Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 May 2020

Reading of an unfortunate experience flying in an F-16 reminded me of my own problems, but in a much slower plane – a pre-WW2 Tiger Moth biplane. See article at end.

Good morning

Summer is starting to make its presence felt here – by which I mean a couple of lovely days, then a couple with rain, and repeat.  Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I feel the need to gloomily observe there is no evidence whatsoever that the virus will be vanquished by summer warmth.  It is possible that our shift to more outdoors/open activities might cause more distancing than is the case when packed inside during winter, but as for the virus itself, it seems likely to be eagerly lurking and ready to trap us, whether the weather is hot or not.

Talking about virus things (how can one ever not at present) and about summer, I’ve had several people ask me what they should do about their pre-existing summer travel plans to go to Europe.  The short answer is that I really don’t know and hesitate to guess.  A slightly longer answer is to observe that Europe is essentially closed to all visitors until early July.

And a longer answer still is contained in a new article I’ve just published and append below.  I hope you find it helpful, and if you’ve remaining questions, please add them as reader comments to the article so I can answer them for you and everyone else wondering the same thing.

Also appended is yesterday’s daily diary entry.  I didn’t really expect, when I started writing these, 75 days ago, that now, and after all the inconveniences and issues, costs and challenges, during those nearly 11 weeks, that not only would I still be writing them, and not only would a solution be as distant and unclear now as it was then, but that the net result of our lockdowns/social distancing, etc, would be a daily new case rate increased from hundreds a day to over 20,000 a day, and a daily death rate increased from a few tens a day to now usually over 1,000 a day.  Most of all, while writing back then about places successively locking down, I never dreamt that now, with the virus 10 – 100 – 1000 times more active, people would be triumphantly declaring the battle has been won, and are now opening back up again.

It is strange how perspective changes, isn’t it.

A quick mention, if you only get the one newsletter from me each week on Friday, you can also sign up to get all newsletters, either as they happen (Express) or daily each morning.

Here are the daily diary newsletters you may have missed out on from the last week.

Thursday 28 May (attached)

Wednesday 27 May

Tuesday 26 May

Monday 25 May

Sunday 24 May

Saturday 23 May

Friday 22  May

(Complete listing of all virus related articles here)

What else for the week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Pakistan Intl Airlines A320 Crash
  • Air Travel Numbers Increasing
  • Another Electric Plane
  • Battery Prices Dropping, but….
  • Hertz Enters Chapter 11
  • And Lastly This Week….

Pakistan Intl Airlines A320 Crash

You’ve probably read about the crash of a Pakistan Intl Airlines A320, operating as flight 8303, when coming in to make a second attempt at landing in Karachi a week ago.

The basic facts were quickly understood, but are yet to be officially confirmed.  It appears that when coming in to land the first time, there was a problem with the plane’s undercarriage not lowering and locking correctly.  The pilots did not notice this – even though there was an audible alarm sounding – until the last minute, at which point they repowered up and took off again, to do another circuit and try to land a second time after resolving the landing gear problem.

Unfortunately, the “go-around” abort of the first landing was left a bit late, and the plane actually scraped the bottom of its engines along the runway for a brief period of time before getting up enough airspeed and power to reverse its sinking and start to climb again.

It seems that the engines were damaged as a result of their ground impacts (one source suggests the plane bounced a bit, causing the engines to impact the ground three times).  Clearly enough power was initially present to enable the plane to speed up and climb to about 1800 ft, but that was as high as the pilots could get the plane, and in the just over five minutes from performing the go-around until the crash, I’m guessing the engines successively lost more and more power, before apparently failing altogether.

The plane, when coming back in and not quite 2 miles from the airport was sinking too fast to get to the runway, and from a tantalizingly obscured brief video clip, it looks to me as if the plane “stalled” while at possibly too much of a nose-up attitude.  The plane then descended more rapidly, crashing into the ground.   97 of the 99 people on board were killed, as were also 8 people on the ground.

If I were to guess further, I’d suggest this all came about because the plane was making a bad approach to its first landing.  When 15 nautical miles out, it was at an altitude of 10,000 ft when it should have been down at 7,000 ft.  Although warned of this by air traffic control, the situation got worse.  The plane continued to approach too high, and when it was 10 nautical miles out, it should have been at 3,000 ft, but was at more than twice that height – 7,000 ft.  ATC warned the pilot again, but he said he was okay and not worried.  This height issue is currently inexplicable – the weather was apparently good and it was mid afternoon.

