Boeing reveals it disconnected crucial Sensor failure alarm on MAX8

Boeing is bracing for another bit of bad news after it was revealed that Southwest Airlines first learned about the crash of a Lion Air MAX 8 that a special alert warning of malfunctioning sensors was no longer a standard feature on the latest 737s.S

According to Federal Aviation Administration officials, they were not aware of this change either.

Boeing 737 MAX8 aircraft have two “Angle-of-Attack” or AOA sensors on the left and right of the plane’s nose. Initial reports on the two MAX8 crashes indicate that in both the right sensor appeared to have been mis-reading the flow of air by up to 60 percent.

Boeing said initially that airlines would have to pay more for the sensor alarm, but what it did not say was that the sensor-failure alarm had been disconnected entirely. But there’s more folks.

Both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing’s that crashed killing 346 people did not have the alarm failure system which is known as AOA disagree alerts. The big problem is that Boeing and the FAA certified a plane that had no redundant fail-safe.

That is like reading about aviation in 1956. Just after the war, when men were men and pilots were gods of the air, afraid of nothing.

Passengers are much more discerning these days than the early pax – they now have social media to keep them abreast of the latest machine faux pax.

That hasn’t stopped Boeing from acting like it is the middle of 20th Century when it comes to crisis management. What is making things worse for Boeing is the publication of its Emergency Airworthiness Directive in November 2018 after the Lion Air Crash that for some reason, was not escalated properly through the industry.

All Boeing MAX jets, both the 8 and 9, are grounded pending a software fix followed by pilot retraining. Or maybe no pilot retraining, because already Boeing has mobilised its useful twit brigade of aviation bravados to suggest possibly that this is not required.

Yes, dear reader, even in 2019 a large international company based in the U.S.A. is trying to convince reasonable people that there’s no danger in cutting another corner.

Boeing has not indicated why it made the decision to remove the sensor failure alarm. However, the manufacturer was aware of error reading problems.

IN November 2018 it released an airworthiness directive indicating that:

“This emergency AD was prompted by analysis performed by the manufacturer showing that if an erroneously high single angle of attack (AOA) sensor input is received by the flight control system, there is a potential for repeated nose-down trim commands of the horizontal stabilizer. This condition, if not addressed, could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain.”

The airworthiness directive called for aircrews to be provided with runaway horizontal stabiliser trim procedures under certain conditions. But the Ethiopian crew flying the plane in the March crash were not provided with these new procedures.

The Directive also advised that:

“In the event of an uncommanded horizontal stabilizer trim movement,
combined with any of the following potential effects or indications
resulting from an erroneous Angle of Attack (AOA) input, the flight crew
must comply with the Runaway Stabilizer procedure in the Operating
Procedures outlined the following would happen:


Continuous or intermittent stick shaker on the affected side only.
• Minimum speed bar (red and black) on the affected side only.
• Increasing nose down control forces.
• IAS DISAGREE alert.
• ALT DISAGREE alert.
• AOA DISAGREE alert (if the option is installed).
• FEEL DIFF PRESS light.
• Autopilot may disengage.
• Inability to engage autopilot.

If any aircrew experienced these conditions, then Boeing issued the following procedure to recover :

Disengage autopilot and control airplane pitch attitude with control column and main electric trim as required. If relaxing the column causes the trim to move, set stabilizer trim switches to CUTOUT.

If runaway continues, hold the stabilizer trim wheel against rotation and trim the airplane manually.
Note: The 737-8/-9 uses a Flight Control Computer command of pitch
trim to improve longitudinal handling characteristics. In the event of
erroneous Angle of Attack (AOA) input, the pitch trim system can trim
the stabilizer nose down in increments lasting up to 10 seconds.

In the event an uncommanded nose down stabilizer trim is experienced
on the 737-8/-9, in conjunction with one or more of the indications or
effects listed below, do the existing AFM Runaway Stabilizer
procedure above, ensuring that the STAB TRIM CUTOUT switches
are set to CUTOUT and stay in the CUTOUT position for the
remainder of the flight.

