Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 March 2016

The latest in a long line of proposed SST successors to Concorde. Will this one become more a reality than any of its predecessors? Article below.
The latest in a long line of proposed SST successors to Concorde. Will this one become more a reality than any of its predecessors? Article below.

Good Friday morning

Another Easter in this curiously Godless nation.  Even though this is my 31st Easter here, it is still strange to see no official recognition of the event, other than stores full of Easter candy.

Earlier this week I was trying to arrange for my daughter’s math club to visit the bridge of a Washington State Ferry to see some ‘math in action’ – radar, GPS, digital comms, etc.  But I was sternly reprimanded by a WA State Ferry representative for even asking the question ‘especially in view of what happened yesterday’ (ie the Brussels bombings) – for ‘security reasons’ it would be impossible.  I did point out that a group of fifth graders visiting a Seattle ferry bridge didn’t conform to the typical profile of Muslim bombers attacking European airports, and that got me a further scolding for being so ignorant about how security works.

Many cruise ships have ‘open bridge’ policies, and it is legal to take weapons on board the Seattle ferries, but that amorphous hydra, ‘security’, makes it impossible to countenance a group of school children visiting a ferry bridge here in Seattle.  This makes us safer, exactly, how?  (I also tried to take them to an Air Traffic Control center, only to be told ‘due to staff shortages we can’t accept any more tours until further notice’.  It truly isn’t easy trying to promote STEM concepts to these kids, although support is coming from one much appreciated source – thank you Boeing!)

Unfortunately, ‘security’ has become the refuge of fools and scoundrels who use it to excuse the inexcusable, and to deflect criticism or discussion about the actual issues that the ‘security’ strategy is ostensibly in place to protect.  An example of this is the rush to deploy additional ‘security measures’ at airports around the world following the Brussels bombings on Tuesday, a rush that is, as you could guess without needing to read any further, almost certainly poorly considered and inappropriate, and actually could increase the risk/exposure to travelers, while overlooking the greatest vulnerabilities.

Please read the article that follows today’s roundup for more discussion on this matter.  You might be surprised to learn that it was the metro bombing, not the airport bombing, that incurred twice as many fatalities; so why all the focus on the airport event and now additional airport security measures?  The article answers this and other questions which few other people are willing to consider.

What else this week?  Keep reading for :

  • Fly Anywhere in the World – Five Hours and $100
  • Airbus Patents New Engine Design Concepts
  • Further Proof of the Devalued Worth of Your Frequent Flier Miles
  • Strengthened Cockpit Doors – A Double-edged Sword
  • Long-range Double-Decker Electric Buses Introduced in London
  • Bottom of the News :  Apple Releases new iPad and iPhone
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Fly Anywhere in the World – Five Hours and $100

The ‘visionary’ heading up yet another SST project has a dream that people should be able to fly anywhere in the world, taking no more than five hours and costing no more than $100 (an astonishing price, whether it should be round-trip or each way).  That would mean cruising speeds of 2500 mph and up, and as for the $100 cost, well, let’s just say that oil prices would have to go astonishingly lower than they currently are to get within a zero or two of that objective.

Blake Scholl is a 35 year old former software developer and private pilot who has decided to build a Concorde replacement, and has named his company, somewhat ominously when you consider the problems with noise and sonic booms that Concorde had, ‘Boom’.  His current design for a plane (pictured above) suggests a capacity of 40 passengers, seated in single seats either side of an aisle, and operating with a fare of $5000 to travel roundtrip between New York and London, at Mach 2.2 (Concorde typically cruised at Mach 2.02, normal planes are Mach 0.8 – 0.85).

If this is feasible, it would definitely be very popular.  Anyone who currently pays a similar fare to fly business class on a regular jet would surely choose to pay the same amount to complete the journey in less than half the time it currently takes, restoring the notion that formerly existed with Concorde of day trips between the cities.

Boom also talks about operating other routes with their proposed plane, including ones as long as Los Angeles-Sydney.  NYC-LON is about 3450 miles, and the Concorde had a range of about 4500 miles.  But LAX-SYD is 7500 miles, and we’d be astonished if the same plane that could economically operate a 3450 miles between New York and London and with a mere 40 passenger payload could also carry maybe three times as much fuel to fly the 7500 miles between Los Angeles and Sydney.

Astonishingly, this thinly capitalized company ($2.1 million raised so far) plans to be operating a scale model prototype by the end of 2017 and commercial flights just a few years later.

I’m not going to say this could never happen, and if it does, it embodies everything I’ve been suggesting should be possible with modern super-computers and 3D printers – fast virtual prototyping and low development costs.  Instead of $10 billion or more for a ‘me too’ new subsonic jet, might Boom get a game changing supersonic jet to market for less than $1 billion, and instead of ten years, might they do it in three or four?

Those are big questions, and so too are other questions such as ‘What about the engines?’.  Designing a fuel efficient supersonic engine is extremely challenging and seems to have been the rock on which many past (and other present) SST proposals have foundered.  While Boom has a few ‘big name’ people in their lineup, there’s an awful lot of unknowns remaining, and looking at the size of development teams at Boeing and Airbus, getting a new plane to market takes not just a few ‘big names’, it takes hundreds and even thousands of engineers, all working on different elements of the project simultaneously.

