Posts from May 2009

May 16th, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson in the Penny Press!

My dim and distant understanding is that disgraced avatar of evil Bernie Madoff committed the heinous crime of bilking lots of stupid, greedy people out of negligible portions of their disposable incomes – a swindler, and old-fashioned card-sharp assuring his victims that the pea was, indeed, under the third cup.

If this is the case, then his crimes continue in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, where Mark Seal’s headline-grabbing article about the downfall of this Lil’ Satan will be the only reason most people buy the issue in the first place and the only thing they read in it. That’s a first-class swindle right there, because the Seals article, though impeccably researched, is a snoozer (since Madoff’s crimes almost by definition hurt only the willing, they lack any semblance of pathos and therefore any semblance of interest). Likewise the cover article about Jessica Simpson, which did more to shake my faith in that actress’ native canniness than anything I’ve ever read. No, the real treat of the issue comes from an extremely reliable source: William Langewiesche writing about all things concerning aviation. This is an absolutely scintillating body of specialized work Lang is amassing, and in this issue he looks at the latest piece of aviation history to splash, quite literally, across the headlines: the “Miracle on the Hudson” water-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 last January.

The “Miracle on the Hudson” had everything a picture-perfect drama needs, except a villain (would it have killed one of the passengers to take a swing at one of the crew?) – it sure as Hell had a hero: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who took control of the plane immediately after it swallowed some fat Canadian geese the wrong way and lost its engines.

In an instant, Sullenberger had no power – and almost no options, since the two airports that might have been within range of his craft were also deeply embedded in cities, thereby giving no margin for error whatsoever. Since the entire length of this drama extends only a few minutes, mighty fast thinking was in order, and as usual, Lang is superb at riveting his readers’ attention:

Sullenberger could see La Guardia to the left side. Like all pilots he was experienced at visually projecting flight paths, even around corners, and particularly in descents. It was not obvious that if he turned directly toward the airport he would undershoot the runway.

But the point here isn’t technical range, it’s possible consequences, as Lang makes clear:

Even if it had been shown in simulation that Sullenberger could in theory have glided to La Guardia, in practice the approach would have been a very close thing, a crapshoot in a place were undershooting the runway by 20 feet would be like undershooting it by a mile. Once you committed toward La Guardia, you either had luck on your side or you died.

Lang has a broad range of excellent writer talents, but his best is the ability to step back a bit from the story he’s narrating and comment on the bigger picture. He does this regularly in every piece, and it has the odd double effect of both allowing the reader a chance to breathe and of ratcheting up the tension of the narrative. At this point he pauses to remind his readers of the stark realities of flying planes, and I can just picture pilots all across the country nodding quietly as they read:

At some point as you climb down from the most desirable destinations, you stop thinking about hotels, stop thinking much even about the airplane, and shift your focus to survival. At that point life becomes very simple. The first rule is to avoid losing control. The second is to avoid hitting brick walls. The third and final rule is to keep “flying” the airplane even as it is sliding and disintegrating around you in the water or on the ground. You fly it until it stops, and then you evacuate.

And in addition to providing us with a gripping narrative of what happened that day in January, Lang also fills in the background on the incident’s unsung hero: the Airbus A320 Captain Sullenberger was piloting that day. In an intentionally-chosen discordant note to the symphony of praise being played for Sullenberger (whom he nevertheless praises), Lang comments that in this case as in so many cases, the worker is only as good as his tools:

Suffice it to say that if Sullenberger had done nothing after the loss of thrust the airplane would have smoothly slowed down until reaching a certain angle with the airflow, at which point it would have lowered its nose to keep the wings from stalling, and would have done this even if for some reason Sullenberger had resisted. Of course, Sullenberger did no such thing.

It’s a splendid article, as all Langewiesche’s are – I eagerly look forward to the next collection he publishes of these superb aviation pieces (his first one, Inside the Sky, is very much worth hunting down). I think it’s obvious that air travel will no longer be possible in at most a hundred years, after which its whole era will at least have its Melville in this great writer.

