Sunday, August 28, 2022

The mystery of SAETA flight 232

A civilian airliner crashed in Ecuador in 1976. It took 26 years to find the wreckage:

Aviation’s history books are full of mysteries, some of which are solved and others yet to be figured out. Sometimes, we hear of those cases where aircraft have disappeared and were only found many years later. Such is the case with SAETA Flight 232, which involved a 26-year search and frustrated stakeholders. 

SAETA was a privately-owned Ecuadorian airline which competed on a handful of domestic and international routes with government-owned carriers Ecuatoriana and TAME. I flew SAETA from Miami to Quito and back during my summer 1990 stay in Ecuador. The airline's selling point was that all passengers "flew first class." It wasn't completely true - nobody got nice first-class seats, for example - but the service was attentive and the multi-course meals, which were served with real (i.e. not plastic) silverware and dishware, were definitely an upgrade from normal economy-class fare. SAETA actually underwent a significant expansion in the 1990s, at one point becoming Ecuador's dominant airline. It met its end as a result of Ecuador's financial crisis at the end of the decade.

On August 15, 1976, a Viscount operating as SAETA Flight 232 departed Quito at 08:06 hours bound for Cuenca. There were 55 passengers and four crew onboard the turboprop with a planned flight route over mountainous terrain. All seemed normal until air traffic control lost radio contact with the flight at 08:27 when the crew reported flying over the city of Ambato at 18,000 feet.

Ambato is located in the central Andean valley of Ecuador and sits beneath several tall mountains. It is the capital of the province of Tungurahua, at an elevation of 8,455 feet (2,577 meters) above sea level.

Realizing that the aircraft failed to arrive at Cuenca, emergency search operations began. One more plausible suspicion was that the plane had crashed somewhere in a nearby mountain range. So, a massive search was conducted by air and land throughout the Amazon and all along the flight-planned route. Despite an intensive search, the wreckage was not found for several years. Twenty-six long years to be precise.

It turned out that the wreckage had become embedded within a glacier over 17 thousand feet above sea level on the side of Chimborazo, which is Ecuador's highest mountain* and which is 20 miles southwest of Ambato.

In October 2002, Pablo Chíquiza and Flavio Armas, two members of the Nuevos Horizontes mountaineering club, helped mark the exact crash site after fellow mountaineer Miguel Cazar had previously come across it. The rest of the story involves accusations of government officials dragging their feet and overlooking the location during previous searches. Several parties pointed fingers at each other, while the families of those lost in the crash experienced a bittersweet moment of reliving the pain of a tragic loss while also receiving some closure after the discovery of their loved ones’ remains.

If anything, stories like SAETA 232's might give the loved ones of victims of other unsolved plane disappearances (Malaysian Airlines 370 easily comes to mind) some hope that, eventually, the mystery will be solved and they will at least experience closure. 

This accident would be eerily similar to another SAETA crash involving a Vickers Viscount only a few years later.

Another SAETA Viscount crashed while flying between Quito and Cuenca. On April 23, 1979, an aircraft registered as HC-AVP crashed in the Pastaza Province, killing all 57 people onboard. The wreckage of this aircraft also took several years to locate. The flight was considered missing until 1984, when the debris was discovered.

Due at least in part to to its mountainous terrain, SAETA 232 is just one of several commercial aviation tragedies Ecuador has unfortunately experienced. 

*In addition to being Ecuador's highest peak, Chimborazo's peak is also the furthest from the center of the earth. the Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain as measured from mean sea level, but because the earth is not perfectly round (i.e. it is slightly fatter at its equator), there is more distance from the earth's center to Chimborazo than to Everest.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Kirby comes of age

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've gotten to see my son Kirby celebrate several birthdays.

Here's one more: today he turns 18 years old. 

Tomorrow he also begins his final year of high school. 

Hard to believe.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Opponents of science aren't as smart as they think they are

Probably one of the least surprising studies ever:

People with the greatest opposition to the scientific consensus tend to have the lowest levels of objective science knowledge but the highest levels of self-rated knowledge, according to new research published in Science Advances. The findings are in line with the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which people who are lacking in skills or knowledge tend to overestimate their abilities.

