AW&ST Editors' Picks 20210723
Welcome to this week's editors' picks. A weekly digital experience highlighting the must-see content from Aviation Week & Space Technology
A roundup of Aviation Week & Space Technology content you can't miss this week.
Letter From The Editor
See the highlights from this week's issue and get tips on how to use the document.
Letter From The Editor
Welcome to this week’s Editors’ Picks, a newsletter exclusively tailored for subscribers of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Each Friday our editors select the week’s best digital content – articles, interviews, opinion columns, podcasts and webinars – as a supplement to your print magazine.
See the highlights from this week's edition which include >>
Space Editor Irene Klotz’s on-site reports from the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights.
An analysis on the design and prospects of Checkmate, Russia’s newly unveiled fighter for the export market.
A look at how the Asia-Pacific, once air transport’s growth engine, is now slowing a global recovery.
What’s behind United Airlines’ order of electric regional aircraft.
How the creation of the U.S. Space Force is causing the Army to re-examine its space priorities.
A proposal for a smoother approach to FAA certification of the Boeing 777-9.
As always, we appreciate your feedback. I can be reached at email@example.com
Aviation Week & Space Technology
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Suborbital Spacelines Are Open For Business
Unity-22 and New Shepard-16 open a new chapter in human spaceflight.
Suborbital Spacelines Are Open For Business
Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic vice president for research operations, aboard SpaceShipTwo on July 11. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are not the first private citizens to venture into space. That distinction falls to a Japanese journalist and a British chemist who visited Russia’s Mir space station 30 years ago.
But Branson and Bezos, the high--profile founders of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, respectively, have the distinction of making spaceflights—albeit brief ones—aboard vehicles built and operated by their own companies. “We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” says Bezos, a multi-billionaire who personally funds the Blue Origin space company from his Amazon riches.
- Virgin plans two more shakedown flights
- Blue Origin books paying passengers
After decades of fits and starts, private space travel is on firm footing, with two suborbital spacelines, orbital flights by SpaceX and seats for sale again on Russia’s stalwart Soyuz. Boeing intends to open a second U.S. taxi service to the International Space Station (ISS) next year, following uncrewed and crewed flight tests of its CST-100 Starliner. SpaceX has sold a charter flight around the Moon, slated for 2023, aboard Starship, a two-stage reusable system currently in development.
“We’ve always wondered what’s going to be the killer app in space. Well, I think we’re looking at it—it’s space tourism,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, said during a July 13 panel session at the American Astronautical Society’s John Glenn Memorial Symposium.
The first nongovernment astronauts were Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama and British chemist Helen Sharman, who flew to Russia’s Mir space station in 1990 and 1991, respectively. A decade later, U.S. entrepreneur Dennis Tito kicked off a string of private astronaut flights to the ISS. The missions, brokered by Space Adventures aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, stopped when NASA needed all the seats to ferry crew to the ISS after the space shuttles were retired in 2011.
With SpaceX—and soon Boeing—picking up NASA’s business, Russia has reopened spaceflight sales on Soyuz. In October, Russian actress Yulia Peresild and filmmaker Klim Shipenko will ride to the ISS, accompanied by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, to shoot scenes for an upcoming movie.
In December, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and his television production assistant, Yozo Hirano, are slated to launch, along with cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, on another private mission to the ISS. Maezawa also is the customer for the SpaceX Starship flight to the Moon.
For the first time, tourist flights to the ISS are available from the U.S. as well. Houston-based Axiom plans its inaugural mission in January, with flight services purchased from SpaceX.
Ahead of any of the upcoming private ISS sorties, SpaceX plans a 4-5-day free-flying orbital mission aboard a Crew Dragon slated to launch in September. The flight, known as Inspiration4, was purchased and will be commanded by U.S. entrepreneur and pilot Jared Isaacman (AW&ST March 22-April 4, p. 14).
It was this kind of bustle that Peter Diamandis and others had in mind 25 years ago when they created the X Prize, which offered $10 million to the first team to build and fly a reusable privately funded human spacecraft. With financial backing from late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne won the competition in 2004. Captivated, Branson licensed the technology to develop a commercial version for his space company, Virgin Galactic, called SpaceShipTwo (SS2.)
Branson hoped to be on the first passenger flight as early as 2007, but upscaling the experimental, single-pilot SpaceShipOne proved more challenging than expected. The first SpaceShipTwo-class ship, VSS Enterprise, rolled out in December 2009; its first powered flight occurred in April 2013.
Enterprise flew two more times over the next nine months, reaching an altitude of 72,000 ft. Powered flight tests were suspended while engineers tested a new fuel grain for the ship’s hybrid rocket motor, switching to a polyamide-based plastic in place of the hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber used for the first series of powered tests. Although that fuel had been used successfully in SpaceShipOne, developers encountered fuel-burn stability and power issues as they tried to scale the hybrid motor up to the size required by the larger SS2.
Powered flight tests resumed on Oct. 31, 2014, with Scaled pilots Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury aboard Enterprise. But seconds after engine ignition, the vehicle broke apart due to the premature unlocking of its rotating tail section, called the feather, killing Alsbury and seriously injuring Siebold.
It took four more years for the next SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, to reach suborbital space and another three for Virgin Galactic to be ready to test the passenger cabin experience with a full crew aboard, which for SS2 will typically be four people. The next-generation SpaceShip III will be able to accommodate six passengers.
