Breakups are hard.
October 9, 2014 4:05 PM   Subscribe

 
I hate it when that happens.
posted by dfriedman at 4:15 PM on October 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


I know what you mean.
posted by ogooglebar at 4:20 PM on October 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


Two weeks after the accident, I was back in an SR-71, flying the first sortie on a brand-new bird at Lockheed’s Palmdale, Calif., assembly and test facility.

I don't even know why he was allowed to be a pilot, those giant balls of his must have exceeded all weight limits.
posted by ymgve at 4:23 PM on October 9, 2014 [55 favorites]


I think my favorite bit is the part where he wakes up from his blackout, is basically blind and hurtling through the sky, and he immediately begins a measured assessment of his situation and figures out what he should do next in order to not die.

Most days, it's a good 2 minutes after I wake up before I figure out how to turn off my alarm clock.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:27 PM on October 9, 2014 [110 favorites]


Yikes. That's a hell of a story.

If you're at all interested in the history of the SR-71 you really ought to take a look at Project Habu, which is just amazing.
posted by phooky at 4:31 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think the folks that designed and manufactured that pressure suit (and the seat belts) are owed a round of beers.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:33 PM on October 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


Whelp! That's gonna replace the whale in my nightmares.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:34 PM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


I had to CTRL+F and find out what happened to Jim rather than reading the whole thing. How about that 100 mile turning radius at Mach 3. Dang. And military technology is so flipping amazing -- it's one thing to physically master so much (even with the catastrophic outcome) but it's another thing to walk into a flight simulator in NINETEEN SIXTY FUCKING SIX and reproduce the same outcome.
posted by aydeejones at 4:35 PM on October 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


Jebus.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:36 PM on October 9, 2014


The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

Wow, that is some amazing tech. And this was in 1966; it sounds like science fiction by today's standards.
posted by zardoz at 4:39 PM on October 9, 2014 [18 favorites]


That's insane.
posted by brundlefly at 4:43 PM on October 9, 2014


The pressure suit and the mini chute. It's staggering that they worked and kept him alive in that fraction of a second when he was physically ripped out of his seat. Mach 3.18 is almost 2.5k mph. He was nearly 15 miles high.
posted by postcommunism at 4:45 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Speaking of the SR-71, this story from Sled Driver is still amazing.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:52 PM on October 9, 2014 [31 favorites]


It's Fleet Week here and some of the Blue Angels just started making some practice passes in preparation for their shows this weekend. Reading about the in-air breakup of a plane while fighter jets are zooming right over my house is probably not a thing I should be doing. Our poor cats are completely terrified. I hate Fleet Week.
posted by rtha at 4:58 PM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit, I've seen that story so many times and I am obligated -- obligated -- to read it every time. So funny.
posted by brundlefly at 4:59 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


jeeze, and i thought i was hardcore for having survived jumping out of a van at 45mph with only a small bruise.
posted by emptythought at 5:02 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


For reference, Mach 3.18 is a bit more than 1km/s. One kilometer per second.
posted by mhoye at 5:07 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's a good thing his chute worked. Terminal velocity is a tricky thing to figure out when you're falling from over fourteen and a half miles up (what with the varying air density and all), but just as a ballpark figure, you'd be falling for in the neighborhood of five to six minutes.

I'm going to go lie down on the ground now and clutch it like a terrified cat.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:13 PM on October 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


[I]t's another thing to walk into a flight simulator in NINETEEN SIXTY FUCKING SIX and reproduce the same outcome.

What tells you it was 1966 is that they used the simulator to reproduce what they found in flight test. Today they would have had to check it out in the simulator first, and the real moments of terror happen when reality doesn't line up with the computer model.
posted by cardboard at 5:22 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Thanks, metafilter, for finding me yet another thing I never want to do.
posted by jeather at 5:38 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]



jeeze, and i thought i was hardcore for having survived jumping out of a van at 45mph with only a small bruise.


