From Shock to Trance

UT Tovv quickly we forget our history” wrote newspaper editor A A Greg Knill in July 2008. Writing at a time of surging gas prices, with the price of oil reaching $147 per barrel, he reminded his readers of a time in the early 1970s when Middle East tensions drove up oil prices and fundamentally changed the way the Nation perceived the oil commodity. The United States Government called for energy indepen­dence, fuel economy was “all the rage,” and the automobile industry rein­vented itself with a switch to smaller cars. But, as Knill observed, there is an ebb and tlow to everything, and the fuel crisis of the 1970s was replaced by perceptions of an oil glut in the 1980s. Fuel economy slowly disap­peared in consumer purchasing decisions. Automobiles became larger and less efficient. And now, he wrote, the Nation laced a new crisis, which has emerged from the same global tensions and over the same finite world resource. Knill’s response was: “The question I have is why the surprise?” and “how long will this current reawakening to the importance of fuel efficiency last?” He concluded, “Our history is not very encouraging.”1 In July 2008. leaders in the American aviation community made a plea to President George W. Bush and Congress to call a special session to discuss the “full-blown and deepening energy crisis which is causing irreparable harm.” Robert Crandall, the CEO of American Airlines, said that “our national confidence has been eroded.” and that the rest of the w’orld perceived that the United States “lacks the political will to address the energy crisis.”- Although the problems facing the Nation in 2008 were eerily similar to those facing it in the early 1970s. other aviation experts [365] [366] realized that the problems was not just skyrocketing oil prices. The head of one airline industry analysis firm explained that the current crisis is tied to problems and decisions extending back 30 years or more. The airlines industry is cyclical, and during the good times, it is not profitable enough to prepare for future downturns or invest enough to lix its flaws. Just as in the early 1970s, the aviation industry and the Government began meeting to discuss the crisis and determine how best to plot the American response to it.

The frequency of these meetings increased by the day during 2008. In July, the American Association of Airport Executives held a summit, “The Energy Crisis and its Impact on Air Service,” that convened experts from Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines, and the Department of Transportation. The goal was to bring the aviation indus­try together with policy makers in Government “in an effort to frame the problem and work together to face these challenges.”-‘ A representative from the Air Transport Association said. “I think there is no greater crisis, not just for the airline industry’, but across the board, than the energy crisis facing this country right now.”[367] [368] [369] The Air Transport Association called upon Congress to assist in finding a bipartisan solution and establish reforms to help the struggling airline industry.1

None of this is new for those who remember the panic of the 1970s and especially for those who, in its wake, devoted their lives to develop­ing fuel-efficient technologies for airplanes. Richard Wagner, one of the leaders of the NASA Langley Research Center’s ACEE programs, said in June 2008: “I was amused a few weeks back when they announced that the airlines were slowing down to save fuel. Well, if they just slowed down to 0.8 Mach I we could take advantage of this technology]. It could have a natural laminar flow wing. It could have your turboprop propulsion. It’s kind of amusing when you think about it. The steps that they’re taking now. if they had taken those steps 10 years ago. they’d have very efficient aircraft flying around.”[370]

The problem is developing a long-term energy plan that does not fluctuate with the changing price of oil and the changing demands of the market. When adjusting for inflation and using 2007 as a basis point, the price of a barrel of oil in 1970 was $18.77. By 1980, the price had risen to $97.68 per barrel. In these economic conditions, the ACEE program remained viable, and expensive fuel-saving technologies like Laminar Flow Control and the Advanced Turboprop were worth the investment. But by 1988, at the end of the ACEE project, the cost of a barrel of oil had fallen to $27.05. In that climate, there was no economic incentive to try to incorporate a revolutionary new airframe or propulsion system for commercial aviation. Prices continued to fall, and by 1998, a barrel of oil actually cost $3 less (in inflation-adjusted terms) than it did in 1970. In summer 2008, the cost had risen to more than $140 per barrel.

If a graph plotted the price of oil and the Nation’s interest in fuel efficiency together, the resulting curves would rise and fall at the same rate. The increased energy costs of the 1970s gave life to spread­ing new energy awareness, conserving fuel, lowering automobile speed limits, and establishing the Aircraft Energy Efficiency program. On our conceptual chart, we would see a peak in efficiency interest and oil price. During the 1980s and 1990s, with the perceptions of oil abundance, prices decreased, and the Nation entered into a collective amnesia about the importance of efficiency. NASA was seduced once again by the allure of “higher, faster, farther,” and returned a High Speed Research (HSR) pro­gram at Langley.

This drive for faster aircraft has ebbed and flowed as nearly a mir­ror image of the desire for fuel efficiency. One example has been the longstanding goal to develop a Supersonic Transport (SST). It has been technologically feasible to develop a plane that travels faster than sound since the 1950s. Since that time, the Government has made three attempts to produce them for commercial use. The first was when the Kennedy Administration approved funding for a “national SST" program, but this was terminated in 1971,2 years before the energy crisis. A second attempt, the Supersonic Cruise Aircraft Research (SCAR) program. [371]

From Shock to Trance

NASA research engineer Dave I lahne inspects a tenth-scale model of a Supersonic Transport model in the 30- by 60-foot tunnel at Langley. The model is being used in support of NASA’s High Speed Research program. (NASA Langley Research Center (NASA LaRC].)

was a smaller program that NASA hoped to have flight-ready by the 1980s. Funding for this terminated in 1981. Finally, 2 years after the ACEE program ended, the High Speed Research program commenced. This too was terminated, meeting its demise in 1998. Eric Conway has expertly told this story in his book High-Speed Dreams. “The long SST saga,” he wrote, “reveals how national politics and business interest interact in the realm of high technology. All three American SST

