The Road to the Future… Is Paved With Good Inventions
We bring you 10 great ideas that made flying safer, easier, or just a whole lot more fun.
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
NASM (SI 76-17595-P)
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It turned out that the pilot had entered a stall-spin. In the early days of aviation, stalls were a major cause of accidents. An aircraft wing is said to “stall” when it stops producing lift. When air meets the leading edge of an airfoil, part of the flow goes over the top and part goes underneath. (The place where the airflow divides is called the stagnation point.) As the aircraft’s nose pitches up, the angle between the airfoil and the wind increases, and eventually the orderly airflow above and below the wing breaks down. A turbulent storm of air forms over the top surface, and the wing can no longer produce lift.
Greene contrived a simple, wing-installed device that would warn the pilot that his wing was about to stall. He used rudimentary elements: a moveable vane that juts into the air, a small switch connected to the vane, and a battery-powered horn or light (or both). The theory is as simple as the technology: As the wing approaches stall, the stagnation point moves farther and farther aft of the leading edge, until air that would normally flow aft reverses its flow and goes forward; as it flows up and over the leading edge of the airfoil, it pushes the vane forward, closing the switch and in turn sounding the warning horn.
In 1946, Greene started a business, Safe Flight Instrument Corporation, to manufacture the device. The vane had to be placed so that it gave pilots enough warning to let them push the stick forward and recover before the wing actually stalled, so Greene did extensive testing to establish the best placement of the vane on each airplane type’s wing. During his career, Greene test flew and stalled so many aircraft that he lost count of the number. His son Randall, who today runs Safe Flight Instrument, says of his father: “He could see the air. I don’t mean that as a metaphor. I mean it literally. He could visualize the flow and pressure of air in his mind.” Leonard Greene died in 2006 at the age of 88.
Today, all U.S. aircraft must have some form of stall warning. In addition to Greene’s patented wing device, Safe Flight Instrument and other manufacturers — such as Rosemount and Teledyne — make airflow sensors for use on the fuselage.
Greene continued with his inventions, accumulating more than 200 patents and producing increasingly capable safety systems, such as automatic throttles. But the family business’ most ubiquitous product is its simplest.
—George C. Larson
Two decades ago, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, wanted to know what it would cost to retrofit his fleet of airliners with a flat panel display on the back of every seat. The answer: $8 million. The young Virgin Atlantic didn’t have that kind of money, and the bankers Branson went to for a loan didn’t see much promise in the idea. So Branson called Boeing and said he wanted to order some new 747s, all with seatback video screens. Boeing said they’d make it happen. In the end, Branson borrowed $2 billion to buy the jets, and let Boeing sweat the details. In 1991, Virgin became the first airline to offer seatback video in all classes of service.
Today, any airline that flies long-haul routes is expected to have seatback video. The technology, provided mainly by Panasonic, Thales, and Rockwell Collins, was created in 1982 —before Branson’s brainstorm —by a company called AirVision, founded by Los Angeles businessman and engineer Arn Steventon. AirVision later became part of Warner and Philips.
Branson now offers the everyman screen on all Airbus A319s and A320s flying for Virgin America, his two-year-old U.S.-based airline. Passengers use remotes with standard volume, channel, and forward/back controls. On the remote’s flipside, a mini keyboard lets them text chat with other passengers over a wireless network. They can build a playlist of favorite tunes from a library of 3,000 songs, and the system remembers it on their next flight.
“It’s not necessarily the explosion of the seatback screen,” says John Norman White, historian and co-founder of the World Airline Entertainment Association. “That’s the delivery part of it. The revolution is on the front end — the leap to giant servers. Very soon we’ll have a total of a terabyte of capacity on board that that will enable an airline to present 500 movies and 2,500 compact discs to its passengers.” Already, fliers on Emirates Airlines, a leader in inflight entertainment, can punch in their birth year and the system will play the top tunes from that year. Or they can select from specially made BBC content, such as a lengthy documentary on the history of classical music, with experts discussing composers and arrangements.
The Singapore Airlines A380 is a flying tradeshow of inflight entertainment. Singapore flies the farthest route, 10,371 miles, and the longest duration, 18 and a half hours, and considers inflight entertainment critical to passenger sanity. Business Class passengers enjoy 15.4-inch high-resolution screens, while the Suites Class fliers tune in to a 23-inch liquid crystal display that comes with a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. But everyone on the airplane, including those in Coach with 10.6-inch screens, has access to the airplane’s riches of movies, TV shows, music, and computer games.
“What blows my mind is the cost of it,” says White. “If I told you the most expensive thing on an airplane is the airframe itself, that’s no surprise. And the engines come second. That probably wouldn’t surprise you either. But on the modern 777, the A380, the 787, the third highest expense is, you guessed it, the inflight entertainment system. You’re talking $15 to $20 million easily.” And that’s just for the hardware. Content costs millions more to license from domestic and international movie studios and record companies. Over the life of an airplane, say Boeing officials, the cost of inflight entertainment actually exceeds that of the engines. According to analyst Walé Adepoju of the Inflight Management Development Centre in London, between 2007 and 2012, airlines will be adding these systems to 3,000 commercial jets, at a cost of $4.6 billion.
By then, passengers may buckle in and view a screen that greets them by name, shows images of their destination, and informs them that a LinkedIn or Facebook friend is on the flight. It might schedule a dinner reservation in the city where they’re headed. It probably won’t follow them to the restaurant and serve the wine. But stay tuned.
Among William Lear’s 150-plus patents are designs for the first practical car radio, the Learjet, even the eight-track stereo tape player. But Lear’s most successful creation was the autopilot. While the technology had been around since 1914, when father-son team Elmer and Lawrence Sperry held a demonstration in Bezons, France, the autopilot was found only in slow-reacting airplanes such as airliners and bombers. In 1949, Lear transformed aviation when he developed a miniature autopilot (which he holds in the photo) and the first fully automatic landing system for use in supersonic fighters. The achievement earned him the National Aeronautic Association’s prestigious Collier Trophy.