I feel like Chuck fucking Norris when I manage to get off the not-quite-totally-stopped treadmill without killing anyone.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:48 PM on October 9, 2014 [24 favorites]


Man, that was a breath-taking read.

The post is very good...
but the post title is AWESOME!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:58 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


jeeze, and i thought i was hardcore for having survived jumping out of a van at 45mph with only a small bruise.

I feel like Chuck fucking Norris when I manage to get off the not-quite-totally-stopped treadmill without killing anyone


Dismounting gracefully from a bicycle gives me the fuzzy Van Dammes.

also, I knew it was just a matter of time before the infamous Ground Speed Check story. All hail the Sled.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:15 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but where's the video?
Surely he had a digital camera mounted on his helmet. After all it was 1966.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 6:19 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


And this was in 1966; it sounds like science fiction by today's standards.

Power vs. Drag. Enough power, you go that fast.

The problem. The lighter the aircraft, the less wing you need, the less power you need, the more you can carry. So, planes are light -- but they're *specifically* light. In particular, they're strong in the directions they need to be in.

When a plane is flying normally, the air flows from nose to tail. This puts the stress in known places. These places are made stronger. In normal, controlled flight, this works.

If you're going Mach 3 and you depart controlled flight, bad things happen. You go sideways at Mach 3, and that same amount of drag hits the aircraft in places that it was never built to handle it, and it shreds.

This was what destroyed Challenger. It wasn't the fireball -- that was the LH2/LOX burning, and that didn't even start to burn before the actual spacecraft shredded. It wasn't the SRBs, they kept flying.

What killed Challenger is that she turned 10 degrees off her flight vector at Mach 2, and the pressure of the atmosphere she was flying through shredded her. By the time the giant fireball started to burn, Challenger was gone.

When you're moving at 1500mph in our atmosphere, it's the enemy. As long as you keep pointing right at it, you can fend it off. But, like a ship in a storm that takes a stern wave and turn sideways, if you end up sideways, your aircraft disappears. Drag goes up at the square of the velocity, and when you're moving at Mach 2+, the drag is tremendous. You can handle it -- as long as you stay in controlled flight.

It is just a serious hunk of luck that when that aircraft became recycled alloy at 60K feet, that he and his O2 bottle were not shredded with it.
posted by eriko at 6:29 PM on October 9, 2014 [37 favorites]


I feel like Chuck fucking Norris when I manage to get off the not-quite-totally-stopped treadmill without killing anyone

Wouldn't you feel more like Chuck Norris if you did kill someone?
posted by yoink at 6:38 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


To quote @longdaysjourney:

"Every time I read stories like this, I think, fuck yeah, taxes!"
posted by BustedCatalyzer at 6:47 PM on October 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


For a plane full of crazy, one of the craziest things was that the SR-71 leaked fuel like a pig. On purpose.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:56 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


One of my favorite apocryphal SR-71 stories, handed down by my dad who heard it because he was programming avionics on Boeing fighter prototypes: SR-71 encounters engine trouble while cruising somewhere over the Southwest and radios down to the local Air Force base to have them call ahead and prepare the ground crews for what might be trouble. The locals excitedly offer use of their own facilities in the event that this rare bird needs a closer landing spot, to which the crew nonchalantly replies: "Nah, we'll just *glide* on in to Palmdale."

Definitely one of the few groups of people in the world who were justified in being total smartasses to just about anyone else.
posted by spitefulcrow at 7:18 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh, interesting. I got the chance to hear Mr. Weaver tell this story in person a few years ago, and it was riveting. Another interesting bit from the talk was that the planes in this family could be punishing to fly even when they weren't breaking up. The engines were prone conking out because they were flying at the edge of human engineering capability, and when that happened the ground crews didn't have to ask the pilot which engine was acting up, even without telemetry; they could tell by which side of the pilot's helmet was banged up from being slammed into the side of the cockpit when it happened.