Initially, Virgin Galactic President Michael Moses said a practice crew would fly ahead of Branson to test flight choreography and systems. “After our last flight in May, the data came back really great . . . so we were able to say we can basically do those rehearsal items in ground training, and we’re ready to fly Richard,” Moses tells Aviation Week.
“We always had that as an option, but I don’t like to make promises,” he adds. “Richard loves to take what I say, write it down and then never let me forget I said it, so had I told him he would be flying next, that would [have been] some pressure there.”
After 17 years, Branson got his ride on SpaceShipTwo on July 11, 2021, joining two pilots and three passengers for a shakedown flight, known as Unity-22, ahead of the start of commercial service. He returned flummoxed and tongue-tied. “Nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” Branson said after the flight. “I’m just taking it all in. It’s unreal."
Unity, the first of a planned fleet of passenger suborbital vehicles, returned from its fourth spaceflight in excellent shape, says Moses, though a thorough inspection and data analysis will be conducted prior to moving ahead with up to two more full-cabin flight tests ahead of the start of passenger service. One flight is a charter for the Italian Air Force, which will test researcher-tended payloads.
Branson, who turned 71 on July 18, was joined by mission specialists Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla and pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci on the July 11 flight.
More than 350 guests, including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and 160 members of the media gathered at Spaceport America, near Las Cruces, New Mexico, to watch the flight, which began when Unity’s White Knight Two carrier aircraft, piloted by Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, taxied down the runway at 8:40 a.m. local time (10:40 a.m. EDT), then headed north over the New Mexico desert.
After reaching the designated drop zone, Unity was released at an altitude of 46,000 ft. The vehicle’s rocket motor ignited, catapulting Unity to Mach 3 and a peak altitude of 282,480 ft, or 53.5 mi. At apogee, Branson and crewmates unstrapped from their seats to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness and the view of Earth set against the backdrop of space. Unity glided to a landing at 9:39 a.m. local time.
“This is a landmark moment for our company and for our founder, who is right now showing that if you have the fortitude to follow your dream, you can make a huge and profound impact on the world,” CEO Michael Colglazier said during a launch webcast, remotely hosted by TV personality Stephen Colbert.
The flight took place nine days ahead of when Bezos was due to fly on Blue Origin’s first crewed mission, along with his brother Mark Bezos, aviation pioneer Wally Funk and the winner of a charity auction. The New Shepard-16 (NS-16) mission followed 15 uncrewed flight tests of the six-passenger, autonomous system, which launches from Blue Origin’s private spaceport in Van Horn, Texas, just 220 mi. away from Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico base.
The Inspiration4 crew (from left) Chris Sembroski, Hayley Arceneaux, commander and financier Jared Isaacman and Sian Proctor took a parabolic training flight for the next private spaceflight—a 4-5 day orbital mission aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Credit: John Kraus/Inspiration4
Five days before the flight, Blue Origin announced that the unidentified auction winner had a schedule conflict and would be replaced by Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old who participated in the auction with financial backing from his father, Joes Daemen, founder of Somerset Capital Partners in the Netherlands. Though Daemen stopped bidding before the winning $28 million offer, he ended up buying a seat for an undisclosed sum on the next passenger flight. Potential customers were bidding “well into the 20s” of millions for a seat, says Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos wrote on Instagram to Branson after Unity-22’s landing. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
On July 20, a date selected to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Bezos did just that, boarding his company’s New Shepard spacecraft for a 10-min. 10-sec. thrill ride into suborbital space. NS-16 marked the first time a crewed spacecraft made a debut flight without test pilots, test engineers or professional astronauts aboard.
While Blue Origin has experienced astronauts on staff, the company opted to demonstrate space tourism on its human spaceflight debut, a show of confidence in the fully autonomous New Shepard system. “We know the vehicle is safe,” Bezos said in an interview with CNN ahead of the flight. “If the vehicle is not safe for me, then it’s not safe for anyone.”
Blue Origin intends to parlay its experience operating New Shepard commercially into New Glenn orbital spaceflight services and beyond. “We want to get really good at operational space travel, [so that it is] more like a commercial airliner and less what you think of as traditional space travel,” Bezos said.
The company also is supplying engines for United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) new Vulcan rocket.
At 8:11 a.m. local time, the 60-ft.-tall New Shepard, consisting of a single-stage propulsion module and a 530-ft.3 crew capsule, lifted off from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site. Powered by a single liquid-oxygen-and- liquid-hydrogen-burning BE-3 motor, New Shepard shot straight up into the clear morning sky, marking this vehicle’s third flight.
About 2.5 min. later, at an altitude of approximately 32 mi., the BE-3 shut down, paving the way for the booster to separate 20 sec. later and begin its descent back to the launch site. The booster deployed an air brake, then briefly relit its engine to slow its speed before releasing landing legs and touching down 2 mi. from the launchpad at 8:18 a.m. local time.
Meanwhile, the capsule continued climbing to an altitude of 351,210 ft., providing Bezos and his crewmates with a few minutes of weightlessness and a spectacular view of Earth through the capsule’s six large windows, each 3.5 ft. tall X 2.3 ft. wide.