From Shock to Trance

Advanced Subsonic Technology tesi apparatus for combined bending and membrane test at Langley (November 7. 1997). (NASA Langley Research Center (NASA LaRCJ.)

programs were rooted in national and international politics…. All three collapsed when their political alliances disintegrated.”*

Another collapsed aeronautics effort that lived and died alongside HSR was the Advanced Subsonic Technology (AST) program. AST was an intellectual offspring of ACEE and. along with High Speed Research, [372]

From Shock to Trance

Bypass ratio 5 separate How nozzle with chevron noise suppression trailing edge, photographed at Langley (October 20.1999). (NASA Langley Research Center |NASA LaRC|.)

was one of NASA’s major aeronautics programs, with funding of $434 mil­lion for both.[373] [374] AST commenced in 1993 and explored combustor emissions, fuel efficiency, composites technology, and noise reduction research through a Government-industry team that included NASA, GE Aircraft Engines, Pratt & Whitney, Allison Engines, and AlliedSignal Engines. Wesley Harris, NASA’s Associate Administrator, told the I louse of Representatives in 1994 that NASA’s objective in this program was to “provide US industry with a competitive edge to recapture market share, maintain a strongly positive balance of trade, and increase US jobs.”"* Though in theory this was an important program, its funding support was short-lived. AST was termi­nated in 2(X)(). and many of the resources that had been allocated to it went to nonaeronautics programs, such as the International Space Station. According to one report. AST was terminated to “provide greater focus on public goods issues that threaten to constrain air system growth, such as aviation safety, airport delays, and aircraft emissions.”11

AST was replaced in 2000 w ith the Ultra Efficient Engine Technology (UEET) program, which had “fewer resources and less industry involvement.”1′ Its mission is to develop and then transfer to indus­try “revolutionary turbine engine propulsion technologies." The goals of this technology w ill be to address two of the more important propul­sion issues —fuel efficiency and reduced emissions—which will lead to reducing ozone depletion and decreasing the role airplanes play in global warming.[375] [376] [377] The UEET program is managed by Glenn Research Center, with participation from other NASA Centers (Langley, Goddard, and Ames), engine companies (General Electric. Pratt & Whitney, Honeywell, Allison/Rolls-Royce, and Williams International), and airplane manufac­turers (Boeing and Lockheed Martin). This team also collaborates with Government through relationships with the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

As one might predict, with the ebbing interest in high-speed flight and increase in fuel prices, the incentive for fuel-efficient airplanes has returned. As fuel prices hit record highs w ith each passing day in mid – 2008, the Nation once again scrambled to become energy conscious. Some of the old ACEE technology left to lie fallow in the 1980s is now being taken down from the shelf of deferred dreams. In June 2008. John E. Green, an engineer at the Aircraft Research Association in the United Kingdom, presented a paper at the AIAA Fluid Dynamics Conference titled “Laminar Flow Control —Back to the Future?" In it. he made a case

From Shock to Trance

Ultra Efficient Engine Technology (UEET) proof of concept compressor, two-stage compressor (December 4.2003). (NASA Glenn Research Center [NASA GRC|.)

for revisiting this old technology because full laminar flow control is possi­ble based on more than 70 years of advances in aircraft engineering propul­sion and materials. Green was aware that this was a risky topic for research because, as he said, “the level of interest in laminar How has fluctuated with the price of oil. the price has never stayed high long enough to persuade any aircraft manufacturer to take the plunge.” Citing tremendous advantages in fuel efficiency, and also reduced emissions that help improve the environ­ment. Green implored his audience with a final plea: “Looking to the envi­ronmental and economic pressures that will confront aviation in the coming decades, we must conclude that it is now time to return in earnest to the chal­lenge of building laminar flow control into our future transport aircraft.”[378]

Glenn Research Center is also looking to the future by looking backward. Dennis Muff, the Deputy Chief of the Aeropropulsion Division at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, began his career in 1985. just as the ACEE pro­gram was winding down. At the time, he heard a presentation by Bill Strack on the end of the ACEE Advanced Turbprop Project and wondered w hy the program was being canceled. Strack answered Huff’s question by saying that itwas all about the price of fuel and predicted that if the fuel price ever tripled, some of these technologies would be taken off the shelf. Strack’s prediction came true. as Glenn Research Center recently resumed w’ork on an extension of the Advanced Turboprop Project, with a new counter-rotating open rotor that should be ready for commercial operation by 2015. Huff commented on the challenges of having changing national aeronautics priorities. Reflecting in summer 2008, he said. “It’s been amazing over the last 2 years.” when the priorities shifted from noise, to carbon dioxide emission, to fuel efficiency. Huff believed that NASA should work on all three and maintain a balanced approach, because he realized “there’s no way we’re going to change the market drivers and we can at least come up with the technology so people can make the choices they want to go with.”[379] It remains to be seen whether Huff and his team w ill continue to have the support to complete their work.

In the wake of shifts in goals for civil aviation and an erosion of finan­cial support, aeronautics as a whole continues to struggle for survival and funding at NASA. It never truly prospered after the “aeronautics wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, and the effects continue to be felt today. Many in the aviation industry believe the policies of the Reagan Administration have resulted in weakening the United States’ position in the commercial trans­port market. One frequent visitor on Capitol Hill was Jan Roskam, an air­craft designer wdth Boeing and an aeronautics professor at the University of Kansas, who was often called by the House Committee on Science and Technology to provide testimony from 1974 to 1989. Roskam commented in 2002 about the effort to keep a distance between Government and the airlines industry. He wrote, “This very shortsighted decision has saved the taxpayers very little money and eventually will cost the U. S. its dominance in civil aeronautics.”[380]