Golden Era of Aeronautics, Part Two

Portrait of Patrick Stoliker, Deputy Director NASA Dryden Flight Research CenterPatrick Stoliker

Deputy Director 
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

I left off begging a question in my lastblog: despite 60 years of modernity that include six trips to the moon andback, the advent of the internet, and in the field of medicine things like magneticresonance imaging and nano technology, not to mention Voyager leaving our solar system, we are still flying at virtuallythe same speed and altitude as did passengers on the first commercial jetservice in 1952. Why? Has aeronautical technology peaked? Is aerospace a“mature technology” the same way that dirigibles are? Are there no morequestions to ask in this field? Or are we on the cusp of the next golden era ofaircraft development.

When the Germans asked General AnthonyMcAuliffe to surrender at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he reportedly said:“Nuts!” That’s my answer to the rhetorical question I posed.

First of all, there are plenty ofaeronautical questions left to ask and answer, which is why, after more than 60years, we’re still here at the same desert outpost those 13 people came to in1946.

 Here’s some questions: can we makeaircraft fly supersonically—over land—and suppress the shock wave that goes withit enough so that the noise is acceptable to the people on the ground? Can wedo this and also improve the fuel efficiency of the same aircraft?

Here’s another question: can we actuallyreduce the cost of putting a pound of something—anything—into space? It’s runclose to $10,000 per pound since I’ve been alive, and since I’ve been alive thequest has been to reduce that figure. There have been different plans, andDryden has been involved in several of them, and we’re involved in another as Iwrite this now. This is especially relevant since NASA’s mission has shiftedfrom delivering goods to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to exploring deep space; now thedelivery job is going to private industry and our job—NASA’s job—is to nurtureindustry in this new venture. Finding ways to reduce the cost of access tospace is serious business, not pie-in-the-sky stuff. These are questions thatneed answers.

Meanwhile, we at Dryden haven’t been sittingstill these past 60 years, even if it might seem that way because we’re stilltraveling at the same speed as the folks who flew on Yoke Peter. While there are more of us in an airliner fuselage thenever, the range of the aircraft has increased dramatically and fuel consumptionimproved. That’s because the engines have become more efficient. They are alsofar quieter than before. If you don’t believe me, go find a Boeing 737-200 andget close to it when it takesImage of KC-135 Stratotanker with winglets attached flying over the San Gabriel mountains near Edwards AFB. off; when–and if–your hearing comes back we’ll gofind a Boeing 737-800 and compare its takeoff noise level. On top of that, youcan watch the -200 for a long, long time after it flies away because of itsexhaust plume; the current crop of jet engines operate more efficiently andleave far less pollution in the atmosphere than did the previous generation.These are improvements most people tend not to notice—they’re qualitative notquantitative jumps—but NASA has had a hand in all this. Every time passengersget on an airliner that has winglets they should think two things: better fuelefficiency and NASA. (Think: Whitcomb and a KC-135 flown here at Dryden)

The seats passengers sit in, the way theyare anchored to the floor, the fabric the seats are made of, the lighting onthe floor that leads to an exit–these things and more are safety features thatNASA Dryden has directly affected but which passengers are completely unawareof while they sip their sodas at 35,000 feet—they can’t even get snacks anymore—anddon’t think about messing with your electronic device on the runway!! (Rememberthe Boeing 720 and the Controlled Impact Demonstration?) Life is better becauseof the continued questions we ask here.

Photograph of F-8 Supercritical wing aircraft flying over NASA DrydenThere was a brief moment when it looked likewe were all going to fly a bit faster as airline passengers. In 1972 engineersat Dryden began flying a Vought F-8 Crusader with a new wing on it. Designed byRichard Whitcomb of NASA Langley, the Supercritical Wing was expected to delaythe onset of pre-Mach buffet and the dramatic jump in drag that accompanies anaircraft as it approaches Mach. Whitcomb’s radical new wing design did both,and the airlines were keen on getting planes with the new airfoil so they couldfly faster. It would take a while for the manufacturers to get a plane to themarket—it always does, but the airlines would be ready; and then the first gaspeacetime gas crisis in American history hit (ca. 1974-). After that theairlines still wanted the supercritical wing—and they got them—but they neverflew any faster then they ever did.

We continue to make incremental improvementsin all classes of aircraft from micro-UAVS through general aviation,commercial, and high performance. But we still seem to be living in the shadowof the last golden age of aeronautics development.

So when you look around and say “we aren’tgoing any faster,” you could be saying “we are going the same as we did butdoing it so much more cleanly, so much more quietly, so much more efficiently,so much more safely, at far less risk than ever before, and NASA and Dryden hashad an enormous role in all of this, every step of the way!”

I’ll finish one more question, “What isgoing to trigger the next golden era of aeronautics?”