Boeing dispels rumors that the SLS rocket will be overpriced…

… with a $40 T-shirt celebrating the Space Launch System (SLS):

If the project comes in on budget, it will be nearly $1 billion per launch with roughly 15 percent more thrust than the 50-year-old Saturn V.

The entire program, including the Orion capsule, appears similar to Apollo and, in fact, is named “Artemis,” after Apollo’s twin sister. I asked an astronaut why NASA would do this, 60 years after Apollo. Why not just wait for Blue Origin to have their inexpensive rockets ready at roughly the same time? “It’s what they know how to do,” he responded. My mole inside the scientific side of NASA, responding to “Unless Blue Origin fails it seems as though they will be far cheaper per pound”:

That question has been the hot topic for the last two years or so. Congress keeps pushing SLS so until there is something flying that is obviously better value, SLS will keep going. It’s a jobs program that employs all the same people that Shuttle did. And NASA has a PR push about first woman on the moon for Artemis.

If taxpayers are concerned that the true cost will be more than the $1 billion/launch planned, would it make sense for Boeing to limit the shirt prices to $25? Also, if they’re going to spend $10+ billion on a new-ish rocket, shouldn’t they be able to come up with a more original name than “Space Launch System”?


  • in the early part of this century, NASA spent at least $9 billion on the Ares I and V rockets that proved to be a dead-en (NBC)
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Aviation weather reports at the time of Kobe Bryant crash

Friends have been asking me about the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant today. says that the crash occurred on January 26 close to 10:00 am and that conditions were cloudy/foggy.

Calabasas, California is between the Burbank and Camarillo airports. Here are their respective weather reports from around that time (10:00 am California time is 18Z). Burbank was right on the edge between visual and instrument flying conditions:

KBUR 261753Z 00000KT 2 1/2SM HZ OVC011 12/09 A3016

Translation: Burbank airport, 26th of the month, 17:53 UTC (9:53 am Pacific Standard Time), wind calm, 2.5 miles of visibility (“statute miles”), haze, temperature 12C, dewpoint 9C, altimeter 30.06. The nearly adjacent Van Nuys, airport, …

KVNY 261751Z 00000KT 2 1/2SM HZ OVC013 12/09 A3016

(almost identical)

Camarillo, closer to the coast, was slightly better:

KCMA 261755Z 03003KT 4SM HZ OVC017 15/11 A3019

26th at 1755Z (9:55 am), wind from 030 (NE) at 3 knots, 4 miles of visibility, haze, overcast clouds at 1,700′.

Over the hill at the Santa Monica airport that Californians are always getting into fights about?

KSMO 261751Z 12003KT 5SM HZ OVC018 14/09 A3018

(Translation: Santa Monica airport, Jan 26 at 17:51Z (9:51 am local time), wind from the southeast (120) at 3 knots, 5 miles of visibility in haze, clouds 1,800′ above the airport, temperature 14C, dewpoint 9C, altimeter setting 30.18.)

Assuming that it was bad weather that led to this accident, the engineering question is “Why couldn’t the $10 million helicopter fly itself away from obstacles, the way that a $400 DJI drone can?”

A Sikorsky is equipped with multiple computer-readable attitude sources so that the onboard processors know whether the machine is pitched or banked. It has multiple GPS position sensors so it knows where it is. It has at least one terrain database so it knows where the obstacles are. It has autopilot servos capable of maneuvering the aircraft. Why doesn’t it have the intelligence to say “You’re about to hit something, would you like me to take over and fly away from these obstacles and park on the ramp at the Van Nuys Airtel so that we can all relax?”


The track log shows a rapid climb during the last minute of the flight, perhaps an attempt to climb away from terrain (ignore the “PM” after the time; FlightAware translated to Eastern time):

Skyvector chart for the area in question:

Note the red circle indicating a temporary flight restriction around the crash area. Also note the “5.2” above the red circle, indicating that one has to be 5,200′ above sea level in order to clear all of the obstacles in this part of the chart. (Google Earth shows that the highest terrain near the media-reported crash site of the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Rd. in Calabasas is around 1,100′)

An alternative presentation of transponder (ADS-B) data from flightradar24:

A YouTube video puts together the flight’s track with Air Traffic Control communications (presumably from The pilot reported being at 1,400′ or 1,500′ above sea level. The Burbank and Van Nuys airports are 800′ above sea level. So this was 600-700′ above the ground (low for an airplane, but within the realm of normal for a helicopter) and thus, if the cloud layer had a flat bottom and the weather reports over 1,100’+ ceilings were accurate, the helicopter should not have been in a cloud.

