FAA Rule Clears Path for Supersonic Flight Tests

Supersonic airliner developer Boom is planning to flight test its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator to gather data that would be used in the development of the Mach 2.2 Overture airliner. (Photo: Boom Supersonic)
The FAA took another step toward facilitating the development of civil supersonic aircraft with the release of a final rule today that clarifies procedures for obtaining special flight authorizations for flight testing beyond Mach 1.

Adopted largely as proposed in June 2019, the final rule outlines the information needed for applications of special flight authorization and designates the FAA program office that will process those applications. It also creates a more “user-friendly” format, the agency said. The rule further recognizes that supersonic flight testing could be used to gather noise data.

However, the rule does not lift the ban on supersonic flight over land. Nor does it represent a policy change; instead, the rule streamlines and simplifies access to the various information necessary for special flight authorizations.

The FAA did revise language in the final rule involving the environmental review process. It had originally proposed language to clarify information necessary for the FAA to make a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) determination. However, after receiving comments, the agency found the language actually generated confusion.

“The proposed language providing more detail about what an applicant could submit was not intended to imply that FAA would forego independently evaluating the information or closely examining the environmental impacts on a proposed test area in determining whether to grant a particular special flight authorization,” the agency said. “The language was also not intended to imply shifting the burden of complying with NEPA to the applicant rather than the FAA.”

According to the FAA, a number of requests in comments surrounding the ability for more than one program to use a designated test site were received. In response, the FAA said the application process provides latitude for requesting such test sites and added regulations do not limit a flight test area to one applicant. However, each applicant is expected to submit its own environmental information regarding a test site.

That comes as the FAA has reached an agreement with the state of Kansas establishing a supersonic flight-test corridor.

Meanwhile, the agency dismissed more general opposition from environmental groups and certain municipalities about possible harm supersonic operations could have on the environment. These arguments are outside the scope of the rule, the FAA maintained, adding the final rule does not permit regular supersonic operations.

However, in simplifying the approach for special issuance applications, the agency is helping pave a path toward the return of civil supersonic flight. It is one of several steps the FAA is taking, including working with international regulators, as well as developing a separate rulemaking altogether regarding takeoff and landing noise certification standards.

“Today’s action is a significant step toward reintroducing civil supersonic flight and demonstrates the [Transportation] Department’s commitment to safe innovation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in announcing the release of the final rule.

“The FAA supports the new development of supersonic aircraft as long as safety parameters are followed,” added FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “The testing of supersonic aircraft at Mach 1 will only be conducted following consideration of any impact to the environment.”

FACC Starts Test Flights with Autonomous Aerial Vehicle EHang 216

FACC conducted the test flight of the EHang 216 at its plant site in St. Martin im Innkreis.

As a pioneer in the field of Urban Air Mobility, FACC is setting another important milestone in the development of future urban mobility together with its strategic partner EHang. The EHang 216 autonomous aerial vehicle produced by FACC has completed a successful test flight under the supervision of Austro Control and was granted an experimental flight permit by the Austrian authorities based on the tests performed. This milestone enables FACC to advance further important flight test programs in cooperation with other companies in the industry, research institutions and authorities.

The first test flight of the EHang 216 aircraft in national airspace was successfully carried out under the supervision of the Austrian aviation authority Austro Control at the FACC site in St. Martin im Innkreis (Austria). The close and professional cooperation between the specialist teams of Austro Control and FACC led to this milestone. With the successful completion of the system checks and the associated test flight, the aviation authority granted the experimental flight permit for the further execution of EHang 216 test flights.

“The successful completion of the test flight of our autonomous aerial vehicle in Austrian airspace marks the start of a comprehensive test program of the EHang 216, laying the foundation for the approval of an innovative, highly flexible and sustainable traffic and transport solution for urban agglomerations. I am very proud of the entire team and would like to congratulate them on this groundbreaking milestone,” commented Robert Machtlinger, CEO of FACC AG, after receiving the experimental flight permit for the EHang 216 in Austria.

