Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dunkin' ain't easy...

... and, technically speaking, it ain't necessary, either. Unless, of course, you're holding a dunk contest. In that case, as we see from this dunk competition in the Chinese pro league--the CBA--it is necessary to the point of repetition.

I'm definitely not one to mock other cultures for how they play my game of choice; I have shared the blacktop with ballers all over the world, many of whom have at least semi-schooled me and my old-guy knees. But if you're going to hold a dunk contest, make sure it involves actual, like, dunking, e.g.:

It's a little perplexing, actually. At my athletic peak--and let's be honest, it was more of a big hill than a mountain--I could dunk a women's ball (which is slightly smaller than the men's version) using one hand on a regulation-height rim. So I don't totally understand how professional basketball players who are both taller and in better shape than I ever was are having a hard time with the relatively straightforward act of throwing the ball through the hoop at point-blank range.

On the other hand, the CBA is doing well, and China's love of basketball has attracted major attention from the NBA. So maybe it's only a matter of time before the "shoe stuck to the backboard dunk" is just another part of the sport's lexicon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A quick refresher on the problems with playing God

So by now, we've all read about the meteor that exploded over Russia last week, right? It has been covered extensively, so I won't waste too much time rehashing it. Suffice to say it was an impressive look at what nature can do with a little gravity, velocity, friction and deceleration.

For a few seconds, the meteor--called a "bolide" when it turns into this sort of fireball--shined brighter than the rising sun...

... and its explosion, caused by the intense, uneven heating of its surfaces as it streaked through the atmosphere at about 11 miles per second, released energy equivalent to the detonation of 500,000 tons of TNT. Because the explosion happened several miles above the ground, the blast effects weren't devastating... but were still dramatic:

For comparison's sake, 500 kilotons is roughly 25 times the yield of "Fat Man," the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. And it was caused, basically, by a fast-moving rock.

Which brings us to playing God. I thought I had written about this before, but a quick search of The Blog tells me I apparently haven't: the United States has for decades kicked around ideas for a space-based kinetic-energy weapon called Project Thor--and nicknamed "Rods from God." The gist is that orbiting satellites would be armed with long, pointy, semi-guided rods made of super-dense tungsten, roughly the size of telephone poles. Give them a push in the right direction, and these heavy things deorbit and hit something on the ground.

Because it is deorbiting, it literally has to slow down, which means it will only impact at Mach 10--almost six times slower than the Chelyabinsk bolide. The energy released would be the equivalent of a mere 12 or so tons of TNT.

It's easy to see why people might be terrified of a random space rock blowing up over their heads--you can't stop it, and you can't see it coming. And it's exactly why putting weapons in space is not a good idea. It's bad enough that a bad roll of the cosmic dice could wipe out a city. But giving ourselves that power does nothing but increase the odds of unstoppable death falling from the sky.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An illustration of futility

You know, this isn't really even an aviation post. It involves no real aircraft. In the end, it's mostly about two things: psychology and arrogance. And maybe a third: bad Photoshopping.

Remember how Iran rolled out its deadly new stealth fighter a few days ago? The one that had about as much chance of flying as a Ford Pinto? Well, the Internet was quite aflutter over how there was basically no chance the F-313 could either avoid radar or fly, let alone both. Iran's response yesterday is equal parts troubling and hilarious.

They released this photo as proof that screw you, Internet, the F-313 is so totally a functional, deadly and awesome-looking plane.

Soaring majestically over its enemies, or maybe just big a mountain.

I... I don't... sigh. Here, let me use another picture to sum up my reaction.

I call it "the Iranian salute."

The issues with this, ahem, "proof" are so obvious that this Arabic-language blog, harfhaye-nagofte-elham, sums them up perfectly even if you don't speak Arabic.

Yeah, Iran. Really? What is the mindset behind releasing a photo like this that takes essentially no expertise to undress? Do you think the rest of the world--literally, everyone connected to the Internet--is that dumb?

My guess is no. This is more meant for domestic consumption. Which in many ways is even more troubling. Iran has good universities that produce lots of well-trained scientists and academics. The country's leaders must think tremendously little of their population if they expect them to believe this clumsy "look at me!" stunt is actually reality.

