Astrium: we are committed to space jet

By Rob Coppinger

EADS Astrium’s suborbital space jet has the company’s long term commitment and its technological development will be sustained according to the company’s deputy chief technical officer.

Following speculation that Astrium’s January decision to slow space jet’s development meant it was closing the project down, the company’s deputy chief technical officer Hugues Laporte-Weywada spoke exclusively to Flightglobal.com about the long term plan.

Without giving a timetable he pointed to business jet and rocket engine development both having seven-year concept to certification schedules.

He also declined to identify technical milestones citing other suborbital vehicle developers’ preference for secrecy. Virgin Galactic does not give technical development details and Blue Origin is working in total secrecy.

“If it was publicly funded it is required to disclose this, [but] this is privately funded,” says Laporte-Weywada, adding that space jet’s development slow down was short term, driven by the credit crunch and that, “the [financial] crisis has not changed the perception of the [space tourism] market. It is long term, it is a 20-30 year heavy trend market. This is why we will not give up.”

The company has a €1 billion ($1.34 billion) price tag for space jet’s development. Laporte-Weywada explained that that included Astrium’s own estimate for certification because its leadership wanted a credible figure even if it seemed high.

©EADS Astrium

Above: EADS Astrium’s space jet reaches its apogee

The US Federal Aviation Administration’s framework for suborbital tourism does not require certification but preliminary European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) work concluded last year that existing EASA rules could be applied to aircraft-like suborbital vehicles.

Laporte-Weywada endorsed EASA’s approach and rejected the suggestion that European certification requirements was protectionism, ensuring US flown vehicles could not operate in EASA member states.

But Astrium will not operate the space jet, which is a working title, and expects third parties to use it. Laporte-Weywada explained that the decision not to become an operator was made because Astrium is about engineering, it is not a service company. But when space jet was announced in 2007 Astrium still got a lot of emails and phone calls from people wanting to buy tickets.

While government certification may encourage potential operators to buy space jets Laporte-Weywada admitted that to get a return on investment of a €1 billion single stage to suborbit craft could redefine what was meant by a “normal” investment cycle. Asked if leasing was an option to encourage operators instead of demanding full payment he said that the “business model had not been decided yet”.

When asked why an operator might choose space jet over Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnight Two, SpaceShip Two system with its potential use as a micro satellite launcher Laporte-Weywada pointed to the lower operating costs of a single vehicle for tourism. Although he expected only an evolution of space jet would deliver its own micro satellite launching capability.

Looking beyond the credit crunch to space jet’s prospects he says: “I worked on the Ariane [rocket] during some really difficult days. I do not underestimate the difficulty of [developing space jet].”


Airbus develops wing fairing to reduce larger engine drag penalty

By John Croft

Airbus engineers have applied for a US patent on a wing root fairing technology the company says can reduce the drag penalty that comes from installing larger engines on existing airframes.

Speculation has been growing that the company may be considering installing larger diameter Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan (GTF) engines on a new and improved Airbus A320, a move that would require the aircraft to accommodate the GTF’s larger diameter fans. Airbus has denied any intent to do so however.

During the testing of Pratt’s GTF PurePower PW1000G demonstrator engine, Airbus requested to loan the engine to test on an A340, an effort that ultimately resulted in an abbreviated albeit “tortuous” flight test campaign similar to a certification programme, according to Pratt officials. Airbus testing included engine performance through 14 power-on stalls and manoeuvring up to 2Gs.

Combined with flights on its Boeing 747 testbed, the engine manufacturer accumulated more than 400h of ground and flight testing on the engine, with data supporting claims of a 12-15% reduction in fuel burn and more than 50% reduction in noise and CO2 emissions from today’s equivalent thrust engines. Pratt officials said Boeing did not request a similar evaluation.

Pratt has not ruled out airframers like Boeing or Airbus re-engineering existing lines, but points out that the development cost for such a project would likely be in the $1 billion cost range, about the same amount the company has invested so far in the technology.

Two airframers are currently signed on to use the GTF technology – Mitsubishi for the MRJ and Bombardier for the CSeries.