After about 3 min., the passengers returned to their seats and strapped on their five-point safety harnesses to prepare for the return trip to Earth. With the seats reclined, the crew experienced up to five times the force of gravity before a trio of drogue chutes, followed by three main parachutes, unfurled to slow the capsule’s descent.
In addition to chartering a SpaceX Starship mission for a flight around the Moon, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, left, is in training for a tourist flight to the International Space Station, along with his television production assistant, Yozo Hirano, that is slated to launch on Dec. 8. The flight aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule was arranged by Space Adventures. Credit: Yusaku Maezawa via Twitter
Just before touchdown, a retro-thrust system released a cloud of air beneath the spacecraft, slowing it to about 1 mph. The capsule settled onto the desert floor at 8:21 a.m., and four more people were added to the list of humans who have flown at least 50 mi. above Earth.
“My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded,” Bezos said after the flight. “Zero G may have been one of the biggest surprises because it felt so normal, almost like humans evolved to be in that environment.”
The oldest person to reach space is now 82-year-old Funk, a professional pilot with more than 19,000 hr. of flying time. In the early 1960s, she and 12 other women successfully passed the same grueling medical tests that NASA’s all-male Mercury 7 astronauts underwent. The agency, however, did not begin accepting women into the astronaut corps until 1978. At the other end of the spectrum is Daemen, who graduated high school last year and plans to start college this fall.
Following a microgravity payload flight, Blue Origin intends to finish the year by flying a total of 10 paying passengers—four on NS-18 in late September-October and six on NS-19 in the November-December timeframe. Blue Origin has not settled on a price for New Shepard rides, opting for now to let customers make offers. Sales are approaching $100 million, Bezos says.
The auction, which closed June 12, drew more than 7,500 people from more than 150 countries, says Smith. “Clearly, there’s really high interest, so the question really gets down to: ‘What’s the price point? How far down will we actually be able to get to?’” he asks.
Tickets to fly on SpaceShipTwo and the upcoming SpaceShip III vehicles sell for $250,000 and are likely to increase before they decline.
The high-profile rides of Branson and especially Bezos stoked long-simmering concerns about space becoming a playground for the wealthy. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called for a tax on space rides undertaken purely for pleasure.
His colleague, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), was more sanguine. “Congratulations on your successful spaceflight,” he wrote to Blue Origin on Twitter. “The future is bright for American space innovation. Now please get back to work on the engines for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.”
United Electric Aircraft Order Positions It As Transformation Driver
<i>Jens Flottau, Graham Warwick </i>
United Airlines, under CEO Scott Kirby, has some big plans that include pushing sustainability.
United Electric Aircraft Order Positions It As Transformation Driver
Jens Flottau, Graham Warwick
United Airlines forecasts around 100 potential routes for the ES-19. Credit: United Airlines
Once upon a time, United Airlines was best known for lost bags, frequently appalling customer service and an aging fleet. Its slogan, “Fly the Friendly Skies,” did not describe an experience attested to by many customers. And at times, the airline was operating a not very creative hub-and-spoke model that missed opportunities in both the domestic and international markets.
- The airline places conditional order for Heart Aerospace electric aircraft
- The commitment is part of broader sustainability initiative
- CEO Scott Kirby driving force behind transformation
The company previously known in many respects for its old-school style is now about to be perceived as the avant-garde of the global airline industry. In February, United placed a $1 billion conditional order for Archer Aviation electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing air taxis. Then, it signed a purchase agreement with Boom for 15 Overture supersonic aircraft. Its environmental targets are far beyond those of the rest of the industry, as United aims to be carbon-neutral without offsets by 2050. The carrier plans to “transform the customer experience” by retrofitting the cabins of its entire existing fleet and expanding the share of premium seats, too. And now another remarkable deal it has struck is leaving the sector puzzled.
United Airlines and its regional affiliate Mesa Airlines conditionally agreed to order 200 19-passenger electric airliners from Heart Aerospace as part of a deal that includes investing in the Swedish startup. The battery-powered ES-19 is expected to enter service in 2026.
The driving force behind the initiatives is Scott Kirby, United’s CEO since 2020. After holding senior leadership positions at America West, US Airways and American Airlines, Kirby became United’s president in 2016. Now that he has assumed a CEO role for the first time in his career, there appears to be no stopping him and his ambitions. Whether they all will play out as planned is another story. “We are creating a new era driven by innovation,” he says.
“Don’t focus too much on the industrial logic and whether it all makes sense,” says Tailwind Consultants CEO Mo Garfinkle, an inside expert on the U.S. airline industry for decades. “Scott is beginning to observe his leadership [at United] and industry leadership. He could be the new Bob Crandall,” Garfinkle says, referring to American Airline’s legendary former CEO.
The plans put forward “are a manifestation of [Kirby’s] big-thinker aptitude,” he continues. “He has a magnificent ability to capture a landscape. Scott does not want United and the industry to be left behind as a dinosaur, like steamships or the railroads.” This is especially important as a new generation of customers is putting a much greater emphasis on environmental sustainability, Garfinkle contends.
He believes it is “too early to develop a business plan” for the ES-19 operation or any of the other initiatives. United is not devoting a lot of financial or staff resources to them for the time being, but the financing it provides is enough for Heart Aerospace to move further ahead. “It is low risk now, potential reward later,” Garfinkle says.
