Saturday, May 15, 2010

Falcons

The Falcon jets from Dassault are beautiful airplanes, as I've mentioned before. Alas, I have yet to fly one.

People have mixed reactions, to them, though. The April issue of Professional Pilot, for example, poked some fun at them last month in their "Sid and Star" cartoon. Pro Pilot is a narrowly-aimed magazine with a focus on business aviation; it's free, but if you don't already get it you probably wouldn't enjoy it, because they send it to just about everyone who would. Sid and Star are a pair of hard-working pilots who fly a "Howler" for Lugnut Industries. Pro Pilot naturally has the point of view that business airplanes are far from luxuries, and while I generally agree with them, I have seen some abuses. In this case, a sales rep from "Dijon Aero" has come by to demonstrate the "Cameo 3X" and its luxurious appointments. In gratitude Lugnut takes the sales rep to his favorite local dive for a meatball sandwich. Aghast, the Dijon sales rep recommends against selling a Cameo to Lugnut. The strip is a nice concise argument against the idea that business jets are a luxury, at the expense of the French (it's easy to mock the French; just ask Disney).

Despite this, Dassault still has an ad for the Falcon 2000LX on the back cover.

By contrast, May's Business and Commercial Aviation's 20/Twenty column features the Falcon 900, praising its fuel efficiency and handling, and noting the continuous improvements over the aircraft's 24 year production run. They call the airplane a "well-defined work-a-day example of transport art and technology."

But whether the airplane is luxurious or work-a-day is an issue with the back of the airplane, and I'm more interested in the front. So let's turn to the May 3, 2010 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology. The cover is a beautiful photograph of the 7X, with the familiar three engine configuration of the Falcon 900, flying away from the setting sun over the ocean. The airplane's elegant shape and smooth construction are highlighted by the swell in the ocean below.

AW&ST generally takes a neutral view, so their pilot report on the 7X is neutral in tone. The 7X's big innovation is its fly-by-wire control system, based on Dassault's success with the Rafale fighter.

The mathematician in me marvels at the progress that these systems have made, and while a little part of me whines about the need for perfect redundancy, Dassault is claiming 10^(-10) (yes, that's 9 zeroes between the decimal point and the one) reliability, so maybe I am beginning to soften a little. That's probably better than an Archer, and definitely better than a Seneca (Senecas came out of the sky in little pieces for a while due to an anomaly in the rudder trim system).

The glider pilot (yes, the glider pilot) in me admires how the sophisticated stability augmentation from the control system enabled Dassault to reduce the size of the empennage by 20%, cutting a ton of drag (approximately). I've flown draggy airplanes like King Airs and 182s, and sleek airplanes like Mooneys and gliders. The sleek ones are more fun!

The working pilot in me admires all of the labor-saving that fly-by-wire provides. Even more primitive flight control systems are a big help in this regard. I remember a busy early-morning arrival in Santa Monica in an EFIS King Air. Early morning arrivals in Santa Monica mean oh-dark-thirty departures from Idaho, and I was zonked and busy. Something distracted me and I was head-down for a little longer than I care to admit, and when I looked up, the airplane was turning final all by itself. I might get behind, but the Flight Management System stayed ahead.


The Falcon 7X's EFIS displays feature a Flight Path Symbol (FPS); we used to call it the velocity vector. These have been around in Heads Up Displays (HUDs) for a long time. I've never flown with one outside of simulations, but they make flying incredibly easy. You put the velocity vector (the circle with the little gull wings below) on the horizon and, by golly, you fly level. (The picture at the right is from the fabulous X-Plane App for the iPhone, which is well worth the $10 they charge.)

But the stick-and-rudder pilot in me is infuriated. Or worse! You never actually fly this airplane! Instead, the flight control system interprets sidestick inputs as requests to manipulate the flight path vector. Then the stability system takes over and keeps the FPS (and, with it, the flight path) where you put it. You never have to engage the autopilot, because in effect the autopilot is effectively ON as soon as the Built-In Tests are complete.

The sidestick is nothing more than an ergonomic and intuitive autopilot head. Sacré Bleu! I believe in autopilots but this has gone too far.

So I approach the airplane with mixed feelings. It's fast, it's efficient, it's beautiful, it's useful, and apparently its controls feel great. But if I ever win the lottery I think I'll opt for a nice 900 and a congenial copilot with good hands.

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2 Comments:

At May 15, 2010 at 11:26 PM , Blogger Dave Boyd said...

Jim, this is David Boyd. I don't know if you remember me or not, I used to be a lowly lineman there at the Avcenter. I'm now flying out of Bozeman MT, as fate would have it, as a captain on a 7X. I thought I would make a few comments as someone who has flown the airplane. What I can tell you is that flying this airplane requires a suspension of many things that are considered fundamentals in more conventionally controlled aircraft. For instance: A given pitch/power setting will generally give a given airspeed/rate of climb/descent, etc. Not with the 7x. If you're pointed downhill (or uphill) in a 3 degree descent (or climb), and add power...you go down(or up) at 3 degrees even faster. Flying "path" has definitely been an adjustment. Heck, learning this whole airplane has been an adjustment. The schooling on this bird is a skosh under 2 months long, primarily because of the difficulty in "unlearning" habits that, while second nature in other aircraft, will cause problems in this one. There is one, and ONLY one way to fly the 7X...the Dassault way. This airplane has very little to no tolerance for variation in procedure, and is quick to let you know when that has occured. Also, since there are over 200 computers on board this aircraft, it has to be treated more as a "network" than a "compilation of systems". Systems interact in heretofore unconventional ways. For instance, the loss of a MAU (Modular Avionics Unit-think ADC+symbol generator)causes a degradation in the braking performance. "What?!?" says you? "It's true!" says I. The MAU's send data to the BCU's (Brake Control Units), and the loss of said data causes the brakes to lose effectiveness. Gotta love the French...
That being said, it does do other things very, very well. It will make its performance/endurance/range numbers quite well, even with someone other than a Dassault test pilot flying the aircraft. It climbs like a banshee. I've climbed from sea level to FL450 in 15 minutes. My initial rate of climb was 8000 fpm @ 250 kias!!
Is this an airplane I'm in love with?? No...not yet. But it's growing on me. Like a fungus.

 
At May 16, 2010 at 9:02 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...

Wow, great to hear from you, and thanks for the insights! The book performance numbers on the airplane are almost too good to be true; I didn't have room to mention them, though.

It goes without saying that I would love to fly one.

 

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