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Blue Origin's rocket on the landing pad

Blue Origin, the space company headed by Jeff Bezos, has succeeded where every other effort has failed — on Monday, the company launched its unmanned New Shepard suborbital space vehicle from Texas to 329,839 feet, then the crew capsule separated and landed under a parachute, and the rocket module also made a safe, powered, vertical landing. It’s the first time a rocket has been recovered intact and reusable after a space vehicle launch. “As far as we can tell from our quick-look inspections and a quick look at the data, this mission was completely nominal, and this vehicle is ready to fly again,” Bezos told reporters today.

“This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design,” the company said in a news release. “Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.” Elon Musk’s SpaceX company also has been working to develop reusable rockets, so far without success, but the SpaceX tests have involved rockets that were going much higher and faster.

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Ascension Air, which operates a fleet of Cirrus SR22 aircraft from its bases in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, now is offering jet cards and time shares for the Eclipse 550 jet. “Our new Eclipse 550 Contrails program will bring personal jet transportation to a growing segment of aviators who want the flexibility and benefits of flying their own jet, without the worries of full jet ownership," said Ascension Air CEO Jamail Larkins. "Our professional owner-services team offers easy fleet access, on-site concierge services, professional aircraft management, a safety pilot, and streamlined scheduling." 

Pilots who want to buy in to the program can train for the Eclipse jet type rating in the airplane or in a flight simulator at Simcom in Orlando, Florida. A one-sixth timeshare costs $525,467 plus a monthly management fee of $2,995 and direct operating costs of $620 per hour for 50 days per year. A 50-day-per-year lease costs $7,745 per month with $104,000 down, plus $620 per hour. The Contrails JetCard costs $40,000 for 25 hours.

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A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was shot down Tuesday near the Syrian-Turkish border by air-to-air missiles fired by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, officials said. Various accounts have disputed whether the aircraft was above Syrian or Turkish territory at the time, and a U.S. official, speaking off the record to the Los Angeles Times, said if the jet did cross into Turkish airspace, it was only for a few seconds. The crew reportedly ejected before the crash, but Russian military officials said at least one of the pilots was killed.

images: BBC

Turkish officials said the Russian crew ignored warnings to leave the airspace, but Russian President Vladimir Putin said the attack was a “stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists.” Putin said the Russian crew was carrying out an operation against Islamic State militants and they were not a threat to Turkey. Another Russian airman also was killed by ground fire, while he was flying in an MI-8 helicopter that was searching for the Su-24 pilots. The helicopter was able to land safely and the rest of the crew was evacuated, according to Russian officials.

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All drones weighing more than 250 grams — about a half pound — should be registered, according to the recommendations from an FAA task force, released today (PDF). The task force, comprising 25 industry representatives from ALPA and AOPA to Google and Wal-Mart, reached “unanimous consensus,” said Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s UAS integration office, in a conference call with reporters. “There were no dissenting opinions” filed to the final recommendations, he said. The group recommends that shoppers who buy a drone should fill out an electronic registration form, via the web or an app, providing only a name and address, and they will immediately be assigned a personal registration number for use on all of their drones. The owner then is required to mark that number on all applicable drones before flying them in the National Airspace System. The group recommends that there should be no fees for registration. The recommendations apply only to drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

NBAA, whose senior manager for security, Sarah Wolf, held a seat on the task force, said in a news release on Monday that the registration process should require more information from drone owners. “Registration is an important foundation for safe UAS operations in the NAS, and defining registration requirements is an important first step toward that goal,” she said. “While NBAA concurs with most of the task force’s recommendations, the association would like to see the registration process require that UAS owners provide their email address. Having email addresses for operators could facilitate the distribution of vital educational information about how to operate UAS safely in the NAS.” Lawrence said the task force recommended that owners provide a “physical address,” as opposed to a P.O. box or email address. However, owners can voluntarily provide an email address if they want to.

The database of UAS owners will be maintained by the FAA. “The objective here is very safety and education focused,” said Lawrence. The registration process will make it possible for the FAA to provide owners with educational safety information, he said. The task force asked the FAA to establish a “reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule” for violations. The task force report has been submitted to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “They will add [the report] to the 4,500 public comments, and group all of these recommendations together, and draft a proposed rule,” Lawrence said. Huerta has said he wants the rule to be finalized before the holiday season, when up to 700,000 new drones are expected to be sold in the U.S.

Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who also was a member of the task force, issued a statement on Monday criticizing the recommendations. “Unfortunately, as written, these recommendations would make the registration process an unnecessary and unjustified burden to our 185,000 members ... We believe weight should be only one of several factors considered when determining where the threshold should be for UAS registration,” Matheson said. “For this reason, AMA wanted to include dissenting comments in the final task force report, but was prevented from doing so.” He added that the “the task force recommendations may ultimately prove untenable by requiring the registration of smaller devices that are essentially toys and do not represent safety concerns.” 

