Minimizing Loss: Modifying Current Aircraft and Processes


This chapter will explain that ground-controlled aircraft, as a technology, have roots that go back almost to the start of aviation itself. While the modern media might attribute the application of drones and ground-controlled reconnaissance aircraft to the period after the 1990 Gulf War, the technology behind this has been secretly developed by the military going back to the Great War (1918). Some full-scale testing of a ground-controlled commercial aircraft that was destined for a crash landing and fuel additive testing was carried out in the 1980s. While the fiery impact images and videos have been publicised over the years that followed, the control systems allowing for numerous remote take-offs and landings were taken for granted by the wider public.

The commencement of the Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm - in 1990 saw the US military using remotely operated aircraft carrying video cameras and sensing equipment. Videos taken by the drones showed the opposition forces retreating or regrouping, and the public started to appreciate the uses of an unarmed drone. After the conflict ceased, armed drones were introduced into operational military conflicts and publicised like never before, for example, the post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraq war.

Both Airbus and Boeing as major aircraft manufactures made an astonishing admission in 2003 to the worlds' media in very broad general details. Both manufacturers stated that they were close to perfecting the technologies required to remotely land a civilian passenger aircraft that was experiencing a 'hijack' type event. Boeing submitted a patent and received confirmation of this intellectual property in 2006. However, this new concept did little to avert the various acts of pilot homicide that occurred in the years that followed. The technologies to automatically land an aircraft have been fitted to all large commercial aircraft and are based on the airports Instrument Landing System. Such systems are so advanced that the aircraft can land automatically in zero visibility on a runway and stop - while the pilots observe the computers and autopilots managing this task. Thus, the technologies to remotely command an aircraft to land within an 'uninterrupted landing system' exist, with minimal additional equipment needed to achieve this.

Other considerations are explored with respect to commercial aircraft and their current weaknesses. These include the lack of mechanical keys/codes required to start a $300 million USD aircraft, the ongoing risks posed by inflight fire, or access to the electrical and avionic bays. Likewise, consideration is given to aircraft that are commanded to land by remote control from the manufacturer, and the question is posed as to whether the flight crew should be passive at this time. Also discussed is how further acts of sabotage can be prevented, allowing for a safe landing and positive outcome. In addition, modifications to the critical life support systems, electrical generation systems and electronic communication equipment (including the transponder) are proposed, as it remains questionable that commercial pilots are able to disable critical systems from the protection of their locked flight decks.

Lastly, the justification and drive for modifications to commercial passenger aircraft (that are foreseen) will be attributed to financial savings that can be made from a fully data streaming aircraft. Reductions in fuel and maintenance costs will be directly attributed to a satellite streamed data service that monitors all of the aircraft's systems. Financial savings by the operators (the airlines) would drive this process, and while the levels of security would improve, the reductions in both cost and environmental emissions would be the predominant factor in making these changes.

History of Remotely Controlled Aircraft

As with any large, protracted modern military conflict, aviation technology developed and new applications for the devices were found. During the 1914-18 First World War (WWI), pilotless aerial vehicles were developed, and novel applications were conceived. In 1918, the US military considered methods of using new aircraft technologies with explosive ordinance, resulting in the 'Kettering Aerial Torpedo'. The project was the combination of Charles Kettering, an electrical engineer; Orville Wright as a consultant from


US military's secret Kettering Bug drone. (USAF.)

the Dayton-Wright Airplane company; and Elmer Ambrose Sperry, who designed the control and the guidance systems. The aircraft had a maximum range of 75 miles, and the device could deliver around 180 pounds of high explosive to the target. A photograph of the drone is shown in Figure 9.1 - note the device launched from a dolly and track system. Due to the end of the war, the device did not see active service, yet its development and use remained a closely guarded secret for many years to come.

In 1935, the British military developed a radio-controlled drone to be used for target training, called the De Havilland DH.82B Queen Bee. This aircraft was a radio-controlled variant of the De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. Different variants of the Queen Bee were derived, including a seaplane, model L. A photograph of the L5984 (Figure 9.2), taken by the British War office shows the aircraft on the launch ramp, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the foreground.

In 1946, the American military modified a B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft (see Figure 9.3). The remote-controlled drone took-off from Hilo Naval Station in Hawaii (August 1946), flying 2,600 miles to Muroc Army Airfield in California. The aircraft was controlled by Army Airforce personnel from the Muroc Army Airfield in the USA, who remotely flew the aircraft for the 15-hour flight.


Queen Bee seaplane with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (British War Office.)


B-17 remote-controlled aircraft flying from Hawaii to California on a 15-hour endurance flight, August 1941 (Imperial War Museum). (USAF.)

The use of radio technology for more complex aircraft that were to be intended as target drones was expanded in the years that followed. The UK's English Electric Canberra was the first medium-range jet turbine- powered high-altitude nuclear bomber. In 1957, the reconnaissance variant flew to an altitude of 70,310 ft, breaking flight records. The versatile application of radio control technology allowed for the production of the Canberra drone series (including for the USAF as the Martin B57A), where the military would use new high altitude guided missiles to shoot down this high altitude performance drone (Figure 9.4).

