Criminal Negligence in the Air?

This article is based on a detailed investigation by the Panorama program of the BBC, carried out by Richard Bilton, of the crashes of Boeing 737 MAX planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 330 people.   In both cases the same scenario occurred, namely the nose of the plane repeatedly pointed downwards, forcing the pilots to try to pull up in order to regain control.  However, in both cases they were unable to do so and the plane crashed into the ground soon after takeoff killing everyone aboard.  Neither plane was old or had any apparent defect.  So what caused the crashes?

Unknown to most pilots and not included in the plane’s several hundred page manual, the planes were equipped with a new supposedly safety system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that is a feature of the Boeing 737 MAX computer flight control system that attempts to provide automatic pitch control of the plane.  In other words, if the plane is rising too fast the MCAS is supposed to level it off.  But, in fact the system, which was not thoroughly tested before deployment, tends to pitch the plane downwards when it is in level flight.  Thus after takeoff in both cases, the planes’s pitch oscillated dangerously leading to the crash.

The official Boeing response to the crashes was that it was a series of events with no one single cause.  This is not what the investigations carried out so far reveal.  In other words, the MCAS system is considered the direct cause and the fact that the pilots of the MAX had little or no idea what was happening and what MCAS was doing resulted in catastrophe because they were unable to deal with the repeated violent downward tilt of the plane.

The question is not only how Boeing could allow such a potentially dangerous system to be installed on their planes that takes over from the pilots with almost no warning, but how the FAA, the US Federal Aviation Administration, could have approved these planes as airworthy, and why Boeing, knowing they had installed this system, did not immediately ground the MAX fleet after the first Indonesian crash, thus condemning a further 149 passengers to death?  These issues will be fought out in court, and several criminal and civil cases are pending.  All I can say is it is a shock to all of us who fly and assume that our safety is given first priority.  The outcome for Boeing is that their whole MAX fleet is now grounded and they are in a very difficult financial situation.  The moral is safety first and always! 


Short Trips Around Small Countries: Summary

In recent blog posts I have described my short trips around some small countries, namely: Holland, Wales, Norway, Japan, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland, Jordan and Israel.  In addition I have previously described my trips around Croatia (June 14-15, 2012) and Portugal (May 13, 2013).  That’s 11 countries.  I could also describe Greece, and Hong Kong, but have decided to stop for now..

I have also visited some not-so-small countries: England (where I grew up), India, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Serbia, Australia, Canada and the USA (where I lived for 30 years) But, it is not my intention to write about these large countries.

Places I have not visited include Central and South America (Costa Rica, Uruguay, Paraguay), China, South East Asia (Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc,), as well as North Africa (Tunisia), the Gulf States (Bahrain, Abu Dhabi), central Asia (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia) and New Zealand.

If some travel book publisher would like to publish these blog articles as a book, including photos, please contact me.  I might be amenable to travel to some of the countries I mentioned that I have not so far visited, with an appropriate budget.  One can only try.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Israel

I first visited Israel in 1963, lived here as a student in 1964-6 and again on sabbatical in 1976-7.  I visited many times over the years, since my in-laws were living here since 1985 and my daughter and family since 1991.  My wife and I moved here in 1996 after I retired in the US. I could write reams about Israel. Let me say that Jerusalem is a unique experience and that everyone should visit Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. As far as I am concerned it is the most amazing city, even more so than Rome or Athens. But, I will try to completely avoid the major cities of Israel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and write about some of the less well-visited places.

Starting in the far north, there is the settlement and nature reserve of Dan, that is the main source of the Jordan river.  The Hula Valley south of Dan is a lush swampy area that was once drained to fight the mosquitoes, but since their eradication (Palestine was the first place in the world to be sprayed in the 1920’s) it was subsequently re-flooded and is the stopping off point for millions of birds making the annual migration from the far north to Africa. This is a premier bird-watching location.

