Aviation Archive


Why Did Australia Change the Search Area?

This is happening late at night and will bear further discussion in the morning, but I wanted to get something up online quickly to explain the basic gist of the situation. A little over an hour ago, at 9.30pm EDT here in the US, the Australian government announced that it was abandoning the current search area and moving to a new one 11oo km to the northeast. The reason, they said, is:

The search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been updated after a new credible lead was provided to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)… The new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost. It indicated that the aircraft was travelling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean.

This explanation really doesn’t make any sense. I want to quickly explain why, and give some context of where all this is happening geographically.

First, here’s a very crude chart I’ve made on Google Earth showing  the old search area and the new search area (very roughly estimated). You’ll recall that earlier this week Inmarsat released an analysis of its “ping” data that plotted different routes the aircraft might have taken. The upshot was that if the plane was flying at 450 knots, it would have wound up at a spot on the 8.11am ping arc marked “450.” If it had flown at 400 knots, it would have wound up around the spot marked “400.” (click to enlarge)

new search area


As you can see, it appears that the old search area assumed a flying speed of a bit more than 450 knots, and the new search area assumes a flying speed of a bit more than 400 knots, with prevailing currents causing debris to drift to the southeast.

The shifting of the search area to the northeast would seem to stand at odds with the assertion of the press release, which implies that new radar analysis finds the plane was flying faster then originally estimated. In fact, it was flying slower than originally estimated.

At any rate, the abandoning of the old search area, after such significant assets had been lavished upon it, raises the question of why they were so confident about it that speed estimate in the first place. And then raises the obvious sequela: Why are they so confident in this one?

BTW, here’s that graphic from the Inmarsat, showing the 450 and 400 knot plots:

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 10.48.57 PM

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The Path of the Missing Malaysian Airliner: What We Know, and How — UPDATED


UPDATED: See end for description of possible northern route

On Saturday, March 15, Malaysian authorities released an analysis of satellite data that dramatically narrowed the possibilities for where missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had gone after it disappeared from radar on March 8. Over the course of the following week, Inmarsat released further information that not only showed where the plane went, but also indicated how it got there. The results are shown on this chart. We still don’t know if the plane headed north or south, but if it went north, it made landfall near the western India-Bangladesh border and proceeded along the Himalayas to Central Asia. If it went south, it passed over western Indonesia and out over the southern Indian Ocean.

How are we able to determine this? The procedure requires a bit of explanation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Businessweek: How Airbus Is Debugging the A350

Businessweek A350 wingtip smallA few times a month, Airbus Flight Test Engineer Patrick du Ché stands up from his desk, takes off his jacket and tie, walks to the coat rack in the corner of his office, and slips into a set of fire-resistant underwear, a bright-orange flight suit, and sturdy black boots. Then he walks down two flights of stairs and out onto the tarmac of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France. There, rising above a fleet of newly painted A320 short-haul jets, is an Airbus A350-XWB long-range widebody airliner—the very first of its kind. Sleek and nearly all white except for the lettering along its flank and the swirling blue-on-blue Airbus logo on the tail, it carries the official designation MSN001. Last May, in a modest employees-only ceremony, the final assembly line workers formally handed the plane over to the Flight Test Department. Or, as du Ché sees it, “They handed it to me.”

As a flight engineer and head of the department, du Ché gets first pick of the test flights. Although he describes himself as risk-averse, he tends to choose those he calls the most “interesting,” which means at the edge of the plane’s capabilities, where if something goes wrong, it could destroy the plane. Since June, du Ché and his colleagues have flown at the A350’s maximum design speed; conducted aerodynamic stalls; and taken off so slowly that the tail dragged on the ground.

Each test flight is operated by a crew of two pilots and three flight engineers, who monitor the stream of data flowing from a multitude of sensors into a bank of computers installed in the middle of the cabin. Du Ché’s station is behind the co-pilot’s on the right side of the cockpit. On the seat is a parachute. If things should go terribly awry and the crew needs to evacuate, a bright-orange railing leads them from the cockpit door to a hatch in the floor above the forward baggage compartment. By pulling a lever, the crew can trigger a set of explosive charges that will blow a hole in the right side of the fuselage. They can then leap down a slide, through the hole, and into the air. That’s the idea, anyway. Says test pilot Frank Chapman: “If the plane is tumbling out of control, would you really be able to get out?” He shrugs.

