Category Archives: Aviation

A Century of Southern California Aerospace

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

One of my favourite NASA clips shows the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar module blasting off, bringing home astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt – the last humans to set foot on the moon.

The film is presently looping, next to an R-18 rocket engine like the one used in the ascent, at the Huntington Library’s  Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition –  chronicaling a hundred years of Southern Californian aerospace.

RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display
RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display (Photo:Huntington Library Flickr)

There wouldn’t be much of an economy in the region if it wasn’t for aerospace  – that, and the entertainment industry.

From the first fly-ins and air-meets of Wright Brothers’ style aeroplanes in 1910, to the birth of commercial aviation in the 1920s, to World War II fighter production and surveilance aircraft for the Cold War, to a still evolving space programme; this single-room display is an impressive distillation of the events, people, and motivations behind it all.

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

Documented photographs dominate the display.  I liked this shot of a flight hostess in 1929, framed serving tea in the doorway of a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) passenger aircraft – something of a contrast to pilot Amelia Earhart leaning against the hanger doors of an aircraft factory.

TAT Hostess, 1929 (Photo: Huntington press release)
Amelia Earhart at Lockheed, 1930s (Photo: Huntington press release)









Politics might not be the most noble motivation for the conquest of space, but the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in 1957 sure pushed the pace.   In 1958, under Eisenhower and with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA was formed.  Later that year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer 1 satellite (the horizonal object in the glass case above) shot into orbit in response to the Sputnik challenge.

The accompanying social commentary is also fascinating, and with family connections (on my wife’s side), we found the photographs of 50’s/60’s laboratory life – like JPL’s all-women ‘platoon’ of mechanical calculator operators lined up at their desks – especially interesting.

(A recent scholarly analysis of NASA history can be had for free in NASA 50th Anniversary Proceedings, NASA’s first 50 Years:Historical Perspectives.  For cultural insights on the era, see my posts Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science and Buck Rogers – a Copper Clad Lesson from History) )

The exhibition isn’t just about NASA though.  For more info, check out the website or visit till the 9th January 2012.


Matt Melis Shares 30 Years of the Space Shuttle at the London Science Festival

There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip.  But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s  Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.

Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival 2011
Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan.  The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission).  Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).

Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival Photo:Tim Jones
Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.

The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch.  Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios.  So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.

Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be.  Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating.  Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:

The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.

Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)
Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)

Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life.  Melis showed  a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch.   Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people.  Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.

All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here.  Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:


Bonus Clips from Ascent:

A Cautious Perspective on the Mystery Missile

You may be aware of the mini-controversy  around what was initially thought to be a ‘mystery missile’ launch earlier this week off the California coast.  This clip sums it up:

The official line now seems to be that it wasn’t  a missile at all, but the vapour contrail from a passenger jet, the sunset and viewing angle making the event look like something it wasn’t. Last time I looked, NASA were reported to be supporting that view based on satellite imagery, and a specific aircraft has been correlated with the event.

The incident reminded me that things are indeed not always as they seem, especially  in the sky around sunrise and sunset.  And to illustrate, I’ve dug out a few pictures – all taken in the last three months.

One thing that really struck me in the mystery missile film was the ‘solidity’ and volume of the plume.  Aircraft contrails are more wispy aren’t they?   But then I looked at this picture I took just before sunrise, which includes a contrail every bit as bushy as the one in the film:

Contrails over Surry, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)
Contrails over Surry, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)

Perspective too is a funny thing.  Take a look at this picture I took of a passenger jet near Heathrow Airport in London just as the sun was setting.

Passenger Jet (Photo: Tim Jones)
Passenger Jet (Photo: Tim Jones)

It’s not immediately obvious, to me at least, whether this plane is coming at me or flying away.  There’s a Gestalt Switch moment when the eyes confuse the rear of the fuselage for the nose end.  Things don’t get much clearer when we zoom in:

Passenger Jet (Photo: Tim Jones)
Passenger Jet (Photo: Tim Jones)

A few seconds later and the setting sun catches the plane’s tail, making the direction of flight more obvious.  At a distance, could such a bright reflection isolated to one part of an aircraft be confused with a rocket nozzle – especially if you’d already got the idea in mind?

