Trucks, Trains, Ships and Planes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 21st, 2013

Technology 101

Big Over-the-Road Tractor Trailer Trucks have Big Wheels so they can have Big Brakes

If you buy a big boat chances are you have a truck or a big SUV to pull it.  For rarely do you see a small car pulling a large boat.  Have you ever wondered why?  A small car can easily pull a large boat on a level (or a near level) surface.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is stopping once it gets moving.  For that is a lot of mass.  Creating a lot of kinetic energy (one half of the mass times velocity squared).  Which is dissipated as heat as brake shoes or pads rub against the wheels.  This is why you need a big truck or SUV to pull a boat.  So you can stop it once it gets moving.

Big trucks and big SUVs have big wheels and big brakes.  Large areas where brake pads/shoes press against a rotating wheel.  All of which is heavy duty equipment.  That can grab onto to those wheels and slow them down.  Converting that kinetic energy into heat.  This is why the big over-the-road tractor trailer trucks have big wheels.  So they can have big enough brakes to stop that huge mass once it gets moving.  Without the brakes turning white hot and melting.  Properly equipped trucks can carry great loads.  Moving freight safely across our highways and byways.  But there is a limit to what they can carry.  Too much weight spread between too few axles will pound the road apart.  Which is why the state police weighs our trucks.  To make sure they have enough axles supporting the load they’re carrying.  So they don’t break up our roads.  And that they can safely stop.

It’s a little different with trains.  All train cars have a fixed number of axles.  But you will notice the size of the cars differ.  Big oversized boxcars carry a lot of freight.  But it’s more big than heavy.  Heavy freight, on the other hand, like coal, you will see in smaller cars.  So the weight they carry doesn’t exceed the permissible weight/axle.  If you ever sat at a railroad crossing as a train passed you’ve probably noticed that the rail moves as the train travels across.  Watch a section of rail the next time you’re stopped by a train.  And you will see the rail sink a little beneath the axle as it passes over.

If a Ship is Watertight and Properly Balanced it can be covered in Green Water and Rise back to the Surface

So the various sizes of train cars (i.e., rolling stock) keeps each car from being overloaded.  Unlike a truck.  Steel haulers and gravel trains (i.e., dump trucks) have numerous axles beneath the load they’re carrying.  But these axles are retractable.  For the more wheels in contact with the road the more fuel is needed to overcome the friction between the tires and the road.  And the more tires in contact with the road the more tire wear there is.  Tires and fuel are expensive.  So truckers like to have as few tires in contact with the road as possible.  When they’re running empty they will have as many of these wheels retracted up as possible.  Something you can’t do with a train.

That said, a train’s weight is critical for the safe operation of a train.  In particular, stopping a train.  The longer a train is the more distance it takes to stop.  It is hard to overload a particular car in the string of cars (i.e., consist) but the total weight tells engineers how fast they can go.  How much they must slow down for curves.  How much distance they need to bring a train to a stop.  And how many handbrakes to set to keep the train from rolling away after the pressure bleeds out of the train line (i.e., the air brakes).  You do this right and it’s safe sailing over the rails.  Ships, on the other hand, have other concerns when it comes to weight.

Ships float.  Because of buoyancy.  The weight of the load presses down on the water while the surface of the water presses back against the ship.  But where you place that weight in a ship makes a big difference.  For a ship needs to maintain a certain amount of freeboard.  The distance between the surface of the water and the deck.  Waves toss ships up and down.  At best you just want water spray splashing onto your deck.  At worst you get solid water (i.e., green water).  If a ship is watertight and properly balanced it can be covered in green water and rise back to the surface.  But if a ship is loaded improperly and lists to one side or is low in the bow it reduces freeboard.  Increases green water.  And makes it less likely to be able to safely weather bad seas.  The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 while crossing Lake Superior in one of the worst storms ever.  She was taking on water.  Increasing her weight and lowering her into the water.  Losing freeboard.  Had increasing amounts of green water across her deck.  To the point that a couple of monster waves crashed over her and submerged her and she never returned to the surface.  It happened so fast that the crew was unable to give out a distress signal.  And as she disappeared below the surface her engine was still turning the propeller.  Driving her into the bottom of the lake.  Breaking the ship in two.  And the torque of the spinning propeller twisting the stern upside down.

