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:: November 2003 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Franklin Mint “Anniversary of Flight” Commemorative Plate Collectors,

Yeah, it’s that time of the century again—time to commemorate the centennial of flight. Lately, I’ve gotten calls from journalists seeking advice on important milestones and highlights. I may as well try it myself. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered, inhabited flight, I’m going to write two letters, one idealistic, one cynical. Guess which one comes first?

So, here goes, a list of aviation market atrocities, the “lowlights” of flight, if you will. Naturally, I’ll exclude such obvious horrors as hijackings, crashes, or Raytheon’s composite aircraft development programs. And since we all live in our own universe, I’ll restrict myself to things I’ve dealt with in my professional life (1988-2003, inclusive).

1. One thing I’ve learned from H. P. Lovecraft stories, Ed Wood movies, and late nights working in my laboratory: the dead don’t like to be brought back to life. So we’ll start the list with Zombie Jetliners. Think: any effort to re-animate dead jetliner programs resulted in a miserable fiasco. There was Rekkof Restart (Fokker jets, predictably). There was that weird Romanian BAC 1-11. Lockheed’s L-1011 was almost reborn in China. Fairchild Dornier’s 728JET blueprints and prototype are now subject to the tender mercies of China’s D’Long, which wants to breathe life into this RJ corpse. Come to think of it, Boeing’s 717 fits here too, dragging the DC-9-30 into a century it wasn’t supposed to live to see. (On a related subject, I once took a very funny jetliner factory tour with a colleague who kept assuming a creepy Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense voice, repeating “I see Dead Programs!” over and over again.)

2. Curiously, though, no effort has been made to resuscitate BAE’s 146/Avro/RJ/RJX. Perhaps its unnaturally long and frequently messy life provided enough of a cautionary tale. Seems like I’m always carping about this premature and overlarge RJ (How many teamster union-member engines does it take to lift 80 passengers? Four. You got a problem with that?). But then again, considering that its financing arrangements almost singlehandedly destroyed old BAe back in the early 1990s, it has more than earned a place on the list.

3. And speaking again of death, there are dignified ways to go, and then there’s the Douglas Aircraft way. In the years before its 1997 demise, the company’s myriad jetliner design horrors betrayed its earlier glories, earning them a mention here. Remember the MD-11X, with its space age Panorama Deck? How about the MD-12, a 747 clone built with Taiwan? Best of all was the MD-XX, a 200-seat widebody with composite primary structures (hey—isn’t Boeing’s 7E7 a resurrected MD-XX?). The only survivor of this malodorous crop: the MD-95/717, which distinguished itself by being just adequate, and not terrible.

4. It’s a throwaway joke, but I’ve got no choice: Sonic Cruiser. Remember all the furious speculation? Flashback 2001: Engineer X and the engine inlet breakthrough; inverse area rule application, with tapered fuselage ends; ponderous futurism lectures at air shows. Where did I put my childhood Captain Midnight Secret Squadron watch? Looking back through two years of mist, it all seems like a heavily medicated dream.

5. Airbus gets a mention here too. The original A3XX (A380) was a classic example of “Supply Push.” How do I know? Because I kept some of the delightfully goofy Original A3XX Marketing Material, which certainly makes this list. It isn’t just the cool Rain Forest Cafe/tennis court/swimming pool interior promo stuff, although that’s got lots of camp value. Rather, it’s the clumsy effort at market analysis (to justify this Euro-jobs and manhood project) that provides the most entertainment. Best is Airbus’s original list of important and growing high-density air routes—humorously, over half are 60-minute flights (my favorite: LA—Phoenix, certainly a potential super jumbo market).

6. Back before privatization and its lucrative surf of the RJ wave, Brazil’s Embraer designed planes like it was mad at them. And at one point, it got the bright idea of hooking up with Argentina’s FMA, then managed by unreconstructed military junta cronies. The resulting bastard offspring, the CBA-123, certainly makes the list. This over-engineered, poorly considered 19-seat creation was the largest of the great class of backward facing prop planes. How Piaggio’s Avanti survived the resulting market carnage is beyond my analytical powers.

7. IPTN. Need I say more? Before religious lunacy helped cut it short, Indonesia’s economy was booming. But none of that was due to this kleptocratic and misguided industrial vision. A hundred years hence, archaeologists will find machine tools, half-assembled Super Pumas, the N-250 prototype, and faded drawings of the N-2130 jetliner. And back home, they’ll go to garage sales and find old aerospace trade journals with countless articles about Indonesia’s coming aviation supremacy, and wonder why all that ink was spilled.

8. I’m guilty of neglecting the military market—any indigenous fighter program certainly belongs here. But for a study in organizational and technological incompetence, it’s tough to beat the Navy’s A-12 strike plane. The best and perhaps last word on the subject can be found in Jim Stevenson’s The $5 Billion Misunderstanding (Naval Institute Press, 2001), although Boeing, General Dynamics, and the Navy hope to salvage something from this experience with a prolonged and time-wasting lawsuit.

Anyway, this list is far from exhaustive. Lots of value has been destroyed during the age of manned flight. I’ve never liked the anecdote, but remember the old gag about shooting Orville and Wilbur before they got to Kitty Hawk, thereby saving society billions of dollars? It’s fatuous, but at times, it rings true.

Next month: idealism, or something like it. And in this month’s supplement, there are updates of the F-2, Jaguar, EH 101, NH 90, Lynx, King Air, TBM 700, and Bombardier Regional Jet. Sadly, we’re removing coverage of the Saab Viggen, but there’s nothing left to be said about it. Have a happy autumn.

Yours, Curmudgeonly,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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