Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Civil Aviation Still Profitable?

With the Eurofighter Typhoon selling like hotcakes during the 2009 Dubai Air Show, is the civilian side of the aviation industry still profitable?

By: Ringo Bones

Maybe it was Michael Keith, managing director of BAE Systems’ Middle East branch, pointing out that military aviation industry as recession proof due to their Eurofighter Typhoon selling like hotcakes during the 2009 Dubai Air Show has got me thinking whether the civil aviation industry is still profitable. After all, given the long delays of the rollout of the Airbus A380 Super Jumbo and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, you could be forgiven for doubting the long-term profitability of civil aviation. But is the civil aviation business really that badly affected by the current global economic downturn?

The private jet / executive jet business has been negatively hit – both financially and ethically – not only by the global economic downturn. But also of the environmentally “unethical behavior” of the executives of America’s Big Four carmakers who used their private jets to fly to Washington, D.C. back in 2008 in order to ask a financial bailout from Capitol Hill. Thus hurting the image of the private jet / executive jet manufacturing business.

Graeme Deary, executive director of Net Jets has recently been resorted to find “creative” ways to make a profit in the executive jet manufacturing business. Like their company’s timeshare scheme of offering ½, ¼, 1/8, and even 1/16 ownership of their famed executive jets which some fortunate few top company executives can’t do without. Even their latest pay-as-you-go or pay-as-you-fly scheme has had them making their executive jets available to be used as a flying taxi or a jet limousine for rent at prom night just to keep their company afloat. Or maybe just to make it to next year’s Dubai Air Show.

While Andrew Hoy, executive director of Execujet Aviation had to pitch his latest offering to the civil aviation industry much harder during the 2009 Dubai Air Show. Execujet Aviation managed to make – though still in its “vapor ware” stage – a supersonic capable executive jet that costs only 10 to 15% more than its current subsonic contemporaries. Even though this upcoming executive jet could cross the Atlantic in half the time of most current subsonic executive jets, unless enough advance orders are made, a prototype could not ever be built soon due to lack of funds.

The present state of the civil aviation business – whether it is on mass transport wide-bodied jumbo jets or smaller privately owned executive jets – seems to be in the doldrums and some are even teetering on bankruptcy. Not only because of the current global economic downturn or the widespread “pessimism” of our post – 9 / 11 world, but also of growing environmental concerns. If you are growing tired over the media frenzy over excess carbon dioxide produced by air travel. Wait until you hear the media mull over excessive nitric oxide emissions of widespread civilian supersonic air travel busting a hole in our ozone layer.

Can the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Make Civil Aviation

Given that the recent 2009 Dubai Air Show had proved that the Eurofighter Typhoon as the fastest selling military aviation gear around, can the Boeing 787 Dreamliner make civil aviation profitable again?

By: Ringo Bones

Boeing builds bombers, a slogan that straddled both World War II and the Cold War. But in our post- 9 / 11 world, it seems like huge strategic bomber fleets are fast becoming the technological dinosaurs of the aviation world, despite of their technological sophistication. And while the recent 2009 Dubai Air Show had surprised everyone with the rather brisk sales of the Eurofighter Typhoon – probably sold with the enhanced ground attack capability upgrade as a value-for-money weapons system to neutralize “newfangled” 21st Century threats like the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Although one needs not to fly faster than 400 mph when “neutralizing” threats like Taliban and Al Qaeda. Which makes the Eurofighter Typhoon in danger of being superseded by an OV-10A Bronco type counter-insurgency plane if ever an aviation manufacturing firm successfully manages to retrofit a 1.8 metric ton GAU-8 AVENGER into one. Given that our world has drastically changed since the September 11, 2009 terror attacks on the World Trade Center Towers, is there a need for a paradigm shift in the aviation industry in order to make civil aviation profitable again?

Enter the much-awaited Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which finally made its maiden flight in December 14, 2009 after two years of delays due to machinists’ strikes over wage disputes. Touted to be 20% more fuel-efficient with 15% less maintenance costs due to the extensive use of advanced aerospace grade composites in the fuselage and wings. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is indeed civil aviation’s latest technological tour de force that has a much longer range while burning the same amount of fuel than it’s similarly-sized aluminum alloy-based predecessors. Thus keeping ticket prices lower in comparison to inflation trends.

