Ashclouds, Airplanes, Engines and Risk

74sq.jpegOnce upon a time, in a previous career, I was an Engineering Officer in the Royal Air Force.

Fun times. At a young age I was asked to sign for 15 x F4-J Phantom Aircraft which were, technically, the property of Her Majesty - but I was led to understand that she was busy looking after three Corgis and so it fell to me to take responsibility for these aircraft. They were worth roughly GBP50 million each in today's money. And, yes, I had to sign for them. Nearly a Billion Dollars worth of hardware. Because, well, someone has to sign for these things - the rules are very clear.

My job was to keep these aircraft flying. I had 150 of the RAF's finest technicians to help me, all of whom knew a great deal more about the hardware than I did. But they were all specialists: engine specialists; armament specialists; radar specialists. And I, blessed as I was with an Oxford degree, was - of course - a specialist in absolutely nothing. Which meant that what I actually did was to ask questions. Lots of questions. Lots of very stupid questions. The sort of questions that only a graduate, with no useful knowledge whatsoever, could possibly ask...

So it was that I learned about the subtle art of "gentle persuasion".

I was looking at the exhaust of a General Electric J-79 engine. The F4-J Phantom is driven through the air by two of these beasts. They are huge. They consume a ridiculous amount of aviation fuel. And they can accelerate an aircraft from 0 - 600 mph in about the time it will take you to finish reading this sentence. These engines are the va-va-voom of the fast jet world...

Unfortunately, this particular engine wasn't about to voom anywhere. Not even if... well, you get the general idea.

ze362.jpegThe pilot who had returned this particular engine had decided to fly the aircraft upside down whilst slamming the throttle from "idle" to "reheat" - and back again - whilst simultaneously taking the Phantom through the sound-barrier. I kid you not, dear reader. The engine, in turn, had decided to expire.

"How", I asked, "are we going to fix it ?"

"Oh, don't worry Sir. A little gentle persuasion will soon have this fixed." replied Sgt Paul Leslie - a man who knew everything there was to know about engines - and a bit more besides.

"Ah yes" asks I, "but what are we actually going to do ?"

"Well, just a bit of gentle persuasion Sir. Have it fixed in no time. Back flying by this afternoon."

"Ah yes" says I, "but what EXACTLY are we going to DO ?"

"Well Sir" said Sgt Leslie "we're going to hit it with a bloody hammer." Although he didn't actually use the word "bloody". Because this is the military and you have to swear a lot more aggressively than that.

The aircraft got fixed. I got educated. And the world moved on.

The point of the story is that engines break. Aircraft break: bits fall off; birds fly into the windscreen; tyres burst. These things happen - and they get fixed. With a bit of luck we all live to fight another day.

But it isn't luck, is it ? It's risk management. It's professionals making rational decisions based on good evidence and a clear understanding of risk.

Which brings me to the ash cloud. We all know what an ash cloud can do to an aircraft - because we've all read about British Airways Speedbird 9 which flew through volcanic ash, lost all four engines and flew on silently for fourteen long minutes before Captain Eric Moody and his crew finally managed to relight one engine.

IcelandVolcano.jpgBut I still like asking questions and so I have a few questions about the current volcanic ash saga. Specifically:

1. What is the chance of any one aircraft encountering ash whilst flying between England and Continental Europe ? - I'm guessing "relatively low".

2. What is the likely damage that would be sustained by a modern aircraft if it did encounter such conditions ? - I'm guessing "tolerable"; these are modern aircraft with fault tolerant engines.

3. If the worst did come to the worst, and all the engines stopped working, then how difficult is it to land a modern commercial aircraft - deadstick - no thrust - given that the starting point is 20,000 feet above mainland Europe ? - Bear in mind that every Shuttle landing is a deadstick landing - and the Shuttle flies like a brick. Bear in mind that we can land aircraft in the Hudson River. Bear in mind that technology is getting better. Bear in mind that there are airfields all over the place.

Well, I just don't know. I'd like to see it done in the simulator a few times. I'd want to talk to a few Captains.

But I'm guessing, and this is just a guess, "easier than it was in 1960".

And that, it seems to me, is an important yardstick. If the level of risk - properly and professionally assessed - is no greater than the risks that passengers routinely assumed in the 1960s - then it's a risk we might all reasonably assume in 2010.

This isn't politics. This isn't PR. But it may be a rational assessment.

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Google Earth will run as a Flight Simulator

GoogleMaps is very cool - and an excellent tool for mash-ups such as WalkJogRun. Of course, just for fun, Google also added imagery for the Moon and for Mars. Which is pretty neat - particularly for those of us who teach. Or pretty much anyone who likes to think.

