General Aviation in Planes the next 50 Years
General Aviation Issues
Aviation is a multifaceted living creature. It grows, evolves, learns from its mistakes, and has nothing but the future ahead of it. Initially enjoyed mostly by the wealthy, general aviation has become exhaustively regulated in the commercial industry. It was a long road to get to where aviation is today and predicting the future can be speculative. However, the future cannot be arrived at if there are no people to think of what the future possibilities will be. People are going to find differences in both general aviation as well as in commercial aviation as they find solutions guided by the natural evolution and innovation of an ever-changing industry. After all, even Orville Wright watched a seemingly modified bicycle grow into a jet-powered enigma in his lifetime.
General Aviation Issues
There are many issues with current general aviation that plague regulatory bodies and pilots alike. Of the most insidious is Controlled Flight Into Terrain, hereafter referred to as CFIT. Captain Daniel Maurino from the Flight Safety and Human Study Group and the ICAO mentions CFIT as: “Controlled flight into terrain . . . accidents and incidents are those in which an aircraft, under the control of the crew, is flown into terrain (or water) with no prior awareness on the part of the crew of the impending disaster.” (Maurino, 1993) Most CFIT accidents occur during takeoff, climb out, and landing. During these phases of flight the airplane requires the most pilot attention. Instrument departures and approaches in and of themselves can be quite complicated, and if an issue arises outside of the intended chart, situational awareness can be lost and the airplane flown into terrain. It is unfair to blame the complex nature of instrument procedures as the sole cause of situational awareness loss, but it is inherently a major issue. A solution to CFIT must address the most common phase of flight it occurs in and must increase situational awareness. Also appropriate is a procedure to eliminate this situational awareness loss. Worthy of note is that 80 percent of CFIT accidents occur in general aviation aircraft and pilots. Of these, 70 percent involve single-engine airplanes. (Ison, 2009) It can be argued that extra training, required to fly more complex airplanes, is a reason and has to be considered a major factor.
Controlled Flight Into Terrain
We have a clear basis for improving controlled flight into terrain. Improvements must address the most complex phases of flight, be operational even in instrument meteorological conditions, be easily implemented in general aviation aircraft and have the capability of immediately increasing situational awareness. Already, there are advanced terrain-warning systems that have helped large commercial airliners decrease CFIT accidents from seven to two from 1992 to 1997 when the systems were installed en masse. (Vandel & Rozelle, 1997) Similar systems can be installed on GA aircraft provided that the dollars were there. With natural growth in technology, costs will eventually come down; and so such an issue cannot fairly be put into consideration when discussing the future. Imagine a system that, with the push of a button, or automatically from terrain warnings, scans the terrain from existing databases and fly your airplane in the safest route, away from the danger—taking into consideration aircraft performance already programmed into the software. Traditional terrain avoidance systems sound an alarm when there are only about 10 seconds left for impact. The new system would give more warning by a couple of seconds. It will be activated unless the pilot deactivates or overrides the system (in order to eliminate accidental activation). So, in essence, if a pilot flies into a mountainous region upon final approach, surrounded on three sides by high terrain, and they lose situational awareness, they will continue to fly toward a mountain. When the pilot hears the alarm sound, and confirms that they might have some doubt as to where they are, they then activate the system by pressing a button (or, if incapacitated, it is activated automatically) and the airplane electronically scans the terrain database and diverts the airplane over the lowest terrain (and possibly away from the most populated areas). The system scans and finds the safest route and automatically flies the aircraft to a safer area, even if it requires the airplane to climb. After adequate time, the pilot may regain situational awareness and talk to ATC for vectors to an alternate or back to the airport of intended landing. A ground track can be sent to the NTSB and/or ATC, and even the pilot's email to further study what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future. The system then can improve upon itself as time goes by and as accidents are prevented.