According to the top brass at Boeing’s main headquarters in Seattle, Washington, the 787 Dreamliner was primarily designed to service the intermediate range routes that are deemed to uneconomic for the much larger Airbus A380 Super Jumbo. With its British made Rolls Royce jet engines, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is probably the last best hope for Boeing to get out of the company’s economic slump brought about by last year’s global recession. Though the maiden flight of the 787 Dreamliner didn’t make as much fanfare as the launch of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet back in 1969, which was then the largest plane in the world. Sporting four Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines with a large bypass ratio deemed state of the art 40 years ago, the 747 Jumbo Jet did revolutionized civil air travel to its familiar high-capacity subsonic shape of today. Boeing’s top executives still hopes that the 787 Dreamliner is the civil aviation product that could make the firm profitable again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Airline Pilots: The Be-All-End-All of Civil Aviation Safety?

With Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroism that made the Miracle on the Hudson the aviation event of 2009, are airline pilots really the be-all-end-all of civil aviation safety?

By: Ringo Bones

For everyone who had read Highest Duty, the book written by Captain Chesley Sullenberger on the events that led to his and his co-pilot’s heroism back in January 16, 2009. It seems that the extremely low accident rate of air travel – in comparison to driving on the road – may be attributed to the professionalism of our dedicated airline pilots. Fortunately, it is and the recent introduction of former test pilot Charles “Chuck” Yeager – the pilot’s pilot – on Captain Sullenberger’s book is a much needed reassurance that the world needs on a populace increasingly fearful of air travel – due to high airfares or otherwise. The heroic action of Captain Sullenberger undoubtedly not only proves that he has the right stuff, but also proves that the professionalism of airline and other civil aviation pilots is the surest guarantee of maintaining safety in air travel given the very stringent FAA screening process the US DMV driver’s license dispensation bureaucracy can only dream of. But had airline pilots recently become the unwitting last bastion of civil aviation and airline safety in an industry faced with budget cuts in the austere fiscal environment of a post-economic downturn world?

It is indeed undeniable that Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroism, together with co-pilot Jeff Skiles really deserved the title of Miracle on the Hudson River. Through their training, they’ve managed to handle the potentially tragic bird-strike situation of an Airbus A320 of the US Airways Flight 1549 into a “mere” plane crash that resulted in no loss of life - Not to mention that much-deserved commendation from President Barack Obama to mark a potentially hope-filled administration. And it is this level of professionalism of all pilots in the civil aviation field – from the “mere” crop-duster and air tour operators, to those fortunate enough to fly the US President’s executive plane. That had kept flying the safest form of travel in terms of accident incidences per mile traveled for more than 50 years. But should safety in our increasingly globalized skies just be left to the professionalism of the world’s airline pilots?

Maybe it is high time to honor the contribution of aerodynamicists and maintenance crew in keeping airline travel much safer than highway travel. There is indeed an example when all of these people together with the airline pilots’ training and professionalism managed to avert a tragic incident. Unfortunately, it can only be read – as far as I know – in aerospace engineering and aircraft maintenance textbooks and training manuals.

Back in February 1959, an almost tragic incident happened on a Pan American Airways Flight 115, bound from Paris for New York, was approaching Gander, Newfoundland. It involved a Boeing 707 then only a few months after the model had been introduced into commercial service. The 707, flying at 35,000 feet, were at the time under the automatic guidance of the autopilot. Suddenly, the plane went into a steep diving turn to the right. Unknown to the copilot, the automatic pilot had cut out, as they sometimes do, and the plane was flying without any sort of control. The pilot, however, managed to reach the throttles and eased them back to idle. By then the 707 was fast approaching the speed of sound - which the plane wasn’t designed to do. The plane was now down to 6,000 feet, having lost 29,000 feet of altitude. With a crash only a few seconds away, the pilot pulled back on his wheel and leveled off.

