Rules Written in Blood

Aviation, at least in the US, has a surprisingly short list of rules. Part 91 of the federal transportation and other things regulations applies to everyone who flies anything. And as I told students, there is a lot of implied good judgement in the rules. Legal isn’t always smart. Smart comes down to the most important rule in the book: The pilot-in-command has the final authority and responsibility for the flight. The pilot in command can deviate from any of the rules if in his judgement safety demands it. Yes, you will have to explain, especially if something gets bent or broken. But the PIC is the boss, and everything else is based on trying to keep flying things out of undue proximity to the ground and to each other.

If you can’t see the ground, and you don’t have a “fly in clouds” license, don’t fly in the clouds. If you have not recently practiced flying and landing at night, don’t fly at night. If you are going eastbound, more of less, fly at an odd thousand feet plus 500 (if you are visual flight rules). Westbound gets the even thousands, plus 500. Don’t fly so close to the ground that you fly into the ground. Don’t be stupid. Don’t fly a broken airplane unless you label the broken thing so that you don’t get fooled and start to trust it. When around an airport, look out for other planes. The slowest, least-maneuverable thing has the right of way. Emergencies have the right of way (i.e. the guy on fire can land ahead of a blimp.)

If you are an airliner, you can’t go sightseeing off the approved route. Why? Because in 1956 two airliners were doing that, over the Grand Canyon, and one descended onto the other. People died. If your airplane is not certified and equipped for flying in known icing, don’t fly into known icing. Why? Because people did, and crashed, and died. Unless you are cleared for take off, or to cross the runway, and you and the controller agree that there is no one else on the runway, don’t take off, or don’t cross the runway. Why? March 1977, KLM and Pan Am 747s collided on the main runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, killing 583 people. It also showed that better cockpit communication rules might be needed, because the KLM captain did not listen to his copilot/First Officer when the man asked about the Pan Am being clear of the runway. It wasn’t.

Engineering has its own rules. You can’t build certain things certain ways. You can’t build a 2000 foot-tall radio antenna without guy-wires and other supports. Dams need to be anchored to the bedrock beside them with a watertight seal (see Teton Dam, 1976). You have to allow for resonances in bridges where the wind blows (Tacoma Narrows). There are times where heavy structure trumps airy design.

Lots of areas of endeavor have rules written in blood. I’m not going to go into recent events in New Mexico, other than to say that I feel very, very sorry for the families of the woman who was killed and the man who was injured. Had the Four Rules of firearms handling been applied, it is possible that the accident would not have happened. 1. The firearm is always loaded. 2. Do not touch the trigger until you are ready to fire. 3. Do not point the firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy. 4. Remember what is behind your target. Heck, Fr. Martial smiled when he observed that when I stopped cleaning the desks in order to talk to him, I moved my finger off the “trigger” of the spray bottle and pointed the bottle at the outside wall. (Spraying one’s boss with cleaner/disinfectant is generally considered somewhat gauche.)

“Why can’t I skim the bottom of the clouds? It’s fun!” It’s fun until the clouds get lower, or someone else appears on an instrument flight plan and descends on top of you, or you don’t see a mountain in time.

“Why can’t I stay at 6500′ MSL* until it’s time to climb to get through the pass into Albuquerque?” Because there is a 7200′ ridge in the way. It loves to eat airplanes. For a while it was averaging one a year. Beware of clouds with crunchy middles.

*Mean Sea Level. Then there’s ASL, above sea level. The two are generally, but not always, the same. The most important, however, is AGL. Above ground level, where one should remain between takeoff and landing.


17 thoughts on “Rules Written in Blood

  1. On the off chance that any aviation minded person here hasn’t read it, Ernest Gant’s “Fate is the Hunter” is an excellent read about commercial aviation in the 40’s and 50’s. He was nearby when many of those blood rules were written and some of his stories are a bit chilling.

  2. Nitpick:
    The Teton Dam was secured into bedrock with a watertight seal.
    And the porous bedrock was grouted via injection wells in an attempt to make the bedrock watertight, which worked, until it didn’t.
    The bedrock failed, and then the earthwork dam was less resistant to erosion than the bedrock.

    It’s been about three decades since I wrote a GeolE paper on the subject, so I’m a bit fuzzy on the specifics. The nutshell version is that welded ash tuff is very hard to waterproof, and that the zones of weakness between strata are nearly impossible.

    • The dam site took more grout [somewhat watery cement, more or less], and more, and more, and more . . . And people had already said, “Umm, this isn’t an ideal place for this dam.” And it took more grout, and more grout, and then the PTB said, “it’s sealed! Go forth and build.” And the increasing pressure behind the dam caused seeps to become leaks along the flank, then on the dam face, which spread in a rapid fashion, and the dam disappeared downstream in a rapid fashion.

