July 24, 2012
Seven years ago, when London was chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officials knew it would stress the city’s busy airspace. In March, the United Kingdom’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) told Parliament that airspace congestion at London’s Heathrow airport was already at 98 percent capacity, so that by mid-July, any disruption to the overburdened system of NATS-controlled airspace—from increased traffic, weather delays, or terrorist attacks—would require even more help. To help offset the volume, the Royal Air Force established an Olympics airspace management “cell” named Atlas Control within the largest NATS control center at Swanwick, to handle flights in the temporary restricted zones.
The temporary Atlas control center is staffed with more than 100 airmen from the Royal Air Force. Half will work as air traffic controllers; the rest will handle flight plans. All are veterans of Air Traffic Services Outside Controlled Airspace (ATSOCAS), a service that does everything from giving pilots weather updates to rerouting aircraft.
During the first weekend of airspace security restrictions, which began July 14, a large number of flight plans were filed with minor errors that stumped the computerized system. To help process paperwork, another 10 staff were assigned to the control center.
The Olympics are expected to bring 700 more commercial airliners carrying 500,000 athletes and fans; an extra 3,000 business aviation flights; and at least 150 heads of State in VIP aircraft. Airlines lobbied NATS for priority to land or cross the airspace, but NATS is required to treat all users equally.
Earlier estimates of air traffic were based on patterns seen during the Beijing Olympics, Paul Beauchamp of the NATs press office told us July 20. But London’s flight restrictions are not as severe as they were in China, where private airplanes were essentially prohibited. “No one is saying that general aviation pilots are excluded,” said Beauchamp, “just that they need to tell Atlas Control who they are, and where they are going. It’s not about closing down airspace, but creating a known environment.” Since flight plans can be filed as little as two hours before takeoff, patterns are tough to predict. “The closer we get to the Opening Ceremony on July 27, the more plans we’ll get,” said Beauchamp. “Then [another] surge just before the Men’s 100-meter final. Then again for the Closing Ceremony.”
Any aircraft coming closer than three nautical miles to a restricted zone, and more critically the prohibited zone at the center of the Games, needs an approved flight plan, and is required to establish two-way radio contact before leaving the ground. Pilots don’t need a flight plan, and don’t have to speak to Atlas or even carry a transponder to reveal their location if they remain more than three nautical miles away.
Some 1,500 helicopter flights will carry media and broadcast crews, security teams, and Olympic staff to the city center each day. Flying at low level, each helicopter needs to dodge balloons carrying television and security cameras that are linked to the ground by tethers stretching from 142 feet to 381 feet.
After the Olympics end, the control center will manage the somewhat eased restrictions for the Paralympic Games, through the closing of the Olympic Village on September 12. Delegations from Brazil (site of the 2014 World Cup) and Russia (which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics) have visited Atlas to help prepare for their events.
Some air traffic planners worry less about security threats than a natural disruption, whether from England’s notorious rain and fog, or an event as unlikely as a volcano. Partly at the urging of British authorities, Airbus accelerated its tests of an Airborne Volcanic Object Infrared Detector (AVOID) to alert Atlas to any such geologic disruption.
May 16, 2012
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner tour made a whistle-stop at Washington National Airport (DCA) last week, hoping to bring the media under its spell.
I liked the cup holders.
Sure, the Dreamliner may promise fuel savings from a light but strong hull made of carbon fiber. And its passengers may savor its small luxuries, which range from livelier air in the cabin, to ceilings that invite you to stand tall even in the toilet. Slide your finger over the control panel under a passenger window and within 60 seconds it darkens from sunlight to a drowsy dusk. The 787 could certainly lower the pain of crossing an ocean in Economy.
Yet it all pales in comparison to the cup holders, and I’m not the only one who’s distracted. When the 787 toured the world last summer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was equally entranced.
The idea behind the gadgets is not new, or not entirely. Cup holders are ubiquitous, from the minivans carting people to the airport to the very luggage they wheel into the cabin. On airliners, the concept of a cup holder operating independently from its tray table has been refined for a decade on non-U.S. airliners.
The novelty in the Dreamliner, at least for the style of passenger seat selected by its launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA), is that the cup holders spin. Here, see for yourself:
You might argue that most airline coffee should be dumped intentionally. But when spills happen accidentally due to in-flight turbulence, you will appreciate this Dreamliner amenity. Its cup holder lowers into place independent of the tray table, making the table useful for tasks other than holding your drink. In addition, the center ring spins like a gyro on pivot points, so that it rolls with the airplane in most attitudes, including your own.
Dreamliner pilots are in a better position to know when spills might happen, which may explain why they get standard drink holders in the cockpit. Federal Aviation Regulations allow the crew to have food and drink in the cockpit so long as care is taken. The FAA apparently missed the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, in which spilled coffee shorts critical instruments and leads to a devastating crash. Last year a United Airlines pilot splashed coffee on the radio system, and in the ensuing confusion accidentally entered the code for a hijacked airplane, forcing a diversion.
Not that the cup holders in the 787 passenger cabin lack rigorous test. Its plastic construction may not equal the carbon fiber in the airliner’s hull, but it meets standards for impact and even for fire resistance (Code of Federal Regulations, Flammability of Polymer Composites (14 CFR 25.853).
Time will prove, though, whether it can withstand the passenger who uses the ring as a handhold while stepping over his seatmate on the way to the stand-tall toilet. Cup holders may survive the first delicate tug or two, but not the brutal yank as he trips over the fold-down footrest. Which, at first glance, also seemed like a dreamy idea.
