The Olympic show: three towns and an airport

The Olympic opening ceremony, with its portrayal of the transformation of Britain, prompted people to offer their own commentaries. Some were positive, others negative.

The gloriously inventive Olympic opening ceremony, which included many examples of dry humour much loved by the British (regrettably, many of these might have passed unnoticed by non-British!), took place in the redeveloped region in Stratford, London. This region, described in The Times newspaper as a

"once grubby patch of forgotten London, with its poisoned earth and its broken buildings and its vast collection of abandoned supermarket trollies"

has been transformed into an area of beauty, centred upon the Olympic stadium. This beauty was symbolised in the initial portrayal of "Merrie England", with its small farms, maypole dancing, a cricket match and other idyllic scenes reminding us of times gone by. Exactly like one might have imagined that other Stratford, properly titled as Stratford-on-Avon, known as the home of Shakespeare.

The transformation analogy continued with the actor Sir Kenneth Branagh, dressed up as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, reciting Caliban's "Be Not Afeard" speech in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest". However, the portrayal as Brunel, following the singing of the Hymn "Jerusalem" which uses the poem of William Blake (including its reference to "Dark Satanic Mills") heralded the transformation of parts of Merrie England by the Industrial Revolution. This section of the show was called pandemonium, which comes from Pandæmonium,the capital of Hell in the poem "Paradise Lost" by John Milton: it emphasised the enrichment of some citizens by the toil of many others, including child labour. A relevant saying in the North of England, where were found many of those satanic mills with tall chimneys belching smoke, is

"Where there's muck, there's brass"

Milton subsequently wrote another poem, "Paradise Regained", which might be how citizens of Stratford London now see their town. However, one correspondent wrote a letter to The Times on the subject of The Olympics, in particular of the time of the previous London Olympics in 1948 (when London's Stratford was indeed a bombed wasteland). She then lived in Hounslow, which a Times reporter had described as

"a dreary expanse of westernmost London distinguished primarily by its utter lack of distinction".

She agreed that this region is now one of drab homes, bucket shops and cheap Asian restaurants, but reported that at the time of the previous London Olympics, it was a lovely small town, with some beautiful houses, cinemas, shops, sporting facilities and a small local airfield called Heston Aerodrome. She even reminisced that on her 21st birthday her husband treated her to a flight around the area, at the exhorbitant cost of 10/6d. Perhaps a different example of Paradise Lost.

Today, the airfield is still there, being used to bring in participants in these Olympics, but its name has now changed. It is now called

Heathrow International Airport



Amelia Mary Earhart : Born 115 years ago!

Born July 24 1897, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Ameliia Erhardt used a Swiss timepiece to help her. Time could have been a factor in her disappearance!

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A flight from Japan

Yesterday, 25 June, saw the arrival of a big Boeing 777 of Japan Airlines. Its arrival was not on the airport list, whilst its departure for Tokyo was cancelled! Another mystery.


The aircraft, registered as JA710J, arrived at 6h41 pm as flight JA 8821. This is normally supposed to be a flight from Tokyo to Prague, but the arrivals at Prague yesterday showed no such flight. Equally, the arrivals board at Geneva did not show this incoming flight. The Geneva arrivals board did, however, show a flight JA 8822 as due to leave at 9h30 pm for Osaka, but it was cancelled.

On today's list of departures, flight JA 8822 is due to leave at 5 pm, but for Frankfurt, not Osaka. That should give the planespotters time to go and photograph it!

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Alan Turing: a homosexual genius

Alan Turing, born June 23 1912, was a mathematical genius, the modern founder of computer technology, the man who did most to ensure the defeat of Hitler's Germany and ... a homosexual.

This newspaper, like others all over the world, recognises his genius and relates his life. To me, a mathematician and computer scientist, his life is fascinating, inspiring and tragic. His work in Bletchley Park, whose task was to break the German Military Enigma codes, is something that I can hardly rate high enough. Although Britain was saved from invasion by the Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft of the RAF in 1941, it could later have been defeated without the ability of Bletchley Park analysts to extract secret information to counter the U-boat destruction of the Atlantic convoys, which Winston Churchill described as the only thing that really frightened him.

