High ALT

Normal commercial air traffic control doesn’t go beyond 60,000 ft in altitude. That makes sense since civil flying activities have been limited to lower altitudes. In fact, modern commercial airliners are not designed to fly above about 45,000 feet. This is a compromise based on what works commercially as much as what’s works best. Aircraft instruments are calibrated making standard assumption about the atmosphere.

For some of its flight, Concorde cruised at a height of 60,000 feet. More like a military jet, with its speed it had the capability to make use of higher altitudes.

It’s even possible to fly above 50,000 feet without an engine. The world record glider flight by AIRBUS shows it’s possible.

The Earth’s atmosphere is not uniform. It changes its characteristics with altitude. The atmosphere can be divided into five layers, as the temperature and density change. They are named: Troposphere, Stratosphere Mesosphere, Ionosphere and Exosphere. 

The Troposphere is a layer that goes from 8 kms (26,247 ft) on the poles to about 18 kms (59,055 ft) on the equator. This is the layer where weather is experienced.

On average, the Stratosphere goes up to about 40 kms (131,234 ft). The winds blows fast but they tend to be more consistent as they wrap around the globe. The lower portion of the Stratosphere is virtually isothermal (layer of constant temperature). 

A medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon[1] figured out that the air might support a ship in the same way that water supports ships. In the 13th Century that was a nice academic conclusion but little more.

With all the current controversy surrounding high altitude balloons, that the road to flight started with balloons, could be said to be a bit ironic. It’s long been known about that balloons fly well at high altitudes but it’s a new frontier as far as commercial activity is concerned. For science, weather balloons may go up to 40 km to measure the high level winds.

Some experimental work has been done on trying to commercially use the airspace above normally civil flying. The Google Loon trials[2] are an example of an attempt to float a telecommunications platform high in the sky. These balloon trials were abandoned as difficulties proved greater than anticipated.

It’s not so easy to keep a high altitue balloon on-station.

Now, considering the news in North America, maybe high-altitude operations ought to be a matter of regulatory concern. This is not a subject that any one country can address alone.

There is some legal, regulatory and technical work[3] underway in Europe[4] but it needs to make progress. This is a subject for international collaboration. 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Bacon

[2] https://blog.x.company/loons-final-flight-e9d699123a96

[3] https://www.eurocontrol.int/article/echo-making-space-new-high-altitude-entrants

[4] https://www.eurocontrol.int/events/european-higher-airspace-operations-symposium

Over the Horizon

How often does the obvious comment need to be made? It’s Sunday 11th February and the new UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology has only been in the job for a few days.

UK Ministers Michelle Donelan latest utterance is straight out of the failed Brexit playbook. The UK is “ready to go it alone”, she says[1]. Let’s puff up our chests, money is no object, the UK doesn’t need to be part of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe[2] programme of the EU. Or at least that’s what she and her colleagues seem to be saying.

The rather silly argument is made that the UK will work with the US, Switzerland, and Japan instead. Now, hang about, call me a bit crazy but couldn’t the UK do both?

There’s no way the UK can become a global science powerhouse without working with both the EU and the rest of the world. Well, with a few possible exceptions. Afterall, it would not be wise to be forging research links with Russia at the moment.

Partnerships and collaborations matter so much because so many great ideas are based on the work done by others.

Already the UK is seeing a decline in research students coming from Europe and China. The Home Secretary’s struggles to control migration with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer doesn’t help.

Yes, the UK has a history as an inventor and can be capable in science even if we pull up all the drawbridges but that’s incredibly limiting, commercially crazy and like throwing a damp blanket over future pioneers. Remember young talent is mobile.

I do remember the exit of UK talent that occurred in my student days (1979-82). I’d meet some of them later in my career working in aerospace companies all over the world.

Putting aside all the above, big money matters, but what matters more is opportunity.  That is fertile ground for innovation.

Contrary to UK Government Minister’s thinking this has nothing to do with de-regulation either.