In my (very limited) experience, finding yourself in a situation like that is the point where you need to give up, break off the landing attempt, and do a circuit around and try again.  (Mind you, as primarily a glider pilot, I never had the luxury of repeating a landing attempt!)  Sure, it is possible to descend at twice the normal rate for the short distance remaining, but you have very little remaining safety margin, and you’ve only about three minutes to get yourself fully stabilized, at the right height, speed, sink rate, position, power rate, flap setting, etc, to do your final approach and landing flare.  Whatever it was (probably pilot issue) that caused the plane to be so much in the wrong place at the wrong time means they needed time to relax, calm down, and start again way back from the airport and do a good textbook approach.

But of course, that’s very professionally embarrassing – to mess up an approach in close to optimum flying conditions, and so the pilots chose to push on forward.

What happened next was predictable.  They started to get very focused on trying to solve their problem (changing height at the last minute is more complicated than it sounds) and get the plane properly configured for landing, and were so focused on some issues that they possibly simply tuned out the alert that was sounding for “gear not down”.  I might be wrong about this, but I think the alert starts sounding as soon as you command the gear to unlock and lower, and stops when the gear has completed lowering and has now locked itself in the down position.  That would be bad human interface design if I am correct – there should be a “everything is happening normally” beep and then a “uh oh, this isn’t working the way it should” second beeping sequence if the normal evolution doesn’t complete.  They would have moved the lever to lower the gear, heard the beeping (if I’m right about it initially signifying the transition from “up” to “down”), relaxed and then tuned it out while worrying about sorting out the rest of their landing approach problem.

Only at the last possible minute, I guess, did one of the pilots suddenly realize – “Oh gosh, the alarm is still sounding, the gear hasn’t locked down”.  Perhaps there was a final checklist that brought it to their attention.  At that point, they would hit the “TOGA” button (“Take Off Go Around”) which automatically does several things very quickly – changes the flaps from a landing setting to a lesser take-off setting, and spools up the engines to a high power setting, and the pilots would be hoping to be able to reverse the plane’s descent and pull it up before it impacted the runway.

Alas, they initiated the abort/TOGA just a couple of seconds too late, the lowest parts of the plane – the engines – lightly “kissed” the runway, and while the turbine blades seemed to be okay, I’m guessing some secondary system was damaged and failed, which then more slowly degraded the entire engine performance and caused the power output to drop, probably all the way to zero, and it is thought in both engines.

The gradual failure (I’m guessing this to be so) meant the pilots didn’t urgently spin the plane around and do a reverse direction landing, but instead leisurely flew on away from the airport and then did the usual “fly a landing circuit” series of four turns to return back to the airport, and only as they were doing this, did things become more dire.

On the return back to the airport the engines’ losses of power and eventual failures became more pronounced, and at some point, the pilots may have realized that they had too much distance and not enough airspeed or height to get to the runway.  Ugh.

As I said, I can’t really tell from the short video clip, but it seems possible the plane’s nose was being held too high as it was coming in, 2 miles from the runway – an understandable but incorrect maneuver at that point, and so the airspeed would have dropped down and down before reaching the “stall” speed at which point the plane changes from being a graceful flying creation and instead becomes a brick.

So, something was wrong with the landing gear, but that wasn’t what was caused the plane to crash as it did.  It was the pilots’ delayed awareness of the landing gear problem.  Based on present information, it seems hard not to focus on pilot actions as the main contributing factor, both to the initial aborted landing and engines damaged, and the subsequent failure to safely get back to the airport.

Air Travel Numbers Increasing

The Memorial Day Weekend saw a surge in people flying.

As you can more or less see, Sunday had the largest percentage of last year’s passenger numbers (13.6% – top chart) and Friday had the most people traveling (348,000 – bottom chart).

Passenger numbers have been steadily climbing since bottoming out in mid-April, and after the holiday weekend, seem to be continuing to increase each day, with volumes presently at about 11% of last year.

It will take a long time to get from 11% to 100%, of course, but clearly, numbers are going up again.  Whether that is a good or bad thing from the perspective of virus numbers is anyone’s guess.

Another Electric Plane

Perhaps thanks to the true transformation of cars by Tesla and their vivid demonstration that electric vehicles can be every bit as good, if not better, than regular vehicles, while also offering lower fuel and maintenance costs, everyone is very eager to see the same repeated in airplanes.

