Words of Advice:

"If Something Seems To Be Too Good To Be True, It's Best To Shoot It, Just In Case." -- Fiona Glenanne

"Flying the Airplane is More Important than Radioing Your Plight to a Person on the Ground
Who is Incapable of Understanding or Doing Anything About It." -- Unknown

“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level
and then beat you with experience.” -- Mark Twain

"Stay Strapped or Get Clapped." -- probably not Mr. Rogers

"Let’s eat all of these people!” — Venom

"Eck!" -- George the Cat

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Nobody Can Now Remember When This Still True

Man can't fly. Most people had thought that it would never happen.

Two men did 112 years ago today. Unlike other would-be inventors, who later claimed to have flown first and then did nothing, the Wright Brothers began, slowly, to refine their invention into a practical device. They didn't get there, none of the Wright machines were utilitarian to any great degree. But they pointed the way and others made it so.

When my grandmother was a little girl, she was told by her uncle George that she would livelong enough to see men fly. Everyone in the family thought George was nuts.

Grandma lived long enough to fly in a 727 and to see men walk on the Moon.


Ole Phat Stu said...

That may not be Wright ;-)

Gustav Weisskopf (=Whitehead) was first :-)

Murphy's Law said...

When I was learning to fly, there was an old guy who used to hang around the airport, a pilot who'd long ago lost his medical. He liked to watch the planes and talk to other pilots though. And he loved to show off his original Airman certificate. It was signed by Orville Wright.

The things that man had seen...

Comrade Misfit said...

Even if Whitehead flew first, what did he do with his invention? The Wrights refined a barely flyable, underpowered ultralight into a working technology demostrator, and they did it by damn near inventing the science of aerodynamics in the process.

The Wrights were scientists and engineers. They made it work, they refined their invention and they led the way into the Aviation Age.

BadTux said...

Back in 1954, a bit over 50 years after the Wright Brothers flew, Lockheed unveiled the latest state-of-the-art short haul transport, the C-130 Hercules. If the Wright Brothers had lived to see this aircraft, they would have been amazed. Its construction, its power plant, everything about it would have seemed like science fiction to them in 1903. If you'd taken a photo of the C-130 back in time to 1903, they would have been astounded at the advances that happened.

The state of the art in short haul military transport today is, uhm, the C-130 Hercules, of which LockMart delivered the 2,500th example two days ago. The men who designed the C-130 Hercules in the 1950's probably expected we'd have something better now, 60 years later. But we don't. They would immediately recognize today's Herky Bird, even though it has better engines and instrumentation thanks to advances in computer technology.

What happened to aviation? It's as if, 50 years ago, we slammed into a wall. Today's airliners look almost exactly like the Boeing 707 from 1960. Oh sure, they've had 50 years of refinement, but really, if you took the guys who designed the 707 and showed them an Airbus, the only thing that would amaze them would be the computers. The airframe? Eh.

And of course light aircraft are stuck even further back in a time warp....

Comrade Misfit said...

Engines, computers, electronics, everything. It took a crew of five to fly a 707 cross-ocean; they still were doing celestial navigation back then. Now, it takes two, but the flights can be so long, they carry relief crews.

707's had four engines that put about about 18,000 lbs of thrust apiece. They were so short-legged that the trans-Atlantic flights had to refuel in Gander before going onto Idlewild. Engines now put out almost six times as much thrust and some airliners can fly around the world with two fuel stops.

The relatively cheap cost of air transport made airmail extinct as a separate rate classification.

Light aircraft may be "stuck in a time warp" for airframes, but electronics has made engine operation far more efficient and the average 172 out of the factory in Wichita is better-equipped than those 707s/

BadTux said...

I see you missed my point. If you took the Wright Brothers and showed them a 707, they would have been astounded. They would have had no comprehension at all of even the power source that made it leave the ground. But if you took the 707 designers and showed them a modern airliner, they would have been, like, "huh, I was sure we would have made some sort of quantum leap by now". It would be immediately obvious to them that they were merely looking at a refinement of what they did in their day, something different in refinement, not in kind. Yet it was about the same number of years between the Wright Brothers and the 707 as it is between the 707 and now!

Yes, you're correct, we've *refined* the design since the 707 -- and the GPS navigation definitely works better than inertial/celestial navigation! -- but a jet engine is still a jet engine.The cabin is still a long aluminum sausage. The wings still use the same basic airfoils, the general layout of the airframe is still the same, etc. The computers are, as you mention, the biggest difference. It's the computers that allowed modeling gas flows within turbines so that we could achieve today's more fuel-efficient engines, and it's computers that made it easy enough to fly that only two people could fly it. But the airframe? Heck, the 707 airframe is still flying today, as the 737, which originally started life as a slightly shrunk two-engine 707!

And light planes are stuck in an even deeper time warp. The engines are still recognizably 1940's designs, refined since then, yes, but still the same basic engines, and in many cases even the same basic airframes. Look at the 1940's Cessna 170 and compare to the modern Cessna 172. Sure, the modern 172 has a more powerful and efficient engine, a better instrument panel, tricycle gear rather than tail dragger, etc., but it's still recognizably the same basic plane!