Airbus in the patent application, submitted 26 March, says thrust of its fairing technology is to improve aircraft performance “under diverse flying conditions”, but that it could also be used to boost useful load and to make the aircraft capable of increased autonomy.

The modified wing-root fairings, also known as central fairings, include local geometric deformations or bumps and valleys along the wing/fuselage interface that create pressure waves that propagate outward to the wing tips, influencing the drag created by the engines. Airbus analysed the devices for a range of aircraft, including the A320, A340 and A380.

The picture below shows the normal (top) and contoured fairing (bottom) looking down on the fuselage-wing interface for an A320.


OpenSkies reveals violet streak as L’Avion 757s are repainted

By David Kaminski-Morrow

British Airways’ transatlantic business operation OpenSkies has started integrating the Boeing 757-200s of French carrier L’Avion into its fleet.

The first L’Avion twin-jet, F-HAVI, is being painted in the OpenSkies livery, but retaining an acknowledgement to L’Avion through a violet fuselage lettering, while the nose carries the name ‘Violette’.

OpenSkies is reconfiguring the interior of the French aircraft, and rebranding its cabin layout to reflect the all-business product. The cabin with lie-flat seats will be branded ‘Biz Bed’ while the former ‘Prem+’ cabin will be known as ‘Biz Seat’.

Managing director Dale Moss says the change will “better convey the fact that, no matter the cabin, you’ll experience business-class excellence”.

OpenSkies 757
© OpenSkies

The carrier will retain only the OpenSkies name once the integration is complete, and cabin crew will have a new uniform by September.

Although OpenSkies’ ex-British Airways 757s have 64 seats, Moss previously told Flightglobal sister publication Air Transport Intelligence that the two L’Avion 757s would be refitted with 82 seats, comprising 12 in the ‘Biz Bed’ cabin and 70 in ‘Biz Seat’. Passengers will also have access to portable Archos in-flight entertainment systems.

British Airways has confirmed that its 11 remaining mainline 757s will not go to OpenSkies but instead be sold for cargo conversion. Moss insists that while OpenSkies’ expansion is on hold, British Airways’ decision to sell the 757s does not indicate a loss of confidence in the all-business carrier.

“If the British Airways aircraft aren’t in the air generating revenue, now is the time to sell them to the highest bidder and get them off the balance sheets,” he says.

“This is OK by us. We have assessed the market for 757s and believe that there are plenty available with the proper configuration when we decide to grow in the future.”


Avic Aircraft Sees Itself In New Top Three

Bradley Perrett/Beijing

China’s newly established Avic Aircraft intends to become the world’s third force in making large airplanes, setting itself up for rivalry with compatriot commercial aircraft builder Comac.

The new company is poised to deeply restructure much of the Chinese aircraft industry, reshaping it in the pattern of Airbus. Old regional entities such as Xi’an and Shaanxi Aircraft are to be swept away, replaced with a framework of units each specializing in its own part of the airframe, such as the wing or nose section.

The challenges for Avic Aircraft are vast and its ambitions for a leading global position are surely unattainable for many years, if ever. But the planning, at least, suggests that managers are aiming to create a company quite unlike the gaggle of semi-independent Chinese aviation businesses that have so far given major Western airframe makers little competition.

In terms of products, Avic Aircraft is proposing to build a large military transport and is open to developing a big turboprop airliner that would compete with Comac, outflanking rules intended to prevent the two companies’ products from overlapping.

Details of Avic Aircraft’s plans emerged in an interview of company President Hu Xiaofeng with International Aviation, the Chinese partner magazine of Aviation Week & Space Technology. The strategy of sibling company Avic Defense has also appeared in International Aviation (see p. 22 and AW&ST Mar. 30, p. 40).

Avic Aircraft, provisionally called Transport Aircraft when the industry’s reforms were announced last year, defines its role as the integrated design and manufacturing of cargo lifters, propeller passenger aircraft, bombers and specialty aircraft. In other words, its focus is large airplanes, excluding passenger jets.