Turing's work in the development of computers is second to none: the only other comparable person who could be said perhaps to have foreseen and developed computers was, in the opinion of many, Charles Babbage. After the war, Turing continued with his ideas, already in his mind before the war, to create the first computer. This computer, the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), was constructed at the National Physical Laboratory, in Teddington, Middlesex. The choice of the descriptor "Engine" is said to be a homage to Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine.

Turing's life turned to tragedy when he refused to hide his homosexuality after the war: during the war this was known to many of his colleagues, but they were interested more in his work than his leisure activities. In 1952, having been convicted of indecent practices, he was subjected to chemical castration. When, on June 7 1954, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning in his room next to an apple, it was widely assumed that he had committed suicide. However, recent studies have suggested that there was no proof that the apple contained cyanide, and that it might have been an accidental exposure as part of some experiments that he was performing.

This history raises a fundamental question of whether what is perceived as unacceptable in a person should be tolerated if that person has good qualities. There is a school of thought that says that Germany might have been the first to develop the atomic bomb if they had not eliminated some brilliant German Jews. In the USA, Robert Oppenheimer was the son of wealthy Jewish parents, whilst another Jew, Lew Kowarski, fled to Britain at the start of the war with the entire world stock of heavy water (he later came to Geneva to work in CERN).

I do feel to have been distantly connected in several ways with Alan Turing. As a mathematics student at London University, I spent the Summer vacation in 1962 working in the National Physical Laboratory (their current Web site is very informative), where I met people who had worked for and with Alan Turing: one of these for whom I worked (Mike Woodger) gives a commentary about Alan Turing in a BBC report on his life. At that time, the ACE machine was still there, though it was supplanted by DEUCE, and there was pioneering work on computer languages, in particular ALGOL, and on computers communicating over networks by a method called packet-switching, which is now fundamental to the Internet and the World-Wide Web which originated in CERN. It also happens that the 23 June, today as I write this, is the birthday of my wife.

Thankfully, Alan Turing has posthumously been pardoned by the British Government of any offence, with consenting acts in private between consenting adults no longer considered as a criminal offence. However, in other parts of the world things are very different: in Mali the parents of a child born out of wedlock have been recently flogged for their "crime". The idiocy of this type of punishment is demonstrated by the fact that in some countries, which claim not to tolerate homosexuality, powerful men go around in public accompanied by their catamites. A flagrant example of the principle of "Do as I say, not as I do"!

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Did Moscow protests affect Geneva-Moscow flights?

Yesterday, 12 June, two evening flights from Moscow to Geneva were late: their return to Moscow even later (over the heads of sleeping people in Satigny and St Genis). Why?

The only apparent reason why the Swiss flight LX1337 from Moscow Domodedovo airport and the Aeroflot flight SU2382 from Moscow Sheremetyevo airport both arrived in Geneva in the evening over 90 minutes late seems to be the protests which took place there in the afternoon. Both aircraft had arrived in Moscow pretty well on time, but as from mid-afternoon there were serious delays for very many aircraft leaving Moscow.

The unfortunate consequence for people living around Geneva was that both aircraft were due to fly back to Moscow the same evening. As a result, AFL2383 to Moscow Sheremetyevo only took off at 11h36 pm, and SWR1338 to Moscow Domodedovo airport at 11h45 pm. With the current westerly winds, both aircraft took off over Vernier.

20120612_KONIL_23h-00h.jpgA further unfortunate (unacceptable for some) consequence was that the Air Traffic Controller of Skyguide allowed both aircraft to make a 180° turn to the right when they arrived over Vernier. This manoeuvre surely increased the noise of the aircraft (one turning must surely make more noise than one climbing gently in a straight line), and also ensured that the towns of Satigny (in Switzerland) and St Genis (in neighbouring France) both shared in this increased noise.

This route, for aircraft wanting to head eastwards after a takeoff over Vernier, is called KONIL. It has long been opposed by the French authorities of the area around Ferney Voltaire, who argue that the aircraft should climb in a straight line with a minimum of noise, until turning in a longer arc at a higher altitude. The committee of the association of French and Swiss regions close to the airport (ATCR-AIG) has long been demanding that this KONIL route be forbidden after 10 pm, and even may have believed that they had an agreement in principle. However, this is clearly not the case.

