Tag Archives: airplane

Thousands of planes will fly empty in Europe just to keep their airport slots

Slots at European airports are hard to come by — so hard that airlines are flying thousands of empty airplanes in order to secure their takeoff and landing places. This is because airlines have to use 50% of their slots in order to keep them, but that’s becoming tricky with lower bookings due to the Oricon variant. Ergo, there will be a lot of empty flights and ghost planes in the coming months.

Before the pandemic, ghost flights were very rare, though not unheard of. Such flights, with no passengers (but still burning a lot of fossil fuels), became much familiar at the start of the pandemic — and may stick around a bit more. Ghost flights have become a hot topic, especially in Europe.

Most recently, Lufthansa, one of Europe’s largest aviation companies, flew 18,000 empty flights just to keep its take-off and landing rights at a major airport, Belgian news site The Bulletin reported. CEO Carsten Spohr said the company cancelled more flights than expected due to Omicron and had to fly planes empty just to not lose its slots.

Lufthansa isn’t alone in this, and several other companies are reporting similar woes. Maaike Andries, a spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, told the Brussels Times that the company will have to carry out 3,000 ghost flights from now until March, mainly within Europe. “We would rather cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment,” Andriies added. 

Slots at airports are managed based on guidelines from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Airlines make their request before each summer and winter season and an independent slot coordinator does the allocation. Usual rules for slots allocation says a company must use at least 80% of it slots so not to lose them to another carrier.

The US and the EU suspended this rule in March 2020 to alleviate pressure on companies to fly their planes almost or entirely empty during the peak of the pandemic. Instead, a 50% threshold was set until the end of March 2022 – which would be extended to the end of the summer, according to the Brussels Times. But even this 50% threshold is proving hard to sustain.

However, many have disputed these claims and instead suggest it is because of the airlines’ faulty organization.

“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” Olivier Jankovec, head of the airport trade body Airports Council International (ACI) Europe, said in a statement, contesting European airlines’ claims.

The environmental burden

For airlines, the current situation is not just an economic headache but also an environmental embarrassment. Air travel is very damaging in terms of the climate crisis, responsible for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The sector wasn’t part of the Paris Agreement on climate change to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Image credit: Our World In Data.

There are big inequalities in how much people fly, with a small percentage of the population flying a lot and a larger one not flying at all — and this shows in greenhouse gas emissions. A study in 2020 found that a group of wealthy frequent flyers that represents only 1% of the world’s population generates more than half of the total aviation emissions. In 2018, only 4% of the population traveled abroad. 

Last year, the aviation industry adopted a long-term climate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – in line with the Paris Agreement, but slower than many hoped. The sector said the goal will be met through a combination of climate initiatives, including new aircraft technologies such as hydrogen, improvements in operational efficiency, and increased use of sustainable aviation fuel. Ghost planes, however, are anything but sustainable.

New “meringue” material could make air travel much quieter

A lot of time may have passed since your last flight because of the pandemic restrictions, but there’s probably one thing that you remember from then: the noise. Air travel is one of the fastest ways to travel long distances but also one of the noisiest ways to spend a couple of hours. Now, researchers have created a new material that could improve that experience substantially.

Image credit: Flickr / Andrew Malone

The noise from a plane is caused by air going over its body and from its engines. A moving aircraft causes friction and turbulence, which triggers sound waves — and the faster the aircraft is flying, the more turbulence and friction is produced. When the aircraft’s landing gear and flaps are used, more noise is made as more resistance is created.

Meanwhile, engine noise is caused by the sound of moving parts, and by the air coming out of the engine at high speed and interacting with still air, creating friction. Modern bypass engines, which introduce a layer of moderately fast-moving cold air between the hot exhaust and the still air, are quieter than early jet engines.

The elimination of aircraft noises may now be on the radar. A group of researchers at the University of Bath, UK, have developed a new material, inspired by the lightweight structure of a meringue dessert, that could significantly reduce aircraft engine noise and improve passenger comfort.


The development of innovative acoustic materials has been of huge interest in the past decades, in particular, porous absorbers such as cellular foams have been extensively studied and adopted for several engineering applications. While they have good sound absorption, they are typically bulky and heavyweight, limiting their application.

That’s why the researchers at Bath started exploring the use of graphene oxide (GO), which they believe is an ideal candidate for engineering novel sound absorbers. The material has been evaluated in the past for various applications such as water treatment, energy storage and thermal insulation but never before for sound. 

Aerogel in honeycomb structure. Image credit: The researchers

Using graphene oxide, they created a low-density aerogel that weighs just 2.1 kilogram per cubic meter, making it the lightest sound insulation ever manufactured. Aircraft manufacturers could use it as insulation within aircraft engines to reduce noise by up to 16 decibels, reducing the road of a jet engine off to a sound similar to a hairdryer. 

“We managed to produce such an extremely low density by using a liquid combination of graphene oxide and a polymer, which are formed with whipped air bubbles and freeze-casted. On a very basic level, the technique can be compared with whipping egg whites to create meringues – it’s solid but contains a lot of air, so there is no weight,” Michele Meo, who led the research, said in a statement.

The material is currently being further developed by the research team to offer improved heat dissipation, offering benefits to fuel efficiency and safety. While their focus is to work with partners in aerospace to test the material in aeroplane engines, they believe it could also be used in helicopters or car engines. The aerogel should be ready to use in 18 months. 

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Private planes to remain on the hangar as executives choose video meetings

There might be one piece of good news coming out of the pandemic after all. Business travelers across Europe are planning to take fewer flights thanks to broader use of video conferencing, a new survey showed. This could help lower greenhouse gas emissions coming from the transportation sector.

Image credit: Flickr / Andrew Sieber

Aviation is one of the most energy-intense forms of transport and it has been characterized by strong growth year after year. It currently accounts for 2% of the global emissions, and the figure is expected to increase significantly. Estimates before COVID-19 have suggested a further tripling between 2020 and 2050.

A study last year showed that an elite of wealthy frequent flyers — representing only 1% of the world’s population — generates more than half of the total aviation emissions. The study found that 11% of the world’s population traveled by air in 2018, with 4% of people traveling abroad. Passengers from the US flew the most by distance.

But flying, especially to foreign destinations, suffered a big blow because of the pandemic. Holiday goers and executives were forced to change their plans due to the spread of the virus, with many big conferences being canceled or rescheduled in 2020 and 2021. The trend is set to continue, according to a recent survey in Europe

Commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, YouGov surveyed 1,414 business travelers in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark in December 2020 and January 2021. Up to 42% of those surveyed said they will fly less often even after the COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.

