Falcon Heavy and Two Bright Futures

When SpaceX announced the Falcon Heavy yesterday, they solved at least one problem in space-faring development, while simultaneously opening two possible streams of users / revenue, two possible bright futures.

Falcon-HeavyThe problem ‘solved’ is the classic “Chicken or the egg” case. Why develop a heavy lifter when the number of heavy payloads is limited? Why develop a heavy payload when heavy lifters are rare and extremely expensive? Falcon Heavy is proposed to deliver heavy loads at light cost (being based on Falcon-9, development cost of Falcon-Heavy was surely minimized), which could drive development of heavy payloads at an affordable cost like never before. For instance, what does having a launch vehicle of this size and cost do to the feasibility of Space-Based Solar?

That’s good news for everyone, whether they know it or not (in the sense that space-based infrastructure can benefit nations and even humanity in general).

  • The first ‘Bright Future’ is as above, commercial and DoD payloads will doubtless provide a generous flight-rate in the near term onwards, assumingFalcon-Heavy in flight there are no unexpected serious problems.
  • The second ‘Bright Future’ is not stated or suggested, yet, at least not implicitly:
  1. With a heavier lift vehicle coming on-line, development ‘complete’ and ready-to-use, it could potentially weaken the case for the SLS, which could move payloads and vehicles (should they even materialize) intended for SLS to F-H, assuming political obstacles can be overcome.
  2. Even if F-H is not considered large enough to ‘replace’ SLS, it puts SpaceX in an even better position to build a super-heavy-lift vehicle. The efficiency and cost and time-effectiveness of the SpaceX rockets surely weakens the case for SLS dramatically. Frankly, it is unlikely that SLS will ever actually be built, much less fly. Even if it does, it will be so expensive that few if any customers will use it, other than the poor ripped-off US taxpayers. Elon has supported the case for a super-heavy-lift vehicle, even as today it appears to be a pork-project. Perhaps one day, when SLS fails and an affordable alternative is sought, Elon will be there, supportive and ready to provide a real, metal rocket. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain here.

Of course, I could be wrong in any aspect. But I like to be optimistic about the possible future, and I think that success for companies like SpaceX is success for spaceflight, and ultimately mankind.

Categories: aerospace, spacecraft

Special Report: Christchurch Earthquake Relief Effort

Damaged roof

Damaged roof, some of which probably caused by a falling chimney.

At 12:51pm on February 22, 2011, a 6.3 magnitude ‘aftershock’ struck Christchurch, New Zealand at a very shallow depth. Thousands of buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed, with the central city one of the hardest hit areas. Over 160 are confirmed dead at the time of writing, and the death toll is expected to rise to over 220.

Damaged Stores

Damaged Stores, clearly will be demolished in their turn.

This blog is usually intended to focus on aerospace subjects, but in this case I am making an exception, as Christchurch is my ‘home town’ (I live hundreds of km away now, though), and I have personally traveled with a small team to Christchurch to assist those affected by the quake, and thus seen a lot of the damage first hand.

Other quakes in recent years, in other locations (Haiti, for instance), have caused immeasurably greater damage and loss of life. The difference here is, this is a first-world country with world-leading building standards, designed with earthquakes in mind. And still, many billions of dollars of damage has resulted, and at least two major structures have collapsed, resulting in the major proportion of the deaths.

The 6.3 quake of February 22 was a shallow aftershock following the 7.1 quake on September 4, 2010. That quake was at a greater depth, and greater distance from the city, and struck before dawn, so damage was much lighter (though still very substantial) and, miraculously, no lives were lost.

Myself and nine others traveled to Christchurch to assist the relief effort a few days later. Most of us traveled by vans, a trailer loaded with equipment and supplies in tow, for almost 14 hours (spread over a day and a half).

Good humour even in the hard times!

Good humour even in the hard times! The only beach here is the sand everywhere due to liquifaction.

Residential quake damage

Residential quake damage

The photos and video shown here are all taken by myself or my team. Our efforts were concentrated on the worst affected suburbs, and those unable to obtain supplies (due to age, health, infrastructure damage, etc) or clear / repair their property.

The remains of a historic church building.

The remains of a historic church building.

