Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Loose Blimps, Sinking Zeppelins

Okay, much is talked about the loose NORAD aerostat radar system today, hashtag blimp, and why shouldn't we (officially a Tethered Aerostat Radar System - TARS, but part of the missile detector program Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System - JLENS).

When do we ever get the panicky headline, "BLIMP LOOSE, RUN FOR COVER!" Blimps are somewhat of an eccentricity usually found advertising insurance companies or automobile tires in sports events. While the news media tries to eviscerate the military usage of these blimps, the Pentagon seems to be defending its actions over its successful usage over Iraq. It is also important to mention that these balloons float on tethers along the US border with Mexico (which I assume the loose blimp over Pennsylvania was doing similarly with the Canadian border) in order to observe and provide intercept data to airborne smuggling and illegal operations. This is more efficient than sending these P-3AEW aircraft (granted, these aircraft provide coverage to areas where the aerostats and over-horizon radar installations cannot pick up).
And they are pretty aircraft with a slick livery.
The problem is that this came loose from a wild windstorm brewing in the Northeast coast on the morning of October 28th. And then lots of people either lost their shit over it, or got a laugh out of it. Especially with the crippled airship being escorted by F-16s and ripping out power lines (near Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania) with its tether, leaving thousands without power, like some enraged Mothra out to seek revenge from its captors.
All we need now is a hot-air balloon Godzilla and we have the fight of the century
But this is not a new thing, despite this weird coverage of a military blimp in the skies above the US. The United States armed forces has been testing airship capabilities in observation and even as an aircraft carrier ever since 1923, with the USS Shenandoah being built in New Jersey, and a sistership zeppelin (USS Los Angeles built in Friedrichshafen, Germany) were given to the US as reparations from WWI.
The Shenandoah in pre-bikini era San Diego
Then came the larger USS Akron and USS Macon (785ft/239m, almost as long as the WWII aircraft carrier sea vessels) which experimented in carrying and launching 'parasite' fighters (fighter aircraft that cling onto a larger mothership), the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk.
Note the hook to grasp onto the airship, insert flea & chuckwagon joke
Like the aerostat that came down crashing in Pennsylvania today, these airships suffered catastrophes in similar storms:

In the evening of the April 3, 1933, the USS Akron sailed into a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey with many Naval and civilian individuals that were pushing for greater airship usage. The airship was caught in the wind bursts of the storm and rapidly pitched up and down. As the crew valiantly tried to save the ship but the storm slammed it into the sea, killing more than 70 people, including the proponents of airship use (such as Admiral William Moffett, whom the large airship hangar in San Jose, California is named after).
Sleek design, but not storm-flexible
It's sistership, USS Macon, was hit by wind shear off the coast of Point Sur, California. Despite losing control and having the airship slowly ripped apart by the windstorm, the flight crew managed to control the ballast and climb so that is slowly descended back to Earth. The airship gently crash landed in the waters of Monterey Bay, California. The airship was lost to the depths of the sea, but the only casualties were two sailors (one jumped airship while it was still too high and another swam to the sinking wreckage to get his personal belongings).
Obligatory large ship - NYC picture
And even the first big airship suffered a similar fate. In 1925, the USS Shenandoah got caught in a similar windstorm as this one in the skies of the northeast US. Unlike this blimp, made from strong mylar, the Shenandoah was too rigid to fight off the storm and it shattered. It fell out of the sky in three pieces, with mechanics falling to their death with the engines, others falling through the shearing gaps from the disintegrating airship, or dropping like a bomb inside the control cabin as it fell away from the Shenandoah. Most of the survivors were within the airship clinging onto the catwalks and other parts of the ship's interior as it slowly crashed into the ground.

This is the part of the ship were most of the crew survived within
The US also purchased an airship from Great Britain, the R-28 (or US Navy ZR-2). But on its third flight, on the 23 of August, 1921, the airship was undergoing turning trials when it suffered a catastrophic structural failure, causing parts of it to explode as it disintegrated into the waters off the coast of Hull, Yorkshire
Storms didn't kill it, but speed and turns did; like a muscle car
The only rigid airship (meaning it has a fixed interior structure holding it together, like the bones inside of a whale; and unlike the non-rigid airships of today, including today's mishap aerostat) that survived was the USS Los Angeles, despite having a few close calls, including getting hit by strong gusts while moored.
As of now, media outlets are having talking heads talking about how much chaos, destruction, and death this airship could've cause and that we were extremely lucky and asking why did it fly away, etc. In a way, we kind of are lucky since, as of this post, there are no reported injuries or deaths from this. In contrast to the damage from previous airships accidents, it also shows that these things are not death machines out for human blood (similar to how airliners became safer since the days of the Shenandoah).

