March 29, 2013
They are exceptionally durable machines, built of aluminum or, increasingly, composites. When properly maintained, they can provide decades of service. Commercial aircraft operated by airlines can last for hundreds of thousands of hours. Your car may give you 10 years, but after that it’s time to recycle it or ship it to Cuba.
Even the smallest airframes serve as reusable containers for new engines and electronics, upgrading as each new wave of technology washes over the stubborn structure. Wooden aircraft can rot, and aluminum can corrode, but both forms of decay can be kept at bay by care and maintenance. If that doesn’t work, there’s restoration and refurbishment. A Beech Bonanza, to cite one popular general-aviation airplane that typically is used heavily by its owners, will need an engine overhaul roughly every 2,000 hours. A smart owner will divide the dollar cost of an overhaul by 2,000 and salt away that many dollars in the bank for each hour flown as an “engine reserve” to pay for a new or zero-time engine when the inevitable replacement day draws nigh.
The virtuous durability of airframes became a vice when product liability lawsuits took off during the 1970s and ’80s. Manufacturers suddenly woke up to the fact that every long-lasting airplane represented long-term exposure to corporate liability in the event of a malfunction. After a long struggle, airplane makers were able to secure passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, which limited their liability to personal aircraft not more than 18 years old.
Although engines need regular attention, avionics are the best deal in the world. An owner can add them piecemeal or just yank out the whole instrument panel and replace it with technology such as that offered by Aspen Avionics: That company makes “glass cockpit” displays and systems that fit right in the old holes where the steam gauges used to sit, and it’s the very latest technology at an affordable price. Instant new airplane. And you don’t have to buy a new operating system every three years.
At small airports across the country, airplanes are handed down from one generation to another, not just as heirlooms but as real, live working modes of transportation. We’ve all complained about the programmed obsolescence of our cars, our appliances, our computers. Here’s one possession designed to last.
March 5, 2013
Engineers who work in aviation learn to be risk averse. Change tends to happen slowly, through evolution rather than sudden breakthroughs. When a new idea comes along, it’s usually tested for years before being introduced to the fleet, and even then it usually debuts with the military—they have ejection seats, after all. Some engine components are tried out in ground-based turbines for electrical power plants before working their way into aircraft engines, a practice GE says it pursued for its latest engines.
One maxim of jet engine design is that higher power comes at a cost of greater heat. Unfortunately, heat melts metal. So anyone who can make an engine run hotter and still survive will be able to tweak more thrust out of the same amount of fuel. People have been working at the problem for years.
Early in the game, engineers tried alloys that could survive the 2,000+-degree-Fahrenheit gas that meets the first set of turbine blades. But the gas, coming straight from the combustor, put such stress on the turbines that they only lasted tens of hours. The metal would soften to a point where the rapidly spinning blades elongated, and their tips began to rub against the tip seals on the engine’s outer wall.
By combining metals such as nickel, chromium and even more exotic elements from the periodic table, engines could be made to run hotter and survive. Later, the blades were made from crystals grown in such a way that the metal’s grain aligned with the centrifugal force, lending greater strength. Another improvement was cooling the blades with tiny passages that carried cold air to the leading edge, using air from the engine’s compressor to supply the cooling flow. That stole some power from the compressor, but the investment paid off in higher combustion temperatures and improved power and efficiency.
Research into the use of ceramics in the engine’s hot section began decades ago, starting with ceramic coatings on combustors and parts of the turbine section. A NASA technical memorandum (89868) dated May 1987, authored by Gerald Knip, Jr. at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, describes “revolutionary materials” applied to subsonic jet engines. It describes ceramic composites that overcome the typical brittle quality of ceramics by using reinforcing fibers in much the same way that carbon fiber reinforces modern composites.
GE and the Air Force are now going all in with advanced ceramics, which are incorporated into a research engine called ADVENT for ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology. In tests, the engine is reported to have run hotter than any engine ever built. Ceramic matrix composites, or “CMCs,” made from silicon carbide matrix and fibers, make it possible for the engine to tolerate gas temperatures of 2,400 degrees and achieve a reported gain in fuel efficiency of 25 percent. With fuel prices so high, that kind of progress, following decades of materials research, couldn’t come at a better time.
November 26, 2012
With the heightened political sensitivities during the presidential campaign season, it was fairly predictable that an invitation from Boeing to some of its suppliers to attend a workshop on aerospace manufacturing in Mexico would set off a rhubarb among the various stakeholders. Boeing is not affiliated with either U.S. political party, and the invite had no partisan implications.