“Kirby is throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks,” he says. “[And] it is good PR for United with the younger generation of customers and puts them on the right track politically.”
United Airlines Ventures and Mesa Air Group participated in Gothenburg, Sweden-based Heart’s $35 million Series A funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Heart seed investors EQT Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital also participated in the round.
The Series A funding will enable Heart to select suppliers, build the ground demonstrator and take the ES-19 through its preliminary design review (PDR), scheduled for 2022.
The funding will also enable Heart to build up its team, which totals 40-45 people and has been boosted recently with the hiring of personnel from stalled regional jet developer Mitsubishi Aircraft and defunct supersonic startup Aerion.
The 200 ES-19s will be split equally between United and Mesa. In the 1990s, before regional turboprops were deemed uneconomical and retired, Mesa was the world’s largest operators of 19-seaters.
“I’m confident there is a market for this,” says Bill Swelbar, chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy. “But I’m stumbling over the infrastructure questions.” United says the ES-19 could operate on about 100 of its regional routes from most of its hubs. The airline cited Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Purdue University Airport in Indiana or San Francisco International Airport to Modesto City-County Airport in California as possible examples from its primary hubs.
“We expect the short-haul regional air travel market to play a key role in the evolution of the electric aircraft,” says Michael Leskinen, United’s vice president for corporate development and investor relations. “As battery technology improves, larger-gauge aircraft should become viable, but we’re not going to wait to begin the journey. . . . Together [with Heart Aerospace], we can scale the availability of electric airliners and use them for passenger flights within the next five years.”
“A lot of work has to be done at the airports to accommodate this, and not a whole lot of planning is going on right now,” Swelbar says. “2026 is not very far away, and we also have to talk about air traffic control issues.” He questions whether hubs will end up being the primary use case for the ES-19 and whether the aircraft will be deployed more “to rural America.”
But Swelbar notes: “There is an audience [Kirby] is trying to speak to, and the new tech messaging is consistent. There is a strategy here, and it plays.”
Hamlin Transportation Consulting President George Hamlin points to what could be an inconsistency in United’s regional setup. The airline just placed a big order for 200 additional Boeing 737 MAXs and 70 Airbus A321neos while also announcing that it would retire about 200 50-seat regional jets. “United is leading the upgauging trend,” Hamlin says, of what used to be its regional fleet, which would not be supported by the addition of a large fleet of 19-seaters.
He also cautions that the industry in general abandoned 19-seaters long ago—and with them the ultra-short-range flying that would now compete with ground transportation. Hamlin is concerned that not much is known about the operating economics of the aircraft.
Heart Aerospace projects a cost saving of 30% from using electric versus turboprop propulsion, assuming a battery life of 1,000 cycles—with 3,000 cycles achievable over time—and adding a cost-per-kWh premium for aerospace-grade battery packs.
“But the big difference is a step-function reduction in motor versus engine maintenance cost,” Heart CEO Anders Forslund says. “Airlines did not stop flying 19-seaters because they could not fly far enough but because they were not economic. We are building an aircraft with great unit economics.”
The point about range is debatable, though. Current regional hub feeding is not only based on smaller gauge but also on range capabilities that allow airlines to pull traffic from “cities 2-3 hubs away,” Hamlin says. The ES-19 would not cover that segment because of its range limitations, even if battery technology advances enough to make longer distances possible.
There will be operational challenges as well, Hamlin points out. With landing delays expected at congested hubs, conventional aircraft can simply take on more fuel, but there could be less margin for this and diversions to other airports if the maximum range is so limited from the outset.
The ES-19 will have a maximum range initially of 400 km (250 mi.) using commercially available batteries. “But we will not start out flying those ranges,” Forslund says. “In the U.S., we are looking at 50-100-mi. routes. Mesa’s average route with its 19-seaters was 172 mi.”
The range is expected to increase as operators and regulators gain experience with electric aircraft and as both reserve requirements and battery technologies improve. Forslund notes that Swedish battery producer Northvolt acquired Boeing-backed lithium-metal battery supplier Cuberg in March.
Heart was founded in 2018 as a spinoff from a Swedish-funded electric aircraft research project. In 2020, the startup demonstrated the first iteration of its electric propulsion system, comprising a 400-kW motor, motor controller and lithium-ion battery pack with an integrated battery management system.
The company’s next step, Forslund says, is to build a ground demonstrator to show how the electric drivetrain can certifiably and safely power all the other aircraft subsystems, including avionics, flight controls and deicing mechanisms.
The ES-19 is a conventional aluminum-airframe aircraft powered by four electric propulsion systems packaged into four underwing nacelles. “We have modularized the design so that all the novelty is in the nacelles, and the rest is built like a conventional aircraft,” Forslund says.
Heart has issued requests for information to identify potential suppliers for the airframe and systems. “We are shifting gears a little,” he says. “We have been through an in-house PDR, and it is now about selecting top-tier suppliers.” Heart will be responsible for final assembly and flight testing in Gothenburg.
Because the ES-19 is resolutely conventional except for its propulsion system, Heart does not see the need to fly a demonstrator first. “Our flight-test aircraft will use the same jigs and moldings, the same certified suppliers as the production aircraft,” Forslund says.
Opinion: Why FAA And Boeing Should Take New 777-9 Certification Path
With confidence in Boeing’s ODA flagging, a third-party option could provide distance from the company’s financial pressures.
