AirAsia 8501, Air France 447, and some principles of aerodynamics

It’s looking more and more like the recent AirAsia disaster is essentially a repeat of the 2009 crash of Air France 447. Popular Mechanics has a truly outstanding article (as does Vanity Fair) explaining the events which lead up to the loss of the aircraft. While PM may not explicitly denounce the pilots of AF447 as incompetent, every statement I’ve read by an American pilot on this matter explicitly condemns the pilots, their actions, and their lack of understanding of aerodynamics.

In normal flight, fixed-wing aircraft maintain altitude due to the wings’ lift counteracting the weight of the aircraft. The magnitude of the lift force is a quadratic function of the plane’s airspeed (speed relative to the surrounding air). It is important to note that the thrust from the plane’s engines is not responsible for maintaining altitude directly; rather, the thrust from the engines counteracts the drag force in order to maintain forward airspeed.

During takeoff, pilots use the aircraft’s control surfaces to increase the angle of attack which results in a higher lift coefficient. This increases the aircraft’s rate of ascent. The total engine power required at any time is equal to the plane’s airspeed multiplied by the magnitude of the vector sum of (1) the component of the plane’s weight on an axis parallel to its direction of travel and (2) the drag force (which is always parallel to the direction of travel) experienced by the aircraft. For example, during level flight, (1) is zero, because the plane’s weight is perpendicular to its direction of travel. The engines must only balance the force of drag. During takeoff, however, (1) is nonzero, and may be on the same order of magnitude as the drag force (this I am not sure about, but it is no doubt considerable). But this is not a problem, because the plane’s airspeed is very low, so the total power required is well within the engines’ performance envelope.

However, sustaining a high angle of attack at a high airspeed (such as that associated with cruising at high altitude) would require an enormous power output, far beyond that which the engines on passenger or cargo planes are capable. Additionally, for a given wing profile, there exists a critical angle of attack, above which the coefficient of lift drops precipitously due to flow separation on the upper edge of the wing. If the angle of attack exceeds this critical angle, the aircraft enters a state of aerodynamic stall, and will lose airspeed and altitude rapidly.

One of the ways that aircraft detect stalls is from airspeed. An extremely low airspeed value would imply that the aircraft has entered a stall, and is therefore losing altitude. Recall that during takeoff, pilots gain altitude through large-amplitude inputs to control surfaces. Therefore, it is conceivable that a person with no understanding of the principles I laid out in the preceding paragraphs would interpret a stall warning as simply an indication that the aircraft was rapidly losing altitude, and default to his knowledge of the procedure for gaining altitude following takeoff: command maximum up elevator. Of course, at cruising speed, this would not correct a stall but rather worsen it: it would dramatically increase the aircraft’s drag, thus reducing its airspeed further. To correct a stall at cruising speed, the pitch of the aircraft must be reduced (oriented toward the ground) in order to gain airspeed and thus regain lift force.

Airspeed is determined from the Bernoulli Principle applied to the static pressure measured in pitot tubes. If these tubes are completely blocked (this can occur due to icing), the aircraft may register a “zero” value for airspeed, and sound the stall alarm. Note that in such a scenario, there is nothing wrong with the aircraft whatsoever. This is merely an instrumentation failure. It is relatively easily identified based on other flight parameters, and experienced pilots are usually able to quickly identify the sources of such errors and take corrective action (if any is necessary; in the case of a frozen pitot tube, no such action is necessary).

On AF447, the pitot tubes froze, causing the plane to register zero (or low) airspeed. This caused the stall alarm to sound, which freaked out the junior pilots, who apparently defaulted to their procedure for gaining altitude during takeoff and commanded maximum up elevator and maximum engine thrust (incidentally, because the engines are mounted below the plane’s center of mass, the engine thrust actually increased the angle of attack even further). These inputs at cruising speed put the aircraft into an actual stall, which they did not realize, and the plane fell into the ocean about four minutes later.

228 people died on Air France 447 for absolutely no reason. Three colossally incompetent pilots took a perfectly good airplane and flew it directly into the ocean. If instead they had simply walked out of the cockpit when the stall warning sounded, taken a nap or perhaps had a few drinks, then walked back in when the plane was approaching mainland Europe, everyone would have survived. Based on the AirAsia 8501 reports, it sounds as if something very similar occurred on that flight. It’s not just tragic, it’s frustrating. If a person with a semester of formal aerodynamics training and a shred of insight had been there to watch the sequence of events prior to the crash, he probably could have explained (at least in concept) what had to be done in order to recover from the stall and thus save the passengers and crew from the pilots’ ineptitude.

