NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Friday #41: Fast-change Planes

In our society it seems that we want everything so fast. Well, it turns out that some of the things work better if we find a way to do them fast.

Fast: Car Batteries

Sure, I love the idea of an electric car...right up until I go on a 300-mile or more road trip. We live in New England on the North Shore of Massachusetts. We've had lovely drives up into the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont during the fall colors seasons. No need to stay in hotel rooms jacked up to $250 a night for the peak season, we just plan a long, lazy, all-day drive. Hit the Vermont Country Store, visit a few favorite parks where we can walk out to the waterfalls, maybe go up Mount Washington if the early snow hasn't already closed the top, and come home.

But that covers more than the typical reach of an electric car, and we aren't city or even town folks. We're following the back country scenic roads, so we're certainly not charging up as we go.

The solution? Fast-charge batteries are still half an hour or more to get to 80%. You wonder why electric long-haul trucks are remaining out of reach? Because any day they cover less than 600 miles is crap. And if they have two drivers and a long-haul cab with a bunk, they can cover 1,000 miles or more per day. To sit at a charging station for lengthy periods of time is anathema to breaking even, never mind actually making a living.

So, at the current state of battery technology, what do you do? The present thinking is that you change out the battery pack. Yep, yank out the drained batteries and plug in a fully charged pack. Then on you go. All the while making it fast, cheap, and located in convenient places (which still don't include the Kancamagus Highway—one of the prettiest roads I've ever driven, right up there with the western most 400 miles of Canada Route 1 in BC). 

Tesla planned to set up quick-change battery stations all over the country. For now, this effort has completely failed. Another company has entered the market with a product that doesn't require digging a pit under the station, is fully automated, and should be compatible with almost all car models. So far? They have one station.

Yep, problem still not solved. They're working on it, but it will take time, or a major breakthrough in battery tech. For now? I personally think hybrid is the way to go until they solve this.

Fast: Fighter Jets

So, fighter jets the problem isn't fuel. Well, it isn't only fuel. Cracking the speed of sound, maneuvering like mad, while carrying several tons of weapons and several tons more of airplane takes fuel—lots and lots of fuel.  An F-35A carries about 18,500 pounds of fuel, about 2,700 gallons. With this it can go some 1,300 miles. Not too bad, right?

Unless you have to go really FAST. The moment you do, your fuel consumption doubles—at a minimum. There's one more gotcha, the more fuel they carry, the less weapons they can carry.

Take your pick: be dangerous, or go far. Doing both requires mid-air refueling. Groups of fighter jets will often have one poor sucker up there with no guns or weapons at all. He's all fuel and can refuel his fellow fliers in mid-air by draining his own tanks—but needs to be gone fast if there's a fight.

The Slower Kind of Fast: Fighter Jets

There's a different speed issue for modern fighter jets, one that (like car batteries) is a technology issue.

I don't have the exact numbers for a lot of reasons (like a lot of the answers are classified), but a modern F-35 Lightning II fighter jet (probably the most advanced jet in the world at the moment, certainly the most advanced in major production) has a lot of speed issues. It goes something like this:

  • There are eight largely incompatible software systems. So, additional electronics is required to allow these to interact.
  • These eight systems are running some thirty-odd different applications. Those applications include things like: navigation, flight control, satellite communications, ground communications, air-to-ship communications, weapons targeting, weapons firing... You get the idea.
  • Every time an update is issued for any one of these (how often does your home computer need updates?), there's a good chance that it will be incompatible with (or merely cause downstream problems in) other systems.
  • It gets even better. Many of these systems are built by different companies: Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Honeywell, Raytheon, Pratt & Whitney... Each one of these manufacturers declares that all of their systems are proprietary. In other words, if you want your infrared imager repaired after someone shoots it, you have to send it back to the correct manufacturer. If someone upgrades the security of the satellite radio encryption, does it also block a backup GPS navigation that someone else provided? All proprietary, all isolated by multiple manufacturers.

The bottom line? These very fast jets suddenly become very, very slow jets (as in parked in a hangar) if there's a problem. This means that upgrades happen very slowly and carefully, only after lots and lots of testing often taking years. As all this software technology is what keeps a jet out on the leading edge, this is a huge handicap and a vast source of delays.

Accelerating Jet Technology

Then along came the Swedes.

They have a very specific problem, the same one they've had throughout much of their history: the Russians. So, they set out to build a jet fighter to meet that specific challenge. In the process, they did a lot of things smart, so smart that it is often considered to be a whole new generation of jet technology. It's called the Saab Gripen JAS 39E. Gripen means Gryphon (or Griffin) in terms of mythology: a beast with the head and fore-talons of an eagle, and the body and hindquarters power of a lion.

It isn't stealth like the F-35 Lightning II. It costs 25% less than an F-35. An F-35 costs ~$35,000/hour to fly (yes, that number is real, they're trying to get it down to $25,000). A Gripen? $4,700/hour.

How did they do this? In a large part, it was by making the technology itself fast.
There is one operating system, and one type of electronic buss connection. Everything must work on this single standard platform no matter who built it. Now? Any upgrade is easy(ier) to test and fix.

They didn't stop there. To change an F-35 engine is a huge task; it's integrated into the heart of the jet.

Sweden's premise is that they don't have a huge supply of jets to provide coverage while a shot-up engine is replaced in 30, 40, 50 manhours (I couldn't find the number for the F-35, but airliners, with the engines easily accessible on the wings take about 50 manhours if nothing goes wrong—8 big bolts and approximately 1,200 connections).

By design, the Saab Gripen takes sixty minutes to fully change the engine. Land with a shot-up engine. And sixty minutes later? Back to fighting Russian incursions. All of their systems have the same level of consideration built in from the ground up. Simply amazing.

I wish I'd had cause to write even more about this incredible aircraft in the upcoming Miranda Chase novel, Gryphon, but I didn't want the nerd to overrun the story, so I resisted as much as possible.
Coming January 23, 2024.

action-adventure thriller buchman

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Which opens yet a whole other round of discussions on yet a different topic. I’ve had friends were drivers for a wide variety of services over the decades, overroad, 1980s FedEx, and present AMZ. And as far as I can tell, it’s brutal all around. But until we resolve our desperate needs for “right now” deliveries (probably never), slow-charge batteries aren’t going to get us there. Making a trucker stop for 1-3 hours for a full charge when all he/she wants to do is be done and get off the road or, horrors, maybe actually be home, simply isn’t a viable or fair business model.


Perhaps we should consider that truckers who are willing to work deserve to go more slowly, actually take real rests at recharge stations, take bathroom breaks, and that the buying and selling public needs to accept slower deliveries and have greater consideration for the drivers and their support.

Running drivers (and associated service people) ragged should not be allowed, and yet even USPS mail carriers are overworked, understaffed, and often have inferior degraded equipment. They are constantly being pushed to do more with less and with less support and equipment.

Requiring and expecting the fastest speeds possible for deliveries (of most items) is often not conducive to a healthy societal frame of mind.


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