Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 February 2021

Now certified by the FAA, this craft can convert between car and plane.  Details in last item.

 

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Good morning

It has been cold, snowy, icy, for much of the last week.  I’d been wanting to drive to Idaho, but 70 miles of Washington’s only west-east freeway (I-90) has been closed for many days due to dangerous conditions, with random openings and unpredictable closings again.  The main alternate regular route has also had its share of closures.

Dangerous conditions were a bit closer at hand as well.  We had a lovely snowfall in the local area, so on Saturday, I took my 16 yr old daughter Anna out for some more “driving in the snow” lessons.  I tried to encourage her confidence and also to give her some small and safe experiences of what happens when the car starts to slip and slide.

Unfortunately, I encouraged her only too well over the course of half an hour or so of driving around the local streets, and she then proceeded to take a left turn too fast.  I instantly knew it wasn’t going to end well, and sure enough, the front right wheel thudded into the kerb.  That would be the wheel that had just had a new hub, plus various struts and other things replaced, the previous week.  Ugh.  As I write this on Thursday night, the car is still being re-repaired.

But, seriously, it is probably money well spent.  Anna learned a lot about the pluses and minuses and hidden dangers of driving in the snow, and while the cost of the repair isn’t coming out of her pocket, hopefully she will understand that even the slightest of love-taps between a vehicle and anything else invariably ends up with a four-figure price tag associated.

I hope your driving has been less eventful than ours.

What else this week?  Thursday’s Covid diary entry, written as the country passes beyond 500,000 deaths, takes a theme of “How many of these deaths were preventable and caused by so-called “experts” doing the wrong thing?”.  Why do most people seem unconcerned we’ve allowed half a million of our fellow-countrymen to die, largely in circumstances that could have been prevented?

Sunday’s Covid diary entry can be seen online, if you didn’t get it at the time it was written.

There’s no feature article this week, although I am planning next week will have a review of the $60 noise-cancelling headphones I “teased” about before Christmas.

And now, the usual miscellany of bits and pieces below :

  • Air Travel Numbers Sending Mixed Signals
  • Sriwijaya Air 737 Crash Update
  • JetBlue’s New Fares and Carry-on Guarantee
  • Boeing Loses Two More Board Members, Lawsuit, 787 Problems
  • Apple Developing 6G Wireless
  • Electric Cars Galore
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers Sending Mixed Signals

The first part of the week saw air passenger numbers strongly increasing, but the second part saw numbers fade away and stay more or less level.

My guess is we were seeing another distortive effect due to the long weekend, and now numbers are possibly being held back due to the bad weather and related flight cancellations.

Sriwijaya Air 737 Crash Update

The bad news is the cockpit voice recorder has still not been recovered.  This is becoming an increasingly important part of the investigation, because – not to put too fine a point on it – it is starting to seem very much like pilot error failed to prevent the crash.

A preliminary accident report has been released.  To paraphrase and summarize, the plane is thought to have been having problems with its auto-throttle system (part of its autopilot, and a bit like cruise control in a car).  Then, on the fatal flight, it seems the auto-throttle started incorrectly dialing back the power on the left engine, all by itself.  The auto-throttle was engaged less than a minute after take-off, and the problems started less than two minutes after the auto-throttle was engaged, when at 14:38:42 local time, the left engine started losing power and the thrust lever started moving back down towards idle.  The right engine stayed at an advanced power setting because the plane was in climb mode.

At 14:39:47, the imbalance in power settings was getting still worse as the left throttle lever continued to be automatically moved back, and now the imbalance was such the plane couldn’t stay on course and started moving to the left.

Even though the pilots had just reprogrammed the plane to move to a different heading, neither pilot noticed either the growing imbalance in thrust or the fact the plane was turning in the wrong direction.

At 14:40:05, the imbalance between the two engines was now so extreme that the auto-pilot disengaged.  This caused the plane to quickly roll to the left.  Meantime, the left engine thrust continued to reduce.

At 14:40:10, the auto-throttle system disengaged and (probably in response to the rolling) the nose plunged from 4.5° up to more than 10° down.

The official summary then says “about 20 seconds later, the flight data recorder stopped recording” (ie, the plane had crashed).

At some point very shortly after 14:40:10, the situation became impossible to turn around, because the plane was in too severe a bad alignment, and with too little height and therefore time to fix things.  But from 14:38:42 and then – let’s say for 100 seconds – the situation was very simple to correct.  But the pilots didn’t notice the change in engine power, didn’t hear the change in engine power, didn’t see the change in engine power on their instruments or notice the thrust lever moving back by itself; they then didn’t notice the plane turning in the wrong direction, indeed, they didn’t notice anything at all.

Their inattention and lack of being in-tune with their plane – all the more essential because all of this happened in the four minutes immediately after take-off – caused a completely survivable minor problem transition inexorably, second by second, into something progressively more threatening, and then, by the time they could no longer ignore things any further, it was either too late, or there were only a very few seconds in which they could do the right thing, and clearly, they did not do the right thing.

The pilot had 17,904 hours of flying experience, and the copilot had 5,107 hours, so this was not due to inexperience.  But sometimes, many hours of flying experience breeds complacency, and – based on what is known so far – there seems no easy way to explain what happened other than the two pilots were “asleep at the wheel”.

Boeing displayed some tact when it promulgated a rather curious note to all airlines shortly after the preliminary accident report, reminding pilots to “closely monitor the airplane’s state and flight path to prevent a loss of control in flight”.  You don’t have to read too closely between the lines to understand the reason for and timing of their politely generic statements.