Most respondents found the shutdown of air travel made little to no impact on their work lives, with videoconferencing replacing the need to travel. A minority (5%) said they aren’t planning to take any business-related flights at all after restrictions ease. It might seem like a small change but it could be the start of something bigger.

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the world’s airlines, told The Guardian that it was difficult to assess future demand while most borders remained in effect closed, and with no clear timetable for reopening.

Still, the survey is in line with Bill Gates’ prediction that business air travel will slump in the post-pandemic era. The Microsoft co-founder said last year that over 50% of business travel will go away in the pandemic’s aftermath. There will be a “very high threshold” for conducting business trips, he added, speaking at a conference.

There was a “dramatic” fall in international air travel due to COVID-19 in 2020, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Seating capacity fell by around 50%, leaving just 1.8 billion passengers taking flights through the year, compared with around 4.5 billion in 2019. That adds up to a staggering financial loss to the industry, of around $370 billion.

Flights would be faster and use less fuel if they would ‘use the wind’

Airlines could significantly reduce their fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions if planes become more efficient at riding the wind, a new study in the UK found. This would also directly benefit passengers as travel times would be shorter, for example with a direct trip from London to New York requiring 21 minutes less than it does now.

Image credit: Flickr / Travis Olbrich

Aviation is responsible for about 2.4% of all man-made emissions, but the figure is quickly growing as more people travel by plane. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has already established a policy of improving the fuel efficiency of international flights by 2% annually, through improvements to aircraft technology, sustainable fuels, and air traffic management and operations. However, greater savings are needed.

Alternative solutions to reducing emissions have been suggested, from greater use of synthetic bio-fuels to replacing the entire air transport fleet of approximately 31,000 aircraft with updated models. However, those technologies that have the potential to produce significant reductions in fuel use are high-risk, high-cost, and have implementation timescales measured in decades, studies showed.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Reading found somethint that could be used now.

They showed that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude. This would save millions of kilograms of CO2 emissions every year if airlines and air navigation providers would change the way they work.

Cathie Wells, the lead author of the research, said in a statement: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to. Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority.”

Alongside the team of UK researchers, Wells looked at around 35,000 flights in both directions between New York and London from 1 December 2019 to 29 February 2020. They compared the fuel used during these flights with the quickest route that would have been possible at the time by flying into or around the eastward jet stream air currents.

If they had taken better advantage of the winds, the planes would have saved around 200 kilometers worth of fuel per flight on average, adding up to a total reduction of 6.7 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions across the winter period, the researchers found. The average fuel saving per flight was 1.7% when flying west to New York and 2.5% when flying east to London.

Professor Paul Williams, the co-author of the new study, said: “Upgrading to more efficient aircraft or switching to biofuels or batteries could lower emissions significantly, but will be costly and may take decades to achieve. Simple tweaks to flight paths are far cheaper and can offer benefits immediately. This is important, because lower emissions from aviation are urgently needed.”

Airlines are currently assigned air traffic management (ATM) routes that are designed to maintain safe separation of aircraft. The researchers found that none of the assigned tracks that they reviewed was optimal. While some were within 1% of the optimal flight path, at the other extreme other aircraft spent almost 20% longer in the air than they needed – representing an extra hour in flight.

But this could soon change. A new network of low Earth orbit satellites is now being tested and this would make it possible to consider the implementation of fuel-optimized routes, the researchers argued. The new routes would take greater advantage of the prevailing eastward winds when flying east and reduce the negative impact of these same air currents when flying west.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

It’s not just birds: wasps also threaten airplane safety in Australia

Contrary to popular belief, flying is one of the safest means of transportation, moving millions of people around the world every year. Still, there are always safety issues to consider, and one of these issues are interactions with wildlife, especially birds. Now, a new study shows that wasps can also bring risks to flying aircraft.

Image credit: Flickr / Bob Peterson

Interactions between aircraft and wildlife are frequent and can have serious financial and safety consequences, with a lot of money spent to find ways to reduce the risk. Birds are the most common threat to aircraft, with a host of terrestrial animals also implicated in runway accidents.

“Wildlife is a serious threat to aircraft all over the world. Birds are especially dangerous, and a LOT of money is spent on managing them to reduce the risk of aircraft hitting either on the ground or in the air. Our project highlights that its not just birds (or bears, coyotes etc) that pose a threat to aircraft – insects can too,” says Alan House, lead author of the new study.

The keyhole wasp (Pachodynerus nasidens) is native to South and Central America and the Caribbean region and typically uses man-made structures (or natural cavities) to construct nests. It hunts and captures butterfly, moth, or other insect larvae to put inside the nest and covers it with mud. At airports, ideally-sized cavities are abundant in airside machinery.

Pitot probes are among the most popular cavities for insects. These are hollow instruments projecting forwards from the aircraft fuselage that measure airspeed. Wasps have obstructed them many times in the past, leading to accidents — most notably, in 1996, when an airplane crashed after taking off in the Dominican Republic, presumably due to a wasp.

Researchers Alan House of Eco Logical Australia and colleagues found that keyhole wasps at the Brisbane Airport were responsible for 93 instances of fully blocked replica pitot probes, and the wasps pose a real threat for airplane pilots.

The experiment was triggered by a number of near-misses at Brisbane in which wasps were thought to be responsible for pitot probe obstructions. House and his team wanted to figure out wat species was causing the problem, which part of the airport and airplane model were at greatest and the seasonality of wasp nesting.

The researchers used 3D-printing technology to construct a series of replica pitot probes. Real ones are expensive difficult due to their cost, House told ZME Science, so they chose replica probes from the most common aircraft. The probes were attached on steel panels that resemble aircraft skins and then mounted at gates where aircraft park whilst in transit.

The findings showed that only the exotic keyhole wasp nested in the pitot probes. No native species did so, except a parasitoid wasp but it wasn’t responsible for the blockage of the probe. Most of the blockages happened at one end of the airport, which means there was a hotspot preferred by the wasps.

Still, the results underscore mitigation strategies, such as setting traps to intercept the wasps or covering pitot probes, the researchers argue. Nesting activity followed a predictable pattern, being highest in the warmer months of November-May, which means. This pattern follows that for the species in its native range. Nesting success (the proportion of nests producing live adults) was optimal between 24 and 31°C.