An erroneous AOA input can cause some or all of the following
indications and effects:
• Continuous or intermittent stick shaker on the affected side only.
• Minimum speed bar (red and black) on the affected side only.
• Increasing nose down control forces.
• IAS DISAGREE alert.
• ALT DISAGREE alert.
• AOA DISAGREE alert (if the option is installed).
• FEEL DIFF PRESS light.
• Autopilot may disengage.
• Inability to engage autopilot.

Initially, higher control forces may be needed to overcome any
stabilizer nose down trim already applied
. Electric stabilizer trim can be used to neutralize control column pitch forces before moving the STAB
TRIM CUTOUT switches to CUTOUT. Manual stabilizer trim can be
used before and after the STAB TRIM CUTOUT switches are moved
to CUTOUT.

The higher control forces part of this directive are very important, as in both accidents it appears the pilots could not overcome the stabiliser because of air speed.

That is an incredible directive, pointing to the probable causes of both accidents according to both Boeing itself, and initial accident reports.

What we have to ask is this:

Why did the Ethiopian Airline officials not institute this Directive as per the Emergency documentation as soon as possible after the November release?

When both accidents end up in court, which they will, this is going to be difficult for aviation officials to explain. The manufacturer may be to blame for releasing an aircraft to service with a single fail-safe which as we all know is probably criminal.

Using the phrase “hazardous” instead of “catastrophic” to describe the effect of a failure of the system is also going to be quite hard to explain to judges and juries.

Seat squeezing and assorted aviation pastimes

South African Airways squeeze face. No Knee attacker yet, but wait…

Some airlines are reconsidering the whole idea of allowing seats to be lowered after numerous incidents of air rage involving passengers squashed into an area the size of a Houdini escape box.

Thankfully, some airlines have realised that this is no longer acceptable. I mean having a passenger drop their seat back so that you are pinned into an even smaller area, viz the Houdini analogy. Delta Airlines in the USA has decided that the distance a setback will be allowed to travel should be cut by half. That means instead of 4 inches, the setback will drop 2.

Very good. I like flying FlySafair because it does not allow its seats to be lowered which immediately causes friction between the thoughtless twit in front. So often in the past few years I’ve had to deal with males (almost exclusively) who seem to find it funny firing their seat backwards into your solar plexus.

In a flight to Cape Town a few years ago, the twit ahead of me actually pinned my body into my seat and I was forced to push their seat forwards. He pretended not to notice but I slowly used my knees to force his seat back to the upright position.

The game had begun. Would he escalate? He tried to but each time he lowered the seat, my well trained knees pushed back holding it upright. Eventually he gave up.

Now what I do is setup my knees at a certain angle, beyond which no seat shall pass. It’s very useful and the person gives up quite quickly believing their seat recline function is not functioning. Then everyone is happy and on we go.

The pastime known as seat fighting is surely one of the more onerous exercises to conduct in consumer class. First Class members don’t snigger, because Delta is also going to restrict the distance your seats recline too. They’re going to limit the backslide from just over 5 inches to just over 3.

Scream!

Aviation seats are becoming smaller and smaller while passengers are growing fatter and fatter. So this has led to increased friction between people who are forced into these tiny little seats. And then the person in front reclines their seat and shatters your knees.
Knee Defenders – they look like boxing gloves.

Another aviation past time we know and love is the arm rest wrestle. It’s a very simple rule. The middle seat gets to choose to use the arm rests. The window and aisle seats have second bite at the arm rest cherry. It’s all about proper manners, people. The poor sod who found him/herself bracketed by two blokes with large stomachs and fat butts have first right of reply when it is the arm rest.

Back to Delta, it has begun to retrofit its 62 Airbus A320 jets to reduce the seat recline from 10cm to 5cm. First class goes from 14cm to 9cm.

I’ve always liked flying Delta. This is one more reason why.

Here’s a list of other airlines that no longer allow seats to recline:

  • Spirit Airlines
  • Ryanair
  • Norwegian
  • easyJet

If you’re really in the game, then purchase plastic “knee defenders” which can be picked up from the nearest cheap and lousy aircraft kit supplier.

Not sure if the person in the seat in front likes the idea of having your curtain around their setback.

If you’re into privacy, then the B-tourist Strip is for you. A blanket that turns into a curtain which hooks around your seat and keeps prying eyes away from your laptop/breasts.

