Booger!

How Safe is Too Safe?

A version of this article first appeared in the November 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

 We have technical input into many aircraft development programs that are flying or intending to fly prototypes of new aircraft or major modifications of existing aircraft.

These aircraft fly under experimental flight certificates and as such the development team have some leeway when it comes to the standards that should be met to demonstrate safety of flight.

Of course, everyone is working towards aircraft that safeguards the life and well being of the pilot and the life and wellbeing of people on the ground.
However, there is a trade off between safety and cost – and the budget is always limited.

So how do you spend your budget to achieve an adequate level of safety? What is an adequate level of safety? What level of documentation is appropriate?

Initial flights of new or modified aircraft always carry an elevated risk. This is why you use a professional test pilot who is critical in helping manage those risks. But how much risk is appropriate? How do assess the risks? How do you mitigate the risks? What about the risks you don’t know about?

Aspects of a program that affect the level of Risk:

    • The uniqueness of the modification – the unique aspects of the configuration of the aircraft or modification?
      • How similar is your design/configuration to other aircraft. Are you developing a multi propeller, canard, Quadraplane?
    • The maturity of the technology utilized
      • Are you using a new design of engine? Trim servo motors? Glass cockpit? New design of Seat? New composite material? New anything?
    • The complexity of the technology utilized
      • Chaining together tried and tested technology is only as reliable as the compounded reliability of the individual components. How carefully have you looked at the reliability of the aircraft critical systems?
    • The experience and competence of the team
      • Aviation history is full of very smart people doing very dumb things. Intelligence is not a guarantee nor an excuse nor is it a substitute for competence.
    • The maturity of the infrastructure and company systems the team is working within
      • Are you working within a set of company systems that guide you through the process of product development and flight safety?
      • Are you developing these systems as you go along?
      • Have you missed anything?
      • How would you know?
    • The experience and competence of the pilot
      • The test pilot is the final gatekeeper of flight safety risk in the input they give at the flight safety reviews, during high speed taxi and flight. They are responsible for making real time risk assessments – real life and death decisions. You need the best possible pilot and you have to give them the best possible information.
    • The reliability of the predictive tools used by the development team
      • What kind of analytical assessments are flight safety based on? Estimates? Empirical analysis? Software simulation? Lab or ground testing? Did you fly a scale model? How does the likely accuracy of the results of the design process affect safety of flight?
      • The flight envelope of the aircraft
  • How do you plan to conduct your flight testing?
    • What test points are you planning to fly?
    • How cautious are you with regard to expectations for first flight and how aggressive are your plans for envelope expansion?
    • How will you communicate the appropriate level of concern to the pilot?
    • How will this level of risk be reflected in the flight test program?
    • Even the best test pilots get into a warm and fuzzy state as their confidence increases with each successful test flight. Are the risks being reiterated on a regular basis? Is the pilot being reminded of the margins of safety of the flight envelope?

I have just spent a week with a well known part 23 OEM and their approach to flying prototypes reminded me of the difference between composite and metal aircraft. This informs the level of confidence in the structure of each.

Composite aircraft are thought to be sized to withstand ultimate load with maximum undetectable damage at 180F when saturated with humidity. In reality the structure is sized to conservative strain limits that prohibit damage growth at maximum barely visible damage at the hot wet condition and so the ultimate strength of the pristine structure at nominal service conditions usually has very high residual strength (buckling notwithstanding).

Metal aircraft are typically sized to real static failure modes at ultimate level – you have the forgiveness of yielding and plastic redistribution but in general metal aircraft have lower overall static residual strength than composite aircraft at the start of their service life.

Note that the systems are generally the same for both metal and composite aircraft and require the same level of caution and anxiety…..

With composite structure there is always the specter of process control, especially of bonded structure. While this field is now relatively mature it is still the victim of a far greater sensitivity and variability than metal sub assembly processes. Careful process development backed up by some testing and simple shop guidelines have a far greater effect on the final aircraft strength than tweaking the material selection or increasing the bond width by 10%.

To Summarize:

  • Engineers should not forget that there can be large differences between the CAD model & analysis and the actual aircraft that is built and flown. Not only does the engineering have to be rational and correct but the build process also has to be rational and correct.
  • Many incidents occur because of simple errors in the implementation of a good system design or insufficient pre-flight checking and testing of those simple systems.
  • You need a team of people and everyone needs to keep on top of their game.