But GoogleEarth has always been much more impressive. The third dimension, and the software's capability as a layered browser - means that GoogleEarth has the potential to do so much more - perhaps even become the VirtualWorld that everyone is really waiting for.

Recently GoogleEarth acquired the functionality to overlay buildings and other architectural features. Including the ability to overlay historical data - such as Ancient Greece. Or London before the Great Fire of 1666.

More recently still, Google added Google Sky, which lets us look upwards and outwards to the stars.

And now - albeit without any fanfare - they've added a Flight Simulator.

I've put a taster of the Flight Simulator - and an appropriate link - just at the bottom of this text. But what I actually want to write about is the next steps that we may yet see from GoogleEarth.

Because this is very nearly the Universal Explorer that will allow us to ride around the Battle of Waterloo, to float around the Barrier Reef, to reach to the outer edge of the Solar System, to wander the streets of Ancient Rome and to swim around the inside of the human circulation.

This is - so very nearly - Powers of 10 (or, better still, Powers of 10 as re-envisaged by The Simpsons).

And I'm guessing that Google will have a whole heap of Engineers who recognise all those touchstones.


Flight Simulator Keyboard Controls


This document describes the various keyboard combinations that you can use with the flight simulator features of Google Earth. Ensure you have the latest version of GoogleEarth (v4.2 or higher). Click somewhere on the main image of the software. Now press Cmnd-Option-A on a Mac (Ctrl-Alt-A on a PC) to enter the flight simulator mode. Once you have entered flight simulator mode for the first time, you can re-enter the mode by choosing Tools > Enter Flight Simulator.

To leave flight simulator mode, click Exit Flight Simulator in the top right corner or toggle out of the mode by again selecting Cmnd-Option-A on a Mac (Ctrl-Alt-A on a PC).

Link: Flight Simulator Keyboard Controls - Google Earth User Guide.

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Spy craft take gull flight lesson

Aviation researchers at the University of Florida have copied the wing action of seagulls to develop spy drones that can morph shape mid-flight.

The toy-sized drones are being developed for tricky urban missions so that they can zip around tight places.

They could fly into urban environments to detect biological agents. Funded by Nasa and the US Air Force, the unmanned, sensor-packed craft in development could be on missions in two to three years, say researchers.

By watching how seagulls alter their wing shape, and using morphing techniques, the agile craft can squeeze through confined spaces, such as alleyways, and change direction rapidly. The micro air vehicles (MAVs) could automatically find their way to monitor locations, such as apartment blocks, where suspicious activity is detected.

Link: BBC Science/Nature.

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Japan unfurls solar sail in space

BBC Science

Japan has unfurled a delicate solar sail in space, a device which some scientists believe could enable travel to far away planets.

In theory, solar sails reflect light particles from the Sun, gaining momentum in the opposite direction to propel spacecraft forward. Because solar sails continue accelerating, they could reach distant targets in amazing times.

Sunlight would become too weak beyond the realms of Jupiter but one theory for interstellar travel is to direct lasers at the sails.

This is the first time a solar sail has been deployed, because finding a material light and sturdy enough to unfurl over a wide area has been difficult. The small S-310 rocket launched from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, at 815 GMT on August 9, carrying two different types of sail with a thickness of 7.5 micrometres.

At 100 seconds after lift-off and at an altitude of 122km, the rocket deployed its first sail, known as a clover type, which consists of four segments.

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Sshhh. Aircraft landing...

The Silent Aircraft Initiative

The Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) is today launching a unique project to design a 'silent' aircraft.

CMI's 'Silent Aircraft' project has a bold aim: to discover ways to reduce aircraft noise dramatically, to the point where it would be virtually unnoticeable to people outside the airport perimeter in a typical built-up area.

This initiative is bringing together leading academics from Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with representatives from all parts of the civil aerospace/aviation industry. This unique community will be working together, sharing knowledge and developing the design for an aircraft whose noise emissions would barely be heard above the background noise level in a typical built-up area.

Partners in the project include British Airways, the Civil Aviation Authority, regional aerospace company Marshall of Cambridge, and National Air Traffic Services. They also include Rolls-Royce plc, which has made available its multi-million pound suite of design and analysis tools to help the research. Additionally, the project team plans to include representatives of community groups opposed to aircraft noise.

CMI's 'Silent Aircraft' initiative is one of four new Knowledge Integration Communities (KICs) that CMI is setting up this autumn. These KICs aim to find new ways in which academia and industry can work together and exchange knowledge to push forward research in areas where UK industry has a demonstrable competitive position - like aerospace. The Silent Aircraft KIC also aims to enhance this position by engaging with youngsters of all ages to enthuse them about aviation, and thus help ensure a continuing supply of talented individuals into the industry in years to come.

