The Millennium Falcon pulls some pretty crazy stunts in the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while we recognize Star Wars takes place in a fictional universe, we couldn't help but get pedantic about the physics of the scene, and the effects it might have on the human body.
In the final shot of the Force Awakens trailer, the Millennium Falcon pulls out of a precipitous dive to engage two TIE Fighters above a vast desert landscape. It's a pretty intense aerial maneuver. The question is: How intense is it, exactly? And could Han Solo (or anyone, for that matter) actually pull it off?
At Wired, Rhett Allain has been analyzing the physics of The Force Awakens. In his latest post, with the help of some handy, rotation-correcting video analysis, he estimates the pitch of the Millennium Falcon during its dive to be about 54°. Factor in the time it takes the MF to level off, the spacecraft's approximate speed (he assumes 200 m/s), and the average acceleration of the ship as it pulls up from its dive, and Allain says you get a value of about 12.6 Gs:
This is only an estimate (depending on the actual speed of the MF, Allain says the ship's passengers could be experiencing anywhere in the range of about 7 to 18 Gs – see the above graph), and Star Wars obviously takes place in a fictional universe, but here in the real world, this is a biologically interesting window of g-forces.
The typical person – i.e. an untrained pilot – can withstand maybe 5 Gs before passing out. High-G maneuvers pull blood away from the brain and can cause pilots to lose consciousness (abbreviated G-LOC, for "G-induced Loss Of Consciousness"). It's reasonable to assume that whoever is piloting the MF (Han? Chewbacca? Someone new?) could withstand 7 Gs, the lower end of Allain's estimate. But the upper end? Could somebody really endure 18 Gs?
Technically, yes. The cases are few, and the number of people who have pulled it off is very small, but there are instances of people enduring more than 18 Gs for very short periods of time. The first to do so was Air Force Colonel John P. Stapp [That's Stapp on the left, decelerating in the G-Whiz sled | Courtesy EAFB History Office]. In 1947, when Stapp began his research into the effects of G-forces on the human body, conventional wisdom in the aerospace community held that 18 Gs was the lethal limit for high-G maneuvers. In the course of his investigations, Stapp would demonstrate personally his body's ability to endure peak G-forces 46.2-times that of normal gravity. But Stapp represents a rare exception, and the tests still ravaged his body. His bones cracked. His eyes were wasted and permanently damaged:
Out of all the things Stapp was subjected to, the most disturbing (concussions aside) was blurry vision, which he began experiencing while facing backwards at speeds above 18 Gs. The cause was intuitively obvious. Blood was rapidly leaving his eyeballs and pooling towards the back of his head in response to gravity, resulting in a "white out." During later tests, when he faced forwards and the blood was pushed up against his retinas, Stapp would experience "red outs" caused by broken capillaries and hemorrhaging. Clearly, when it came to G forces the most vulnerable part of human anatomy were the eyes.
So let's assume you not only want to endure G-forces, but do so with your eyeballs intact. With the aid of a G-suit, which helps prevent blood from pooling in the lower extremities of pilots performing high-G maneuvers, trained aviators can endure short bouts of up to 12 Gs without blacking out; but 8 or 9 Gs is usually enough to push even highly trained aviators past the point of consciousness.
For an idea of how intense G-forces can be, check out this training video of a flight student undergoing G-force training. At fifteen minutes, it's on the long side, but it's damn compelling. The intensity of the test increases gradually over the course of the video, until, shortly past the 11-minute mark, one of the test administrators offers the student the option to undergo some adjunctive training. "There are a few elite personnel around here that have taken on the 8G for 30-second challenge... We don't offer it to very many students," the commander says, but "I'm giving you this chance right now to show everybody what you've got out here... Very few people, I would say, can do this – but I think you very much could":
Seriously, my palms get clammy just watching this.
The upshot of all this is that the aerial maneuvers and G-forces on display in the new Star Wars trailer match up pretty well with what you might expect from an arrogant, cocksure pilot with a heart of gold here on Earth. Now, over at Wired, Allain speculates that if Han is the one flying the ship, "he would probably pass out." Given that Han probably isn't wearing a G-suit, that's probably a safe assumption... but then maybe the MF's got artificial gravity. Or someone else is piloting the ship. Or maybe Han just tells his body to shut up and deal with the Gs. Because Han Solo does what Han Solo wants because he's Han Solo.