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7 Horrifying Aircraft Landings (in which no one died)

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Many people board an airplane flight thinking that if anything goes wrong, they will probably die. We board anyway, knowing that the odds of something going wrong are pretty small. In these seven stories, hundreds of passengers thought it was the end for them, but thanks to skilled pilots and crew members (and a fair amount of luck), they all survived to fly again. If they ever wanted to.

1. British Airways Flight 38

Beijing to London
16 crew, 136 passengers
January 17, 2008

On approach to Heathrow airport, the plane began to drop faster than it should. The engines had lost all power, and pilot Peter Burkill had to glide the Boeing 777 in to avoid crashing into the houses of West London. Observers on the ground were horrified at how low the plane came in. There was not enough time to warn passengers before the plane hit the grass short of the runway, and crashed. Four crew members and 15 passengers were injured, but there were no fatalities. The most serious injury was a broken leg. The cause of the crash was later found to be ice crystals in the fuel. Procedures have since been developed to deal with such an occurrence. Image by Marc-Antony Payne.

2. British Airways Flight 9

London to Auckland
15 crew, 248 passengers
June 24, 1982


On the leg of the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, the Boeing 747 ran into a volcanic eruption! Mount Galunggung threw a cloud of volcanic ash into the air, enveloping the plane. The ash was glowing with heat, and sulphuric smoke filled the plane. One by one, all four engines failed. Captain Eric Moody made an announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.

Moody put the plane into a dive to restore oxygen to the cabins. One by one, the four engines came back to life, although one failed again. The crew had to land the plane at Jakarta, even though visibility was bad due to the damaged windscreen. However, the landing was perfect and no one was injured in the incident. An investigation revealed that the cloud of volcanic ash did not show up on radar because it lacked moisture. Pilots are now trained to look for signs of volcanic eruption.

3. FedEx Flight 705

Memphis to San Jose
3 crew, 1 hijacker
April 7, 1994


Fedex flight engineer Auburn Calloway hitched a ride on the DC10 cargo plane, but did not plan to land safely. He planned to attack the crew members, crash the plane into the Fedex terminal, and let his family collect on his life insurance. Calloway knew he was soon to lose his job at Fedex and wanted to punish the company as well as provide for his family. Calloway entered the cockpit and attacked first officer Jim Tucker and flight engineer Andy Peterson with a claw hammer. Then he went for captain David Sanders, but the other two men, despite injuries, fought back and the three drove Calloway out of the cockpit. He returned with a speargun. Tucker and Peterson were seriously injured, and could barely fight back. As Sanders tried to control Calloway, Jim Tucker rolled the plane to throw Calloway off balance.

The DC-10 was executing a barrel-roll at nearly 400 miles per hour—something the aircraft had never been designed to do. Peterson and Sanders were shouting "Get him! Get him!" to each other, as the three struggling men were tossed about the galley area, alternately weightless and pressed upon by three times their weight in G forces. By now, the aircraft was inverted at 19,700 feet, and the alarmed air traffic controllers in Memphis were desperately calling for Flight 705

Tucker put the plane through more bizarre maneuvers to avoid more violence. He sent the plane into a dive past 500 miles per hour -faster than any DC10 had ever flown before. This was not intentional; Tucker's head injuries made his right hand useless at the controls. He managed to pull out of the dive. By this time, the Memphis terminal had cleared all runways for an emergency landing, although the ground crew did not know what was happening in the plane. Tucker landed the plane with Sanders and Peterson holding Calloway down on the floor. Calloway received a life sentence for air piracy and attempted murder. All three members of the flight crew sustained life-changing injuries and can no longer fly commercially.  The story was told in a book called Hijacked. Pictured is David Sanders receiving emergency treatment.

4. Air Canada Flight 143

Montreal to Edmonton
8 crew, 61 passengers
July 23, 1983


The Air Canada flight took off as scheduled despite the notice that the fuel gauges were not working. Although there were manual checks, there wasn't enough fuel to complete the flight. At 41,000 feet, fuel pressure indicators went off, and captain Bob Pearson decided to divert to Winnipeg. One engine gave out, then the other, and the Boeing 767 was just gliding. The tiny airport at Gimli was closer than Winnipeg, so the jumbo jet aimed in that direction. Pearson did not know that one of the airstrips at Gimli had been converted to a public racetrack and was in use that day. As the plane landed and skidded across 2,900 feet, spectators scattered as fast as they could. The ten injuries from the rough landing were minor. This Boeing 767 later became known as the Gimli Glider. There was not much danger of a fire upon landing, as all three fuel tanks on the plane were completely empty. An investigation of the incident found that the pilots and mechanics were at fault and that airline management contributed to the chain of errors that led to the plane taking off with insufficient fuel.

5. British Airways Flight 5390

Birmingham, England to Malaga, Spain
6 crew, 81 passengers
June 10, 1990


The quality of every part of an airplane is crucial to safety. Before flight 5390 took off, the left cockpit windscreen had been replaced by a technician who used the wrong size bolts. At 17,300 feet, the window blew out. Captain Tim Lancaster had just removed his seat belt and had set the plane to autopilot. The sudden loss of pressure sucked Lancaster out the window! His body was outside the plane while his feet became entangled in the controls, which disconnected the autopilot. Flight attendant Nigel Ogden grabbed the captain and tried to pull him back into the plane. Copilot Alistair Atcheson took control of the plane and sent it into a dive to an altitude where the pressure could be stabilized. Chief steward John Heward helped Ogden hold onto the pilot's legs. They could not pull him in due to the raging wind and cold temperatures at 11,000 feet. The crew, assuming Lancaster was dead, considered letting the pilot's body go, but decided that was too risky as it could be sucked into an engine or damage a wing. Besides, he was partially blocking the hole where the window once was. Atcheson landed the plane at Southampton, despite the fact that the airport's runway was shorter than recommended for the BAC 1-11 aircraft. Then the unexpected happened -captain Lancaster came to! He was hospitalized with a broken right arm and wrist and a broken left thumb as well as frostbite and shock. Minor injuries, considering he had ridden on the outside of an airliner at high altitudes for 18 minutes. Lancaster was the only person injured in the incident. He recovered and returned to flying a few months later.

6. China Airlines Flight 006

Taipei to Los Angeles
February 19, 1985
25 crew, 243 passengers


Ten hours into its flight, one of the Boeing 747's engines failed. The pilots did not follow procedures to balance the remaining engines and the plane went into a dive from 41,000 feet. Passengers were exposed to a force of 5Gs as the plane dove 30,000 feet! They dropped six miles in two minutes. Pieces of metal flew off the plane as it rolled and dived. The pilots could not orient themselves with the horizon until they were under the clouds at 11,000 feet, and regained control by 9,600 feet. The failed engine was restarted, and the aircraft made an emergency landing in San Francisco. There were only two people injured in the incident. Jet lag is thought to have been a contributing factor in the incident.

7. US Airways Flight 1549

New York to Charlotte, North Carolina
5 crew, 150 passengers
January 15, 2009


Just after takeoff from LaGuardia airport, the Airbus 320 ran into a flock of geese. Birds were sucked into the engines and they lost thrust. Visibility was down because of birds splattered against the windscreen. Captain Chesley Sullenberger requested a return to LaGuardia, then realizing they wouldn't make it, requested a landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Within seconds, Sullenberger knew they wouldn't make it that far either, and guided the plane into the Hudson River. The crew evacuated the passengers, who stood on the wings until they were picked up by the many commercial, private, and rescue boats who responded. Seventy-eight people had minor injuries, mostly from the evacuation. It was later called the most successful plane ditching ever.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]