Brazil’s plane disaster – Safer air travel surely makes economic sense?

The landing of the Space Shuttle is a true spectacle. Nearly everyone has watched how these big parachutes deploy and decelerate such a massive “flying brick”. So why can’t all planes be designed to carry similar parachutes, to be deployed only on the rare occasions where there’s not enough runway left, and the plane is about to crash.

Of course the sheer volume of today’s mastodons of the sky may pose physical and stress problems either on the hull of the airplanes or the strings of the parachutes. But new resistant and elastic materials can be tested for the parachutes strings and mechanical engineering inventiveness can probably solve hull problems.

As for the exact timing of the deployment of these huge parachutes, it can be arranged by sensors along the runway and a simple computer calculating the speed of the plane once it reaches a certain point near the end of the runway. At the critical moment, this same computer will issue an alert signal forcing the on-board plane computers to release the parachutes, thus averting disaster. Naturally some kind of security mechanism must be installed to prevent such a release if the plane is airborne.

It has been disappointing to learn that such a technologically advanced nation such as the US has not come up with more than simple barriers at the end of the runway designed to take off the wheels and force the plane to skid on its hull, creating more drag. (CNN report this morning)

This type of accident has happened once too often, and stop-gap measures are not enough. American ingenuity has created the method used by planes landing on aircraft carriers: the grappling hook catching an elastic line. Why not try something similar? Or how about setting up rows of elastic nets strung across the end of each runway? God knows there are enough old airplanes to test whatever theory they can think of!

Are economical concerns hampering safety and security? It would be understandable that, in today’s cut-throat aerospace market, every expense must be weighed. Perhaps a concerted effort between governments or aiport authorities and aircraft manufacturers can provide a solution and make air travel safer. Expendiency should not trump reliability. And please have the runway at Sao Paolo grooved!

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