I know I am armchair-quarterbacking this one, and we do not know for sure exactly what happened on AirAsia 8501. But to prove that I am just as vigorous in my praise as I am in my criticism, consider United Airlines 232, in which the pilots were able to take an aircraft which suffered a complete loss of control and, through an absolutely astonishing show of technical aptitude, resource management, and general coolheadedness, land it and save about two thirds of the passengers (equally noteworthy is a similar incident which occurred at Baghdad Airport). I find the crew’s ability function under unimaginable stress and time constraints incredibly humbling. I have the utmost respect for heroes of war who have received Medals of Honor (or equivalent medals from other nations), but there is something uniquely incredible about these pilots’ ability to function continuously in the face of nearly certain death and not only perform extremely complex technical tasks, but actually solve problems creatively without any procedural or doctrinal guidance.

AirAsia 8501, Air France 447, and some principles of aerodynamics

The “too stupid to be guilty” defense

The Daily Mail has a story about the execution of Robert Ladd, who was convicted of (and confessed to) the murder of Vicki Ann Garner. According to the article, she was bound, strangled, and beaten with a hammer before being set on fire in her apartment. She had also been raped, and several items had been stolen from her apartment. Still, the ACLU represented Ladd with the intent of sparing him from execution, on the basis that he is intellectually disabled.

The reason I’ve stated the details of his crime is not to shock the audience with the sheer incomprehensible depravity of Ladd’s actions. Rather, it is to demonstrate that this was a premeditated crime. Ladd deliberately entered Garner’s apartment with a specific intent, and carried out a preconceived plan. Therefore, regardless of his performance on an IQ test, the man was capable of planning a series of actions and carrying them out with ruthless determination. This alone should eliminate the viability of the “too stupid” defense.

As an example of a situation in which the “too stupid” defense might be reasonable, consider the following scenario. Suppose Ladd had been burglarizing Garner’s home and she startled him in the act. Ladd freaks out, strangles her to death, and immediately takes off. He does not systematically restrain, rape, and set fire to her body. In this scenario, I think it could be argued reasonably that Ladd’s low IQ entitled him to certain exemptions. That’s not to say that I would necessarily agree with the argument, but it would not be the legal and moral abomination that such an argument is in the actual scenario.

The “too stupid to be guilty” defense

On analogies

In my post earlier today on same-sex “marriage,” I offered an analogy which I hoped would illuminate the absurdity of redefining the term “marriage” to appease homosexualists. But it occurred to me that it’s rather ineffective, because the rights I spoke of in the analogy are associated with membership in a particular organization, whereas the right to marry is not.

I have long held that arguing from analogy indicates that either the person making the argument is incapable of articulating his thoughts on the actual subject matter (incompetence), or that he believes his audience is incapable of understanding such an argument (condescension). Consequently, it is not a sophisticated means of holding a discussion, and I will therefore refrain from using this technique in the future.

On analogies

Constitutional originalist arguments for and against same-sex “marriage”

There’s an interesting article over at The Volokh Conspiracy (with even more interesting comments) on same-sex marriage and why there is no Constitutional originalist argument supporting the protection of this “right.” Many of the comments on the article reflect my own view on this matter.

Moreover, while I believe that most of the founding fathers would have not only shared my view that two people of the same sex living together is not marriage but would have further believed that such activity was an abomination (which is not necessarily my view), this is totally orthogonal to a much more important aspect of the discussion. That aspect is the simple fact that the definition of marriage is just not a Constitutional matter, period. Even for those who believe that there are important moral principles at stake in the same-sex “marriage” debate (I am not among them), there is just no genuine argument for a Constitutional protection or prohibition of same-sex “marriage.” The Constitution was never intended to adjudicate debates regarding the morality of individuals’ behavior. It is simply a framework for the relationship between branches of government, and the relations between the aggregation of those branches and the governed populace.

Constitutional originalist arguments for and against same-sex “marriage”

Same-sex “marriage,” formerly known as homosexual “marriage”

My views and writing style have been influenced heavily by the late Lawrence Auster, and I’ve adopted his convention of using the term “homosexual ‘marriage,'” with quotations around the word “marriage” to indicate my view that a union of two people of the same sex is not marriage at all, but something else entirely. However, from this point forward, I will instead use the term “same sex ‘marriage,'” because it is more specific. Homosexuals have, and have always had, the same marriage rights as heterosexuals — namely, the right to enter into marriage with a member of the opposite sex. Likewise, heterosexuals do not have, and have never had, the right to “marry” a member of the same sex. It is difficult to come up with an analogy for these demands which highlights their absurdity, but I think I may have a candidate. Consider the following.

