As is usually the case with airline mishaps, the first eyewitness accounts turn out to be less than accurate. This seems to be what happened in the SPANAIR MD-82 crash last week in Madrid, Spain. Initially there were numerous reports from people at or near the airport that the left engine of the MD-82 was on fire as the aircraft lifted off the runway. It turns out that a review of an airport video camera showed there were no visible flames coming out of either engine. (Even if one engine was having a serious problem, every commercial aircraft is designed to takeoff and successfully fly with a full load on only one engine.) Instead, the video shows the aircraft wing drop shortly after liftoff, with the aircraft then striking the ground and exploding. As I mentioned in a previous blog post about a wild crosswind landing attempt at Hamburg Airport that was captured on camera, it would be beneficial to have video cameras recording all takeoffs and landings at major airports. Video of the B-2 crash in Guam earlier this year certainly aided that investigation, and the video of the SPANAIR crash has already been used to eliminate one possible cause. However, the mishap video taken at the Madrid airport was apparently from a security camera, and not a dedicated runway camera, so in this case it was more a case of luck that they captured usable video of the MD-82 going down. The data collected by such cameras can provide a wealth of info on the crash, and help find the cause of the mishap sooner. Lets hope the use of airport video in both the B-2 and the SPANAIR crash investigations highlights the need for dedicated runway video cameras at any airport with commercial traffic.
A major airline crash prompts the mass media into it’s usual feeding frenzy via their breathless coverage of today’s Spanair tragedy. As of the time of this entry, 153 passengers out of a reported 172 onboard a Spanair MD-82 died when the plane went down soon after takeoff at Madrid’s airport. Even though commercial airlines are still one of the safest ways to travel, the mass media made it their top story on all the major networks. Their airline crash coverage has become very predictable. Video of ambulances and fire trucks rushing to the crash scene, scenes of grief-stricken relatives, and the obligatory comments by airline safety experts (who are paid quite well to be advisors to the networks for just such a situation) who are already speculating on the cause of the crash. I’d also bet some network will find a person who was suppose to be on the doomed flight, but for some reason missed it and now is telling their story how fate intervened to save their life. I’ve seen that scenario over and over again with airline crash coverage. Compared to highway deaths, which killed over 40,000 people in the U.S. alone last year, 153 fatalities would seem statistically insignificant. Sure, every airline death is a terrible tragedy for the friends and relatives involved, but it really needs to be put into perspective, however the media never seems to be able to do this. Let the safety investigators do their job to find the cause, just report the facts, and leave the airline disaster hyperbole to Hollywood.
Watching the Olympics from Beijing the last week got me thinking about how much aerospace technology is used at the games. Probably the biggest application of aerospace technology is also the least apparent: the use of satellites to transmit audio, video and data all over the world. Without the satellites to provide near-real time information on each and every event, the games would never have reached the popularity that allows over a billion people to watch, listen or read about the athletic events taking place. The only time you get a feel for the pervasiveness of the technology is when the cameras pan over Tiananmen Square. That’s when you notice the satellite dishes from news and TV organizations scattered about like water lilies, transmitting Olympic information to orbital satellites where it is then relayed back down to ground stations, and into homes throughout the planet.
One area that has been getting a lot of attention are the new swimsuits worn by both male and female swimmers. The Speedo LZR swimsuit is probably a good reason over a dozen world records were set at these Olympics. This swimsuit was the most notable application of aerospace technology at the games. NASA was involved in wind tunnel testing to determine a material that produced the least amount of wind resistance (“drag” in aeronautical terms). Also, wind tunnel testing helped determine the optimal suit configuration so that when worn, it reduced the “nooks and crannies” of the human body that produce drag when moving through the water.
Also, any Olympic sport that involves speed and quickness to determine a winner probably includes aerospace-developed materials, or used aerospace technology to test and develop the hardware. Olympic sports such as cycling, sailing, rowing, tennis, etc. strive to have the lightest and most streamlined hardware available, and that usually means light-weight, high-strength materials such as carbon-fiber composites, and even titanium parts. The use of this technology was first seen in aerospace applications, were every ounce is critical to the range and load-carrying capability of an aircraft. Wind tunnels are often used to reduce drag to a minimum, especially on the high-tech bikes used in the velodrome events. Once again, the Beijing Olympics have demonstrated that aerospace technology can be applied to many other areas than just aircraft or spacecraft.