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Ultralight planes: a possible future for medium to long distance mass trasportation?

Cheap, easy to pilot, easier to mantain.

ULM aircrafts are modern, two seated, car gas propelled planes, usually flown for leisure and turism. An entry level two seated plane can cost as much as a good scooter, costs a fraction of a general aviation plane to buy and mantain, can fly @200kmh at cruise speed, have an average of 500km range and can take off land anywhere from 500 mt grass strips (some can land on river shores and open sea, too). In Italy there are almost 150 privately held airstrips are available mostly free for landing fees, together with all the minor and medium airports open for general aviation planes.

So, why dont think of it as a means of personal and family transportation for medium to long distances? If we consider an average 4 hr car trip, depending of how far your nearest airstrip could be, and another one at your destination point, and commuting from these two places, it could be faster and cheaper to get there by your own plane.

What are the main problems against this idea, today? Weather, because they need good weather to fly; State endorsement: because, as it is, air transport belongs solely to air companies and thus airports and other facilities, even if airspace within a national domain are State properties properties, and also because car industry lead many countries economies like US, Germany, France, Japan and Italy. Security: in aviation, security is a scarecrow that keeps people away, make them spend much more, makes a tragedy of each and every event. The impossible of making a human activity riskless is killing personal aviation, leaving only the big players. If aviation security were applied to cars, they would cost tenfold and a fraction would ever hit the roads.

If proper investment were available, i think a cheap 4-seated all-weather ultralight plane, with a S-trasponder, and enough technology onboard to dumb piloting processes down to those required to drive a car could be within reach in a very short time

  • Aug 2 2013: Sorry, as a retired professional pilot, I cannot support your idea.

    Consider human nature, the most dangerous aspect of "free flight", the basic concept you propose here. I do not trust most humans to do what would be needed for a safe environment under this idea. Professional pilots have the training for navigation (with and without electronics), weather conditions including dangerous weather, which also includes icing conditions, proper loading, take off and landing obstruction avoidance, and more. There are legal obligations to take care of folks on the ground too.

    Can you imagine the liability issues for accidents and damages from personal flight? Yes, private pilots own personal aircraft and are now operating under rules. Imagine the additional rules needed with increased ultralight craft. Being more maneuverable than heavier craft, ultralights could be used for privacy invasion. Not a pretty imagination.

    Enlarged to a broad scale, I cannot see ultralights practically used more than present.

    Ed is right.
    • Aug 3 2013: You are using safety as a scarecrow. Light planes are utterly different than liners. Light planes are easier to fly than a car is to drive. Arent you scared of all the people driving with only that 4 month course they took? No wet,snow, windy weather training? No heavy cargo training? Dont people die because of it? Any idiot can drive a car, and many drivers do reckless things and take other people lives. But the overall interest is to keep access to car licenses low in order to promote mobility. How do you learn how to drive in a highway? By driving in a highway, and taking your risks, building up your experience and confidence.

      I dont see why it has to be any different for personal planes. YOU (as a liner pilot) should have all sort of proficiencies because yours is the responsability of carrying around 50+ paying passengers. Me, i go wherever i want to, its my life. Can i operate the plane safely? Can i T/O and land safely? Am i aware about weather hazards and how to cope with it as things are now? Can things be dramatically improved by applying existing technology to nowadayasplanes? Yes, to all.

      Will people crash should personal flight become more and more common? Oh yes. People will die, or better people will kill themselves. You have to accept that. There is no such thing as a riskless human activity, and floating several hundred meters from ground certainly doesnt qualify to be on the lower tiers of the risk list. Motorbikes are also a very risky thing to do, would you ban it?

      But the higher insterest is to take people off the streets and move them up in the air. Making overall transportation faster will repay society of anything. In due time people will become better everyday pilots, just like your average joe.

      Dont make the mistake to apply commercial flight security parameters to light flight. The only thing that will teach you how to fly is flying. A piece of paper, be it a checklist or an additional proficiency wont do nothing when facing trouble.
    • Aug 4 2013: Besides, your point of view is biased, and im telling this to you with the utmost respect of your experience and the time you took to reply to me.

      Your position is the same as if you were a train conductor and were asked "which would the best way to organize mass transportation for medium to long range?". Trains, of course. A single professional transportation technician that brings hundreds of people at a time on a single railway, well spaced among other trains, with station personel monitoring that ll goes well. Them cars? Bah! All those swarming little bugs, all those average joes going everywhere, thinking only about their own business. "Consider human nature, the most dangerous aspect of "free drive", the basic concept you propose here. I do not trust most humans to do what would be needed for a safe environment under this idea."

      Luckily things have gone differently.
      Your position is a general mistrust of personal means of transportation, be it cars, light planes or motorboats.
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    Aug 27 2013: Having "enjoyed" the spectacle of Naples surface traffic with my jaw open in amazement, I would estimate that with 100,000 napolitani in UL aircraft over the city, 50,000 of them would lie scattered dead across the city within an hour.
    • Aug 28 2013: i thank you for keeping in mind that the proposal is about mid to long range trips, but i would like to remind you that 50,000 people flying over any city would at present be impractical anywhere, not just Naples. You cant use a plane for within city commuting.
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        Aug 28 2013: Point well taken, Raffaele, though in principle they could be used from rooftop to rooftop. I guess it was your reference to a 4 hour car trip that made me think of a Naples commute ...

