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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2013 – The 230th Anniversary of Humanity’s First Flight

It may had become difficult to separate fact from fantasy on what inspired the Montgolfier brothers to make mankind’s first flight, but was it their own effort when they successfully did back in 1783?

By: Ringo Bones 

It maybe quite understandable for something that happened over 200 years ago that it has since become quite difficult to separate fact from fantasy on how the Montgolfier brothers got into the field of ballooning that eventually led to humanity’s first successful flight into the wild blue yonder. The most popular version of the story has it that Joseph Montgolfier – elder of the brothers – was idly standing into his fireplace one evening in 1782, watching the smoke curl lazily up the chimney. The tale goes on to say that Joseph borrowed a piece of silk from his housekeeper and fashioned it into an open-bottomed bag. Then, holding the bag above the fire, he let it fill with heated air and smoke. When he released it, the bag rose to the ceiling.
After this initial success, the Montgolfier brothers tried other, more ambitious experiments using larger balloons. Within six months, utilizing an outdoor bonfire as a source of heat, they had sent a balloon aloft to a height of a little more than a mile, a feat that was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. Little did the brothers know that they actually invented the concept of hot air ballooning which changed very little even today. 

News of the Montgolfier flights reached King Louis XVI, who ordered a command performance at Versailles. For the occasion, the brothers built an elaborately decorated balloon and, as an added attraction, decided to find whether animal life could survive in the upper air. A sheep, a duck and a rooster were sent aloft from Versailles on September 19, 1783, in a tub-shaped basket suspended from the balloon. The flight lasted eight minutes and the balloon traveled a mile and a half. On landing, the animal passengers suffered no ill effects. The Montgolfier brothers immediately set about building a man-carrying balloon.
The new model was provided with its own airborne furnace for sustained flight. It took two months to get the balloon ready and several trials were held with the balloon tethered to the ground. Finally the Montgolfier brothers decided that everything was ready. 

News of the impending flight had spread throughout France and excitement ran high. King Louis XVI himself took an active interest and even offered to provide two condemned criminals to serve as passengers. At this, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a young historian and a ballooning enthusiast, became indignant. 

“Shall vile criminals have the honor of first rising into the sky?” he stormed. “I myself shall go!” 

The dream as old as history became fact on November 21, 1783. On that day two Frenchmen, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and another volunteer, the Marquis d’Arlandes - a.k.a. François Laurent d'Arlandes, flew over Paris in a balloon, travelling five and a half miles in 25 minutes. At first it lifted very slowly and Rozier began stoking the fire with straw. The balloon began to ascend more rapidly, but at the same time several small fires broke out in its fabric; the two “aeronauts” raced around the gallery with wet sponges, extinguishing the flames. Once the fires were out, the remainder of the ride was sheer exaltation as the balloon sailed over the rooftops of Paris for 25 minutes before it landed safely five and a half miles away. For the first time in the history of the world, mankind has achieved free flight. 

Ten days after the Montgolfier brothers’ first ever manned balloon flight came the second manned balloon flight. This was under the same Parisian sky, some 200,000 French citizens witnessed the pioneering French physicist Jacques Charles and a companion made a two-hour 27-mile flight in a hydrogen-filled balloon. They both landed safely. But when Charles’ companion climbed out of the gondola, he automatically lightened it; the balloon with Charles still in it, soared back up into the air, inadvertently making Charles the first ever human being to make the first solo balloon flight. It was now dark, and the balloon climbed to a record height of 9,000 feet. By the time Charles got back to earth, he was so shaken that he swore never to set foot on another balloon ever again. Despite Jacques Charles’ defection, the ballooning craze inevitably swept all of Europe. 

Within a decade, other balloon flights had been made in England, Germany, the United States, Belgium and the Netherlands. Under a Union Jack painted balloon, the Italian diplomat Vincenzo Lunardi ascends over London in a gaudy gondola in 1785. A year earlier, Lunardi made the first ever manned balloon flight in England. 

An early French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard waved the French tricolor flag over Brussels back in 1786. His rig included two balloons and a parachute. Blanchard earlier had shared the first English Channel crossing on a balloon with John Jeffries, an American doctor. Later, in 1793, Blanchard introduced balloon-flying to America at Philadelphia. The first ever equestrian ascent – i.e. riding a balloon while on horseback – was made by Pierre Testu-Brissy over Paris back in 1798. As we observe our 230th Anniversary of the first ever manned balloon flight this year, it seems that manned ballooning have never gone out of style since it began. 

The Airbus A350: World’s Greenest Passenger Plane?

Given that lithium iron phosphate battery powered jet airliners – like those proposed by Bauhaus Luftfahrt – are still decades away, is the Airbus A350 currently the greenest conventionally fueled jet powered passenger plane? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Given that it successfully flew its maiden flight without incident at 0800 GMT back in Friday, June 14, 2013 at Toulouse, France, Airbus’ latest passenger plane – and slated to compete commercially with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – the A350 is chock full of the latest boutique high-tech aerospace design concepts all aimed at to reduce its fuel consumption. But does it truly qualify its credentials as the greenest conventionally fuelled passenger plane? 

After the various components are delivered by the Beluga cargo plane to Airbus’ main plant – i.e. the fuselage was assembled in Germany while the new fuel-efficient high-thrust engines are manufactured in the UK while the avionics in the plane’s nose are from France– the A350 is also slated to be Airbus’ headline product in the 2013 Paris Air Show. The mostly made of carbon fiber fuselage and wings which on average weigh a fifth that of steel allows the A350 to be more fuel efficient than current and competing models.  

The unique wing shape and the large titanium fan blades of the new Rolls Royce turbofan engine whose inside working temperature is half that of the surface temperature of the sun and the monocrystalline heat resistant alloy of the inner turbine blades all work in conjunction to make the Airbus A350 the most fuel efficient conventionally fuelled plane in current production. Given that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has just recently shaken up the unairworthyness of the lithium batteries of its auxiliary power unit, the Airbus A350 could well be the unopposed greenest passenger plane currently exhibited on the 2013 Paris Air Show. 

Should All Of The European Union’s Air Traffic Control System Be Centralized?

Given that there are currently 9 regional air traffic control blocks in the EU, should it be centralized as a way to effectively cut running costs? 

By: Ringo Bones 

According to the powers-that-be in the European Union’s headquarters at Brussels, the current air traffic control system currently managing the commercial air traffic over Europe is costing passengers 5 billion euros a year. But will merging the 9 regional EU air traffic blocks into a one centralized system and simplifying its current “arcane” and “rigmarole” air traffic routing operation result in a cost savings that can be passed to the consumer? 

Unfortunately, the proposed merger plans to centralize the EU’s currently fragmented air traffic control system had triggered an air traffic controllers union’s strike in France back in Tuesday, June 11, 2013, that cancelled 1,800 flights and cutting every major European city’s airport’s timetable in half. Disruptive and hard on the airline passengers had the strike had been, are the grievances of the striking air traffic unions’ rejection of the proposed merger plans justified? 

The planned merging of the EU’s patchwork air traffic control system and opening it to privatization in order to reduce operating costs that can be passed on to the consumer will, sadly, result in the sacking of most tenured air traffic control workers. Back when Ronald Reagan was still president of the United States, the Reagan administration’s drastic curbing of the air traffic controller’s union’s bargaining powers had resulted in mass firings of experienced air traffic controllers that could have spotted the anomalous behavior of those hijacked planes that were flown straight into the World Trade Center buildings back in September 11, 2001. And I highly doubt it if most budget frequent fliers will ever get their money back or know the difference if the centralization of the EU’s patchwork air traffic control system goes through.