04 December 2014

Holiday air travel advice 2014

Between now and the beginning of next year, untold millions of passengers, some of them flying for the first time in a while, and even many first time flyers, will be taking to the skies for the holidays, and AirSafe.com wants to do its part to help you avoid any serious travel issues. AirSafe.com has a variety of resources, including online resources and downloadable ebooks that will help you work through many of the most common issues:

AirSafe.com web site resources

Downloadable ebooks

Traveling with gifts
If you carry gifts, either in checked or carry-on baggage, remember that the TSA has to be able to inspect any package and may have to unwrap your gift to do so. You can partially unwrap them for easier access, ship wrapped gifts ahead of time, or wait until you arrive at your destination to wrap them.

Flying with holiday food
You should be aware that some food items are banned from carry on baggage because they contain liquids or gels. While you can carry cakes, pastries, and pies with you in your carry on bag, but the following should either be in checked baggage or left at home:

  • Cranberry sauce
  • Creamy dips and spreads (cheeses, peanut butter, etc.)
  • Gravy
  • Jams, jellies, and syrup
  • Oils and vinegars
  • Salad dressing
  • Salsa
  • Sauces
  • Soups
  • Wine, liquor and beer
  • Gift baskets with one or more of the above items

Take our food survey
Help up understand what kind of food issues you may be having during your holiday travel by taking this short survey, which should last no more than three minutes. It will help AirSafe.com develop better advice around holiday travel and food.

Things you should know
There are several new trends and rules to look out for this year, some of them are pleasant surprises, and some of them no so pleasant:

  • Who can leave their shoes on: In the US, TSA allows children 12 and under, adults age 75 and older, and uniformed members of the armed forces who have a valid military ID can leave their shoes or footwear on.
  • Military members and TSA screening: Members of the military, including service academy cadets, are eligible for expedited screening at over 100 US airports if they use their military ID number when making a reservation. Visit TSA for more information on this program.
  • Marijuana and air travel: Starting in 2014, two US states, Colorado and Washington, allowed adults to legally purchase and consume recreational marijuana. However, marijuana is not allowed on airliners in the US, or at most US airports, and flying with it can get you arrested. For more information, visit AirSafe.com's section on air travel and marijuana at marijuana.airsafe.com.

06 November 2014

Rethinking space related risk in the wake of SpaceShipTwo

'This Week in Airline Safety' for 7 November 2014 discusses how the SpaceShipTwo mishap led to a rethinking of how AirSafe.com will look at space related safety and risk.

Last month's mishap that led to a loss of SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle designed and built by Scaled Composites that Virgin Galactic plans to use to provide anyone with the right combination of desire, adventure, and money a chance to go into space on a suborbital flight. While some in the media, most notably Wired Magazine have questioned the value of what Virgin Galactic is trying to do (referring to SpaceShipTwo as the "world's most expensive roller coaster"), there can be no question that the accident, and the ongoing NTSB investigation, has led to a new examination, both within the aerospace community and by the general public, of the value of space travel.

At AirSafe.com, that examination led to a rethinking of how to look at the history of space from the perspective of risk. As has been the case with airline safety and security, the goal of AirSafe.com is to provide useful information about risk, safety, and security. To that end, there were several changes made to the site, to put the risk of current and future human spaceflight activities into a broader, and perhaps more appropriate, context. The key changes to the site include the following:

Expanding the range of noteworthy events
A revamped and expanded page on space related mishaps will now include mishaps involving any vehicle capable of traveling above the internationally recognized boundary of space (the Karman Line, which is at 100 km above the Earth), where at least one occupant was serious injured or killed, or where the vehicle was lost or destroyed. In the mishaps listed on this page, the vehicle was engaged in a flight, a ground test, or a training session.

Including additional space programs
The pages listing space related mishaps and deaths associated with US space programs now has additional government sponsored or privately sponsored space programs, including the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and X-15 programs that were run by the US government and which both ended in the 1960s, and the current civilian program run by Virgin Galactic.

Expanding the definition of US space program
This page will include deaths of any astronaut or astronaut candidate in any space program sponsored by the US government, or of any person killed while associated with a private or corporate space travel project. The first category would include professional astronauts who were full time astronauts or astronaut trainees and who were killed accidentally whether on duty or off duty.

The second category would include anyone who was killed in a flight, ground test, or training session involving a vehicle capable of traveling into space. This latter category would include people such as NASA payload specialist Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the inflight breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia, and Michael Alsbury, who was killed in the SpaceShipTwo mishap.

This expanded definition of US space program deaths was not possible to do for all the world's space programs, because of the lack of independently verifiable information on space related training deaths in programs previously run by the government of the former Soviet Union, and programs currently being run by the government of the People's Republic of China.

