Aviation Incidents and Accidents

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 12th, 2014

Technology 101

The Pilots of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 landed Safely after Fatigue Cracks caused Part of the Cabin to Disintegrate

The de Havilland Company introduced the jet airliner to the world.  The Comet.  A 4-engine jet airliner with a pressurized cabin that could carry 36 passengers.  It could fly at 40,000 feet at speeds close to 500 mph.  Just blowing the piston-engine competition away.  Until, that is, they started breaking up in flight.  A consequence of pressuring the cabin.  The inflating and deflating of the metal cabin fatiguing the metal of the cabin.  Until fatigue cracks appeared at stress points.  Cracks that extended from the cycles of pressurizing and depressurizing the cabin.  Until the cracks extended so much that the pressure inside the cabin blew through the cracks, disintegrating the plane in flight.

Japan is a nation of islands.  Connecting these islands together are airplanes.  They use jumbo jets like buses and commuter trains.  Packing them with 500+ passengers for short hops between the islands.  Putting far more pressurization cycles on these planes than typical long-haul 747 routes.  On August 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 left Haneda Airport, Tokyo, for a routine flight to Osaka.  Shortly after takeoff as the cabin pressurized the rear pressure bulkhead failed (due to an improper repair splice of the pressure plate using a single row of rivets instead of a double row following a tail strike that damaged it).  The rapid force of the depressurization blew out through the tail section of the aircraft.  Causing great damage of the control surfaces.  And severing the lines in all four hydraulic systems.  Leaving the plane uncontrollable.  The crew switched their transponder to the emergency code 7700 and called in to declare an emergency.  But they could do little to save the plane.  The plane flew erratically and lost altitude until it crashed into a mountain.  Killing all but 4 of the 524 aboard.

Hawaii is similar to Japan.  They both have islands they interconnect with airplanes.  Putting a lot of pressurization cycles on these planes.  On April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 left Hilo Airport bound for Honolulu.  Just as the Boeing 737 leveled off at 24,000 feet there was a loud explosive sound and a loud surge of air.  The pilots were thrown back in their seats in a violent and rapid decompression.  The flightdeck door was sucked away.  Looking behind them they could see the cabin ceiling in first class was no longer there (due to fatigue cracks radiating out from rivets that caused pressurized air to blow out, taking the ceiling and walls of the first class cabin with it).  They could see only blue sky.  They put on their oxygen masks and began an emergency descent.  The first officer switched the transponder to emergency code 7700.  The roar of air was so loud the pilots could barely hear each other as they shouted to each other or used the radio.  The flight controls were operable but not normal.  They even lost one of their two engines.  But the flight crew landed safely.  With the loss of only one life.  A flight attendant that was sucked out of the aircraft during the explosive decompression.

The Fact that 185 People survived the United Airlines 232 Crash is a Testament to the Extraordinary Skill of those Pilots

On June 12, 1972, American Airlines Flight 96 left Detroit Metropolitan Airport for Buffalo after arriving from Los Angeles.  The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took on new living passengers in Detroit.  As well as one deceased passenger in a coffin.  Which was loaded in the rear cargo hold.  As the DC-10 approached 12,000 feet there was a loud explosive sound.  Then the flightdeck door was sucked away and the pilots were thrown back in their seats in an explosive decompression.  The aft cargo door (improperly latched—its design was later revised to prevent improperly latching in the future) had blown out as the cargo hold pressurized.  As it did the rapid decompression collapsed the floor above.  Into the control cabling.  The rudder was slammed fully left.  All three throttle levels slammed closed.  The elevator control was greatly inhibited.  The plane lost a lot of its flight controls but the pilots were able to bring the plane back to Detroit.  Using asymmetric thrust of the two wing-mounted engines and ailerons to compensate for the deflected rudder.  And both pilots pulling back hard on the yoke to move the elevator.  Due to the damage the approach was fast and low.  When they landed they applied reverse thrust to slow down the fast aircraft.  At that speed, though, the deflected rudder pulled them off the runway towards the terminal buildings.  By reapplying asymmetric thrust the pilot was able to straighten the aircraft out on the grass.  As the speed declined the rudder force decreased and the pilot was able to steer the plane back on the runway.  There was no loss of life.