The worst affected areas have no electricity or water supply, and often damaged sewer systems. The roads in places are impassable or severely damaged (though reconstruction teams are doing themselves very proud making roads and other infrastructure functional as quickly as possible). Other areas are without water, or electricity (but not both) and have somewhat lighter damage, though structures in these areas are also sometimes too dangerous to live in / enter.

The severely damaged city center is restricted to emergency / search and rescue personnel only, so the images are mostly of the damage in the suburbs.

I am writing this en-route back home. As far as I could tell, in the areas we were helping, the people are managing very well. There is some hardship and certainly a lot of inconvenience (try living without a working toilet and no alternative W.C. in the area for more than a week!), but there is little if any physical suffering evident.¬† Emotionally and psychologically, though, things aren’t always as easily managed.

The damaged and leaning Grand Chancellor Hotel in the distance

The damaged and leaning Grand Chancellor Hotel in the distance

Barring another devastating earthquake, Christchurch will make it through.

Communities are pulling together, and help is coming in all kinds of forms from all over the country, and all over the world.

Myself and my team were a small gear in a very large machine helping Christchurch in this difficult time. To the others on my team, and everyone else involved from all over the world, THANK YOU for your contribution. Together, you’re making a tremendous difference. Kia kaha, Christchurch!


Categories: Special

‘Massage’ seats proposed for airline pilots.

20/02/2011 1 comment

The modern aircraft cockpit is fully-loaded with all kinds of attention-getting devices: Alarms, buzzers, lights, stick-shakers, etc. Boeing thinks there needs to be a new one: Flight crew seats that vibrate (at various amplitudes and frequencies). (Article on Flight Global) Flying by the seat of your pants may be making a return of sorts…!

Stress vs Performance Curve

Stress vs Performance Curve

Seriously, though, do we really need another means of getting a pilot’s attention? You COULD introduce vibrating seats. You could also introduce neon lights on the cockpit window frames. Or play music from Top Gun in the cockpit if your approach gets too high on energy (on seconds thought, that last one is probably a really bad idea).

Pilots learn in Human Factors about the stress vs performance curve (shown on right). One has to wonder sometimes if cockpit systems designers have ever been introduced to the concept. Too many alerts, which, when multiple sound at once, create another ‘link’ in the accident ‘chain’, pushing crews onto the ‘back-side’ of the stress curve, degrading or eliminating their utility.

Bells, alarms, etc. have their place, but too many create an ‘overload’ situation, and errors become likely. I am presently reading “The Limits of Expertise“, which takes a look at ‘human error’ from a new perspective. In it there are many examples of accidents that could have been avoided if a clearly audible alarm had been heeded. However, the crew was already over-loaded at the time, with an unstable approach, or perhaps some other fault they expected an alarm for, masking the new information.

One of the suggestions of how this new vibrating seat could be used is to enable ATC to activate it. If an aircraft fails to make radio contact when expected, for instance, ATC could activate your seat buzzer, alerting you to… something. Either you forgot to contact ATC or you’re about to fly into the ground, or…

Having different frequencies of vibration MAY alert the crew to a specific issue IF they are familiar and well practiced in sensing the different frequencies, AND if they’re not already on the back side of the stress curve, which given the fact they are being alerted, they probably already are.

If ATC could be given the ability to trigger an alert on a desired aircraft, why make it a vibrating seat? Why not a sort of text message? A chime announcing a message displayed in the cockpit could be more specific and more useful while being less confusing to an over / under stimulated crew.

In conclusion, a vibrating seat ‘alarm’ is a valid idea, but in combination with existing alerts, it’s just as likely to cause confusion and problems as it is to solve them. The use as an ATC triggered alert is a red-herring; If such an idea could be implemented, there are surely better ways of doing it.

Finally, a humourous illustration of my point:

Categories: aerospace, airmanship, crashes

Improving Flight Instruction (in New Zealand)

The New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission  is looking into flight training in New Zealand as a result of a dramatic rise in incidents and accidents in that sector over the past decade.

Having started instructing myself just 4 years ago, and having experience at 4 different schools, I have a fairly fresh perspective on it. Some experiences were good, some not so good. I have not personally seen an accident occur, though I have seen the aftermath of a few. I have experienced a number of minor incidents, mainly ‘near misses’ but a few other minor things as well.Queuing for take-off

The following is based on my knowledge and experience here in New Zealand, but is probably relevant to many other places in the world, as well. This is just my perspective, though, and others may differ. Feel free to comment and discuss this.

