Attrition: B-2 Crash Caused By High Humidity


June 9,2008: The loss of a $1.4 billion B-2 bomber in Guam last February was the result of three of 24 pressure sensors on the wings providing incorrect data, which led the flight control software to take unneeded corrective action during takeoff, and causing the aircraft to crash. The pressure sensors were designed to deal with high humidity, but conditions in the tropical climate of Guam created more humidity moisture than the system could actually deal with. Some maintainers noted this, and manually cleared the moisture. But this anomaly was not reported to the people who maintained the pressure sensor system (and its related software), so it was just a matter of time before the condition caused the kind of takeoff accident that occurred last February. As a result of the accident, pre-flight procedures now take high-humidity situations into account, and make sure all the sensors are calibrated properly before the aircraft rolls down the runway.

Such accidents are common with complex systems. In the last seventy years, engineers have become much better at discovering dangerous situations before they occur. But for the same reason you still have bugs in software, you still have these kinds of problems in complex weapons systems. Eliminating these problems is more difficult in more complex systems, and also depends on the quality of the engineers developing, and later maintaining, the system, as well as the "corporate culture" of the developers and maintainers. The Japanese, for example, have a corporate culture that enables them to create critical software with very few bugs. America, on the other hand, have a corporate culture that enables complex systems to be developed and built.

A related problem is the difficulties some nations have in maintaining complex systems, because they have a "corporate culture" that is not exacting enough to operate and maintain these systems effectively. It's a complex world out there, and avoiding disaster takes a lot of work, talent and management skill.


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