Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The 2014 China Air Show: Not Economically Viable?

Despite for going on for a decade, does the overtly militaristic theme of the 2014 China Air Show casts doubts on its economic viability?

By: Ringo Bones

Officially known as the 10th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition for Railway, Shipping & Aviation which took place back in November 11 to 16, 2014 in Guangdong, The People's Republic of China, has been criticized by pundits – especially from the Jane’s Defense Weekly – as not economically viable in comparison to similar shows – i.e. the Farnborough Air Show back in July 2014 and the African Aerospace and Defence show back in September 2014 because the 2014 China Air Show consists mostly of military sales, as in 95-percent of the sales in fact. By way of comparison, the 2014 Farnborough Air Show and the 2014 African Air Show is a 90-percent commercial endeavor and 10-percent military and defense sales.

The criticism of the 2014 China Air Show not only centers on the show’s over reliance on the military and defense aspects of the aerospace industry, which has been in global decline since 9/11 due to the fact that multi-million dollar fighter planes are not very effective in tackling extremist terror groups but also on the fact that most of their public-relations exhibits used to wow civilian attendees are mostly according to Jane’s Defense Weekly pundits as “Soviet-era museum showcases that dates back from the 1960s”. Even though the 2014 Farnborough Air Show was overshadowed by the tragic shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, most of the “scant” coverage I’ve heard so far of the 2014 China Air Show has been largely negative. Given that the official name of the air show purportedly states its coverage on nautical as well as aviation matters, there has never been any mention of updated versions of the ekranoplan aimed at the civilian inter-island travel market.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is It A Boat, is It A Plane? No, It’s The Ekranoplan?

Even though the International Maritime Organization classifies it as a ship, why isn’t the ekranoplan currently competing with conventional passenger and cargo aircraft? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though it has since been classified as a “ship / boat” by the International Maritime Organization after the first working examples were in limited manufacture as exotic pleasure craft by enterprising Russian émigrés in the United States during the early 1990s, for those old enough to have heard of the news of the Soviet Union’s latest secret weapon called the “Caspian Sea Monster” first hand back in 1974 when the Cold War was in full steam. You would probably call it a plane, too. But first, here’s an introduction to what is a so-called ekranoplan. 

The ekranoplan falls under the category of ground effect vehicles, or GEVs, which is defined as a vehicle that attains level flight near the surface of the earth or a reasonably sized body of water. It is also called wing-in-ground effect (WIG) vehicle or flare craft. The first vehicle to ever “fly” via the ground effect principle – albeit by design accident - was the German 12-engine Dornier Do-X of 1929 which have taken advantage of ground effect to get aloft. Similar craft, as in those early large passenger carrying seaplanes by pioneering commercial airliners around that time took advantage of the ground effect phenomena, but in most cases rather unintentionally because the effect was little understood by aerodynamicists back then. 

Back in January 1974, the public-at-large probably got their first exposure of a true purpose-built ekranoplan when Western intelligence sources who first reported the rather strange creation at the time called it the “Caspian Sea Monster”, which, many in the West believes, is a fitting name. The 10-engine flying boat that the then Soviet Union was testing over the Caspian Sea was deemed the largest aircraft of the time – with an estimated takeoff weight of 500-tons. By way of comparison, the largest adjudicated aircraft of the time, the United States’ C-5 Galaxy only has a maximum takeoff weight of 400-tons. The “Caspian Sea Monster” was, at the time, probably the most unusual flying vehicle because it operates by a deliberate combination of aerodynamic lift and “ground effect” – the air cushion phenomenon that lifts a Hovercraft. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union back in Christmas Day of 1991, the “full specifications” of the “Caspian Sea Monster” and the craft itself became finally available to Western analysts. During Soviet times, such craft were called “ekranoplans” and the Caspian Sea Monster, officially called KM or "Kaspian Monster"  by the then Soviet navy, even though it was only a proof of concept prototype and never intended to become an operational submarine hunting craft and troop carrying craft of the then Soviet navy was “mothballed” way before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Caspian Sea Monster has a “takeoff” weight (or was it “hover” weight?) of 500-tons and as a “water craft” has an 8-ton displacement. It has a length of 100 meters and weighs 540 tons fully loaded. 

Its design was based on the work of the Third-Reich era aerodynamicist named Alexander Lippisch, the Caspian Sea Monster was originally designed by the Soviet era Central Hydrofoil Bureau during the late 1960s and was lead by Rostislav Alexeev. During Soviet era research trials, the craft was found to be most efficient when “flying” 20-meters above the water while traveling at speeds of 300 to 400 knots. The KM / Caspian Sea Monster can even operate without refueling for as long as two to three days over ranges as great as 7,000 miles. The craft has a 15 to 20 man crew just to operate safely at such speeds and altitudes and was planned to be produced in submarine hunting and ultra-swift troop carrying versions before it was mothballed around the mid 1980s. 

