Commercial Aviation in 50 Years
Commercial Aviation Innovation
Commercial Aviation Issues
Any study of aviation improvements must address the overriding issues of commercial travel today. One cannot overlook the events of September 11, 2001 and the terrorism threat in all countries and in all airplanes – which are now considered as potential weapons. Earlier herein, a possibility of using nuclear fuel to power airplanes was discussed in general aviation. However, in commercial aviation, a nuclear reactor on board would be an unintended boon to terrorists wanting to maximize damages and injury to their enemies. Keeping ahead of this issue would offer clues to minimizing this risk. As it stands now, hijacked planes are often intercepted by military aircraft; and in extreme cases are shot down to prevent deaths of more innocent people. The engines must be secured before this can happen. If the pilots are incapacitated by terrorists their engines must be equipped with a mechanism to be safely jettisoned. This could be solved by giving ATC authority to override the controls of the aircraft to essentially 'push the button'. In order to prevent a disgruntled ATC member from sabotaging an aircraft, a secondary or tertiary override switch must be included to be activated by different people.
Nuclear reactors aboard aircraft are a serious consideration, and serious measures must therefore be implemented. The cost saved in fuel would more than justify the cost of hardware, software, and the extra training. Think of GPS technology and the incredible infrastructure that was needed to be built for this technology to work reliably. Aviation saw the potential and was willing to spend the necessary resources to improve safety, efficiency, and reliability. Such discussions of innovations must put cost of implementation secondary until a thorough cost analysis can be done.
Recently in the news there has been added emphasis placed on bird strikes. The most notable as of late is the US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River piloted by Captain Chesley Sullenberger III. A bird strike shortly after takeoff incapacitated both engines of the Airbus A320. An extensive narration of the incident will not be revisited here.Rather, let it suffice to say that bird strikes are a current hot-button topic in the current environment because of the added publicity they have received. Although current measures are put in place in order to avoid bird strikes, it is now painfully obvious that further measures are needed to to eliminate the undesired effects of all bird strikes.
Currently,anti-bird strategies are only employed by the larger, and busiest airports. This makes sense considering the higher volume of people and the higher liabilities that lie near larger airports. The FAA, in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the Wildlife Service came out with an interesting 18-year report on wildlife strikes to aircraft.Information disseminated from this report will only emphasize the bird strikes. Such information is important in to assess where, when,and why the majority of bird strikes occur, and in turn provide recommendations to eliminate or reduce the risk by innovation and/or prevention. Importantly it must be noted that avoiding bird strikes is not so much a safety issue as it is an economical concern.Airplanes that are not flying because of repairs or being deemed non-airworthy pose a significant economic strain—almost secondary to human safety.
Some figures from the report:
“For the 18-year period (1990-2007), 82,057 strikes were reported to the FAA. Birds were involved in 97.5 percent of the reported strikes, terrestrial mammals in 2.1 percent, bats in 0.3 percent and reptiles in 0.1 percent. The number of strikes annually reported more than quadrupled from 1,759 in 1990 to a record 7,666 in 2007. We suggest that the increase in reports from 1990 to 2007 was the result of several factors: an increased awareness of the wildlife strike issue, an increase in aircraft operations, an increase in populations of hazardous wildlife species, and an increase in the number of strikes. The temporary plateau in reported strikes from 2000-2003 maybe related to a slight (<6 percent) decline in air traffic after the events of September 2001.” (Dolbeer, Wright, 2008)
Also of relevance:
“Most bird strikes (51 percent) occurred between July and October(Table 6); 62 percent occurred during the day (Table 7); 60 percent occurred during the landing (descent, approach, or landing roll)phase of flight; and 37 percent occurred during takeoff and climb.About 60 percent of the bird strikes occurred when the aircraft was at a height of 100 feet or less AGL, 73 percent occurred at 500 feet or less AGL, and 92 percent occurred at or below 3,000 feet AGL (Table 9). Less than 2 percent of bird strikes occurred above 10,000 feet AGL. The record height for a reported bird strike involving civil aircraft in USA was 32,500 feet AGL. . . . The aircraft components most commonly reported as struck by birds were the nose/radome, windshield, engine, wing/rotor,and fuselage.” (Dolbeer, Wright, 2008)
It can be concluded that in order to prevent the majority of all bird strikes an effective mitigation efforts need to be most effective, or even activated at low altitudes (below 3000' AGL) and during all hours of the day. The trend seems to be that airport-based bird prevention measures are what people have accepted as an appropriate and viable way to get rid of all birds. In order to eliminate bird strikes in the future, should we solely focus on the airports themselves? Could there be another economically smart way to rethink this whole system?