Across the Atlantic we have a highly regulated country that still seems to be able to produce innovators that go on to change the world. There are more lawyers per square mile in the US than just about anywhere on Earth but that doesn’t stop that country being an incubator for ground-breaking innovation. [Says me, on my Windows PC with my iPhone charging next to my iPad.]

Today, the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is going to make funding available on a gigantic scale. The UK’s cash-strapped Government can’t match this US effort even if it wanted to do so.

Europe needs to work together. The UK needs to be one of the associated countries[3] to participate in Horizon Europe. The alternative is grim.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-uk-science-horizon-b2280569.html

[2] https://research-and-innovation.ec.europa.eu/funding/funding-opportunities/funding-programmes-and-open-calls/horizon-europe_en

[3] https://sciencebusiness.net/news/Horizon-Europe/heres-what-first-two-years-horizon-europe-look-numbers


What do you think are the reasons behind the overall decline in engineering apprenticeship starts in recent years? We are particularly interested in understanding more about supply and demand.

What do you think are the reasons behind the overall decline in engineering apprenticeship starts in recent years? We are particularly interested in understanding more about supply and demand.

Image. It persists even now. In fact, the paper[1] that asks these questions has images of spanner turning. It’s so easy to pick royalty free pictures that pop-up from search engines searches. These images show mechanics in blue overalls. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the least bit disrespectful of spanner turning.

A deep cultural memory persists. It has multiple elements. You could say, in part, industrialisation, still conjures up images of dark satanic mills contrasted with grand country homes of a class of business owners. Basically, dirty, and clean as two key words.

The Victorians did a great deal to both elevate engineering personalities, like Brunel[2], but to hold them as different or apart from the upper middle-class society that the fortunate aspired to join. Those who forged the prosperity of the age had to work hard to be accepted in “society”.

Today, it makes no difference that’s it’s American, popular comedies like “The Big Bang Theory[3]” entertain us immensely but pocket the “nerd” as eccentric, peculiar and unfathomable. I admit this is attractive to a proportion of young people but maybe such shows create exclusivity rather than opening people’s eyes to possibilities.

Having Government Ministers standing=up can calling for Britan to become a version of Silicon Valley doesn’t help. Immediately, that signal is heard from those in authority, young people switch “off”. To boot, the image conquered up is a whole generation out of date. We have the Windows 95 generation telling the iPhone generation what’s the best direction to get to the 2030s.

Here’s a proposition – you must see yourself as an “engineer” to become an engineer. That can be said of a whole myriad of different professions. Each with a common stereotype. Look at it the other way. If you cant’t see yourself as a person who can shape the future, it isn’t likely you will choose engineering.

My observation is that we need to get away from too many images of activities. In other words, this is an engineer at work. This is what they do. This is what they look like. What we need to address is the touchy-feely stuff. Let’s consider how young people feel about the world they have inherited from my generation.

A high level of motivation comes from the wish to make changes and the feeling that it’s possible to make changes. That the skills picked-up as an apprentice will help you shape the future. Engineering is part of making a better world.

[My history is that of an Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB) apprentice who started work in 1976.]

[1] https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/318763/fit_for_the_future_knight_and_willetts_apprenticeship_inquiry_euk_call_for_evidence.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

[3] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898266/


Eyes wide open in astonishment. I saw a supermarket newsstand. That’s not new. From time to time, I find it better to scan the daily headlines rather than buying a newspaper. Frankly, in the world of social media and search engines the sane and sober daily national newspapers are too expensive. They only make sense on a Sunday when there’s time to take in what they have to say.

It’s a moribund marketplace. British daily newspapers are in slow decline. Nevertheless, each title has a readership that remains loyal even if it’s declining in numbers. Before the mobile phone took so much of our attention time it was important to consider who reads the papers. As a sketch from the BBC comedy “Yes, Prime Minister” nicely put it[1].

I have an admiration for those who can transform difficult technical material into everyday language. That kind of communication skill is much needed and often undervalued. Taking simple words and sentences and telling a story that makes knowledge accessible, well that’s rare.