By the nature of the beast, an ekranoplan type ground effect craft has a fuel efficiency rating way better than that of a fixed-wing aircraft and / or helicopter flying at low level due to the close proximity to the ground or water surface dramatically reducing lift-induced drag. In practice, ekranoplans only require half or even a quarter of the power than that of a conventional fixed-wing aircraft and / or helicopter requires in getting off the ground or off the water’s surface. 

There are also safety benefits in flying close to the water’s surface as an engine failure will not result in severe ditching. However, by the nature of the beast, ekranoplans are difficult to fly even with computer assisted fly-by-wire control systems used on the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the now retired F-117 Nighthawk stealth (hence the 15 to 20 man crew of the original KM or Caspian Sea Monster) aircraft because flying at such very low altitudes just above the sea or any large body of water may be dangerous if the craft banks too far to one side while making a very tight radius turn.  

Another disadvantage of ekranoplans is that takeoffs must be performed into the wind which in the case of the craft taking off over water means “slamming” into waves while taking off – a maneuver that creates drag and reduces lift. This is the very reason why even though those 1990s era single-engine ekranoplans featured in the Discovery Channel back in 1992 to 1998, that were similarly priced to a typical single-engine Cessna at the time had very few private buyers to keep their manufacturers afloat. I mean have you ever seen hip-billionaires like Richard Branson and Mark Cuban showing off their very own single-engine ekranoplans then and now? 

Two main solutions of the ekranoplan takeoff problem have been implemented since its prototype design stage. The first was used on the original prototype of the KM or Caspian Sea Monster which placed engines in front of the wings to provide more lift. The Caspian Sea Monster has eight of its jet engines mounted on the “canard” of the plane. Some of which were not fired until the craft was fully airborne. The second approach was to use some form of an air-cushion to raise the vehicle most of the way out of the water, making takeoff much easier. This was used in the by German Hanno Fischer in the Hoverwing – successor of the Airfisch ground effect craft – which uses some of the air from the engines to inflate a skirt under the craft in a form of a sidewall or skirted hovercraft. 

The only ekranoplan that attained operational status in the Soviet armed forces was the A-90 Orlyonok, which is a “scaled-down” multi-engine propeller version of the Caspian Sea Monster and was used by the Soviet navy during the 1980s as a submarine hunting craft. Even though they are quite rare, there are post Soviet era commercial passenger ekranoplans still operating in the Caspian Sea region modeled after the A-90 Orlyonok.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Can British Airways Boost It’s “Green Credentials”?

Given that the world’s airline companies are viewed as the main contributors of man-made carbon dioxide even though they just contribute about 3-percent overall, will British Airways’ plan to make kerosene from domestic wastes eventually boost the airline company’s “green credentials”?  

By: Ringo Bones

Even though they only contribute around 3-percent of the overall man-made carbon dioxide emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere, the world’s airline companies has since been under somewhat unfair scrutiny when it comes to those man-made activities that exacerbates the ongoing climate change that could eventually result in sea-level rise and an increase in the number of droughts and rainfall pattern disruption. But will the British Airways’ plans to make aviation grade kerosene from domestic wastes eventually lower their overall carbon dioxide emissions?

At present, conservative funded think-tanks are still publishing data that the manufacture of hydrocarbon-based fuels from biomass and related material like domestic and agricultural wastes offer no less overall carbon dioxide emission reduction as opposed to refining these fuels directly from crude oil. The very fact that most of the world’s crude oil supply comes from less-than-friendly nation-states only bolster every tenured scientists’ attempts at making hydrocarbon based fuels from “alternative” and “renewable” sources.  

Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of IAG – International Airline Group, the parent company of British Airways – says there are already plans to create a facility to make aviation grade kerosene for use in their jet airliners from domestic wastes. Even though the spot price of crude oil has now dropped from 110 US dollars per barrel at the start of 2014 to around 85 US dollars per barrel at present, the British Airways kerosene manufacturing plant that will open around 2017 will still be cost competitive with crude oil sourced aviation grade kerosene even if the spot price of crude oil falls to around 50 US dollars per barrel. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mainland China: The Private Jets Industry’s Undiscovered Country?

Despite the pessimistic future outlook by leading economic pundits, is this country with the fastest growing billionaires still the private jets / executive jets industry’s “undiscovered country?