And finally:

  • You need leadership capable of understanding all the issues and making the most difficult decision of all: Not to fly.

Abbott Aerospace and Patreon

We have permanently disabled our Patreon page and have no plans to return to Patreon or use their service in the future.

We have made this assessment and are taking this action based on the integrity of the Pateron organization and their inability to formulate, communicate and adhere to their own company policies. Patreon has failed to achieve the level of integrity we require from a partner organization.

If you wish to support us we appreciate your help and you can make a one off payment using PayPal

Competence, Authority and how to get it wrong……

A version of this article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

I would like to thank a trusted contact for asking me to review some paperwork as it provided a great teachable moment for myself and my class – and a good subject for the newsletter. I can’t mention them by name but you know who you are. Thanks.

As part of the course that I teach at UCCI we have just covered some engineering ‘disasters’. Events caused by insufficient understanding, inadequate assessment or generally bad engineering.

It is important for an engineer to understand that things do go wrong. Not often, but they do. Understanding the root cause of failure is the only way to consciously avoid the same situation.

Sometimes even the understanding and knowledge of what you should do cannot overcome the general sunny optimism that both bless and curse humans. The week that I was teaching this important element of engineering reality I was sent a perfect example of optimism overcoming common sense.

Over the years I have ended up with a large network of aircraft developers and operators. One of them called me because of a concern they had with an aircraft that was flown in to their facility to have some work done.

The small composite aircraft had a major change to one of the wing spars at the root (for those of you who are not in the know the spar is the element of the wing that carries the bending load created by the wing lift and the root of the spar – where it meets the fuselage- carries the highest bending load.)

This major modification (or repair, it was not clear what the reason for the change was) carried with it a one page qualification.

To put that in perspective, we are doing a small amount of work for a famous part 23 OEM – writing substantiation reports for equipment going into their flight test aircraft. The oxygen bottle installation report runs to 30 pages.

The one page qualification consisted of 3 paragraphs of prose and a diagram.

  • The first paragraph was a description of the level of competence of the author. He is a professor emeritus at a university, he has written textbooks, he is a lifetime member of an industry body (I never understood that, was he inducted as he passed out of the birth canal?). In his own words he is experienced, competent and respected by his peers.
  • The second paragraph was a verbal description of the change, it contained some vague terms but overall was ‘okay’ as far as it went.
  • There was a diagram of the change.
  • Then there came the all Important qualification: “I have done no analysis of this change but it is many times the strength of the original design. In my opinion this is adequate”. That was the start and the end of the substantive component of the qualification, and marked the end of the document apart from the signature of the author.

Even if it is your opinion that the change was adequate, you still do the analysis, even a simple one. You might even add some qualifications to your assessment. How about “assuming that good practice was followed with regard to material choice, material handling, surface preparation and curing during the implementation of change by the manufacturing team…….”.

There are several problems here:

  1. There is no numerical demonstration that the change is adequate and therefore there is no evidence that the aircraft is safe to fly
  2. The description of the change is inadequate, there is some geometric definition and some generic materials mentioned but nothing specific enough and it is incomplete.
  3. The engineer has used an argumentum ad verecundiam (an appeal to authority without evidence) in order to convince somebody else that the aircraft is safe to fly
  4. The engineer has exposed the occupants of the aircraft to unnecessary risk
  5. The language that the engineer has used demonstrates his own negligence and creates clear liability for the engineer.

Engineers have to be aware that not only are they responsible for the safety of others, but they also have a responsibility to give clear evidence that the appropriate level of safety has been achieved.

This is necessary to safeguard the public – even if the design appears to be strong enough, some level of analysis has to be done especially if the structure is one of the most critical components of the aircraft. The engineer has to be more than sure and has to prove to himself or herself (xerself?) that safety is proven.

It is also necessary to maintain your ethical standards as an engineer. Are you really that clever? Are you really that sure? Is your opinion so valuable that a quick calculation would somehow degrade your authority?

This is also necessary to achieve a level of personal protection against future claims of liability. You work hard for your money and your family. Do you really want to put all of that on the line because you can’t be bothered to spend an extra 15 minutes getting it right?