Trump’s neutered FAA partly to blame for Boeing MAX8 catastrophe

The FAA System Handbook principles of safety effort graphic that compares cost to effort in order to save the most lives in the most cost effective manner.
The FAA Cost vs Safety graph – was it used properly when assessing Boeing MAX 8 sensor failure?

The twin crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft have pointed a very bright spotlight directly on the Federal Aviation Authority along with the world’s biggest aviation company.

And rightly so. While 2017 was free of commercial airliner crashes, only two major accidents have occurred since that year – and both involved Boeing MAX 8s.

In October 2018 the Lion Air crash that claimed 189 lives near Jakarta Indonesia and on March 10 an Ethiopian Airlines crash ET302 that killed 157 just outside Addis Ababa.

Just to put this in perspective, no other commercial aircraft has been implicated in as many deaths so rapidly since 1966.

Since the second accident which appears to have been waiting to happen, all Boeing MAX 8 and 9 aircraft have been grounded, and some airlines have begun to cancel orders. That is a real problem for Boeing. Over 360 are now being used by Airlines across the world, including almost 100 in China alone.

In the days of yore, we would hear about a Russian disaster every few months, now, nada. Nothing. Just two American-built planes gyrating shortly after takeoff, their pilots grappling with an automated system they weren’t told about. What a singularly terrifying experience for the few minutes they had left in life, trying to problem solve clinging onto a bucking bronco.

There is a flood of speculation about the cause, the horizontal stabiliser trim going rogue courtesy of a misreading sensor, about the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), pilot training and 737 MAX 8 certification.

TRUMP FAILED TO INSTALL AN FAA DIRECTOR SINCE JANUARY 2018

Perhaps we should fixate on the issue which is directly before us: A lack of FAA Director. And because there’s only an Acting Director, there is only an Acting Administrator. This is damaging to flight safety despite what the FAA will say, and the fault lies directly at Donald Trump’s door.

He has failed to install a full-time Director at the FAA preferring instead to hesitate by announcing an Acting Director. Now Dan Elwell may be a superb Airline lobbyist, and a former captain at American Airlines, but he is not the full-time leader of that Agency or else he would have been installed as such. Ditto Carl Burleson who’s technically the second in command. Also acting.

Both are symbols in a cypher-filled world.

Like other agencies, Trump has played politics with people’s lives and in this case, it’s no different. Instead of understanding that leaders are crucial to a proper functioning independent system, he prefers the logic of Mussolini – install a man (probably) who will nod in unison to his demands of loyalty before sanity. Keep ’em guessing. Hahahahaha. “I’ll get around to nominating my puppet when I feel like it…”

Aviation is the one sector where game playing is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded AK47. Trump has been doing just that.

This is not speculation. The FAA last had a full-time director in January 2018. We aviators awaited the new leader of one of the most respected international agencies, which has built its name on a value system around safety that virtually no other can emulate. But in vain. And since then it has committed a gross act of administrative amateurism and been eclipsed in decision-making by the Chinese, the EU and even South Africa’s Comair which pulled its Boeing Max8s before the FAA eventually and begrudgingly agreed to do so.

Ironically because Boeing said so, following a Trump Tweet.

A DANGEROUS GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

The result is the FAA failed to process Boeing’s request for an urgent certification of new software in January 2019 following the Lion Air Crash in Indonesia that killed 139 people in October 2018. That’s because the Agency was hamstrung by the government shutdown, caused by a president who ignored his own advisors and refused to sign an extension of spending deal because he didn’t get money for a wall.

That is a bit like a baby throwing its toys out of a moving aircraft directly at the people walking across a tightrope at 37 000 feet.

I don’t care for American politics much, it’s a place that appears to be a step away from full-blooded violence. In its place is a media civil war between the Democrats led by people like CNN, and Republicans led by people like Fox. Attend any dinner in America these days and you’ll hear both sides quote their favourite “facts” about why the other side is conspiring in some way or other. Both are dripping in diatribe and distastefully biased, dumbed down, feckle-minded and draped in self-indulgence. It’s like watching dogs with down syndrome.