Boom boasts having secured an option from Virgin Atlantic to buy ten of the planes, and a letter of intent from an unnamed major London based airline to buy $2 billion worth of planes (how many is that, one wonders – probably between 10-15, according to sources).  Almost certainly, neither document is worth much more than the paper it is written on, because they will both contain so many provisos and requirements for the plane meeting performance parameters, delivery timetables, support infrastructures, and everything else the airline attorneys can think of, and also, if the plane is as good as it is being said to be, it will ‘sell itself’ once it becomes a reality.  And if the ‘major London based airline’ isn’t even prepared to proudly reveal its name, one has to wonder about why it is preferring to remain in the shadows.

There’s nothing I’d love more than to see the introduction of affordable commercial SST operations.  And I regularly bemoan the lack of investment and interest in creating such a reality.  So I’m as keen as anyone to wish this new venture well, but color me skeptical as to if it will translate to the promised reality, in the implausibly short time frame it is being promised within.

More details here and here.


Airbus Patents New Engine Design Concepts

As I touched on immediately above, most of the ‘secret sauce’ in airplane design these days relates to the engines.  Sure, new lightweight materials can lower a plane’s weight, and better computer modeling can help wring another one or two percent out of airframe designs, but the big improvements are primarily engine related.

If you think back to the first ever passenger jets, they had long thin tubular jet engines.  But each successive generation of engine has tended to be broader in diameter than the last, giving the engine better efficiency, but also bringing a traditional under-wing engine closer and closer to the ground, to the point where that has become the chief design constraint now limiting the 737 series and demanding its eventual replacement – its engines are getting too close to the ground.

One solution is to consider alternate placements for engines, and also to consider more ‘outside the box’ concepts such as a new patent filed by Airbus, that shows multiple smaller diameter fans driven from the one motor, and connected to each other by gears.

Don’t go expecting to see this on your next A320 flight any time soon, and just because a patent has been filed doesn’t mean anything other than someone is trying to claim a bit of intellectual property for themselves, ‘just in case’ it has some value in the future.

But it is great to see an original concept like this being considered.  Our traditional airplane/engine design needs such revolutionary changes to bring us to the next leap forward in affordable air transportation.

More details here.

Further Proof of the Devalued Worth of Your Frequent Flier Miles

Do you remember the ‘good old days’ in the early days of frequent flier programs.  20,000 miles got you a roundtrip ticket within the US, and if I remember correctly, 40,000 miles got you a roundtrip ticket internationally pretty much anywhere the airline flew.

Not so much now, of course.  You can find yourself using up over 50,000 miles, plus forking out some cash too for various gratuitous fees on your ‘free’ domestic ticket (actually, when did you last see an airline talk about ‘free’ tickets – now it is all under the rubric of ‘award travel’ and other terms).

Another thing you used to sometimes do was to be able to convert miles into various sorts of other awards, where the rule of thumb was, if the award was good value, each mile got you slightly more than a penny’s worth of value.

Alaska Airlines has just announced a very sensible way to spend your miles – you can redeem 10,000 miles to get a prepaid TSA Precheck application, which normally costs $85.  But – ooops, now you’re only getting 0.85c/mile in value.

On the other hand, with the general devaluation in miles across the board, maybe by today’s standards that is a good value, and for sure, with what promises to only be ever longer lines going through regular security, registering for Precheck is a very sensible thing to do.

Whether it is your $85 or 10,000 of your AS miles, you definitely should sign up for Precheck (assuming you travel a few times each year).  Your Precheck membership last for five years.

Strengthened Cockpit Doors – A Double-edged Sword

A suicidal copilot locked himself inside a Germanwings A320 and crashed it in March 2015.  The plane’s pilot had left the cockpit for a bathroom break and was unable to reenter the cockpit and attempt to take back control of the plane, due to the door being electronically locked by the co-pilot.

Prior to 9/11, cockpit doors were deliberately designed to be lightweight and flimsy – saving the airlines money on unnecessary weight, and arguably being safer – in the event of a crash and any warping of the door and frame, the pilots could simply smash their way through the door to exit the plane.  But the new security measures after 9/11 saw cockpit doors greatly strengthened and able to resist most normal attempts at opening them – although I’ve seen some reports suggesting that if one terrorist climbed onto a beverage cart and the other terrorist then propelled the heavily laden cart as fast as possible into the door, that might be sufficient, perhaps after repeated attempts, to break through.  The pilot and flight attendants of the Germanwings flight sadly seem to have confined their efforts to unassisted banging on the door and were unable to gain entry during their ten minutes of increasingly desperate attempts, ending tragically with the plane’s crash in the French alps and the death of all on board.

Should there be some super special override code that can be used in such cases to allow authorized personnel to open the cockpit door?  The problem is that if there’s an override code, there’s also an associated vulnerability that an onboard attacker could discover that override code, or torture it out of a flight attendant, and so the airlines and safety regulators have decided, for better or worse, to allow the person inside the cockpit to have the final say over who can enter.