Especially in the weeks leading up to the test flight, a large series of technical tests and inspections for the flight test unit were completed together with the EHang engineering team and the specialist team of Austro Control.

Autonomous aerial vehicle: development made in Austria

As part of the strategic partnership, FACC and EHang are contributing their respective resources and networks. EHang serves as an inventor and expert for all questions relating to autonomous flying and provides extensive know-how in the areas of connectivity and software solutions. FACC offers support in the field of high-tech hardware with the development, certification and manufacture of lightweight components and systems.

Cooperative activities with industrial partners, politics and aviation authorities are contributing to the further development of this innovative mobility solution. The authorities are working intensively on the design of regulations governing individual air traffic. The implementation of test areas in Austria is also being driven ahead.

“The field of application is complex and ranges from search and rescue services to supply flights for materials in hard-to-reach areas, ambulance flights and taxi flights in mega-cities. FACC and its strong network of innovative partner companies, public authorities, and universities, as well as the state of Austria, are pioneers in this field,” says Machtlinger.

Lighter, quieter, greener and suitable for many applications

The EHang 216 is an autonomous aerial vehicle which can realize vertical take-offs and landings and is powered by sixteen high-performance electric motors mounted on eight double rotor arms. This makes it an additional safe, quiet and environmentally friendly form of mobility. Highly efficient FACC lightweight structures ensure low weight and excellent aerodynamics, and make a significant contribution to the aircraft’s performance. With a range of about 40 kilometers, a maximum cargo capacity of 220 kilograms and a cruising speed of 130 kilometers per hour, the possible fields of use of the EHang 216, designed for two passengers, go far beyond passenger transport within and between cities. It is very well suited to logistics operations such as flights for transporting essential emergency goods or high-risk airborne missions in the event of environmental disasters.

The EHang 216 is currently the most advanced product on the market in the field of Urban Air Mobility. The autonomous aerial vehicle has already completed several thousand manned flight hours in China. In May, it received the world’s first commercial operation approval for logistic purposes from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). With the successful maiden flight of the EHang 216 in Austria, FACC and EHang have taken an important joint step towards establishing autonomous flying in Europe.

US Black Hawks could see robot co-pilots in 2021


What exactly is it?

The US Army and Sikorsky are converting a pair of UH-60 Black Hawks to use cutting-edge automation and fly-by-wire controls, with side-by-side formation flights, Breaking Defense reported.

Sikorsky’s automation work has been partially funded for several years by DARPA, which calls the program ALIAS, Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System.

Still don’t get it?

We’re talking a robotic co-pilot.

The idea is for the ALIAS systems of two aircraft to connect over a short-range, sharing data instantaneously, effectively letting each aircraft see through the others’ sensors and get a much bigger picture of the world, Breaking Defense reported.

Passing every bit and byte of data is impractical over a tactical datalink, so “we’re working on algorithms that allow us to synchronize the world models between all of these aircraft” so they can update each other while using minimal bandwidth, said Sikorsky Innovations director Igor Cherepinsky.

For example, two ALIAS helicopters coming in for a landing amidst a blinding dust storm could automatically warn each other of unexpected hazards and coordinate their movements to reroute around them and land safely, without hitting either the obstacles or each other, Breaking Defense reported.

Today that process would require a hasty back-and-forth over radio as pilots try to make sense of what their sensors are seeing and explain it; ALIAS could simply show both aircrews the same picture of their surroundings.

The ALIAS UH-60A is already flying and the ALIAS UH-60M will fly “sometime early next year,” Cherepinsky said. After that, the plan is for the two helicopters to fly together in formation –  Army aircraft rarely go in harm’s way alone – as part of a major Army exercise if possible.

“We are hoping to get these two aircraft to participate together in some Army exercise, [not] just test for test’s sake,” Cherepinsky said.

A successful demonstration could pave the way both for upgrades across the entire helicopter fleet – not just Black Hawks – and for the next-generation Future Vertical Lift aircraft, Breaking Defense reported.

