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)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

WikiLeaks, Casting a Wide Net

My name's in WikiLeaks too ... My article on the Hughes 500P "Quiet One" stealth helicopter, built for a 1972 CIA wiretapping mission into North Vietnam, was copied into an email by a Stratfor guy. This was part of chatter about the stealth MH-60 used in the Bin Laden raid. 

Here's the WikiLeaks link:

Here's the article as it appeared in Air&Space:

Here's one of the photos that Shep Johnson sent me, showing the ship parked at the secret base in Laos:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fellowship of the Ring Finger: Safety tips from an oil-rig medic

I'm not a big follower of celebrity news, but Lindsay Lohan did a service by letting people know about a severe finger injury during a boating expedition. Apparently one of her rings snagged as the anchor line ran out, injuring a digit. It might make help people more careful. 

The word for the injury that can happen when a ring snags is avulsion. Think of eating a corn dog on a stick – the corn dog slides off the stick bite by bite. Among other celebrity-ring-finger sufferers are Jimmy Fallon and soccer star Kevin McHugh.

Prevention is a lot better than relying on surgery to make it right. I saw the prevention mindset in action minutes after I landed on a Transocean deepwater drillship far out in the Gulf of Mexico called Discoverer Enterprise for a magazine article. I spent four days watching the drilling and completion of a deepwater well for BP. It was an impressive vessel, with two drilling rigs:

As a first-time visitor, my first job upon leaving the helideck was to grab my gear and sit down with the ship's medic for a safety briefing, which I figured would cover just a few basics like my lifeboat station.

The medic did that, but there was a good deal more. He started by showing me around the clinic, which looked impressive enough, then made this case: “But this isn't for surgery and I'm not an MD. If you get seriously hurt out here it'll take at least four hours for a copter to come and fly you to a hospital, so you've got to watch out for yourself.”

He was not only persuasive, he was persistent. For one thing, he insisted I remove my wedding ring. I pointed out that the only time before that I'd tried to get it off, it wouldn't budge past the first knuckle. (That was before going up the the gantry at Cape Kennedy's Vertical Assembly Building to take a look at the Columbia. The main reason for this was NASA's worry about jewelry or other loose objects falling from visitors onto the delicate tiles. My NASA minder had accepted that removal of my ring was impractical, and had been satisfied with wrapping some tape around my ring finger.

Not good enough, the Discoverer Enterprise medic said. This was a working drill rig with a lot of moving parts, big ones, and a ring was an accident waiting to happen: it could catch on something and tear my finger off, or electrocute me if I closed an open circuit with it.

(Apparently he hadn't given much credit to the plot of Abyss, where a wedding ring is a lifesaver, not a life-taker: in the movie, the character played by Ed Harris saves himself from drowning in his undersea drilling rig by jamming his wedding ring into a bulkhead door before it closes, giving rescuers a chance to force it open.)

So the medic showed me how to get around the knuckle problem by wrapping the joint with waxed flossing string. That compressed it enough to let me work the ring off in good order.

Here's another tip he taught me, which I use daily: He said one of the most avoidable accidents he sees on board oil rigs is to fall down the stairs. It's easy to do, he said, because the stairs on ships are steep and made of metal, and tend to be slippery, given that everybody is wearing boots and the surfaces collect moisture.

“Just keep a hand on damn handrail, and you'll be okay,” he said. I did, and still do.