I’m Famous!

…at least within my immediate circle of friends. After pitching this to them four years ago, Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine finally ran my article about a rather challenging trip with a Boeing Business Jet (a VIP 737) into a little place in the Himalayas called Paro.

From where I sat, it looked nuts: The crew would immediately have to bank right, pointing the nose at an imposing mountain, then honk it through a 270-degree climbing turn inside a box canyon to come out above the ridge and head back over the runway.

Would they make it in (or out)? More importantly, would I be able to keep my job? Read the whole thing and find out!

She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes, la de da…

UPDATE: Almost lost in the noise of me blowing my own horn, this issue also has a couple of great features on subjects near and dear to my heart.

First up, a look at XCOR’s Lynx spaceplane, which ya’ll may recall is my personal favorite in the tourist-spaceflight sweepstakes.

Finally, a story on the numerous ways engineering nerds (a term of endearment, trust me) saved the day when spacecraft didn’t exactly work as expected.


Spaceport Houston

From across the pond, the UK Daily Mail on plans to turn Houston’s old Ellington Field into a commercial spaceport:

The city announced yesterday that it had applied for a licence to build the United States’ latest and biggest spaceport, and has already drawn up a detailed proposal of what the state-of-the-art facility would look like if it gets the green light.

The spaceport, which would be built on a 450-acre site that is currently home to the US military and NASA operations at Ellington Airport, would include a sleek passenger terminal and an aviation museum.

The white zone is for loading and unloading…

Plus some spiffy pictures from the Houston Airport Authority. Observant readers will note a couple of Boeing Sonic Cruisers mixed in with the SpaceShipTwos and Orbital L1011 launchers. Really observant readers will see an old B727 in the far background, which I assume represents ZeroG’s “vomit comet” franchise. Didn’t see XCOR or Stratolaunch represented, but it’s just concept art so no reason to get in a twist over it. And to be honest, municipal airport authorities tend to be booster-ish: that is, real good at coming up with grandiose plans that never see the light of day…and when they do, they’re often based on shaky economics. Though I did like how they hope to eventually host “international” spaceflights, which I take to mean the kind of point-to-point suborbital concepts of which I’m a bit of a fan.

It’d be nice to see all this come to pass, but there are a lot of other things that need to happen first. Namely, spaceplanes need to start showing up en masse.

Flying Blind

More on the unconstitutional harassment of private pilots from the Toledo Blade:

The Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots’ Association, which represents small-plane owners and operators across the United States, said it has received dozens of complaints from members “subjected to random searches” by Customs and Border Protection, local police, or both.

“None of the stops resulted in anything being found,” said Steve Hedges, a spokesman for the owners and pilots association.

“In most cases, the pilots were stopped and held while their planes were searched. … I’m told one pilot was asleep in a motel room with his wife when agents kicked the door down and took them back out to the airport to search his plane, only to find nothing there.”

So yeah, it’s pretty clear this cat’s out of the bag; DEA/CPB/TSA/WTF are targeting pretty much anybody flying small aircraft between pot-legal and –illegal states, assuming they’re up to no good. Sorry, but Joe Cessna on an IFR flight plan who happens to stop in Colorado for avgas is not the same as somebody skimming the Gulf of Mexico (i.e. masking radar) in a clapped-out Beech 18 and landing on some grass strip in Florida. We can usually guess what that guy is up to.

I keep repeating it, because they just keep doing it: our government has come off the rails and is operating way beyond its constitutional authority. This has to stop before civil disobedience (and unrest) becomes the only recourse we have.

Figures this crap would start reaching a boil right about the time I find a cheap way to fly:

Back in the Saddle, Sep. 2013

UPDATE: Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) is not taking this quietly. Though given this Administration’s history with FOIA requests, we probably won’t see much without legal action. Fortunately that’s not something AOPA’s shy about.

Missing the Good Old Days

OK, so I’m not that old to remember when people treated air travel like it was a big deal. But doesn’t it all look cool now?

A few minutes ago this looked like just another frozen dinner. So yes, I’ll have another drink!

Like so many other things, I sometimes feel like I was born too late. It would’ve been awesome to work for Pan Am back in the glory days.

(Hat tip: Instapundit)

Creeping Tyranny…Again

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore an out-of-control Federal government. Robert Goyer at Flying magazine has apparently had enough:

As far as the pseudo detention program is concerned — nobody at TSA or Homeland Security will even confirm the existence of any such program — my best guess is that there’s some kind of flight profile that triggers a response, similar to what happened to me in my unregistered, leased airplane. The only common threads so far seem to be that most of the pilots stopped were traveling west to east and all of them so far were male — no surprise considering the overwhelmingly male pilot population. Some were on IFR flight plans, some were on VFR plans, and others were just legally flying VFR without a plan. They have all been questioned about what they were doing and why, where they were going, what they had in the airplane and why they were headed to the destination they landed at.
For the record, none of this is any of their business.
The new ramp check: “Your papers, please…”

Damn skippy it ain’t. Combined with the stories of pilots being detained by local po-po for violating nonexistent no-fly zones, and one might come to believe that the thugs are feeling – shall we say – emboldened? And make no mistake: the thugs are always there. There will always be a latent tendency by some in positions of authority to throw their weight around in ways that don’t exactly comport with the rule of law. The difference lies in their sense of how likely they are to get away with it – or even if it’s expected of them.