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though leading economic pundits still paint a pessimistic outlook when it comes to The People’s Republic of China’s future annual economic growth rate by saying it can no longer do a repeat of the economic prosperity that it experienced during the first decade of the 21st Century, the country is still well known for having the fastest growing number of billionaires – which Ali Baba’s Jack Ma is a good example. But believe it or not, Mainland China still doesn’t have a private jets / executive jets industry providing its still growing population of billionaires, thus – inexplicably – making the country an “undiscovered country” when it comes to private jets.

In a BBC interview back in September 14, 2014 of Robert Molsbergen, the Chief Operating Officer of the Warren Buffett owned NetJets already has plans to establish a private jets / executive jets business in Mainland China given that nobody else has done it yet. NetJets had recently negotiated with local Mainland Chinese business partners which only suggest the company’s seriousness to establish a private jets / executive jets industry / service to the still untapped region. Even though there are still fears that foreign companies are still not treated evenhandedly by the monolithic Beijing communist party, the burgeoning Mainland China’s richest 1 percent is just too tempting to ignore. 

Mainland Chinese billionaires or not, air travel is projected to increase by 5.7 percent throughout Asia by 2017 according to an assessment made by the International Air Transport Association – IATA – back in 2013, so even if the private jets / executive jets demand plateaus, Warren Buffett’s NetJets could diversify into a bespoke high-end airline that caters to Asia’s millionaires by providing a 1950s style service to those who can afford it. The whole of Asia could be the global aviation industry’s fastest growing sector.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Do Civilian Airliners Need Military Style Countermeasures?

In the wake of the “accidental” shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over rebel-held east Ukrainian last July 18, 2014, is there a need for military style countermeasures in civilian planes?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though an ongoing investigation has yet to determine whether the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian made BUK / SAM surface-to-air missile over the pro Russian rebel held eastern Ukrainian airspace back in July 18, 2014 is accidental or deliberate, the world’s airline industry has since contemplated whether civilian passenger planes now need military style protection systems. Given the capabilities of your typical military style surface-to-air-missile or other anti-aircraft weapons systems, is the concept even technically feasible in planes now in current use on airline companies?

Ever since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the heightened airport boarding and on-board security on passenger planes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, TSA and other security agencies have since made hijackings of planes and crashing them into buildings a thing of the past. But back in July 18, 2014, the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 flying at around 595 miles per hour 32,000 feet over east Ukrainian airspace by a surface-to-air missile that can fly over 2,000 miles per hour and can shoot down a plane flying up to 70,000 feet raised a yet unprecedented aspect on the safety of civilian air travel yet again.

Inexplicably since 9/11, the ongoing War on Terror has seem to have sent the global defense industry on a decline since Al Qaeda and other similar groups doesn’t have an air force equipped with supersonic capable fighter planes. Thus the bulk of the military aviation related spending of the War on Terror centers around military transport planes similar to the Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules – like the Airbus A400M Military Transport that can carry well-armed infantry troops to the terrorist’s strongholds as opposed to engaging Osama Bin Laden in a dogfight 70,000 feet above Kandahar.

Even though military transport planes with a similar flight envelope to your typical civilian airliner had been equipped with various countermeasures – i.e. aluminum chaff and magnesium flare dispensers - that enable them to evade surface-to-air missiles since the height of the Cold War, these SAM countermeasures have yet to find their way to an Airbus or a Boeing passenger plane owned by a commercial airline company. Near the end of the 2014 Farnborough Air Show, British aerospace firm BAE Systems said that the civilian aviation industry needs military style protection in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 back in July 18, 2014. But even though the idea of installing military style countermeasures on civilian airliners is technically feasible will it be economically viable from the airline company’s perspective? Or is this just another way for aerospace firms to make money in the post 9/11 world? Maybe civilian airlines will now start to have their radar intercept officers to avoid them being brought down by radar guided "beam-rider" SAMs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Shootdown Incident: Not So Unprecedented Civil Aviation Incident?

Even though it does not happen with alarming regularity, will the recent Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 shootdown incident change yet again the current civil aviation safety measures in currently place?

By: Ringo Bones 

Fortunately for us civilians who frequently fly the increasingly not-so-friendly skies since the 9/11 Islamist terror attacks, shootdown incidents are still a rarity and don’t occur with alarming regularity as portrayed in most Hollywood action movies. Civil aviation shootdown incidents have happened before and even served as the catalyst of the tragic April 1994 Rwandan Genocide, it seems that such incidents only seem to provide the general perception that the flying civilian public had served as “unwitting pawns” in geopolitical power struggles since the Cold War. 

