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7 Jul 2009

Truth Will Out

Posted by Hans van der Zanden

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)

‘An Impossible Dream’ goes through stage one at the moment but will reach stage three sooner than later. For many it is still difficult to believe that civil aircraft can’t be built all-composite; that is, some 80% out of composites by volume including the complete skin. For those familiar with materials science this all-composite approach has been incomprehensible from the start. This could only end in failure. One can only wonder why so many scientists involved themselves with these projects and even came to the defense. Most worrisome is that the scientific community kept silent – if not totally silent – when developments unfolded, not to mention the press. But soon enough we will read different stories and experts will arise from nowhere. It happened before, far too often actually, just read the appendices in my book about the Comet, Concorde and the Columbia in particular (can de downloaded on the right). May be this time disaster can be avoided. It appears to be extremely difficult to warn people beforehand, that is, to have the courage to come forward and present a different view. In this case to focus on the development of composed aircraft for which the A380 is paving the way, where aluminium reinforced composites will play key role together with monolithic aluminium and titanium with plain composites for the large indoor primary structures like wing box and so on. Let me tell about a project I got involved with a long time ago, nothing to do with aviation, but involved Schopenhauer.

In the 1970’s the Saudi Arabian Government decided to build a 15-mile bridge in the Gulf that would connect the Island of Bahrain with the Saudi mainland. Very badly advised they chose steel construction. A contractor familiar with the harsh conditions in this region tried his luck and tendered an alternative design in concrete. Unexpectedly the Saudis chose this design, advised by the World Bank who had teamed up a group of experts who studied and further specified the concrete design. Soon the contract was signed and preparations started, everybody was very excited. However, when I studied the new specifications I soon found that the experts were apparently not all that familiar with extreme Gulf conditions and how these affect concrete. To me fell the pleasure to inform the contractor that with these specifications, the first part of the bridge would have deteriorated and collapsed before the last mile was constructed. That’s when I learned about Schopenhauer. First ridiculed, then somebody on the board who knew me better got a bit nervous but he was violently opposed. He did not give up and soon I was given the opportunity to present my case to the board when everybody realized that something drastic had to be done. One piece of advice, do never step forward when you do not have a good alternative in mind, preferably very simple. I had one and that paved the way for the stage of self-evidence.

Now came the difficult part. I had to convince the World Bank, where renowned and undoubtedly very well paid experts had to admit that they were wrong. We realized that would never work – would be violently opposed – and take far too much time. So, we chose to put forward the know-how and unique expertise we had gained over the past years, working in Saudi Arabia, and to talk about new developments and insights and so on. These experts knew very well that what I proposed was not that new at all, actually a rather simple conservative approach, but this way reputations were saved and soon everybody was happy to agree to my modest proposal to take a completely different approach. Although cheaper, the Saudis were happy to pay for the extra costs, substantial really, leave that to the contractor. The bridge was opened to the public in 1982. And for me, I am proud to tell you that the King Fahd Causeway – shown at the top of this page – is still in very good condition. But things could still have gone wrong. When we negotiated with the Saudis about the guarantee terms for durability somebody came up with a proposal to introduce plastic in the construction. More on that in ‘Bridge in the desert’ that you can download at the right (dreamblog appendices).

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