Later investigation of this averted tragedy showed that the Boeing 707 in question, whose aviation-grade aluminum alloy structure designed for an ultimate load limit of 3.75 g had actually survived, without damage. When it was found out the lifesaving – but violent maneuver – subjected the plane to a load estimated to have been 5 g. Back then, the pilot and his crew didn’t receive a fanfare like that bestowed upon the heroism of Captain Sullenberger in 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Airbus A400M Military Transport: Still Relevant in a Post-9 / 11 World?

Despite of the long 5-year delay of the plane’s roll out is the Airbus A-400M military transport still has an operational relevance in our post 9 / 11 world?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and other high-value targets – oft referred to as 9 / 11 – was allowed to happen, it forever changed not only on how the wars currently waged but in the foreseeable future as well. The new paradigm on warfare had moved lucrative defense R&D funds from major aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, Grumman, and Boeing – just to name a few – to specialist small arms manufacturers like Knight’s Armament Company and Alexander Arms. With the shift of the fight to the infantry level instead of miles above the Earth, are specialist military transports – like the long-delayed Airbus A400M Military Transport still relevant in our post-9 / 11 world?

Back in the days of the American Civil War, General Nathan Bedford Forrest states that in order to win a battle, “you had to get there the “firstest” with the “mostest”.” General Forrest’s idea might have been stated in grammatical shambles, but it shaped modern logistic operations from that time on. In the current American military parlance, the “C” designation means only one thing – planes that get there first with the most. But with the almost insurmountable market dominance of the Lockheed C-130 HERCULES, a venerable but aging military transport that the Airbus A400M Military Transport was meant to replace, will there be any buyers for the much-delayed Airbus A400M Military Transport? After all, value-for-money military cargo planes like the C-130 HERCULES have proven themselves useful during the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the Global War on Terror, right?

In service with the U.S. Air Force since 1956, the Lockheed C-130 HERCULES was often referred to as the “ugliest” plane ever designed by famed SKUNKWORKS engineer Kelly Johnson back in the days were slide-rules and analog computers were still considered state of the art tools in aerospace engineering. A four-engined turboprop tactical transport that was purchased and used by the British Royal Air Force for a significant portion of the Cold War and exported to various countries friendly to the United States. This venerable plane – which served as a backbone of almost all of the free world’s military logistical operations – also has an inextricable success of both delivering combat troops and materiel as well as vital relief goods during times of disaster. Given that the C-130 HERCULES still works like a charm and a good portion of the world’s not so well financially endowed armed forces can still easily afford it, is there still an economically viable need to create –even manufacture – a replacement for the venerable C-130 HERCULES?

After seeing its much-delayed test flight in the southern part of Spain recently aired on TV on December 11, 2009, the Airbus A-400M Military Transport does seem to look like a technological tour-de-force that’s more advanced than the venerable Lockheed-designed transport it plans to dethrone. The graceful curves of the A-400M’s eight-bladed propeller appears to be designed on a supercomputer a generation or two more advanced than an early 1990s Cray YXP supercomputer. And those four eight-bladed propellers, together with the plane’s technologically advanced turboprop / gas turbine engine which was the main cause of its roll out to be delayed for 5 years not only make the Airbus A400M Military Transport more fuel efficient than the C-130 HERCULES, but also significantly quieter as well. The extensive use of advanced composites means that the Airbus A400M is inherently more fuel-efficient than its aluminum alloy-based competition, the question now is, will the new Airbus A400M Military Transport manage to capture the market that has been ruled by Lockheed’s C-130 HERCULES transport plane for more than 50 years?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Composite Materials: A Way Forward in Aviation Technology?

Given that they have virtually superseded aviation-grade aluminum alloys of the previous generation, are composite materials really represents a genuine advance in aviation technology?

By: Ringo Bones

From the vantage point of most people – including me in most circumstances – who only have an insider-like glimpse of the inner workings of the engineering side of the aviation and aerospace industry through the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. One can easily be excused of harboring a superficial perception that composite materials – like Kevlar and carbon fiber – has advanced the aviation and aerospace industry by leaps and bounds. Especially when only knowing that the advantages of composite materials are their high strength-to-weight ratio and their only disadvantage are the high initial cost when compared to Duralumin and other aviation-grade aluminum alloys. But do we “civilians” really seeing the big picture when it comes to the aviation and aerospace industries’ current fascination with composite materials from an engineering standpoint?

