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From Every Peril in the Air

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

“O Wind of heaven, by Thy might, save all who dare the eagle’s flight and keep them in Thy watchful care from every peril in the air.”

So ends the Robert Nelson Spencer line in that old hymn, “Almighty Father, Strong to Save.” It was written in 1937 and became an unofficial prayer for the Army Air Corps in World War II. The dangers of those flights can scarcely be imagined today with the modern technology of aircraft.

But that can be of little comfort to those who await word of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Nor can they find solace in the safety of commercial aviation.

There have been many years when there was not a single fatality in a scheduled flight in the United States. If the airlines operated with a 99.999 % safety record, there would be over 2000 deaths a day from world-wide air crashes, given the more than three-quarters of a billion air travelers in 2012. Compare that 34,080 highway deaths, just in this country, in the same year.

No wonder statistics prove that the automobile trip to the airport is by far the most dangerous part of air travel. That being said, who among us does not have a thought, at least fleeting, on takeoff or landing that something unspeakably awful could happen?

There is more electronic technology aboard the commercial passenger jet than was on the first Apollo missions. If one has curiosity about that check out the website “Flight Aware.” You can track the exact data from the flight deck of any scheduled domestic flight from the time of pushback to touchdown.

From rate of climb/descent, airspeed, GPS positioning, air traffic control monitoring, and flight pattern superimposed on the map, it’s all on your home computer. It’s free and lets me know when the plane from Chicago has started its glide path to Roanoke from 35,000 feet over Charleston, WV and it’s time to get the “Welcome Home” balloon and head for airport.

Airline captains have told me that except for a minor flight correction on entering the final approach, the controls need not be touched until touchdown. So sophisticated are the avionics, that the aircraft can be directed to the Jetway even when the fog is so dense runway lights cannot be seen until seconds before touchdown. An extremely senior USAir captain gave me more information about this than I really wanted to know – but that knowledge does lessen the intensity of my white knuckles.

But when something does happen, all those comforting thoughts vanish. Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, TWA 800 off Long Island in 1996, EgyptAir 990 in 1999 are all the grimmest of reminders that planes can fall from the air without warning.

But in each of these cases the reason was found, as was the case of the Air France disaster in 2009. The latter was the most amazing reconstruction of all because of the 10,000 feet of water in which the wreckage was located. A former NSTB spokesman said Sunday of the MH370 disappearance, “It is unlikely . . . in the extreme . . . that the cause will not be discovered.”

There are several points that are important, the most obvious being that the Boeing 777 has been in operation for 19 years without a fatality until the recent San Francisco sea wall incident with three fatalities, at least one of which was unrelated to the crash itself. How many millions of passenger miles in a 777 without a problem are beyond calculation. It is an airworthy ship, indeed.

Second, speculation can run rampant in circumstances such as this; premature conclusions are never helpful. The truth will come out.

Third, air travel is unbelievably safe and we should remember that when a rare disaster strikes.

Finally, none of this matters to the thousands of people connected to the 239 souls on board that plane. Each will have to deal with what probably will be life-changing grief in their own way. One can hope that they will find some peace from the wrenching loss they seem to be facing.

– Hayden Hollingsworth

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