20 - May - 2017
  Author- Pravin Taneja

Originally published on LinkedIn

Today I want to share one secret of why our software products have such a good quality. The secret is we watch a lot of air crash investigation programs.

Surprised! Well, air crash investigations are very systematic, meticulous & thorough. Investigating team never give up till all answers are found. Once the cause of the crash is found then entire process that led to the crash is examined and holistic corrections are put in place. We do the same in our products, we record all crashes/ bugs in great detail, we investigate in detail. With each small big failure, we relook at the design and do as many improvements as possible. It really helps.

Some air crash investigation programs left me baffled and my initial response was why can't they just hang a ball in the cockpit.

Let me give one example, on 6 June 1992, Copa Airline Flight 201 from Panama City to Cali Columbia crashed. The investigation revealed that its attitude indicator was showing wrong data to the pilots due to a faulty gyro. The flight crashed at night, pilots had no visual feedback. In such situations, only information about the flight's position in the air come from the instruments in front of them. The faulty attitude indicators led Capt. to believe he was banking left, thereby prompting him to bank right. This reaction rolled the aircraft to almost 80 degrees and caused it to go into a steep dive, with no chance for recovery.

You can read more details of this from the URL:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copa_Airlines_Flight_201.

If you want to watch the investigation video then see from this URL:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huMl0uarYh4.

This was an unfortunate event. After watching this particular program I did feel that if a ball was hanging in the cockpit right in front of them around eye level then probably it would have saved all passengers & crew on that fateful flight. A hanging ball can be a fool-proof attitude indicator. How? Answer is simple, gravity!

If the ball is perfectly hanging down just above the point where its supposed to be then the flight is perfectly aligned to the horizon and flying flat. If the ball is appearing to have moved forward then it means nose of the flight is down. If the ball is appearing to have moved backward then it means the nose is up. If the ball is appearing on the right side then it means the flight is turning right. If the ball is appearing on the left side then it means the flight is turning left. If the ball is sitting on the ceiling and refusing to come down then it means you are upside-down my friend! Gravity doesn't fail. An angle of inclination of the ball would indicate actual inclination of the plane.

A hanging ball need not be the only option. Hanging a mobile phone from earphone cable will also do the trick. Alternatively, a transparent circular drum kind shallow disk filled with water and a small bubble inside can also be used to know the orientation of a plane in the air.

Civil engineers use these simple devices to ensure that buildings are perfectly vertical and each floor is perfectly horizontal.

This may sound like a ridiculous idea. I think in a fight with gravity to keep plane safe in the air, we should take a little help from gravity. Just hang a ball in the cockpit.

P.S. - As some pointed out, a hanging ball would keep oscillating in rough weather and won't be reliable attitude indicator. This is a valid concern. We know that stranded cable can dampen oscillation pretty much. With some research by varying diameter of each strand, number of such strands, length of the cable and weight of the ball suspended we can find a suitable option that dampens oscillations without blocking natural movement of the suspended ball due to gravitational pull.

A transparent shallow cylindrical disk filled with water and a small bubble inside will not be impacted by turbulences but I think this is more suitable for the second officer as it would require bending over it and watching it keenly.

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