Monday, November 24, 2014

I've Sat on a $600 Toilet Seat



The $600 toilet seat. More than just a cliche, over the years it's become an icon and a convenient shorthand for government waste. But does anyone really know the true story behind the famous $600 toilet seat?

I do.

I've even sat on one.

It's an airplane toilet seat. And more. Specifically, the famous $600 toilet seat was actually a fiberglass structure used in the restrooms of the Lockheed P-3C Orion sub chaser aircraft flown by the Navy. In a mini-scandal, it was determined that the fiberglass shroud structure that covered the toilet needed to be replaced. Since the aircraft was long out of production, new parts were needed to be tooled and constructed.

Once all the costs of production were rolled into the final product, the cost was about $600, probably a deal for a custom part long out of production. This will be no mystery to anyone who works on antique autos. One-off or limited production of complex parts and machinery is expensive. It also defines the crazy economics of military equipment procurement.

Politics Drives the Process


One might be forgiven for thinking that tactics, strategy, or mission needs drive the military equipment procurement process. To the extent that those concerns drive the process at all, the relation is only tangential. The driving force behind most military procurement is politics. And money. Lots of money.

Let's start with the politics. Every dime of military spending has to be authorized by Congress in a spending bill and signed into law as a budget by the President. In the classic American sausage making and log rolling traditions which define our politics, coalitions need to be formed, foes placated with spending in their districts and allies need to be enlisted to get military programs shepherded through the process to be funded.

The Senator from Lockheed may ally with the Senator from Boeing to get an airplane built if the engines are built in this state and the wings are built in that one. The process is such that new military aircraft need to have parts from nearly all 50 states in order to see the light of day. This isn't the unalloyed evil that some pacifists on the left make it out to be, but rather the process that needs to be accomplished to get things done in a representative democracy. But care must be taken.

In his famous 1961 farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the undue influence on our politics of the military-industrial complex. While military spending has proved a durable reality in the post-war years, it may finally be reaching a denouement as social and welfare spending eclipses military budgets.

The Europeans found out early on that in the contest between a social welfare state and military budgets, the military eventually loses. Having the Americans pick up the tab for your defense spending also helps but that topic is for another time.

In an unattributed quote, it was once said that as military aircraft became more expensive and fewer were bought, eventually all that could be afforded would be one aircraft which pilots would take turns flying. It was an eerily prescient quote. In World War II, American industrial might produced about 97,000 bomber aircraft. Fast forward 40 years and only 20 B-2s, the last manned bomber to be built in this country were produced. And that was at $2 billion per.

Now about the money. The simple fact of the matter is that military hardware is really expensive. Whenever the military procures an item from a civilian source it must be built to what is called "mil-spec" or military specifications. This means it has to be tough. Usually a lot tougher than a similar item sold on the commercial market if it's available at all.

As an example of mil-spec, consider the original Humvee or rather the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). Built by AM General a subsidiary of American Motors as a replacement for the Jeep (from GP, or general purpose), a civilian variant was offered to the public in 1992. 

Coming equipped with many of the military upgrades such as automatic tire inflation, waist deep water capability and a 6.2L turbo diesel engine, the vehicle retailed at over $40,000 or over $65,000 today. And this was for a basic, spartan ride with few if any creature comforts.

Another factor which drives cost in the procurement of military hardware is limited production runs. Regardless of how many new fighters or bombers are bought, the cost of R&D is the same and is usually accounted for in a per unit cost. This results in the perverse result that a buy of fewer overall units results in a higher per unit cost as the R&D costs are spread over those fewer units.

In a similar civilian production run, the units produced are so great that the cost of R&D becomes vanishingly small. The H2 Hummer originally mass produced for the civilian market was a fraction of the cost of the mil-spec H1. But the same principle applies to things as mundane as a mil-spec flashlight all the way up to jet fighters.

A Perverse Process Produces Perverse Results


In my 21 year career in the military, I saw the above mentioned process at work time and again in the aircraft I flew and others. Here are a few of my favorites:

The KC-135


As I mentioned recently in my post about the Boeing 367-80, the KC-135 was saddled with inferior engines and an antique water-injection system because the commander of SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay didn't want to wait for new technology Pratt & Whitney engines to be provided literally months later. This decision, driven by perceived military necessity in the 1950s has probably cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars but was at least sincerely made in light of the perceived threat the USSR provided.

Now nearly 55 years old, the aircraft is still flying and was scheduled for replacement a decade ago. The reason it hasn't been is a true comedy of malfeasance and incompetence. Back in the 1990s a tremendous effort was made to procure a replacement aircraft based on the Boeing 767 airframe. Amid allegations of illegal kickbacks among industry and military insiders, several people involved went to jail and the contract was thrown open again to bid.

When the European based Airbus won the contract, politics again reasserted itself and declared the contest invalid followed by yet another round of bidding going to the better correct airplane, the Boeing. The Boeing KC-46A Pegasus fleet should cost perhaps $100 billion when finally delivered.

The C-5B


The Air Force's original fleet of C-5A aircraft were built by Lockheed in the early 1970s. Boeing, which lost the competition for this contract, was the real winner by then diverting the resources it had gathered to build the 747. While over 1500 747s have since been built by the Boeing corporation, the Lockheed corporation only built 131 C-5 aircraft and doesn't even build transport category aircraft anymore.

