Will airliners fly in tight formations?

C17-en-formation-(Photo-U.S.-Air-Force-photo-by-Bobbi-Zapka)The US Air Force comes to the first experimental flight under its research programme ‘$AVE ‘. Two heavy transport aircraft of type C-17 were flown between California Edwards Air Force base and Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. A routine flight? Not quite. Two wide-bodied have indeed made this flight of over 4,000 km in close formation. The image of the wild geese or seagulls, one that follows the leader saves energy. The USAF hopes saving 10 million dollars per year in fuel if this technique was generalized to its fleet. The concept is validated by the military, but will it be transposed to the civil air transport?

The model mentioned by Dr. Donald Erbschloe, Scientific Director of the Air Mobility Command is clear: the animal world. To explain the purpose of flight tests of the ‘$AVE’ program, it takes the example of dolphins or seabirds that flying in formation tight, manage to hold air in not beating their wings as once every 20 minutes. The method works, all cyclists can testify and thanks to automation, it is going to be applicable both in automotive and aviation.

Technically, a few software changes were enough for the C-17

By car, from 1997 onwards, the first automated car platoons were tested on a highway near San Diego and, today, the European programme SARTRE continues in this direction. In aviation, the case is both simpler and more difficult. Technically, modern autopilots are sufficiently advanced to implement these aerial formations very rapidly. Only a few software changes brought to the 2 C – 17s to carry out this test flight and gains were at the rendezvous. With a separation between the two aircraft in the order of 3,000 to 6,000 feet (900 to 1,800 m), fuel gain is greater than 10%. The Air Force has two to three year to break its flight procedures before expanding the process to its fleet. That the release of the US Air Force does not mention, it is the quality of the flight of the follower. During 6 h flight crew has been shaken in the wake of the previous aircraft drag? There is little that members who are willing to tolerate this type of treatment. Moreover, be transposed to the civil sector, the rules of separation between aircraft in flight should be reviewed and corrected for the “liners”. Well as the system of collision detection, TCAS, should be amended accordingly. It is likely that transport of goods dronises aircraft will fly one day in training, as the devices responsible for passengers…
Sources :
“Inspired by nature: Innovative C-17 flight tests to save AF millions”, US Air Force press release, August 16, 2013
“Nature was model for innovative C-17 flight tests to save Air Force millions”, NorthwestMilitary, August 22, 2013

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