Sun reflecting off aircraft tail-fin (Photo: Tim Jones)
Sun reflecting off aircraft tail-fin (Photo: Tim Jones)

It’s easy to be fooled by bright objects catching the sun.  Helium filled toy balloons are favourite UFO candidates.  I’ve more than once rushed into the house for camera and binoculars when something fast and bright has appeared in the sky.  The motion of a rising balloon is very smooth, and viewed from the right angle the mystery object can appear to travel horizontally across the sky faster than it really is.  The last one I saw reminded me of an International Space Station (ISS) pass, only in daylight.  Again, one of the issues I have with the mystery missile film is that I can’t tell how fast the missile / aircraft is moving – vertically or horizontally.

Shiny balloons make for great UFOs (Photo: Tim Jones)
Shiny balloons make for great UFOs (Photo: Tim Jones)

Here’s another example of skyward things not being all they at first seem.  To the naked eye, we see a typical multi-engine passenger jet flying at high altitude.

Aircraft contrail illusion (Photo: Tim Jones)
Aircraft contrail illusion (Photo: Tim Jones)

But with the benefit of a telephoto lens, it turns out to be three (presumably military) jets flying in formation:

Three jets in formation, showing contrails (Photo: Tim Jones)
Three jets in formation, showing contrails (Photo: Tim Jones)

Something else that isn’t clear from the mystery missile footage is the absolute and relative position of the helicopter that took the pictures.  Again, perspective can be confusing.  Take a look at this shot I took looking down on a plane in the clouds.  Obviously I took this from the air, right?

Jet plane against clouds (Photo: Tim Jones)
Jet plane against clouds (Photo: Tim Jones)

Wrong.  I was standing in the local park (and it’s not a hilly region) when I took this.  A bird flying into the frame puts some limits on the likely altitude, but it’s still ambiguous if you don’t see the full context:

Jet plane against clouds (Photo: Tim Jones)
Jet plane against clouds (Photo: Tim Jones)

To finish off, here’s a picture I took only a couple of weeks ago from mountains over-looking Los Angeles and the bay area.  It was twilight, and that lump above LA Downtown is Catalina Island.  Perfect missile-spotting conditions.  Maybe I’ll catch the next one.

View over Los Angeles and out to sea (Photo: Tim Jones)
View over Los Angeles and out to sea (Photo: Tim Jones)

UPDATE 13/11/2010

Comprehensive analysis of this event and discussion of previous missile/aircraft contrail confusions here at

A Brush with Base Jumping

Base jumper in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland (Photo: Tim Jones)

I see from the TV listings that Channel 4 (UK) will tomorrow be airing  The Men Who Jump off Buildings: a documentary about the extreme sport of base jumping.  Launching from Buildings, Antennas, Spans, Earth (hence BASE), base jumping practitioners have only seconds to control their descent  and deploy a parachute.   Jumps from buildings and cliffs are particularly demanding due to the danger of hitting something sideways on the way down.

Base jumper in Lauterbrunnen Valley (Photo:Tim Jones)
Base jumper in Lauterbrunnen Valley (Photo:Tim Jones,

While the Channel 4 show promises to focus more on jumps from buildings, it reminds me of a base jump from a cliff side I witnessed in 2007, in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The rapid-fire sequence of photos I took at the time should convince you that stamp collecting isn’t such a bad hobby after all.

I later discovered Lauterbrunnen is something of a base jumping hot-spot, famous for the quality of the jumps, but also for the number of related deaths in recent years.

The sequence of 16 pictures in the gallery below shows the various stages of the jump, including the free-fall glide and chute deployment; the main chute is activated by a smaller chute the jumper holds and throws out at the critical moment.

