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Private aviation for the masses? January 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Transportation.

I am not uninitiated in the science and practice of aviation, but I am continually bewildered by the lack of technological and commercial development in bringing private aircraft to the masses.

  • Why are rotary-wing aircraft still so outrageously expensive to operate?
  • Why isn’t fly-by-wire technology penetrating general aviation?  Private cars are now universally equipped not only with electronic engine control but also with multiple vehicle stability control systems that prevent drivers from exceeding safe operating envelopes.  Analogous systems on aircraft would bring safer vehicles within reach of people with less time and money for training than the hobbiests who presently dominate general aviation.
  • Why is decentralized air traffic control still not the norm?

At least Kirk Hawkins offers a step in the right direction:  He aims to fill the relatively new “light sport” niche carved out by the FAA with an seaplane whose wings easily fold for towing and whose controls are designed only for VFR (daylight, fair-weather) flight.  Essentially, it’s the aircraft equivalent of a sports car or personal watercraft.  A former F-16 pilot, Hawkins notes:

Flying had this complex, regulated-transportation mentality, but the best flying I’ve ever done was always at low altitudes with the window open.



1. zexelon - January 22, 2009

1) Have you ever flown in a plane before?
2) Have you ever flown the plane before?
3) Do you actually know how complicated a rotary wing aircraft is?
Also very few people are even physically capable of operating one… they require a significant amount of physical and mental power simply to get off the ground!
4) When said electronics in your car fail, you pull over to the side of the road… When said electronics in your airplane fail, you die. Simply read up on all the issues regarding FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) of aircraft engines, and the number of planes that have crashed as a result of electrical power loss on these types of engines.
5) Decentralized ATC (Air Traffic Control) doesn’t work because there are no streets in the sky. Trust me you get very lost very quickly up there.

– Zexelon
(A pilot in training)

2. federalist - January 22, 2009

Yes, yes, and yes.

As I said before, decentralized ATC works quite well as the ADS-B trials are showing, and as I have seen first-hand.

Fixed-wing aircraft are simple: Don’t exceed weight/balance parameters, don’t stall on take-off/landing, don’t run out of fuel, and don’t run into the ground or other aircraft. Computers can take responsibility for all of that. I didn’t know there were practical problems with FADEC, but at least with small planes you don’t need any power to be able to glide to a landing, and small planes can also fall back on airframe parachutes (a la Cirrus).

Now, I know that rotary-wing dynamics are far more complicated than fixed-wing, but the fact remains that we know precisely what the safe flight envelope for helicopters is in every condition, and so an automated system could be put in the flight control loop to keep the craft within its safe envelope. (Helicopters also have the advantage of being able to autogyrate to a survivable landing if their engine fails.)

3. federalist - February 9, 2009

Apparently helicopters are still inordinately unsafe. Reading those statistics I began to wonder why the industry hasn’t designed external airbag systems for helicopters: I.e., multiple and very large airbags that would deploy anytime the aircraft isn’t configured for a safe landing and an independent proximity sensor is triggered. After all, by design helicopters are very light. They also tend to fly relatively low and slow.

Turns out Bell Helicopter patented something like that ten years ago, though I had in mind something more ambitious: Much larger bags that could deploy on any side of the helicopter to arrest an uncontrolled impact in any orientation.

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