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Broken Glass

May 15, 2018

I ALWAYS ASK for a window seat. Maybe I should rethink this, judging from recent events?

On April 17th, a passenger on a Southwest Airlines 737 was killed after being partially ejected through a blown-out cabin window. Two weeks later, the window on another Southwest 737 cracked during flight, causing the crew to make a precautionary landing in Cleveland. And now, just yesterday, one of the cockpit windscreens on an Airbus A319 operated by China’s Sichuan Airlines separated during flight, sucking the first officer part-way through the breach.

That first incident resulted from an unconfined engine failure. One of the left engine’s fan blades fractured and struck the fuselage. The other two appear to be spontaneous failures from a cause yet unknown: fatigue, improper installation or repair, or who knows what. The investigations are ongoing. In the second case, the window cracked but did not fail. The jet remained pressurized and nobody was hurt. The Sichuan Airlines pilot suffered only minor injuries.

So, you’re thinking, three window-related emergencies in two weeks, doesn’t that have to mean something?

The answer is no, not really. These incidents are what they are, in and of themselves, and don’t have much to do with one other. It’s coincidence. And, when you have fifty thousand or so commercial flights taking off and landing every day of the week, weird things are sometimes going to happen. The fatality aboard Southwest flight 1380 was certainly tragic, and the other two incidents could have been a lot worse, but we should consider ourselves fortunate to be talking about broken windows and not the types of catastrophes we used to see five, ten, or a dozen times every year, with hundreds of people killed at a time.

Statistically, flying is safer than ever. Yet the ubiquity of today’s media, spread across multiple platforms, means that even small mishaps have a way of becoming huge stories.

One small caveat is that if any airline needs to pay extra close attention to wear and tear on its aircraft and their components, it’s probably Southwest. The carrier’s 737s fly primarily short haul routes, and on average they perform more takeoffs and landings — or “cycles” as they’re called in the business — than the 737s at most other airlines. High-cycle planes endure more stress. Southwest realizes this, of course. Its maintenance programs are structured accordingly, and what happened in April may have nothing to do with the number of cycles on those planes.


Wisdom of the Window

The interior frames around cabin windows will sometimes come loose. I once had the entire frame fall from the sidewall onto my lap. If this happens, don’t panic. Those frames are purely superficial. Calmly summon a flight attendant and show him or her the problem. The frame will be written up and repaired at the next airport.

One reason an airplane’s cabin windows are small, and round, is to better withstand and disperse the forces of pressurization. (The portholes of Concorde, you may have noticed, were quite tiny. Cruising at 60,000 feet, well above most civil transports, they were subject to an unusually high inside-outside pressure differential.) Additionally their size and shape are best to assimilate the bending and flexing of a fuselage in flight. For the same reasons, the windows are normally installed along the flattest portion of a fuselage. This is why they’re sometimes aligned in a less-than-optimum viewing position.

Cockpit windscreens, meanwhile, are astonishingly strong. I once saw a video demonstration of one being repeatedly struck full-force with a sledgehammer, barely budging with each blow. The glass is multi-paned, bank-teller thick, and bolstered by high-strength frames, resilient against the forces of pressurization, hail, and the occasional bird strike. For added guard against the latter, they’re heated to increase flexibility.

That hardly matters, of course, if they’re installed wrong. What happened the other day aboard Sichuan Airlines was, in fact, the second such incident that I’m aware of. In 1990, the captain of a British Airways BAC One-Eleven was nearly killed when a portion of the cockpit screen gave way.

When I’m at work, my office, so to speak, always comes with a view. Even when riding as a passenger, however, I prefer a window to an aisle. At least to me, there’s something instinctually comforting about sitting at the window — a desire for orientation. Which way am I going? Has the sun risen or set yet? For we lovers of air travel, of course, there’s a romantic aspect to it as well. What I observe through the glass extends beyond the planeride to the journey in whole — no less a sensory moment, potentially, than what I might experience sightseeing later on. Flying to Istanbul, I remember the sight of the ship-clogged Bosporus from 10,000 feet as vividly as standing before the city’s famous mosques or the Hagia Sofia. My first airplane ride — an American Airlines 727 — was a hop from Boston to Washington in the spring of 1974. What I remember most clearly, even more than the double servings of sandwiches and cheesecake, was the view: Manhattan from 30,000 feet; the snaky brown marshlands of Chesapeake Bay; the landmarks of D.C. as we banked along the Potomac.

To recycle one of my favorite air travel tidbits: Look closely at the exterior of an Air India jet and you’ll notice how each cabin window is meticulously outlined with the little Taj Mahalian arch. This is one of those instances where aviation transcends mere transportation and pays its respects to the greater realms of history, culture, tradition — whatever you might call it.

The old Caravelle, a French-built jetliner of the 1960s, had triangular windows; still rounded at the corners, but distinctly three-sided. The Douglas DC-8 was another exception. Not only were its windows squared-off, but uniquely oversized, with almost twice the glass of your standard Boeing or Airbus. I recall flying a DC-8 to Jamaica in 1982, and marveling at the TV-sized view of towering gray storm clouds.

On a typical wide body jet, only maybe a third of all passengers will be lucky enough, if indeed that’s the operative word, to be stationed at a window. In a nine-abreast block, only two of the seats come with a view. If flying has lost the ability to touch our hearts and minds, perhaps that’s why: there’s nothing to see anymore. Boeing, for its part, seems to have rediscovered the fact that some of us relish looking outside. The windows on the 787, you might notice, are about thirty percent bigger than usual.

For those of you stuck in the middle, the next best thing, maybe, is a camera…

Author’s photo.

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