In its birth and restructuring, it is trailing Comac, a new Shanghai company to which Beijing has assigned a national monopoly for building complete jet airliners with more than 70 seats.

While Avic Aircraft is forbidden from building major jetliners, Hu says “in the area of large airliner projects it will play an important role”–meaning that it aims to build major aircraft sections.

The businesses that are forming Avic Aircraft already make many components for major Western manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing. They also build major sections for Comac’s ARJ21 regional jet and will probably do the same for Comac’s forthcoming C919 mainline passenger aircraft (AW&ST Mar. 16, p. 41).

Avic Aircraft and Avic Defense are just two of a range of specialist aeronautics companies that are being formed from the disparate plants and research institutes of the former Avic 1 and 2, which were merged as Avic last year. Others include rotary-wing specialist Avicopter and another company devoted to general aviation. Avic is the parent of all of the new specialists, but the subsidiaries are supposed to have considerable and increasing autonomy, following the lead of Comac, which is no longer really part of the Avic structure.

Comac is naturally seen as the company that China hopes will stand alongside Airbus and Boeing in decades to come, but Hu asserts that Avic Aircraft will become the world’s third main player in building large aircraft.

Western executives working with the Chinese industry say, on the one hand, that one should not underestimate the country’s determination to establish a first-rank aerospace sector but, on the other, that it still has a long way to go.

“There is a serious shortage of people with the necessary depth of experience across the industry,” says one of those executives. “That experience will come eventually, but it can’t come out of thin air.

“They will need to keep on gathering their strength gradually through a succession of domestic projects and they will want to learn what they can from the work they are doing for foreign manufacturers.”

Those foreign manufacturers, naturally, are not going out of their way to help China learn. Boeing contracts Avic Aircraft units to make parts, but only under so-called build-to-print contracts–following designs that the U.S. company has drawn up outside of China. Airbus is doing development work inside China, but has carefully structured the business to minimize technology transfer (AW&ST Feb. 9, p. 39).

The units that have gone into Avic Aircraft include Xi’an Aircraft, Shaanxi Aircraft and civil operations of Chengdu and Shenyang, whose military factories have been assigned to Avic Defense. Other facilities include the First Aircraft Institute, a design center. These are famous names in the history of Chinese aircraft building, but nostalgia is not getting in the way of reforms: The separate companies and institutes are to be dissolved, with their resources reallocated by function.

The First Aircraft Institute, for example, will be combined with the design units at Shaanxi and Xi’an to form Avic Aircraft’s unified research and development center.

Their current shortcomings show why they need to be merged.

“Those three units have all set up independent design departments for different types of aircraft,” says Hu. “But these departments appear to have difficulty in coping with their responsibilities. We must integrate these dispersed resources and make them achieve a greater combined ability than they have now.”

That is a hint at the shortage of skills and experience that the Western executives point to.

Other Avic Aircraft units will mirror the diverse plants that have traditionally made up the Airbus structure, variously specializing in tails, fuselage sections, etc., and there will also be sales and after-sales service departments.

“Airbus has already proved that one of the best frameworks for building large aircraft is this one made up of business segments and centers of excellence,” says Hu.

Surprisingly, Avic Aircraft has also been assigned the entire Chinese landing-gear industry, even though another new company under Avic has been set up as the national aircraft systems specialist.

A key omission from the initial structure is final assembly. That is because Avic Aircraft proposes later to create separate divisions for passenger aircraft, freighters and what it calls special aircraft–which probably include military derivatives for such purposes as airborne early warning. These divisions will own the final assembly lines, while the other units will presumably be their internal suppliers.

This new structure will not be compromised by having to fit around old programs. Hu says it will handle only new products; the old ones will keep their current arrangements. He can probably afford to adopt that strategy because the company’s current aircraft are generally modernized copies of Soviet originals from the 1950s and 1960s and may not have long production lives ahead of them.

For example, Avic Aircraft builds the MA60 and MA600 propeller airliners, updates of the Antonov An-26, but is moving on to develop the MA700, a 70-seat turboprop of its own design.

