Friday, December 9, 2011


I've spent in the neighborhood of 6,500 hours in the cockpit of airplanes and helicopters. There is a saying in flying, "Rules are written in blood." This refers to the fact that the FAA, NTSB, and various aviation organizations are loathe to change regulations (especially those that cost money) until somebody (or a lot of somebodies) die(s).

An example, it has always been known that an empty aircraft fuel tank can be quite simply a bomb in search of a detonator. The flying public may not realize that if a fuel tank is not necessary for a particular flight, the airline will leave it empty. It costs money to carry weight, and jet fuel weighs 7 pounds per gallon. Airliners have tanks for long flights; therefore, most flights leave with at least one empty. Aircraft fuel vapor is incredibly explosive, and once a tank is empty (leaving from 2 to 20 gallons of unusable fuel in the tank, typically), it is filled only with fuel vapor. 999 out of 1,000 times, it won't find an ignition source. Which begs the question "Am I on flight #327 or 1,000?" This potentially dangerous situation was repeatedly brought up to the airlines and the FAA by pilots. The solution to this issue was never leaving a tank empty (unacceptable), or filling empty tanks with inert gas such as nitrogen (expensive). So it was ignored.

Predictably, on July 17, 1996, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, took off with an empty fuel tank. Moments after takeoff, the fuel quantity indication system in that tank shorted and caused a spark, which caused a massive explosion with blew the plane into two pieces. We have all seen the gruesome simulations of the front of the aircraft, with probably fifty passengers and the pilots, breaking off and falling like a stone into the ocean as the rest of the passengers in the pilot-less aircraft streaked almost straight up before plunging for an eternity into the ocean. Soon after the cause was determined, the FAA required that all empty fuel tanks be filled with inert gas. That rule was written in the blood of 230 innocent people.

On a much smaller scale, the NFL has several rules which are designed to keep players from suffering crippling, fatal, or unnecessarily serious injuries. It is a simple rule, and I paraphrase: A player cannot use his helmet as a weapon, especially as a weapon aimed at the helmet (head) of another player. Football helmets do not, cannot, prevent concussions. Their use only reduces the number of them. A helmet-to-helmet hit on a player will frequently leave the recipient (if not the perpetrator) unconscious on the field. Players know that at the end of a professional career they may have lingering injuries; but drooling and not remembering their names isn't a result they have put into their calculations. The NFL correctly determined that if helmet-to-helmet hits were not stopped, somebody would eventually die, so they legislated against it. But legislation means nothing if not enforced.

Last night, I watched on live TV as Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James "Headhunter" Harrison put the most vicious, intentional, helmet-to-helmet hit I have ever seen on Cleveland Brown's quarterback Colt McCoy. McCoy appeared to be out for several seconds, arms splayed out at his side like a dead man. He was revived, sat out of the game for two plays, then returned. But this morning, the headlines make it clear that McCoy has no recollection of the hit or most of the game last night. He reportedly told his father that he knew that his team lost, but has no recollection of the game itself. (The fact that the Cleveland Browns would put McCoy back in the game when rumor has it that he could not remember his name at the time is another fertile topic.) I should point out that I am not a Cleveland Browns fan, I have never lived in Cleveland and don't really follow the team. I also am not a Steelers fan, I don't dislike them, either.

As you might glean from his nickname, this was not the first time that "Headhunter" Harrison attacked another player with a method intended to cause injury. And a potentially life-threatening injury at that. On October 10, last year, he did the same vicious thing to (again) Cleveland Brown receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, intentionally spearing him head-to-head with his helmet, knocking him out. Then, in the very same game, he did the same thing to Cleveland player Josh Cribs, who was a former teammate of Harrison. There is a name for this type of play: "Dirty." Harrison plays dirty, an indication that he does not believe his skill level alone is adequate to keep him in his position.

Two weeks after the Cleveland debacle, Harrison speared Saints Quarterback Drew Brees with an obvious attempt to knock him out--from behind. As he ran toward Brees, who was unaware of his approach, you could clearly see Harrison lowering his helmet, not to hit Brees in the back, or the hips or the legs to tackle him, but so that he could hit him squarely in the helmet, raising his own as he hit him. Watching the videos of each of these attacks, you can see Harrison's technique, and its the same each time; hit the other player in the widest part of the helmet with the "hairline" of your own helmet as you drive into him in an upward motion. It should be called "the Harrison move." Or "the Headhunter." Or "the Loser." Finally, late that month, in classic Harrison "style," he leveled quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. Check out the sequence of the photographs of last night's hit which are posted below. Note how Harrison ducks his head before the hit, and where his head is after the hit, in relation to McCoy's.

Harrison was fined a total of $125,000 by the NFL for the hits he made last year. what will happen to him for this hit has not been announced. After last night's game, Harrison belittled, and in a way challenged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to do something about the hit. Obviously, fines have not impressed Mr. Harrison. Harrison's current contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers is $51.75 million dollars over six years, which is $8.625 million per year. That $125,000 must have really stung. If you make $86,000 a year, consider each of the individual fines about $250. I get bigger fines than that for speeding, and I still speed. No, hand-slap fines don't get into Mr. Harrison's head (which is apparently hard enough that it can be used repeatedly as a weapon.) The only thing that might get through to him is being benched. Suspended. For a long time. Maybe that will get through to him. Maybe it will get through to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Maybe it will get through to his teammates. If nothing else, maybe it will save a life.

Note the position of Harrison's helmet as he approaches McCoy; he is looking up at him.

Note the absence of any intent to hit below the helmet, the chest-high tackle, the hips- or legs-high tackle. And note how Harrison has lowered his helmet. As he struck, his helmet was in an upward trajectory, striking McCoy in the face.

Now note how Harrison's head is once again up, a result of the intentional upward trajectory of his dirty hits.