On both sides of the Hula Valley there are mountains, to the east the Golan Heights, and to the west the hills of upper Galilee.  By the way, the name Galilee comes from the Hebrew word for wave, gal, evoking the rolling hills of Galilee.  On the Golan Heights is the impressive Nimrod’s Castle, thought for many years to be a Crusader fortress, but now known to be of Arabic construction.  Also further south in the Golan are the ruins of the biblical city of Gamla, that was mentioned by Josephus in his “Jewish Wars,” describing the capture of Judea by the Romans, in which Gamla was the first Jewish city besieged and put to the sword.  It was constructed of black basalt rock that is found locally on the Golan.

To the west of the Hula is a winding road that leads to the heights above, where there is the fortress of Metzudat Koach (Strong Fortress).  This was one of the many Taggart Fortresses (about 70), named after the architect Charles Tegert, built by the British Occupation force around Palestine during the Mandate (1922-1948), with which they expected to control the country.  This fort was considered impregnable, but was captured by the Jewish forces in 1948 during the War of Independence with the loss of 28 lives.  It is a memorial and historical museum now.

Picturesque route 899 meanders along the Lebanese border thru Sasa to the Mediterranean coast.  On the coast adjacent to the border are the famous sea caves of Rosh Hanikra, that can be reached by a cable car.  Just south is the pleasant seaside resort of Nahariya, where German can still be heard spoken by the founders and their descendants.

Further south along the coast is the major port city of Akko (Acre). This has the huge impressive Crusader fortress that was used by the British as a major prison for the Jewish and Arab rebels.  The famous break-out in 1947 through the adjacent old Turkish bathhouse (Hamam) was shown in the film “Exodus.”  Nearby is the entrance to the underground Crusader city.  The story goes that when Saladin recaptured Acre from the Crusaders, instead of destroying the city they had built, he buried it in sand, thus inadvertently preserving it.  This underground city is definitely worth visiting, including the huge Hall of the Knights and the escape tunnel they built to the port.

South of Haifa is the small town of Atlit.  There is a Roman ruin there, but it can’t be visited because it is the site of the Israeli submarine base.  At the entrance of Atlit is the detention camp that was used by the British to imprison Jews who entered Palestine illegally.  It was so similar to the German concentration camps that it was detested by the Jews, although Jews were not deliberately murdered there. There was a major break-out in 1945 and the camp was abandoned by the British.  It is now a Museum and has a visitor’s center.  Inside there is also one of the ships that was used by the Jewish underground to transport illegal immigrants into Palestine.   One of the best fish restaurants in Israel is the Ben Ezra that is tucked away inside the secluded town.

Further south along the coast is the main seaside resort of Israel, Netanya.  It has magnificent beaches and cliff walks, but no historic remains, being a new city founded in 1929.  But, it has plenty of hotels and restaurants.  One notable incident that occurred there was the kidnapping of two British sergeants in 1947, when the British were pursuing a strongly anti-Jewish policy and had been flogging and executing captured members of the Jewish underground.  Under the orders of Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Armed Organization) the two sergeants were hung in a forest in the eastern side of Netanya and the forest has been preserved and is known as the Horshat Ha’Sargentim (Grove of the Sergeants).

Further south on the coast is the resort of Ashkelon, where there is a national park containing the ruins of the ancient biblical city of Ashkelon, that was a capital of the Philistines.  In the center of the Negev desert is the city of Be’er Sheva, famous in the Bible as the place where Abraham finally settled and dug a well (be’er).  It was the site of the famous 1917 battle, that proved to be the turning point in WWI between the British and Turkish forces (with German officers).  The famous charge of the ANZAC light horsemen is considered to be the last horse charge in history.  They captured Beer Sheva and this opened the way to the capture of Jerusalem by Gen. Allenby’s British Army, the first Allied Victory of WWI.  There is a bust of Allenby in a small park in the Old City, and in 2017 on the centenary of the battle, a museum was opened by the PM’s of Israel and Australia that is a gem to visit, adjacent to the British war cemetery.

I’ll finish this short synopsis of sites to visit in Israel outside the three major tourist cities by describing one of the main geological sites in Israel, the Ramon Crater.  South of Beer Sheva is the town of Mitzpe Ramon (View of Ramon) that sits on the northern edge of this amazing huge crater.  At the edge is a modern luxury hotel called Bereshit (Beginning) and in the town is the Ramon Inn.  The Exhibition Center on the crater edge is a must visit, and there is a movie about the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the Columbia space disaster.  The view from the top of the crater is magnificent.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Ireland

For our visit to Ireland we chose a tour with the Irish National Tour company CIE that circles all around the coast of Ireland.  When we arrived in Dublin we were driven to a hotel in the southern outskirts for the night.