        But in any case, as a former professional pilot myself, I can't imagine safely accommodating the extra tens of thousands of UL aircraft that would fill the lower airspace. I'm afraid the density would be overpowering and would lead to a great number of accidents, most of them fatal.
        • Aug 28 2013: if there will be that many planes it means there will be even fewer in the upper space, leaving room. changes will not happen overnight and vertical and horizontal spacing, as well as pressurized small planes can kick in if the market explodes.

          As the situation is now there are all the premises to cope with future success problems. Realistically speaking, if there's to make money everything becomes possible.

          The only thing we must accept -as flying enthusiasts ourselves- is the fact that accidents will happen, that "zero accidents" is not the proof that all is well but that no one is flying at all, and that for the sake for the greater good of improved mobility we have to swalow the fact that people will make mistake and that people will die, as they die in cars and bikes and no one can do realistically nothing about it in the way of stopping people from driving or making it harder, because the economy and society demands it.

          As i wrote to another former commercial pilot, below from here, of course a single skilled transportation technician bringing 300 people from point A to point B from time X to time Y will be safer than 300 people going on their own, but the same can be said by a train conductor blaming car drivers for their recklessness. But people may not need to go from point A, or to point B, or their schedules could be different than Y or X. Thats why they dont choose public transportation and use their own personal means of transportation.

          Regional commercial air transport has capped. No more profits can be earned if not asking for subventions to local authorities, or going cheaper on personel wages, security, turnovers and so on. This monopoly cannot go on much longer. IMHO now is the time that short and medium range air travels (i.e. medium and long car travels) will be done by personal planes. If the market asks, the industry will answer.

          Besides, here are only so many cars you can sell a family.
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    Aug 4 2013: And why not liberalize (even more) the commercial use of balloons? Recently a balloon with tourists fell down and crashed. Yesterday, here in Spainan ULM also crashed, with victims. Ed, I totally agree. If ULM were for general use, even observing severe laws and instructions, most of us could not feel safe anyway. Your arguments are well balanced and full of good sense.
    Rafaelle, your question is very interesant and offers nice outlooks, but in my opinion, if you'll ask to the people about it, 8 of 10 people would't support the idea, I'm afraid.
    • Aug 4 2013: you are blinded by the news. the news, the news. Do every car accident make it to the news anymore? Who cares about the x-th car accident? People are afraid to fly. This is true. So every paper plane falling is big news. Every non event happened in an airport is worth mentioning "a tragedy was about to happen", while you need at least 5 people dead and at least a child to mention a car incident.

      Look at statistics. Confront this idea with hard fact. Leave the news to those that make a living out of building hype.

      Think about this situation 200 years ago. Think about horses and the first cars. Think about infrastructure dedicated to horse riding and horse propelled carriages. Think about the first cars. arent your concerns exactly the same of those horse riding? Who would youagree with? Who would you side with?
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        Aug 5 2013: Dear Raffaele:
        Not at all. I do also worry about car accidents. Very much. By the way, .. speaking about car accidents, I'd not like to see some of the ones I see driving a car in a certain condiction, at the controls of an airplane. . . flying over our heads. And you?
        Please, don't think news are so important. I worked some years as a sort of traffic security surveyor.
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    Aug 2 2013: Look at the LA freeway at 7:20 AM on a workday. Imagine every four cars being replaced by a ULM with no brakes or hovering ability zooming along 150 feet in the air. That is a horrifying image! Back to the drawing board, please.
    • Aug 2 2013: ahaha, ok, now do the effort to think it tridimensionally. no lanes, there's lots of up, not so much down, and waaay lefts and rights to fit everybody.
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        Aug 2 2013: Thanks anyway, but I prefer to economize on effort by doing a preliminary assessment looking specifically for assured failure of an idea. In this case I see chaotic traffic conditions as assured failure. Your solution for collision avoidance is "tridimensional laneless" corridors? Have you considered the air traffic control system? Have you considered take-off and landing requirements? Have you considered parking requirements both at home and at work? Have you considered the results of minor contact between two, or more, ULM's?....(they all accelerate vertically toward the ground at 32-fps squared). Please, for the sake of humanity, get back to the drawing board.
        • Aug 2 2013: my solution for collision avoidance in a heavily packed traffic corridor is the same that works today: transponder mode S with a TCAS, plus see and avoid. I remind you that we are talking about medium to long distance travel. Nothing a liner does an ULM cannot do swifter.

          I do know that contacts between two airplanes always end with dramatic effect, but also contact between motorbikes and anything bigger than a standing stone does. So what? Don't hit anything, don't do anything stupid.