Filing Flight Plans
Another problem plaguing general aviation is the absence of flight plans. Although not required, a flight plan increases safety and also employs the assets of search and rescue if an issue arises following flight. All too often, when hearing news about a plane crash, an important footnote is added: 'The pilot did not file a flight plan.' It is understandable why pilots do not file them in the first place. For one, it takes a while to do. Also, a huge fear of pilots is the retribution felt when a flight plan is not closed. It is often forgotten and if the important phone calls aren't answered then large resources are used in locating your airplane and body when both are found safely hangared in their homes. Closing a flight plan is easy to forget, and it is a fear of certificate action that keeps pilots from performing this extra safety measure. A solution to the problem lies with the sophisticated nature of GPS systems already in place. A GPS system can, in real time, calculate the estimated time of arrival, the speed of the aircraft, the location of the aircraft, and many other features. It is a standard navigational tool that is already used extensively by pilots. Also, with the 'flight-plan' feature, a pilot can easily program in their flight plan and, if occasion arises, plan a diversion. Using an Internet link, the flight plan of airplanes can be automatically relayed to the flight service station; filed and opened. A confirmation by the flight service station through the GPS will serve as final confirmation to the pilot that they are now being monitored and thus can enjoy the services of the flight service station. When the airplane is arriving at it's final destination, or alternate, the flight plan may be canceled automatically by this same data link, which would then alleviate the hassle and the fear that can come with forgetting this basic procedure. Such an improvement would not only serve as an important safety measure by the pilots but it will also aid in the search and rescue of a lost plane and crew by relaying its last-known position from where the airplane last transmitted its coordinates.
Integrated Avionics Systems
So far, only two issues of aviation safety have been addressed and potentially solved by innovative implementation. The list and study can continue forever but the point has been made. Now we can explore the implementation of such safety features into a streamlined and manageable avionics system. The discussions will be concatenated with an important discussion of one of the most innovative avionics systems invented to date: the Garmin G1000
“Now this simplifies everything. Garmin’s G1000 is an all-glass avionics suite for OEM aircraft. It is a seamlessly integrated package that makes flight information easier to scan and process. G1000's revolutionary design brings new levels of situational awareness, simplicity and safety to the cockpit.” (Garmin, 2009) The philosophy is simple yet inventive: keep it simple to make it safe. The G1000 seeks to employ nearly every aspect of flight and to simplify it on one easy-to-understand display. What is really exciting is the new 'synthetic vision' just now being implemented with a basic software update that adds to situational awareness. It is essentially a simulation of the outside world, without clouds, inside the cockpit. It color-codes terrain as safe (green) in the caution area (amber), or above your current flight path (red). It even can be used to simulate a runway and airport environment whilst flying in the clouds. It can also give a 'highway in the sky' that basically shows a pilot how to get where they are wanting to go. It essentially provides a series of boxes to fly through in order to avoid terrain, weather, and other obscurations. It's incredible. It is this kind of avionics simplification and integration that makes flying less complicated. Some even suggest that computers may be capable of flying aircraft in the future; an absurd argument and one that will not be discussed here. Human intervention, ethics, and intuition, are and will ever be second to no machine and will always be needed in every flight situation. Using computers advances, however, will always be a product of human intervention, ethics, and intuition.
One of the great things about the G1000 is its ability to upgrade itself without expensive overhauls and avionics. It can be upgraded by software by just plugging in a data card. Down-time is minuscule. It is hard to imagine how this system can be improved. However, future improvement will inevitably be made. Consider weather. In the CFIT solution discussed above, an escape route cannot be conceivably avoided unless aircraft performance is taken into the calculations. Although easy to find the safest route out of a canyon based on terrain height, sometimes a climb-out is required. Using a software upgrade, weather information such as wind, temperature, and even humidity can be transmitted to the G1000 integrated display to show the most feasible as well as the safest route. Sometimes simply climbing over terrain is safer than decreasing the vertical lift vector by banking to turn out of a situation. Such knowledge cannot always be discerned by a pilot prior to the corrective action to be taken. A quick calculation, plus a recommended procedure for escape can now be displayed onto the synthetic vision and/or overridden by the plane's autopilot system to escape itself—along with a recommended power setting displayed to the pilot if no auto throttle is installed.
The process of filing a flight plan can also be confirmed by a notification displayed on the flight displays. In order to reduce radio congestion, the flight service station can simply transmit a signal to the airplane notifying the pilot that their flight plan is active and perhaps even being monitored by flight following. Even more convenient would be a display confirming that a flight plan has been closed, or a benign alarm that tells them that the flight plan still needs to be closed.
