How to destroy expensive test kit: What does that button do?

Fidgety fingers and boredom = trouble


Who, Me? All aboard for a nautical installment of Who, Me? where the words "Don't Touch That Button!" have an altogether damper meaning.

Today's tale comes from a reader Regomised as "Trev" and has a slightly naval tinge to it.

"I was involved in installing a system in a corvette for a Middle Eastern navy," he told us. "Our customer was equal parts naive, hopeful, and bloody difficult."

Petrolheads should pipe down at this point, for the corvette in question was not of the four-wheeled variety, but instead a small warship. Not quite a frigate (although some have been redesignated as such), but a step up from a patrol boat. Corvettes tend be armed with missiles and medium to small calibre guns.

The system concerned was a Vertical Launch System (VLS), which does exactly what the name suggests. A VLS is a system for holding and firing missiles from naval platforms (such as a corvette). Each VLS consists of a number of cells and each cell can hold different types of missile. Someone presses a button, a missile is fired vertically, clears the cell and then heads off toward the unlucky recipient of its explosive largesse.

The most commonly used example of the breed is the Mark 41, of which over 11,000 cells have been delivered or ordered. The devices are used by navies around the world.

As for Trev, his team was in the installation phase. The customer was onboard to observe the goings-on and hopefully sign off on the paperwork. And, as is so often the case, it was taking a while and attention was starting to drift.

"A significant amount of test equipment," said Trev, "was located in the VLS missile compartment during the acceptance trials of the interface to the VLS."

Not cheap, we suspect, considering government money was probably involved.

"The customer reps were getting bored..."

One was idly looking at the control panel while Trev's team busied themselves with trial preparations.

In hindsight, what happened next was obvious to anyone who has ever had to deal with a customer who hasn't been securely handcuffed to an office chair.

"What does the button marked 'Pre wet' do?" came the question.

We imagine time slowed down a bit at that point, as the response "Don't touch that button!" came just a millisecond too late.

"Our budding rocket scientist presses the button," sighed Trev, "The VLS space is sprayed down with water, including a lot of (expensive) test equipment."

Unsurprisingly, the trial had to be called off. The test engineer had to start looking for new test equipment.

And the customer? Looking for lunch, we expect. Or, as Trev put it, "bugger[ed] off [on] an undeserved rest."

Harsh but, let's face it, where missile launch system acceptance testing is concerned, it could have been oh so much worse.

We've all had customers do some astonishingly silly things over the years. Ever had one get bored and start pressing buttons that maybe they shouldn't? Tell your story with an email to Who, Me? ®

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