Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Do Civilian Airliners Need Military Style Countermeasures?

In the wake of the “accidental” shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over rebel-held east Ukrainian last July 18, 2014, is there a need for military style countermeasures in civilian planes?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though an ongoing investigation has yet to determine whether the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian made BUK / SAM surface-to-air missile over the pro Russian rebel held eastern Ukrainian airspace back in July 18, 2014 is accidental or deliberate, the world’s airline industry has since contemplated whether civilian passenger planes now need military style protection systems. Given the capabilities of your typical military style surface-to-air-missile or other anti-aircraft weapons systems, is the concept even technically feasible in planes now in current use on airline companies?

Ever since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the heightened airport boarding and on-board security on passenger planes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, TSA and other security agencies have since made hijackings of planes and crashing them into buildings a thing of the past. But back in July 18, 2014, the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 flying at around 595 miles per hour 32,000 feet over east Ukrainian airspace by a surface-to-air missile that can fly over 2,000 miles per hour and can shoot down a plane flying up to 70,000 feet raised a yet unprecedented aspect on the safety of civilian air travel yet again.

Inexplicably since 9/11, the ongoing War on Terror has seem to have sent the global defense industry on a decline since Al Qaeda and other similar groups doesn’t have an air force equipped with supersonic capable fighter planes. Thus the bulk of the military aviation related spending of the War on Terror centers around military transport planes similar to the Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules – like the Airbus A400M Military Transport that can carry well-armed infantry troops to the terrorist’s strongholds as opposed to engaging Osama Bin Laden in a dogfight 70,000 feet above Kandahar.

Even though military transport planes with a similar flight envelope to your typical civilian airliner had been equipped with various countermeasures – i.e. aluminum chaff and magnesium flare dispensers - that enable them to evade surface-to-air missiles since the height of the Cold War, these SAM countermeasures have yet to find their way to an Airbus or a Boeing passenger plane owned by a commercial airline company. Near the end of the 2014 Farnborough Air Show, British aerospace firm BAE Systems said that the civilian aviation industry needs military style protection in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 back in July 18, 2014. But even though the idea of installing military style countermeasures on civilian airliners is technically feasible will it be economically viable from the airline company’s perspective? Or is this just another way for aerospace firms to make money in the post 9/11 world? Maybe civilian airlines will now start to have their radar intercept officers to avoid them being brought down by radar guided "beam-rider" SAMs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Shootdown Incident: Not So Unprecedented Civil Aviation Incident?


Even though it does not happen with alarming regularity, will the recent Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 shootdown incident change yet again the current civil aviation safety measures in currently place?

By: Ringo Bones 

Fortunately for us civilians who frequently fly the increasingly not-so-friendly skies since the 9/11 Islamist terror attacks, shootdown incidents are still a rarity and don’t occur with alarming regularity as portrayed in most Hollywood action movies. Civil aviation shootdown incidents have happened before and even served as the catalyst of the tragic April 1994 Rwandan Genocide, it seems that such incidents only seem to provide the general perception that the flying civilian public had served as “unwitting pawns” in geopolitical power struggles since the Cold War. 

In putting a human face to this tragic incident, the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 back in Friday July 18, 2014 while flying its Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur route over the airspace of Eastern Ukraine largely under control by pro-Russia separatist rebels since February 2014 involved the deaths of 280 passengers and 15 crewmembers. Most of the passengers – 189 of them – are Dutch nationals on their way to vacation one of which is a leading and pioneering HIV / AIDS medical researcher Dr. Joep Lange together with 100 other leading HIV / AIDS researchers. At present, other passengers’ nationalities who perished in the tragic shootdown are 28 Australian nationals, 23 Malaysians, 6 Britons, 4 Germans, 3 Filipinos and 3 infants. 

The latest initial investigations so far have revealed that the most likely anti-aircraft weapons system used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 is probably the Soviet era BUK surface-to-air missile which has become de rigueur air defense weapons system of choice by former Warsaw-Pac member countries. The BUK consists of four 16-foot long 1,500-lb missiles with a 150-ib warhead and launch system mounted atop a full track armored vehicle and is capable of speeds up to 2,684 mph which can easily make short shrift of a typical civilian passenger plane which only can fly around 600 mph and an incoming BUK missile can only be “seen” by a pilot in a cockpit equipped with advanced sensors oft the preserve of advanced fighter jets. 