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 took off from Stapleton International Airport in Denver for Chicago.  About an hour into the flight there was a loud bang from the rear of the plane.  The aircraft shuddered.  The instruments showed that the tail-mounted engine had failed.  As the crew responded to that the second officer saw something more alarming.  Hydraulic pressure and fluid quantity in the three hydraulic systems were falling (a fan disc in the tail-mounted engine disintegrating and exploded like shrapnel from an undetected manufacturing flaw, taking out the 3 hydraulic systems).  The flight crew soon discovered that they had lost all control of the airplane.  The plane was making a slight turn when the engine failed.  And the flight control surfaces were locked in that position.  The captain reduced power on the left engine to stop the plane from turning.  The two remaining engines became the only means of control they had.  Another DC-10 pilot traveling as a passenger came forward and offered his assistance.  He knelt on the floor behind the throttle levels and adjusted them continuously to regain control of the plane.  He tried to dampen the rising and falling of the plane (moving like a ship rolling on the ocean).  As well as turn the aircraft onto a course that would take them to an emergency landing at Sioux City.  They almost made it.  Unfortunately that rolling motion tipped the left wing down just before touchdown.  It struck the ground.  And caused the plane to roll and crash.  Killing 111 of the 296 aboard.  It was a remarkable feat of flying, though.  Which couldn’t be duplicated in the simulator given the same system failures.  As flight control by engine thrust alone cannot provide reliable flight control.  The fact that 185 people survived this crash is a testament to the extraordinary skill of those pilots.

On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 took off from JFK Airport bound for Rome.  About 12 minutes into the flight the crew acknowledged air traffic control (ATC) instructions to climb to 15,000 feet.  It was the last anyone heard from TWA 800.  About 38 seconds later another airplane in the sky reported seeing an explosion and a fire ball falling into the water.  About where TWA 800 was.  ATC then tried to contact TWA 800.  “TWA800, Center…TWA eight zero zero, if you can hear Center, ident…TWA800, Center…TWA800, if you can hear Center, ident…TWA800, Center.”  There was no response.  The plane was there one minute and gone the next.  There was no distress call.  Nothing.  The crash investigation determined that an air-fuel mixture in the center fuel tank was heated by air conditioner units mounted below the tank, creating a high-pressure, explosive vapor in the tank that was ignited by an electrical spark.  The explosion broke the plane apart in flight killing all 230 aboard.

The Greatest Danger in Flying Today may be Pilots Trusting their Computers more than their Piloting Skills

On December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 left JFK bound for Miami.  Flight 401 was a brand new Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.  One of the new wide-body jets to enter service along with the Boeing 747 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.  Not only was it big but it had the latest in automatic flight control systems.  As Flight 401 turned on final approach they lowered their landing gear.  When the three landing gear are down and locked for landing there are three green indicating lights displayed on the flightdeck on the first officer’s side.  On this night there were only 2 green lights.  Indicating that the nose wheel was not down.  So they contacted ATC with their problem and proceeded to circle the airport until they resolved the problem.  ATC told them to climb to 2000 feet.  The 1st officer flew the aircraft on the course around the airport.  The captain then tried to reach the indicating light to see if it was a burnt out lamp.  Then the flight engineer got involved.  As did the first officer after turning on the automatic altitude hold control.  Then another person on the flightdeck joined in.  That indicating lamp got everyone’s full attention.  Unable to determine if the lamp was burnt out the pilot instructed the flight engineer to climb down into the avionics bay below the flightdeck to visually confirm the nose gear was down and locked.  He reported that he couldn’t see it.  So the other guy on the flightdeck joined him.  During all of this someone bumped the yoke with enough pressure to release the automatic altitude hold but no one noticed.  The airplane began a gradual descent.  When they approached the ground a ground proximity warming went off and they checked their altitude.  Their altimeters didn’t agree with the autopilot setting.  Just as they were asking each other what was going on the aircraft crashed into the everglades.  Killing 101 of the 176 on board.