This was a particularly poor example and is similar in nature to the Hyatt Regency disaster of the mid 1980’s when over 100 people were killed because of a change in the design of a walkway that the engineer thought was strong enough and failed to do any analysis for.

The irony is, the engineering professor who wrote and signed the substantiation for the wing spar has probably used the Hyatt Regency incident as a subject in one of his classes.

It is also worth noting that on the sketchy substantiation of the wing spar, there was no checking signature. An engineer (or a good engineer) does not trust his own assessment without a second pair of qualified eyes to review, spot errors and validate the work.

Every step of the engineering has to be specific, accurate, comprehensive and clear. Failure to meet these minimum standards endangers people, your own well being and the well being of the organization you work for.

Do it right, do it once and get it checked.

Space Center Houston – The Elephant’s Graveyard

A version of this article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

For our sons sixteenth birthday, we paid a visit to the Houston Space Center. None of us had ever been to any of the NASA sites before so we were really looking forward to it.

The Houston Space Center has one of the decommissioned shuttles (Endeavor) mounted on the converted 747 carrier aircraft, which was super cool.

They have a full, unused (of course) Saturn 5 rocket and many smaller exhibits.

You can also take a guided tour of the Johnson space center and Houston’s famous ‘mission control’.

We saw all of these things and took the tour and it was all large and impressive and slightly sad.

In the spring of 1981 I was a 10 year old in primary school in a small yorkshire village in England. The head teacher (there were only two teachers in the whole school) cancelled classes for the day as we spent the day watching the first space shuttle launch on live broadcast from Florida.

I remember that this took pretty much the whole day as the launch was delayed multiple times and we spent a lot of the waiting looking out of the windows at the unseasonably warm and sunny weather wanting to get out there and play.

That was 37 years ago. The engineering for the shuttle started in 1968 – before I was born.

The Saturn 5 rocket – which is even more physically impressive, originates in a design formulated in 1962 – 56 years ago.

You could buy models of the Northrop T-38’s that NASA use for……well, I’m not sure what, probably training the astronauts but probably more for just hot-dogging and having fun. The first flight of the T-38 (F5) was 1959 – 59 years ago.

These things are very impressive. They are also very old.

To put that in context – when my 10 year old self went to a museum in 1981, exhibits that were 59 years old would have dated from 1922.

The Houston Space Center is a museum and it is full of old artefacts and exhibits. I loved it – this is the technology that inspired me when I was a child and seeing it up close was just great.

The space shuttle and the 747 carrier aircraft were too sanitized and cleaned up to the point where the interiors looked like mock-ups . I had more fun looking up into the landing gear bay of the 747 because is was real – greasy and grimy and full of exposed systems, hydraulics, P-clamps, sheet metal and rivets…….but it was all great.

It is also evident that NASA has much more to say about their past than their future.

If you go the the NASA website it is difficult to find out what they think their mission is. I am not a fan of corporate mission statements but they are useful in providing clarity of purpose when nothing else does.

The front page of the website (https://www.nasa.gov/) has some things they are doing – but no clue as to what the purpose of the organization is.

The ‘about’ page (https://www.nasa.gov/about/index.html) is also unclear on why NASA exists. There is this phrase “NASA’s Vision: We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.” but you could use this same phrase for a Pentecostal church organization and it would probably be more relevant.

How about “Exploring Space” or “Colonizing the Solar System” or “Making Manned Spaceflight an Everyday Event”. How about something….anything?

The sidebar of the ‘about’ page lists the further web pages you can spend your time visiting that show how compliant they are with US federal requirements and standards: Privacy Program, National Aeronautics and Space Act, Open Government, Plain Writing, Information Quality, Communications Policy.

Experienced university graduates (probably with doctorates) writing web pages filled with prose about internal NASA policies and procedures that demonstrate compliance with federal policies that give an acceptable method of compliance with federal regulations that ensure that NASA are fulfilling their important federal statutory obligations.

Wow – I wonder how we ever got into space before we had all this.

So, NASA has lost their way – their budget is not what it used to be and so their role cannot be what it once was. But, what is their role?

NASA has done some great work in recent years – the mars rovers are phenomenal and the data they have sent back from Mars is incredibly exciting and important. To put that in context the mars rover programs have cost $2.5Bn and have been running since 1994. Since 1994 Nasa has received (in 2018 dollars) $460Bn.

