Monday, February 29, 2016

Meet the new stealth bomber, (not quite) the same as the old stealth bomber

Let's talk about the B-21, a.k.a. the Stealth Aircraft Formerly Known as the LRS-B.

LRS-B, of course, was a somewhat tortured initialism for Long-Range Strike Bomber, with a hyphen thrown into the wrong place for good measure. But the label really said it all, or almost all: It is a bomber designed for long-range strike missions. It's also stealthy, which for some reason didn't make it into the name, but whatever. It's the B-21 now.

It's great to finally see--at least, in an artistic sort of way--what the new plane looks like. But first, I'd like to note that this isn't the first B-21. Nossir! The first was the XB-21, designed in the late 1930s as a medium bomber prototype. Designed by North American Rockwell, it lost a fly-off to the apparently much cheaper B-18 Bolo prototype. It looked like this:

A vision of the future, set way in the past.


The latest B-21, meanwhile, looks like this:

A vision of the future, set in the present, but with echoes of the recent past. It's complicated, OK?

It's a slick looking plane that, it goes without saying, closely resembles the B-2, designed in the 1970s and first flown in the 1980s. It's also made by the same company, Northrop Grumman.

So here's the thing. As an aviation dork, I'm a little disappointed it doesn't look more exotic. I'm not sure what "more exotic" would mean here, to be honest, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said (kind of), I'd know it when I saw it. It's a B-2 with longer wing extensions and no saw-tooth trailing edge. Right?

There is, of course, a reason for that. The whole philosophy behind the LRS-B program was to use "mature" technology--that is, stuff we know works. That doesn't necessarily mean it's all stuff that is unclassified or old news, but it's proven. Which explains the shaping. The B-2's planform is aerodynamically efficient and nearly invisible to radar; why mess with success?

We know literally nothing about the B-21's capabilities at this point (or even how big it is, as the illustration doesn't give a sense of scale), but we can at least infer it is meant to be subsonic. The long wings we see up there provide lift and range, but the ain't made for breaking the sound barrier LINK.

That means what we've got here is an aircraft that looks like the previous generation in stealth, and isn't particularly fast. Is this ground for Panicking That We Have Wasted Money on a White Elephant? No. And here's why... I think.

I have pointed out in the past, with some annoyance, that Russia's and China's stealth entries get a lot of attention to their overall shaping without much consideration to the details. A plane can look stealthy without being stealthy, thanks to stuff like engine nozzles, canards, strakes, and so on. And in the end, it's what's under the hood--high-tech radar, efficient engines, datalinks--that makes a plane top of the line anyway.

And this is where I think the B-21 will necessarily take it to the next generation. Better engines will give it longer legs. Defensive systems like solid-state lasers are, publicly, nearly small and light enough to mount on a large airplane. Weapons are "smarter" and can be released from ever-increasing ranges to hit ever-smaller targets. Networking will probably allow the bomber to control, or work in concert with, a fleet of unmanned aircraft. And there is a very good chance the bomber itself will be "optionally manned"; for high-risk missions, it could be flown remotely, or by a computer.

Oh, and by the way, that -21 designation? That stands for 21st Century. What we see, in other words, may not be what we get, and no matter how much I wanted to see a chrome-plated, atmosphere-skipping SuperMegaBomber, that's probably for the best. If nothing else, it will give me plenty to blog about as more details follow the plane out of the shadows.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Way ahead of the curve

Many years ago, Mrs. Blog and I attended a music festival in Milwaukee. Don't worry--the story gets better from here.

The band I remember most was on a SummerFest sidestage, with the seating area half-full. "They're a Chicago band," Mrs. Blog told me. I hadn't heard of them. We sat down, beers in hand, as the band took the stage. The lead singer walked up to the mic, plugged in his guitar, waited a beat, then launched into a crunchy rock cover of "Crimson and Clover."

The band was OKGO. I bought a couple of EPs from their merch guy at that show, and their label-produced full-length CD later. It was good stuff! And, of course, you want to support your local artist.

Now, in 2016, [REDACTED] years later, they're not Beyonce famous. But they've made a name for themselves--as you probably know--by virtue of increasingly clever music videos involving stuff like treadmills, Rube Goldberg machines, marching bands and human LED displays.