The pilot had held an instrument rating since 2007, though it can be difficult to maintain instrument proficiency in helicopters, which are seldom flown IFR:

He also held a flight instructor certificate, which has to be renewed every two years. He was qualified to act as an instructor for instrument flying in helicopters:


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Masters Thesis Idea: Conversational Flight Planner

In working on the slides for a flight planning section of our FAA Private Pilot Ground School at MIT (videos and slides available free online), it occurred to me that none of the fancy computer tools were as convenient or efficient as talking to a competent human.

What about a system where the input is, e.g.,”I’m thinking about going from Bedford to Washington, D.C. this weekend.” (could be entered via menus; does not have to be natural language)

The Conversational Flight Planner responds after looking at the voluminous official FAA briefing and some of the long-term weather forecast products, such as MOS:

There will be a strong wind from the north so you should consider paying up to fly into Dulles and land Runway 1R rather than deal with the crosswind at KGAI.

Looks like ice is possible on Sunday evening so you’ll need to depart Sunday at noon.

It will be below freezing overnight Saturday night so you need to arrange for a hangar or a preheater plug-in.

Interesting Master’s Thesis project for a computer science or aero/astro major?

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Aviation lectures at MIT next week

For folks who are already certificated, there are a few guest lectures in our ground school class at MIT next week that might be interesting.

  • Monday, Jan 6, 12:30: flying the Cirrus SR-22 to Europe
  • Monday, 4 pm: “Laz” Gordon talks about the F-22 flight controls (video from last year)
  • Tuesday 4 pm: Eric Zipkin, founder of Tradewind, talks about flying the Tunison Foundation DC-3 in general and across the Atlantic to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the invasion
  • Wednesday, 10:50 am: Michael Holzwarth talks about drone regulations (yay!) and practical experience as a Hollywood drone pilot (video from last year)
  • Wednesday (Jan 8), 12:00: Oshkosh slide show (me, being Tina’s guest! video from last year)

The fun is in Room 56-114. Except for those who are taking the class for credit, all lectures are offered at a discount of $53,450 from MIT’s normal annual tuition.

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Good Christmas News

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about Scott Booth, a helicopter pilot who suffered injuries in a Grand Canyon accident.

He was recently able to post an update to a GoFundMe page (put together by fellow pilots at Papillon). Simply being alive at this point is an accomplishment and it sounds as though he is making pretty good progress.

Readers: Merry Christmas! (and I hope that none of you end up going through what Scott Booth has)

Related (previous years’ Christmas greetings):

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Two-thirds full airline idea

If you’re traveling today (at prices way higher in the U.S. than in Europe) on a jam-packed pre-holiday commercial flight, perhaps you’ll appreciate this business idea…

The Hainan Boston to Shanghai flight that I took was two-thirds full. The result was that the B787 loaded and unloaded faster than a full B737 or A320. Almost everyone enjoyed an adjacent empty seat.

Is there is a business idea here? Start an airline called “Two Thirds” with Hainan-style reasonable legroom and a guaranteed empty middle seat (exception: a family group of three that actually wants to use the whole row). Charge 50% more per seat (still a great deal compared to business class, which can be 3-7X the price due to the low density of seating). By paying 1.5X the lowest possible fare, the customer is guaranteed not to sit next to a morbidly obese person, overflowing into one’s space. At fares that are 1.5X what is currently charged, I think an airline could make superior profits. Airplanes will turn around faster at airports, so capital asset utilization will be better. Some flights wouldn’t have had more than two thirds occupancy anyway, so the aggregate revenue from a flight would be higher than the average revenue from an airline pursuing the minimum cost, maximum discomfort/crowding strategy.

