The weakest link of the chain

09/07/2008 Written by Roberto Preatoni

flying_me_658_07-07Warn­ing: this arti­cle is not for the fainted of heart!

A chain is only as strong as its weak­est link”, this sen­tence applies to any process that will fail if some step in it goes wrong. The guys at Tech­ni­cal Park and ABB, the indus­trial colos­sus that built the new Fly­ing Fury amuse­ment park attrac­tion, should have taken it into consideration.

Here’s the story…

I took the pri­vate plane FAA flight license 12 years ago, at one of the many pri­vate flight acad­e­mies in Texas. I swear, I am not a ter­ror­ist, I even man­aged to land safely each time was needed. Since then, I only man­aged once to take the con­trol of a real air­plane, due to the fact that I live in a coun­try (Italy) where bureau­cracy makes every aspect of your life a liv­ing hell, obtain­ing a fly-​over per­mis­sion included.

Last night I went to the amuse­ment park of my city and I saw the above men­tioned Fly­ing Fury attrac­tion. It’s basi­cally an acro­batic flight sim­u­la­tor, hav­ing two air­planes with 4 seats each (in line).

Fly­ing Fury is made up of a “T col­umn” and 2 par­al­lel inde­pen­dent arms. Each arm rotat­ing 360° in both direc­tions indipen­dently brings a craft 4 seats.

The INTER­AC­TIVE SYS­TEM allows each of the two vehi­cles to rotate indipen­dently 360° on the 3 main axes: while the sup­port arm rotates so as to sim­u­late sud­den climbs and dives, the vehi­cle is free to turn both on the axis of the arm (yaw) and on its own axis (roll). Inter­ac­tiv­ity allows the Rid­ers to drive the move­ments mak­ing their own flight per­for­mance but Rid­ers or Oper­a­tor can also put also the plane into ‘emer­gency mode’ so that it reverts to an auto­matic programme.The trans­mis­sion is electro­mechan­i­cal with motors con­trolled by invert­ers.

A joys­tic allows the rid­ers to drive the move­ments mak­ing their own flight per­for­mance” as the spe­cial­ized web­site tech​ni​cal​park​.com reports.

fury

The sort of maneu­vers allowed by this instal­la­tion is impres­sive: loop­ing, loop the loop, ton­neau, screw, immel­mann, fieseler and upside-​down. It usu­ally rides at 2G force, but it has a turbo mode, that lit­er­ally blends the pilot at a stun­ning 5G force. Being so long time with­out pilot­ing a real air­plane, I decided to take a ride, espe­cially when my con­cerns (para­noia?) about my phys­i­cal secu­rity dis­ap­peared when I saw the ABB logo painted all over the ride. A guarantee.

So I decided to take the thrill, also con­sid­er­ing that such attrac­tion exists only in Milan so far, and I went with a friend of mine. We were lucky as we were the only two peo­ple at that time sit­ting in the plane cock­pit, and my friend was nice enough to let me take con­trols. When I entered the cock­pit, I had a scary sur­prise. The big flight con­trol mon­i­tor above the con­trol joy­stick was show­ing an impres­sive Win­dows XP desk­top, hav­ing the flight con­trol pro­gram using only a small por­tion of it. This deli­cious gift was wrapped up with a touch of class: “There are unused icons on the desk­top”, this was the per­ma­nent OS mes­sage that was accom­pa­ny­ing us dur­ing the whole ride.

The ride itself was a pure joy, I could feel rivers of adren­a­lin flow­ing in my body. But then, once down to Earth, I started to think what would have hap­pened if the Oper­at­ing Sys­tem crashed or if the Flight Con­trol pro­gram froze, maybe while you where spin­ning at 5g. I decided to write this arti­cle with my con­cerns and I started to surf the Inter­net for some more infor­ma­tion and not-​so-​much sur­pris­ingly, I ended up in some reviews on spe­cial­ized user groups and even some news­pa­pers arti­cles. Guess what? They were report­ing trou­bles. As Cor­riere della Sera news­pa­per was report­ing, three unlucky folks ended up blocked upside down at thirty-​seven meter height. For one hour.

On a spe­cial­ized forum, I also found some com­ments posted by some guys who expe­ri­enced trou­bles due to evi­dent crash of the Flight Con­trol pro­gram. Dur­ing their ride such pro­gram crashed and they lost con­trol of the attrac­tion. They had to scream a lot (who doesn’t in an amuse­ment park?) to attract the atten­tion of some bystanders who alerted the ride oper­a­tor, who in the mean­time was too busy in count­ing the cash. Even­tu­ally he stopped the ride, and when the unlucky folks explained him that the Flight Con­trol pro­gram crashed, he denied it, show­ing them that he could still remotely con­trol the attrac­tion from his con­trol panel.

This was actu­ally the demon­stra­tion that the whole ride could be still con­trolled by him remotely, but it could not be con­trolled by the rid­ers as the two Flight Con­trol sys­tems are sep­a­rate. Given the extreme sen­sa­tions such ride was giv­ing to myself, dur­ing a 100% “sys­tems go” ride (excluded the desk­top icon error mes­sage) I can imag­ine what kind of blend­ing treat­ment was given to the three unlucky folks when they lost con­trol of the Fly­ing Fury due to the pro­gram crash​.To make it even worse, the total lack of any panic/​security but­ton. Imag­ine your­self sit­ting beside the guy who is fly­ing the attrac­tion hav­ing a panic attack or feel­ing bad or nearly get­ting a heart stroke. You’d have no chance to stop the blending.

All this to say that the phys­i­cal secu­rity intro­duced by ABB by build­ing a truly mas­sive, rock solid instal­la­tion from the mechan­i­cal point of view gets voided by the poor imple­men­ta­tion of secu­rity at the soft­ware level (lack of a panic but­ton, wrong Flight Con­trol redoun­dancy) and by the fact that they had cho­sen prob­a­bly not the best OS to con­trol the whole thing. Not that we have any­thing against Win­dows, it’s just that it’s an over sized OS that is not really nec­es­sary to con­trol such attrac­tion. A cus­tomized sleeker Linux ver­sion would have assured much less troubles.

Next time I’ll go to the amuse­ment park, I will try the Fly­ing Fury again, hop­ing that I won’t find any “There are updates ready to be installed” mes­sage on my Flight Con­trol panel.

Oh, by the way: the folks at net​work​world​.com who wrote the “Top ten worst uses for WIn­dows” should update their article…

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