December 5, 2012
NASA has its countdown clock. The Aerospace Industries Association has one, too. It ticks down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the dreaded “fiscal cliff” arrives on January 1, 2013.
Forgoing the usual big-screen charts and graphics at the group’s 48th annual year-end luncheon on Wednesday, AIA President and CEO Marion Blakey took the stage with the clock as her sole prop.
“Not only are we running out of time, we’re running out of metaphors” for the automatic spending cut known as sequestration, she told about 300 members of the media and industry at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. “It’s been called everything from a self-inflicted wound to a Satan sandwich.” Next to her, the clock—labeled “Countdown to Over 2 Million American Jobs Lost”—ticked away. In smaller type was printed: “Stop the clock. Write your elected officials today.”
She predicted significant job losses to the aerospace industry if $487 billion is slashed from the Defense Department over the next decade, as Congress has directed, and an additional $500 billion in defense spending is cut due to sequestration.
Despite the looming threat, the numbers for 2012, she said, “still look promising,” with aerospace and defense industry sales up 3.4 percent, from $211 billion last year to $218 billion, aided by sales of civil aircraft. Industry exports also were up, from $85 billion in 2011 to an estimated $95 billion this year. And the number of industry jobs rose over the same period from 625,000 to 629,000.
Still, “we have a lot of work to do” to ensure that the industry remains healthy. “But first, we must avoid the fiscal cliff. More and more, we’re like Thelma and Louise, careening into the void.”
October 4, 2012
The ability to print spare parts for the space station is still a few years off, but aerospace companies are already using 3D printers on the ground to create everything from concept models to prototype tools for a helicopter assembly line.
As the program manager in this Boeing video says, “You can go from your computer model to a physical prototype you can hold in your hand within an hour or two.”
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.
January 24, 2012
Jet A, the fuel that civil jets use (the military’s are designated JP), comes from crude oil that’s been distilled and standardized to meet a chemical specification. While many turbines can run on almost any light oil or liquid hydrocarbon, jet aircraft fly very high where it’s cold, and Jet A has to resist solidifying up there in the stratosphere, among other requirements.
In recent years, synthetic jet fuels have been created by processing coal and by using biological methods, which produce so-called “bio-fuel.” Although crude oil – petroleum – technically comes from plants, the crude was formed eons ago, and is considered “fossil fuel.” The first bio-fuel to appear in quantity, and the most common one available to consumers, is a blend of gasoline and ethanol in various proportions. The ethanol is made by fermenting the sugars in corn, cane or sugar beets. Ethanol reduces the energy density of the blends compared to gasoline, and researchers are looking for ways to produce butanol instead, because it has better energy density.
Synthetic bio-jet fuel has to closely resemble kerosene and Jet A in its energy density and other properties, and small quantities have been made to be blended with traditional fuels – with some success. Lufthansa recently completed trials using some bio-jet fuel in a roughly 50 percent mix with standard Jet A. But the reason Lufthansa halted the trials highlights a problem posed by bio-fuels generally: They’re not available yet in sufficient quantity or at an affordable price.
Doing demonstrations is one thing; operating large fleets of airliners using even a modest blend of bio-fuel and Jet A will require enormous capital investment in an infrastructure that can produce the fuel. Algae-based oils from bioengineered plant cells, for example, would require huge quantities of water and tanks in which to hold the algae. Right now, the energy it takes to produce biofuels usually exceeds the energy yield. Petroleum flows out of wells and through pipes to refineries, and while the price of oil occasionally spikes in response to market demands, the actual cost of producing it will probably continue to undercut the cost of making fuels from renewable sources. Nonetheless, the U.S. Air Force continues to pursue synthetic fuels to ensure it can continue to operate if crude oil were to be unobtainable.
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