Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Navel-gazing" is Too Strong a Word for this Post

I got home from work on Thursday night to the news that Continental Connection Flight 3407, heading from Newark to Buffalo, crashed just before landing into a house in Clarence Center, about six miles from Buffalo’s airport. Husband had CNN on the television and it was covering the crash.

CNN was describing the plane that had crashed as "a commuter plane". I said to Husband - who is my go-to guy on all things aviation - "A commuter plane. That'd be like a Dash-8, right?"

"It was a Dash-8," he said.

I did a double-take. "What?" I said.

"It was a Dash-8," he said.

Everybody in the Maritimes flies on Dash-8s all the time. They essentially are the interprovincial fleet. They're the connector planes from here to flights out of Halifax or Montreal or Toronto. Everybody complains about them. They're small, cramped, and noisy. And everybody takes comfort in the fact that they're one of the safest airplanes in the sky.

When I started flying for work, I hated the Dash-8. It was so loud, and so bumpy, and so little. And propellers? Please! It was terrifying. Give me a nice, big, wide jet.

Then during a conversation about 20 years ago with a friend who was a pilot, my mind was changed. We were talking about planes and flying, and I was saying how much I hated flying on Dash-8s; and he told me that if he was ever to find himself in a situation where he lost all power, the plane he'd most like to be flying was a Dash-8. I don't remember his exact words, but it went something like, "A jumbo jet can drop out of the sky like a rock. A Dash-8 you could coast, and coast, and look for a place to try to land it."

Ok, I know, I know. That's a huge generalization that ignores the thousands of permutations of any given air emergency. But I got his drift, and the drift - that the Dash-8 is a very safe plane - has been reinforced by the opinions of many other people and sources familiar with aviation that I've encountered since.

Patrick Smith, who writes's "Ask the Pilot" column, wrote in an article about the crash:

Before we get to if and how icing can bring down a plane, I'd like to begin by dismissing the idea, now making the rounds in some media circles, that the airplane itself, a Bombardier DHC-8-400, was somehow old-fashioned or unsafe because it happened to be powered by propellers. The Canadian-built DHC-8 is known to pilots as the Dash-8, and the -400 is the newest and most advanced variant, nicknamed the Q400. The Q stands for "quiet"; the plane's state-of-the-art turboprop engines and high-tech soundproofing are engineered to produce jetlike comfort in the passenger cabin. Something about propellers implies quaint, but remember that a turboprop engine is really no different from a jet engine. For all intents and purposes, it is a jet engine, except that the compressors and turbines are geared to a propeller instead of a cowled turbofan.

Turboprops are highly fuel efficient at low altitudes, and are therefore preferable to pure jets on a lot of short-haul routes. But there is nothing quaint or unsafe about them. Upfront, the cockpit of a Q400 has all the bells and whistles you'd find on an Airbus or Boeing. (For what it's worth, I have a few hundred hours as captain in an older model Dash-8, and the type is among my all-time favorite planes to fly.)

Even though the Dash-8 had some problems and some bad PR in 2007, my faith in the plane wasn't shaken, and when I took one on the leg of a recent trip to Regina, I still reminded myself that this plane had never had a fatal crash.

Right now, I'm planning a trip back to Newfoundland to see my parents. They've had some health problems recently. And there's little to no doubt that I'll be flying on one, if not two, Dash-8s on that trip.

And, frankly, I'm worried about snow, and icing. But I still trust the plane.

To quote Patrick Smith once more:

We'll eventually learn what happened, once the black boxes have revealed their sad secrets. The official findings are liable to point to not a single cause but rather a combination of causes -- a chain of unlikely events, survivable by themselves but deadly in combination.

Of course, the important thing here is that fifty - fifty - families have been ripped apart by this particular tragedy.

Everything else, really, is navel-gazing.


(PS Thanks to Brian Fies, whose inaccurately-titled post was the inspiration for the title of this post.)


Blogger Mike said...

The rule in my family is that, if it made the news, that means it was unusual. When they stop reporting plane crashes, that's when I'll stop flying.

7:26 a.m.  
Blogger Brian Fies said...

Ah, bless you, you brought me traffic...

The same plane flies out of our little regional airport to L.A. and Seattle. I've enjoyed the ride and, in general, find propellers very reassuring. I understand how they work, and figure if they were good enough for the Wrights then they're OK by me.

I also never mind flying in the same model of plane as one that recently crashed, because the first thing they do is inspect all the others, which to my way of thinking makes them extra safe.

1:02 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Very sensible & astute comments, both of you.

(I additionally succumb to The Gambler's Fallacy about such things, except in reverse - I figure if there's been a crash recently, that's all the "bad luck" for air travel for awhile and it's safe to fly again.)

8:26 p.m.  
Anonymous M.E. said...

i love propeller aircraft, and i've flown in them from someplace in ohio (*cough*..the ugly american doesn't even know AMERICAN geograpy) to grand rapids, michigan, often. in fact, when i hear those engines going, i think of john wayne piloting similar planes in those old WWII era movies and feel so secure that i fall right asleep. i don't know what happened in the recent crash--i've read all kinds of things, like the plane was on autopilot when it crashed--but i haven't seen anything definitive. however, the papers here have been full of praise for the canadian aircraft involved. i'd fly in them again anytime.

8:09 p.m.  

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