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.