I’ve been doing a fair amount of travel lately. My travels have included several trans-Atlantic flights on 777s plus lots of puddle-jumper flights on tiny airplanes (these planes are so small that you need to check in your trusty carry-on because there’s no room to stow them) in less than 3 weeks. I can almost recite my favorite airline’s evacuation message word for word. Regardless of the amount of travel I’ve done over the years (and despite my knowing a smidgen about aerodynamics thanks to my job), I still find flying a bit of an act of faith.
I still remember sitting at a window seat on the wing about 20 years ago next to a stranger who turned out to be a very helpful aerospace engineer. He relished telling me that the engine on our very big plane was secured to the wing with very few bolts. I don’t remember the exact number but it sounded terribly small to me. I also remember looking out at the engine and then looking back at this helpful chap with nothing but sheer terror. I think he took the expression on my face as encouragement that I wanted to learn more so he spent the rest of the flight telling me all sorts of other scary things about planes. That was a white knuckle ride and I’ve been on some scary plane rides (the worst was our plane trying to land on top of another plane that was still on the runway at Chicago O’Hare).
Ever since that faithful day and because I’ve been doing so much travel lately, my ears perked up yesterday on the way home when I heard on the radio that Rolls-Royce had identified what caused the recent engine failure on the Quantas plane. If you haven’t heard the news, here’s a quick synopsis. A Quantas Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing in Singapore due to engine problems on November 4, 2010. According to the BBC “the engine failure ‘was confined to a specific component’ which led to an oil fire and loss of turbine pressure”. If you have seen the pictures (here’s a link) you’ll know that whoever was sitting on that wing seat next to the engine must have had an eyeful.
It took the team only 8 days to figure out the cause of the problem but the original news had an immediate and unforgiving effect. Rolls-Royce shares fell sharply as soon as the accident happened. And their chief executive has said that the engine problems “would have an impact on the group’s financial performance this year”. I know we have already talked about how field failure can prove catastrophic for organizations in terms of profit, brand reputation etc. But from time to time it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that simulation and CFD software can and does help reduce chances of having a “problem” out in the field.
On a personal note, whenever I get off a plane I always say thank you to the plane crew for getting me to my destination safely. And if the pilot is standing by the door and he/she landed gently I always add “for a great landing” because a soft landing is a true sign of a pilot’s skill. I’ve gotten huge smiles from pilots in response to my thank you because they know their skill is appreciated. And who wouldn’t want to know that they are appreciated? So by way of this post, I’d like to thank all the thousands of engineers who develop, design and test the various parts on planes. You may not hear my thank you as I get off the plane at the end of my journey but you guys are in my thoughts.
Until next time,