“Incredibly Sad”

Putting things in perspective.

Arnold Palmer died yesterday. He was 87.

Palmer was one of golf’s greats. Although I don’t follow golf and certainly don’t know as much about his career as the folks that do, I do know that he was a real class act who could certainly teach today’s professional athletes a thing or two about behaving in public. You can find a tribute to him here and some more general information on Wikipedia.

One of the people I follow on Twitter posted the following tweet with a photo of a young Palmer:

Incredibly sad … Golf legend Arnold Palmer has died. The 62-time PGA Tour and 7-time major winner was 87. #RIP

It’s sad when any good person dies, but “incredibly sad” when an 87-year-old man dies of natural causes?

I’m not trying to sully the memory of Arnold Palmer. He led a full life, achieving many great goals and doing many good things. But he was 87 with a heart condition. His life came to a logical, inevitable conclusion.

Do you know who else died yesterday? José Fernández. He was 24, and just a few years into what would likely be an amazing career as a baseball pitcher. Indeed, he had already won the National League Year Rookie of the year and played in an All-Star Game. A Cuban immigrant who saved his mother’s life when she fell overboard during their fourth (successful) defection attempt, he died in a boating accident yesterday morning with virtually his whole life ahead of him.

Now that is incredibly sad.

Do you see the difference?

I’m not trying to say that Fernández’s life is more valuable than Palmer’s. I’m just saying that when a man dies of natural causes at an age generally considered to be beyond that of an average life span, it’s sad. But when a young man who hasn’t even reached the prime of his life dies in a tragic accident, it’s sadder.

You know this boy.

Do you want to take that a step further? Think about Alan Kurdi. Don’t know who that is? Sure you do. He was the three-year-old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when his family fled Syria as refugees just a year ago. His lifeless body was photographed on the beach, lying face down, still wearing his little shorts and shoes. His family was trying to get to Canada so they could live in a safe, peaceful world. I’d share the photo here — you can find a copy on Wikipedia — but it’s too heartbreaking to see over and over in my blog. So I’ll share this one, provided to the media by his aunt, to give you an idea of the smiling, happy child whose life was snuffed out by tragic circumstances.

Alan Kurdi’s death is incredibly sad.

And what about the thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks, wars, and “ethnic cleansing” (AKA genocide)? Thousands of people losing their lives long before completing their natural lives? Sometimes before they even reach adulthood? Isn’t that sadder than the natural death of an 87-year-old man?

I guess my Twitter friend’s tweet just got under my skin. I’m so tired of people expressing extreme sadness when a celebrity dies yet barely acknowledging the death of a “lesser” or unknown person. Or people.

Let’s put things into perspective. People die every day. Some die more tragically than others. Shouldn’t the level of our sadness be tied into the circumstances of their lives and deaths?

Remember what Memorial Day is All About

It’s not about having the day off from work.

I just wanted to fire off a quick post to remind people what Memorial Day is all about. It seems that while some folks are confusing Memorial Day with Veterans Day, others just look at it as a day off and a three-day weekend. Both are wrong.

From Wikipedia:

Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.

I made the important parts of that passage bold above for a reason: Memorial Day is to honor the men and women of our military who have made the ultimate sacrifice — they died while serving their country. While Veterans Day honors all past service members, alive and dead, Memorial Day honors a special subset of those people — service members who didn’t come home to their families because they died while helping preserve American freedoms and other values.

This includes the 4,459 men and women killed in Iraq since 2003 and the 2,220 men and women killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

How do you think the parents, spouses, and children these service members left behind feel today? Do you think they’re having an outdoor barbecue? Getting drunk out on a boat with their friends? Do you think they’re celebrating the day off from work?

In a way, I wish Memorial Day wasn’t a work holiday on the last Monday of May. I wish it was a numbered date holiday, like Independence Day. Then, perhaps, it would be thought of more as a day to remember our fallen soldiers, airmen, and sailors than as the key component in a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer.

On “Air Vortexes”

The media stumbles over a basic aerodynamic aspect of helicopter flight.

I was on Twitter Thursday evening when manp, one of my Twitter friends, tweeted:

So, what is this ‘vortex’ condition with ‘higher than expected temperatures’??? @mlanger any idea?