The BUK missile is often used to shoot down planes flying at altitudes high enough to avoid man-portable anti-aircraft weapons systems like the famed Stinger. As an anti-aircraft weapons system developed near the end of the Cold War, the BUK is “user-friendly” enough to be effectively used by anyone with the brainpower to be able to tie one’s shoes while chewing gum at the same time but takes a bit longer training time to be able to accurately differentiate civilian from military targets. A modified BUK missile launcher system was modified with a high-speed Schottky Rectifier equipped Mainland Chinese Nanjing Radar system that brought down a US Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth plane during the 1999 operation to capture Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic. 

Though questions are being asked why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was flying over a “hostile warzone” but the flight-path it took was a well trodden designated Europe to Asia international flight path L980 which the German airliner Lufthansa also uses but British Airways has since shied away from since the February 2014 Eastern Ukraine conflict initiated by pro-Russia separatist militias.  While a typical altitude flown by a typical civilian passenger plane at 30,000 to 40,000 feet is way above the range of most man-portable rocket launchers that are in the hands of most terrorist militia groups. 

Given that the pro-Russia separatist militias manage to hold a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system like the BUK and the intelligence so far gathered by secret American operatives imbedded in Eastern Ukraine had shown that the militants actually made the mistake of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 as the recently deleted text messages between a pro-Russian militant named “Greek” and “Major” revealed a “Tweet” of the screw-up. And diversions due to the tragic shootdown incident could make Europe to Asia flights take longer and cost more due to increased fuel usage.  

And investigation of the crash site has since became a contentious issue since the crash site has not been quarantined and been trampled around by both the pro-Russian militants and the nearby townsfolk. OSCE monitors trying to make an initial investigation of the crash site were even given warning shots by local pro-Russian militants after just spending 75 minutes on the crash site. In short, international investigators have so far been denied free unfettered access of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.   

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the Ukrainian government for “responsibility” of the crash, such rhetoric only reminds the world of the legal case of a burglar suing the homeowner for medical compensation after the burglar broke his leg trying to scale the homeowner’s fence. And further rhetoric of the Russian strongman only seems like him digging a hole for him and the pro-Russian militants as war criminals straight into the International Court of Justice. 

Since the Cold War began, high profile shootdown cases of civilian airliners by the former Soviet Union and her allies had almost started an all-out thermonuclear exchange between the United States and the then Soviet Union. Back in July 23, 1954, a Cathay Pacific Douglas DC4, also known as Cathay Pacific Flight VR-HEU which also carried the then Taiwanese Ambassador, was brought down by anti-aircraft fire by the Mainland Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force off the coast of Hainan Island, People’s Republic of China, killing 13 passengers and 6 crew shot with anti-aircraft incendiary rounds. Fortunately, 9 people survived as the plane made an emergency landing. 

And before the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 back in September 1, 1983 that nearly triggered a thermonuclear World War III, the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 shootdown incident by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane on April 20, 1978 near Murmansk, Russia after it accidentally violated the country’s airspace and failed to respond to Soviet interceptors only gives the impression to the rest of the world that Russians in charge of monitoring the security of their airspace are – then and now – trigger happy yahoos. Two passengers were killed after the Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane strafed the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 plane with its 25-mm guns. Fortunately, 107 passengers survived after the plane made an emergency landing on a frozen lake. 

On the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, authorities of the then Soviet Union only admitted to “accidentally” shooting down the plane 20 days after the tragic incident. And a historical footnote of the tragedy now probably largely forgotten, the black box of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was “hidden” by Soviet authorities and was only returned back in 1993 when the West friendly Boris Yeltsin became president of post-Soviet Russia.  

The Unexplained Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappearance: Unsolved Mystery?


Even though quite a number of planes – both civilian and military - had disappeared throughout the history of manned flight, will the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 destined to be an “unsolved mystery”?