Unfortunately, at least with present and foreseeable future technology, this is completely impossible.  Batteries are too heavy, compared to jet fuel, and unlike jet fuel which disappears once it has been “used” in the engines, battery weight stays the same, whether charged or discharged.  Additionally, road vehicles waste energy every time they brake, and an electric vehicle can recapture a lot of that energy, save/store it, and recycle it back when the vehicle needs to speed up again.  Planes can’t do the same, because their engines are running and always using energy from the time they push back from their departure gate to the time they finally stop at their arrival gate.  There is almost no wasted energy to be reclaimed – even when slowing down and descending, they do that primarily by simply reducing engine power, not by braking.  It is very rare that you ever see the air/speed brakes applied while the plane is flying – they are the rectangular objects that lift up on the top of the wings, usually only when coming in to land and then when decelerating after touching down.

But while it is impossible to simply swap a regular engine and fuel tank for an electric engine and battery, and expect the plane to still fly as far as before, it is possible to do the swap and accept as a compromise a plane with much reduced range and probably reduced carrying capacity at all.  This seldom makes economic sense to an airline, but there are a few very specific “special use cases” where it might be feasible – small planes and short distances.

Yesterday saw a new electric plane “proof of concept” take to the air.  Based on a Cessna Caravan, it is a nine-seater that normally can fly about 1230 miles.  In its electric form, it is “hoped” to have it available with a 100 mile range, next year.  That is, ahem, quite a reduction in range.  Rather amusingly, this plane is being described as “the world’s largest electric airplane”.  It will be a while before Boeing and Airbus start offering electric engines as an option.

Details here.

Battery Prices Dropping, but….

In related news, here’s an interesting article that looks at how the cost of rechargeable batteries have dropped so far over the last decade (and longer).

A 90 kWhr battery pack for, eg, a Tesla, would have cost $104,000 in 2010 – a notional number, because the Model S wasn’t released until 2012, by which time the battery price would have already dropped to $64,000, and last year, the cost would have been $14,000.  No, we’ve not noticed a $50,000 reduction in the price of a new Tesla S (but we have noticed the company move towards profitability – this being obviously a large part of how/why they’ve done so).

The article doesn’t make such a big thing about the future – the disappointing thing being that the cost per kWhr of battery capacity has stopped dropping so quickly.  But we’re getting closer and closer to the magic point where electric cars can be made and sold at the same price as gasoline powered cars, and with the same range (and, soon enough, with not really much more difficulty in refilling/recharging the batteries either).

That is all very good, and of course, lower costs are catnip to airlines considering their airplane choices for the future.  But the major consideration for airplane use is not so much the kWhr cost (although that is very important) – it is the battery “density” – how many kWhrs of charge can be stored per pound and cubic foot of battery.  The real constraint, for airplanes, is the battery density.  That needs to double quite a few more times before it becomes practical for commercial airplane applications.  Currently, jet fuel is about 100 times more energy dense, plus, don’t forget, once it has been burned, it goes away and no longer weighs down the plane.

Whereas battery costs have indeed plunged more than six-fold over the last decade, battery densities have only changed a little.  We probably need an entirely new battery technology before the charge density can also experience a six-fold improvement, and even then, it would still only be 1/16th as dense as jet fuel.

Battery technology is close to being competitive for vehicles, where space and weight isn’t at such a premium.  But don’t fall into the mistake of thinking “if it works for cars, surely it can work for planes too”.

Hertz Enters Chapter 11

Hertz has always been my favorite rental car company, even though it hasn’t always been the company I’d hire from.  When you’re traveling and driving on your own dime, it is harder to pay twice the price of a second tier rental company to essentially end up driving the same car as from Hertz, although possibly a year or two younger/older, and without/with an extra 50,000 miles on the clock.

Maybe that was part of the problem, although Hertz did do the usual thing and buy lower priced brands so they could keep customers “in house”, with either premium or budget focused brand and associated cars and service.

Of course, the big challenge was the Covid-19 travel shutdown, but that wasn’t Hertz’ only problem.  It entered 2020 with a massive amount of debt, now coming due, and it simply couldn’t find a way to repay or refinance that debt.  Hence its Chapter 11 decision, last Friday.

Some people have been excitedly suggesting this might mean there’ll be a lot of really cheap ex-Hertz rental cars now being dumped on the market and sold at bottom dollar.  I don’t think it will be as much a bargain opportunity as others hope it might be.

There are so many different ways used rental cars can be sold and bought, and if significant bargains start appearing, buyers will come out of the woodwork and therefore start to prop up the prices of the cars.  If second hand car dealers can buy cars from Hertz for below market rates, they’ll start snapping them up and reselling them on their lots.

Used rental cars have been offered for sale – direct to retail, and various ways to commercial and wholesale accounts, and through auctions, for at least two decades that I can remember, possibly longer.