Interesting observations from the updated pages
The newly updated and expanded pages on space related events led to some new observations about the safety history of the world's space programs:

  • There have been 14 events involving fatalities in US space programs, killing a total of 29 people, with 16 of the deaths occurring in a vehicle capable of traveling into space.

  • Two people have survived a mishap that resulted in the loss of a space vehicle. The first was Virgil (Gus) Grissom in the 1961 flight of Mercury 4, and the second was Peter Siebold in last month's mishap involving SpaceShipTwo.

  • Siebold is also the first person to survive a fatal mishap involving a space vehicle.

  • Grissom is the only person to have been involved in more than one mishap. He survived Mercury 4, but died in a fire aboard Apollo 1.

  • While there have been 10 serious mishaps involving a space vehicle, only seven involved a vehicle that had traveled, or was intending to travel, into space, and only one event (the 1971 flight of Soyuz 11) involved fatalities that occurred in space.

  • Based on the internationally recognized boundary of space, the first person to fly into space twice was X-15 pilot Joe Walker, who twice flew above 100 km in 1963.

Additional resources
SpaceShipTwo accident investigation
Space flight related mishaps
Deaths associated with US space programs

04 November 2014

NTSB provides timeline of SpaceShipTwo mishap

The following is an overview of the preliminary findings presented by the NTSB on the third day of their investigation.

During the fourth media briefing on the third day of the on site portion of the NTSB investigation of the crash of SpaceShipTwo, the most significant information provided by acting NTSB chair Christopher A. Hart was a general timeline of the events between the release of SpaceShipTwo from its mothership WhiteKnightTwo, and the loss of telemetry from SpaceShipTwo. In that roughly fifteen second span, a number of events occurred inside SpaceShipTwo:

  • SpaceShipTwo released from mothership WhiteKnightTwo at 10:07:19 PDT (17:07:19 UTC)
  • The rocket engine was ignited about two seconds later.
  • About eight seconds later, and 10 seconds after release, SpaceShipTwo was traveling at about Mach 0.94
  • Sometime during the next two seconds, the feather lock handle was moved from the locked to the unlock position by the person sitting in the right seat.
  • At about 12 seconds after release, the vehicle was traveling at Mach 1.02
  • The feathers began to deploy at about 13 seconds after release.
  • Telemetry and video data was lost about two seconds later, roughly 15 seconds after release.

In addition to the timeline, the NTSB stated that lightweight debris was recovered about 30-35 miles northeast of the main wreckage area, and it was not clear what role wind may have played in the distribution of that wreckage. Also, while there was clear evidence that the pilot in the right seat moved the feather lock handle, during the media briefing, Hart was not clear if it was the pilot or the copilot who did so.

Shortly after the media briefing, NTSB clarified its position on Twitter, stating that the copilot, who did not survive the mishap, was the person in the right seat who moved the lock/unlock handle into the unlocked position.

Additional resources
Initial NTSB SpaceShipTwo accident investigation
Review of first two NTSB briefings on 1 November 2014
Review of third NTSB briefing on 2 November 2014
Review of fourth NTSB briefing on 3 November 2014

03 November 2014

NTSB hints that SpaceShipTwo breakup was not related to an engine failure

The following is an overview of the factual data presented by the NTSB on the second day of their investigation.

During the media briefing on the second day of the NTSB investigation of the crash of SpaceShipTwo, acting NTSB chair Christopher A. Hart, reported on some of their early findings that implied that there was no fire, explosion, or other kind of breach or failure involving the engine, fuel tank, or oxidizer tank. Early evidence instead points to an un uncommanded deployment of the feathering system just prior to the loss of telemetry from SpaceShipTwo.

The feathering system on SpaceShipTwo allows the twin booms on the vehicle, referred to as the feathers, to rotate upward in order to provide more aerodynamic drag on reentry. They are intended to be deployed after the engine has shut down and prior to reentry. According the information provided at the briefing, deploying the feathers takes two actions from the flight crew. The feathering system has to first be unlocked before they can be deployed by moving the feather handle into the feathered position.

There is a feathering handle that moves the feathers into the feathered position. Based on video evidence from inside SpaceShipTwo, the copilot unlocked the system, but the system deployed without any crew input.