The State Defense Forces (SDF) are comprised of civilian non-combatants who can be called upon by the governor of their respective states in response to emergencies, natural disasters, and other such events. Many of them have prior military service, and they generally wear military uniforms. It is common for them to wear badges, tabs, and other authorized U.S. military awards (which they earned legitimately while serving in the military) on their SDF uniforms. However, the SDF are, in fact, civilians — they are not soldiers. They are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

So imagine that a group of SDF members decided that they wanted the title of “soldier,” and began insisting that because they wear uniforms, hold rank within their organizations, and have a chain of command reflecting that found in the military, they were so entitled.

What would people’s response be, especially that of actual soldiers? I’m almost certain it would be “No, you are not soldiers, and shall not be referred to as such.”

This is not to imply moral superiority on the part of soldiers versus that of the SDF members. The fact is that while there are similarities between the organizations, soldiers are soldiers, and SDF members are…not.

Now, suppose that these SDF members managed to get legislation passed which endowed them with the title of “soldier.” What would that mean?

I submit that it would mean nothing, because it is merely an expansion of the definition of the word “soldier.” There are still material, objective differences between being a U.S. soldier and being a member of the SDF. No redefinition of terms can change objective reality, even if it makes certain people feel better, and even if it gives them certain government benefits that they previously did not enjoy.

Same-sex “marriage,” formerly known as homosexual “marriage”

The “2015 Blizzard” that wasn’t, and what to make of meteorologists’ failures

Over at, there’s an article about the meteorologists’ cosmic-scale screw-up that resulted in the needless cancellation of services in the public and private sectors throughout the NYC metro area.

It seems like the interviews which fed this article were done on the meteorologists’ own terms, so it’s not very informative. But the fact that there was a model predicting only moderate snowfall for the region, while the only numbers reported were the apocalyptic two-to-three feet, makes it pretty apparent that there was either willful deception or, more likely, gross incompetence on a colossal scale.

The article begins with a platitudinous reference to the “grey area” of weather predictions, and contrasts this with the “black and white” of society’s response to those predictions. But this is a false dichotomy. There is no binary response to weather, with one option being a full-blown shutdown of all services and infrastructure and the other to ignore completely all warnings. There is a continuum of response. And had the National Weather Service been honest about the degree of uncertainty in their forecasts, it is likely that the relevant authority figures would have settled on a different point along that continuum. But instead, based on the convincing tone of the weather folks who swore absolute confidence in their predictions of 24-36 inches, everyone rocketed directly to the “close everything” pole on the spectrum.

So in the wake of the economically disastrous decision to shut everything down, all we are left with is a bunch of soul-searching weathermen who won’t even honestly assess the apparently institutional incompetence that caused them to discard completely the predictions of one of their models, and instead double down on their initial bets without communicating a shred of their uncertainty.

The “2015 Blizzard” that wasn’t, and what to make of meteorologists’ failures

Big History

The following is from an email I sent in reply to my mother (who related the concept of “Goldilocks conditions” to the nonexistent “scientific creation”) regarding the Big History project:

I would be careful about associating the “Goldilocks condition” with the phrase “scientific creation,” which is a contradiction in terms (this is not to chastise you, but rather the Big History promoters). Furthermore, there isn’t anything particularly astonishing about the fact that we exist, if one is familiar with the anthropic principle and the law of truly large numbers.

The way the project is promoted implies the need for a scientific creation story to compete with religious creation stories, but this is not so, and it plays into the hands of people who see science and religion as mere competitors for the loyalty of the populace. There is no need for a story of any sort, since we have scientific laws which make accurate predictions and the theories associated with those laws offer compelling explanations (not stories) for events previously addressed only by religious dogma.

Since this project is designed for consumption by folks who do not have formal STEM training, the use of terms like “energy flows,” which sounds very New-Age and is thus setting itself up for further abuse by secular anti-scientists (who are at least as bad as the religious anti-scientists, by the way — and perhaps worse: while religious anti-scientists simply lie about the nature of things, the secular ones adopt and then misappropriate the language of science for their own agenda; see also bullshit, and not even wrong), is really inappropriate. “Energy flow” can mean anything, and is therefore meaningless. It does not have a scientific definition. When I pump gasoline into my car, is that an energy flow? Sure, I guess — if you want to abstract away the concept of chemical potential existing between molecules of gasoline and oxygen and instead model the act of physically moving gasoline from a tank in the ground to a tank in my car as an “energy flow.” But that abstraction required the explanation and justification I just gave. On its own, the term means nothing. It is not the language of the scientifically literate.

