Friday, June 12, 2015

Wither Human Powered Flight?

Is the future of purposeful human-powered flight, recreational or otherwise, a non-starter? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in June 12, 1979, It seems that the “dawn” of human-powered flight was already at hand when Bryan Allen, pedaling continuously for 2 hours 49 minutes, became the first pilot to successfully cross the English Channel under his own power via the first “man-powered airplane”, the Gossamer Albatross. Unfortunately, when the 1980s came and went, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration never issued guidelines and licenses for “recreational man-powered aircraft”. Given the aeronautical engineering challenges, is human-powered flight a non-starter due to the low power-to-weight-ratio of the “human machine”? 

Bryan Allen’s Gossamer Albatross flight back in June 12, 1979 may be the most successful demonstration of human-powered flight given that none comparable attempt had happened since, but mankind has successfully flown before under his own power some years before. Back in 1962, John Wimpenny holds the international record for successfully flying a specially designed aircraft for more than half a mile in which he himself was the engine. 

John Wimpenny’s dream of a “human-powered flight” was first given impetus back in 1959 when a British plastics manufacturer named Henry Kremer offered a UK £5,000 prize for the first successful flight of an aircraft based on a human propulsion system. In November 1961 a group of aircraft engineers and technicians headed by Whimpenny completed construction of a plane which they christened the “Puffin”, built primarily of wood and covered with plastic skin. Fundamentally, it was a cross between an airplane and a bicycle because the “cockpit” enclosed a single-wheel cycle; the pilot pumped the pedals, turning the wheel for takeoff momentum and at the same time spinning the propeller for in-flight thrust. 

On May 2, 1962, Whimpenny, who had warmed up for the flight by cycling 5 miles to work every day for 2 years took the pedal-powered Puffin to an altitude of 8 feet and traveled for 993 yards. The flight set a record, but won no prize because the contest specified a longer flight and a figure-8 course. Although Kremer has since upped the prize to UK £10,000 since Wimpenny’s 1962 attempt, the “Kremer Prize” still awaits a winner. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

250 Miles-Per-Hour: The Top Speed Of The Conventional Helicopter?

Is the “conventional” main-rotor-and-tail-rotor helicopter forever limited to a top speed of 250-miles per hour?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since Igor Sikorsky perfected his main-rotor-and-tail-rotor helicopter configuration during the latter half of the 1930s many overly-optimistic inventors inspired by him have pushed forward to design a generation of helicopters capable of ever higher speeds. But is 250 miles per hour or even 300 miles per hour the ultimate speed limit of the “conventional” main-rotor-and-tail-rotor configuration helicopter?

By the laws of aerodynamics, the relationship between the helicopter’s top speed and its maximum rotor speed obey the “law of threes” – that is the maximum tip speed of the helicopter’s rotor is three times the maximum forward speed of the helicopter. And by the laws of physics, as the main rotor’s tip speed approach and exceed the speed of sound – its lifting efficiency drops off like a rock off a cliff. Remember that 1980s TV series called Airwolf about a helicopter capable of flying faster than the speed of sound? I wonder how many helicopter designers worth their salt had ridiculed the idea due to its physics-defying premise. And despite the mechanical complexity of a “Sikorsky-style” main-rotor-and-tail-rotor helicopter configuration, 97-percent of existing helicopters flying today opt for this design because it is currently the simplest to manufacture from the company’s perspective and most economic to maintain.

During the Vietnam War, Lockheed managed to design a helicopter capable of flying 250 miles per hour or 400 kilometers per hour in level flight called the Lockheed Cheyenne. It consists of a tail rotor that intermeshed with a pusher propeller. In its maximum forward speed, only 25-percent of the main gas turbine engine’s power goes to the main rotor as the rest is diverted to the pusher propeller. Despite being called a “compound helicopter” as opposed to a true helicopter, the Lockheed Cheyenne never went to service in the Vietnam War theatre due to its “mechanical complexity” might cause problems to ground crews and it is somewhat pricier than the next fastest helicopter of the time – the slightly slower Huey Cobra. And despite their popularity with the world’s various military organizations, there are spots cars today priced around 50,000 US dollars that can run faster than the Apache Longbow helicopter gunship – and top of the line 270 mile-per-hour capable supercars from Lotus and Ferrari can easily left the Huey Cobra in the dust in a quarter-mile drag race because the Huey cobra only has a top speed of 230 miles per hour.

During the early 1970s, helicopter aerodynamicist Peter Wilby together with Geoff Byham developed the swept-back paddle helicopter rotor tip. They manage to come up with the design to “wring more speed” from the conventional main-rotor-and-tail-rotor helicopter design by trial and error methods because they don’t trust previous existing mathematical helicopter main rotor analysis that had gone before – despite these being obtained via the most advanced mainframe computers available at the time. But the work of Wilby and Byham later paid off when their then unusual swept-tipped / swept-back paddle helicopter main rotor configuration were tried out on the Westland Lynx back in 1986 that allowed it to achieve the Guinness Book of World Records’ adjudicated world helicopter speed record of 249.1 miles per hour that stood until today as a fastest speed for a true helicopter.