Airplanes are the only Mode of Transportation that has two Systems to Carry their Load

One of the worst maritime disasters on the Great Lakes was the sinking of the SS Eastland.  Resulting in the largest loss of life in a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.  In total 844 passengers and crew died.  Was this in a storm like the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?  No.  The SS Eastland was tied to the dock on the Chicago River.  The passengers all went over to one side of the ship.  And the mass of people on one side of the ship caused the ship to capsize.  While tied to the dock.  On the Chicago River.  Because of this shift in weight.  Which can have catastrophic results.  As it can on airplanes.  There’s a sad YouTube video of a cargo 747 taking off.  You then see the nose go up and the plane fall out of the sky.  Probably because the weight slid backwards in the plane.  Shifting the center of gravity.  Causing the nose of the plane to pitch up.  Which disrupted the airflow over the wings.  Causing them to stall.  And with no lift the plane just fell out of the sky.

Airplanes are unique in one way.  They are the only mode of transportation that has two systems to carry their weight.  On the ground the landing gear carries the load.  In the air the wings carry the load.  Which makes taking off and landing the most dangerous parts of flying.  Because a plane has to accelerate rapidly down the runway so the wings begin producing lift.  Once they do the weight of the aircraft begins to transfer from the landing gear to the wings.  Allowing greater speeds.  However, if something goes wrong that interferes with the wings producing lift the wings will be unable to carry the weight of the plane.  And it will fall out of the sky.  Back onto the landing gear.  But once the plane leaves the runway there is nothing the landing gear can gently settle on.  And with no altitude to turn or to glide back to a runway the plane will fall out of the sky wherever it is.  Often with catastrophic results.

A plane has a lot of mass.  And a lot of velocity.  Giving it great kinetic energy.  It takes long runways to travel fast enough to transfer the weight of the aircraft from the landing gear to the wings.  And it takes a long, shallow approach to land an airplane.  So the wheels touch down gently while slowly picking up the weight of the aircraft as the wings lose lift.  And it takes a long runway to slow the plane down to a stop.  Using reverse thrusters to convert that kinetic energy into heat.  Sometimes even running out of runway before bringing the plane to a stop.  No other mode of transportation has this additional complication of travelling.  Transferring the weight from one system to another.  The most dangerous part of flying.  Yet despite this very dangerous transformation flying is the safest mode of traveling.  Because the majority of flying is up in the air in miles of emptiness.  Where if something happens a skilled pilot has time to regain control of the aircraft.  And bring it down safely.

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Thrust, Drag, Lift, Weight, Concorde, Center of Pressure, Center of Gravity, Boeing 747, Slats and Flaps

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 16th, 2013

Technology 101

The Drawback to increasing Thrust and Lift with more Powerful Engines is the Weight of Greater Fuel Loads

To get an airplane off of the ground requires two things.  To produce thrust that is greater than drag.  And to produce lift that is greater than weight.  You do this and you’ll get any airplane off of the ground.  Of course, getting these two things is not the easiest thing to do.  Primarily because of the purpose of airplanes.  To move people and freight.  People and freight add weight.  Which increases the amount of lift needed.  And they make the plane bigger.  A bigger object displaces more air increasing drag.  And thus requiring more thrust.

Engines provide thrust.  And wings provide lift.  So the obvious solution to overcome greater drag is to produce greater thrust.  And the solution to overcome greater weight is to produce greater lift.  And we do both with fuel.  Greater amounts of fuel can power bigger engines that can produce more thrust.  And larger wings can produce greater lift.  But larger wings also produce more drag.  Requiring additional thrust.  And fuel.  Or, we can produce greater lift by moving air over the wings faster.  Also requiring additional thrust.  And fuel.

Of course, the obvious drawback to increasing both thrust and lift is the added weight of the fuel.  The more fuel carried the more weight lift has to overcome.  Requiring more powerful engines.  Or bigger wings.  Both of which require more fuel.  This is why our first planes were small by today’s standards.  The thrust of a propeller engine could not produce enough thrust to travel at high speeds.  Or operate at high altitudes.  And the first wings were relatively fixed.  Having the same surface area to produce lift at takeoffs and landings.  As well as at cruising altitudes.  Big wings that allowed the lifting of heavier weights produced a lot of drag.  Requiring more fuel to overcome that drag.  And the added weight of that fuel limited the number of people and freight they could carry.  Or they could trade off that fuel for more revenue weight.  The smaller fuel load, of course, reduced flying times.  Requiring an additional takeoff and landing or two to refuel.

