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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Technology you might not think about much

I was trained as an electrical engineer. There was a degree of antipathy between EE students and mechanical engineering students at Georgia Tech. Every EE had to take a course in thermodynamics, and most EEs went to the ME department for that course -- where they were routinely slaughtered by ME professors who didn't enjoy teaching courses for non-MEs. But there was payback: every ME had to take a course in electronics, and most MEs went to the EE department for that course -- where they were routinely slaughtered by EE professors who didn't enjoy teaching courses for non-EEs. Getting an engineering degree was not, in general, a pleasant experience as typified by this inter-departmental warfare.

It might surprise you, then, that I believe one of the truly great inventions during the last 70 years has been the jet engine. I thought about this last week as I flew over a big ocean without concern on a twin-engine aircraft. It wasn't that long ago when passengers did not trust a twin over water. True, in the North Atlantic one is never more than 138 minutes from an airport. That's not the case, though, in the other oceans.

One rarely hears of a transoceanic flight having an engine problem. These engines are very complex machines that operate at high temperatures and high internal pressures, with massive elements that rotate at high speeds. I have to give the MEs credit for their superb technology.

Of course, at the end of the day electronics (and human pilots) are still running the aircraft.

As for specific engines, I've probably spent more time in the air propelled by some version of a Pratt & Whitney JT-8 than any other engine. You may know it as the engine on Boeing 727 and first-generation 737 aircraft as well as the Douglas DC-9 and MD-80. Introduced in 1964, the JT-8 sounds like a vacuum cleaner. The 727s and first-generation 737s are long gone from scheduled passenger service, and Delta will retire the last of its DC-9s soon. However, American will fly the MD-80 for several more years.

Whether it's an older aircraft or a newer one, think about those engines the next time you take off. And relax.