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Farnborough – a place where aviation’s past is alloyed to its future

The most memorable stand at Farnborough this year consisted of a map on the back panel of an exhibition stand and a young man dressed as a 1919 aviator. He was there to recreate the memory of the £10,000 prize offered for the first successful flight from London to Darwin in less than 30 days. The map showed the 23 stops the aviators took in an open-cockpit Vickers Vimy aircraft. Next year, the centenary of that first flight, an Australian aviator has put up $1million for prizes to recreate the journey as a Great Air Race for competing classes of eco-friendly aircraft, some with electric powered engines.

The second most memorable stand was the booth to advertise publication of The RAF Centenary Anthology to mark the foundation of the RAF on April 1st 1918. For £975 it is possible to purchase this item with facsimiles of originals documents dating from those first days when aviators were recruited as volunteers from the army. The limited editions at £1995 were signed by the last three remaining Spitfire pilots from the Battle of Britain, one of whom, Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, died this Wednesday 18th July. He joined up in 1939 because he objected to the Germans interrupting the cricket.

Our company has a bit of thing for Farnborough. It just seems to makes economic sense to visit the largest display of airborne metallurgy for the entry price of £50 + VAT and a return ticket on South Western Railways. But it would still make sense if it was in Timbuktu. Each of us visits on a separate day. This year mine was the Thursday, so I missed the fly-past by an in-service Typhoon Eurofighter alongside an F35 destined for our first Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. But as much as I can gawp in wonder at the engineering of a Eurofighter, I find it hard to square with where the overseas sales are destined. Saudi Arabia has 72 and ordered another 48 at the show. One of their enemies in the region, Qatar, ordered 24. Naturally, the UK, neutral where trade and money is concerned, appears to have little conscience about supplying both sides despite the suffering of civilians caused by Saudi bombing of the Yemen. It is quite possible that elements, such as the rhenium which our small company supplies for super alloys, are present in the engines. So, it’s not a bullet we can dodge.

I have been going to Farnborough regularly since 2000; the year in which Air France Concorde Flight 4590 crashed in Paris a few days before the show. Thanks to a friend at Goldman Sachs, I was looking forward to a scheduled meeting there with John Rose, the then CEO of Rolls-Royce, to pass the message that they needed to worry about rhenium. I tried as best I could to give a potted history in a few minutes about the world’s 77th most abundant element and why, at an output of only 45mt per year at the time, RR might be exposed. [It was, and still is, un-substitutable in its engines]. Rose listened politely, but his mind was on Concorde’s tragedy and its RR Olympus engines. By 2008, rhenium had reached $12,500 per kg and RR had to ration the metal.

18 years later and supersonic flight is back on the agenda as advertised by ‘Boom’ a Denver based start-up that reckons there is a market for a 55-seat jet with flight time of 5.5 hours between San Francisco and Tokyo. Virgin and Japan Airlines who are backing it, appear to agree. Living in Walton-on-Thames under Concorde’s flight path during its heyday, I was used to the unmistakable deep-throated sound and boom that rattled our tiles and woke the children, denoting either Concorde’s take-off or its glorious slow descent into Heathrow. My children in the 1980’s and 1990s learnt the word ‘Concorde’ around the time they learnt to say mummy. Nevertheless, despite its then unquestioned beauty, I can’t help feeling that the rediscovery of supersonic for civil use today is a retrograde step designed merely to appeal to the same clientele who might drive a McLaren Sports Coupé. An exclusive convenience for the few.

2000 was also the year that Airbus announced they would build a big bird to rival the Jumbo – its working name was to be the AXXX. With back-of-a-fag-packet speed, Boeing responded before the show closed that they would create the world’s most ecologically efficient passenger aircraft – and it would be called ‘the Dreamliner’. At the time I was not a believer, but 18 years on there is no doubt who won that battle. This mid-size plane, seating in various configurations 242-335, that can fly hub to hub in comfort on two engines (Trent 1000s), with better views from bigger windows, and improved air circulation, has been the outright winner. Perhaps we should not compare one with the other – but while the Airbus vision was to move ever larger quantities of people around from capital to capital with feeder planes doing the spade work, Boeing’s cleverer option was to increase fuel efficiency so smaller planes would be able to cover the distance and take you to your door, without a hair out of place.

Today, the Airbus A380, with 223 planes in service from a total order book of 331, is in decline while the Dreamliner 787 has built 708 out of 1377 orders. However, all is not lost for Airbus, and the best newcomer to capture the qualities of both is the humungous A350-1000 on show this week at Farnborough. So quiet are the giant RR Trent XWB 90-100,000 lbs thrust engines on take-off and landing that it is doubtful, had they been in service in the 1980s, whether my children would have woken up at all. The science that has gone into maximising core temperatures, by-pass ratios, size of the front fan, acoustics and noise reduction is astonishing and makes the general point that aerospace is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, business. In almost every advance in the field, better materials, cleverer engineering solutions, balancing energy output with capture, have taken us, in 18 years, to a place that was almost inconceivable at the turn of the century.

In our field of minor metals, we see change around the corner wherever we care to look – an apparently small tweak of adding a mere 1% scandium to aluminium is on the brink of reducing air frame weights by another 10-15%. The simple addition of this element to aluminium, patented as Scalmalloy™ by Airbus, refines the grain structure, promotes the ability to weld fuselage sheet instead of using fasteners and, in so doing, give the civil aero industry another leap forward. Of course, total world production of scandium is only about 15mt – so that’s the fun bit for a metal merchant like us. But, led by this application, supply is sure to follow, the mines will start to separate it, the shortage of process will be overcome, and this new metal application will be born.

The nitty gritty of steps forward and back in engineering are all on display. This year there was much spin relating to air taxis as exemplified by the Aston Martin stand which owed more to the drawing board than the lathe. On the RR stand, details of hybrid engines already in action were on display in which an electric engine section using permanent magnets as per a wind turbine sits super cooled within the gas turbine to maximise efficiency. Will it be the future? Or another idea that goes back into the drawer? Perhaps in a few years, at another show, we shall find the answer.

But, for the moment, here are some Farnborough statistics worth chewing over. According to the organizers – $192 bln of announced deals (up $67 bln from 2016), 100 countries represented, 80,000 trade visitors, attendance of 2000 at Farnborough presentations.

Not bad for a relatively small provincial town in Hampshire, I say.

Published July 25th 2018 on www.lord-copper.com