Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Blue Line: A new simile for business and politics

In this post last summer I called for editorial writers to be pithier in their use of shopworn analogies such as the red flag of danger, as in "our so-called regulators sure missed that red flag!" I pointed out that it's been many years since railroads relied on men with red flags to mark danger spots. I suggested that the railroad torpedo is a better simile when arguing that a hazard is so obvious only a fool could miss it. 

Here's another simile so obscure Wiki doesn't even have a page on it: the blue line. In business a project manager might use it like this: 
"The bean counters at corporate thought they could kill off my project, but I had a buddy in Procurement who showed me a blue line right through the middle of 'em."
The blue line is a critical element behind successful stealth-bomber missions. I was briefed about it while visiting Whiteman AFB to write about the B-2 bomber. (I had the chance to climb into the rather compact flight deck; here's a link to a 360-degree cockpit view on the Air&Space/Smithsonian website.)

When Lockheed began working up stealth technology (a combination of cunning geometry and a low-reflective skin) in the late 1970s, proponents believed that no radar could pick out such a plane; ergo, the plane could fly just about any route during night.

But a more skeptical look at its radar signature suggested, and the shootdown of an F-117A during a mission over Yugoslavia in 1999 by a well-commanded SA-3 battery proved, that this wasn't a safe assumption. Planners had to acknowledge that no solid object can be totally invisible to radar all the time, particularly when painted from ahead or behind. 

An important part of the solution was to work out specific approach and departure routes with the lowest likelihood of detection, based on measured characteristics of the adversary's air-defense network. 

This is the blue line. I'm not sure of the name's origin but it might be because Lockheed's original project name for stealth technology was Have Blue

The blue-line database to each major target must be assembled well before the shooting starts, then updated rigorously.

1 comment:

  1. But, Fire Services often still use the term "Red Flag Warning" during severe fire danger conditions.