Thursday 17 September 2015

Blow yer eyeballs out

Did I mention that term has started at The Institute? After a week of meetings and setting things set up I am now in the maelstrom of 18 contact hours per week.  That means that I'm spending about 90 minutes a day in the car driving to, and then from, work. That means that I get to listen to the wireless more than I do if I'm sat on the sofa at home. A few days ago, Sean "Newstalk-FM" Moncrieff was interviewing aviation writer Craig Ryan about his latest book Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth. Reviewed.  It was surprised that I'd never heard of the chap, but I've definitely seen his deformation pictures [R] as he made yet another run on the rocket-sled at Wright Field (aka Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) outside of Dayton, Ohio. Although he qualified as a doctor, he joined the USAF in the closing stages of WWII, and found himself, the late 40s and early 50s, running a series of trials to see just how much deceleration a human being can endure.  They were also investigating what arrangement of straps and padding and seat-orientation would best preserve human vital organs when subjected to 30x the force of gravity.  There is only so much you can glean from strapping a 70kg sack of hominy grits in a pilot's ejector seat and sending it down a track at 500km/hr. They tried to give some chimpanzees the ride of their life but eventually settled on fit male human volunteers to stress test themselves and their protective gear.  They were better able to tell where it hurt.

Stapp was as eager as any young bucko to give himself to science and was the 44 y.o. crash-test dummy for dozens of experiments including the one where they turbo-charged the rocket-sled to send it down the track at almost the speed of sound.  On that run, in December 1954, Stapp travelled at 632 mph [>1000km/h] getting from 0 to 600 in about 6 seconds and decelerating to a standstill in just over 1 second. When they unstrapped him from his harness he was able to walk a few steps although he was unable to see. His eyeballs had been deformed so badly by this unnatural stress that they filled with blood: they eventually recovered their function.  That's an interesting observation because the eyes are the only part of the body that cannot be effectively harnessed; they appear to be the limiting step.  All of these tests helped the USAF develop seat-belts that spread the load of deceleration over several robust (muscled, padded) surfaces and yet were consonant with their pilots having sufficient freedom of movement so that they could fly the bus. So hats off to The Fastest Man on Earth, who helped work it all out while sustaining only minor injuries - broken ribs and wrists mainly.

In the process of stress-testing the equipment until it almost but not quite failed, the engineers came up with Murphy's Law "If anything can go wrong, it will". And yes according to one elderly informant there was a real Lt. Murphy. But these same engineers put each other through a catechism of the imagination before each change in protocol: they brought all their experience and all the tales they'd heard and all their book-learning together to see where something might fail; and then introduced a fix against that eventuality.  John Stapp and the other volunteers depended on the smart boys to not finish up as hamburger. And more USAF and other pilots survived frightening crashes than happened before the scientific research.

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