Even the “technical” media get aviation details wrong

I’ve come to the conclusion that Popular Mechanics is a lot like the TV show Mythbusters—occasionally entertaining, but prone to screwing up its own product by operating from arbitrary supposition rather than diligent research and hard science.

Just about every time I see Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman cooking up some crazy idea, like say a rocket-powered car taking flight, it’s plainly obvious they haven’t thought out big chunks of physics.  Stuff like the vehicle’s center of gravity, moment of inertia, control surfaces, stability during flight, et cetera.  That’s one episode where an appropriately scaled proof-of-concept would have been a good idea.  You don’t even get to see a little model car take flight; you just get to see the whole exercise end in flaming failure because of a manufacturing or installation defect in the car-to-be-flown.

Another Mythbusters goof would be the “Bullet Proof Water” episode, crafted to determine what calibre of bullet would penetrate deepest into a relatively shallow body of water.  The finding was that point-blank firing of high-speed bullets (in excess of around 1000 fps) resulted in bullet fragmentation within one or two feet of water penetration.  The implication is that the opening of Saving Private Ryan, showing GIs taking lethal rounds underwater, was a load of horseshit.  History may recall, though, that the Germans at Normandy weren’t firing into the water at point-blank range, they were firing from hardened emplacements several hundred yards away.  This would give German rounds time to fully stabilise in flight, and also, not coincidentally, to shed speed, making their entry into the water less traumatic.  Another factor is that blunt-nosed projectiles (i.e. low-velocity pistol bullets) create low pressure cavitation that reduces drag on the rest of the projectile, which is, not coincidentally, why submarines and torpedoes alike have that blunt-nosed shape.  Go figure.

Let us also not forget the “Firearms Folklore” episode, which tests the hypothesis that a sniper can kill another sniper by shooting straight through the victim’s scope.  Setting aside the fact that a Marine sniper (Carlos Hathcock) is on record as having achieved this remarkable feat, the Mythbusters did not use a period-appropriate scope (of Soviet design), nor did they use the rifle type issued to Marine snipers.  Yet they found the “myth” to be “busted”.  When they tested it again later, with a much smaller period-appropriate scope, they were able to duplicate the feat and call it plausible.  See what happens when you do better research?

At any rate, while pop-science media like Popular Mechanics and Mythbusters can occasionally be good illustrations of a principle or effect, they can also be dismal examples of poor research.  Check out this nonsense from a recent article about US Air Flight 1549:

The Right Stuff
When both engines failed, Captain Sullenberger found himself in the kind of situation that doesn’t arise even on a pilot simulator. At that point, “he found himself in the position of being an experimental test pilot,” says [Fred] George.  So Sullenberger did what all good aviators do (and what glider pilots know best): He kept flying the plane.

— Allen St. John.  “What Went Right: Flight 1549 Airbus A-320’s Ditch into the Hudson“, Popular Mechanics, January 17th, 2009.

[ed: Mr. Fred George is, according to Popular Mechanics, “a senior editor at Business and Commercial Aviation and a former Navy pilot who has clocked hours on an Airbus A-320”.]

Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles are indeed sterling aviators, while Mr. Fred George is perhaps given to some hyperbole.  The captain’s dire engine-out situation is indeed envisioned and prepared for, even in the A320 simulator.  The checklist is called “Dual Engine Flame Out with Fuel Remaining“, and amazingly enough, at the Flight Level 390 blog, one can read about another A320 line pilot encountering that very checklist two years ago on a simulator checkride.  How very curious.

A checklist for dual engine flameout would also be required by the FAA as part of the aircraft’s certification to fly in the United States.  And during pre-production testing, the manufacturer’s chief test pilot would have flown that very checklist, in the simulator and in the actual aircraft (although, for safety reasons, with throttles at flight idle and not with engines shut down).

Alas, Popular Mechanics, it may be a rare checklist to encounter, but it is not exactly experimental.  Your source has led you astray.  To your credit, though, the rest of the article is a good summary of the things that the aircrew did right.

One good PM article is this one, “10 Plane Crashes That Changed Aviation“, although I quibble over the the inclusion of some of the accidents, like Swissair 111.

A far more significant accident was Pan Am 1736 and KLM 4805 at Tenerife, in 1977.  The resulting changes were worldwide—greater emphasis on English as the lingua franca of aviation, introducing standardised nomenclature and phraseology, and increased awareness of CRM as a critical factor.

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One Response
  1. Nicholas says:

    In the Air Canada flight 797 crash in Cincinnati among the 23 fatalities was Stan Rogers, one of Canada’s greatest musicians.