Friday, December 23, 2005

Let me look at that loadsheet again

Ever wondered what the world record is for the maximum number of passengers on a single flight?

It is not a well known fact but the Israeli airline El Al and Australia's Qantas have an unusual connection. They have both held the above mentioned record. Both records were obtained under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

1. Cyclone Tracy

On Christmas Eve 1974 Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in northern Australia. It killed around 50 people and either destroyed or severely damaged 70% of the buildings in the city. All essential services such as communication, water, power were disabled and the threat of disease and starvation loomed. The government decided to act swiftly and ordered a mass evacation. Over the course of the following week in a combined effort by the Australian Air Force and national airlines almost 25,000 people were evacuated from Darwin.

During the airlift a Boeing 747-200 operated by Qantas set a new world record by transporting 673 passengers on a single flight from Darwin to Sydney. The passengers were mainly women and children (2 per seat in several cases). This record was eventually dwarfed by another jumbo jet.

2.Operation Solomon

In 1991 a disaster of a different nature prompted yet another dramatic airlift. The government of Ethiopia came under increasing pressure from rebel forces that eventually resulted in the downfall of the capital Addis Ababa. As the civil war raged the Israeli government fearing for the safety of the Jewish population organised a daring rescue operation. On 24th May 1991 the Israeli Air Force and El Al commenced a massive airlift operation. A fleet comprising of 34 Boeing 747 jumbo jets (seats removed to increase space) and Hercules C130s managed to evacuate over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in less than 36 hours.

During the evacuation an El Al B747-200 aircraft transported 1087 passengers in one single flight (apparently a baby was born on board bringing the total to 1088). The lack of seats and obvious suspension of normal safety considerations made such a flight possible. To this day this is the maximum number of passengers ever transported on a single flight and El Al has the honour of holding this unusual world record.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


It has been a while since my last post (only 7 months). A combination of work and play resulted in a period of extensive travel which left me with very little time for my blog. I will try and add some posts shortly.

In the meantime I would like to share some pictures that I took recently (only aviation related pics on this blog!). I took the following pictures at the Sinsheim Auto & Technik Museum close to the Hockenheim Grand Prix circuit in Germany. The musuem houses two very special planes that I have discussed in an earlier post. It is also the only place in the world where the two can be viewed next to each other.

Aeroflot Tupolev 144 & Air France Concorde

Tupolev 144 Interior Pictures

Friday, May 27, 2005


What do Jessie Mach, Michael Knight and Stringfellow Hawke have in common? They were characters played by Rex Smith, David Hasselhoff and Jan-Michael Vincent in Street Hawk, Knight Rider and Airwolf respectively. These three shows filmed in the 1980s were probably among the most exciting action adventure serials ever aired on television.

While all 3 shows (with very catchy theme tunes) were exciting Airwolf was unique in that it added an aerial element to the whole concept of a high tech crime fighting machine. It featured a state of the art helicopter fitted with high tech weapons and gadgets and capable of supersonic speeds. It was also the show that first got me interested in helicopters and made me decide that I would one day get a helicopter pilots license (until of course I grew up and mortgage concerns got in the way..darn). This post as you would have guessed by now is about the helicopter.

Here is a brief history of the chopper. Around 2000 years ago some bored Chinese bloke (apparently called Ko Hung) who didnt have shows like Airwolf to keep himself entertained (and no girlfriend either) decided to attach some feathers around a stick to create a flying toy. Hung found out that when he rapidly spun the toy in his hands and let it go it would rise vertically and fly by itself for a few seconds. Overjoyed by his new invention he proudly displayed it to his mates who all thought it was totally cool. This became the Play Station 2 of their generation and came to be called the Chinese Flying Top.

Over the years that followed several people around the world envisaged a larger flying machine based on the principles of the chinese flying top. In the 15th century Leonardo Da Vinci studied the possibility of a human carrying helicopter. The word helicopter is derived from the Greek words helix (spiral) and pteron (wing). However it was not until the invention of the internal combustion engine and the advent of powered fixed wing flight that actual helicopter models were produced.

Unlike the Wright Brother's first flight there is no specific date or inventor to whom the first flight of the helicopter can be credited. However a Frenchman named Paul Cornu is credited with the first piloted rotary wing flight in 1907 when he reached a staggering altitude of 1 ft with his twin rotor craft. The long history of development of rotary wing flying machines around the world which eventually led to the modern helicopter is too detailed to go into in a simple blog post (and also too boring). I will however mention Igor Sikorsky who is credited with building the world's first practical helicopter the Vought-Sikorsky 300 in 1939.