By: Ringo Bones 

As paradoxical as it seems, despite of scores of unexplained flight disappearances – both civilian and military – throughout the relatively brief but crowded history of aviation, it seems that air travel is still the safest way to travel statistically in comparison to other forms of transportation systems. But will the still unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777 destined to be added unto the roster of aviation’s “unsolved mysteries” like that of the US Navy’s Flight 19 that mysteriously disappeared while conducting a supposedly routine flight over the “infamous” Bermuda Triangle? 

Given that most idle speculations and conspiracy theories put forth so far seems to have only raised the ire – rather than provide closure – to the surviving family members and loved ones of the 290 passengers and crew on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that inexplicably disappeared back in March 8, 2014 somewhere over a yet to be determined part of the southern Indian Ocean, it is somewhat disconcerting to comprehend that the yet to be explained disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 Boeing 777 is not an unprecedented event in aviation history – that is it had happened before. Both civilian and military fights seem to be not immune from the misfortune of “unexplained disappearances”. 

Probably the first – and still largely unsolved – unexplained flight disappearances in civil aviation history is the disappearance incident of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 that happened back in June 22, 1950. The civilian passenger plane involved was a Douglas DC4 Propliner operating its regular daily transcontinental service between New York and Seattle when it mysteriously disappeared on the night of June 22, 1950 while flying over the “notorious” Lake Michigan Triangle. The flight was carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members; the loss of all 58 on board made it the deadliest commercial airline accident in American history at the time. To this day, the wreckage of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 Douglas DC4 Propliner has yet to be found despite of the involvement of famed underwater shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler in the search since he started his underwater salvage firm. 

One of the most mysterious flight disappearances in the history of American military aviation was the disappearance of the Atlantic C-124 back in March 23, 1951 flying from Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, New Mexico to RAF Station Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, when US Air Force C-124 Globemaster after an in-flight fire forced the pilots to ditch the plane in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Shannon, Ireland. After the mayday call was successfully sent, the ditching and subsequent evacuation was successful, except that when the rescuers arrived on the scene, the aircraft and its occupants had vanished. All 53 people on board were never fond and were presumed dead. 

While previous images of the alleged wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that was “seen” by Mainland Chinese reconnaissance satellites were later proved to be misleading in finding the plane to determine what caused it to crash, it seems that it could probably take some time before the rest of the world know what really happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777. And due to the length of time involved in the search, all hands are now unfortunately presumed dead leaving the rest of us hoping that the lessons learned from this aviation tragedy would improve current civil aviation safety standards.    

Sunday, March 2, 2014

HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle: For Rock Concerts in the Stratosphere?

Its further development now primarily funded by Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, will the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle soon be making rock concerts at 35,000 feet a reality?

By Ringo Bones

Ever since its development for military applications was ditched by the US Department of Defense due to recent budget cuts, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle was eventually sold back to the British firm who originally developed it and sold it to the US DoD a decade ago. Now largely funded by the iconic heavy metal music band Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, will the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle eventually find other useful applications in the world of civil aviation?

At 300 feet in length, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle is currently the world’s largest aircraft. By comparison, the Antonov An-225 – the previous record holder as the world’s largest aircraft - is “only” 276 feet long while the current largest passenger plane – the Airbus A380 – is “only” 239.5 feet long. Airline pilot and Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson got interested in the HAV304 primarily due to its 50-ton cargo capacity and its ability to fly for weeks at a tie while using only a third of the fuel of a typical turbofan jet powered long-haul wide-bodied jet aircraft. Given the payload and range and low fuel consumption, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle could revolutionize how relief supplies would be carried disaster zones.

Though primarily inflated with the inert gas helium to hold its shape, the HAV304 is still too heavy to float on its own without engine power like the Zeppelin type airships of the past. And given that he is now the main funder of the further development of the HAV304, Bruce Dickinson plans to test flight the craft from pole to pole either as a scientific vehicle or as a tourism platform that can also fly 20 feet above the treetop canopy of the Amazon Rain Forest. And probably even as a flying concert hall capable of performing heavy metal music concerts 35,000 feet above the ground.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Shooting Down Of Korean Air Lines Flight 007: A 30-Year Old Unresolved Mystery?