The minimum requirements to be a ‘C-Category’ instructor is 200hrs flight experience, and 25hrs dual instructing experience. That’s not very much. A basic commercial pilot’s lisence requires 150 – 200hrs. A pilots still has a LOT to learn at that level of experience. That’s not to say that a new C-Cat isn’t capable of effectively teaching at that level; the basic lessons at least will have been well learned and will probably be well taught. I remember my early days of instructing, teaching lessons like medium turns; I was so current and had hammered lessons like it so hard in my instructor training that I could demonstrate them with almost zero divergence from the perfect turn. But the first lesson I was given to teach wasn’t a basic, early lesson. It was compass turns.

In instructor training, we had focused primarily on the basic lessons. The thinking being that at the school I trained at, new instructors were given the early, easy lessons to teach, and would gradually be advanced into the more advanced ones, with plenty of preparation possible ahead of time. Unfortunately, there were no instructing jobs available where I trained, and where I did get my first job, there was no such system.

I had been shown a compass turns briefing once, and might even have been demonstrated it (briefly) in flight. But I had never taught it. I honestly don’t recall how those early ‘advanced’ lessons went. I do remember that I didn’t really feel like I was teaching them effectively until almost a year later, when after trial, error, and practice I found an effective method.

C-Cat instructors with less than 6 months and 100hrs of instructing are supposed to be ‘directly supervised’ by a Category A or B instructor. This did not occur in my case, except where instructing was discussed with my colleagues at the school (there was a ‘B-Cat’ present at times). Had more guidance and mentoring been available, perhaps I might have developed my effectiveness much sooner with the more advanced training.

I have already discussed some aspects of what I think needs to change and improve in a previous post. But there are other changes that need to be made, as well.

ExperienceBent and broken 152

Increasing the minimum experience required to be an instructor will have multiple benefits:

1) There will be far fewer instructors who are just there to build hours, without any particular motivation or passion for their role. A gain in quality.

2) By the time pilots have the experience to become an instructor, there will be other opportunities that may appeal (and pay) more to many. If the pilot does choose to become an instructor, they will bring with them more experience, including operational experience of various kinds.

3) As a result of #2, there will no longer be an excess of low-time instructors willing to work for less than poverty wages. Increased demand, lower supply; terms and conditions for those who choose to instruct should improve dramatically, as should the quality of the instructors themselves.

4) Being a ‘career instructor’ becomes a viable possibility in this country. There are some today, but they are few, and are usually more than just instructors (otherwise it would likely not be financially viable to remain so).


Mid-air collisions mostly occur in uncontrolled airspace, and that has certainly been the case in recent training accidents. Following the collision of two PA-28s in the Manawatu training area (the uncontrolled airspace between Palmerston North and Paraparaumu) the busiest part was designated a Common Frequency Zone, to ensure all aircraft operating there were on the same frequency, and could make position reports to each other. Other busy training areas have CFZs, but there is still busy airspace where there is no CFZ.

That’s not to say that CFZs are the solution to everything. Far from it, but they are better than nothing. Other problems occur when separate locations use the same radio frequency (uncontrolled aerodromes on 119.1 all over NZ for instance), often resulting in much of the radio traffic being irrelevant, or even causing interference with calls that are relevant.


1) Radio usage.

Radio calls, when made properly, are invaluable in helping pilots in the area form a mental picture of where other aircraft are, and what they are doing. Unfortunately in some aircraft, the radio calls overwhelm what is being said on the intercom (equipment bad by design or old and degraded, I don’t know), and the radio will be turned down or off to enable instruction to take place. This obviously removes an important tool in the situational awareness toolbox, and substantially increases the chance of two aircraft trying to operate in the exact same location.

2) Visual scan.

VFR flight training is all about ‘see and be seen’, yet visual scanning techniques are not taught in many schools. Simple ‘look out before you turn’ is apparently deemed enough. Interestingly, one of the busiest areas for training in New Zealand that I have flown in has had no mid-air collisions in recent times (as far as I am aware). At least one of the schools in the area puts a lot of emphasis on visual scanning techniques; it seems to work. The same area has had many reported near-misses (including a few myself), but perhaps this is a result of the amount of traffic, and the fact that the other aircraft are actually seen!

