When you go for a trip in your car, you fill the tank before you ‘take off’. Not so for an airliner: the weight of unnecessary fuel becomes a significant cost on short trips. So the jet only receives enough fuel for the journey, plus a safety margin.
If everything goes just right, that is.
But one particular Boeing 767, known today as “The Gimli Glider”, actually ran out of fuel in mid flight; despite fuel gauges, despite preflight calculations, despite everything.
The story of how the pilot actually got the plane on the ground in one piece, with everyone onboard still alive (and applauding) is recorded in the fascinating book; Freefall, by William and Marilyn Hoffer. But the book also covers the even more interesting story of how the hell a modern jetliner got up to 41,000 feet and ran out of fuel.
Or maybe we should say; it got up to 12,497 metres. Because the difference between metric and “English/Imperial” units (hereafter referred to by the ironic title; “Standard”) played a major role in the debacle. It seems that the Canadian Parliament had just decreed that all fuel would be measured in metric units. It was 1983, and the ground crews were trundled off to “metric orientation training”. One fueler remarked; “It was all just numbers; they could have been bananas”.
Even this would not have mattered, if the plane’s fuel computer had been working; pilots would still have spotted the discrepancy. So you ask; how on Earth could a plane be allowed to fly with its fuel computer broken? Simple: the fuel was measured by “sticking the tanks” and the calculations were done manually. Sticking is an utterly reliable method, in which you put a stick into the fuel tanks, and see where the fuel line goes. It’s foolproof, unless something completely undermines the crew’s calculations. That something was metric units. The ground crew argued for half an hour, then the plane took off with about half as much actual fuel as it was supposed to have.
Imagine making that announcement! “Ladies and gentlemen, the funniest thing happened while we were fueling up on the ground today…”
It was theoretically possible to land a 767 with no engines, but nobody had ever wanted to try it with 69 souls on board. The pilot set down on a decommissioned military runway, which had become a local drag racing spot (much to the surprise of local folk who had to get out of the way of the descending aircraft). “The Gimli Glider” went on to have a normal service life, if a somewhat colorful history. And you’d think that with an object lesson like that, Metric confusion wouldn’t screw up another high-technology project ever again.
Until the $125m Mars Climate Orbiter crashed in 1999, that is. The story is well known; one team was using Metric units, the other Standard. A completely bone-headed mistake, for a bunch of rocket scientists.
Our space shuttle program runs on a confusing mix of Metric and Standard units. Even the new Ares rocket is designed using Standard units. NASA says it would cost too much to convert a project that is this far along. They’re probably right.
Today everyone knows what a litre is, thanks to soda bottles. And that bottle is about two kilograms, discounting the plastic. But if you start talking about converting our whole economy to metric units, it won’t be long before the ghost of Jimmy Carter comes back to haunt the discussion.
Ol’ Jimmy, if you recall, wanted to modernize our units of measurement. Sure, it was Gerald Ford who signed the metric conversion law, but Jimmy took it as a personal mission. I think his unlikable personality set metric back fifty years or more. Somewhere I have a hilarious book written during that time as a polemic against the metric system. It seriously predicted the end of American dominance in the world, if we were ever foolish enough to start measuring in centimeters instead of inches.
I own a dial caliper that measures in inches; it cost me about $125, twenty-five years ago. My metric dial caliper cost about $80, fifteen years ago. Today you can buy a digital one for about $30, which can convert back and forth to either system by flipping a switch. It’s made in China, of course.
And NASA still can’t build a rocket using metric units. Why is that?
Well, why would they want to? Metric isn’t more any more precise than Standard. Can’t the rest of the world just march to our tune? They always have, in the past.
It’s that reluctance that makes me wonder if we really can limit population growth, cut back on carbon dioxide, stop giving antibiotics to livestock, and move away from a consumption-based culture. Hell, we can’t even pick up a metric ruler and really learn it, when millions of dollars or even human lives are at stake. Is change impossible?
In his 1960 book Realm Of Measure, Isaac Asimov thought that, while the present generation might be a lost cause, we could start with the children:
“To begin with, the metric system ought to be taught in grade school. If American children were made familiar with it they would, as adults, not find it so strange and foreign. Then little by little, metric measurements should be introduced into common use, without necessarily replacing the common measurements…
Thus eventually, the common system could be dropped altogether, and we could join the rest of the world in a union of logical measurements.
Oh, mister Asimov; so optimistic. Those kids’ kids are all grown up now, and working at NASA.
So here’s my question: how can intentional change even happen? What’s the solvent to break the glue holding our shoes to the floor? Comments are open, and I want to know what you think.
- Boston.com: Inching Along; Thirty years later, we’re still taking measure the old English way.
- Check out Paul Sunstone’s post on The rarity of cultural change, written in response to this post.
- ***Dave takes up the topic from another angle: Changing Our Minds. Can we really handle the truth?
- Bonus question: even the French were slow and reluctant to adopt Metric measurements. Anybody know how they pulled it off? I really can’t figure it out; the French aren’t exactly famous for conformity.
- Next month’s carnival entry: “A Brief History Of FAIL”.