December 17th, 2008

The Devil in the Penny Press!

In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, there’s another fantastic aviation article by the great freelancer Bill Lang (William Langewiesche, for those of you – like him – with no sense of the mellifluous pen-name), this one concerning the Boeing 737 and the Legacy private jet that collided mid-air over the Brazilian rain forest in 2006, killing all 154 people on board the passenger jet.

Lang, as I’ve noted here before, is one of the most compelling writers-for-hire working today, and his weird specialty area is aviation – and aviation disasters (his book Inside the Sky is well worth hunting down). You must never miss an essay of his on this subject; for whatever reason, it speaks to him and informs his most compelling pieces.

This one for Vanity Fair, “The Devil at 37,000 Feet,” is a sterling example. Lang interviewed everybody involved, from the pilots and passengers on board the Legacy 600 (all of whom survived) to the Brazilian air force authorities to the Caiapo natives on the ground at the time of the crash, and he’s done the melancholy task of listening carefully to the Boeing’s cockpit recordings. The picture he composes from all this is likely the definitive one, and one of the best things about reading Lang’s work is that he knows this, and the knowledge frees him to widen his perspective periodically throughout the piece, like this aria he indulges in while writing about the crash site deep in the jungle:

The scene was grim. One hundred and fifty-four people had died. They were innocent men, women, and children. People are insignificant blips on the scale of history, but these had not died peacefully, as one might wish. They had endured a period of absolute terror, and had been torn apart by the force of the impact.

About the natives he writes:

The Caiapos wanted to help. Their shaman was with them. The heavens had rained ruin onto their trees. They did not believe that people are insignificant blips in history. They believed that in a parallel world in the forest 154 tortured souls were crying out for tending.

Lang can only barely manage to control his scorn for stupidity whenever he encounters it (this quality informs many of his tartest, most memorable moments from his reporting on America’s various Wars on Terror), but his singular grace as a writer is that he doesn’t set out in any story intent of finding stupidity; he cares about his subjects right up until the moment when they convince him not to.

He’s quick to note the showy benefits of the Legacy 600 (which, he writes, “by political, ethical, and environmental measures are abhorrent creations”): “a cockpit with the latest in electronics and instrumentation, including a Flight Management System computer, ultra-accurate G.P.S. receivers, strong radios, a superb autopilot, and the ultimate in on-board collision avoidance devices.” In other words, this small private plane was better-equipped, in terms of technology, than any of those massive commercial airliners we read about last time.

This particular Legacy 600 also came with two pilots – Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino – about whom Lang is always scrupulously fair, despite the fact that the 2006 press almost immediately fixed the blame for the crash on them. The Devil is “lurking just out of sight,” but as Lang sets the stage, it’s the machinery as much as the men that might be at fault:

The cockpit was a cocoon. Lepore and Paladino were operating an inherently simple jet that had been stuffed with electronic capabilities – most of them nested, and therefore hidden from immediate view. The nest of flight information, much of it non-essential, is a development now several decades old and somewhat out of control. It is driven on the one hand by market pressures to create clean cockpit displays, and on the other hand by the technological possibilities offered to overly enthusiastic designers and engineers. The problem for pilots is the idiosyncratic architecture of the systems that are created, the need to fathom the logic that has been applied, and the reliance on manuals laced with invented terminology to which practitioners are expected to submit their minds. In principle a pilot with sufficient time and patience can figure it all out in advance, but such pilots are rare, and Lepore and Paladino were not among them.

