May 2010 - Posts
There seems to have been a lot of talk in aviation circles of late regarding the future make up of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Recent delays in issuing RFPs in the long anticipated FX requirement to replace aging F-4s, as well as the development of the separate ATD-X demonstrator program have kept JASDF procurement in the spotlight. And the recent rumblings on the nearby Korean Peninsula only serve to remind everyone of the advantages of a strong conventional deterrence force.
Firstly, I read with great interest the posts on the Asian Skies blog about the ATD-X program - Japan's effort to develop the technology for a 5th generation fighter aircraft. The requirements of the aircraft include AESA radar, TVC engines, and stealth technology. The project will probably remain a solo Japanese affair for the time being, as is common for the nation which has strict self imposed limits on arms exports. But the costs to develop a functioning demonstrator or prototype are expected to be huge, given the technology hurdles and the limited potential for production return. I can understand the desire for Japan to maintain an independent combat aircraft development and manufacturing industry, but at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits? The idea of an international partnership to develop the aircraft solves some of the issues cost-wise, but creates just as many politically.
Japan's desire for the F-22 has been much discussed in the past few years, but with the impending closure of the US production line, is now a moot point. If Japan wants to put a fleet of 5th gen fighters into service, it is stuck with either its independently developed ATD-X (or whatever may spawn from it), or the F-35. Sadly for Japan, neither offers a good alternative to the F-22 however. The ATD-X is just way too costly and risky – look at the development problems, delays and overruns the US has seen with both their 5th gen fighter programs. And the F-35 just isn't a good fit for the mission profile envisioned for the JASDF. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is very much a strike aircraft first, and a fighter aircraft second. Japan's current fighter jet inventory is essentially an air combat force, with a comparatively limited strike capability. This aligns with the purely self-defense mission of Japans military in general. Going on the offensive over enemy territory, dropping bombs on bunkers and tanks while evading SAMs is not a likely JASDF mission. For Japan, the best of the F-35s capabilities are wasted, and the "worst" (according to some at least), are being counted on as their raison d'être.
To me, it seems clear that Japan needs to look at alternative options for their FX winner. Japan needs a fighter aircraft first, strike aircraft second. Japan is an island nation and threats will come from predictable directions. The classic interceptor is the perfect solution really: powerful engines to reach an incoming target aircraft quickly; excellent radar; and BVR missiles. Stealth really isn’t as important in this case. The two favorites right now are probably the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Typhoon. Both aircraft are modern and in service. Both aircraft were designed, to a greater or lesser degree, with the same interceptor mission profile in mind, and both were brought into service to replace more classic interceptor designs (the F-14 and Tornado F3, et al). Today’s basic Typhoon is arguably better than the F/A-18E/F, but the Super Hornet would probably offer better value for money, and you always need to consider the “buy from America” procurement history of the JASDF. That said, if Japan can get Typhoons with AESA radars, Meteor missiles and even thrust vector control engines, I think it ought to be a clear winner.
That said, the late entry could be the new F-15SE Silent Eagle. We need to wait and see on performance of this aircraft, but it seems to have a lot of potential and in the end it could provide Japan with everything it wants in a familiar package. If the F-15SE offers all that is promised, Europe’s hope for a break into the Japanese market could be dashed.
Nimrod MR2 XV232 has flown to Coventry to be preserved as part of the Air Atlantique Classic Flight. Good news, particularly since I have now learned that this is a record-breaking aircraft, having flown the longest-range aerial reconnaissance operation in history (actually, it broke the record twice in quick succession). Of course we have all heard of that other record-breaking mission during the Falklands War, but I don't think I had ever heard about this one. I wanted to know more about this mission, so I did a little Googling. I apologies for any errors, I know the internet can be a little iffy on accuracy. Most of the information I found came from here, here, here and here. The Flight archives also offer some interesting additonal reading such as here and here.
Like most of the heavy (non-carrier) air assets during the Falklands War, the Nimrods were operating out of Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island, with the first examples arriving on April 6, 1982. However, the Nimrod was not designed with air to air refueling capability. A crash course was put into action to equip eight MR2 aircraft with ex-Vulcan refueling probes, being designated MR2P, to help overcome with the vast distances of the South Atlantic. These aircraft were also famously fitted later on in the war for under wing Sidewinder missiles, making them "the world's largest fighters" (another record, perhaps).