          And keep in mind i am talking about today's ULM. Light airplanes havent got much farther than post WWII planes, they go faster, engines are lighter, control are easier, but the technology is pretty still the same. Commuting ULMs, or just ULm as a means of mass transportation may carry any utility and gadget to ease the travel, including better systems to help avoiding collisions or limiting its effects.

          Think as today's ULM as cars from the 1900: donkeys and horses still had an easier way around, so many bad streets, and what about reliability of those damned machines going at those maddening speeds, 50 kmh, are they crazy? what if they lost control? What if they run over someone? Today ULMs are better pioneers that those coaches-with-an-engine. And besides, the sky is big to hold everybody.
      • Aug 5 2013: If your solution to congestion is everybody spread out left right up and down then you are creating a chaotic environment. To really imagine what would happen you should simulate this.
        You will have to have some buffer space between vertical lanes and left and right traffic. If people can just go directly to their destination then that becomes more difficult.
        If I want a high lane, I have many lower lanes to cross with potential executions at every crossing. If I am going on a course of 320 degrees magnetic I may be crossing dozens of other lanes of people going in other vectors and directions at the same altitude.
        I would think that the level of sophistication that navigational software, radar and gps tracking transponders would require before I will fly with the monkeys currently driving on our roads would have to be on the level of independent flight. That is, if the software can fly there itself, I might consider going along. Otherwise I would rather walk.
        • Aug 5 2013: the solution that exists now is dividing odd and even flight levels for southbound and northbound traffic (or east bound and west bound, depending on the countries). Whether travelling or not on an airway, spacing on airways provided by air traffic control can keep people 1 mile apart vertically and half a mile apart horizontally.

          Moreover, there is a tool called TCAS, which is installed onboard: its a sort of passive proximity radar that reads other transponders around the plane and warns if other planes are coming too close.

          Transponder mode S allows a much better visualization for traffic controllers, allowing to receive up to 25 foot increments and 24bit of datastream. If you go to sites like you will see all planes using mode S transponders around the world.

          This is the state of the art TODAY. This is what we can do TODAY. It pretty dull to take a technology as it is now (and it works, nonetheless) and apply it as it is to the worst case scenario. It took 2 hundred years of investments for the car industry to invent ABS, ESP, airbags or winter tires, as well as traffic lights, traffic laws and driving school syllaba.

          When the need arise, the industry will kick in with better planes and better technology, because revenues and competition will urge everybody to take better care of pilots.

          Just ask yourself: in my next mid to long range car travel, what if i took a small plane? Would it be better or worse? What if -not hundred thousand people, just a hundred, as in the most responbile guess one can make if today my idea were magically known to everybody and turned out to be a huge success- what if a hundred planes were flying in your same general direction, not specifically on the same spot you meant to go, would that affect you?
  • Aug 2 2013: The pilots I've known feel that samll planes are dangerous. Wait i know several people who have beenkilled that way.
    • Aug 2 2013: I know so many people killed in cars, and many werent even their own fault!

      Seriously speaking, a small plane is not dangerous because it's small. Light plane incidents almost never happen because of a plane failure, but for human error. Learning to fly a small plane is not as easy as driving a car, it's far easier. Two identical pedals instead of three, a stick, way fewer buttons to click and manage than a car, and most of all far far far less traffic around you than when you drive on a street. And it's fun, it's exhilarating, and adrenaline kills (or adrenaline without skill and proper self evaluation does).

      Also, habit kills, the excess of confidence, the repetition of thoughtless actions . But it's not about the size. For one, several national aviation organization, like the FAA, require that commercial pilots (the one piloting your boeing or airbus) go back to basic stick and rudder skills without relying too much on automation and checklists.

      But what kills the most is flying too few, the lack of experience. If anyone flew as much as he's driving his survival chances would be equal to those of a habitual driver.

      In short, what kills you on a plane could kill you on a car, bar other people carelessness. If something happens, its almost always your fault, something you may have prevented or avoided.
      • Aug 3 2013: Are these radically different than small cesnas?
        • Aug 3 2013: not radically. they are cheaper, lighter, easier to mantain, two seated instead of four, but thats the idea.

          of course their price is connected to their semplicity: the more technology we add, the higher the final costs will build up.

          but thats the idea.
      • Aug 4 2013: Okay raffaele you are saying that they are safer than the old Cesnas
        • Aug 4 2013: Yep, by being cheaper to buy and mantain they allow you to build up more flying hours thus more experience and confidence. Safety is mainly about these two components.
      • Aug 5 2013: Good raffaele but still be careful. i have had several friends get killed flying. One was a retired Marine Jet Pilot who died flying a sail plane another was an accountant whose friend was flyhing an experimental airplane.
        • Aug 28 2013: i had two dear childhood friends involved in car accidents, one died the other one killed a man (a father of two) coming from the other direction.

          experimental flights are risky for definition, sail planes (you mean gliders? or ) are a means of transportation that dont have the mission of "bring you there" built inside... they are flown for the pleasure of being flown without an egnine and using your skill to harness the winds around you to keep flying farther and closer to where you need to go back to.
      • Aug 29 2013: True but now you've made me afraid of cars, too.
        Yes, a sail plane is a glider.