Flying

Getting heard on the internet

 Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Someone once told me that the ideal size for a human community is something in the order of 500 people.  Apparently that was the average size of a village or community back in the day, and it meant that every person pretty much knew everyone else.  Neighbours would know each other and look out for one another when they were sick or in need.  Anyone who tried to misbehave or act out was generally known, and quickly brought back into line by the collective, because everyone had a stake in the wellbeing and survival of the community.

Yesterday I was introduced to a new 'game' online at paperplanes.world (Tip: Visit it on your mobile browser).  It is a beautifully designed, simple site which lets you make paper planes, stamp them with your location and 'launch' them out into the internet.  You can also 'catch' planes that others have launched, look at where they have been by the stamps on it, then stamp it with your own location and relaunch it back into the virtual skies again.

It is fascinating to see where some planes have been in their travels, and also exciting to see where you planes will end up.

A deceptively simple game, but it was all the more engrossing to me, as it took me back to my childhood loves of building, discovering and connecting with others.

When I first signed on to the game yesterday, there were around 100,000 planes flying around this virtual world.  I launched a few, and caught many.  Most of the ones I caught were filled with stamps, showing the number of people who had caught it in the past.

But today when I went back online, there were around 400,000 planes flying around.  Quadruple what it was yesterday.  I caught a few planes, but noted that nearly all of them had only one stamp - from the originator who built and launched the plane in the first place.

Somewhere along the line, the balance tipped.  When I started, I felt an instant connectedness to the others playing the game, because the planes I launched had a good chance of being caught, and the planes that I caught had been stamped by so many others.

But now, any planes I launched into the ether would likely just buzz endlessly around the world, lonely and ignored in the huge stream of lost and lonely paper planes.  That connectedness that I once experienced is now severely diluted in the increasing noise.

I can only imagine that the players who started in this game when there were only a few hundred planes flying around would have a different argument - that they were catching the same planes over and over again, and had little chance of seeing a plane from the other side of the world.

I feel exactly the same when it comes to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Medium.

The early days of the platform means that what you say is easily visible to other early adopters, and the feedback and conversations you have will be meaningful and rich.  But over time, the increasing crowds initially is exciting, as you perceive your audience and reach growing, but there comes a time when your uniqueness and individuality (and sense of self importance) within that ecosystem is simply diluted away to something generic.

That is why, in my latest startup SaaS app, I am not going for large numbers of users, but rather a quality community.  We recently removed our free plans to further accomplish this goal.  I am proud when asked, to say that my users number in the hundreds, instead of six or seven figure mark.  At this stage I still know virtually all my users by name, and support tickets can still stay personalised and friendly.  My users are not statistics on a spreadsheet.  They are part of my village.

As for the paper planes game, I have changed my thinking there too.  I no longer make and launch planes into the already crowded skies.  Nowadays I am happy to simply capture other people planes, stamp them and send them on.  I now relish catching planes with only a single stamp on them, because I feel that when I stamp them and send them on, in effect I am saying "This lonely plane matters, and I hope it has a great journey".  Somewhere in the world, someone will check their stats on their launched planes, and I hope it gives them a brief spark of connection with a guy in remote Australia.

MH370 - My theory on what happened

 9M-MRO - the Boeing 777 which carried out flight MH370

9M-MRO - the Boeing 777 which carried out flight MH370

Looks like everyone with a blog is posting their theories and speculation about the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flight MH370 these past few weeks, so I thought I would add my theory to already massive pile.

This is certainly a sad accident, and that is what I believe it is - an accident.  Sorry, no conspiracy theories or other wild speculation here.  This is what I think happened.

Cast your mind back a few years to the Qantas QF30 incident, where an oxygen bottle exploded in the hold of the Boeing 747, punching debris up through the floor of the aircraft into the passenger cabin, as well as blowing an enormous hole in the fuselage just forward of the wing root.  Thankfully the crew managed to get the aircraft on ground safely and no one was killed in the incident.

On the 747, the oxygen bottles are mounted vertically in the hold, so when this one exploded, it punched downwards and out of the aircraft..  On the 777, the crew oxygen bottle in the forward compartment is mounted horizontally.  If that oxygen bottle should explode in a similar way to the one on QF30, the bottle could shoot either forwards or backwards.  If it shot forwards, it would punch through the electronics bay where the transponder, radio, and other electronic hardware is located.  A punctured oxygen bottle being blasted through this compartment could cause a flash fire in the O2 rich environment.  Next stop for the bottle is the curvature of the nose of the aircraft, which could not stop it from punching through the thin skin, thus causing an immediate decompression of the aircraft hull.