In our present energy consumption and global warming conscious globalized society, the high strength-to-weight ratio of composite materials can be seen as a godsend when it comes to their use by the airline industry. The lighter weight of aviation-grade certified composite materials means more fuel savings that easily translates not only in reduced airline running cost but also in substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions without sacrificing the safety previously provided by significantly heavier aviation-grade aluminum alloys of the previous generation. Given these advantages, are composite materials really represented a significant advance in aviation from an engineering standpoint?

During the heyday of aviation-grade aluminum-based alloys, special attention was particularly paid to the wings. Almost every conceivable sort of test was conducted. Small sections of the wings are purposely cut with a saw, and then the section is artificially “aged” on testing machines which apply and release pressure in just the way it would occur in flight. Whole wings were taken into the strength testing laboratory and repeatedly bent up and down as would occur in an airplane’s typical lifespan. Back in those days, a Boeing 707 were undergoing such test were a design prototype of its wing was bent upward nine feet without breaking. And a lift of 425,000 pounds was required to actually buckle the wing.

Even back then, testing techniques in the aviation have in fact reached the stage where it is at least theoretically possible to guarantee that an airplane rolling off the end of a production line, will take off and fly for its entire lifetime without any significant failure. This, however, would assume a Utopian State of affairs of faultless materials in the airplane’s construction along with impeccable maintenance and use.

Testing does not end when a typical jetliner is delivered to an airline company. The Federal Aviation Administration, from the results of earlier tests, certifies that it will not require a major airframe overhaul until the plane has amassed 6,000 flying hours. Although during that period the airplane’s structure is frequently given a visual “twice-over” by airline maintenance personnel. When it reaches the 6,000-hour mark, however, the plane is sent to the company’s overhaul base for a complete examination.

The aircraft is first inspected visually and by x-ray machines similar to those used by a physician. In another test, ultrasonic generators send high-frequency sound waves flowing through a section under inspection and the wave pattern is displayed on an oscilloscope, like a test pattern on a television screen. If a flaw is present, it will show up as a deviation in the pattern.

Still another inspection technique is the dye check. Structural metal is first treated with a penetrating red dye, then covered with a white liquid, which dies into a powder. If there are substantial cracks, the red dye will bleed through the powder along the length of the crack. If the detected flaw is minor, it is repaired; if major, the whole structural section – a wing panel, for instance – is replaced. These extensive tests to maintain airline safety were already de rigueur during the heyday of aluminum alloy based planes.

But when it comes to the inspection of the airworthiness of our newfangled composite material-based aircraft, signs of damage and of structural fatigue are unfortunately invisible to the naked eye and our unaided senses. Detecting flaws in composites-based aircraft structures requires specialized equipment like ultrasound generator-based testing machines to detect minor cracks and micro-fractures. This will be an increasing necessity, especially when current and upcoming civilian air transports will be almost all totally made up of composite materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber. Something the airline industry will be very reluctant to invest during our still fiscally austere global economic climate. And economics, if you recall, is an integral part of good and sensible engineering.

With the new generation of composites-based jetliners slated to replace the older aluminum alloy-based jetliners like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – which are made mostly of composite materials, especially in the wing and fuselage section – be seen by most airline companies as not economically viable? The climate-friendly prestige surrounding new generation composites-based jetliners might prove too tempting to resist by most airline companies, given the potential fuel savings that could result. But if the investment in newer maintenance and diagnostic test equipment to maintain the well-being of these newfangled composites-based jetliners prove more costly than the resulting fuel savings, airline companies won’t be buying these jetliners as their manufacturers have been hoping to sell like hotcakes. Not even if these newfangled aerospace-grade composite materials enabled those new generation of fighter jets to fly up to Mach 1.5 without resorting to afterburners – i.e. supercruise capability.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Will Gas to Liquid Jet Fuels Make the Airline Industry More Earth Friendly?

