Polymath A (mostly) technical weblog for Archivale.com

November 17, 2012

Free Flight: Personal Leased Air Transportation

Filed under: Aeronautics,Personal — piolenc @ 7:33 am

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” – Ayn Rand

In this day of no-fly (and soon presumably no-train, no-ferry, no-bus, etc.) lists the question of unimpeded personal long-distance transportation needs to be taken a bit more seriously than it was in a recent Feedback Friday (http://www.DollarVigilante.com), which read in part: “Sadly, you have to have your own sailboat, motorboat or airplane in order to get outside of all this…” implying that these were hopeless aspirations for most of us. Taking it strictly at face value as meaning owning a seagoing yacht or an aircraft with decent cross-country performance, it’s probably true. But the very technological developments that make possible nude scanners are also making possible the physical liberation of travelers on a very large scale.

Private (i.e. non-commercial) aircraft and boats get you out of the nude scan/grope line, but not completely out of the clutches of government. Where the bureau-rats get you as a boat owner is at the shoreline – forbidding anchorage in the open bay and forcing boat owners to pay outrageous slip fees and submit to ridiculous registration procedures, stopping boats for “safety” checks and to look for drugs, etc. For aircraft it’s the airfield for “papers” and outrageous hangar fees, not to mention the ridiculous cost of the vehicle itself (due to government certification requirements) and of government-approved training to obtain a government-issued license to fly it.

But aircraft have that vital, vertical third degree of freedom that gives them the potential to eliminate contact with officialdom, if only they can get away from using government-designated landing grounds. Very short takeoff makes that possible in many places*; vertical takeoff gives an almost infinite supply of off-airport landing areas. Specific aircraft to fulfill this need may come up in a later post, but I’d like to discuss the problem of Free Flight in general terms first.

Back in the 1930s and 40s it was generally assumed that airplanes (or aircraft of some kind) would eventually become as common as the family car or “flivver,” and serious effort was put into making the perfect “air flivver” for Everyman. Much of that effort, ironically, was sponsored by government, with many NACA reports coming out during that period concentrating on shortening landing and takeoff runs, making airplanes that were stall- and spin-proof, improving pilot vision, improving fuel consumption, reducing noise and so on. Much effort also went into seaplanes, flying boats and amphibians during this period, mostly for military purposes but also to the benefit of “bush” flyers.

The emphasis in all this was on safety, but every bit of progress also held the promise of improved access to air transportation. Low stall speeds and improved low-speed maneuverability make short, unpaved fields usable. Reduced noise makes it possible to operate near homes without causing a riot. Amphibious operation makes every sheltered body of water over a certain size into a potential airstrip, and every boat ramp a terminal.

The one factor that prevented the flowering of Everyman’s Airplane was the need for skill. Make a ‘plane as safe as you like, it still takes much more skill and discipline to operate one than a car, and the penalty for error tends to be greater, too. Forgetting to check your automobile’s fuel level before departure leads to a humiliating roadside call to the Auto Club; forgetting it in your airplane can result in “catastrophic terrain intersection” in the language of modern accident analysts. These constraints cannot be blamed on the State; they are imposed by Nature. Flying an airplane from water requires additional skill and judgment. As for the helicopter, a priori the ideal “air flivver” because of its ability to take off and land vertically, even more skill is needed to fly it, to the point that not every candidate for a helicopter license is able to achieve the necessary level of skill despite the expensive instruction.

The means of overriding that obstacle didn’t exist in the 1940s, but it is ubiquitous and cheap in our day. I’m referring to the digital computer, of course. It is true that much effort has gone into analog autopilots over the years, and many airplanes are equipped with them, but they are essentially cruise controls – they allow the pilot to relax a bit in the middle portion of a long cross-country journey. The most difficult and dangerous phases of flight, namely takeoff and landing, are still the pilot’s full responsibility, and he still has to perform every detail task related to communication, information gathering and navigation, using primitive methods and in the cramped, noisy and often drafty confines of a cockpit.

More recently, digital computation and control have entered the cockpit, with the benefits that we all know so well in other phases of life, namely programmability and expandability. This has led to a vast reduction in pilot workload in commercial airplanes, because the complexity of the tasks assumed by the flight controller has enormously increased, aided by much more extensive sensor input and its ability to directly control the servomechanisms that already exist to amplify the pilot’s control effort. Certain commercial airplanes now can literally land themselves, with the pilot standing by to take over if something goes wrong with the navigation aids or the controls themselves, or some obstacle appears on the runway.

The homebuilt,  experimental or sport aircraft movement has paid attention to these developments and is already making extensive use of digital electronics in navigation and trip planning, but applying electronics to direct control of the airplane is more difficult because most homebuilt and small factory-built airplanes still have direct manual operation of the control surfaces via mechanical linkages, so all the actuators have to be retrofitted and plumbed into the airplane’s existing systems. Besides the expense, there is the question of motivation: the sport airplane crowd probably don’t especially want an airplane that flies itself. Their joy comes in exercising and improving their piloting skills, not merely in getting from point A to point B, and most sport flying originates and ends at the same airfield in any case.