The interesting part of the story is in the procurement of the C-5B aircraft. Due to structural problems in the original C-5A aircraft stemming from a gauge of aluminum which was too thin, the aircraft needed to have new wing skin applied. During this process, Lockheed offered additional C-5 aircraft to the military at a cut rate as most of the production tools were already in place.

Boeing again entered and lost this contest but probably for a good reason that with the Air Force's already existing fleet of C-5s the new Boeings would have been an additional parts and training burden. It was however the engines that are of interest.

The original GE TF-39 engines offered for the C-5B were woefully inadequate to existing technology available in the early '80s. The TF-39 produced about 39,000 lbs of thrust while new technology GE engines could produce thrust into the 50,000 lb range. While the C-5 could barely climb through 30,000 ft with a full cabin load, a 747-200 could go much higher and thereby save more fuel with the same weight.

In an interesting twist, GE was commissioned to complete a study as to which engine should power the new C-5Bs. Miraculously, they came to the conclusion that GE engines would be best. In fact, the same old technology TF-39s was their recommendation.

There was a certain method in this madness. Had GE recommended newer high thrust engines, the likely result would have been to throw the entire question open to another bidding contest with Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney being able to compete. Better to sell a mature product with an established profit margin than to risk a competition which might be lost.

The C-17


It was becoming apparent throughout the '80s that the military's aging fleet of transport aircraft would need to be replaced. The C-17, built by McDonnell Douglas and later the Boeing company was chosen as the replacement aircraft.

Having been designed to be all things to all people in the airlift world, the final product ended up not doing any of those things particularly well. The problem is that an aircraft designed to be a strategic lifter, that is to take stuff across oceans at high altitude, makes for a lousy forward operating location aircraft capable of landing in a war zone on an unimproved runway.

In fact the aircraft had originally been designed to replace aging C-130 aircraft which are excellent intra-theatre aircraft. It was later decided that the C-141 would also need replacing which was a strategic inter-theater airlifter. The C-17 became a sort of Frankenstein to do both of these things previously done by two separate aircraft. 

The aircraft was outfitted with Pratt & Whitney F117 engines which is a military variant of the commercial PW2000 engine used on airliners like the 757. In a unique and custom modification, the C-17 engines employ a directed flow thrust reverser to assist with short field landings. Again, this type of custom modification, not found on commercial aircraft, greatly increases the cost, reliability and weight of the engine. But that's not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that after the aircraft was delivered, the engines did not produce the required specific fuel consumption that had been promised. It was a gas hog. In fact, it was determined that the C-17 was not able to fly from California to Hawaii with a full cabin load because of the extra fuel needed.

This was eventually fixed, but at some cost. Extended range fuel tanks were fitted inside the cargo compartment at the wing root to add about 60,000 lbs of fuel capacity. If you see one at an airshow, walk inside and check it out. The tank hangs from the ceiling between the wings.

I could go on with additional stories about the B-1, B-2, and T-46 trainer aircraft but this post would never end. Suffice it to say that while the military procurement process resembles the legislative process in it's sausage making similarities, the military generally ends up with products that eventually are fixed to become quite useful.

Of course if you've really got to go, a $600 toilet seat is better than none at all.






I See a Retirement Job as a Drone Pilot in my Future




Detailed in a Wall Street Journal article today, the FAA has finally released a framework for the regulation of commercial drones in domestic airspace:

Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process. 
The drone industry has awaited commercial rules for about six years, hoping the rules would pave the way for widespread drone use in industries such as farming, filmmaking and construction. Current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S. but essentially bars drones from commercial use.

Drones have great commercial potential for many applications including real estate, construction, pipeline and transmission line inspection, farming and movie making. Potential future applications include things like package delivery, biology, animal migration tracking and law enforcement surveillance. So the industry has reacted with dismay at the level of restriction placed on future commercial drone use:

Airline pilots and aircraft owners have supported the cautious approach. But some drone-industry officials predict a loud backlash to the proposal. 
“I feel like there’s a colossal mess coming,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, an advocacy group for drone makers and innovators, including Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. The rule is going to be “so divorced from the technology and the aspirations of this industry…that we’re going to see a loud rejection.”

In addition to line of sight operations, and a 400 ft maximum altitude, the proposed rule making will require drone pilots to have a licensed pilot at the controls:

Since then, much of the growth has shifted to smaller drones. The expected rules are “going to be very restrictive for small systems,” she added. 
Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for drone-software firm Airware, said requiring commercial drone pilots to have cockpit training “will end up excluding someone who has hundreds of hours of experience on an unmanned aircraft in favor of a pilot who understands how to operate a Cessna but not an unmanned aircraft.”

So now I'm thinking to myself, "Self, do you know anyone with a pilots license who might need a part time job sometime in the future?"

And my self answered right back, "Why come to think of it, yes! Yes I do know someone who could charge ridiculous fees to fly a drone around someone's backyard or construction site."

And of course this is all for the sake of safety, with the imprimatur of the world's preeminent aviation regulatory body, the FAA. (heh)

Now, seriously, I get that there needs to be some sort of regulatory framework for the commercial use of drones. Any collision between a drone and an aircraft will likely result in a catastrophe. So yes, the FAA is right to insert itself into the operation of drones.

