Author: John W Lewis

Take your hands off the controls

Is that what I heard?

“Take your hands off the controls.”

We were climbing after take off in a Cessna 152, and I was applying significant control inputs to keep the aircraft level. Before the flight, there had been some conversation among other pilots on the ground about there being some turbulence at low level today, and I had just remarked that this seemed to be true.

In response to this gentle instruction, I took one hand off the control column, but continued to concentrate on maintaining the attitude of the aircraft in the bumpy conditions. Then the instruction was repeated, still gently, but with a little more emphasis:

“Take your hands OFF the controls”!

Now, whether one follows instructions like this does depend to some extent on who is issuing them! On this occasion, I was honoured to be flying with the most capable pilot and flying instructor I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet.

As it happens, I was not formally under instruction, being qualified to fly and my “passenger” having lost that privilege on medical grounds. Nevertheless, when flying with other people there is always something to learn and, when flying with someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Dickie Dougan, one is learning all the time! Dickie had a very long flying career during which very many people learnt a tremendous amount from him. Sadly, he passed away in 2007, at the age of 89.

So, in this case, the instruction was being issued by someone for whom I had the utmost respect and trust. Nevertheless, it was contrary to my instincts and seemed to me to be decidedly risky.

Very gingerly, I let go of the controls which, now free from my grasp, moved more violently and over a much wider range than I had been moving them. My instinct was to grab them again, but my trust in the instruction that I’d been given was just sufficient to hold that instinct at bay for a short while.

The aircraft seemed to be rolling more than it had under my control, but it was returning to level flight fairly consistently. It was, at least, stable and seemed to be flying satisfactorily without any input from me (to be accurate, I was continuing to apply some right rudder to compensate for the yaw effects of the single propellor in the climb, but it seemed to me that I was not controlling anything!)

After I had realised that the world was not turning upside down and my level of anxiety lowered slightly, Dickie then said quietly, in his soft Irish tones:

“There you are; you’re working too hard! The aircraft can fly itself!”

Incidents like that teach us something quite profound. The world functions without us.

We are not the centre of the universe!


This post was inspired by Trey Pennington’s description of his conversation with his daughter about Copernicus, as described in his interview of C.C.Chapman.

Further information about the legendary Dickie Dougan can be found in this document in an obituary for him written by Chris Martin who was the Chief Flying Instructor at Exeter Flying Club during the time that I was trained there.

By John Lewis

Is “IT” “in denial”?

Change: the only thing that’s constant!

Whither IT?

Wow, the big picture of the IT world seems to be crumbling with increasing rapidity! Many people are at risk of getting hurt if they continue to hold traditional attitudes.

The post “Why the New Normal Could Kill IT” captures it well.  Here’s how that article starts:

Plenty of seismic shifts have rocked and reshaped IT in the past. Some big rumblings’ epicenters had origins in an unstoppable technology shift; other fissures had nothing to do with PCs and servers. Consider the recent shocks: the Internet revolution and dotcom bust; Y2K and 9/11; the consumerization of IT; and the unstoppable broadband and mobile explosion.

However, the latest shock–the global financial meltdown–is like the recent 8.8 earthquake that shook Chile and knocked the earth off its axis. And for IT leaders today, it’s important to realize that the aftershocks are still coming.

Thomas Wailgum provides an insightful description of the challenges facing the important operational aspects of IT in many organizations. Many of the symptoms and some of the causes that he describes are undoubtedly true and have been adversely affecting the performance of many people for a long time!

But, who really cares?

I suggest that the people who really care are the people who are trying to serve the customers of the business. Consequently they will decide what they do and how they do it, including what services and products they use, including those that involve IT (almost all of them these days).

It seems to me interesting to describe this, as he has done, from the perspective of IT and IT people (of whom I am also, broadly, one!) .. but it is only interesting to IT people.

The people who require services are getting them from wherever they can and wherever they like and will continue, increasingly, to do so.

Many of the points that he makes are valid and accurate, including his list of  “recent shocks”. Two of those struck me as particularly poignant and relevant.

One is “the unstoppable broadband and mobile explosion”, which seems to be a strange way to describe it. My reading of this is that IT people would like to “stop” it; but why? The availability of communication services with increasing bandwidth and location-independence is enabling greater sharing of information and understanding; many people, especially those in the “third world”, are benefitting enormously from this. I hope that I have understood his meaning incorrectly because, surely, the task of people who understand IT is to help others to take full advantage of the opportunities, not to try to stop them!

The other is “the consumerization of IT”, which is one way of looking at it but, again, seems to carry a subtextual bias. I detect a sense that this is seen to be the use, in business applications, of lower quality facilities intended for individuals who do not know the implications. There is some truth in this, but this has been a trend for decades and, so far, the roof has not fallen in! I suggest that this is misunderstanding of the bigger picture and, in a sense, does not go far enough

This is not simply consumerization, this is the commoditization of IT. This happens in every industry as bespoke products become more generally available, the nature of the competition changes. What was custom becomes standard and the action moves up a layer!

