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Conflicted Feelings at Farnborough

On the day of my trip to this year’s Farnborough Airshow, BBC Radio 4 reported on the Myanmar Military’s continuing genocide on Rohingya villagers. The programme questioned the morality of sending arms to states who use materiel for the suppression of their citizens.

Britain is rather good at hosting air shows but the distinction between arms and civil product can become blurred. Although the UK Government does not fully define everything that constitutes actual arms, it is an accepted fact that the UK at about £10 bln per year is around the third largest arms exporter in the world (after USA & Russia). In 2018 it was £14 bln. While most of it goes to Saudi Arabia, it leaves plenty for less pecunious states. Between 2011-2020 Saudi was the largest importer of arms in the world at £120 bln. Of UKs £10 bln arms sales, aerospace represents about 75% – most of it in the form of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

How many weapons this leaves for Myanmar? I am not sure.

In the afternoon, I watch as the F-35 Lightning II screams to within a couple of hundred metres of our position by the runway, and hovers, showing off how the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem is able to generate 20,000 lbs of down draft to execute vertical take-offs and landings. This is a technology evolved from the popular Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jets which were junked in 1997, after giving much pleasure to generations of young boys making Airfix kits.

Photograph by Anthony Lipmann

My colleague who joined me for the Wednesday show is a refugee from Ukraine who came to Britain in April. You could say that taking her to Farnborough was insensitive – but she is to join our metal trading company and it is better she sees the uses of metallurgy and engineering on display. Indeed, if you ignore the purpose to which many of these devices will be put, you could be awe inspired.

Absent from the first show for four years, is the Russian Sukhoi fighter-jet whose presence used to be popular with audiences. Last time it only had enough fuel to reach Farnborough but not quite enough to get back; so the organizers had a whip round. It is the type of humiliation Mr Putin is now making up for.

But my Ukrainian does not appear particularly exercised. In her youth she spent five years at an Aviation University adjacent to the Antonov factory working on systems measurements for weather, wind-speed, fuel etc. Mention of her Antonov experience makes us quite welcome on the stands. Many of them mention the demise of the AN-225, Mriya [Dream] - the largest and heaviest plane ever made - six turbofan engines and 32 wheels - able to carry 250 mt of cargo. An early Russian target in the present war, it was destroyed on Feb 27th parked in a hangar at Hostemel airport near Kyiv. I asked the Boeing representative why they never produced a machine of this size, and they said it was just not commercial. Originally made to transport the Buran Russian space shuttle, more recently it was used for moving large wind turbine blades, trains, fifty cars at a time, power transformers, and helicopters. To my mind, it became very commercial in a non-military way. In its last months it carried COVID-19 vaccines and other humanitarian aid, and was booked up far ahead. With Ukraine once able to build a machine of this order, my Ukrainian colleague did not have to be over-impressed by Farnborough.

In fact, though, she was - and not just by the hot-dogs and Pimms on the grassy knoll next to the runway, which feels more like an Agricultural show rather than an arms-fest. A metal merchant would have to travel far and wide to see anywhere else such a variety of applications on display on a single Farnborough morning. Hot on every stand in one way or another, are efforts to demonstrate carbon-reducing applications. The Rolls-Royce Plc stand has a model of a Small Modular Reactor (SMR), an example of Li-Ion battery tech for light aircraft, micro SMRs for micro-grids. Another entity called Vertical Aerospace Ltd has a life-size e-aircraft in slinky black livery, to be powered by RR electric engine technology. It uses helicopter rotor blades for uplift that, once airborne, tip horizontally. ‘What market is this aimed at?’, I ask the representative on the stand, and ‘Do you have any orders?’ The answer is – ‘Yes’. ‘It’s an airborne Taxi and we have 1400 orders!’ Perhaps a taxi for a billionaire plus wife and children? The ability to land and take-off like a helicopter combined with the speed and lower fuel consumption of a plane appears to be its schtick. I seem to remember similar prototypes about 55 years ago when I was making my own Airfix models. But perhaps its’ time has now come, and one will be landing on a grassy patch near you soon?

A further area of hall is dedicated to space where a UK breakaway company formed in the late 1980s by ex-Rolls-Royce engineers called Reaction Engines is positioning itself for ‘The New Space Economy’ – another ruse, you might think, to get a billionaire into the upper atmosphere. And yet the Musk financed Cargo Space X Falcon 9 Rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on July 14th with nothing more on board than a science payload. One of the experiments involves measuring the mineral composition of dusts gathered from the most arid places on earth to be spectrographically examined in space with the object of determining how the movement of dusts on earth can affect climate, weather and vegetation.

Meanwhile, in other news, the RAF is reported to be testing ‘drone swarms’, designed to ’confuse and overwhelm the adversary. In the small print of the Aerospace Daily & Defense Report published by Aviation Week, details of military planes being sent to Eastern Congo between 2022-2032 are listed. This is the border between Congo and Rwanda. In a note to the figures, it states this is an area in which DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting the M23 insurgency. It is not a well-publicized fact in the Home Office’s statements about the attractions of Rwanda to UK asylum seekers.

Most important to a metal merchant is just the metal – the extraordinary elements that are harnessed by materials scientists, the techniques by which they are exploited, the objects they make. In our case we see ‘precision casters’ as a cornucopia of elemental application. In a directionally solidified alloy (DS) like MAR- M 247, amongst others there is 1.5% of hafnium, approx 8% of chrome, 10% of tungsten, 3% of tantalum – and then the nickel base. An element such as hafnium - today at $1600 per kg – therefore comprises close to 40% of the metal input value of all the rest. It is for this reason entities like us buy casting scrap, clean it up, and then - if we do a good enough job - sell it back to a caster ready to be re-melted. In this way the cost of new alloy is mitigated and a company like ours has a role in life.

At other stands we come face to face with engines that are powering the civil aero-engines of today and wonder if the super alloy grade rhenium we source, stock, and convert into super alloy grade rhenium pellets might be making up 3% or 6% in the core single crystal turbine blades; or we look at some of the amazing new developments in additive manufacturing that will reduce waste metal and forging times.

If it wasn’t for the fact that some of these items will be used in war, the whole experience might be uplifting. Instead, we’ll leave the uplift to the engines and the scrap world for us.

By Anthony Lipmann



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