Meanwhile, technology may be helping to make the registration system less critical for aviation safety. DJI, a California-based drone manufacturer, says all of its drones now will include geofencing software. “The drone will by default not fly into or take off in, locations that raise safety or security concerns,” the company says, including space around airports, as well as ephemeral events such as stadium events, fires and TFRs. “Some areas will be designated as Warning locations to make operators aware of potential concerns that are not primarily safety-related (for example, a protected wildlife area),” the company says. “Other areas, such as those surrounding airports, will be Authorization zones, where the drone can’t be flown without taking additional steps to ‘unlock’ the zone using a verified account. The remaining category will be Restricted zones where the drone will not operate and no unlocking is possible for security reasons, such as Washington, D.C.”

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The well-known French avionics and aerospace giant Thales showed off a headset-mounted HUD display at the NBAA show in Las Vegas last week.  AVweb's Paul Bertorelli demoed it and prepared this video.

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Francis Gary Powers.

I suspect that name lives astride a generational divide. If you were born much after the mid-1950s, it may not resonate at all. If you’re older, it likely has a more visceral connotation and for me, that’s an unhappy stew of cold war terror, shame and embarrassment. That this should be so is ridiculous, but a 10-year-old mind is a pliable thing.

Powers’ name comes back into the consciousness as a result of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies. The core of the story concerns the trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 1957. Powers, a U-2 pilot, was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and two years later, he was exchanged for Abel in a rare moment of Cold War cooperation. Spielberg does an admirable job of conveying the raw fear that gripped the country between the mid-1950s and late 1960s through vignettes depicting the silly nuclear war preps we all seemed to take so seriously. If the phrase “duck and cover” doesn’t elicit both a laugh and wistfulness for a simpler time, you can’t really gain a sense of how scary and real nuclear fears were in those days.

I was getting interested in airplanes about the time of Powers’ shoot-down and recall reading the two-line banner headlines describing the event and his subsequent trial. I remember grainy black and whites of Powers standing in the docket, with the hammer and sickle as a backdrop. I can’t remember much about the prisoner exchange, but I do remember that Powers wasn’t favorably viewed after his return, yet another example of how people in high places blame those in low places when something goes awry.  When Powers wrote his own book in 1970, Operation Overflight, to set the record straight, I remember reading it, but I don’t recall shaking the idea that he somehow screwed up.

The film mildly conveys this and in its sole action sequence, it re-creates the shoot-down. My memory suggested that Powers, cruising at 70,000 feet, suffered a flameout and had to descend to get a relight. And that’s what allowed a Soviet SAM to knock him down. But the film doesn’t play it this way and the film is right. According to Powers’ own detailed debrief, he was at his planned altitude when he saw and felt an explosion, followed by a loss of pitch control. He mentioned neither a flameout nor descending. To climb as high as it did, the U-2 was of feather-light construction and couldn’t be aggressively maneuvered nor could it tolerate much G-loading. The uncommanded pitch basically broke it; Powers believed both wings departed as the result of a SAM.

For drama, the film depicts Powers—played by Austin Stowell—being flung from the aircraft attached only by his oxygen umbilical. He struggles to get back inside the cockpit to activate the U-2’s destruct mechanism. He fails. This isn’t much of an exaggeration either, according to Powers’ debrief. The airplane was probably in a high-G flat spin, which Powers said pushed him so far forward that he feared losing his legs if he ejected. Instead, he jettisoned the canopy and the slipstream drew him into a standing position half in and half out of the airplane, tethered by the oxygen hose and struggling to reach the destruct switches. Eventually, the hose parted and Powers’ parachute opened automatically.

The film used an interesting device to show one reason Powers was reviled after being repatriated. It gave the impression that in the event of trouble, pilots were expected to blow themselves up with the destruct mechanism. Failing that, they were provided with a silver dollar hiding a small poison-tipped needle that they were expected to use in the event of imminent capture, so sensitive was the program and their knowledge of the airplane. That Powers failed to do this was viewed as cowardice. Except that wasn’t the expectation at all, according to Powers’ debrief. The needle and a pill were considered optional and pilots weren’t expected or required to carry either.

Too bad the film had to go in that direction, but it was probably unavoidable. His image actually began to recover as soon as 1965 and thanks to efforts by his children, Powers was eventually awarded the Silver Star and CIA Director’s Medal, among other awards. The CIA determined that despite harsh interrogation, Powers never divulged any classified information.

In retrospect, just considering the airplane and the flights themselves shows how desperate the CIA and military were for intelligence on the Soviet Union. Between 1956 and Powers’ last flight in 1960, 24 overflights were made. They were extremely provocative and thanks to the lack of intel, the actual risk of losing an airplane to ground fire was probably undersold. After all, by 1960, the Soviet Union was three years into the space program that launched the first satellite and was about to launch the first human into space. It may have been whistling past the graveyard to imagine they couldn’t shoot down a U-2 flying at 70,000 feet.

Whether you know the history or not, the film is worth seeing, just to learn about James Donovan’s work in Abel’s defense and in negotiating a trade to bring Powers home.

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Picture of the Week

Michael Iocca of Modesto, CA kicks off our latest batch of reader-submitted aviation photos. Click through for more incredible shots.

What Everybody Ought to Know About the CGR-30P from Electronics International