On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.  This was a fly-by-wire Airbus A330 aircraft.  With side stick controllers (i.e., joysticks) instead of the traditional wheel and yoke controls.  The A330 had sophisticated automatic flight controls.  They practically flew the plane by themselves.  With pilots spending more of their time monitoring and inputting inputs to these systems than flying.  Flight 447 flew into some turbulence.  The autopilot disengaged.  The aircraft began to roll from the turbulence.  The pilot tried to null these out but over compensated.  At the same time he pitched the nose up abruptly, slowing the airplane and causing a stall warning as the excessive angle of attack slowed the plane from 274 knots to 52 knots.  The pilot got the rolling under control but due to the excessive angle of attack the plane was gaining a lot of altitude.  The pitot tube (a speed sensing device) began to ice up, reducing the size of the opening the air entered.  Changing the airflow into the tube.  Resulting in a speed indication that they were flying faster than they actually were.  The engines were running at 100% power but the nose was pitched up so much that the plane was losing speed and altitude.  There was no accurate air speed indication.  For pilot or autopilot.  The crew failed to follow appropriate procedures for problems with airspeed indication.  And did not understand how to recognize the approach of a stall.  Despite the high speed indicated the plane was actually stalling.   Which it did.  And fell from 38,000 feet in 3 and a half minutes.  Crashing into the ocean.  Killing all 228 on board.

It takes a lot to bring an airplane down from the sky.  And when it happens it is usually the last in a chain of events.  Where each individual event in the chain could not have brought the plane down.  But when taken together they can.  Most times pilots have a chance to save the aircraft.  Especially the stick and rudder pilots.  Who gained a lot of flying experience before the advanced autopilot systems of today.  And can feel what the airplane is doing through the touch of their hand on the yoke and through the seat of their pants.  They are tuned in to the engine noise and the environment around them.  Processing continuous sensations and sounds as well as studying their instruments and the airspace in front of them.  Because they flew the airplane.  Not the computers.  Allowing them to take immediate action instead of trying to figure out what was happening with the computers.  Losing precious time when additional seconds could trigger that last event in a chain of events that ends in the loss of the aircraft.  That’s why some of the best pilots come from this stick and rudder generation.  Such as Aloha Airlines Flight 243, American Airlines Flight 96 and United Airlines Flight 232.  Sometimes the event is so sudden or so catastrophic that there is nothing a pilot can do to save the aircraft.  Such as Japan Airlines Flight 123 and TWA Flight 800.  And sometimes pilots rely so much on automated systems that they let themselves get distracted from the business of flying.  Even the best stick and rudder pilots adjusting to new technology.  Such as Eastern Airlines Flight 401.  Or pilots brought up on the new technology.  Such as Air France Flight 447.  But these events are so rare that when a plane does fall out of the sky it is big news.  Because it rarely happens.  Planes have never been safer.  Which may now be the greatest danger in flying.  A false sense of security.  Which may allow a chain of events to end in a plane falling down from the sky.  As pilots rely more and more on computers to fly our airplanes they may step in too late to fix a problem.  Or not at all.  Trusting those computers more than their piloting skills.

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Helicopter

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 15th, 2014

Technology 101

Varying the Pitch of the Tail Rotor Blade counters the Twisting Force caused by the Helicopter Engine

If you have a rear-wheel drive car with a longitudinally mounted engine (the crankshaft in the engine runs from front to back) you’ve probably noticed the car twisting along the longitudinal axis when starting or revving the engine.  If you ever operated a hand-drill and had the drill bit get stuck in the material you’re drilling through you’ve probably felt the drill twist in your hands.  These are examples of torque.  As the engine or drill motor spins in one direction they also create a counter torque in the opposite direction.  If a drill bit spins clockwise the motor is trying to spin counterclockwise.  Around the axis of the drill bit.

A helicopter has an engine spinning in one direction.  This spins the rotor that creates lift and directional motion.  But a helicopter is not attached to anything.  Motor mounts hold an engine in place in a car that prevents it from spinning in the opposite direction of the crankshaft.  With the car in contact with the ground.  We hold a drill motor to prevent it from spinning in the opposite direction of the drill bit.  With ourselves in contact with the ground.  A helicopter hovers over the ground, though.  It has no physical attachment to prevent the counter torque from spinning the helicopter in the opposite direction from the rotor.  Which is why there is a tail rotor on a helicopter.

Running out from behind the engine/cockpit of a helicopter is a tail boom.  At the end of that boom is a small rotary wing that spins like a propeller.  We can vary the pitch of this blade to push air through in either direction.  Or move it to a neutral position and move no air through it.  By varying the pitch of the tail rotor blade we can provide a counter force to balance the twisting force caused by the engine.  This is what we do with the foot pedals in the helicopter.  Change the pitch in the tail rotor blade to apply more or less counter-twisting force.  To cancel that created by the engine.  And to turn the helicopter to face a new direction.  Especially when hovering.  Helicopters with two large lift-producing rotors/engines (like a Boeing CH-47 Chinook) don’t need tail rotors.  The two engines just spin in opposite directions.  And cancel each other’s twisting torque.

