Aviation Archive

Friday, May 9, 2008

Book Review - From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover
From the Ground Up

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I just finished reading From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer. It was written by Fred Weick (1899-1993), and co-authored by James R. Hansen. I found it to be extremely interesting (but perhaps there were a few unique reasons that made the book so appealing to me).

Fred Weick is probably not a familiar name to most people, even those involved in aviation, despite the significant contributions he's made. He's probably most well known to Ercoupe pilots - Weick designed the plane back in the '40s, and is spoken of almost reverentially on Ercoupe forums (such as the fly-in and tech groups on Yahoo). My great uncle and I share an Ercoupe (and by share - I mean he keeps it in Pittsburgh and flies it, while I get to dream about it while I'm down here in Texas). It was when I first started following along on those Ercoupe discussion groups that Weick became a name that I would remember.

Later on, after I'd started working as an aeronautical engineer, and was just getting started doing design work on propellers, while doing some research on the subject, I came across an interesting paper, Propeller design I: practical application of the blade element theory, by none other than Fred Weick. That lead me to pay even more attention to his name, and it began popping up all over the place.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Wright Brothers Day

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903
104 years ago today, the Wright brothers became the first humans to truly fulfill the dream of flight. Yes, the Montgolfier brothers had their hot air balloon, and others like Hiram Maxim may have gotten an airplane to momentarily lift off under its own power, and Otto Lilienthal had been experimenting with his weight shift gliders decades previously, but it was the Wright Brothers who were the first to really integrate the structures, aerodynamics, and control into the first successful airplane.

Flying has become so common place today that we take it for granted. People complain about the cramped seats, the long lines to get through security, the bad food (if you even get any) on flights. But just remember how long people have dreamt of flight, for how long people looked to the skies wanting to emulate the birds. Flying used to be the stuff of myth and legends, reserved for the gods. Now, we can all get in an airplane, and soar above the clouds. It really is something special.

Happy Wright Brothers Day.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Aviation Books

From time to time, I'll receive e-mails from people asking me for advice on some good engineering books to use for aircraft design. Dan Raymer, a well respected engineer, already has a list on his website. It's a pretty long list, though, and would take a while to build up that collection. So, I figured I would recommend the ones that I use most often. The following three books are ones that I use on a regular basis that are generally useful for all aircraft.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

When Will There Be an Aircraft in Every Garage?

This entry is basically, Part II of Where's My Flying Car.

The JetsonsWhen will there be an aircraft in every garage? In a word - never. Okay, never's a long time, so perhaps I shouldn't be making such a sweeping statement, but I really don't think that it will happen anytime soon.

People have limited incomes, and an aircraft will always be a sizeable investment. I think the automobile industry makes for a good comparison - it's fairly mature, and aircraft are very similar in complexity to an automobile. Even if aircraft were to be mass produced, they're going to be similar in price to automobiles. That's not cheap. People aren't going to go out and buy an aircraft in addition to everything they already own. So, since aircraft would presumably be fulfilling many of the purposes that people currently use their automobiles for, it would stand to reason that a majority of people will purchase aircraft only when they make good substitutes for their automobiles. Unfortunatley, there are two big reasons why I don't think that's the case.

For one thing, flying will always carry higher stakes than driving. You can drive a car that's in bad repair, or with a rough-running engine, or that has a low tire, or any myriad of problems. Yes, it may be a little more dangerous, but I've been in an automobile several times when it's broken down or gotten a flat, and all that happens is that you pull over to the side of the road, and have to get it fixed. Sure, it's an inconvenience, but it's rarely life threatening. That's not the case for an aircraft. If you're in the air and have a problem, you still need to get back down. Yes, pilots train for this, and yes, many emergency landings are performed safely every year, but many emergency landings also result in accidents. And there are some regions that just don't have much area suitable for emergency landings (lots of trees, uneven land, urban areas, etc). So, you always need to be sure that an aircraft is in good condition before climbing in to go somewhere - you need to do your pre-flight inspection every time, to make sure that nothing's happened. You can't just hop in to run down to the grocery store or to fly to the mall to do your Christmas shopping like you could in a car.

It's common to hear the claim that airplanes are safer than cars, or that the most dangerous part of a flight is the car ride to the airport. Statistically, that's true for airliners, but not for other types of flying (more info). And the only reason it's true for airliners is because there's so much maintenance on the airplanes to ensure their mechanical safety, and so much training for the pilots, to ensure that they can cope with any situation. Perhaps pilot training can be replaced with a sufficiently advanced computer control, but maintenance will always be an issue. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, any aircraft will require an inspection prior to every trip, which really does limit their utility for personal transportation.

The other major factor I see is weather. Wind, turbulence, fog, heavy rain - these are all big concerns for flying. Yes, they're concerns for automobiles, too, but you can continue driving a car in far worse conditions than what would ground an airplane. I've been caught in heavy thunderstorms, where I had to slow my car way down and it took me twice as long to get to where I was going, but I still got there. Had I been flying, I would have had to turn around to go back home (actually, before flying, I probably would have checked the weather, and never attempted a flight into conditions like that to begin with), and I never would have gotten to where I wanted to go.

To expand a bit on this weather issue - it's not just a matter of getting sensors that could peer through fog and rain, or having the skill to safely land in gusty conditions, although those are important. It's the fact that aircraft are shaken around a lot more by wind than cars are, because it's the atmosphere itself supporting the aircraft. Anybody who's been on an airliner knows what turbulence feels like - just imagine what a really bad thunderstorm could do. Small planes can get caught in updrafts or downdrafts that are so strong, that no matter what the pilot does he'll get pulled along with them. Maybe the aircraft of the future will have big enough engines that this won't be a problem, and maybe they'll be able to fly high enough that they'll fly above most storms (though being fully pressurized just adds to the maitenance related safety concerns), but that still won't help when a powerful thunderstorm's sitting right over top of you when you want to take off, or sitting right over top of your intended destination.

And I haven't even touched on traffic. Look at what it's like trying to get into a mall parking lot during Christmas season right now - just imagine if all those people were coming in aircraft instead of cars.

I hate to be a naysayer. As a pilot and aerospace engineer myself, I'd love to see personal aircraft become much more common. And perhaps one day, many of the problems I discussed above will be solved. But, being realistic, I have to admit that the demand for personal aircraft will never be the same as that for automobiles, and we're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. So, when will there be an aircraft in every garage? Not in my lifetime.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Website Update- Small Changes to Post-It Note Glider Page

Post-It Note GliderI only have a very small update for today. Way back when I had my co-op during college, I figured out a way to fold a pretty good glider out of a Post-It note. I put up a page with instructions on how to fold it not long after, but that page has never been as "attractive" as I would have liked. A few years ago, I tried taking digital photos of the glider to put at the top of the page, but the camera I had then didn't have a good macro setting, so the pictures were awfully blury. So, just recently, I wasted a few minutes making a 3D model of the glider in Solidworks, and using a screen shot from that for the picture at the top of the page. I also added a small note of about a book that used that glider, Post-It: Ideas That Stick!,along with some pictures.


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