July 29th, 2007


On hi-tech brooms

"I'll let you in on a secret. But you won't make any friends with pilots if you let them know I told you. The Harrier's like a cross between a helicopter and a jet. The changeover in vector thrusting is real tricky. So it's actually harder to fly than this Stealth plane."

"Yeah? Why?"

"The aerodynamics of planes like the Blackbird, the Stealth fighter — almost any of the new-generation high-performance fighters — they're too unstable for human reflexes to manage. Guys wouldn't like me for saying it, but no human pilot can actually fly them. The only thing that keeps them in the air are computers changing flaps and thrust hundreds of times a second. It's called fly-by-wire. In the old days, the pilot would move the flight stick, and that would actually pull cables connected to the wing flaps. Every type of plane was different, had a unique feel. What worked on one model might make another veer out of control. Today, the pilot moves the flight stick, and it's like a joystick in a computer game. Nothing's actually moving. Instead, the computers interpret the movement as the pilot's request for action. So they send out thousands of commands to dozens of different motors that perform the actual control-surface adjustments. Under most conditions, that makes it extremely difficult to put the plane into a turn or dive that's outside its capabilities — the computers will just ignore or override those commands — so there're fewer pilot-error crashes. Anyway, the long and short of it is when you get into a cutting-edge stuff, like the Blackbird, basically, you only have to know how to fly one kind of plane. An F-14 Tomcat."

"So what's so special about a Tomcat?"

"When the engineers develop a new plane, they like to give the pilots something familiar to work with, so they adjust the computer controls to feel like a plane the pilots already fly and like. The Tomcat's one of those jets. Solid, dependable, every test pilot's flown them. So every new fly-by-wire plane feels a lot like a Tomcat."

via n0mad_sexhex


Sounds cool. But I wonder how much of this is true. For example, Blackbird, as stremph rightfully notes in comments, is definitely not fly-by-wire just because it's too old.