Crossing oceans is challenging, fascinating and satisfying. The westward voyage of the Christopher Columbus-led three-ship fleet from Europe in 1492 established the first link between America and Europe across the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, people on both these continents have been looking at faster and more efficient connectivity across the Atlantic. The advent of aviation allowed the use of the third dimension.
In June 1919, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic in a modified Vimy IV. They flew from Lester's Field, near St. Johns, Newfoundland to Clifden in Ireland in 16 hours and 27 minutes.1 From that modest beginning, 99 years later, now, over 2000 manned aircraft cross the North Atlantic daily.2
The aviation industry has come a long way since the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. It has expanded in both military and civil aviation with manned and unmanned aircraft. Later this year, while the Royal Air Force, one of the first military aviation wings, will be celebrating its centenary, the aviation industry will be looking at two other significant milestones. First, in the manned aircraft category in civil aviation, the world’s longest commercial flight will be launched in October by Singapore Airlines between New York and Singapore.3
An Airbus A350-900ULR (Ultra-Long-Range) will cover this distance of around 9,500 miles in 18 hours and 45 minutes. This will relegate to second place the existing longest route of Qatar Airways from Auckland to Doha of 9,032 miles in 18 hours by Boeing 777-200LR.4 In the unmanned category, with an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) crossing the Atlantic, a new chapter is about to begin.
Unmanned Trans-Atlantic Foray
On July 10-11, 2018 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems plans to make the first-ever trans-Atlantic flight of a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV.5 Technological advancement in computing and communication facilitated the development of UAVs. Controlled from a ground station, the UAVs either fly a pre-planned path or can be dynamically controlled.6 For the trans-Atlantic mission, an MQ-9B Sky Guardian is scheduled to fly from Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA, to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Base Fairford in Gloucestershire, UK, located over 3300 miles away.7
The prime challenges faced by Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown in their venture 99 years ago related to the endurance of man and machine, as well as reliability and navigation over the sea without any ground reference points. That mission was accomplished by using a modified aircraft to carry extra fuel to increase range. Despite multiple component failures and airframe icing en route, they managed to reach Europe and landed in Ireland. They navigated by using a sextant and taking reference from the position of the sun and moon whenever visible in cloudy and foggy weather.8 These will not be issues with the forthcoming MQ9B mission.
The MQ9B has already set an endurance record of more than 48 hours of continuous flight.9 It being unmanned, the human endurance aspect is well taken care of with the Pilot in Command (PIC) sitting in a comfortable cabin at the Ground Control Station (GCS). A well-established Global Position System (GPS) provides accurate navigational reference points. The MQ-9B with a ceiling of a 40000 feet and speed of 210 knots, has improved structural fatigue and damage tolerance. With robust flight control software, it is capable of operations in adverse weather including icing conditions.10
This will obviate the weather-related challenges faced by the first trans-Atlantic flight in Vimy IV. Being unmanned, the problem of disorientation in foggy and cloudy Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) faced by aircrew is also completely eliminated.
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