November 7, 2011
For 30 seconds beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, November 9, every television and radio station in every U.S. state and a few of its territories, both broadcast and cable, will offer different programming than usual. Wednesday’s message will be continuous whether by audio, video, or digital stream: This is a Test.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has assured the public that “it’s not pass or fail.” It’s simply the first nationwide trial of the emergency alert system (EAS).
That system has been tested on a local basis every week for the last 15 years, when EAS replaced the emergency broadcast system. But it’s never been tested simultaneously from shore to shore. For one thing, it takes a lot of coordination: from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service. Weather alerts, unsurprisingly, have comprised most of the genuine, local uses of EAS.
But EAS’s roots are not in storm warnings. Sixty years ago, a national system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in case of an air raid during the Cold War. Before CONELRAD, urgent news arrived by telephone or teletype machine to radio stations and fledgling TV networks, where a bulletin was typed in haste and handed to an announcer to read breathlessly on air. In March 1951, an FCC study recommended to President Harry Truman that “basic key stations” of the air defense command (ADC) and select radio stations reserve a special phone circuit and radio frequency to ensure a uniform and sober distribution.
On December 10, 1951, CONELRAD went live on two positions of the AM dial, 640 and 1240 kHz. It was tested nationally for the first time in the wee hours of September 16, 1953. By the summer of 1956, nationwide tests ran as long as 15 minutes and included a selection of tunes by the Air Force Symphony Orchestra. Almost from the start, though, the system gave false alarms from poorly wired connections or even lightning. Once a station on the CONELRAD circuit began transmitting, all other radio stations were to power down.
Commercial radio stations were often based in the center of cities, with their broadcast towers sitting atop the tallest available structures, making a natural bulls-eye for an enemy bomber to home in on its signal. To prevent such radio range finding, all stations other than the ring of CONELRAD transmitters were to temporarily cease broadcasting. Only brief bursts of emergency instructions were issued to prevent enemies homing in on the CONELRAD sites, which were nonetheless set well away from population centers.
Until 1963, the FCC required all radios sold in the U.S. to carry a mark reminding listeners where to tune in for civil defense instructions. Under CONELRAD, the small triangular CD or civil defense mark was also sold in a kit to glue onto the dials of older radios. When the national test transmits this week, we’ll see how that old technique compares to today’s digital reach.
October 20, 2011
When pilots make a bad landing they don’t blame their bankers. Or dig up references from their freshman year economic term papers. So why do bankers, hacks, and Capitol Hill flaks use a beloved aviation term to malign the national economy?
“The world is close to stall speed,” wrote one analyst, whose hyperbole was inevitable after economists from Beijing to Sydney started using the metaphor. “Rhode Island’s economy is now perilously close to stall speed,” frets Leonard Lardaro, professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island.
Over at Minyanville, a site for edgy financial commentary, writer Satyajit Das at least fleshed out the metaphor. “Powered flight requires air to flow smoothly over the wing at a certain speed. Erratic or slow air flow can cause a plane to stall,” wrote Das. “Most modern aircraft are fitted with a ‘stick shaker’ that rapidly and noisily vibrates the control yoke or ‘stick’ of an aircraft to warn the pilot of an imminent stall. The global economy, too, needs air flow — smooth, steady and strong growth. Unfortunately, the global economy’s stick shaker is vibrating violently.”
It’s not clear how long economy writers have laid claim to the metaphor, or who coined it first. But it went full throttle in April after its use in block letters atop a numbing, 62-page white paper by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Forecasting Recessions Using Stall Speeds.
Not only is the phrase overused lately, it was an imperfect metaphor from the outset. If we’ve got to tap the airman’s dictionary at all, why not minimum controllable airspeed?
The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook defines MCA as “a speed at which any further increase in angle of attack or load factor, or reduction in power, will cause an immediate stall.”
For the more poetic writers, MCA makes a sound that’s simultaneously terrifying and irritating. When an airplane changes its angle of attack in such a way that a stall is imminent, a “stall warning horn” positioned on the leading edge of a wing issues a haunting, grating moan. Not unlike the shrill clarion of financial pages themselves.
And you don’t need a rocket scientist to tell you what’s next. Already this summer, Bloomberg News compared the U.S. economy to a rocket ship:“If it has enough thrust it can escape the tug of economic gravity. Not enough, and it just might go into a tailspin.”
Just like our patience.
September 12, 2011
This summer the X-47B unmanned combat aircraft made its first arrested landing on the USS Eisenhower. Well, actually it was an F/A-18D Hornet (left) operating as a surrogate, using the software and avionics of the X-47B. And a pilot was in the cockpit, or, in Navy parlance, “in the loop.” Off-camera and well off-ship, a less glamorous King Air fitted with the same control system set down smoothly on a land-based runway.
Both landings brought the Navy a step closer to meeting its mission goal of an “autonomous, low-observable, relevant unmanned aircraft.” The surrogate tests pose lower risk than landing a real X-47B without prior sea trials, and at far lower cost.
Today’s carrier approaches are flown manually by a pilot using visual cues and a radio dispatch, usually sent from the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on deck. Most of the information is relayed by voice, the rest by handheld flags, which can introduce both delay and errors. The purpose of the UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration) program is to digitize all communications and navigation data, while minimizing the new hardware and training requirements for the awkward human component.
Both the aircraft and the ship’s control tower will use GPS navigation. Eventually the carrier’s LSO will fold up his flags and transmit all instructions via a digital network integrated with the primary flight control tower on deck. Digital control will also reach the ship’s ready room below, which may have no pilots in the traditional sense.
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