Model of SpaceShipTwo in unfeathered position

Model of SpaceShipTwo in feathered position

The sequence of events was roughly as follows:

  • After being released from its carrier aircraft, the crew of SpaceShipTwo ignited the rocket engine.
  • About nine seconds after engine ignition, telemetry data showed that the feather parameters changed from locked to unlocked.
  • Video from the cockpit showed that the copilot had unlocked the feathering system, and is consistent with the telemetry data.
  • About two seconds later, the feathers moved toward the deployed position even though the feather handle had not been moved into the feather position.
  • The feather deployment occurred at a speed just above Mach 1.
  • Shortly after feathering occurred, video data and telemetry data terminated.
  • The engine burn was normal prior to the deployment of the feathers.
  • Normal procedures would have had the crew unlocking the feathering system at a speed of about Mach 1.4.
  • Unlocking the feathering system alone should not have allowed the feathers to deploy.
  • The inflight breakup of the vehicle began sometime after telemetry ceased.
  • The NTSB has not determined if the inflight breakup was caused by aerodynamic forces or from some other cause.
  • The rocket engine, fuel tank, or oxidizer tank showed no evidence of a breach or burn through consistent with some sort of fire, explosion or structural failure affecting those components.

The NTSB emphasized that their statements were statements of fact rather than a determination of a cause of the mishap. Below is a video of the third media briefing.

Additional resources
Initial NTSB SpaceShipTwo accident investigation
Review of first two NTSB briefings on 1 November 2014
Review of third NTSB briefing on 2 November 2014

Note: An earlier version of this story inadvertently stated that there was evidence of a breach or burn on some components.

01 November 2014

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo NTSB accident investigation

The NTSB is leading the investigation into yesterday's crash of Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo north of Mojave, CA. Saturday November 1st was the first day of the investigation, and the NTSB has already had one one media briefing with a second planned for late in the evening.

The following is an overview of the crash and comments on the early media briefings.

31 October 2014; Scaled Composites; Model 339 (SpaceShipTwo); N339SS; near Cantil, CA: The vehicle, which is designed to fly into the lower reaches of space (above 100 km above Earth) was on its first powered test flight with a new engine fuel and oxidizer combination (nylon and nitrous oxide). SpaceShipTwo was dropped from its carrier vehicle at about 45,000 feet, and ignited its engine.

Roughly two minutes after release from the carrier aircraft White Knight Two, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle experienced an inflight breakup. One of the two crew members was killed, and the other was able to bail out of the vehicle and was injured.

Prior to the accident flight, there had been the 54 test flights of SpaceShipTwo, of which 34 involved a release from the carrier aircraft, including three powered flights.

Scaled Composites, which conducted the flight test, is a partner of Virgin Galactic, which had planned on using SpaceShipTwo to take passengers on suborbital trips into space in the near future.

Summary of first two NTSB briefings on 1 November 2014
Both NTSB briefing were given by acting NTSB chair Christopher A. Hart, was short, and provided the following preliminary information about the accident:

  • While the NTSB has previously participated in the investigations of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle accidents, this will be the first time it has taken the lead role in the investigation of a crewed space launch vehicle accident.
  • The NTSB team consists of about 13-15 investigators and specialists in the areas of structures, including systems, engines, vehicle, performance, and operations.
  • The parties to the investigation are the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic
  • The vehicle was flying in a southwesterly direction, and the wreckage field is about five miles (8 km) long, and is oriented from the northeast to the southwest.
  • The wreckage pattern indicates that an inflight breakup occurred, but the NTSB has not yet determined why this happened.
  • The left and right tail booms were near the beginning of the wreckage trail, followed by the fuselage, fuel and oxidizer tanks, cockpit, and the rocket engine.
  • There were a total of three tanks in the vehicle, a fuel tank, an oxidizer tank, and a methane tank.
  • The NTSB was unaware of the altitude of the mishap.
  • There was extensive video data available from the flight, including six cameras on SpaceShipTwo, another three on White Knight Two, one in a chase aircraft, and one on the Edwards AFB test range.
  • The NTSB does not know if the six cameras on board SpaceShipTwo have been recovered.
  • There were six data sources on SpaceShipTwo and about 1000 parameters of telemetry available from the flight. There was also a radar on the chase aircraft.
  • Interviews have been conducted, but NTSB will not reveal what has been discovered until later in the investigation.
  • The surviving pilot has not yet been interviewed because his doctors recommended against doing so at this time.
  • The NTSB does not know how the surviving pilot exited the vehicle.
  • The on scene portion of the investigation will continue for another four to seven days, and the full investigation will take about a year.
  • Scaled Composites can continue operations during the investigation.
  • News and updates to the investigation will be available at the NTSB's web site (www.ntsb.gov) Twitter feed (@NTSB).

Initial SpaceShipTwo NTSB briefings

Initial NTSB SpaceShipTwo briefings 1 November 2014

28 October 2014

Why Ebola air travel restrictions keep changing

In recent days, Ebola-related restrictions on travel keep changing, sometimes in ways that can be confusing to airline passengers and to the general public. There are two basic reasons why this is happening, the first being the changing nature of the Ebola outbreak, and the second because there are several kinds of independent decision makers when it comes to Ebola travel policies.