But does that mean we’re all risking our lives from potentially suicidal pilots/co-pilots on every flight we now take?  No.  Not only are pilot suicides exceedingly rare (insert the usual line ‘you’re more at risk of dying on the ride to the airport than you are on the flight you then take’) but airlines are now instituting a ‘two person’ rule, requiring two people to be in the cockpit at all times – and if the plane has only two pilots, then the standby person can be a flight attendant.

So does that mean we’re 100% safe?  Alas, not at all.  So picture this – one pilot goes for a bathroom break and is replaced by a flight attendant, who hovers nervously behind the other pilot.  The other pilot does some things, which unbeknownst to the flight attendant include popping circuit breakers to disable the door and communication circuitry, then rolls the plane over onto its back, throwing the flight attendant about the cockpit, then points the plane straight to the ground.  Or maybe the pilot simply kills the cabin pressurization – no-one would even realize what was happening until it was too late.  Or does any of half a dozen other things that could ensure the destruction of the plane.

There have even been cases where one pilot has pushed the control column forward to cause the plane to crash dive and the other adult male pilot has been unable to stop the stronger pilot’s pressure on the control column.

Two people in the pilot is only a feel-good issue.  Which of course begs the question – if two people are better than one, but still problematic, would three be better than two?  This logic proved too tempting to resist to a university lecturer, quoted in this article, who lamented the transition from three person cockpits to two.

Let’s not anyone tell this academic that before there were three person cockpits, there were four, and before that, there were five – pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator.  Ah for the good old days?

Long-range Double-Decker Electric Buses Introduced in London

London’s iconic double decker buses are now appearing in a new guise.  This week saw the delivery of the first of a trial order of five battery powered buses, manufactured by Chinese company BYD.  They have a massive 345 kWhr battery pack (four to five times the capacity of Teslas) which will give them a stated range of 190 miles in normal city driving conditions – enough for a full day of driving.

Astonishingly, the buses can be recharged in a mere four hours during their overnight out-of-service time (that’s a lot of current flowing into the batteries), and the batteries (Lithium Iron Phosphate) are backed by an enormous 12 year warranty by BYD (Tesla warrants their batteries for 8 years and probably don’t countenance daily driving at the scale of a London city bus).

The potential of battery-electric vehicles continues to develop and extend into more and more types of transportation, and provide a wonderful way of balancing our electrical power generating capacity with our electrical power demands, and also a way to respond to the fickleness of wind and solar power.  All projections point to continued steady reductions in the cost of battery storage, and continued improvements in storage capacity per unit of volume and per unit of weight.  It is suggested that by the early 2020s, electric vehicles will be no more expensive than internal combustion powered vehicles, while offering the same convenient range.  Meantime, of course, for those of us who can’t wait until the early 2020s and don’t want to spend the $100k+ on a Tesla S or X, we have the Chevrolet Bolt, due out later this year, and the Tesla 3, due out late next year, both for just under $30,000, and with 200 mile ranges.

More details of these new buses here.

Bottom of the News :  Apple Releases new iPad and iPhone

Remember the ‘good old days’ when an Apple product release event was tremendously exciting, as were the products released at the event?  Not so much the event this week, which was more a desperate attempt on Apple’s part to staunch its market share losses in both the tablet and smartphone categories – categories debatably created by Apple, and at one time definitely dominated by them.

So there’s a new iPad Pro which looks for all the world like the iPad Air 2.  Maybe it has a faster thingamy-jig inside it, but does anyone really care?  Are any of us going to junk our current perfectly good iPads and rush out to buy this new one instead?  No.

And there’s a new iPhone.  Apple simultaneously discontinued its 4″ screen sized iPhone 5S and replaced it with a 4″ screen sized iPhone 6-something (I forget its appellation), meaning Apple still offers phones with 4″, 4.7″ and 5.5″ screens.  Yes, it is a bit faster than the model it replaced, but does it have anything compelling?  Not really.

Oh, if you’re not already losing focus, they reduced the price on their overpriced Watch a bit as well, but that was a disappointment because people had been hoping we’d see a new generation of more-capable watches being released, rather than just a price reduction on their overpriced limited-function first generation watches.  The first generation Watch is now getting fairly long in the tooth and definitely due to be replaced if Apple is to keep to its typical annual model replacement schedule.

Still to come, later this year, is a hopefully more exciting event with the release of the iPhone 7.

The amazing thing to me is how much this company of 80,000 people, all around the world, was dependent on the leadership and vision of only one person, Steve Jobs.  Is there anyone out there who still maintains that Apple under Tim Cook’s perfectly good leadership is anything comparable to that during the Jobs era?

And Lastly This Week….

There are times when a picture truly is worth a thousand words, and this is probably one of them.  And if it has whetted your appetite for more, here’s a link to the article which features a compilation of video clips of challenging landings at UK’s Birmingham Airport.

Meanwhile, Houston’s latest uncovered ‘madam’ turns out actually to be a ‘mister’ – or, indeed, a ‘captain’ – a United Airlines pilot.  I guess he just wasn’t making enough money as a pilot, and needed something to occupy all his free time.  He has been removed from flying duties.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and very best wishes for Easter




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