French Skydiver Stymied Again In Free Fall Record Attempt

A French parachutist, Michel Fournier, failed in another attempt to break the nearly 50-year old record for highest parachute jump on Sunday.  I wrote in a previous blog entry about the current record holder, Joe Kittinger, who set the parachute free fall altitude record of 102,800 feet in 1960. Fournier has been trying to break Kittinger’s record, mostly on his own dime, for a number of years, and hoped to parachute from at least 130,000 feet. Fournier’s project is called “Le Grand Saut” (The Big Jump), and his latest attempt literally never got off the ground when his balloon left without him on the great plains of Saskatchewan, Canada. How the balloon prematurely detached from the pressurized gondola that was to lift Fournier to the planned bailout altitude has not yet been explained.

While Fournier is to be commended for his perseverance (stubbornness?) with this project, I’m not quite sure what the  purpose of his attempt is other than to set a sky diving record and get his name in the news. Fournier has claimed one of the main reasons for the project is to determine if an astronaut could survive a bailout at such high altitudes, either on the way to space or during reentry.  While this may sound commendable, it really doesn’t make much sense. This is basically a rerun of the type of research completed by the U.S. Air Force and Kittinger in the 50’s and 60’s. At that time, there was a real need for this type of study, as we didn’t know what type of human-rated vehicles would be flying into the upper atmosphere, or even into space. What type of escape system would be best-suited for such a vehicle, conventional ejection seats, escape capsules, a combination of the two? The Air Force program showed that a man could conceivably survive a bailout from an aerospace vehicle at altitudes up to 100,000 feet. As it turned out, this is about the upper altitude limit of a high performance, open ejection seat. (The Lockheed SR-71, which has ejection seats for the crew,  has officially flown to at least 85,000 feet, while unofficially it can probably go to at least 100,000 feet). Even at that altitude, you better be wearing a pressure suit or you are not going to survive the ejection. 

After the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, I was asked to be part of a team of ejection seat experts tasked by NASA to study escape systems for the remaining shuttle fleet.  While the results of our study showed that ejection seats would probably have saved the Challenger astronauts, their use was limited to a narrow portion of the Shuttle flight envelope during both launch and reentry.  Also, with up to seven astronauts on a shuttle mission, the cost and weight penalty for retrofitting the shuttle fleet with ejection seats was too much for NASA to pay. In the end NASA decided to go with an inhouse-developed manual bailout system, which can only be used in a very narrow portion of the shuttle flight envelope – much narrower than ejection seats. (Some critics have said this system is so limited it is more of a placebo for the astronauts than a viable escape system.)  When you start operating manned aerospace vehicles above 100,000 feet, you really need some type of capsule system for emergency escape, especially if you have more than one crewmember. Fournier’s attempt to successfully bail out from 130,000 feet is not really going to tell us much more about escape from extreme altitudes. (As an aside, when SpaceShipOne set an altitude record of over 365,000 feet in 2004, the pilot, Brian Binnie was wearing a backpack parachute for an emergency. However, he was not wearing a pressure suit – the cockpit was pressurized – and it is very doubtful if he would have survived a manual bailout from any mishap occurring over 70,000 feet.)  Most studies I’ve seen of future launch vehicles indicate a preference for some type of capsule escape, including the newest manned NASA launch vehicle, Orion. Fournier has vowed to try again later this summer, but at this point maybe it should just be renamed “The Big Stunt”.

Jet Man Soars Over Swiss Alps

Swiss pilot Yves Rossy flew the latest version of his jet-powered wing over the Swiss Alps this week. I mentioned Rossy (who now goes by FUSIONMAN) in an earlier blog entry, and at that time his wing only used a couple small jet engines. The wing he flew this week has about an 8-foot span, but now has four jet engines (erroneously called the Rocket Man by the mainstream press, the engines he uses are not rockets, but model aircraft jet engines manufactured by a German company). Even with four micro jet engines, Rossy still can not produce enough thrust to take off from the ground. Instead, he is dropped from an aircraft, deploys the wing, and then fires up the jet engines. His flight this week lasted about nine minutes and he hit speeds up to 185 mph. Even though it looked like he was gaining altitude during his flight, I think he is just trading speed for altitude as he zoomed up and down. The micro engines can probably only produce enough thrust to  maintain altitude, but not climb. Also, he still has to deploy a parachute and land like a conventional skydiver when he runs out of fuel.