What emerges as the central cause of the tragedy that followed is a heartrending combination of preventables: Lepore and Paladino didn’t fully understand the technology of the jet they were flying but they thought they did, and Brazilian air traffic control didn’t fully understand the limits of that jet’s technology but they thought they did. When the Legacy’s computer re-aligned its flight altitude, when the Legacy’s transponder stopped transmitting, when Lepore and Paladino failed to see crucial indicators in their own cockpit, when Brazilian official Sergeant dos Santos misunderstood … all these little might-haves begin to pile up, and it’s Lang’s sad task to sift through them all. He lays a large degree of blame on dos Santos, but he’s searching further anyway:

… when the Legacy crossed overhead Brasilia and turned left to track the airway, the second altitude display automatically switched to 36,000 feet, the original flight plan’s proposal and a conventional level for the new direction of flight. Apparently, dos Santos took this to mean that the legacy had been instructed to descend, though he was the controller in charge and had made no such request. Mysteriously, he then ignored the indicator of the Legacy’s actual altitude – the transponder return, which showed the airplane still level at 37,000 feet. Against solid indications to the contrary, he believed the Legacy had descended to 36,000 feet.

Lepore and Paladino might have informed him otherwise, if they’d noticed the change or understood what it meant or perceived that it was their job to tell somebody about it, but none of that happened, and the result was the two planes whose onboard computers had them flying the same airway at the same altitude came together in the vastness of the open sky. For dramatic effect (of which he’s a master), Lang draws near to that collision a couple of times and pulls away, and when he finally details it, you stop breathing while you read:

The Legacy came streaking at the Boeing about 30 to the left of the fuselage and 2 feet lower. The displacement was infinitesimal on the scale of the sky, and a measure of impressive navigational precision. The Legacy’s winglet acted like a vertically held knife, slicing through the Boeing’s left wing about half-way out and severing the wing’s internal spar. The outboard section of the wing whipped upward, stripping skin as it went, then separated entirely, spiraling over the fuselage and demolishing much of the Boeing’s tail. In the Boeing’s cockpit, the sequence sounded like a car crash. Instantly the Boeing twisted out of control, corkscrewing violently to the left and pitching straight down into a rotating vertical dive. The cockpit filled with alarms – an urgent klaxon and a robotic voice insistently warning, Bank angle! Bank angle! Bank angle! as if the crew might need the advice. Back in the cabin the passengers screamed and shouted. The pilots reacted as one might expect, fighting desperately to regain control. They probably did not know what had gone wrong. They certainly never mentioned it. What is unusual is that they also did not swear. Ten seconds into the dive, one of them did cry, “Aye!,” but the other urged him to stay calm. “Calma!” he said, and seconds later he said it again. If pilots must die in an airplane, all would choose to finish so well.

The technological heart of the tragedy here was in its infancy back in 1977, when a National Geographic writer could confidently call “more gadgets” the best, safest path of the future. Because it was gadgets – and the average pilot’s over-reliance on them – that made this 2006 mid-air collision possible:

Until recently, head-on airplanes mistakenly assigned the same altitude and route by Air Traffic Control would almost certainly have passed some distance apart, due to the navigation slop inherent in their systems. But this is no longer true. The problem for the Legacy was that the Boeing coming at them on the same assigned flight path had equipment that was every bit as precise.

This brings Lang to the conclusion of his stirring piece, and I’ll let him have the last word here after urging all of you never to miss a magazine article by this man. He’s one of the best in the business:

I asked the Caiapos to consider that in all the sky above the forest only these two airplanes had been in flight. It was as if in a space the size of the Caiapo village – no, all the way out to the road – you had shot two arrows in opposing directions, and they had collided. What were the odds? In the past it never would have happened. Even if you had assigned them identical flight paths, the arrows would have passed some distance apart because of the inherent inaccuracies of flight. But now better feathers have been invented, and have become required equipment for the high-speed designs. As a result, the new arrows are extraordinarily accurate, which allows more of them to be shot around, but with increasing reliance on tightly-coupled systems of control. The sky is just as big as it ever was, but the margin for error has shrunk. And when the systems fail? That is what happened over the Caiapos’ land. The paradox was precision. Mistakes were made, and the Devil played, and two arrows touched nose to nose.

October 14th, 2006

In the Penny Press! St. Gore and the Jews!

The latest issue of Vanity Fair is a perfect demonstration of why I don’t dismiss this title, despite its copious fashion-spreads and noxious perfume-samples. This issue abounds in content.