As far as PR exercises go, this is an abject failure. The external audience can see through it and laugh. The domestic audience can see through it and wonder why their government thinks they're simpletons. And there's not even any point in talking about it as a legitimate weapons program.

In short: no matter how you look at it, the F-313 just doesn't fly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What the opposite of stealth looks like

I can't believe I missed this: On Saturday, Iran rolled out what it says is an indigenous stealth fighter. And unlike other high-profile weapons it has announced, this one can be viewed from all angles:

The video includes a clip of the thing in the air, which I'll get to in a sec.

First, though, let's address the most obvious question: is the F-313 a threat?

It certainly looks stealthy, doesn't it? Beveled edges, air intakes on top of the fuselage, canted tailfins. These are indeed design elements that, when used correctly, do reduce an aircraft's radar signature. To wit:

The B-2's air intakes--and engines--are shielded from the ground.

The facets of the "Hopeless Diamond" bounced radar waves away from the reciever.

But here's the thing. The entire aircraft appears to have been designed by someone who just wanted to represent every whistle and bell of stealth technology they had seen in photographs. Up close, it's pretty obvious that we're looking at the equivalent of a practical special effect piece.

For instance, those above-wing intakes? As noted in the Aviationist, they are far too small to support a high-performance engine. They also appear to have been borrowed from pictures of an F-117.


... but no cigar.

The plane's tailpipe section is puzzling too. Although building stealthy nozzles can be difficult, the Iranians seem to have gotten around this issue by simply... not having a nozzle. That means either they are using a low-thrust engine without an afterburner (which would not require a variable-geometry nozzle); it's a rocket, ala the X-15; or there's no engine at all.

In any event, the section closely resembles that of the F-35...

Hot stuff.

... without, of course, the all-important bit in the middle.

Not so much.

Even just looking at basic details like the aircraft's skin show imperfections that at the very least are a sign of sloppy craftmanship, but more likely just reflect the fact that there are no stealthy materials or coatings involved here: just some type of skin stretched over a metal or wood frame.

Look at the way the light reflects off various surfaces; they're not smooth at all.

Also, the cockpit is tiny and filled with low-tech instrumentation.

There's no way I would fit in that thing.

And the list of parts obviously "stolen" from pictures or the internet goes on and on.

The wings? Check out the Boeing Bird of Prey demonstrator:

Formerly secret; always awesome-looking.

The vertical stabilizers? I smell F-22:

Tilted for practical reasons, but also pretty.

The canards (which are nearly as big as the main wings and, hilariously, don't seem to pivot)? How about the brand-new and mostly unproven J-20:

Neat-looking, but with problems.

In short, it has copied superficial features of prominent aircraft, tacked on a cockpit that would look at home in a Cessna Skyhawk, and mounted all of it on a frame that probably includes some balsa wood. Don't even get me started about that canopy made of scratched-up plexiglass.

And all of THAT doesn't even matter as much as the fact that the whole aircraft (listed here as, I think, being 16.4 meters long) isn't big enough to fit stuff you like to see in a fighter like, well, weapons. And avionics. And even usefully large fuel tanks. You get the idea.

But if it's actually flying, they obviously built something useful, right? If you watch the video above all the way through, you see some footage of what appears to be the F-313 zooming around the sky. The problem is, the footage also doesn't look completely real. The first frames of the video allow for some scale comparisons (because you can see the ground and people), and it makes the F-313 look pretty small. Like, "I'm a model" small. You can in fact buy jet-powered radio-controlled model kits of stealth aircraft online.

So unlike China, which appears to have done quite a bit in developing some new aircraft in-house, Iran has put together something that basically belongs on a movie set.

Then they made a big production out of introducing it to the world... and provided close-up photos and video that clearly show it to be at best an amateurish, large-scale mock-up (albeit one that already has its own Wikipedia page). That's an expensive sales job for a country with a struggling economy, and it's beyond doubtful that anyone is buying.

On the other hand, if your goal is to get the world to ignore your air force, then maybe this plane is stealthier than I'm giving it credit for.