Opinion: Why FAA And Boeing Should Take New 777-9 Certification Path
The FAA’s May 13 letter to Boeing’s FAA-designated safety oversight liaison indicates that Boeing continues to struggle with its delegation—or authority granted by the safety agency to perform certain certification functions such as approving engineering design data on its behalf (AW&ST July 12-25, p. 14). The troubling situation begs the question: Is there a better way?
During certification, the FAA, or an Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) of company employees acting on the agency’s behalf, will issue a Type Inspection Authorization (TIA) for regulatory compliance-testing when two general conditions are met. The applicant must demonstrate that its aircraft is safe and conforms to the design presented to the agency. TIA issuance is a turning point in any program. It is serious business. The agency has lost test pilots and engineers, and the TIA process is intended to mitigate risk. It signifies that the FAA accepts the manufacturer’s declaration of safety and airworthiness and authorizes FAA flight-test pilots and engineers to begin compliance-testing.
The fact that the letter is addressed to Boeing’s ODA lead administrator is troubling. That person is—or should be—the FAA’s bulwark inside the company in lockstep with the FAA. Their duty includes holding the line when necessary, which can be a difficult task because of enormous financial and schedule pressure associated with all aircraft programs.
An ODA is a de facto branch of the FAA, separate from the applicant while at the same time housed within the applicant’s organization and staffed by its employees. In the Boeing 777-9 case, it appears the ODA suggested to the FAA, on Boeing’s behalf, that the prototype airplane is ready for certification testing. The FAA clearly disagrees and felt it necessary to scold the Boeing ODA.
The FAA’s letter declares in numerous ways that the type design is not adequately “mature” for TIA issuance; the term is used six times in the letter. Ultimately, TIA issuance is a judgment call made after the FAA has gathered and reviewed all the necessary data and consulted with stakeholders. Emphasizing lack of maturity in a program that Boeing and its ODA feel is ready for certification testing is the FAA’s way of expressing concern with Boeing and its ODA.
The letter raises 11 technical and process-related issues, but one stands out: an “un-commanded pitch event” in December 2020. “After the un-commanded pitch event, the FAA is yet to see how Boeing fully implements all the corrective actions identified by the root cause investigation,” the letter says.
The agency is often and correctly described as a technical organization in a political world. It must assure aviation safety with robust professional oversight while fostering a public perception of safety. The FAA is hypersensitive to public perception. It is not a stretch to see reports of an uncommanded pitch event in flight test evoking memories of the two Boeing 737 MAX accidents caused by uncommanded pitch events. The FAA’s displeasure over Boeing’s poor performance in implementing corrective action goes beyond technical nuance. It implies that Boeing is insensitive to the FAA’s accountability to the public.
A letter such as this would certainly have been coordinated within the FAA up to the highest levels. It clearly indicates that all is not well with Boeing, their ODA and especially their relationship with the FAA.
Aircraft Certification, the FAA organization responsible for all aircraft designs, production and continued operational safety, has fewer than 1,400 employees. Although the delegation is frequently attacked as “the fox guarding the hen house,” it is absolutely essential for industry competitiveness and FAA effectiveness in assuring safety.
If the FAA letter is any indication of how unhealthy Boeing’s ODA is, especially after the tragedies and difficult lessons of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX accidents, the agency may have to examine alternatives. One option is to staff the FAA for more direct Boeing oversight, which may not be practical for various reasons.
Another viable option exists and has been highly successful in other cases: a third-party ODA. Airplane modifiers hire properly authorized ODAs to approve their supplemental type certificates in a timely manner. With slight modifications to FAA policy for ODA holders, the agency could authorize a third-party ODA, contracted by Boeing but collocated with the FAA.
Such an ODA would benefit from autonomy and physical distance from the financial pressures of a huge corporation as well as from being nested within the FAA for constant oversight and guidance.
Mike Borfitz is an ODA administrator and has been an FAA Aircraft Certification Office manager and a Boeing Associate Technical Fellow for Certification and Safety.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.
Opinion: Asia-Pacific Region Is Slowing Global Air Transport Recovery
</i>While the U.S. and Europe are recovering, the Asia-Pacific region remains in crisis.
Opinion: Asia-Pacific Region Is Slowing Global Air Transport Recovery
Credit: Steve Strike/Getty Images
Over the last few months, the industry has taken some consolation from developments in the U.S.
Demand for air travel there has come back much faster than in other regions. While international flying is still largely curtailed because of continuing travel restrictions, the U.S. domestic market is doing quite well. In June, capacity was down just 12% compared with 2019, and that gap is forecast—based on airline schedules—to shrink further over the next quarter.
The optimism has also touched off a few significant aircraft orders. United Airlines ordered 270 narrowbodies from Boeing and Airbus, while Southwest Airlines boosted its 737 MAX orderbook to replace the 737-700 fleet. And even Porter Airlines, grounded since March 2020 and facing Canada’s particularly tight travel restrictions—still in place until August—has now revealed ambitious plans to grow based on a large order for Embraer 195-E2s.
However, what tends to be forgotten from an industry point of view is that North America is not the problem. And neither is Europe, which is still lagging behind the U.S. in the return of traffic and could see stalled passenger flows after summer vacations. At least COVID-19 vaccination campaigns across the European continent have gained momentum and are showing positive effects, even as the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 has now become dominant.