In putting a human face to this tragic incident, the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 back in Friday July 18, 2014 while flying its Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur route over the airspace of Eastern Ukraine largely under control by pro-Russia separatist rebels since February 2014 involved the deaths of 280 passengers and 15 crewmembers. Most of the passengers – 189 of them – are Dutch nationals on their way to vacation one of which is a leading and pioneering HIV / AIDS medical researcher Dr. Joep Lange together with 100 other leading HIV / AIDS researchers. At present, other passengers’ nationalities who perished in the tragic shootdown are 28 Australian nationals, 23 Malaysians, 6 Britons, 4 Germans, 3 Filipinos and 3 infants. 

The latest initial investigations so far have revealed that the most likely anti-aircraft weapons system used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Boeing 777 is probably the Soviet era BUK surface-to-air missile which has become de rigueur air defense weapons system of choice by former Warsaw-Pac member countries. The BUK consists of four 16-foot long 1,500-lb missiles with a 150-ib warhead and launch system mounted atop a full track armored vehicle and is capable of speeds up to 2,684 mph which can easily make short shrift of a typical civilian passenger plane which only can fly around 600 mph and an incoming BUK missile can only be “seen” by a pilot in a cockpit equipped with advanced sensors oft the preserve of advanced fighter jets. 

The BUK missile is often used to shoot down planes flying at altitudes high enough to avoid man-portable anti-aircraft weapons systems like the famed Stinger. As an anti-aircraft weapons system developed near the end of the Cold War, the BUK is “user-friendly” enough to be effectively used by anyone with the brainpower to be able to tie one’s shoes while chewing gum at the same time but takes a bit longer training time to be able to accurately differentiate civilian from military targets. A modified BUK missile launcher system was modified with a high-speed Schottky Rectifier equipped Mainland Chinese Nanjing Radar system that brought down a US Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth plane during the 1999 operation to capture Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic. 

Though questions are being asked why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was flying over a “hostile warzone” but the flight-path it took was a well trodden designated Europe to Asia international flight path L980 which the German airliner Lufthansa also uses but British Airways has since shied away from since the February 2014 Eastern Ukraine conflict initiated by pro-Russia separatist militias.  While a typical altitude flown by a typical civilian passenger plane at 30,000 to 40,000 feet is way above the range of most man-portable rocket launchers that are in the hands of most terrorist militia groups. 

Given that the pro-Russia separatist militias manage to hold a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system like the BUK and the intelligence so far gathered by secret American operatives imbedded in Eastern Ukraine had shown that the militants actually made the mistake of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 as the recently deleted text messages between a pro-Russian militant named “Greek” and “Major” revealed a “Tweet” of the screw-up. And diversions due to the tragic shootdown incident could make Europe to Asia flights take longer and cost more due to increased fuel usage.  

And investigation of the crash site has since became a contentious issue since the crash site has not been quarantined and been trampled around by both the pro-Russian militants and the nearby townsfolk. OSCE monitors trying to make an initial investigation of the crash site were even given warning shots by local pro-Russian militants after just spending 75 minutes on the crash site. In short, international investigators have so far been denied free unfettered access of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.   

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the Ukrainian government for “responsibility” of the crash, such rhetoric only reminds the world of the legal case of a burglar suing the homeowner for medical compensation after the burglar broke his leg trying to scale the homeowner’s fence. And further rhetoric of the Russian strongman only seems like him digging a hole for him and the pro-Russian militants as war criminals straight into the International Court of Justice. 

Since the Cold War began, high profile shootdown cases of civilian airliners by the former Soviet Union and her allies had almost started an all-out thermonuclear exchange between the United States and the then Soviet Union. Back in July 23, 1954, a Cathay Pacific Douglas DC4, also known as Cathay Pacific Flight VR-HEU which also carried the then Taiwanese Ambassador, was brought down by anti-aircraft fire by the Mainland Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force off the coast of Hainan Island, People’s Republic of China, killing 13 passengers and 6 crew shot with anti-aircraft incendiary rounds. Fortunately, 9 people survived as the plane made an emergency landing. 

And before the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 back in September 1, 1983 that nearly triggered a thermonuclear World War III, the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 shootdown incident by a Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane on April 20, 1978 near Murmansk, Russia after it accidentally violated the country’s airspace and failed to respond to Soviet interceptors only gives the impression to the rest of the world that Russians in charge of monitoring the security of their airspace are – then and now – trigger happy yahoos. Two passengers were killed after the Sukhoi Su-15 fighter plane strafed the Korean Air Lines Flight 902 plane with its 25-mm guns. Fortunately, 107 passengers survived after the plane made an emergency landing on a frozen lake. 

