Fliszt, Tori Amos and an accident waiting to happen on Heathrow’s third runway

27 January 2019

It was a great relief to hear Treeza say on Monday that we all live in “social cohesion” and that a second Brexit vote had been ruled out to avoid threatening this.  There was I thinking that our society was already torn apart by divisions over what different people thought Brexit meant.  I must have been getting old and cynical – I’m younger than that now.

On Wednesday, I heard what sounded like a new use of the word ‘clandestine’.  In a Radio 3 programme about Liszt, the presenter said “In the course of his clandestine affair they produced two more children”.  It must be quite difficult to have clandestine children.

As we all know (well, we will in a minute), Marie-Catherine-Sophie de Flavigny, countess d’Agoult, had married Colonel Charles d’Agoult but later left him in 1834 to live with Franz Liszt (always known as Fliszt on the old radio show ‘My Music’).

They had three children but Liszt went on tour to raise money for a Beethoven monument in Bonn while she moved to Paris after about 5 years.  They continued to holiday together for a few years but finally separated in 1844 and Marie wrote books as ‘Daniel Stern’ about her experiences in Parisian society in the 1840s.

Liszt was prodigiously gifted and his musical talents were widely recognised.  There’s a fairly famous painting of Liszt playing a Bösendorfer piano at a concert for Emperor Franz Joseph I.  Bösendorfers were (still are) unusual instruments because some models have 92 or 97 keys instead of the standard 88 keys.  Bösendorfers were, of course, more recently favoured by Victor Borge and Tori Amos.

At this point, if you’re a nervous flyer, stop reading and get a cup of tea.

Aircraft using Heathrow’s third runway could be controlled from a basement room without windows, where the Air Traffic Control officers would work in front of images from ultra-high definition cameras and artificial intelligence systems that will allow them to ‘see’ further when the visibility is poorer and land planes at normal intervals instead of delaying flights by keeping them further apart.  Imagine what could happen if a terrorist hacked into their system through your smart meter and ATC was blinded.

Anybody remember the worst air crash ever?  27 March 1977 at the old ‘Los Rodeos’ airport in Tenerife which, being at 2000’, was subject to lumps of thick cloud blowing over its only runway.  Las Palmas airport on Gran Canaria had been closed by a bomb so flights were diverted to Tenerife.

The taxiway on Tenerife was therefore full of queuing aircraft so those taking off had to go onto the runway itself and backtaxi to the other end and turn round before they could take off.  While a KLM Boeing 747 was doing this, a PanAm Boeing 747 was told to backtaxi behind them up the runway to the third exit then turn off it.

Unfortunately, the PanAm plane missed the third exit in the thick cloud and continued up the runway while the KLM plane had turned and was ready to go.  Neither plane could see the other and the control tower couldn’t see either of them.  The KLM plane then misunderstood some ATC instructions that were interrupted by radio interference, started to take off and was just leaving the ground at 160 mph when it saw the PanAm plane in front of it.  The last words on the KLM’s cockpit voice recorder were, as is so often the case, “Oh shit”.  583 people died.

At the time, I worked for a tour operator and flew into the airport a couple of weeks later.  The only sign of the accident was a lot of blackened grass and some new asphalt on the runway.

The good news is that the accident led to some vital changes to ATC communications which have avoided similar accidents in the 40+ years since then.

On an even cheerier note, a landowner in Aberdeenshire recently reported a previously unknown recumbent stone circle but excitement levels lowered somewhat when the farm’s former owner said he’d built the stone circle as a replica in the mid-1990s.  All together now:  awww!

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