  3. Also, if you skim the bottom of the clouds, that’s right where the saturation of the air is reaching 100%. Which means you’re throwing a lot of water into your engine intake. And your carburetor, thanks to the venturi effect, gets even colder and lower pressure, which can lead to carb icing. Which leads to the engine suddenly getting very rough, or worse, going quiet.

    This leads to Bad Day.

    One of the things I like about pilots is that, if they survive a few years in this business, most are compulsively honest. Oh, not necessarily when the golden throat charmers come out and the stories start, but when we’re talking business, they’ve internalized at a gut-deep level that miscommunication, much less outright lying, gets people killed. So when I say “I need to know what you want to accomplish, what you tried to do so far, and what happened”… they tell me. Which makes helping them so much easier than the average member of the general public.

  4. Aesop at the Raconteur report notes (profanely–that’s how he rolls) that the film/TV industry cannot use the Four Rules and get a scene involving firearms to be remotely realistic. One of his posts lists the 10 or so rules that the propmasters and crew have to use. He wrote that the average is 17 years between fatal shootings in productions, and those all either caused the rules to be written or blatantly ignored them. The last event before this one was Brandon Lee’s shooting 28 years ago.

    (OTOH, if it was a case of screwing around and not part of the actual filming, the Four Rules would be key. I’ve seen enough different takes on the event to extend my 24 wait-to-opine to a lot longer.)

    • One of the Airsoft fanatic folks I know got into it “because Hollywood uses them for shoots,” because they look just like guns, they handle just like guns (weight, distribution of weight, etc) and while they freaking HURT and you can injure an eye, you aren’t going to be having an accidental fatal shooting.

      I’d suspect that change-over is part of why nearly 30 years since the last one, and that would explain why people were stupid with a blank-firing gun.

    • I suspect that you can be safe, but it requires more expense (fake guns that are clearly fake from one side, multiple copies cake from different sides) and postproduction technique to bring together on the screen characters/actors who should not be aligned on the set. Nor should it be necessary to place a live round in the cylinder to gain the appearance of a loaded revolver.

      This case, however, was layered negligence and lack of respect for the firearm. Not fear, not fear dispelled, but respect.

      I would like to see everyone on the set with the firearm go through training (NRA, national sheriff’s association, …), videotaped in high-res and audio. I would like to see all handling videotaped, from storage to set and back. I would like to see each weapon given a placarded place in a storage stand, with locked cages or cable locks through the trigger guards, and weapons not in use secured with a cable through the barrel when not needed in the shot. All of this should be videotaped, with the videos a matter of public record after the film’s release, and available before release to judicial process upon a sworn complaint.

      Finally, it should be illegal to release any film or footage thereof in the production of which any person has been injured or killed by mishandling or other negligence, or by intent, in the handling, storage, or use of a firearm, and the full costs of this law are to be borne by the studio producing the film. (Payments to copyright holders must be made as though the film had been released.)

    • Lockdown has been very bad for mental health. Crazy people do carry out workplace shootings at times.

      Democrats are pulling a lot of shit. Perhaps they wanted another excuse to push “OMG, guns are too dangerous”.

  5. Very off topic (in a way).

    Elsewhere a conversation got started concerning “superheroes” and Real Life. (IE How real superbeings would interact with the Real World).

    One thing that came up was the problems of hundreds of superbeings nationwide flying around along with airplanes in the air.

    Just imagine the “fun” of a superbeing colliding with an airliner. 😈

    • “Big bird. Big, big bird.” Think of a 120-200lb goose strike on the fuselage or into an engine. Tremendous amount of damage and probably a crash for both.

      The previous record was a windscreen destroyed in test, by a chicken (carcass). Velocity was scaled to provide the same impact impulse. One problem – that test, no one thawed the chicken first; it was still frozen solid. 5-6 lb cannonball at ~200mph. Not a named rule, but another test story handed down as a “don’t do this” example.

      • Yep!

        Superman would survive the collision but would be in plenty of trouble. 😉

  6. Oooo…..
    :makes note that her space pilot is going to be considered rather crazy because he likes spending time in atmosphere, which gives a “crazy pilot” trait to bond with Guy Who Is Needed But I Had Nothing On before:

    That means that I can just copy-paste Horrible Accidents from IRL as a sort of easter egg for anyone who knows piloting!

  7. Ah yes, those cumulus goats… Fate is the Hunter is an excellent read for ANYONE who flies or wants to. Remember the aviation axiom. You DO NOT want a rule named after you, because that means you didn’t survive…

  8. “Beware of clouds with crunchy middles…”
    Thanks for that, Red. I am going to HAVE to work that into one of my books, somehow or other.

Comments are closed.