Here is a little bit about how a helicopter flies. A conventional fixed wing aircraft flies due to the lift generated by the wings. A rotary wing aircraft or helicopter is not that dissimilar. Each blade of a helicopter is effectively a wing that generates lift as it goes around. However as the main rotor blades spin and generate lift they tend to spin the body of the helicopter in the opposite direction and hence the need for a tail rotor to compensate and provide yaw control. There are helicopters that use 2 sets of rotor blades each moving in opposite directions to cancel out the spin so they do not require tail rotors. There are also NOTAR (no tail rotor) helicopters that use a jet of air to provide yaw control and stability instead of a tail rotor.

Most modern helicopters use gas turbine or jet engines (from the Bell Jet Ranger to the Apache attack helicopter). Most people think jet engines are only fitted to aircraft but in addition to solely producing thrust to power an aircraft they can also be converted to use most of that power to drive propellers or rotors (turbo-shaft and turbo-prop engines).

The helicopter probably has more uses than any other flying machine ever invented. It is used for search and rescue, transport, sightseeing, fire fighting, traffic monitoring, news reporting, police surviellance, troop support, Medevac..the list is almost endless.

Here are some interesting helicopter facts:

1. The Fastest

The world speed record for a helicopter stands at 249.1 mph. This was set in 1986 in the United Kingdom by a modified British Army Westland Lynx helicopter. The helicopter neither looks fast nor does the speed seem all that high. A helicopter's forward speed is severely limited due to the increased stress on the blades at high speeds. As the forward speed of a helicopter increases the rotor blades start approaching supersonic velocities. At this point the stress and vibration levels and the power requirements drastically increase making any further speed increases difficult and dangerous (at least with current design and materials).

Westland Lynx

2. The Biggest

The Mil Mi-26 "Halo" is currently the biggest helicopter in the world. Built and first flown in 1977 by the Mil helicopter company in Russia this helicopter is currently used in military transport, fire fighter and medevac roles.


3. The Deadliest

The Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter are probably the closest real world equivalents of Airwolf and Blue Thunder (although the Comanche project has now been cancelled).



4. The Hybrids

The Bell-Boeing V22 Osprey tilt rotor is an example of a helicopter/aeroplane hybrid which takes off like a conventional helicopter and tilts the rotors forwards to fly like an aeroplane once in the air. Another unusual flying machine was the large Fairey Rotodyne which was a cross between an autogyro and a helicopter.

V-22 Osprey

Fairey Rotodyne

and finally......

5. Airwolf & Blue Thunder

A modified Bell 222 helicopter was used for the popular Airwolf TV series. Once the series ended the modifications were removed and the helicopter was sold to a German charter company. It crashed in the early 90s killing all on board.

2 modified Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopters were used for the Blue Thunder movie and TV series. After the Blue Thunder series ended one was sold to a salvage company and the other was sent to a hollywood museum somewhere in the States.


Blue Thunder

There ends my little story of the helicopter. Hope you enjoyed reading it.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Caspian Sea Monster

If you think the A380 is big and impressive read on. Try and imagine a flying machine powered by 10 jet engines (yes 10 jet engines) bigger than the A380, bigger than the Antonovs, bigger than every aircraft listed on my previous post flying at close to 350 mph just a few feet above water. Something out of a Flash Gordon comic book or an episode of the Thunderbirds perhaps?

This post is about one of the most awesome flying machines ever built and sadly one of the least known.

During the Cold War military analysts at the Pentagon were routinely tasked with studying various reconnaisance photographs taken over the Soviet Union by American spy satellites and Francis Gary Powers and his mates. One such set of photographs taken over the Caspian Sea stunned the Pentagon analysts. The photographs showed a giant high speed unidentified object over the Caspian Sea. The analysts were unable to immediately identify the UFO or call on the services of Mulder & Scully (little Mulder would probably have been searching for the truth in his school's playground and little Scully would probably have been conducting autopsies on Barbie dolls at the time).

The Americans aptly nicknamed the object The Caspian Sea Monster. In later years further details about this extraordinary machine began to emerge.

Designed and built in the 1960s under a veil of secrecy by the Alexeiev Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in the Soviet Union the KM Ekranoplan was a flying machine like no other. Weighing in at 540 tons, 300 ft from nose to tail and powered by 10 turbo jets it was capable of flying at close to 350 mph just a few feet above the surface of the sea. Its unique design enabled it to fly low enough to avoid conventional radar detection and high enough to avoid submarine sonar detection making it ideal for the Soviet Navy.

