One (Possibly Insane) Idea to Fix Air Travel

I’m a fucking nutjob. I originally had a nice intro to this little thought exercise about how I’m a totally responsible member of society who isn’t as completely unhinged as my crazy idea to fix air travel might make me seem. Then I kept writing and writing and grew super angry. Like, the-lady-in-the-Lexus-in-front-of-me-just-stopped-a-whole-line-of-traffic-to-let-someone-make-a-left-turn-from-a-side-street-causing-my-bulging-forehead-vein-to-finally-pop-45-minutes-into-my-commute angry. So I erased all that crap and figured I’d start like this:

Air travel sucks molten hot nickel balls.

I have a lot of friends that fly for the airlines. I’d like to pretend that I’m one hundred percent happy for each and every one of them, essentially working a week and a half per month to get paid as much as a rural heart surgeon with a forty percent patient survival rate. But I can’t. You see, the airlines that employ them are a huge part of the problem. Gone are the days of dressing in your Sunday best to lounge in a comfy seat as you leisurely jet to the other side of the country at Mach 0.92 all while smoking and probably calling the stewardess “doll” or however else Mad Men-style ad execs used to sexually harass flight attendants in the 60’s. But that’s just not how it works anymore. And it probably shouldn’t for the flight attendant part, you perv.

But there is something that’s missing. In the cattle-ization of travelers, we’ve lost all of the bits that made flying cool, fast, convenient, or fun. Air travel is simply a mess. The planes fly slower (thanks to high bypass turbofans that are more fuel efficient at lower Mach numbers), the airport experience is a time consuming garbage parade (thanks a lot, Bin Laden), it’s expensive (fuel again), and the limited number of airports and excessive connections means even domestic travel often takes up a whole day. It should be better than this, shouldn’t it? I mean, it is the 90’s after all. Technology should have fixed these problems by now. Even when trying its best, the most the aerospace industry can come up with is an incremental improvement like the Dreamliner, which is a nice plane and all, but is basically the newest, shiniest turd on the crap sandwich we call air travel (Delta charges $10.50 for crap sandwiches on all flights to and from Atlanta). Someone’s gotta fix this. And since we’ve already tried to have a bunch of smart people address the problem, it’s about time we gave an idiot a shot.

I guess I’ll have to do it.

I’m not wholly unqualified. I used to fly C-17s for the Air Force. Still do, just as a reservist. I also have an inescapable desire to fix things that I have no business fixing. I’ve really thrown all my eggs in that basket by becoming a terrible Silicon Beach startup bro. Wantrepreneurs gotta meddle, son. You see, even though we’re ten years removed, entrepreneurs still deify Steve Jobs and Apple’s reinvention of mobile communication with the first iPhone. The big takeaway from that product was that if you want to revolutionize an industry you must ask simple questions about the desired user experience — something for which entrenched business models don’t allow. That’s why many times it’s actually advantageous to be an outsider. Air travel has long been something that’s driven me nuts so I figured I’d start from the ground up to figure out, first, what’s wrong with it and, second, how we could solve those problems if we were starting over today. Considering my renowned deficiencies in the worlds of aeronautics, fuel technologies, and scalable business models, I should be perfect for the job.

THE PROBLEM

What are the things that make you hate air travel? Besides the aforementioned declining aesthetic state of the flight attendants and the fact that she wouldn’t give you her number even though you totally made eye contact and had a little witty banter and she gave you that extra mini bottle and it so WAS a sign, FRANK! If you’re anything like me you’ve probably settled on a list something like this:

  1. The Airport Experience
  2. Long Flight Times in Cramped Quarters
  3. The High Prices
  4. Having to interact with other humans (No? Just me?)

So, how do we fix this? What could we envision to make this better? And let’s not just say dumb shit like “We could try to make flying 10% cheaper.” Jesus, Karen. Go sit in the corner until you fix the shit-fart separator between your brain and your mouth. We need to think bigger.

