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I’m a rather large aviation nerd in addition to being the gun nerd you’ve come to know and love. Basically anything mechanical floats my boat, but for some reason there’s nothing quite as sexy as human flight. As I was sitting on an Airbus A-320 on my way up to Portland and bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t on Boeing equipment (my preferred platform), it suddenly struck me that the reason I like Boeing better is the exact same reason that gun control makes no sense to me . . .

Airplanes crash. It’s a sad fact of life, but that’s what happens when you have a tin can hurtling through the sky that relies on absolute perfection to function properly — one single fault anywhere (in the equipment or the pilot) can quickly cascade into a “departure from controlled flight” to borrow the parlance.

Thankfully crashes are a spectacularly low probability event these days, but the heavy consequences and the weight the public puts on such events makes them the focus of the aircraft design process (something I’m always thankful for). When companies look to improve the reliability of the airframe it’s typically pilot error that they’re trying to reduce and for that there are two schools of thought.

The first is the obvious knee-jerk reaction to pilot error: take the pilot out of the picture as much as possible. Humans are idiots, therefore we should trust computers more. Airbus uses this concept in its designs, more or less giving control over to the computer rather than relying on the pilots.

This is fairly evident in the cockpit designs, where the direct interface for the pilots is a small joystick off to the side that feels like it was added more to comfort the pilots than actually control the plane. Everything about the flight from takeoff to landing can be controlled by the computers. And even when the pilots are “flying,” the flight computer will “correct” what it perceives as the pilot manhandling the airplane.

The second school of thought is Boeing’s approach which is to give the pilot as much information as possible and trusts him to make the right decision. The human brain is fantastic at pattern recognition, improvisation and decision making under extreme circumstances and handles loss of electrical systems quite well, much unlike its mechanical counterpart.

Boeing’s systems still give the pilot an idea of where the “flight envelope” is, but instead of correcting the pilot’s mistakes it simply increases the feedback on the controls in an “are you REALLY sure you want to do that?” manner. It still gives the pilot the ability to be an idiot, but allows for the pilot to override the computer in an emergency.

Which brings me back to my initial statement. The reason I like Boeing’s approach is the same reason I approve of concealed carry and civilian firearms ownership. And open source software and legalization of most drugs. It’s my belief that people can’t truly succeed when there are limits and rules that prevent them from reaching their potential.

We could already have had a replacement for the M-16 series of firearms if civilian machine gun ownership and manufacturing capabilities weren’t heavily regulated. And our streets would be safer if every law abiding citizen had their right to self defense recognized by the state.

Humans generally know the right from the wrong and make the right decisions more often than we give ourselves credit for. Placing restrictions on our ability to make those decisions only keeps us from succeeding.

That, and the whole bit about the skin being load bearing, but that’s another story for another day.

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  1. The problems with Airbus’s FMS design and their over-obsession about fuel conservation to the exclusion of allowing pilots to simply grab control and firewall the throttles in an emergency was discussed long, long ago in the pages of IEEE journals. It was apparent even back then the difference in the Euro-weenie vs. American mentality: the Europeans have this “bureaucrat knows best” mentality about them that pervades not only their views on guns and self-defense, but on everything they touch – flight management systems, health care decisions and rationing, farming, food safety, etc.

    The French are a particularly odious sort in these matters, and it evidences itself in Airbus FMS design quite obviously (with an attending loss of life), which is why as a retired engineer I say “If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going.”

    As it is, thanks to the third world knuckle-draggers, perverts and amateur proctologists we now employ in the TSA, I no longer fly even Boeing.

    • Freedom from regulation should carry responsibility as well. If we are going to build planes that require skill to fly, it is our responsibility to make sure that pilots have that level of skill. How do we insure that? Regulation, of course.

      The same is true of health insurance. We are free not to be insured, but none of us has the cash to be responsible for an unplanned illness. We are “free” to show up at the emergency room and “freeload” off the hospitals, but only because we regulated the hospitals.