Developed by Shell in order to make the airline industry more Earth-friendly, will gas to liquid or GTL jet fuels really live up to the hype?

By: Ringo Bones

Despite of contributing less than 3% of the total industrial carbon dioxide being dumped into our atmosphere, the airline industry seems to be unfairly singled out as the primary pollution culprit that lead to global warming. Could it be that it is the only sector in the industry that has been very reluctant in taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint, let alone pollution reduction without hurting their bottom line?

Back in October 13, 2009, the Qatar Science & Technology Park. Together with Shell, Texas A & M University at Qatar, The University of Sheffield, Rolls-Royce, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) signed two agreements to further quantify the benefits of natural gas-based gas to liquid or GTL jet fuel as a substitute to the conventional crude oil sourced kerosene jet fuel. During the 2009 Dubai Air Show, the preliminary benefits of the study was revealed to the airline industry that’s eager to adopt a more ecologically sustainable practice. But is it really better than conventional crude oil sourced kerosene jet fuel?

Preliminary results have shown that GTL jet fuel produces significantly less soot and oxides of nitrogen, the two other pollution products of burning jet fuel besides carbon dioxide. And GTL jet fuel also results in reduced engine wear of existing jet engines used in the airline industry, so they could be a significant carbon offset factor due to jet engine parts lasting longer. It doesn’t take an aerospace engineer / rocket scientist to figure out that jet engine turbine parts generate substantial amounts of carbon dioxide during their manufacturing phase.

The bad news is that when run in existing jet engines, GTL kerosene jet fuel needs to be mix – in a 50-50 ratio – with crude oil source kerosene jet fuel in order to run. That alone reduces the ecological benefit by 50%. Sadly, GTL jet fuel will only be available in the Middle East and Europe in the immediate future. This means Transatlantic flights using GTL jet fuel will only be 25% more Earth-friendly than their conventional counterparts. And being a fossil fuel GTL jet fuels still contribute carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere when burned, thus it does nothing to curb global warming.

Slowly but surely, the airline industry is now on the forefront of making passenger flights more ecologically sustainable. Biodiesel-sourced jet fuels are already tested on modified jet engines designed to burn them, and like GTL jet fuels, seem to offer reduced wear of jet engine parts – which tend to be very expensive – and produce less oxides of nitrogen. So a reduced nitric oxide product that could further deplete our already fragile ozone layer and contrail soot that is already suspected of creating cancer-clusters under most flight-paths of commercial air routes. So the civilian side of the aerospace industry will probably be much greener from an ecological perspective in the coming years.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is Amelia Earhart Still Relevant Today?

With a new Hollywood movie retelling her aviation exploits, does Amelia Earhart still register in the national consciousness of America – or the rest of the world?

By: Ringo Bones

Short of making Paris Hilton to endorse and promote a civilian sport aviation version of the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. Or is it a modernized more “fuel efficient” equipped-with-a “six-pack” Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan-all-carbon-fiber-version of the XB-70 Valkyrie - as something of a must-have for every woman of means in post subprime mortgage crisis America. Boron-enriched aviation fuel not included? I wonder if the latest Hollywood rollout of a movie retelling the aviation exploits and adventures of the Great Depression era aviatrix named Amelia Earhart is aimed at cashing in on the burgeoning feminist movement for those folks too young to have seen L7 perform Wargasm live. After all, aviation is a skill – rather than a gender – driven endeavor. Or maybe I’m just too young to had experience first hand the chauvinism and misogyny of the early part of the 20th Century.

Whatever the political baggage that goes with the retelling of Amelia Earhart’s piloting skills to achieve scores of aviation firsts is only a fraction of a very fascinating story. After all, the suppositions that surrounded Earhart’s disappearance during the Pacific leg of her round the world flight – from her distress call received in Florida to theories of her being abducted by aliens capable of interstellar travel – do spice up the factual aspects of her achievements.