The real problem for both airlines and their suppliers is the situation in Asia, where an unfortunate combination of factors is at work: Vaccination rates are either low or very low, while restrictions on international flying remain largely in place.
At the same time, the Asia-Pacific region represents 37% of Airbus’ firm order backlog and 31% of Boeing’s, according to Bernstein Research data. North America constitutes just 16% and 18%, respectively. Unless a sudden and unexpected recovery takes place, a substantial share of those backlogs may be at risk.
Many analysts and the International Air Transport Association have pointed to the situation in China. As Bernstein Research analyst Douglas Harned writes in a recent study, Chinese domestic capacity surpassed 2019 levels for the first time in September 2020 and stayed in growth mode with the exception of February 2021, when the government discouraged travel during the Chinese New Year holiday period. That is obviously great news for everyone involved.
But Asia-to-Asia capacity, excluding domestic China, is a different story. It was down 73.6% in April 2020, and while the decline has temporarily contracted, it was back at 72% below 2019 levels in June of this year and at 69% in July. Harned does not expect China to open its borders in any significant way before the February 2022 Winter Olympics.
Capacity for Asia-to-Asia traffic is expected to be 54.4% lower than 2019 levels in August 2021 and just 46.9% in September, based on filed schedules. But these projections are to be taken with significant caution. As Harned notes, the experience during the pandemic so far has been that filed schedules do not translate into actual levels of flying—in other words, the closer airlines get to scheduled times of departure, the more capacity they are taking out.
The situation is no different for long-haul markets to and from Asia, with declines in June 2021 for Europe-to-Asia capacity still at almost 66% and at 77% in the Asia-to-North America segment. Plus North America-to-Europe travel is still down 71%. Load factors are yet another sad story.
The current traffic levels and absence of a recovery in what was about to become the most important market segment will translate into a slower pace of aircraft deliveries. Asian airlines are already highly in debt, and while many have received government bailouts, at least part of the money has to be paid back. It is unclear to what extent governments can or want to provide further financial support.
The effects will be felt particularly in the widebody field, according to Bernstein Research. Harned forecasts that Airbus will reach 2019 narrowbody delivery volumes by 2024 and exceed them by 2025. Boeing will surpass 2018 narrowbody output by 2022, with the 2019 numbers skewed because of the 737 MAX grounding.
For widebodies, it’s a different story: Airbus delivered 173 aircraft in 2019 and will hand over only 116 in 2025, according to the forecast. Boeing delivered 254 aircraft two years ago and will send off 178 in 2025. That represents 67% and 70% of precrisis levels, respectively. The outlook differs by model. Airbus will still deliver only 26 A330neos in 2025 but also 88 A350s, according to the Bernstein analysis. On the Boeing side, the company will deliver 96 787 aircraft and 36 777Xs.
Sukhoi Unveils Export-Oriented Light Fighter
In a global market awash in fighter options, Russia thinks it’s delivered an elusive winner.
Sukhoi Unveils Export-Oriented Light Fighter
The Sukhoi LTA program is on a rapid schedule, with a first flight planned for 2023. Credit: Piotr Butowski
A new Russian fighter program will seek to conquer the foreign market for a fast tactical aircraft with advanced electronics, stealthy features and bargain pricing.
The Russian media has published a few details of Sukhoi’s Light Tactical Aircraft (LTA) since last December, but not the full scope of the single-engine fighter’s novel design and ambitious export-driven business case.
First flight scheduled in 2023
Launch customer not identified
A blustery one-week marketing blitz leading up to the opening day of the MAKS Air Show outside Moscow on July 20 branded the LTA program as the “Checkmate” solution in a global market now awash in developmental fighter projects.
After providing Russian President Vladimir Putin a personal tour of the Checkmate pavilion at the MAKS exhibit grounds, Russian defense and industry officials tried to be confidently specific and cautiously vague about the project at the same time.
The Sukhoi LTA program already boasts a foreign “anchor customer,” Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told Russian media on July 20. The identity of the customer and the extent of its financial commitment were not released.
A swarm of executives from Sukhoi parent United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) and majority shareholder Rostec detailed the LTA program’s unusually fast-paced, digitally enabled development schedule, with a first flight planned in 2023 and series production starting by 2026. But executives disclosed neither the costs of the development program nor the source of the project’s funding, according to Russian media.
The Sukhoi LTA’s competitors are backed by their national governments. South Korea’s KF-21, Turkey’s TF-X and China’s J-35 will each enter service in their national air forces. The same is true for more advanced, sixth-generation fighter designs being developed by Europe, Japan and the U.S.
The status of the LTA program in Russia’s air force is unclear. Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says such a platform could provide the Russian Air Force with mass lost due to the large-scale retirements of fighters after the Cold War. But he questioned where this would leave the Russian Aircraft Corp. subsidiary MiG’s own MiG-29 and MiG-35 programs.
Sergei Chemezov, Rostec’s chief executive, told journalists that “of course” the Russian Air Force would buy the new Sukhoi fighter. But the Russian military has eschewed single-engine fighter designs since the mid-1980s, and the latest five-year state armaments plan includes no funding for a light fighter.
The export market is the more likely option for the LTA. Russia’s network of MiG-29 operators in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America provides a solid base of potential customers. Chemezov estimated a global market for 300 LTA orders over the next 15 years.
