A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 2) March 13, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, WWII
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Also see PART 1 of “A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain.”
For the last 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes, Florida’s Space Coast and Houston have been the homes of American manned space flight. But in the earliest days of America’s space program, a select group of engineers calling themselves the Space Task Group (STG) made their home in rural Virginia at the Langley Research Center. Langley is NASA’s oldest research home, founded in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (just as you would think, NACA). The STG at Langley, inaugurated on November 5, 1958, came into existence little more than a month after NACA became NASA. These name changes and group birthings were all of a piece. Forty-five years ago, the nation was obsessed with space—and the nation remains intrigued.
In our February 20th post, we hinted that the February 20th, 1959, cancellation of AVRO’s CF-105 Arrow aircraft—less than six months after NASA was itself born—wound up being a boon for America’s fledgling space program. America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, was announced to the world six days after NASA was born, but that ambitious program was struggling to get its legs under it. The STG, with its single-minded view of putting an American in space, also had trouble finding its footing and was viewed with skepticism by the airplanes-only culture of Langley’s old guard.
Aeronautics was becoming Aerospace, but not everyone was excited by the changes that this shift implied. In part, resistance was only logical. The American aviation industry had achieved remarkable successes since the end of World War II. The nascent American efforts in space didn’t have a record of success. Not only had the Russians beaten the Americans into space with Sputnik, but they had done it spectacularly. Sputnik had been followed less than a month later by Sputnik-2, and that second Sputnik had carried a living creature, a dog named Laika. America’s side of the space-race equation was also spectacular, but mostly spectacular failures. The nationally televised explosion of America’s first attempted satellite launch—the Vanguard mission on December 6, 1957—earned it the derisive nickname Kaputnik.
Into this environment came the opportunity for NASA’s STG to add significant engineering talent. Arguably, AVRO’s Arrow was the most advanced aircraft in active engineering and development at that time, and it was cancelled. The United States’ most advanced interceptor aircraft of that moment, the North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier—with delta wings and predicted Mach 3 performance, it was quite similar to the Arrow—was also cancelled in 1959. Both were victims of the coming age of ballistic missiles and pushbutton warfare. But whereas the American XF-108 project was limited to engineering drawings and a single wooden mock-up, the CF-105 Arrow knew the feel of air beneath its wings.
In all, AVRO designed, manufactured, and flight-tested six Arrow aircraft. This effort had given a talented young cadre of AVRO engineers experience at the leading edge of aeronautical engineering. The Arrow was the first aircraft designed to use a fly-by-wire system, a means of controlling the aircraft’s flight surfaces with electronic systems. The Arrow was designed in great part on computers. An IBM 704 mainframe computer at AVRO Canada’s headquarters in Malton, Ontario (near Toronto), was used not only for design purposes, but also for simulation and modeling. In fact, data collected during the Arrow flight test program was analyzed on the 704 and then fed back into the simulator. In sum, the young AVRO engineers had just the sort of experience that NASA’s STG needed for Project Mercury.
Ultimately, the AVRO engineers wound up in the STG because of the Arrow’s chief designer, Jim Chamberlin. Chamberlin was a known quantity to engineers at Langley from the collaborative work between AVRO and NACA on wind-tunnel testing for the Arrow and because of an earlier project, the AVRO VZ-9 Car (a saucer shaped jet).
As the layoffs took hold, Chamberlin and others jumped into action. Arrows to the Moon, a comprehensive look by author Chris Gainor of the contributions that AVRO engineers made to the American space program, indicates that the original idea was for a two-year exchange that would bring engineers from the cancelled Arrow project to the STG at Langley. NASA benefited by getting an immediate injection of talent for Project Mercury. AVRO hoped to get returns from sending its best-and-brightest off for two years for the equivalent of a graduate degree, a U.S.-funded, on-the-job school that was essentially the only program in space systems design and engineering in the free world.
When all was said and done, 32 AVRO engineers joined the STG. Another fantastic book that touches on this subject, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon, recounts a story in which Robert Gilruth, first head of the STG, told one of the AVRO engineers, Tec Roberts, “We thought about taking more of your crowd from AVRO…but we figured twenty-five percent aliens in the American space program was sufficient.”
Those aliens would make contributions to the American space program that are still being felt to this this day.
