Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winterized Runways, Anyone?

With the unseasonably cold weather sweeping across Europe disrupting European air traffic since December 17, 2010, will winterized or snow-resistant runways become standard in the future?

By: Ringo Bones

The unseasonably cold weather sweeping across Europe during the last few days had certainly put a damper on the busily hectic travel schedule this Yuletide Season. Heathrow Airport – one of the European air spaces’ busiest – had been paralized for a few days since Friday December 17, 2010 due to really heavy snowfall. So does other major European airports in Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels. Lufthansa had even advised their advance ticket holders to expect cancellations and wait for weather updates. With flight schedule delays becoming the norm – rather than the exception – during this once in every 20-year heavy snowfall, are winterized snow-proof runways be the solution?

From the airport operator’s perspective, winterized or snow-proof runways could make much more economic sense than using currently available runway de-icing machines that costs on average 2 million US dollars each that are only used once every 20-years or so. And believe it or not, research in winterized or snow-resistant runways dates back as far as the 1960s. Back then, fertilizer – of the common form and garden variety – is hardly a product ordinarily associated with advanced aviation research. Yet aviation researchers back then had surmised that in the near future, you may see airport runways coated with artificial manure as an aid to bad weather landings – as it promises to help keep aircraft from skidding on icy runways.

The substance being examined as a promising de-icer is urea, a commercial fertilizer that also acts as antifreeze. Early investigations during the 1960s showed that urea – sprinkled on a runway before or during a snowfall or freezing rain – can prevent ice formation, but long-term tests are needed to determine the effects of the chemicals on airframes and engines and to show what form of urea – powder, pellets or liquid – will prove most efficient in keeping airport runways ice-free. If these scheme works better than current ones, will it translate to costlier ticket prices / airfares during the winter season?

Trent 900 Turbojet Engines: The Airbus A380’s Weakest Link?

Ever since the narrowly averted disaster of Qantas Flight 32 back in November 4, 2010, are those four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 Turbojet engines the Airbus 380 Super Jumbo’s weakest link?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since the quick thinking of the skilled crew of Qantas Flight 32 narrowly averted a tragic crash when the number 2 / QF32 engine of their Airbus A380 Super Jumbo exploded in mid-flight back in November 4, 2010. And during the next day, a Qantas 747 also developed engine trouble questions started to be asked about the reliability and air worthiness of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines used in Qantas’ fleet of passenger planes. Soon after the incident, Qantas share prices took a nosedive, but are the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines used in the Qantas fleet inherently faulty or did Qantas just received a faulty batch of these specific types of jet engines?

The shabby batch of Rolls-Royce jet engines theory appeared more plausible when back in November 8, 2010 Qantas grounded their fleet of Airbus A380s for thorough inspection that lasted three days when their ground crews found out that there are oil leaks on a number of their aircraft using the Rolls-Royce sourced Trent 900 turbojet engines. The oil leaks appear to be localized in the turbine section of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines. And by November 15, 2010, up to 40 units of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines used in Qantas’ fleet were found to be faulty and had to be recalled.

By December 2, 2010, the investigative findings of the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau had traced the fault to an oil tube connection in the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines. By this time Qantas has already replaced four engine units since the Flight 32 incident back in November 4, 2010. Preliminary studies by the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau had revealed that this critical section of the jet engine is prone to metal fatigue upon exposure to the routine high temperature and stresses typical in this type of jet engine’s manufacturer’s recommended operational guidelines.

During the course of the investigation, it was later found out only the heroic crew of Qantas Flight 32 that saved the passengers from certain death says Martin Dolan of the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau. Captain Barry Jackson of the Australian International Pilots Association also praised the quick thinking of the crew of the stricken Qantas Flight 32. Since the Qantas Flight 32 incident and the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau’s investigative findings, Qantas has since taken the preliminary legal measures to be compensated by Rolls-Royce for the resulting financial loss. But are the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines the culprit in the Qantas Flight 32 incident and other Qantas’ passenger fleet troubles since November 4, 2010?

The Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbojet engines are by so means a shabbily engineered product; it is truly an engineering tour-de-force. Imagine being able to supply 370-kilonewtons of thrust all by itself. And four of these massive jet engines are required to fully lift the 560 tonnes fully loaded mass of the Airbus A380-800 Super Jumbo into the air. With a blower measuring almost 3-meters in diameter, it looks impressive enough just being parked there on the tarmac if you’re fortunate enough to see one up close. Maybe our still ongoing global economic recession is to blame for this quality control oversight at Rolls-Royce’s factory.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Airline Companies Versus Volcanic Ash

The recent Icelandic volcanic eruption might had revealed airline companies’ supposed pathological fear of volcanic ash, but are their supposed fears justified?

