Aerospace & Defense

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To Cut Emissions, Airbus to Test Formation Flying on Transatlantic Routes

13 Jan, 2020


Airbus is expected to test a "formation flying" project on transatlantic routes this year, with the goal to help airlines reduce emissions.  If successful, the project, called Fello'fly, could be introduced on transatlantic routes in 2025.
 
In the formation, the trailing aircraft takes advantage of the wake updraft created by the leading plane, much as geese do when they fly in their familiar triangle formation. Earlier testing has led Airbus to believe that trailing aircraft could produce 5% to 10% fewer emissions by flying in a leading plane's wake.
 
This year, Airbus will conduct a series of test flights in which two aircraft are separated by just 3 kilometers, with the trailing aircraft lined up to "ride" the upwash created by the leading aircraft. By the end of the year, says Daniel Percy, director of Fello'fly, Airbus wants to conduct a test in which the two aircraft travel in that fashion from Western Europe to the U.S. West Coast.
 
The goal of the first year of testing is to prove that such flying is safe. Currently, aircraft flying over the U.S. are required to maintain a separation of at least 3 nautical miles (approximately 5.5 kilometers). Aircraft over the North Atlantic have traditionally been spaced 40 nautical miles apart or farther. Also during next year's testing, Airbus plans to design pilot systems to facilitate formation flying. Without them, pilots can't see the updraft of a leading aircraft, Percy said. 
 
If all goes well, in 2021 Airbus will enlist airline and air traffic control (ATC) partners for broader testing. A key goal over that year would be to establish the viability of two aircraft rendezvousing in flight. As Airbus envisions it, planes that fly as partners wouldn't have to depart from the same airport; they could also meet up en route. Percy said that air traffic controllers don't expect facilitating rendezvous to be an especially complicated task, since they have long done that with military aircraft.
 
Airbus' formal launch of Fello'fly will take place as the commercial airline industry is facing more pressure than ever to reduce emissions, reports Travel Weekly. The flight-shaming movement led by teen Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has already led to a decline in flying in her native country. Meanwhile, Germany and France have laid out plans for new and increased ecotaxes on airlines. 
 
For Airbus, the idea of exploring the emissions benefits of formation flying isn't newly germinated. In 2016, the aircraft manufacturer conducted a series of tests to examine initial questions of how much fuel such flying could save and if it could be done comfortably for passengers. That's how the company developed the estimate that formation flying would reduce emissions by 5% to 10%.
 
It was also during those early tests that Airbus determined the separation target of 3 kilometers. That distance, Percy said, is a sweet spot balancing the need for safety with the back aircraft trailing the front one closely enough to realize strong benefits. It’s also a distance at which passengers won't experience wake turbulence.
 
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