The position of the airport, as reported in the minutes of a meeting with the ATCR-AIG, appears to be that this demand for suppression of the route after 10 pm is part of a wider procedure which follows a ruling of the Swiss Federal Tribunal several years ago and which is generally referred to as CRINEN. Despite the final documents sent to the Swiss Civil Aviation Office OFAC over two years ago, we are still waiting for their ruling! To me, this is a triumph of procrastination on the part of Geneva airport and OFAC.

This procrastination is in stark contrast to the way in which OFAC responded remarkably promptly when the Airport Management requested that for reasons of safety all aircraft operating in Visual control mode (VFR), including helicopters. must fly in the immediate vicinity of the airport without activating the aircraft's transponder. The end result of this change to the Swiss rules for Geneva is that it will no longer be possible to check any flight path after the event.

It actually seems as if many pilots disagree with this new rule, and continue to fly with an active transponder: light aircraft pilots at the recent open day for light aviation claimed that they want to do this for reasons of safety (it broadcasts their presence to other aircraft and can signal any possible collision course)!

Who are likely to be more correct in matters of safety: people sitting in offices or people flying an aircraft?

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England, Germany, Russia and Poland together

England, Germany, Russia and Poland are currently playing in the Euro 2012 football competition. Over 70 years ago these nations were savagely at war. Here is a story of forgiveness.

Poland was where the second world war began, when it was invaded by Germany on 1 September 1939. As a country, it suffered greatly from its position squeezed between two great powers. Like Germany and England, it had to suffer greatly, in particular when the Warsaw ghetto uprising was suppressed on the eve of Passover of April 19, 1943. The country also housed notorious concentration camps, most notably Auschwitz-Birkenau, which the English team visited before the start of the competition, and Treblinka.

I have just watched the BBC TV "Songs of Praise" programme, devoted to the old and the new Coventry Cathedral. Both were named after St Michael, the name given to me and one whose origin is the Hebrew question "mi kəmo ʔelohim", translated in English as "Who is like God". The old one, a 14th century Gothic church, later cathedral, was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid on Coventry on 14 November 1940. Although Christianity preaches forgiveness, it is hard not to think that this bombing played some part in the decision to bomb Dresden to destruction in February 1945.

The new Coventry cathedral was designed by Basil Spence, later knighted, and its foundation stone laid by Queen Elizabeth on 23rd March, 1956. On 25th May 1962, when she had reigned for just 10 years, Queen Elizabeth was present at the consecration. Thus, when we are celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Coventry Cathedral is celebrating its Golden Jubilee.

The decision to rebuild the Cathedral, taken on the day after its destruction, not simply as an act of defiance but rather as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. Since then the Cathdral has been at the centre of a Ministry of Reconciliation. One example of this is the statue, called Choir of Survivors, very recently given to the Cathedral by the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

One particularly well-known symbol, which originated in Coventry Cathedral, is the Cross of Nails, a cross of three nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral. This gave rise to the Community of the Cross of Nails, an organisation devoted to reconciliation in the world, and which has donated crosses to several German cities whose own churches were destroyed in the war.

It is a very sad sign of the times that, while writing these words, the TV news carried a story of the bombing of two churches in Nigeria. The above-mentioned Community would preach forgiveness, but it is hard to do so.


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Queen Elizabeth diamond jubilee

Britain is currently having four days of celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Some may disapprove of her inheriting the Head of State position, but what other countries can do better?

How many other countries have a head of state who, before actually being in that position, could have made the following declaration on her 21st birthday (on the 21st April 1947, when in Cape Town) and then have stuck to it

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service

Although I have been in Geneva a very long time, I did all my schooling in England. I was not (quite) a teenager when my family watched her coronation on the black and white television of our neighbours. Even at my age, I could understand what a great occasion I was witnessing as it was happening. Later on, of course, we could see it in colour on Pathe News in the local cinema.

The debate on a Royal as head of State is often heated, but loses sight of the fact that, unlike other heads of State, Queen Elizabeth's rôle is mainly symbolic. However, no bills passed by the two houses of Parliament can be law until she has signed them. As such, she has to read and approve Government papers on all but about two days per year: no statutory right to any limitation on the number of hours per week, nor weeks of paid holiday.

So what might the anti-royalists propose instead? Election by the people (such as is being suggested even for Switzerland!) sounds fine, but the recent election in France showed us two snarling dogs of war shouting insults at each other: when that happens can whoever is elected be a popular choice for everyone?