The most common aircraft using Brisbane Airport (Boeing 737 and Airbus A320/330) were the most popular with the wasps for nesting, the researchers found. The study covered a 39-month period between 2016 and 2019, in which 93 instances of fully blocked process were recorded by the researchers.

The study is already achieving something: airport operators are starting to become more aware of these issues, House concludes.

“We’re hoping that airports and airlines in other parts of the sub-tropics and tropics (where this wasp can live) will also take note. Although the issues of wasps and aircraft is known elsewhere, this is the first attempt to quantify the risk and suggest mitigation measures,” House told ZME News.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The 1% of flying: a small elite is responsible for half of the world’s aviation emissions

An elite of wealthy frequent flyers that represents only 1% of the world’s population generates more than half of the total aviation emissions, a new study showed.

The findings reignite discussions about a frequent-flyer tax, thought by some campaigners to be one of the only ways to address the emissions of the affluent that travel so often and produce emissions that affect everyone.

Image credit: Flickr / Sean MacEntee

Aviation is one of the most energy-intense forms of consumption and before the pandemic at least, has been characterized by strong growth year after year. It currently accounts for 2% of the global emissions, and the figure is expected to increase significantly. Estimates before COVID-19 have suggested a further tripling between 2020 and 2050.

A study by Sweden’s Linnaeus University found 11% of the world’s population traveled by air in 2018, with 4% of people traveling abroad. Passengers from the US flew the most by distance, generating more emissions than the following 10 countries, including the UK, Japan and Germany, combined.

This small elite, named in the study as “super-emitters”, traveled about 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) a year, which is equivalent to three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or a combination of the two. The researchers believe this will have implications for how the growth in emissions is tackled.

The research gathered a wide range of data from airplane manufacturers such as Boeing and travel organizations and found that a large share of people in every country didn’t took a flight at all each year. They estimated the cost of climate damage caused by the aviation’s emissions at $100 billion only in 2018.

“If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super-emitters’ contribute massively to global warming,” Stefan Gössling, who led the study, said in a statement. “The rich have had far too much freedom to design the planet according to their wishes.”

Since the pandemic started, passenger volumes have dropped by half. A large number of countries are still in lockdown or are quarantining arrivals from overseas, while others are discouraging people from flying until a vaccine is available. In the US the number of scheduled flights this week is 46.3% lower than the same period last year.

Nevertheless, private jet companies have reported much more resilient as demand from wealthy flyers is still on the rise. A report by the aviation consultancy WingX showed the number of private flights between 1 September and 15 October only fell by 10% compared to the same period last year.

Campaigners are asking policymakers to use the disruption brought by the pandemic to rethink their approach to the aviation sector amid the climate emergency. Previous attempts to introduce measures discouraging frequent fliers have usually been rejected by governments and the airplane industry.

Imperial College published a report last October, commissioned by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, in which it suggested “a ban on air miles and frequent-flyer loyalty schemes that incentivize excessive flying”. The academics also endorsed introducing a tax based on air miles travels rather than using the number of flights.

On the same line, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) said governments that are bailing out airlines amid the pandemic should ask them to implement a frequent-flier levy. This could provide public health benefits by curbing excessive, high-frequency flights that increase the risk of global pandemics.

The plans of the airline industry to reduce emissions, largely through offsetting schemes, have been questioned as weak. The measures have been estimated to have zero impact on carbon emissions until 2024. That’s why the researchers behind this new study are calling for further action to tackle the sector’s emissions.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents an opportunity to rethink aviation in terms of demand distributions, air transport wants and needs (private aircraft, first class suites), as well as aviation’s growth trajectory under recovery scenarios and the sector’s growing interference with mitigation goals,” the study concluded.

The study was published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Rolls-Royce successfully tests their new, all-electrical airplane engine

You’ve heard of electric cars, but what about planes? Well, Rolls-Royce is working hard to make them a reality — and make them fast.

Image credits Rolls-Royce.

The company has announced in a blog post that it successfully completed the testing of the technology that will underpin its range of electric airplanes. The testing was part of Rolls-Royce’s ACCEL initiative, which aims to “build the fastest all-electric plane the world has ever seen”.

Battery bird

“Electrification of aerospace to enable sustainable power is going to be a key part [of the future of aircraft]”, a spokesman for the company said in a video showcasing the testing site and rig.

The testing didn’t involve a proper aircraft, but rather a full-scale model of the front part of the ionBird — which is what Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited has christened their future plane.

Still, the model included all the bits that needed testing. The electric engine developed around 500 horsepower, requiring 6,000 lithium-ion energy cells to do so. All in all, they store enough energy to fly the plane for around 320 km (~200 miles) at 480 km/h (~300 mph). To put things into perspective, the company explains that is roughly enough power to supply 250 houses, although they do not say for how long.

The engine was developed in partnership with British-based motor manufacturer YASA and aviation start-up Electroflight. Bremont, a luxury watch company, pitched in to design the dashboard and are tasked with timing everything during the testing phases.

The current test aimed to determine the operating parameters of the engine, its real-life capabilities, and how safe it is to use. The team successfully reached its full speed of 2,400 propeller rotations per minute and recorded a wealth of data on various parts of the engine and fuselage. This will be used to tweak the ionBird’s performance, optimize its engine, and develop the procedures that pilots and mechanics will actually follow when the plane hits the market.

For now, Rolls-Royce aims to perform the ionBird’s maiden flight this year, and hold timing trials sometime in early 2021. The proposed design is a single-seater with three axial motors.

Study finds asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 during a flight

People with an asymptomatic coronavirus infection may also be able to transmit it unlike previously thought, according to a new study. It identified a case of Covid-19 transmission by an asymptomatic person on an airplane during an evacuation flight.

Credit Sean MacEntee. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The study included 310 passengers who boarded an evacuation flight from Milan, Italy, to South Korea. Before boarding, a group of 11 symptomatic people was identified and removed from the flight, while the remaining 299 people were allowed to board. Physical examinations and temperature checks were performed before boarding.

All the passengers were provided with N95 respirators, remaining two meters apart for physical distancing during preboarding. Most wore the respirators at all times except during mealtimes and when using the toilet during the flight. After the flight, everyone was quarantined for two weeks at a government facility.

Among the 299 passengers, six had a confirmed positive result for SARS-CoV-2 on quarantine day 1 and were transferred immediately to the hospital, the study showed. At 14 days after the positive test, the six patients reported no symptoms and were categorized as asymptomatic. All 18 members of the cabin crew and medical staff were negative for SARS-CoV-2 on both occasions.

