Inside a jet 10,000 feet above the ground, one gets this feeling of immortality.
Yet with Sunday’s plane crash in Ethiopia, which killed 157 people, air safety comes into question and assuring confidence in flying is vital, more so as Kenyans increasingly opt to fly.
Aeroplane disasters stir great attention. First, air transport is the most important innovation after fire and the wheel.
It was the ultimate realisation of a human being’s inherent quest to transcend mental and physical horizons by flying like birds, conquering oceans, continents and now galaxies. It reaffirmed the strength of the mind.
Before flying, societies could only express this desire in fables such as the Khoi Khoi’s flying gnomes or the Greek fable of Daedalus and Icarus. So, any air disaster challenges a very sublime human realisation.
In the Greek myth, father and son fabricated wings from feathers, which they used to fly out of a prison (the labyrinth). Thrilled, the son soared too near the sun and the wax attaching the wings melted, setting him hurtling to his death.
Secondly, air disasters send a sweeping sense of devastation globally because passengers are likely to be from all corners of the world.
There were 33 nationalities in the doomed Flight ET302, with Kenyans the highest number of the dead, 32.
Thirdly, air crashes make ‘great’ news since they are rare. The incidents are seemingly on the rise, but not because airlines and aircraft manufacturers have compromised safety. Maybe air travel is increasing and the law of probability comes into play.
Experts say one is more likely to die on the road than in the air. Modern aeroplanes have no room for error.
With advanced technology and human flight management, crashes are rare. Reportedly, of the 35.7 million flights in 2015, there were 60 accidents: Only five were fatal.
In-flight safety instructions are uncomfortably quiet on what to do in case of crash-landing. They concentrate mostly on cabin decompression and if the aircraft safely lands on water.
Future air travel will be much safer, thanks to technology. Aviation experts say aircraft makers will radically redesign aeroplanes to look more like common bean pods.
Each bean is housed in its own ‘capsule’, inside the pod. It is possible to remove only one bean and leave others intact in their ‘capsules’.
That will greatly enhance safety, aviation experts say. A passenger or two would travel in one capsule. Each compartment would be independent of each other but accessible from the aisle through an airtight mechanism.
The capsule will quickly detach from the carrier pod in case of extreme shock using a trigger technology like that used for car airbags.
Every capsule will be individually air-compressed and equipped with highly compacted parachutes to bring it safely to the ground in an emergency.
The parachutes will be made of high density, ultra-thin, ultra-light fibre material that could weigh less than a kilogramme. The capsule would turn into a boat if it lands on water!
Fuselages are made of special high-density fibre or ceramic, making them very light. There is technology to make more ultra-light material for the capsule to be versatile and withstand extreme heat and shock.
Future aeroplanes will be made of the recently discovered material, graphene. The lightest yet strongest man made material; graphene is one atom thick.
A kilo of it will stretch over a football field. Yet it is stronger than diamond.
Therefore, weight will not be a problem for the aeroplanes. The double-decker Airbus A380 can carry more than 600 passengers, twice the largest Boeing (747-8), but is actually lighter than most long-haul jets.
Aeroplane wings could, upon impact, detach from the body, minimising injury. Solar energy cells on the body and wings could complement fossil fuel, minimising weight and fire risks.
This is not science fiction. Decades ago, computers and smartphones existed only in science fiction.
It is unfortunate that in Kenya air travel is a preserve of the rich. But it remains the safest and most convenient and enjoyable means of transport that we should be encouraging by making it cheaper.
Dr Mbataru teaches at Kenyatta University. [email protected]