:: August 2009 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Boomers, Pre-Boomers, And Post-Boomers,

In case you missed it, many folks are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. There’s a new movie, copious media coverage, and probably more than a few 60-something ex-hippies taking their hash pipes and Hendrix records out of storage. I can understand ‘60s nostalgia. Even though I spent most of the decade drooling or watching F Troop or both, the 1960s represent a time of lost innocence, a coming of age, and most of all, a time of great technological achievement. Today in aerospace we can hear echoes of that age, with modern programs that represent ‘60s ambitions, ‘60s scale, and at times ’60’s overreach. As we watch today’s programs struggle, here are four useful lessons that we might learn from those ‘60s experiences:

Lesson 1. Developing revolutionary technology has typically been a godawful experience. Sure, we got to the moon as planned, and the SR-71 was something of a miracle, but most of the ambitious ‘60s aircraft program were anything but easy. The C-5 was created as the first widebody jet, powered by GE’s TF39, the first high bypass turbofan. Both established new precedents for serious cost overruns, schedule slips and technical glitches. The 747, the world’s first twin aisle plane, was Boeing’s last serious stumble (until the 787). Pratt & Whitney stumbled too with the 747’s JT9D, but it created the first commercial high bypass turbofan. The TFX/F-111 was a revolutionary effort to create a multi-service multi-role uni-fighter, and predictably the cost overruns became gargantuan (as did the plane itself). Looking back, it’s amazing that these programs survived.

Today’s big programs are equally momentous and equally troublesome. The programs of the ‘70s and ‘80s didn’t rely on completely derivative technologies, but what’s being attempted today represents a return to the revolutionary developments of the ‘60s. The F-22 and F-35 fifth generation fighters represent a major step forward in fighter design, but the F-22 is basically dead for budget reasons, and the F-35 continues to be threatened by budget cuts and cost overruns. The V-22 is the most radically new rotorcraft since the start of vertical flight, but its long-running drama sets a new level of program agony. And most of all, the 787 will be the world’s first jetliner to use composite primary structures...we think. Just as in the ‘60s, we’re aiming high and stumbling.

Lesson 2. Big risky programs often give you something different from what you expected, but can still be useful. For example, the 747’s long-term future was seen as a cargo hauler, with most passenger traffic expected to shift towards supersonic transports. Instead, until long-haul mid-market planes took over, the 747 spent 25 years as the dominant global people mover. The F-111 was viewed as a scandalous nightmare, with whole books written about the “TFX fiasco.” The plane grew way too big for anyone except the USAF (and the RAAF, which got 24). Unit cost quintupled and procurement was cut from several thousand to just 562. Yet as Edward Luttwak pointed in his epochal The Pentagon And The Art Of War, the F-111 went on to spend the 1980s as one of the most highly valued air assets, the first plane deployed in a crisis. It was big, expensive, and over-engineered, but it also had the best capabilities and systems. As a side note, the F-22’s future might resemble the F-111’s past.

Lesson 3. You might not get there. No program is sacrosanct, no matter how innovative. Most of the great ‘60s programs ended happily, or at least not too tragically. But that’s because total failures don’t stick around to remind us of their failure, unless you’re an historian of failure, like me (I recommend Failure magazine— Bombers fared particularly poorly, with the ‘60s seeing the long overdue shelving of the nuclear-powered bomber and the death of the XB-70 Valkyrie. Boeing’s 2707 SST died too. But the most resonant ‘60s failure was Rolls-Royce’s original RB211 engine, which used Hyfil, an advanced carbon composite material for its fan blades. This material proved to be oversold, resulting in Rolls-Royce going back to metal, and going bankrupt in the process. After reports of its disappointing readiness rates in Iraq, the V-22 could easily go the way of the F-22. Most importantly, there are no guarantees that the 787 will perform as advertised. In fact, there are no guarantees with this program at all. For failure historians, Hyfil’s shadow looms large around this plane.

Lesson 4. If revolutionary programs don’t get there, the incremental guys win. Concorde and Hyfil excepted, most of the revolutionary ‘60s aero programs came from the US. European programs have been far more evolutionary. Airbus’s biggest successes have been with the A320 series, the third trunkliner family to arrive on the market, and the A330, a modern elaboration on the original Airbus twinjet twin aisle concept, leveraging the original A300 tube to drive the 767 out of the market. European fighter programs follow a similar pattern, with the Tornado introducing the F-111’s swing wings a decade later, and Eurofighter promising “an F/A-18 at F-16 prices”…a mere generation after those planes were introduced. Incremental technology is easier to execute, although the non-revolutionary A400M might just be the joker in the pack.

Rotorcraft provide a great example of the Third and Fourth lessons. Fun yet atrocious fact: 90% of US rotorcraft R&D over the past 20 years went towards tiltrotors and the RAH-66 Comanche, two big and risky programs. The Comanche is dead, and the V-22 is struggling, and could easily be cancelled. Its civil cousin, Bell’s 609, has survived so far, but just barely. By contrast, European rotorcraft R&D has gone into traditional rotorcraft designs. That largely explains why, in the civil segment at least, AgustaWestland and Eurocopter have been devouring what was once a US market. Teal’s World Rotorcraft Overview, updated this month, forecasts that tiltrotors will comprise over 15% of the value of the market over the next ten years. If the V-22 dies, the US lead further erodes.

But the biggest takeaway from the Third and Fourth lessons concerns the 787 and A350XWB. This is something of a zero-sum game. If the revolutionary 787 succeeds and monolithic composite fuselages really are the future, the A350XWB will be a runner-up plane. But if the 787 disappoints or fails completely, the A350XWB will be in a great position. While revolutionary by European standards, the A350XWB offers a far more conservative approach to composite structures. Airbus, in a 787 setback or failure scenario, would look a lot like Eurocopter with its emphasis on traditional rotorcraft, and Boeing would look a lot like Bell, with its emphasis on tiltrotors. Sometimes, incrementalism pays big dividends.

In addition to the Rotorcraft Overview, Teal updates this month include an F-22 update, plus reports on Cessna’s Citation series, the Il-96, Tu-204, F-117, HondaJet, An-28/38, AS350, and the SJ30. Have a good month.

Yours, “Til We Find Something In This Decade To Get Nostalgic About,
Richard Aboulafia


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006