On a Helicopter they Twist the Rotor Blade to Produce more Lift and Increase the Angle of Attack

Both planes and helicopters produce lift with a wing.  A fixed wing on an airplane.  And a rotary wing on a helicopter.  Air passing over the curved surfaces of a wing produces lift.  The more curved the wing the more lift.  And the greater the angle of attack of the wing the greater the lift.  Which is why planes take off with the nose/wings pitched up to create the maximum amount of lift.

Powerful engines on airplanes produce thrust to move the wing through the air.  Requiring long runways to take off.  And dangerous high speeds on the ground.  About 100 mph or so to get airborne.  Making the take off the most dangerous part of flying.  A helicopter, on the other hand, needs no runway.  For it can take off and land vertically.  Because the engine spins the wing through the air to create lift.  It doesn’t have to accelerate the helicopter to produce lift.

Airplane wings have leading-edge slats and trailing edge flaps to increase the curvature of the wing.  And a tail-mounted elevator that can deflect air up pushing the tail down, pitching the nose and wings up.  Increasing the angle of attack of the wings.  On a helicopter they twist the rotor blade to produce more curvature and increase the angle of attack.  With something called the swash plate assembly.

If you let go of the Controls of a Helicopter it will likely Crash for a Helicopter is Inherently Unstable

The rotor shaft rises up vertically from the engine and terminates in the rotor blade assembly above the helicopter.  And passes through the swash plate assembly.  A fixed lower swash plate that doesn’t spin.  And an upper swash plate that spins with the rotor.  Sandwiched between the swash plates are ball bearings.  Allowing these two plates to be in physical contact with each other.  Yet allows the top plate to spin while the bottom plate remains stationary.

Attached between the upper swash plate and the rotor blades are control rods.  Attached between the lower swash plate and the helicopter control levers in the pilot’s hands are control rods.  It is via the swash plate assembly that the pilot’s control inputs are transferred to the rotor blades.  When the pilot pushes the swash plate assembly up with the collective control in his or her left hand (looks like a parking brake on a car) the control rods on the upper plate push up on one side of each rotor blade equally.  Increasing its angle of attack and curvature of each blade equally.  Creating lift.  And drag.  Causing the engine to slow down from the increased load on it.  So when the pilot lifts the collective he or she also twists the handle to increase engine speed (like the accelerator on a motorcycle).

The pilot’s right hand controls the cyclic.  Or the stick coming up between his or her knees.  This is what gives a helicopter its directional motion.  When the pilot moves the cyclic forward it tips the swash plate assembly forward.  The back side of the swash plate assembly rises up while the front side remains roughly where it was.  So as a rotor blade rotates from the front position (forward of the cockpit) to the back position (behind the cockpit) the control rod begins to push up the leading edge of the blade.  Increasing its angle of attack and the curvature of the blade.  Reaching its highest position at the very back of its rotation.  Producing its maximum lift.  As it travels from the back to the front the control rod begins to lower the leading edge of the blade.  Decreasing its angle of attack and the curvature of the blade.  Reaching its lowest position at the very front of its rotation.  This uneven lifting force of the rotor blade tips the helicopter forward and pulls it forward in directional motion.  If the pilot tips the cyclic to the left lift increases on the right side of the rotor, pulling the helicopter to the left.  If the pilot pulls back on the cyclic the lift increases on the front of the rotor, pulling the helicopter backward.

Planes are inherently stable.  If you let go of the controls it will fly true and straight.  For awhile at least.  If you let go of the controls of a helicopter it will likely crash.  For a helicopter is inherently unstable.  And requires constant inputs to the flight controls from the pilot to maintain stable flight.  As it is a delicate balancing act between the collective, the cyclic and the foot pedals.  For every input of one creates an imbalance that must be corrected by the input of another.  Making the helicopter pilot perhaps the most skilled of all pilots.  Especially those kids just out of high school who flew in Vietnam.  Who flew these complicated flying machines like sports cars as they avoided enemy fire.  Making them without a doubt the finest pilots ever to fly.