Of course, there are light planes that have advanced materials -- thinking about Columbia(Cessna TTx)/Lancair/Cirrus/etc., but they still have the same basic layout as many light aircraft of the 1940's. You show them to a 1940's pilot, he's like, "yup, I used to fly things like that." Put him in the cockpit with a primer on the new instrument panel, and he'll be flying in a jiffy. Show a 1940's Piper to the Wright Brothers, they would have recognized it as an airplane, but would have been in awe and certainly wouldn't have been flying it without a full flight training program, because flying it would be entirely different from flying the Wright Flyer!

Point being, we seem to have hit some wall there in basic aviation technology. Computers and composites are the only two things we've developed since the 1950's, and basically all they're being used for is to refine current designs. There's nothing jaw-droppingly different between a 1950's light plane and today's light plane the way there is between the Wright Flyer and a 1950's light plane. Same goes for jet airliners since the 707...

Murphy's Law said...

Light aircraft development has gone static over the past few decades in large part thanks to the legal industry that files suits against the manufacturers virtually every time one crashes. That tends to restrict new innovations and new designs because the old ones are now to the point where they've survived enough litigation to be practically judgement proof but a new design and new technology opens that door again.

As with most of America's problems, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the lawyers.

BadTux said...

Except that manufacturers were basically made judgement-proof back in 1994 when GARA was passed, Murphy. And there have indeed been multiple new aircraft introduced since then, see Cirrus, Lancair, Columbia(Cessna). The problem is that we seem to have arrived at an impasse with fundamental laws of physics, leaving any improvements to be done on the margins. These new aircraft use the latest materials, but put a 1950's pilot of a civilian single engine aircraft in the cockpit with a brief tutorial on the new dash instruments and 5 minutes later he's flying because the flight characteristics are similar, the controls are virtually identical, etc. The same would not be true of putting a 1905 pilot into the cockpit of a 1950's light plane...

BadTux said...

For a more interesting look at things, look at military aviation. Military aviation has no (zero) product liability concerns. Now, look at the latest greatest F-35 versus the early 70's technology F-16. The F-35 has a different shape due to stealth concerns, and has a better engine that allows it to supercruise, while the F-16 dogfights better, but that's all about tradeoffs in jet fighter design. That's all that thirty years has done to our fighter design -- shifted the tradeoffs, but not changed the fundamental capabilities of fighters. If you're within visual flight range, a F-35 is probably going to lose to an F-16, if beyond visual flight range, a F-35 is probably going to win over a F-16. Now, compare a 1914 Sopwith Tabloid fighter to a 1944 Mustang fighter. There were no -- zero -- circumstances under which the Tabloid shot down the Mustang. None. Zero. That's thirty years of evolution back when aircraft really *were* evolving. Today it's all about stealth and computers and the fundamental characteristics of the airframe haven't changed in years, or if they've changed, have changed for the worst (in the case of the F-35, which is portly and easily trounced by the F-16 in a dogfight).

Product liability is not the answer.

Comrade Misfit said...

I suspect that if you let the mid-1930s boys loose on a 707, the amazing thing would be the engines. They knew how to make aluminum tubes to carry people and they wre working on concepts for pressurized airplanes. Th B-307, which was pressurized, first flew in 1938.

sglover said...

"Yes, you're correct, we've *refined* the design since the 707 -- and the GPS navigation definitely works better than inertial/celestial navigation! -- but a jet engine is still a jet engine."

Compared to those on a 707, the engines on, say, an A380 embody enormous changes in materials, not to mention design and manufacturing processes. It's not entirely due to new technology, but as a fraction of average income airfares are much more affordable than in the 707's day. None of this is evident on casual inspection, but it's there. Sure, the A380 isn't pushed along by glowing blue cubes, but it seems like a stretch to write it off as "only" a "refinement".

By the same token, by most measures the CPU in a typical smartphone outperforms the fastest computers that national governments had in the 707 era. Yet both machines had silicon IC's at their core -- plainly, nothing important has changed, eh?

BadTux said...

Samuel, back when the 707 was designed, computers were built with vacuum tubes, not semiconductors. In 1957, the year the 707 first flew, various one-off military systems were delivered with transistors in place of tubes. It was not until 1959 that the IBM 7090, the first successful large-scale transistorized commercial computer, was introduced. It used RTL (Resistor-Transistor Logic), which does not at all resemble the CMOS technology used in modern computers in that the resistor part was not implemented with silicon but, rather, was implemented with carbon-doped ceramics. Furthermore, the memory used was ferrite cores wound with wires, not silicon. In other words, the 7090 bore about as much resemblance to modern computers as the P-51 Mustang bears to a F-16. They both fly, and that's about it. Similarly, the 7090 and modern computers both compute, but that's about it.

Compare the F-4 Phantom II, designed in the mid 1950's, with modern fighter jets. Yes, the avionics have been upgraded, as have the jet engines, but the designers of the F-4 would be right at home looking at the airframe of the F-35. Computers have made better engines possible because we can model gas flows through them better at the design phase as well as regulate fuel better, but the engines are still recognizably jet engines. Whereas modern semiconductor circuits are most *definitely* not recognizably vacuum tubes like a mid 1950's computer was!