Saturday, August 1, 2015

Deconstructing the F 35 Boondoggle

"Eekoff!  Eekoff!"

"That naughty Tubby Bear has put ginger beer in the tank of my car instead of petrol!"

                                                             from "Noddy and the Aeroplane" by Enid Blyton

And so Noddy's car coughed and was still.  It was thanks to Big Ears (and the bear) that little Noddy got the use of an aeroplane in the last book of the series.  Unfortunately this is unlikely to be Tony Abbott's last disaster in his own series but he is in the good company of several nodding little wooden men; heads of government who couldn't say no to our great strategic patron.  But some are smarter than others and are furtively seeking the exits. 

"It's a great plane, great plane!" he exclaimed stepping from the cockpit of a mock-up.  Maybe it had been planned as a photo- op with a real one but they aren't quite flying properly yet, nor will they ever in any satisfactory sense.    Of course it isn't all his baby but he knows you have to go along if you want to get along.

So how did it come to this?  Better yet to ask how does mediocrity defend itself in a communal milieu; be it kindergarten, a political party, corporation or civilization.  Tubby Bear was only supposed to wash the car but turn your back and the cunning little bounder is servicing it for his own ends.

Firstly an admission that I have no experience with aeronautical engineering, hardly knowing a flap from an aileron.  But the methods, tools and principles are the same and I could confidently build an aircraft in my garage.  That's something every musician understands.  They can all play Beethoven.  Some play it well, but only Ludwig Van could compose it.  As a self-taught engineer of one-offs for myself and others I am in the enviable position of never having had to get anything off the ground.  It's when you are airborne like on a bridge or held up by wings that the mathematics counts to the nth degree.  My own work requires none of that, it rests firmly and humbly on terra firma; sleek and  functional; well beyond the standards of health and safety or the penny-pinching economics of mass production.  And humbly because as a non-visionary who can actually do things I understand that in everything we do we stand on the shoulders of giants - from smaller men who built the machines that roll and weld perfectly square and dimensioned, straight hollow steel members, and the geniuses who worked out how to produce the perfect super-hard spheres and cylinders and races that constitute the bearings we take for granted and buy off- the- shelf for a pittance.  Without these my work would be uncertain and clunky and our civilization would grind to a halt.  On the upside the German blitzkrieg could never have rolled over Poland.  And somehow that took a while to sink in; the allies never got around to bombing Schweinfurt until 1943.

And at the top of the hierarchy stand the men who discovered the boxes - the ones that ridiculous dreamers think outside of which are also known as the laws of nature.  That's where our calculations come from and no-one with an education wastes time imagining anything outside of that.  We don't write off the possibility of the supernatural absolutely but life is short and your chances are shite.  But you see these fantasies all the time in glossy magazines - the artist's conception of some giant airliner -as big as an Airbus 380 with  solar panels covering the wings, and through the picture windows happy passengers stroll or lounge in the comfort of some stratospheric saloon that makes today's first class look like a cattle crush and there is a headline: "The Future of Civil Aviation".  Hey they make kid's solar toys that fly OK.  Which is true and so would this if it could be only a single millimetre thick and fly around at walking speed with no payload whenever the sun peeked through.  A principle isn't enough, the metrics have to be possible.

"But solar panels are getting more efficient, now up to 27 %."

So at 100 % efficiency the toy could go 15 km an hour.  The extra lift can float lots of extra weight per square centimeter; maybe you can four times the thickness/strength and thereby double the dimensions of the craft.  And that last is roughly the mathematics of the problem.  When I was a boy some of the comic books had a single page in every issue; Ripley's 'Believe It or Not'.  The most famous item was "If a flea were the size of a man it could jump over the Empire State Building."   In fact a flea  has an exoskeleton and couldn't even jump if it was any bigger than a bumblebee.  Everything is competitively constructed and in all ways bounded by the limits of possibility. The exoskeleton is obsolete above the waterline long before you get to mouse size, and if you are going to go scaling you have to get it right.

In those years of innocence there was a service station near home overlooking the Trans Canada Highway run by some Jehovah's Witnesses.  They had wearied after living through a couple of unmet deadlines for Armageddon and while remaining ever hopeful, had grudgingly settled down to a life of ordinary toil.  Outside the shop, standing proudly on the tarmac and proclaimed by signage stood the "Do-All Jack" and it was visible to the entire nation as it passed by.  It must have belonged to one of the congregation.  At that time automobiles had frames; and this was an old Ford or Chevvy frame with the mechanicals intact and a short boom pivoted from vertical off the back end.  Cable wound pulleys replaced the back wheels and the hydraulic brake system had been split by adding another brake cylinder which gave fairly precise control of the operation with a clutch pedal and the two joysticks braking either side of the differential.  More cables somehow rigged to those and other pulleys held up the boom.  You could see that it was a second-rate crane and might be used to hammer in fenceposts or drill a well; perhaps it could pull out small stumps.  Perhaps a careful,  lucky operator could work it successfully without anybody getting killed or maimed.  I never learned how it was to be moved about to do those things because it had no wings or wheels.  To the most casual observer it was obvious that it did absolutely nothing very well.

