A Lauda Airlines Boeing takes off for a flight across the opium poppies of the Golden Triangle in Burma. It reaches cruising level after a few minutes and plunges towards the earth at almost the speed of sound, breaking apart in the process. Everyone aboard dies and looters appear out of the jungle and cart off evidence.
This episode is mostly devoted to technology and its failures. We barely get to know the pilots and we learn nothing of the passengers. We see and hear more of Niki Lauda, owner of the four airplanes that constitute his airline, because he was a famous racing car winner in the 1970s.
The technology isn't too hard to follow, although it's more complicated than usual. A lot of problems came together at the wrong moment as usual, but basically, the problem was that a thrust reverser on one of the two engines deployed in mid-flight and made control impossible. It did so without warning.
Well, the thrust reverser is not supposed to do that. They're used during landings to slow the plane down once it's on the runway, like a pair of additional brakes. Furthermore, Boeing had already tested the accidental deployment of thrust reverser in flight, found that the affected wing lost on 10 percent of its lift, that the airplane was still controllable and could land safely.
What makes it interesting is the difference between Boeing's test flight and the reality of the Lauda disaster. Boeing tested its airplane at its normal speed at an altitude of 10,000 feet, where the dense air provided plenty of life. The crew were aware of what they were doing, so the failure was fully anticipated. They determined, correctly, that the accidental deployment of one thrust reverser was a spot of bother. The result was a manual listing some half dozen rather complex tasks to be done in the cockpit to retire the affected engine and regain control.
But reality, as is so often the case, makes its own unexpected demands. The Lauda Boeing was not at 10,000 feet. It was at about 27,000 feet and its airspeed was much higher. That meant a greater loss of lift in the affected wing -- not 10% but 25%. The airplane spun out of control almost at once.
Unlike the test crew in Seattle, the deployment of the reverser was immediate and unexpected. The crew had to figure out what was wrong before they could check the list in the manual, and simply performing the tasks recommended in the manual took six seconds, and eternity of time to the crew of a suddenly uncontrollable airplane travelling hundreds of miles an hour.
I find these distinctions between the ideal and the real fascinating. They remind me of an incident when President Reagan appointed Jim Webb to Secretary of the Navy (or some other high echelon job). Webb was a young man who had flown ground attack missions in Vietnam. A defense industry representative invited Webb to watch the use of a particular smart bomb. Webb watched as the airplane came in low and slow over the target and released its ordinance, which hit and destroyed the target exactly as it should have "That's bullshit," said Jim Webb. No pilot would make an attack at that speed and altitude while under enemy fire.
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