Born in Atchison, Kansas in July 24, 1898. Amelia Earhart was educated at Hyde Park High School, Chicago and attended the Ogontz School for Girls in Rydal, Pennsylvania, Columbia University and other schools. In 1917 and 1918, she served in a nursing corps in Canada. Amelia Earhart learned to fly in California and continued her interest aviation after moving to Boston, where she took social work and teaching. She crossed the Atlantic on June 17 to 18, 1928 in a trimotored Fokker with Wilmer Stutz as pilot and Louis Gordon as mechanic. This flight probably served as a dry run for Earhart’s solo Atlantic flight of May 20 to 21, 1932. Later, Amelia Earhart made her solo Pacific flight from Hawaii to California on January 11, 1935 which she was the first woman to do both crossings. In 1931, Amelia Earhart was married to George Palmer Putman and during that year she set an autogiro – i.e. an early version of the helicopter with an unloaded rotor - altitude record. On an attempted flight around the world, Amelia Earhart was lost somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific with her navigator, Fred Noonan, early in July 1937.

Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific of her attempted flight around the world sparked a host of speculations and anecdotes. Some whimsical and fanciful and others bordering on the absurd. Quite a large number of people do believe that Amelia Earhart was a victim of alien abduction. This theory of her disappearance was even featured in an episode of Star Trek Voyager. There’s even a credible witness who swore that she received Earhart’s distress call while listening to a radio receiving set in Florida. Though the distress transmissions by Earhart might have been transmitted that far away by a freak condition of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer or what we now call as the ionosphere.

The most likely and credible explanation of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance during the Pacific leg of her attempted flight around the world is either she ran out of fuel and crashed in some remote corner of the Pacific Ocean. Or was forced to land on a Japanese Imperial Army occupied island and was taken prisoner for being an American spy. Earhart was very likely executed by her captors or had died of disease and starvation given that Japanese soldiers were notoriously “Spartan” when it comes to stocking up on necessities like food and medical supplies.

So is the latest Hollywood movie retelling the exploits of Amelia Earhart achieve the same aims as does Earhart’s aviation exploits during the Depression-era America of raising the people’s spirits? Could be, but what fascinates me more is that Amelia Earhart managed to avoid becoming a shrinking violet in the face of aviation competition. Consider her rivals at the time, the lion cub toting Roscoe Turner, the über-rich Howard Hughes. Not to mention Whiley Post, a one-eyed aviator pioneer who couldn’t get an FAA flying license these days due to his major vision problem who managed to fly around the world in July 1933 on a modified Lockheed Vega named the Winnie Mae. Add to that the 1934 B.F. Goodrich made pressure suit in which Whiley Post use as he sought to break the then airplane altitude record of 47,352 feet. By the way, the Wiley Post pressure suit was used in some “realistic” science fiction movies of that time.

Given the stiff competition, it does seem like a miracle that Amelia Earhart did managed to establish her own niche in the short but very crowded roster of 20th Century aviation history. Although there is still a dreadful lack of women aviator pioneers. I can’t even for the life of me remember that American woman USAF test pilot who set a world’s speed record on the F-104 Starfighter during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Or what modifications were made on the MiG 25 FOXBAT that Valentina Tereshkova used during her extreme high altitude record attempts. Jena Yeager – who co-piloted the Voyager non-stop round the world flight back in 1986 is probably the only woman aviator besides Amelia Earhart that is taught in history classes in American schools.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Malfeasant Joyride Over New York City?

Even though they probably believed it in their hearts that they are merely expressing their patriotic duty, but is there any wrongdoing done by these airmen?

By: Ringo Bones

The incident has swiftly become fodder to those dissenters of US President Barack Obama and his administration – i.e. the aerial joyride with a markedly high carbon footprint over the September 11, 2001 Ground Zero Memorial in New York City that happened last April 27, 2009. The incident involved the 747 presidential executive jet – though officially it can’t be designated as Air Force One because the president is not on it during the time of the incident. And a fighter escort (probably an F-16 Fighting Falcon) doing a low-altitude flight over the 9 / 11 Ground Zero Memorial in the hopes of getting an excellent photo op from their quite daring PR stunt.