Read the rest of the article, from the February 13, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, here.

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Popular Mechanics: The Improbable Pedal-Powered Flying Machines

Icarus Cup by Reed Young

David Barford takes to the air. Photo by Reed Young

“Dad! Hold the tail down!” David Barford shouts to his 73-year-old father, Paul, who shuffles along the grass while supporting a slender spar that connects the rear stabilizers to the cockpit and wings of Betterfly, a fragile aircraft that balances on two inline wheels. David’s 20-year-old daughter, Charlotte, supports the starboard-wing spar with his best friend, Paul Wales. David’s 17-year-old son, Chris, marches alongside the port wing, while David, 44, coordinates the action from the nose of the plane.

Team Betterfly’s sense of urgency grows as the summer daylight fades and the sky west of Sywell Aerodrome, a rural airstrip 75 miles north of London, darkens prematurely with thunderclouds. It’s the second day of the weeklong Icarus Cup, the world’s most challenging human-powered-aircraft competition, and Barford wants to make a first attempt at the speed-course event. Two dozen spectators also anxiously monitor the weather, hoping the threatening rain doesn’t ground the pilots.

The team gently sets Betterfly on the centerline at the end of Sywell’s lone paved runway. To shed weight, Barford strips down to his underwear and bike shoes, and then eases into a red fabric pilot’s seat made from two aluminum folding chairs. The only controls in the transparent cockpit are bike pedals and a handle for the rudder.

Barford calls out, “Three, two, one—rolling!” and begins to pedal furiously. The front-mounted propeller claws the air, and Betterfly starts gathering speed as it rolls down the runway. The crew supporting the aircraft walk, then jog, then sprint as the wings rise from their hands. Betterfly floats off the runway, 1 foot, 2 feet, a yard. Barford’s legs churn. “Go, go!” Wales shouts.

Read the rest of my story about the 2013 Icarus Cup online here at Popular Mechanics.

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Popular Mechanics: The New Space Age

PM Dec 2013 coverWhen the last Shuttle mission touched down in 2011, America’s manned space program reached a nadir. For the first time in half a century, the nation found itself without the means to launch a human being into orbit. The country couldn’t even send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), the orbital laboratory whose construction we’d already committed $70 billion to. And so, in one of the most darkly ironic twists in aerospace history, NASA was forced to rely on its old rivals, the Russians, to launch its crews into space.

But from failure comes change, and today a new era of space exploration is dawning. NASA’s monopoly on American space travel has been swept aside in favor of a new philosophy of commercial competition. Where once the Shuttle reigned alone, a whole array of new rockets and spacecraft are coming on line. We find ourselves emerging from a dark ages to what may well be a new golden age, with entrepreneurs bringing novel ideas and approaches to a once-stagnant game. “It’s the most exciting time that the space industry has seen since the early days of Apollo,” says Andrew Nelson, chief operation officer of space-plane manufacturer XCOR Aerospace. “Everything is new. It’s really cool.”

My feature on America’s new dawn in space is the cover story of the December 2013 Popular Mechanics, available on newsstands (and in modified form online) now.


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Men’s Journal: How to Become a Pilot

Being able to fly a plane is a rare privilege: Just one American in a thousand holds a private pilot’s license. Yet joining their ranks is nether as difficult nor as dangerous as many assume. Men’s Journal has just posted my 12-part slideshow on what you need to know to get started.

Throttle#1: Get Your License

Actually, the proper FAA term is a private pilot certificate, and the kind you’ll want is called “Aircraft, single engine, land,” or PP-ASEL. In order to earn it, you’ll need a medical checkup, then spend a minimum of 35 hours ground instruction and 40 hours in the air, followed by a written test, an oral test, and a check ride with an FAA-designated examiner. Realistically, you should expect to spend at least 60 to 70 hours of flying time before trying to pass a check ride, a process that will cost you on the order of $8,000. Doing all that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how aggressively you pursue your goal. Once you get your ticket, you’re legally qualified to fly at night and with any number of passengers, though you can’t fly inside clouds – you’ll need additional “Instrument Flight Rules” training for that, which will cost about the same amount of money again.