The use of unmanned drones for target practice had become a common use of this electronic technology. A new application on the battlefield was the use of a ground-controlled drone that could carry reconnaissance equipment to transmit back the location of battlefield targets while flying over hostile territory.

The USAF extended this technology to launch test drones from C130 aircraft flying at altitude (illustrated in Figure 9.5).


Martin B57A/Canberra target drone. (USAF.)


C130 aircraft carrying various drones in-flight, prior to their launch. (USAF.)

Federal Aviation Administrations’ Full-Scale Controlled Impact Demonstration

There have been numerous reconnaissance drones designed and produced for military applications in the subsequent years, with increasing levels of technology and autonomy. A civil application for remotely flown large commercial aircraft was instigated by the Federal Aviation Administration, USA, in July 1980. It is known that when a large passenger aircraft crashes into the ground during a forced landing, the fuel tanks that are contained within the wings tend to fail, spilling the kerosene fuel onto the ground. The objective of the full-scale crash test was to fly and deliberately crash on landing an old commercial aircraft. The overall aim of the full-scale crash was to evaluate a new fuel additive, with the hope that the post-crash fire could be mitigated by using additives. The aircraft selected for the final crash test was a Boeing


Converted Boeing 720 passenger aircraft - practicing a climb away during the final approach in RPV conditions. (FAA.)

720, with the electronics and guidance control systems being provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, USA. NASA was seen as the experienced partner with considerable expertise in Remotely Piloted Vehicles, (RPV) with Flight Control Systems. Furthermore, NASA had proven the reliability of this technology 'in the early 1970s as a means of flight testing experimental aircraft and advanced technologies in a far less hazardous manner' (FAA Full-scale Transportation Controlled Impact Demonstration Program, September 1987). The aircraft was modified to be able to be operated fully remotely, and during the project this B720 aircraft conducted 69 separate flights; 9 fully Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) takeoffs; and 13 RVP landings (see Figure 9.6).

The controlled impact into the runway, as per the experimental specification, did not fully go to plan, but the crash test (see Figure 9.7) provided valuable safety data and information to the industry. Figure 9.7 shows the controlled impact with the ground, and the unexpected yawing that followed as the aircraft slid across the surface.

This project highlighted the capabilities of remotely piloted flights (controlled from the ground) of this large, complex multi-engine turbine aircraft, using the state of the art technologies in the early 1980s.


Converted Boeing 720 passenger aircraft - practicing a climb away during the final approach in RPV conditions. (FAA.)

Remote-controlled Aircraft (Drones) During and After the Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm

The summer of 1990 was a pivotal moment for the Western military powers. In August, Iraq made a surprise invasion of the small state of Kuwait, taking the entire neighbouring territory with ease. The western governments formed an alliance known as Desert Shield from August 1990 to the end of February 1991. In those months, significant preparations were made to retake the occupied Kuwaiti territories, but the gathering of live aerial images and data was deemed to be high risk. The US military deployed numerous unmanned drones, that were not armed, to survey the area. They fed back tactical data for Operation Desert Storm's active military phase. Images from


Pioneer RQ 2B unmanned aerial vehicle. (Smithsonian Museum.)

the drones were released to the world's media during Desert Storm, illustrating the superior use of the 'new' drone technology. This was the first time that a military had extensively released images from drones that were telling the story of the progress that was ensuing. One drone publicised was the Pioneer RQ-2A unmanned aerial vehicle (Figure 9.8), which could be flown from a remote land station using modern communication means. The video clips shown at the time in these war briefings included the extensive use of the long-range video optics, filming the hostile forces going about their duties before and during the conflict. During the war, several military pilots were shot down over hostile territories, and the Iraqi government paraded these prisoners of war on their state TV. What became apparent to the media from these images were the capabilities of a remotely flown aerial vehicle, which carried no persons and posed little risk of the loss of life should they be shot down and lost. The concept of expanding the capability of drones, to carry weapons now became publicly acceptable, to which many militaries and manufacturers recognised.

In the years that followed, new armed variants of unmanned aerial vehicles were developed, and perhaps the most iconic of these drones was the General Atomics Predator (Figure 9.9), which was initially based on an unarmed variant, but was further developed to be armed with Hellfire


General Atomics Predator (Grey Eagle) unmanned aerial vehicle.

missiles. The regular deployment and use of these armed drones became frequent, after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent missions in the Afghanistan region. These drones have an automated take-off and landing capability, in addition to modern guidance avionics, that has similar equipment capabilities to modern aircraft, thus allowing their ground crews to manage the workload effectively.

A much larger drone that was developed around the same time was the Northrop Grumman RG-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone (Figure 9.10). This UAV is designed to carry numerous sensors including radar surveillance systems based on U2 platforms, but the sheer size of the aircraft makes it noteworthy because the Global Hawk has a similar-sized wingspan to a B737 aircraft. In 2001, the Global Hawk UAV became the first aircraft to fly non-stop, making a fully autonomous flight from the USA to Australia, some 23 hours in duration.

While these long-distance flights of unmanned vehicles do not appear to be particularly exciting or challenging, their routine nature has allowed the technologies for flight control, guidance and semi-automated operation to become a 'mature' discipline, with vehicles now given permission to fly in the national airspace, i.e. not being excluded from commercial traffic.


Northrop Grumman RG-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.

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