Much of Thomas Wailgum’s account of the situation is accurate and, potentially, very useful; but, by viewing it from the perspective of the providers of IT services rather than that of the consumers of IT services, the nature of the solutions seems to be pointing in the wrong direction!

By John Lewis

SR-71 Blackbird breakup at Mach 3.18!

More on that truly amazing aviation survival

Yesterday, I wrote a brief Post about the story retold by Bill Weaver, Chief Test Pilot at Lockheed.  For those that read the Post but didn’t click through to the full article, here it is.

It comes from the aviation website The Digital Aviator and I trust that republishing it once again doesn’t offend.


By Bill Weaver

Chief Test Pilot, Lockheed

Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my 30-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot. By far, the most memorable flight occurred on Jan. 25, 1966.

Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high-Mach cruise performance The latter involved flying with the center-of-gravity (CG) located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a.m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to a Mach 3.2 cruise speed and climbed to 78,000 ft., our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft, and by modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors.

Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance. Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward- a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.”

That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises and violent yawing of the aircraft, like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-deg. bank turn to the righ t. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go. No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride. I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 ft. were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle-of-attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the stability augmentation system’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only 2-3 seconds. Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces.

Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I COULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED what had just happened.
I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad- just a detached sense of euphoria- I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane.

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at hi gh altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection system–and assuming all automatic functions depended on a proper ejection sequence–it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must h ave deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at 15,000 ft. Again I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work.

I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up faceplate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked-out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual-activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decide d I’d better open the faceplate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring. Just as I reached for the faceplate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment.

I raised the frozen faceplate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear, winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so se eing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredible.I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting–a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation.

I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the face plate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn Before the bre akup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about 100 miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p.m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about 300 ft. above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit, as well as techniques I had been taught in survival training.
Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal- perhaps an antelope- directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen faceplate up with the other.“Can I help you? ” a voice said. Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and-rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot had.
The gentleman was Albert Mitchell, Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 mi. from his ranch house–and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and me floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force and the nearest hospital.
Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched.
The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane. I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, with the seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detach ed at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn’t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit-pressurization, but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide.
That the suit could withstan d forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts, yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule.

After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away and returned about 10 minutes later with devastating news: Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly. Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about 60 mi. to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight, as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy-pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.
However, we made it to the hospital safely–and quickly. Soon, I was able to contact Lockheed’s flight test office at Edwards. The test team there had been notified initially about the loss of radio and radar contact, then told the aircraft had been lost They also knew what our flight conditions had been at the time, and assumed no one could have survived. I explained what had happened, describing in fairly accurate detail the flight conditions prior to breakup.

The next day, our flight profile was duplicated on the SR-71 flight simulator at Beale AFB, Calif. The outcome was identical. Steps were immediately taken to prevent a recurrence of our accident. Testing at a CG aft of normal limits was discontinued, and trim-drag issues were subsequently resolved via aerodynamic means. The inlet control system was continuously improved and, with subsequent development of the Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System, inlet unstarts became rare.

sr71cockpit Investigation of our accident revealed that the nose section of the aircraft had broken off aft of the rear cockpit and crashed about 10 mi from the main wreckage. Parts were scattered over an area approximately 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. Extremely high air loads and g-forces, both positive and negative, had literally ripped Jim and me from the airplane. Unbelievably good luck is the only explanation for my escaping relatively unscathed from that disintegrating aircraft.

Two weeks after the accident, I was back in an SR-71, flying the first sortie on a brand-new bird at Lockheed’s Palmdale, Calif., assembly and test facility It was my first flight since the accident, so a flight test engineer in the back seat was probably a little apprehensive about my state of mind and confidence.

As we roared do wn the runway and lifted off, I heard an anxious voice over the intercom.

“Bill! Bill! Are you there?”
“Yeah, George. What’s the matter?”

“Thank God! I thought you might have left.”

The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility–only a small window on each side–and George couldn’t see me. A big red light on the master-warning panel in the rear cockpit had illuminated just as we rotated, stating: “Pilot Ejected.” Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted micro switch, not my departure.


– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Bill Weaver flight-tested all models of the Mach-2 F-104 Starfighter and the entire family of Mach 3+ Blackbirds–the A-12, YF-12 and SR-71. He subsequently was assigned to Lockheed’s L-1011 project as an engineering test pilot, and became the company’s chief pilot. He later retired as Division Manager of Commercial Flying Operations.

He still flies Orbital Sciences Corp.’s L-1011, which has been modified to carry the Pegasus satellite-launch vehicle. And as an FAA Designated Engineering Representative Flight Test Pilot, he’s also involved in various aircraft-modification projects, conducting certification flight tests.

By John Lewis

Not your average day in the ‘office’!

