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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The 2014 China Air Show: Not Economically Viable?

Despite for going on for a decade, does the overtly militaristic theme of the 2014 China Air Show casts doubts on its economic viability?

By: Ringo Bones

Officially known as the 10th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition for Railway, Shipping & Aviation which took place back in November 11 to 16, 2014 in Guangdong, The People's Republic of China, has been criticized by pundits – especially from the Jane’s Defense Weekly – as not economically viable in comparison to similar shows – i.e. the Farnborough Air Show back in July 2014 and the African Aerospace and Defence show back in September 2014 because the 2014 China Air Show consists mostly of military sales, as in 95-percent of the sales in fact. By way of comparison, the 2014 Farnborough Air Show and the 2014 African Air Show is a 90-percent commercial endeavor and 10-percent military and defense sales.

The criticism of the 2014 China Air Show not only centers on the show’s over reliance on the military and defense aspects of the aerospace industry, which has been in global decline since 9/11 due to the fact that multi-million dollar fighter planes are not very effective in tackling extremist terror groups but also on the fact that most of their public-relations exhibits used to wow civilian attendees are mostly according to Jane’s Defense Weekly pundits as “Soviet-era museum showcases that dates back from the 1960s”. Even though the 2014 Farnborough Air Show was overshadowed by the tragic shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, most of the “scant” coverage I’ve heard so far of the 2014 China Air Show has been largely negative. Given that the official name of the air show purportedly states its coverage on nautical as well as aviation matters, there has never been any mention of updated versions of the ekranoplan aimed at the civilian inter-island travel market.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is It A Boat, is It A Plane? No, It’s The Ekranoplan?

Even though the International Maritime Organization classifies it as a ship, why isn’t the ekranoplan currently competing with conventional passenger and cargo aircraft? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though it has since been classified as a “ship / boat” by the International Maritime Organization after the first working examples were in limited manufacture as exotic pleasure craft by enterprising Russian émigrés in the United States during the early 1990s, for those old enough to have heard of the news of the Soviet Union’s latest secret weapon called the “Caspian Sea Monster” first hand back in 1974 when the Cold War was in full steam. You would probably call it a plane, too. But first, here’s an introduction to what is a so-called ekranoplan. 

The ekranoplan falls under the category of ground effect vehicles, or GEVs, which is defined as a vehicle that attains level flight near the surface of the earth or a reasonably sized body of water. It is also called wing-in-ground effect (WIG) vehicle or flare craft. The first vehicle to ever “fly” via the ground effect principle – albeit by design accident - was the German 12-engine Dornier Do-X of 1929 which have taken advantage of ground effect to get aloft. Similar craft, as in those early large passenger carrying seaplanes by pioneering commercial airliners around that time took advantage of the ground effect phenomena, but in most cases rather unintentionally because the effect was little understood by aerodynamicists back then. 

Back in January 1974, the public-at-large probably got their first exposure of a true purpose-built ekranoplan when Western intelligence sources who first reported the rather strange creation at the time called it the “Caspian Sea Monster”, which, many in the West believes, is a fitting name. The 10-engine flying boat that the then Soviet Union was testing over the Caspian Sea was deemed the largest aircraft of the time – with an estimated takeoff weight of 500-tons. By way of comparison, the largest adjudicated aircraft of the time, the United States’ C-5 Galaxy only has a maximum takeoff weight of 400-tons. The “Caspian Sea Monster” was, at the time, probably the most unusual flying vehicle because it operates by a deliberate combination of aerodynamic lift and “ground effect” – the air cushion phenomenon that lifts a Hovercraft. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union back in Christmas Day of 1991, the “full specifications” of the “Caspian Sea Monster” and the craft itself became finally available to Western analysts. During Soviet times, such craft were called “ekranoplans” and the Caspian Sea Monster, officially called KM or "Kaspian Monster"  by the then Soviet navy, even though it was only a proof of concept prototype and never intended to become an operational submarine hunting craft and troop carrying craft of the then Soviet navy was “mothballed” way before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Caspian Sea Monster has a “takeoff” weight (or was it “hover” weight?) of 500-tons and as a “water craft” has an 8-ton displacement. It has a length of 100 meters and weighs 540 tons fully loaded. 

Its design was based on the work of the Third-Reich era aerodynamicist named Alexander Lippisch, the Caspian Sea Monster was originally designed by the Soviet era Central Hydrofoil Bureau during the late 1960s and was lead by Rostislav Alexeev. During Soviet era research trials, the craft was found to be most efficient when “flying” 20-meters above the water while traveling at speeds of 300 to 400 knots. The KM / Caspian Sea Monster can even operate without refueling for as long as two to three days over ranges as great as 7,000 miles. The craft has a 15 to 20 man crew just to operate safely at such speeds and altitudes and was planned to be produced in submarine hunting and ultra-swift troop carrying versions before it was mothballed around the mid 1980s. 

By the nature of the beast, an ekranoplan type ground effect craft has a fuel efficiency rating way better than that of a fixed-wing aircraft and / or helicopter flying at low level due to the close proximity to the ground or water surface dramatically reducing lift-induced drag. In practice, ekranoplans only require half or even a quarter of the power than that of a conventional fixed-wing aircraft and / or helicopter requires in getting off the ground or off the water’s surface. 

There are also safety benefits in flying close to the water’s surface as an engine failure will not result in severe ditching. However, by the nature of the beast, ekranoplans are difficult to fly even with computer assisted fly-by-wire control systems used on the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the now retired F-117 Nighthawk stealth (hence the 15 to 20 man crew of the original KM or Caspian Sea Monster) aircraft because flying at such very low altitudes just above the sea or any large body of water may be dangerous if the craft banks too far to one side while making a very tight radius turn.  

Another disadvantage of ekranoplans is that takeoffs must be performed into the wind which in the case of the craft taking off over water means “slamming” into waves while taking off – a maneuver that creates drag and reduces lift. This is the very reason why even though those 1990s era single-engine ekranoplans featured in the Discovery Channel back in 1992 to 1998, that were similarly priced to a typical single-engine Cessna at the time had very few private buyers to keep their manufacturers afloat. I mean have you ever seen hip-billionaires like Richard Branson and Mark Cuban showing off their very own single-engine ekranoplans then and now? 

Two main solutions of the ekranoplan takeoff problem have been implemented since its prototype design stage. The first was used on the original prototype of the KM or Caspian Sea Monster which placed engines in front of the wings to provide more lift. The Caspian Sea Monster has eight of its jet engines mounted on the “canard” of the plane. Some of which were not fired until the craft was fully airborne. The second approach was to use some form of an air-cushion to raise the vehicle most of the way out of the water, making takeoff much easier. This was used in the by German Hanno Fischer in the Hoverwing – successor of the Airfisch ground effect craft – which uses some of the air from the engines to inflate a skirt under the craft in a form of a sidewall or skirted hovercraft. 

The only ekranoplan that attained operational status in the Soviet armed forces was the A-90 Orlyonok, which is a “scaled-down” multi-engine propeller version of the Caspian Sea Monster and was used by the Soviet navy during the 1980s as a submarine hunting craft. Even though they are quite rare, there are post Soviet era commercial passenger ekranoplans still operating in the Caspian Sea region modeled after the A-90 Orlyonok.