The best way to start is to imagine what air travel could be, free from preconceived notions. If you were creating the first airline ever, with today’s technology, how would you do it? What things would you want? For me it would be:

  1. Hyper-local
  2. On-Demand
  3. Supersonic
  4. Worldwide Range

If we localized air travel to your neighborhood, you wouldn’t have to fight traffic to the airport or wait in enormous security lines. You could even land right near your hotel. If it was on-demand, you could order up a plane to take you exactly where you wanted — not just to the nearest big city. Making the plane supersonic would get you there quicker, even if your destination was all the way on the other side of the globe. All in all, it would be a pretty ideal travel experience (assuming this imaginary airline doesn’t skimp out and start charging for wifi).

All these things seem nice, and I’m sure you could come up with some additional perks that would make traveling even nicer. But from a foundational standpoint, I’ll stick with the four points I mentioned above.

At this point you’re probably all like, “But what about the HYPERLOOP??” Big word for a two year old. As much as I love that idea, my boy Elon Musk has himself admitted that it’s only really for short- to medium- distances and the fact that it requires a fixed track means that it probably won’t be going to the exact location to which you’d like to travel. Close, sure, but you’ll still be calling an Uber when you get out at your next destination. We can do better. Also, stop interrupting me.

All those points seem somewhat less than feasible, especially when combined. But I’m here to tell you that with slight modifications to existing technologies, all of the above can be achieved. Not without, you know, doing some seriously crazy shit. But it can be achieved nonetheless.

The Solution

OK. Okokokokokokokokokokokok… I’d be surprised if you’ve hung on this far. But even if you have, the thing I’m about to say next is definitely going to make you think I’m crazy. Which is fine. It’s fine. Whatever. It’s fine. It sounds crazy to me. But I think that’s what makes it such an intriguing idea. And not in a “it’s the crazy ones who change the world” sort of a way. It just sounds ludicrous because as soon as you read it you know it’ll never happen. But people thinking like that is one of the biggest impediments to radical change. So come off it, you goddamn wet blanket.

OK. Here it goes. The answer to our air travel nightmare is…

Supersonic Nuclear Hover Drones.

Oh, and we need to vertically integrate the aircraft manufacturer, the airline, and the nuclear material refinery all into one entity to avoid middleman cost increases.

Now is probably a good time to tell you that, yes, I did accidentally eat a bunch of expired medicine thinking it was candy. They looked just like Pez, so I stand by my decision.

Let’s break it all down, step by step, to help you understand why this is the direction we need to follow in the future. But because you’ve probably already passed out like a fainting goat on Space Mountain, we’ll leave the *other* N-word until the very end.

Hover.

When I say “hover” I really mean VTOL. That’s “Vertical TakeOff and Landing” for you rubes. And don’t give me shit about the “O” being in the middle of a word. I didn’t create the acronym. Anyway, you love Calvin and Hobbes’ GROSS despite the fact that the second “S” was at the very end of the word ‘girlS’. So stop sucking the ghost of Bill Watterson’s dead dick* and stick with me on this one.

*Bill Watterson is not dead. But seriously, bruh? No new C&H? Come on!

It’s important that planes in the future hover, i.e. take off and land vertically. This will free us from the tyranny of the taxi stand at LAX. We can make the planes smaller and more urban (all planes will wear a do-rag to bed). And no, they won’t land on the street. I know you pricks already honk at Ubers double parked to pick up passengers, so I’ve come up with a solution to the landing pad situ-aysh.

Gas Stations. Those are everywhere, right? Well, by the time my idea gets put into production (I’m looking at you, Elon), gas stations will be a thing of the past. Within the next 10–15 years, the majority of cars will be electric. Partly because Teslas are silent but deadly — the sexy fart of the car world, if you will. But mostly because the entire car industry is slowly moving the way of electric. When the majority of the grid is solar and hyperlocal, you’ll be charging your car in your garage off your battery that saved said solar power for nighttime usage, and the demand for old-fashioned gas stations will be greatly depressed. If you doubt me, then I’ve got a Radioshack that I’d like you to invest in.

So gas stations are out. But that land is still valuable. Imagine that if 50% of the gas stations in your town suddenly turned into airports with VTOL (hover) aircraft. How GD convenient would that be? Making small, VTOL aircraft that can land in a parking lot downtown completely fixes the hyperlocal problem and gives a big middle finger to airports.