The rovers have cost around 0.5% of the total NASA budget.

You can get more information on the NASA budget breakdown here:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/nasa_fy_2019_budget_overview.pdf

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fy19_nasa_budget_estimates.pdf

Examination of all the goals defined in these documents that the organization is trying to achieve gives clear evidence of diffusion of effort and dilution of achievement.

So what should NASA do?

Should they exist as a research and artefact curating organization and slowly settle back into the role of maintaining the infrastructure from a time when they were funded and focused on their mission?

Should they close down their museums, rationalize their budget and focus solely on getting people into space again?

The Houston Space Center is worth a visit, we had a great day – it is a great reminder of what we can achieve – but not of what we are, or should be, achieving now.

Interview with Sam Bousfield, CEO of Samson Sky

A version of this article first appeared in the September 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

At the end of August I spent a couple of hours with Sam Bousfield and Senior Engineer Dana Beebe at their Prineville hangar. We had a wide ranging technical conversation and I was impressed with the level of detail and attention to the engineering specifics of the technical challenge they are grappling with.

Sam was kind enough to agree to an interview.

Can you describe what makes the Samson sky different to other roadable aircraft of the past and the present?
The Switchblade was designed to answer the question: “What is the best layout for a driving/flying vehicle?”, rather than “How do you make a car fly?“. Answering that question is what I feel was the most important aspect of the design that sets us apart.

The second was our decision to have a design that was high performance in both modes, and not compromise on that premise. With the power to weight of a Corvette on the ground, and the ability to achieve 200 mph in flight with reasonable range, the Switchblade has a high performance pedigree. Okay, it looks pretty cool, too!

What was the moment when you knew you would go forward with this program?
When the marketing surveys came in, we realized that we had a potential winner. We found solid support at a price point where we could survive as a company, and that made the future bright for us.

In the process from concept to customer, what has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced?
Financing has been the biggest challenge by far. Technically there have been challenges, but they have been spotted and tackled mostly in advance. While we are gaining investment traction now, earlier it took some creative thinking and running a tight financial ship to survive and make progress.

Which aspects have been more difficult to deal with? The aircraft aspects or the automobile aspects?
There are probably more aircraft related engineering issues that we have dealt with than driving related issues. I think the level of performance in the air, and the added safety required of that, tend to make it more difficult than anything on the ground.

The truth about this question is that there are lots of ways to deal with individual aspects of flight or drive. But, to make solutions for one work out well for the other is a worthy goal, and one we have worked hard to achieve.

How have you reconciled the difference between catering for the driver and the pilot with a single control system?
With the wings located between the front and rear wheels under the belly of the vehicle, we knew the rear wheels would be too far aft to rotate as one would typically in a tri-gear.

That meant the front wheels could not be held up to bleed off airspeed on landing, and that the front wheel would drop almost immediately upon touchdown. So that told us that the front wheel would always have to be connected to the control wheel, and that the pilot would not have time to change from a flying control mechanism to a driving control mechanism at touchdown.

The aero engineers did not feel that having a front wheel ‘steering’ while in flight would be problematic other than increase tail efficiency requirement slightly. The change of front tire direction was not great in flight. We looked at joystick controls for driving and flying, as well as other less conventional means. The simplest, we felt, was to use a steering wheel/control wheel that could be used for either. People are used to driving with a wheel, and a wheel can be used for flight as well. Our control wheel is oblong rather than round, as we have certain control features built into it for flying that aren’t related to the ground and it was easier to accomplish this with an oblong control wheel. You can still hand-over-hand it for cornering or controlling a fishtail maneuver if needed on the ground.

What involvement has the FAA had and what was their reaction to the concept?
All of my contact with the FAA has been positive, and all I have heard is ‘How can we help?’.  I have many supporters in the FAA who would like to see us succeed.

Who would you like to thank and give a name check to?
Our lead engineer, Alexander Bondar, and his team have been very helpful. Composite Approach in Redmond, Oregon also has been very helpful in the carbon fiber realm. Kevin Risse of Risse Racing in Redmond has been awesome at delivering machined parts, as has ISCO of Bend, Oregon. Composite Universal Group of Warren, Oregon, has given us some really nice carbon parts. Willem Anemaat and the guys at DAR Corp for their aero design, plus Rob Bulaga at Trek Aerospace for the ducted fan design. We have a lot of really good consultants and suppliers that deserve mention, but I know you may be limited in space here.