But Boeing is a political hot button in itself, and both political parties know that. What voters need to know is that there has been low-level aerospace manufacturing in Mexico for a long time, and placing work there is no different than the offsets in other countries, where Boeing has spread its 787 program, in particular, all over the map. It does this for competitive reasons, and so does Airbus. By sharing the work with customer nations, Boeing “offsets” some of the cost to its customers when they buy its airplanes. Japan has been a loyal Boeing customer since World War II, and its heavy industries build the wings, the center wing box and parts of the fuselage for the 787, while its airlines, Japan Air Lines and All Nippon, were the first to order the airplane and put it into service, with the first JAL flight from Tokyo to Boston last April.
Mexico is a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has been manufacturing parts for U.S. automobiles as well as assembling VWs (and soon, Audis) along with Isuzus for domestic consumption.
Cessna Aircraft, a division of Textron, operates a facility in Chihuahua that makes sheet metal assemblies and wire harnesses for Citation jets. MD Helicopters, owned by Patriarch Partners, a New York holding company, uses parts made by another Patriarch company in Mexico.
Boeing has a long history of testy labor relations, and the unions that represent some of its workers are strident in opposing any work share that’s not performed by their members. But the heavy final-assembly work at Boeing is, has been, will be located in the United States for some time to come.
October 12, 2012
Airplanes that look beautiful from the outside only reward their owners as they’re strolling up to board it. But time spent inside the cabin lasts far longer, and leaves a more indelible impression.
With that bit of wisdom in mind, the HA-420 Hondajet has been designed not to showcase a sleek exterior, but to afford the most spacious cabin possible in a light business jet. Now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has named Hondajet designer Michimasa Fujino as the winner of its 2012 Aircraft Design Award.
The first unique feature that smacks the new Hondajet owner in the eye is the engine location: It’s mounted on struts that extend from the upper surface of the wing – the very place where, as Fujino likes to recall, he was taught in engineering school you never place the engines.
The next eye-grabber is the forward fuselage and nose section, which bulge like a swollen gland. They’re configured that way to encourage smoother airflow and reduce drag, despite the off-putting squid-like appearance.
Once inside, the benefit of the engine location becomes apparent in the startling spaciousness of the cabin, which extends farther aft than it does in traditional twinjets, where the engines are mounted behind the fuselage. There’s also room for a huge baggage compartment. By mounting the engines on the wing, all the plumbing that usually fills the aft fuselage moves elsewhere, freeing up space.
Fujino-san, as he’s known to his employees at the company’s Greensboro, North Carolina headquarters, deserves the award for supreme patience and persistence, if nothing else. But then, Honda has always been a patient and persistent company. And it’s said that founder Soichiro Honda had always been interested in aircraft.
The little jet began as a design study in the 1980s, then as a flying proof of concept aircraft – the MH02 – built under the aegis of Mississippi State University’s aeronautics division. The prototype for the HA-420 first flew in December 2003, nearly 10 years ago. And it’s been Fujino’s baby from day one.
Some would argue that it’s strange to give the award to an airplane design that has yet to prove commercially successful. The Hondajet has so far sold only about 100 orders (Honda is vague on the numbers). Not to mention that the airplane has yet to receive its FAA certificate of airworthiness. When the Eclipse Very Light Jet won the Collier Trophy back in 2005, there was a muffled outcry from its competitors because its status in the market was ambiguous, and the company went under soon afterward (it has since been revived).
But the Honda situation is different. The company speaks in terms of transportation, not vehicles. It is focused on movement, not machines. Its laboratories are as likely to experiment with four-legged robot walking machines and the locomotion of insects as it is with engine emissions – an area which it happens to have pioneered. The company even launched its own small jet engine, the HF120, which has led to a partnership with General Electric’s aero engine division.
Fujino deserves this award for pursuing successfully the engine-over-wing configuration that has proven itself in testing. After all, the 420 in the aircraft’s designation is derived from its top speed in knots. That’s 483 mph, fastest in its class.
So congratulations to the man who inspired a new airplane, a new way to mount the engines on light twinjets, and a company – one with staying power – that’s brand new to aviation.
July 17, 2012
So the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming, and everywhere we read of how their ambitions in aerospace mean they will inevitably overtake U.S. interests in the industry. Maybe. But it’s a long-shot bet that such an outcome would happen anytime soon, if ever.
Since Deng Xiaoping began the recovery of the nation from its disastrous plunge during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, aerospace has factored in China’s plans for the future. And why shouldn’t it? The industry is considered the crown jewel of developed nations’ economies — a money machine that produces enormous export revenue, with a relatively high cost of entry that acts as a formidable obstacle to any would-be rival. Any ambitions that China may harbor to become a great power — and there’s little question that they have such plans — mean the nation would have to meet, match or overcome the perceived lead in technology enjoyed by the developed countries.