Here is a proposal—aircraft-based bird strike prevention. As it stands now, there are rotating 'beams of sound' on approach and departure ends of runways designed to annoy birds and force them off the airport. Logically, it would make sense to implement this sort of measure on an airplane. For example, a checklist item for before takeoff or decent should include activating a switch that would produce the same directional high frequency noise extending throughout the flight path of the aircraft. Such noise would annoy the birds as to change their own flight path and prevent them from flying on a collision course with a bird much bigger than them. Some would argue the noise would just add to the cumbersome noises already produced by airplanes. Such concerns should be alleviated as such frequencies and their pulses would render it impossible for even the most acute human ear to perceive. Another advantage to such a system would not restrict the best bird-prevention practices, in essence, in every airport. More correctly it can be said that bird prevention measures are everywhere an aircraft flies. Seems almost too logical not to not have been thought of previously.
The True Future of Commercial Aviation
Admittedly, most of the issues herein discussed, and even their potential solutions are most closely required by current aviation.However, the most exciting things in aviation today are the concepts conceived and managed by the optimistic futurists. As mentioned in the beginning, Orville Wright saw incredible innovation during his lifetime. Witnessing his humble begin is of home-built aircraft all the way through to becoming a jet powered thing of beauty. Orville was only 32 years old when he invented modern aviation history. The next 44 years of his life was witness to some incredible advances to aviation. It should be asked by any reader that will live the next 44 years, 'what will happen next in in aviation?' Admittedly, much of what is to be subsequently discussed is speculative but effort has been made to minimize far-fetchedness and to maximize realism.
There are many possibilities to discuss in the next forty years in the future in:avionics, safety, propulsion, and most excitingly, the very-real possibility of sub-orbital travel. Avionics is just now processing the necessary technology to fly an airplane almost by itself. Imagine a fully integrated display.
Avionics definitely even has the potential to make ATC obsolete. Some exciting possibilities include: Showing real-time weather and aircraft performance calculations based on pilot input, real time airspace boundaries and alerts to show penetration or warnings, show your route including where other airplanes are in the vicinity, how to avoid them, and the most economic or time-saving way to reach your destination.
I believe that avionics will someday make ATC all but obsolete. ATC now basically just separates traffic from other traffic. Imagine looking at a display that routes you automatically around other airplanes, around weather,and even give you a priority if your fuel is low by communicating toall other airplane avionics systems in the vicinity. A normal flight display, even in zero-visibility situations would show you where the runway is, a cue when to rotate, finish checklists, and show a'highway' in the sky on where to merge and go to next. An on-screen notification would show that your flight plan is open, and since no clearance will be needed, a route around other aircraft and even an assigned altitude that would make your travel the fastest and most fuel-efficient. Altitude assignments would no longer be needed for separation of traffic, but rather for most favorable winds and routes. An on-screen alert would also give you a specific fuel-air mixture based on the outside air temperature and alert you when you've reached the proper setting. An airplane approaches from the rear and is about to overtake you. Your on-screen alert already shows your plane, its type, speed, destination, and perhaps even the pilot’s name. Airplanes are no longer referred to by a registration number, but by pilot name which makes pilot-to-pilot communication less ambiguous when unusual traffic is encountered. The overtaking pilot's on-screen display shows a modified path around your airplane which includes a safe distance and wake-turbulence avoidance. The overtaking plane advances without incident. Next, a PIREP is automatically reported on your flight path. Immediately, your flightplan is rerouted, with the display already modified, and the flight service station flashes a notification on your PFD that the flight plan has been amended. Coming in on approach to a socked-in airport is no trouble since the airport is already displayed correctly on the PFD. The approach sequence is in place as well as all appropriate checklist items to be cleared only by enacting them. The airport is not in visual sight because of the clouds, but it is shown on the PFD. You land without incident and even taxi into the ramp correctly.
One concern about current flights conducted within a sophisticated glass cockpit is that pilots are focusing too much on the inside the cockpit. One of the reasons is that the pilot cannot see other airplanes or terrain. However, the new avionics exploits this already instinctual reaction by displaying all airplanes and all terrain within in the vicinity of the airplane. This is possible because all airplanes have automatic flight plans filed and open, and all have these same avionics. Reality, augmented with information pertinent to any flight, would no doubt increase situational awareness and overall safety in the industry—an ambitious venture, but the costs saved by making air traffic control obsolete would be well worth the investment. The technological parts and pieces already exist; the only issue would be to convince the many people involved of an untested industry-wide innovation—not to mention the air-traffic-controller unions. At any rate, the possibilities are incredible and no doubt would improve the experience of flying.