These 'blimps' provide ground and air surveillance similar to the  Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) system does in having radar aiming downwards to pick up any movement:
The chin that sees things
And we have safer materials for these type of vehicles than the rigid flammable zeppelins of a century ago. This is no different than aircraft crashing into the ground because of extreme weather patterns. We, as the people of the United States, should not halt our curiosity and dauntless endeavor to better and more efficient aeronautical vehicles, even if it is a goofy looking #blimp. So listen to the talking heads, laugh with the trolls and jokers in social media, but also look upward as the marvels of our imagination coming to life, whether as civilian or military applications.

Images from Wikimedia Commons & United States Air Force
USS Los Angeles mishap & ZR-2 pictures originally from the US Naval Historical Center

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Russians and the high bypass engine in the Cold War

Russians are great in many parts in the aeronautical industry. They built the largest aircraft in history (which are still in use), built some of the best fighter jets and technology related to it. But aircraft engines aren't exactly top notch. While their first inspirations came from    research aircraft and captured German tech, their first successful engine was a reverse engineered clone of the Rolls-Royce Nene engine. The latter came from a visit of the engineers to the plant in England and managed to legally procure a copy for research, creating the Klimov VK-1.

This engine powered aircraft like the Korean War famous Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 and the ubiquitous bomber Ilyushin Il-28 (NATO reporting name: Beagle). The Russians went on to make more powerful engines for their aircraft to properly compete with engines and aircraft from their Cold War adversary, the United States. But the US was able to develop something that the Russians took a while to counter, the high bypass turbofan. As stated before, this engine sucks more air than what goes into the heating chambers in order to provide a cool jet around the heated air in order to provide more propulsion without requiring more powerful engines. This allowed the US military to fly heavier jets while keeping fuel efficiency and great range, like the C-5 Galaxy with the General Electric TF-39 engine (which was the CF6 family of engines that powered all the wide-body, multiple aisle, airliners of that time). 

Russian engines weren't great with low bypass engines (the long & thin looking engines) as they did not have the same performance as those like the TF-39. In fact, the most modern airliner thay had at the time was the Ilyushin Il-86, which was powered by low bypass engine and usually required the entire runway to take off due to the poor performance of these engines. In fact, the Soviet Union tried to make a deal with the United States and Lockheed to purchase a license to make Soviet L-1011 Tristars because of its capabilities and engines (which would have made it the life saver and biggest purchaser of this airline).

Imagine this possibility, one of the strangest and coolest things that could've happened to aviation in the Cold War.

But the technology in the cockpit and engines was too great to share to the Soviets. So aircraft engineer Vladimir Lotarev designed the first high bypass engine for the Soviets, the Lotarev D-36.

It was a small engine, powering medium and small sized aircraft like the unique looking Ukrainian Antonov An-72 (NATO name: Coaler, Russian nickname: Cheburashka, a similarly looking large eared animated character from that region),

Improved version An-74 (Cheburashka/Coaler-A)

the Yakovlev Yak-42 (with the unflattering NATO name: Clobber)
But their advancement to this engineering tech went exponential when the Ivchenko-Progress design bureau, in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, designed the Progress D-18T.

This engine was the largest engine, at the time (beaten by the GEnx, powering the Boeing 787, GE90, powering the 777, and the Engine Alliance GP7000 or the Rolls-Royce Trent 900, either of them powering the Airbus A380), powering the largest mass produced aircraft today,Antonov An-124 (NATO name: Condor)
and the largest aircraft ever, the swansong that is the An-225 Mriya (Russian for dream/inspiration, NATO name: Cossack). 
It would be ten years before the west surpassed the Russian and Ukrainian designs with the General Electric GE90 and the others previously mentioned. The Dream/Cossack continues to be the largest aircraft flying and the Condor is somewhat larger than the largest airliner, the A380. It is likely that Ukraine pushes manufacturing of the An-124, assuming things calm down between Ukraine and Russia due to ownership of designs of that aircraft. One can only Dream, at least we will have the American/Russian collaboration with the GE90 engines (Boeing 777-300ER):

Images provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Fathers of Mexican Aviation

So everyone wrote about Father's Day and something respective right now. To follow everyone else off the edge, like lemmings, here is another pebble for cliché mountain! Right now I could write about the Wright brothers or Alberto Santos-Dumont. But I'm not going to as speaking for one and not the other will start another debating clusterfuck on the scale of the Enola Gay debate at the Smithsonian in the mid 1990s (was it right to bomb the Japanese, was it right to protect US soldiers, etc.). If you are too young to understand any of this, think of the Wright Brothers and Santos-Dumont debate as which is the best console, XBOX One or PS4 (whilst Otto Lilienthal sits in idle obscurity, like the Wii U). Instead, here are the fathers of Mexican aviation, Juan Pablo & Eduardo Aldasoro.