I know there are safety and noise issues and other stuff, but I’ll address those issues in later sections.

Drones.

This is an important part of the equation. Besides fuel, pilot payroll and benefits are a significant part of any airline’s operating expenses. We need to eliminate pilots to the max extent possible. If you’re worried about safety, don’t be. The vast majority of air disasters in this day an age are the result of pilot error, not mechanical malfunction. If it really makes you feel better, we’ll have one remote pilot monitoring every six flights. If there’s a malfunction on any one of them, then we’ll have that hard-drinking, two-family-having, overweight bastard take over and guide the ship home. But, again, I’m an actual pilot and in twenty years, I don’t think we will be a necessity. Here’s why:

Imagine you had a child born in 2010. Because people are idiots, let’s call him Buzz, the name of one of the characters of the highest grossing movie of that year, Toy Story 3. Little Buzz has grown up in a crazy world. But he won’t turn 16 until 2026. By that point (9 years away, mind you), self-driving cars will be, like, a thing. They will be such a thing that little Buzz probably won’t ever drive a car on his own. And if he does it’s because you’re some weird racer parents that live off diesel and Mountain Dew (I know diesel makes for garbage race fuel, stay with me here). But other than that, little shitty Buzz here is going to want a Tesla because the rich kids at school have one and it’s been driving them back and forth to soccer practice automatically since 2019. Make no mistake, Buzz is an entitled piece of shit. But he’s of a generation of entitled pieces of shit. The whole world by 2026 will be self-driving. And by the time our little shithead has buying power — say 2036 — there will likely be no more human drivers on the road. Manual driving will be relegated to race tracks and Wal-Mart parking lots in rural Ohio after midnight.

Now imagine Buzz at an airport.

Little Buzz probably wouldn’t think twice about getting on a plane that had a robot pilot. In fact, he’d probably think it was weird if the plane had a human pilot. He’s grown up his whole life knowing automation. And as a pilot, I can tell you that automation — in the long run — will be safer. Even though Buzz is a little shit, he’s right about this one.

So drones it is.

Supersonic.

Oh shit, this one is self-explanatory. Channel Ricky Bobby and say “I wanna go fast!” We all do. The fact that airlines have slowed down over the last 30 years is infuriating. Progress means speed, safety, and guilt-free robot sex.

Er… forget that last one, Westworld guests. But you feel me, right? Why are we slowing down jet liners as time goes on? The answer is fuel efficiency and cost savings, but that’s not good enough for me. We need to go faster while sipping less fuel.

As I mentioned earlier, the slower speeds are due to the newer, high-bypass turbofans that use less fuel to travel similar distances at higher altitudes. Turbojets usually go faster, but they burn like heroin spoons in rural America. There has to be a better way.

The answer is clearly a high-speed turbo jet (or even ramjet) that can burn much less fuel while providing speeds well over the sound barrier. While the Concorde went down in a fiery death, what ultimately grounded that amazing aircraft was its fuel inefficiency. We’ll need to find a fuel source to power a low-bypass turbojet at efficient levels.

Again, there is an answer, but follow me to the next paragraph to see what it is.

Nuclear.

OH SHIT, THERE I SAID IT. Nuclear is the only option. The gentleman’s North Korean answer to all our problems. You’re undoubtedly freaking out right now like some shiftless hippie at a peace rally in the 60’s (“You can’t hug your family with nuclear AAAARRRRRRRRMMMMMMMSSSSS!!!!”). Well, I’m here to tell you that nuclear is safer than a one night stand (source). And we have all done the danger with a stranger before (you’re welcome, Tabitha), so there should be little stopping us from sticking our nuclear power in at least as many places as you’ve stuck your love gun.

Seriously, nuclear is used to power our homes, businesses, warships, and even a bunch of crazy shit in food production. This shit is safe, yo. But ‘nuclear’, that big, scary N-word (the second worst of all the N-words) makes a lot of people hesitant. We’ve had a lot of bad beats with nuclear power lately — most importantly at Fukushima — but the fact remains that, when done consciensiously, nuclear power is the safest current option for powering our society. I’m all for transitioning to solar and other sustainable energy sources, but for this particular application, renewables have one giant downside (get ready for a super impactful one-word paragraph)…

Batteries.

