Great leaps in aviation

TAKING off or landing, at a major international airport, in a “Queen of the Skies” 747-8I Boeing jumbo jet or a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, or a “Superjumbo” Air Bus A380 plane, in full colourful livery with grace and composure; one cannot escape the thought of great human feat, endeavour and accomplishment in the field of aviation science and technology.

Human beings should awe at the sheer mechanical, hydraulic, electronic and electrical engineering; not to mention the avionics, aeronautical design, aerodynamics, auto-pilot control systems, landing-gear control systems, material chemistry, architecture and design, physics and the mechanics of repeated take-off and landing of these majestic aircraft — often with maximum take-off weights of 560,000 kilograms and landing weights of 386,000kg; not forgetting the engine design and technology.

When dealing with innovation, research and development in the aviation sector, we should not forget the great leaps in aircraft jet engine technologies also, over a very short period of time.

For instance today the Boeing 777 twinjet features the largest and most powerful jet engine in the world, the General Electric GE90, which is 3.40 metres or 340 centimetres in diametre.

This is almost as wide as the entire fuselage of a Boeing 737 at 376cm. The GE90 series are physically the largest engines in aviation history, the fan diameter of the original series being 310 cm, and the largest variant GE90-115B has a fan diameter of 330cm.

The massive maximum takeoff weight of the Airbus A380 (560,000kg) would not have been possible without the engine technology developed for the Boeing 777, such as contra-rotating spools. The Trent 900 engines used on the Airbus A380 has a fan blade diameter of 295cm, only slightly smaller than the GE90 engines on the Boeing 777.

Research and Development (R&D) costs annually, for major aircraft manufacturing companies such as Boeing and Air Bus, are in billions of US dollars annually. For example, Boeing’s total R&D expenses amounted to $US4.6 billion ($F9.5b), $US3.3b ($F6.8b), $US3b ($F6.2b), $US3.1b ($F6.4b), and $US3.3b ($F6.8b) in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012, respectively.

These amounts represent the company funded R&D activities, representing 3.4 per cent to 4.9 per cent of the total revenue of this one company — Boeing — alone.

I can state categorically that the aviation sector has never been a stranger to research and development. Neither has it been ever shy, cautious, wary, nervous, afraid, fearful or reluctant of research, development and innovation.

In fact, we can say that the sheer basis of where we are today in the aviation sciences and technology, is totally because of research and development efforts of mankind.

The fact that we put man on the moon and today can fly as many as 853 passengers in a commercial aircraft to another location 15,701km away non-stop in an A380; or 467 passengers non-stop from New York to Sydney or any location 18,415km away in a Boeing 747-8I is all totally to do with man-kind’s grasp for research and development in the aviation sciences and technology arena.

Research, development, design and technological innovation in the aviation sector was in the heart of the two “aviators, engineers, inventors, and aviation pioneers” who are credited with “inventing, building, and flying” the world’s first successful airplane.

The Wright brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft on the famous historical day of December 17, 1903 — four miles south of Kitty Hawk in the American state of North Carolina.

The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method became and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds.

From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving “the flying problem”. It should be noted that these inventions were not accidents but took great time and effort and very extensive experimental trials covering millions of pieces of data.

Even before the brothers began their 1900 experiments of manned gliding experiments, they extensively took advice; and looked at the long-term official wind data from the US Weather Bureau. The journey to Kitty Hawk, to begin their manned gliding experiments was partly based on the advice from Octave Chanute. Octave was answering Wilbur’s letter suggesting a sandy coastal area for regular breezes and a soft landing surface.

The friendship between Chanute and the Wright brothers began on May 13, 1900, when Wilbur Wright wrote to the famous engineer, introducing himself as someone “afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man”.

It was the first item in what would become the most significant correspondence in the early history of aviation. Between Wilbur’s first letter and Chanute’s death in May 1910, 435 letters or telegrams would pass between them.

Despite the advice, the two brothers selected Kitty Hawk after scrutinising weather bureau data and writing to the government meteorologist stationed there.

Thus began a relationship between aviators and meteorologists in the lead-up to the first controlled powered flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903. The next 50 years saw incredible advances in the technology of aviation and in the development of meteorology as a science.

By the late 1930s, air travel between countries was becoming feasible. It rapidly became clear that support and standardisation were needed to ensure the safe operation of international flights. The year 1944 saw the drafting of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which was eventually ratified by a sufficient number of nations to come into effect in 1947.

Better known as the Chicago Convention, it created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as an agency of the United Nations and provided the mechanism for international agreement on all issues related to civil aviation.

The Convention has 18 annexes establishing standards for areas such as air traffic control, navigation systems and communications systems. Important to meteorologists is Annex 3-Meteorological Service for International Air Navigation.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) became a specialised agency of the United Nations in 1951.

ICAO and WMO soon established working arrangements that set out “who does what” when it comes to meteorological services for aviation.

The relationship is theoretically simple: ICAO establishes the requirements for meteorological services to international aviation and WMO establishes the manner to meet these requirements and sets standards for service delivery.

The international aviation user organisations (the International Air Transport Association, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, the European Regions Airline Association, etc.) communicate their needs to ICAO and WMO works with National Meteorological Services (NMSs) to deliver these services.

A forthcoming article will show some of the complexities in the details of meteorological services to aviation and some emerging issues brought about by the rapid advances and changes in the aviation industry, including the science of aviation meteorology.

* Dr Sushil K Sharma is a former aviation meteorologist for the British Aerospace, seconded to the Royal Saudi Air Force in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is a WMO class 1 professional meteorologist and presently an associate professor of meteorology at FNU. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper or his employer.

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