Although the guy in the pictures landed safe and sound – I had a chat with him later – the sequence  shows him fighting to unravel a tangled harness.  Jumpers say every jump is different, so an ability to think quickly on the spot is as important as understanding the theory.

Lauterbrunnen valley (photo:Tim Jones)
Lauterbrunnen Valley (photo:Tim Jones,

The timing and manner of the chute’s release depends on many factors, including the jumper’s velocity, which in some cases may be below the terminal velocity of around 120 mph.  It goes without saying that the time available to avoid objects and adjust parachutes is severely limited.

Apart from one holiday paragliding experience in the Med., I’ve only worn a parachute while flying gliders – and thankfully never had to use it.  And for now, exhilarating as I’m sure base jumping is, I think I’ll stick to walking up mountains rather than jumping off them.

General Aviation – Mostly Harmless?

I wasn’t very environmentally friendly over the Christmas holidays.

A CO2 emission of 2.1 tonnes, my share of a return flight to the US, represented about a quarter of the average UK person’s total yearly emission of 9 tonnes.

Mostly harmless?

I used this fact recently as a topical lead-in for another article, adding that I once flew light aircraft as a hobby (=double criminal for sure).   But that presumption stuck in my head and prompted some research into the impact those little private planes really have in the big picture of global warming.

‘General Aviation’ is the name used in its broadest sense to include all non-scheduled corporate aviation plus private and sport aviation.   Take out the corporate jets, and we’re left with the ‘Piston GA’ category of the sort covered by my license, and including familiar planes like the four seat Cessna 172.

USA emissions data fell most readily out of Google, with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) pointing to EPA data showing GA’s contribution of less than 1% of all US GHG emissions from the transport sector, and Piston GA only 0.13%.   They argue that this is small potatoes compared to other sources more worthy of the regulator’s attention (see table) .

Table from the AOAG showing 2005 EPA data
Table from the AOPA showing 2005 EPA data

So that’s 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 from relatively small piston engined aircraft (a Tg or tera gram is one million metric tons, or tonnes) .   FAA data on the number of private licenses suggests this emission is associated with 200,000, of the 600,000 or so total pilots in the US.

In the UK, there are far fewer private pilots overall (around 35,000 license holders), and Piston GA in particular has a much smaller role in the economy.

We can estimate C02 from an assumed fuel consumption for the Cessna 172 of 8.6 US gallons per hour, producing 2.3kg CO2 per litre, equating to 75kg CO2 per hour.  Estimating the average recreational pilot is flying less than 50 hours a year equates to 3.7 tonnes CO2, which for 35,000 licensed UK pilots is 130,000 tonnes CO2.

Having a low relative impact is not an excuse to do nothing in this case.  Two efforts to reduce emissions further are exemplified by the Carbon Neutral Plane Programme, which arranges for aircraft owners to offset their aircraft’s emission through financial support of CO2 reduction projects, and technology incentives like the Green Prize competition run by CAFE and reported here.  Technical innovations include engine modifications within existing airframes, such as the introduction of Full Authority Digitial Engine Control (FADEC) – for 15% fuel savings, the substitution of a single, high-efficiency jet in place of  two piston engines, and more radical solutions such as electric powered aircraft.

In summary:

  • The average guy you see out for a fly on a Sunday afternoon is putting 3.7 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over the year
  • If you take one  long haul holiday with your partner, your combined associated emission is larger, at say 4 tonnes CO2,  than the private pilot’s (double that if you take a couple of kids)
  • There are around 35,000 private pilots in the UK
  • There are over 60 million people in the UK – many taking foreign holidays

I guess we all need to decide which of our carbon burning activities are the more unnecessary and decadent – it’s not obvious.  And while I sense some unreasoned prejudice against it, my point is not to defend GA or any other position, but to illustrate the importance of understanding in general on CO2 issues: (a) impact per unit activity, (b) absolute impact, and (c) the opportunity cost of not putting your time, financial, intellectual, management, and emotional  resource where it can do the most good.