The Sky May Not Be Falling, But Things In It Are

Watching the evening news lately is enough to convince more than just Chicken Little that the sky is falling. In reality, though, it’s not the sky itself that’s falling but things in it–hypersonic missiles, commercial airplanes, and even a teenager on a towering amusement park ride. Let’s take a closer look at what is coming down from above.

Hypersonic Missiles. While the war in Ukraine continues with innocent civilians in the crosshairs, Ukrainians have a well-founded fear of things falling from the sky to kill them, not to mention destroying any building standing. What a better time than a war not going your way to try out a new destructive weapon, right? Well, President Putin thought so. Russia now has the dubious distinction of having been the first country to use a hypersonic missile in combat. How proud Vladimir must be that his weapon has destroyed lives and landmarks alike.

So, what’s a hypersonic missile anyway? This type of missile travels at least five times faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 5, meaning it can travel a mile per second. Such ultra high speed makes these missiles, which can also change direction midflight, almost impossible to intercept. Exactly what humans need. A way to kill each other faster without a viable defense. What progress we’ve made, eh?

Russia’s defense minister stated his country had deployed a “Kinzhal” (Russian for “dagger”) hypersonic aeroballistic missile to destroy a Ukrainian ammunition depot and to destroy a Ukrainian fuel base. On the bright side, in these instances no people or civilian buildings were targeted. But use of a new and highly advanced weapon is unsettling. This air to surface missile in the Russian army’s arsenal, which is carried by a MiG fighter, is claimed to have a range of 1,200 miles and can achieve a speed of Mach 10.

With these speeds and great manuevering capability, the Russians’ “dagger” can strike before people on the ground are even able to spot it in the sky. So missiles may be falling from the sky in Ukraine, but only the survivors will know what hit them.

Commercial Airplanes. Reports indicate there’s never been a safer time to fly on a commercial airplane. Be that as it may, a China East Boeing 737-800 plowed into the side of a mountain on March 21st. The 132 lives lost–123 passengers and 9 crew–can take little comfort in the aviation industry’s generally good safety record.

No matter how technologically advanced we become, accidents still happen. And what an accident this recent one was. The plane plummeted from 29,000 feet, nosediving into a remote area in southern China. The impact of the crash created a 65 foot pit in the side of a mountain. Its flight data recorder (FDR, but not to be confused with America’s 32nd president) was found 130 feet from the point of impact and 5 feet underground. While a search was conducted for survivors, to no one’s surprise no one survived this massive impact.

What caused this horrendous crash? Only the black box knows for sure. What’s a black box? It’s a device in an airplane that records flight audio and data and is compulsory on all commercial flights.

Usually a black box is placed in the plane’s tail where it is more likely to survive a crash. [NOTE TO SELF: Be sure to book a seat at the back of the plane next time you fly.] These boxes are encased in strong, corrosion-resistant titanium or stainless steel and wrapped in insulation which can withstand high temperatures. They are equipped with an underwater locator beacon that emits an ultrasonic ping to aid in its location. Although called a BLACK box, the box is actually painted a bright color called international orange which makes the device easier to spot.

An investigation into the recent crash will require a review of the two black boxes that were on board the now smashed Chinese plane. The FDR kept detailed track of flight information such as speed, altitude, and position, and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) memorialized cockpit conversation. This information will help investigators piece together what went awry with the plane, whose scattered pieces can never be put together again.

Lesson to be learned? It doesn’t matter how many flights DON’T crash if the one you’re on does. Be aware that a crash is always a possibility; the plane and all those aboard it, including you, could fall out of the sky before reaching the desired destination. And watch out below if you have planes flying above you; sometimes they don’t stay up.

Amusement Ride Passengers.

The “happiest place on earth,” Orlando, wasn’t so happy after the events of the evening of March 24th. The sky was certainly lit up that night by the lights from Icon Park on International Drive. Unfortunately, looking up at it may have allowed those on the ground at the attraction see a teen fall to his death from an amusement park ride.

Rising up into the night sky at Icon Park was the towering Orlando FreeFall drop ride. Its height of 430′ makes it taller than the Statue of Liberty; in fact, it is the tallest drop tower in the world. Unfortunately, the liberty experienced on the ride that night was an unwanted one. A fourteen year old honor student slipped loose from his safety harness and fell to the ground as the ride plummeted downward at a speed over 75 mph. Although he initially survived the impact, he later died at the hospital.

How could such a fun experience at an amusement park turn into such a tragedy? An investigation is underway to determine exactly what happened, but in the meantime, the ride is closed until further notice. That’s, of course, just as well as I doubt there are people brave (or perhaps stupid) enough to get on it now.

Initial suspicion has focused on failure to adhere to the safety guidelines for the ride’s use. The deceased teen was in town from St. Louis for a football program. Unsurprisingly, he was a big boy. Although only 14, he weighed in at around 340 pounds and stood 6’5′ tall. BUT, the operations manual stated that the maximum weight for a rider was about 286 pounds. Oops! Methinks a scale should have been placed nearby to ascertain weight of would be riders much as a height measurement is often required for young riders. It’ll all be hashed out in detail though, as attorneys have been hired and negligence has been alleged.

No one expects to see a body falling from a high ride. Along with the tragic loss of a young life, there are certainly tourists who have been traumatized from witnessing this accident. My advice is to stay away from these types of rides and “don’t look up!”

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you consider it a technological “advance” when humans can kill each other faster and with less defensive capability? Do you worry about crashing when you take a commercial flight? Have you ever ridden a drop ride at an amusement park? If so, did you feel safe?

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