However, export-oriented fighter programs have a poor track record. The Northrop F-5 may seem to be the exception, but that 60-year-old design shared a high level of commonality with the U.S. Air Force’s T-38 trainer. The experience of the Northrop F-20 and the Textron AirLand Scorpion projects is more typical, with foreign customers doubtful of a product that is not wanted by its own government.
In the absence of government investment, UAC seems to be an unlikely financier for a speculative development product likely to cost trillions of rubles to bring to market. In May, Borisov said in an interview with the TASS news agency that UAC had the highest debt load among Russia’s defense companies, which had amassed more than 3 trillion rubles ($40.6 billion) in collective debt through 2020.
The debt situation makes the matter of UAC’s future in the lucrative fighter market more urgent. U.S. government-imposed sanctions have crippled sales of the Su-35, Russia’s flagship export fighter. Indonesia signed a contract for 24 Su-35s in 2018, but government officials have refused to schedule a delivery date. Russian media touted the delivery of the first five Su-35s ordered by Egypt in August 2020, but the supposedly delivered aircraft have not been photographed outside of Novosibirsk in Central Russia since that time. The export version of the Su-57, which Sukhoi showed off to Turkish President Recep Erdogan at MAKS two years ago, also has failed to attract orders outside Russia.
Development of the LTA represents Russia’s growing interest in exports and collaborative development as well as growing concerns of Chinese encroachment on fighter markets that Russia previously dominated through sales of the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder or the Chengdu J-10, says Justin Bronk, a research fellow for airpower and technology at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
“China has not had a huge amount of success yet,” he says. “But if you look at the J-10C, it sits alongside the MiG-29 as a cheap and cheerful multi-role medium-weight fighter. And it is only going to get better.”
Much will depend on whether the LTA will be adopted by the Russian armed forces, which would allow the platform to gain the “operated by Russia label” that could induce export sales, Bronk adds.
For his part, Putin toured the Checkmate pavilion on the MAKS exhibit ground but ignored the LTA project in his opening address at the air show.
On paper, the LTA fills a notable gap in the market for a fighter with modern sensors and high performance—not to mention costs that are nearly one-third the price of Western alternatives. Sukhoi designed the LTA to achieve a cost per flight hour seven times less than the Lockheed Martin F-35A, according to a TASS interview with Mikhail Strelets, LTA’s chief designer at Sukhoi. That implies a cost per flight hour of about $5,500 for the aircraft.
According to Sukhoi’s marketing materials, the LTA is a highly modular design. The single-seat aircraft configuration displayed in the Checkmate pavilion is merely a baseline. Customers can order the aircraft with a single seat, two seats or unmanned, Strelets told TASS. The Russian electronics can be replaced by customers that prefer their own or different equipment, he added.
The modularity is possible due to Sukhoi’s digitally driven design process and open-architecture-systems philosophy for the LTA, according to Strelets.
“In fact, it is the first Russian aircraft to be fully digitally designed,” Strelets said in the TASS interview. “This significantly reduced development time and technical risks during testing.”
The engine and fully movable, canted vertical tails appear borrowed from Russia’s Su-57. Credit: Piotr Butowski
The LTA also borrows heavily from Sukhoi’s experience on the Su-57. The wing, engine and fully movable, canted vertical tails of the LTA appear borrowed from Sukhoi’s twin-engine, stealthy flagship fighter. Internally, the LTA may benefit from export versions of the Su-57’s Himalaya electronic warfare system and Byelka active, electronically scanned array radar.
The balanced stealthy philosophy that Sukhoi applied to the Su-57 also appears to translate to the LTA. But the sharp edges of the bifurcated ventral air intake may not yield the most stealthy profile on the LTA. Nonetheless, three weapons bays will carry up to five air-to-air missiles internally, including two short-range R-73s and three medium-range R-77s.
Despite the similarities, Russia’s industry hopes the LTA will diverge from the Su-57 experience in another way: Since the Su-57 was selected by the Russian Air Force to enter development in 2002, Sukhoi has delivered only a single operational fighter to the type’s sole customer.
—With Tony Osborne in London
Space Force Prompts U.S. Army Role Reconsideration
The role of the "S" in the acronym of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command is evolving as Space Force expands.
Space Force Prompts U.S. Army Role Reconsideration
A Joint Tactical Ground Station raised the alarm when Iran fired ballistic missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq last year. Credit: U.S. Army
Space, high-altitude flight and missile defense have been the three pillars of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command since the organization was founded in 1997.
As the Army approaches the 25th anniversary of the Huntsville, Alabama-based command, the future of the “S” in the acronym for the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) has become an intriguing question.
Satellite operations brigade shifts to Space Force
Future of Army space battalions is unclear
The advent of the U.S. Space Force has put pressure on the Army to divest certain functions to the new branch of the Department of the Air Force, with an agreement now in place to transfer the first SMDC unit, nominally on Oct. 1.
At the same time, the Army’s recent adoption of the multidomain operations concept has elevated the role of capabilities from the near-space and space domains. If ongoing experiments and investments pan out, the service’s presence at very high altitudes and in orbit could still increase alongside SMDC’s colleagues in the Space Force.
