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U.S. and Europe call a truce in Boeing-Airbus battle

The United States and the European Union have agreed on a five-year suspension in tit-for-tat tariffs over a 17-year-long trade dispute that involved subsidies given to Boeing and Airbus for airplane development. The deal, announced today during President Joe Biden’s meetings with EU leaders in Brussels, heads off billions of dollars in duties that could have affected a wide range of products — although U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the tariffs could be reactivated if “U.S. producers are not able to compete fairly.”

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World’s biggest airplane flies again for Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, put the world’s biggest airplane through its second flight test today, two years after the first flight.

“We are airborne!” Stratolaunch reported in a tweet.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer, said today’s flight accomplished its test objectives by checking the performance of improved instrumentation, a more robust flight control system and an environmental control system that allowed the pilots to work in a pressurized cockpit. Krevor said the crew included chief pilot Evan Thomas, pilot Mark Giddings and flight engineer Jake Riley.

The flight’s spiciest moment came at touchdown, when one of the plane’s landing gears settled the runway while the other was still in the air. “We did touch down initially on one gear, but that’s exactly the technique we prefer to use during a crosswind landing,” Krevor told GeekWire during a post-landing teleconference. “Though we stayed within our crosswind limits, we did have a little bit of a crosswind, and the aircrew did an excellent job of bringing the aircraft down.”

Since Roc’s first flight in 2019, the business model for the 10-year-old venture has shifted: In its early years, Stratolaunch focused on using Roc as a flying launch pad for sending rockets and their payloads to orbit. The concept capitalizes on the air launch system pioneered by SpaceShipOne, which won financial backing from Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004,

The new owners still expect to use Roc for air launch, but the current focus is on using the plane as a testbed for Stratolaunch’s hypersonic flight vehicles. Once the plane is cleared for regular operations, perhaps next year, Stratolaunch could begin launching its Talon-A prototype hypersonic plane.

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Swiss battery venture joins electric airplane team

One of the pioneers of battery-powered aviation is joining a Pacific Northwest team that’s aiming to get an all-electric seaplane certified for service in Canada.

H55, the Swiss battery venture co-founded by Solar Impulse pilot André Borschberg, is partnering with Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air Seaplanes and Everett, Wash.-based MagniX on their project to convert De Havilland Beaver commuter airplanes to all-electric power.

Harbour Air is providing the Beaver, MagniX is providing the electric propulsion system, and now H55 will provide its advanced battery modules to power the plane.

MagniX and Harbour Air have been putting a prototype eBeaver through flight tests since December 2019 to gather data on such parameters as cruise performance, takeoff thrust efficiency, electromagnetic interference and noise levels. The team is working with Transport Canada on a supplemental type certificate program to clear converted all-electric planes for commercial operations by as early as next year.

Eventually, Harbour Air plans to transform all of its seaplanes into an all-electric fleet. The company provides commuter air service to a locations along British Columbia’s coast, plus “nerd bird” flights between Vancouver and Seattle.

H55 was founded to continue the vision of Solar Impulse 2, which Borschberg and fellow adventurer Bertrand Piccard piloted around the world on a historic solar-powered trip in 2015-2016.

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Bill Gates gives a fresh boost to clean energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his money as well as his mouth behind the push for new energy technologies.

First, about the money: Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is doubling down on its investment in ZeroAvia, a startup that’s working on a hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrain for aircraft capable of flying more than 50 passengers.

Back in December, Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a Series A funding round that raised $21.4 million for the U.S.-British company, with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund joining in the round. This week, ZeroAvia said Gates’ energy innovation fund is participating in a follow-up investment round amounting to another $24.3 million.

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Blue Angels promise a louder post-COVID air show

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels had to pass up their traditional Seafair air show in Seattle last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but assuming the all-clear is given, they promise to come roaring back this August.

Literally.

This will be the first year that the Blue Angels do their aerobatic act with F/A-18 Super Hornets instead of the “legacy” Hornets that the team has used for 34 years. The shift is the result of a transition that’s been years in the making.