Read the other 11 steps at Men’s Journal.
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Human Powered Aircraft Race Heats Up

I’ve been spending this week at the world’s first internationally sanctioned human-powered aircraft race, the Icarus Cup, embedded with Team Betterfly, headed by amateur builder David Barford. Barford, 44, builds Formula One engines for Mercedes-Benz, and has no background in aeronautics and has never flown an airplane. He spent eight years building Betterfly in his garage, with no aim in mind than a passion to see if he could pedal himself into the air. Well, remarkably, his team currently stands at the top of the leader board, ahead of three university teams and two other aircraft built by professional aircraft designers. Here’s footage of a 200-meter flight Barford took Monday evening. It was taken by Stephen Warrick.

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Finally! A Human-Powered Helicopter Wins the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize

ReichertThis article first appeared on the Popular Mechanics web site.

A quixotic Kickstarter-funded project has won the Sikorsky Prize, one of the most elusive goals in aviation, by keeping a human powered helicopter aloft for more than a minute. Aerovelo, an aeronautical engineering startup founded by Canadians Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson, announced this morning that the Federation d’Aviation Intenationale (FAI)—the governing body of international aeronautical prizes—has certified a flight that Reichert piloted on June 13 as having met the qualifications for the $250,000 prize.

The rules of the American Helicopter Society Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Challenge, established in 1980, specify that the craft must fly for 60 seconds, must rise to an altitude of at least 3 meters (about 10 feet), and must remain within a horizontal area no bigger than 10 meters by 10 meters (33 feet by 33 feet). The actual flight, completed at an indoor soccer stadium near Toronto, lasted 64 seconds and reached a maximum altitude of 3.3 meters.

The prize-winning flight came at the very end of five days of test flights, after which the space would no longer be available. On two earlier flights, Reichert pilot the craft, called Atlas, to heights of 2 meters and 2.5 meters. With just minutes remaining before the team was scheduled to vacate the stadium to make way for an evening soccer practice, Reichert managed to squeeze in one last flight. Within 10 seconds a horn sounded signaling that he had exceeded the 3-meter mark. Read the rest of this entry »

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2 Teams,1 Dream: The Human-Powered Helicopter


Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson. Photo by Reed Young.

This article ran in the April 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics.

A huge, spindly, spiderlike contraption arches over the AstroTurf of an indoor soccer stadium near Toronto, its X-shaped trellis of carbon-fiber tubing so diaphanous that it’s hard to make out. The end of each truss arm terminates in a pair of shiny, fragile rotor blades made of foam, balsa, and Mylar. From the center of this precarious assemblage, 130 feet across, hangs a skein of slender cords that supports a dangling, wheelless bicycle frame. If this all seems rickety, it becomes doubly so when wiry 31-year-old Todd Reichert clambers up and settles onto the bike seat: The double arch above him sags and sways like a hammock as it accepts his weight.

Reichert shouts: “Ready—go!” Four student volunteers who had been holding the rotor blades steady run toward the center of the craft as Reichert starts pedaling, and the blades begin to spin in great slow arcs. His face is a mask of concentration, his mouth set in a grimace as his legs pump faster and faster. The only sound is the periodic squeak of a bearing. The students clustered around him seem too rapt to breathe. The craft is so fragile it looks like it could collapse at any moment. And that’s by design: The 120-pound flying machine, dubbed Atlas, contains just enough structure to lift Reichert’s 165 pounds and scarcely an ounce more. As Reichert explains: “There’s a thousand joints in here, and if a single one fails, it all falls apart.” Read the rest of this entry »

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My Dream Airplane Takes to the (Virtual) Skies

In real life, there’s no such thing as a perfect airplane. Every element of design must balance benefits and disadvantages with regards to the nature of the intended mission. But when Popular Mechanics asked me to build the ultimate fantasy airplane, I said: Screw that! I figured it would be more fun just to kluge together my favorite parts from the coolest airplanes I’d ever seen. The result may not make too much sense aerodynamically, but for sheer curb appeal it’s a one-ship Dream Team. The article describing my bizarre, lovely beast is in this month’s (December 2012) issue, including a link to the X-Plane flight-sim website where you can download and fly the plane for yourself.

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