But what was most surprising for the researchers was the case of a 28-year old woman with no underlying disease that had a confirmed positive test result for Covid-19 on day 14. She wore the mask during the whole flight, except when she used the toilet, which was shared by other passengers, including an asymptomatic patient.

“Given that she did not go outside and had self-quarantined for 3 weeks alone at her home in Italy before the flight and did not use public transportation to get to the airport, it is highly likely that her infection was transmitted in the flight via indirect contact with an asymptomatic patient,” the researchers wrote.

To reinforce the results, the researchers did an external validation using a different dataset. They looked at another flight from Milan to South Korea, also under strict infection control procedures. Among the passengers, there were 3 asymptomatic cases. One person also tested negative on day 1 but positive on day 14.

Other, less likely, explanations for the transmission are previous SARS-CoV-2 exposure, longer incubation period, and other unevaluated situations, the authors argue.

Previous studies of inflight transmission for other respiratory infectious diseases, such as influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome, revealed that sitting near a person with respiratory infectious disease is a major risk factor for transmission, similar to the findings of this study.

“Considering the difficulty of airborne infection transmission inflight because of high-efficiency particulate-arresting filters used in aircraft ventilation systems, contact with contaminated surfaces or infected persons when boarding, moving, or disembarking from the aircraft may play a critical role in the inflight transmission of infectious diseases,” the researchers wrote.

The findings suggest the following strategies for the prevention of SARS-CoV-2 transmission on an aircraft, the researchers considered. This includes wearing masks during the flight, maintaining physical distance before boarding and after disembarking and hand hygene to prevent infections.

The study was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Is the future of flying electric? A company tests a zero-emissions aircraft

Now disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the aviation sector has been one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions in recent years. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters – accounting for about 2% of the global emissions.

Credit MagniX

The sector is not included in the Paris Agreement of climate change as one of the areas in which emissions have to be reduced. Nevertheless, companies are trying to find ways of reducing their carbon footprint, including the development of electric planes.

The world’s largest all-electric airplane will fly tomorrow for the first time over Washington state in the US. The plane, a Cessna Caravan with an electric engine developed by magniX, can carry up to nine passengers and might enter commercial service next year -– with a range of 100 miles (160km).

“It’s a niche market. But we can start now, get working on it and push the envelope to progress the entire industry,” said Magnix CEO Roei Ganzarski told The Guardian. “Let’s get to market quickly for the main purpose of being able to start this revolution.”

The airplane that will carry Magnix’s motor has been in production since 1982. By retrofitting the existing plane, Magnix’s goal is to show that commercial electric flight is possible right now. The motor delivers 750 horsepower, which the company says is enough propulsion for “middle mile aircraft” that can carry between 5 and 19 people.

Despite the Caravan would be the largest all-electric plane to fly so far, a Magni500-powered De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver was the first aircraft to use the engine when it flew over Vancouver in December. The flight was a partnership with Harbour Air, a locally-based regional airline that owns the seaplane.

Ganzarski believes all flights of less than 1,000 miles (1,600km) would be completely electric in 15 years’ time. But he said more work has to be done regarding batteries. “Now that the first commercial aircraft has flown all-electric, battery companies are starting to work more diligently on aerospace-ready battery solutions,” he said.

Electric flight has a wide array of benefits that go beyond emissions reductions, according to Ganzarski. Electric aircraft need less maintenance than fuel-based planes and will be between 50% and 80% cheaper per hour to operate. That could also lead to cheaper ticket prices, he argued.

MagniX is not alone in the uphill battle. A few companies are promising a not-so-distant future of electric air taxis and plenty of others are developing both electric motors and the airframes to use them. The list includes firms like Airbus, Embraer and Rolls-Royce, and startups like Ampaire, Pipstrel Aircraft, and Zunum Aero.

What the aviation industry is doing to reduce carbon emissions

The air flight industry is talking about sustainability more and more, but do they walk the walk? Recently, the International Civil Aviation Organization reportedly blocked scientists from its Twitter page for sharing valid criticism, which is not what you’d expect from an industry that actively wants to reduce its emissions.

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made, because it has, but critics are rightfully questioning whether that progress is sufficient or not. Let’s have a look.

Image credits: USDA.

We all like to travel from A to B quickly — and, given today’s technology, there’s no real substitute for flying. But whether we like it or not, planes are an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The airline industry produces between 2-3% of all man-made CO2 emissions, and the sector is increasing rapidly. The number of people flying has doubled from 2 to 4 billion in the past 15 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters. Global aviation emissions are projected to rise by 70% from 2005 to 2020, and by a further 300-700%. Many airports around the world are undergoing or planning extensions, which would further exacerbate this increase (although carbon-neutral airports are also becoming a thing).

So what is the aviation industry doing, and what can it do?

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, there are 4 main things that companies can do:

  • fly more efficient aircraft,
  • use new technologies to set more efficient flight paths and reduce delays,
  • use sustainable lower-carbon alternative fuels, and
  • invest in emissions offsets within or outside of the aviation sector.

While plane efficiency has improved dramatically in the past decades, the trend has stalled in the past few years. Especially in the US, where regulation has been relatively lax, little progress has been made recently — despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that CO2 from aviation contributes to pollution that endangers public health and welfare, which legally requires a framework to reduce emissions.

Improving efficiency also requires companies to renew their fleets — which of course, costs a lot of money, and some companies have been more willing than others to do.

Reducing delays and implementing more efficient flight paths are constantly being improved and finessed, but there’s only so much that that can do — at the end of the day, you still have planes flying and consuming fuel and generating emissions. Naturally, the way to address that would be by developing alternative fuels. However, there’s no global standard to produce and measure the efficiency of biofuels, and studies have shown that, most of the time, biofuels are surprisingly ineffective — we don’t really want to cut down forests for biofuel crops, that would be simply offsetting the problem. Simply put, alternative fuels for aviation, while an area of active research, are miles away.

The other approach, if you can’t or won’t reduce your emissions, is to invest in sectors that would offset your emissions. They could, for instance, support the development of renewable sectors in developing countries or finance reforestation (that’s still a simplistic view, but you get the idea). Several organizations such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) support a “market-based measure” that would require airlines to pay a fee for the growth of the carbon they emit on international flights. This type of policy has already been implemented in the European Union with notable results. It creates a financial incentive for companies to reduce their emissions.