But what really has happened is that authority has been destroyed as Trump allowed the FAA to wallow in a kind of blind holding pattern.

While the speculation around airlines not purchasing redundancy, their MAX 8 simulators missing the crucial MCAS training software (upgrade to follow FAA/Boeing getting a wriggle on), the fact that in both crashes the First Officers were far less experienced than is usually the case (a few hundred hours total flying time), and a failure to laterally think, it really is about how the hell did the FAA pass Boeing’s new plane as good to go for pilots just to read a few pages on an iPad?

I find this shocking, and there is no way around this moment, folks.

Why did the FAA basically allow Boeing in 2016/17 to conduct its own safety audit of the new system? Why did Boeing cycle through a few senior staff who warned that the MCAS could lead to a Catastrophic result if redundancy was not ensured by duplicating sensors? Eventually they found senior staff who were willing sign their names alongside the phrase “Hazardous” when the safety handbook outlined the threat as “Catastrophic”?

The FAA published a handbook in 2000 outlining what is the cost of safety versus a hazard analysis. Here is the safety section.

Table 3.2.2 of the Severity Definitions for FAA AMS Process. Someone really screwed up here by citing the Boeing 737 MAX8 sensor failure as “hazardous” when it was actually “Catastrophic”.

Why was this not used by the FAA? It preferred to take Boeing at its word?

A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE IN A PISS CAT

Let me expound. As a pilot of Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft, I am not in the world of Commercial Aviation, I’m a General Aviation pilot. What professionals call the pilot of a “piss cat”. These cats that wee, however, can surprise even the best of ATPL trained 10 000 hour wonk. That’s why some of my friends who fly airlines, also fly .. piss cats.

It keeps you alert, makes you think, gives you real stick feel for how an aircraft is responding. Makes you lateral when all about you are literal. And the more computers you get, the more literal you get.

Recently a new Garmin 1000 SR22 was introduced to the bunch of planes for rent at a hangar I fly from, and I dutifully signed up for a conversion. This was a 2 hour minimum conversion because of two main reasons.

  1. The Garmin 1000 is a tricky beast when you’ve used Avidyne Avionics and Garmin 430s.
  2. The new Cirrus has an automated roll recovery installed.

It’s point 2 that I want to explain. And it’s one of the reasons why the FAA and Boeing are now in a spot of bother. Cirrus is safety obsessed as their airplanes are slippery beasts when everything is high and hot. IF you get the numbers wrong, you’ll incipient spin into the deck at low altitude.

So I had to take off and fly the Cirrus with Garmin 1000, and do a beyond steep turn passed 60 degrees, to feel the crazy sensation of a plane pulling you back to safe and level EVEN THOUGH THE AUTOPILOT WAS DISCONNECTED.

I was truly shocked and amazed. I asked the instructor where I could switch off this automation and he said proudly

“You can’t”

“What happens” I said “If I’m flying straight and level and because of a sensor misread or software malfunction, it suddenly decides to turn me to the right or left believing I’m in a turn too steep?”

“It won’t happen” he said.

I made a mental note to approach other instructors in future when conducting further training.

Since that conversation I look askance at the aforementioned Cirrus, while flying it I’m always aware that the plane may decide to take over my flying duties without my permission.

The reason why I do so is because it has a CAPS system – a rocket that fires a parachute out of the top of empennage that will save my life if the plane decides to be stupid. I have a redundancy to cover the eventuality that the computer on board goes rogue, thus I will continue to fly the Cirrus with Garmin1000 and automatic roll recovery and deploy ‘chute where necessary.

Unfortunately for the pilots on board both Boeing MAX 8s – no-one had a parachute.

Two Boeing 737 MAX crashes an ominous sign for the company

Ethiopian Airlines ET302 accident site.

A Boeing 737 MAX operated by Ethiopian Airlines, flight number ET302 has crashed shortly after take off from Addis Ababa airport killing all 157 on board.

The initial reports sound ominous for Boeing. While it’s far too early to talk about the cause, it’s not too early to talk about the second time the same type of aircraft has crashed in similar circumstances.