To be honest, I had no clue what he was talking about. But I Googled “vortex condition with higher than expected temperatures” (don’t you love Google?) and saw an article about the helicopter that went down during the Bin Laden assault in Pakistan. Moments later, manp sent me a link to a Bloomberg article titled “Helicopter Carrying SEALs Downed by Vortex, Not Mechanical Flaw or Gunfire.” The first paragraph read as follows:

A United Technologies Corp. (UTX) Black Hawk helicopter carrying U.S. Navy SEALs to Osama Bin Laden’s hideout was downed by an air vortex caused by unexpectedly warm air and the effect of a high wall surrounding the compound, not mechanical failure or gunfire, according to U.S. officials and a lawmaker.

Whoa. What a mishmash of information. You have to read further into the article where the phenomena they’re trying to explain — vortex ring state — is explained at least two more times by people who actually have a clue what it is. But that first paragraph sure is misleading. It makes it seem as if there was come kind of weird warm air vortex in the compound that brought the helicopter down.

Any vortexes, however, were caused by the helicopter itself. My educated guess of what happened, based on this article and knowledge of helicopter aerodynamics, is this:

As the helicopter was descending inside the 18-foot walls — a descent that was likely nearly vertical — it encountered a setting with power — or vortex ring state — condition. This occurs when the helicopter settles into its own downwash. This may have been made worse by the change in the flow of air due to those 18-foot walls — as suggested in the article. It may also have been made worse by the outside air temperature being warm.

This image from the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook helps illustrated what the vortexes are and how they manifest themselves in a hover far above the ground and close to the ground:

Hover Vortexes

As the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook explains:

Vortex ring state describes an aerodynamic condition where a helicopter may be in a vertical descent with up to maximum power applied, and little or no cyclic authority. The term “settling with power” comes from the fact that helicopter keeps settling even though full engine power is applied.

In a normal out-of-ground-effect hover, the helicopter is able to remain stationary by propelling a large mass of air down through the main rotor. Some of the air is recirculated near the tips of the blades, curling up from the bottom of the rotor system and rejoining the air entering the rotor from the top. This phenomenon is common to all airfoils and is known as tip vortices. Tip vortices consume engine power but produce no useful lift. As long as the tip vortices are small, their only effect is a small loss in rotor efficiency. However, when the helicopter begins to descend vertically, it settles into its own downwash, which greatly enlarges the tip vortices. In this vortex ring state, most of the power developed by the engine is wasted in accelerating the air in a doughnut pattern around the rotor.

Vortex Ring StateIn addition, the helicopter may descend at a rate that exceeds the normal downward induced-flow rate of the inner blade sections. As a result, the airflow of the inner blade sections is upward relative to the disc. This produces a secondary vortex ring in addition to the normal tip-vortices. The secondary vortex ring is generated about the point on the blade where the airflow changes from up to down. The result is an unsteady turbulent flow over a large area of the disc. Rotor efficiency is lost even though power is still being supplied from the engine.

There are three ways to recover from settling with power once you’re in it:

  • Cut power – you can’t settle with power if you don’t have power. This is usually not a good option when you’re very close to the ground.
  • Lower the collective – this reduces the blade pitch. This is also not a good idea close to the ground, since it will result in a descent.
  • Get some lateral airspeed – this breaks you out of the vortex ring state so you’re not settling in your own downwash. This is not possible when you’re surrounded by an 18-foot wall.

(They train us to recover from settling with power using a combination of the second two methods, but we always practice at altitude, since you can get a good descent rate going if you’re really into it. Indeed, settling with power is a serious danger during aerial photo missions requiring hovering at high density altitudes or heavy weights.)

So the pilot did the only thing he could: land hard. Fortunately, although his hard landing damaged the helicopter, it didn’t cause injuries to to men on board. They were able to complete their mission and come home safely. And they left a souvenir lawn ornament in Bin Laden’s yard.

I realize that this is a pretty complex topic and it’s probably not reasonable to expect the press to get it right. But I personally believe that all technical content published in the media should be reviewed by an expert — or at least someone knowledgeable — to make sure it’s not misleading or unclear to the layperson who will read it.

manp is a pilot — although not a helicopter pilot — and he couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. I can only imagine how much that opening paragraph confused the average reader.