JetBlue’s New Fares and Carry-on Guarantee

JetBlue has done an interesting thing.  It has removed the ability to take larger carry-on items onto a plane from their lowest fares – that’s not all that surprising, but what is surprising is that it is guaranteeing passengers on higher fare types that there will be space for their carry-on in the overhead.  If there’s no space, the passenger will be given a $25 flight credit coupon for a future flight any time in the next year.

The main reason I’m keen to board early is to get my bag into the overheads before they fill.  This policy seems like an excellent idea, although I don’t think JetBlue guarantees that the space in the overhead for your bag will be anywhere near your seat!

Details here.

Boeing Loses Two More Board Members, Lawsuit, 787 Problems

Two more Boeing directors have announced they won’t stand for re-election when they retire in April this year.  That makes eight directors who have stepped down since the 737 MAX grounding in March 2019, and of the remaining ten directors, almost half have served for less than a year and a half.  Details here.

Whether this is change for change’s sake, or evidence of a concerted effort to change the board’s style, remains to be seen.

And maybe the directors are desperately abandoning Boeing in the hope of avoiding an interesting lawsuit – an investor lawsuit is alleging that Boeing’s board of directors deliberately misled the public and neglected their duty to provide safety oversight before and after the two 737 MAX crashes.

The lawsuit seems to have some strong evidence to support their claims.  It will be interesting to see what happens to it.

In other Boeing news, the FAA has issued an airworthiness directive for 222 of the 787 planes.  There may be an issue with the decompression panels that separate the cargo compartment from the passenger compartment.

The 787 has not been a lucky plane.  Sure, it is generally a good and reliable plane, but the continued pin-pricking of issues like this always serve to slightly increase one’s anxiety level, just when it has subsided after the last similar time.

Apple Developing 6G Wireless

We are still slowly seeing 5G wireless services being deployed in the US and elsewhere in the world, but already Apple is working on developing a new 6G type of service.

Normally there is nothing surprising about the next generation of anything being developed even while the current generation is still being fully deployed.  But there are two surprising things here.

The first is that Apple has not been one of the developers of the earlier wireless protocols, and indeed, it hasn’t even been an early adopter of new protocols either, usually being about a year behind companies such as Samsung.  But apparently Apple has decided to become more aggressively part of the future.

The second surprising thing is whether or not we need 6G.  It is said to be perhaps 100 times faster than 5G.  The thing is, and this has been always true, 5G service currently is nowhere near as fast as it could be.  As I reported some months back, 5G speeds are seldom appreciably faster than 4G speeds, and sometimes even slower.

For that matter, 4G speeds rarely if ever reach their full stated speed potential.

There are limits to how fast a speed is needed for a cell phone or other wireless device.  What does a phone have to do?  Allow you to browse web pages, to watch video, to send and receive messages and emails, and not a lot else.  20 Mb/sec is enough for almost everything a phone is needed to do.  4G LTE has a theoretical maximum speed of 1Gb/sec, and 5G has a theoretical speed of 20Gb/sec.  So even 4G, if working as in theory it could, would be 50 times faster than is really needed for a phone connection.

But Apple are developing a new service that might be 100 times faster than 5G.  One question – why?

Also, a related question.  How?  What new ridiculously even higher frequency bands, with even shorter ranges, will be needed?  The current high-band 5G frequencies are already at frequencies similar to or higher than in many radar systems.

Electric Cars Galore

Did you hear about Tesla’s response to a NHTSA recall?  The NHTSA required Tesla to recall its Model S and X vehicles to replace some touchscreens that were prematurely failing.

Tesla said this was not a fault.  Tesla said it had deliberately designed the touch screens to have a short life, and so the failures were not a problem, but a design feature.

Truly.  This article explains Tesla’s stunning arrogance and abnegation of earlier pretenses to design long-lasting high quality vehicles.

Not all that long ago, Musk was crowing that the Model 3 could last up to a million miles, and claiming his cars were “appreciating assets”.  I guess his claim might remain valid, as long as you don’t mind ridiculous repair bills for short-lived items used to build his “long-lived” car.

Jaguar has made an ambitious claim – it says that by 2025, all its model vehicles will be battery-electric powered.  That’s only four years away.  Some other auto manufacturers make vaguer promises (and further into the future) claiming things like all new models will be electrically powered – a claim which allows for continued current model series with gas engines, and which also allows for hybrid engines to be considered electrically powered too.

General Motors brought out their latest Bolt battery electric car on Sunday, and added a SUV styled model to the range as well – what they are calling an EUV.  The cars seem okay, but suffer from the lack of fast-charging and short ranges (259 and 250 miles).  The combination of slow charging and short range is a nasty inconvenience.  Fast charging, or long range, and ideally both, is good; but slow charging and short range makes the Bolt impractical for longer journeys.

Details here.

Tesla responded by slicing $1000 off the entry level Model 3, and a bit more off the Model Y, but then adding more onto the upgraded models of both vehicles.  Tesla regularly shuffles its pricing and its feature inclusion packages.

And Lastly This Week….

A “flying car” has now been certified by the FAA.  It can travel at speeds of up to 100 mph.  It needs a runway to takeoff from and land on (or at least a stretch of straight flat open road with no cars on it), but can then fold its wings and drive on the road.

Although the craft is now certified for flight, it has not yet been certified as safe to drive on the roads.  And you’ll need an sport pilot license.  Your normal driving license doesn’t work once it takes to the air!

Oh, one more thing you’ll need?  Current pricing is unknown, but they were being quoted at $400k three years ago, and that is probably before any options.

Details here.  The company making it, Terrafugia, was founded in 2006, so it has been a long slow journey to this point, accelerated after the Chinese company Geely Holding purchased it in 2017.

Here’s an interesting topic on Quora – the weirdest things flight attendants have seen in their line of duty.

Until next Friday, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

 

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