The accident is similar to last year’s crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea in October 2018, killing all 189 people on board. These two crashes involved the Boeing MAX 8 aircraft. The Seattle based manufacturer is working with investigators in the Lion Air matter.

Boeing was forced into a speedy production process when Airbus announced its new Airbus A320neo family of aircraft with improved fuel burn and operating efficiency. It took six year between 2011 and 2017 for Boeing to redesign, build and gain certification from the FAA for its new 737’s.

As usual the testing process was comprehensive. For example the Boeing MAX’s were put through 2,000 flight hours as well as three hours of ETOPS testing.

Three thousand simulated simulated flight cycles were conducted and at first there were a few problems with the engines. For one, they were delivered late by manufacturer CFM International. It was a joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines, a division of Safran of France.

The first delivery was a MAX 8 was to Malindo Air, a subsidiary of Lion Air in May 2017. Just over a year later, the Java crash occurred.

Source: Wikipedia

Norwegian Air also flies the MAX 8, and after a one year of service, 130 of these redesigned planes had been delivered to 28 airlines or customers and logged over 41 000 flights in 118 000 hours – flying over 6.5 million passengers.

After 2017’s spotless aviation record with no major aviation crashes, things changed on October 29, 2018 when Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the sea 13 minutes after take off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia.

This was the first crash involving a 737 MAX, and the aircraft was only delivered two months before the accident.

Afterwards, Boeing issued a safety bulletin advising airlines about how they should approach the automated systems which are now thought to have caused the Lion Air crash.

The FAA also issued an emergency airworthiness directive followed quickly by Boeing’s update for flight crew operations. The company said there could be a fault in the aircraft’s angle of attack system that could cause the aircraft to violently pitch nose down. What terrifies pilots is that this could even occur AFTER the automatic pilot was switched off and pilots were hand-flying the aircraft.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 path

Sensors in the aircraft apparently caused false data to be fed to the aircraft’s computer system, leading to it taking over the flight controls from a pilot even after he or she switched off the automated systems. The data erroneously reported that the plane had entered a stall, when in fact it was flying faster than the stall speed and the wings were not stalled at all.

This is catastrophic for aviators when faced with a threat at low altitude. You just don’t have time to press all the buttons, and I really feel for the pilots in both aircraft it it is indeed proven that the automatic system caused these crashes. It now appears that the electric stabiliser trim is what could have been pushed forward – and flight crews are told to switch these off when they hand-fly the plane.

Switching to manual trim is always the best way to fly, but in today’s busy cockpit perhaps in both instances the captain and first officer were concentrating and may have not had time to switch off the electric trims.

There are more similarities. Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX had only been delivered four months ago.


A Chandler holds no candle to SAA’s William

William Chandler is his name, fakery is his game. Or at least that’s according to South African Airlines in a statement issued on Friday 1 March 2019.

While the official holder of a Commercial Pilot’s license, those who wish to fly airlines must be in possession of something much more impressive – an Airline Transport Pilot’s License or ATPL.

“It is an SAA requirement that all pilots obtain an ATPL license within five years of their employment as pilots at SAA,” an airline spokesperson said.

“This is linked to Senior First Officer status and forms part of their conditions of employment as regulated in the SAA Pilots Regulating Agreement. Any pilot failing to obtain this license, will have their employment terminated with the airline.”

That rather officious comment belies the seriousness of the offense. After clocking up thousands of hours as a First Officer starting in 1994, he refused an offer of a major promotion in 2005. That would have exposed him as he would have had to hand over his ATPL certificate – which he does not have.

Fortunately for thousands of passengers, they survived flying with a measly commercial pilot, but unfortunately for Chandler – he must now repay the millions of rands in perks he received from the airline. Not to mention he faces charges of fraud at the very least.

But the story worsens, as this man apparently was the First Officer at the controls and monitoring Flight SA206 between OR Tambo International to Frankfurt in Germany in November 2018.

Something went badly wrong or his actions apparently caused one of the other pilots, possibly the Captain, to report him.

The threat two passengers was minimal, as Chandler had clocked many hours flying the various aircraft SAA uses – and had recently passed a number of tests and checks.

So he can fly alright, but the problem is he is not supposed to fly airliners. The major problem for the airline is had he been involved in a much more serious incident involving passengers – insurance and other problems would have arisen.