At the end of the day though, without a carbon pollution cap or some form of taxation, it’s unlikely that substantial change will occur. Naturally, most of the aviation industry is opposed to such policies and in most cases, governments have failed to deliver healthy regulation. The big silver lining is the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA — an emission mitigation approach for the global airline industry, developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). However, CORSIA has proven to be a very delicate compromise between all parts involved and is not nearly as stringent as EU regulation for instance.

Lastly, it should also be said that we, as passengers, also have a responsibility. If you fly from London to New York, you generate roughly the same level of emissions as heating a home for an entire year. We all love vacations in faraway places, we love to fly to conferences and events — but it would be best if we could be a bit more conscious about our flights. Even if you work really hard to take the bus or bike to work, even if you reduce your meat consumption, all that hard work can be invalidated by a single trip. We can also push politicians and companies to adopt more responsible policies and try to push. At the very least, we should be aware of these issues.




Reno Airshow.

Shooting stars: a look at the world’s speediest jet aircraft

If you like to go fast, you’ve come to the right place.

Reno Airshow.

Image credits Todd MacDonald.

Jet aircraft are, arguably, the crowning achievement of today’s aeronautics industry. And yet, experts predict that we’ll see massive improvements in their capabilities over the next decade. Supersonic business jets (SSBJs) are one of the most eagerly anticipated of these vehicles, and they should be commercially available in the next four to five years.

But that’s in the future — what about today? What are the fastest jets you can get on board of today, and what are the fastest you probably won’t be allowed to fly? Let’s find out.

Friendly jets, fighter jets

Unsurprisingly, military forces around the world have a monopoly on the fastest jets today. So, in order to give this list some balance, I’ll place both civilian and military jets side by side, even though they’re generally in entirely different leagues. I’ll try to be short on the details for most contenders on this list — partly because some are boring and easy to find online, while others are straight-up classified information — but I’ll give you a little extra on the last two jets.

So let’s get on board.

Bombardier Global Express / Global 5000/6000 (mixed-use, in active service)

Global 6000.

Bombardier Global 6000 operated by VistaJet Malta.
Image credits James / Flickr.

A nice little private jet to start our list with, the Global can reach speeds of up to Mach 0.9 (Mach 1 is the speed of sound). The 5000 variant is slightly smaller, while the 6000 variant is larger and also sees (and is modified for) military operations. These include airborne radar and control, battlefield communications, surveillance, and maritime patrol.

Cessna 750 Citation X+ (civilian, in active service)

Cessna 750 Citation X.

Cessna 750 Citation X.
Image credits Papas Dos / Flickr.

The Citation X+ is one of the fastest civilian aircraft in the skies today, able to reach Mach 0.935. (close to 717 miles / 1154 kilometers per hour). It’s a bit larger than the older Citation X and boasts a higher cruising speed, payload, and range. It’s still very pretty, though.

Сухой Су-27 / Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” (military, in active service)


A Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 at the RIAT airshow, 2017.
Image credits Airwolfhound / Wikimedia.

Zis is ze Russian menace, comrades. Developed as an air superiority fighter to counter novel US fighters in the early 70s, the Su-27 subsequently took on all manners of air combat missions. With a huge payload of rockets and bombs, a 30-mm gun, very good maneuverability, and a maximum speed in excess of Mach 2.25 it definitely deserves a place on our list.

The Su-27 found its fans in Soviet, Russian, and other nations’ military command structures. This airplane is still in use and has served as a base for a lot of later variants.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 “Eagle” (military, active)


Image credits Shannon Collins / Flickr.

Remember how the Sukhoi was designed to “counter novel US fighters”? This was one of those novel fighters. It was actually a very good plane for its age and can still hold its own against more modern adversaries. The Eagle took its maiden flight in 1972 and was accepted into service in 1976. It is among the most successful Cold War fighters, with over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat. Goes a bit over Mach 2.5.

Like its arch-rival, the F-15 was designed as an air superiority fighter and has served as a base for multiple variants. Unlike the Sukhoi, however, it has less impressive ground strike capabilities (due to a lower payload). It is a more specialized counterpart to the Soviet jack of all trades. While both look smashing, sorry democracy, but I like the Sukhoi just a tad more.

Микоян МиГ-31 / Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31 “Foxhound” (military, active)

Russian Air Force MiG-31.

A Russian Air Force MiG-31 in flight.
Image credits Dmitriy Pichugin / Airliners.net

If the world’s Russian stereotype could become a plane overnight, this would be it. Is it pretty? No. Does it need to be? Also no. Can it run solely on vodka? Probably. Is it scary?


One of the fastest jets in the world today, the MiG-31 cruises at Mach 2.83. However, if you’re feeling brave and don’t think a fighter needs its engines and fuselage to hold together, you can push this MiG up to a whopping Mach 3.2. You and your co-pilot, who is manning the MiG’s weapons.

Why so fast? Well, the previous two fighters were designed for air supremacy (i.e. duking it out with opponents to gain control of airspace). That needs poise, a certain grace in flight. The MiG-31, on the other hand, is an interceptor. It is designed around a radar that can track multiple targets, a whole bunch missiles, big, beefy engines, and not much else. Interceptors are meant to climb fast, fly fast, and fly high. Once there, they would pummel enemy bombers and long-range ballistic missiles before circling back to base — rinse and repeat.

The fighter’s upper-speed limit of Mach 3.2 is in no way, shape, or form sustainable if used often. The temperatures and mechanical stress generated from air friction will rip and burn it apart at the same time. But if your job is to shoot down incoming nuclear ballistic rockets, sometimes you just need the speed — whether the plane makes it or not is of secondary concern when whole cities are on the line.

Aérospatiale / BAC Concorde (civilian, retired)


British Airways Concorde G-BOAC
Image credits Eduard Marmet.

The Concorde is an iconic piece of wing. Designed and built in the 1950s (as part of a French-British collaboration between Aérospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation), the Concorde made its maiden flight in 1969. It is the first of the only two supersonic planes to have been operated commercially. The other is the Tupolev Tu-144, which is pretty very similar to the Concorde.

The Concorde could reach speeds of Mach 2.04 (2,180 kph or 1,354 mph) at cruise altitudes, comfortably seating between 92 and 128 passengers. It mostly saw use with wealthy individuals who could afford to pay for the luxury services and thirsty engines high speeds. In 1997, for example, a Concorde trip from London to New York cost just under 8,000 US$ (12,000 US$ in today’s money), around 30 times as much as a ticket on a conventional passenger plane. The trip did, however, only take about three hours.