And so with the help of Ripley, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Tubby Bear we can reconstruct the development of the F35.  It might have been a great concept and will go down in history as might-have- been a great aircraft.  The thing on the drawing boards in the engineering department at Lockheed Martin was a sleek and stealthy twin engine fighter/bomber with a great power to weight ratio that would exploit the latest new lightweight materials for the skin and airframe and could thereby have room for some extras and still fly right up beside the hottest conventional machinery for a long time to come.  Of course there might have been unexpected structural problems with the new technology but that's to be expected and it was nothing that couldn't be rectified.  As in Darwinian theory the unviable permutations are removed by sexual selection or death and it's not often you get get to choose without running the program.

It happened something like this.  Lockheed-Martin's aging, glad- handing General 'Tubby' Olsen (USAF, ret.) who owes his position to called-in favours met with the rest of his marketing staff and asked themselves some searching questions.  Like 'what has our plane got that General Dynamics doesn't have in spades?' and more important the unspoken one of 'how do we make our mark on this thing and  continue to appear indispensible?'  And they spoke to the bean counters who knew that volume sales to their allies were the only way unit costs could be kept down and validate their own positions and prestige via the balance sheets.  So it had to have sex appeal or the operational equivalent.

"We toss a few cookies to the allies.  They get some jobs.  We got stealth.  We got.....uh.. what about STOVL like that Harrier thing?"  They had never forgiven the Marines for going to the Brits over that one.

"Christ that's an idea.  You could fly the b**** out of any field or off a barge.  Even the Greeks could afford a carrier."  The massive general appeal would leave the sales competition in the dust and although the Greeks could have their carrier; cost overruns would ensure it would be forever planeless.

The Harrier is small and old and ugly.  As a short take-off vertical landing aircraft (STOVL) it has directional jets and a lot of power for its substantial weight.  It can lift off virtually straight off the ground, is incredibly agile and a great attack aircraft.  But it doesn't fly far and fast and you couldn't sell Australia or Canada on it.  When the engineers heard the news they were ropeable.  One of them screamed, tearing at his hair.  "Both those f***ing engines have to be at full power each end of the flight.  You can't wind turbines up and down against each other in this kind of thing.  We can't write the software!  Where and how the hell with everything else do you propose we put in the ducting?"

But management was convinced and  adamant and tossed them a billion dollars and gave them a year to look into it.  And once you have spent a billion dollars it's just like home at which you can look back but you can't ever go back.  And meanwhile the marketeers had wasted no time pulling out all the stops with the customers who were already convinced.  So Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing was written in stone and there was only one way out, one more compromise.  The concept was heading for the special rendezvous the gods of hubris save for so many technical wonders of the world:  the Titanic with its iceberg, the Hindenburg with its mooring mast, the Do-All Jack with destiny.   It had to be a single engine aircraft.

That would have been alright if it was as small as the Harrier.  But it couldn't be because it is also a long range fighter/bomber and the concept has been scaled up so now there are 15 tonnes of this pig to boost into the air, twice the weight of the Harrier.  Ripley's flea was not a goer because weight hence structural and energy requirements run away exponentially against a linear increase in size.  The engine has to produce a minimum of 1:1 thrust to aircraft weight,  to bring the thing straight down successfully,  and is itself a prisoner of the same principle.  At full power the turbine blades are stressed to the edge of failure.  It produces the highest thrust to engine weight ratio of any jet engine ever.  It can't be pushed any harder, so far engines last about 15 hours and still can't power the plane abreast of the competition.  Nor are there  runways that can take all those tonnes of super- heated blast on the tarmac. So we have bought into something that will carry all that junk with it but nonetheless be limited to ordinary landings on ordinary runways.   It will be fully operational as such for pilots presently being born, which gives time for 2 more world wars with a re-construction of the U.N. or its successor in between.   Worst of all a quantum leap in metallurgy is required to begin to make it a threat to someone else and nobody knows if that is possible.  If not, Australia's security AND budget have been compromised for the long term.  In rational markets nobody buys into things like that, especially with an open-ended price tag.  Unless.

Back when the Witnesses came around on Saturdays in the course of their duty they used to say"We are the generation that will never taste death."  Nevertheless the service station proprietor died, and it must have been quite a surprise.  But that's alright, everybody miscalculates occasionally and most people do little harm thereby.  The business was demolished to widen the highway and the Do-All Jack disappeared at the same time, having sat those many years doing nothing.  They managed to carry it off for scrap in the end.

And Prime Minister Tony Abbott has so much to deal with, he can't keep his finger on every pulse.  The natives are restless over trade deals undealt, the price of coal and iron ore, treatment of the desperate dispossessed who risk death in our blue ocean, the squeals of cut-off part pensioners; hibernating in their crumbly, mouldering  little Sydney biscuit-boxes with unlikely, eye-popping million dollar price tags and they are still too self-serving to rejoice that their stinking stipend is freed up for national defense and budget repair.  At every venue he faces some noisy and unruly circus of the disaffected with signage and funny clothes.  Heading homewards one afternoon he encounters another lot -  it seems to have a 'Wizard of Oz' theme.  There are the usual college kids with funny hats, lollipops and streamers.  A big bloke is dressed badly as the cowardly lion, the Wicked Witch of the East is there with her broomstick, helicopter and jet plane toys, and there are other animals.  The car slows and stops.
"Shall we move these silly people along?" the driver asks impatiently, tugging distractedly at his protruding earlobe.
The PM silently gives his assent.  The driver leans roughly on the horn.

 "Parp parp!" 

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