By the way, gang, the SR-71 was the bigger, heavier, lower and slower version. The A-12 was the hot rod: same power but smaller, lighter, higher and faster. Mr. Weaver flew that, too.
posted by NortonDC at 8:06 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


To quote @longdaysjourney:

"Every time I read stories like this, I think, fuck yeah, taxes!"


Well, this was a plane that was built basically for no reason except it was cool, and all of its missions can be done better and cheaper by less sexy aircraft.

So I'm not sure this is the vindication of military-industrial spending that you want.
posted by grobstein at 8:12 PM on October 9, 2014


The simulator in question is hanging out at the Frontiers of Flight museum in Dallas. I doubt there are any texture-mapped polygons flying past the cockpit, but it might be fun to flip the switches. Now I have one reason to go to Dallas.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:16 PM on October 9, 2014


Well, no, it was built to take pictures because the one doing the job before was vulnerable.
posted by NortonDC at 8:17 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah now I want an SR-71 flight sim. The last sim I really got into was F-117A Stealth Fighter. OMG that was like 1991.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:29 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, this was a plane that was built basically for no reason except it was cool, and all of its missions can be done better and cheaper by less sexy aircraft.

Francis Gary Powers disagrees with your assessment that the less sexy U2 was capable of "better" performance.

As for cheaper, the primary reason the SR-71 was retired was the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a threat that needed to be spied upon. Some might say, then, that the SR-71 was a bargain.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:50 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Isn't this a double? I swear I read about this on MeFi before, with the same pull quote.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:53 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah now I want an SR-71 flight sim.

I have the feeling that this would be 99% a really complicated systems management sim where you're constantly adjust throttles, trim, and inlet, and they all affect each other, and whenever anything goes the weensiest bit away from optimal you immediately explode and die. In the background, through the windows that you can't afford to look at very much, distant terrain slowly slides by underneath you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


That sounds exactly like that old arcade game, Lunar Lander.
posted by Mid at 9:34 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Did you watch the flight sim video I posted? That was the best part of the game, systems management and evading radar systems. It had a 150 page instruction manual. Some games would take an hour or two of flying through a series of waypoints. Some of the games were recon missions, but you are probably right, it would be no fun without weapons, just playing against the flight envelope.

BTW back when that game was current, I went over to Steven Spielberg's home to work on his computers, and I noticed a PC with the F-117A game on pause, sitting next to his desk. He wasn't home, so I joked with his assistant, hey I love that game, you want to play a prank? I'll fly his plane right into a battle and we can leave it paused there. She said, oh no don't you DARE go NEAR that machine. One day the maid accidentally unplugged the machine to plug in her vacuum and lost his game, and he had a fit!
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:14 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Did you watch the flight sim video I posted?

No, but I played lots and lots of its predecessor F-19 Stealth Fighter (so old the 117 hadn't been admitted to yet).

Glancing at it, that's not the level of systems management sim I meant. In F-19/F-117, you don't spend have to pay constant attention to multiple engine temperatures taken at different points in the inlet, engine proper, and exhaust, all of which spend almost all their time just a whisker under "Boom," and you're not always having to move fuel around to keep your center of gravity where it needs to be if you like breathing, and you don't even have trim controls, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:41 PM on October 9, 2014


Here's another bail-out story: In 1959, Lt Colonel William Rankin ejected from his F-8 Crusader at 47,000 feet not wearing a pressure suit, and took 40 minutes to reach the ground after being trapped and beaten up inside a violent thunderstorm on the way down.
posted by marvin at 10:51 PM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


What tells you it was 1966 is that they used the simulator to reproduce what they found in flight test. Today they would have had to check it out in the simulator first, and the real moments of terror happen when reality doesn't line up with the computer model.