“I am interested in the public’s understanding of science because it is hugely important for societal and environmental wellbeing,” said study author Nick Light, an assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University. “When people act in ways that go against good science, people get sick, lose their homes, lose money, are displaced, or even die (as is the case with COVID, natural disasters, etc.). The better we can understand why people hold attitudes that run counter to scientific consensus, the better scientists or policymakers can design interventions to help people.”

Two initial studies tested almost 3,250 people on their support or opposition to scientific concepts such as climate change, vaccines, or evolution. They were then asked to self-evaluate their level of understanding of these topics. Finally, they were given a questionnaire to assess their actual scientific knowledge of the topics in question.

Light and his research team found that people who were more opposed to the scientific consensus on their given topic were more likely to claim to have a “thorough understanding” of it. But those who were more opposed to the scientific consensus tended to score worse on the test of objective science knowledge.

“Scientists are constantly debating the best ways to explain the world around us,” Light told PsyPost. “Sometimes, however, the evidence is so strong or consistent that most of them agree on something. That’s what we call scientific consensus. In this paper we find that the people who have attitudes that are more extremely against the scientific consensus think they know the most about the scientific issues, but actually know the least.”

The research team also conducted studies focused specifically on the COVID-19 vaccine: 

In a fourth study, which included 501 participants, the researchers examined whether knowledge overconfidence was related to the willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The study was conducted in July 2020, before a vaccine was publicly available. The participants were asked their willingness to receive a vaccination in the future and then rated their understanding of how a COVID-19 vaccine would work.

The participants then completed a 23-question test of scientific knowledge, which included six items about COVID-19, such as “True or false? COVID-19 is a kind of bacteria” and “True or false? COVID-19 can be transmitted through houseflies.”

Light and his colleagues found that participants who were more opposed to receiving a vaccine tended to report having a greater understanding of how a COVID-19 vaccine would work, but their general knowledge of science and COVID-19 tended to be worse.

Websites such as and the r/HermanCainAward Subreddit are full of stories of people who felt they were smarter than the countless scientific and medical professionals who developed and promoted the COVID-19 vaccines and refused to "get jabbed." Their stories generally end with their death due to COVID-related complications. Were it not for their hubris, they might still be here today.

The study's authors note that "given that the most extreme opponents of the scientific consensus tend to be those who are most overconfident in their knowledge, fact-based educational interventions are less likely to be effective for this audience." This, in turn, has serious practical implications for scientists and policymakers alike, because it is difficult to overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect with standard educational campaigns or appeals to reason. 

Which should come as no surprise to anyone who ever tried to argue about science with somebody on the internet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

A centenarian in the family

A few weeks ago, my aunt Dorothy celebrated her 100th birthday. We had a party for her at her assisted living center in Temple, Texas. Those who couldn't attend in person were able to send her virtual well-wishes via a Zoom call.

Dorothy and my mother

Living to be 100 is a very rare accomplishment; according to the US Census Bureau only one out of every 3,390 Americans is 100 years old or older. Considering the average life expectancy for a woman born in 1922 was 61 years, I'd say Dorothy has accomplished quite a feat!

Dorothy visits with far-flung relatives via a Zoom call

Dorothy was living by herself as recently as a few months ago, when her vision issues got to the point where she could no longer live independently and had to be moved to an assisted living center. It was a difficult transition for her; she had lived in her own house in Temple for over 45 years. But she's well cared-for in her new place, and her friends and neighbors continue to come by to check up on her. 

Friends, neighbors and relatives attend her 100th birthday party

In 1922, the year Dorothy was born, Warren G. Harding was President of the United States, Pius XI became Pope, and King George V reigned over the vast British Empire. A first class postage stamp cost two cents. A gallon of gas was 11 cents. 

Even though the Roaring Twenties were underway, my grandparents - Dorothy’s mom and dad - wouldn’t have been able to legally celebrate their eldest daughter's birth with a glass of champagne. Prohibition was the law of the land. 