A Chandler, for those who don’t know, is a person who makes candles for a living.

Here is a definition

“A chandler was the head of the chandlery in medieval households, responsible for wax, candles, and soap. Chandler may also refer to: Candlemaker or chandler, an occupation. Ship chandler, a dealer in special supplies or equipment for ships.”

Perhaps Mr Chandler will now consider this a future profession as he finds ways to pay back the money.

Emiliano Sala reportedly on board Piper Malibu that disappeared

A Piper Malibu – similar to the plane Emiliano Sala was reportedly traveling in when it went missing on the evening of 21st January 2019.

At exactly 20.23 on the 21st January 2019 Guernsey Coastguard received an alert from the island’s ATC that a light aircraft had disappeared off their radar 15 miles north of Guernsey.

The terrible report has been followed up by Welsh football club Cardiff City which issued a statement saying they have ‘genuine concerns’ over the safety of their new record signing, Emiliano Sala.

From mid-morning on the 22nd, two helicopters, two planes and one lifeboat were reportedly searching for any sign of the missing plane.

It is thought to be a Piper Malibu P-46T, which is a single engined turbo-propellor driven aircraft which had reportedly taken off from Nantes in France and was flying to Cardiff in Wales.

Two people were on board according to French officials, Sala and the pilot.

A search model has been created based on the likely ditching location and an intense search is now underway.

The weather conditions after the disappearance worsened rapidly, but it is believed the aircraft was flying at 5000 feet and following VFR rules. After passing Guernsey the pilot reportedly asked ATC for permission to descend, then contact was lost as it flew around 2300 feet.

That is low flying in anyone’s book. What was a multimillion dollar sportsperson doing in a plane flying so low?

French journalists have confirmed that Sala was seen walking through border control in Nantes and it is believed he was on board the Malibu. Some hacks have described the aircraft as a private jet, but it isn’t. It’s a turboprop.

Nantes to Cardiff likely route – ignore the time it’s Google offering a flight via a small plane.

Cardiff City, known as the Blues, unveiled their new fifteen million euro Argentinian player only last week, and he had returned to France after Saturday’s announcement with a view to flying back to Cardiff last night.

Other pilots flying a similar route report some icing around 3000 – 5000 feet and wind shear between 2000 feet and 2500 feet. However it was not deemed dangerous. Clouds were reported at 5000 – 6000 feet, well below the level the Malibu was believed to be operating.

The search continues.

UPDATE: Tuesday 5 February

Piper Malibu N264DB

A body has been spotted in the wreckage of a plane carrying Cardiff City footballer Emiliano Sala which was discovered in the English Channel after a short search.

The Piper Malibu N264DB disappeared on 21 January en route between Nantes in France to Cardiff in Wales with the Argentine striker on board.

The only other person aboard the Piper was the pilot David Ibbotson.

Marine Scientist David Mearns assisted the Sala family and said the aircraft had been located off Guernsey on Sunday.

On Sunday February 3rd 2019, Mearns posted tweets including one which said “The families of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson have been notified by police.”

He was referring to the discovery of a substantial portion of the plane wreckage. A submersible UAV craft was sent to inspect the wreckage and afterwards officials said that a body had been seen in footage.

But they would not be drawn into any further comment.

Cardiff City football had signed Sala for a record of £15m and he was due to start training at the end of January.


​​​​​​

South Africa’s Space Weather coup eclipsed by Schweizer-Reneke

South Africa scored a major scientific coup on Monday 14th January 2019, but it appears the Hacks of Habit aka local media thought stories about DJs being naked or some kids in a classroom were more important.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Schweizer-Reneke story about four black kids perched at the back of the class separate and unequal is unforgivable.

At the same time, it was also a useful distraction for habitual Hacks who apparently think science stories are far too complex to think about while contorting yourselves into whirling pools of screaming self-righteousness.

And how shareable on social media to boot? So many media outlets happily shared the picture, although it was quite clear those in the picture were far too young to be scrutinised. Technically this broke the Media Code, but that’s another story.

