Businessweek: Puddle Jumpers Point the Way to Greener Aviation

Cape Air Flight 1965 from Boston to Provincetown is a quintessential puddle jumper. Several times a day, the seven-passenger Cessna 402 takes off from Boston Logan International and climbs to its maximum altitude of 800 feet. Twin propellers thrumming, it heads toward the sandy spiral tip of Cape Cod. Fourteen minutes later, the 402’s wheels screech onto the runway at Provincetown. Total distance traveled: 45 miles, versus the 120-mile road-and-bridge route, a slog that can stretch to six hours on Friday afternoons in August.

This isn’t cutting-edge aviation. Cape Air Corp.’s Cessnas are up to 40 years old and lack most comforts—including bathrooms—that even folks in steerage class demand. But Cape Air, focused entirely on short-range flights, aims to open a doorway to the future. As civil aviation works to become carbon-neutral worldwide by 2050, the first electric planes to replace fossil-fuel models will almost certainly ply short hops such as Boston-Provincetown.

Cape Air, which has about 100 aircraft flying 40 routes, all under 250 miles, is ready for the change. “If an electric airplane were built today, we would start implementing that,” says Senior Vice President Jim Goddard. The company is the first customer for the Alice, a nine-passenger, twin-engine plane being developed by Eviation Aircraft Ltd., a startup based just north of Seattle. Cape Air has signaled it’s ready to buy as many as 75 of the planes, which will have a range of 280 miles at a cruising speed of 185 mph. Eviation hopes to have the Alice in service by 2027.

Carbon-free aviation is starting with such modest goals because it’s far more difficult to electrify a plane than a car. Pound for pound, today’s best batteries store about one-sixth as much energy as jet fuel. Since flying machines must expend energy keeping every pound of their own weight aloft, an electric aircraft can’t go as far, as fast or as high.

Until recently, there hasn’t been much of an economic case for an electric airliner, but with climate change on the front burner, governments and industry groups around the world are pushing for change.
Continue reading Businessweek: Puddle Jumpers Point the Way to Greener Aviation

New York: Why Air Travel Melted Down…Again

The U.S. awoke Wednesday morning to a massive and as-yet unexplained disruption in the national air travel system triggered by the failure of an obscure but crucial FAA service called Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM. The shutdown began at 3:30 a.m. and by 7 a.m. had resulted in the delay of over a thousand flights, as the FAA halted the departure of all domestic flights. Planes already in the air were allowed to fly as planned. By 9 a.m. the FAA had managed to restore the system and reported that normal air operations were “resuming gradually across the U.S.” but significant delays remained widespread.

The disruption came on the heels of a big holiday meltdown that caused Southwest Airlines to cancel more than 15,000 flights amid bad weather and a failure of its scheduling system, and will no doubt put further heat on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who critics say has failed to use his regulatory powers to protect the integrity of the nation’s air travel system.

NOTAMs, originally called “notice to airmen” and still referred to as such in international aviation, is a system by which pilots are alerted to potential hazards or obstructions they might encounter en route, such as runway changes at the destination airport, problems with navigational beacons, or the closure of airspace surrounding a sports game or a presidential visit. Pilots receive NOTAMs as part of their standard pre-flight preparations, along with weather and other information which might affect the flight. They can also receive them en route from air traffic controllers or via automated weather information broadcasts. NOTAMS rarely concern matters of urgent safety, and it’s entirely possible that domestic air travel could operate safely without it for a day or two, but as a legal matter pilots cannot fly without them.

At 7 a.m. the FAA tweeted that it was working to reboot the system and that  “some functions are beginning to come online.” An hour later, it reportedthat departures had resumed at Newark and Atlanta airports and that departures would begin again elsewhere at 9 a.m. The resumption of NOTAM service did not mean an immediate return to normal flight operations, however, as dispatchers and air traffic controllers were left to untangle the backlog that had developed over the preceding hours. At 9:30 a.m. FlightAware listed 4,592 flights delayed within, into, or out of the United States and 825 flights canceled—though it was impossible to say how many were directly due to the NOTAM system failure.

