Thursday, December 3, 2015

How to build a safe plane according to the COP21 in Paris

In the 1950s, a series of crashes affected the "Comet,"  a plane that was supposed to be a major innovation in aviation. The main reasons of the disasters can be attributed to the general atmosphere of technological optimism that pervaded the 1950s and that led engineers to overestimate their capabilities. The Comet was a hard lesson to learn, but it was learned. Today, the industry is extremely conservative and modern planes are way safer than they used to be.

Several years of work with materials for turbine engines have taught me  how careful is the aerospace industry about the safety of their products. Of course, nobody wants to think about planes crashing, not even aerospace engineers, but they must. There is no such thing as an "alarmist" in the aerospace industry. So, the industry is extremely conservative and careful; nothing goes inside a plane unless it has passed rigorous tests and having been conclusively demonstrated to be safe and conforming to the specifics. That is what makes planes one of the safest existing transportation systems.  

Now, imagine now to handle the management of the earth's climate to aerospace engineers. They would quickly understand that the earth's ecosystem can crash; meaning that it can warm up out of control as the result of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And that can kill almost everything on the planet: it has happened in the past and there is no reason to believe it is impossible now. That would be the equivalent of a major plane crash; as they say in the industry a "hull loss." So, if the planet were a plane, it would have to be immediately grounded. Safety dictates that we should stop burning fossil fuels from now.

Unfortunately, it seems that the rules that hold for the aerospace industry are not valid when it is question of managing the earth's atmosphere. Let's suppose that a plane were to be built by the methods used in Paris.

How to build a safe plane according to the methods used in the COP21 in Paris.

1. A large group of politicians and bureaucrats convenes in a city in order to decide the specifics of the plane. Aerospace engineers provide advice, but they are not the ones responsible for the decisions made.

2. Those engineers who worry that the plane could crash are branded as "alarmists" and removed from the design process. Politicians not attending the conference declare that it is impossible that any plane can ever crash and that all the worries about planes crashing are only the result of aerospace engineers lobbying for fat research grants. 

3. The specifics of the plane, speed, range, size, etc, are decided by a debate among politicians, while grassroots activists march in the streets asking for better planes.

4. No one designs the plane, Contractors provide their own specifics for each subsystem (wings, engine, control system,etc) in total autonomy. Nobody can say whether these subsystems will work together and whether the result will be a plane that can fly.

5. The management of the conference has no power to modify the proposals of the contractors, nor to make sure that the specifics that have been listed will actually be met once the subsystems are delivered for assemblage. 

6. The conference is concluded with the politicians declaring that the plane will fly.  

7. The first test flight will be performed with the plane fully loaded with passengers.

h/t Richard Heinberg


  1. The earth is a much more complex system than a plane. Everything we know about on earth is a passenger. Human Growth Civilization is the terrorist on board, ransacking all of the internal safety systems in order to grow bigger, while declaring that the scientific knowledge about the force of gravity, and the workings of the plane are not yet certain.

  2. ...but we are tryng to design a new plane while flying on it (very hard even for aerospace engineers....)

  3. Very good indeed. I guess this applies to many other areas too (resource depletion, peak oil, fisheries, fertile soil, etc, etc).

    I wonder also if this applied too to Abengoa...


  4. Case in point with the Climate Change. People are saying that Climate Change supporters are stifling progress:

  5. "The earth is a much more complex system than a plane": You've got a point! As far as I can understand it, designing a safe plane is all about preventing it to turn into a complex system, by removing every unwanted feedback loop involved.

    We may have wonderful engineers, it would certainly be wise to go speak with them more often, but I'm afraid they wouldn't be able to engineer the highly complex system we are part of...

  6. When I worked in aviation engineering, a "crash" was called a "smoking hole". Scary, thinking of applying that to the Earth.

    My favorite airframes are the DC-3 and Boeing 747, and, most of all, the military C-130 (Hercules). All designed on drafting boards, calculations done on slide rules and clatter-bang mechanical calculators. The technology, more Flintstones than Jetsons. There is a lesson here.

  7. Problem is that some people want an plane, while others prefer trains or cars to get to the destination. Thus : no concensus. Best way to reach concensus is talk to and with each other. Take time to do so. Pick a romantic spot te do so. Let's say, Paris, two weeks?

  8. A variant of this analogy might be that it was already a 'perfectly good airplane', but the passengers of one seating section started wandering about, stripping wiring, disassembling mechanics and burning up fuel inside the cabin to barbecue fellow passengers and expedite the carnage.

    A few passengers have begun to assemble some rudimentary knowledge about the aircraft and it's workings, but don't yet amount to aerospace engineers.

    A few other passengers have stood up as flight crew, and state that, while some minor turbulence is expected, steps are being taken to assure a safe and comfortable flight.

    And we party on into the wild, blue yonder....

  9. Meanwhile, a group of old experienced engineers suggests that examining a plane that has flown safely since the beginning of flight should be examined and used as an example to follow. They are dismissed as superstitious.

  10. Dear passengers, this is the captain speaking. As you know, we had this little problem with the fuel light that went on some time ago. We decided to do nothing until we were sure that the fuel gauge was functioning properly. So, don't worry about the engines having gone silent. There is still no clear proof that we ran out of fuel. Please, relax and enjoy your flight while we study the problem.

    1. Captain! I just figured out how to set my seat back on fire! There are a lot of seats on this thing, so now we have more fuel than ever, and frack anyone who says different!

  11. We have taken a poll of all the Committee members and determined that the plane would fly perfectly if only the air were made thinner. Bill Gates has volunteered to contribute the Intellectual Property he controls to build and operate an air thinning machine that the latest Windows 8 computers predict will work perfectly. The Gates Foundation operate it for only a billion dollars a day for the benefit of humanity. (provided that all profits are sent directly to the Foundation's Gran Cayman account)

  12. It is about this way that the "Europa" rocket was build and, as foreseen by each every clever man, NEVER flew. On the contrary, the french "Diamant" rocket engineers leading the new Ariane-espace group succeeded in boosting european countries into space. British government still can swear it was not their fault.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)