100 candles would have taken too long to light (and could have set off the fire alarm), so we just went with numeric candles

Other things turning 100 in 2022: Time Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. The blender in your kitchen and the radial arm saw in your workshop were both patented in 1922. State Farm and USAA insurance companies were both established that year. 

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC was completed in 1922, as was Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California and the original Yankee Stadium in New York City. 

The radio was cutting-edge technology in 1922. President Harding installed the While House’s first radio that year and gave the first live presidential speech over the radio.

The Ottoman Empire was replaced by modern-day Turkey in 1922, and the Soviet Union was established. 

Famous people born in 1922 include comic book creator Stan Lee, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, authors Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Jack Kerouac, actors Sir Christopher Lee and Jason Robards, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, and actresses Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Doris Day, and Golden Girls Bea Arthur and Betty White (who unfortunately left is us last New Year’s Eve).

I prepared a speech for the occasion, which Dorothy (mostly) appreciated 

Dorothy has done a lot of interesting things during her 100 years on this planet: she's been a nun, a nurse, a teacher, a principal, a records administrator, and (of course) an aunt! She was very happy to spend her 100th birthday surrounded by her loved ones.

The longest-lived human lived to be 122 years old. Although Dorothy's otherwise pretty healthy, she has no intention of breaking that record!

Why don't commercial aircraft have parachutes?

It's a legitimate question. Airplane crashes are terrifying: oftentimes a single crash claims the lives of hundreds of people. If passenger airplanes are equipped with a host of other equipment meant to save lives in event of catastrophe - inflatable rafts and flotation devices for water landings, oxygen masks for cabin depressurization events - then why aren't parachutes available for passengers to safely jump from doomed aircraft as well?

The answer is simply that parachutes on commercial aircraft are hopelessly impractical. The high altitudes and speed at which commercial aircraft fly make jumping dangerous. There are tremendous logistical issues associated with storing and periodically inspecting enough parachutes to accommodate an aircraft's passenger capacity. Parachutes require training to use (there's a reason why a beginning skydiver's first few jumps are tandem jumps) that the typical civilian passenger doesn't possess. The organization required to get hundreds of passengers to strap on parachutes and exit the aircraft before it crashes is, to say the least, mind-boggling. 

Furthermore, instances were parachutes could make a difference are vanishingly small. While there may be examples of flights that were doomed but which remained airborne long enough for them to conceivably be evacuated, if such an option were available - Japan Air Lines Flight 123United Airlines Flight 232, and the hijacked aircraft of 9/11 come to mind - the vast majority of plane crashes occur during initial take-off or final descent and landing. These are situations where parachutes would not be usable due to the plane's altitude, and where the reaction times needed to get passengers to don parachutes and exit the aircraft simply do not exist. 

Aside from being impractical, parachutes on commercial aircraft really aren't necessary

There are many technical reasons for airlines not offering their passengers a parachute in the event of an emergency bailout. However, one significant reason airline passengers don't have access to parachutes is commercial air travel is our safest mode of transportation. The statistics have supported this conclusion for many years, and it's essential to keep it in mind before 'jumping' to conclusions about the need for parachuting passengers.

It's worth remembering that commercial air travel is remarkably safe; so much so that you are eight times more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than you are on the flight itself. The United States, at least, hasn't experienced a commercial aviation disaster claiming over 100 lives in over two decades. And in the rare event that an incident does occur on your flight, the National Transportation Safety board estimates that you have over a 95% chance of survival.

So enjoy your flight. 

Saturday, August 06, 2022

UH mascot Shasta VI passes away

 Sad news from the Houston Zoo:

The University of Houston and Houston Zoo are mourning the death of Shasta VI, the school's 11-year-old cougar mascot who passed away Thursday night according to a press release issued by university officials.

Shasta's death follows months of treatment for a degenerative spinal disease, according to a remembrance posted to the Houston Zoo's site on Friday. Zoo officials said the decision was made to euthanize the beloved local fixture after additional health issues were discovered that negated Shasta's chances of living out his remaining days comfortably.