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Air, Low Pressure, High Pressure, Lateen Sail, Flight, Wing, Lift, Drag, Leading Edge Slats, Trailing Edge Flaps and Angle of Attack

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 10th, 2012

Technology 101

There’s more to Air than Meets the Eye even though it’s Invisible

When you take a shower have you noticed how the shower curtain pulls in towards you?  Have you ever wondered why it does this?  Here’s why.  Air has mass.  The water from the showerhead sends out a stream of water drops that also has mass.  So they fall to the floor of the shower.  Pushing air with it.  And pulling air behind it.  (Like drinking through a straw.  As you suck liquid out of the straw more liquid enters the straw.)  So you not only have a stream of water moving down alongside the shower curtain.  You also have a stream of air moving down alongside the shower curtain.

As the falling water sweeps away the air from the inside of the shower current it creates a low pressure there.  While on the outside of the curtain there is no moving water or air.  And, therefore, no change in air pressure.  But there is a higher pressure relative to the lower pressure on the inside of the shower curtain.  The low pressure inside pulls the curtain while the high pressure outside pushes it.  Causing the shower curtain to move towards you.

There’s more to air than meets the eye.  Even though it’s invisible.  It’s why we build modern cars aerodynamically to slice through large masses of invisible air that push back against cars trying to drive through it.  Making our engines work harder.  Consuming more gas.  And reducing our gas mileage.  While race cars will use spoilers to redirect that air up, forcing the weight of the car down on the tires.  To help the tires grip the road at higher speeds.  We even design skyscrapers to be aerodynamic.  To split the prevailing winds around the buildings to prevent large masses of air from slamming into the sides of buildings, minimizing the amount buildings sway back and forth.

We put the Engines on, and the Fuel in, the Wings to Counteract the Lifting Force on an Aircraft’s Wings

Air can be annoying.  Such as when the shower curtain sticks to your leg.  As it steals miles per gallon from your car.  When it shakes the building you’re in.  But it can also be beneficial.  As in early ship propulsion before the steam engine.  Large square-rigged sails that pushed ships along the prevailing winds.  And triangular lateen sails that allowed us to travel into the wind.  By zigzagging across the wind.  With the front edge of a lateen sail slicing into the wind.  The sail redirects the wind on one side of the sail to the rear of the boat that pushes the boat forward.  While the wind on the other side follows the curved sail creating a low pressure that pulls the boat forward.  Like the inside of that shower curtain.  Only with a lot more pulling force.

Harnessing the energy in wind let the world become a smaller place.  As people could travel anywhere in the world.  Of course, some of that early travel could take months.  And spending months on the open sea could be very trying.  And dangerous.  A lot of early ships were lost in storms.  Ran aground on some uncharted shoal.  Or simply got lost and ran out of drinking water and food.  Or fell to pirates.  So it took a hearty breed to travel the open seas under sail.  Of course today long-distant travel is a bit easier.  Because of another use for air.  Flight.

Like a lateen sail an aircraft wing splits the airflow above and below the wing.  And like the lateen sail an aircraft wing is curved.  The air pushes on the bottom of the wing creating a high pressure.  While the air passing over the curve of the top of the wing creates a low pressure.  Pulling the wing up.  In fact, it’s the wind passing over the top of the wing that does the lion’s share of lifting airplanes into the air.  The low pressure on top of the wing is so great that they put the engines on the wings, and the fuel in the wings, to counteract this lifting force.  To prevent the wings from curling up and snapping off of the plane.  Planes with tail-mounted engines have extra reinforcement in the wings to resist this bending force.  So those lifting forces only lift the plane.  And not curl the wing up until it separates from the plane.

To make Flying Safe at Slow Speeds they add Leading Edge Slats and Trailing Edge Flaps to the Wing

Sails can propel a ship because a ship floats on water.  The wind only propels a ship forward.  On an airplane the wind moving over the wings provides only lift.  It does not propel a plane forward.  Engines propel planes forward.  And it takes a certain amount of forward speed to make the air passing over the wings fast enough to create lift.  The faster the forward air speed the greater the lift.  Today jet engines let planes fly high and fast.  In the thin air where there is less drag.  That is, where the air has less mass pushing against the forward progress of the plane.  At these altitudes the big planes cruise in excess of 600 miles per hour.  Where these planes fly at their most fuel efficient.  But these big planes can’t land or take off at speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour.  In fact, a typical take-off speed for a 747-400 is about 180 miles per hour.  Give or take depending on winds and aircraft weight.  So how does a plane land and take off at speeds under 200 mph while cruising at speeds in excess of 600 mph?  By changing the shape of the wing.

