The Real Fun

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It usually begins with a shrill, pre-dawn alarm clock. That’s never been my favorite part. Then a slow trudge to the shower to shake off the sleep.

Breakfast? Nah — I almost always trade it for a few extra minutes of rest.

Once “up and at ‘em”, there’s also the trip to the airport, the weather check, the preflight inspection, fueling, catering, baggage, paperwork, clearance, FMS programming, and a big bill to pay. We might even throw a few passengers in there for good measure.

But once that’s done? Then the real fun begins.

(Recommend watching this in full-screen, 720p or greater)

The Hello Kitty Jet

Even the flight attendants look the part.  All they're missing is the Hello Kitty backpack...

I’ve noticed that most people not directly involved with the aviation industry assume that anyone who is (or aspires to be) a professional aviator wants to fly for a major airline. Even military pilots are believed to desire an airline career.

The logic behind this assumption has always escaped me. There are certainly many pilots for whom an airline job is the proverbial brass ring, and I say more power to them. Someone has got to fly those things. If it’s what you love, do it. For me, however, when I consider the seniority system, financial instability, surly passengers, tough working conditions, low pay, terminal & gate congestion, unions, strikes, and poor management of most scheduled airlines, it doesn’t hold much appeal.

The Hello Kitty jet

Nevertheless, all of that pales in comparison to the ultimate reason to avoid Part 121: the Hello Kitty jet. In the words of Cosmo Kramer, it’s burning my rods and cones.

Unusual livery on an airliner is not new. From Sea World’s Shamu and Disney’s Tinkerbell to professional basketball, it’s been part of the airline scene for thirty years. Travel much and you’ll find Snoopy, salmon, Simpsons, safari, Starcraft, and sex as special livery themes on airliners. There’s even a fleet of Pokemon jets out there. But Hello Kitty really takes the cake when it comes to detail and cuteness.

At Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, they receive Hello Kitty boarding passes and baggage tags. A Hello Kitty song plays as passengers board the plane, which is plastered on the exterior with a Hello Kitty decal made by 3M. All-female cabin crew members swap their usual EVA Airways-issued green uniforms for pink aprons and scarves. All seats (252 to 309, depending on whether it’s an Airbus A330-200 or A330-300), are covered with Hello Kitty headrest covers. Even the meals, ice cream, snacks, cups, utensils, milk bottles, soap, hand lotion, and tissues are designed in the image of Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty-themed goose liver pâté.

I’m more than happy to carry my wife’s purse, buy her feminine products at the grocery store, and shop for clothes with her. But I draw the line at entering a Sanrio store, which are reminiscent of the sugary cereals of my youth that frequently made me ill. From a marketing standpoint, however, I have to admit the branding seems to be paying off.

The airway’s adorable marketing strategy has attracted some avid travelers from carriers that fly the same routes, says Nieh. The load factor on Hello Kitty flights averages 80 percent to 90 percent, about 5 percent to 10 percent higher than EVA’s average on those routes before the Hello Kitty jets were introduced. Duty-free, in-flight sales of 13 kinds of Hello Kitty products generate some revenue, too.

Even the flight attendants look the part. All they’re missing is the Hello Kitty backpack…

On a serious note, a 5-10% bump in revenue is huge for an airline flight. These companies operate with profit margins around 1%, so any measurable increase in passenger load is going to help the bottom line. One wonders how much Sanrio is making off this deal with EVA Air. In an era of slowing economic activity and brutal competition, I’d expect to see more marketing of this kind in the future.

Frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Ever larger airliners are essentially gigantic traveling billboards. Oh, there might be something to be said for preserving an airline’s dignity — can you imagine this sort of thing on a Pan Am jet during it’s heyday? The idea would have been rejected outright by Juan Trippe, I’m sure. Alas, mere survival is the order of the day for most airlines.

The technology necessary for this kind of branding has advanced significantly, too. It’s relatively quick and easy these days since actual paint isn’t even part of the equation. Modern adhesives are strong enough to withstand the 500+ mph air flow over the airframe, so the “repainting” only involves placing custom-made decals on an all-white aircraft. General aviation airplanes are using the same technique.

Hello Kitty salmon. I am quite confident even my cat wouldn’t touch it.

My favorite quote from the article: “Hello Kitty is not just for kids either, if lingerie and vibrators are any indication.”

But that’s not half as disturbing as the fact that they have five aircraft painted that way, and “believe there is a market for Hello Kitty jet service outside of Asia”. That’ll keep me looking over my shoulder for quite a while! It pains me to think I might have to set eyes on that thing in person.