Agreed, and in addition to being more careful (!) they'd be able to do countless simulations of all sorts of possible failure modes and tricky maneuvers without involving a person at all. In fact that was my first thought before commenting, "if they could see it in the simulator, why not catch it there in the first place"...but then my mental failure mode went back to WHY ARE YOU JUDGING THIS IT IS AMAZE-NUTS. I still fondly remember my childhood die-cast SR-71
posted by aydeejones at 10:54 PM on October 9, 2014


he suddenly found himself flying along at Mach 3.18 ... without his plane.
The upside, is that by the time you hear yourself screaming, you've slowed down quite considerably. /ignoringhelmet
posted by blueberry at 11:44 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Well, this was a plane that was built basically for no reason except it was cool, and all of its missions can be done better and cheaper by less sexy aircraft.
posted by grobstein


Which ones available at the time were capable of outrunning anti-aircraft missiles?
posted by azpenguin at 12:17 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Francis Gary Powers disagrees with your assessment that the less sexy U2 was capable of "better" performance.

As for cheaper, the primary reason the SR-71 was retired was the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a threat that needed to be spied upon. Some might say, then, that the SR-71 was a bargain.


well, except that the SR-71 was never actually used in overflights of the Soviet Union, that role having been taken over by satellite recon before the U-2 replacement entered service.
posted by russm at 4:00 AM on October 10, 2014


Miles Davis recorded a song about the incident.
posted by clawsoon at 5:07 AM on October 10, 2014


An aft center of gravity (as they were testing on this flight) is nothing to mess with. It's a big reason why the nose up on the inlet unstart became uncontrollable. This is a pretty good explanation but essentially having the center of gravity more rearward makes the aircraft less stable in pitch (up and down movement) and in severe cases the aircraft can be lost as there is no way to get the nose down, so that the plane stalls.

In my light plane coming back from California last year I loaded three cases of wine in the back cargo area. It was still within limits, but the handling was different from what I was used to, especially at low speed. This indirectly led to a couple of go-arounds executed as precautions before I understood why the plane felt different. I've got new respect for test pilots.
posted by exogenous at 5:36 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh boy, supersonic flows was one of my favorite subjects in school.

As I'm sure you all remember from the introductory fluid dynamics classes you took, subsonic flow follows Bernoulli's principle. Forcing a flow through a narrow opening increases the speed and decreases the pressure of the flow at the throat. This is basically how a carburetor works - air flows through a Venturi tube with a small opening at the throat, and the small vacuum that's drawn at the throat pulls in fuel vapor through the opening and mixes it with the air.

Supersonic flow basically turns everything on its head. A supersonic flow will speed up if you increase the area it passes through - this is why rocket engine nozzles are shaped like they are. The flow in a rocket nozzle is subsonic as it is squeezed towards the nozzle throat, where it reaches the sonic condition and a shock plane is formed. On the other side of the throat, the bell end of the nozzle opens up and the now-supersonic flow speeds up even further as it exits the engine.

That shock wave in the nozzle needs to be carefully positioned through good design; if it ends up anywhere except the throat, you're losing a lot of efficiency (as the subsonic flow ends up in the expanding bell end and will slow down again, or the flow goes supersonic too early and slows down as it approaches the throat). You can also cause a lot of damage to the engine as the improperly placed shock can bounce around and vibrate things in a bad way.

The engines in the SR-71 basically have the opposite problem as a rocket nozzle - starting with supersonic air, you need to slow it down to feed it into the engine. Similarly, though, you set up a similar situation as with the rocket nozzle; the engine inlet traps a shock wave at a particular point, only this time the downstream flow is subsonic. At that point, the engine's compressors can grab the flow and feed it to the combustion chamber. (The SR-71 actually has a hybrid engine system - basically a turbojet surrounded by a ramjet. At high Mach, the turbojet isn't doing a whole lot, but the ramjet still needs subsonic air to function.)

Of course, engines don't operate in a vacuum (*groan*) - the engine nacelle, the fuselage, and all the other bits that stick in to the air stream are also moving through supersonic air and are also making shock waves of their own. Without that big spike in front of the engine, the lip of the engine inlet would generate a shock wave which would crash into the compressor and do bad things. So the spike is there to make a shock wave that extends from the tip of the spike to the lip of the engine inlet. That keeps the flow moving smoothly into the engine inlet, where a second standing wave finally makes the flow subsonic.

