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Aviation: Past, Present & the Future

Captain Lim Khoy Hing chronicles the past, explains the present and welcomes you to a world of wonders just waiting to amaze passengers, as air travel gets more and more advanced.

Future Perfect

Airbus recently came up with many new ideas about the future of air travel in a booklet titled The Future. This little book is packed with loads of fascinating new innovations that are revolutionising the airline industry.

     Amongst them, an aircraft that allows passengers unobstructed views of the cities and all the wonders of the world below through a transparent floor with a touch of a button. Materials of the future will also have the ability to become transparent, negating the need for windows.

     Passengers who complain of slow boarding would have planes with double doors for quicker and easier access to the cabin. There would be fewer complaints from residents who live near airports about noise pollution, as planes would come with mega-quiet engines that burn less fuel and significantly reduce noxious gasses.

     How would space congestion be solved? The booklet suggests that planes with vertical take-off capabilities is one way of gaining more space. Planes will also fly faster with ultra-thin wings to glide better through the air. Hypersonic planes that fly above the atmosphere would take just two to three hours to fly from London to Melbourne.

     Turnaround time would be faster, as headrests would be self-cleaning and can never be soiled. Passengers too would have comfortable seats that mould to their body shape and, can use holographic technology to turn the environment of their private cabins into different landscapes.

      “So imagine, if you will, stepping into your pre-selected themed cabin, relaxing into a perfectly clean, ecologically-grown seat that changes shape to suit you and looking up through the transparent ceiling at the Milky Way in all its glory at an altitude of more than 10,000 meters,” so says Airbus in the booklet.

Past Perfected

Whilst the future of air travel may seem far-fetched for now, this could definitely be a reality very soon. In the meantime, here’s a quick look at the progress the aviation industry has made in the past 100 years.

     Malaysia, which celebrated 100 years of civil aviation in June this year, records an Antoinette monoplane as the first aircraft to land here. Incidentally, the plane touched down on a race course, which subsequently made way for the Petronas Twin Towers; one of the tallest buildings in the world.

     The Antoinette had a maximum speed of only 44 mph (70 kph). Fast forward to the present, about 100 years later, the Boeing 777 and Airbus A340 cruise at more than 10 times the speed. It took 28 days and 22 refueling stops for a Twin Pioneer to fly from Scotland to Malaysia 50 years ago. Today, it takes just about 13 hours to fly almost the same distance without refueling on AirAsia X Airbus A340 from London to Kuala Lumpur.

Five Decades in the Making

Flying 50 years ago was a real challenge. I remember that most planes had no autopilot, especially my first transport plane – the Twin Pioneers – where the co-pilot took the place of the autopilot. The captain normally handed over long, laborious and boring parts of the flying to the co-pilot who had the tough job of maintaining the heading and altitude. Today, the autopilot takes over as soon as the plane lifts off and, the auto-thrust handles the power.

     In the past, some pilots got lost because of poor navigation aids whilst deviating from bad weather. Navigation was aided by radio beacons using the automatic directional finder (ADF) that were prone to errors. Today, the Global Positioning System (GPS), similar to that in your car, is so accurate that a pilot can never get lost.

Present Matters: Computer Conundrums

Nowadays, the computer does about 95 percent of the flying. An air traveller once wrote to me saying that he never felt comfortable about flying in an airplane controlled by computers. His personal experience of a computer is something that stalls, crashes and is pretty unreliable.

     In reality, the use of computers in technology has greatly benefited the aviation industry. The computer is fast, reliable and at times, more accurate than human reaction. However, human beings are still in overall control, and should any technical issues crop up, the pilots can still override the computers in flight. Most of the time, problems are quickly detected and always rectified before the plane gets airborne.

Electronic Flight Bag

Compared to the past, computer technology on most commercial aircraft that assist pilots to navigate, plan and control the flights have made flying very safe. Additionally, the latest navigation gadget, the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) in some planes, has made flying even safer as pilots are able to obtain the latest data, such as weather, special notices to pilots and volcanic activity immediately or when required. This is a key element for quicker decision making and efficient flight management. In case of an emergency, a simple tap on the proposed diversion airport on the EFB screen reveals the information necessary for a safe landing.

     Additionally, maintenance pro-activeness is increased with the same connected EFB alerting pilots to current faults or ‘unusual engine behavior’. Pilots can then communicate and seek recommendations or best actions without compromising safety.

     As for computers that manage the plane, some travellers are skeptical about relying on a machine that may not be as smart as human beings. The fact is, a machine can operate with greater precision than any human ever could. For instance, if I were flying an Airbus A340 on a day when most airports are fogged up, I rely on computers to bring me down or else the passengers would end up in another destination. The auto landing will take me safely down in almost zero visibility. It is humanly impossible for a pilot to manually fly the plane safely to that kind of precision. Should the computers fail at anytime, only then will the pilot intervene and take over to abort the landing.

     So you see, modern technology probably means better and faster travel, while more intelligent computers will change the landscape of the aviation world. At present, a passenger is simply transported to his destination safely and comfortably. In the future, however, air travel will be a fascinating experience with features we never thought possible.

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Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.