On the eve of the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, the locally headquartered command is at the center of a roles-and-missions discussion between the Army and the Space Force, even as its missile defense responsibilities dramatically expand to face new threats ranging from small quadcopters and subsonic cruise missiles to rocket-boosted hypersonic gliders.
In a sense, the Army functioned as the original Space Force. In 1958, the Army’s Juno 1 rocket launched Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, into orbit. But the Army’s leading role in the U.S. space program had been limited by a Defense Department policy adopted two years earlier. The policy split responsibility for missile development: The Air Force was given charge of all rockets with a range over 200 mi., and the Army took control of ground-launched, short-range missiles.
For the next four decades, the Army operated mainly as a consumer of space resources provided by the Air Force and the intelligence community. Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 revealed the significance of space-based capabilities to the Army’s tactical operations, especially for communications, navigation and tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The SMDC, which consolidated the Army’s disparate space and missile defense operations, was then formed in 1997.
The Army’s modern interests in space and high-altitude airborne platforms have been well established. As the ground forces maneuver, the commanders need information about over-the-horizon threats, particularly any incoming ballistic missiles. The service also needs dedicated, secure communications between widely dispersed forces.
Which military organization provides those needs is now a matter of discussion. The creation of the Space Force in December 2019 first raised the question.
The Space Force’s operational mission is to attack or interfere with enemy assets in space, while defending U.S. and allied assets from attack or interference. But Space Operations Command (SpOC)—the operational unit within the Space Force—also provides support functions, including control of most space-based ISR and communications satellites, such as the narrowband Advanced Extremely High-Frequency (AEHF) satellite constellation.
An agreement on responsibility for the communications mission took 18 months to negotiate, but the SMDC and Space Force have reached a deal in principle.
The U.S. Space Force will gain full control of the Army’s Wideband Global System satellite payloads starting Oct. 1. Credit: U.S. Army Concept
On Oct. 1, full control of the Wideband Global System (WGS) will pass to the Space Force’s SpOC. The 10 satellites of the geostationary WGS constellation provide high-bandwidth services for all of the services, but the Army’s dispersed brigade combat teams are the heaviest users during hostilities. The system allows the mobile brigade combat teams (BCT) to stay connected with units down to the company level as well as to keep the BCT’s Tactical Operation Centers in contact with the Army’s global network anywhere in the world, via satellite links to five regional hub nodes.
The mission of the SMDC’s Satellite Operations (Satops) Brigade will transfer to the SpOC at the beginning of fiscal 2022. The brigade, which includes the 53rd Signal Battalion, now manages the WGS payload, while the SpOC owns the WGS spacecraft. The transfer means that SpOC will now fully own the WGS program, along with the AEHF. Only the Navy’s Multiple User Objective System, a narrowband communications satellite constellation that entered service in 2019, remains outside of the Space Force’s control.
Army officials are careful to note that the agreement to transfer the WGS mission to the Space Force is not complete. The mission is transferring to the Space Force, which will provide the WGS communications services to U.S. Space Command, headed by Gen. James Dickinson. But the staffs of the Army and the Space Force must now choreograph an elaborate bureaucratic transition that begins on Oct. 1, while neither disrupting the careers of soldiers as they become guardians (the designation for Space Force personnel) nor the services provided by the WGS constellation itself.
“It’s not going to be on 1 October, flick the light switch, raise your right hand and you’re a guardian. We will do this very deliberately,” the SMDC commander, Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on May 21.
“We really want to make sure [the Satops brigade soldiers] are set, and they’re stabilized within the Space Force to continue doing that [mission],” Karbler said. “Gen. Dickinson is not going to allow for [any] degradation in capabilities that we as an Army are providing to him. The expectation is when a unit goes over to Space Force, [the capability] stays the same.”
A memorandum of agreement between the Army and the Space Force will define the conditions for completing the transition of the Satops Brigade.
“It’s got to be conditions-based,” Karbler said. “The Space Force has got to be ready to truly do the organized, trained and equipped [functions] as we transfer those capabilities over there.”
The transfer of the WGS mission also comes at a critical time. The Defense Department plans to move forward within a few years on the next generation of wideband communications satellites. Today, each WGS payload provides over 2 GBps of bandwidth. That is more throughput than was needed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but falls short of projected demand in a modern, all-domain combat operation. Along with the Satops Brigade, the Space Force will inherit the responsibility for executing the acquisition strategy for the next-generation wideband constellation.
The long-term status of SMDC’s other space-related functions remains unclear.
Army commanders prize early warning of ballistic missile attacks. The SMDC’s capability resides in the 1st Space Company of the 1st Space Battalion of the 1st Space Brigade. The company staffs four Joint Tactical Ground Stations (JTAGS) around the world. It was JTAGS staff that raised the alarm on Jan. 8, 2020, when Iran launched ballistic missiles at U.S. forces stationed at the Ayn Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. The JTAGS receives data from U.S. early warning satellites, along with five, forward-based Lockheed Martin TPY-2 radars.
Finally, the SMDC also provides a staff of specialists to Army field commanders. The Army Space Support Teams, which form the 2nd Space Company within the 1st Space Battalion, are composed of three-person units known as “Functional Area 40s.” These teams explain to Army commanders how they can integrate joint resources in space into their campaign plans, while also pointing out vulnerabilities created by an enemy’s space-based assets or ability to disrupt U.S. capabilities.