It seems to me that the concept of Big History is meant to address scientific ignorance in the population at large, which is a noble goal. But then I remember that as things become more idiot-proof, nature simply makes better idiots. I’m not convinced that divorcing scientific explanations for the origin of the modern universe from the mathematics requisite to their understanding is necessarily a good thing. I think a better approach would be to restore academic standards in both high school and college (for all majors, not just STEM), which will naturally increase people’s receptiveness to “hard” concepts. To be clear, I do not expect an English major to be able to solve a partial differential equation. But do I think that the average person holding a high school diploma should be able to distinguish between scientific law and scientific theory? Yes, I think so. Do I think the average person holding an undergraduate degree from a regionally accredited institution ought to be able to identify the four fundamental interactions and offer a qualitative explanation for the relationships between Newtonian physics, Maxwellian electromagnetism, general relativity, and quantum electrodynamics? Yes, I think so. Those are concepts which can be explained to anyone with a solid high school level understanding of mathematics and science.

That aside, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to understand our existence in the context of the universe in general. But such an understanding is limited to the realm of philosophy, and should not replace traditional education on cosmic origins or human history.
Big History

Charles Blow: Still not happy

Just to be clear, whites are still racist, and police — white or otherwise — are even more racist.

As I understand it, the Yale Police Department mistook Blow’s son for a suspect in a crime, detained him (at gunpoint), and released him upon realizing that he was not the suspect they sought. Of course, there is absolutely no background information provided. We have no idea how closely Blow’s son resembles the suspect, what crime had been committed, or how dangerous the suspect is.

Anyway, Yale’s campus is known for its conflicts between town and gown. New Haven, in general, is known for black violence and degenerate criminality (I will admit my own bias on this: thugs of unknown race made three different attempts to break into my car there over the span of a few months). But I suppose Blow would have felt better if, in order to ensure equal racial representation in apprehensions of people suspected of crimes known to have been committed by blacks, a white student was also held at gunpoint. Someone should write an editorial proposing this very policy.

Charles Blow: Still not happy

The Bridgeton, NJ shooting

I’ve watched the video of the Bridgeton, NJ shooting in which Officers Braheme Days and Roger Worley shot and killed Jerame Reid following a traffic stop. Here’s what I saw (immediately prior to the shooting):

1) Reid disobeys Officer Days’ orders to show his hands

2) Reid says something about “the ground”

3) Officer Days says “No you’re not, no you’re not!”

4) Officer Days struggles with the car door, it looks like he is trying to keep it shut in order to prevent Reid from getting out of the vehicle

5) Officer Days backs suddenly away from the door in what appears to be a defensive posture, as if he anticipates Reid getting out of the car and attacking him

6) Reid exits the vehicle with his hands near his chest and makes no apparently hostile moves

7) Officer Days fires several shots at Reid. Officer Worley also fires at least one round at Reid.

Now, like in most situations, these events cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. Officer Days knew Reid, and also knew he had spent 13 years in prison for firing a weapon at NJ State Police officers. Officer Days discovered a handgun in the vehicle during the traffic stop which is what precipitated the altercation and subsequent shooting. Also, while it’s pretty clear from the camera’s viewpoint that Reid was not armed as he exited the vehicle, Officer Days may have mistaken Reid raising his hands to his chest as the raising of a firearm. That last point, however, is highly speculative.

What I really cannot understand is why Officer Worley fired his weapon. From his vantage point, I doubt he could have seen Reid’s hands at all. Additionally, it looks like his rounds would have had to pass extremely close to Officer Days.

I don’t think this case is clear-cut. But based on the sequence of events showing Reid disobeying Officer Days’ orders, and the contextually relevant fact that Reid has a history of attempting murder of police officers, I find it difficult to condemn Officer Days outright.

The Bridgeton, NJ shooting

A note on anonymity

I do not identify myself on this blog, and all correspondence is routed to an email address which does not bear my name. That is because the views I articulate here would, very possibly, lead to my complete excommunication from the liberal ideological society we have become. While that doesn’t sound so bad on its own, I am still reliant on the liberal teat to supply my milk.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who will call this an act of cowardice, and there’s something to be said for that. But would any of them risk their livelihood in our (still) relatively comfortable society in order to truly speak their minds? I think most of them would not; those who have something to lose, anyway.

This speaks to a greater phenomenon which I’ve talked about with friends from time to time; namely, the fact that because we are still able to live such comfortable lives despite the onslaught of leftist tyranny, no major upheaval is on the horizon just yet. As long as there are peaceful suburbs where good liberals can enjoy the services and support of the society and people they are working to destroy, they will not wake up.

A note on anonymity