Allegedly accidentally shot down due to Cold War era tensions between the then Soviet Union and the West – is this 30-year old tragic incident still an unresolved mystery?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in September 1, 1983, a supposedly routine commercial flight of a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet designated Flight 007 in an “alleged attempt” by its flight captain to save fuel, inadvertently strayed close to the then Soviet era airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula that got it shot down by a MiG-23 Flogger patrolling the area. 30 years on, is the incident still truly an unresolved tragic mystery of Cold War era politics?

Korean Air Lines Flight 007’s itinerary is a commercially scheduled New York to Seoul flight almost filled to capacity with paying civilian passengers.  After stopping for a routine refueling and airworthiness once-overs in Anchorage, Alaska, the flight captain’s “alleged” route that made the flight accidentally stray into Soviet airspace would only save the airline company 1,500 to 3,000 US dollars of aviation fuel so investigators back then were baffled by the flight captain’s decision to fly such a risky route in what was back then the most contentious airspaces of the Cold War.

According to the then Soviet Union government’s defense, the MiG-23 Flogger and the Su-15 fighter planes that were at the time doing routine patrols in the Soviet controlled airspace of the Kamchatka Peninsula were instructed to shadow the KAL Flight 007 Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet after it showed on the Soviet air defense radar in that area. According to the Soviet authorities back then, for a number of years, a number of US Air Force RC-135 – a reconnaissance version of the KC-135 Stratotanker – were caught straying into the then Soviet controlled airspaces of the Kamchatka Peninsula and more often than not the radar signature of a typical Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet full of civilian passengers is virtually indistinguishable from a US Air Force operated RC-135 reconnaissance plane. Thus the two Soviet era jet fighters were sent to “shadow” the KAL Flight 007 747 Jumbo Jet in order to visually verify if it is an American spy plane doing clandestine reconnaissance or just a civilian airline flight that accidentally strayed into the then Soviet airspace.

Unfortunately despite the two Soviet planes being equipped with – for at the time – the latest in Soviet era night-vision equipment that could allegedly allow the pilot to read the airline company’s insignia and “nose-art / fuselage-art” from up to 40 miles away just illuminated solely by ambient starlight; it didn’t prevent the two Soviet planes from accidentally shot down the Korean Air Lines plane with their main compliment of air-to-air missiles after the flight captain allegedly ignored the tracer rounds fired by the MiG-23 and Su-15 pilots as a warning shot to return back to international airspace.

Despite of the tragic incident, the shooting down of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over Soviet airspace back in September 1, 1983 prompted the then US President Ronald Reagan to allow the US Department of Defense for civilian airlines around the world to avail of their Global Positioning System satellite navigation system to avoid a repeat of the tragic incident. But still a lot of the facts that lead to the tragic incident were still much a mystery 30 years on.      

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

2013 - 50th Anniversary of the Laminar Flow Control Plane



Whatever happened to the aerodynamic experiment done back in 1963 that could allow planes to improve its range by 50 percent and its payload by 75 percent? 

By: Ringo Bones 

The Northrop X-21A program was the now largely forgotten attempt of a conventional jet powered subsonic aircraft to be able to fly nonstop around the world. And unlike the Rutan designed Voyager carbon fiber composite propeller powered plane that successfully flew nonstop around the world in 1985, it would be able to fly nonstop around the world while carrying a few passengers and crew and other something useful thing called cargo. But is the Northrop X-21A program back in 1963 proved to be an aerodynamic engineering dead end? 

Where the air is smooth, the drag force is considerably less than in the turbulent portion of the boundary layer. It is obvious, then, that if the boundary-layer flow could be kept laminar, there would accrue a tremendous benefit to airplane performance. The airplane’s engine would not have to expend so much of its power overcoming boundary-layer drag and available power could be better utilized more efficiently to provide greater speed, range or payload.     

Control of the boundary layer has attracted considerable attention from flight researchers. One experiment devised to investigate possible reduction of drag through laminar-flow control involved the conversion of two weather reconnaissance planes; their twin jets were moved to mountings at the aft end of the fuselage and a pair of pumps was installed where the engines had hung beneath the wings. Razor-thin slot lines, running outward from the fuselage to the tips, were cut from the fuselage to the tips, were cut in both the upper and lower surfaces of the wing. In flight, the turbine-driven pumps drew the turbulent air into the wing, smoothing the flow; the “inhaled” air was then discharged from the rear of the pods. Test instrumentation showed that the suction system was able to maintain laminar flow over most of the wing, thus substantially lowering friction drag. 

