Saturday, 22 December 2012

Happy Christmas Everyone

A blocking high pressure system from Scandinavia last week gave several days of calm
sub-zero temperatures causing a build-up of very pretty hoar frost in our 'back garden'
Happy Christmas everyone! Sorry it has been a while since I wrote anything here. Life has fallen in to a demanding routine of continuous study and revision as we crawl inexorably towards the end of our phase one text books and our first batch of 'real' exams. I find it difficult to sleep properly during the week and — as it says in our Human Performance lessons — the fatigue is cumulative. The holiday break is extremely welcome.

Also extremely welcome are the new batch of cadets that have just arrived at the school, including another group of British Airways Future Pilots. It's hard to believe that we have been studying for only two months, seeing the keen fresh faces makes it feel more like two years. The first group of British Airways cadets is now in Arizona having started their fair-weather flying training and the second group will be following very soon. In May, it will be us — and so the wheels keep turning.

Burning oil

A few weeks ago I attended a careers fair at BA's Waterside headquarters, helping to man the school's exhibition stand. Despite the current doldrums in airline recruitment, it was really inspiring to see several hundred motivated and well-informed young people all hoping to find careers in aviation. I talked to lots of hopeful applicants to the second round of the Future Pilot Program and guys, if you are reading this, best of luck and I really hope I see you again.

In what I thought was a fairly brave move, a presentation and debate on climate change was included. Aviation is often seen as the enemy of planet in terms of global warming, and it's not hard to see why. Passenger aircraft consume massive quantities of tax-free fossil fuels daily and deposit the waste products including 700 million tonnes of CO2 per year, unprocessed, directly into the upper atmosphere. This much I knew.

What I didn't realise was the extent of the industry's commitment to cleaning up their act, whose targets go much further than any other industry or indeed government to reducing unsustainable consumption. Through a combination of more larger, more efficient aeroplanes, sustainable fuel technologies and carbon trading, the aim is to halt growth in emissions by 2020 and half it by 2050, despite expected growth in traffic.

Only time will tell if this is feasible, but there is real commitment. Witness British Airway's recent investment in a new biofuel plant. This plant will use space-age technology to process about 500,000 tonnes per year of organic waste into bio-kerosene  for use in their aircraft at Heathrow, and as a by-product 20MW of electricity. Granted, this is only a few percent of their needs but it is a step in the right direction.

That's all for now, I am off on a much-needed holiday with my wonderful wife. When my brain is rested I will put together a properly written piece on.... automation. Can planes fly themselves? Are computers better than people? Do we really need pilots at all? Tune in next time to find out.

PS Thanks to all my loyal readers, this blog has now been read over 2000 times. Makes it all worthwhile!

Monday, 10 December 2012

Ice and snow

Double whammy!

Our excellent results in the school exams is all very well, but the real victory came last Thursday when we finally won the local pub quiz. In fact there were so many of us from the class that we had to split into three teams, and dominated the event with a first, second and third place.

Unfortunately, for us, the only way is down.

Back to work...

Our studies have shifted up another gear, with new material coming at us thick and fast. There is a great deal still to cover before the end of phase one in five teaching weeks, and we will need to continue accelerate to fit it all in. At the same time, the studying has settled into a habitual pattern and the only worry really is whether the information is actually sticking in our heads.

I have noticed that as we progress, the subjects are starting to come together and re-enforce each other. For example, last week we looked at the details of flying controls in both principles of flight and in aircraft systems, and the different perspectives really help to understand the subjects.

The pilot of this aircraft looks to have been fortunate -
it's still in one piece.
Another area that has recently come up in no less than four classes – aircraft systems, meteorology, engines and principles of flight – is icing.

This rather innocuous-sounding problem of super-cooled water droplets freezing onto your plane is described academically as 'increasing drag, reducing lift and increasing weight,' but that rather conceals the true magnitude of the problem. Remember Col Kurtz uttering "The horror. The horror."? That's more like it.

You could equally well describe icing as like having half the wing sawn off, an anvil hung off the bottom and a parachute streaming out the back, all at once. Added to that your instruments may well stop working and in extremis engines can be damaged and may fail and flight controls can freeze solid.

I'm not necessarily talking about lots of ice here, just the sort of stuff you scrape off the windscreen of your car in the morning could be enough to turn a routine take-off into an accident.

With significant airframe icing you might not exactly plummet earth, but maintaining height could become impossible. The aircraft will stall at a higher – but unknown – speed so landing with ice on the wing becomes a fast and risky manoeuvre.

So as you would expect, aircraft designers go to enormous lengths to provide systems to prevent and remove ice. Airlines spend a fortune on de-icing and anti-icing planes on the ground and the weather people do their best to help pilots avoid icing conditions.

All of which adds up to another couple of hundred facts for us to store away in our crowded brains. Facts totally useless for the pub quiz; facts very handy for a few extra marks in the exams; and facts that might, just possibly, prevent an accident one day. A sobering thought as we scrape away at our frozen car windscreens at 7.30am each morning.