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Lion Air Flight 610 and a Fast Maritime Alternative

WIG plane
file photo of Wing-in-ground effect plane

By Harry Valentine 2019-11-09 19:43:10

Toward the end of October 2019, investigators released their findings into multiple factors which led to the crash of Lion Air flight 610 shortly after taking off from Jakarta on a short domestic flight of 280-miles to a nearby island. The growing demand for fast inter-city transportation in a nation like Indonesia invites discussion about unique market niches for alternative transportation technology that include the maritime option.

Introduction

While investigators released their findings, the CEO of Boeing Aircraft Company appeared before an American congressional committee to explain issues pertaining to the safety of the once popular Boeing model 737 Max-8 aircraft. 189 people were onboard the domestic Indonesian flight from Jakarta (population 10 million) to Pangkal Pinang (population 330,000). A domestic ferry service represented the alternate choice of transportation, except that the domestic flight was much quicker. An extensive network of domestic ferry vessels carries cargo and passengers between Indonesia’s many islands at lower cost than domestic air travel.

On Indonesia’s main island of Java, the distance between Jakarta and the city of Semarang (population 3.2 million) is slightly shorter than flight 610 distance, except that travelers may choose between 29 flights, several trains, several buses, coastal boat service and cars. Flights take 70 minutes while trains traveling along meter gauge track take some six hours. Most of Indonesia’s large cities are located along a coast or near to a coast, allowing transportation service providers to consider a possible fast maritime travel option for passengers. Between many pairs of cities, travelers may choose between airplane and ferry.

Fast Sailing

A very large fleet of conventional ferry vessels provide transportation services between large coastal cities located on islands across Indonesia. When traveling between cities on the island of Java, travelers have the choice between several modes of overland transportation while inter-island travelers have the choice between ferry and air travel. At one time, the Government of Indonesia considered the abandoned the idea of building a bridge or tunnel between Sumatra and Java, where traffic volume makes hydrofoil technology unsuitable. Hydrofoil and hovercraft vessels are best suited to short distance service, not extended distances between Indonesian islands.

The Java Sea region of Indonesia represents an ideal region to test wing-in-ground effect vessels in intercity passenger transportation service, including between coastal cities on the north coast of Java. A vehicle such as the 50-seat South Korean built Wing-Ship could cover the 300-mile journey between Jakarta and Semarang in under three hours, compared to six hours by passenger train and one hour and 10minutes by airplane. The combination of much lower fuel consumption, savings on airport fees and smaller crew requirement will reduce operating costs and in turn reduce ticket costs to between railway and airline ticket costs. 

Future Air Transport

Several sectors within the commercial transportation industry are beginning to encounter a shortage of personnel to operate transportation vehicles. Industry analysts project a shortage of airline pilots over the next 15 to 20 years, with the Asia – Pacific region requiring additional 260,000 commercial pilots. A series of airline mishaps have occurred in some areas of the Asia – Pacific region, calling into question the quality of pilot training in a region where demand for air travel is growing. Investigators revealed that the flight crew aboard Lion Air flight 610 was consulting flight manuals during the few minutes prior to the crash.

Training of airline pilots is a costly and prolonged undertaking and especially as aircraft operation becomes more complex. The crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris involved junior pilots facing a little known flight situation to which they were unprepared to respond. For short haul flights such as Flight 610, a less complex technology that travels at lower speed, uses less fuel and requires less training to achieve full pilot competence, offers potentially greater traveler safety on journeys across water. Indonesian transportation providers may wish to examine the ground effect option.

Test Vehicle

At the present time, there are a very small number of suitable wing-in-ground effect vehicles available for demonstration in Indonesian intercity transportation. The Airfish-8 vehicle built at Singapore carries eight passengers and the company has plans to develop a 24-passenger version. From South Korea, Wing-Ship has built a 50-passenger vehicle that could be used in demonstration service in Indonesia, perhaps on the coastal route between Jakarta and Semarang to assess market acceptance of competitively priced travel duration of just under three hours, compared to six hours by train. Wave height across the Java sea usually remains below three meters in 40 km/h winds.

Across the Java Sea, a 50-passenger ground effect vessel could cover the 500-kilometer distance between Surabaya on Java and Banjarmasin – Banjarbaru in southeastern Borneo in under three hours. To enhance navigation, a reel-out mini-glider tethered to the vessel would carry a camera with radar and ride some 200m above the sea to scan up to 50km ahead, allowing pilots to plot a suitable route around slow moving domestic service inter-island ferry vessels. While the ground effect vessel would travel at 1.2m elevation across calm sea, it could rise up to 10m elevation when required. 

Passenger Demand

Given the number of people aboard flight 610, a ground effect vehicle capable of 200 km/h could provide 2.5-hour duration transportation service at competitive ticket prices between the same pair of cities, Jakarta and Pangkalpinang could attract over 100 passengers. Builders such as Wing-Ship of South Korea and Tandem Wing of Germany have advised their capability to build larger capacity ground effect vehicles provided that a market demand materializes. The region bordered by Thailand, South China, Indonesia and the Philippines includes several pairs of coastal cities that are sufficiently close to warrant future introduction of high-speed ground effect passenger transportation service.

Outside of Indonesia, domestic coastal transportation using fast ground effect technology would provide service linking cities of eastern and southern Vietnam, also between Bangkok and Songkhla – Hat Yai in eastern Thailand. The region also offers numerous possibilities for international links such as Singapore – Jakarta, Singapore – Brunei, Hong Kong – Tai Pei and Hong Kong – Manila with extended distance links such as Singapore – Manila, Singapore – Bangkok and Jakarta – Bangkok where mega-size combination service vehicles would carry fast freight along with passengers. The 50-seat vehicle built by Wing-Ship may be too small for future Asian regional service.

Energy Efficiency

On calm seas, a wing-in-ground (WIG) effect vehicle can optimally travel at an elevation of five percent of wingspan, or 1.5m elevation for a 30m wingspan. Under such conditions and at identical speed as a commuter airplane, the WIG vehicle will consume 25 to 35 percent the energy. Given that doubling vehicle speed increases energy consumption by a factor of eight, a WIG vehicle at 250 km/h would require less than 10 percent the amount of energy as a commuter airplane carrying equivalent payload at 500 km/h. The WIG vehicle layout allows for greater propulsive efficiency than aircraft.

The Lion Air Boeing 737 used a larger propulsion fan to push greater air volume at lower relative speed, to raise propulsive efficiency. Placing WIG vehicle propeller above the stern allows for installation of propeller the diameter of a helicopter rotor and driven via a planetary reduction gearbox from a single engine, raising its propulsive efficiency beyond that of any aircraft propulsion system. Other variants that could be adapted to propeller propulsion would include intermeshing twin rotors developed by helicopter designer Frank Piasecki or concentric-coaxial shaft, counter-rotating twin rotors offered on other modern helicopters. 

Conclusions

Multiple factors that include a projected looming shortage of airline pilots, the increasing operational complexity of commercial aircraft, the expense and duration of training future pilots along with the comparatively short distances between several large Asian coastal cities enhances future prospects for high-speed, maritime-based ground effect transportation between such cities. Being far less complex to operate than commercial aircraft allows trainee pilots of ground effect technology to achieve a high degree of operation competence at lower expense and within less time than commercial airline pilot training. Ground effect vehicles are capable of providing future short-haul Asian coastal transportation service.
 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.