But also in true circle-the-wagons regulatory fashion, the agency goes completely overboard and throws the baby out with the bathwater. Common sense dictates that there should be different rules for drones based on size and altitude. A collision with a child's two pound toy flying around the yard, while potentially serious, is quite unlikely whereas a collision with a 50 pound pipeline inspection drone would likely bring down any aircraft.

That common sense approach didn't happen:

The agency also plans to group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules. That would dash hopes for looser rules on the smallest drones, such as the 2.8-pound Phantom line of camera-equipped, four-rotor helicopters made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. Similar-sized devices are seen as the most commercially viable drones and have surged in popularity in the last two years. 
Small-drone supporters say such models are less risky to people and structures than heavier drones like Boeing Co. ’s ScanEagle, a gas-powered, 40-pound aircraft with a 10-foot wingspan that can stay aloft for more than 24 hours. ConocoPhillips Co. uses the ScanEagle to gather data on Arctic ice pack and whale migrations.

But with today's technology, collisions with man made flying objects are becoming ever less likely. For over a decade now, transponder and anti-collision technology has made every other aircraft within 40 miles visible on a display in the cockpit. This technology is affordable and can easily be installed on commercial drones. Even hang gliders are now required to have transponders under certain circumstances.

The FAA at least understands its incentives. Famously known as a "tombstone agency" meaning it typically reacts after an accident, any fatal accident will draw instant headlines and mean lots of SES scale bureaucrats in cushy sinecures with fat government pensions will soon be applying for the non-government jobs they previously regulated out of existence. In other words, they'll be fired. That much they get.

Applying complex risk assessment tools used to balance the needs of commercial aviation safety with the potential benefits of drones is not really their bag. If a drone manufacturer fails or new time or energy saving applications never come into being well that's too bad. Writing intelligent rules that provide maximum safety with maximum benefit is really hard work. Much easier to play it safe.

Were I writing the rules, requiring special equipment and certification when operating near airports seems sensible. Also requiring transponders seems to make sense but the line of sight operations restriction is silly as data links can provide a virtual birds eye view to the pilot as stated in the article. This is the approach that was taken in Canada.

In their typical glacial pace, the FAA will now open the proposed rulemaking to comments for several months after which the actual rules might not appear for one or two more years. But hey, after waiting six years already, what's a few more waiting to get your business started going to matter?

In the meantime, since the FAA quadrupled the hours required for new pilots to get their first airline job, there should be plenty of pilots hanging around to fly the pipeline inspection and crop dusting aircraft that drones are ready to replace.

And by requiring prospective drone pilots to have real airplane licenses, I know of a slightly overweight and greying airline pilot who will have a great retirement job waiting for him.



Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flying While Bored



I addressed the implication of flight automation in the loss of Air France 447 last year when the voice and data recorders were recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean (in itself a small miracle). Now writer William Langewiesche explores the subject in a recent edition of Vanity Fair.

Langewiesche is very thorough and comes to many of the same conclusions about aircraft automation that are slowly being realized by industry experts and the FAA.

The problem of how this issue will be addressed is still an open question. This is especially poignant as automation becomes ever more pervasive. Last year's crash of an Asiana 777 at San Francisco highlighted the pitfalls of pilots who are not prepared to take over flying when the machines can't.

Humans are uniquely ill suited to sit on their hands and monitor the performance of machines. They need to be kept actively in the loop to stay engaged. And yet the machines aren't good enough to be left on their own.

Today's modern aircraft have the worst of both worlds: machines which are quite fallible, and bored, disengaged humans with a fading skill set who are expected to take over at a moment's notice, usually at a critical phase of flight.


Aviation Wisdom



The field of aviation is known for lots of homespun wisdom and gallows humor. The true nature of the business is that you can die if you don't do it right (and sometimes if you do). Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Courtesy Aviation Airborne

How to fly: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (and in that order)

Thou shalt maintain thy airspeed, lest the ground reach up and smite thee.

Superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations requiring their superior skills.

The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.

In a twin-engine aircraft, the purpose of the second engine is to supply the pilot with enough power to fly to the scene of the crash.

When a prang seems inevitable, endeavor to strike the softest, cheapest object in the vicinity, as slowly and gently as possible. - Advice given to RAF pilots during W.W.II.

When in doubt, hold on to your altitude. No-one has ever collided with the sky.

Try to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make all of them yourself.

If God had meant man to fly, he'd have given him lots more money.

You've never been lost until you've been lost at Mach 3.

Airspeed, altitude or brains: Pick any two.

When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something may be forgotten.

Just remember, if you crash because of weather, your funeral will be held on a sunny day. - Layton A. Bennett

Never fly the 'A' model of anything. - Ed Thompson

A pilot who doesn't have any fear probably isn't flying his plane to its maximum. - Jon McBride, astronaut

If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible. - Bob Hoover

If an airplane is still in one piece, don't cheat on it; Ride the bastard down. - Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican'

Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death I Shall Fear No Evil For I Am 80,000 Feet and Climbing. - Sign over the entrance to the SR-71 operating location on Kadena.

Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you. - Richard Herman, Jr., 'Firebreak'

There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime. - Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, 1970.

The three best things in life are a good landing, a good orgasm, and a good bowel movement. The night carrier landing is one of the few opportunities in life to experience all three at the same time.

Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.

The three most common expressions in aviation are, "Why is it doing that?", "Where are we?" and "Oh Crap".

Weather forecasts are horoscopes with numbers.

A smooth landing is mostly luck; two in a row is all luck; three in a row is prevarication.

Helicopters are for the rich... or the enlisted.

I remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous.

We have a perfect record in aviation: we never left one up there!

Flashlights are tubular metal containers kept in a flight bag for the purpose of storing dead batteries.

Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground incapable of understanding it.

What is the similarity between air traffic controllers and pilots? If a pilot screws up, the pilot dies; If ATC screws up, the pilot dies.

If something hasn't broken on your helicopter, it's about to.

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. - Captain A. G. Lamplugh

In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks. - Wilbur Wright in a letter to his father, September 1900

The ultimate responsibility of the pilot is to fulfill the dreams of the countless millions of earthbound ancestors who could only stare skyward and wish.

If helicopters are so safe, how come there are no vintage / classic helicopter fly-ins?

A 'good' landing is one from which you can walk away. A 'great' landing is one after which they can use the aeroplane again.

Takeoff is optional. Landing is mandatory...

If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull the stick back, they get smaller. That is, unless you keep pulling the stick all the way back, then they get bigger again.

Flying isn't dangerous. Crashing is what's dangerous.

One of the most important skills that a pilot must develop is the skill to ignore those things that were designed by non-pilots to get the pilot's attention.

It's always better to be down on the ground wishing you were up in the air than up in the air wishing you were down on the ground.

The probability of survival is inversely proportional to the angle of arrival.

Stay out of clouds. Reliable sources report that mountains have been known to hide out in clouds.

You start with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

In the ongoing battle between objects made of aluminum going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground going zero miles per hour, the ground has yet to lose.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed.

Remember, gravity is not just a good idea, it's the law. And it's not subject to repeal.

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. However, there are no old, bold pilots.

If you're ever faced with a forced landing at night, turn on the landing lights to see the landing area. If you don't like what you see, turn' em back off.

Always remember you fly an aeroplane with your head, not your hands.

You know you've landed with the wheels up when it takes full power to taxi to the ramp.

Things which do you no good in aviation: The sky above you. The runway behind you. The fuel still in the truck. Half a second ago. Approach plates in the car. The airspeed you don't have.

What's the difference between God and fighter pilots? God doesn't think he's a fighter pilot.

Trust your captain but keep your seat belt securely fastened.

An aircraft may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.

There are only two things required to fly a modern airliner: a pilot and a dog. It's the pilot's job to feed the dog. It's the dog's job to bite the pilot if he touches anything in the cockpit.

Aviation is not so much a profession as it is a disease.

There are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Passengers prefer old captains and young flight attendants.

The only thing worse than a captain who never flew as copilot is a copilot who once was a captain.

If the wings are traveling faster than the fuselage, it's probably a helicopter...

Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase head wind.

A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.

I know there's a lot of money in aviation because I put it there.

It's easy to make a small fortune in aviation. You just start off with a large fortune.

I'd rather be lucky than good.

The propeller is just a big fan in the front of the plane to keep the pilot cool. When it stops, pilots start to sweat.

Regards engine power: Lots is good, more is better, and too much is just enough.

A checkride ought to be like a skirt, short enough to be interesting but still be long enough to cover everything.

Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

It's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here.

Experience is a hard teacher. First comes the test, then the lesson.

In thrust I trust.

It is far better to arrive late in this world than early in the next.

You can land anywhere once.

I want to die like my grandfather did, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it ain't fixed, don't fly it.

Fuel in the tanks is limited. Gravity is forever.

Never trust a fuel gauge.

The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pilot Violated Rules Before Crash Landing



A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details some of the results of the NTSB investigation into the crash landing of a Southwest plane at LaGuardia airport last year.
NTSB documents indicate the captain violated company and industry safety standards, which require pilots to work as a team, and in all cases, they must declare their intentions before taking over controls or changing any flight-control settings.
But here's the interesting part:
The safety board also revealed that about three years earlier, the captain was ordered to undergo remedial company training for her leadership style. 
According to interviews released by the safety board, the move was prompted by repeated complaints from first officers about her alleged overbearing attitude in the cockpit. After the training, she returned to her regular flying schedule.
So Southwest apparently knew that this pilot had had problems previously. Now because of this incident, a much greater liability may have been incurred. No doubt that there will be some legal circling of the wagons here.

I don't think the problem of how to control rogue members of a profession is unique to aviation. Stories of rogue doctors or cops abound and create a tension among peers between correcting poor behavior and respect for a colleague. One of the problems is that discipline can only be meted out by management and not peers.

Though I don't know about Southwest, at most airlines, pilots can request to not fly with another particular pilot if they don't get along. The problem with this system is the pilot being avoided may never know that there might be a dozen or so other pilots who won't fly with them. Giving this feedback to pilots might help the difficult ones in a self assessment.

Or perhaps not.

Oft times the people who need feedback the most are the least receptive to it. Individual pilots know who to avoid, and the company knows who the high avoidance pilots are, but of course the flying public does not.

At least until their lawyers find out during discovery after an incident. There should probably be a better way.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the actual NTSB report.


Friday, November 07, 2014

So Why Do They Close the $%!# Door So Early?