First flight of a probe-equipped (though not fully plumbed) aircraft, XV229, was on April 27, with intensive crew training following. Getting the fuel from the probe into the aircraft fuel tanks themselves also proved a challenge. In the end, two standard fuel bowser hoses ran through the cockpit escape hatch, then down under the cabin floor to the main refuel point under the aircraft. Round-the-clock testing of the modifications followed, with a final endurance limit set at 19 hours. There was apparently one evaluation flight lasting at least 28 hours! The first MR2P to deploy to Wideawake was XV227 on May 7.
On May 15 or 19 (my sources differ), XV232 made it's first record breaking mission, flown by a 201 Sqn crew. The aircraft flew 8300 miles down to a point 150 miles north of Port Stanley, then west until only 60 miles from the coast of Argentina, turning to fly north east, parallel to the coastline. The mission required three air to air refuelings by Victor tankers. Apparently the aircraft flew in daylight at altitudes of 7000 to 12000 ft, and was not yet fitted with the Sidewinders; sounds like a sitting duck - how it survived without getting shot at I have no idea.
The second record-breaking flight was on May 21. XV232, this time flown by a crew from 206 Sqn, flew 8453 miles in 18 hours 50 minutes in search of Argentine warships just prior to the British landings at San Carlos. This distance record has not been broken to this day.
XV232 presumably flew back to the UK for Sidewinder fitting at the end of May, returning to Wideawake on June 5 and became the first Nimrod cleared for operations with the Sidewinder. In the end, the Sidewinders (intended mostly to counter Argentine Boeing 707 sea patrols) were not used during the conflict. Following the war, all Nimrod MR2s were fitted with air to air refueling capability, with the "P" being dropped eventually.
Compared with the Vulcan, the Nimrod story in the Falklands is largely untold to the wider public, which is a shame. From the little I have read today, it sounds like the Nimrod went through many similar challenges as the Vulcans to support operations in the South Atlantic with respect to equipment, training and human endurance, and I'm sure there are many more stories out there. Maybe it's time for Rowland White to write another book...
I read the title of Jon Ostrower's FlightBlogger post, "Airbus Outlines Future A30X Concepts" with anticipation, but was alas a bit disappointed with what I saw in the Airbus PowerPoint slide posted within (sorry Jon, it's not your fault!)
Airbus outlined future A30X concepts, originally uploaded by flightblogger.
The Airbus slide shows two rather exotic looking aircraft with advanced engines, 'smart' wings and tail configurations which look both innovative and retro at the same time. All exciting stuff - a glance at the future perhaps. Sadly, I doubt it.
I'm not dismissing everything on the slide. Advanced materials, innovative cockpits, GTFs, etc are all important developments in aviation, but they come across as grand statements with few details to go on beyond what is already being done for the 787, A350, CSeries, etc. - motherhood and apple pie sort of stuff. It's the general aircraft configurations that are portrayed which I am mostly disappointed by and will focus on. These concepts have been touted by Boeing, Airbus and others in one form or another for years, decades even. The closest any of them came to fruition was the Sonic Cruiser, which of course was dropped in favor of the much more recognizable 7E7 concept. What I was potentially looking forward to was the more mundane, evolutionary rather than revolutionary concepts that are out there - what I think the A30X will turn out to look like in actuality. We have a lot more to gain and learn from Airbus, et al, showing us the advances and concepts that we expect to actually be designed and built some day. For airliners these days, very often the radical are the weak.
We didn't arrive at the modern day concept of engines mounted on a low wing and of horizontal and vertical stabilizers mounted directly to the rear fuselage by accident or because it looks nice (they don't, MD-80s look way cooler than 737s on a take-off climb). The history of jet airliner design has steadily been whittling away at the design alternatives for several decades now, with only occasional deviations occurring for one specific design or operational reason or another. The fact is that the conventional modern airliner configuration, as seen on everything from the A318 to the A380, is the most efficient way to the design the things, offering the most advantages for the fewest penalties. And Airbus know that - they haven't yet deviated from the magic formula. Do Airbus really think these configurations will go somewhere, or are they just throwing in some fancy tails to show some visual pie-in-the-sky innovation, since all the real changes can't be easily seen on the outside?
Granted, larger bypass engines do represent difficulties in fitting them under the wing, but sticking them on the tail throws away all the advantages of underwing mounting for lighter fuselage structure, simpler fuel systems and easier maintenance. And mounting larger and larger engines under wings has been overcome time and again. Look at how large the 777 and 787 engines are relative to the size of the fuselage head-on, and compare with an A320. Also don't forget that the larger and heavier the engine, the harder it becomes to mount it away from the centers of gravity and lift of the aircraft. (Open rotor engines may have to go up high, but I still don't see that technology being ready for the next generation of narrowbodies, if ever.)