How about election by politicians? Well, we all know that politics is too often a dirty game, with back-stabbing and secret quid pro quo agreements. Germany's Angela Merkel forced in her choice as president of Germany a few years ago, despite a body of opinion that the choice was wrong. They seem to have been proved right, since he had to resign!

OK, maybe we should let religious people choose their head of State: a theocracy? The problem is firstly that many countries have multiple religions, with the monority religions then risking ostracism (or worse). Also, of course, you cannot argue logically against religious beliefs!

Maybe we can keep thinks in the family without calling them Royals: I could call this a kinocracy! It does not take much thought to find numerous counter-examples, North Korea being one which might spring to mind.

So, no system is guaranteed as "the best": it all depends on the persons concerned. I remember once, at school, having to debate which was better: a corrupt democracy or a benevolent dictatorship. Whatever argument I thought of could be countered pretty easily.


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The poor, the rich and the ultra-rich

The EBACE aircraft exhibition highlights a reverse North-South divide, with the rich to the South. However, that is not the whole story: the rich are also divided.

On the South side of the Geneva airport runway we have the exhibition of private jets that the manufacturers are trying to sell to the (sometimes) rich visitors. On the North side, especially on the terrace of the Aéro Bistro café, we have the hordes of aircraft spotters, complete with their binoculars, telephoto lens cameras and well-thumbed notebooks for jotting down all the business jets that they see. What unites the two communities, who we would once have described as the rich and the poor (or, less PC, as the nobs and the yobs!), is certainly the commonality of  English as the lingua franca. However, even there the peoples' accents would mostly indicate the difference: solid regional accents, with the occasional Dutch inflection, to the North, refined ones, often with an indication of country of origin, to the South.

There have been various comments on the health of the business aviation market at the moment. An article in this paper, with the headline that a private jet is no longer a rich person's toy, was relatively optimistic (although, regrettably, this article was next to one indicating that Lufthansa would be firing about 60 Swiss employees!). However, articles in other sources suggest that the state of the business jet industry in Europe is mostly fairly morose as the emphasis moves towards clients in the middle and far East.

The one ray of light in the private jet business appears to be in the high end market, aimed at the super-rich: aircraft which will cost upwards of 50 million dollars and be capable of long distance inter-continental flights. In contrast, in the low end market there is very little happening. According to a report in Le Temps, in Europe 20% of the existing fleet of private jets are up for sale, yet in the last year only 2% have actually found a buyer.

So what are the aircraft which are selling, and who is buying them (either directly or to lease out to clients)? The clue is perhaps to be found in an interview printed in Le Temps, in which the founder of VistaJet, Thomas Flohr, talks about their prospective clients as being often the directors of mining conglomerate companies (des dirigeants dans les matières premières!). It does not take too much imagination to realise that he might be thinking of people like Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore, a company based (for tax purposes) in the same Swiss canton (Zug) as Vista.

The negative side of this, for residents living around Geneva airport, is that when people who can afford to buy or hire a private jet want to depart from Geneva airport late at night they are simply allowed to do so: the departure at 11h22 pm last night of a private jet operated by the Geneva-based company Sonnig is yet another example. However, don't expect anyone to tell you why it was so late, where it went to or what make of champagne was served: such information is highly classified.

Meanwhile, to the north of the airport the Aéro Bistro spotters will enjoy their three days of beer plus steak and chips lunches and their nights in a low-cost hotel (often in nearby France) or a camper bus, before heading home, after EBACE finishes, by road or low-cost air travel. Some of them (virtually always male and with no females in close attendance) have even told me that this is their holiday for the year.

Cheers, guys!


Geneva airport: head in the sand again!

Yet again we have delayed and cancelled flights, this time to Portugal, due to strikes. Yet again the Geneva Airport Web site fails to give any warnings: why?

We could all know that there would be trouble for flights to and from Portugal today, Friday 11 May, as it had been announced that the Portuguese Air Traffic Controllers would be striking today (and in all probability will do likewise on Thursday and Friday for the next two weeks. For Geneva this affects easyJet and TAP flights to Lisbon and Porto. The easytravelreport.com site confirms this, saying

Portuguese air traffic controllers strike
Expect flight delays or even cancellations.
11, 17, 18, 24 and May 25 2 hours per shift from 07:00 to 09: 00, from 2-4 PM and from 9-11PM on the continent and Madeira). Here's what TAP has to say for the 11th.