Well the obvious answer to that question is so that the airplane doesn't leave late. But who cares when the airplane actually leaves the gate? Or takes off?

As far as a passenger is concerned, the only time that matters is the time the jetway door closes. Why, in the interest of customer service doesn't the airline publish that time? And why do all the airlines seem to use a random number generator to decide how far in advance of the "departure" time that the jetway door closes. Sometimes it's five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes earlier if you're not checked in at the airport. 

(And don't get me started on the agents who seem to relish slamming the door on you. It's like some kind of weird fetish.)

Well, there actually is someone who is watching for when the aircraft actually leaves the gate. The US Department of Transportation keeps and publishes statistics on individual flight departure times. Any flight which leaves (or arrives) more than 15 minutes past the scheduled time published in the computer reservation system is considered "delayed", but all late departures no matter how small are tallied and available for comparison.

Departure and arrival times are logged automatically by sensors on the aircraft. It's not specifically when the door closes, but rather when the pilot releases the parking brake with all the doors closed. And there are quite a few things that have to happen before the brakes can be released.

In the back of the aircraft, the flight attendants have to make sure that all passengers are in their seats. Even though every passenger travelling through major airports like Denver, Dulles, Vegas and Sacramento travel on fast moving trains while standing, the FAA considers it dangerous to have passengers standing on an airplane during pushback. Go figure. Southwest even fought (and lost) a lawsuit against this restriction years ago.

The boarding agent is not even permitted to close the aircraft door until everyone is seated and all luggage is properly stowed. Only when that happens can the front door be legally closed.

When the back end of the aircraft is all set, the lead flight attendant will notify the pilots and close the cockpit door. Since 9/11 it is illegal to start the engines unless the cockpit door is closed and locked.

Up front the pilots are rather busy at this time as well. All airlines have slightly different procedures but are doing roughly the same things. Last minute checklists and takeoff data need to be taken care of and contact needs to be made with the ground crew who operate the pushback tug. The ground crew is also busy making sure all the cargo doors and other hatches are closed which are also verified by lights in the cockpit.

When all of that is done, radio contact needs to be made with ground control for pushback clearance. If there's an aircraft taxiing behind your parking spot or some other delay, you may need to sit at the gate waiting for a while for clearance.

The way most airlines pay their pilots is by flight hours. And flight hours are defined as the time between brake release at the origination and shutdown at the destination gate. So the captain, to an extent, gets to start the payclock by releasing brakes as soon as possible. 

Now there are some other details such as minimum pay rigs (rules) which mean a few minutes of released brakes hardly make a difference in pay. But if the gate agent asks me if I'd mind pushing off knowing I'm ground delayed, but she needs the gate for an inbound flight, I'm properly incentivized to agree. And everyone hates waiting for a gate after landing so I like to help them out as well.

But remember that releasing the brake is a necessary but not sufficient element of an early departure. If I release the brake but the door is still open, the clock doesn't start. (The airplane won't roll because it's connected to the tug by now). Of course, once the door is closed, no one else is coming aboard so I don't have the ability to wait for anyone. All I get to do is delay brake release for a few minutes if the agent is being a horse's rear end thereby giving him a delay just to pimp him. (No, not really. That would be unethical).

Economics Again


No the real reason the airlines like to leave early is the hypercompetitive nature of the airline business as expressed through product differentiation. And blame the internet too.

Airlines, like cellular carriers are in a unique position of having to sell nearly the exact same product as their competitors. All airlines fly to the same government run airports, through government controlled airspace and all their customers go through the same government run grope masquerading as security theater.

All commercial airliners are now built by one of only two global aircraft manufacturers whose products are difficult to tell apart except by airplane geeks. The weather and air traffic delays are generally the same no matter which airline you fly.

So like laundry detergent or cell service, airlines need to emphasize the differences in their products, of which there are precious few. While pricing can be a major selling point, increasing fuel costs act a great leveler. As the price of fuel eats an ever larger piece of the cost pie, individual efficiencies which competent airline managements bring to the table are diminished in the overall cost picture.

While the high costs of the remaining big three legacy carriers, United, American, and Delta were shed through the cycle of bankruptcies in the post 9/11 years, the costs of the low cost airlines have increased to where there's not a great deal of cost advantage for anyone. Spirit Airlines, as an outlier, has managed to keep its costs low, but the service is so spartan that it's not clear whether their model will scale.

Airlines have even tried to be clever by charging separately for bag fees and also by breaking out the government taxes and fees but the DOT has required that those taxes and security fees be added into the total price shown on their reservation sites.

Back to the DOT


Other metrics used to differentiate airline service are the statistics kept by the DOT.  Those are customer complaints, lost bags, and ontime performance. Think of those as RBIs or error stats for a baseball player. They make or break you. 

Southwest distinguished itself last year, and not in a good way, by rearranging their schedule to make better use of their airplanes. It didn't work and their ontime performance plunged to dead last in the industry lineup. Highly embarrassing to their marketing strategy of a being a no-frills yet dependable airline. They have since made amends.

It is the wide dissemination of airline performance statistics through the internet which has gotten airline managements focused like a laser on early departures. In the pre-internet days, only true travel geeks would hunt down these stats. Now everyone sees them with a mouse click. Gate and boarding agents themselves have been threatened with sanctions or even termination for having too many late departures to their credit. 