Even though to the on-duty pilots, they probably think this is a very excellent PR stunt for the new administration in the White House, instead it sparked fear and panic to the hapless New Yorkers who were not forewarned of the low-altitude flight beforehand. Given that most New Yorkers still haven’t got over that fateful incident back in September 11, 2001, a little heads-up would have been the right thing to do.

Instead of an historic aerial display that could have become a very nice poster for next years calendars, the pilots’ daring aerial bravado are now being compared to something what multi-millionaire spoiled brats would do as the ultimate dare in their state of inebriation. Looks like Paris Hilton won’t be flying that 200 million dollar F-22 Raptor at Mach 2 while flying only 75 feet over Madison Avenue. Instead, the presidential executive jet’s pilots have beaten her to it. At least someone should pay the appropriate carbon credits to as an amendment for this malfeasance, and it should not be the American Taxpayers.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Around the World Non-Stop Solar-Powered Flight: Mere Wishful Thinking?

Even though plans for the endeavor were already published more than 3 years ago, can anyone really fly a plane solo around the world non-stop via a solar-powered plane?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in April 6, 2009, a number of press coverage on Bertrand Piccard’s plan to fly non-stop around the world solo via a solar-powered plane – which he plans to do this year, if possible – gained the attention of every aviation enthusiasts around the world. Bertrand Piccard first gained worldwide fame in the field of aviation when he – together with Brian Jones - successfully circumnavigated the globe via a balloon named the Breitling Orbiter back in March 1999.

Even though Piccard’s plan to circumnavigate the globe yet again – hopefully this year – via a solar-powered airplane was already revealed almost 4 years ago in the September 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. The solar-powered plane, named the Solar Impulse, was “hopefully” designed to allow Piccard to successfully fly non-stop around the world. The Solar Impulse was designed to have an ideal cruising altitude of 8,500 meters and will fly within a pre-approved airspace because this experimental solar-powered craft will not be equipped with an auto-pilot.

While the Solar Impulse’s solar panels are modeled after the NASA’s Helios unmanned solar-powered aircraft. The plane’s advanced next-generation high-capacity storage batteries is the next-generation version of that being fitted on NASA’s Helios. It will not only allow the Solar Impulse to have enough power to fly at night or overcast days, but also have enough power to carry a single human passenger.

The flightsuit that Bertrand Piccard will use in this endeavor will also be a technological tour-de-force because it will be filled with various sensors that will monitor his physiological condition. Not to mention the vibration points which functions like a mobile phone’s incoming call vibrate ringtone function that allows Piccard feedback of the plane’s current condition. According to the flightsuit’s design parameters, Piccard could fly the plane even while semi-awake.

The solar-powered circumnavigation flight’s preparations include Piccard undergoing a 25-hour long virtual reality simulation flight of the Solar Impulse’s cockpit. Though it is estimated that the actual duration of this solar-powered circumnavigation flight could be as long as 36 hours. If successful, Bertrand Piccard could yet add another firsts on his aviation exploits. Or if the current geopolitical situation worsens that the Solar Impulse’s reserved airspace becomes a veritable war zone, then the Solar Impulse could yet become another XB-70 Valkyrie. An elegantly designed aircraft unable to fulfill it’s intended purpose.

Remembering Louis Blériot’s English Channel Crossing

It’s now a hundred years since aviation pioneer Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel, will his pioneering spirit continue to shape the future of aviation for the next hundred years?

By: Ringo Bones

Time really flies when you’re waiting for that “inevitable” global economic recovery, a time when all aviation enthusiasts can finally scrape enough funds to rekindle our passion for flying. But as all of us inevitably journey through the rest of 2009, how will the rest of the world remember the 100th Anniversary of the pioneering French aviator Louis Blériot’s “Lustrous First” of crossing the English Channel back in July 25, 1909?

By skillfully flying his Number XI monoplane, Blériot made a flight which back then electrified the civilized world. On July 25, 1909, the Frenchman took off from Les Baraques, near Calais, and flew 23 and a half miles across the choppy waters of the English Channel to the English coast. Thirty-seven minutes after takeoff, Blériot landed near Dover Castle. The Channel crossing was not the longest flight of that period, but never before had an aviator chanced a flight without any piece of terra firma underneath. What was even more remarkable is that Louis Blériot’s “primitive” monoplane was not even equipped with navigation aids of any kind.