Could the 'descending ball of flame' spotted by the worker on the oil rig have actually been the oxygen canister on fire, spinning down to the sea after it punched through the nose of the 777?

Back to the aircraft - the crew would have heard the explosion, alarms would have gone off and they would have been alerted to the fact that the cabin was now depressurised.  One of their first action items would have been to don oxygen masks.  In the clamour of an emergency, they may not have looked at the oxygen gauges and noticed that their masks were now useless as the O2 cylinder supplying them was now falling away into the sea.  At 35,000 feet cruising altitude, they would only have about 2 minutes of useful consciousness left.

In the hold, the fire caused by the exploding bottle would gradually take out the radios, the transponder and other electronics over the space of a few minutes, hence possibly explaining the time differences for the transponder going offline.

Their first thought would have been to turn back to a friendly port.  The aircraft was still on autopilot, so they could have used the FMC (flight management computer) to begin programming a course that would take them back.  The FMC would already have a series of preset flight paths in it, and one of the quickest ways of programming the device is to call up an existing flight path, then remove the surplus waypoints that you don't need and then program in a destination airport.

I am thinking that the crew began this process, but did not have time to finish the programming as they succumbed to hypoxia.  They never got to delete the spurious waypoints and set an airport.  The aircraft continued to dumbly fly the programmed path which eventually took it out over the Indian Ocean where it ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean.

NOTE: There is a function on the FMC to quickly select the nearest alternate airport to divert to with a couple of clicks, but possibly the crew were already feeling the onset of hypoxia which degraded their capacity for mental reasoning?

As for the altitude changes?  I think that was just the aircraft 'porpoising' as most aircraft do without positive control inputs.  Remember, the aircraft may have been under control of the flight management system laterally, but not vertically, as that is a separate system that needs to be programmed and engaged.  (A modern jetliner autopilot actually consists of about 8 to 10 different systems that are coupled together to fly the airplane).

The 777 is a large and stable plane, and it could have gone into a slow climb, which would have bled airspeed off, causing the nose to drop and the aircraft to descend, which would have built up airspeed, causing the nose to rise and the aircraft to climb again, causing the airspeed to bleed off, resulting... You get the picture.  The aircraft would just continue to climb and descend, albeit over possibly hundreds of miles for each cycle.  The up and down movements would have been uncontrolled, whereas the turns left and right would have been decisively commanded by the FMC's partly programmed path, which may account for the 'ghost' radar blip that seemed to turn and follow the standard IFR waypoints.

As for the passengers, they would have been on their own emergency oxygen supply for about 15 minutes.  That is normally enough time for the pilots to get the plane back down under 10,000 feet which is considered a safe level in an unpressurised aircraft.  However, as the crew were quickly overcome by their own lack of oxygen within 2 minutes, they never got to begin the controlled descent, so the passengers would have run out of O2 and eventually succumbed to hypoxia themselves.

NOTE: Hypoxia is not the horrible gasping for breath or choking that Hollywood likes to promote.  You at first feel tipsy, like you have had one too many wines, then you feel sleepy and a bit cold, then you fall asleep and never wake up.  It is painless and fairly quick.  The passengers would not have felt a thing and everyone on the aircraft in high probability were already long dead by the time the 777 ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean around 5 hours later.

There are questions about why there were no phone calls from the passengers.  The simple answer is that over the sea where the incident first happened, there are no mobile cell towers, so there would have been no signal.  I would say though, that most passengers would have been alerted out of their slumber by the initial explosion and decompression, and a large majority of them would have turned on their phones to try and call loved ones.

Unfortunately, if the above scenario played out, they would have all been unconscious or already dead by the time the aircraft crossed back over Malaysia and was in range of cell towers again.  Given that we don't know what altitude the aircraft was at when it traversed Malaysia and Sumatra, it was probably still too high for passenger phones to connect to mobile towers, but I am hoping that someone runs a trace on the SIM cards of the passenger phones to see if any of them attempted a connection with the mobile networks of Malaysia or Indonesia in the hour or so after they initially lost contact with the aircraft.

So there it is - that's my theory which seems to fit with the current pattern of events as the world knows.  It is purely speculation and a series of educated guesses, but I think it is the most likely explanation.  I know it is of little or no comfort to those poor families who are awaiting news of their loved ones.

It may be years before the black boxes are found (if ever), but I hope one day someone managed to piece together what happened on that fateful night flight.