Lofty Ambitions at YouTube March 4, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Apollo, Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
We have a Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel where you can find an an array of videos we’ve posted over more than two years. Those videos include space shuttle launches and chats with astronauts. Here are five among our favorites:
The Last Launch of a Space Shuttle (July 2011)
Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts
Michael Barratt: STS-133 Astronaut & Physician Studying Radiation
Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Takeoff from Kennedy Space Center
Fireworks Over Space Shuttle Atlantis: The End of the Shuttle Program
A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 1) February 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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One version of the history of manned space exploration goes something like this: in the darkest days of the Cold War, American and Russian engineers—armed with only their wits and slide rules—duked it out, mano a mano, in a contest for supremacy of the high frontier, outer space. The Russians struck first on every front: first unmanned satellite to orbit the earth—a beeping, silvery sphere called Sputnik; first mammal to orbit the earth—a dog named Laika; and most impressively, the first human being in space—Yuri Gagarin. We Americans quickly caught up with the Russians, repeated their first steps—though we favored simians in space over canines—and eventually surpassed Russian spaceborne achievements by landing human beings on the Moon.
Whether intentionally or by omission, that story fails to credit the significant contributions that other nations made to what, in a less politically contentious world, likely would have been seen as a set of achievements to be shared by all humanity. Neil Armstrong’s first words while standing on the Moon—That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—can be seen as a attempt to share some credit with all human beings for the achievement, but many people don’t consider what other nations might have been doing while the Russians and Americans were racing to space.
German rocket scientists made significant contributions to the nascent American space program. Indeed, space nerds likely know of the contributions of Dr. Kurt Debus. His name adorns Kennedy Space Center’s conference center, a place where we have met and interviewed astronauts on a couple of occasions. Anyone who has ever watched Apollo 13 has seen Tom Hanks, in the guise of Jim Lovell, adopt a phaux-teutonic accent and ham it up by saying, “I vonder vere Günter vent?” a pun on the name of famed Launch Pad Leader Günter Wendt. In reality—a concept always a distant second to story in Hollywood—astronaut Donn Eisele had uttered those words during Apollo 7. And of course, Wernher von Braun achieved enough stature and fame from his work on the Apollo program that he—a German who became a naturalized citizen of the United States—is often referred to as the father of the American space program.
A story that isn’t often told is of the contributions that America’s neighbors to the north made to NASA and the space program.
Fifty-four years ago today, on February 20, 1959, the Canadian arm of the British aircraft company A. V. Roe—more generally known as AVRO—killed its most ambitious project to date, the CF-105 Arrow. The death of the Arrow Program resulted in the southern migration of a number of Canadian—and Britons who’d already relocated once to Canada—scientists and engineers who would contribute mightily to the American space program.
The Arrow was a product of the revolutionary changes in aircraft design and manufacturing that took place in the 1950s. In the almost exactly ten years that passed from Chuck Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight that broke through the sound barrier to the October 4, 1957, announcement by AVRO that it was going to build the Arrow, human ingenuity produced a dizzying variety of solutions to the problems of going faster, higher, and farther. Yeager’s mount in 1947, the Bell X-1—which he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife—was shaped like a rifle bullet with wings slapped on as an afterthought because, after all, it’s an airplane, it’s gotta have wings. Six years later, in 1953, Scott Crossfield flew at twice the speed of sound in the D-558-2 Skyrocket. The bodies—the fuselage—of the two aircraft had roughly the same bullet shape, but the Skyrocket sliced through the skies above Edwards Air Force Base on wings that swept backwards at 35 degrees.
The Arrow, which had its first flight in 1958, was intended to intercept Soviet bombers carrying atomic and thermonuclear weapons over the arctic and on into North America. To meet the requirements of this mission, it was posited that the Arrow would need to be able to fly at three times the speed of sound—Mach 3—or roughly 1980 miles per hour. That this was the Arrow’s performance target, when no piloted jet-propelled aircraft—research or otherwise—had yet attained that speed speaks to the engineering audaciousness of the era.
The date of AVRO’s announcement to build the Arrow—October 4, 1957—was the same day that Sputnik first circled the earth. The management of AVRO had the decided misfortune to announce their newest and most important aircraft on the same day that the Russians launched the first-ever manmade satellite. The party for bigwigs that evening, which included American aviation executives, officials, and military personnel (both NACA–the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s immediate predecessor–and the USAF had contributed to the Arrow’s design) ended in disbelief and with everyone talking about spacecraft instead of aircraft.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and the Arrow never could get its timing right. The new engines upon which it was depending in order to reach Mach 3 were forever behind schedule. Sputnik’s launch had refocused military conversations on the viability of manned aircraft in the coming era of ballistic missiles and push-button warfare. In the end, the Arrow became too expensive—approximately $400M a year for several years in a row, or as the adage attributed to, but not likely said by Illinois politician Everett Dirksen asserts, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”—for the government of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and fifty-four years ago the program was put to rest. The announcement effectively cashiered the 14,000 AVRO employees working on Arrow.