Factory-built airplanes, which in a free market would quickly incorporate every technical advance making flying easier, instead lag decades behind experimental aviation. This is entirely due to the State, which requires every component of a certified aircraft, down to the last rivet, to be government-certified for use in aircraft. This makes the cost of aviation electronics astronomical, further shrinking a market that was small to begin with, and ensuring that mainstream manufacturers will never invest the development costs to bring any truly modern gear to the civil market. Barring a revolution, then, the solution to our problem will not come from the “spamcan” vendors.

Accessible personal air transportation will have to originate outside the usual civil aviation channels, even though it will draw on aviation knowledge and technology. The controls component will originate almost entirely outside of commercial, general and sport aviation because its purpose will be to take the skill out of flying and essentially make the operator of a personal cross-country aircraft a passenger who decides the destination and may make some routing decisions (“stay away from Milwaukee,” “pass Mt. Shasta to the south”), but takes no part in direct control of the aircraft’s flight path. Interestingly, this kind of autonomous control is currently in existence for one application only – unmanned aircraft, mostly used by the military. Digital autonomous and semi-autonomous controls exist for drones, including rotary-wing drones, which can be ordered to follow a certain flight path, the remote operator intervening only to order deviations and to engage targets (and even then he only designates targets, and does not have to directly control weapons). The same controls can work equally well – better, in fact, because they don’t depend on communication links – with the operator on board.

A typical trip scenario, freedom fashion:

When Mr. Freeman wants to make a business trip to a distant city, he orders an aircraft, which lands at the appointed time on his back lawn or any convenient rendezvous such as a nearby park, rooftop or sports field. He hops aboard, identifies himself to the aircraft’s computer and makes himself comfortable. The aircraft weighs itself (by reading sensors in the landing gear struts) and informs him that, although he and his luggage are within the weight limit for the trip, he will need to stow part of his luggage forward as the aircraft is currently tail-heavy. Mr. Freeman moves one of his bags to the forward bin, the computer confirms that the machine is now within its center-of-gravity range, and the aircraft takes off without further delay. During the flight, he enjoys the view, which is panoramic because the flight altitude is low to keep away from government-controlled aviation corridors. If he gets bored with the scenery, he watches a movie on the built-in displays, catches up on his electronic correspondence using the aircraft’s built-in networking facilities or reviews the presentation he will make at his destination. If the flight is too long for the aircraft’s fuel endurance, it will land itself at a suitable refueling stop – probably the back lot of a truck stop or fuel dépôt, as the aircraft will probably be burning diesel fuel or heating oil. Depending on the level of service contracted for, Mr. Freeman will either have to pump the fuel himself or an attendant will do it for him. Likewise, contractual arrangements will determine whether Mr. Freeman uses his own funds directly to buy the fuel or the fuel is paid for by the aircraft leasing service and included in its charge to Mr. Freeman. Upon arrival at destination, he will either be deposited right at his hotel, if the hotel has a pad and is willing to accommodate non-government-sanctioned transports, or at a suburban taxi stand where a taxicab contracted for by the leasing service is waiting to take him and his luggage to his final destination. If the aircraft is amphibious, landing on a convenient river or bay and using a dock or boat ramp might also be an option.

It is clear from the scenario that a very different ownership structure from that currently existing in general aviation is assumed there. One of the many reasons that private aviation is currently so expensive per mile traveled is the very low rate of utilization of the aircraft – a fewscore hours a year, usually. All the aircraft’s overhead (much of it incurred by compliance with government regulations) and debt service gets charged to those very few flying hours, and the arithmetic result does indeed make it look like a rich man’s indulgence. Of course there are rental aircraft fleets in existence today, but they consist of overpriced “certificated” aircraft which are required to be maintained by overpaid licensed Airframe & Powerplant mechanics and are only eligible for rental by government-licensed pilots, so the savings expected from our hypothetical unregulated rental fleet, serving the general public, are not realized. All that changes if the aircraft is part of an autonomous rental fleet that is rented out to multiple non-flight-qualified customers on a per-trip basis over the course of the year, spending only enough time in hangar for regular maintenance.

Where would these unlicensed aircraft come from? Not from Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft  – not for the foreseeable future, anyway – because those General Aviation manufacturers are under the thumb of government and would likely be punished if they built aircraft intended for use off the plantation. At first, production would likely be a cottage industry, with small producers specializing in various hardware components, specialized software firms providing flight control programs and data files such as digital terrain maps. Assembly and checkout would likely be carried out by the customer – the leasing service – or by a specialized assembly firm working directly under their supervision.

