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floating airports

floating airports



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Posts: 10998

Floating Airports  Terry Drinkard

continue to be fascinated by the possibilities of large floating structures anchored in the oceans along the usual flight paths through deepest ETOPS territory. Normally, we don’t think of business jets and ETOPS together, but if you are an over-water charter operator, you 
know very well that ETOPS does apply.

The lack of suitable places to land in an emergency drives operators to buy very long range aircraft to fly around the fringes or implement a very expensive ETOPS system on their equipment or fly the equivalent of the Blue Spruce Route for wherever your passengers need to go. These options can be expensive for an operator or for each flight and when you add up all of these expenses for the business aviation industry as a whole, the money adds up pretty fast. Put that it the context of a global business economy and things begin to look a little grim around the edges.

Speed is the key

In Euclidean plane geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Unfortunately, we live on a sphere (more or less), so for us, the shortest distance between two points is actually an arc, a segment of a circle. I have found Karl Swartz’s Great Circle Mapper ( to be useful for visualizing this. Presumably, the flat-earthers have their own set of charts for aerial and marine navigation.

Speed is the essence of business aviation. For our customers speed is not cruising speed, Vmax, MMO, nor even block speed. It is the amount of time spent in transit from one place to another. Straightening out our route, if one can say that about a great circle route, is one obvious method of reducing the time in the air and improving our customers’ perception of speed.

Obvious solutions

The first obvious solution that comes to mind is placing floating emergency runways in the ocean at strategic points to provide suitable landing places in the event of an in-flight emergency like the loss of an engine, loss of pressurization, medical emergency, or the like.

The second obvious solution is to go back to flying boats. Given the realities of hydrodynamic shapes and the limitations

of aluminum structure, I don’t see a jet-powered flying boat as economically competitive with a land-based jet and floating emergency runways, and I’m a big fan of flying boats.

What is it, really?

For the sake of discussion, we will assume that a series of floating emergency runways strategically located in mid-ocean makes enough sense to continue the conversation. So, what does that mean?

How about a single runway, 10,000 feet long to cover every eventuality, rated for aircraft as large as a Boeing 777-400, whatever that turns out to be? Why not scale for an A380 or a 747-400? Because those are four engine aircraft and don’t fly by ETOPS rules. But, if someone wants to build for that kind of capacity, I’m perfectly OK with it.

How complicated is it?

In addition to the structure, this kind of facility would need some sort of beacon, probably a full ILS, some powerful lights, search radar, radios and other electronic equipment, so an electrical power plant is essential. As an emergency strip, it will require a fire department, two kinds of rescue teams—runway and water (there being no guarantee than an airplane in trouble will be able to make it all the way in to the airport), and a small hospital of some kind, plus some way to house, feed, and entertain three to five hundred passengers for several days until they can depart.

There should also be some space set aside for necessary aircraft repairs and a fuel dock, of course, plus ramp space to park at least two of these large aircraft - someone will have to fly in to pick up the stranded passengers, may as well make room for them. The water rescue team will require a couple of boats (maybe a fire boat), a search aircraft (maybe a helicopter), and a fast way of moving a lot of people and equipment a couple hundred nautical miles (no guarantee that if an airplane crashes it has the good form to crash nearby). Perhaps one of those extremely interesting Russian ekranoplanes would be a good choice.

The floating aspect of it will require some maintenance capability (minimal, really, that’s the whole point of using concrete), station-keeping (it needs to stay in one place in water that will be thousands of feet deep), and crew quarters with the usual shipboard facilities. That it is an airport itself makes it relatively easy to move people back and forth and to provision it.

For a bare-bones sea-based emergency landing strip, that’s pretty much all that is needed.

How much would one cost?

Let us take a look at some order of magnitude costs. The I-90 floating bridge in Seattle, Washington is a concrete pontoon bridge over a mile long. Actually, it is two bridges, one eastbound and one westbound. Each of those bridges would cost approximately $100m US to build today, so two miles of bridge would cost something like $400m. This is just an order of magnitude approximation.

Assuming it was built by a firm knowledgeable in the field we might get the entire structure for something like a half billion dollars, US, assuming we could promise a production run of some reasonable size, say twenty, for a total of some $10bn acquisition cost. About the cost of five B-2 bombers, I think, for a large, global-spanning system.

Thoughts to ponder

So far we have discussed nothing more than what would be required to have one or more safe diversion airports anchored in the ocean at strategic locations such that a non-ETOPS rated twin-engine jet airliner could fly legally and safely (not necessarily the same thing) direct between two or more large markets. A floating diversion airport designed to serve only bizjets might be half that size and expense, or less.

Another point is that building a floating diversion airport does not require the R&D backing of an industrial nation state. There would be a lot of design work to do, some of it quite unique, I should think, but the technology is here now and has been for decades. It is just a matter of a slightly different application. For example, there are very large concrete oil production platforms working in the North Sea with expected service lives of 50-100 years (assuming the oil holds out).