This too shall pass, but it won’t be pretty in the meantime. It’ll all end in one of two ways, so pay attention and make informed choices while there’s still time to end this politely.

Critical Mach

Yet another entry in the next-gen supersonic sweepstakes, but you’ve got to admit this looks sweet:

Credit: JAXA

The market for civil aircraft – both airliners and private – seems pretty full to me. If a Japanese manufacturer wanted to shake up the competition, this would be the way to do it.

Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find any more information beyond what’s already at the link – which is a mite thin to begin with. It’s not clear how they plan to conduct the test flights, if it’s a powered drone then that’d be Teh Awesome. The alternative would be mounting it to a fighter that can zorch around at Mach 1.0+…not as cool, but perhaps more useful than wind-tunnel testing. Either way let’s hope this makes it somewhere beyond the model-airplane stage.

Old Engineers Never Die

…they just unbalance to infinity.

That’s a geek joke.

The latest issue of Air & Space (which still has yet to run the article they paid me for!) follows up on the post-shuttle careers of a few NASA engineers. Ordinarily of interest to me, but not compelling, until I came to this guy’s story:

Perry Lewis, a former Johnson robotics flight controller, thought about where he might apply the skills he’d been using at NASA. “I used to talk with the astronauts, leading them through their on-orbit activities, so I concentrated on where I could use that ability to communicate effectively while still using my engineering skills,” he says.

Lewis came up with three industries that had a level of “operational complexity” similar to that of the space shuttle program: the military, the cruise-line business, and the airlines.

Today, you can find Lewis on the 27th floor of Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, where he is an airline dispatcher. “I work in the Network Operations Center for United Airlines,” he says. “We run 6,000 flights every day, 40 to 60 of which come across my desk. I juggle weather, fuel, desired routes for all these flights, and use that information to release each flight.

“You have the pilot, the air traffic controller, and then you have me. Most people don’t realize my job even exists…”

Amen brother. You guessed it, this guy’s job is exactly what I did for about 10 years before moving into performance engineering (a closely related discipline). Ten years of having to interpret complex information and make snap decisions in a very time-sensitive environment forced me to become a hard core left-brainer…and that, kiddies, is how an English major ends up in an Engineering job.

I always wondered how much similarity there was between a flight operations center and mission control. It was pretty much my whole basis for creating those environments in Perigee, and if they’re not exactly the same at least they have the same…flavor, I guess.


If you were to draw a Venn diagram between the two worlds, I’d imagine we overlap in the “solving complex problems under serious time pressure with large metal vehicles moving through the air at high speed” part. This probably won’t win me any friends in the media world (like I have a lot to begin with), but I don’t want to hear any newspaper or TV people wail and moan about deadlines. You have no idea, dudes.

…and after.

So there you have it, my tenuous connection to the human spaceflight program. Oh yeah, and this guy I served in the Marines with who went on to become an astronaut. He’s now found gainful employment doing something similar for a private venture, but I’m not gonna name drop.

Ahem…yeah, it’s one of these guys.

The Need for Speed

Boeing’s ICON II concept.

This looks cool, but I wouldn’t get into a twist over it just yet. Remember the Sonic Cruiser? That was an actual development program (which eventually morphed into the decidedly less-sexy 787) whereas this is still just R&D. Not to say it won’t go anywhere, but don’t look for any Mach-busters in spiffy airline paint anytime soon.

A little closer to home, there are still ways to squeeze serious knots out of a piston single, and most of them are downright gorgeous. Though if you’re not into racing, there’s always this little beauty:

The Pipistrel Panthera. Now wipe the drool off your keyboard.

The limiting factor in terms of my own future enjoyment? Regulations, which equals money. Lots of it. The process for certifying a new aircraft design is so cumbersome that it easily doubles – maybe even triples – the price of a finished product and takes it well beyond the reach of normal people. Even a mundane little Cessna 172 costs well north of a quarter million dollars new. That’s like buying a Lamborghini. Does anyone really believe a design that’s more than half a century old is worth three hundred large?

< crickets chirping…>

Thought so.

Granted, production airplanes should be expected to cost more because they need to be a great deal more reliable than cars. But when the regulatory hoops push even a simple light-sport design into six-figure price tags, something is seriously out of whack.

This is why there’s been such a boom in homebuilt aircraft kits over the last 20-odd years: no doubt many builders wouldn’t have it any other way, but I’m certain a sizeable fraction are in it to get a hot plane for less money. At least the ones I know are, even though we’re still talking a fair amount of dough for a project that can easily take 5+ years. That’s a commitment I have a hard time getting my head around, and this is coming from a guy who writes novels. At least my finished products don’t have the potential to kill me if I screw them up.

Hopefully relief will be coming in the next couple of years. As one who’d dearly love to someday fly something like this, I can only hope.

Under Power

SpaceShip Two finally had its first powered flight today, passing Mach 1 with a 16-second burn of its solid/liquid hybrid engine. The jury’s still out as to how much of a safety advantage that may be, but it sure does look cool:

To infinity and beyond!

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And video is worth even more:

Lots more at Clark Lindsey’s place and New Space Journal.

UPDATE: In more mundane aerospace news, Boeing’s 787 is finally returning to service. That program’s been a massive Charlie-Foxtrot from the beginning, but I do have high hopes for this bird.