One of Concorde’s most striking traits is its wings. They were purposefully designed with short-spanning, ogival (or double) delta wings, as drag at supersonic speeds strongly depends on wingspan. Delta wings produce lift by ‘rolling’ air into vortices of low pressure on their upper surface. However, this type of wing can’t be fitted with flaps (control surfaces) and provides relatively poor lift and control at low speeds. That’s why the Concorde’s wings extend over such a huge part of its length — the plane wouldn’t be able to get off the ground without the extra wing surface.

Delta-winged aircraft are particularly cumbersome during take-off and landing because the whole craft has to be angled in lieu of flaps. The Concorde took off and touched down at an extreme angle; the first in order to artificially-increase its lift, and the latter in order to use the wings as airbrakes. This requirement is also why the cockpit can angle itself down.


Air France Concorde landing at JFK in the summer of 1980. So derpy, though.
Image credits Ron Reiring / Flickr.

It experienced high heat during flight; virtually every piece of the plane’s exterior (windows included) were reportedly warm to the touch after landing. The plane could, in practice, fly faster than its advertised specifications, but it was limited to 2.04 Mach as anything faster would melt its aluminium fuselage. Its skin expanded by as much as 1 foot (30 cm) during flight.

High running costs and a ludicrous development price limited the Concorde’s commercial career. The aircraft was also plagued by an immense thirst for fuel and high emissions, and was forbidden from flying at supersonic speed over populated areas as its sonic boom could and would break windows.

On July 25, 2000, a Concorde flying from Paris to New York City suffered critical engine failure shortly after takeoff due to debris from a burst tire rupturing and igniting a fuel tank. The aircraft crashed into a small hotel and restaurant, killing 113 people (100 passengers, 9 crew members, 4 people on the ground). Concorde still supersonically limped until retirement in 2003, but this crash virtually ended its career.

Still, the Concorde made history.

Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird (military, retired)

SR-71 "Blackbird" testing

The SR-71 from Lockheed. Image credits U.S. Air Force.

A high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Developed and built (by Lockheed’s Skunk Works) in the 1960s, the Blackbird remains the world’s fastest jet. Able to go over three times the speed of sound, at 3.3 Mach (4,073 kph / 2,200mph) this plane is a technological jewel. It is also an exercise in extremes, a legend on wings, and the plane that the X-Men fly around.

Designed as a recon and bomber aircraft, it was later earmarked specifically for Strategic Reconnaissance. The requirements placed by the US Government when the project started were — to put it bluntly — hilariously over the top. The Blackbird had to fly higher and for longer than any other plane at the time. It had to be able to hide from (it was the world’s second stealth aircraft) or outrun any Soviet interceptor or air defense platform, deep in enemy territory, with no hope of reinforcement. It had to be stable enough to photograph whatever the Soviets were doing, 90.000 feet (27.432 meters) below. It needed unique life support systems to keep its crew alive, on missions that would take hours upon hours at a time.

Somehow, the designers delivered, and created a vehicle in a class of its own. “Everything had to be invented. Everything.” recalls Kelly Johnson, one of the main designers of the aircraft. As a telling example, the Blackbirds’ engines come equipped with unique air intake vanes that shift position mid-flight to keep the bleeding edge of its sonic boom out of the engine cowlings. Without these, the SR-71 would literally fly so fast that incoming air would explode its engines clean out of the frame.

Blackbird profile.

Image credits National Museum of the USAF.

No expense was spared for this jet. In an age when the American aircraft industry used titanium with extreme stinginess (it was very expensive and hard to acquire), the SR-71’s structure was 85% titanium. It was high-grade stuff, too — Lockheed engineers refused roughly 80% of the titanium shipments they received due to it not being pure enough for the job. No other alloy was strong enough to resist the immense forces its engines bellowed out while being light enough to keep it fast. Lesser metals would simply melt off the aircraft mid-flight due to air friction close to its maximum speeds. Lockheed had to develop new tools and procedures to work with titanium, as it does become very brittle during construction and will break if mishandled — these are still being used today.

Temperatures on the aircraft’s leading edges were expected to exceed 538 degrees Celsius (1,000 Fahrenheit) during flight. At the same time, ambient temperatures outside the cockpit window would be -60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 Celsius) due to its extreme cruising altitude. The inside of the windshield reached 250 degrees F (120 °C) at Mach 3.2.

Blackbird Canards.

Lockheed A-12 (SR 71 Blackbird predecessor) wind-tunnel test models at NASA Langley, showing an interesting canard configuration as well as the more familiar configuration that was ultimately used.
Image and caption credits NASA via Wikimedia.

This plane could abuse itself so much — the extreme conditions it experienced during flight made it usually return from missions with missing rivets, panels ripped off, and parts such as inlets needing replacement — that the US Air Force needed about a week’s time to get them back to shape after a sortie. There were cases where repair teams needed a whole month to get the planes back into shape.

According to military reports, the Blackbirds logged 53,490 total flight hours and 11,008 mission flight hours. During this time, over four thousand strikes have been fired in anger against them. None found its mark. They were retired from active service in the 1990s.

Still, from the delicious design and ludicrous requirements to the excellent service record and sheer ability of this airplane, it remains a legend among its kin.

Credit: Pixnio.

How Virtual Reality is poised to change the aviation industry

Credit: Pixnio.

Credit: Pixnio.

Although technologists, media outlets, and fictions have been teasing it for decades, it’s only these past couple of years that technology has caught up with consumers’ ambition for virtual reality (VR). VR is particularly exciting for gaming and entertainment, but it also the potential to radically transform many other industries and aspects of our lives. For instance, VR is now helping surgeons with complicated operations by offering cyber training or treating patients with schizophrenia by providing a visual space where they can meet the voices that torment them. Another huge area that’s set to be impacted by VR is aviation, where it has the power to revamp the industry. Here’s how.

Enhancing the flight experience

Some flights can take as much as eight hours, which can be excruciatingly boring. People usually pass the time by reading books, watching a movie, or listening to music. By its very nature, however, VR is a far more immerse form of entertainment which might help make that flight from London to New York just a little more bearable.

In-flight VR could also help people who are afraid of flying. Instead of going through a traumatizing experience for hours, passengers can immerse themselves in a calm environment of their choosing, whether it is somewhere in nature or a stadium watching football. And for those on the opposite side of the spectrum, you could even enjoy a view of the air plane’s outside surroundings as if you were a bird high above the clouds.

