BlueSky Business Aviation News
Where is my flying car?  Terry Drinkard

emember the Jetsons? It was a Saturday morning cartoon about a futuristic family set in the mid-twenty-first century with robots and flying cars. You may notice that today’s commute does not include the use of commonly available flying cars (nor is there a 
robot housekeeper available - I checked). I pay attention to details like that; one of the many unexpected benefits of a technical education.

It seems to me that aviation has hit a bit of a slump in terms of innovation. No flying cars, no autonomous airliners, and we are only now (42 years after landing a man on the moon) on the very edge of achieving commercial sub-orbital flight. I know that some people complain that the current pace of change is too much for them. These are the kind of people who uncomfortable with the differences between one Holiday Inn and the next. Aviation is fairly stagnant and has been for thirty years years. The big gains have apparently long since been achieved and even NASA isn’t projecting anything radical for the next quarter of a century, judging by what has been released recently.

What passes for innovation today?

Looking at the results from NASA’s 2030+ entry into service study


it is pretty easy to see that the airplanes 25 years from now will look very very similar to the airplanes of today. The innovations, and there are a lot of technical innovations that come out of that study, are almost all internal to various systems and structures. In one case, the SUGAR Volt, it seems we have stepped back a bit with strut-braced wings--which haven’t been used on airliners since the late 1920’s, but that is somewhat misleading. The SUGAR Volt has very high aspect ratio wings and, most intriguingly, hybrid engines. Yes, batteries and fuel, like a Prius, but thirty years later.

Decades old “innovation”

Innovation in aviation is a lot like that. Really exciting technologies of twenty years ago are being incorporated today. Like the 787's gee-whiz carbon fuselage. Carbon fiber bodies have been used on supercars and race cars for decades now. Literally. Interestingly, it has been used in aviation for decades, too. The empennage on the 777 (introduced into service in 1995) is largely carbon, as are the floor beams. And, of course, the military have been using carbon fiber composites for decades, too, along with even more exotic composites, like boron fibers.

It’s seems odd, doesn’t it? Aerospace still has this image of totally cool cutting edge stuff, and yet that is not the reality. Even the future-based stuff is twenty years old. Why?

Seriously. Click through on the NASA study link and take a look at the four configurations that are being reported on. One, the SELECT, looks almost exactly like an A319, which is a shortened A320, which entered service in 1988. The GE entry looks almost exactly like the Dornier 328 fast turboprop, which entered service in 1993. Only the MIT D8 configuration looks significantly different from anything currently on the market. Again, why?

Aerodynamic forces at work

I think there are a couple of forces at work here. First, aviation is no longer fundamentally about vast improvements in performance. Physics is what it is, and flying Mach 5 from Toledo to Grenoble is an unbelievably bad idea. Even Mach 4 is a bad idea. No, given the physics of the atmosphere, we already currently fly in the sweet spot, around 3/4 of the speed of sound. Going much faster, say Mach .95, generally creates as much drag (and therefore fuel burn) as even higher speeds, but without the sexiness inherent in supersonic flight. The cruise speed of jets has clustered around Mach .7-.8 for the past fifty years for good reason. That isn’t going to change any time soon. In fact, it will probably never change.

The really fast option

To digress just a moment, for those who really feel there is an economically profitable need for higher speeds, I recommend the sub-orbital transport (not mentioned in this article).

We are where we are

We aren’t going to see anything significantly faster than aircraft that are already on the market. Nor are we going to see anything significantly larger than aircraft already on the market. I don’t think we are ready for 2,000 seat aircraft. There is no infrastructure in the world that could handle one. By the same token, I don’t think we will see anything that flies significantly higher than aircraft already on the market. Even the Concorde only flew up to 60,000 feet.

Marginal improvements

Instead, we will see developments that reduce fuel burn through engine improvements, exotic materials, or subtle aerodynamic improvements. Designers will also add extensive computer-driven systems that enable integration in various systems. We may even get some improvements in “greening” the airplane. Maybe.

Conceptual inertia

The other major force is that we still think of airplanes as buses. It’s a conceptual bias. How many different kinds of interiors do we see? How many aircraft are not just a bunch of seats, side by side, all facing forward (in defiance of all the data that show aft-facing seats to be safer)? In business jets, we do sometimes see a divan on the side of the cabin, and in some of the more creative interior models I have seen on airliners configured as an “executive” transport, I’ve seen bedrooms, ballrooms, and jacuzzi spas, but those are all about ego stroking and have zero to do with rethinking the airplane’s role as a business tool.

Real innovation meets a need

I would like to see a new business jet designed around the conference room table. If we are spending a lot of money to fly a team of people from point A to point B, and their time is so valuable that we are putting them on a bizjet instead of flying them commercially, why do we expect them to work in a bus? At the office, most teams work around a conference room table. They have the tools available to do their jobs. They have computers, net access, phones, printers, faxes, telepresence systems, and other supporting equipment. You may notice that in an office, we don’t line up rows of chairs, one in front of the other, and expect anyone to get anything done. There is no reason, save lack of imagination, to continue to design airplanes that do nothing more than that.

Who will lead?

When I see airplanes that are thoughtfully designed to provide a really substantial working space for working people, then I will believe that we will have started to make real progress, real innovative strides. However, we will never see that from NASA or a defense contractor. I don’t know who will take the lead, but eventually someone will. And they will make a lot of money doing it.

Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups. 

Terry welcomes your comments, questions or feedback. You may contact him via

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©BlueSky Business Aviation News |27th January 2011 | Issue #110
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