The newspaper headline that caught my eye was “It’s a space burp, Jim, but not as we know it.” Topped by “Earth facing solar blast as powerful as a billion nukes”.

This is wonderful example of how to turn real science into pulp and mush. I might be the only one who picked up the Daily Star, some irony there I think, and thought this thought. What a way to highlight a story about the sun. No, not The Sun but the sun that’s 93 million miles away.

There are some great people in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US who run a space weather prediction centre[2]. Their website is a place to go if you want to know where to see the northern lights at a particular time and place. On Monday 9 January, there was a solar flare that may have affected radio transmissions in South America. That’s useful to know if you are on a ship using High Frequency (HF) radio communications in that part of the world.

“Earth could soon be in the firing line of a massive solar storm with the power of billion hydrogen bombs” is certainly an interesting and rather scary way of putting it. What the readership of The Star should do about this suggested calamity is not explained.

The Sun is restless, powerful, and essential to life on Earth. It’s prudent to keep a watchful eye on what it does. There’s no doubt that it can cause havoc on extremely rare occasions. We are now more vulnerable than past generations given our dependence on extensive electronic communications.

The Sun runs on an 11-year cycle. I don’t think anyone knows why that happens, but it does. We are coming out of the quiet part of the cycle so there’s likely to be more reports on this subject. Solar flares, like massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are difficult to predict. Our ability to warn of a once in a 5000-year event is fragile.

Perhaps this story is a hopeful wish of a newspaper editor. We will put down our broken mobile phones and pick-up newsprint once again. I wonder?

[1] https://youtu.be/DGscoaUWW2M

[2] https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/

Poor law making

If you thought the Truss era was an aberration, and that the UK’s Conservative Party had learned a lesson, then please think again. Wheels set in motion by the ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg MP are still spinning.

The Retained European Union Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is trundling its way through the UK Parliament. The Government Bill will next be prepared for its 3rd reading in the House of Commons[1]. The Conservative Government has brought forward this Bill to revoke, reform or revise all the remaining law in the UK that was formerly derived from the UK’s membership of the EU. This turns on its head the normal approach to changing UK legislation. Revocation is automatic unless there’s an intervention by a Minister.

UK civil aviation depends on several thousand pages of legislation derived from EU law[2]. Much of this law was created with considerable contributions from the UK. There’s hardly any if any advocates for automatic revocation of current aviation legislation. Even the thought of this action sends a shiver down the spin of aviation professionals. Generations of them have worked to harmonise rules and regulations to ensure that this most international of industries works efficiently.

Unless amended, the Government’s EU Retained Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill[3] could turn out to be an absolute disaster. Even those who have an irrational wish to eliminate any and every past, present, or future link to Europe must come up with a practical alternative and do this in an incredibly short time. Without a consistent, stable, and effective framework civil aviation in the UK will grind to a halt. Again, even those who have an unsound need to change for change’s sake will be hitting a vital industry hard, as it is only just getting back on its feet after the COVID pandemic and now setting out to meet tough environmental standards.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this poor Bill reaches the House of Lords. Once again, the country will be relying on the upper house to add some common sense to this draft law.  

POST 1: The 3rd reading debate makes it clear that the Government is unsure which laws are covered by the Bill. If the Ministers responsible for this legislation do not themselves know its extent, how can anyone expect civil servants working on this legislation to know the full extent of change? A most strange state of affairs Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill (Third si – Hansard – UK Parliament

POST 2: Retained EU law lays down rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations in the UK Commission Regulation (EU) No 748/2012 of 3 August 2012 laying down implementing rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations (recast) (Text with EEA relevance) (legislation.gov.uk)

POST 3: Retained EU Law Bill is being debated in the House of Lords on Monday, 6 February.