Training the next generation of pilots

Credit: Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim).

Credit: Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim).

VR is now offering a new way to train pilots beyond the capabilities of traditional flight simulators. As in a simulator, VR flight simulator’s such as Bohemia Interactive’s BISimulator offer cadets access to flight controls that are analogous to those in a real cockpit. However, the immerse experience means that would-be pilots go through a more realistic training scenario. Another added benefit is that training wouldn’t have to be limited by cumbersome equipment and space. Simulators emulate different kinds of cockpits for different kinds of aircraft training, whereas VR training is a lot more versatile and portable. This alone could save billions across the industry.

The French military is already using VR to train their pilots, according to a 2007 study.

Cabin crew training

The advantages of VR training also extends to the cabin crew, which needs to be prepared for all kinds of special situations like emergency landings, passengers in need of medical assistance, and even terrorist hijacking. For instance, a company called Future Visual designed software that allows trainees equipped with a VR headset to inspect airplane models. Everything is exactly as in a real airplane, allowing trainees to learn first hand how emergency doors and other important features of each aircraft work without having to keep an aircraft grounded for training and having to use a lifesize model. Again, there’s a lot of potential for saving costs.

Aircraft engineering

Modeling in 3D has been a ubiquitous tool in many engineering disciplines for decades. Pratt & Whitney, an engineering company, has designed virtual reality tools that allow aviation mechanics and engineers to peer inside a jet engine, for instance. There’s even an “exploded view” feature that allows engineers to examine the jet engine’s individual parts.

Over the next three to five years, as graphics cards to operate VR become cheaper, higher-end cards will be able to drive very large models of millions of polygons with complex lighting and shading. This is when VR engineering will truly become exciting.

There’s also many other unexplored areas of aviation where VR might make an impact. This kind of technology is still in its infancy, so one can only guess what kind of developments and exciting new features will be enabled when VR and aviation fully cross paths. So far, they’re only starting to know each other.

NASA’s new futuristic airplane wing could revolutionize flight

A team of engineers has assembled and tested an innovative new type of wing. The structure, assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, can change shape during flight to help pilots better control planes. The new futuristic wing is lighter, more efficient, and more maneuverable than currently existing wings.

Image credits: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center.

It’s remarkable that our technology has developed so much that we take flying for granted. A dream for countless human generations across history, flying has become routine in our modern world. Nonetheless, modern aircraft are tremendously complex machines. Now, NASA wants to make them even more impressive, by taking wing design to the next level.

Flying involves several stages: takeoff, cruising, maneuvring, landing, and so on — each of which has its own optimal wing parameters. In order to be able to perform all these stages effectively, conventional wings compromise and sacrifice efficiency.

Furthermore, conventional wings require movable fin-like surfaces (called ailerons), which allow pilots to control the plane — if you’ve ever traveled on the window seat right above the wings, you’ve probably seen them. These ailerons reduce wing efficiency even more.

Engineers now believe they can address both issues by having a wing that shifts and deforms in its entirety based on temporary requirements.

Image credits: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

The new wing features a radically different design, consisting of hundreds of tiny identical pieces. These pieces are huddled inside the wing, in an open, lightweight lattice framework, and this whole structure is covered with a thin layer of polymer material. It’s far lighter than conventional wings, which means that it uses less energy.

But the key aspect is that this flexible design allows it to morph into different shapes based on whatever the plane is doing (taking off, landing, etc). It’s a self-adjusting, wing-reconfiguration system.

While the prototype was hand-built by a team of graduate students (how would anything in science get done without graduate students?), the whole thing can be built using 3D printing and robotic assembly, meaning it is very scalable. This process is currently being documented in an upcoming paper.

Image credits: Credit: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

As a comparison, the new wing lattice has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. By comparison, rubber, which has a similar stiffness, has a density of 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.

The wing was tested at NASA’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center, where it performed even a bit better than predicted.


In addition to planes, this technology could also be used in wind turbine blades spacecraft, and even bridges. It’s without a doubt one of the most promising technologies of the year.

The GE9X on a test bed in Ohio. Credit: GE Aviation

Size matters: meet the world’s biggest jet engine

This beast is called GE9X — the largest jet engine ever built. Standing at 13 feet in diameter, it’s wider than a Boeing 737’s fuselage.

The GE9X on a test bed in Ohio. Credit: GE Aviation

The GE9X on a test bed in Ohio. Credit: GE Aviation

General Electric designed the engine for Boeing‘s 777X airliner expected to roll out in 2020. Though it produces less power than its predecessor, the GE90-115B, the new GE9X is far more efficient — about 10 percent more. Not impressed? Well, in this field even a one percent bump is considered monumental. Just think of how much fuel this saves, turn that into dollars and multiply it by thousands of flights performed by hundreds of airliners over their life cycle. No need to do the math — it adds up to billions, trust me.

“The GE90 helped enable Boeing’s 777-300ER to have a dominant international route market position for the past 15 years,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. The GE9X will allow “the 777-X series to maintain that market dominance for another few decades. It will likely be the largest, most powerful, and most advanced large turbofan built for some time.”

Why are jet engines so big in airplanes?

This might sound trivial, but have you ever wondered why modern jet engines are so big? For sure, when you have to fly hundreds of people thousands of miles you need some serious power. But the reality is that jet engines have become bigger, while the planes themselves have shrunk in size. The Boeing 747 is significantly bigger than the Airbus A350, but has a smaller jet engine. Well, it all has to do with thrust and efficiency. The bigger the engine, the better its efficiency because it uses less energy to push the same amount of air. MinutePhysics has the breakdown in this amazing video.

Cicada, the "paper airplane with a circuit board". Image: © AFP Laurent Barthelemy

Military wants to use swarms of disposable “Cicada” drones: dropping flies behind enemy lines

A mini-drone that fits in the palm of your hand could give the military an upper hand on the battlefield by providing key intelligence readings. Hundreds of these small, plastic drones could be dropped off a flight and left to scatter across the battlezone. Though they don’t have any engines, these “Cicada” drones are equipped with sensors that help adjust the gliding pattern, directing the drone towards a dropzone with an accuracy within a couple of feet. These are hard to spot since they easily disguise as a bird from afar and once behind the lines can use their sensors and microphones to spy on enemy positions. These can also prove very useful for civilian missions, most notably for gathering meteorological data.

