Changes in the air: Intricate skills of aircraft development

 

Here’s how the typical story-line of technology goes: something new is invented, then it becomes old and are replaced it with a more advanced version. But in rare instances, tech is so advanced that they are not actually prepared to replace it by the time it ages out of fashion, writes WOLE SHADARE.

Well beyond its time

Case in point: the Concorde. It was a plane ahead of its time—quite literally, as a flight from Paris or London to New York was so fast it’d actually land more than two hours before it took off: something that’s only possible today if you cross the International Date Line.

The supersonic jet was supposed to usher in a new age of transportation, but just 27 years after its inaugural commercial flight the futuristic aircraft retired with no successor—16 years ago today, in fact—and supersonic passenger travel ceased to exist.

Bringing cities closer

Gone were the days when a trip from Amsterdam to Lagos took 52 hours in propeller powered airplanes. The development of aircraft from propeller aircraft to jet engine airplanes has drastically cut down travel time between two cities considerably.

In those early stages of development of aircraft and by extension the aviation industry, aircraft makers at that time concentrated efforts on aircraft engines that were less advanced but efficient enough to travel long distances in days.

But advancement in technology has made continents, cities far closer than they would have been. Tribute must be paid to the Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur –two American aviation pioneers generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful airplane.

The Wrights appear to be the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve the power and control problems.

Both problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest. They solved the control problem by inventing wing warping for roll control, combined with simultaneous yaw control with a steerable rear rudder. Almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine.

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1929 also saw the first flight of by far the largest plane ever built until then: the Dornier Do X with a wing span of 48 m. On its 70th test flight on October 21 there were 169 people on board, a record that was not broken for 20 years.

Rise of commercial aviation

After World War II, commercial aviation grew rapidly, using mostly ex-military aircraft to transport people and cargo. This growth was accelerated by the glut of heavy and super-heavy bomber airframes like the B-29 and Lancaster that could be converted into commercial aircraft.

Digital age (1980–present)

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a change of emphasis. No longer was revolutionary progress made in flight speeds, distances and materials technology. This part of the century instead saw the spreading of the digital revolution both in flight avionics and in aircraft design and manufacturing techniques.

The 21st century aviation has seen increasing interest in fuel savings and fuel diversification, as well as low cost airlines and facilities. Additionally, much of the developing world that did not have good access to air transport has been steadily adding aircraft and facilities, though severe congestion remains a problem in many up and coming nations. 20,000 city pairs are served by commercial aviation, up from less than 10,000 as recently as 1996.

End of an era

The first real experiment at considerably cutting travel time was the experiment with Concorde aircraft that was rested few years ago. Although Concorde finished lifespan but it is known as the most impressively beautiful and graceful airliner ever to fly.

Concorde was once the last word in luxury flight and still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a commercial aircraft.

In 1976, the Concorde symbolized the future. Built by the French Aérospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), even its name was meant to symbolize the coming together of two ancient foes.

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Concorde used to reach to 60,000 ft, a height of over 11 miles. So passengers were able to see curvature of the Earth. Due to the intense heat of the airframe, an aircraft used to stretch anywhere from 6 to 10 inches during flight. Every surface, even the windows, was warm to the touch by the end of the flight.

Air France and British Airways blamed low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs.

Passenger numbers fell after an Air France Concorde crashed minutes after taking off from Paris in July 2000, killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground.

The plane ran over a piece of metal on the runway, bursting a tyre which caused the fuel tank to ignite as it was taking off.

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 also had a severe impact on the number of people choosing to fly.

The operators also blamed rising maintenance costs. Although advanced when it was launched, 30 years on the planes were outdated and expensive to run.

Duopoly

The end of supersonic jet saw to the dominance of the aircraft market by two aircraft giants, Boeing and Airbus. The rivalry between the two plane makers has led to advancement in technology for their customers and travellers alike.

The global commercial aircraft market is dominated by two manufacturers -European conglomerate Airbus and Seattle-based aerospace giant Boeing. Their drive to secure market share is affecting everything from which aircraft you are on, to what routes you can choose from and how many passengers you share the cabin with.

The rivalry between the two is shaping not just their own future but the air travel industry itself, driving innovative aircraft design, new buying patterns among airlines and expanded route maps that offer travellers more choice, flexibility and convenience.

Boeing and Airbus each control around half of the global aircraft market, and analysts anticipate the booming travel industry needing as many as 39,000 new planes over the next 20 years. With a value of over $6 trillion over two decades, even small differences in market share add up to big business, so it is no wonder competition is so fierce.

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Driving Innovation

An important outcome of this intense rivalry has been the competition for more fuel efficient, cost-effective aircraft. Rising prices mean the cost of fuel now makes up almost half of the operating costs of airlines, so small improvements in fuel efficiency can yield huge benefits to carriers. One reason superjumbos are less popular is that alternative narrow-body or smaller wide-body craft are so much more efficient than they used to be.

Boeing’s latest version of the 787 consumes 40% less fuel per traveller carried than its equivalent aircraft did in the 1970s11. That means those smaller aircraft can fly for longer without having to stop and refuel at intermediate destinations, enabling airlines to deploy them on services that would have needed a 747 or A380 before.

More frequent services, operated by more adaptable, smaller aircraft became practical and cost effective. This allowed airlines to keep ticket prices low, while giving consumers more flights to the destinations they wanted, giving the more control over their time and their travel.

Last line

One driver of this increased efficiency is the new generation of engines powering aircraft. Sustained demand for jet and the need for competitive advantage allowed companies like Pratt & Whitney to develop innovative new approaches to propulsion technology like the ‘geared turbofan’. This engine alone can yield 16% more fuel efficiency, with half the carbon-dioxide emissions and only 25% of the noise pollution of previous models.

 

Wole Shadare