When Flying, Why is Taking Off More Dangerous Than Landing?


Why is taking off more dangerous than landing?

Tom Farrier:

Landing is generally considered quite a bit more hazardous (and requires a bit more exacting handling), but both takeoffs and landings can have their challenges. Still, aircraft like to fly; sometimes it can be a little tricky to encourage them to stop doing so at the end of a flight, especially in the presence of unpredictable winds or slippery runways.

This is a graphic from my favorite go-to reference on commercial aircraft accidents, updated annually by Boeing but including all airliner accidents:

The shaded area under the aircraft silhouette shows the amount of time an aircraft spends in each “phase of flight.” At the top, there are two numbers worth looking at carefully. Final approach and landing is when 48 percent—essentially half—of all fatal accidents that have occurred from 1959 through 2016. By contrast, taking off and starting to climb is only about a quarter as hazardous (13 percent). These ratios used to be somewhat different; takeoffs used to see their share of accidents a lot more frequently than today.

The biggest challenge with taking off in the early days of jet airliners was the rate at which they could accelerate during their takeoff roll. Often, a lot of time was required between when the aircraft passed the speed at which the pilots were committed to taking off (V1) and when the jet actually could get into the air with a positive rate of climb. When an emergency would suddenly present itself in that window of vulnerability, sometimes there were no good options, and sometimes the pilots picked the wrong one.

One of the biggest ways pilots (and flight engineers in aircraft that use them) have to earn their paychecks is when something bad happens during a takeoff roll and they have to decide whether to continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air, or if the situation is critical enough that it’d be preferable to wrestle the fuel-laden beast on the ground and risk going off the end of the runway.

To try to address the need for added clarity in such situations, some of these early accidents led to recognition of the need for establishing a second speed benchmark (V2), which is the point at which the aircraft is going fast enough to make a successful takeoff with one engine out. Bear in mind that a lot of the biggest early jets had four engines, none of which was nearly as powerful as the current generation (some actually used water injection systems to boost their thrust during takeoff), and which suffered failures a lot more often.

“Rejected takeoffs” are pretty rare occurrences these days, and airport design has gotten better at minimizing the consequences of an aircraft running off the end of a runway if circumstances conspire to make things exciting for its inhabitants. For example, "engineered material arresting systems” are basically long slabs of pavement designed to collapse under the weight of an aircraft, grabbing hold of it and bringing it to a fairly enthusiastic stop.

This may not sound desirable, but some of the places EMAS has been installed (including Boston’s Logan and New York’s LaGuardia Airports) have seen more than their share of aircraft in trouble winding up in bodies of water during what are euphemistically (but accurately) referred to as “runway excursions.”

Such departures can happen either during takeoff or landing emergencies, and it’s nice to know that the chances of surviving both have been improved significantly with one ingenious invention.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Could an Astronaut Steal a Rocket and Lift Off, Without Mission Control?


C Stuart Hardwick:

Not with any rocket that has ever thus far carried a person into orbit from Earth, no. Large rockets are complex, their launch facilities are complex, their trajectories are complex, and the production of their propellants is complex.

Let me give you one simple example:

  • Let’s say astro-Sally is the last woman on Earth, and is fully qualified to fly the Saturn-V.
  • Further, let’s say the Rapture (which as I understand it, is some sort of hip-hop induced global catastrophe that liquefies all the people) has left a Saturn-V sitting on the pad, raring to go.
  • Further, let’s grant that, given enough time, astro-Sally can locate sufficient documentation to operate the several dozen controls needed to pump the first stage propellant tanks full of kerosene.
  • Now what? Oxidizer, right? Wrong. First, she has to attend to the batteries, oxygen, hydrogen, and helium pressurant tanks in her spacecraft, otherwise it’s going to be a short, final flight. And she’ll need to fill the hypergolics for the spacecraft propulsion and maneuvering systems. If she screws that up, the rocket will explode with her crawling on it. If she gets a single drop of either of these on her skin or in her lungs, she’ll die.
  • But okay, maybe all the hypergolics were already loaded (not safe, but possible) and assume she manages to get the LOX, H2, and HE tanks ready without going Hindenburg all over the Cape.
  • And…let’s just say Hermione Granger comes back from the Rapture to work that obscure spell, propellantus preparum.
  • All set, right? Well, no. See, before any large rocket can lift off, the water quench system must be in operation. Lift off without it, and the sound pressure generated by the engines will bounce off the pad, cave in the first stage, and cause 36 stories of rocket to go “boom.”
  • So she searches the blockhouse and figures out how to turn on the water quench system, then hops in the director’s Tesla (why not?) and speeds out to the pad, jumps in the lift, starts up the gantry—and the water quench system runs out of water ... Where’d she think that water comes from? Fairies? No, it comes from a water tower—loaded with an ample supply for a couple of launch attempts. Then it must be refilled.

Now imagine how much harder this would all be with the FBI on your tail.

Can a rocket be built that’s simple enough and automated enough to be susceptible to theft? Sure. Have we done so? Nope. The Soyuz is probably the closest—being highly derived from an ICBM designed to be “easy” to launch, but even it’s really not very close.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.


More from mental floss studios