Installing fly-by-wire also makes it possible for a computer to fly the aircraft or help a human to do so, potentially preventing deadly accidents due to human error.

Sikorsky, part of Lockheed Martin, makes the UH-60 – the modern-day mainstay of Army aviation – and is competing to build both the scout and transport versions of FVL.

“Everything that’s happening here,” Sikorsky Innovations director Igor Cherepinsky told reporters this morning, “is going into both of our FVL vehicles – and not just our FVL vehicles, it’s going across our entire product line.”

The company is already working with Erickson to install ALIAS on civilian S-64 helicopters used to fight fires, Breaking Defense reported.

As early as 2018, Sikorsky was able to take a person with no pilot training, hand them a tablet, give them 45 minutes of instruction, and let them control an ALIAS-equipped helicopter.

At that point, the computer was the one really flying the aircraft; the human was just telling it where to go – and they didn’t have to be aboard the aircraft to do that.

But replacing human pilots isn’t actually the primary goal of ALIAS. It’s designed to assist them, Breaking Defense reported.

Sometimes that may mean flying the aircraft while the crew rests, brainstorms tactics, or conducts mission planning. But sometimes it may mean helping them see through sandstorms and dust clouds by fusing sensor data into a clear picture of what’s ahead.

Or it may mean a human has their hands on the controls, but the computer can take over to avoid a collision or crash.

That combination of uninterrupted attention and split-second reaction times is something human brains don’t do well, but computers excel at.


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Storied Marine squadron ‘sunsets’ will join new Miramar group flying F-35s

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Keith Bucklew, commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 311, taxis down the flight line in an AV-8B Harrier II assigned to VMA-311, Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, during his last flight at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Oct. 14, 2020. The last flight is a significant event for every pilot and is celebrated by spraying the pilot and aircraft with water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Julian Elliott-Drouin)
 | Orange County Register

In a final sundown celebration, Lt. Col. Keith Bucklew took an AV-8B Harrier II on its last flight into the skies over Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

When Bucklew, the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 311, landed, he and the plane were sprayed with water in a tradition all pilots cherish as the symbol of an end of an era.

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U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Keith Bucklew, commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 311, taxis down the flight line in an AV-8B Harrier II assigned to VMA-311, Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, during his last flight at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Oct. 14, 2020. The last flight is a significant event for every pilot and is celebrated by spraying the pilot and aircraft with water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Julian Elliott-Drouin)

The ceremony, held on Oct. 15, ended the service of the squadron known as the Tomcats. During the ceremony, VMA-311 cased their squadron colors and the National Ensign, commemorating nearly eight decades as an integral force in 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s forward presence around the globe. But its service will begin anew in 2022 when the squadron merges with another as the Black Sheep to fly the Marine’s new F-35B Lightning II out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

The Tomcats have a proud history dating back to 1942. Since being commissioned as a fighter attack squadron, the Tomcats have taken part in multiple conflicts, including the island-hopping campaigns of World War II and the first jet combat mission in 1950 during the Korean War.

In 1988 and 1991, the Tomcats were named Marine Corps Aviator Association’s Attack Squadron of the Year. The squadron was the first to fly a Harrier in combat during Desert Storm, and later flew during the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The reputable Tomcats have an exceptional level of esprit de corps representing 78 years of superior performance,” said Sgt. Maj. Colin Barry. “The Tomcats imbued a level of morale within each other that was unmatched.”

Barry said he has “no doubt” the future Black Sheep “will continue performing remarkably.”

The squadron joins others at Miramar that have already begun the transition to flying the F-35B – one of three aircraft types in the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter weapons program, replacing the aging Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler.

The Marines are incorporating the aircraft in the new vision for the military branch as a more nimble and stealth force.

The F-35s give pilots greater access to real-time information about the “battlespace,” with a 360-degree view and sensors that provide information from the air and ground. Sensors also can send information to commanders in the field and back in the U.S.

The deactivation of the Tomcats leaves only just one Harrier squadron left in the Yuma-based Marine Aircraft Group 13.