So what is the future of the helicopter when it comes to pushing the top speed envelope? Well, engineers at Sikorsky had recently developed the X-2 experimental helicopter that achieved the unofficial world speed record of 288 miles per hour. But many “helicopter” purist wonder if Sikorsky’s X-2 is still a “conventional” or “true” helicopter because despite of using the contra-rotating main rotor configuration to cancel out torque, it uses a 6-bladed pusher propeller to achieve such speeds. The X-2 uses a fly-by-wire control system and computer assists to help stabilize the craft and also allows it to outmaneuver existing attack helicopters. Ultimately, the Sikorsky X-2 prototype will be the basis of the upcoming Sikorsky S-97 Raider and despite the S-97 Raider still has no working prototype other than the proof-of-concept X-2, the S-97 Raider can easily fly faster than 250 miles per hour when fully loaded with ordnance and can fly backwards at over 100 miles per hour.        

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mentally Unstable Flight Crew: The Bane of the Airline Industry?

Given the recent tragic Germanwinds Flight 4U9525 crash, has mentally unstable flight crew become the greatest threat of the airline industry?

By: Ringo Bones

Forget religious extremists undertaking brazen 9/11 like attacks using airliners it seems that mentally unstable pilots and flight crew now represent the greatest threat to the complacency of the airline industry. Although air travel is still the safest form of travel on an accident per miles traveled basis, rare flukes like mentally unstable flight crew that the preliminary investigation uncovered was the cause of the recent tragic Germanwinds Flight 4U9525 crash back in Tuesday, March 24, 2015 where the co-pilot with alleged mental health issues named Andreas Lubitz was the ongoing suspect as the cause of the crash when he deliberately locked out the pilot from the cockpit and deliberately crashed the plane on a steep mountainside near Seyne-les-Alpes, France that resulted in the death of 150 people. As a 25 year old plane, the Germanwings plane that crashed was an Airbus A320 – the model that’s been a workhorse of the civilian aviation industry known for its exemplary safety record and reliability.

The only other comparable high-profile pilot suicide / deliberate crash incident was the findings of the tragic October 31, 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 when the plane’s remains was found 0 miles east of Nantucket Island in the Atlantic Ocean that resulted in the tragic loss of 217 lives. Relief first officer Gameel Al Batouti – a veteran pilot of the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War was the prime suspect of the cause of the crash of the EgyptAir Flight 990. 

Rigorous screening of prospective pilots and flight crew may be the solution but the powers that be at IATA had been warning of a pilot shortage as early as next year, given that the airline industry had been expanding at its fastest rate since the 1980s despite of 9/11 and the 2008 global credit crunch. Could the safest form of travel poised to become less safe? With the tragic deaths of German children coming back from a field trip in Spain, the greatest impact of the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 tragedy is probably the Bayreuth Wagner Opera where the lost of bass baritone Oleg Bryjak and contralto Maria Radner could put a damper to opera fans lining up to an opera venue with a global prestige where the waiting period for tickets could be as long as ten years. This is indeed a tragedy of epic proportions.      

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Are Vintage Piston-Engine Planes Still Airworthy To Operate?

Are vintage piston-engine aircraft still airworthy to operate this day and age given that the gasoline used to power them is no longer manufactured? 

By: Ringo Bones 

When Hollywood actor Harrison Ford crash landed his World War II era vintage trainer Ryan PT-22 Recruit on a Los Angeles golf course back in Thursday, March 5, 2015, though he suffered gashes on his head and was described in fair to moderate condition when brought to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Given the situation could have easily turned tragic, I know wonder if vintage piston-engine planes are still airworthy to operate given that the gasoline that was used to fuel them are no longer currently manufactured by oil companies? 

After Clair Cameron Patterson managed to raise awareness of the dangers of tetraethyl lead in gasoline and the subsequent phase-out of such fuel additives by the mid 1970s, it meant the death knell of piston engine planes that are not economically viable enough to be fueled by aviation gasoline whose octane ratings are boosted by non-lead based additives. This is the primary reason why the first piston engine plane to become commercially viable enough to operate by ferrying paying passengers alone – i.e. the Douglas DC-3 – virtually vanished and was considered extinct by the mid 1980s. 

At about the same time of the golden age of aviation – i.e. civilian barnstorming – during the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was mixed with gasoline as a patented octane booster that allowed piston engine compression to be increased substantially which in turn resulted in increased vehicle performance and fuel efficiency. Sadly, the lead free aviation gasoline developed after the tetraethyl lead ban – even though good for everyone’s health - proved to be too corrosive to the piston and combustion chambers of the piston engines used in the Douglas DC-3 had resulted in the slow death of these iconic planes that by the mid 1980s, their engines are operated into destruction with lead free aviation gasoline. Unlike gas turbine engines that can be fueled with anything that burns – like fake Chanel No. 5 – and will still run. 

Can One Fly A Plane With Their Thoughts Alone?