The name “Cicada” is after a species of insect that lays dormant underground for a couple of years, before it bursts through by the swarms. Once outside the insects quickly reproduce, then drop to the ground dead. Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory  felt inspired and wondered if they could design and deploy drones that are so tiny and numerous, that’s impossible for the enemy to shoot down every single one them. This is how the military’s Cicada, or Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, was born. It’s the smallest and cheapest of any military drone developed thus far. The prototype cost only a thousand dollars, while a full scaled manufactured model could drop to about 250 USD a piece.

It only contains 10 moving parts and no engine, but it makes no difference since it can make its way by gliding just as well. A built in GPS receiver tells the little drone, which looks more like a paper airplane than a military-grade aircraft, where it needs to land, so it constantly adjusts its wings and rudder to get there. In a test about three years ago in Yuma, Arizona, Cicada drones were released from 57,600 feet (17,500 meters). After dropping and gliding for about 11 miles, the drone landed within 15 feet of its target. This could be refined even further, so later versions might land right atop, with pinpoint accuracy.

“It looks like a bird flying down,” said Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. But, he said, “it’s very difficult to see.”

“They are robotic carrier pigeons. You tell them where to go, and they will go there,” Edwards said.

An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

It would’ve been nice if the Cicada was also fitted with some cameras, but this would have severely compromised the design and entire scope of the drone. Once you have a camera, you also need a storage medium and hardware that can handle serious bandwidth. But it does have ears, which are often more than enough. For instance, a Cicada dropped behind enemy lines in key points near a road can eavesdrop using its built-in microphone. Based on the noise and ground vibration, you can then learn when, how many, and what kind of vehicles are using the road. Cicada is also equipped with  temperature, air pressure and humidity sensors.

What’s more, the Cicada is extremely robust. In test flights, the engineers flew prototypes through all sorts of obstacles. Sometimes it would get hit pretty hard, but came out in working condition nevertheless.

Edwards said. “You can thrown them out of a Cessna or a C-130,” he said.

“They’ve flown through trees. They’ve hit asphalt runways. They have tumbled in gravel. They’ve had sand in them. They only thing that we found that killed them was desert shrubbery,” he said

According to Edwards, both the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are very interested in the Cicada and closely following the research.


This may look like a stunning shot, but make no mistake - it's a nightmare for any pilot! Image: LA Times

Why birds crash into planes and cars like a deathwish

Birds are experts at avoiding predators, quickly dodging out of harm’s way when felt threatened. Likewise, they’re fantastic at navigating through crammed environments like woods or packed urban dwellings.  Even so, when faced with high-speed objects like cars, not to mention airplanes, the birds seem to make little effort to fly off a path that means most certain doom. Scientists have turned their attention to this enigma in hopes that they might develop the means to avoid bird impacts, for everybody’s sake. When a flock of birds hits an airplane’s engine, panic soon engulfs any seasoned pilot. Since 1988, 255 people have perished as a result birds impacting airplanes. So what did they found? Apparently, birds avoid predators or potentially deadly obstacles by judging how far away they’re from them, not by velocity. Past a certain velocity, birds don’t react anymore and remain where they are confident that they still have time to escape.

This may look like a stunning shot, but make no mistake - it's a nightmare for any pilot! Image: LA Times

This may look like a stunning shot, but make no mistake – it’s a nightmare for any pilot! Image: LA Times


Most often than not, this reasoning makes them perish. It’s believed 80,000,000 birds are killed by cars in the U.S. alone, some of them endangered. Concerning airplanes, the latest incident happened in 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to perform a crash landing straight in the in the Hudson River. The crash, widely referred to as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” resulted in no loss of life and only five minor injuries despite the freezing river – but it could have gone really, really bad.

So what’s up with geese? Are they just stupid or what? US researchers played videos of speeding trucks in front of cowbirds and then gauged their reaction times. When the trucks roamed at speeds under 60mph, the birds were very apt at escaping a collision course with the vehicle. Past this threshold, however, the birds were absolutely helpless. In fact, many would start flying only after the virtual track would have run them over. Oddly enough, a similar study was made last year on turkey vultures. This time, however, the researchers actually drove a real pickup truck directly at birds and tried to pick them off. The turkeys escaped the truck only at speeds below 55mph. I’m not sure if any birds were killed, but I’m guessing (hoping) not.

Image: Proceedings of Royal Society B

Image: Proceedings of Royal Society B

The mechanism seems to suggest that both cowbirds and turkey vultures (as well as most other birds) assess risks based on distance, not speed. When a potentially moving threat is at 100 feet away, the birds instinctively fly away. When this margin is covered under a second by a plane flying at several hundred miles per hour, hapless birds don’t stand a chance since it’s far below their reaction time.

The authors suggest in the paper published in the Proceedings of Royal Society B that airplane manufacturers install flashing lights to scare and ward off birds. As far as cars go, the scientists recommend we slow down when driving through bird crowded regions, especially near conservation sites where there’s always the risk of killing an endangered specimen.



Wright Brothers Glider in mid flight. It was made in 1911.

Rare and amazing photos of the Wright brothers and their historic flights [GALLERY]

Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited as the first men who built an aircraft capable of manned controlled flight. The first manned flight by airplane (powered, controlled and heavier than air) occurred on  December 17, 1903,  when Orville flew at 120 feet (37 m) over the ground for 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h). Introductions are rather unnecessary, though.  For more on how the Wright brothers started their work and an informative historical timeline of their achievements, I’d recommend you read this Wikipedia entry.

The Wright brothers worked fundamentally different from other manned flight pioneers of their time. While others concentrated on fitting stronger engines and making more tests, Orville and Wilbur preferred to tackle on aerodynamics instead. The brothers built their own wind tunnel and extensively carried out aerodynamic tests. This eventually lead to the advent of the three-axis control system: wing-warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side). This was indispensable for the pilot to have control and thus both better flight performance and avoid accidents which were so often at the time.

Some scholars agree that the 1902 glider was the most revolutionary aircraft ever created and the real embodiment of the genius of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Although the addition of a power plant to their 1903 Flyer resulted in their famous first flight, some scholars regard that improvement as a noteworthy addition to something that was truly a work of genius – the 1902 glider..

For your consideration we’ve curated some of the most amazing photographs featuring the Wright brothers and their creations – various historical flights like the very first take off at Kitty Hawk, model gliders including 1902 and 1903 versions, mid-air shots and other fantastic vintage relics that tell of a time just a century ago when people daring to fly were labeled as mad.