[1] https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3340

[2] https://www.eiag.org.uk/paper/future-retained-eu-law/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-retained-eu-law-revocation-and-reform-bill-2022

Cold Data

It’s cold. The numbers on the energy meter keep clocking up and getting to new highs. Compared with last year my energy bill is going to be horrendous. Add to that inflation on just about everything else and it’s hard work to make it a winter of good cheer. Smart energy meters are useful in that they give real time feedback on household energy use. I’m not sure they have an impact on behaviour, but meters do forewarn of astronomical bills to come. Comparing Christmas past, present and Christmas future gave author Charles Dickens an idea.

Looking at media reports this year’s Christmas looks more Dickensian than ever. That is without the transformation that Mr Scrooge[1] underwent. It’s certain the attitudes of Ministers resemble that of Mr Scrooge. Protect the moneymen in their obsession with money and penalise the ordinary working soul. This story is being played out up and down Britain.

The fact that it’s not seen as strange to be talking of freeing up the City of Lonon from regulation at the same time as restricting and controlling working men and women is a bad indication of these difficult times. The Prime Minister may look like a busy light-hearted mouse, but he has a heart as cold as the winter mists.

As the Government has said it wants to collect data from our smart meters, I wonder what can possibly flow from that intrusion into our privacy. In so far as it might guide national policy and reminds Ministers of the benefits of insulating homes, data collection could be helpful. However, there’s a dangerous precedent set when Governments collect every bit of data homes produce.

There’s a creeping tendance to always ask for more data. Mr Scrooge can then compile a leger on the comings and goings of every citizen. Don’t believe for one moment that GDPR will protect our data. Personal information such as names, addresses and bank details are not stored on a smart energy meter. However, computing capability being as powerful as it is, relating energy data to its point of collection and thus bill payer isn’t so difficult to do.

To me, this recalls the saying about knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing[2].

[1] Ebenezer Scrooge, character in the story A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

[2] Oscar Wilde’s famous definition — someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”

Bird Strikes

Birds and aircraft share the same airspace. This is not a beneficial relationship for either.

I watched two rather aloof Branta canadensis in our local park the other day. They seemed oblivious to all the other birds on the priory pond. I’d certainly describe these two birds as being well fed. Given their stature and size, they looked formidable. These resident North American visitors are not to be messed with and are only eclipsed by the Swans on Reigate’s pond.

This species of bird has adapted well to living in urban and suburban areas and are frequently found on lakes, ponds, and rivers. I used to see large flocks of them gather on the river Thames. That was only a couple of miles from London Heathrow.

Even though they are numerous in the UK these birds are protected by law (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981[1]). Today, the population numbers may be as high as 62,000 breeding pairs[2]. Although these birds have the capability to fly great distances they tend to hang around where there’s a reliable source of food. Bird populations are changing their behaviours as a result of climate change.

Geese fly in the typical V-formation which is called a “wedge” or skein. From time to time, I see them fly over my house at a few hundred feet as they move between local lakes and ponds. They are easy to spot and often noisy as they elegantly traverse the sky.

Birds and aircraft share the same airspace. This is not a beneficial relationship for either. Strikes occur around the world every day. In the history of aviation, there have been hundreds of aircraft accidents and more than 47 fatal aircraft accidents caused by bird strikes[3].

It must be said that most bird strikes cause little damage to aircraft but that is highly dependent upon the size of the unfortunate bird and their habits. The story can be very different when an impact is with a Canada goose. Their large size and tendency to fly in flocks can have a devastating impact. On 15 January 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 aircraft[4] ended up in Hudson River as the result of an encounter with such birds.

The risk of collision between birds and aircraft have always been part of aircraft operations. As a result, measures are taken to certify aircraft to be robust in the event of such collisions. Additionally, there’s a great deal of effort made at major airports to keep birds away from active runways.

Most of the bird threat to aviation safety exists when travelling at speed at relatively low altitudes. Bird strikes happen most often during take-off or landing. This makes me think that bird strikes are going to be a regular feature of the operations of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) / Advanced Air Mobility (AAM). The use of use highly automated aircraft may offer the opportunity to provide sophisticated bird avoidance features. However, so far, I’ve detected no talk of such features.