One of those employees was a young engineer named R. Bryan Erb. Erb was among the AVRO engineers who migrated to NASA, and years later he described the event as a lucky disaster for himself. Considering the amount of raw engineering talent that would ultimately decamp AVRO and head for the warmer climes that NASA called home, NASA administrators could have described the Arrow cancellation the same way.
Check back at Lofty Ambitions to read more about how some of the people who made this journey from AVRO to NASA left a lasting impression on America’s space program.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 4 / #NASASocial) February 6, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center
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Before we get to our main topic for today, we want to remind readers that we contributed to The Next Big Thing blog hop last week. Some of the writers we tagged have now posted their contributions; check HERE for Karen An-hwei Lee and HERE for Stephanie Vanderslice.
Less than two weeks ago, we spent an entire day as insiders at Dryden Flight Research Center exploring NASA’s Airborne Science Program. Today, we’ll talk about UAVSAR and one of the engineers involved. But you may want to review the previous posts in this series:
UAVSAR is one of NASA’s aircraft-based programs to collect data about the Earth’s surface, including vegetation, ice, volcanoes, and earthquakes. The project started in 2004, with instrument—radar—development, and began collecting data in 2009. The precise, but unwieldy, acronym stands for Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar.
What does that really mean? In practice, UAVSAR involves a pod, which is filled with electronic equipment, attached to the bottom of the Gulfstream-III we saw that day in the hangar. The pod we saw attached was one of two radar pods, each using a different frequency. The pod works by sending radio waves toward the ground. The waves bounce back up off the swathe of Earth and are received by the pod.
Multiple flights over the same swathe—using Dryden-developed software and the aircraft’s autopilot to cover the same area within thirty-three feet—allows comparison of data over time so that scientists can see how the Earth is changing. UAVSAR has been used to study the movement and varied thickness of the oil slick after the Deepwater Horizon accident (see video below), the evolving characteristics of Mount St. Helens, the shifts in the glacial ice flows of Greenland, land changes after the earthquake in Haiti, and river flooding in Mississippi. The radar can even measure soil moisture in a designated area.
Yunling Lou, a radar engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), brought UAVSAR to life for us. She got her start in the field with NASA’s AIRSAR, a similar airborne science project based in NASA’s DC-8 that also tested new radar technology. During her NASA career, she’s moved back and forth between airborne and spaceborne science projects.
In fact, she worked on the landing radar for Curiosity. Yes, that’s right, Yunling Lou, with whom we talked at length, helped to make sure that the Mars rover landed safely. For part of its descent—during those seven minutes of terror—success depended on Lou and the rest of her team.
Right now, though, she’s focused on UAVSAR and the wealth of data it provides to scientists worldwide. Last year, the project flew roughly eighty science flights, and Lou expects that, this year, the Gulfstream-III will fly roughly ninety flights using the radar pod we saw and another fifty flights with the other pod.
Lou no longer flies missions herself. Other, often newer radar engineers at JPL do that. She told us, “Deployment is a distraction or a break” from the regular work schedule at JPL. All the radar operators in the plane are also radar engineers. In other words, the people who use the equipment are the people who design the equipment.
What Lou likes most about her work breaks into two aspects. First, “There’s always a challenge every few years. […] The technical challenge is always there.” JPL keeps working to improve the radar so that the data becomes more useful, too. Second, the end-user scientist makes her feel relevant. She meets the scientists who use the data that is gathered through UAVSAR—the clients who want certain kinds of data—so she understands that the work she does makes a difference in how scientists understand what happens to the Earth.
What Lou does—what NASA supports through UAVSAR—matters to all of us. Even though we don’t analyze the data ourselves, the data from NASA’s airborne Earth sciences projects shape the way we understand the Earth and help communities deal with real-life problems like flooding. This extensive science project may well inform our decisions about the future and how to thrive on the shifting, flowing, forested surface of this planet.
NASA Airborne Science Program: Flight Suit (Part 3 / #NASASocial) January 30, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”
At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”
Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.
All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.
The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”
Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.
One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.
As we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.
Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.
Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.
Toward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.
The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.
