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.