POST 1: A useful safety booklet Large Flocking Birds (skybrary.aero)

POST 2: A recent Boeing 737-800 serious incident LinkedIn

POST 3: An example of what can happen from 2019 Ural Airlines Flight 178 – Wikipedia

POST 4: Another useful safety booklet Bird strike, a European risk with local specificities, Edition 1 – Germany | SKYbrary Aviation Safety

[1] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/69

[2] https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/waterfowl/canada-goose

[3] https://www.skybrary.aero/sites/default/files/bookshelf/615.pdf

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Airways_Flight_1549


It might be tempting for some politicians to thinks that the Conservatives have behaved so badly that the British public will not forgive their follies. In 2022, levels of incompetence and bad conduct have been astounding in the modern era.

The latest election polls for the next General Election (GE)[1] constructed with a uniform swing calculation of the polling averages (poor way to compute), shows a large winning Labour Party majority. That would be the political pendulum swinging hard from right to left, from blue to red.

There’s a problem with this analysis. Not least does it skate over the conditions that exist within the “swing seats”, that is those Parliamentary seats that are expected to change hands. It also takes for granted that the public mind will continue to be affected by the dreadful performance of the Conservatives in power. That famous political quote: a week is a long time in politics[2], surely needs to be read more than once.

It is often the cases that an incumbent party has an advantage in any political competition. Uprooting those clinging to power is never easy. Countering that, it is the case that a party is more likely to win by highlighting the deficiencies of their opponents. Eventually voters get fed up with a litany of failures and stupidities.

What’s missing is a positive construction of a vision for the future. Bringing about political transformation should not be a leap of faith brought on by sheer desperation. It’s understandable that voters may not wish to stomach more of the same. Wouldn’t it be so much better if they are drawn to a vision for a brighter future?

Today, I don’t see the articulation of that brighter future. What I do see is too much on specifics like how to fix this or that and how to pile more funds into this or that. A lot of what we hear is chasing the daily news cycle. The speed of news drives the political responses. Potential leaders are lagging the immediate cacophony.

My view is that a progressive political transformation can happen. What’s needed is that expression of, not so much how to change, but what will a changed country look like, and feel like. It is that vision of the promised land. Now, that sounds a bit grand. Maybe that’s what scares off opposition leaders from speaking of a better world.

Is it the case that modern-day British politicians fear raising the bar too high? Fear that raising expectation will result in ultimate disappointment. It could be so. What is needed is someone to cut through that fear. To frame words that communicate a vision.

[1] UK General Elections are scheduled to be held a max of 5-years from the first meeting of Parliament plus 25 working days, in accordance with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022.

[2] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/a_week_is_a_long_time_in_politics

Bad Law

Jacob Rees-Mogg resigned on St Crispin’s Day. Shakespeare’s imagination of glory and immortality in Henry V no doubt on his strange mind. Well, let’s say we are not outnumbered by the French. We are outnumbered by the ideology of persistent right-wing Parliamentarians.

The bill in Mogg’s name got a reading in the UK Parliament last night. The so called Orwellian “Brexit Freedoms Bill” would make any authoritarian Government in the world simile.

This is a dreadful bill. To imagine British legislators are so superior that they can replace, fairly, effectively and honestly, so much complex law in so short a time is a simple con. Much of the legislative texts facing replacement took decades of research, investigation and proving to take shape. A great many of these laws of EU origin were driven by the UK.

Ministers attempting to claim to the UK Parliament that the EU retained law bill will allow ambitious standards to be maintained sounds like the worst sales pitch of a second-hand car salesman. Consumer, employment, and environmental regulation is not a burden. It’s an asset. Widespread outcry is justified[1]. #AttackOnNature

Duplications is a serious concern too. For organisations trading with the EU and beyond, having to met two sets of different laws will add considerable additional costs.