3) Control Zone procedures.Alpha near Raglan

Some control zones arrival and departure procedures place both inbound and outbound traffic in close proximity. Their separation inside the control zone may be reasonably well defined, but often the ideal position to enter or exit the zone puts opposite direction traffic in potential conflict just outside the control zone (NZHN for instance). To make things worse, in busy periods there may be aircraft holding just outside the zone waiting their turn. Procedures could be modified to lessen the risk outside the zone, as well as inside.

There is a lot more that could be said and discussed on this subject; perhaps I’ll write more another day. For now, please feel free to comment and discuss, and consider making a submission to the TAIC on the subject if you are a Kiwi pilot with experience to share.

Wings or ‘chutes?

When you come to end of your journey, do you want to:

1) Roll to a stop on a runway, then climb down some steps and wait for a minibus to take you to the ‘terminal’.


2) Fall into the ocean, don a life-jacket, and wait to be rescued.

These appear to be the two modes that will be available to astronauts (professionals and ‘passengers’) in a few years. Granted, there may be some variation, but it will still be a choice of falling under parachutes, or gliding to a runway landing. Each has it’s pros and cons, but I suspect only one has a long-term future, at least for manned flights.

SpaceX's Dragon

SpaceX's Dragon

Now I’m no trained astronaut or engineer, but this is how I see it; feel free to comment.

Capsule landing:


  • Simpler, cheaper design
  • Naturally stable re-entry, low re-entry risk
  • Less crew training required for re-entry and landing


  • Limited cross-range, fewer re-entry opportunities
  • Possibly more expensive to refurbish for next flight (dunked in salt-water)
  • Requires more substantial recovery assets, especially for water landings
  • Additional sub-systems required for land landing (air cushion / landing rockets)

Spaceplane landing:


  • Good cross-range, frequent return opportunities
  • May return to launch site, easier turn-around
  • Minimal recovery assets required
  • Easier to re-use (ignoring TPS for now)


  • Re-entry control critical
  • More advanced training required for pilots (but they won’t mind!)
  • More complex and expensive
  • Probably lower payload fraction (it has to carry it’s wings into orbit)

There’s probably plenty more, but that’s how I understand it in a nutshell. But these are only the technical considerations.

SpaceDev Dreamchaser

SpaceDev Dreamchaser

Non-technical considerations for the two types of craft may be a little harder to quantify, but we’ll try it anyway:

Assume a high flight frequency. Satellites are being regularly serviced, the ISS is being resupplied, a number of Bigelow stations are continuously occupied as science stations and hotels. There are even tours to Lunar orbit (and maybe the surface?). Supporting this infrastructure are pure cargo launches, manned mini-sat deployments, and frequent tanker launches to refuel the various propellant depots. The manned spacecraft are being turned around quite quickly and re-used. Customers wishing to fly to LEO have their choice of vehicle to ride in…

Orbital's lifting body spaceplane

Orbital's lifting body spaceplane

Today, with the possible exception of the space tourists flown in the space Soyuz seats, astronauts are professionals, trained in the operation of their craft. Comfort, and other details like recovery method and convenience are relatively unimportant. When the scenario described previously arrives, however, most passengers on the spacecraft will be relatively untrained, and things like convenience and comfort will become more significant considerations.

Why would a passenger, wanting to fly to a LEO hotel and back, want to splashdown into the ocean, rather than land at an airport? Sure, there will be a few that want the ‘Apollo Experience’ but I doubt that will be a way to build a business long-term! As I see it, this is a big win for spaceplanes.

Boeing crew module

Boeing crew module

To over-use the airline analogy:

Imagine two airlines, flying say, Los Angeles to Auckland. On one, upon reaching it’s destination, the aircraft deploys parachutes and drops into Auckland harbour. Passengers fit their life-jackets, and are taken onto a boat, which then returns them to shore. They’ve arrived! Now I’m sure if this were the only option, it would indeed be popular, but would probably scare off some potential customers.