And as Vinnie, the gangster from Risky Business famously said, you never f--k wit a man's livelihood!

So could there be a solution to all this? Maybe, but it would require a universally adopted new standard of when "departure" actually happens. I totally get that even if the DOT and airlines were disposed to change this system why they'd be reluctant. The devil is always in the details and should the system be changed, there is little doubt that some clever MBAs up in the executive suite would be figuring out clever ways to game the system to their advantage.

So in the meantime, get to the gate early. Or drive.





Scarier Than Snakes: Sneezing on a Plane



In a new video and study conducted by the FAA Center of Excellence at Purdue University, particles from a sneezing passenger are modeled as they disperse in the cabin.

As we've mentioned before, the air coming from the airplane itself is most likely harmless. It's the next passenger over you need to worry about.


So cover your mouth already!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

An Old Soldier Finds a Home


What you're looking at is an historical aircraft. The aircraft that followed and were inspired by it's design changed the world of aviation. This is the Boeing Model 367-80. It was the prototype of the storied 707 which launched the jet age. From this aircraft came the jets that ended the age of propellers and introduced the world to modern jet travel. 

Other than marginal improvements in engine and avionics technology, getting on an airliner today will mean travelling at the same speeds, altitudes and comfort that were introduced with this aircraft.

This is also an aerobatic aircraft, though it was never intended as such. Early in the test phase of the aircraft, test pilot Tex Johnson rolled the aircraft in front of a group of industry big wigs. When called on the carpet and asked what he was doing, he simply replied "selling airplanes".




The 367-80 spawned two iconic aircraft: the B-707 for which Pan Am was the launch customer, and the Air Force's KC-135 Stratotanker. There's a story behind the inception of both aircraft.

The Flying Gas Station


The mid-50s were a time of incredible growth for both commercial and military aviation. During the height of the Cold War, great concern was given to being able to bomb the Soviet Union. The B-52 was the aircraft designed for this task but it couldn't do the job alone. It didn't have the range and needed to be refueled in air to make the journey.

The Air Force had a fleet of tanker aircraft which were based on the WWII era B-29 platform. This airplane, the KC-97, was too slow and small to effectively refuel the all jet B-52 which had to lower gear and flaps to fly as slow as needed. Curtis LeMay, architect of the air war against both Germany and Japan had become the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) which oversaw both missiles and bombers.

General LeMay wanted his all jet tanker fleet "yesterday". Boeing delivered the aircraft but Pratt and Whitney was unable to deliver the new technology TF-33 fan engines to power the aircraft on time. Unwilling to wait for Pratt to deliver the new engines, a decision was made to fit the new aircraft with an older technology J-57 "pure jet" engine which required water injection to achieve sufficient takeoff thrust.

Yes, you heard that right. Water was injected into the combustion chamber of the engine during takeoff. This resulted in a higher mass flow rate through the engine and more thrust. It also smoked like an old steel mill and rattled windows for miles.

Along with the water injected engines in the new tanker, designated KC-135, was the need for a water tank to feed the engines. Without room for the tank included in the design, a decision was made to remove one of the air conditioning units to make room. This made flying the airplane in summer a miserable experience as I can personally attest.

A last little bit of trivia involves the civilian designation of the aircraft. In case anyone was wondering why there was never a Boeing 717, there actually was. It was the civilian designation of the KC-135. If you ever happen to see one at an airshow, the original Boeing ID plate riveted to the crew entrance door will display Boeing Model 717. The airliners named as the Boeing 717 flying today are actually the last variant McDonnell Douglas MD-80 which were acquired by Boeing when they purchased Douglas but those are technically 717-200s.

The Jet Age Arrives


Concurrent with the end of WWII and the return of all our service men was the opening of a new age of possibility. With the American industrial base left intact, American manufacturing flooded the world with new cars, televisions, appliances, and airplanes. Tremendous advances in engine technology, driven in part by German research led the way for passenger jet aircraft to eventually displace propeller driven aircraft.

Pan American Airways, the airline which pioneered trans-Pacific air service using the Boeing Model 314 Clipper, was at the vanguard of the new jet age being the launch customer for the new Model 707. Juan Trippe, the Pan Am CEO, had wanted a larger fuselage width which could accommodate six across seating and also trans-Atlantic range. The resulting aircraft was both longer and with a larger wingspan than the original 367-80.

The new airplanes did, however, incorporate the new bypass fan engine design offered by Pratt and Whitney. Waiting for the upgraded engines meant that water injection was not needed. While the first flight of the KC-135 was in August, 1956, the first 707-100 did not fly until over a year later in December 1957 and commercial service did not begin until September 1958.

Through 1988 Boeing had delivered over 900 civilian and over 100 military 707s serving as passenger transport, presidential transport, early warning radar (E-3) and communications aircraft. A combination of new noise regulations and Boeing's reluctance to support a re-engining program so as not to hurt 757 sales meant that 707s were largely gone from commercial fleets by the end of the 1980s. They fly on as some military variants.

Consigned to the Desert


Model 367-80 reliably served as a test-bed for many new technology demonstrations but was finally retired in 1972 and donated to the Smithsonian. There was however no place to house the aircraft so it ended up in storage in Tucson, Arizona at AMARC, otherwise known as the boneyard.

