February 15, 2012

Shuttles Discovery and Atlantis Final Power Down

NASA announced today that Discovery and Atlantis were powered down for the final time in preparation for their eventual display in Washington and Cape Canaveral respectively.  Both of the orbiters went through a power-on procedure to retract their Ku-band antennas and robotic arm. 

The end of the Space Shuttle era is bittersweet - the Shuttle allowed space travel to become relatively common place by opening up space travel to more than just military test pilots.  The Shuttle pioneered new technologies such as the MMU, and long-duration power supplies for the Space Station and eventual flights to the Moon and Mars.  The Shuttle was also a victim of its own success, suffering 14 casualties during its tenure as America's Manned Space Program.  Regardless, the Shuttle was still an engineering marvel, and she performed her mission well. 

February 14, 2012

NASA Reveals FY 2013 Budget

Corresponding with the President's 2013 budget proposal, NASA unveiled its vision for the next fiscal year.  Overall, the agency is receiving a $59 million cut.  The FY '13 budget has a larger sum of monies being sent to Human spaceflight initiatives and space technologies.  This comes at the cost to robotic missions.  NASA is going to drop out of the ExoMars Mission (as reported by Space.com).  Earth Sciences missions, however are also seeing an increase in funding.  Additionally, the James Webb Space Telescope is likely to survive to launch. 

Here is NASA's video explaining the new budget (don't expect any statistics):

Space.com also breaks this down pretty well.


What I like: 
  1. Increased funding for human spaceflight, so the US may close the gap between the Shuttle and the first launch of the SLS.
  2. Increased funding for Commercial Spaceflight.
  3. Increased funding for Earth Sciences.
What I Don't Like: 
  1. Overall decreased funding.
  2. Reduced funding for robotic missions.
  3. Lack of a clear commitment and concrete direction for the agency (beyond development of SLS).
This budget is pretty much what I expected to see from the administration in an election year.  The President can claim that he's increasing funding to human spaceflight, while driving down the cost of the agency overall.  The theme of reducing NASA's budget has been talked about by GOP candidates as well, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. 

The economics of space have been pretty well studied.  The heyday of Apollo is the most often quoted  figure, where $14.00 was returned for every $1.00 spent.  I don't have figures for today, but I would imagine that the return on investment is somewhere around $7-$10.00 per $1.00 spent. 

Beechcraft AT-6 Aircraft launches a Laser Guided Missle

Beechcraft has been developing the AT-6 aircraft and announced today that the aircraft became the first fixed wing vehicle to launch a laser-guided missile.  In case you are not familiar with the AT-6, here is a video put out by Aviation Week

This is a good example of using existing technologies to develop a new capability.  The COTS technologies also make it potentially easy to maintain.  However, given the cost of training pilots and maintainers, it is unlikely that this aircraft will be fielded before the expected pull out of troops from Afghanistan next year.  

February 10, 2012

Swiss pilots try new ATC Procedures

I discovered this piece of news about a Swiss flight that used a new ATC technology that allows pilots to provide their own separation services while on an instrument flight plan.

I'll admit that I'm not all that familiar with oceanic ATC procedures, but what drew me to this was more the implications for the FAA's NextGen Airspace. From what I understand of the program, the FAA intends to automate much of the en-route ATC system, and this appears to be a step in that direction. If this is successful, I can eventually see the system being included first on Airliners, and eventually (like TCAS) all IFR-certified aircraft will have this system. It also has implications for the proliferation of UAS into the national airspace, as UAS pilots can have a clearer situational awareness of surrounding traffic and maneuver around them. We have yet to discover how reliable this system is, but it certainly shows great promise.

February 9, 2012

Wright Bros Building may be Condemned

This came across my desk today and wanted to pass it along. A building in Ohio that once was used by the Wright Brothers is decaying and may be demolished. Certainly, it will be a sad day in aviation if this happens. Fortunately, a group of citizens is trying to save it by renovating and improving it. If they can't then the safety of the surrounding community is paramount.

February 8, 2012

12 in '12: FAA Re-Authorization Bill to open airspace to drones

The recently-passed FAA re-authorization bill mandates that UAS integrate into the US Airspace within 3 years. This is a major victory for UAS manufacturers who will be seeing a major decline in sales now that the Iraq war is over and Afghanistan is winding down.