Their latest video, for a (catchy) song called "Upside Down & Inside Out," takes it to another level, literally, and in a way that really appeals to the aviation nerd in me. First, watch the video:


Yeah, that's right. The entire video is shot in free-fall. Note, this is not zero gravity, although as Einstein would helpfully point out, it feels like the same thing, relatively speaking. The band is being affected by gravity just like everything else on the planet, but they are falling at the same rate as the plane they are flying in, so it feels like they aren't. This can be done in just about any plane by flying a parabolic arc:

Like a roller-coaster, but awesomer.

Neat! This is the same way astronauts train for zero-g environments. And--fun fact--when they're orbiting the Earth, they, too are being affected by gravity: they're in free fall, but are moving so fast they keep missing the ground. It's science!

Note, though, that this process only gets you a minute or so, at most, of free fall to work with at a time. So what OKGO did was do one continuous take, with pauses in the dancing and music (which were edited out later) for the times when the plane was climbing back to the top of the parabolic arc, and they were not in free fall. If you look closely you can see where free fall ends, about every 25 seconds, when all the performers are sitting or standing for a moment.

Here's what it looked like behind the scenes:


And finally, the icing on the nerd cake for me is that the whole thing is shot in a surplus Il-76, a ubiquitous ex-Soviet military transport aircraft. You can find them all over the world now, being used for i̶l̶l̶i̶c̶i̶t̶ private cargo hauling, foreign military operations and of course music videos.

I knew I liked OKGO the first time I saw them. But I never would have guessed they'd inspire an aviation blog post. To paraphrase Claude Debussy, it's not the notes, it's the nerdery between the notes.

Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Christmas Eve, babe....

As always, here's to avoiding the drunk tank--and drama in general--as you settle in to enjoy the holidays.


And since we're having this chat: Happy New Year, too!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Armed and dangerous

Let's see if this is possible. Let's see if I can write brief post about gun control that's actually brief.

It can be tough to sort through all the noise to get any signal on this issue. You have probably seen a lot of information thrown around since the San Bernardino shootings: That 2.5 million crimes are averted every year because of guns (laughable); that gun crime is way down since 1993 (true but misleading; the numbers have been same since 1998 or so); that a gun ban in Australia made a big impact in gun deaths there (complex, but probably accurate); and even that it's unthinkable to abridge a constitutional right (also laughably untrue--try buying an RPG or shouting "fire" in a crowded theater).

All of that obfuscates the one fact that is literally undeniable: Americans are killed by guns at an appalling rate. Way higher, UNBELIEVABLY higher, than peer nations... and even some third-world countries. To say this is untrue is to share a Venn diagram with moon landing hoax believers.



That's a problem. A public health problem, in that people are dying who shouldn't be. A human problem, in that sons, daughters, mothers, sons are being taken from their families. And even an economic problem, in that all that those people could contribute--from the big, like starting companies, to the small, like paying sales taxes--is obliterated forever.

Why are we so unwilling, as a country, to address it?

I think the biggest issue is that the problem seems more or less insurmountable now. Distractions like "let's fix mental illness!" ignore the glaringly obvious correlation between gun deaths and the number of guns. Yet no one is seriously proposing confiscating all guns. That's because it would be constitutionally questionable, at best, and also because there are so many guns. The NRA has spent the last 40 years  convincing America that we need more guns as "tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection." Tons of other Americans, including me, have paid money to shoot firearms for fun, or own them at home for the same reason. So the heavily armed horse is way, way out of the barn, and isn't coming back.

It's easy at this point in the conversation to just throw up your hands and say, "Screw it! Nothing can be done." But that's a pretty lame attitude. That's not how we cured smallpox, integrated schools or made cars safer.

So here are some things we could do:
-Require liability insurance. It has been proven with other crimes that making them just slightly less convenient (or harder) to commit deters them. If, as when you buy a car, you have to obtain insurance, that will dent sales. It will also theoretically create economic incentives for insurance companies to find ways to make guns safer, for instance by funding more advanced smart gun systems.