The Beijing-directed division of responsibilities between Comac and Avic Aircraft does not limit the size of the latter’s turboprops, however. Hu says his company will “not shirk responsibility” for “all weight classes of propeller airliners”–a clear indication that he would like to build a big propliner.

There may be a gap in the market for such an aircraft, which becomes more attractive with higher prices for fuel and carbon dioxide emissions.

Hu says Avic Aircraft is also willing to take on jets with fewer than 70 seats, which it is also allowed to do.

More immediately, he says that the company must enter the field of large freight aircraft. That is almost certainly a reference to a long-expected Chinese heavy military airlifter, which the company could well already have in secret development. Considering the challenge that Avic Aircraft would face in such a project, and especially in securing advanced and powerful engines, the airlifter may emerge as a derivative of a Russian or Ukrainian design, such as the An-70.

Avic Aircraft is also working on the Y-9, a greatly improved development of the Shaanxi Y-8, itself a copy of the An-12. China is reportedly getting Ukrainian support for advanced features that will help make the Y-9 a competitor to the Lockheed Martin C-130J, including a redesigned wing.

Hu does not say whether the Y-9 will be regarded as a new project that will fit into the new corporate structure or as the last of the old products, leaving it mostly at Shaanxi. Nor did he mention further developments of a successor to the H-6 bomber, which is based on the Tupolev Tu-16.

Like Avic’s other new specialist subsidiaries, Avic Aircraft will put itself on to the stock market by transferring its main assets to subsidiaries that are already listed. Those subsidiaries will together become the listed company that takes the business forward. Hu says the future listed company may be called Zhongfei, meaning China Aircraft.

Avic MA600 photo credit: Akzonobel Aerospace Coatings


Air Canada Traffic Numbers Weaken In March

Air Canada said Friday its load factor and traffic statistics weakened in March even as it cut capacity, but the airline blamed much of the decline on its year-ago figures which benefited from the high-demand Easter holiday.

Air Canada, which parachuted in a new chief executive and operating officers this week, said its planes flew 81.8 percent full in March, down 1.8 percentage points from a year earlier.

Traffic, measured by revenue passenger miles, totaled 3.555 billion miles, down 13.1 percent, and capacity fell 11.3 percent to 4.345 billion available seat miles.

This year, Easter, when travelers take to the skies to spend time with family for a long weekend, falls in April.

Air Canada is dealing with a tight cash position as it weathers the recession and stiff competition from rival WestJet Airlines. It has been reducing its capacity over the past year to match lower demand.

“We will continue this disciplined approach to capacity management and will make adjustments as necessary to meet peak summer season travel demand,” new chief executive Calin Rovinescu said in a statement.

Rovinescu took over the top job on Wednesday from Montie Brewer, who had led Canada’s biggest airline since 2004. The new CEO was a player in Air Canada’s last restructuring six years ago, which has sparked speculation that another corporate overhaul may be in the cards.

Air Canada’s regional affiliate, Jazz Air, had a hefty 7 percentage point drop in load factor to 69.5 percent in March.

Its traffic totaled 307 million revenue passenger miles, down 17.5 percent, as capacity fell 9.1 percent to 442 available seat miles.


Espanha perde F-18

A Força Aérea da Espanha perdeu um EF-18A+ (conhecido localmente como C.15) no último dia 2 de abril, quando a aeronave realizava um voo noturno próximo da cidade de Caparroso. O piloto escapou ao ejetar-se.

O EF-18A+ pertencia ao esquadrão 121, baseado em Torrejon, e realizava uma missão de treinamento noturno junto com outras três aeronaves. O incidente encontra-se sob investigação.

A Força Aérea da Espanha adquiriu 60 EF-18A e 12 EF-18B na década de 1980. Os remanescentes deste primeiro lote passaram por um programa de modernização, colocando-os num patamar próximos dos F/A-18C/D.

Em 1995 um outro lote de F-18 usados, provenientes da US Navy, foi recebido.

Acredita-se que o “Ejército del Aire” deva ter hoje perto de 88 F-18 no seu inventário.