|BlueSky Business Aviation News|
I’d like to go back to Cdr. Bud Slabbaert's ViewPoint column of 11 November. You may recall that is the one in which he proposed a Task Force For Innovation. (ViewPoint: A Task Force For Innovation). Like many of us, Cdr. Bud is concerned that we in business aviation have lost something. Here in the US, we might say we have lost our “mojo.” Certainly, a solid case can be made that we are no longer on the cutting edge of technical development.
The more I think about it, the more I think that CDR Bud’s Task Force is a good idea in and of itself, but also that task force should be part of a larger intellectual and industrial infrastructure that we do not yet have. We need a think tank.
This is not the same as the NBAA or GAMA. Those organizations do a terrific job as our industrial associations and legislative advocacy groups. That’s a huge job all by itself, and the NBAA and GAMA folks do a very good job. No, this is something different, with a different purpose, which drives a different kind of organization.
So what’s the difference?
A think tank is not an industry association, and while many political think tanks get deeply involved in political lobbying, that is not our real need here. Classically, a think tank does research (basic and applied), writes white papers, works on the kinds of ideas that the production and profit oriented businesses cannot justify financially and presents that work to people who can use it effectively. Essentially, it acts as an industry-wide R&D group.
What about NASA?
In 1958, in a post-Sputnik world, the US government replaced the NACA with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As many of you know, NASA has paid scant attention to the Aeronautics part of their name. I can’t recall NASA ever doing much for us, nor even for the new class of civilian sub-orbital and LEO folks. I went to school with some people who went to NASA to do aeronautics stuff, but their total budget doesn’t make a rounding error on a shuttle launch. NASA is a tool of the big defense contractors, and not much else.
Originally, we had the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the NACA (I know, “the” NACA, definite article required and each letter pronounced separately, but for NASA, no article is allowed and it’s pronounced as a word - put it down to American language strangeness; I do). Much of what we know of aerodynamics and aircraft construction comes directly from the NACA. It was a brilliant organization, along with its contemporary, the BACA (B for British). Powered heavier than air flight is traditionally credited to the Americans, but it was the Europeans who made huge strides early on and the NACA was the American reaction to that surge of European innovation. We no longer have the NACA doing research for us and we haven't for over half a century; we have been coasting on our grandfathers' research. We in business aviation need a new NACA, a new BACA. We need an industry-wide research organization, one that can do aerodynamics plus a whole lot more.
What do we get from a think tank?
Let us do a thought experiment, a Gedankenexperiment, if you will. How might we as an industry benefit from a business aviation think tank? What are some of our larger issues? Where is it too expensive for an individual OEM, but highly beneficial for all of us?
With that sort of introduction, the green stuff pops to the top of my list. One goal would be to research and develop the very best fuel conservation procedures (that would have to be done in close cooperation with each OEM, obviously). That is low-hanging fruit, as we say.
Another would be to dig into the alternative fuels issues and present the research to the industry as a whole. What fuels seem best suited for our operations? Which companies are best suited to support us? How can we modify our existing equipment to best utilized alternative fuels? What is our logical roadmap forward? For a longer planning horizon, how about some research into hydrogen or other clean fuels? What about an engine modification or fuel additive that can help REMOVE carbon dioxide from the air? Can we make the cognitive leap for environmentally destructive to environmentally constructive? Big questions. Big implications. And it affects all of us in the industry as well as people outside of our industry. Imagine licensing our anti-CO2 technology to the car industry! What a terrific way to move to the leading edge of this movement!
New, environmentally benign materials and processes?
Materials research with a focus on lowering the embodied energy content of our products as well as reducing, or better yet, eliminating the toxic materials from our products. William McDonough’s book “Cradle to Cradle” is an excellent read for this sort of thing (if you can only read one book this year, make it this one). If the computer industry can make this move, so can aviation. Frankly, there is no reason why we can’t and to refuse to detoxify our products is insane, bordering on suicidal when you look at the potential litigation to say nothing of the actual damage. Having one organization figure it out for all of us is just good sense. It’s the least expensive way of going about it and it makes us all look like environmentally responsible good guys (even the guy driving the surplus B-52). It’s a win-win.
Open source, open architecture
Remember my discussion of the open airplane and open engine projects? Who better to organize that than our very own research arm? There is a lot of confusion around these sorts of projects, but something like this can be truly transformational, taking us to the next level through organic innovation (organic as in part of our normal organizational practices, not organic like carbon-based). There is nothing to be afraid of, really. Yes, I know the OEMs fear being displaced by a standard product, but that’s vastly overblown. If your organization is any good at all at building your current product, you should be really excellent at building a standard product, one that you don’t even have to develop; you can customize it to any extent you feel like. And if some organization isn’t any good at building stuff, it is going out of business anyway. Harsh, but true.
How about infrastructure? What kind of infrastructure will we in business aviation need in ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Someone should be looking at that. Infrastructure has huge implications for airplane design and with the blossoming of the Brazilian, Russian, Indian, and Chinese economies there will be a huge need for standards and for a structured way of thinking about airport development. There is no reason why our needs in business aviation should be an afterthought in either the airport planning process or the regional planning process.