On the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, authorities of the then Soviet Union only admitted to “accidentally” shooting down the plane 20 days after the tragic incident. And a historical footnote of the tragedy now probably largely forgotten, the black box of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was “hidden” by Soviet authorities and was only returned back in 1993 when the West friendly Boris Yeltsin became president of post-Soviet Russia.  

The Unexplained Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappearance: Unsolved Mystery?

Even though quite a number of planes – both civilian and military - had disappeared throughout the history of manned flight, will the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 destined to be an “unsolved mystery”?

By: Ringo Bones 

As paradoxical as it seems, despite of scores of unexplained flight disappearances – both civilian and military – throughout the relatively brief but crowded history of aviation, it seems that air travel is still the safest way to travel statistically in comparison to other forms of transportation systems. But will the still unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777 destined to be added unto the roster of aviation’s “unsolved mysteries” like that of the US Navy’s Flight 19 that mysteriously disappeared while conducting a supposedly routine flight over the “infamous” Bermuda Triangle? 

Given that most idle speculations and conspiracy theories put forth so far seems to have only raised the ire – rather than provide closure – to the surviving family members and loved ones of the 290 passengers and crew on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that inexplicably disappeared back in March 8, 2014 somewhere over a yet to be determined part of the southern Indian Ocean, it is somewhat disconcerting to comprehend that the yet to be explained disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 Boeing 777 is not an unprecedented event in aviation history – that is it had happened before. Both civilian and military fights seem to be not immune from the misfortune of “unexplained disappearances”. 

Probably the first – and still largely unsolved – unexplained flight disappearances in civil aviation history is the disappearance incident of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 that happened back in June 22, 1950. The civilian passenger plane involved was a Douglas DC4 Propliner operating its regular daily transcontinental service between New York and Seattle when it mysteriously disappeared on the night of June 22, 1950 while flying over the “notorious” Lake Michigan Triangle. The flight was carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members; the loss of all 58 on board made it the deadliest commercial airline accident in American history at the time. To this day, the wreckage of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501 Douglas DC4 Propliner has yet to be found despite of the involvement of famed underwater shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler in the search since he started his underwater salvage firm. 

One of the most mysterious flight disappearances in the history of American military aviation was the disappearance of the Atlantic C-124 back in March 23, 1951 flying from Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, New Mexico to RAF Station Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, when US Air Force C-124 Globemaster after an in-flight fire forced the pilots to ditch the plane in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Shannon, Ireland. After the mayday call was successfully sent, the ditching and subsequent evacuation was successful, except that when the rescuers arrived on the scene, the aircraft and its occupants had vanished. All 53 people on board were never fond and were presumed dead. 

While previous images of the alleged wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that was “seen” by Mainland Chinese reconnaissance satellites were later proved to be misleading in finding the plane to determine what caused it to crash, it seems that it could probably take some time before the rest of the world know what really happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777. And due to the length of time involved in the search, all hands are now unfortunately presumed dead leaving the rest of us hoping that the lessons learned from this aviation tragedy would improve current civil aviation safety standards.    

Sunday, March 2, 2014

HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle: For Rock Concerts in the Stratosphere?

Its further development now primarily funded by Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, will the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle soon be making rock concerts at 35,000 feet a reality?

By Ringo Bones

Ever since its development for military applications was ditched by the US Department of Defense due to recent budget cuts, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle was eventually sold back to the British firm who originally developed it and sold it to the US DoD a decade ago. Now largely funded by the iconic heavy metal music band Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, will the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle eventually find other useful applications in the world of civil aviation?

At 300 feet in length, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle is currently the world’s largest aircraft. By comparison, the Antonov An-225 – the previous record holder as the world’s largest aircraft - is “only” 276 feet long while the current largest passenger plane – the Airbus A380 – is “only” 239.5 feet long. Airline pilot and Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson got interested in the HAV304 primarily due to its 50-ton cargo capacity and its ability to fly for weeks at a tie while using only a third of the fuel of a typical turbofan jet powered long-haul wide-bodied jet aircraft. Given the payload and range and low fuel consumption, the HAV304 Hybrid Air Vehicle could revolutionize how relief supplies would be carried disaster zones.

Though primarily inflated with the inert gas helium to hold its shape, the HAV304 is still too heavy to float on its own without engine power like the Zeppelin type airships of the past. And given that he is now the main funder of the further development of the HAV304, Bruce Dickinson plans to test flight the craft from pole to pole either as a scientific vehicle or as a tourism platform that can also fly 20 feet above the treetop canopy of the Amazon Rain Forest. And probably even as a flying concert hall capable of performing heavy metal music concerts 35,000 feet above the ground.