If only I had known, nearby within walking distance, is the Martello Tower which opens the first scene of the great novel “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  These towers were built around the coast by the British to defend Ireland against invasion.  There is no space here to describe this novel, but everything in it is based on actual places in Dublin and events that occurred on one day, June 16, 1915, known as Bloomsday.

The next morning we were whisked away by coach, with a delightful character as driver and guide.  His accent was so strong you could cut it with a knife.  Instead of “thirty” he said “dirty.”  He was a lot of fun.  Our first stop was Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, which was a founding site for Irish Culture, where St. Kevin built one of the first Irish Christian monasteries in the 6th century (I emphasize Irish as opposed to Catholic, since the Catholic Church later banned and destroyed the indigenous Irish Church).  There was also one of the peculiar round towers, a tall, thin tower which gradually becomes narrower towards the top.  They are found throughout Ireland and their real purpose is unknown.

From there we drove to the south-east coast to the small port town of Wexford, where we had a break,and from there to the town of Waterford. We stayed the night there and visited the famous glass works the next morning. It was an amazing display of artistry, how the glassblowers made a jug, then fashioned a handle and in a jiffy attached it perfectly.  From there we drove on to Blarney Castle, which all visitors to Ireland must visit.  On the top of the tower is a stone that if you kiss you are supposed to be given the gift of the “blarney”, i.e the ability to talk persuasively on any subject.  The problem is that to kiss the stone you have to be held and lean out backwards over a precipitous drop.  I declined, anyway I already have that power.

We drove to the city of Cork and stayed there in an excellent hotel overnight.  The name itself is a complete fabrication by the English because they couldn’t understand or pronounce the Irish name (that means something like bubbling waters).  It has nothing to do with the substance known as cork.  That evening we attended a fun get together at a local pub, where everyone was expected to get up and dance their country’s national dance.  We didn’t know whether to do a knee’s-up-mother-brown from England, a jive from the USA, but in the end we chose a hora from Israel.  It went over very well.

Our next stop was the pleasant small city of Killarney, and from there we went on a tour of the lakes of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, which was a circular trip around of one of the Irish peninsulas that stick out into the Atlantic Ocean.  It was very wild and desolate place.  WE continued up the west coast, passing thru many small picturesque towns.  Our driver pointed out along the way where there were mass graves of the million or so Irish who died in the potato famine of 1845-8, that resulted in over a million also leaving for America. We passed thru Limerick and over the Shannon estuary and stopped at the Cliffs of Moher.  They are indeed impressive, rising dramatically sheer about 200 m (650 ft) straight up from the Atlantic.  The wind is indeed very strong there and there is precious little security and it seemed likely one could be swept away.

Further north we stayed overnight in Galway and saw the statue of St. Patrick who is supposed to have landed nearby, before converting most of the Irish.   We continued north to Sligo where we visited the Churchyard of Drumcliff where W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet is buried.

From there we headed east, skirting Northern Ireland, only entering it briefly thru Inniskillen, where we noted the difference in the style of the houses, they could have been in England, and the police stations with 20 foot high wire netting around them.  But, the driver said that things had quieted down a lot and currently there was no violence.    We drive then back to the east coast and to the most famous battle site in Ireland at the Boyne Valley.  In 1690 a significant battle took place between the deposed Catholic English King James II, supported by the Irish, and the Protestant King William of Orange, supported by the English, the Dutch and the Scots.  The Protestants won and Ireland has been suffering from the result of that victory for the past 300 years.

Nearby we also visited the reconstructed ancient site of Newgrange, that is a subterranean burial complex, although the significance of much of it is unknown.  From there we returned to Dublin.  Only a few remarks about Dublin.  Enjoyed drinking in some pubs, Guinness of course.  Went to a show of Irish music and dancing.  Visited the National Library at Trinity College.  Did the James Joyce walking tour, an excellent highlight with which to end the visit to Ireland.