I would love to have someone figure out how best to handle our data requirements. Maintenance data alone would be a huge win, I think. Some on the airplane, some on the ground, what must the OEM provide? What must the operator provide? What must the maintainer provide? What formats? Revision processes and cycles? What are the exchange standards? What are the software standards? I’m a huge fan of standardization. I recognize the need for special deviations in special cases, but let’s be fair; most applications would be easily handled in a standard way, making updates easy and inexpensive, which is a major win for everyone. Currently, we have a snarled mess and no one wins except the outside software vendors.
Aircraft maintenance steering committee
Speaking of maintenance and standards, we as an industry could certainly use a steering committee on aircraft maintenance; the heavy iron folks have one (actually they are on their third or fourth generation; MSG III is currently in effect). The differences in processes, procedures, tools, and parts within any particular OEM’s product line are annoying large, and can be the source of inadvertent damage to the airplane. The differences between OEMs can be much larger. Really, how many different ways can we think of to apply ground power to the airplane or check the battery? Can we please just agree on a couple of standards? One would be best.
Economics of regulation
Another area is economic impact of regulation. We have a number of truly excellent, world class consulting firms in our industry, or those who cover our industry along with a few others, but I do not know of anyone who has the credibility to create a good economic model of the entire industry and get buy-in from the regulators. That leaves us as an industry are pretty much at the mercy of the regulators and however they want to view the cost of various regulations. One of the things that I admired about the old FAA was that they were required by law to balance the benefits of the regulation with the cost of the regulation. Apparently, that has gone by the wayside along with so much else. I think that the global business aviation industry should have a group of solid economists on our side, giving the NBAA and other BizAv advocates the ammunition they need to properly represent us in legislative affairs. We might even be able to do something similar with security in order to pry the TSA off of us.
The list of potentially good things we as an industry could get from our own think tank is fairly lengthy, and other people can provide additional ideas that would provide a well-funded think tank with a century’s worth of work, which will provide us, the business aviation industry, with a century’s worth of innovation and progress. That’s worth a lot.
A different sort of charter
I think we would want to be careful how we structure this think tank. An overly narrow charter can do more harm than good. The charter of our think tank might well be very similar to that of the NACA, formed in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution.” For our purposes, it might go more like this: To study the problems and challenges directly associated with business aviation, with a view to their practical resolution.
Note that I did not specify strictly technical problems like aerodynamics or structures or fuel specifications. No, we need a broader mandate, really. We need to be able to look at everything because as E.O. Wilson tells us, all knowledge is interrelated. The best solution to a particular problem may well lie in a different area. For example, quite possibly the best solution to the problem of huge airplanes shoehorned into infrastructure designed for smaller aircraft is market fragmentation, not bigger infrastructure. More, smaller aircraft flying between more, smaller airports actually provides more people with better service than a few huge aircraft flying a small number of trunk routes. We need to remain open to this kind of solution.
For the sake of brevity, if nothing else, let us assume that we all agree that a think tank is a good idea; that we need an organization that can provide deep technical and economic knowledge on our industry to members of our industry, including the industry alphabets and the regulators. We need to create a group with solid academic and practical creds, a group that has integrity as well as imagination and profound analytical skills, a group that can faithfully represent the best interests of the industry. This organization also needs to be deeply rooted in the reality of the industry through various programs we see in other think tanks (fellowships, grants, internships, working sabbaticals, etc), plus the hitherto unharnessed power of broad social participation; a wikinomics of business aviation, if you will, a “think tank without walls.” Or at least one wing without walls (yes, that was a pun).
And, of course, we will need a name. I’m fond of “Bob,” but I’m open to alternatives like the Business Aviation Research Institute, or as the French would have it, L’Institut de recherche de l'aviation d'affaires. Something fairly generalized, non-partisan, and clearly related to business aviation. (If you prefer “Bob,” send me email and I’ll see if we can push it through in committee.)
There are a number of things that would have to be worked out: organizational structure, geographic centers, research facilities, academic ties, funding, leadership, staffing, industry relationships, and initial focus to name a few. But the opportunities are enormous.
After fifty years of reasonably sane economic activity, we seem to have painted ourselves into something of a corner. The barriers to entry to our little industry are enormous, and that creates problems with insularity. The constant grinding to squeeze out another half percent of operating margin kills the R&D groups, while always taking the financially minimum risk track leads ever downward, as any reader of Dune can tell you. We often talk a good talk about how failure is OK and how we learn more from failures than from successes, but we as an industry seem to have lost our appetite for risk, for daring innovation, for breaking out to the next level. We used to be an industry of pioneers, an industry of people who could, and would, bet the company on the innovations offered in their next product. I think we can be great again. I think we just need a little help, and this is a way we can help ourselves.
Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups.
Terry welcomes your comments, questions or feedback. You may contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org
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