This bill would tie-up civil servants for a long-time and oversight of what happens wouldn’t be of the quality needed.

The former Business Secretaries were driven by Brexit dogma. The new Business Secretary needs to stop and think again. There’s no profit in trashing what works.

A serious debate about individual laws is the job of Parliament. Sweeping away swaths of good law because it’s a prejudice of the secretive European Research Group (ERG)[2] is sheer madness. Parliamentarians should work for the people, not against their interests.

POST 1: Financial Times: UK’s Rishi Sunak eases off on taking Brexit axe to EU laws. Plan for ‘delivery unit’ shelved in wake of warning EU legislation review would tie up hundreds of officials.

POST 2: Mogg continues to promote his “bonfire” of EU law retained after Brexit in The Express newspaper.

POST 3: Brexit supporters are coming out against this bad law Rees-Mogg’s plans to axe all EU laws will cripple Whitehall, says leading Brexiter | Law | The Guardian

[1] https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/rspb-news-stories/attack-on-nature-the-story-so-far/?from=hp2

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Research_Group

Air Taxi 3

Urban mobility by air, had a flurry of success in the 1970s. However, it did not end well.

Canadian Joni Mitchell is one of the most celebrated singer-songwriters and my favourite. She has tapped into the social and environmental issues that have concerned a lot of us for decades. Of her large catalogue, I can’t tell you how much I love this song[1]. The shear beauty of the lyric.

Anyway, it’s another track on the album called “Hejira” that I want to refer. When I looked it up, I found out, I was wrong. The song I want to refer to is on the 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. The song “Harry’s House[2]” contains the line “a helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof like a dragon fly on a tomb.” Without going into what it’s all about, the lyrical image is that flying from a city skyscraper roof was seen as glamorous and the pinnacle of success.

In 1970, prominent aviation authorities were talking about the regulatory criteria needed for the city-centre VTOL[3] aircraft of the future. Then on the afternoon of 16 May 1977, New York Airways Flight 971, a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter, crashed[4] on Pan Am’s building rooftop heliport[5]. That ghastly fatal accident reset thinking about city centre operations air transport operations.

So, what’s different 50-year on? Proposals for city centre eVTOL operations are much in the News. City planners are imagining how they integrate an airborne dimension into public transport operations. Cars, busses, trains and eVTOL aircraft may all be connected in new multimodal terminals. That’s the city transport planners’ vision for less than a decade ahead.

For one, the vehicles are radically different. Yes, the physics of flight will not change but getting airborne is quite different between a conventional large helicopter and the plethora of different eVTOL developments that are underway across the world.

Another point, and that’s why I’m writing this piece, is the shear amount of safety data that can be made available to aircraft operators. Whereas in the 1970s, a 5-parameter flight recorder was thought to be neat, now the number of digital parameters that could be collected weighs in over thousands. In the 1970s, large helicopters didn’t even have the basic recording of minimal flight data as a consideration. The complexity in the future of eVTOL will be, not how or where to get data but what to do with all the data that is streamed off the new aircraft.

Interestingly, this changes the shape of the Heinrich and Bird “safety pyramid” model[6]. Even knowing about such a safety model is a bit nerdy. That said, it’s cited by specialist in countless aviation safety presentations.

Top level events, that’s the peak of the pyramid, remain the same, but the base of the pyramid becomes much larger. The amount of safety data that could be available on operational occurrences grows dramatically. Or at least it should.

POST: Growing consideration is being given to the eVTOL ecosystem. This will mean a growing need to share data Advanced Air Mobility Portal (nasa.gov)

[1] https://youtu.be/nyj5Be5ovas

[2] A nice cover https://youtu.be/bjvYgpm–tY

[3] VTOL = Vertical Take Off and Landing.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/1977/05/17/archives/5-killed-as-copter-on-pan-am-building-throws-rotor-blade-one-victim.html

[5] https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/16-may-1977/

[6] https://skybrary.aero/articles/heinrich-pyramid