      (Incidentally, don’t blame liberals for socializing the emergency rooms. That happened under Reagan, with support from ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals alike.)

  2. Good article, and a nice parallel. It’s funny how two seemingly unrelated things really are symptomatic of certain mindsets that pervade all issues. It’s why I tend to be a single-issue voter; a person’s stance on gun control tells me all I need to know about them.

  3. Airbus is the right name. And I don’t mean luxury motor coach. More akin to a kidney-jarring school bus. Their planes are crappola. Boeings are quieter, smoother and just more comfortable in flight.

  4. Europe’s Airbus vs America’s Boeing values and beliefs. The European people’s attitudes about big government and civilian gun ownership vs. the American people’s attitudes about big government and civilian gun ownership. It’s not one colored extreme vs. another, and things are changing for good and bad on both sides of the pond yet the patterns are interesting to observe.

  5. Most hospitals follow the Boeing model for physicians when they order things through the electronic medical record.

    A warning pops up and states a reason as to why the computer thinks what you are doing is bad. You can over ride it by specifying a reason, which is often necessary since all patients are not exactly as the book says.

    Without the ability to over ride warnings, nothing would get done nor could you act quickly in an emergency

  6. … one single fault anywhere (in the equipment or the pilot) can quickly cascade into a “departure from controlled flight” to borrow the parlance. …

    Or the no less desirable CFIT, “controlled flight into terrain”. Which is more common than one would think.

      • Or as I learned in one of Boeing’s performance engineering schools: their philosophy is “Pilot” = “Meat Gyro”.

        Which is not an insult when you consider Airbus’ philosophy: “Pilot” = “Redundant Component”

        ‘Nuff said…

  7. Not entirely on topic, but can anyone explain to me why I always see hydraulic fluid leaking from the control surfaces of a MD-80 whenever I fly on them? God I hate those planes.

    • The leak tolerances are 1 drip per full cycle of a flight control for MD Aircraft….it adds up quickly. I am not a fan of the DC-9/MD-80 series for multiple reasons. The DC-10 though is one of the greatest heavies ever made, once they fixed the cargo door and # 2 engine issues. Composite planes are the new scary idea of the future for way too many reasons to mention here… As a mechanic, I never want to work on one again, as a passenger I will never fly on one.

        • I’ll take the train…. Composites do not react well to anything and a majority of the time you can’t tell if the structure is weakened, add in the fact that if there is a fire you have seconds instead of the few minutes that aluminum gives you and you have an accident waiting to happen. They are a horrible idea brought about by the bean counters and the ever corrupt relationship between the FAA and Boeing…

  8. Where to start?

    I am also a gun nerd, but I suspect your knowledge of things firearm far exceeds mine. You also write much better. Me, I spent 12 years flying C-130’s in the AF, and for the last 27 years I have flown at Northwest Airlines and now Delta. I have flown the A-320 for 20 of them.

    Leghorn’s second half of the article makes perfect since. I enjoyed it. However, being an “aviation nerd” doesn’t mean you know a lot about how aircraft systems work or the logic of digital flight controls.

    Why would a pilot want to operate an aircraft outside normal parameters? Why would a pilot want to over gee a 777 (Boeing’s only fly-by-wire aircraft, OK the 787 is also, if you can find one)? Those limits are there for a reason. Maybe you want your pilot to intentionally overspeed the plane, but why? Most people associate the A320/330/340/380 with protection that prevents the aircraft from stalling (exceeding a critical angle of attack) while in normal law. In a Boeing, if you get low and slow, you stall, dip a wing, make ground contact and cartwheel, and everyone aboard dies. In a 320, you can still fly into the ground (the protections don’t stop pilot stupidity), but the aircraft mushes straight ahead and the accident is survivable.

    Every Airbus crash (fly by wire) has been the result of pilot errors. The recent Air France A330 had a pitot malfunction but the pilots in the seats failed to use basic pilot skills and the captain was out of the cockpit on scheduled rest. Two Northwest pilots had the exact same thing happen to one of our 330’s over Indonesia, and flew the plane out of the weather and the system recovered.

