Sunday, June 13, 2010

Calling the Yes-way Police

Recently this humble blogger's year-old Ford failed to start in the driveway.  After a flatbed tow to the dealership,  the service tech determined that the vehicle's onboard fuel cut-off inertia switch had been tripped.

"We've determined that the switch isn’t faulty," he further asserted.  "And it would take a major impact to trip it.“

Yet there sat the pristine Ford, not so much as a spider-web washcloth scratch on it, never mind any sign of impact. 

Humble Blogger: "Did we have an earthquake this morning?"

Ford Tech: No.

HB: "Then what do you 'spose tripped the fuel cut-off switch?"

FT: "I don't know, but the switch tests-out OK and there's no way you could even trip it by slamming on the brakes.  Not even if you dropped it from four feet in the air.  It had to be a major impact.  And if you think about it, that switch is a great idea.  Cuts off the fuel in the event of a crash.  They’ve really thought of everything."

HB:  [Tries high-school-stage-worthy over-acting once-over double-take of the uncrashed Ford.  Just sitting in the driveway.  Winds west at 7.  No earthquakes].

FT:  No response.

Fuel Cut-off Inertia Switch checks out OK.
No way could anything but a Major Impact cause that switch to trip. 

Unimpacted, Unscathed Ford.

“No way” is a comforting phrase in all forms of denial.   So is “One-in-a-million-chance” and “Next-to-nil.”  It’s not only used by car service techs, but by people who drill for oil, and by people who design airplanes.

In the 90s we noticed the first automated airliners going about their business just as the programmers designed, flying themselves into trouble as pilots fought for control in situations that apparently wouldn't likely happen in any operating model envisioned by the pocket protector crowd of that era.

More than one engineer, you can bet, said “one-in-a-million” to the likelihood of a number of in-flight emergencies (if considering them at all) in the rush to perfect the computer-controlled safe flight envelope. 

Maybe even a few said, “No way.”

So airplanes entered Go-around Mode.  Limp-home Mode.  Everything-but-what-the-crew-is-trying-to-do Mode.

We’re not done yet.

In September, 2008 a Lear 60 ran off the runway at full throttle in Columbia, SC as its crew attempted full-on thrust reversers during a post-V1 on-again-off-again-on-again aborted takeoff on severely underinflated tires.   Apparently after these human miscues, the crew was under the impression that as a last resort, activating the thrust reversers to slow the airplane down would activate the thrust reversers and slow the airplane down. 

But a sensor damaged by a tire blowout prior to the high-speed abort signaled the reversers that the airplane was in flight ... that their services would no longer be needed ... leaving the Lear on fast-forward before the crash that killed four of six aboard.

According to NTSB investigation, the thrust reverser levers in the cockpit of the Learjet remained in the raised full-reverse-thrust position even as the flight systems computer decided the aircraft was in “Air Mode” and stowed the reversers.  Effectively, the computer let the pilots play at being pilots while it went off into I Know Better Than You Mode.

Whether computer programming brilliance is crashing airplanes or shutting your car down or making synthesized female voices at the self-serve grocery check-out call for pepper spray and handcuffs (Please place the item in the bag.  Please Place The Item In The Bag. I know you didn’t place the item in the bag.  Please freeze ... please don’t move ... until authorities arrive) it’s clear that we’re long past the point in computer automation where we don’t have a dedicated killjoy group of people to do battle with the No–way Could That Happen Group of get-the-code-out computer engineers who have otherwise thought of everything.

Somehow the phrase "Yes-way Police" sounds catchy in a WayneGarthian sort of way, so let's use it.

Our grand new automated world needs formal Yes-way Police to crack down on the No-way scofflaws of Murphy’s Law, a law that doesn’t care how perfect any plan or machine might be.   A law that really digs our fascination with automation, it turns out.

These knaves need to be positioned where they’ll exact the most damage: at initial project planning, design, and production.  Of course they will be unpopular deadline derailleurs ... but only if deadlines don’t provide book time for this unsavory work.

In aviation, once you’re up there, you’re stuck with what you’ve got.  Sometimes an Al Haynes or Chesley Sullenberger saves the day despite the best mislaid plans, but safe flight relies on good airplane design for starters.

When the wheel chocks are away and something goes wrong, no crew should be held hostage by non-defeatable code-solid operating decisions made by people who have thought of everything. 


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