Is Aerospace Innovation Dead?

Is Aerospace Innovation Dead?

Does that title sound outrageous? Yes – it’s meant to spark outrage. Sometimes I hear people say that nothing really new is happening in aerospace development and innovation now. But I always beg to differ when I do hear that. Amazing and incredible things are happening in the world of aerospace technology right now. In this issue of Aerospace Tech Review, we look at some of them.

But first, let me pay tribute to one of my nostalgic favorites. During the pandemic years, Bombardier announced it was shutting down Learjet production and the last one, a Learjet 75, rolled off the assembly line in 2021, after almost 60 years of production.

More than 3,000 Learjet aircraft were produced since Bill Lear’s company delivered the first Learjet 23 in Wichita, Kansas, in 1964. Just think of this – 1903 was the Wright Brothers’ first manned powered aircraft flight and 61 years later the first Learjet came off the assembly line. A little over a year ago the final Learjet 75 was delivered to its customer.

Can any of you boast logged pilot time in a Learjet? I can. Having that time is one of my fondest memories of my time as a pilot. One year, in the course of a few weeks, I went from flight instructing in Cessna 172s to working as a night freight hauler in a Piper Seneca to right seat in a Lear 23. Heady times for a fledgling pilot.

I had recently left my time-building flight instructing job to move across the country to St. Louis, Missouri. I wandered out to Spirit of St. Louis (KSUS) airport to see if I might find flying work there.

I found a night freight and air ambulance operator there called Jet Services. They were flying the Seneca, a DC-3 and a small fleet of Learjets, Lear 23, 24 and 25 series. I immediately gave them my resume, but they were less than enthusiastic about my chances of flying for them. However, they did say they needed someone to answer phones and “dispatch” aircraft. I said I’d love to do that while I looked for flying work.

It was not more than a month later when I answered a call for a charter to Marion, Illinois, to pick up newly manufactured car parts and bring them to Detroit, Michigan, to keep an auto maker’s assembly line running. After calling all the possible pilots on the roster list, none could make it to the airport within the 30-minute time frame required to accept the charter. The owner of the company and captain of the flight said to me, “Do you have your pilot certificate on you?” He wasn’t going to miss the opportunity and I did have it. So, he put me in the right seat, we flew three times around the pattern and he said, “I’ll sign your logbook when we get back.”

An even more remarkable fact was that this was done in a Lear 23. The first takeoff was such a thrill as we accelerated on the runway, pushed back in my seat from the sheer power of that rocket-like aircraft. The 23 was truly an innovation marvel, the design based on structural quality of the Swiss AFA P-16 strike-fighter. It was a small aircraft, but incredibly powerful with GE CJ610 engines producing a combined 5,700 pounds of thrust and heralded the new age of business jet travel when it was first introduced in 1964. By the time I got in the right seat of that aircraft, it was already 20 years old – ancient in my view at the time.

And off we went to pick up those parts, climbing out at around 7000 feet per minute and reaching cruise altitude in a heartbeat. Thrilling.

Now back to innovation. I could never touch on all the innovations happening right now in aerospace in this short column. But, we do cover some of them in this issue of the publication.

So, please look for the news item in the 5X5 section about the Illinois Institute of Technology research team led by Professor David Williams, that has demonstrated the use of a novel control method in an aircraft with no tail. The tailless design is controlled by active airflow, in which jets of air are blown onto different surfaces of the aircraft body, corresponding to which direction the aircraft is moving. The technology allows an aircraft to be smooth and sleek (it reminded me immediately of the Lear 23 design). This technology could be employed to make commercial airplanes more fuel-efficient by removing existing steering parts that create lots of drag.

There is much being done in the advanced air mobility area as well as designing the airspace or “U-space” — the rules and procedures for the management of drone traffic — where these vehicles will operate. Learn about BUBBLES, a SESAR project utilizing artificial intelligence, targeting the formulation and validation of a concept of separation management for UAS, in Mario Pierobon’s story, ‘U-Space: The Journey to Integrate UAM-UAS into Airspace’ on page 16.

Check out the update on the use of hydrogen as a green fuel for aerospace. In January, a Dornier 228 aircraft equipped with a ZeroAvia hydrogen-electric engine on its left wing and a Honeywell TPE-331 stock engine on its right, flew for the first time at ZeroAvia’s R&D facility in Gloucestershire, U.K. Stunning and rapid advancements in this realm. See that story on page 48.

And a final thought about artificial intelligence (AI). We are hearing so much about AI in all realms of technology today, especially with the advancement of ChatGPT. ChatGPT is AI designed to interact in a conversational way. “The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests,” the developers say. AI is truly a powerful innovation for the ages. As with all powerful things, we must be careful how it is used. It is up to us to make sure it is used appropriately for the good of all. AI is being used in many areas of aerospace now — you will see references to its use in many of the stories in this issue.

Back to the title, innovation in aerospace is alive and well and you are on the leading edge of it.