Even though the technology is still at its proof of concept stage, can Tekever’s Brainflight someday allow pilots to fly aircraft via their thoughts alone? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Ricardo Mendes, COO of Portugal based drone specialists Tekever has now become the latest cause célèbre in the tech and aviation world for demonstrating a system that allows a pilot to control an unmanned drone in flight via their thoughts alone. Even though the technology is still at its proof of concept stage, Tekever’s Brainflight has practical implications that go beyond the drone and aviation world – it could make fully paralyzed individuals control their wheelchairs using their thoughts alone. But in the short-term, Tekever is eyeing to market their system that allows individuals with restricted movement to pilot a plane with the same ease as an able-bodied individual. 

In the long term, the firm said piloting of larger jets, such as cargo planes, could be controlled this way without the need of crew on board. However, one aviation expert – John Strickland, an independent aviation consultant based in London – recently told the BBC that the largely conservative civil aviation industry would be unlikely to adopt such technology due to the current perception of Tekever’s Brainflight that the civil aviation industry sees as potentially unsafe. Mr. Strickland said the airline industry was instead currently focusing its innovation efforts towards things like better aircraft construction materials and more economical engines. 

Drone specialists Tekever, which works with security firms, police forces and the military, adopted existing electroencephalography (EEG) technology so it could issue instructions to the software used to give the unmanned drone instructions reminiscent of those “neural interface control networks” featured in late 1990s era episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. EEG works by detecting activity in specific parts of the brain. After several months of training, “pilots” are said to be able to teach their brain how to think about moving a small circle on a computer screen either up or down, which in turn steers the drone left or right.  

“We believe that Brainflight represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products.”- says Ricardo Mendes, chief operating officer of Tekever. However, similar neural interface control systems have origins that go back to the early 1970s. Back in 1974, a computer was hooked up to the human brain via an electroencephalography (EEG) electrode studded skull-cap as an interface by Lawrence Pinneo of Stanford Research Institute. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

AirAsia Flight QZ8501 Crash: An Improved Crash Investigation?

Even though the resulting crash is just as tragic, is there an improved investigation of the AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in comparison to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370?

By: Ringo Bones 

Given that it is still statistically the safest way to travel, air crash incidences involving passenger casualties is always deemed tragic. AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes was almost left speechless upon hearing of the news – as in “no words can express…” - on the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 back in December 28, 2014 en route from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore. All the 162 passengers are feared dead and recovery of the wreck and bodies were delayed because of the Java Sea’s bad weather at the time – it was only a week after the crash that the first bodies were found. But has the recent investigation of the AirAsia Flight QZ8501 crash in stark contrast to the investigation done on the still missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370? 

One of the most glaring differences between the two investigations is the lack of an “atmosphere of subterfuge” as the Indonesian authorities readily provided pertinent information relating to the AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in comparison to the start of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The Federal Aviation Administration even raised the concern that Indonesia’s air traffic controllers were not up to the par in comparison to their international counterparts - which also made everyone ask whether the South-East Asian air travel industry is growing faster than the regional regulation agencies’ ability to keep up.  

Even though the latest ongoing investigations on the recently found black box / flight data recorders of the AirAsia Flight QZ8501 suggests that it got caught in a powerful updraft of a storm cell that caused it to gain in altitude about as fast as a high-performance fighter jet under wind-shear forces that eventually prove too much for what the passenger plane’s airframe was designed to withstand. Further investigations could prove that the circumstances that brought the plane down is by no means a garden variety incident and could certainly result in improvements of currently established civilian air travel safety regimen. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Korean Air Macadamia Nut Air Rage Incident: Flying The Unfriendly Skies?

Even though she resigned and has since been deeply apologetic over the incident, is there a chance the Korean Air veep could serve some jail time? 
 By:Ringo Bones 

Immediately after the rather “weird” incident went viral on social media, the father of the Korean Air executive who went ballistic over the improper serving of in-flight macadamia nuts in the first class section of the plane immediately said to the press that “he was disappointed that he didn’t raise his daughter right”. And even though Heather Cho – vice president of the South Korea based airline firm Korea Air - has since resigned and was deeply apologetic over the macadamia nut incident back in December 9, 2014 could face up to 10 years in prison for creating an incident that led to an unauthorized delay of flights and the violation of American federal aviation laws if she’s going to be charged given that the incident happened in U.S. airspace. 

Heather Cho – a.k.a. Cho Hyun Ha – was a passenger at a Korean Air’s first class passenger lounge when she got infuriated when a flight attendant violated protocol by serving her the in-flight macadamia nuts in their original packaging rather than in a dish. And later due to public pressure in South Korea after the incident went viral on various social media service providers, Heather Cho soon resigned from her position as the vice president of Korean Air. 

Due to the Korean Air macadamia nut air rage incident, the rumored culture of bullying in the flight attendant service sector of Korean Air gained some credence of truth after scores of anecdotes soon went viral that such incidents are the norm – rather than the exception and why the public at large seem to remain clueless about it is due to the fact that flight attendants committing minor faux pas are harshly punished and are usually intimidated into silence. Is Korean Air veep Heather Cho running her dad’s company like a Yakuza gang? Even though this news story is till developing, it is overshadowed by the tragic Air Asia Flight QZ8501 that crashed into the Java Sea back in Sunday, December 28, 2014.