To that end, McDonnell Douglas dispatched executive Gareth C. C. Chang in the late 1970s to sell aircraft to China, even if those aircraft would be assembled in China to offset some cost. Chang’s father had been a pal of Deng Xiaoping, who blessed the project. But the enterprise foundered after China postponed it, claiming a lack of funds, and although a few MD-80s were produced, the resulting debacle was one of many reasons McDonnell-Douglas was driven into the arms of Boeing (the companies merged in 1997). A Chinese derivative of the MD-90, known as the ARJ21, was launched in 2002 and has yet to be delivered to its first customer.
Notwithstanding that history, China’s latest effort, the Comac C919, is supposed to take on the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 if it enters operation as scheduled in 2016. With the single exception of GE Capital, all orders have come from Chinese companies. So there’s no shortage of patience and persistence in Beijing when its comes to aerospace projects. China’s first efforts to become a space-faring power have been reported on other Air & Space blogs for some time now.
More recently, Chinese organizations have gone shopping for distressed U.S. light-airplane manufacturers, and have succeeded in obtaining controlling interests in both Cirrus Design and, more recently, Hawker Beechcraft. More than one U.S. aerospace expert has fantasized about how Walter and Olive Ann Beech, founders of the family-run company from the old days, must be spinning in their graves. Still, as someone in the oil bidness once put it, it makes more sense to buy up existing wells than to drill for your crude. Connect the dots and it appears that China is buying its way into existing airplane manufacturers rather than trying to start up its own industry.
It helps to recall that with the rise and fall of various economies as business cycles play out, the supposed crown jewels of one nation can end up in the hands of another. It happened during the Japanese economic bubble, when that nation’s high-flying investors bought such properties as Rockefeller Center and the golf resort at Pebble Beach. Then Japan’s economy crashed.
What’s most important to keep in mind is that both Boeing and Airbus are steeped in an intense culture that focuses on marketing and customer service as much as on the manufacture of airframes. Both companies can marshal armies of skilled and experienced engineers and technicians to support their products: They hold the customer’s hand when a new product is introduced, and from that tradition comes confidence in their respective products. Russia and the eastern bloc built airliners, too, but sold them mainly to domestic operators because they lacked the service infrastructure that would assure outside customers of satisfaction with the product. It’s difficult to think of an industry that’s harder to break into.
China can surely learn to achieve western-style service and support, but it will take a long time. Communism and socialism were intended to provide equally for all based on the equal efforts of all, but these days China seems to be showing the outside world that family ties come before allegiance to the state or to official ideology. Until the nation can adapt to western business mores, it can’t make the rapid progress it desires.
June 13, 2012
If you grew up flying light airplanes during the heady years of the 1960s and ’70s, chances are about ten to one that you had one of Ed King’s VHF transceivers in the panel. King had earned a degree in electrical engineering, which he applied to churning out components for the industry giant of that age, Collins Radio, back in the 1940s. Collins bought him out, and he set up a new company to design and produce a better radio for light, general aviation aircraft. “Panel-mounted” radios were compact and fit right into the instrument panel, whereas the high-end airline equipment was “remote mounted” on racks in compartments that were out of reach of the crew. But King liked the challenge of reducing the “form factor” of a box while maintaining the performance and quality of the airline stuff.
Until King came on the scene, aircraft communication radios were, well, pretty awful. He set about designing circuits based on crystals that would provide a steady and reliable frequency — like the “clock” in your PC’s microprocessor — with the result that King radios soon got a reputation for reliability, ease of use, and crystal-clear voice communication.
In those days, it was a big deal to build a radio that was 100-percent “solid state,” a term that meant “no vacuum tubes allowed; transistors only.” King mass-produced them with alacrity, soon adding navigation components such as automatic direction finders, VHF omnirange receivers and, eventually complete integrated navigation systems. And all of it fit into the airplane’s panel.
Anyone close to the general aviation business in those days (I was writing for FLYING Magazine, and, being the junior staffer, was assigned the “avionics” beat; also, nobody else wanted it) came to appreciate Ed King as an engineer who mastered the art of knowing when his designers had put together a box that was “good enough.” It did the job at a reasonable and affordable price — and it left enough profit margin for the company to invest in the next generation of products. Where some avionics makers piled on the features, flashing lights and push buttons, King kept it simple.
