Thoughts during my analysis of flight N48DL


My day job is as a software developer for a flight tracking company in Boston. We do not have anything to do with air traffic control; however, some of what we do involves receiving flight data from various sources, including the FAA, and working with it to provide it to the public in a way that may be useful.

While I think mentioning the name of my company would not be negatively received, or if I wrote more about the culture (great) and day-to-day happenings (often boring), I am not looking to turn this into a space to offload my work stresses. I am making an exception in this case.

Sometimes the work I have is not routine, and it may require on-the-spot data munging and specialized code to be written to perform some task or analysis. This kind of work can cause a flurry of activity and bring out the best in my team's individual and group-oriented capabilities. I usually look forward to this sort of activity as it is stimulating and engaging on an intellectual level, and can sometimes lead to new ideas on how to improve and grow.

Dealing with flight data can also mean rare moments of non-routine activity which are tempered with seriousness and situational gravity. On Thursday there was an event which caused flight N48DL to crash into the Gulf of Mexico a couple of hours after contact with its pilot had been lost. As this situation was developing I found myself working with another colleage to collect and analyze the data for this flight, and as we were doing so I reflected on the humanity of the moment, as well as on the unusual position I found myself in to have access to the particular information around me, which had in some way allowed me to connect with the drama while it was developing.

Two forces are simultaneously at work in my mind when I prepare this kind of work. There is the sensitivity to the people involved and their feelings on how they may perceive seeing information like this broadcast widely while not knowing how the events will proceed and conclude. There is also the determination to share the information so that the situation can be better understood by the general public, and perhaps also those more closely involved as they may be looking to know this information, too. The interplay of these two concerns has timeless attributes resulting in a decision to provide the information so long as it does not risk causing escalation of the situation, or lead to some general panic.

In short order, my Thursday became personally stressful as I worked on cultivating and preparing ways to present flight information on what ultimately was a fatal plane crash. We are not the only company with access to this information, and many news organizations that were looking for a graphical representation of the flight's path found better examples elsewhere than with my company. My work was not completed in a timely enough manner to be used in its originally intended purpose; but, I think that it may still be released publicly as it may still provide use in research or education on the behavior of the plane.

The information contained in this KML file is in the public domain and anyone may reproduce my efforts provided they go through the steps of acquiring the flight information. I have worked to translate the original flight plan, last amendment to the flight plan, and position information into a format which can be viewed in Google Earth and Google Maps.

To use the file in Google Earth you may either download it by right-clicking on the link above and saving the file locally, or by referencing it as a URL by copying the link location. To use it in Google Maps paste the link location into the search field, or click this link where I've done that work already; it may be helpful to unclick the checkbox next to the folder name "Flight points of N48DL" as these provide time and altitude information in a way that can clutter the map. Alternatively, you may use this link which is to a version of the data omitting the individual flight path data points with time and altitude information.

Along with this blog post I am presenting this information on the transportation portion of my site, including with graphics and an embedded Google Map area, available here.

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