In 2009, the FAA's re-authorization mandated full integration of UAS into the national airspace in five years (2014). However, three years later there is still no published progress in this area. As is well known, the biggest hinderance to integration is the lack of a capable see-and-avoid system so UAS can avoid colliding with other aircraft. This could be solved by mandating the use of an IFF/TCAS system on all aircraft, or having all UAS fly on an instrument flight plan. However, neither of these solutions are plausible in the current airspace environment. An instrument flight plan works well for a Predator- or Global Hawk-sized aircraft. For smaller vehicles such as Shadow 200s, Ravens or other small UAS will likely make up the majority of the national UAS fleet do not carry transponders, and the missions they will perform will be locally launched, locally operated. Additionally, there aren't enough controllers to handle the added workload of so many UAS operating in their airspace on local missions.

The only difference between now and 2009 is that the US drawdown overseas is closing or severely limiting the UAS market in the military. Therefore, its politically expedient to open UAS operations in the national airspace so a new business sector can open up. This will allow the UAS industry to keep production levels, and limit layoffs. These are important political tools in the ongoing recession.

12 in '12: China's role in the JSF's Costs

Aviation Week is running a story on China's role in the ever increasing costs of the Joint Strike Fighter. The story asserts that cyber-spying by Chinese hackers has lead to multiple re-designs of critical system.

Of course, spying on US Defense projects is nothing new. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spied extensively on US projects (as did the US), and was even able to exactly copy certain designs such as the B-29, XB-70 Valkyrie Bomber and some even assert that the C-5 Galaxy, Space Shuttle and Concorde designs were also stolen.

So, this is nothing new. The only thing new is that its a lot easier to steal plans from companies due to the proliferation of the Internet. In the 20th Century, spies had to make copies of designs and then covertly transfer them to the interested nation. Today, even though companies now have internal intranets that can house their proprietary and classified designs, I'm fairly certain that a hacker can get into these intranets by finding the right computer. Therefore, I believe that anti-espionage efforts have always been a part of fighter design. The proliferation of cyber spying has only increased their frequency.

February 7, 2012

12 in '12: Northrop Grumman fighting Global Hawk Block 30 Cancellation

As previously reported, the Air Force wants to cut the Block 30 Global Hawks as part of their ongoing budget cuts. Since this budget is not yet official, only a proposal, Northrop Grumman is challenging their cancellation. Although the Air Force has reported that the aircraft cannot perform reliably, and that the U-2 fleet is now cheaper to maintain by at least an order of magnitude. As Flight Global reports, Northrop is maintaining that the USAF's methodology is flawed.

I understand why Northrop would want to fight this. Asian and European nations have expressed an interest in the GlobalHawk platform, and any negative press from the Air Force can negatively impact that expected procurement. However, I believe it when the Air Force says that the aircraft is having issues accomplishing its mission, and I also believe that their projections of costs are accurate. In my day job I work with UAS. They are a great tool for both tactical intelligence, and science acheivement. However, the cost of operating a small UAS per hour is equal to a larger general aviation aircraft (such as a BE-55). Therefore, the reported $4,000 difference between the U-2 and RQ-4 is believable. Additionally, the U-2 is bought and paid for several times over, whereas the RQ-4 is less than a decade old.

In my previous commentary, I only asserted that cutting a UAS capability is a bad idea. This was before I realized that this did not impact the Block 40 Global Hawk. The Block 40 Global Hawk is a much improved aircraft with a new sensor package, and designed to fit US Navy and Marines requirements as well as Air Force. This new capability increases interchangeability among the services and keeps costs down while allowing the US to maintain its UAS lead.

Northrop has every right to protest this sale, but the expected procurement of the now-inter-service Block 40 Global Hawk lessens the sting of this cut.