With the exception of Concorde, airliner design throughout the jet age has not really been about creating excitement or beauty; form over function. It's been about economics. Getting a plane to market with the best possible combination of low costs and high yields. Indeed, with only 20 built, Concorde was the exception which proves the rule in this case. The public may like fancy and exotic planes, but don't expect them to pay for it! The infamous bean counters will have the last say in all matters, like it or not.
Hello all. Firstly, apologies for my extended absence from the blog, a number of factors all contributed in not getting some real time to sit and write, and all of a sudden seven weeks had passed by! I'll try to keep it more consistent from now on. One thing I have managed to accomplish is reading "Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet", by Andrew Nahum (Principal Curator for Transport and the London Science Museum) , which had been burning a hole on my bookshelf for a few months. Evidently the book has been out for a few years now, but it somehow fell below my radar until recently (actually, I don't think I've read a book that was newly released in years). I very much enjoyed reading it and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in aviation history, as the work of Frank Whittle has had an impact in one way or another in just about every field of aviation since the Second World War.
The book, despite being only about 180 pages, covers a surprisingly wide spectrum of topics covering not just Whittle's work, but that of other gas turbine pioneers and innovators before and since Whittle. The author tries to put the work of Whittle in context with the various other gas turbine development efforts going on at the time, some known and some unknown to Whittle and his team. The book also takes a broad look at the short and long-term results of Whittles accomplishments, and how Britain tried with mixed success to established a dominant position in post-war gas turbine design and production. The pace of the book is quick, keeping the reading reasonably light but informative, given the subject matter, with a few anecdotes thrown in.
The book gives an good, concise history of the British war time development program of the jet engine, with the bulk of it dealing with Power Jets' and Whittle's working relationships with the Ministry of Aircraft Production, Rover, Rolls-Royce and other groups and organizations. The book is certainly not a technical one, and should be easily accessible to readers without any technical background. (Incidentally, if anyone is after a good book and the technical aspects of the gas turbine jet engine, I would certainly recommend Bill Gunston's "Development of the Jet and Turbine Aero Engines".)
The author acknowledges up front the well established ideas in the public mind that Whittle was a great pioneer and inventor, but was held back by a skeptical and unwilling British government, nationalizing his innovative company Power Jets, and eventually giving the technological leads away to America during the war. It is clear that the author does not agree with this conventional view, and the book does much to help dispel many of the myths regarding the early jet engine development programs. That's not to say that the author tries to attack or disparage Frank Whittle - he still titled the book after him after all - but compared with the untouchable status that Whittle has held in other popular accounts, any straightening out of the story inevitably leads to some level of humbling of the man himself.
Far from being held back by the government, Whittle was able to take advantage of many personal opportunities which the RAF made available to him beyond the norm. Whittle's team at Power Jets was well supported, allowing him to bring his first practical jets to fruition. In the end however, Whittle's eccentricities and apparent inability to work well with Rover - the initially chosen company to mass-produce his engine, contributed to the nationalisation of Power Jets, and eventual take-over of the program by Rolls-Royce.
But lets not lose sight of the fact that Frank Whittle was a master engineer and innovator. He may not have started British work on gas turbine engines, but he did make the fundamental leap from a gas turbine driven propeller (essentially what we know today as the turboprop), which was the leading theory of application at the time, to simply using the exhaust gas to form a propulsive jet. This development would inevitably have happened without Whittle (it did, in Germany, independent of Whittle's work), but Whittle's ideas, research and application certainly gave Britain a strong lead and advantage in the field of gas turbine jet engines.
In the final chapters, the author takes us through the promises and realities of the post-war British aviation industry centered on the desire for world class civil aircraft and the technology of the jet engine. The great leap to the DeHavilland Comet was clearly a painful lesson on many levels (and I did learn some interesting new facts, or clarifications perhaps, about the design flaws of the Comet), and this episode largely dashed the dreams of British leadership in civil aviation. However, in the end the author brings us full circle again with the Rolls-Royce RB.211, for although its development effort almost ruined Rolls-Royce, the timing of the new engine architecture was almost perfect, arriving at the beginning of a long period of stable evolution (not revolution) in jet design, allowing Rolls-Royce to make huge gains in the civil airliner market by building on the triple-shaft architecture of the RB.211 and follow-on Trent engines. And of course Rolls-Royce can trace its rich jet engine heritage all the way back to the ideas and developments of Frank Whittle and Power Jets, and he certainly deserves to be known as the father of the jet engine.