Readers: Since nobody has tried this, I am going to assume that it is a bad business idea. But why?


  • the Europeans do this already just by calling coach with an empty middle seat “business class”; they’ve proven that people will pay extra for this service, but it isn’t directly comparable since the back of the plane may be jammed and therefore take a long time to load and unload
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Cost of adding 1,000′ of runway

I thought that “Morgantown Municipal Airport set to expand runway with FAA funding” contained two extra zeroes:

The Federal Aviation Administration has given final approval for the extension of the Morgantown Airport runway.

Under the plan, the runway will stretch another 1,000 feet from the current 5,199 feet. Currently, the Morgantown Airport runway is one of the shortest in the state.

The project will cost $50 million and take up to 10 years to complete

Surely it would be $5 million and 1 year?

Then I found the city’s page on the project, which estimated a cost of $45 million.

Does a mountain have to be moved? The airnav page for the airport does not show anything like that. It is a bit tough to interpret the official project plan, and the associated nearly 2,000 pages of environmental assessment documents, but the area of work appears to be fairly flat:

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Pilot shortage partly due to ADHD diagnosis epidemic?

One of my students recently was a 30-year-old who struggled for 14 years before getting an FAA medical certificate. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a young teenager (like 13 percent of young people who identify as “boys”), this diagnosis had to be disclosed by law to the FAA Aviation Medical Examiner, and the FAA wasn’t ready to see him serve as a required crewmember.

ADHD diagnoses are up dramatically. Obviously this can’t account for all of the pilot “shortage” (from the perspective of employers; any time salaries have to be raised is an emergency situation), but I wonder if it accounts for at least some of it.

[The ADHD diagnosis rate for girls is not relevant statistically since pilots who identify as “women” are only about 6 percent of the total population. Various explanations for this, but certainly it is not necessary for a woman to work as an airline pilot to have the spending power of an airline pilot. From the Real World Divorce Massachusetts chapter:

“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport. She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot. Of course, instead of serving food and beverages, she did have to care for those children.”

Perhaps just as compelling is that a mother who works as an airline pilot may lose custody of what had been her children in the event of a separation from the father(s). A lot of U.S. states award custody based on the “historical primary caregiver” standard and an airline pilot, like a deployed member of the U.S. military, is an almost automatic loser of the war to be seen as “historical primary caregiver”.]

Another area where a lot of potential pilots might be disqualified is drunk driving. The site shows 840,000 arrests of “males” for DUI (278,000 for “females”) in 2014, the most recent year available. A friend of a friend was arrested for DUI after a college party and it was practically impossible for him to get his FAA medical back. He’d actually been in a professional pilot training program. He most certainly was not an alcoholic, but unless he went into all kinds of treatment programs for alcoholics, he was never going to be able to fly. He gave up.

Maybe the DUI problem will sort itself out in a few more years when the glorious age of self-driving is upon us. But ADHD as an effective disqualification for a pilot is worrisome because the condition is vague and subjective and the chance of being diagnosed with ADHD varies by school and state. From “Are Schools Driving ADHD Diagnoses?”:

As the ranks of kids diagnosed with ADHD in this country continue to swell—to 12% of school-age children and as many as 20% of teenage boys, according to the CDC’s latest count—it becomes more and more urgent to look at what forces might be driving this phenomenon. … a child in Kentucky is three times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as a child in Nevada. And a child in Louisiana is five times as likely to take medication for ADHD as a child in Nevada. Most of the states with the highest rates of diagnosis and prescriptions for medication are in the South, with some in the Midwest; most of the states with the lowest rates are in the West or Northeast.

Specifically, Drs. Hinshaw and Scheffler’s team found a correlation between the states with the highest rates of ADHD diagnosis and laws that penalize school districts when students fail. … What the team found is that in states that enacted these measures early, within a couple of years rates of ADHD diagnoses started going up, especially for kids near the poverty line.

When I interviewed for a job at a Delta Airlines subsidiary we were given a “cognitive skills” test that measured the ability to multi-task and handle challenges in the face of distraction. Maybe the FAA could authorize some testing centers to bless would-be pilots who had been tarred with the ADHD brush rather than relying on physicians to sound the all clear.

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