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Airships for Sightseeing

21st Century Airships Inc

The spherical Airship is the ultimate sightseeing vehicle. The Spherical airship is specifically designed for aerial sightseeing rides. It is extremely stable with little or no feeling of motion. Its hybrid-electric propulsion system emits a very low noise profile both inside and outside the airship.

A very spacious, comfortable cabin allows passengers to walk around during flight. Large panoramic windows and glass bottom floor allows the passengers a perfect view of the sights below.

It is also the world's only amphibious airship - capable of landing and taking off from water.

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Does Landmark Unmanned Flight Spell Doom for Test Pilots?

Does Landmark Unmanned Flight Spell Doom for Test Pilots?

U.S. Navy Comdr. Bill Reuter, chief test pilot of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23, releases a load of inert bombs while in a supersonic dive in an F/A-18E Super Hornet during a test flight at Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Last month an experimental aircraft called the X-43A hit a velocity of 5,000 miles (8,045 kilometers) an hour - more than seven times the speed of sound. It was the first time an oxygen-powered "scramjet" flew freely. But one thing was missing during the aeronautical milestone: the pilot.

The X-43A's pilotless flight signaled a growing trend in modern aviation: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Economics, pilot error, and concern for human safety are all motivations to replace human test pilots with computers.

Dana Purifoy is a top NASA test pilot for the agency's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Purifoy flew the B-52B launch aircraft that carried the X-43A and its Pegasus booster rocket to a launch destination over the Pacific Ocean.

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Morphing Plane Wings for Efficient Flights

Roland Piquepaille

Airplanes, whether manned or unmanned, need to travel at various speeds. For example, a surveillance plane needs to fly fast to reach its destination point. Then, it needs to reduce its speed to achieve its surveillance mission. But with its fixed wings, it doesn't offer the same level of efficiency during these two phases. That's why Penn State engineers have devised airplane wings that change shape like a bird and have scales like a fish. Right now, the team has only built a tabletop model. So it will be a long time before you catch a plane and watch the wings disappear by looking through the window.

Dr. George Lesieutre, professor of aerospace engineering who leads the project, says, "Airplanes today are a design compromise. They have a fixed-wing structure that is not ideal for every part of a typical flight. Being able to change the shape of the wings to reduce drag and power, which vary with flight speed, could optimize fuel consumption so that commercial planes could fly more efficiently."

Morphing wings can also be useful for military defense and homeland security when applied to unmanned surveillance planes that need to fly quickly to a distant point, loiter at slow speed for a period of time and then return, Lesieutre explains. Flying efficiently at high speed requires small, perhaps, swept wings. Flying at slow speed for long periods requires long narrow wings. The morphing wings designed by the Penn State team can change both wing area and cross section shape to accommodate both slow and fast flight requirements.

So how did these engineers design these morphing wings?

The essential features of the Penn State concept are a small-scale, efficient compliant cellular truss structure, highly distributed tendon actuation and a segmented skin. The cellular truss structure is the skeleton of the wing.

Since the underlying structure can undergo radical shape change, the overlaying skin of the wing must be able to change with it. Lesieutre says a concept that he thinks holds great promise is a segmented skin composed of overlapping plates, like the scales of a fish.

New Scientist

Some of the morphing work has been inspired by the study of birds, bringing the story full circle back to 1903. The all-important control demonstrated by the Wright brothers' Flyer came not just from the first wind tunnel-tested aerofoils and rudder, but also from wing warping - a technology inspired by the Wrights' observations of the way turkey vultures soared over the Miami river, near their Ohio home.
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Shushing Sonic Booms: Changing the Shape of Supersonic Planes

Traveling by airplane is fast, but traveling by supersonic jet is faster. The trouble is that pesky sonic boom caused by breaking the sound barrier, rattling windows and -- if you're a military pilot -- alerting potential enemies of your presence during low flights.

But a joint program between NASA, the military and the aerospace industry is working to take the 'boom' out of sonic booms by changing the shape of supersonic aircraft. The program may lead not only to better military jets, but also to another age of commercial air travel at faster than the speed of sound.

Under the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration program sponsored by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA and Northrop Grumman, researchers tacked on custom nose-glove on the front of Navy F-5E jet as well as an aluminum substructure.

The thunderous booms heard by humans when a vehicle flies overhead at speeds faster than the speed of sound -- about 758 miles (1,220 kilometers) an hour at sea level. The culprit is a change in air pressure -- about the same experienced by humans climbing a few floors of stairs, but much faster -- which makes the sounds audible.

The added volume on the modified F-5E, however, allowed researchers to better distribute the air pressure build-up in front of a supersonic plane, which shapes how the pressure is later released in a sonic boom shockwave as the aircraft breaks the sound barrier. Modifying that pressure release meant softer sonic booms.

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