The Ekranoplan made use of an aerodynamic principle known as Ground Effect. When an aircraft flies close to the ground the efficiency of the wing or the lift generated is greatly enhanced. This is due partly due to the creation of a cushion of air between the wing and the ground and also a reduction in the wing tip vortices which in turn reduces induced drag. A vehicle purely designed to fly in the ground effect regime is called a GEV or a WIG (wing in ground effect). The Ekranoplans in spite of their massive weight were able to fly in this regime due to the reduced lift requirements. Not quite a ship, not quite a hovercraft and not quite an aircraft either. Now you know why I did not mention this in my previous post :)

Several variants of this unique machine were developed including the fully armed LM Ekrnaoplan which was equipped with anti ship missile launchers. As the Cold War drew to an end and the funds dried up the project gradually wound down.

KM Ekranoplan (

KM Ekranoplan (

LUN Ekranoplan (

However WIG aircraft might be about to make a dramatic comeback. Few years ago Boeing announced that it was looking at building what would become the largest flying machine in the history of aviation. The Boeing "Pelican" transporter would utilise the ground effect principle flying at just 20 ft above the ocean and have a wingspan close to 500 ft. It would have a fuselage longer than a football pitch and be capable of carrying close to 1400 tonnes. According to Boeing the competitor in this case would not be Airbus but container ships. The far greater speed advantage coupled with a sensible load carrying capacity, range and fuel economy which is significantly higher in the GEV regime just might make this an attractive proposition to freight transport companies.

Certainly an interesting concept but whether it will become a reality in today's world remains to be seen.

Shreyan: The ugly cargo planes with funny noses you mentioned are probably the Super Guppy and the Airbus Super Transporter also known as the Beluga. I will write a short post on those two soon.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Sky Giants

It has been a while since my last post. My apologies to regular readers (if indeed there are any).

The A380 finally took to the skies last week and more importantly landed in one piece. A great job by all involved. The first flight was touted as the most significant event in commercial aviation since the first flights of Concorde and the Boeing 747. The A380 is an impressive aircraft no doubt however I think once it is in the air it looks a lot like "any other plane". It is certainly not as distinctive as the Concorde or the Boeing 747 were when they first took to the skies.

There appears to be a misconception in some quarters that this is the biggest aircraft in the world. I have compiled a list of the 5 biggest aircraft ever built (purely because I have nothing better to do at the moment). It is difficult to compare aircraft sizes as some have a bigger wing span and others greater length etc. I have used wing span as the measure for my list.

1. Hughes H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose"
Wingspan: 319 ft 11 in (97.54 m)
Length: 218 ft 8 in (66.65 m)

Believe it or not this aircraft still holds the record for the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built. Those who have seen the "The Aviator" will probably be familiar with it. Although it only flew once and never really got beyond ground effect flight it still deserves to be mentioned.

2.Antonov 225 "Mriya"
Wing Span 290 feet (88.4m)
Length 275 feet, 7 inches (84m)

Built by the Antonov Company based in Ukraine and first flown in 1988 this aircraft was designed to transport the Russian space shuttle Buran and is currently the largest aircraft in the world still in service. There is only one aircraft in use today and is used to transport oversized cargo/freight. Demand for this aircraft has been quite high and there is talk of building another one of these monsters.

3. Airbus A380
Wingspan 261 ft 10 in (79.8 m)
Length 239 ft 6 in (73 m)

Enough has been said about this airplane.

4. Antonov 124 "Condor"
Wingspan: 240 ft 5 in (73.3 m)
Length: 226 ft 3 in (69 m)

Again built by the Antonov company it was first flown in 1982. This is a popular heavy lift transport aircraft with approximately 50 to 60 having been built. The 6 engined Antonov 225 is a derivative of the 4 engined Antonov 124.

5. Lockheed C5 Galaxy
Wingspan 222.9 ft (67.89 m )
Length 247.1 ft (75.3 m )

Built by Lockheed and first flown in 1968 this is currently the largest aircraft in the US Air Force inventory and is used as a military transport.

Trying to get back to blogging mode after a long break is always difficult! I will try and post something more interesting next time.


Monday, February 28, 2005

Air Hostesses

I knew that title would grab your attention. It appears that most of the people who I have forced into reading this blog on a regular basis are more interested in reading about air hostesses and human mating activities at 37,000 feet rather than the actual airplane and boring stuff like who invented the jet engine etc. So this blog is dedicated to those who couldnt care less if they are flying on a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A340 or a A320 or if the plane has 4 engines, 6 engines, 2 engines or indeed none at all.