The advent of more powerful engines in the early 1960s, which in itself offered substantial improvement in range and payload, has lessened the interest in boundary layer research, but around 1963, some authorities have recommended renewed efforts to apply its efficiencies. Laminar-flow control, an experimental technique to reduce drag caused by air friction across the surface of a plane’s wings, was first successfully tested in 1963. A special wing was built with numerous razor-thin slots running its length and rigged with two turbine driven pumps underneath. As the layer of churning air swirled past the wing’s surfaces, it was sucked through the slots by the pumps then blown rearward from under the wing, resulting in a smooth flow. The system was mounted in an experimental aircraft made by Northrop called the X-21A. Many questions about the pumped-laminar-flow system remain to be answered; how does the system perform under operational conditions? How much of a problem is maintenance? How costly is it in routine use?  

Even though the laminar-flow-system worked with flying colors in reducing drag that allowed substantial increase in the Northrop X-21A’s range and payload, the maintenance of the numerous razor-thin slots seems too much compared to conventionally winged planes as tiny insects, leaves and other plant debris are the main culprits in blocking the air intake slots. Given the unionized nature of commercial airline industry’s maintenance crews, such a system is not economically viable in real-world commercial civil aviation applications. 

A competing “passive” boundary layer control / manipulation system invented before the “active” laminar-flow-control / LFC system of the Northrop X-21A called the vortex generator which was then used on the wings on the first generation of the Boeing 707 planes used by commercial airlines proved to be a better, cheaper and much more easier to maintain option. With advancements in supercritical wing designs and more efficient and quieter high-bypass ratio turbofan jet engines all aimed primarily to cut fuel consumption has since relegated the laminar flow control system like the one used in the Northrop X-21A to the dustbin of aviation history. 

2013 - 100th Anniversary of the First practical Monocoque Fuselage Design


Even though that the first practical monocoque fuselage equipped plane flew in 1913, did you know that critics deemed it 15 years ahead of its time?

By: Ringo Bones
When the first practical monocoque fuselage equipped plane – the Deperdussin - flew 100 years ago and then set the 1913 aircraft world speed record of 127 miles per hour as it was piloted by Maurice Prévost, critics deemed it too radical. And in truth, the aeronautical design has engineering principles that didn’t become standard 15 years later. But did the plane’s introduction hasten the advancement of airplane design that’s sadly lacking in the world of space exploration?
The monocoque fuselage permitted the fuselage’s skin or shell, rather than the aircraft’s frame, to carry the loads and stresses of flight. In the matter of fuselages, most of the early structures before and a few years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful airplane flight were simply kite-like frames designed to hold together the various components of the airplane. By 1912, however, engine power was increasing, along with speeds, altitudes and maneuverability – all creating greater loads on the fuselage. In that year a great innovation appeared – the so-called monocoque structure. “Monocoque”, from the Greek monos and the French coque, means “single shell”.  In the pure monocoque structure, there is no internal bracing; the shell bears all the loads and because it is in the basic shape of a tube, it has enormous strength. In later years this approach was modified to the semimonocoque design, which had stiffeners running the length of the fuselage. Engineers also used the term “stressed skin” construction because even though there is internal bracing, the skin bears most of the flight loads.
The first application of monocoque construction came from the drawing board of a French designer M. L. Béchereau; the airplane itself was built of molded wood by the aircraft works of Jules Deperdussin, a famous plane maker of the time. The fuselage was molded in two halves, which were fitted together. In addition to structural strength, the rounded, streamlined shape provided an aerodynamic bonus in lower drag, and in Chicago on September 9, 1912, the Deperdussin monoplane set its first – and a new - world’s speed record of 108 miles per hour. And despite setting another world speed record in 1913, it wasn’t until 15 years later – around the late 1920s – that the monocoque fuselage construction became universally accepted as a standard principle in aircraft construction.