I wouldn’t get too excited about ordering one of these jet wings for personal use. Rossy has been working on his wing for several years, and as far as I know, is the only person to have flown anything like this. At 185 mph, it looks like the wing is pretty twitchy, and probably requires quite a bit of training and skill to keep it under control. It may have some military applications, since it could allow covert paratroopers to be dropped miles from their actual landing zone, with the jet wing producing quite a bit more glide, or cross range, than a conventional parachutist could during free fall. Or, it could be used to provide a pretty spectacular airshow performance. Rossy’s wing does show just how sophisticated micro jet engines have become. Originally designed for model radio controlled aircraft, you are starting to see them sized up for real aircraft, such as this self-launched glider. It will be interesting to follow the future developments and applications of these micro jet engines. As for FUSIONMAN, he hopes to use his jet wing to fly across the English Channel in the near future.

Possible Aviation Fuel Replacement Under Development

A small company in Indiana is claiming they have developed a new type of fuel for piston engine aircraft that will be cheaper, less polluting, and produce more energy per gallon than existing 100LL aviation fuel. Swift Enterprises, of West Lafayette, Indiana, is saying that instead of using refined crude oil to produce aviation gas, they can synthetically produce fuel using renewable biomass. (They don’t say what type of renewable biomass is required, but if it is not corn, that would be another advantage. Corn-based ethanol production has been under scrutiny lately because of concerns that it really takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the energy that gallon of ethanol generates. Plus there is also the ethical argument that you are trading food for fuel, when certain parts of the world are facing critical food shortages.)  If the performance claims for Swift Fuel turn out to be true, it would eliminate the concerns that I have previously written about for developing biofuel for aircraft. (Swift is also claiming that components of their fuel can be formulated into a replacement for jet fuel.) Swift also said their technology could produce all the fuel needed
by general aviation in the U.S. using only 5 percent of this countrys
existing bio-fuel plant infrastructure, so major new plants would not be required.

The claims for the Swift fuel are pretty amazing, but I have to think the work this company is doing may be more valid than some of the other wild claims (You too can run your car on water!) of hydrocarbon-based fuel replacements that surface whenever crude oil prices rise. The company principles appear to have solid engineering and scientific backgrounds, and it looks like they have already started using the fuel in aircraft piston engine ground tests. Still, I would definitely want to see more real-world test data before I buy in to this as a substitute for 100LL aviation fuel. (It looks like the company will start working with the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA)  to evaluate the safety and viability of this
fuel.) Also, if Swift Enterprises can successfully produce a cheaper, cleaner replacement for jet fuel using this technology, it would be a game-changer for the
struggling airline industry, as fuel currently accounts for the greatest share of
their operating costs. It will be interesting to follow the efforts of this company to see if the Swift fuel really can deliver on its promises. And with 100LL selling for over $5 a gallon, a cheaper, cleaner aviation fuel can’t come soon enough.

T-38 Trainers Grounded By U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force grounded their entire fleet of Northrop T-38C supersonic trainers after a fatal accident last week in Texas. It was the second fatal T-38 crash in the last two weeks, and in both cases the student pilot and instructor did not survive.  The first crash occurred on April 23 soon after takeoff from Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, and the second one on May 1, during landing approach at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas.

The T-38 Talon was designed in the 1950s, and the first prototype flew in 1959. The U.S. Air Force has over 500 aircraft still in their inventory, and various safety upgrades, including structural and avionic enhancements, have allowed the Air Force to continue flying them with a relatively good safety record for almost 50 years.  NASA also has a small fleet of T-38s that they use for astronaut flight currency and training.

Another T-38 safety upgrade that has not been implemented yet, but has been in development for several years,  is the retrofit of current state-of-the-art ejection seats into the two-place aircraft. Manufactured by Martin-Baker Aircraft in the United Kingdom, the  Mk-16 ejection seat has already been retrofit to the NASA T-38 fleet several years ago. Plans are underway to eventually change out the old Northrop seats in the Air Force trainers, with a contract awarded to Martin-Baker in 2005. The existing Northrop seat is a 1950’s early generation ejection seat and has poor low speed, low altitude escape performance, apparently the part of the flight envelope where both of these accidents unfortunately occurred.  In at least one of the mishaps, a local TV station is reporting that one of the crewmembers attempted to eject. If the official mishap investigations conclude that a more advanced ejection seat could have saved one or more of the crew in these two accidents, you may see the Air Force accelerate the retrofit of the Martin-Baker seats into all of their T-38s as quickly as possible.