It’s as yet unclear what might have caused the shutdown. At fault could be an inadequately maintained computer system of the kind that contributed to last month’s Southwest debacle or some kind of malicious attack. Wednesday morning President Biden told reporters “I just spoke with Buttigieg… they don’t know what the cause is.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted that “There is no evidence of a cyberattack at this point, but the President directed the DOT to conduct a full investigation into the causes.”

Slate: Is Elon Musk Right That Flight Tracking Is an Invasion of Privacy?

Elon Musk, who in November bragged that his free-speech absolutism was so pure that wouldn’t ban an account devoted to tweeting his plane’s in-flight location, reversed course with a vengeance earlier this week. He banned not only the @ElonJet account but all the accounts belonging to its creator, Florida college student Jack Sweeney. Then Thursday night he went still further, suspending more than a half-dozen prominent journalists who had been covering the controversy.

In his defense, Musk argued that tweeting information about his flights was equivalent to “doxxing,” a practice in which online harassers publish a victim’s address, phone number, or other personal information in order to encourage other people to harass them.

“Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” Musk tweeted Thursday night. (He said that a stalker had used the information to track his young child in a car, though he doesn’t have appeared to have filed a police report, and he hadn’t used his jet on the day in question.)

The controversy has put the spotlight on a previously little-discussed area of aircraft operations and raised the question: Why is aircraft location information made available freely and instantaneously?

It turns out there is actually a very good reason. Continue reading Slate: Is Elon Musk Right That Flight Tracking Is an Invasion of Privacy?

New York: The Eternal Disappointment of the Return of Supersonic Travel

Air travel is about to get a hell of a lot faster — at least that’s what the headlines say. “American Airlines to buy supersonic jets amid clamor for ultra-fast travel,” declared the Washington Post on Wednesday morning. “World’s fastest airliner ‘Overture’ to usher in new era of supersonic travel,” the New York Post proclaimed. They were pegged to American Airlines’ announcement that it had placed orders for 20 supersonic Overture jets from a start-up called Boom. The planes will carry up to 80 passengers at Mach 1.7. Better yet, they’ll burn a special fuel that will make them carbon neutral.

It’s all very exciting, if it happens. But there are many reasons to believe it won’t — not least that, for years, similar claims have continuously come up empty. “It’s just PR,” says aviation analyst Brian Foley. Supersonic air transportation is, he says, “still a long way off,” adding, “It’s fun to dream.”

To hear Boom tell it, the project is moving along at a blistering pace, and later this year the company says it will break ground on a factory in North Carolina. “We’ll begin production in 2024, with the first Overtures coming off the line in 2025,” Boom president Kathy Savitt says. Flight testing and certification will follow in short order. “We estimate that the very first passengers will be able to fly an Overture by the end of 2029,” she says.

Boom has made similarly ambitious claims before. Back in 2016, the company said it would be making three-hour transatlantic flights by 2023. In the meantime, it hasn’t even flown a scale model. “It’s always a decade in the future,” says Foley. Continue reading New York: The Eternal Disappointment of the Return of Supersonic Travel

New York: 5G Will Not Make Your Plane Fall Out of the Sky

The U.S. aviation industry has been in a tizzy this week over fears that Wednesday’s launch of national 5G cellular service would create chaos by interfering with aircraft sensors. Ten major airlines wrote to the Biden administration predicting that the “nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” Sure enough, come Wednesday, a number of airline flights were canceled, including all of Emirates’ U.S. flights. Generic Rapamune sirolimus delivered bu Emirates post, president Tim Clark called the 5G rollout “delinquent, utterly irresponsible.”

But by Thursday, the story had already fizzled. As commerce trundled along unfazed, several airlines un-canceled their flights and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that at least 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet would be unaffected in any way by the 5G rollout. Some observers went so far as to label the issue “incredibly dumb.” The main remaining question was why it had even turned into a thing in the first place. Continue reading New York: 5G Will Not Make Your Plane Fall Out of the Sky

New York: How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report

In the early 1960s, Cuban radar operators witnessed a strange phenomenon: Peering at their screens, they could see targets screaming toward their airspace at tremendous velocity. But when fighter planes were launched to intercept them, the targets simply vanished. The elusive craft showing up on their screens appeared to be the product of hyperadvanced technology — perhaps, even, an advanced civilization from another planet.