Juan Pablo (left) and Eduardo (right), a pair of dapper gentlemen

These two men were the first pioneers of aviation in Mexico when they started constructing and testing gliders near Piedad Cemetery, Mexico City. These guys were also given vehement support from progressive President Francisco I. Madero, whom saw the potential of aviation to be a great military tool. What hampered all of this was, unfortunately, the Mexican Revolution and the quick assassination of President Madero. The brothers had a glider that worked successfully, so they went to a mine their father (Andres Aldasoro, Minister of Promotion of mines under Porfirio Diaz) managed, in Tlalpujahua, Michoacán, called Las Dos Estrellas (The Two Stars).There they used the mine's machinery to perfect a design to make an air cooled engine. They also designed an efficient thick wing (which allows greater lift & steady airflow around it) long before it became the norm.

They later moved to New York to learn at the Moisant Aviation School, where many of the first aviators in the North American continent learned to fly. They were the first Mexicans to graduate as pilots and were allowed to fly above the Statue of Liberty, with Juan Pablo becoming the first pilot to do so. The propeller of that flight is currently at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. along with fellow Mexican graduates from that school, Alberto Salinas Carranza, Gustavo Salinas Camiña and Horacio Ruiz, they became the first to fly and teach pilots in their native country. The Aldasoro brothers also founded the Mexican Air Force (FAM) and most of the industries and government branches related to them. Both would pass away in the 1960s, with Juan Pablo achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Eduardo reaching the rank of Brigadier General. As a result of this, Military Air Base 4 (in Cozumel, Quintana Roo) is called General Eduardo Aldasoro Suarez, while Military Air Base 11 (in Mexico City) is called Teniente Coronel Juan Pablo Aldasoro Suarez.

Images provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Flying Pencil

               The Boeing 757 was an impressive aircraft that followed Boeing's endeavor to bring jet power to small airports with the 727-100. This small aircraft needed three engines to fly in and out of regional airports that had small runways or rough geographic hazards around it. This enabled towns & rural regions  a fast link to an airline hub or networks to other domestic areas. While smaller than the four engined 707s, the 727 was stretched to the 200 variant to allow medium range and capacity flights from these same airports (while the smaller 737 series could fly routes with less demand).

                But more powerful engines came around by the 1970s and 1980s. The first jumbo jets were powered by high bypass engines. These engines had larger fans in front to suck more air. only a portion of this air could go into the heating chambers of the engine whilst the rest was turbocharged around the same speed. This meant that the engine produced more power with less thrust than previous engines, making them more fuel efficient and less noisy. The designers of the Boeing 757  aircraft took advantage of this. They grabbed two powerful engines (Rolls-Royce RB211, yes THAT Rolls-Royce, and the Pratt & Whitney PW2000). These engines are pretty noisy by today's standards but have more than 37,000 lbs of force each (compare to the 727's engine JT8D that started out with 14,000 and evolved to 20,000 force)!

                As a result, the 757 could carry more (Maximum Take Off Weight [MTOW] of the 757: 255,000 lbs / 115,680 kg  while the 727-200 MTOW: 184,800 lbs / 83,800 kg) and travel almost 3,9 00 miles /  7,222 km away. This meant that airports with small runways and those with noise limits (like John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California) where aircraft have to climb and descend steeply around the runway to minimize noise pollution in the area. And it got elongated with the 300

                But decades have passed and the engines consume more fuel than modern competitors, like the Airbus A321 & the Boeing 737-900ER (despite the fact that it has more power). As the years add onto the 757 fuselages, many airliners replace them with other aircraft. But the legacy of the 757 is not over as it follows the 727 in the freight market. These magnificent airliners, once again, replace the 727 as cargo haulers for the foreseeable future. So today you could still fly with many airliners (like American, United, Icelandair, or Delta), but you'll be seeing more become steady workhorses for freight companies (like UPS, FedEx Express, TNT Airways, DHL).

Images from Wikimedia Commons.