Additionally, with closed cell foam surrounded by pre-stressed steel-reinforced concrete, these structures are all but unsinkable. The safety value is quite high.

Who pays for it?

What is the economic value of a safe diversion airport in mid-ocean? The obvious answer is that airlines can then operate non-ETOPS aircraft on pretty much the same route as ETOPS aircraft currently do, but for lower costs. ETOPS is not cheap. It is less expensive and more reliable than a three- or four-engine aircraft, but it is significantly more expensive than non-ETOPS. There is the cost of the ETOPS maintenance program, which is nothing like cheap, plus the crew also have to be ETOPS qualified. While I accept that running an airline is not a sport for poor men, there are shades of gray here.

With this in mind, were I in the business, I would look at how many flights cross the Atlantic or Pacific, check how many are twins, and how many of those are ETOPS. I’d make a sizable wager that almost everything crossing the Atlantic these days is an ETOPS twin and a large fraction of everything that crosses the Pacific. The difference in operating costs per hour between an ETOPS aircraft and a non-ETOPS aircraft is pretty much it and can easily be converted into a decent approximation of potential annual savings for elimination of ETOPS (heresy, I know; I’ll save you the bother and stone myself later).

Why do it?

One of the things I learned at Boeing as an airplane designer is that it is always more efficient to fix the infrastructure than it is to fix the airplane. Remember, the entire point of ETOPS was cost reduction while maintaining safety at an acceptable level. So, if we can maintain the same level of safety and reduce costs further by spending some of that money on infrastructure instead of aircraft maintenance programs, it’s a win. Presented to airlines that way, as a gateway to spending less money, I think it might sell itself. Presented as an anti-union tactic, they will beat a path to our door.

How we can make it more useful

Let us agree conceptually that this is a good idea in and of itself. The next step is how to make it more useful. What else could we do with this floating airport in the mid-ocean to make it more valuable? Brilliant question; glad you asked.

Business aviation

How about we design it not just as a safety diversion airport, but as an actual through port for general aviation and business aviation? That would entail having refueling facilities (which are already on the spec), repair facilities (already on spec), and a customer lounge, perhaps with a hotel and restaurant available. Here is an idea: we lease that part of the facility to an FBO.  The point is to enhance the utilization of existing aircraft. With floating airports in strategic locations around the world, even something small can hop from the US to Europe, on to Africa, the Middle East, and even Asia, then hop back across the Pacific to the west coast of the Americas. So, it now becomes quite possible to fly the Citation Bravo from Salt Lake City to Honolulu with only a mid-ocean fuel stop or take the Hawker 1000 from Lisbon to Bermuda with a single technical stop afloat, and on to Washington, DC and points west. The landing fees and profits from fuel sales could help pay for the facility.


Since we have to have some sort of ship docking facility anyway (remember the water rescue folks?), why not upgrade it a bit to allow for visits by pleasure boaters? People who are sailing around the world could use a place to stop in mid-ocean for a meal that didn’t come out of a can, a place to stretch their legs, maybe get some medical attention or minor repairs. Moreover, perhaps the crew would like to go sailing from time to time to get off the facility. If we are located near a shipping lane, our facilities could be valuable to large merchant vessels - I’m thinking here of helicoptering people off of ships to our on-board hospital. Of course, anything this large floating in the ocean is going to attract boaters as a destination. No reason to turn them away. Set up a gift shop instead! Charge for docking in the marina! If the local fishing is any good, I’m seeing possibilities for charter boats.

Supporting science

Let us not forget the crews of oceanic research vessels. They would no doubt appreciate having a (relatively) close airport, some way to get their people back and forth, to say nothing of spare parts and technical specialists. In this role, the floating airport functions as part of a global logistics system supporting science, which I think is pretty cool.

Supporting engineering R&D

Since this facility will be off-shore, it makes a great deal of sense to power it with whatever natural sources of power available. The obvious ones are solar, wind, and wave power. Engineers can use the systems onboard these floating runways to test new materials, new systems, and new concepts in a real-world laboratory. I know, “real-world laboratory” sounds like an oxymoron, but honestly, speaking as an engineer, it is often difficult to find a place to try new things due in part to local regulation. With a privately owned deep sea platform, I think there is a good chance of moving those technologies forward significantly.

So what?

There are, I think, a number of ways of looking at this idea. One is looking at it as a safety program for transoceanic flights. Another is to look at it as a means of enhancing the utility of the existing bizjet fleet. Possibly the best is to look at it as a means of expanding infrastructure to enhance our mission of providing rapid, flexible transportation to business people.

Keep in mind that at the core, business growth is due largely to innovation, service, solving someone’s problem for them better than they could themselves. Letting the demand for perfection destroy the drive for good (or just better), in essence, sitting on our laurels doing nothing new, guarantees that business aviation will not - cannot - grow faster than the underlying economy. In business school, we call that “maturation.” Maturation is the stage right before decline and obsolescence. Either we believe in the future of business aviation, or we do not. We need a new generation of visionaries to move the industry forward. Now is a good time.



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