That’s not to say there mightn’t be bargains lurking in the mix of makes and models for sale.  Opinions differ if it is a good idea to buy a used rental car or not; they tend to have fewer options and upgrades, but they also tend to have been well maintained, and – believe it or not – reasonably well treated by their drivers.  That is particularly true of up-market companies like Hertz – people who pay twice as much to rent a car are probably also twice as likely to then drive it with respect.

If any of the major rental car companies sell used cars in your area, and the sort of cars they stock are the sort of cars you might be interested in buying, it would be worth your while at least to see what they have and what the prices are.  This article has more information about how to do so.  While it talks about deep discounts, it also suggests you are looking at between 5% and 15% off regular used car prices.  That’s not what I’d term a very deep discount at all.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article that wonders why the US is unable to develop new infrastructure (rail lines, highways, etc) at costs comparable to other places in the world.

We all sense that China can cut corners and doesn’t need to worry too much about lawsuits from citizens objecting to new freeways or railroads on the most specious of grounds, but that doesn’t explain why we’re also getting outbuilt by seemingly high-cost and not obviously hyper-efficient countries in Europe.

The article does an excellent job of rebutting the various excuses for our high costs, but doesn’t come up with a suggested alternate answer, other than the vague and terribly unpalatable concept of “general inefficiency”.  It is an important question and needs to be addressed, answered, and acted upon.  We should be better, and we need to be better if we’re to retain and improve our competitiveness on the world stage, particularly now there is renewed interest in bringing manufacturing away from China and possibly back home.

Talking about high costs and inefficiencies, did you know that Uber lost $8.5 billion in 2019?  That’s an unthinkably enormous loss for a business that owns no cars or other major assets, so in theory should have low fixed costs.  On the other hand, its competitor, Lyft, also lost money, but “only” $2.6 billion last year.

It is hard to guess at what Uber (and lesserly Lyft) are doing so spectacularly wrong, and is another signal that the cost of their rides will have to go up and up, although as the cost differential between them and regular taxis narrows (and the service differential similarly narrows) that introduces new problems.

The reason for these thoughts is this article, which really disappointed me.  How ridiculously stupid to destroy rather than sell thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of expensive electric bikes and scooters.  Imagine if Hertz just scrapped its used cars!

Sure, maybe it only represents a few million dollars, which is a rounding error on a $8.5 billion loss, but like a car repair bill, all the small avoidable costs add up and all of a sudden, you’re at $8.5 billion.

I mentioned last week that I had added some more pieces to my list of approachable, easily enjoyed classical music, and I’ve added a few more this week – including one so tragic that perhaps it is better banned and buried.  But I neglected to give you the page link.  This is the page where the classical music pieces are listed, explained, and YouTube performances linked.

If you’ve visited the page before, I have now included a “date added” column on the right of the table so you can sort the table and see only the most recently added pieces.

Etihad’s private three room “residence” suites on their A-380s have represented the high point of air travel for most of us, albeit still probably unobtainable, or at least, an unwise way to burn through $20,000.

But it is worth remembering there are undreamt of layers of luxury beyond that.  In particular, we point to these sketches for an A380 proposed for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

A much more spartan flying environment, but no doubt an equally memorable experience, would be in an F-16 flown by one of the US Air Force’s Thunderbird pilots.  Here’s a gripping account and video – I really felt for the poor guy.  I’ve managed to feel airsick in a Tiger Moth at less than 100 mph, I can only imagine what it must have been like pulling 8G turns at who knows how many hundreds of miles per hour in an F-16.

My Tiger Moth experience was with a – well, let’s be polite and call him “characterful” pilot in Australia, a former RAAF pilot who hadn’t really slowed down, even though the planes he flew definitely had.  His most recent crash left him with a limp, but didn’t seem to have excited any cautionary thoughts, and while it is true that the ancient Tiger Moth biplane (pictured at the top of the newsletter) is not very fast or powerful (cruising speed 67 mph), its double wing makes it surprisingly aerobatic once it has managed to build up some altitude and airspeed.  Actually, this guy didn’t really seem to feel the need for much altitude – at one point we were upside down and the tops of the buildings in the downtown area felt so close I thought I could reach out and touch them.  Aerobatics a few hundred feet above the buildings in a city center?  Great idea – not!

The worst thing he said to me during the flight (repeatedly)?  “I don’t normally do this, but I think you might like …..”.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 May 2020”

  1. Hilarious description of your Tiger Moth experience. Just shows that there are many elements of risk in our lives …

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