Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Continuous Descent Approaches: Come on down!

I recently read how UPS is intending to incorporate Continuous Descent Approaches (CDAs) at their hub at Standiford Field in Louisville, KY. The CDA is characterized by an idle descent from cruise altitude, to approach configuration, and then to touchdown. Needless to say, the energy demands and time/distance calculations have to be right on the money -- out of energy, out of altitude, and crossing the threshold. Expectations are that a CDA profile would not only reduce fuel consumption, but also lower noise. The latter is especially important for carriers such as UPS and FEDEX, as the majority of their flights are at night -- working while the rest of us sleep.

I had the opportunity to briefly experiment with CDAs during my military career, and the results were positive even with the crude inertial nav and HUD systems we had back in the day. It is something to behold however, pulling the power to idle at 30,000+ feet and flying a profile all the way to slow-up, dirty-up, approach, and runway acquisition without ever touching the throttle. Takes some serious planning, at least in those days. Especially challenging at night and IFR. One area of concern, is the increased spool-up time of the engines in the event of a wave-off, given that the engines are very firmly settled at full idle RPM and quite cooled down.

I have no doubt that with today's advanced flight systems, software, and displays, a CDA can be reliably performed with limited flight separation...perhaps as close as 2-3 miles. Air Traffic Control will of course have to play a huge role in sequencing, separation, and merging...but that time has arrived, aided by new systems. It can be done, and it should be done. I wish UPS all the best.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

VLJ - i.e., Very Little Justification

I have just returned from Aspen, CO. My god, can there be an airport that is more challenging to land at?! 7800' elevation, surrounded by mountains on three sides, dramatic noise abatement rules...and heaven help you if you have to make a go-around at night, or in IFR conditions. And yet there, on a typical weekend in August, is perhaps the largest collection of private jets on earth. Gulfstreams, Falcons, Lears, Citations, Hawkers, even a Bombardier Global Express. There must have been 75 of 'em. It makes you both salivate at these beautiful machines, and wonder "who on Earth has all this money!?".

But soon, that stable of fabulous bizjets will be joined by a cadre of smaller, less expensive jets....the so-called "very light jet", or VLJ. Several companies, including Eclipse, Adam Aircraft, and of course Cessna are racing to field these ~$1-2M (and up) jets...and I hope they're fabulously successfully, offering about 100+ mph over the equivalently priced conventional powered twin. Sell your twin turbo-prop now!

What many of the VLJ manufacturers are relying on however, is the emergence of a new aviation market segment, called the "air taxi" service (or air limo, perhaps). Ah! Now there is a business plan to challenge if ever I saw one.

Let me go ahead and say it...I believe the air taxi business model is fundamentally flawed, and will fail, and will possibly take with it one or more VLJ manufacturers...probably Eclipse. Here's why:

  • Safety: Okay. Let me get this right...hundreds of VLJ air taxis operating from smaller, non-controlled airports with pilots holding only the minimum of commercial qualifications...this is an accident waiting to happen. And once the safety record is damaged, it's very difficult to restore. Just ask ValuJet.
  • Destinations: Is there really a crying demand to fly to Franklin, VA or Georgetown, KY? I would say no. Most people still need to fly to Washington, Boston, and New York. So...I believe the air taxis will end up merely duplicating service to already existing destinations over already existing routes. And there they will compete with current commercial and private jets...and likely lose.
  • Cost: It won't be cheaper than commercial airlines, it won't be cheaper than taking a car, and worse, it won't be expensive (or luxurious) enough to lure the truly wealthy away from their Gulfstreams and fractional ownerships. People who can afford private jet service already have it, and the VLJ air taxi doesn't promise to lower the cost barrier enough to appeal to the masses.
  • Predictability: Both business and personal travelers will insist on predictability of air travel regarding departures, arrivals, number of stops, and flight duration. I believe the air taxi concept will be challenged to deliver on all fronts.
  • Infrastructure: The air taxi concept depends on opening hundreds of new airports to VLJ service. As wonderful as this concept appears, the infrastructure is just not there. Not enough instrument approaches, not enough night lighting, just not enough facilities at many of these airports. No "ground" taxis and no rental cars...let alone business lounges, restaurants, hotels, and a Starbucks. It just won't be very easy to fly into El Dorado, AR, and then get anywhere else.

Don't get me wrong. I love the new VLJs for their creative design, high performance, focus on maintainability, and reasonable cost. But on the air taxi business model, I remain the naysayer.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Hiding in clear view

Recently Jet Blue announced that 1) it would inaugurate service from Newark airport beginning in Oct, and 2) that it would begin taking delivery of the Embraer 190 regional jet. Both of these events are rather puzzling, given that they have taken place right in plain sight in-front of the established leaders in these market areas.