NASA Airborne Science Program (PHOTOS / #NASASocial) January 26, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center
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We spent all day yesterday at Dryden Flight Research Center for an insider’s look at NASA’s Airborne Science Program. We drove to Palmdale on Thursday and had dinner, yes, at Yard House. The next morning, we arrived at the designated parking lot in Palmdale shortly after 7:00 a.m. That’s pretty early for us to be fully functioning, but we boarded the bus with the rest of the social media crowd and were off to Edwards Air Force Base. After lunch, the bus returned us to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, pronounced day off) for a full afternoon of talks and up-close time with aircraft.
We’re already drafting posts about different aspects of the program–specific aircraft, pilot flight suits, what scientists learn from aircraft-based data collection–but we start here with a photo overview.
Read the next installment about NASA’s Airborne Science Program HERE.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 1) January 23, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle
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We admit it; we’re hooked. We like being insiders. We’re curious about what NASA is up to, even though they’re no longer up to the space shuttle program.
We also like Palmdale, California, though we haven’t seen all that much of it. We drove out that way for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend of 2008, shortly after we moved to California, to see the space shuttle Endeavour land at Edwards Air Force Base. That trip—just a couple of hours drive each way—set the stage for our two-year adventure following the end of the space shuttle program two years later.
Palmdale is a place with lodging close to Dryden Flight Research Center, so that’s where we stayed when we followed Endeavour home to California last year. On that trip, we stayed an extra night, exhausted from our cross-country travel between California and Florida and back and, suddenly, not wanting to rush to LAX to see Endeavour’s last landing, instead preferring the image of the shuttle aloft to linger in our minds as long as possible.
During that last jaunt into the desert, we dined at the Yard House in Palmdale. We’re creatures of habit, dining there three nights in a row, just as we had found favorite restaurants on the Space Coast and stuck with them, though one went out of business and then went out of business again between our visits. So we imagine that, in the next couple of days, we’ll sit ourselves down at Yard House to enjoy an ahi poke bowl, Gardein buffalo wings, and, depending on their monthly special drafts, a Lagunitas IPA or a Half Acre Daisy Cutter, the new beer we discovered in Chicago earlier this month
Tomorrow, we’re off to Palmdale not so much for a familiar meal, of course, but to spend a day learning about NASA’s Airborne Science Program. As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once reminded us, the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics. In addition to studying space, NASA studies the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, using satellites and aircraft. We’re part of a group of social media nerds who will get a “behind-the-scenes” look at airborne science projects on Friday.
According to NASA, the program’s primary objectives are as follows:
- Conduct in-situ atmospheric measurements with varying vertical and horizontal resolutions
- Collect high-resolution imagery for focused process studies and sub-pixel resolution for spaceborne calibration.
- Implement “sensor web” observational strategies for conducting earth science missions including intelligent mission management, and sensor networking.
- Demonstrate and exploit the capabilities of uninhabited and autonomous aircraft for science investigations
- Test new sensor technologies in space-like environments
- Calibrate/validate space-based measurements and retrieval algorithms
What does that mean? We’re not sure yet, but we’ll definitely share what we find out. We’re thinking ice caps and forest canopy and pollution. In the afternoon, we’ll be “in the hangar,” so we’re hoping to see several different airplanes, including the unmanned Global Hawk originally designed for military surveillance and the ER-2, and maybe peek at the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that’s sitting out there in the desert somewhere with nothing much to do. You’ll just have to check back at Lofty Ambitions to find out what airborne science means (Part 2: PHOTOS and Part 3: Flight Suit).
Airplane Crashes, Airline Safety, & Risk January 16, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Movies & TV, Serendipity
On this date in 1942, TWA Flight 3 crashed with twenty-two souls aboard. The aircraft was a DC-3, flying from New York to Burbank. Roughly fifteen minutes after takeoff from Las Vegas, one of several stops on the cross-country trip, the plane slammed into a cliff. The nineteen passengers and three crew were killed.
The investigation posited that the pilots mistakenly used the compass heading they more often used flying between Boulder and Burbank. In addition, the pilots seemed to have not used radio navigation to aid their decisions, and most of the lighting was off because of World War II security measures. The compass heading took the plane in the direction of Potosi Mountain, and the aircraft’s altitude was not above one of the mountain cliff tops. The cliff’s top was roughly eighty feet above where the plane crashed.
On board was actress Carole Lombard, who had made her mark in screwball comedies and who was returning home to see her husband, Clark Gable (who would later own a DC-3), as well as her mother and her press agent. The group boarded in Indianapolis, and TWA actually requested that they give up their seats to military personnel. Lombard declined, the airline accommodated her, and others, including a renowned violinist, were left in Albuquerque and survived the night.