"For several months, the Zoo’s veterinary team has been treating him for a progressive spinal disease which has rapidly deteriorated over the past few days," Houston Zoo staff wrote. "Over the course of treatment, Shasta was also found to have declining kidney function, which is common in older felines. The animal care and health teams made a comprehensive assessment of his overall wellbeing and made the difficult decision to euthanize him on Thursday when it became clear that he would not recover."

The University of Houston's tradition of a live cougar mascot began with Shasta I in 1947. Shastas II through V lived on-campus in an enclosure at the edge of Lynn Eusan Park (the Chron article's statement that the cougars "lived primarily at the Houston Zoo" is false and yet another example of poor journalistic standards on their part). I visited Shastas III, IV and V many a time when I was on campus as a child. Shasta was also present at UH football games in the Astrodome.

The tradition of keeping a live Cougar on campus ended in 1989, when Shasta V was euthanized due to kidney failure and animal rights activists pressured UH administration into not procuring a replacement (although it was still a big topic when I began classes there in the fall of 1991). A partnership between the Houston Zoo and the Houston Alumni Association allowed an orphaned cub to become Shasta VI, and for the tradition of live UH mascots to resume (albeit off-campus), in 2012:

Shasta VI arrived at the Houston Zoo in 2012 at the age of five weeks after his mother was shot and killed illegally by a hunter in Washington State. Washington Fish & Wildlife agents were able to locate the orphaned cougar, who had little chance of survival in the wild following the death of his mother. Shasta VI was relocated to the Houston Zoo where he became the University of Houston's first live mascot since the 1989 and lived alongside the zoo's female cougar, Haley.

Shasta VI was the first male Shasta; his five predecessors were all female. As of right now there is no word as to whether there will be a Shasta VII.

The Daily Cougar has more. The Chronicle has a slideshow of all six Shastas.

Environmental organization declares the monarch endangered

I'm back. For a little bit longer, at least.

The plight of the monarch butterfly, whose population has been steadily dwindling, is something I've been following on this blog for awhile. Two weeks ago, an international organization designated the iconic insect as being endangered

One of the most popular and recognizable insects is at risk of extinction, according to a global organization focused on conservation and sustainability.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has added the migratory monarch butterfly to its Red List of Threatened Species as endangered, the group said in a release Thursday.

"It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope," said Anna Walker, a species survival officer for invertebrate pollinators at the New Mexico BioPark Society who works in partnership with the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration like birds, according to the US Forest Service. Every winter, monarchs that live in the eastern part of North America migrate to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, and those in the west migrate to the coastal regions of California, according to the federal agency. Those migrations have been a spectator event in the past.

There are a couple of important things to note here: 

  • First, this designation from the IUCN does not make the monarch a legally endangered and protected species in the United States. Only the US Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to declare the monarch endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This is an action the FWS considered about a year and a half ago; they deferred for the time being. 
  • Second, this designation only applies to the subspecies which migrates annually between Mexico and the United States and Canada. The monarch butterfly species as a whole is widely distributed across the Americas and is not at risk. 

The IUCN estimates the native population of monarch butterflies has shrunk by between 22% and 72% over the past decade, and the western population has declined by 99.9% between the 1980s and 2021 -- putting it at the greatest risk of extinction.

Destruction of habitat and rising temperatures fueled by the climate crisis are increasingly threatening the species, the IUCN said.

When they are caterpillars, monarchs feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

But droughts have limited the growth of milkweed, and increased temperatures have triggered earlier migrations, the IUCN said. There has also been an increase in the use of glyphosate herbicide -- particularly on corn and soybean crops -- that has caused a severe milkweed decline in the United States.

For what it's worth, the amount forest area occupied by the migratory monarch during its winter hibernation in Mexico - a proxy for its overall population - has been holding relatively steady in the 2-3 hectare range in five of the past six winters. Hopefully this suggests that the population decline that the IUCN cited in its decision to add the insect to its Red List has at least stabilized.

In any case, the IUCN's designation should be a wake-up call: the monarch migration is truly an amazing natural wonder; we would fail both the butterflies and ourselves if we allowed it to end under our watch.

If you want to help, consider creating a monarch waystation that provides both milkweed host plants for caterpillars as well as nectar plants for adults.

Monarch Watch and National Geographic have more.