General aviation has its share of pros and cons that directly relate to its power plants:
One, airplanes are slow—especially true of sport aircraft.
Two, they aren't fast enough—usually a complaint by private pilots.
Also, engines 'drink' a lot of fuel, and that fuel is of a limited source.
As the auto industry is now seeking change in engine performance and efficiency, so too must the aviation industry be on the cutting edge of these technologies.
It is no wonder why many people choose to fly. It is quick and convenient—not to mention incredibly fun. However, it is expensive. One of the main reasons is the cost of fuel. A typical general aviation aircraft can consume anywhere from 9-20 gallons of fuel an hour. In the past, an afternoon flight was often called the 'hundred-dollar hamburger' based on how much it cost to fly to get that hamburger. Nowadays it is not inconceivable to change the saying to the 'two-hundred' or even 'three-hundred dollar hamburger.' With fuel costs nearly five dollars a gallon, lunchtime flights just don't seem practical to the majority of pilots. Costs can be offset by improvements to engine speed, but the issue still is the fuel burn. Let's face it, fossil fuels are a limited resource and current trends indicate that such fuel systems will not be en vogue in the near future. Some current trends include making ethanol from corn and even producing oil from algae farms. Two of the most promising alternative fuel sources now result in Hydrogen (with a by-product as water) and increased battery technology juxtaposed with solar energy. The latter seems impractical for aviation even with the most ambitious and optimistic futurist views. Instead, it would be of a more interesting to discuss a fuel source only recently re-discovered as plausible for aviation: nuclear power.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
The U.S. Department of Energy has begun extensive studies in hydrogen fuel cell technology. They state the biggest hurdle in making hydrogen cell technology practical is not so much - anxiety over creating a 'hydrogen bomb' in the back of a car, but in affordability This makes sense considering that any new energy source must be relatively close in cost per mile that fossil fuels produce. The following is from the U.S. Department of Energy:
“The new hydrogen cost goal of $2.00-$3.00/gge (delivered, untaxed, 2005$, by 2015) is independent of the pathway used to produce and deliver hydrogen. In addition, the new methodology accounts for the energy efficiency of the gasoline hybrid vehicle and the fuel cell vehicle on a cost-per-mile basis. The cost goal was derived using the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) fuel-efficiency improvement factors and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) "High A" gasoline price projection for 2015. In the High A case, the U.S. economy is more vulnerable to limited oil supplies from foreign sources due to the increasing world and U.S. oil demand, resulting in higher oil prices. This case is more representative of the economic and energy security environment in which hydrogen must compete.
The new hydrogen target is in alignment with the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative goal of achieving a technology readiness milestone by 2015, and will be used to guide the Department's hydrogen and fuel cell research and development activities.” (U.S. Department of Transportation [UDOT], 2008)
In comparison the energy produced by hydrogen is comparable to the energy produced by standard fuels—but in less quantity. In short, if airplanes were retrofitted with hydrogen fuel cells, the cost per mile would be comparable, but the planes could fly much further and produce considerably less harmful emissions. It is unavoidable to discuss alternative energy sources without discussing the lower-emissions element. The water by-product of hydrogen fuel is favorable. So, if a hydrogen-fueled airplane can fly at a comparable fuel-cost-per mile as with fossil fuels, and have any marketable value, it is found in the time saved without refueling; and the fuel cost savings by using less fuel for longer distances. The hydrogen-fueled plane is also lighter weight , which makes an airplane fly more efficiently. It costs fuel to move fuel.
Unfortunately there are no sources on engine-pricing goals, but logic would have the engines at a cost comparable to current aircraft engines. For example, and admittedly this list is limited t, the price range runs from $22,250.00 for a Lycoming 235 – 4 cylinder 118hp engine, to $89,999.00 for a Lycoming 720 – 8 cylinder 400hp engine. (Lycoming, 2009) A comparable price range for a hydrogen engine to be economically feasible should have to be in these same ranges or slightly higher. However, any company bringing forth new technology has to assess the reliability and safety of their product. Unfortunately it might take years to prove out this new technology before people will begin to invest their lives in it. Plus, any mishap or negative publicity could show the new technology to be too dangerous and cause setbacks that could last years, or even render the new technology obsolete before it 'takes off.' This is why research and development costs are so costly, which will more than likely raise the cost of the engines produced.