First, Jet Blue at Newark. It's both scary and disgraceful that Continental would allow Jet Blue carte blanc to enter into their most important base. ("Hello, Mr. Continental! This is your wake-up call"). How may such intrusions from the low-cost carriers will it take to motivate the current legacy carriers to change their fundamental business model?!

Secondly, the Embraer 190. This aircraft represents the latest in the so-called "regional jet" aircraft line. The Embraer 190 seats about 100, and this size -- placing the 190 above the 40-50 passenger regional jet and below the 150-seat Airbus 320 that Jet Blue currently operates -- is significant. It will allow Jet Blue to operate over many routes that are well beyond the "feeder" level, but not quite up to a full-scale route as defined by the legacy carriers and served by the larger Boeing 737, et. al. This market sector is gigantic, and will lead to more routes, more point-to-point options, and will once-and-for-all put the death knell to the "hub-and-spoke" business model. Future successful airlines will operate an increasing portion of their fleet with these mid-size aircraft, opening new market and new business models.

In general, customer response to the regional jet craze has been enthusiastic; a much quicker way to make the run from White Plains to Dulles than the previous turbo props; and the turbo prop manufacturers have suffered accordingly. But for the slightly longer runs, such as New York to Lexington, KY, the 50-passenger regional jets are simply too small, too cramped -- but the traffic load is simply too light to justify a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320/319 (and thus perhaps why Southwest has not yet appeared...).

Enter the 100-passenger regional jet category, of which the Embraer 190 is the first. In a year, we will see a broad, rapid emergence of passenger jets of the 90-120 passenger level, fueling a solid market for the manufacturers - Embraer and Bombardier. And that is the point -- neither of these manufacturers is Boeing or Airbus.

How could Boeing and Airbus have missed this growing aviation aircraft sector? (...and missed it they have, not having a single offering in the entire category). Boeing and Airbus, having emerged as large-body aircraft companies, were unable to see the aviation opportunity offered by the regional jet. The idea of a small, commercial jet simply wasn't in their corporate DNA, and this is inexcusable. Boeing in particular. They, almost single-handedly, brought commercial air travel to where it is today -- an indispensable part of our society.

How could they have not monitored the air traffic sectors and identified the need for the regional jet?! Difficult to explain. As the old saw goes, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails". Thus it is with Boeing and Airbus; a huge opportunity missed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Fireball XL-5 indeed!

Today reminded many of us why we love this madness called "flying". Could there have been anything more thrilling and beautiful than the picture perfect launch of Space Shuttle Discovery? A flawless launch into a clear azure Florida sky. Not a cloud in sight from liftoff to FL999. The brilliant brightness of the flames, the unbelievable power of those rocket engines, the perfect separation of the booster rockets ...absolutely captivating. The NASA narration was even terrific. I still get goosebumps when I hear "Discovery, you're cleared for throttle-up", as I recall those words watching Challenger. But today, it was sheer adrenaline.

And what magnificent television coverage! The live camera shot from the external fuel tank was astounding. Not only could you see the curvature of this blue marble we call Earth, but the tank separation and the gradual lifting away of the main Shuttle craft, shown live from some 45 miles in was as close to heaven as a couch-potato astronaut can come. It is indeed great to have man back in space. Colonel Steve Zodiac would have been proud.

Godspeed Discovery and her crew.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Its five year mission, to boldly land...

On Tuesday, 26 July NASA plans the first Shuttle launch since the Columbia tragedy in February 2003, and everyone in NASA knows that if there is another major failure, the entire program will be terminated -- permanently. On this, the eve of the launch, it's time to admit, that the sole purpose of the Space Shuttle has deteriorated to demonstrating that it can orbit the Earth X number of times, and of course servicing the self-serving International Space Station. Scientific experiments? Discovery? Exploration? To boldly go? Not even.

As a former Navy fighter pilot, one of my most challenging missions was a "routine" night carrier launch and trap. Add in a bit of weather and it's among the most difficult aviation maneuvers known; pure hell. And the sad truth was that once we did launch off the carrier at night, there was essentially nothing to do. Air-to-ground and air-to-air missions were basically impractical. Sure you could do them, but everyone knew those night-time missions were of dubious military value. (Of course today's modern fighters have nifty features such as infra-red sensors and night vision goggles that greatly improve their night-time capabilities.)

But the old saw still rings true. As we used to say during the pre-flight brief for a night hop -- "our mission to land". Sadly, that is true of tomorrow's scheduled Space Shuttle launch, and an insult to the brave, talented men and women who will fly STS-114 . Tomorrow's Shuttle...Its true simply to land.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Some things need to die; TAB cola, UV sun lamps, Brita pitchers, paper airline tickets, PDAs, the NHL.