How do I reserve my Samson sky?
A Switchblade can be reserved at the SamsonSky.com web site. Until we fly, reservations have no commitment and no finances required. After we fly, we will ask for a $2,000 deposit which will be mostly refundable (less $500 for administrative costs) until we are in production.

Once we are in production, we will ask that people make their deposit hard, so we know how many engines, transmissions, and propellers to make.

When will you start customer deliveries?
Samson will begin initial production within six months of first flight, but will be ramping up production for almost 22 months before we really get the production machine in high gear.

We have to have a building built, assembly line established, supply chain established, production molds made, and assembly jigs built. Not an overnight operation! We also figure that we will need to remain agile in our business, so are taking that into account in the equipment we choose, and the way we lay out our spaces. Technology changes very quickly, so it pays to maintain as much ability to change as possible, even in manufacturing.

Any final words?
At Samson, we feel that we can have a positive impact on transportation. Knowing that you are working towards a worthwhile goal, and can make money doing that, is a really exciting way to spend your time. I don’t think there are too many days that staff in our shop come to work thinking “gee, only two more days until Friday”. People here are pretty pumped up, as are our suppliers and consultants.

We are accomplishing something that has not been done before on Planet Earth, and everybody who helps is thanked for doing so. When we succeed, it will be because the group pushed hard to make it happen. I can point the way, but with the help of the whole team, we can actually make it happen. That will be our legacy, and I hope many people can benefit as a result and drive/fly their way into the future.

To find out more about Samson Sky: www.samsonsky.com

New Analysis Spreadsheets – Combined Compression and Flexure of Beams

We have been working our way through the beam analysis methods of in the NASA-TM-73305. analysis manualThis last set of spreadsheets is for combined compression and flexure of simple beams and have been authored by my talented daughter who is an engineering student at Ryerson University in Toronto. I have checked than so any remaining mistakes are mine alone.

Enjoy!

AA-SM-026-111

AA-SM-026-112

AA-SM-026-113

AA-SM-026-114

AA-SM-026-115

AA-SM-026-116

AA-SM-026-117

AA-SM-026-118

AA-SM-026-119

AA-SM-026-120

AA-SM-026-121

AA-SM-026-122

 

Freedom of Speech, Contrary Opinion and the Engineer

A version of this article first appeared in the August 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

I always thought the concept of freedom of speech was non political. I thought it was essential for a healthy society in the same way it is essential for a healthy organization.

It is my assessment that the politicization of the concept of freedom of speech is a bid for power in the present that will cause a decline in the long term health of society. Just like a restriction on discussion and communication in an organization will cause a decline in the health of the organization.

I have worked on two programs at two different OEMs where both the organizational chart and the schedule were secret and where meetings were shut down for speaking the truth. These programs both failed. One of the OEMs has gone through at least one bankruptcy and at the other the program was cancelled, the company was reorganized and has since been sold.

I am sure we have all worked in companies where political expediency is valued above commercial or technical excellence. We all know how painful it is to bend your psyche to fit into a warped notion of ‘common sense’ and live that reality every day.
The low cost purchase of expediency in the present for the long term cost of dysfunction, high staff turnover and eventual failure.

Apparently this culture is now deemed a good way forward for society as a whole. Companies that are run along these philosophical lines can go bankrupt and be replaced with a better functioning alternative. What happens when the society you live in elects to follow this path? What kind of philosophical, moral bankruptcy will result? And what will replace the society once it has been broken beyond repair?

It is clearly a better alternative to do what you can to save both the dysfunctional organization and, I would say essential, to save the dysfunctional society.

So what steps can you take to make a positive difference inside a dysfunctional organization and how does this relate to how to improve society?

1. Personal: Never compromise your personal integrity. If it feels wrong, if you are telling a lie or if you are hiding any truth you need to stop. Always tell the truth.  A good project manager once told me “if you are in a meeting and you are not comfortable with everything you discuss being on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper you are doing something wrong”.

2. Emotional: Never lose your temper. No matter how much pressure you are under or how unpleasant your professional life may be always remain courteous and calm. Shouting does not win arguments and a smile and a shared joke puts people in the frame of mind to compromise and be flexible.