Most people associate the term "air hostess" with an image of a rather striking woman in a sexy uniform politely offering you a choice between veg and non veg. I have noticed that when men are about to fly on a new airline or have just flown on an new airline the first thing they do is to enquire/comment on the looks of the air hostesses. It appears that the looks of the air hostesses is second only to the price of the ticket when it comes to choosing an airline. No doubt the level of attention during the emergency procedures demonstration prior to takeoff is directly proportional to the looks of the crew member.

Unfortunately most people underestimate the importance of their role and the skills required to perform their jobs effectively. The term "trolley dollies" is often used to describe them which I think is very unfair although it has a nice ring to it :)

Let me briefly describe an occassion where I found a whole new level of respect for the members of the above mentioned profession. Not too long ago I had the opportunity (or perhaps the misfortune) of being selected as a guinea pig along with few other victims in a mock aircraft cabin evacuation trial which was being used to train cabin crew. I was placed inside an aircraft cabin mockup along with the other victims and we were being looked after by the soft spoken cabin crew as if it was a normal flight.

The "captain" shortly announced that an emergency landing was about to take place and we had to assume the crash positions. At this point we were all happily sitting in our seats looking around with silly smiles and not taking it seriously at all. Shortly before "landing" the crew underwent a startling transformation which at the time reminded me of Bruce Banner and his alter ego. They rapidly moved from seat to seat to ensure we all assumed the brace position and our belts were fastened etc.
After the "landing" which was accompanied by very realistic crash noises from the surround speakers in the cabin and smoke being released into the cabin the crew made us unfasten our seat belts and shouted out instructions and literally pushed us out of the "plane" as fast as possible in as orderly a fashion as possible. Gone were the "welcome aboard", "thank you for flying with us" tones. They were replaced by "get the **** out of here before i kick you out" tone which no none dared question. It is difficult to describe the entire exercise in words but the professional and almost military like manner in which it was executed was most impressive.

I think by this point most of us had forgotten that the whole thing was an exercise and we were actually sweating by the time we exited the aircraft mock up and assembled outside beside the exit slides. The exercise turned out to be very realistic. The one thing that really struck me was the drastic change in behaviour of the crew and the effective way in which they herded us out of the "burning wreck" and got us all out as soon as possible. You may think you can ignore the routine oxygen mask demo at the start of every flight but you certainly cant ignore them in the event of a real emergency. I almost felt that they would physically attack me if I didnt listen to them and did what they said after the emergency was declared. This I felt was exactly the kind of approach that should be taken as their advice is probably the only thing that will save your life in a real emergency.

Therefore in addition to serving coffee and tea these people are directly responsible for your lives in the event of a crash landing. It is their duty to stay calm and ensure the passengers are evacuated as swiftly and as safely as possible. If an aeroplane catches fire after landing then the first few minutes if not seconds are the most important. It is vital to evacuate the aeroplane before the fire takes over completely. It is the crews duty to ensure that panic and fear does not overcome the passengers. In a smoke filled aeroplane it will be the "trolly dollies" and their male counterparts who will have to ensure the emergency doors are opened and the passengers including the old and frail, the disabled, the kids are all safely evacuated before worrying about their own personal safety.

If you ever have the misfortune of ending up in a burning plane and you are not Bruce Willis and are screaming like a baby, or sitting frozen in shock or regretting listening to your IPod during the safety briefing it will probably be the "trolly dollies" who will guide you to safety.

So the next time you fly remember to show these crew members a bit more respect :)


Sunday, February 06, 2005

What is that strange noise I say?

Back in the summer of 69 (actually I think it was 99) I clearly remember a day when I lay on my back on a grassy field in the beautiful English countryside gazing up lazily at a rare sight in this country. Clear blue skies. I was not alone though. A couple of my friends and a few hundred other people were doing pretty much the same thing. I remember looking around and seeing several people engaged in heated discussions as to what the bright unidentified object in the sky could be. You see in England it is quite possible to reach the age of 25 before you see the Sun for the first time in your life. Therefore it is not a surprise that it is often mistaken for a UFO when it makes a rare appearance.

