With apologies for the headline, writer Earnest K. Gann eloquently stated that, “Somewhere in the heavens there is a great invisible genie who every so often lets down his pants and pisses all over the pillars of science.” Despite advanced and redundant systems we remain as vulnerable as ever.
Engines and certain mechanical systems were often the reason of a cancelled flight but perhaps not so much anymore. It’s software and the millions of lines of code that lie embedded in the magic that run the show and periodically cancel it as well. For GA, this is instructive.
The Boeing 787 has an AD against it now with the unusual warning that the beast needs to be totally powered down at least once every 284 days. Never knew it needed to stay plugged in for that long, and the electric bill must be impressive. Apparently there’s a troll hiding in the code, which if not appeased will simultaneously take down all four of the aircraft’s generators. Quadruple simultaneous failures are so irritating.
For your consideration: Some years ago I had to scrub a trip because, immediately after engine start, the tower couldn’t hear my transmissions. I could hear them just fine. This was a new aircraft with a full glass panel and lots of redundancy. Taxied down to the local avionics shop where they proceeded to run various tests. After several hours of troubleshooting they still hadn’t found the problem. Next day, pulling various boards, swapping things around and reseating cards, the fault mysteriously cleared. The genie had wandered off to rain on someone else’s parade.
On a day VFR flight in an old technology aircraft, I was unable to transmit while approaching class Delta airspace. Neither comm radio worked. Tried swapping headsets, using different push-to-talk switches, even the hand-held mike. Nothing. For the first time in two decades of carrying a handheld radio—and not storing dead batteries in it, as my friend Rod Machado likes to remind us—that seemed like it might be the salvation. Didn’t work.
The dreaded light gun signals were a distinct possibility. You remember—the alternating red and green that says the airport restaurant is closed on Monday, the green that advises avgas is less than $5 per gallon and the flashing red that reminds us not to forget Mother’s Day—or something like that.
But then, inspiration. Perhaps the rubber duck antenna just didn’t have the punch. This aircraft was equipped with a coax connector to one of the aircraft antennas. Plugged that hummer in and voila… the tower could hear us, confirmed the airport restaurant was open, and provided landing clearance.
Despite having perfectly good radios there was a single point failure in the system and the genie found it. The transmit relay failed, and the ship’s radios were struck mute. I recently installed a separate comm antenna and coax on my aircraft as a hedge against such an occurrence because genies are a persistent bunch.
The latest genie sighting was a doozy! American Airlines’ iPad app crashed, and despite dual pads in every cockpit, the crews couldn’t access their charts. Dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed. What a mess! Address one problem and then the genie finds another way to get you. The more things change… Ask Boeing or Airbus.
One more thought: Remember never to drop the aircraft to deal with troublesome genies. Distraction is almost always a key link in the accident chain.
What’s your genie story and how did you resolve it?