Blériot’s flight over the English Channel with his Number XI monoplane did create multiple “firsts”. The first flight – make that solo flight – over a significant body of water with nary a land underneath. The first flight for a monoplane over a significant body of water at the time. Not to mention finally proving the airworthiness of the monoplane design, which didn’t became common until the 1930s.

Given that this remarkable feat was made only a few years after the Wright Brother’s first ever flight at Kitty Hawk back in December 17, 1903 by a “mere civilian” without any government backing no less. Many contemporary aviation and space travel enthusiasts now wonder if Louis Blériot’s remarkable feat can be repeated in the field of space travel. Even though some of our current pioneering über-rich “civilians” had already managed to successfully launch their “home-made” spacecraft to sub-orbital space. Although at a cost of several times that of the prize money being offered in our current X-Prize pot.

Even though Charles Lindbergh’s solo Transatlantic New York to Paris flight created a “mystique” that he was the first person who crossed the Atlantic Ocean by plane even though there are others who did the feat years before – only not solo. Like Captain John Alcock who piloted the first non-stop transatlantic flight back in June 1919 – and he is accompanied by his co-pilot / navigator. Which is a 1,960-mile trip from Newfoundland to Ireland with the Vickers Vimy – a converted World War I-era bomber - in just over 16 hours.

While a non-stop flight around the world without any aid of refueling – aerial or otherwise – have to wait until December 14, 1986. When the Burt Rutan-designed Voyager, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, managed to fly non-stop around the world. The feat took 9 days 3 minutes and 44 seconds after the plane flew westward for 26,366 miles or 42,432 kilometers non-stop at an average altitude of 11,000 feet. The previous record for a non-stop flight was a B-52 piloted by a US Air Force crew that flew for 12,532 miles non-stop without refueling in 1962. While the upcoming solar-powered flight around the world by Bertrand Piccard will not only be the first for a solar-powered plane to fly non-stop around the world, but will also be the first solo non-stop flight around the world. Which is something to look forward to – if all goes well - in 2009.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Altruism and Humanitarianism in Aviation: Not Economically Viable?

Ever since that incident in July 2008 when the price of crude oil and aviation fuel reached sky-high, is using planes to help the unfortunate now too expensive?

By: Ringo Bones

Maybe it was the news back in January 5, 2009 when Mission Aviation Fellowship – a Christian charity working in Mongolia – racked-up debts of up to 2 million US dollars to their aviation fuel suppliers. Thus placing Mongolia’s equivalent of Australia’s Royal Flying Doctors in really dire straits. Even though the crude oil price spike of July 2008 seems like a distant memory, especially half a year later when on average it is 3 times cheaper in comparison. The failure to hedge aviation fuel when it was cheap or hedging too soon before it became sufficiently cheaper not only endangered the big airline companies, but also budget airlines and their humanitarian / charitable counterparts as well.

Airplanes and other forms of aircraft are the primary mode of travel in Mongolia due to the vast distances separating between villages and towns. Not to mention the prohibitive sums of money that could be involved in creating paved roads to connect these towns and villages. Travel across Mongolia other than by air can be extremely inconvenient, especially during the winter months when a car breakdown can easily result in an unfortunate motorist freezing to death. Traditional pastoral sheepherders are the primary recipients of the vital medical aid provided by Mission Aviation Fellowship.

While on the African continent, Zambia’s national airline suspends its operation due to high aviation fuel costs back in January 11, 2009. Given that most of Africa has been plagued by still unresolved peace and order issues; air travel had since become the de facto safest mode of transport on the continent. While man-portable surface-to-air rockets are still a relative rarity for those rogue militants operating in the continent and they can only hit planes flying at 10,000 feet or less, air travel is indeed the safest way to travel across most of Africa. Lets just hope that these rogue militants never manage to acquire large truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down planes flying as high as 120,000 feet. Until then, if they can afford the relatively high fuel and aircraft maintenance costs, most – if not all – humanitarian organizations operating throughout Africa should stick with air travel.