I’m lucky enough to have two jobs. One is a small business making computer software, which leads to lots of complex problems and endless experiments. The other is a big chunk of a large airplane company, where every now and then there is an opportunity to expand capabilities to solve a really big challenge. This time, the challenge was how to create a truly low-cost way to refuel aircraft.
1.) Extensive discussion of different refueling options
In-flight refueling has been a challenge for decades. The industry loves this type of problem, because it allows them to challenge traditional ways of doing things. This year, Airbus and Mitsubishi were the winners in a worldwide competition to devise a better, more efficient way to refuel an aircraft. They’re the first company to see success.
Success means, first, that most of their new idea works. If it works, the concept can now be built into planes. This concept is grounded, not in any hard engineering problem. And the economics are very close to being competitive with the most expensive method of in-flight refueling.
2.) Renovation/Turbulence Too
This so far is only really proven for large jets, according to flight testing data. In-flight refueling is the ultimate refueling. Shafts connected to giant compressors, mounted on top of the airplane, are then connected to a conveyor where flight comes up and, as it moves across, the fuel is routed to the left or right. There is no room for turbulence. So if someone came up low or didn’t have enough fuel, you’d lose the engine. That’s one of the big reasons why the process used to be so expensive, even though it worked well.
With this new, much less expensive system, you’d save plenty on maintenance and jet fuel, and never have to worry about the mechanics and the FAA’s noise laws. And, instead of having to take time and money to correct problems, they can simply cover them.
3.) Success Focuses on Designing Around Humans
This isn’t just about how to stack tubes to pull the fuel up, it’s about how to manage valves, pumps, and engine sonar. The new concept involved design around how to do things more efficiently for people instead of using crude mechanics. It will be appealing to lower-cost companies, and may enable a new market for in-flight refueling.
4.) Enduring Excellence
One of the drawbacks of the concept is that it isn’t readily transferable to smaller aircraft. On giant airplanes, it’s all about the tailhook, which brings the tank up and helps get things set up. For a small aircraft with sophisticated valves, valves and complex systems, there is still the need for a unique method of doing things.
So, that’s been the big challenge in the physics: when do you connect the tube to the container and, with a unique way, line up the tubes with the variable valve position. These are really complicated, high-quality problems, and we had to be able to understand the physics to make something work. Otherwise, there would have been a bunch of failures, which just would have made it so that the whole thing wouldn’t work.
You see, we did something special. We made a first with this problem. It’s the first, but we’re convinced that this won’t be the last.