The Web sites of both easyJet and TAP confirm this, though you have to look for the information (on easyjet.com as "Latest Travel Info"), as these sites are not just for Geneva flights.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: why on earth cannot the Geneva Airport web site also have an equivalent information on events which could affect flights in the next few days or weeks? The only likely reason that I can think of (apart from them never wanting to mention problems!) is that the best place to put it (on the initial Web page) is already taken up by advertising-style alternating images (which might bring in more money!).

I suppose that I am still whistling in the dark!


Strikes will affect flights to Spain and Portugal

Air travellers would be wise to check on days on which flights to and from Spain and Portugal will probably be affected by flights. Several Web sites gives details.

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TAP flight arriving around midnight

My predictions of flights from Lisbon to Geneva arriving around midnight were rapidly confirmed last night, but other late flights should not have been allowed.

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International noise awareness day

Today, April 25 2012, is International Noise Awareness day. The reports of the great and continuing increase in traffic at Geneva airport is very relevant to our noise awareness.

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How a Virgin Atlantic problem affected Geneva

Most Geneva-Gatwick flights yesterday were delayed because of an emergency on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick to Orlando, Florida. Details are hard to establish.

20120417_Virgin.JPGThere have been quite a few emergencies, often involving an aircraft turning around shortly after takeoff and returning to the departure airport. I recently blogged about two of these which occurred on Friday 13 April, and there have been several since then, as reported on the tweets page of flightradar24.com. Of these, the most recent one has made headlines on the newspapers because it resulted in Gatwick airport having to close down for 90 minutes. Apparently, it then reopened using a back-up runway: one which is seldom used because it is only 1.8 km long, as against the 2.5 km runway normally used.

One report on this comes from the well-known site "huffingtonpost.com" (for which DSK's wife, Anne Sinclair, is now running the french language edition), and even includes a short video of the aircraft after landing and with the emergency exit slides down.

On Tuesdays, as is generally the case on other weekdays, the only flights between Geneva and Gatwick are run by easyJet, so it was no surprise to see that most of their flights had been subject to delays between 1 and 4 hours, though none was cancelled. Incidentally, this is one of those occurrences where I feel that the Geneva airport web site should have a daily bulletin board announcing this sort of problem!

What happened to thes Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick to Orlando, Florida, is actually somewhat of a mystery still. The first reports talked of a small fire in the aircraft, but these reports were later contradicted when, according to press articles, "a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic told The Associated Press the flight crew had been debriefed and said they did not see or smell smoke on board". However, these same press articles state that "The airline declined to provide details of what exactly caused the emergency". Of course, that is hardly a surprise, is it?

The incident was apparently serious enough to cause the aircraft to be evacuated in an emergency manner: passengers being pushed down the emergency slides. This resulted in injuries to 15 of them, with some having to go to hospital with suspected fractures.

20120417_path2.JPGVia the list of tweets on the flightradar24.com site, a quick click shows the path taken by the aircraft. This raises some interesting issues. A normal great circle route to Florida would require the aircraft to fly slightly north of due west, passing over parts of Wales: this path would be used from Heathrow. However, flights from Gatwick follow a path slightly south of due west, so that is how the flight started. Then, when over Southampton, the pilot turned south-west in order to do a wide loop over the English Channel. I assume that this was when the problem occurred, and the aircraft needed to dump fuel (over the sea) before being able to land again.

By a curious coincidence, just over 10 years ago, on January 19 2002,  the very same Virgin Atlantic VS27 flight from Gatwick to Orlando had to make an emergency landing in Keflavik airport, Iceland, because of a bomb threat!

Perhaps I will not book that flight in 10 years time!


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Hot air balloon disrupts flights

The poor weather prevented any balloon flying during the 6th Montgolfiades weekend here in Geneva. Somewhere near London Gatwick airport one did fly and cause trouble.

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Palestinien militants to Tel Aviv this weekend

Today, Sunday 15 April, the web site of this newspaper says pro-palestinien militants refused boarding on EZS1525 to Tel Aviv. How about  other flights to Tel Aviv this weekend?

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