3. Professional: Be the best you can at what you do and share your skills and knowledge as widely as possible. Do not be selfish – share credit and accept blame. When someone corrects you accept it with gratitude – no matter what the intent of criticism is, it can make you better at what you do – use it.

The three points above are the things that I learnt from my own mistakes and missteps and while following them can be hard, not following them will generate a much worse result in the long term, both for yourself and others.

These points are good to apply in any industry. In engineering where bad designs, poor decisions and errors can cost lives I see them as essential. If I catch an engineer in a lie, or trying to hide an unpleasant truth they are a financial and ethical liability and their value as an engineer is effectively zero.

These are the standards that I use to judge myself and the people in my industry.

These personal standards rely on freedom of speech for me and freedom of speech for everyone else, no matter how much I may want to avoid what they have to say.

If we select to live in a culture that allows the suppression of ideas that we do not agree with, that are unpopular or even just wrong, where does that leave the free inquiry and unrestricted comment that are essential to the fields of engineering and science?

Organizations that cannot accept these standards of inquiry and criticism are dysfunctional. And if the application of these standards in society are not acceptable then society will become dysfunctional.

The way to reform a dysfunctional organization is the application of these standards, especially when they are the most difficult to apply.

The same is true of society, where the truth, or even just your opinion is least palatable, it is most important that it is spoken.

It is only through the exposure to contrary opinions that you learn to formulate the reason and logic behind your own positions. It is the only way that you find out that you are wrong. Free speech is what keeps us all from living in ignorance.

It is essential that we engineers maintain our ethical standards regardless of the short term consequences. How else do you live with yourself?

UAS Certification and what you can do about it

A version of this article first appeared in the August 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

We are working with several companies and organizations on regulatory compliance for both designing and operating unmanned aerial vehicles, both above and below the 55lb weight limit.

There are several things that immediately become apparent

  1. If you want to develop a UAS greater than a 55lb gross weight without a military or government customer, forget about it,
  2. There is a lot of demand and many commercial applications for heavier UAVs,
  3. Regulators are not psychic and have problems both formulating the regulations and recognizing the urgency of developing the regulations,
  4. Connecting with the regulators to help develop new regulations for development and operation is difficult. They are as busy as anyone else and have their own priorities. There is a sense of the importance but there is little leadership.

As I wrote in the last new letter, when it comes to government funding, there is a worry that the larger companies may monopolize this regulatory development process as well. Not that they would formulate any regulation with the intention of harming the smaller developers, but they have a certain way of doing things that involve large budgets and they will advocate for what they know. And that will involve large budgets.

From what I have seen first hand and from the experience of other consultants, some of the new companies in this space do not understand the certification process and how the regulations will profoundly affect their design process and the chance of success of their product in the market. We have started to work with a client who is very aware of these issues and have educated themselves well – regulatory issues are a significant focus for the initial phase of the project. If you can’t get the product past the regulator you will have zero sales.

And the companies who do understand the issue have problems getting their voices heard.

There are therefore two critical aspects that the industry has to achieve:

  • Focusing the regulator on the task
  • Getting a seat at the table and your voice heard.

This is a field where the technology is moving forward at an ever increasing pace and the regulator is barely out of the starting blocks.

If we all make more attempts to reach out to our local certification or regulatory body it can only help. There are several things you can do

  1. Find out who the individual responsible for UAS regulations is at local and national levels.
  2. Try and connect with them on linkedin, send them an email.
  3. If there are meetings or discussion schedules on this issue, try and get an invite. If you can’t get an invite make sure you get sent a copy of the minutes.
  4. Be polite, professional, enthusiastic and supportive. The regulator has a heavy responsibility to ensure public safety, but they also need the best information from all the stakeholders and they have to foster an environment conducive to innovation as well.

Give your time and energy for free and help as much as you can.

Brexit, Big Fish and the UK Aircraft Industry

A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here
In the last couple of years there have been a number of new aircraft projects in the UK. I Have been involved with some of them and it has been interesting to see the progress and reactions.
The new startup companies complain that while there is public funding or other types of assistance available (innovation centers co funded by the larger corporations in the industry such as Rolls Royce Aero Engines and Airbus) there is a freezing out of startup companies in favor of internal projects within the two giants in the UK.