The angle of that shock wave off the tip of the spike is function of the geometry of the spike, as well as the flow speed and direction - hence the need to move the spike forward and backward in order to trap the shock wave at just the right point. And when the computer fails and the engine loses that shock wave, then the second standing wave gets blown away (out the front of the engine, actually) and the engine stalls. And now you have a ton of asymmetric thrust since the other engine is still working, plus the extra drag of the improperly placed engine shock wave on the failed side, and before you know it you're going sideways and your plane is suddenly in tiny pieces all around you.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:47 AM on October 10, 2014 [26 favorites]


Per some googling, the engine unstart was a solved problem by the late 1960s -- Concorde was immune to it (although it did sometimes have problems with engine surges). Part of the SR-71 family's problem was that the engines were mounted well away from the centerline (producing violent yawing when an engine unstarted: Concorde and the Tu-144 both clustered their engines relatively close to the centerline), and possibly, just possibly, the state of the art of designing supersonic intake ramps evolved somewhat during the 1960s -- the A-12 OXCART (the first member of the family) first flew in 1962, while the big SSTs flew somewhat later.

(SSTs being a good reference point because most military aircraft, the A-12/SR-71 apart, spend most of their time subsonic; British Airways' 8 Concordes racked up more supersonic flight time in the 1980s and 1990s than the entire USAF.)
posted by cstross at 6:41 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Great googly moogly, what an amazing story, and a fascinating bunch of comments too.
posted by Gelatin at 7:00 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


grobstein: Well, this was a plane that was built basically for no reason except it was cool, and all of its missions can be done better and cheaper by less sexy aircraft.
Citation needed.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:33 AM on October 10, 2014


I also wanted to point out this little tidbit from the SR-71 wiki page:

In the early years of operation, the analog computers [controlling the air inlet system] would not always keep up with rapidly changing flight environmental inputs.

Yup, analog computers. And if they failed, they expected the pilots to shut them out and control it manually.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:15 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Regarding my "isn't this a double?" question, here's the earlier thread I guess I was remembering. Bill Weaver's misadventure is mentioned a couple of times, and I guess I followed those links at the time.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:58 AM on October 10, 2014


Definitely one of the few groups of people in the world who were justified in being total smartasses to just about anyone else.

Indeed.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:40 AM on October 10, 2014


expanding bell end

Ooh, matron.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:16 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


grobstein: Well, this was a plane that was built basically for no reason except it was cool, and all of its missions can be done better and cheaper by less sexy aircraft.
Citation needed.


Let me turn that around - let's posit that high altitude Mach 3+ aircraft are the best way to perform this recon role. If that's the case, why wasn't the SR-71 ever actually used for overflights of the Soviet Union, and why was the programme wound up without a successor aircraft?
posted by russm at 11:14 PM on October 10, 2014


why wasn't the SR-71 ever actually used for overflights of the Soviet Union, and why was the programme wound up without a successor aircraft?

A few things to consider:

* In a world of classified information, how do you know it wasn't? You can't, obviously, but it is reasonable to make this conjecture, given the U2 was used precisely for this reason.
* Of the known missions, it was used to overfly Soviet client states, allies and consumers of Soviet equipment. Claiming there was no direct impact on the Soviets is splitting hairs.
* Why wasn't it replaced? Advanced in radar, satellites, missile tech, UAVs and known limitations of Russian capabilities based on other intelligence all led to the mothballing.
* There is still research ongoing on successor aircraft, such as the SR-72.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:32 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


why wasn't the SR-71 ever actually used for overflights of the Soviet Union, and why was the programme wound up without a successor aircraft?

The Operational Objective Camera and its successor TEOC had a view angle 45 degrees to either side of the aircraft, so depending on flight paths and altitudes, a considerable swath of ground could be observed without direct overflight.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:37 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Jesus that guy survived this and the Starfighter? Mandatory Hawkwind track.
posted by yoHighness at 4:23 AM on November 8, 2014


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