The DC-3 was a sleek, propeller-driven, art-deco masterpiece introduced into passenger service in 1936. American Airlines pushed its production and wanted an aircraft with sleeper berths as in Pullman train cars of the day. With fewer refueling stops than earlier planes, it could make the cross-country trip in less than eighteen hours. The military had a version as well, the C-47. Some are still flying cargo routes.
So the DC-3 has proved to be a rugged aircraft. But on January 16, 1942, one of them crashed. Accidents happen, and, in that case, the root cause was pilot error.
Pilots make mistakes, and those mistakes can be deadly for others. Less than two weeks ago, a pilot was arrested when a security agent smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. In that case, the system worked and prevented an impaired pilot from flying a commercial aircraft full of passengers.
It’s easy to think that an airplane crash is the result of a single cause, one mistake. That’s rarely, if ever, the case. In the TWA Flight 3 crash, the pilots flew the wrong course, a course that would have worked fine out of Boulder but led them into the side of a mountain out of Las Vegas. But had they seen far enough ahead, surely they could have climbed the eighty feet necessary to clear the cliff. Other factors contributed.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, makes this point well, especially in relation to accidents attributed to pilot error: “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. […] A tricky situation needs to be resolved through a complex series of steps—and somehow the pilots fail to coordinate and miss one of them.” Part of airline safety is training for teamwork and communication.
Another part of airline safety is preventing little things from going wrong—delaying a flight to do some maintenance, for instance. As Gladwell points out, “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” Whether it’s an aircraft, a space shuttle, or a nuclear power plant, little things go wrong, and no one of them is terribly problematic, but when they start to stack up, catastrophe occurs. So airlines tend to fix the little things as soon as they can.
Even when things do go awry, that’s not necessarily a death sentence. Certainly, it doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed in the recent film Flight, but aircraft are incredibly well designed and give well-trained pilots leeway when something unexpected occurs, especially if the aircraft isn’t already very close to the ground. Four years ago yesterday, on January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsey Sullinberger’s U.S. Airways Flight 1549 flew through a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and lost power in both of the Airbus 320 engines. He ditched the plane in the Hudson River, and everyone on board survived.
Twenty years earlier, in the summer, the pilots of United Airlines 232 made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Part of an engine fan had broken off in flight and struck the hydraulic system, knocking out the pilots’ ability to steer and control the aircraft’s speed. The pilots used all their strength to make looping circles toward the Sioux City airport. Many passengers died that day, but even more survived.
What’s really amazing, though, about air safety is that the number of flights in the United States is probably almost 90,000 per day. If only one percent of them had accidents—if there were a 99% success rate, considered an A+ in other contexts—900 planes would crash every day in the United States alone. That doesn’t happen. Worldwide in 2011, among flights with more than six people aboard, there were 117 accidents in which the aircraft was damaged enough that it couldn’t be fixed and used again, and fewer than 1,000 people perished in those accidents.
Even if incidents—smaller events that don’t cause much damage or injury—are counted, the safety record of American carriers is awe-inspiring. Southwest runs at about 0.0000203 incidents per year, and American takes the bottom spot, not much further behind, at 0.0000701 incidents per flight (see ABC article for MORE info). That means that for every 10,000 flights, Southwest has a couple of small things go wrong. Think about the tasks you’ve performed many times—say, cooking a meal or typing. Can you claim you make a noticeable error or something beyond your control goes wrong only twice every 10,000 times you do that task?
So, next time you’re sitting at the gate, just belted into your middle seat, vying for an arm rest and trying to situate your feet comfortably next your messenger bag under the seat in front of you, don’t get too frustrated when the pilot announces that the plane will stay at the gate to reattach something to the windshield or replace a brake valve. Realize that, when the pilot says it’ll take fifteen minutes, it’ll take longer because he has to get the signed paperwork. Documentation is part of the larger safety process.
We’re not making light of airplane crashes here, but we’re grappling with an understanding of risk (which we’ve done before with radioactivity HERE and HERE and with cancer HERE). Statistically, air travel results in almost no deaths or injuries for every million miles traveled. Driving, on the other hand, results in more than one hundred deaths for every million miles traveled. USA Today reported that the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 98, whereas the lifetime risk of death in a plane crash is 1 in 7,178. And the risk of dying from cancer is far greater than either of these—1 in 4 for men, and 1 in 5 for women. Perhaps, these numbers tell us to take care of ourselves and not worry too much about how we get ourselves from one place to another.
