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:: March 2012 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Armchair Aero Legend Adjudicators,

As movie fans know, what happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club. Thankfully, the same isn’t true of Collier Club. Having just had the honor of serving on the 2011 Collier Selection committee, established to choose the winner of the US aeronautical equivalent of the Oscars, I’m apparently free to write about it and all the exciting behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the competition.

However, there wasn’t a lot of excitement this year. Candidates included Lockheed’s re-engined C-5M RERP, a human-powered helicopter called Gamera, and the Taurus G4, a battery-powered four seat GA plane. Oh, and some twin aisle jetliner called the 787, made, apparently, by a Seattle-based company called Boeing. Non-spoiler alert: the 787 won. But to its credit, the Committee – 31 aviation/aerospace people, including four previous Collier recipients – listened very carefully to each of the four presentations, which were quite professional and rather exciting. I learned something, too.

First, the non-winners. Gamera, the only aircraft (I think) named after a Japanese movie flying turtle monster, was magnificent. A scrappy and enthusiastic team of engineers (and a hard-pedaling bicyclist) from the University of Maryland, using handmade composite structures (or a Hasbro Easy-Bake autoclave) managed to get a large rotorcraft a few inches airborne. Very briefly. They won points for their underdog status – they made the Mighty Ducks look like the Pittsburgh Penguins – but ultimately there’s the point of the Collier: the winner needs to demonstrate value “by actual use in the preceding year.” Aside from the inspirational message, I didn’t see anything that had been used last year, or would be used next year, either. But go to www.agrc.umd.edu/gamera and be inspired.

Regrettably, the Taurus G4 did not involve using the body of a Ford Taurus with wings and propellers, thus creating an incredibly cool flying car. Rather, it was a four-seat general aviation (GA) plane powered by batteries, which may (or may not) be a technological dead end for GA, and are a complete non-starter for larger transports. It’s also not really a US product, which rightly or wrongly is a Collier requirement (doesn’t Slovenia have its own aeronautical prize?). There’s also that Collier “actual use” clause. I liked their spirit, but I think we had a unanimous (and anonymous) thumbs down.

Then came the C-5M, which had its charms. Charismatic megafauna like the C-5 are very useful for a global superpower, and the C-5M gives it impressive new capabilities. Besides, the C-5A didn’t win a Collier when it arrived (it entered service in 1970; Boeing’s 747 won that year) and it would have been nice to recognize its greatness. I also wanted to encourage re-engining, an idea that’s neglected by DoD because it makes too much sense. The Air Force officials pitching the C-5M to the Committee played the “it helps the warfighter” card, which was good for that “actual value” message. But the FY 2013 budget killed hopes of a C-5A re-engining, leaving just 49 C-5Bs to be RERPed. That’s great, but re-engining 49 planes isn’t quite Best Picture material.

To me, it wasn’t that the C-5M lost, but rather the 787 won. Despite all the water under the bridge, it’s a remarkable achievement, and it did indeed demonstrate actual value in 2011 because it went into revenue service. Boeing helped its already strong case by not merely showing up for a victory lap. BCA CEO Jim Albaugh came himself, with three key program people. They did a superb presentation highlighting the enormous investment and hard work associated with creating an all-new jetliner that uses very new technologies. They also offered a forward-looking vision of a program that’s out of the woods, which increasingly looks like it could be the case. The only negatives I could think of? See any 787 news between 2007 and 2011.

I know what you’re thinking: “Delayed by over three years, tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns, deeply angry customers…yep, 787 sounds like a fully qualified state of the art aerospace program.” And that’s correct. But that’s where I learned something. Putting the 787 next to the C-5 is a reminder that aeronautical progress is usually painful. What characterizes the best of aerospace? Technological and performance overreach, combined with severe resource underestimation. Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

In fact, I’d posit the existence of a J-Curve for ambitious new aircraft. (I’m not the first to use this alphabetic metaphor; Ian Bremmer uses it to analyze the development of nations; see www.jcurvebook.com). A J-Curve aircraft is an ambitious concept that starts off with great expectations, but quickly sinks in a mire of delays and overruns. Sometimes, as with the Comanche stealth scout helicopter, A-12 stealth carrier attack jet or the NB-36H nuclear powered bomber, ambitious new concepts don’t pull up, and just smack into the metaphorical tarmac. But when they do make it around that curve, bottoming out and rebounding upward, the aircraft that are built are often later revered as technological marvels.

Sometimes, as with Concorde or the B-2, J-Curve aircraft barely make it around the curve, with a handful of planes built. More often, they’re built in modest but usable quantities: 131 C-5s, for example. The F-111 did better, with 563 built after a horrible gestation period. The F-22 is a classic J-Curve plane. The 187 aircraft produced will be highly valued in the decades ahead. Of course, just because a plane follows a J-Curve doesn’t mean that it’s good. The B-1 followed a classic J-Curve, but let’s just say it was never Collier material. I still don’t know whether the V-22 was worth the investment, and we might not have a definitive answer for years (it won the 1990 Collier, inadvertently illustrating how long it can take for aircraft to prove their worth).

In purely commercial terms, relatively straightforward non-J-Curve products tend to do better than J-Curve planes. Airbus and Boeing’s non J-Curve products, the A320, A300/310 and A330, the 757, 767, 777, and 737 Classic/NG, all used known technologies and were hugely rewarded by the market (although the A380 stands out as an unusual combination of known technologies, high risk, and miserable rewards). The derivative F/A-18E/F is in full production and will see about 700 aircraft built; the J-Curve F-22 is quite dead after 187.

J-Curve aircraft only rarely get built in large quantities, putting a big question mark over the F-35’s difficult trajectory. As for the 787, if it lives up to expectations, it will be the first J-Curve plane to be built in large numbers since the 747. And if it is, then we’ll know we gave the Collier to the right plane. History shows that few aircraft combine all-new technology and commercial success.

Teal aircraft updates this month include the A320, A380, 767/KC-46, M-346, all the Gulfstreams, the Dauphin, K-8, PC-12, and the S-76. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til Mitsubishi Names The MRJ After Another Japanese Movie Monster,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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