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When They Have Had Enough . . .

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An investigation has been opened after a small plane crashed just after takeoff from a suburban airport in a northeast suburb of Atlanta on October 9th, killing all four people aboard. The Federal Aviation Administration said the single-engine Cessna 210 crashed about 1:10 p.m. on Friday afternoon at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and caught fire. [1]

[2] A private jet carrying 21 people crashed and burst into flames Tuesday, October 19th while attempting to take off from an airport near Houston — but, miraculously, only two people were reported injured.

The twin-engine MD-87 rolled through a fence and ignited in a field at Houston Executive Airport in Brookshire, about 28 miles from the city, at about 10 a.m. The 18 passengers on board were on their way to Boston to see the Houston Astros play the Red Sox in Game 4 of MLB’s American League Championship Series, Waller County Sheriff Troy Guidry told Reuters.

Passenger Cheryl McCaskill said she lost her shoes as she ran from the plane in her Astros jersey. “When it finally stopped everyone went, ‘Get out, get out, get out,” McCaskill told The Houston Chronicle. “We jumped out on that inflatable thing and then everyone went ‘Get away.’” Another unnamed passenger described running for cover from the smoking wreckage. [2]

[3] In December of 2020 a British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Athens, Greece was forced to divert and make an emergency landing in Zurich, Switzerland on Boxing Day after the First Officer slipped into unconsciousness while at the controls, the airline confirmed. British Airways flight BA640 departed at around 8.10 am on Saturday morning for what should have been a near three-hour flight to the Greek capital.

As the plane neared Zadar in Croatia, however, the captain reportedly decided to make an airborne return to Heathrow because the First Officer was feeling unwell. In fact, the co-pilot was so sick that the captain indicated that he was considering a medical diversion to either Paris or Zurich. As the plane neared Zurich, the First Officer fell unconscious prompting the captain to make an unscheduled stop in Switzerland. British Airways was not able to give an update on the condition of the First Officer or explain why the pilot had been sickened. [3]

[4] A dramatic recording captured the harrowing final moments of a plane that crashed in California, killing two people — with an air traffic controller repeatedly warning the pilot that he was too low and veering off course. Dr. Sugata Das, a cardiologist at Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona, was piloting a Cessna 340 from Yuma to the Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego when he crashed into a house in the suburb of Santee.

Das and a UPS driver in the neighborhood were killed in the Monday crash, which also left two other people on the ground hurt. Before the tragedy, an air traffic controller instructed the pilot to join the final approach and to maintain 2,800 feet until he was established on the localizer, which means he would be receiving a usable navigation signal on the instrument landing system. Things quickly appeared to go awry as the communication suggested some hesitation on the pilot’s part and consternation by the controller. [4]

[5] Back in the cockpit after time off recovering from unspeakable worldwide sickness, an airline pilot forgot to start his plane’s second engine for takeoff, a mistake that could have ended in disaster if he hadn’t aborted the flight. Another pilot, fresh from a seven-month layoff because of the mass sickness and descending to land early in the morning, realized almost too late he hadn’t lowered the wheels and pulled out of the approach just 800 feet (240 meters) from the tarmac. Weeks earlier, a passenger plane leaving a busy airport headed off in the wrong direction, flown by a captain who was back on deck for the first time in more than six months.

These potentially disastrous errors all took place in the U.S. in recent months as pilots returned to work. In every case, crew blamed their oversight on a shortage of flying during the lockdowns. The incidents are among dozens of mistakes, confidentially declared by out-of-practice pilots since the start of the pandemic, that are stored on a low-profile database designed to identify emerging safety threats.

The monitoring program, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, is decades old but is now flashing warning signs as planes return to the skies across the world. Deep cuts by airlines left some 100,000 pilots globally working skeleton hours or on long-term leave, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Many haven’t flown for more than 18 months.

But as rising vaccination rates allow travel to resume, concerns are growing that a lack of proficiency, confidence, or simply one moment of forgetfulness could lead to tragedy. “It is really a critical situation,” said Uwe Harter, a grounded Airbus SE A380 pilot for Deutsche Lufthansa AG who’s also the executive vice president for technical and safety standards at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations. “The last thing the industry needs now is a bad accident.”

While some airlines are providing pilots with adequate retraining, others are offering “the bare minimum,” if anything at all, said Harter, who himself hasn’t flown since February 2020. “The regulations that we have aren’t sufficient.” It’s not as if authorities are blind to this. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets industry standards, and the International Air Transport Association have seen the risks looming for months.

Both bodies, as well as Europe’s top aviation regulator, have published detailed training guides to help airlines transition out-of-practice pilots back into the air. But interviews with pilots from Asia and Europe — and the database of anonymous accounts in the U.S. — reveal varying degrees of ability and confidence among those who have returned to duty, including pilots who have completed retraining programs.

That’s partly because no amount of classroom or virtual theory, or practice in a flight simulator, can replicate the real-life pressures of a cockpit. Nor do these preparations fully take into account the psychological, emotional and financial stresses from the world sickness weighing on airline crew.

Aviation has largely been defined by its colossal financial losses — $138 billion last year alone and another $52 billion expected in 2021 — since the sickness brought travel to a standstill. As the industry tries to claw back some of its lost revenue, managing the safety risks posed by returning pilots is an additional burden and one that airlines with stronger balance sheets have the luxury of handling more proficiently than others. (It seems AOC is getting her Green New Deal way with the airlines, doesn’t it.)

The scale of the problem is partly documented on the U.S. Aviation Safety Reporting System, the database of safety incidents voluntarily reported by pilots, crew and air-traffic controllers. The pilot who tried to get airborne on one engine in December last year said in his report that his recovery from the sickness was “heavy on his mind” and contributed to his “lack of focus.”

Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia-based not-for-profit group that advises the aviation industry, said it’s aware of the incidents on the Aviation Safety Reporting System database and is monitoring the situation globally. “The more we know about potential safety issues, the better we are able to mitigate the risk,” Flight Safety Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Hassan Shahidi said. In a line of work where there’s little room for professional error, the dangers become stark.

While most of the mistakes are minor — they include flying momentarily at the incorrect altitude or speed, or taxiing across a runway in the wrong place — some of the worst aviation disasters are rooted in seemingly inconsequential missteps. And worryingly, the number of incidents tied to a lack of pilot proficiency climbed almost immediately after the world sickness began to disrupt commercial flying schedules, according to a February study by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.

Rajee Olaganathan, an assistant professor at the university, found in all Aviation Safety Reporting System reports, pilots referred to problems landing the aircraft. In one, a pilot described approaching the runway with too much altitude. “I wasn’t at the comfort level I would have liked,” he wrote. Olaganathan said her findings show airlines need to educate pilots about skill deterioration and build suitably tailored training programs. But crew also need to be candid about their abilities. “Pilots need to make an honest assessment of their skills and confidence upon returning to work.”

United Nations agency International Civil Aviation Organization usually requires pilots undergo two proficiency checks every 12 months and perform three takeoffs and landings every 90 days. They’re also subject to examinations from doctors specializing in aviation medicine. When the medical shutdown began, International Civil Aviation Organization allowed airlines flexibility in meeting these rules because the sickness was devastating enough, as long as carriers incorporated other safeguards. But with flying on its way back, the Montreal-based agency says it’s becoming less lenient.

Even so, ICAO is still offering 41 exemptions from the standards in 11 countries including Cambodia, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to its website. Air Niugini in Papua New Guinea, for example, has been allowed to stretch its pilot-proficiency checks to 12-month intervals because the mandate restrictions make it difficult to access flight simulators in nearby Australia and Singapore. Pilots at the airline must instead undergo more theoretical and practical training to compensate, details of the exemption show.

While commercial flying in the U.S. is 17% off normal levels, activity in Western Europe remains down 35%, according to Official Aviation Guide. The shortfalls are even greater in the Middle East, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, where many international borders remain shut. In interviews, some pilots who have returned to work report a loss of the muscle memory that once helped them follow procedures on the flight deck without pause.

Others wonder if they still possess the clear-mindedness to handle a mid-air crisis. A senior pilot for Qantas Airways Ltd., who spoke on condition of anonymity, said colleagues who haven’t flown for six months typically make one or two minor procedural errors on their return. They might forget to enter data into the flight computer at the appropriate time, or land the plane harder than normal, the pilot said.

Actions that were once immediate and instinctive require more time and thought. That’s after refresher sessions in a flight simulator, the pilot said. Crew members who have come back on duty with little recent flying experience have already come close to disaster. In September last year, a Lion Air Group plane carrying 307 passengers veered off the runway after landing at Medan in northern Indonesia.

The pilot had flown less than three hours in the previous 90 days. Evidence suggests more oversight is needed in certain regions. Many of the safeguards against a lack of proficiency, such as rostering more-experienced crew in the cockpit and running additional simulator sessions, represent an additional cost — one that airlines under financial stress may struggle to foot. Indeed, some of the errors declared by pilots in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database have echoes in the grimmest airline disasters. [5]

[6] Meanwhile, the Pilots Association’s recent filing asked the Court to block South West Airline’s mandated gene editing policy. Among other things, Pilots argue unilateral implementation of the mandate violates the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline-union relations.

The Dallas-based airline blamed the disruptions on air traffic control issues in Florida and bad weather. Yet, other airlines that operate in the region reported far fewer cancellations. Southwest Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights, 27% of its schedule, on Sunday as disruptions that the airline blamed on air traffic control issues and bad weather affected the travel plans of thousands of customers.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic, didn’t immediately comment. Southwest apologized to travelers for long customer service waits. The Dallas-based airline canceled 808 flights on Saturday, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. American Airlines, which operates a large hub in Miami, in comparison, canceled 63 mainline flights, or 2% of its operation and Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Spirit Airlines canceled 32 flights, 4% of its schedule.

Staffing shortages fueled hundreds of cancellations at Southwest over the summer. The airline trimmed its schedule after the summer to avoid further disruptions. Other airlines faced a shortage of workers after encouraging thousands to take leave or buyouts at the height of the worldwide shutdown, only for travel demand to return faster than expected this summer.

The disparity between Southwest’s operation and other airlines fueled speculation on social media that employees were calling out sick. Earlier on Saturday, the union noted that the company’s recent announcement that it will comply with the Biden administration’s requirement that federal contractors must mandate staff take the DNA manipulation exercise is contributing to distractions for aviators.

“Make no mistake about it – due to months of staffing issues and inefficient scheduling practices we have been operating at a higher-than-normal operational risk,” the union’s safety committee posted on Saturday. It said reports of fatigue, which require pilots not to fly, are triple historic norms. “All of these challenges have led to an added distraction in the cockpit.” “This week’s mandate announcement by South West Airlines only exacerbates the situation.” [6] Still, there are those few who will comply with the tyrannical mandates, while the courageous are standing on their principles.

Rudy a poster on citizen free press blog wrote this profound message: “If you’ve ever wondered whether you would have complied during 1930s Germany, now you know.” The saying goes “SEEK the truth and you shall find it” –and NOT that you find the truth by passively ACCEPTING what authorities tell you is the “truth” like herd animals unthinkingly obey their shepherds’ orders. Yet almost nobody ACTIVELY SEEKS the truth, they only PASSIVELY ACCEPT as “truth” what the authorities tell them and so become UN-thinking members of “herd stupidity.” [7]

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[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]


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