But what the Cubans were seeing was not alien technology. It was the result of human, and specifically American, technology — something called electromagnetic warfare, or EW. Knowing what EW is all about is crucial for putting into context the report released last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” the document had been eagerly anticipated by those who hoped it would finally provide definitive official evidence that UFOs are real. While those hopes didn’t pan out, the report was nevertheless revealing, if given a close reading. Continue reading New York: How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report

New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

Belarus’s use of deception and military threat to waylay a Ryanair flight Sunday and detain a prominent journalist critical of the country’s dictator was a clear-cut violation of international aviation law, legal experts say. “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair flight 4978 was transiting Belarus airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when, according to the airline, air-traffic controllers told the flight crew that there was a bomb aboard and asked them to land in the capital, Minsk. A MiG-29 fighter jet dispatched to intercept the flight added weight to the request. Upon landing, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, was removed from the plane and taken into custody.

“International law obviously prohibits the use of armed force against commercial aircraft,” says aviation attorney Arthur Rosenberg. The International Civil Aviation Organization “has standards governing the interception of commercial aircraft by the military.”

ICAO, an agency of the U.N., was established by an international agreement called the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944. The Chicago Convention is the foundational document of international aviation law and has been ratified by virtually every country on Earth, including Belarus. It specifically prohibits the use of military force against passenger flights, stating: “The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.” There are situations in which a state can use force against a civil aircraft, such as self-defense, or if a plane violates its airspace without permission, but neither applies in this case. Continue reading New York: Why Belarus Grounding of Ryanair Flight Broke International Law

New York: How to Make Carbon-Neutral Gasoline Out of Thin Air

In a clearing on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany, a modified shipping container painted an immaculate white sits near a field of solar panels. Inside, ducts wrapped in insulating foil elbow between racks filled with cabinet tanks. Everything is motionless and silent, except for a soft whirring and humming. Michael Klumpp, a postdoc at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, turns a spigot and a clear liquid flows into a glass flask. The substance smells faintly of warm wax. Though it resembles oils derived from plants or petroleum, it does not come from any familiar source, but has literally been pulled from the thin air, transubstantiated from gas to liquid with the help of renewably generated electricity. On a mass scale, it could be used to fly airplanes or power heavy machinery, replacing petroleum in some situations. It even has a catchy name: eFuel.

The idea of turning air into liquid fuel may sound fantastical, but the underlying principle is as mundane as a head of lettuce. “It’s the same thing that plants do with photosynthesis,” says Roland Dittmeyer, leader of the project and director of the Institute for Micro Process Engineering at KIT.

While the machine that I watched produce that energy-dense liquid in the forest clearing is just the first stage of a pilot program, the underlying technology could help reshape the battle against climate change. Continue reading New York: How to Make Carbon-Neutral Gasoline Out of Thin Air

Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED

Within a few months of the disappearance of MH370 I began investigating why a Russian and two Ukrainians were on the plane, as I’ve previously described here and here.

I quickly learned that the two men jointly owned a furniture company in Odessa, Ukraine called Nika Mebel. The company started a website around June, 2013, that retailed furniture it made in its own factory. Within a few months it added furniture imported from China and Malaysia. On the site the company described itself like this: “Continuous improvement of technological equipment and staff training helped us grow into a large furniture manufacturing company in Ukraine….  Over a 15-year period of time, we managed to make ourselves known on most of the territory of Ukraine, as well as beyond its borders.”

In an affadavit filed in 2017 as part of her effort to have her husband declared legally dead, Tatiana Chustrak stated that:

“In the court session it was established that the applicant’s husband was engaged in private business, namely, with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, had a shop for furniture production.
March 02, 2014, a man, along with a partner, went on a business trip abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit the international furniture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and on March 8, it was planned to fly to Beijing Airport, China, and then fly to Guangzhou, China, where an international furniture exhibition was also planned. According to this plan, the relevant tickets were purchased.”

I hired researchers in Ukraine and asked them to reach out to Dmitriy Kozlov, the manager of Nika Mebel. I figured that he’d have detailed knowledge of the trip, because according to Nika Mebel’s filings he was the only person authorized to operate the company apart from Chustrak and Deineka — in effect, for years after their disappearance, he was Nika Mebel.

My investigators reported back to me: Continue reading Why Were the Ukrainians Aboard MH370? UPDATED