The rental scenario and the decentralized production scheme both imply comprehensive standardization. This tends to raise strong doubts in many freedom-lovers, who associate standardization with coercion and centralized authority. It is worth pointing out, however, that voluntary standards existed long before government stuck its oar in the water, and that even today the most effective and widely followed standards are still voluntary ones – think Internet Protocol, WiFi and USB connectors – adopted because it is in the best interests of the adopting parties to use them. Today, there are many de facto standards in effect within the homebuilt aircraft movement, administered (if at all) by membership-based organizations operating without government sanction. This is the closest thing to a free market that exists in aviation – homebuilders who want proven hardware go with the standard offerings, leaving the risk-takers and pioneers free to think and work outside the box.

Initially, somebody is going to have to take a financial risk, but it need not be a very big one – certainly not like the risk exposure of launching a new “spamcan” or factory-built personal airplane. Imprimis, there will be no up-front “compliance” costs which are a major component of cost of any new certified aircraft venture, and a disproportionate component of the cost of bringing a small aircraft to market. Secundus, the infrastructure required for promotion and administration already exists. Tertius, production tooling will likely be paid for by the individual manufacturing subcontractors, each of whom will be taking on only a small part of the project and therefore risking relatively little capital.

The biggest obstacle is, sadly but predictably, the human factor. To be commercially successful, this business must be marketable to people who have not adopted the freedom philosophy. To be a technical and production success, people who don’t necessarily share our principles have to be persuaded to participate, or people who do share our principles have to be persuaded to acquire the necessary skills. This is so because, sad to say, most people in aviation, including the sport aviation/homebuilt phase of it, are conformists when it comes to obeying government regulations, which they associate with safety and order. They are of course far from being the only ones to make this error, but it is inconvenient that a skilled workforce that would be most helpful in this project holds mostly negative views regarding the actual practice of freedom. We may have to build a skilled production and operating force entirely outside current aviation circles. We will have to market the service to travelers purely on the basis of cost and quality, and let the lesson of liberty teach itself by experience.

Fortunately, this should not be too hard. Convenience is hard to beat: pickup à domicile or nearby at a time of the traveler’s choosing, and delivery to destination, or to within a cab ride of the destination. The latter is a pretty strong selling point if the destination is other than a major hub, because the cost and the time in transit both rise drastically in that case, when flying commercial. In fact there are no direct commercial flights to smaller cities and towns; the traveler first flies to the nearest hub, then changes, not just flights but also airlines and terminals usually, retrieving and re-checking his luggage in the process, then flies on to his final destination, often after cooling his heels in a major airport, with his baggage, for hours. If the enhanced convenience, privacy and comfort of a free flight service can be accomplished at or below the price of a commercial ticket, it should be an easy sell. Even if sanity returns to commercial travel and the TSA goons are forced to seek honest work, the service should survive for decentralized travel and for feeder service to major airports. In our hypothetical trip, for example, Mr. Freeman’s autonomous air taxi ride might be the first leg of an international journey.

“Bootstrapping” is an option. The first increment of the business developed could be a franchised chain of local pinpoint aerial parcel-delivery services – the aircraft smaller, short-ranged and not man-rated. Most of the software – particularly close-quarters piloting and dispatch algorithms – developed for this phase will be applicable to later phases. This would be followed by local air taxi and airport feeder service in areas of high traffic congestion, infrastructure bottlenecks or both. Both would form the basis for development of still longer-range vehicles and for building a network of service depots across the country.

* A late and much lamented, very eccentric friend liked to go “camping” with his nimble and somewhat modified Aeronca Champ, a high-wing taildragger in the proud tradition of the Piper Cub, but larger. He would fly out into the countryside at low altitude, pick out a pleasant-looking spot – a country road, a meadow, a ridgetop – and land there. He would then conceal his Champ, which was painted a dull grey (or perhaps that was just the color it had turned over the years), and spend the night sheltering under the wing, eating whatever he’d brought with him and reading by flashlight. (His rudimentary airplane lacked an electrical system, and I had helped him rig up an external battery for his handheld VHF radio, which he would take home for recharging between flights.) If he was feeling too lazy to pack a picnic he would seek out a nice spot close to a truck stop on the Interstate and thus gain access to the truck stop’s café and rest rooms. He loved to point out that he could find clean air, tall grass, peace and quiet a short walk from a freeway that was at times jammed bumper-to-bumper with vehicles. If he felt the need for fuel he would buy some at the truck stop, having brought along a jerrycan for the purpose. When he wanted to move on he would push his machine out of its hiding place, swing the propeller of its sixty-five-horsepower engine to get it started, leap in and take off before anybody was the wiser. His arrival would not have been noticed because he would glide in with the engine barely ticking over, so his departure would come as a complete surprise to whoever was in the neighborhood. This is not a solution for Everyman – Ed could get away with it because of his intimate familiarity with his very low wing loading, balloon-tired airplane and because of the flying skill he had accumulated over decades – but it does point up the possibility of operating a nominally very noisy aircraft in places that are generally thought to be too densely populated for such an activity.

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