The single best piece in it, the one that glowingly deserves to be anthologized, is William Langewiesche (hello? heard of a pen-name, Bill Lang?)’s article on the Haditha massacre in November 2005. Some of you will remember the incident and its subsequent headlines: a land mine kills a 20-year-old Marine, and his fellow Marines proceed to kill 24 Iraqi men, women, and children in apparent retaliation.

Lang is a terrific writer, and in this piece he’s at the top of his form. He writes about the Marine company in the moments before the bomb blast:

Were they alert? Sure, why not, but another fact of life is that you cannot see much out of an armored Humvee, and even if you could, you have no chance of identifying the enemy until you first come under attack. You’ve got all these weapons, and you’ve been told you’re a mighty warrior, a Spartan, but what are you going to shoot – the dogs? You’re a Marine without a beach. So you sit zipped into a filthy Humvee, trusting the guys up on the guns to watch the rooftops and the traffic on the road, trusting your driver to keep his eyes on the ground ahead, holding your M16 muzzle-up between your knees, calming enduring the ride. The radio crackles. Your head bobs with the bumps. You don’t talk much. There’s not much to say. If you’re dumb you trust your luck. If you’re smart you’re fatalistic. Either way it usually works out fine.

Of course on this particular morning things did not work out fine, and Lang spends the rest of his great article thoroughly excavating why. His prose is fluid and disarmingly muscular in a way designed to circumvent dated topicality and live a long time:

The problem is what happened next, after a quick search revealed that the car [all of whose occupants were shot dead by the Marines] contained no weapons or explosives, or any other evidence that linked the men to the insurgency. The Iraqis perhaps should have been held for a while, or better yet, allowed to take their car and leave. Instead, all five of them were shot dead by the Marines. Later, the Marines reported that they killed them because they had started to run away. Even if true, by normal standards this raises the question of what threat these men could have posed when they were fleeing unarmed – or at least what threat could have justified shooting them down. But in Iraq the question was moot, and for reasons that give significance to the Haditha story beyond mere crime and punishment. The first and simplest reason is that, because of reluctance to second-guess soldiers in a fight, the rules of engagement allow for such liberal interpretations of threat that in practice they authorize the killing of even unarmed military-age men who are running away. The second reason derives from the first. it is that the killing of civilians has become so commonplace that the report of these particular ones barely roused notice as it moved up the chain of command in Iraq. War is fog, civilians die, and these fools should not have tried to escape.

Luckily, not everything in the issue is so grim as this. In a delightful piece, British historian Lady Antonia Fraser shares the diary she kept during the making of Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette,’ which was in part based on Fraser’s recent biography of the last queen of France. Reading the article, one wishes Evelyn Waugh were still alive: there’s a delicious novel to be written from this material: the hugely authoritative British historian’s encounter with the fizz and glimmer of Hollywood in the form of a bubblegum-popping like-whatever teen director and her equally-ditzy cast (Jason Schwartzman, with his list of questions in a notebook and his lament about all the eating he has to do in the movie – “I have to eat mounds of pheasants and things which they don’t make in tofu” – is particularly giggle-inducing). Judi Dench could play Fraser, and of course Kirsten Dunst would be Coppola’s stand-in.

Some of the author’s diary-entries made me groan, for different reasons. For instance, when she relates how Coppola asked her at one point, “Did they have something like cocaine then? What was snuff?” – and then mentions that many of these moronic outbursts happened via e-mail, I wanted to scream – not just at how stupid the questions were, but at the fact that I don’t have Fraser’s e-mail! Lady Antonia, if you’re reading this, drop me a line! Not all Americans are spoiled Hollywood royalty!

Another groaner was Fraser’s disparagement of a previous movie made from one of her books, “Mary Queen of Scots” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, which Fraser calls “remarkably dull.” She says:

“As the rival royal ladies, Elizabeth and Mary, Glenda Jackson trumpeted and Vanessa Redgrave emoted, and there was no historical reality – or any other. One felt complete indifference to the story.”