Hydrogen engines are new technology. This is a technology that has existed since WWIIr that has a tried-and-true history in fueling for military craft but has acquired some unfortunate bad publicity. Luckily, most of these issues are now overcome and could be implemented in all aircraft: nuclear power.
Nuclear submarines have incredible longevity. They can circle the globe many times without ever refueling. This is in part due to the efficiency in the decaying tendencies of radioactive uranium during fission, and the high energy that is produced within the reactors. Many nuclear vessels can sustain 25-30 knots submerged for weeks only resurfacing to resupply the crew with food and other provisions. Many vessels that patrol the arctic waters can run for 4 years without ever having to be refueled. (Acton, 2007) Similar fuel efficiency in aviation would be coveted by any aircraft manufacturer and owner.
A recent news article mentions that the United States has already tested a nuclear reactor aboard a B-36, in the 1950's, but tested it only to prove that a crew and passengers could be safely shielded from the radioactive material. The flight tests ended due to improved missile design that made intercontinental travel of weaponry non-dependent on aircraft. (Webster, 2008) Little did the military know then that further developments would lead to the possibility of hyper-efficient engines capable of flying almost indefinitely without refueling. Carbon emissions for nuclear aircraft would be irrelevant and fuel costs per seat mile would be insignificant.
Nuclear Long-haul Issues
There are obvious concerns with hyper-efficient aircraft. Pilot fatigue on long-haul flights would become an issue as more and more aircraft find it economically feasible to fly incredibly long distances—even internationally for general aviation aircraft. It is a concern that must be met and no doubt regulated to ensure pilot safety. Another serious factor is the potential for a nuclear leak following crashes. In populated areas, where most airports exist, nuclear leaks would prove fatal to many people, even those living outside of the crash area. Ian Poll, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield University said it best:
“We need to be looking for a solution to aviation emissions which will allow flying to continue in perpetuity with zero impact on the environment . . . Professor Poll said the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors. It's done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings” (Webster, 2008)
Professor Poll goes on to discuss and ingenious plan that would include detaching aircraft engines prior to impact and jettisoning them with parachutes to contain the reactive materials so that damage to the environment and to people would be lessened. There is little doubt as to the added controllability and increase in glide distance that can be achieved by a reduction in drag equal to what the engines themselves produce. Both the reduced weight and the increase in laminar flow over the wings would increase the aerodynamic effectiveness in much the same way as a feathered propeller decreases Vmc in a multi-engine propelled aircraft. Imagine the whole engine gone, and Vmc would decrease even more. Obviously some new technologies would have to be implemented in order to jettison the nuclear engine automatically in cases where pilots are incapacitated in any way, such as explosive decompression similar to the Payne Stewart incident. Such technologies on general aviation may not even be needed due to the parachute deployment systems already in use on some Cirrus and Remos aircraft.
Growth in aviation has to include general aviation, and although it may be implausible for every flight to take off and land safely at its destination 100 percent of the time, it is still important to gain access to the potential by continuing to grow and evolve technologies. Any measure to increase safety must be included in general aviation and be economically possible.
Outlined thus far are problems, ideas, and possible solutions to be studied and implemented in the future of general aviation. However, commercial aviation has added concern on issues; and so even more consideration must be studied to increase safety, economy, and innovation. Most passengers choose large airliners for travel and most passengers want travel done as quickly, comfortably, and safely as possible.
Humanity will continue to evolve, learn, and progress. Aviation is a concept that has been dreamed of since humans recognized the inherent blessings given to birds in flight. It is only now where humanity can enjoy the gift of flight. Perhaps originally invented for the leisure of man, it has evolved into an effective way to travel, conduct business, and even enjoy life. Unfortunately it has also displayed its share of setbacks and disasters. If we are to witness miraculous possibilities in our lifetime, we have to be open-minded and invest in improvement and innovation. In the time it took for Orville Wright to see his powered cloth-and-wire apparatus turn into a jet-powered aluminum wonder, we may see a jet-powered aluminum wonder turn into sub-orbital auto-navigators that fly millions of people, millions of miles, millions of times—safely.
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