A Wing that produces sufficient Lift at 600 MPH does not produce sufficient Lift at Takeoff and Landing Speeds

The supersonic Concorde was basically a flying gas can.  It was more missile than plane.  To travel at those great speeds required a very small cross section to reduce drag.  Limiting the Concorde to about 100 revenue paying passengers.  Its delta wing performed well at supersonic flight but required a drooping nose so the pilot could see over it to land and takeoff due to the extreme nose pitched up attitude.  As Concorde approached supersonic speeds the center of pressure moved aft.  Placing the center of gravity forward of the center of pressure.  Causing the nose to pitch down.  You correct this with trim controls on slower flying aircraft.  But using this on Concorde would create additional drag.  So they trimmed Concorde by pumping the remaining fuel to other fuel tanks to move the center of gravity to the center of pressure.

They designed Concorde to fly fast.  Which came at a cost.  They can only carry 100 revenue paying passengers.  So they can only divide the fuel cost between those 100 passengers.  Whereas a Boeing 747 could seat anywhere around 500 passengers.  Which meant you could charge less per passenger ticket while still earning more revenue than on Concorde.  Which is why the Boeing 747 ruled the skies for decades.  While Concorde flies no more.  And the only serious competition for the Boeing 747 is the Airbus A380.  Which can carry even more revenue paying passengers.  How do they do this?  To fly greater amount of people and freight than both piston-engine and supersonic aircraft?  While being more profitable than both?  By making compromises between thrust and drag.  And lift and weight.

Jet engines can produce more thrust than piston engines.  And can operate at higher altitudes.  Allowing aircraft to take advantage of thinner air to produce less drag.  Achieving speeds approaching 600 mph.  Not Concorde speeds.  But faster than every other mode of travel.  To travel at those speeds, though, requires a cleaner wing.  Something closer to Concorde than, say, a DC-3.  Something thinner and flatter than earlier wings.  But a wing that produces lift at 600 mph does not produce enough lift at takeoff and landing speeds.

Planes need more Runway on Hot and Humid Days than they do on Cool and Dry Days

The other big development in air travel (the first being the jet engine) are wings that can change shape.  Wings you can configure to have more surface area and a greater curve for low-speed flying (greater lift but greater drag).  And configure to have less surface area and a lesser curve for high-speed flying (less lift but less drag).  We do this with leading-edge slats (wing extensions at the leading edge of the wing).  And trailing-edge flaps (wing extensions at the trailing edge of the wing).  When fully extended they increase the surface area of the wing.  And add curvature at the leading and trailing edge of the wing.  Creating the maximum amount of lift.  As well as the greatest amount of drag.  Allowing a wing to produce sufficient lift at takeoff speeds (about 200 mph).  Once airborne the plane continues to increase its speed.  As it does they retract the slats and flaps.  As the wing can produce sufficient lift at higher speeds without the slats and flaps extended.

But there are limits to what powerful jet engines and slats/flaps can do.  A wing produces lift by having a high pressure under the wing pushing up.  And a low pressure on top of the wing pulling it up.  The amount of air passing over/under the wing determines the amount of lift.  As does the density of that air.  The more dense the air the more lift.  The thinner the air the less lift.  Which is why planes need less runway on a cold winter’s day than on a hot and humid summer’s day.  If you watch a weather report you’ll notice that clear days are associated with a high pressure.  And storms are associated with a low pressure.  When a storm approaches meteorologists will note the barometer is falling.  Meaning the air is getting thinner.  When the air is thinner there are fewer air molecules to pass over the wing surface.  Which is why planes need more runway on hot and humid days.  To travel faster to produce the same amount of lift they can get at slower speeds on days cooler and dryer.

For the same reason planes taking off at higher elevations need more runway than they do at lower elevations.  Either that or they will have to reduce takeoff weight.  They don’t throw people or their baggage off of the airplane.  They just reduce the fuel load.  Of course, by reducing the fuel load a plane will not be able to reach its destination without landing and refueling.  Increasing costs (airport and fuel expenses for an additional takeoff and landing).  And increasing flying time.  Which hurts the economics of flying a plane like a Boeing 747.  A plane that can transport a lot of people over great distances at a low per-person cost.  Adding an additional takeoff and landing for refueling adds a lot of cost.  Reducing the profitability of that flight.  Not as bad as a normal Concorde flight.  But not as good as a normal Boeing 747 flight.

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