I know it’s wrong to deface an aircraft, but I might have to buy some spray paint and keep it in my flight bag, just in case…

Limitations

I think Harry Callahan said it best: a man’s got to know his limitations. Loathe as we may be to admit it, we all have limitations. Our bodies can only go so long without food, water, and sleep. The mind can only process so quickly, the memory retain so much, the senses absorb so much input before they cease to function properly.

Likewise, the equipment we fly has limits, too. Airspeed, temperature, pressure, altitude, RPM, weight, center of gravity, and other limitations must be understood and respected if we want our aircraft to respond in a predictable manner. This is something every pilot learns from the very first day of training, and those limitations look him or her square in the face on every flight. From color coded markings on the gauges to those annoying placards liberally distributed throughout the cockpit, you don’t have to look far to find an advisory or warning in the aviation world.

But let’s be honest: some of these limitations might get exceeded on occasion without major catastrophe. Perhaps it’s a slight overspeed on a fixed pitch prop during aerobatics. Flying a bit over gross weight. Exceeding a duty day limit. Extending the flaps a few knots above Vfe. Flying under VFR when the visibility hasn’t quite reached the requisite level.

Normally, these minor variances don’t result in scratched paint. The problem is, once you’ve exceeded the limitations, you’re essentially a test pilot and the margin of safety built into the aircraft by the designer is now gone. How far can you push it before something bad happens? Nobody knows until it actually happens. I hope you’re as uncomfortable thinking about that as I am writing it.

Now if you actually are a test pilot — say, one flying an experimental aircraft during phase one — that’s one thing. You know what you’re getting into, and you have prepared for it with engineering data, specific training, contingency plans, and so on.

But if you’re flying a Hawker 800XP jet with six paying passengers on board, your whole raison d’etre is to ensure the airplane remains well within the documented limitations. And recently, those of us at SNA got a good look at what happens when you ignore them. I was in the lobby at Sunrise last week when I heard a loud “boom” eminate from the general direction of the runway and soon saw thick black smoke wafting up into the air. Once the smoke had cleared, I got a look at what happens when a jet’s brake system limitations are exceeded:

 

From the NTSB preliminary report:

On October 29, 2007, about 1400 Pacific daylight time, a Raytheon Corporate Jets Hawker 800XP, N800CC, was substantially damaged by a fire originating from the left main landing gear after the takeoff was aborted at the John Wayne-Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, California. The aircraft is owned and operated by CIT Leasing Corp. and was originating at the time for the 14 CFR Part 91 business flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed. The two airline transport pilots and six passengers were not injured. The flight was destined for Denver, Colorado.

The pilot reported to the responding Federal Aviation Administration Inspector from the Long Beach, California, Flight Standards District Office that the takeoff was aborted twice before the third attempt due to an engine warning light. All three takeoff attempts were made within about a 20 minute period.

Inspection of the landing gear found that the left main landing gear tires overheated and blew during the third takeoff attempt. The hydraulic line on the left main landing gear was severed and hydraulic fluid leaked out onto the hot surface and ignited.

Jet aircraft, with their 200+ mph takeoff speeds and higher weights, can place tremendous strain on the brakes in the event of an aborted takeoff. That’s why most aircraft in that class have a time limitation after an abort. The brakes must be allowed to cool for a specified period (or, if the aircraft has brake temperature sensors, until a specific temperature is reached) so that if the second takeoff attempt also ends with an abort, the brakes don’t overheat and fail.

I don’t know what the limitation is for the Hawker, but I would be surprised if three attempts were allowed within 20 minutes. The scary part is that the Hawker has a fuselage fuel tank aft of the trailing edge of the wing, right where the skin has been burned through.

I feel for the flight crew. If brake limitations exists and the flight crew intentionally exceeded them, FAA sanctions will be difficult if not impossible to avoid. Aviation is like that. You can fly safely for 20 years and with one moment of carelessness ruin a whole career. Tough business, eh?

On the other hand, limitations don’t necessarily mean an aircraft can’t take a tremendous amount of abuse! To wit, you might be interested in this video of a brake certification test on the Boeing 777. Known as a “maximum rejected takeoff” test, the purpose is to ensure the aircraft can be stopped if a takeoff must be aborted at the worst possible moment under the worse possible conditions.

To simulate that situation, regulations state that the aircraft must, at max gross weight (660,000 lbs!), be able to accelerate to decision speed (around 210 mph) and then stop using nothing but extremely hard braking. No flaps, no spoilers, no thrust reversers.

Oh, did I mention that the brake pads must be worn down to minimum before the test starts? They must then absorb nearly ten million foot-pounds of energy in about 20 seconds without catching fire.

I’ve seen this video clip a hundred times, but it still amazes me every time I watch it. Enjoy.