We determine the amount of lift by the curvature and surface area of the wing.  The greater the curvature the greater the lift.  However, the greater the curvature the greater the drag.  And the greater the drag the more fuel consumed at higher speeds.  And the more stresses placed on the wing.  Also, current runways are about 2 miles long for the big planes.  That’s when they land and take off at speeds under 200 mph.  To land and take off at speeds around 600 mph would require much longer runways.  Which would be extremely costly.  And dangerous.  For anything traveling close to 600 mph on or near the ground would have a very small margin of error.  So to make flying safe and efficient they add leading edge slats to the front edge of the wing.  And trailing edge flaps to the back edge of the wing.  During cruise speeds both are fully retracted to reduce the curvature of the wing.  Allowing higher speeds.  At slower speeds they extend the slats and flaps.  Greatly increasing the curvature of the wing.  And the surface area.  Providing up to 80% more lift at these slower speeds.

At takeoff and landing pilots elevate the nose of the aircraft to increase the angle of attack of the wing.  Forcing more air under the wing to push the wing up.  And causing the air on top of the wing to turn farther away for its original direction of travel as it travels across the top of the up-tilted wing.  Creating greater lift.  And the ability to fly at slower speeds.  However, if the angle of attack it too great the smooth flow of air across the wing will break away from the wing surface and become turbulent.  The wing will not be able to produce lift.  So the wing will stall.  And the plane will fall out of the sky.  With the only thing that can save it being altitude.  For in a stall the aircraft will automatically push the stick forward to lower the nose.  To decrease the angle of attack of the wing.  Decrease drag.  And increase air speed.  If there is enough altitude, and the plane has a chance to increase speed enough to produce lift again, the pilot should be able to recover from the stall.  And most do.  Because most pilots are that good.  And aircraft designs are that good.  For although flying is the most complicated mode of travel it is also the safest mode of travel.  Where they make going from zero to 600 mph in a matter of minutes as routine as commuting to work.  Only safer.

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Windmills, Rotational Energy, Wing, Lift, Rotary Wing, Angle of Attack, Variable-Pitch Propellers, Drag, AC Power and Wind Turbine

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 27th, 2012

Technology 101

When an Aircraft Rotates for Takeoff it increases the Angle of Attack of the Wing to Create more Lift

Early windmills turned when the wind pushed a sail or vane.  Thereby converting wind energy into rotational energy.  Mechanical linkages and shafts transferred this rotational motion to power a mill.  Or pump water.  As well as an assortment of other tasks.  Whatever the task it was important to regulate the speed at which the shaft rotated.  Which meant turning the windmill into the wind.  And adjusting the amount of sail catching the wind.  Much like on a sailing ship.  At first by shutting the windmill down and manually adjusting the sails.  Then later automating this process while the windmill was turning.  If the winds were too strong they’d lock the windmill to prevent it from turning.  To prevent damaging the windmill.

They regulated the speed to protect the equipment attached to the windmill, too.  To prevent a mill stone from spinning too fast.  Risking damage to it.  And harm to the people working with the equipment.  Or to protect a water pump form pumping too fast.  Even the small farm windmills had over-speed protection.   These sat atop a well.  The windmill drove a small piston to pump the water up the well shaft.  To prevent this windmill from flying apart in high winds over-speed features either furled the blades or rotated the windmill parallel to the wind.  Shutting the pump down.

But wind just doesn’t push.  It can also lift.  A lateen (triangular) sail on a sailing vessel is similar to an aircraft wing.  The leading edge of the sail splits the wind apart.  Part of it fills the sail and pushes it.  Bowing it out into a curved surface.  The wind passing on the other side of the sail travels across this curved surface and creates lift.  Similar to how a wing operates during takeoff on a large aircraft.  With the trailing edge flaps extended it creates a large curve in the wing.  When the aircraft rotates (increasing the angle of attack of the wing) to take off wind passing under the wing pushes it up.  And the wind travelling over the wing pulls it up.  These lift forces are so strong that planes carry their fuel in the wings and mount engines on the wing to keep the wings from bending up too much from these forces of lift.