The place in question was an airfield located in picturesque Shoreham on the south coast of England. The reason we were all there was to witness an Air Show which in my opinion and most other people was a Bore Show up to that point. It had consisted of seemingly endless fly pasts by planes that appeared to have escaped from an aircraft equivalent of an old age home. These propeller powered planes had almost succeeded in putting most of the visitors to sleep except for a few aged enthusiasts and keen airplane spotters. We obviously failed to take a hint from the title of the show which was "Second World War Battle of Britain" and had decided to turn up anyway.

The commentator was doing his best to keep the crowd awake by promising that the next airplane on the schedule was going to be amazing, incredible, mind blowing etc etc. By late afternoon however most people had given up and had started dozing off. Therefore after yet an other mind numbingly boring display by something that looked like a Cessna on mild steroids the commentator once again returned to the speakers and promised that there was something “potent” heading our way and we should take notice.

As usual we chose to ignore his advice. That proved to be a big mistake. I remember scanning the skies lazily to see what was next. I spotted a shiny object hurtling towards the runway at a speed no propeller plane could match. As the object closed in on the runway I looked around at the unsuspecting people most of them half asleep. The object soon revealed itself to be as "potent" as the commentator had promised. As the Royal Airforce's front line air defense fighter the Tornado F3 blasted across the runway at low level with wings fully swept back the pilot suddenly pulled the plane into a steep climb and lit the twin afterburners to demonstrate its phenomenal climb rate. As the thundering jets powered the airplane high in to the sky several of the sleeping spectators had already reached an altitude far higher than the Tornado could ever reach (heart attacks etc).

The change of pace (quite literally) at that airshow resulted in an enjoyable afternoon as the Tornado put in a spectacular flying display before zooming back to its home base.

Nothing has more wow factor at an air show than what is possibly one of the greatest inventions of all time. The Jet engine. The Tornado is an old plane and is by no means the most impressive fighter in today’s skies however on that day it certainly stole the show when pitted against the Spitfires and Hurricanes :) Once you have seen a jet in action a propeller plane just doesnt feel the same anymore.

I watched an old British second world war movie some time ago and I just cant seem to remember its name. In one of the scenes two RAF officers are walking past a hangar at some air force base. In that hangar Frank Whittle is busy testing his new invention and outside the female officer stops listens to the weird howling noise and remarks “What a strange noise I say!”

Little did anyone know that the “strange noise” would one day be directly responsible for the 7 year old brat sitting behind you in economy class practising his kick boxing skills against your seat back. Little did anyone also know that the “strange noise” would also induce murderous thoughts in perfectly normal human beings when it makes you feel like lifting that little brat and throwing him outside the window into one of those jet engines (yeah yeah that was a bit mean but after 8 hours in a flying tube after being fed meals catered by the nearest prison get the picture)

I am not good with history lessons so I will just provide a brief overview of the dawn of the jet age. In the 1930s engineers around the world began to realise that they were approaching the limits of what could be achieved with a reciprocating piston engine and propeller which had been used up to that point. It was soon realised that a whole new type of power plant must be devised to push planes to go faster and higher than ever before.

While it is true that work was underway in different countries to devise a new method of propulsion there are three names which stand out the most, England’s Frank Whittle and Germany’s Hans von Ohain and Anselm Franz.

Von Ohain’s designs made it on to the Heinkel aircraft company’s He 178 which in 1939 became the first jet powered airplane in the world. Back in England Frank Whittle’s engine was fitted to the Gloster Pioneer E28/39 which flew for the first time in May 1941. Von Ohain is credited with the first operational turbojet engine however Frank Whittle was the first to register a patent for his engine.

Later in 1944, Anselm Franz’s engine design became the first mass produced jet in the world eventually making it on to the feared Messerchmitt Me 262 which became the first operational jet fighter in the world. The fighter jet entered service with the Luftwaffe too late in the Second World War to affect the outcome (thank god for that).

The rest as they say is history. The invention of the jet was probably as important as the invention of the aircraft itself.

Thanks to the jet we no longer have a valid excuse for not visiting our relatives during Christmas inspite of being separated by thousands of miles which we mistakenly thought was a safe distance. Thanks to the jet we have regular modern day wonders like jet lag, lost baggage, and DVT. Thanks to the jet that we have the horrors of carpet bombing, "shock and awe" and cluster bombs.

Howeer thanks also to the jet for making the world a smaller place and enabling us to see more of our wonderful planet than at any other time in history. I think it was Bill Gates who once said that the airplane was the world’s first World Wide Web.

The airplane certainly was the world’s first world wide web but it was an airplane with a Jet Engine.

As always please leave comments. Also feel free to suggest any topics that you might find interesting.