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.