By: Ringo Bones

When Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull Volcano’s eruption went full-force around April 21, 2010, it resulted in the widespread cancellation of commercial air travel over much of the northern European airspace. While reiterating that they are just erring on the side of caution, airline companies and their related European governing bodies gave the impression to the public that they really have a pathological fear of volcanic ash. While costing billions during the few weeks of suspending some flights over much of Europe’s most lucrative airline routes, did the transport authorities acted logically when they declared to suspend flights due to the presence of volcanic ash?

Believe it or not, scientific and procedural precedence already exists that volcanic ash in enough concentrations in a typical passenger airline’s flight path can wreak havoc to a typical modern jumbo jet’s systems. Back in June24, 1982, the eruption of Mt. Galunggung on the island of Java threw enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which was unfortunately blown into the flight path of a British Airways Flight 009 – one of their Boeing 747-236B jumbos named City of Edinburgh – en route from Indonesia to Australia. Trouble started when the ash and volcanic gases was accidentally sucked by the plane’s air pressurization system into the plane’s cabin that resulted in the passenger and crew to assume that there is a fire inside the plane's cabin.

Enough ash was blown into the flight path of BA Flight 009 that at one point all of the plane’s four engines flame out or stalled then restarted erratically at random. The volcanic ash concentration was enough to create a triboelectric charge that caused BA Flight 009 to manifest the phenomena called St. Elmo’s Fire which often manifest itself as a bluish glow around the structures of the plane that tapers to a point. The flight almost ended in tragedy when the remaining functional jet engines could not generate enough power to clear the plane from the mountain ranges of the island of Java. Fortunately, the engines went back on line on the crucial moment they were needed to clear the mountain range allowing the plane to perform an emergency landing. After BA Flight 009 landed, the external damage caused by volcanic ash had sandblasted the British Airways owned plane’s external paint work and eroded the turbine blades of its jet engines. Primarily it was the volcanic ash turning into molten glass inside the jet engine that caused the flame-out and compressor stall that almost made that flight end in tragedy.

The dramatic ordeal of British Airways Flight 009 has set the existing precedents over airline companies’ policies around the world when it comes to flying in airspace that’s affected by volcanic activity. The rerouting of passenger flights over northern Europe during the end of April 2010 might have cost airline companies millions. But erring on the side of caution had allowed them to avert the tragedy of a plane crash that resulted in the deaths of hundreds. I just hope they have the same cautious policy when flying over clandestine nuclear weapons testing zones like Lop Nur in China or the mountainous regions of India and Pakistan where they tested their nukes back in 1998 when a detonated nuclear weapon’s electromagnetic pulse or EMP can fry a civilian airliner’s avionics – especially when it is not “hardened” against an EMP pulse.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Tupolev Tu-95 Bear: World’s Noisiest Aircraft Ever?

As Russia’s oldest serving strategic bomber that had been in service since 1955, does it really deserve as the world’s noisiest aircraft ever?

By: Ringo Bones

How does something qualify as extremely noisy? Well, if a certain airplane’s engine noise could create so much noise that SONAR arrays meant to track submarines can hear it, then yes. Believe it or not, the four counter-rotating propeller array driven by the Tu-95 Bear’s four powerful gas turbine engine produces so much noise. That the long-range bomber’s engines’ unique harmonics can be heard by the SONAR Surveillance System of the US Navy – i.e. SOSAS – meant to track Soviet era submarines during the height of the Cold War. Which kind of makes me think why former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin has never ever been temporarily deafened by a squadron of Tu-95 Bears when she claimed during the 2008 US Presidential Elections that she can see Russia from her front porch.

At present, fleets of Russia’s Tu-95 Bear is paradoxically adopted in its new mission to fire long-range cruise missiles at the US Navy’s Carrier Group. Given that a retinue of antisubmarine warfare ships and aircraft, not to mention escorted by an attack submarine is what constitutes a typical US Navy Carrier Group. The chances of the Tu-95 coming within a thousand miles of an American aircraft carrier without registering on the SONAR screens of the support craft is highly unlikely due to the aircraft’s very high noise level. With these inherent problems, why did the Soviet Union even allowed such a plane to be operational in the first place and most of all, what is the source of this aircraft’s “noise problem”?