On This Date January 9, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Art & Science, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers, WWII
Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).
Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.
The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.
While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.
Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.
Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.
As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.
The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.
Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.
Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 2) December 12, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Museums & Archives
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In last week’s blog post, we discussed one of the great impediments to commercially successful supersonic aircraft: the sonic boom. A theory based on shaping of supersonic booms in order to reduce the pressure wave—the noise—began to emerge in the late 1960s.
The theoretical models—first developed by two Cornell University aerospace engineers, Richard Seebass and Albert George—focused on techniques for the reduction of the first or front part of the supersonic N-wave. Despite the development of Seebass-George theory in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the computational resources—in the form of more capable Computational Fluid Dynamics software enabled by faster hardware—necessary to design the shape of the test aircraft in accordance with the dictates of Seebass-George theory became available. Nearly thirty-five years passed before this theory was subjected to flight-testing in August 2003 and January 2004 as a part of the DARPA Quiet Supersonic Platform (QSP) program.
During the QSP program, Seebass-George theory eventually met practice in the guise of the SSBD aircraft, a heavily modified F-5E. The F-5E was chosen after flight test program proposals based on modifying a Firebee II drone or an SR-71 were rejected for technical risks and costs. The F-5E worked because of the wide range of nose shapes already flown as a part of the F-5 family (the nose of the reconnaissance version RF-5 differs from the F-5E, and the two-seat F-5F is different still) and because of the familiarity of one of the QSP contractors, Northrop Grumman, with the F-5. Prior to its merger with Grumman, Northrop manufactured more than 900 of the F-5E/F series of aircraft and more than 2000 of the closely related T-38 and first-generation F-5 airframes.
SSBD design work began in late 2001. Construction of the Seebass-George glove to replace the F-5E’s nose took place at Northrop Grumman’s El Segundo operation in California, and the glove was installed on the F-5E airframe in January 2003 at Northrop Grumman’s St. Augustine facility in Florida. Prior to testing, the SSBD’s fuselage was emblazoned with a paintjob that graphically depicted two N-waves superimposed upon each other, one, in red, an unmodified waveform and the other, in blue, with the “flat-top” signature that indicates a reduced sonic boom.
Most of the SSBD flight test program consisted of identical runs through Edwards Air Force Base airspace by the SSBD and an unmodified Navy F-5E. The two aircraft, flying at Mach 1.36 and 32,000 feet, were separated by 45 seconds, a timeframe deemed long enough to allow the shockwave from the SSBD to dissipate, but short enough so that the unmodified F-5E passed through an atmosphere that hadn’t evolved enough to invalidate comparisons between the two runs. Other test runs involved collecting pressure measurements from a NASA F-15B flying in the SSBD’s shockwave. A glider flying beneath the test flight path also collected test data. By the end of the two test sequences, more than 1300 sound and pressure measurements were taken on the ground and in the air.
The flight test sequence confirmed the nearly one-third reduction in the leading portion of the pressure wave by the reshaped nose (the glove), as predicted by Seebass-George theory. The test team exhibited a high degree of confidence in the theory from the beginning of the program. The results indicated that the shape of the new nose prevented the bunched pressure waves from forming into one large shock wave.
After completion of the flight tests, the SSBD aircraft was given over to the Valiant Air Command (VAC) Warbird Museum located just a stone’s throw from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the grounds of the TICO airport in Titusville, Florida. The VAC’s mission dictates that its collection only include warbirds. VAC Public Affairs Officer Terry Yon, a retired Army colonel and helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam, says that the museum happily made a “squishy argument” based on the SSBD’s origins as a Navy aggressor aircraft to include it in the museum’s collection. After all, few truly unique aircraft exist, and this modified F-5E is indeed one of a kind.
If supersonic transports and business jets are ever to reach the air, let alone their potential, it must be demonstrated that they can fly over land at supersonic speeds without causing a ruckus. By confirming the potential for shaping supersonic shockwaves in a manner that diminishes their impact, the SSBD program took the first step toward accomplishing sonic boom-lite flight. As such, the SSBD program is destined to have long-lasting effects.
Bernard Roussett, COO of HyperMach, one of the companies announcing an super-sonic business jet at Le Bourget 2011, told us in an email about the SonicStar: “Yes, our solution for reducing significantly the sonic boom at high mach number (still supersonic!) is partly inspired from the DARPA program.” Only months before Concorde flew its final commercial flights, the SSBD aircraft made a supersonic future seem possible again.