A quick scan of local media headlines on the day showed just how utterly landlubbered and bereft of imagination these gatekeepers of self-importance were. The only real coverage was on ITWEB, some government websites and Engineering News.

That was about it for headlines.

The rest thundered off into an intellectual dead-end, trying to outdo each other to get exclusives about a story that everyone already had so that the huffing and puffing lower middle class could exhaust itself and its expensive data exchanging redundancies on the social media platform of choice.

How pathetically South African.

The North West town is named after a Swiss man called Reneke by the way.

The hullabaloo overshadowed a moment of national interest. The really important story on Monday was the one about the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) being selected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to become the designated regional provider of space weather information to the entire aviation sector in Africa. Almost a billion people. Forget Schweizer-Reneke and its Swissness, population “a few”.

This is much bigger news for South Africa than a North West junior school, but it involves real science and therefore the average South African editor is immediately, and apparently, disadvantaged.

SANRA’s windfall is our national pride, people. It means all aircraft flying anywhere across Africa will now rely on SANSA for space weather information.

All pilots know that the usual terrestrial weather systems are crucial to being able to take-off and land. Also crucial, is the various radio/radar/GPS/GNSS systems on board that allow pilots to navigate and communicate.

SANSA is to partner with one of the ICAO’s three global space weather centres, Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather User Services or PECASUS. The only other is controlled by Russia and China which may decide to use the information, let’s just say, not in the interests of science in Africa.

PECASUS falls under ICAO, the international Aviation organisation. The Department of Science and Technology issued a statement about this on Sunday afternoon which trumpeted the advantages for the country.

“South Africa’s designation as a regional space weather information provider will grow the science, engineering, technology and innovation sector, offering opportunities to develop scarce skills and increase national research output, while ensuring that usable products are generated from the knowledge,” it said.

SANSA open day.

Space weather can be pretty grim. Huge surges in sunspot activity send radio waves streaming out across the solar system, hammering earth. These can be extremely violent.

These were first really understood many years ago, in 1859. That’s when an amateur astronomer called Richard Carrington climbed up into the loft of his country estate, opened the dome and pointed his telescope at the sun.

He was keeping tabs on large sun spots, when suddenly two gave off what he called “… intensely bright and white light” and after five minutes they vanished.

That night, telegraph communications across the world failed. Sparks were reported from some, others set papers on fire and auroras were experienced all over the nighttime sky, glowing brightly. Birds woke up believing it was dawn these were so bright.

This was known as the ‘Carrington Event’.

In 1972, a similar event knocked out AT&T systems in the USA and led to the company redesigning its entire subsea cable operation. In March 1989, a powerful solar flare set off power blackout in Canada that left six million people without electricity.

Then in 2000, the Bastille Day event occurred – July 14th to be exact. This registered X5 on the solar flare scale (yes there is one) and caused satellites to short circuit, while some radio stations stopped broadcasting.

Then in October 2003 our nearest star (yes, the sun) unleashed a hefty uppercut across the solar system. This made the Bastille Day event seem insignificant. The spacecraft measuring flares blew up, and eventually all sensors topped out at X28, but later it appeared the flare actually reached a peak strength of X45.

©NOAA

So you begin to appreciate South Africa’s importance in aviation. We are the only country in Africa with space weather capabilities, so it makes sense for SANSA and PECASUS to work together for the good of aviation on the continent.

“The country’s space science programme is feeding the knowledge economy and placing the national system of innovation at the centre of South Africa’s developmental agenda,” the department added. 

Just in case you think this space weather thing is not serious, a note from my Aviation files will serve as a warning.

“Space weather refers to the conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health.”

Modern aviation now relies on flights over the Arctic, whereas during the Cold War, China and Russia did not. But Space Weather affects the poles far more than anywhere else, so it’s even more important to watch this phenomenon now. At the same time, each burst of energy from the sun can impact the earth based on when these electromagnetic rays strike the globe.

The effects include loss of HF radio transmission and satellite navigation signals, navigation system disruptions and general avionics errors. Flight planning includes space weather for a reason.

So as you prepare for your next flight over the equator and into Europe or Dubai, to catch the next flight out to San Francisco, consider the work SANSA will be doing with PECASUS and NOAA.

Makes me proud.