-Mandate a much longer waiting period for buying a gun. Include an onerous background check. Training. The result is fewer gun sales, and guns in the hands of theoretically more stable, responsible owners.

-Make concealed carry illegal. This is probably the most controversial idea. But if we're serious about stopping mass shootings, we should understand that "good guys with guns" are unlikely to prevent such carnage. And worse, they present a complication to responding officers, who must now sort out who are the good shooters and who are the bad shooters before reacting. (Note that this is why, in the Oregon campus shooting, an actual armed student kept his gun holstered.) The U.S. is a modern nation, not Somalia, and if you feel scared enough to arm yourself for everyday life--and you're not in the military or in law enforcement--I would suggest that your money would be better spent on counseling.

-And this seems like the least-controversial idea anyone could suggest: Allow the CDC to study gun violence unfettered. Since 1996, the agency hasn't been able to examine gun violence with any kind of rigor. (Thanks, NRA!) Getting good, unbiased data on gun violence is the first step toward addressing it like the public health and safety issue it is.

The auto industry is a great example of how safety has been regulated into both the product and the user. It would be fantastic to see the same type of results with guns:




But nothing will change if we continue to just shrug our shoulders and complain that it's too big of a problem or too big of a burden on gun owners. Nothing resembling those two obstacles have stood in politicians' way as they happily tried to legislate  solutions to--just pulling an issue out of thin air here--terrorism. Terrorism, yes, which has killed exponentially fewer Americans since 2001 than gun violence. And no amount of gut-churning violence seems to be weighty enough to act as an inflection point. You would think the massacre of a bunch of children by a guy using legal firearms would have given us a push in the right direction. But that was years ago, and here we are again.

Like an addiction, the first step is admitting we have a problem. Denying it will just land us right back in the same bloody mess.

And so maybe the next post I write on the subject will actually be short. Maybe even just one word: "Finally!"

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Tigershark and a Falcon Hawk walk into an arms market....

China is trying very hard to sell its J-31 Falcon Hawk (sometimes referred to at the Gyrfalcon) stealth fighter to other countries. Most recently, it was on display at the Dubai Airshow, where officials with its manufacturer, AVIC, promoted such features as:

-It has two engines
-It has vertical stabilizers (i.e. "tailfins")
-It can carry weapons

If you thought to yourself, "Self... aren't these features that many military aircraft have?" you'd be asking a legitimate question. But lest you think I'm exaggerating, here--watch the promotional video for yourself:


They didn't go into great detail about anything, as you can see. What is arguably the plane's biggest selling point, its stealthiness, is asserted without any quantification. What's the radar cross-section? How far away can it be detected? All open questions.

Another key detail not addressed was how much each plane would cost buyers. And here's the most important bit: there are no customers. A major aerospace company is selling a low-cost (maybe?) stealth fighter to anyone who wants it, but, well... no one wants it. Including the Chinese military, which is focusing on the J-20 and has no plans to buy any J-31s.

It's easy to mock AVIC for this. But this isn't the first time a company invested money in what it thought was a superior product, only to find its plane utterly ignored.

In the mid-1970s, the American defense giant Northrop (now Northrop Grumman, maker of such obscure aircraft as the B-2 stealth bomber) began developing a light fighter for export. The idea was to supply U.S. allies with a high-quality fighter that could defeat front-line Soviet gear, but not sell them top-of-the-line U.S. hardware, like the newly developed F-15.

Thus spawned the F-20 Tigershark. It was basically re-engineered F-5 Tiger II, with its wings and tail tweaked to improve maneuverability and a single engine that generated more than 50 percent more thrust that the F-5s two engines. Overall performance was, in the end, comparable to the more-expensive F-16. It looked like this:



Neat, right? But despite its relatively low cost and relatively high performance, there were no buyers. Well, Bahrain ordered a few, but they were never delivered. The biggest issue was that the U.S. changed its export policies, allowing better equipment--including the F-16--to be sold overseas. Northrop was never even able to sell any to the U.S. government. And so after the better part of a decade, Northrop abandoned the program after spending more than $1 billion on it.