Short Trips Around Small Countries: Jordan IV

Quite separately from my previous experiences visiting Jordan in 1995, my wife and I visited Petra in 1998.  We drove down to Eilat and had a short vacation there, then crossed the border at the Eilot border crossing and were picked up by a bus on the Jordanian side and driven to Aqaba.  We toured Aqaba, visited the old palace, captured by Lawrence of Arabia in 1917.  Then we drove into the desert, visited the so-called Seven Pillars at Wadi Rum, a series of massive red sandstone pillars in a wide desert valley.  Lawrence’s book was entitled “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” based on this monument and the seven tenets that Islam is based upon.

Then we drove north to the small town of Wadi Musa that is adjacent to the ruins of the famous Nabatean city of Petra.  This is named after Moses, who the Arabs believed took this route to Mt. Nebo further north, where he is said to have died.  We stayed overnight there and early the next morning walked into the Petra National Park and thru the amazing very narrow canyon that leads directly to the famous so-called Treasury that is carved out of the sandstone rock.  Excavations under this have revealed a series of caverns and tombs and now it is thought to have been a burial site for the elite of the city.

The Nabateans were a tribe that controlled the so-called spice route across the desert from Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean.   They had cities that are now in Israel, Avdat and Mamshit in the Negev Desert.  From this transport they earned a lot of money and were able to build these cities.  But, they depended on the water supply, that in Petra came from outside the city thru a series of small channels.  The Romans were able to conquer Petra easily by cutting off their water supply.

Once inside Petra the area opens out impressively into a wide valley with many buildings carved into the rock and built onto it.  The architecture is clearly different from the common form of Arab/Muslim building.  The erosion of the striations on the red rock were beautiful.  We took a tour around the site and up to a height where there was an old Arab man living, who served us coffee. I must say that Petra was one of the most impressive archaeological sites I have ever visited.  On the way out we were so tired we hired a donkey and cart to drive us out, it was quicker, but quite stinky.  The following day we returned to Eilat.




Short Trips Around Small Countries: Jordan II

I recall two trips to Jordan in 1995.  The first trip I had an appointment in Amman with a Jordanian researcher who had requested to meet me.  I went from Jerusalem in a taxi driven by an Arab driver. This was suggested as a good idea since he could drive directly by the shortest route across the West Bank past Jericho (which was in the Palestine Authority) to the Jordanian border.  Israeli taxi drivers were afraid to take this route.  We crossed thru the area in record time and got to the PA-Israeli border post that one had to pass thru before crossing the official border between Israel and Jordan.

But, the Israeli border guards at the PA border post had not yet opened the gate.  So I went and chatted to them in English, and then the taxi driver suggested a short trip around, he said come, I’ll show you Arafat’s Villa, and we drove up the road to see a huge mansion.  So that was where all the aid money went.  Finally they opened the gate and let us thru.  After going thru the Jordanian border at the Allenby Bridge with my official US passport I had to hire a taxi to take me to Amman.

There was a lot of competition, and I chose a grizzled old man because it looked like he rarely got a fare. We were making good time to get to Amman for my meeting, with no a/c, but then disaster, we were held up in traffic for an hour.  It turned out that a truck had tipped over with its load all over the road.  I arrived 1.5 hrs late at the hotel in Amman, and there was a note saying that the Jordanian scientist could not wait any longer for me.

The following morning, there were two of us Americans who had arrived on day early for the meeting.  So the Jordanian authority that was sponsoring the meeting told us they would give us a car and a driver and we could go where ever we liked.  So we agreed we wanted to go to Jerash, the ruins of the largest Roman city in the region.  Our car turned out to be a big black Mercedes, and the driver spoke English, so we were whisked away north out of Amman.  Indeed the ruins at Jerash were amazing, the city was huge.  There was a large open piazza, and a long street with columns all along.  We spent a few hours there and had lunch in a nearby cafe.

