The weakest link of the chain09/07/2008 Written by Roberto Preatoni
Warning: 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 technicalpark.com reports.
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 networkworld.com who wrote the “Top ten worst uses for WIndows” should update their article…