February 2, 2012

12 in '12: USAF reveals details on budget cuts

Aviation Week is now running an article that outlines the Air Force's plan to reduce its forces. The cuts include:
  1. 123 Fighters (102 A-10s and 21 older F-16s)
  2. 133 Airlifters
  3. 11 RC-26 Metroliners
  4. 18 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30s (as previously reported)
  5. 9,900 Personnel (5,100 ANG, 3,900 AD, and 900 Reserves)
  6. Additional cuts to state-level funding through manpower or equipment changes
The rationale for these cuts are to enable the Air Force to mobilze quickly as needed and provide air superiority in any engagement. The force is not cutting the F-35 or the expected procurement of Block 40 GlobalHawks. Additionally, the USAF will move to 115 Associate Units (up from the current 100), and transition ANG units to Unmanned Systems.

I don't have a commentary on this now, but refer to my last post for my thoughts on cutting the A-10 capabilities.

12 in '12: USAF to cut 5 A-10 Squadrons; Block 30 Global Hawk is cut

Continuing our eye on Aviation Week's 12 stories to watch in 2012, the first aviation casualties in the dwindling defense budget have been announced. Several news stories are announcing that 5 A-10 squadrons are to be cut. One Active Duty Squadron, One AF Reserve Squadron, and Three ANG Squadrons. Which squadrons will be deactivated or transitioned to a new aircraft are not outlined. The stated objective is to replace these aircraft with the new F-35 JSF, as it is believed that this aircraft has a larger multi-role capability than the current A-10.

Additionally, the article above, reports that the Block 30 GlobalHawk UAS is also going to be placed on the chopping block, in favor of a more agile military force. Aviation week, however, is reporting that the Air Force is completely cutting the GlobalHawk program in favor of extending the U-2. WAFO will continue to monitor these and other stories to bring you the final results.

Lets start with the A-10. Its a mistake because the aircraft is already incredibly versatile and has proven itself in combat several times over. Like the Air Force's current fighter fleet, the aircraft was designed with a Soviet-style menace in mind; notably as a counter to Soviet or Warsaw-Pact tanks crossing the Iron Curtain in Germany. As it turns out, however, the aircraft is also really good at killing terrorists and insurgents. Additionally, the aircraft has been configured for, and successfully tested or demonstrated, a number of additional roles including (but not limited to):
  1. Forward Observation and Patrol
  2. Disaster Recovery Operations
  3. Reconnaissance
  4. Air-to-Air Combat
As a versatile aircraft for CONUS-based units, it's already on-par with the F-35, and much cheaper to maintain when compared to the already-over-budget JSF. Sure, it will likely loose in a dogfight against an air superiority fighter. Realistically, however, the Guard and Reserve will likely only use Air-to-Air in CONUS in the event of another 9/11 where shooting down a hijacked airliner may be necessary. In-theater, guard and reserve units will have the benefit of active-duty squadrons watching their backs and providing the necessary Air-to-Air capabilities that are needed. Guard and Reserve missions in CONUS will likely be more on the lines of Katrina/Rita recovery, requiring an aircraft that can fly efficiently at low altitudes and carry a multitude of sensors. The A-10 has already demonstrated this.

We should also remember that this has all happened before. The A-10 is neither sleek, nor sexy, nor stealthy, meaning that it doesn't fit the image that the Air Force has of itself. It's designed for close air support of US forces on the ground instead of either air superiority or supply. The aircraft was supposed to be phased out in both the 1980s and the 1990s, but each time the Army decided it wanted the aircraft, forcing the Air Force to keep it in its roster. Hopefully, this gets changed either congressionally or by the Air Force itself.

Regarding the GlobalHawk, I can understand why the Air Force wants to cut at least the Block 30 model. Afterall, an internal USAF study found that the aircraft in its current form is "unable to completely and reliably perform the high-altitude imagery and signals intelligence collection missions for which it is designed". I would rather focus on my current aircraft, and continually upgrade them until they can perform the mission. But, since we don't have the SR-71 anymore, real-time reconaissance capabilities will be lacking if placed solely on the U-2. (The only reason the SR-71 flew so high and so fast was to avoid it being shot down and their pilots captured, with an unmanned system we don't have that worry). This was discovered during the first Gulf War when General Norman Schwarzkopf had a lack of reliable intelligence, only to find out later an SR-71 could have performed the job and given him what he needed. Global Hawks or an equivalent system supplementing the U-2 is the right way to go.