A Pilot will Feather the Propeller on a Failed Engine in Flight to Minimize Drag 

When an aircraft carrier launches its aircraft it turns into the wind.  To maximize the wind speed travelling across the wings of the aircraft.  For the faster the wind moves across the wing the great lift it creates.  Commercial airports don’t have the luxury of turning into the wind.  So they lay their runways out to correspond to the prevailing wind directions.  As weather systems move through the region they often reverse the direction of the wind.  When they do planes take off in the other direction.  If the winds are somewhere in between these two extremes some airports have another set of runways called ‘crosswind’ runways.  Or trust in the highly skilled pilots flying out of their airports to adjust the control surfaces on their planes quickly and delicately to correct for less than optimal winds.

Helicopters don’t have this problem.  They can take off facing in any direction.  Because that big propeller on top is a rotary wing.  Or rotor.  A fixed wing airplane needs forward velocity to move air over their wings to create lift.  A helicopter moves air over its rotary wing by spinning it through the air.  To create lift the pilot tilts the rotor blades to change their angle of attack.  And tilts the whole rotor in the direction of travel.  The helicopter’s engine runs at a constant RPM.  To increase lift the angle of attack is increased.  This also creates drag that increases the load on the engine, slowing it down.  So the pilot increases the throttle of the engine to return the rotor to that constant RPM.

Propeller-powered airplanes also have variable-pitch propellers.  To create the maximum possible lift at the lowest amount of drag.  So it’s not just engine speed determining aircraft speed.  When running up the engines while on the ground the pilot will feather the propellers.  So that the blade pitch is parallel to the airflow and moves no air.  This allows the engines to be run up to a high RPM without producing a strong blast of air behind it.  A pilot will also feather the prop on a failed engine in flight to minimize drag.  Allowing a single-engine plane to glide and a multiple engine plane to continue under the power of the remaining engines.  A pilot can even reverse the pitch of the propeller blades to reverse the direction of airflow through the propeller.  Helping planes to come to a stop on short runways.

By varying the Blade Pitch for Different Wind Speeds Wind Turbines can Maintain a Constant RPM

Thomas Edison developed DC electrical power.  George Westinghouse developed AC electrical power.  And these two went to war to prove the superiority of their system.  The War of the Currents.  Westinghouse won.  Because AC is economically superior.  One power plant can power a very large geographic area.  Because alternating current (AC) works with transformers.  Which stepped up voltages for long-distance power transmission.  And then stepped them back down to the voltages we use.  Power equals voltage times current.  Increasing the voltages allows lower currents.  Which allows thinner wires.  And fewer generating plants.  Which saves money.  Hence the economic superiority of AC power.

Alternating current works with transformers because the current alternates directions 60 times a second (or 60 cycles or hertz).  Every time the currents reverse an electrical field collapses in one set of windings of a transformer, inducing a voltage in another set of windings.  A generator (or, alternator) creates this alternating current by converting rotational energy into electrical energy.  Which brings us back to windmills.  A source of rotational energy.  Which we can also use to generate electrical energy.  But unlike windmills of old, today’s windmills, or wind turbines, turn from lift.   The wind doesn’t push the blades.  The wind passes over them producing lift.  Like on a wing.  Pulling them into rotation.

The typical wind turbine design is a three-bladed propeller attached to a nacelle sitting on top of a tall pylon.  The nacelle is about as large as a big garden shed or a small garage.  Inside the nacelle are the alternator and a gearbox.  And various control equipment.  Like windmills of old wind turbines still have to face into the wind.  We could do this easily and automatically by placing the propeller on the downwind side of the nacelle.  Making it a weathervane as well.  But doing this would put the pylon between the wind and the blades.  The pylon would block the wind causing uneven loading on the propeller producing vibrations and reducing the service life.  So they mount the propeller on the upwind side.  And use a complex control system to turn the wind turbine into the wind.

When it comes to electrical generation a constant rotation is critical.  How does this happen when the wind doesn’t blow at a constant speed?  With variable-pitched blades on the propeller.  By varying the blade pitch for different wind speeds they can maintain a constant number of revolutions per minute (RPM).  For a limited range of wind conditions, that is.  If the wind isn’t fast enough to produce 60 hertz they shut down the wind turbine.  They also shut them down in high winds to prevent damaging the wind turbine.  They can do this by feathering the blades.  Turning the propeller blades parallel to the wind.  Or with a mechanical brake.  The actual rotation of the propeller is not 60 cycles per second.  But it will be constant.  And the gearbox will gear it up to turn the alternator at 60 cycles per second.  Allowing them to attach the power they produce to the electric grid.

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