Flight fancy

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Jul 09, 2002 12:00 AM
The airplane certainly tried hard to hog the news for a day or two, and on the blessed Fourth of July did so for almost four hours running. The television channels bore down on LAX, as traditionalists call it, the center of air travel in Los Angeles.

It looked, however briefly, as if this was the highly anticipated July Fourth strike by the enemy. But if so, the enemy is in short pants these days. The sum total of the aggressor's weaponry was one knife and two handguns. He managed to kill two and wound three. Two Israeli security officials took him on, one bodily, the second with a lethal shot. That was exemplary work by Israeli security, but the episode was unconvincing if it was supposed to be al-Qaida theater. The four-hour paralysis of the airport pointed rather to the generic anxieties of air travel rather than to signs of life by children of 9/ll.

It was a lively day in air travel. Just 20 miles from LAX, a pilot crash-landed his twin-engine Cessna into a holiday crowd, killing four and injuring 12. No explanation for the accident was immediately given, but we know that the pilot expressed difficulties shortly after takeoff.

In another part of the world, a Boeing 707 crashed. This was in the Central African Republic, perhaps the poorest nation in all of Africa, even running out of sufficient money, a few years ago, to continue buying jewels for its Emperor Bokassa. The Boeing airliner was not the property of the republic. It was coming in from the Congo Republic, where it was operated by a company called Prestige Airlines. The airliner was carrying 22 passengers and a load of onions and garlic. These were retrieved by villagers, but the passengers and pilot were all dead.

But of course the truly arresting air story of the week was that of the collision at 35,000 feet of a Boeing 757 and a Tupolev Tu-154, killing everybody on board, including 52 Russian schoolchildren, off for a vacation in Barcelona and loaded onto this Tupolev plane only because the bus driver missed the scheduled flight.

But that missed flight was only the first of the ironies of the day. As the Russian plane got into Central Europe, air-control authority passed to the Swiss, and just then, one of the two controllers in Zurich who would ordinarily have surveilled the air traffic was in fact "taking a break," from which the reader assumes that he had gone to the men's room. Not only was he absent, but one of the two units that record flight traffic also was unconnected, submitting to spring cleaning of some kind.

Now add to that the strange performance, or non-performance, of the collision alarm units on the two big planes as they approached each other. Early-bird German investigators report that the Boeing's collision-warner had "barked out" instructions a mere l4 seconds before the midair crash, to descend from present course.

If, on a collision course, Plane A is supposed to nose down, is Plane B then supposed to nose up? Or is it like oceangoing vessels, where collision procedures call on both parties to turn sharply to the right? Granted, boats don't have the resources to nose up into the air, or nose down into the sea, except for the submariners. What will come of an investigation of Swiss-German-Russian confusion? Surviving instruments may help to explain the mystery, nothing useful being there to be had from the 71 corpses slowly being identified.

And then, rounding up the air news, we learn that two pilots were yanked from the cockpit of an America West airliner, charged with being drunk. The good news is that they were not only drunk, but drunk and disorderly enough to arouse the suspicions of the Miami airport personnel, who arrested the flight, as also its pilots.

Whew!

One thinks of the tens of thousands of people every hour of every day watching out for security in the air by subversives. That security apparatus succeeded in stopping further damage by one wild gunman, shooting off his handgun 15 feet from the El Al air counter in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, one-half of the relevant air security manning the control tower in Zurich -- a single person -- left his post, contributing to two airliners crashing into each other at a closure speed of l,000 miles per hour seven miles up from the Italian Lake Constance. How many more people, mandated to investigate the airworthiness of the Cessna in Los Angeles, or the Boeing in the Congo, were needed to prevent those two crashes? Might the pilot of the Prestige flight have been drunk? Perhaps heady with exhilaration from his remove from the vigilance of Miami air controllers?

The air-minded people of the world have a lot to worry about besides lost luggage. But there is no apprehension quite like wondering, when cruising in fog high up in space, whether another plane, serenely unconcerned, is heading right at you. But the statistics are reassuring. Aren't they? Still, there's a certain bite in air travel.