journalists.

The generals had banned campaigners from opposing the charter, and in the run-up to polling day deployed 700,000 people, including bureaucrats and soldiers, to help “explain” it to voters.

Only one-third of all eligible voters, or 15m people, voted “Yes”—not an astounding figure, given the resources the junta had poured into ensuring the right result. But the proportion of the vote in favour was larger than the 57% who backed the previous constitution—itself introduced by the armed forces after a coup in 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms tycoon turned prime minister who now lives in self-imposed exile.

Voters in Isaan, a rural province which remains full of Mr Thaksin’s fans, turned down the charter, but only narrowly (51.4% v 48.6%). A firmer rejection came from the three Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand’s far south, where separatists have waged a long-running guerrilla war.

Winning the referendum brings the generals a step closer to their goal of eradicating the lingering influence of Mr Thaksin, whose parties have won every election since 2001 but will be disadvantaged under the new rules. The constitution locks out politicians while restoring a dusty “bureaucratic polity” in which the army provides stability, the monarchy legitimacy, and bureaucrats keep things running. This will not be good for the economy, which already looks sluggish compared to its neighbours. The IMF reckons that Thailand’s potential growth has slowed from 5% in the mid-2000s to 3% over the past five years.

Many “Yes” voters may have calculated that even a heavily-handicapped democracy is better than more years of straightforward military rule. But a good number genuinely favour a revival of patriarchal governance, convinced that popular politics is endemically corrupt. Under Thailand’s new constitution, only “decent” people who are ostensibly outside politics will be left in position to provide moral leadership.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who serves as Thailand’s prime minister, has said that elections will be held in late 2017. That seems possible but unlikely. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the throne since 1946, is very ill. His death would give the generals an excuse to push back the timetable for elections, if they so wish.

Thais, foreigners and investors no longer need fear the churning of Thailand’s vicious cycle of elections, protests and coups—at least for a little while. The new system keeps the generals firmly in charge, and will allow them to remove governments without the hassle of mobilising tanks. The referendum has made their coup permanent. But it has not solved any of the deep social divisions which make Thailand’s politics so combustible.

Separately and earlier today the EU issued a “Statement by the Spokesperson on the constitutional referendum in Thailand”

On 7 August, the Election Commission reported that, in a national referendum, a large majority of the people of Thailand have voted in favour of the proposed constitution. During the campaign period, however, there were serious limitations to fundamental freedoms, including restrictions on debate and campaigning.

It is essential that the current restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are lifted to allow for an open, inclusive and accountable political process. The EU continues to call upon the Thai authorities to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition leading to early general elections. All main stakeholders in Thailand need to engage in an inclusive dialogue and work together peacefully towards this aim.