Monday, September 10, 2007


If you've been paying much attention to the news this past week, you know that Nevada is not just for gamblers and skiers. It's also a place popular with some aviation enthusiasts - and a place where some of them go missing, the latest of whom is apparently Steve Fossett.

I like to keep an eye on Slashdot. I don't read everything, but I do keep a lookout for things that interest me that I wouldn't find out about otherwise. Over the weekend I learned from a Slashdot article that the search for Steve Fossett has gone high-tech, using Amazon Mechanical Turk.

With experience flying (with even quite a few hours in a Bellanca Citabria 7GCBC) and an interest in technology as a meaningful solution, I decided this was an excellent opportunity to actually do some good and not just settle for slacktivism.

I know what an experienced pilot is likely to do in a variety of situations. I know what kinds of perils exist in the air. And I have a rough idea of what a crash site is likely to look like. So, I started reviewing HIT (Human Interface Tasks) photos myself.

At 10-20 seconds for a decent look at most and up to a minute or so for the more complex photos where I feel a need to cross-reference with Google Earth views of the data, I've been able to process more than a hundred already in just a couple short-ish sittings.

Of course, that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 65,000 photos that showed up on the list when I first looked. With so many people working on it though, that number is coming down rapidly. Currently, it looks like it's dropped to just over 52,000. Wow, that's a lot of hands making light work!

The work helps keep some of the normal speculation at bay. There's only so much hangar flying that's useful in these situations. I've found that it helps deal with the ambiguity - if it could happen to someone good like that, it could happen to me - by finding reasons why it could have been pilot error. We all secretly hope to determine it was an error that we can learn how to avoid once we've inspected every last aspect of the scenario and decided how we would have handled it differently. Beyond that, it's just talk.

General public with little or no experience in aviation likes to jump to conclusions for entirely different reasons. "Aviators are risk-takers to be avoided" seems to be the theme I run across most frequently. These are the people most likely to blame an accident on the lack of a flight plan, which is ludicrous.

No matter how short a flight I intend, however, I always file a flight plan because while lack of one may not cause an accident, it sure makes it a heckuva lot easier to find you should you need to be found. Not filing a flight plan is a meaningless gamble that you'll arrive at your destination safely without need of outside intervention.

Given that it's way easy to file a flight plan, it seems worth the extra time to just let someone know where you're headed - and then also let them know if your plans change. Place your bet on the possibility that you could need the help rather than the probability that you won't. Gamblers do generally prefer long odds as the better payoff anyway, right?

So go ahead, satisfy your curiosity and help out with a few Fossett-seeking HIT photos. Then, if you still feel a need for some more hangar flying, feel free to comment or send your discussion-starters to me at and we'll hash out amongst ourselves what could have happened, what should have been done differently, or what we should be doing next. I'll be processing a few more HIT photos myself in the meantime.

What small and seemingly unnecessary steps could I take now to mitigate risks later?