Safety is another major concern with the new age of flight. Faster planes, potentially dangerous fuels, and the added appeal to terrorists must all be addressed. With airplanes traveling faster,concerns of weather phenomena such as wind shear and micro bursts could have dangerous effects on aircraft. Such concerns can be addressed by the evolution of materials and engineering that are already being seen today. Advanced composites, stronger than steel and significantly lighter, not only improved the structural integrity of an aircraft, but its range and speed. As mentioned before, it costs fuel to move fuel. The same can be said of added weight. It costs weight to move weight. Advances in avionics and weather reporting as well as improvements in composite materials will make for a significantly indestructible vessel.
Terrorists seem to get smarter as the countermeasures to prevent them evolve. Speculating on what terrorists could be capable of in the future is difficult, but we can assume that two things terrorists can do to airplanes that can be most destructive is detonating explosive devices on the airplane, or taking control of the aircraft. The latter seems to have a more convincing solution if the airplane could potentially be taken over remotely, or even automatically follow a diversion programmed in to the specific flight.
Say terrorists have taken over an aircraft and has diverted it from a strict flight plan. The software would note this, then automatically fly it and even land it at a diverted airport where law enforcement will be ready to engage them. Rendering the aircraft impossible to override by terrorists even if controls are destroyed would be an obvious deterrent to anyone planning an act. If an airplane can fly without a pilot (should emergency dictate) and impossible to divert otherwise, it would be obvious to future hijackers that such plans would be quickly foiled. Unrelated to terrorism, this same countermeasure could be utilized if an airplane experiences a failure that incapacitates both pilots.
An bomb explosion within an airplane is hard to design for. However,it is possible that the same advances in composite materials could reinforce an aircraft in this situation. Recently an oxygen tank ruptured on a commercial flight and blew a hole the size of a small car. The plane landed without incident. The survival of the people on board can be attributed to the structural integrity already inplace in the aircraft design. A possible design measure for surviving a terrorist blast would be to make an incredibly strong fuselage with newer materials.
Finally, the possibility of sub-orbital commercial flight should not be ignored. First, flying at higher flight levels has its advantages.Increasing the area in which aircraft can fly makes it harder for airplanes to run into each other. Two foot-long fish in a bathtub have a greater chance of running into each other than if they were in the ocean. Secondly, flying higher increases true airspeed because of the colder temperatures. In essence, planes travel faster overall.
A huge step backward for aviation, the supersonic Concorde, ended it service early in the 21st century. In the United States supersonic flight has been outlawed since 1968 due to the effects of sonic booms on communities not excluding broken window, car alarms,and public discomfort. (Rubner, 2005) One attractive aspect of sub-orbital flight is the lessened effect of a sonic boom. The higher in altitude one flies, the less-dense the air becomes. A sonic boom requires air molecules to exist before a sound can be made. When no air molecules exist, or when their spacing is incredibly far, sound effects no longer exist. If ultra-high altitude flight then becomes feasible due to engine upgrades and innovation, then it is not inconceivable to have passengers travel from say, Sydney Australia to London, England in far less time and without any stopovers.
Currently engine technology is researching the possibility of a scram jet, capable of reaching speeds to Mach 12-24. If the distance between Sydney, Australia and London, England is 10557.5 miles(infoplease.com, 2009) then an aircraft could theoretically reach either place in 36-68 minutes. Incredible speeds. Although the mechanics of such an engine are complex—essentially a funnel-like chamber through which supersonic air is compressed and ignited, and an exit nozzle where the speed exits faster then it came in. Technology is just now being researched that will be the next-generation propulsion that will cut travel speeds to'shrink' the world at a rate our ancestors never thought possible.Concerns understandably arise as this whole new industry becomes an everyday possibility. At first, people will be wary of using suchinnovations for domestic and international travel. Such technologieswill not enjoy a record of reliability for perhaps a century. Itwould be hard to convince many aviation companies to take such arisk. To be fair, these same arguments have existed in almost everyindustry. The Old gives way to the New until the New proves itself. It may take generations, but aviation follows a very predictablepath. It gets better all the time. It improves, learns from itsmistakes and innovates from its problems.
Humanity willcontinue to evolve, learn, and progress. Aviation is a concept thathas been dreamed of since humans recognized the inherent blessingsgiven to birds in flight. It is only now where humanity can enjoythe gift of flight. Perhaps originally invented for the leisure ofman, it has evolved into an effective way to travel, conductbusiness, and even enjoy life. Unfortunately it has also displayedits 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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