Assigned to Williams AFB in Phoenix in the mid 80s, I drove down with some friends to Tucson to take a tour. Contrary to popular belief, the Air Force does not store all our used aircraft there in the desert indefinitely. Once a determination is made that the aircraft will not be entered back into service, they are chopped up and sold as scrap.

Except for a few.

The base maintains a "celebrity row" where a dozen or so famous planes remain. It was there back in 1987 that we found the Boeing Model 367-80. I pulled out some old photo albums and found some faded photos of that trip:

367-80 in the Boneyard circa 1987


In the mid 90s, Boeing reclaimed the aircraft from the desert, flew it to Washington where it was refurbished and it eventually found it's way to the Udvar-Hazy wing of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in DC.

I took these pictures on a visit to the museum during a layover last week. 367-80 is now polished to a gleam and sits among other proud representatives of a golden age of aviation now just a memory.



The last picture I leave you with is a lonely Fairchild T-46, cancelled as the replacement to the T-37 trainer we were flying at the time. Standing in front is some girl I was dating at the time.

The Last Fairchild Built Aircraft (and wifey)







Friday, October 17, 2014

Is the Air on My Plane Safe?



Like all technical questions involving complex interactions between humans, other humans, and complicated mechanical systems, the answer is solidly "it depends".

For starters, it depends on the definition of the word "safe". Humans are famously bad judges of risk as I observe on a nearly daily basis. Statistically, perhaps only elevators are a less risky form of transportation than commercial aviation. And yet watching ostensibly normally functioning people come close to losing their minds as they board an airplane gives one pause when giving odds on the likelihood of the continued existence of the species. But never mind.

Let's start with the basics of how airplane pressurization and air conditioning work. Then we'll talk about the resulting air quality in the cabin and the risk of disease transmission which has been on everyone's mind.

It's Just Like a Balloon


Think of the aircraft as a balloon with two holes in it. Air is being blown into one hole to try to inflate the balloon but simultaneously leaking out of the other. If the amount of air entering equals the amount leaving, the balloon grows neither larger nor smaller. In a nutshell, that is how aircraft pressurization works.

The air we breathe on this planet is made up of many gases with the primary ones being nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%) and argon (1%) along with many other gases making up the remaining bits. It is the partial pressure of oxygen which keeps you alive. As you climb higher into the atmosphere, that pressure drops. Most healthy humans can function normally up to an altitude of about 10,000 feet and above 14,000 feet cognitive function is impaired in most people.

Of course conditioned and trained people can go much higher with climbs up Everest at 35,000 feet being accomplished without oxygen. But for most people, going above 10,000 feet results in discomfort and light hypoxia. For this reason, aircraft cabins are always pressurized to an altitude below 10,000 feet.

Why not keep airplanes pressurized to sea level pressure? It's an engineering tradeoff. Most commercial aircraft are built to withstand a pressure differential of about 8 psi meaning the maximum difference between the air inside the plane and that outside is about 8 psi. This translates to a cabin altitude of about 8500 feet when the airplane is at it's maximum altitude of 40,000 feet. It could be built to withstand higher pressure (and some business jets are) but the cost and weight goes up greatly with thicker skin.

Now back to our balloon analogy. The air coming into the cabin is bled from the engines. Air enters the engine and travels through a series of compressor stages where most of it is used in combustion with the fuel. However some high pressure and temperature air is bled off and fed to a unit known as the air cycle machine. Using a linear flow model as opposed to a Carnot cycle used in your car's air conditioner, the air is then cooled and expanded before being fed into the cabin. Hot air from earlier stages in the process is mixed with cold air from the air cycle machine to attain a desired temperature.

On the back side of the plane is the second hole known as the outflow valve. This is where the pressure in the plane is controlled as there is a door which modulates open and closed to let air out at a rate to control the pressure inside the plane. For a given inflow rate, when the outflow valve closes, the pressure in the plane goes higher. A pressure relief valve keeps the "balloon" from bursting from over pressure in the case of a malfunction.

The inflow rate is modulated by automatic valves and is kept mostly constant while the outflow valve is controlled by a digital pressure controller. This provides for a gradual pressure climb and descent to match the pressure altitude of the landing airport which is set by the pilot. Were this not the case, the doors, which are essentially plugs, could not be opened at the destination if the aircraft was still pressurized. It's also why these doors can't be opened in flight. The air pressure keeps them closed with many hundreds of pounds of force.

Why Do My Sinuses Bother Me on an Airplane?


Well for one thing, the air in the stratosphere has almost zero moisture contained within it and as a result, the air coming into the cabin at altitude is also nearly zero percent humidity. This is why you will become quickly dehydrated on a long flight. Some business aircraft actually have humidifiers installed for comfort but these are not installed on commercial aircraft to my knowledge due to weight, cost, and corrosion considerations. Dry mucous membranes can also cause discomfort over long periods.

Pressure changes experienced on an aircraft are well known to cause discomfort. The reason for this is the construction of the human head. Aerospace travel was apparently not considered in its design. Put simply, air does not always flow freely into and out of the sinus cavities and ears of the mark-one mod-zero human. When the air pressure is changing outside of said human and congestion or some other problem prevents the air pressure from equalizing, pain often results.

