Highlights of the Paris Air Show

Three pilotless planes, two space agencies making deals, and one huge passenger aircraft

4 min read

17 June 2005--Even though the Airbus A380 made its maiden flight more than a month ago, it was clearly the 46th International Paris Air Show's biggest star. At 560 metric tons it is truly a mammoth machine, the largest passenger aircraft in the world and the first ever to have a double passenger deck that extends over the entire length of its fuselage. Almost 73 meters from nose to tail, it has a wingspan of nearly 80 meters. Four jet engines--either General Electric and Pratt & Whitney GP7270s or Rolls-Royce Trent 970s--accelerate it to a cruising speed nearly nine-tenths the speed of sound and give it a maximum range of 14 800 kilometers.

Despite the A380's size and power, spectators were amazed at how little noise it made as it circled the field over Le Bourget Airport in Paris [QuickTime .mov file, 222.6 kb]. Airbus calls the plane a "whispering giant."

The A380 is the European consortium's latest weapon in its long competition with Boeing Corp., whose 747 "jumbo jet" held the title of the largest aircraft in the world for more than three decades. Before the 747, the Lockheed L-1049 Constellation in the 1950s and the Boeing 707 in 1960 held that title. Boeing is betting that airlines are looking more for long-range, mid-size jets than a giant like the A380.

Creators of the A380 claimed that the enormous passenger capacity of the aircraft could ease traffic congestion along the world's busiest air routes. But critics warn of the difficulties the European consortium faces in selling the enormous aircraft to struggling air carriers. Some called it "a big airplane for a small market." So far, Airbus says it has secured 154 orders from 15 customers for various incarnations of the A380, including 27 freighter versions for Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and Emirates airline. The first A380 configured into a 555-seat passenger craft is expected to enter service in 2006. Before that happens, the plane must spend several hundred hours in the air for European and U.S. authorities to certify it.

Spectators at Le Bourget saw the first airworthy A380. It was loaded with some 6000 sensors, and because it has flown so few times, the pilot kept the landing gear deployed during the entire demonstration to be able to land quickly in case of an emergency. Airbus plans to build and fly four more test versions of the plane.

New Fleet of Unmanned Aircraft

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At the 2005 Paris Air Show, the French firm Dassault Aviation Group demonstrated a prototype of the Neuron unmanned vehicle, which the company developed with the support of the French government. The vehicle seems similar to the experimental Boeing X-45A and X-47A unmanned combat aircraft.

Separately, Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., showed a demonstrator [yellow] of what it calls unmanned "morphing aircraft" technology--parts of the vehicle change shape to adapt to a particular phase of the flight. In the present concept, small actuators inside the aircraft body move aircraft components, allowing the wings to fold in flight. The hope is that morphing technology will give the vehicles better endurance, higher top speed, and increased maneuverability, while maximizing time the aircraft can remain over the battlefield and allowing it more flexibility in the kinds of payloads it can carry. The ability to change the critical physical characteristics of a plane in flight would enable a single vehicle to perform multiple missions that currently are conducted by a fleet of totally different aircraft, according to Lockheed. This year, the company completed the first phase of a research contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for morphing aircraft structures, and it has begun the second phase.

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk drone, successful in missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is getting an upgrade. The Los Angeles-based company showed off a better, beefier version, dubbed RQ-4B. Unlike its more famous cousin, the Predator drone, the jet-powered Global Hawk is designed exclusively for observation missions and is not expected to carry any weapons in the future. The RQ-4B Global Hawk is scheduled for delivery in 2006. At 14.5 meters long with a wingspan of more than 26.5 meters, the plane is slightly longer and several meters broader at the wing than its predecessor, the RQ-4A. A longer wingspan improves the Global Hawk's ability to glide at its usual perch 19.8 kilometers up. The new aircraft will have a range of 22 780 nautical miles with gross takeoff weight of 14 628 kilograms, including 1360 kilograms of sensors, compared with its predecessor's 907-kilogram payload.

Europe might take a ride on Russian shuttle

The European Space Agency, ESA, is inching closer to endorsing a proposed Russian reusable orbiter, dubbed Kliper, designed to replace the veteran Soyuz spacecraft that now serves the International Space Station.

On 10 June, the head of the manned space program of the European Space Agency (ESA, Paris) said that his agency would support the Kliper project, according to the Russian press. Nikolai Moiseev, deputy chief of the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, was quoted as saying that the Kliper system will be adapted to launch from the European space port in Kourou, French Guiana, as well as from Russian facilities. According to Russian space officials, with the European support the Kliper could fly "no later than" 2011 ahead of the "after 2012" launch date previously reported.

Negotiations continued at the Le Bourget air show near Paris, where Russia showcased the latest incarnation of the Kliper design and the internal layout of the crew compartment.

Vladimir Taneev, the leading designer of the Kliper system at Korolev, Moscow-based RKK Energia, told IEEE Spectrum at the show that broad technical cooperation with Europe was under consideration. "The European companies will likely contribute avionics, materials, and cabin systems," says Taneev. "Many different options are on the table, and in the near future we expect to form Russian-European working groups specialized in different subsystems and fields of design." If collaboration materializes, European funding and technical support for the Kliper will prove a big boost to the cash-strapped Russian manned-space program.

Alexander Derechin, the head of RKK Energia's international relations, did not exclude cooperation with the United States on the Kliper. "We realize that the U.S. would not outsource us a Crew Exploration Vehicle [the spacecraft designed to replace the shuttle]. However, we are confident that development of the Kliper and CEV will be closely coordinated, so that their systems are fully compatible," says Derechin. "We don't want a repetition of the Soyuz-Apollo [docking mission] where we have air and they have [pure] oxygen" in the life support systems. Derechin alluded to differences in the internal atmosphere of two spacecraft, which required the construction of a special transfer module.

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