Unexpectedly Intriguing!
July 23, 2009

We subscribe to very few magazines, but Air & Space/Smithsonian has long been one of our favorites.

Air & Space, August 2009 Cover The August 2009 issue of the magazine illustrates why. Not only does this issue provide highly entertaining, history-drenched articles covering things like the newly developing technology behind airplanes that can heal themselves, the challenges of powering aircraft with electric batteries, secret space shuttle flights and how the Apache helicopter is currently being used in Afghanistan, it sprinkles some amazing economics lessons throughout the magazine, all from quarters you might never expect.

Let's start with a sidebar to that feature about creating an electric-powered airplane. You could spend weeks, if not months, reviewing media coverage bemoaning Americans use of oil, or worse, foreign oil, for powering all sorts of vehicles, and you could spend an equal amount of time listening to those demanding a switch to other, eco-friendly fuel sources, like re-usable electric batteries, or fuel cells, or solar cells, et cetera.

What you'll never find in all that noise is the compelling reason why we don't: compared to how much energy output we might get from a given volume and mass of oil we might burn to make and move things, you can't get anywhere near the same amount of power out of an electric battery of similar volume and weight. It's not even close:

... the problem for electric airplanes boils down to something called energy density: the amount of energy a pound of "fuel" can hold. In this sense, gasoline is wonderful stuff. A pound of it contains 5.75 kilowatt-hours' worth of pure energy. Batteries, in comparison, are pitiful. The best practical batteries today store, per pound, perhaps 1/80 of the energy of gasoline. It takes 15 pound of batteries to store one kilowatt-hour of energy. Cow dung, a popular cooking fuel in many parts of the world, far outshines any battery.

The main article explains how the current economics significantly favors gasoline power with the established order of technology:

Conventionally powered airplanes with the performance of electric ones use only one or two gallons of fuel an hour, so the difference in direct operation cost is negligible in comparison to the difference in initial outlay: for an airworthy gasoline engine, $100 per horsepower; for an electric powerplant, $400 or more per kilowatt.

We note that 1 horsepower is equivalent to roughly 3/4 of a kilowatt. By our math, to produce the same 1 horsepower of energy, the electric powerplant would then cost $300 per horsepower. That's still a very deep bucket out of which the cost of electric powerplants will need to climb to become genuinely competitive.

For another example of economics at work in the world of aviation, there's the story of a brand new airport in Branson, Missouri, which is distinguished by being the "first and only privately developed and operated commercial service airport in the United States."

No government money was used to build the airport and no government funds are used to operate the airport. Despite years of efforts to follow the traditional public sector approach to the solving the problem of bringing an airport to Branson, it ultimately took private investors to take up the slack created by the failure of multiple government initiatives to act.

Today, aside from a minimal number of federal government-mandated air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration personnel, the airport functions without any government employees. It may also be the only airport in the country where its administrators wave goodbye to the passengers from the tarmac as they depart. The reward for the people of Branson is substantially better access to the nation's airways at substantially lower prices than what was available before.

Two pages later finds a short article about U.S. mail service in the remote regions of Cascade, Idaho. Here, the U.S. Postal Service had sought to cut $46,000 from its annual budget by suspending the mail delivery contract of Arnold Aviation, the only outfit in the lower 48 states who delivers mail by air to backcountry residents, who are too remote to have any sort of regular mail service otherwise. While the story mainly focuses upon the nature of this kind of mail service and the reaction by residents, who enlisted Idaho's U.S. senators to get the post office to back down from its plan, the real gem is an insight by Ray Arnold, the owner and pilot who delivers the mail, regarding the condition and ownership of the airfields he has to use:

"We got 22 places we go, and only three places are accessible by road, and they're not open in the winter."

Some of his patrons have pretty sweet airstrips: 1,000 feet long, grades around 20 percent, elevations up to 7,000 feet. "People who have private runways maintain them better than the forestry service," Arnold says.

Who would have guessed that the people living in this very remote area of the United States would be so willing to invest so much of their own effort and limited resources into ensuring that they're able to obtain the kind of mail service they want rather than what the officials of the U.S. Forestry service and U.S. Post Office would seem to believe they should have?

Come to think of it, where else do we see these same dynamics at play in America today?


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