Not so! Not so, Lady Antonia! “Mary Queen of Scots” is a very good movie, and although I MIGHT agree that Redgrave’s performance is a trifle wandering, Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth is nothing less than a cinematic triumph, in every way as brilliant and joyful as Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Henry VIII in “A Man for All Seasons.”

Ultimately, Fraser ends up liking the movie:

“Certainly the thing I had worried about didn’t matter at all. i simply forgot about the varied accents, for example: such things matter only, I suspect, in a bad or boring film.”

Speaking of bad and boring films, this issue also includes an excerpt from Gore Vidal’s upcoming memoir Point to Point Navigation about his friendship with Italian director Federico Fellini.

The piece starts off evenly, but my instincts were trembling nonetheless. Over the years, unopposed by friends and unattacked in the public fora, Vidal has slowly devolved from a witty raconteur to a cranky, self-deluded, egotistical crackpot, and I found myself wondering how long it would take for that to crop up in this piece.

One paragraph, it turns out. The second paragraph begins thus:

Over the years we saw each other from time to time, usually when he wanted something.

This is the nature of Vidal’s degeneration: he’s become in his own mind (and, since he’s a writer, in print) the Lone Voice of Reason, crying out in the wilderness. In every anecdote nowadays, he’s the one who was right all along, the one who secretly got everything done, the power behind every throne. Stories about Georgetown parties he couldn’t get into have morphed over time into stories about Georgetown parties in whose pantries he was elbow-to-elbow with a hapless JFK, doling out advice.

In this excerpt, Fellini is a hysterical, incomprehensible gnome and Vidal himself is a combination of Jeeves and James Bond:

“He rang me one day. ‘We must meet immediately.’ He came to Largo Argentina, all smiles of a guileless, child-like nature. ‘Giorino, is problem.’

‘Casanova?’ I made a guess.

‘How you know?’ Eyes wide with alarm as if I were a master of dark arts. His inability to finance a film about Casanova had been for some time on the front pages of the Italian press. I gazed thoughtfully into an imaginary crystal ball. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘is Casanova. I need $1 million to begin. Paramount will give it on condition …’

‘That you shoot in direct sound from a script in English.’

He nearly made the sign to ward off the evil eye. ‘YOU know ALL this?’

There’s quite a bit of this, all equally nauseating (I don’t know which detail of the above exchange I like better: that the world-famous director would of course go to Vidal’s place instead of vice-versa, or the condescending, imperialist caricature of an Italian director who didn’t know what story had been ‘for some time on the front pages of the Italian press’) Even Vidal’s remaining fans (are there any, apart from the man himself?) will be hard-pressed to stomach a whole book of this self-serving tripe.

But far, far less palatable is Michael Wolff’s piece in this same issue. It’s called “Slurs and Arrows,” and its nominal subject is anti-Semitism – and how it’s in DECLINE.

Yes, you read that right. Take a moment to collect yourselves, and then we’ll move on.

Wolff touches on the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman, on Gunter Grass’ confession of his Nazi past, and of course on Mel Gibson’s Malibu meltdown. And from that starting-point he quickly goes to places that are so jaw-dropping you don’t know whether to laugh before or after you’re offended:

The point is that hate, or, rather, being hated, is good for business. one is defined by one’s enemies. Your enemies – as all fund-raiser know – are money in the bank.

We’ll never know (thankfully) the internal processes that make such an appalling sentence possible, but Wolff has more, much more, in store:

Anyway, it could mean, this love affair between the Jews and the political establishment, between the Jews and the right-wing political establishment, that, really, arguably, for the first time in history, we have entered a truly post-anti-Semitic age.

Surely, surely that sentence would rank high on two different lists: Things Surely Written by a Gentile, and Things Surely Written by an Anti-Semite.

So we’ll close out this edition of In the Penny Press on that totally surreal note, so glib and crazy that no amount of odium is too much for it: we’re finally done with anit-Semitism! Somebody email Israel and let them know that crackerjack military of theirs isn’t necessary anymore!

Geez. The things you read in magazines…