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#133 Murphy’s Law

A lot of folks, in various pursuits other than aviation, have quoted a variation of Murphy’s Law.  In aviation, the law is usually stated, “If an aircraft part can be installed incorrectly, someone will do it”.  It’s also stated as, “What can go wrong, will go wrong”.

I’d always accepted the existence of Murphy’s Law without giving its origination much thought.  But I think it was in reading the autobiography of Joe Kittinger that I may have found out the source.  You see, as a young Air Force officer, Joe had worked for the legendary Col. John Stapp.  I guess that name is another  one with which  many people are not familiar, but I’m sure not one.  In fact, at a recent family reunion, my brother, Larry, and I recalled the days when, as kids, he and I had watched in awe some black and white newsreel


Col. Stapp on the Jet Sled.

footage on our early television set.  The footage was taken with 16mm gun cameras attached to a testing sled.  The footage showed Col. Stapp as he conducted early experiments to determine what type of “G” force a human being could withstand.  Col. Stapp was one of those great leaders who would never ask an underling to undergo anything which he would not do himself.  So he strapped himself onto that sled and fired himself at high speed down those tracks, decelerating at the end with the sled digging into a trough of water and his face showing the incredible effects of G’s and wind.  To this day, only one person has performed as many tests on the jet sled as Col. Stapp and that is Mike Dennis, CEO of Oregon Aero.  But Mike, very intelligently, used crash test dummies.  Col. Stapp used himself!  That decision wasn’t so much a test of his intelligence as it was of his dedication and style of leadership.

But back then, Col. Stapp had a small crew who worked for him.  Among that crew


Capt. Edward Murphy makes adjustments to the harness on the jet sled.

was an engineer by the name of  Capt. Edward A. Murphy.  There are varying accounts, but it seems that Murphy may have attached g-meters to Stapp’s harness with their polarity reversed, rendering them useless.  Stapp shrugged and referred to that action as another example of “Murphy’s Law”.

The ground crew assists Capt. Kittinger in removing his flight gear after the successful flight of Excelsior III. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The ground crew assists Capt. Kittinger in removing his flight gear after the successful flight of Excelsior III. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Perhaps that law surfaced again, when Joe Kittinger set the world’s record by parachuting from 102,800 feet in 1960.  During that jump, one of his pressure suit’s gloves leaked, leading to frostbite and a potential calamity.

I’ve heard people curse Murphy’s Law.  They saw it as something lurking there, ready to bite them in the butt and louse up what they were trying to accomplish.

But perhaps Murphy’s Law exists for a good reason, making more of us a bit more cautious so as not to become victims of it.

5 comments to #133 Murphy’s Law

  • Brian,

    Thanks for the nod in this piece. I feel compelled to adjust the impression people might get from reading it. Like you, Col. Stapp and Joe Kittinger were also two of my childhood heroes. Col. Stapp bravely strapped himself into the seat of a rocket sled to determine how much punishment a human could safely absorb during an ejection or a sudden deceleration (crash). To this day, the results of Col. Stapp’s experiments still define the limits of human tolerance for the design of ejection systems and crashworthy seats.

    Rocket sleds are used to test anything that is designed for use in a high-speed aircraft. In this environment, Mr. Murphy rules and, given the opportunity, anything can and will kill you. A pencil, a pen, a kneeboard or night vision goggles in the wrong place when the pilot pulls the yellow handles can be lethal. Oregon Aero ejection seat cushion systems for high-speed aircraft were no exception and also had to ride the sled. Today, instrumented anthropomorphic dummies rather than human beings collect the data. A Mach 1+ sled test is so fast that it’s not possible to watch all three phases of the test, acceleration, egress and deceleration. One must pick one part of the event and focus or the whole thing is just a blur. This was the sled that Col. John Stapp famously strapped himself into.

    Crash testing is done in a less spectacular fashion. The test seat and dummy are attached to a 2000 pound sled on rails, then placed against a powerful air cannon. To simulate a sudden stop and measure the dummy’s spinal loads for injury, the sled is accelerated from zero velocity to 21 miles per hour in 50 milliseconds. That’s a little less time than it takes to blink and makes a big noise. Bang! For perspective, if the acceleration continued for one second, the sled would exceed 422 miles per hour. For the drag race fans in the audience that’s, 1,688 miles per hour in four seconds, Mach 2.19, or more than twice the speed of sound. I didn’t, don’t and have no intention of ever riding either a rocket sled or a crash sled.

    Flying is fun and, for some of us, necessary to make us fully integrated humans. However, it’s not without obvious risks. Uncle Brian is spot on, Mr. Murphy is real and patiently waits for an opportunity to prove it. Constantly educate yourself. You’re following Uncle Brian so that’s redundant advice. Practice. Get a tailwheel endorsement or take a Master Aviator Course. Conduct a thorough preflight because Mr. Murphy’s cousin, vibration, loosens bolts and cracks essential parts. Fill the fuel tanks. That’s one of Mr. Murphy’s favorite tricks. Use some sort of checklist to be absolutely sure the big things are done. A prudent application of paranoia will help you avoid sudden deceleration. Even with the best safety equipment, that’s a bummer.


  • Robin Wise

    Is this the Joe Kittenger that was the cap com when Felix Baumgarten jumped to break the recort?

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