When it comes to power, the Boeing-built Super Hornets are … well, super.

“With the Super Hornet, the show will definitely be audibly louder, because the jet itself produces more thrust,” Lt. Julius Bratton, who serves as the team’s narrator and No. 7 pilot, explained today during a Zoom video conference with reporters. “The Super Hornet has about 42,000 pounds of thrust in full afterburner, whereas the legacy Hornet that we previously flew had about 32,000 pounds of thrust.”

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$25 million to be paid in drone whistleblower case

Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, has agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations that it used recycled parts rather than new parts in military drones, the Justice Department announced today.

The parts were put into drones that Insitu built for the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of the Navy between 2009 and 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

When Insitu was awarded the contracts to supply the drones, under the terms of no-bid contracts, the company said it would use new parts and materials. But according to the allegations, Insitu substituted less expensive recycled, refurbished, reconditions and reconfigured parts.

“Taxpayers deserve to get what they paid for — especially in significant no-bid military contracts,” U.S. Attorney Brian Moran said in a news release. “Cases such as this one should be seen as a warning to defense contractors that false claims have no place in military purchasing.”

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Boeing will pay $2.5B to resolve 737 MAX criminal case

Boeing says it’s entered into a $2.51 billion agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to resolve a criminal charge related to the Federal Aviation Administration’s evaluation of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes.

The deferred-prosecution agreement addresses a single charge of conspiracy to defraud FAA inspectors about the safety of the 737 MAX’s automated flight control system. Investigators say changes to a component known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, were to blame in a pair of catastrophically fatal 737 MAX crashes that occurred in Indonesia in October 2018 and in Ethiopia in March 2019.

Those crashes led the FAA and other regulators to ground hundreds of 737 MAX planes operated by airlines around the world. After more than a year of investigations, software fixes and revisions to pilot training requirements, the FAA cleared the planes to return to service last November.

The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a penalty of $243.6 million, provide $1.77 billion in compensation to the airlines that purchased 737 MAX jets, and establish a $500 million fund to compensate the families of the 346 people who were killed in the two crashes. Boeing also agreed to cooperate with investigators and strengthen its anti-fraud compliance program.

If Boeing complies with the requirements of the agreement, filed today with a federal court in Texas, the criminal charge will be dismissed after three years.

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Boeing ends an era at composites research center

Boeing says it’ll be repurposing the Seattle-area facility that has served as the focus for research into the composite materials used in aircraft ranging from the B-2 Stealth bomber to the 787 Dreamliner.

In an emailed statement, Boeing said much of the work being done at the Advanced Developmental Composites Center, situated across the street from Seattle’s Museum of Flight, will be distributed to other Boeing facilities — mostly in the Puget Sound region. Other work, unrelated to Boeing Commercial Airplanes, will continue to be done at the 600,000-square-foot facility.

Boeing cast the move as a cost-saving and efficiency-enhancing measure.

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The year in aerospace: Comebacks in the skies above

Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.

American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.

The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.

Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight.

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737 MAX cleared for flight — after software upgrades

Two years after the catastrophic crash of a Boeing 737 MAX jet in Indonesia touched off an aviation crisis, the Federal Aviation Administration today laid out the path for hundreds of 737s to return to flight.

But that can’t happen immediately: It’ll take months for the FAA to check the implementation of changes in pilot training procedures, and verify all the fixes that will be made. All 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide in the aftermath of a second crash that occurred in Ethiopia in March 2019.

“This is not the end of this safety journey,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told CNBC. “There’s a lot of work that the airlines and the FAA and Boeing will have to do in the coming weeks and months.”

Stan Deal, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a news release that today’s FAA directive was an “important milestone” but agreed that there’s a lot of work to be done. “We will continue to work with regulators around the world and our customers to return the airplane back into service worldwide,” Deal said.

The key fixes involve software rather than hardware — and that part of the job is more like installing a Windows update than installing an actuator.