Recently Wired magazine ran a feature article on "Saving the Pentagon's Killer Chopper-Plane" (July 2005). It's a great article, well researched and balanced. But it did strike me as a bit of advocating technology for technology's sake, which of course is somewhat what Wired is all about That's okay. But while the V-22 may finally be poised after 22 years and $16B to actually perform more-or-less as designed, the time has also come to ask "is it time for the V-22 to die?"

Never give a SECNAV a blank check

The V-22's origins spring from the halcyon spending days of the Reagan administration. When Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, he and SECDEF Caspar Weinberger immediately began the largest peace-time military build-up in history. Suddenly EVERYTHING was affordable and needed. And every branch of the Armed Services rushed-in to get their toys on the wish list.

The Air Force immediately ordered 100 B-1's (which they are now desperately trying to unload) AND the ill-fated MX missile. Furthermore, they undertook developing both the B-2 and the F-22 stealth aircraft programs. (What a monetary black-hole these have been!). The Army immediately set out to field a stealthy helicopter, the ill-fated Comanche, as well as a significant force structure build up, more artillery, etc.

But it was the Navy, led by charismatic SECNAV John Lehman, that was by far the most accomplished at winning the DoD budget game. A 600-ship Navy became the rallying cry; necessitating additional carrier air wings, a new stealth attack aircraft (the ill-fated A-12), a new submarine class, a new destroyer class, upgrades to the aging but beloved A-6 (the "F" model), accelerated F/A-18 procurement, construction of new Naval Stations around the country (Lehman called it "strategic home porting"; opponents preferred "strategic home porking"), the F-14D Super god, the Christmas list was endless. And on that list was the V-22 Osprey.

Egos in the E-Ring

I point this out to indicate that the birth of the V-22 Osprey did not spring, as the Wired article implies, from the ill-fated Iranian Hostage Rescue operation in 1980 and a subsequent demonstration of the diminutive XV-15 in Paris. (Notice how often the phrase "ill-fated" turns up here?). was not the operational needs of the USMC that drove the V-22 procurement action, it was the simple DoD habit of grabbing as much of the cake as you can; and the more toys that are on your want list, the better your chances of getting a few of them for Christmas. If you can imagine it existing, then on the budget it goes!

So let's not try to justify a 22-year/$16B research program that has cost the lives of 30 brave servicemen with some unlikely-to-be-repeated-again hostage rescue mission from 25 years ago. No. The V-22 was just another of the many DoD "programs of excess" flooding the E-ring in the 1980s. And it has lived on because DoD and USMC decision makers have invested so much pride, so much ego, so much money...that even when it's clear that the cost of procurement and operation will far exceed any return in warfare capability.

New Helicopters Oui! V-22 Non!

Don't misread my intent. As a former Naval pilot, I have spent many hours riding in ancient CH-46 Sea Knights operated by the USN and USMC. God knows we need to replace this old, slow nightmare of a helicopter! And therein lies the tragedy of the very existence of the V-22 program today. Had wiser men intervened, the USMC/USN could have purchased hundreds of readily available helicopters for the price of the V-22 program to date (>$16 billion and counting), and we haven't even begun to actually buy the damn aircraft!... die...

So here's why it's time to ditch the V-22 and stop being enamored by the technology.

  1. No conceivable mission in today's world makes a resounding military case for this capability. The United States military has lived without the V-22 for 22 years, and we've fought countless battles. I doubt if any one of them would have ended differently had the V-22 been present. Better, newer helicopters yes...V-22 as decisive - no.
  2. Alternatives exist that are much cheaper and less risky: The US101 and the Sikorsky H-92, as well as advanced versions of the venerable Blackhawk would cost far less, have arrived sooner, cost less to operate, are lower risk, and could have dramatically improved USMC warfare capabilities in a fraction of time/cost. Not as sexy, I agree, but affordable and sustainable. I blame the DoD office of Program Analysis & Evaluation (PA&E) for not bringing these options to the table.
  3. The USMC cannot afford to buy or operate the V-22. The current Iraq war has taken a terrible toll on the readiness and core operational capabilities of the USMC. Those need to be repaired, and without having to compete for funds from a galactic Osprey program.
  4. In the end, the V-22 will be known mostly for one thing; it will do a great airshow.

Lick it up!

The V-22 program exists today for one simple reason; DoD cannot bring itself to kill a program after it has invested so much money. The Pentagon even has a cutesy name for this phenomena, it's called "the self-licking ice cream cone." Basic accounting rules such as "sunk costs" do not apply at DoD. Egos rule. As Wired magazine quoted Mike Lieberman, a military affairs aide on the HASC, "My God, we've thrown so much money at it, we have to get something out of it." And that is precisely why some things need to die...