Friday, March 04, 2005

big week in aviation

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to write at the moment, so this is a bit rushed, but there are some interesting things happening in the world of aviation right now.

First, Steve Fossett just flew around the world, nonstop, without refuelling, and he did it solo. Let's break that down. He flew around the world without stopping, about 67 hours in the air, which is impressive in itself when you stop to think that commercial aircraft have to have an inspection every 100 hours. Also, he flew an aircraft capable of carrying 67 hours worth of fuel. How many hours will your car run on a tank of gas? The airplane carries about 18,000 pounds of fuel. The number of gallons will vary with temperature, but that's probably in the neighborhood of 2,700 gallons: it's a flying gas tank. Finally, there was the technology to get him to an altitude where he could fly over the weather, keep him alive while he was up there, let him navigate and communicate while he was up there, and manage all of that capability single-handedly.

Next, the Experimental Aircraft Association has announced that you'll be able to see both Fossett's plane, GlobalFlyer, and SpaceShipOne (the privately-funded space craft you might remember from late last year, by the same people who built GlobalFlyer), at its annual convention/air show in Oshkosh, WI in July.

Also, the Light Sport Aircraft standards are getting close to being a reality, since they've just been published in the Federal Register. To understand why this is a big deal, you have to know that most of the light planes in the world today are old or based on old designs. It's sort of like if almost every car on the road today still used the height of 1950's technology. One of the reasons is that it's very expensive to certify a new design, so manufacturers don't like to change. One reason why certification is so expensive is that, unlike a car, you can't just pull over if there's a mechanical problem, so the government wants to minimize mechanical problems. They do that by heavily regulating aircraft manufacture. Whether or not that regulation achieves the desired effect would be a very interesting question to investigate, since it involves a trade-off between innovation and predictability.

The Light Sport Aircraft standards may inject some new life, and new technology, into the light aircraft world. The usual regulations apply to almost all light aircraft, from a simple, two-seat Cessna 152 up through highly complex retractables. After much discussion, the FAA decided that very small, simple aircraft were simple enough that they didn't need as much regulation: there's just plain less stuff that can go wrong with them. Among other things, the LSA rules relax some of the regulations for these small, simple airplanes. Relaxing the rules means the manufacturers have more flexibility to incorporate newer technology, which can lead to safer airplanes. It also means they can build these airplanes at significantly lower cost, which may lower the cost per hour of flying. Lowering the cost per hour would let pilots on a budget fly more often, making them safer pilots because their skills will stay sharper.

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