So there are all kinds of factors at work with the J-31. Buyers who are allowed to purchase an F-35 or Eurofighter Typhoon probably will. Buyers who aren't--I'm looking at you here, Pakistan--are probably reluctant to shell out money for a plane that may or may not do any of the stuff its advertised to do. (And a J-31 buy would not generate goodwill with Washington, either.)

In the end, the J-31's problem is that it's probably just a dog, developed for Chinese use but discarded in favor of the superior J-20. AVIC is trying to get something back on its investment. But like Northrop, it might be better served moving on to the next project and leaving the Falcon Hawk alongside the Tigershark as a footnote to aviation history.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

They did it. They did it!

After losing the World Series in seven games last season, the Kansas City Royals are once again world champs.

As I wrote last year, I have clear memories of the games, the celebrations across the city, the parade. I was right there in the middle of it in '85, a nine-year-old watching the games on TV at home and the victory parade on TV in the cafeteria of my elementary school.

Now I have literally never been farther from home--7,796 miles, if Google is to be trusted--and the Royals have done it again.

I wish I were there to celebrate with my Kansas Citian friends. I wish I had been there to watch some of the nail-biting late innings with my parents (and my dad, especially, who HATES nail-biting late innings). But in the end, I can't complain: I'm here with Mrs. Blog and the increasingly adorable Little Blog, and thanks to the Internet, I was able to follow nearly every minute of the post-season. That's literally a win-win.

And you know what? Thanks to that 7,800-mile distance, most of the games came on around breakfast time here in Hong Kong. And thanks to the extra innings, right around lunchtime on November 2, I was able to see this:


Go, Royals!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tragedy, journalism and everyday life

It's true, I think, that when you get into journalism you know you're signing up for being exposed to things you can't unsee.

When I was reporting in Chicago, there were dead people. And body bags. And violent crime scenes that hadn't been cleaned up. But even if you never leave the newsroom, you're surrounded by images--on TV, the Internet and in print--that aren't always wonderful.

Right now, I'm more or less in the second situation: I've got a desk, two monitors and a phone. I deal with business news in Asia, which is never more than metaphorically depressing. But the refugee situation in Europe means that, like most of the world, I've seen horrifying pictures of dead children on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Like I said, you know you're signing up for it. And for better or worse I think you get kind of inured to it after a while.

But for me, the emotion leaks through sometimes. There are two times this happened to me that stick out in my memory.

Once was when I was covering the kidnapping and killing of a boy (a celebrity's nephew, actually) in Chicago. I interviewed some of his family's neighbors. Talked to the police. Did normal reporting things. Was fine. Then I saw the picture we had been given to use with the story. It was from his birthday party. He was seated at a table, holding a balloon. A huge, innocent, joyous smile just radiated from his face.

Someone had taken that kid--defenseless and innocent--and killed him. I came home from work that night and cried. It was hard to stop.

The second time was today. You've probably seen the picture too: a three-year-old Syrian boy, lying motionless in the surf in Turkey. You can't see his face. He's dressed in a tiny red T-shirt and tiny blue pants and tiny black shoes.

He died because his parents are war refugees, unable to travel normally, legally, to a safe haven. I cried (discreetly, because I'm a professional) at my desk.

The latest one hit me harder, I think, because I have a kid of my own. I dress her every day. Sometimes she wears tiny pants and a tiny T-shirt and tiny shoes. She's defenseless and wonderful and I never want anything bad to happen to her. So what happened to the Syrian toddler seems all the more tragic and unjust. His parents' choice was to risk their lives living in a war or risk their lives trying to claw their way into a more promising country.

That's not a fair choice. Developed countries have plenty of room to help those trying to escape war, or religious or political persecution. It's the right thing to do, but if you're more of a "how does it help the bottom line?" type, the economic benefits of immigration--legal and illegal--are pretty unambiguous, at least in the United States.

As for me, I'm glad I'm not too calloused to react emotionally like that. I'd be worried if I were. But I hope--naively, I know--that the world will improve, and there will just be fewer images like this for me to react to.

That's the world I want my daughter to live in. Not the one where generosity is seen as weakness, and refugees treated as a nuisance.