Perhaps the most memorable single product to come out of King Radio while Ed was there was the KNS-80, which combined in a single panel-mounted unit one 200-channel navigation receiver for VORs and localizer beams (used for instrument approaches), a 200-channel DME (distance measuring equipment), a digital area-navigation computer and a 40-channel glideslope receiver. All those sub-systems must have been pretty closely crammed together, because the box required a fan to provide cooling.
The KNS-80 allowed a pilot to draw a straight line on the chart between origin and destination, then offset the various VOR navaids along the route, in effect moving them to the desired track on the ground. When that thing came out, GA pilots thought they’d seen it all. And it had only six buttons and a pair of concentric knobs. It took a little time and effort to learn how to use it, but your average Joe Pilot in his Cessna Skyhawk could fly “direct,” just as the airline guys did.
Sure, Loran-C came along, followed by today’s GPS, and now the -80 is almost a bit of nostalgia. But they’re still being sold (used or refurbished) and serviced, and as one shop’s ad says, “Even today, the KNS-80 represents a great value.”
Ed took his company public, which made the ultimate sale of it to Bendix Aviation inevitable. Allied bought Bendix, merged with Signal, and eventually, became part of Honeywell, which is where you can find the Bendix/King brand today.
Later in life, his love for the sea took over, and King Marine Radio was launched in Florida and became quite successful. Ed King died on June 3, but pilots will always remember him as the man who built their radios.
May 24, 2012
Modern aircraft are so complex that using the word “mechanics” to describe the people who service them no longer seems to fit; they work surrounded by computers, electronics, and tools that bear no resemblance to the ball-peen hammers of yore. Still, the Aircraft Maintenance Technicians (AMT) Association has established May 24 as a day for national recognition of their profession, and in so doing, pay honor to the man who is considered the very first American AMT.
When the Wright brothers needed help around their bicycle shop, they hired one Charles E. Taylor, a mechanic and machinist. Charley, as they called him, was the kind of man who might have been described in those days as “good with his hands.” Born in 1868, shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War, he became a trusted employee around the Wrights’ bike shop in the first years of the 20th century, where he repaired bicycles and even ran the place when the brothers were gone.
Although Orville and Wilbur began flying in gliders, their goal was always to fly a powered aircraft that could stay aloft as long as its fuel lasted. To do that, they needed an engine–but not just any engine. When they sought bids from established manufacturers, they stipulated that the engine had to be light but powerful. It also had to run smoothly enough that the vibration didn’t tear their airplanes apart. It was hardly surprising that no one in industry was interested in such a tall order–especially when they were buying just two units. They got no replies.
The Wrights may not have known a lot about engines, but they knew Charley. Could he produce a 200-cubic-inch engine that delivered eight horsepower, the minimum requirement they’d calculated they would need for their Flyer? According to a remark by Taylor quoted in the Smithsonian monograph series Annals of Flight, “We didn’t make any drawings. One of us would sketch out the part we were talking about on a piece of scrap paper.” Taylor’s capable hands began to turn out the parts: He made the complicated crankshaft entirely by hand from a single “solid block of steel about 32 inches long, six inches wide and one and five-eighths inches thick,” as he recalled in a short documentary made by United Aircraft Corporation on the 50th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight. First he drilled holes through the steel billet to remove metal, then, when he had the part shaped in rough form, he used a metal cutting lathe to create the circular bearing surfaces on each crank throw. The aluminum crankcase was custom cast by a local Ohio foundry.
It took Taylor just six weeks to finish it, and instead of eight horsepower, it produced about 12. Instead of a heavy, complex carburetor, it had a flat induction chamber on top of the engine with a kind of collar mounted on it that dribbled the fuel into the chamber to vaporize. The basic outlines of that original engine survived evolutionary changes that produced more horsepower and greater reliability, but the engine from the first successful powered flight in 1903 no longer exists. It was damaged, put in storage, then lost.
Charley lost his life savings during the Great Depression, and after moving to California, fell on hard times. Correspondence between him and Orville Wright (in the collected papers of the brothers) shows an enduring affection and respect between them.
In 2001, the FAA unveiled the Charles E. Taylor Master Mechanic Award for AMTs with 50 years in maintenance who also had at least 30 of those years as licensed airframe and powerplant mechanics. In 2002, California became the first state to celebrate AMT Day and link it to the memory of Taylor. Currently, 52 U.S. states and territories have embraced May 24 as AMT Day, and the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a similar resolution; a Senate measure is said to be underway.
So mark your calendar and try to find some AMTs to thank. It won’t be easy, due to airport security that Charley and the Wrights could never have imagined. You can always ask a pilot to thank an AMT for you.