Some Tanker Background
In reference to your "Smart Tanker" story (January 2003, page 18), I was hired in 1986 by McDonnell Douglas to promote new tanker avionics systems, among other things. The KC-10 tanker was still in production. It should have been mentioned in your article as the premier tanker in the inventory, with its 238,000-pound (107,957-kg) capacity and the ability to hold another 150,000 pounds (68,040 kg) if needed. (See what kind of tanker Tom Clancy uses in the movie "Sum of All Fears" to refuel the flying Command Post.)
The KC-10 was the first real tanker with an ARO (aerial refueling operator) station in the belly, which had three side-by-side seats and a 51-inch (130-cm) window to view the incoming aircraft. It also had a flying tail boom, which most people thought was easier to use than the primitive V-tail on the KC-135 boom.
The first thing we invented was a beam splitter TV system that was to be used for remote refueling. The U.S. Air Force didn’t buy this, but interestingly, the Israelis built a copy for use in their tankers and trained on our simulators.
Our next step was to build an RS-343 (800-line) stereo system. This was modestly named the ERVS, for Enhanced Remote Viewing System. The ERVS was good enough to interest customers, although not the 1,800 boomers then in the Air Force. At the peak, I had about 30 people working on this system.
By the way, we used video status reports on this program to show people what was happening. I should mention that a lot of the video expertise came from two companies: Teledyne Cameras and Conrac Displays in Arcadia, Calif., both of which subsequently have been merged away.
From this came the RARO (remote aerial refueling operator) station, which was proposed to the Dutch Air Force and resulted in a contract to build two tankers out of used MartinAir DC-10s. Over my dead body, the management made this into a 525-line stereo system that was marginal, but is operational today. These two tankers should have been mentioned in your article. You wrote about RARO II; I guess the Dutch system was really RARO I.
The team that did all this work was dismantled and mainly pensioned off, and the charter went to St. Louis and Wichita, and really to Seattle, where they have pushed the B767, which is really quite small and probably too fast to refuel helicopters. Shortly, television systems and computer display systems will merge probably about XGA at 60 pictures per second, according to my crystal ball, and RARO III should then be a system good enough to compare to the young eyeballs in ARO looking through that 51-inch window.
21st Century Avionics
Real Problem: Improper Testing
Your October Safety column, titled "When the Average Isn’t Good Enough" (page 45), is phenomenal. Based strongly on your coverage of American Airlines Flight 587, we sent in a detailed submittal to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), concerning the problem of "glitching" and the inability of digital-based testing to detect it. We asked that it be placed in the official docket, so everyone can learn about this testing problem.
There are lots of pictures and testing screens demonstrating how the more accurate a meter is, the less likely it is to see the problem. Your article, as well as material from your Safety Design columnist, Walter Shawlee 2, is mentioned several times in the submittal. We also delve into the ongoing politics and misconceptions surrounding this problem, and we discuss how this problem was likely at the root of several other crashes.
Our concern is that the NTSB always tries to find a component that caused the accident, while overlooking the real problem–improper testing. All components age and are likely to break down at some time. This is a given. The real culprit is improper testing that "averages" these age-related glitches out so you never see them. If you fix the testing problem, you automatically fix the safety problem.
President, Universal Synaptics Corp.
Thanks for the list of abbreviations in your December 2002 issue. One minor correction, however. I believe ADI is an abbreviation for attitude director indicator (not attitude direction indicator), stemming from the addition of flight director (FD) information to the attitude indicator (AI).
Richard L. Newman
Department of Safety Science
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University