Damn, son!!! Knocked you on your ass with that emphatic paragraph. Wait, I didn’t? Well, let me explain. Batteries are a huge probelm when it comes to flight because they are heavy. Furthermore, they are just not that energy dense. Worse yet, we are approaching the limit of how much energy we can pack into lithium ion batteries (second source if you’re feeling frisky). Batteries work well for cars, but for airplanes, the excessive weight and low energy density means we can’t go very far. There’s a startup that wants to electrify a Boeing 737, but even they admit that longer haul flights will require a radical change in battery technology in the next 10 years. They are literally betting their company (and millions in investor funds) that someone else will create a super dope new battery.

Now, I can envision some sort of electric plane that has a hot swappable battery that is removed and replaced every flight, like some sort of Blue Rhino propane exchange for you local aerodrom. But the fact remains that devoid of revolutionary change in the field of batteries, these electric planes won’t be useful for much more than NYC to Boston hops. Not exactly the future you read about in all those Phillip K. Dick novels is it, nerd?

Nuclear power is the only option that fulfills the weight requirements and addresses the issue of energy density. Think of nuclear as the Maurice Jones-Drew of energy options. Tiny, but with all the butt meat necessary to power incredible advances. Even after my mention of butt meat, you’re probably skeptical…

But no one’s ever made a nuclear aircraft before.

Wrong. You know who already did it? The United Goddamn* States of America (*official name change pending). That’s right. Way back in the 60s we had nuclear engines for nuclear planes and even nuclear cruise missiles. Those cruise missiles could fly at supersonic speeds, STAY ALOFT FOR MONTHS, drop their payload, and then continue to fly around at low altitudes over enemy territory, wrecking their shit with constant sonic booms. Oh god, I have a nuclear boner the size of Radioactive Man right now (ze goggles, zey do nossing!).

So this is a technology that existed in the 60s! With a little 2017 know-how we could easily finish tackling the shielding issues and start dropping these things into small, VTOL planes like this. Though, I would want any nuke planes we create to hopefully look substantially less weiner-like. Besides radiation shielding, we’d need to incorporate some sort of black box-style protection that would encase our reactor in the event of a crash. Like the reactors developed for use in space, we’d only need to shield something the size of a trash can. That’s completely doable, especially with today’s advanced material science and 3D printing technology. Despite all these added weight concerns, we’d still have something incredibly light and effective at small scales that still had the energy density necessary to power VTOL takeoffs and supersonic flight and would be all-but impervious to the spread of nuclear material upon impact. Though crashes, thanks to our use of safer, AI-based drone technology, would likely reduce the number of crashes immensely.

I would further suggest avoiding superheated ramjets and move to something like a nuclear-powered electric turbojet. First, of course, ramjets require another power source to get the craft up to altitude/speed. Secondly, we can mitigate noise concerns through the use of advanced modeling and engineering on turbojets.

If I had my druthers, I would never use the word ‘druthers’ again, and I’d also power this reactor with a liquid floride thorium reactor, since thorium is far more energy dense than uranium or plutonium, and the ancillary benefits of developing thorium tech would be myriad. A thorium breeder reactor to power longer distance flights might be the most obvious setup. Thorium is also a RAD(ioactive) (iso)DOPE because it’s highly abundant and cannot be used to make nuclear weapons. This alleviates many of the concerns your stoner uncle has about nukes.

Conclusion

So that’s it. I’m either a genius or the world’s biggest idiot. But that’s my plan to fix air travel. Take it and run with it, Hyperloop style. Just cut me in for one percent.

I know there will be a lot of criticism of this plan because, well…

Supersonic Nuclear Hover Drones.

But, seriously. If your major concerns are nuclear technology (which is safe), or upending an entrenched business model (which is the whole damn point of disruption) then I don’t want to hear from you. You are a marketing problem and we can vamp our way around that. Legitimate technical concerns are more than welcome.

Hit me back and tell me how much you hate me. Next week I’ll tell you why I’m completely fucking terrified about the future (and why you should be, too).