Back when Josef Stalin was still running the Soviet Union and their top scientists just developed their very own A-bomb. Ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States were yet to be invented. Due to the inherent fiscal austerity of a Marxist-Leninist socialist system, the Soviets can’t afford to build numerous pristine 10,000-foot runways like the United States has done since World War II. So during the design stage, Soviet aeronautical engineers chose to equip their premier strategic bomber with counter-rotating props attached to an extremely powerful gas turbine engine. Which was a very reasonable choice at the time if they want their premier strategic bomber to have the capability to nuke New York or Washington D.C. when operating from Soviet soil. Besides, fuel-efficient pure jet engines are yet to be invented that could enable the Tu-95 Bear to fulfill it’s designed mission.

Counter-rotating propellers made the Tu-95 Bear not so addicted to 10,000 feet long pristine concrete runways and the counter-rotating turboprop configuration allowed it to fly comfortably at a little over 500 mph for 10 hours or so. But it did create so much noise at levels that are probably hell for the ground crew when a squadron of these are lining up for take-off with the planes’ engines revving to full power. For such a plane to fly at 500 miles per hour, its propeller tip speed would be moving at supersonic speeds. At such speeds, not only is the “thrust efficiency” of the propeller is reduced, those very propellers would be producing a sonic boom every time it rotates. To the ground crew, a squadron of Tu-95 Bears lining up for take-off could sound like a large battalion of anti-aircraft gun batteries firing in unison. One can only imagine the noise levels experienced by a typical pilot, bombardier-navigator and tail gunner of a Tu-95 Bear on a 10-hour mission.

At about the same time, the US Navy was also flirting with a supersonic capable propeller driven fighter aircraft that can easily take off from and land on an aircraft carrier. At the time, steam catapult technology was still at its infancy so they tried to attach a jet turbine driven propeller to a modified F-100 Super Sabre jet to enable it to easily take-off from and land on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, the modified propeller-equipped Super Sabre jet produced so much noise that it had given flight deck crew malaise and nausea due to excessive noise exposure. And the propeller-equipped Super Sabre jet never managed to reach supersonic speeds despite of its improved carrier-based take-off and landing performance.

Airport Security: Air Travel Safety’s Weakest Link?

With the failed Christmas Day 2009 terror attack almost becoming as tragic as 9 / 11, is our overly intrusive – but woefully inadequate airport security – the weakest link in the air travel safety chain?

By: Ringo Bones

December 25, 2009 would have been a very tragic if a young radicalized Al-Qaeda recruit managed to replicate the Lockerbie terror attack. Fortunately, the improvised airport security evading explosive device carried by the would-be suicide bomber failed to explode. Making the 23 year old Nigerian named Omar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to top the notoriety list when 2009 draws to a close. But the averted tragedy does raise the question whether our overly intrusive from a Civil Liberties standpoint – but woefully inadequate – airport passenger screening and security procedures need to be upgraded?

Technological solutions only solve some of the aspects of the still evolving menace of global terrorism. Those newfangled X-Ray back-scatter based and millimeter wave technology explosive detection and scanners whose working prototypes became operational around 1999 to 2000 are still so controversial because they can outline with almost photographic fidelity the bodies of the subjects they are examining. By making their intimate details clearly visible on the display screen as if the scanned subjects were naked. The EU had been unanimous in deferring their use in major European airports even after the 9 / 11 terror attacks due to their overt intrusiveness. Major airports under the jurisdiction of Number 10 Downing Street have now resorted in using these overtly intrusive scanners in an effort to bolster airport security.

These newfangled devices’ ability to detect PETN-based explosive devices – like the one used in the failed Christmas Day attack - are just about within the limits of these security scanners operational effectiveness. So a terrorist using such bombs still has a possibility of slipping through such newfangled security scanners. Our design paradigm for weapons detection has always been aimed at detecting ferromagnetic material based weapons systems – not the ambient chemical residues of nitrate based explosives. Sadder still, bomb sniffing dogs can't verbally alert their handlers that they have a cold or coming down with something and full body pat downs are just too over-the-top intrusive to some people's sensibilities when it comes to Civil Liberty issues.

Sadly, most of us - including the powers that be - are just treating the symptoms, not the cause, of global terrorism. Even though the averted tragedy of the failed Christmas Day terror attack was eventually blamed – yet again – to the various intelligence agencies failure to coordinate and communicate in their operations, the incident will very likely won’t be the last. Other threats to the safely of air travel – like bird strikes and poor aircraft maintenance – will again be deprived of the much needed R & D funding. Overtly intrusive and Civil Liberties violating methods of scanning our own person and personal belongings in airports are now the lucrative draw of research and development money. Lets just hope that all of our airline pilots are as good as Captain Chesley Sullenberger in averting the worst effects of a bird strike incident.