formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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August 29, 2017 Safety in Racing from Aviation

The Liberty Gazette
August 29, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: World War I Ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, was a pilot and race driver. He was president of Eastern Airlines, owned Rickenbacker Motor Company, and raced in the Indianapolis 500 the first four years it existed as such. He even owned the Speedway for a time. But when he went to war he was, like all other pilots, denied a parachute.

Commanding officers refused to allow American fighter pilots to wear parachutes, thinking they’d be less aggressive and bail at the first sign of trouble. Concerning the deaths of two friends, Captain Eddie wrote in his journal, “Cannot help but feel, that it was criminal negligence on the part of those higher up for not having exercised sufficient forethought and seeing that we were equipped with parachutes for just such emergencies.”

Those higher-ups finally realized pilots were more important than airplanes, but it was too late for some.

For decades people talked about what a great idea it would be if not just pilots, but airplanes too had parachutes. Last week we mentioned Boris Popov’s airplane parachute that has resulted in hundreds of successful floating landings when engine trouble prompted pilots to pull the chute.

Many safety enhancements have come from the aviation and auto industries, and speaking of pop-offs, that’s what they call the pressure relief valve that was one of the mandatory changes on Indy race cars in 1974, following the previous year’s horrific fiery crashes. Major changes to Indy car fuel systems also required fuel tank capacity reduction, from seventy-five gallons to forty, and the breakaway gas tank.

Breakaway tank technology wasn’t new, but made its way to Indy because the crashes in ‘73 might have been survivable.

Engineers with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor, had worked with engineers from Bell Helicopter and Goodyear, testing their research on military helicopters. Choppers were dropped, data analyzed, refinements made, and in 1970, after a decade of work, the Crash-Resistant Fuel System was added to Army helicopters used in the Vietnam War.

The technology would be applied next to civilian aircraft, and eventually to automobiles. But after that devastating year at Indy, and the realization that the lives of race drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage might have been spared, officials mandated changes to fuel systems.

The race was on to adopt aviation innovation. They’d make tanks from different materials, re-position them to be less susceptible to rupture, and install fittings that would break away on impact. This had become an emergency. No one wanted the hell fires of 1973.

It’s a time I still remember with chills. The year after these changes, fan favorite and math-teacher-turned-race-driver Tom Sneva flipped and smashed into the wall in turn two. He climbed out of the broken car, dazed, but okay, the blazing parts yards away. For Mr. Sneva, it meant he’d return to be the first to break two hundred miles an hour at Indy, and today he can play as much golf and gin rummy as he wishes.

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