Computers do a lot, but they can't change physics of V-22 program

Bob Little

Public spending is a noble undertaking. We have the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Giza and Roman roads to remind us that public works projects are some of humanity's most enduring legacies.

They all have two things in common: They were constructed in strict consonance with the laws of the universe and involved not one bit of computer-aided design.

Today, with the aid of higher mathematics and supercomputers, we can design and field systems that seemingly finesse, if not actually defy, universal laws.

We can design a plane, the Stealth fighter, that cannot be detected by radar. The human genome project tells us that we have the genetic memory of every plague and pestilence ever encountered by humanity. We are dazzled by what computers can deduce about the way things work.

But one thing we forget from time to time is that computers cannot change the way the universe works. When we ignore or attempt to compromise the laws of nature, the results are universally predictable and often devastating.

Early in any major public works program, certain assumptions have to be made about the way a particular system will operate in the universe. Like all assumptions, they should be identified, tested and validated throughout the development phase. But some assumptions are so intrinsic to the continuance of a program that they fall victim to negative pragmatism, the ultimate denial.

Negative pragmatism says, 'Well, if that's the case, then we can't do what we want, so that must not be the case.' Once that decision is made, there will be no testing and validation because the problem has been de-identified.

That's essentially what I believe has happened in the V-22 Osprey program. Early on in the program a critical decision had to be made: Does the double-rotor V-22 fly like one helicopter with two rotors'as does the Army's tandem-rotor CH-47'or like two helicopters with one rotor apiece?

The assumption, apparently, was the former. Had they decided the latter, the program would never have been funded. The difference between the two decisions is that both are bad, but one is a whole lot worse.

Deciding that it is one helicopter with two rotors would imply that the phenomenon of the ring vortex state, or 'settling with power,' would be no worse in the V-22 than in its distant cousin, the CH-47.

Settling with power occurs if a single-rotor helicopter, or a twin-rotor helicopter that acts like a single-rotor craft, is at a slow forward airspeed with a relatively high rate of descent when power is added.

Instead of slowing the rate of descent, adding power abruptly increases the rate of descent. The rotor system stops flying and the helicopter drops like a stone. To get the rotor system flying again, the pilot must reduce power and gain more airspeed.

The V-22 has two rotors, one on the tip end of each wing, complicating the problem. If settling occurred in one rotor but not the other, and power was then added, it could induce a snap roll causing inverted flight.

Was the possibility completely explored, or did we succumb to negative pragmatism?

Some people might argue that what I believe is a de-identified problem can be fixed, if needed, by tweaking the flight software. But it can't, unless you take away control of the aircraft from the pilot and execute maneuvers designed to prioritize, but not assure, the survival of the aircraft.

Even if you're not too close to the ground for the fix to take effect, a computer take-away wouldn't be a good solution for carrier flight operations or a multiship troop insertion. And what would you fix it with? If the problem was assumed not to exist, there would have been no testing or validation. Nor could there have been.

So far, the program is still alive. Maybe settling with power in one rotor and not the other isn't possible in this universe. But what if it is?

Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law. He also has commercial and instrument licenses for helicopters and airplanes. E-mail him at [email protected].


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