    Would having been on a Boeing helped you in the AA 757 that crashed in Cali, Columbia, or either of the 737’s that crashed in Colorado Springs or Pittsburgh due to rudder hard-over. The cause of those is unknown to this day.

    I won’t address the commenters above. I am sure they are experts in something, but it’s obvious it isn’t aviation.

    If you want to talk about the A320 and it’s systems or 320 accidents, contact me and I’ll talk to your hearts content.

  9. @Nick – I wish I knew you were a Boeing fan when I bumped into you at the NRA Convention (over by the Glock Booth). I could have tried to arrange a tour of the F-18 / F-15 assembly lines for you.

  10. Nick; I have been a professional pilot (mil & Civil) for 38 years; you are more on target than most can appreciate.

  11. Gents, I love the commentary on the wonderful world of firearms, but having read a book or two on aviation does not an expert make. The differences between a modern FBW Boeing and FBW Airbus are razor thin. Both are hands off as soon as the gear and flaps are up. The move towards more computerized systems in ALL aircraft is the root cause of the decay of stick and rudder piloting skills that could have prevented the Air France accident.

    The “design flaws” alluded to in this article, referencing the Air France crash, were found to have been the pilots’ fault. As much as it pains me as a member of the prosession to say it, the guys driving the bus screwed up.

    Lack of realistic high altitude stall training, unfamiliarity with the aircraft handling characteristics, and conflicting control inputs to the aircraft when its fly by wire system when it went into what’s known as “alternate law” were all determined to be causal factors in the Air France crash.

    Take a read through the EAA’s report on the crash; it’s eye opening. The next time you complain about the cost of an airline ticket, think about the quality of the guys driving it. You get what you pay for.

    These guys were supposed to be the varsity, and still got tripped up by what should have been an easily diagnosed and dealt with malfunction: frozen pitot tubes, leading to a loss of airspeed indications.

    The re-currency training that pilots get costs money. Airlines work on a razor margin; they don’t like taking their labor force out of the game so they can get the extra training that could prevent accidents like this.

    Certainly, this accident did not have to happen. Flying consistent angle of attack, or even known combinations of power and attitude could have gotten these guys through the worst of the storm with little more than a few bumps. Instead, a flight crew that screwed the pooch took an airplane from 6 miles up to water impact in about 5 minutes. The aircraft did not decide to ignore the “voting members” of the flight station and pancake itself in. It did what the guys up front told it to; it just so happened that their inputs were wrong.

    Lastly, gents, uninformed speculation does nothing to enhance aviation safety.

  12. I’m also sort of a plane nerd. Besides being a Boeing fan because I live in Seattle where most are made, I like Boeings for another reason. They look cool.

  13. On 16 August 2005, West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 flew through a thunderstorm. Shortly thereafter the pilots began to report that both engines have failed and a few minutes later the plane crashes into a cattle farm in Venezuela . Investigation revealed there were no faults with the engines, pilot error had led to a stall that was misinterpreted by the crew who took no recovery action until it was too late.

  14. Funny, the way some of you describe the Airbus makes me think of HAL. In all seriousness, let’s not forget that computers are programmed by humans, and the idea is that engineers and such have programmed the aircraft to respond calmly and rationally (based on rules of physics, aircraft design, and the knowledge of all indicators/sensors, among others), and assimilating all inputs much faster than a human could. We want to cling on the idea that a good ol’ human experience can do it better than a computer, but that is just us trying to convince ourselves that we are not obsolete!
    An example, the X29. Humans essentially can’t fly it without computer assistance; the pilot, in essence, tells the aircraft what he wants to do, and the aircraft does it. In fact, the system was so unstable there were 3 distinct computers that played at second guessing each other, all the while making sure the pilot didn’t crash them all…
    But, back to our underlying topic: could the future of gun control be a computerized system that would determine whether a discharge is lawful or not, and thus allow it or not? Discuss!


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