There are escapes, lucky escapes and this …..

Flying an SR-71 Blackbird must have been one of the more extreme forms of aviation at the best of times.

Surviving the breakup up of one at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet is unlikely beyond all measure, but not impossible, as this story describes.

The severity of this incident is captured many times over in this story. Can you even imagine thinking:

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection.

And the scale of the navigational issues are extreme too:

Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about 100 miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in.

Above all, for me, the matter-of-fact way that stories like this are told is testament to the professionalism of these pilots.

[In fact this is such an amazing story that the full account will be published tomorrow, Ed.]

By John Lewis

Innovation? What innovation?

We’ve always known “why?”


We can carry on doing the same old things!
Along the way, we can improve, sell more, and cut costs.
But in end, sooner or later, we need to do something different.
That is why we innovate.

Now we know “how?”

Nowadays, everyone is talking about innovation!
Many things seem mysterious for a long time, and then we bring them under control.
It happened in “sales”, then in “quality”, now it is the turn of “innovation”.
In the past, a few people knew that they could manage innovation; now everyone knows.
There are processes for managing innovation using “ideation”, “co-creation” and, even, “open innovation”.
That is how we innovate.

But do we know “what?”

How do we know what to innovate?

Now there is a question!

By John Lewis

Let’s stop messing with the clocks!

Crazy, outdated concept – adjusting clocks twice a year!

The whole concept of adjusting the clocks with the seasons, “Daylight Saving” as the Americans call it, seems increasingly ludicrous the more that one thinks about it. In the UK, it is called British Summer Time and is abbreviated to BST; I call it British Silly Time.

The expensive consequences for computer systems, airlines, railways and many other systems and organisations having to mess about with times and schedules are completely unnecessary. And I have lost count of the number of times I have heard of people missing calls or online meetings due to misinterpretations of time zones and distortions in the name of “daylight saving”.

One would have thought that people who spend the most time involved with nature would find it the most ludicrous and that among those would be farmers. However, it seems that this is not the case as there is a discussion about introducing permanent BST or even “double BST” on the UK National Farmers Union (NFU) website.

The news article is titled “Should we change the clocks?”. My answer is a simple “no”. In case the answer is unclear, I mean “no”! That is “do not change the clocks”! That is “leave the clocks alone”! That is “stop messing with the clocks”! In the UK that means “leave the clocks on GMT, the correct time”!

Does no one else understand this? Well, thankfully, many people do. For example, the whole of the aviation industry uses Zulu time (UTC) worldwide. Let’s be clear what that means. When pilots get a weather reports from any airport in the world (whether it is Heathrow or Los Angeles airport), the times are in Zulu time which is UTC/GMT. Yes everyone uses UTC.

The really funny part is that the NFU news article even states “analysts have claimed an extra hour’s daylight could be worth £3.5 billion a year to the economy”. This is the ultimate fallacy.

Let us be clear about something, in case you had not noticed: THERE IS NO EXTRA DAYLIGHT!! Where, on earth, did farmers get the idea that there is?!

Chris Madden cartoon

By John Lewis

Less is more in manufacturing productivity

Recollections of an memorable project

Thinking about the concept of “less is more”, takes me back to a small and initially unpromising project that a maverick boss of mine persuaded me to get involved in many years ago. It provides an interesting example of counter-intuitive optimisation.

The scene…

There was a manufacturing plant which produced credit cards. The plastic cards were manufactured in sheets; this involved a lamination process which started with a “layup” of three plastic sheets and ended up with them laminated together as one sheet.

The lamination was done in a press which was heated and then cooled; this caused the plastic sheets to melt slightly and to become welded together as one.  To produce cards with flat and clean surfaces, each layup also had shiny metal plates on either side to produce a smooth finish.

The instinct … Read more of this article

Less is more!

Less complexity is more simplicity and fun!

There seems to be an upsurge of interest in the philosophy of “less is more”. A couple of recent articles about product design, in general and in a specific case, address relevant aspects of this phenomenon.

What do we know?

On one level, we tend to question: how can “less” be “more”? We know it makes no sense! This is true: it really does not make any sense, if all that we focus on is measurable, countable, sequenced information – the kind of information understood by the “left side” of our brains.

On a different level, we know that “less” really is “more”. Less complexity is more simplicity and fun; less distraction is more concentration; and so on. This makes sense when we are thinking about the whole picture – the kind of information which is handled by the “right side” of our brains.

At the moment and on this topic, there is a specific product which is exercising the minds of people who follow these things. Continue reading “Less is more!”

The manageability of innovation

Innovation is manageable

“Innovation” means different things to different people but, generally, it involves the application of novel ideas, products or processes for some purpose. But even if we can agree on “what” it is, do we understand “how” innovation happens?

Managing 'bright' ideas

There is a significant change taking place in the way that the process of innovation is understood. We can put this in the context of developments in the manageability of other areas of business activity in recent times. Read more of this Post