Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

Up in the Air Again, and Down

Another entry in the Mad Jubilado series.

I had not flown in almost four years. I recalled retired folks telling me that when I retire I would find myself with too much to do. I didn’t pay much attention. Not having to work sounded like not having much to do at all. Well, they were right. It’s hard to find time to do everything you want to do if you are interested in everything and have the time to choose more than time allows.

You Can’t Do Everything, but You can Try

I’ have nearly completed final revisions for my book, “At the Edge of Illusion.” Writing does take a lot of time. I had enjoyed the time I spent writing a blog, Diary of a Mad Jubilado, on aparallelworld.org, a site designed by Alan Hoffman to bring together environmentally conscientious consumers with vendors of products with small carbon footprints. The site went down after bots and trolls destroyed its fundraising efforts. The techs thought the bots and trolls were Russian. Who knows?

Solar.Wind_ShutterstockWorking with GotSol to bring greater awareness and adoption of renewable energy in New Mexico took a lot of time too; it was personally satisfying work. We established the annual “Renewable Energy Day” at the state capitol. Woodworking takes as much time as you put into it. So does flying. After a couple of cataract surgeries, travel to Scotland, Alaska, and Mexico, and the financial drain they caused, I found I was not flying much. Oh, I’d stopped altogether!

Up in the Air Again

After my flying hiatus,  I completed the annual inspection required by the FAA for all non-commercial aircraft (commercial aircraft must be inspected every 100 hours of flight). I was shocked to realize that it had been four years since I had flown. Flying had been a passion of mine my whole life; how could I have let so much time pass without it? Mad Jubilados can get very busy…and broke, very easily. Flying ain’t cheap.

All pilots must complete a Biennial Flight Review every two years with an FAA authorized examiner. who enters an endorsement in the pilot’s logbook if demonstrated skills in the air are satisfactory. In an hour and a half or so, he signed me off, authorizing me to fly. I did so for several days straight, practicing “slow flight” (the configuration used in approaches to landing), power-on and power-off stalls, and of course, takeoffs and landings. As they say, “Every landing you walk away from is a good one.” My standards are higher than that. With consistent practice, my skills improved rapidly. I felt good.

Down Again, by Diversion

However, I was getting intermittent erratic readings on the fuel pressure indicator. Sometimes, on starting the engine, it would surge into the ‘red,’ as high as 50 psi (normal is 25 or 26), but it usually returned to the normal range. Sometimes it would surge during normal flight. I checked with my mechanic, who had no answer.

Two more flights and the ‘anomaly’ did not reappear. The next day, we packed up and began our flight to a small airstrip in the Gila National Forest for a weekend of “airplane camping” in the beautiful mountain wilderness of southern New Mexico with a dozen or so members of the New Mexico Pilots Association, their families and friends.

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TCS from the air

Within a few miles of our remote destination, I made an abrupt left turn, direct to Truth or Consequences, NM, Municipal Airport, TCS, where I made the emergency landing. The indicated fuel pressure had risen to over 100 psi. I believed that the reading was due to a defective sensor, but in mission-critical situations certainty is a necessity. Maybe the fuel pump was over-pressuring the lines. A blown fuel line in the engine compartment would have produced a fiery end to more than one flight. That was certain.

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The Answer was mounted on the Firewall.

The ‘inadvertent adventure’ continued after a safe landing at TCS, the nearest airport when I determined that an immediate landing was necessary. Finding a mechanic at this small-town airport was not easy, and was followed by several days of technical and organizational struggles, punctuated by a little recreation.

The complexity of resolving logistical problems of parts acquisition in a remote location became very apparent and required a lot of waiting time. I began to think of the relationship of “get-there-itis” to not only aviation safety but to the headlong rush of industrial society to the modernist dream of a utopian destiny fueled by impossibly endless economic growth, a future that will surely disappear in flames before we ever get there.