Aviation: ‘Back to the Future’

At the time you are reading this, it is the most modern, current minute and second ever.

And as you are reading this, that last sentence is now in the past and out-dated. The time you are reading this sentence is now the most modern, current minute and second ever!

Every-day products and services are constantly modernising and progressing to become better and more advanced in their functionality, e.g. mobile phones, automobiles, education, etc.

Can the same be said for Aviation?


Here are a mere handful of avionic feats that have been achieved within the last 100 years:

  • 1927 – Charles Lindbergh completed the first, solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean
  • 1959 – Russian spacecraft, ‘Luna 2’ was the first to reach the surface of the moon
  • 1969 – American spacecraft, ‘Apollo 11’ was the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon
  • 1976 – Concorde carried out its first commercial, supersonic flight
  • 1996 – Fastest transatlantic crossing! British Airways Concorde G-BOAD flew between New York City and London in a world-beating time of 2hrs 52mins 59secs. The plane covered the 3,750 miles at an astonishing average speed of 1,250 mph

These are all ground-breaking achievements, spawned out of a competitive climate and the drive to push the boundaries of what is possible. America battling with Russia to be the first to land on the moon; An Anglo-French partnership to commercialise the ‘airliner of the future’ for Concorde to show the then dominant aviation forces of Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas what could be achieved.

Fast forward to the present day and we find ourselves looking back for technological advancements in aviation, rather than forwards:

  • 1972 – the last manned landing on the moon
  • 2003 – the last Concorde flight

Why is it that whilst we consistently introduce technology to make anything from automobiles to broadband speeds faster, we don’t adopt the same principle in aviation?

You could argue that where civil aviation is concerned, there is a societal reason. Consumers demand more for less. The ‘greed-is-good’ Concorde days of the 1980s are long gone and we want to get places cheaper, not faster.

By and large, that is true. Cheaper civil aviation has opened up airline travel to natives of some of the world’s least economically developed countries. City breaks in Europe with sub-£100 return flights coupled with an Airbnb stay have become very common. You can even liken this consumer habit to other sectors such as Retail. Does your weekly food shop cost more now than it did 20 years ago? Probably not. Because the consumer is very much in charge these days. We have the means to compare prices without too much effort and to go where we get the best deal.

Or is it that we prioritise economy now over everything else? Virgin even have a dedicated ‘Efficiency Team’ to continuously work on ways to make their aircraft more fuel efficient – e.g. removing in-flight magazines in favour of rear-seat tablets to reduce weight.

New lighter, more fuel-efficient aircrafts produced by Boeing and Airbus, such as the 787 and the A350, where electrics replace heavy, mechanic systems, have led to large cuts in fuel bills, while upgrading the likes of the 737 and the A320 with new engines, has helped keep fares low. In developing its 777-300ER, the American plane manufacturer eliminated the need for 20,000 washers, saving 53kg.


So, what’s the right answer?

Encouragingly there are organisations within the UK currently who are striving to combine both cutting-edge avionic technology and efficiency. Recently I visited Oxford-based Reaction Engines Ltd.

The business was set up in 1989 by three Propulsion Engineers who were previously working together at Rolls Royce. During that time, they all lead on the ‘HOTOL Project’ – ‘Horizontal Take-Off and Landing’. This was a for a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spaceplane that was to be powered by an airbreathing jet engine. Development was conducted as a joint venture between Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace.

One of the engineers, Alan Bond in the field of pre-cooled jet engines, heavily researched Hypersonic Travel - launching an aircraft/spacecraft into low earth orbit, then with rotation of the earth, bring the aircraft/spacecraft back down into the earth’s atmosphere. To give some perspective, this would translate to something taking off from England and touching down in Australia in about 4 hours!

The project was backed by a consortium of British Aerospace and Rolls Royce, yet unfortunately due to technical problems, cost and various criticisms, it was dropped. However, unperturbed by this and still strongly believing in the concept, the three engineers set up Reaction Engines and are subsequently developing a new air-breathing engine, SABRE – Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine; the engine core is scheduled for its first ground test in 2020.

A SABRE class engine can travel up to 5 times the speed of sound (Mach 5) in air-breathing mode, unlike a jet engine, which has the maximum capability of Mach 3. There is every possibility that we could see this technology enter the world of commercial airline travel in our lifetime.

If we can stick with - and possibly even revive - strong, forward-thinking concepts like this and learn from previous failings, there is every chance that with today’s technology we can combine the two and get Aviation back to its peak, to do what it was initially set out to do – change the universe by exploring it faster and further than before.


Gavin Wingfield is a Senior Consultant - Manufacturing & Engineering at Interim Partners


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