The other airline flies directly to the airport and lands in the conventional manner. It can’t carry quite as many passengers, due to the weight of the landing gear and all, but it is far more popular with passengers, and the total trip time is substantially reduced. The landing is a lot more relaxed, as the passengers don’t have to deal with emergency equipment (life-jackets), and none will become sea-sick.


Clearly, for cargo flights, the capsule is probably going to be hard to beat for awhile, and the non-technical issues become largely irrelevant in this case.

This isn’t to say that capsules for crew launch are a bad idea. Far from it! The spaceplanes are still stuck on the drawing board, but the Dragon capsule has already flown (unmanned), and will probably be the first to carry paying passengers. That’s a good thing. But once the spaceplanes begin operating, I suspect a substantial segment of the market will shift away from the capsules for good.

Airmanship (AWOL)

This is a bit of a negative start to the blog, but nevertheless…

The USAF is considering a ban on airshow displays of large aircraft (that is, bombers and transports) following the loss of a C-17 practicing for an airshow display on July 28 2010 at Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.

The remains of the tail of the C-17 after the crash

The remains of the tail of the C-17 after the crash

Banning airshow displays of large aircraft would certainly reduce the risk of losing additional aircraft and crews on airshow related flights (banning airshow displays entirely would save more…), but doing so would be treating a symptom, not the cause.

This is not the first time a large USAF aircraft has been lost practicing an airshow routine. A very similar accident occurred in 1996, this time involving a B-52 at Fairchild AFB. Both accidents were caught on video:

(Even longer version, showing entire display)

Both aircraft crashed while performing very steep, low-speed, low-altitude turns.

Both aircraft busted USAF regulations regarding airshow displays (such as safe height).

Both aircraft flew outside of the permitted flight envelope.

Both pilots were considered very highly skilled.

Both pilots knew they were exceeding aircraft limits, but considered themselves able to safely do so.

The C-17 pilot is reported to have claimed that the stall warning and stick-shaker is inaccurate (C-17 test pilots disagree), and intended to ignore the stick-shaker during the display. Despite this, he was considered an excellent pilot, requiring very little supervision.

The B-52 pilot was a known ‘cowboy’, who had been performing increasingly dangerous airshow routines for years, and had taken this sort of flying into non-airshow flights as well, prompting complaints from junior officers. On one occasion, his B-52 cleared a ridge by just 30ft, and that after the co-pilot took the controls and pulled up!

Most pilots will certainly look at these cases and shake their heads. They would never be so stupid. But I suspect most pilots have, at some point, thought after a maneuver; ‘that wasn’t such a good idea…’ and hopefully taken more care in the future. That’s an important rung on the ladder of Airmanship. But most pilots probably don’t take it any further than that, denying themselves the opportunity to develop their airmanship further.¬† It’s hard to criticize them for that, however, they didn’t know to do anything more!

It appears to me that there is a gaping hole in our pilot training systems. We spend hours poring over the details of the operation of gyros (presumably in case we need to design and build one in flight), and are thoroughly tested on them. Yet Airmanship gets perhaps a brief mention in Human Factors, an exam question if you are very lucky, and a few tips from your instructor (who may have completed the training your are doing himself just a few months or years ago) as opportunity and example arises.

The majority of accidents today, by far, are blamed on pilot error. Most if not all of them could be linked to an Airmanship failure of some kind. Millions of dollars and countless hours have been devoted to improving aircraft and systems, and now we are finally starting to see progress in improving the human aspect of the equation. Most widely known today is probably CRM (Crew Resource Management), which itself has a come a long way in recent years. But this is just one part of the Airmanship puzzle (though a very important one), and may not be taught to pilots until they reach higher levels in their careers.

There needs to be a dedicated and thorough education of pilots in all aspects of Airmanship. Ideally, this would include theoretical examinations, separate and far beyond what exists today as Human Factors. It should also be taught in every briefing, in the cockpit, and in de-briefings. This will require additional training for instructors, as well, even if they themselves have completed the Airmanship training suggested above.

This is true for all levels and all kinds of pilots. The examples shown here involve military crews in heavy jets, but Airmanship spans all sectors of aviation. There is no doubt some excellent Airmanship training in some places, but if we are to improve the present statistics, this training needs to become universal.

For those wishing to learn more about Airmanship, I highly recommend Redefining Airmanship, by Tony Kern.