This pain and discomfort most often manifests itself during descent as the pressure is increasing. During climb, air escapes more easily from sinuses but a "flapper" like effect makes increasing pressure more difficult to equalize resulting in sinus and ear blocks. They can be excruciatingly painful. Not flying with a cold is always a good idea but using a nasal inhalant such as Afrin can help greatly in the event of discomfort. It should not be used prophylactically though as there is a "bounce-back" effect and it can become habit-forming if used continuously.

Are the Pilots Turning Down the Oxygen?


Why yes. Yes they are up there wearing oxygen masks while turning the oxygen valve  to make passengers fall asleep and to also save money on oxygen tanks. And cackling wildly as they watch you turn slowly blue. Sometimes, though they need to take a break from that duty to monitor the chem-trail dispersal systems.

Seriously, though, per the laws of physics, the oxygen content of cabin air will decrease with cabin altitude. For customers who have hit it especially hard the night before or have health considerations, the resulting lack of oxygen may result in an extended nap or shortness of breath. My airline does not allow bottled oxygen to be brought on board by customers, but does allow battery powered oxygen concentrators. Checking ahead of time what the policies are is always helpful.

And no, there are no oxygen tanks in use during a normal flight. Your ability to remain conscious at altitude is a function of the cabin pressure. As long as it remains below about 10,000 feet, you'll stay awake and alive. There are oxygen tanks aboard but they are for crew use during emergencies. 

There aren't even any oxygen tanks hooked to the emergency oxygen masks that will drop if the cabin pressure rises above 14,000 feet. Those are actually connected to "oxygen generators" which is a fancy way of saying a chemical stew that "burns" when activated but gives off oxygen as a byproduct. A number of these oxygen generators which were improperly packed caught fire in the cargo hold and brought down a Valuejet MD-80 about 15 years ago. As installed in the aircraft overhead passenger service unit, the heat generated during use is harmless.

Should the "rubber jungle" ever fall down in your face, you will have about 12 minutes of oxygen mixed with ambient air to keep you awake while hopefully your pilot gets the airplane pressurization under control or gets below 10,000 feet. But remember that since the mask mixes oxygen with ambient air, it won't keep you from breathing smoke should a fire ever break out. 

Another favorite conspiracy theory is that pilots recirculate used air to be breathed again and again...to save money. Well, this one is true. A certain amount of the air on most commercial aircraft is in fact recycled. A "recirc" fan recirculates a certain amount of air through a filter like the HVAC system in your house, car, and office. This results in higher humidity and less fuel consumption. And while 100% of the air from your home air conditioning system is recycled, the number is closer to 50% on an aircraft depending on the model.

But How Safe is it Really?


Again, it depends, but air quality on a modern commercial aircraft is probably about as safe as it can reasonably be. According to Boeing, passengers receive between 14 and 20 cubic feet of air per person per minute and this air is essentially particle free. Boeing claims that the HEPA filters used can remove particles as small as .3 microns which includes most microorganisms.

So while the air coming from the airplane is probably safe, it's that guy sitting next to you hacking up a lung you're probably worried about. And probably with good cause. It's not the airplane itself that is the problem, it's the proximity to sick people in the cabin with you.

Put several hundred people in any enclosed space be it airplane, elevator, or subway, and someone with an infectious airborne disease will probably transmit something to someone. But of all those transportation methods, the airplane probably has the freshest air source. Directing one of the overhead gasper air vents towards your face may have some effect in keeping ambient air particles out of your lungs but how much is unknown. And as I mentioned earlier, the air is probably fresher than your home or office. 

While the practice is more often seen in Asian countries than the US, wearing a mask can certainly cut down the risk of acquiring an airborne infection. But other than wearing a mask, there's probably little that you can do to reduce your risk of airborne infection other than staying off the plane altogether.

Is There Anything Else I Should Worry About?


The other and probably equally dangerous threat on an aircraft is the tray table. And also the armrest, and the lavatory. And probably your seat too.

All these things are public spaces and most likely contaminated with germs, fecal matter, and other gross stuff. Just consider the interior of the airplane as one giant Petri dish. It probably isn't a bad idea to carry a supply of anti-bacterial wipes and to wipe down your immediate area when you sit down. Use the anti-bacterial soap in the washroom and learn to unlock and open the door with your elbows.

I personally don't eat or drink on an aircraft either. The flight attendants are handling cash, credit cards, trash and empty cups all day from hundreds of people. Sure they wash their hands and wear gloves at times but is that diet Coke worth a few weeks of flu, or worse? And keep your hands away from your face.

Yes, but aren't the airplanes cleaned every night? Sure they are. We park and a crack crew of uniformed professionals are waiting to scrub down every bit of the aircraft to CDC approved standards using industry standard anti-microbial cleaning agents. Not.

No, the "cleaning crew" consists of minimum wage immigrant labor armed with a vacuum cleaner and a few rags. The plane is also tidied up between flights but not "cleaned".

So What Now?


Well I guess in the words of Dirty Harry, "Do ya feel lucky?" If you've got to go fly, then go fly. I'll be there because I have to be. 

Your odds of catching Ebola or Enterovirus are probably infinitesimal but increasing, due to the madness of our open borders policies inviting the third world and their diseases to our shores.

You are probably more likely to get something more common like the flu on an airplane but a few common sense steps as mentioned above should help. And voting. That will help as well.