Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Is there a pilot in the plane?

If you want to see some really crazy figures, take a look at the chart of comparative data in the CIA World Factbook concerning the lengths of coastlines of the nations of the globe [display]. According to their data, the total length of Indonesia's coastline is equivalent to that of Russia, and well over twice as long as Australia's coastline. Even the Philippines and Japan have coastlines longer than that of Australia.

The Wikipedia article on this subject provides clues as to what might have gone wrong. Common sense tells us that, if you were to hire a team of surveyors armed with tape measures, and ask them to take into account the curved lengths of every nook and cranny in a section of coastline, they would end up with a much larger figure than if the curved lengths were to be represented roughly by linear segments. Inversely, if a lazy surveyor were to place markers around the Australian coastline at intervals of 500 km, and then obtain the total distance by adding up the linear segments between his markers (which is more or less what happens when you evaluate the length of a coastline using satellite data), he would conclude that Australia's total coastline measures only 12,500 km... which is equivalent to that of the UK in the above-mentioned chart. To obtain the figures in the chart, each nation has been left with the responsibility of calculating the length of its own coastline, using its own particular technique of measurement, but we ignore the so-called scale interval employed by each country... which means that the respective figures cannot be compared. So, we can safely conclude that all that data is a bunch of crap.

Be that as it may, we realize intuitively that the huge island continent of Australia has a very long coastline. Consequently, our nation is faced with a gigantic task of administering all those coastal waters, from the Pacific in the east to the Indian Ocean in the west. Alongside our defense forces, one of the major government bodies in this domain is AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority], whose website [display] states its vision: To be a superior provider of maritime safety, marine environment protection, and maritime and aviation search and rescue. To help them in this challenge, AMSA awarded a contract in 2005 to a private company named AeroRescue, based in Darwin, with a background in pearling.

And the Australian government provided funds of some $200 million, through AMSA, enabling AeroRescue to acquire a fleet of five Fairchild-Dornier 328-120 turboprop search-and-rescue aircraft.

Amazingly, AMSA has just revealed publicly that, a fortnight ago, on Australia Day, all five planes were grounded because of technical problems. In other words, it would have been a nasty moment for vessels that might have run into serious trouble off the Australian coast at that time.

The following job ad, which I discovered on the Internet, makes me wonder whether the Dornier problems were indeed purely technical:

It's no doubt a pure coincidence that applications for this pilot's job closed on the eve of Australia Day: the day on which the entire fleet was grounded with problems. Freaky.

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