Of course you would expect this. Little Billy Startup has little to no political sway compared to the established players. So when it comes down to the final decision it does not matter how good your design or business plan is, you’re just not in with the in-crowd.

You can see this in the UK. Rolls Royce has come up with a VTOL urban mobility design concept. It looks like around 20 other VTOL design concepts and has the same likelihood of success.

Rolls Royce have never proposed an aircraft program before. They have not issued an aircraft concept. Why now? Why are they competing with a bunch of startups in a field with a low probability of eventual success?
Do they plan to be the first to market? Do they see themselves as the post brexit UK aerospace leader? Is this just a case of keeping up with everyone else? Or is it a route through to public money meant for innovative startups?

The public should be worried as traditionally the market monopoly position of companies is used as a boogeyman to justify blocking mergers and acquisitions. An equal problem, but one that is largely ignored is the monopoly over public money. The more new companies depend on public money to get off the ground and overcome the unavoidable statutory product and corporate costs the more critical this becomes.

Mergers and corporate consolidation create this problem, as public money that is meant to promote innovation and technical risk ends up covering the day to day expenses of inefficient industry giants.

One of the most egregious cases of this is Bombardier in Canada (although I am sure you all have your own favorite). No one is really sure how much public money that they have received at the federal and provincial level in the form of cash gifts, grants, loans and subsidies. But the ones that I have counted in recent years come to over $1bn per year. I am sure it is impossible to calculate the total amount but it is significantly over this number.

This keeps a lot of people employed – which is a good thing. But what is the opportunity cost?

For the same money you could give 1000 technology startups a grant of $1m each. Imagine the innovation you would be fostering if you did that? How many ‘Bombardiers’ could Canada create with that approach? Well, hopefully not ‘Bombardiers’ that need $1Bn per year just to get by – but you know what I mean
Right now Canada has one – and it is very expensive.

So the UK as a newly independent nation (Theresa May notwithstanding) has a choice to make with it’s public funds. It can follow the Canadian model, it can reward inefficiency and established corporations or it can actually help cover the downside risk of innovative start up companies.

From what I have seen from my contacts and clients in the UK, it looks like it is business as usual. Just the process of applying for funding from these pots of public money is so onerous that many companies do not even try.

A project run by a good friend of mine was all ready to get approval for a substantial government grant. They had got top marks from all of the adjudicators and had ticked every box. Two days before the formal announcement of the award they got a call that things weren’t actually so cut and dried and that they should not assume that the grant will be awarded.

Another project we are working with are looking at getting space in an innovation center funded by Government and large industry partners. But this is in doubt because they may be judged as competing with one of the giant industry partners involved in the funding.

In a society where taxes are high and success, in a large part, depends on getting some of those taxes back in the form of a government grant, the monopoly that we allow large companies over this process is just as negative as a monopoly over the market. Maybe more so, as the only way the market can be bought is by providing additional value to the actual customers. In order to monopolize government grants you just have to lean on your local or national politician – a much simpler and less expensive process.

So with the large players being a big fish in a much smaller post-brexit pond where does that leave the little fish?

Lost in Sweden

A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of our free newsletter, to subscribe click here

One of my favourite aircraft is the Saab 35 Draken which was a groundbreaking Swedish aircraft manufactured in the 1950’s and 60’s. It remained in service until the late 90’s with the Danish and Swedish air forces.

We have spent the last week of June with my wife’s parents in beautiful Sweden in a small town called Simrishamn. By chance there is a small museum just 5 minutes away from Simrishamn with a collection of Draken aircraft (http://www.osterlensflygmuseum.se/index.php) . The owner is an ‘amateur’ collector of aircraft (he has a real job during the week) and takes people on tours of his collection on Sundays by appointment.

Saab 35 Draken

He is far from being amateurish though, and his knowledge of Saab military aircraft programs is comprehensive. For any aircraft aficionado visiting the South East of Sweden I can recommend this as a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
He has about 10 Saab Drakens, 2 Saab Lansens, a Saab Viggen a De Havilland Dove, a Bell Huey many different vintage jet engines, aircraft ejection seats, flight suits, helmets and an astonishing array of aircraft miscellania. His collection is better than many established museums and his enthusiasm is infectious.

You can call the museum to make an appointment: 0701-122689. Remember to make a generous voluntary contribution, there is no set charge for viewing the collection and he is self supporting.