Friday, May 20, 2011

New renaissance for general aviation; what is needed and how that can be achieved

Lets face the facts: general aviation is starving. Or it could be said that general aviation is even dying. There are many signs to that: less and less people are getting pilot's license, regulations are becoming more and more unreasonable (especially in Europe for general aviation as they have been designed for airline companies, with all the standards drawn to such level where there is no business) and hardcore hobbyists (like myself) are flying with from aging and poor to mediocre flying machines that are very expensive to operate and that are not enough capable (there are few exceptions, but there would still be very much room for improvement) to be useful for serious transportation. Years come and go and nothing changes, and every new year comes with no progress and all new things come without learning anything new but rather on evolution which is not very steep but rather very shallow. Very small amount of people are interested anymore in subsonic flight and the breakthroughs needs to happen exactly on this subsonic flight this new renaissance to happen.

Yes, I am myself flying airplanes for fun, and the fun is very important. And the fun will need to remain important in the future as well. The fun part should therefore not be taken away. Airliners are taking the fun away, sitting in economy class is more like suffering than fun and business class is not fun either, everything has been made to take the attention away from the aviation, people are eating and drinking and not looking out of the window. Windows even are ridiculously small, even in business class.

Then if we look road transportation. How many people prefer traveling in bus rather than in a private car or taxi? Are you a bus-fan? At least I am not. We drive with our Prius to work everyday and my carbon emissions are less than they would be if we would drive with the 1/3 filled bus. You could argue that the bus drives anyway, but that is not the point. Bus travel is like being in the economy class, it does not have anything that I could describe with fun or enjoyable. However driving with own car or sitting in taxi can be much better experience.

So I think here is the cure for general aviation:
1) Diesel piston engine based efficient air taxis that can carry 5-6 persons. Requirement for the aircraft would be that they would need to be efficient (leading to low passenger mile cost), safe and comfortable. Low passenger mile cost means cost comparable to airline ticket price. This cost should be able to include the whole thing: aircraft cost, insurance, pilot, everything. I think this is doable, but requires some novel engineering and not doing things like they have been always done. These planes would look more like Burt Rutan's special machines with very long wings or they could be possibly also blended flying wings but one could not expect these to look like Cessna C150.

2) Personal aircraft (I am not repeating what cafe is saying about PAV, this is my personal view on this) intended for serious transportation with large level of automation. This calls for fly-by-wire and stability augmentation. Pilot would rather choose to which direction to drive rather than correcting for bumpy air or cross wind. It would be different from autopilot, you could still drive the plane, but the plane would make driving a lot more convenient and so much easier that most car drivers could learn it. There could be additional aids, such as landing aid which would automatically line up the plane with the runway. It could use machine vision to be able to help the landing path all the way to full stop on runway independently from navigation aids. It would be still fun to fly even if it would be much easier. Why the definition of fun has to be hard? These aircraft geared for personal transportation would be at least 4 place machines making them comparable to family car capability.

Lots of people are shouting that "more entry level planes are needed". I do not fully agree. There are lots of planes which are very suitable for flight training. For example the LSA planes, Diamonds, Cirruses etc. Of course if the intention was to fly a fly-by-wire PAV-machine, there could be a different path that would be trained with these PAV machines. Logical step in that direction would be to drop all medical, currency etc. requirements, but rather make the flying with these with similar requirements than driving a car. If flying these would be so easy, you simply would not need check rides now and then, BFRs etc. And then planes are made with unreliable parts which were certified 40 years ago while cars almost never break with parts that were designed one year ago.

In personal aircraft you fly with the computer the flying machine. This license should be upgradeable to a normal pilot's license which would require then learning to fly with planes with traditional controls and avionics. Some could argue that this would be so expensive as the computers would be so heavy and they would cost more than a plane and what not. I don't think so. Computer that can run this kind of algorithms in real time does not need to cost a fortune. In mass production, a reasonable price is hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Such computer weights less than 0.3 kg and while it would need some more weight for all the control hardware, it would not be that complicated. Actually telephones are so much more complicated today than any electronics in aircraft, in fact, these things are so low hanging fruits that they are waiting for somebody to implement.

What slows down the progress on this area in my opinion, is very conservative thinking in the aviation circles, not thinking out of the box and at least in Finland there seems to be a tendency to repeat old beliefs like they would be teachings in a church and even clever people may take silly things for granted. Of course that is all they can do, as there are no alternatives, but that does not mean it would be right. In fact, the situation with aviation is so desperate that this feels like some alternate universe in Stargate TV-series where things have gone real badly wrong. We are that dystopic parallel universe and someone needs to do something to fix it. So aviation in general needs a major overhaul. New kind of airplanes are needed, new kind of regulations are needed (while dropping old obsolete ones), new kind of air traffic control system is needed (when there are millions of personal planes in the air, there is no way for the current system to work, it is a dinosaur already, you can not have centralized system in a case where traffic is so huge, car traffic already has hard data about that) and new kind of attitudes are needed. New more efficient and less expensive mass produced planes and regulations are necessary enablers for the attitudes becoming more positive towards flying.

So what I am complaining about attitudes? Consider this: I was one day few years ago in cafeteria of the Malmi airport. There was a some mother with her child there. The little boy said that he wants to drive airplanes. The little boy spoke out the truth of what he wants. His mother then replied that "No, you can't fly planes, they are so expensive that only richest of the rich people can afford that and these planes are just fancy toys for yuppies". I was sorry to hear that. The no-way-you-can-fly attitude seems to be brainwashed to children at young age and their dreams are severed "ah that was the thing I can't do, so I don't consider about it". This must change, personal and air taxi -like flying needs to become common practice to get from point A to point B. Not something that is for only rich people, but something that is for everyone.

No densely packed people in huge planes like in cattle car. No queues in security checks. No limitations on liquids, take as much Coca Cola you like. And you just pack your gear to the plane and make departure and arrive shortly after to your destination. No flight planning, you just drive the plane and all your plan is almost automatic. No radio communications with air traffic control unless you are in trouble for some reason. It would all be automatic that computer would do for you.

Personal and air taxi style travel can augment or even replace domestic travel and also part of the travel to neighboring countries in Europe. Busses and trains are still needed despite there are personal cars and taxis, but this what I described above is the breakthrough that needs to happen. It does not happen by itself. It does not happen by government (FAA, CAA, LAA etc.) making it readily available for you. No it does not happen without lots of work. It requires you. When I was little child, I was thinking that "what kind of technology there is in year 2010". Later I realized that no, the technology is not given, it has to be done by people like you and me. Nothing is given, someone is always needed to invent, plan, design and implement it. Breakthroughs can be made by thinking out of the box and not just improving the envelope of the old. You can help by doing your part on that.

Thanks for reading and happy rest of the week.


Pasi Takala said...

I wrote down some of my thoughts on the subject, have a look:

Unknown said...

Thanks, I will check your post!

JBS said...

I see many problems:
1. Housing development consuming airports.
2. Cities become aware tax income enhanced by converting airports to other use.
3. The cost and difficulty of pilot training is a huge barrier to growth.
4. Ordinary person's productivity is not related to income/pay thus limiting spending choices.
5. Political blame for accidents after modifying or relaxing regulation.
6. Low manufacturing volume magnifies NRE/plant/fixture costs.
and many more.

The problem is systemic and complex so there is no simple solution. Your technical analysis is very much in the right direction but cost, accessibility, training, traffic, regulation, politics, land use, and demand (flying needs to become fashionable/hot) also need to be addressed.