Then we proceeded further north, in fact to the end of the road on the mountainous heights, to a Roman ruin at the village of Umm Qais.  There we sat on the veranda of a cafe and sipped tea with a magnificent view overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  I must admit this was an unusual situation for an American Jew and soon-to-be Israeli, overlooking the whole of northern Israel from the heights of Jordan, close to the convergence of the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders.

We returned to Amman. It had been called Philadelphia by the Greeks.  It had been one of the ten Roman cities in the region, the Decapolis.  Little is left now of that ancient city, a large Roman theater still used for public events, and a citadel.  Not that much to see.  The next day our meetings started at the Center for Science and Technology on the campus of the University of Jordan in Amman.

A day or two later I was called out of a meeting of the JEG to meet the scientist who I had missed several days earlier.  It turned out that he was a biochemist who had been trained in the US and was now a Professor at a Jordanian University.   After introductions, I asked him why he had specifically asked to meet me.  He explained that he had been asked to join our program, but he was of Palestinian origin, and he had misgivings about it, and he wanted me to explain to him why it would be in his interest.  Then followed one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had.  This was no extremist, this was an American-educated scientist who needed reassurance about this program and perhaps more generally.

I told him that unless he wanted his son and my grandson in Israel to be fighting each other in the next generation, there had to be a stop to the conflict, and this could only come about by acceptance of the other as well as modernization and development in his country, Jordan.  I thought that it was an amazing gesture of the US to help bring the two sides together and help foster Jordanian science and development.  There was no secret that Israeli science was way ahead of Jordanian levels, he obviously was aware of this.  So what was needed to improve the situation was technical development in Jordan and in the rest of the Arab world and not a return to continuing to fight the old wars.  He listened to me intently and asked questions and then went away.  Some days later I was informed that he had decided to join our program.

My contribution to the program was to suggest focus on isolating genes from plants adapted to growing in arid zones and transferring them to other plants that were not so adapted naturally.  In this way Jordan could use its large area of arid land that was so far infertile to increase its yield of food and other crops.  I also proposed establishing a plant biotechnology center in the Arava Valley between Israel and Jordan that would be used by scientists on both sides, with US help, to carry out this research.  It could be sustained by eco-tourism of the Arava Valley.  I am very pleased to say that some years later such an Institute was established.


Short Trips Around Small Countries: Jordan I Background

One day in 1995 as I was about to leave work at the National Science Foundation, our boss came around asking “does anyone know about the Middle East?”  I put my head out of the door and said, “yes I  do!”  As a matter of fact it was true, I had been a student of the Middle East for many years and had read widely on the subject, mainly because of my interest in Israel.  She said to me, “We’ve had an urgent request for someone who knows biotechnology and knows about the Middle East to serve on a committee, are you interested?”  I said “Yes,” so she replied “write me up a one page description of your interests now and I’ll submit it and we’ll see what they say.”

A few days later I received a call from someone at the US Information Agency.  He said “I received your description regarding biotechnology and the Middle East,”   I said “yes, what’s it all about,”  He said “we’re putting together a Committee to deal with scientific relations between Jordan and Israel, and they’ve identified biotechnology as one of the topics and you seem to be an appropriate candidate.”  I said “good.” Then he asked, “are you the Jack Cohen who used to be at NIH and helped set up a program at the American Chemical Society to help scientists who are being persecuted?”  I said “as a matter of fact I am.” Then he replied “well, my name is John Hughes, and I was an intern in that program.  I remember you well.  So you’ve got the job,  When can we meet?”

This amazing coincidence got me appointed to a Committee consisting of three representatives in the subjects of agriculture, education and biotechnology from each of the three countries Jordan, Israel and the USA.  We were the Joint Expert Group (JEG).  The program was known as the “Jordanian-Israeli-American Trilateral Cooperation in the Physical Sciences, The Social Sciences and Applied Technology.”   For these negotiations, first there was a meeting of the Committee in Washington DC, including a representative from each country (a diplomat), to draw up an agenda, then two meetings in Jordan, then one in Israel and finally one back in Washington to finalize the Report of the JEG.   The Americans were intended to be advisers to the other two as a measure towards fostering peace between the two countries.  It was thru this means that I happened to tour Jordan in 1995, soon after the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.