The changing face of Ebola
As of late October 2014, Ebola remains a serious epidemic, and according to the CDC, over 10,000 people have been infected with roughly 5,000 dead. The largest number of cases are in three west African countries, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. There have been at least five other countries with one or more Ebola cases, and for two these countries, the US and Nigeria, the virus was carried there by an airline passenger.

US response
The response of US authorities has been varied, with the key responses including the following:

  • Federal requirements that air travelers who fly directly from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone enter the US in to one of five airports, each of which has a screening program to evaluate travelers from those countries.
  • Additional requirements from several states (including states containing at least four of the five entry airports) that include some form of quarantine for some or all travelers who have been exposed to Ebola.
  • US military authorities have either quarantine or evaluation programs for military personnel who have provided support in efforts to address Ebola in west Africa.

Why is the US concerned?
Although there have only been a handful of Ebola cases in the US, there has been a very high level of interest and concern by the public and the US government in keeping Ebola from becoming a serious problem. This concern is likely based on the reality that there is a significant number of people who travel between the US and those countries most affected by Ebola, including thousands of medical professionals and military members who are directly involved with fighting the epidemic in west Afria; and citizens, residents, and visitors from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Who makes Ebola decisions in the US
In the US, various units of government are able to make decisions independently of one another, and that can lead to multiple, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory policies. In the case of Ebola, a few of the independent decision makers include the following:

  • The federal government can enforce policies involving things like air transportation, travel between US states, and border security.
  • Individual states, including cities, counties, and smaller government units within the states, can enforce restrictions or quarantines on air travelers that go beyond federal requirements.
  • Military organizations, in addition to having access to its own air transportation system, can impose restrictions on members of the armed forces that may go far beyond those imposed by either the states or by federal governments.

In addition to units of government, individual travelers can make decisions that can easily circumvent the restrictions of the federal or state governments, largely because federal and state governments often have to rely on information provided by air travelers and have no way to independently verify a traveler's claims about their travel history.

So far, no individual air traveler has has caused someone in the US to contract Ebola due to deliberately avoiding the current screening and restriction programs or because of a failure of one of those programs. Should that happen, or should there be a sharp increase in the number of Ebola cases in the US, it is very likely that one or more government organizations may change air transportation rules in significant and unpredictable ways.

Background information
AskThePilot.com on air travel bans
Air travel bans to control epidemics
Background information on Ebola
Background information on SARS

21 October 2014

Why an air travel ban for Ebola may not help

In the days after the first Ebola fatality in the US in early October 2014, from a person who contracted the disease in Liberia and later flew to Dallas, TX, there have been concerns in some circles, most notably in the political arena and throughout social media, that there should be some kind of travel ban put into effect to keep other infected persons from traveling to the US. These concerns were due in part to the fact that two of the medical personnel who were involved with the treatment of the Ebola patient in Dallas also contracted Ebola.

US government passenger screening
In mid-October 2014, the US government implemented a screening process to check travelers flying to the US from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea for either Ebola-like symptoms, or exposure to the Ebola virus. This was done to manage the risk the US population faced from travelers who may be infected with the Ebola virus and who knowingly or unknowingly fly to the US.

The screening program was in effect for five US airports that accounted for about 95% of the travelers to come to the US directly from those countries. This program lessened the effect of a risk, specifically making it less likely that someone exposed to or infected by Ebola would also expose the general population to that disease.

While this screening program provided some protection from arriving passengers who may have been exposed to Ebola, it did not go as far as an outright ban of travel by people from that region, a ban which could potentially have eliminated the risk or made it much less likely to occur.

Reasons a ban may be impractical
While the idea of a ban on travel to and from the three most affected African countries, may appear to be a prudent step to take to keep the epidemic from spreading to America, there are a number of reasons that it may not be effective, and in fact may make it harder to control the Ebola epidemic in the most heavily impacted countries. A few of those reasons include the following:

  • No US airline provides direct service to Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea, and the US government has no legal authority ban flights to the affected countries by non-US airlines.

  • US citizens and permanent residents are allowed to travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea without prior approval from the US government.

  • Banning international travel to or from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea would have done nothing to address domestic flights taken by those already in the US who were recently in one of those three countries.

  • Several thousand US residents who are or may soon be traveling between those three countries and the US are medical professionals, civil servants, military personnel, and others who are or will be part of ongoing efforts to control the Ebola epidemic.

While the US at present has no outright travel bans in place, the changing nature of the Ebola epidemic may lead to some kind of travel ban in the future. For additional details on the kinds of travel bans that could be put into place, as well as why enforcing such bans may be difficult, visit AirSafe.com's Air travel bans to control epidemics page.

Background information
AskThePilot.com on air travel bans
Air travel bans to control epidemics
Background information on Ebola
Background information on SARS